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Roping the Rancher Julie Benson Литагент HarperCollins EUR No Time For CowboysStacey Michaels is trying to get her acting career back on track while looking after her traumatized teenage brother and a demanding mother. She doesn’t have time for romance. And if she did? Well, she’d look to date someone in the business, not some cowboy.But when her brother begs her for a chance to try the equine therapy program Colt Montgomery offers at his ranch in Colorado, Stacey can’t refuse. Even if she and Colt strike sparks off one another. She knows he sees her as a diva, but why can’t he understand she just wants what’s best for her brother? She’s spent her whole life taking care of others—maybe it’s time to let Colt take care of her. No Time For Cowboys Stacey Michaels is trying to get her acting career back on track while looking after her traumatized teenage brother and a demanding mother. She doesn’t have time for romance. And if she did? Well, she’d look to date someone in the business, not some cowboy. But when her brother begs her for a chance to try the equine therapy program Colt Montgomery offers at his ranch in Colorado, Stacey can’t refuse. Even if she and Colt strike sparks off one another. She knows he sees her as a diva, but why can’t he understand she just wants what’s best for her brother? She’s spent her whole life taking care of others—maybe it’s time to let Colt take care of her. “We need to talk.” Colt clasped her upper arm and tried to lead her away. When she attempted to pull out of his grip, he stopped, leaned down and whispered in her ear, “We can do this one of two ways. You can come with me of your own free will, or I can toss you over my shoulder. Which is it gonna be?” “You wouldn’t.” “Try me.” Colt knew he needed to nip the situation with Stacy in the bud right quick. This first therapy session would set the tone for every one to come. With Stacy jitterier than a mama bear with her first cub, they’d never get around to helping Ryan. Stacy stared at him for a minute with hard determination, and he thought she might defy him. That might not be a bad thing. The thought of getting his hands on those great curves of hers did have a certain appeal and could end up being the bright spot in his day. “Lead the way,” she conceded at last, leaving him a bit disappointed. Dear Reader, In Roping the Rancher Colt Montgomery needed a new purpose once he’d left the military. I knew he felt compelled to make a difference in the world, but I wasn’t sure how he would do this. Then one day a dear friend Jennifer Jacobson and I were chatting about her sons-in-law’s experiences in the military. Somehow we got on the subject of horse therapy programs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and I had my answer. Colt would take the ranch his father left him, a place that contained more than its share of painful memories, and turn it into a place of healing that would change people’s lives. I’m continually amazed how involved the people in my life are in the community, and sure enough, I had a friend, Sue Casteel, who volunteers with a program like the one Colt wanted to start. While writing this book I had the opportunity to visit Equest, a therapeutic horsemanship program in Wylie, Texas, with Sue as my guide. The work these programs do to help not only veterans with PTSD, but people with a multitude of other issues, is incredible. They truly do change lives. I hope you enjoy Roping the Rancher. Stop by www.juliebenson.net (http://www.juliebenson.net) and let me know what you thought of Colt and Stacy’s story. I’d love to hear from you. Blessings, Julie Roping the Rancher Julie Benson www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) ABOUT THE AUTHOR An avid daydreamer since childhood, Julie always loved creating stories. After graduating from the University of Texas at Dallas with a degree in sociology, she worked as case manager before having her children: three boys. Many years later she started pursuing a writing career to challenge her mind and save her sanity. Now she writes full-time in Dallas, where she lives with her husband, their sons, two lovable black dogs, two guinea pigs, a turtle and a fish. When she finds a little quiet time, which isn’t often, she enjoys making jewelry and reading a good book. For Sue Casteel, the other volunteers and staff at Equest Therapeutic Horsemanship in Wylie, Texas, without whom this book couldn’t have been written. The amazing work you do changes lives for the better. Contents Chapter One (#u1ffd279d-0b97-59c3-9ff5-2085eb37d3d4) Chapter Two (#uecdf67d2-d4a8-5cad-abac-335e38ab5af7) Chapter Three (#u551a594d-9a63-549c-a906-6bdf2e6d7185) Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Excerpt (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One “I don’t care how good the therapy is supposed to be. There is no way I’m letting you get on a horse,” Stacy Michaels said to her younger brother when they left his neurologist’s office. “This isn’t about me. It’s about Dad, isn’t it?” “Of course it is.” Stacy punched the elevator down button with so much force she chipped her fingernail. “Dad died filming a movie stunt. This is a therapy program,” Ryan insisted. Since he’d been only a few months old at the time, he knew nothing about their father’s death other than what he’d been told. While an eleven-year-old Stacy had been in the movie as well and witnessed the entire event. Even now, almost sixteen years later, some nights she still woke drenched in sweat from the nightmares. The months before her dad’s accident had been the best time in Stacy’s life. She smiled at the memories of working with him on the movie and how she soaked up every drop of attention he poured on her. The image of him beaming when he told everyone within earshot how she was a chip off the old block and that one day she’d be a star flashed in her mind. Her life had been perfect. Then a week before filming ended, her father, playing a fifteenth-century knight, was shooting the big battle scene against her character’s kidnappers. When his mount became spooked by the special effects, her father fell and the horse trampled him to death, with Stacy a few feet away. Now her brother wanted her to give the okay for him to become a patient of a therapeutic horse program. Not as long as she was his guardian. “There has to be another option.” “You heard what Dr. Chapman said. We’ve tried everything else. This is my best shot to walk without this damned walker,” Ryan said, as he struggled to maneuver onto the elevator. A year ago Ryan had been driving when a man walked out onto the street from between two parked cars. Unable to avoid the man, Ryan hit him and then barreled head-on into a telephone phone pole. The man nearly died. Both of Ryan’s legs were crushed and he’d sustained a brain injury that left him with control and balance issues. Despite two surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy, he still needed a walker. The investigation cleared Ryan of any wrongdoing, but he’d still carried a fair share of guilt over what happened. Stacy stared at her brother, his eyes filled with determination and, more importantly, hope. Her breath caught in her throat. She hadn’t seen that emotion in his gaze for months. He deserved every chance to get his life back to what it had been, but how could she let him get on a horse? “I don’t know.” “Please, you’ve got to let me try this. Whatever the risk, for me it’s worth it.” She told herself he wouldn’t be racing around hell-for-leather on a movie set with cannons booming around him like their father had been. From what Dr. Chapman said, the horse Ryan rode for therapy would be walking or at most trotting around an arena with multiple volunteers to ensure nothing went wrong. She glanced at her brother. He was so young. How could she deny him this chance to get his life back? “You win.” “You’re the best.” “And don’t you forget it.” Once in the car Ryan stuck his nose in the program brochures the doctor had given them, occasionally tossing out information. “Most of the programs have spring sessions starting this time of year. That means I can start right away. In ten weeks I could be ditching my walker.” “Where’s the closest one?” Stacy asked, her mind starting to work on how she’d carve time out of her schedule to accommodate his therapy sessions. Then a thought hit her. Her next movie, The Women of Spring Creek Ranch, was scheduled to start shooting next week in Estes Park, Colorado. Unless she figured out a way to be in two places at once, she had a problem. * * * “MOM, RYAN HAD another appointment with the neurologist this afternoon. You told me you’d be there.” Stacy fought to keep her voice level despite her growing irritation as she walked into the living room of her mother’s recently redecorated Malibu beach house. “I went out to lunch with some friends and lost track of time.” More likely she lost track of how many cosmos she’d had, and based on her bleary-eyed gaze, smeared mascara and rumpled blouse and slacks, she had passed out the minute she got home. Which was exactly why Ryan had asked Stacy to sue for guardianship. They’d both hoped Andrea losing custody of her son would be the wake-up call she needed to pull herself together. So far that hadn’t been the case. “I know I should’ve been there, but I’ve had so many doctor appointments of my own.” Andrea, a passenger in the car with Ryan, had broken her arm. She’d also received minor cuts to her face and neck, for which she’d insisted on plastic surgery to repair. She’d also attended biweekly sessions with her therapist to cope with the emotional trauma. “I couldn’t bear facing another doctor. Plus, you’re so much better dealing with Ryan’s problems than I am.” Same old story. Her mom couldn’t cope so she bailed on her son. Stacy sank onto the couch beside her mother, took a deep breath and recounted the details from Ryan’s doctor appointment. