A Love as Wild as the West . . . Aubrey Madison is starting over. Leaving Los Angeles and everything behind except the scars of her ruined past, Bree sets out for cowboy country. Now she has a new home, a new job-and a new worry: the ruggedly sexy rancher who makes her long for things she shouldn't . . . Rough and tumble cattleman Max Jameson has broken wild stallions and faced angry bulls. Yet the redheaded city cupcake who turned up at the High Heather Ranch might be his undoing. Bree has a plan to rescue the ranch from foreclosure that's just crazy enough to work. But will Max gamble his future on a beautiful stranger? "Touchingly real. Tender and timely. Laura Drake creates characters you know you've met and you have to root for." -Pamela Morsi, USA Today bestselling author on The Sweet Spot "An emotionally packed story that will pull all the heartstrings." -Christie Craig, New York Times bestselling author on The Sweet Spot
Release date: January 28, 2014
Print pages: 313
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Her “new” life was going be so much better than the last one. Aubrey Madison would make sure of that.
She savored the sight of a solitary saguaro standing sentinel on the flat Arizona landscape. She savored the red-tipped ocotillo branches that waved in the stiff breeze of the Jeep’s passing. She even savored the chilled air that swirled in, raising the hair on her body in an exquisite shiver.
God, it’s good to be out of prison.
Her face felt odd. Until she realized she was smiling.
Glancing at the gas gauge, she vowed to stop soon, only long enough to get gas and use the restroom. She had to keep putting on distance.
What if it’s not possible to outrun your own conscience?
The pull of the road in front of her was as strong as the push from the vision in the rearview mirror.
A weather-beaten Sinclair sign in the distance made up her mind. She took the exit leading to a deserted corrugated building that might have once been painted white.
Pulling to the pump, she killed the ignition and sat a moment, listening to the tick, tick, tick of the cooling engine and the wind keening through the power lines. She stepped out, closing her denim jacket against the wind’s probing fingers.
A bell over the station door jangled as she opened it, and a black-haired Native-American teen glanced up from behind the register.
Aubrey pulled bills from the pocket of her jeans. “I need to fill it up. Where’s the restroom?”
His expression didn’t change as his stare crawled over her throat. She fisted her hands to keep them still. When he finally pointed to a dark corner, she almost ran to it.
After solving the most urgent matter, she washed her hands. Her gaze locked on the black-flecked mirror. The ropy scar twisted from behind her ear to the bow of her collarbone, looking like something out of a slasher movie. Shiny. Raw. Angry. She jerked her gaze away, turned the water on full force in the sink, and tried once again to wash away the shame.
In her mind, she saw the sign she’d woken up to in the prison infirmary, hanging on the wall across from her bed.
If you’re going through hell, keep going. Winston Churchill
In spite of her mantra, the walls closed in, as they always did. Yanking the door open, she fought to keep from running until she was outdoors, the wind kicking around her once more.
She reached for the gas nozzle, the tightness in her chest easing. When the Feds released her from eight months of perdition, her mother begged her to stay in Phoenix. But Aubrey couldn’t get a deep breath there. The suburban ranch house crowded her with memories and worried eyes. This morning she’d packed and escaped.
Holding the lever in chilled hands, waiting for the tank to fill, she turned her back to the wind. Alone. She pulled the luxury of the empty landscape into her solitary-starved soul and lifted her face to the sun’s tentative warmth, smiling once more. Nothing was sweeter than freedom.
Max Jameson twisted the cowboy hat in his hands and lowered his eyes to the body in the gray satin-lined casket. His father’s broad shoulders brushed silk on both sides. His face looked unfamiliar, mostly because it was relaxed. But there was no mistaking the strong jaw and high cheekbones. Max saw them in the mirror every morning.
Just like you to duck out when the going gets tough, old man. His mouth twisted as his father’s familiar chuckle echoed in Max’s mind. Leave me holding a sack of rattlesnakes. Lotta help you are.
No response, which, on several levels, was probably a good thing.
