Raleigh Travers needed a job—badly.
She’d dressed carefully for the interview in faded jeans, a navy-blue ribbed tank top and scuffed cowboy boots. Her copper-colored hair hung down her back in a thick, single braid, and she’d tied a red bandanna around her head to keep perspiration from her eyes. She hoped she looked tough, serious, and in control.
Turning her battered brown Ford pickup off the main highway, she rumbled onto a gravel road. She goosed the cranky truck up a steady incline, and a chalky cloud of dust billowed beneath the worn tires. Hot July wind rushed in through the open window, whipping tendrils of hair into her face. The air conditioner had gone out, and she couldn’t afford to get it fixed. Flipping down the visor, she retrieved a pair of aviator sunglasses and pushed them up on her nose.
She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, blew out her breath, and leaned over to turn on the radio. Ernest Tubb was singing, “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin.”
The old tune grated on her jittery nerves. She snapped off the radio and lowered the brim of her cowboy hat. She had to get this job. If she couldn’t come up with the rent money by Monday, she and Caleb would be out on the street.
“Raleigh, you’re gonna have to do some tall talkin’,” she said to her reflection in the rearview mirror.
Pa’s pitiful life insurance settlement was gone. During the previous six months, she’d done her best to find work, but she’d been repeatedly turned down for countless jobs—jobs she was perfectly capable of performing. Even old friends and customers who knew she was a darn good farrier denied her a chance. They all said the same thing—she was too small, too young, too feminine to be doing such rough labor.
Funny, no one had thought that way when she’d worked side by side with her father, shoeing horses from dawn until dusk, but then she’d just been Will Travers’ tomboy daughter. Now, while she struggled to get her own business started, the townsfolk refused to take her seriously.
Over and over, she’d been advised to find work waiting tables or typing reports or watching children. Some even suggested she find a husband. As if this were the twentieth century instead of a new millennium. Then again, the Trans-Pecos was twenty-five years behind the rest of the country.
Marriage? As if that was any kind of solution. She snorted. With a younger brother to support, hooking up with some guy was the last thing on her mind.
Besides, she was nowhere near ready to fall in love again.
Immediately, she thought of Jack and the awful event that had irrevocably altered her life. The familiar ache echoed inside her like lonely whispers in an empty dream.
Raleigh tossed her head. No. She would not go there. Her future held more pressing concerns than self-pity.
Gritting her teeth, she grasped the steering wheel tighter and thought of her upcoming interview. West of town, a new owner, transplanted from Dallas, had started renovations on a ramshackle horse ranch. She hoped to find the present management more receptive to a female farrier than the hardheaded, shortsighted citizens of Rascal, Texas.
Up ahead she spied the entrance to the ranch. Barbed wire gave way to white wooden corral fencing. Above the gateway arch hung a brand-new six-foot sign proclaiming McClintock Dude Ranch.
Raleigh smiled and hoped the newcomer’s wallet matched his flair for farfetched dreams. The cost of making this project work would not come cheap.
Bumping over the cattle guard, Raleigh lumbered onto the barren landscape of sagebrush, cactus, bull nettles, scrub oaks, and yucca. Aiming her pickup down the narrow, rutted road, she rattled and jolted across the arid pasture, then pulled to a stop in the middle of a wide circular driveway.
The place was in the midst of reconstruction. Concrete forms were tossed in haphazard heaps beside piles of mounded earth. Stacks of raw lumber lay across the rough terrain, and the smell of fresh paint lingered on the sultry breeze.
A buzzard flew overhead, casting a dark shadow across the pickup’s hood. A quiver of fear shivered through her, and she had no idea why.
Straight ahead in front of her hulked a large two-story farmhouse. A bright-red barn perched on the hill behind the house. Next to the barn sat two stables, a small log cabin, probably meant for the ranch hands, an exercise yard, and three separate corrals. Opposite the house sprawled a neglected swimming pool, deserted tennis courts, and a faded shuffleboard slab.
The old place was a getting a fresh start.
Her pulse danced. Raleigh hankered for a fresh start too.
A mix of Thoroughbreds and quarter horses grazed in the fields. Two dozen at least. Enough to net her well over two thousand dollars if she got the job of shoeing them all. This job a could be her salvation.
She opened the pickup door and swung to the ground. Her bootheels sunk into the yielding sand. Tucking her fingertips into her back pockets, she scanned the area.
No one in sight.
Ignore the sweaty palms. You’re calm. You’re cool. You’ve got this.
Braid bouncing between her shoulder blades, she stalked across the exercise yard and called out, “Anybody home?”
She climbed over the corral gate and stopped to scratch the nose of a friendly gelded Thoroughbred who wandered over.
“Hey, boy,” she cooed.
The horse nuzzled her arm in greeting.
“Where’s your owner?” Curious, she stooped, lifted the Thoroughbred’s right foreleg, and examined his shoe. He definitely needed a new set.
She clicked her tongue, pulled a sugar cube from her pocket and offered it to the gelding.
“Hey, you! You there! What do you think you’re doing?” a rough masculine voice asked.
Raleigh’s head snapped up.
The horse nickered. She dropped the gelding’s leg and turned. Her sunglasses slipped down on her nose. She pushed them back up and squinted at the tall, commanding figure striding toward her.
Thick eyebrows formed a frowning V on his wide forehead. A stubble of heavy beard enhanced his angular jaw. He wore tight jeans and a blue chambray work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing hairy, muscular forearms. A black cowboy hat rode his head like a crown. He towered over her, obstructing her view of the sky. Broad of chest and trim of waist, he presented an appealing, if somewhat threatening package.
“You talking to me?” She pointed a hand at herself. An odd stab of excitement raced through her. They exchanged a searing glance.
“I don’t see anyone else messing around with my horse, so I must be talking to you. Who are you?” His dark voice was whiskey smooth.
Not one to be intimidated, even by a man twice her size, Raleigh drew herself up to her full five-foot nothing and knotted her hands into fists. “I’m Raleigh Travers. Who are you?”
The man took a determined step toward her.
Raleigh stood her ground.
He reached over and clamped a large paw on her shoulder.
Whoa there, you handsy buzzard.
Reflexively, Raleigh acted on instinct, doing what she practiced repeatedly in self-defense classes, grabbed his arm, turned her body into him as leverage, and flipped the big man over her shoulder.
The instant she let loose, it hit her who he was—she’d just thrown her potential boss!
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