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea considering what happened to your father.” Andrea’s voice broke. “I still miss him so much. How could God have taken him when he always took care of me?” The accident that killed Stacy’s father was the first blow that sent Andrea’s world spinning. Her mother had taken to her bed. If it hadn’t been for their nanny, Stacy didn’t know what would’ve happened to her and Ryan. Molly had been the one she clung to when she woke from nightmares. When she skinned her knee, she ran to Molly who hugged her and dried her tears. Stacy’s life changed even more when the movie she filmed with her father opened a year later. Critics raved not only about Jason Michaels’s performance, but Stacy’s, as well. Talk shows wanted to interview her. Directors sent scripts to her father’s agent for consideration. The next thing Stacy knew, she had a full-time job. Her focus changed from studying for her weekly spelling test to preparing for her next audition. Six months later she landed a role on what turned out to be an Emmy-award-winning series, The Kids Run the Place, that ran for ten years. Looking back now, she realized being on that show saved her life. The cast became more of a family than her own had ever been. She’d often pretended her TV parents were her real parents. One day she even begged Sophia Granger, her TV mom, to take her home with her. Don’t think about that now. Concentrate on Ryan’s problem, and getting Mom to see he needs her. “The doctor thinks the therapeutic sports riding will improve Ryan’s muscle control and balance,” Stacy said, summarizing the information she’d read on the internet. The horse’s rhythmic movement was what helped people. To control and direct the horse the patient had to master his own body. The skills learned on horseback then carried over into the patient’s everyday life. “The risk of something going wrong is minuscule.” Maybe if she said the words enough she’d believe them, too. “Ryan wants this chance at a normal life.” “I trust you to decide what’s best. I don’t know what I’d do without you to take care of things.” Maybe you’d have to face reality for a change and be the parent. Resisting the urge to massage her aching temples, Stacy counted to ten, trying to dredge up more patience, because all she wanted to do was shake her mother and scream for her to snap out of it. Not that doing so would do any good. Her mother would only burst into tears and ask how her daughter could say that to her when she was still dealing with the pain caused by her injuries and her recent separation from husband number three. Grant had turned out to be prime marriage material. Three months ago he claimed his wife’s physical and emotional problems from the car accident were draining him creatively, and the negative energy was affecting his auditions, costing him roles. Then he moved out. “I start filming next week. I was hoping you could go with Ryan to therapy.” Stacy reached into her purse, pulled out the list of programs and held the paper out to her mother. “The doctor highlighted the ones he thought were the best.” Her mother scanned the information. “These are all out of town. I can’t go anywhere. Grant and I are meeting tomorrow to talk about reconciling.” Her mother’s blue eyes sparkled, as she toyed with a strand of golden hair, highlighted perfectly and often to cover the gray. “He says he misses me. That his life is so empty without me.” Stacy wanted to laugh at her mother’s naïveté. More likely Grant missed his bills being paid and the lifestyle he’d become accustomed to living with Andrea. Life had to be less pleasant for him when he had to actually earn a living. “That’s wonderful that he’s willing to talk about a reconciliation, but Ryan needs—” “I still can’t believe Grant moved out.” Tears pooled in Andrea’s eyes. “I thought we’d be together forever. That he’d take care of me.” Maybe you should learn to take care of yourself. That way you wouldn’t end up devastated when a man lets you down. The biting words sat perched on Stacy’s tongue. While it would feel cathartic to confront her mom, dealing with the emotional meltdown afterward wasn’t worth it. Andrea glanced at the therapy information again. “It says here therapy is once a week. Couldn’t you hop on a quick flight, go to therapy with Ryan and then fly right back to the set?” Stacy swallowed hard. She wouldn’t be here banging her head against the wall trying to get Andrea to help out if the problem were that easily fixed. “I can’t be gone for an entire day every week.” Her mom frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. “I certainly can’t be locked into weekly appointments. I have to be here to work on my marriage. That and healing physically from the accident have to be my top priorities.” “This is exactly why Ryan doesn’t think you care about him.” “That’s not fair. I love my son. I just need to concentrate on myself right now. That’s what my therapist says. Until I do that I don’t have anything to give to anyone else.” Life had dealt her mother some tough hits, but that didn’t give her the right to crawl in her shell and forget about her son. “I need to do this movie. Finances are tight.” Andrea waived a delicate manicured hand through the air. “You’re just like your father, always worrying about money. He was always a sky is falling type, too.” Stacy sighed, and clasped her hands on her lap. Andrea received a generous settlement when Stacy’s father died, but she lived as though the money would never run out. How many times would they have to go over budget basics before her mother understood? Apparently at least once more. “Your expenses have to be less than your income. Since your divorce from Allan, that hasn’t been the case. We had to liquidate a lot of your investments in the divorce settlement.” Her mother bit her lip. For a second she looked older than her years, and Stacy’s heart tightened. “I wish I’d listened to you about asking him to sign a prenup. I was just so scared that if I did he’d say I didn’t trust him, and he’d leave me.” Which he did anyway. While a broken engagement would’ve been tough on her mother, it would have been less financially painful than a messy divorce. Why couldn’t her mother see that? Because she’s so desperate for love. “Mom, you have to stick to the budget we made out. You can’t just disregard—” “Don’t start lecturing me about how I spent too much money redecorating the house before Grant and I got married.” Andrea folded her hands, which were still young-looking, thanks to weekly deep moisturizing treatments, on her lap. “I don’t regret spending a penny of that money. I wanted him to feel like this was his house. Part of the reason my marriage with Allan failed was he felt like he was living in your father’s shadow.” “I’m trying to explain why you need to make some changes. If insurance pays for Ryan’s therapy at all, it’ll reimburse us. I can’t afford to lose out on work right now.” Especially when I’m the only working member of the family, and it’s been a while since I had a hit movie or series. Her mother frowned. Tears filled her eyes again. “I’m sorry we’ve been such a burden to you.” No. Andrea’s “poor me” routine wouldn’t work today. She refused to feel guilty. This was all about Ryan and what he needed. “We’re a family, and family helps each other out.” But shouldn’t the flow go both ways? “Grant and I might still be able to make our marriage work.” Her mother’s lips trembled, and her voice broke. “I don’t know if I can survive another divorce. Stacy, you have to help me. You’ve got to give me this chance. Can’t you see if they can work the shooting schedule around Ryan’s therapy?” “I was lucky to get this role. Half of the actresses in Hollywood wanted it.” “Nonsense. That woman owes you,” her mother said, a sneer on her face as she referred to Maggie Sullivan McAlister, the creator and director of The Women of Spring Creek Ranch. “No one gave me the part. I earned it.” “After what she did on that dreadful reality dating show, she’s lucky you didn’t sue her for every penny she had. I still can’t believe that cowboy chose the plain Jane director over you.” Stacy only agreed to be a bachelorette on Finding Mrs. Right because she’d been between jobs. Never once had she considered letting her heart get involved with the bachelor. She hadn’t been foolish enough to believe a reality show relationship would last longer than the latest fashion fad. For her, the show had been a job like any other TV show. A vehicle to getting a series of her own. “I got over that ages ago.” Now if only other people would quit bringing the subject up, she could forget about it, too. “If I ask Maggie to shoot around Ryan’s therapy I risk her giving the role to someone else. Mom, please go with Ryan so I can do this movie.” There, she’d put it all on the line. She told her mother exactly what she needed. Stacy held her breath, and prayed this once her mother would pull up her mom panties and be the parent. “Grant and I need time to work out our problems. Then I can go with Ryan for therapy. Surely waiting a month or two won’t make that much difference.” So much for Andrea stepping up and doing the right thing by putting her children first. “He shouldn’t have to wait until it’s convenient for us.” Ryan deserved this chance, and apparently she was the only one willing to make it happen. As a child, whenever she asked her mom to play a game or read a book to her, the response had always been, “In a minute.” Or, “Not now.” Or, “Ask the nanny.” That taught Stacy a valuable lesson. Asking for something led to disappointment. When she learned to quit asking, she avoided that pain. Harnessing her anger, Stacy mumbled something about how she’d take care of Ryan’s therapy, said goodbye to Andrea and stumbled out of the house. Once inside her car, she dropped her head to the steering wheel and cried. A minute later Stacy dried her tears and told herself to snap out of it. A pity party never helped. All it did was wreck a girl’s makeup, and leave her with red, puffy eyes. There had to be a solution. All she had to do was find it. * * * LATER THAT AFTERNOON as Stacy sat in her cozy Hollywood condo, she faced the truth. She could either do the movie or she could give her brother a chance to recover. There would always be another movie. Maybe not as wonderful a role as the lead in The Women of Spring Creek Ranch, but