Max scanned the empty viewing room. He dreaded the remainder of the day: the funeral, the cemetery, the reception at the ranch. “Your dad is reunited with your mother after thirty-five years.” The thought of solicitous friends spouting platitudes was enough to make him bolt for the barn, saddle his horse, and get the hell out of his own life.
He surveyed his father’s waxen features. Yeah, and don’t tell me you wouldn’t do the same, you old boot.
The singsong cadence in that single word snatched him back to when the man in the casket was a mountain, and a little kid with worshipful eyes dogged Max’s footsteps. Only one person on earth dared to call him that.
Strap yourself in, Daddy. It’s gonna get bumpy. He turned to face Wyatt.
His younger brother stopped a few steps short of the casket, his gaze dropping to his father. A worried frown marred the angelic face from Max’s childhood. Wyatt looked familiar, but different, too. Soft cheeks had hardened to a man’s, and his golden locks were gone, shorn short.
Well, the prodigal son returns. No points for bravery maybe, but—
“Did he suffer, Max?” Wyatt’s voice wavered, his gaze locked on his father’s face.
“Nope. One minute he’s pounding in a post for the new fence line. The next, he’s on the ground. Gone.”
Wyatt’s head snapped up, his eyes wide. “Jesus, Max. Do you have to be so cold-blooded?”
So much for the new and improved Max he’d committed to becoming just this morning while lying in bed, probing the scabbed-over edges of the hole in his life. “Kinder and gentler” melted before the blowtorch that was his life lately. “Just telling you what happened. Sugarcoating won’t make it any prettier.”
A hurting smile twisted Wyatt’s mouth. “You sound like him.”
Max knew he hadn’t meant the words as a compliment. “Let’s grab a cup of coffee before the vultures show up.” He settled his Sunday Stetson on his head. “You and I have a bucket of trouble, little brother. And trouble don’t wait.”
Three weeks later
Crisp, alpine air trumped the heat of the sun. Aubrey steered the top-down Jeep with her knee and swiped wind-whipped hair out of her mouth. The snow-capped Rockies whispered of winter, but brave weeds flowered at the side of the highway. With no set destination the past three weeks, the road had pulled her north. She’d slept in generic hotels and eaten at mom-and-pop diners. The familiar stiffness in her core leached out in the sameness of the days and the anonymity of her role as generic traveler.
A cautious optimism replaced it, along with a niggling of road weariness. When had she last felt excited about the future? College?
A quick look in the rearview mirror told her that her scrunchie had failed. Curly chestnut hair floated around her pale, too-thin face. That and the oversized cheap sunglasses made her look like a So-Cal heiress just out of rehab.
Except for the scar, of course.
She pulled the Dodgers cap from behind the seat and snugged it over the riot to solve two problems—she didn’t need more freckles added to her collection.
A city limits sign announced her approach to Steamboat Springs. Her empty stomach growled demands.
Old-fashioned brick-fronted buildings lined the typical Western main street, foreground to a striking snowcapped mountain backdrop. She snagged a parking spot in front of a trendy bar and grill and climbed from the car, her joints creaking.
Noticing a stand of free local papers on the sidewalk, she grabbed one. She tugged open the heavy wooden door of the restaurant to lunch babble and a welcome blast of warm air. High ceilings and a long old-fashioned mahogany bar with a brass foot rail dominated the room. Midafternoon diners occupied the soda fountain–style chairs set around small wooden tables. The smell of onions and grilling beef told her she’d gotten lucky.
She chose a tall seat at the empty bar. The bartender appeared from a back room, a moonlighting college student, unless she missed her guess. “Sorry, ma’am. Didn’t realize you’d come in. What can I get you?” He wiped his hands on a damp bar rag.
Ugh. My first “ma’am.” Aubrey smoothed her hands over her waist to be sure middle-age spread hadn’t begun since she’d gotten dressed that morning. Everybody looks old to a baby like that.
She ordered, then opened the newspaper. Designed as bait for cruising tourists, she’d found these local Realtor rags a good source for a quick area overview of the local geography, economy, and demographics.