losing the job wouldn’t kill her career. Of course she’d have to solve her cash-flow problem. She’d call her agent and ask him to get her any work he could find to bring in some quick money without requiring a long commitment. Commercials. Voice-over work, whatever, as long as the job paid. Her career would be fine. Provided Maggie understood. Otherwise Stacy could find herself blacklisted with every director in town. Her hand shook as she picked up her cell phone. “Maggie, I hate to do this, but I’ve got to drop out of the movie. My brother needs physical therapy. It’s a ten-week program, and right now I need to be with him. I can’t be on location for a movie and get him to his therapy sessions.” “While I’m disappointed we won’t get to work together, I understand. Family has to come first.” Such a simple concept. How come her mother couldn’t grasp it? “The doctor says his best chance to walk again is a therapeutic horse program.” “That’s the therapy where patients ride horses, isn’t it?” “It is.” “One of the things about a small town is anything happens and everyone knows about it,” Maggie said. “You’re not going to believe this, but Colt Montgomery, a war vet, opened a program like that on his ranch a while ago. It’s a couple miles down the road from where we’ll be filming at Twin Creeks.” The image of the stereotypical crotchety rancher in the old Westerns popped into Stacy’s mind. The one who preferred his horse’s company to people. Who cared if it was Rooster Cogburn running the program if he helped Ryan? “The program’s new, and I don’t know anything about it,” Maggie continued, “but if it’s an option for your brother, you might be able to arrange his therapy around our shooting schedule.” Who would’ve thought she and Stacy would work together after how things had gone between them on the reality show Finding Mrs. Right? Stacy bit her lip, trying to control her emotions at Maggie’s unexpected kindness. Her mother wouldn’t help, but here was someone, barely an acquaintance, who was willing to do what she could to alleviate her problem. Tears blurred her vision. “You’d do that?” “You could pop over to the Rocking M Ranch for a therapy session during your downtime. If your brother’s doctor thinks the program will work, I’m willing to give it a try. The name of Colt’s program is Healing Horses.” “Maggie, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this, especially considering what I said to you and Griffin during the finale.” Stacy had been one of the bachelorettes on the show competing for the heart of a Colorado cowboy, Griffin McAlister. Because of that opportunity she’d received a deal for her own reality show. However, things had been contingent on her getting a marriage proposal and the free publicity that went along with the engagement ring as the “winner” of Finding Mrs. Right. Never one to leave situations to chance and sensing Griffin was as enthusiastic about marital bliss as she was, Stacy approached him with a deal. He’d propose. They’d play the happy couple during the post-show appearances, and then quietly break up. She’d say they parted amicably, and he’d do likewise. They’d fulfill their contracts, get the free publicity to help their careers and come out without a scratch to their images. A win-win situation all around. But things hadn’t gone as planned. Instead, Griffin and Maggie fell in love and he proposed to the director instead during the live finale. At the time all Stacy saw was her latest career opportunity flying out the window and she’d been brutal in her anger. “I owe you an apology, too,” Maggie said. “I couldn’t talk to you at the audition with everyone else around, but I want to tell you that now. I know people say ‘we didn’t plan this, it just happened’ all the time, but that really was the case with me and Griffin. The more we worked together, the more we got to know each other, and we fell in love.” “I think you were the only one who got to see the real man,” Stacy said. When she was with Griffin on a date she’d sensed he was holding back, that he was treating the show like a job, too. Looking back now she saw that fact even more. He hadn’t been shocked by her business proposition. His only concern had been whether he could trust her to keep quiet about their deal. Once she’d answered that question, he’d agreed. In fact he’d appeared almost relieved, but then he’d pulled the rug out from under her at the finale. “I’m hoping Healing Horses will work for Ryan because I’d love to work with you. I think this project is going to be amazing.” As she told Maggie she’d talk to Ryan’s doctor and call her no later than tomorrow with an answer, hope and determination blossomed inside of Stacy. With a little luck Ryan would get his therapy and she could make the movie. Another win-win situation. Hopefully this one would work out better than the last one. Chapter Two Boring. Calm. Uneventful. Ordinary. The words once made Colt Montgomery go stir-crazy, but since coming home from Afghanistan, they sounded pretty damned good. Of course, raising a teenage daughter on his own meant he didn’t use those words in conjunction with his life very often, but he kept hoping. Everywhere he went in town people and life seemed the same, and yet he wasn’t. Life in Afghanistan consisted of endless monotony and preparation, interrupted with bouts of sheer terror. He spent a good portion of his day wondering if someone he was there to help would turn on him with an AK-47. Then one day he was home. Going to a war zone changed a man in ways few could understand, but he was one of the lucky ones. He’d come home with all his body parts. Except for some minor scars and an occasional nightmare, he returned unscathed, but then he hadn’t been there for his full tour, either. Once home, he struggled with what to do with his life. While he loved being a parent, he needed more than raising his daughter and being a rancher. Then he heard from one of his buddies, Dan, who’d lost a leg in Afghanistan. His doctor recommended an equestrian sports therapy program, but there wasn’t one near him. After that email, Colt discovered the purpose he craved in creating Healing Horses. He’d gone through a seven-week training course to become a registered instructor. Then he started training horses and found local physical therapists willing to donate their time to recommend activities and work with clients when necessary. When Colt finally was able to open the doors to Healing Horses, Dan was the program’s first patient. Footsteps tapped across the wooden floor outside his office. He looked up from the stack of bills due on his desk to see his daughter walk in, and his heart ached. He’d come so close to losing her when he was in Afghanistan, and all because of his selfishness. When her mother ran off with a computer repairman and died a month later in a car accident, he should’ve quit the National Guard Reserves. He’d known getting deployed was a possibility, but he never really thought it would happen. So much for long shots. When he’d been shipped to Afghanistan, his younger brother came to Colorado to stay with Jess. Reed, a bachelor, made more than a few mistakes, and Jess ran away. What could have happened to her, now that gave Colt real nightmares. Pimps. Drug dealers. General crazies waiting to prey on a naive fourteen-year-old. He thanked God every day that Reed and Avery, now Reed’s wife, found Jess at the Denver airport before she got into any serious trouble. Jess’s running away had been a hard kick to the head for Colt. This time he got the message. She was the most important thing in his life and it was high time he proved it. So he asked for a hardship discharge, left the National Guard Reserves and returned to Estes Park. Looking at her now standing in his office, he realized every day she looked more like her mother. Same petite frame, long chestnut hair and warm coffee-colored eyes as her mother. Jess was the constant reminder of how young and in love he’d once been. Sometimes he looked at her and tried to find bits of himself. Today he didn’t have any trouble finding a similarity. Her chin pointed at him in stubborn defiance she inherited from him. He braced himself for whatever hand grenade she was about to throw his way. “Cody Simmons asked me out to a movie on Saturday. Can I go?” He closed his eyes for a second to regroup. Times like these he missed having her mother around to tell him whether or not he was being too much of a hard-ass. “As in out for a date, asked you out?” “The word date was never mentioned.” “I’m not falling for that one again.” She’d burned him with technicalities more than once before he learned to choose his words very carefully and scrutinize every one of hers for land mines. “Would you be going with a group of friends?” “Not exactly, but—” “Then it’s a date, and the answer is no.” Cody was a good kid. He was an honor student, worked part-time at the Cinemaplex and was a pretty good bronc rider in the junior rodeo circuit, but none of that mattered to Colt. Just thinking about Jess dating shoved his panic into overdrive, especially since he knew what seventeen-year-old boys were like. Basically a bundle of hormones fantasizing about sex every thirty seconds. He hadn’t been much older than Cody when he and Lynn started having sex. By graduation she’d been pregnant and they were planning a quickie wedding. No way did he want history repeating itself with his daughter. “Your ‘no dating until I’m sixteen’ rule is so old-fashioned.” “Then you better go get your bonnet, missy.” Three more months were all he had before he started greeting boys at the door with a shotgun and giving them his own version of the Spanish Inquisition before he let them out the door with his daughter. He now understood why man invented the chastity belt. “All my friends have been dating since they were fifteen. What difference will a few months make?” “What difference will it make to wait?” She crossed her arms over her chest, shifted her weight onto one foot and glared at him. Such determination and strength, and yet so much hurt behind those beautiful brown eyes. How could a mother walk out on such a wonderful child? Leaving him, he got. He and Lynn had troubles from the moment the ink dried on their marriage license. She wanted so much that he couldn’t give her. Bright lights, the big city, adventure. Being a military wife and later a rancher’s wife weren’t what she had in mind. If only he’d known that earlier, but they’d been high-school sweethearts who swore the love they felt would last forever. They were too young and foolish to know what they didn’t know. He wondered now if their relationship would’ve run its course sooner if Lynn hadn’t gotten pregnant. But then he wouldn’t have Jess, and he wouldn’t trade being her father for anything. She was the only good thing that came out of his marriage. “You don’t understand what it’s like being the only one who can’t date. I’ll become a social outcast.” He bit his lip to keep from laughing at her woeful my-life-is-over look and drama queen voice. To a teenage girl everything turned into a Greek tragedy. Life with her was like walking a tightrope. One misstep, either with being too strict or too permissive, could lead to a big fall. “In a couple of days everyone will forget that your hard-ass dad won’t let you date.” “If I say no, Cody will probably ask another girl to go with him.” Good. All the better. Instead, Colt said, “If he really likes you, he’ll wait until you turn sixteen.” “Guys have needs—” “What the hell do you know about that?” His blood pressure approaching stroke levels, he prayed his daughter wasn’t talking about the kind of needs he knew about all too well. His ate him up so bad sometimes he couldn’t sleep at night. Hell, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d gotten laid. Sure he’d taken the edge off, but that wasn’t the same as being with a woman. Sometimes holding one, losing himself in her warm curves and pretending they cared about each other was the only thing that would ease the ache. For about five minutes when he’d first returned from Afghanistan, he considered dating. Then he remembered what it was like living in the small town he grew up in where gossiping was a town sport. The last thing he wanted was people talking about his love life and his teenage daughter hearing the stories. On top of that, a casual relationship, in a lot of ways, sounded worse to him than no relationship at all, but he refused to have any other kind. One disastrous marriage was enough. “Guys have fragile egos,” Jess said, easing his panic somewhat. “Getting turned down for a date is hard on their self-esteem. He’ll find someone who can go out with him.” “She’s not my concern.” “I know. I am.” “That’s right.” “Just because you don’t have a life, doesn’t mean I can’t have one.” Ouch. He’d died and gone to hell, and this conversation was his punishment. “I’ve got a life.” But her words got him thinking. What did he have other than Jess? A brother and sister-in-law. The ranch he grew up on. His therapy program, Healing Horses. Was that enough? It had to be right now. He couldn’t handle anything else. Definitely not dating and the emotional pitfalls that went along with trying to maintain a romantic relationship. Life with a teenager was exhausting enough. “A monk has a more exciting life than you do,” his daughter said. “You’ve got work. That’s not the same. What’re you going to do when I go to college in two years? I don’t want you to end up being one of those weird old men who lives alone and talks to himself all day long.” Apparently he hadn’t been the only one wondering what his life would be like when Jess went off to college. Part of him dreaded her leaving, while a piece of him looked forward to the freedom he’d have. For as long as he could remember responsibilities ruled his life. From the time he and Reed were strong enough to lift a saddle his father had worked his sons harder than any ranch hand. As the big brother, he’d watched out for Reed. Colt had stepped in to defuse things once their mother, the family peacemaker and punching bag, died. Then at eighteen he’d found himself in the military responsible for a wife with a baby on the way. An empty nest and the chance to figure out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life sounded pretty good right now. “Your life shouldn’t stop because you’ve got me to raise.” “It hasn’t.” He picked up the top bill and scanned the paper, hoping his daughter would take the hint that he was done discussing her dating and his. “Why don’t you trust me?” Jess accused. “I thought you’d forgiven me for running away.” Jess’s quiet words and the clear pain in her expressive brown eyes hit Colt hard like a kick from an angry mule. He replaced the bill on the stack. “I have. I know if you’re ever that upset again, you’ll come to me, and we’ll work things out. I don’t want you to ever be afraid to tell me anything.” Unlike how he and Reed had been with their father, who they tried every trick to avoid. The old man was as likely to greet a simple good morning from his sons with a slap upside the head as a smile, and there was never a way to predict which they’d get or change the outcome. “I trust you. It’s the boys that scare the hell out of me.” “We’d just being going to a movie.” He’d told himself he wouldn’t be the hard liner his father had been. He wouldn’t drive his daughter away. The last thing he wanted her thinking was that he didn’t trust her. He sighed. Time to cowboy up and prove the fact. “I’ll compromise. Make it a double date, and you can go.” His daughter charged around his desk, flung her arms around him and squeezed him tight. “I won’t let you down,” she whispered in his ear and kissed him on the cheek. Then with one last grin, she headed for the door as Nannette McAlister, his assistant at Healing Horses, strolled in. “You’ll never guess what happened. Dad said I could go out on a double date this Friday.” “You finally wore him down, huh?” Nannette was the kind of mother every child should have. She loved and encouraged her three children, and their friends were always welcome in the McAlister home. All she wanted was for them to be happy. His brother had found that out firsthand. Since Reed married Avery, Nannette’s youngest and only daughter, he and Jess had been enveloped in the family fold, as well. “I’m putting my full trust in my daughter,” Colt said to Nannette to emphasize his point with Jess. “She promised she won’t let me down.” Jess shook her head. “I’m leaving before he changes his mind.” “Smart girl.” “I take after my father,” Jess said before she dashed off. “How’s the morning going?” Nannette asked once she’d settled at her desk, and started booting up her computer. “Better now that Jess is gone. This dating stuff is going to kill me.” The older woman smiled knowingly. “I feel your pain. Raising Avery gave me more gray hairs than her brothers combined. I know it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, but you will survive having a teenage daughter.” “Thank goodness you keep reminding me of that.” When Nannette heard about him turning the Rocking M into a horse-therapy ranch, she’d immediately volunteered to help with bookkeeping. Then when they started classes, she’d assumed scheduling duties, as well. Taking the money he’d gotten from the grant Healing Horses received three months ago to hire Nannette McAlister had been the smartest thing he’d ever done. When her computer finished booting up, she punched some keys and said, “We received another client application.” The hum of the printer filled the office. Nannette grabbed the paper, scanned the application and froze. “This can’t be the same Stacy Michaels.” “I need a little context, Nannette. So far you aren’t making a lot of sense.” She walked across the room and handed him the paper. “Stacy Michaels was one of the finalists when Griffin was on that ridiculous dating show.” Colt had wondered what kind of woman went on a show like that and fought with a pack of women to win the “love” of a man they’d just met. A woman whose moral compass didn’t point due north, that’s who. From the little bit he saw of the show, he remembered flighty, beautiful women with long legs and short form-fitting skirts that almost showed the good china. Great to look at, but no substance. Women who’d looked down their more-often-than-not surgically altered noses at just about everyone. After glancing at the application, he said, “It doesn’t matter if it’s the same woman or not because she wants to sign her brother up for the spring therapeutic sports riding session. It’s already started and it’s full.” He picked up his phone and punched in the number listed on the application. The sultry feminine voice that answered could get a rise out of a man two months after he was dead and buried. His pulse rate shot up like a rodeo bull out of the shoot as he asked to speak to Stacy Michaels. “This is Stacy.” He shifted in his desk chair. Lord, he’d been alone too long if a woman’s voice over the phone could get his imagination and motor running this fast. “Hello? You still there?” “Yeah. This Colt Montgomery. I run Healing Horses. I received the paperwork for your brother.” He explained about the problem with the class she registered Ryan for. “You’ll need to sign him up for our fall class.” “That won’t work. I’m in the area to film a movie with Maggie McAlister. In fact, she was the one who recommended your program. I was hoping we could work my brother’s therapy session around my shooting schedule. I could just pop over from Twin Creeks, deal with his therapy and then head right back.” Pop over? Did she think Healing Horses worked like the drive-through lane at McDonald’s? “Mr. Montgomery, I’m in a bind here. I can’t lose this movie opportunity, but I have to get my brother into therapy. There has to be something we can do.” He’d heard about Maggie filming a movie on Twin Creeks. Since becoming parents, she and Griffin had started a production company and were trying to do more projects at the family ranch when their reality show The Next Rodeo Star was on hiatus. Considering that, Stacy probably was the same woman who’d been one of Griffin’s bachelorettes. He shook his head. His gut told him this woman would be trouble. Stacy was probably a high-maintenance city actress who had people catering to her every