An earsplitting shriek raised the hair on Aubrey’s neck and arms. Her muscles jerked taut and she froze, head scrunched into her shoulders. The scream trailed off to a happy laugh. She spun in her seat.
A young couple sat at a small round table, attention focused on the baby in a high chair between them. The little boy was rapt, watching a small stuffed elephant his father held, his Cupid’s-bow mouth open in anticipation. The man shook the toy and the ears flopped. He swooped down and burrowed it into his son’s neck. The baby threw his head back and shrieked again, the pitch rising to dog-whistle range before trailing off in a delighted giggle.
Aubrey felt her mouth stretch in a dumb grin. The peals of laughter were more than carefree; they were total ignorance of care. How long had it been since she’d heard happiness like that? Heard it, hell, had she ever felt it? Nobody knew how to party like a baby.
The mother glanced at Aubrey before putting her hand on her husband’s arm. “I’m sorry. We forget that what we think is cute can be irritating to others.”
A band loosened in Aubrey’s chest, releasing a small moth flutter of happiness. “Anyone that finds a baby laugh irritating is dead inside.” She smiled at the mother. “Thank you for sharing your joy.”
Lighter, she turned back to her research. Turning the page to a marketplace section, she read of lost dogs, goats for sale, litters of kittens, and a burro free to a good home. Aubrey noticed quite a few ranches for sale. She turned to the brief help-wanted section.
WANTED: FULL TIME STABLEHAND.
ROOM & BOARD INCLUDED. APPLY TO HIGH HEATHER RANCH.
That might be worth looking into. It would be fun to work with horses again. And God knows her new life could use some fun.
The band around her chest ratcheted as the craving for open air danced along her nerves. I’ve got to find a way to stop this running. She glanced out the window to where her Jeep waited, imagining spending the rest of her life as a ghost, driving across the country, never leaving a shadow of an impression on the places she left. Almost as if she never existed at all. A goose-on-a-grave shiver started between her shoulder blades and shot through her body.
Could she stop? Aubrey did a gut check, but her gut just repeated the demand for food. It didn’t really matter if she could—she had to.
If I don’t stop now, I never will.
She glanced at her faded UCLA T-shirt and sweatpants. Not quite interview couture. The college kid returned with a still-sizzling chunk of beef smothered in cheese. “Here you go ma’am. Anything else I can get you?”
“This looks great, thanks.” Her mouth watered. “Can you tell me—is there a Western-wear store in town?” The kid filled her in as she reveled in her food, taking large bites of yet another meal that didn’t come from a prison kitchen.
At the Western Emporium a half hour later, Aubrey stood before a mirror, a shirt in either hand, considering. She’d found the perfect pair of skinny jeans, and the paddock-style lace-up boots she’d tried on went well with them. Good for work, but stylish too.
The tailored shirt on the right was dressy, polished black cotton with pearl snap buttons and white embroidered roses on the yoke. The one in her left was blue windowpane plaid, more a workday shirt. If the High Heather was a dressage barn, she’d know what to buy, but from the merchandise here, odds were against that.
She’d already decided to buy them both, but which one for an interview? The business rule in her previous life dictated dressing one notch above the position. A booster of adrenaline dumped into her bloodstream. This interview would set a whole tone for her new life. In the past week, the shining promise of the open road had soured. It now felt tainted, dark, and off somehow, like a whiff of carrion.
She had to get this job.
She changed into the fancy shirt and after a glance-in-the-mirror reminder, selected a package of bandanas on her way to the counter. She handed over her credit card and watched as the clerk ran it through the old-fashioned imprint machine.
She scribbled, Aubrey Mad—
Crap. Her fingers spasmed. Heat shot up her neck, making the scar throb. She scratched out her last name and wrote “Tanner” over the bad beginning, then pushed the receipt across the counter. Banks never looked at those things anyway.
Max leaned on the pitchfork and wiped sweat out of his eye with his sleeve. He pushed his straw Stetson back, looking at the mess in the barn breezeway. He’d flipped Wyatt over the day’s jobs, and Wyatt laughed when he chose the books, thinking Max had lost.
Shoveling shit is less depressing than wallowing in red ink all afternoon.
The past two hours he’d worked his way down the corridor, throwing soiled bedding from stalls into the aisle and laying new straw. Now he just had to bring the Bobcat around and push everything out the door. The ripe miasma of hot manure hung like a fog in the air. This job was not his career plan. He couldn’t wait to hire somebody to take over.
When he looked up, the brightness of the barnyard almost blinded him, but there was no mistaking the sleek feminine line of those long legs.
“Can you tell me where I can find your manager?”
He had to give her credit. Though she avoided the reeking mess in the aisle, she neither minced steps nor held her nose, glancing into each stall she passed.
Creamy skin and high cheekbones spoke of good bloodlines. Curly hair the color of a chestnut’s mane floated around her shoulders. Damn, red hair wasn’t a dominant gene. So why did it keep cropping up in his life?
Sweet Jesus. He winced. When he realized he was staring at the angry scar on her graceful neck—and noticed that she noticed—he moved on to the fancy Saturday-night-go-to-town shirt. He propped the pitchfork against the stall door and wiped his hands on the seat of his jeans.
“You found the manager. Are you here about boarding your horse?”
“No, sorry.” She pulled a folded newspaper from her back pocket. “I read you were looking for a groom,” she said in a perky interview voice.
In that getup? He gestured to the corridor. “As you can see, we need one.”
She put out a slim hand. “Aubrey Tanner.”
“Max Jameson.” Taking her hand, he let his eyes roam from the shiny new boots on up. “It’s not a job you’ll want.” This is a waste of time, but I need a break. The scent of fresh lemon drifted to him. And she smells a damn sight better than manure. Besides, he could use this as practice for that kinder-and-gentler thing. “Sorry. Strike that. Let’s go sit.” He turned and led the way to the doorway in the center of the building.
They had to cross the tack room to get to the office. Dusty saddles straddled sawhorses, and more lay sprawled on the dirty tile floor. A few bridles hung from pegs, but he didn’t even want to know what was in the pile in the corner, a snake’s nest of dirty leather.
The office wasn’t much better. He lifted a stack of battered Western Horseman magazines from the folding chair beside the WWII-era metal desk. He gestured for her to have a seat and then walked behind it.
“Our last groom ran out on us. Literally.” The torn leather chair let out an alarming squeal when he dropped his butt in it.
She perched at the edge of the metal chair. “I worked as a groom at an English riding stable on the outskirts of Phoenix for four years.”
“This is a working cattle ranch as well as a boarding barn. Our groom fills in as a cowhand during branding, castrating, and such. It’s not a job for a woman.” Especially another good-looking redhead. The last one about did me in.
She leaned forward, her back fence-pole straight. “I can handle myself around animals, and I’m stronger than I look.”
His interest caught on the frayed-wire undertone of desperation in her voice. Why so twitchy and nervous for a job as a stable hand? While she recited her skills, he studied her. Those smooth hands weren’t kin to manual labor. Her delivery was straightforward, yet she was clearly hiding something. She dressed like a rich client, yet she wanted a groom’s position. The red hair reminded him of Jo, but nothing else did. A trickle of interest seeped into a tiny crack in his wall of chronic vexation.
She finished and sat looking at him, chin thrust forward.
“Okay.” He lifted himself from the rickety chair. “Let’s see what you can do.”
Her brows scrunched. “Okay.” She stretched the word like warm taffy.
Wyatt stepped from the back door of the house and took a deep breath. “Thank God that’s over.” Maybe Max had won the better chore after all. His wrestling match with the bottom line yielded worse results than Wyatt had feared. If something didn’t change soon, making the payroll would be a stretch by summer’s end.
He rolled his shoulders. A ride would serve two purposes. He could finish checking the herd and clear the smell of failure out of his sinuses. If Max is napping instead of cleaning the stable, he’s vulture bait.