whim. That was the last thing he needed, but they weren’t talking about her needing therapy. They were talking about her brother. The application indicated her brother Ryan had been in a car accident a little over a year ago. He’d suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him with impaired gross and fine motor skills as well memory problems. He’d been through two surgeries to correct his crushed legs. Despite that and extensive physical therapy, he still required a walker and struggled with balance and control issues. The kid was only seventeen. If he told Stacy no, would she make her brother wait to get therapy until she finished her movie? He refused to be responsible for a kid not getting the therapy he needed. “We offer private classes. ’Course that’s more expensive.” “Great. Sign Ryan up for that instead.” Not how much more expensive? Must be nice to not have to worry about money. Now him, he pinched pennies until they cried uncle, but he’d do whatever he needed to in order to make Healing Horses work without having the program’s needs financially impact Jess’s life or her college plans. “When would you like his therapy to start?” he asked as he jotted down the changes on Ryan’s paperwork. “We’ll be in Estes Park Thursday. If he could start therapy next week that would be great. Having private sessions will work better than Ryan being part of a class anyway. I’m going to do everything I can to avoid shooting conflicts, but sometimes my schedule changes at the last minute. I’m hoping you can be a little flexible.” He could see it now, calls with her saying something had come up and she needed to reschedule. Showing up late for appointments because whatever she had been doing ran long. He intended to set her straight up front. “Since we’re a new program, our physical therapist and instructors have other jobs. Rescheduling a session isn’t easy.” “I’ll try my best to avoid any conflicts.” Once he ended the call, Nannette asked, “Was it the same Stacy Michaels?” “Since she’s an actress, I’m pretty sure she’s the one you met. I need you to schedule private sessions for her brother. She said they’ll be getting into town the end of this week. She’d like his therapy to start next week.” He rubbed the back of his neck, where an ache had settled. “Is she as bad as she sounded on the phone? Because she sounded like an arrogant, high-maintenance, huge pain-in-the-butt celebrity.” “When she showed up at the ranch she looked like she was dressed for some fancy New York City cocktail party. She had on this skimpy, skintight dress and these strappy little heels. In Colorado. In December.” His stomach dropped. “What about her attitude?” “I’m not sure we got to see who she really was. Hardly anything that happened on Finding Mrs. Right was real. There were scripts and discussions about what would make good TV. Everything everyone said and did was for the cameras. Her being here will be different. There won’t be any cameras. This is real life. Plus, she’s not the patient. Her brother is.” “She sounds like someone who creates chaos wherever she goes. We can’t let her upset our routine. A big part of our program is having structure and order.” “That’s the spirit. You were in the military. Keep her in line.” Of course Nannette, the spokesperson for the United Optimists of America, would think that. He’d been to Afghanistan and faced the possibility of dying on a daily basis, but women? No man could keep one in line. * * * STACY HAD FORGOTTEN how beautiful Estes Park was. Even though she wasn’t really a back-to-nature kind of gal or the outdoorsy type, the scenery called to her. The Rocky Mountains stood guard around the small town of Estes Park, almost cradling its inhabitants. That reassuring and enduring presence resonated with Stacy. Something about the wide-open spaces eased the tightness in her chest and stilled her restlessness. The last time she was here she discovered how much slower-paced life was. That had been a huge headache for her. Now it felt as if that was exactly what she needed. So far settling in had gone smoother than she anticipated. She and Ryan had unpacked and stocked their cabin with food and other staples. They’d met with the school, seen to his registration and he started his first day of classes yesterday. She’d met with Maggie and gotten the shooting schedule so she could schedule Ryan’s therapy sessions once they had his initial assessment. “Now that you’ve had two days of school, are you sure you want to go Estes Park High? It’s not too late for me to get a tutor for you.” “I’m cool with going to school here.” Maybe he wanted a change. Since his accident, Ryan’s relationship with his friends was strained. Because he couldn’t keep up physically, his friends had moved on. Maybe meeting new people who weren’t comparing him to how he used to be would help him come back out of his shell. “I’ve actually met a couple of kids. One of them is the daughter of the guy who runs the therapy program. She’s in one of my elective classes. Her name is Jess.” So Rooster had a daughter. “What’s she like?” “She’s nice. She said she knows what it feels like to be a little different than everyone else.” “What’s she mean by that?” Ryan shrugged. “The kids here aren’t as worried about how much money a guy’s family has. They’re more real.” His phone dinged indicating he had a text. He scanned the message. “It was from Mom. She said she might join us next week. Can you believe it? Does she really think I’ll buy that? Next she’ll tell me to write a letter to Santa at Christmas.” Ryan chucked. “I’d probably get better results from the letter.” “At least she’s trying.” More like Andrea was saying the right thing. Their mother talked a good game and tossed out big promises. Follow-through proved to be an entirely different matter. “She might surprise us.” But only if Grant moved back into the house and agreed to come with her. Otherwise Andrea wouldn’t leave California, but Stacy bit her tongue to keep from mentioning that. “When are you going to quit giving her more chances? She doesn’t deserve it.” For Ryan’s sake she kept banging her head against the wall in attempt to get Andrea to change. A teenager needed the guidance and love of a parent. He’d changed so much over the past years. Some of it was just normal teenage-attitude stuff, but she knew some of the differences were because of their mother. Every time she disappointed Ryan, every time she put her needs above his, Stacy saw a little part of her brother die inside. “She’s going through a tough time.” She regretted her words the minute she uttered them. How could she have been so thoughtless to Ryan when he’d faced far worse than Andrea? “Not like what you’re going through, but she’s not as strong as you are.” “She’s a selfish bitch who doesn’t care about anyone but the husband of the month.” Out of the mouths of angry teenagers often came the harsh truth. Part of her considered talking to him about how families should forgive and love each other no matter what, but she lacked the energy for a battle. Especially when he was right. She’d tried so hard to make up for Andrea’s shortcoming so Ryan wouldn’t grow up feeling unloved, but there was only so much she could do. No matter how hard she tried, she wasn’t his mother. Ryan glanced out the window. “Are you sure you know where we’re going? I think we went past this barn a little while ago.” Stacy flashed him a bright smile. “I’ve got everything under control.” No way would she admit she didn’t have a clue where they were. She’d never hear the end of it because Ryan had suggested they print a copy of the directions before they left the cabin. Since they were running late, she’d brushed him off saying they’d be fine with her GPS app on her phone. Unfortunately she’d forgotten how spotty Wi-Fi could be in the Rocky Mountains, forcing her to rely on her memory. “That’s your too-big smile. It means you’re lying because you’re afraid if you tell me the truth, I’ll be upset.” “I don’t do that.” “You do it all the time. I’m not a kid. I don’t need you protecting me.” They’d both grown up too fast. She’d hoped to save him from some of that, but life had a way of refusing to go along with a person’s plan. “Okay, you win. I admit it. We’re lost.” She spotted a small ranch house in the distance to the left. “I’ll head for that house and ask for directions.” Then she pointedly stared at her younger brother. He stared back. His right eyebrow rose and he smiled. “Are you going to say it?” His grin widened. “Say what?” “I’m not going to have an ‘I told you’ so hanging over my head. Let’s just get it over with.” “But it’s more fun to torture you this way.” His smile faded and he picked at a frayed spot in his jeans. “I know you don’t think this horse-therapy stuff is a good idea, but I researched it a lot. I think it could really help me.” Right after the car accident, Ryan’s attitude amazed her. He’d been so full of hope. He swore he’d regain full use of his legs no matter what he had to endure. He’d remained positive during his first surgery and the countless hours of physical therapy. Then the doctors recommended another surgery. When he failed to see much improvement after the second operation, something inside Ryan withered. He quit going out with friends. Though he hadn’t said so, she suspected being with them only reinforced what he couldn’t do. He argued with her about attending physical therapy. “I’m tired of doctor and therapy appointments controlling my life. I want to be normal again. I want to hang out with friends, go out on a date or spend the whole day in school without getting pulled for an appointment. This sports riding program is my best bet to have that. I know you’re scared because of what happened to dad, but I’ll be okay. Everything I read about the program says falls are rare.” But they do occur. She could handle anything but something happening to Ryan again. He was all she had. Her only family. The only one who cared about what happened to her. No, that wasn’t true. Andrea cared about her, but only because if something happened to Stacy, who would pick up the pieces of her life when it inevitably fell apart? “I’m praying you’re