Walking to the barn, Wyatt noticed a mud-spattered red Jeep parked in the deserted dooryard. Monday afternoons were quiet. Most boarders worked days, and the crew had left before dawn to work fence. He stepped into the gloom of the barn and stood a moment to allow his eyes to adjust. His brother was nowhere in sight, but Max’s black-and-white paint stallion, Trouble, stood cross tied in the aisle.
He raised his voice. “Max, why didn’t you clean this mess before you got Trouble out?” He walked the aisle, watching where he put his feet. “Why is he out, anyway?”
A woman stepped from the tack room, a battered forward-seat saddle over her arm. She crossed to the stallion and tossed the saddle over its back.
Max barreled from a stall farther down the aisle. “What in holy hell!” Trouble sidestepped and reared, dumping the saddle in a pile of fresh droppings. Max ran up. Trouble danced, head thrown up, eyes rolling. Catching the horse’s halter, the woman rubbed his forelock, speaking in undertones until he calmed.
“What possessed you to put English tack on my horse, woman?” Max said in the Donald Trump “you’re fired” voice that had scared off the last groom.
She flushed. “I don’t know how to tie the girth on a Western saddle. I worked at an English show barn and—”
“Wyatt, meet Aubrey Tanner. She’s applying as a stable hand.”
Wyatt hadn’t thought the woman could blush deeper, but Max’s tone did it.
He took pity. “Ms. Tanner, please excuse my brother. Our father passed away not long ago, and Max has been out of sorts. Would you mind giving us a moment? If you’ll just wait by the paddock, I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
Staring daggers at Max, she turned and stalked away.
She was barely out of earshot when Max started in. “Wyatt, this ranch needs new fences, repairs, more boarders. It makes no sense to hire some city cupcake who doesn’t know how to tack a horse. God, she looks like a Friday-night buckle bunny!”
“Listen, Max, you pigheaded idiot.” Wyatt held a finger inches from his older brother’s nose. “One. You’re the jerk who chased off the last stable hand.” Max tried to interrupt, but Wyatt was only getting started.
He put up a second finger. “Two. No one in town wants to work for you. That ad has run all week and we haven’t had one applicant. And after going over the numbers this afternoon, we don’t have any time to waste.”
“Third. If you’d pull your head out of your behind, you’d see that this girl knows what she’s doing.” He gestured to the stallion. “Look at your horse.” Trouble’s coat gleamed, and even his hooves had a shiny coat of black polish. “I can’t believe you gave her a stallion to work on. You know as well as I that your cowhands wouldn’t have succeeded in getting him in the crosstie, much less picking up his hooves. But she did. At least until you came out here bellowing.”
Max sputtered. “I—”
“Just shut up and think a minute. If we open as a guest ranch, you can’t see the advantage of having a female employee? Especially one who looks like that? She could do a commercial as the ‘girl next door.’ It won’t hurt to have a view of more than the mountains for the male guests, you know.”
Max glared. “I haven’t agreed to your hair-ball dude-ranch idea. Dad’s having a heart attack in heaven, and you damn well know it.”
“Hey, if you’ve got a better idea for putting this ranch in the black, throw it out, bro.” He stood tall, crossed his arms, and stared his brother down. “Okay, Max. If you don’t want her, you go tell her. You’re the one who interviewed her.”
Trouble put his nose on Max’s shoulder and blew a warm breath in his ear. “Don’t you start on me too. You’re a guy. Guys don’t get pedicures. You oughta be ashamed.” He walked the aisle, but hesitated in the shadow of the barn door.
The woman stood at the paddock gate, frowning out at the sage-covered plain he felt sure she didn’t see. Resting a manure-encrusted shiny new boot on the bottom rail, she afforded him a great view of a slim backside in the snug, store-creased jeans. That damned wavy auburn hair lifted in the breeze. Bad enough he had to accept Jo—his Jo—married and settled with Trey Colburn. Could he stand walking around corners every day, having that red hair give him a cattle prod shot below the gut?
Yet as much as he hated it, Wyatt might have a point. If they were forced to turn the pla. . .
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