right.” They came around a curve and a loud pop echoed around them. The car pulled hard to the left. Stacy clutched the steering wheel, pulled her foot off the gas and struggled to maintain control. Her sweaty palms slipped on the steering wheel. “Slow down!” Ryan screamed. “We’re fine.” She flashed him a quick smile, hoping to ease his fears and stave off a full-blown panic attack. His fingers dug into the armrest. His breathing grew rapid and shallow. “Breathe slow and deep.” She’d veered into the other lane. She turned hard right. Too hard. The car spun. Ryan’s screams reverberated through the car as they headed for the ditch. Images blurred around Stacy. Her hands grew numb, and then seconds later the car stopped. “God, no! Not again!” Ryan screamed. Thank you, Lord. He’s yelling. That means he can’t be hurt too badly. Her heart thundering in her chest, her body shaking, Stacy grabbed her brother’s arm and squeezed. “Look at me, Ryan. Are you hurt anywhere?” His gaze locked on hers, and he shook his head. “Breathe with me.” She inhaled deeply and held her breath for a second before slowly exhaling. She did that for a minute or two until his breathing matched hers and the panic receded from his eyes. “I’m sorry. I think we blew a tire.” She squeezed his hand again before letting go. “You handled that so well.” “No, I didn’t. I screamed like a little girl.” “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Remember how bad the attack was the first time you got in a car after the accident? You’ve come so far since then, but that doesn’t mean that sometimes you won’t get thrown for a loop.” A chorus of moos and clomping hooves on the pavement around them drew Stacy’s attention. Not only had they gone off the road into a ditch, but they’d run into a barbed wire fence, taking a good section of it out. Cows making the most of the damaged fence made a break for it and wandered all over the road. Now what? She put the car into Reverse and tried to back out of the ditch, but the tires spun in the soft ground. They clearly weren’t going anywhere. “I’ll go for help.” “What about the cows? We can’t leave them all over the road. They’ll cause an accident.” She drew the line at worrying about the cows. They’d have to fend for themselves. If they were smart enough to get on the road, they were smart enough to find their way off again. “I bet animals get on the road around here all the time. People are used to watching out for them.” “This is a tourist town. What if someone from out of town comes along? They could get hurt because we...” Ryan’s voice broke. Stacy reached out and laid her hand over her brother’s, but he pulled away. This scene was hitting a little too close to home for him. His breathing accelerated again. His pupils dilated. “Okay. Don’t worry.” She patted his arm. “Maybe if I lay on the horn they’ll move.” The horn’s harsh blare hurt her ears, but the cows were apparently hearing impaired because they didn’t even twitch. She laid on the horn for a good thirty seconds this time. Nothing. “Got any suggestions on how to get them to move?” “Sure. We studied roping cows and ranching in school just last week.” Ryan laughed and the tension left his features. “Smart-ass.” Stacy chuckled. This was the brother she loved so much. The one she feared might soon become smothered by his physical limitations. She glanced at her watch. They were already late for Ryan’s appointment. “I could call someone, but we don’t have time to wait. We’re already running late.” How hard could it be to get the cows off the road? “I should be able to take care of this. In one episode of The Kids Run the Place, we went for a vacation on a dude ranch. We had a cattle-drive scene.” “That was when you were thirteen. Can you even remember anything from that far back?” “Gee, I don’t know. They say the memory goes the closer you get to thirty. In a couple of years I probably won’t even be able to remember who you are.” She opened the car door. “Stay here while I get the cows moving. You’ve been through enough today.” “I’ll help.” No way would she risk him getting hurt. They’d pressed their luck enough for one day. “I’ve got it. There aren’t many of them.” “Just because my legs don’t work like they used to doesn’t mean I can’t do something.” So often since the accident she’d felt she lacked the skills to deal with Ryan. At times she had to be mother, cheerleader and therapist. Being a substitute parent to a teenager had been tough enough before his accident. “I don’t know—” “It doesn’t matter what you say. I’m coming.” She thought about pulling rank. With a teenager? They’d only end up having a huge fight and he’d do what he wanted to anyway. “You can help me holler at them, but stay close to the car.” Then she climbed out of the sedan, retrieved his walker from the backseat and handed it to him when he opened the passenger door. Lost and now chasing cows off the road. Great start to the day. Could things get any worse? Stacy moved toward the animals. Waiving her arms, she yelled, “Go! Get out of here!” Joining in the effort, Ryan waved his left arm and shouted along with her. Of the cows on the road, only one lifted her head and turned in Stacy’s direction. Then the animal returned to munching on grass, without moving an inch. She searched her memory for how the cowboy at the dude ranch kept the cows moving. He’d sauntered up to them full of confidence and authority, slapped a lasso against his thigh and hollered at them. Trying her best to imitate the cowboy’s swagger, she moved forward, yelling, “Ya,” and slapped her thigh. “Watch out, Stacy.” She glanced over her shoulder toward her brother and her right foot landed in something mushy. “Ugh!” Her foot slid. Her balance waivered and she felt herself falling. Her backside landed hard against the paved road, but that wasn’t the worst part. The unmistakable sour smell of manure wafted around her. “Are you okay?” Ryan asked. Really? He had to ask? She was sitting in the middle of cow pie. Of course she wasn’t okay. “I’ll live.” Though her shoes were goners and probably her jeans, too. She glanced at her favorite pair of shoes, leopard print Louis V stilettos ruined with cow poop, and the dam holding her emotions in check sprang a gigantic leak. Tears stung her eyes. She was so damned tired of being strong, of taking care of everything and everyone around her. Of smiling for the world when all she wanted to say was to hell with it. The whine of a motor sounded around her. Not a car, but some smaller recreational vehicle. She closed her eyes. A moment later when the noise stopped she opened her eyes to find a hand in front of her face. “Looks like you could use some help.” Stacy’s gaze traveled from the hand—not a well manicured hand like the actors she worked with, but one of a man who worked hard for his living, rough and tanned—to find a tall golden-haired man dressed in faded jeans and a Western plaid shirt standing beside a three-wheeler with a small cart. She grimaced. The only thing worse than falling in a cow pie was having a cowboy with an incredible body sculpted by hard work and piercing blue eyes witness her embarrassment. “No, I’m good. Just thought I’d sit here and reconnect with nature.” “At least you haven’t lost your sense of humor.” Her heart fluttered at the twinkle in his sky-blue gaze. Oh, my. He wasn’t even close to her type, but this cowboy definitely had something, and every cell in her body knew it. Chapter Three When Stacy placed her hand in his, the calluses on his fingers brushed her wrists. She almost gasped when excitement rippled down her spine. That is, once she recognized the emotion, which was hard to do considering she couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt anything resembling interest in a man. Once she could speak, she joked, “Good thing, because my pride’s sure shot.” “I bet it’ll recover.” Her reaction to the cowboy was out of whack. A born and bred California girl, she’d been attracted to well-built surfer types. Something about their daring, how they challenged those giant waves drew her. Maybe because she’d always been so cautious, but then she’d realized all they cared about was catching the next wave. She’d dated a few actors she’d worked with over the years. A movie pulled them together, but those relationships never worked. Actors had a way of slipping into their characters almost 24/7 during a film. When filming ended and she came to know who he really was, she often realized she’d been more attracted to the character he’d been playing than the real man. A few times she dated businessmen, but they became frustrated with the travel and long absences associated with her job, but cowboy guy here? The rugged outdoorsman type never even showed up on her radar. So what about this cowboy got her all hot and bothered? There was something about his eyes. Clear and blue, they shone with mischief and determination definitely, but something else. The look of an old soul haunted his gaze for brief flashes. That combination in his steely gaze told her this man would be trouble. No doubt about it. * * * WHEN THE WOMAN at his feet clasped her delicate hand in his, their gazes locked and his breath hitched. Blond hair. Blue eyes that sparkled like a mountain spring under the morning sun. A woman who could look this pretty while sprawled in manure had to be trouble. He glanced between her and the teenager waiting by the car. A teenage boy who needed a walker. His stomach tightened. Unless Colt missed his guess, Stacy and her brother Ryan had arrived. He’d expected her to be beautiful because all the bachelorettes on Finding Mrs. Right had been knockouts, but he’d expected more California high-maintenance style. Not a woman with natural, understated makeup wearing jeans. Granted they were fancy designer ones with sparkly things instead of sturdy rivets and she had on stiltlike heels, but he wouldn’t have pegged her for a Hollywood actress. After he helped her stand, he reached into his back pocket, pulled out a bandana and handed the cloth to her. “It’s not much, but this will let you wipe off a little. I’m Colt Montgomery. Are you by chance Stacy and Ryan?” “A little worse for the wear, but that’s us.” She laughed. The rich sound raced up his spine. Colt strolled to where the teenager stood at the edge of the road, and shook hands with the kid. This he knew how to deal with. “How about you help me get these knuckle-headed animals back where they belong?” For a minute the kid’s eyes widened with surprise before he masked the emotion, but before he could respond his sister piped in. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” The first thing Healing Horses needed to work on was getting Ryan’s sister to quit treating the kid as if he would shatter right before her eyes. “I wouldn’t ask if he couldn’t handle it.” “You don’t know him. I do.” She crumpled his red bandana in her fist. “Plus, these cows are huge. What if one of them charges?” “A car heading straight for them won’t budge these things, and you’re worried they’d suddenly get the gumption to charge?” He shook his head. City folks and their harebrained notions. “These aren’t the bulls that run in Pamplona.” “I don’t know. A couple of them look like they could be troublemakers.” One of the cows raised its head and turned toward her. She pointed at the animal. “That one’s been giving me the evil eye. I think she has it in for me. Can you personally vouch for her character?” Her attempt at humor almost made him smile. Almost. This woman appeared to have more than one trick up her sleeve to disarm a man, but then what did he expect from an actress? She could pretend to be anyone she wanted to. Ignoring Stacy and her pretty blue eyes that he suspected could see straight inside him, he turned to Ryan. “What do you say, sport? You up for this?” “Just tell me what to do.” “Wait a minute. Are you sure that’s a good idea, Ryan?” Stacy stepped forward, but then stopped and smiled at her brother. “Be careful.” “Ryan, you head over there to the opening in the fence. Stand right beside it and make sure the cows don’t make a last-minute break for it.” Colt knew once he got the animals that far, they weren’t likely to find the energy to go anywhere. “They probably won’t. It’s more likely they’ll get all bunched up. If that happens just swat them on the rear to speed them up.” “Got it.” Ryan clutched his walker and tried to find a level spot. Once he did that, he moved his walker and stepped. He repeated the process again. Colt glanced at Stacy. Her gaze locked on her brother as she stood there, her body rigid, her hands clasped in front of her, nibbling on her lower lips. She wants to help, but she knows he needs to do this on his own. Maybe there’s hope for her. A couple of steps later Ryan wobbled. Colt glanced again at Stacy. When she stepped forward he shook his head and she froze, concern clouding her beautiful features. Sweat beaded on Ryan’s face as he worked his way out of the ditch to the hole in the fence. Once there, Colt walked up to the ring leader and slapped the cow on the hind quarters. “Move!” In fewer than five minutes he had all the cows back in the pasture. That job done, he tugged the fence until it and Stacy’s rental car created a temporary barrier. “This should hold them until Charlie can fix the fence.” Colt strolled to his three-wheeler, crawled on and then glanced back at the pair. “Ryan, hop on the back with me. Stacy, ride in wagon and hold the walker.” Ryan headed toward him, but Stacy stood rooted in her spot glaring at him. “Why do I have to ride in the cart?” “Your butt’s covered in manure.” “Ryan, won’t you switch—” “I’m not having manure all over my seat.” She appealed to her brother again. “Sorry, sis. I’m siding with Colt on this one.” Hands on her hips, she said, “You’ve got to be kidding?” “It’s either the wagon or walk,” Colt replied. She shook her head, dropped her hands off her hips and walked toward the wagon. “Men.” * * * WHEN STACY ARRIVED at the Rocking M Ranch she found herself thankful that the jolting ride over in the cart hadn’t loosened her teeth. They stopped in front of a mocha-colored wood-and-brick house with trees that stood guard around the structure. The house, while not huge, wasn’t too small, either, and was in pristine condition. When they reached the front porch, she discovered a rocking chair. She could envision Colt’s long frame seated there as he surveyed the beautiful land around him. This wasn’t a house. It was a home. Once inside the living room, Colt turned to Ryan. “You can hang out here while I show your sister where to clean up. Then we’ll head for the barn and I’ll show you around. We’ve got a few things to take care of before your first session, like picking out a horse for you.” “Shouldn’t I be there for that?” “He’s seventeen. He’ll be fine.” Colt motioned for her to follow him. “I’d let you use my daughter’s room, but you know how teenagers are about their privacy.” At the mention of his daughter, she glanced at his left hand. No wedding ring, but then a lot of guys, especially ones who worked with their hands, didn’t wear one. “Ryan said he met your daughter at school. How old is she?” “Almost sixteen. I’ve got three months until D-Day.” “Huh? I don’t get it.” “She gets to date and drive when she turns sixteen in three months.” “You look tough. I bet you can survive it. I did with Ryan. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but it can be done.” “Guys are different.” She thought about his comment. In some ways she’d had it easier with Ryan. Guys didn’t get pregnant. They weren’t victims of date rape. There were a hundred other horrors parents of teenage girls had to worry about. At the end of the upstairs hallway Colt opened the door and stepped aside for her to enter. Stacy walked into the room and stared. Never in her life had she seen such a neat, well-organized bedroom. Not a speck of dust lay on any of the large rustic furniture. The bed was not only made, but there wasn’t a wrinkle anywhere on the dark brown comforter. No clothes on the floor. No shoes for someone to trip over. Not even any change tossed on the nightstand by the massive bed. “Either your wife spends all her waking time cleaning or you’ve got an amazing maid.” “I’m not married, and you’re looking at the maid.” That explained the no ring. Was he divorced? A widower? Whatever his situation, between that and being a war vet, the man probably carried more baggage than a 747. She didn’t want to know. She craved average and uncomplicated. Knowing about a person’s life led to attachments and caring, which led to emotional entanglements, responsibilities and expectations. All of which usually ended up with her getting disappointed. She thought about her past relationships. Whenever she started having expectations or wanted more out of the relationship, her boyfriends suddenly stopped calling. She and Colt had a business arrangement. He was to help Ryan overcome his physical disabilities. Period. But she couldn’t miss the similarity of their situations. She was raising a teenage boy and half the time she felt clueless. While he was raising his daughter alone, and from his comments, she suspected he often felt out of his league, too. Men and women saw the world differently, and no matter how she tried, they couldn’t really stand in each other’s shoes. She could imagine how much harder it would be for a guy to raise a teenage girl alone. Dealing with female hormones and emotions which caused bigger ups and downs than an amusement-park roller coaster, her developing body and the sex talk issues. The man must be made of titanium. “You need something to wear while your clothes are in the washer.” He walked to his closet door. Inside were neatly folded shirts, organized by color, even the plaid ones, stacked on metal closet organizer shelves. He selected one. Then he grabbed a pair of jeans and a belt and handed the items to her. She stared at him. He was easily six-two and solidly built. “You’re kidding, right? Have you looked at me?” A slow grin spread across his face, as his gaze scanned her from head to toe. And not a quick look, but a slow inspection that let him take his time to check out all the assets. She, who was used to guys staring at her as if they could see through to her underwear all the time in auditions and on the set, blushed at the intensity in this man’s gaze. “What in particular am I supposed to notice?” His low, husky voice slid over her, making her tingle. Really? Tingle? Men didn’t make her do that. What was up with her reaction to this guy? He wasn’t even close to her type. He was too strong. Too imposing. Just plain too much. But there was something about him. An honesty and a confidence she found compelling. He’s real. What a woman saw was what she’d get. Stop it. He’s the last thing you need right now. She cleared her throat. “I’m built a little bit different than you are.” “Thank the good Lord for that.” She pinned him with her best no-nonsense, we’re-not-going-anywhere-on-a-personal-level stare. “These will be huge on me. I’m not sure your belt has a hole tight enough to keep the jeans from falling off. Doesn’t your daughter have something I could borrow?” “I can’t loan you anything of Jess’s without written permission. My luck, whatever I gave you would turn out to be her favorite pants. You’d fall in another cow pie or snag them on something in the barn, and I’d be a dead man.” His words said with a straight face and a tinge of fear rippling in his voice made her smile. Humor? What an odd, but not unpleasant, combination with his take-charge attitude. “You’re afraid of a sixteen-year-old girl?” she teased back. “Damn right. You were that age once. Don’t you remember what you were like with your clothes then?” “What was I thinking?” At that age she’d been on a hit TV series. Her image had been everything, and yes, she’d been fanatical about her clothes. “A smart man knows when not to press his luck.” He took the clothes from her and placed them on his enormous bed. Then he pointed to the door opposite the closet. “There’s the bathroom. The towels are in the linen closet and the soap’s in the shower. My robe’s on the back of the bathroom door. Try the clothes or put on the robe. I don’t care which.” Then he told her where to find the washer and dryer, and said to join him and Ryan when she could. He was out the door before she could even comment. Stacy found Colt’s bathroom in the same pristinely clean and organized fashion as his bedroom. After she washed up, she grabbed the forest-green terrycloth bathrobe off the hook and slipped the garment on. An earthy smell mixed with a spicy scent flowed over her as if the man had wrapped her in his strong arms. Not good. Wearing his robe was way too intimate. She smoothed her hand down the fluffy fabric. How could she feel a connection with a man by putting on his bathrobe? It was silly, but in slipping into the garment, she felt exactly that—connected. A vision of Colt, strong and confident, standing in this room, wearing this same garment filled her vision. While the robe reached her ankles, the garment would hit him just below the knees. She could see him, the robe gaping to reveal his muscled chest, standing in front of the sink shaving that stern chin of his. Then she saw his clear blue eyes focused on her as a woman in this room. Wrong move. Afraid of the ache pulsing in her body, she scooped up her dirty clothes and headed for the bedroom door. She had to get out of his room. Intent on escape, she flung open the door and almost barreled into a dark-haired teenager with caramel-colored eyes, a Chihuahua clutched in her arms. Except for her strong chin, she looked nothing like her father. She must be the exact image of her mother. “Are you Jess?” After the teen nodded, Stacy continued to introduce herself. “I’m Ryan’s sister. Thanks for showing him the ropes at school.” “He told me about the movie you’re making. I can’t wait to see it in the theater. Maggie said I can be an extra in a couple of scenes.” Not knowing what else to say, Stacy said, “Cute dog. What’s its name?” “Thor.” “That’s an interesting choice for a name.” “I know. It drives people crazy.” Jess tossed Stacy a saucy grin. “You were one of the finalists when Griffin was on Finding Mrs. Right.” “That was me.” “Getting dumped on national TV had to suck.” Sure did. Thanks for bringing up the pleasant subject. Being on that show and some comment about the disastrous finale would end up on her tombstone. Some bad decisions kept on giving. “It wasn’t a lot of fun. For a while I was the punch line to some pretty nasty jokes.” “It hurts when you get made fun of for someone else’s choices.” She knows because she’s been there. The words to ask what had happened with Jess sat perched on her tongue. No, she wouldn’t ask. No attachments, remember? She was only here for ten weeks. Get in. Do the job. Get Ryan the help he needs and get out. “Luckily there’s a new scandal every five minutes in Hollywood, so everyone moved on pretty quickly.” “Dad sent me to see if you need anything.” “I’m good, but thanks for asking.” Stacy nodded toward the wadded clothes in her hands. “I was just going to put these in the washer. I’m not sure I can salvage them, but I’m going to try.” “I heard about your fall. The first thing I learned when we moved here was to always watch where I step.” “I could’ve used that info earlier,” Stacy joked as she followed the teenager downstairs to the utility room where they tossed her clothes into the washer. “I’m a little taller than you are, but I could also use something to wear. Maybe some sweatpants and a T-shirt? Your dad said he couldn’t loan me anything of yours without written permission.” “He knows better than to mess with my clothes. One time I put a load of my stuff in the washer before I left for school. He came along and put them in the dryer. I didn’t talk to him for a week after my favorite jeans shrank so much I looked like I was ready for a flood.” “That hurts. A shirt can be replaced. That’s easy, but jeans?” “I know. It’s about impossible to find a pair that fit right and look good.” Stacy nodded in feminine understanding. “Guys don’t get that.” “Especially a cowboy. Any pair of Wranglers is fine with them.” Together they headed upstairs again. When Jess opened the door, Stacy realized looks weren’t the only way this girl differed from her father. Clothes, books and papers littered every surface. Obviously she hadn’t inherited her father’s neat-freak tendencies. After digging through her dresser, Jess pulled out a pair of gray knit yoga-style pants and a plain white T-shirt. “These should work and don’t worry about getting them back to me right away. I only wear them to sleep in.” “Thanks. I want to see how Ryan’s doing, and I can’t go to the barn in a bathrobe.” Jess handed her the clothing. “Your dad said I could put on a pair of his jeans and one of his shirts.” Jess laughed. “Sure, that would work. The pants would end up around your ankles.” “That’s what I said.” Stacy shook her head. “His solution was to hand me one of his belts.” “My dad’s a great guy, but sometimes he’s such a guy.” That was one thing Colt Montgomery was. All man. * * * IN THE BARN, Ryan leaned on his walker and looked at Colt. The haunted look in the teen’s gaze reached out to Colt, reminding him of the look he used to see in Reed’s eyes at that age. This kid had seen way too much and been hurt a time or two. “Thanks for telling my sister to lighten up. She’s gotten a little overprotective since my accident.” “I picked up on her being the worrier type, but I bet it’s only while she’s awake.” Ryan smiled, and some of the tension left his face. His shoulders relaxed, too. “She’s always watched out for me. Our dad died when I was a baby and our mom’s worthless. It was just the two of us.” Like him and Reed. Two kids clinging to each other through the storms of life that tossed them around. Now her protectiveness made sense. “That’s why we went to court to get her named my guardian.” Colt wondered about why she’d legally taken on the parent role with her brother when he read the application. That told him a lot. How many sisters would do that? She could’ve turned eighteen, moved out of the house and went on with her life without giving her brother much thought. She could’ve left him to fend for himself. Like he’d done with Reed. Until recently, Colt hadn’t known how bad things had been for his brother after he left home and enlisted. One night things got so bad Reed nearly beat their old man to death. Then damned if the bastard didn’t want to press charges for assault. If it hadn’t been for Nannette’s husband, Ben, Reed would’ve been arrested for assault. Ben McAlister had been one damn fine man. He’d been there for Reed when Colt hadn’t been. Unlike him, Stacy stuck around for her brother. “She’s especially concerned about me doing this therapy,” Ryan continued. “Our father was thrown from a horse on a movie set. That was how he died.” “And she’s letting you get on a horse? How did you talk her into that?” “It wasn’t easy, but she knows this is my best chance to walk on my own again.” Still, that took guts on her part. Then he thought about the movie Maggie was making, The Women of Spring Creek Ranch. “The movie she’s starring in is about female ranchers. Won’t she have to ride a horse for the movie?” “She said none of her scenes have anything to do with horses.” Ryan’s hands tightened on the walker handles. “Do you think you can help me get rid of this thing?” “A local physical therapist and I went over your doctor’s report to develop activities geared toward your physical issues. I can’t promise you’ll get rid of that thing by the end of your sessions, but I know we can help you.” “I bet you’re wondering why I’m here, cause you see people who are so worse off than me.” “Everyone has the right to get the most he can out of his life. We help whoever needs us whether it’s a little or a lot.” He motioned for Ryan to follow him. The tap-scrape of the walker echoed through the barn. “Being a teenager is tough enough without having to deal with medical issues. What were you into before the accident?” “I ran track and played basketball. My friends and I used to rock climb a lot.” The unsaid words hung in the air between them. And now they do, and I can’t. “I have a couple of good buddies who were hurt in Afghanistan. It’s a tough adjustment. It changed their lives completely.” Being there changed mine, too. Just not in the same way. “I’ll give you the fifty-cent tour,” he said to Ryan. “We’ll get some of the busy work out of the way. Then you can have your first session tomorrow.” Colt led Ryan into the tack room in the center of the barn where the shelves were stacked with helmets. He handed one to the teenager. “Try this on.” “I’m seventeen and have to use a walker. Now you want me to wear this? Dork of the month calendar, here I come.” The kid still had spirit. Good. That would work in his favor. “Sorry. It’s the rules. Every rider wears one.” Ryan tossed on the helmet and snapped the chin strap. “If a picture of me in this thing ends up on Facebook, I’ll kick your ass.” Colt laughed. “Fair enough.” Then he checked the fit. Two tries later, and they had the right one. “Our next step is picking out a horse for you. How tall are you? About five-eleven?” “I guess.” “I think you and Chance will get along well. Come on. I’ll introduce you.” They walked through the barn to the horse’s stall. The animal sauntered over and pressed his nose against the window bars. Colt rubbed the animal’s head. “You ever been on a horse before?” Ryan shook his head and moved closer to the stall. “Can I touch him?” Colt nodded, and explained what the therapy would entail. “You two are going to become good friends. You’ll be working on using your body to direct Chance. That will help you regain control of your own body.” “Ryan, where are you?” Stacy called out. “Over here,” Ryan responded. “We’re in the first row of horse stalls.” A minute later she joined them, but she shied away from the stall door, keeping as close to the larger open area as possible. “I see Jess loaned you some clothes.” Ones a bit too small for her. His daughter’s knit pants and T-shirt molded to Stacy’s lush figure, leaving no doubt about her feminine curves. A body like hers could make a man break out in a cold sweat and damned if Colt wasn’t doing just that. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39928818&lfrom=390579938) на ЛитРес. 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