2048 Words
Prologue Lexi and Jarrod’s Wedding Maybelle loved nothing more than a good wedding. Especially when it happened to be one of her older cousins. Her Aunt Dottie was the coolest aunt around, and Maybelle had loved spending her summers at Falcon Ridge as a little girl. To be here in time for her cousin Lexi’s wedding, and being given the opportunity of a lifetime to help her Uncle Teddy run the ranch? She just had to pinch herself. The early morning sunshine streamed through the white and pink polka-dotted curtains Lexi had helped her hang in the Foreman’s cabin yesterday. Maybelle stretched and giggled as Fluffy, her big, white Persian cat hopped on the bed and began to knead her pillow, purring loudly. “You like your new place, don’t you?” she cooed, running a hand through his silky fur. “Mama’s gonna go help Uncle Teddy with the cattle this morning, then practice with Rango.” Rango, her beloved barrel racing horse, who’d she’d trained from a colt, hadn’t been worked since before she’d driven up from Oklahoma. She needed to work him out before she primped and went to help with last-minute preparations for Lexi’s ceremony taking place at dinner time. The men had buried a pig in the ground last night, before sharing cigars and whiskey, and already her mouth salivated at the thought of digging into that succulent pork. “Well, no use lying around all day thinking about it, Fluffy. We’ve got work to do.” Maybelle slipped out from beneath her favorite pink sheets that matched her curtains, and strolled n***d to the bathroom. Free from roommates and the prying eyes of horndog boys on the circuit, when Maybelle was alone, she slept free. She felt like it gave her that edge of confidence she needed to excel in life. She washed her face and pulled her mass of blonde curls into a low ponytail. In less than five minutes she was dressed and jogging up the low rise toward the barn. Uncle Teddy stood waiting in the barnyard with two horses saddled and ready to go. “Oh shoot, Uncle Teddy. What time do y’all get up around here? I thought five would be perfect, for sure.” Teddy chuckled. “It’s okay. I’m usually up with the birds.” That had to be something like four a.m. She’d set her alarm that much earlier tomorrow. If Teddy was going to have confidence in her ability to be a foreman, she had to be the first one up and the last one to bed. Period. Teddy might cut her some slack because of their family connection, but she’d be damned if she took advantage of that. She wanted to earn her keep fair and square. “Take Lexi’s mount, Oreo. You can use him until he moves next door with Lexi and Jarrod. Then we’ll find you another mount.” “Oh, I can find my own, Uncle Teddy. Don’t you worry about me.” She appreciated his offer, but she wasn’t going to mooch off her uncle, especially where a horse was concerned. He was already giving her the chance of a lifetime by letting her prove herself as foreman. She wasn’t going to do anything to jeopardize that. As they headed out to the pastures, Uncle Teddy kept up a running commentary about the number of calf-cow pairs they were working, his process for checking and mending fences, which suppliers he called, where he purchased extra hay in a dry season. It was like drinking from a firehose, but Maybelle had always had a quick-fire brain and this was the kind of stuff she loved. She’d always found school boring. The sun was high in the sky by the time they returned to the barn. “You sure you don’t want to come in for a spot of breakfast?” Teddy asked, concern showing on his face. “Oh heck, no, sir. I’ll be fine. I gotta work Rango before I get all prettied up. And besides…” She patted her belly. “I’m savin’ room for that hog y’all been smokin’ since last night. And Aunt Dottie’s pie.” “Don’t forget the wedding cake. Lexi’ll have a fit if you don’t have a slice of cake.” “Exactly. And my little belly needs to be h-u-n-g-r-y hungry if I’m gonna enjoy everything tonight.” Teddy smiled down at her. “Alrighty then, just holler if you need anything. And Maybelle?” “Yeah?” She grinned up at her favorite uncle. “I’m real glad you’re here.” She threw her arms around Teddy. “Me, too, Uncle Teddy, me, too.” “I was beginning to think we were cursed. I been lookin’ for a foreman going on three years, and can’t get anyone, even my daughters to settle into it.” “Well, you got me now, and I’m here to stay.” Maybelle practically skipped into the barn, humming a Carrie Underwood melody under her breath. “Morning, Rango,” she called softly when she reached her dearest treasure in the world. “How’s my big sweet boy this morning?” She reached out to scratch his nose. “You ready to ride?” She swore he nodded. She led him out into the barn, saddled him up with the tack she’d won at a high stakes competition two summers ago, and brought him outside. Uncle Teddy had set up a racing configuration in the arena so she and Rango could practice, but first a nice canter to warm him up. She wheeled him around, following the same path Teddy had taken her on out into the rolling hills, past the cows quietly grazing, all the way to the edge of the property at Steele Creek. Nothing made her happier than when she was out on Rango. All the worries she carried inside her heart on a daily basis seemed to sprout wings and fly away. She fairly floated back to the barnyard where she and Rango practiced starts, turns, and speed drills for the better part of an hour. They were both hot and sweaty when she called it a morning. “Shower for you first, buddy,” she sing-songed, leading him back to the washing station inside the barn. She sprayed him, she rubbed and scrubbed him, shampooing and rinsing, combing and currying until her baby was buffed and puffed, singing the whole time. Pulling a halter over his ears, she led him to the near pasture where Teddy said she was welcome to turn Rango loose. He’d be so much happier here on this brilliant June day, eating buttercups and clover. Maybelle wrapped her arms around Rango’s neck and gave him a nuzzle. “Don’t get into trouble, y’hear?” she said quietly, heart full. “I’ll see you first thing tomorrow, baby boy.” With a final pat, she turned and trudged the quick half-mile walk to the foreman’s cabin. It was just now lunchtime. Lexi had asked her to come up any time after one. Kicking the cabin door shut behind her, she stripped off her clothes, kicking them into a pile for washing later, and headed straight for the bathroom. She stepped into the shower and turned on the hot water, letting is sluice over her happily tired muscles. Damn, her life was good. Near perfect, if she thought about it. She opened her mouth and sang. She sang all the songs as she scrubbed, shaved, and shampooed. Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton, Trish Yearwood, she knew and loved them all. She knew a song for every occasion, and today was every happy love song she’d ever learned, in celebration of Lexi’s wedding. She sang until the water grew cool. She hummed as she toweled first her hair, then her body, slathering on her favorite vanilla and peach lotion. No one said that just because you were a cowgirl, you couldn’t be feminine. She scrunched anti-frizz serum through her curls, flipped her head back and forth a few times, then set about to put on some makeup. Maybelle didn’t bother much with makeup, just a little tinted lotion, mascara to help make her blue eyes pop, and a dash of lip gloss. She still hadn’t kissed many boys, let alone do more — something she intended to address this rodeo season — but she objected to the idea they’d be kissing lipstick off her mouth, and not just kissing her. As far as she was concerned, she didn’t need to trowel on the makeup to get the attention of a boy. If they were interested in her, they’d better like her without makeup, just like the day she was born. A yowl from Fluffy followed by a thunk and a curse, pulled her from her daydreams. Was someone in her cabin? She stilled, heart racing like a scared rabbit. She swallowed, looking for something, anything she could use as a weapon. She didn’t own a hairdryer, or a brush, not with these curls. She had a big plastic comb, a toothbrush, and… a toilet plunger. She gingerly picked up the plunger, wielding it like a baseball bat, and slowly opened the door. “H-hello?” She struggled to keep the fear from her voice. If it was a robber, she needed to put on a strong front, just like the first time she’d meet a horse. Mammals of any kind smelled fear. She peeked around the corner. “Hello?” she said more firmly and stepped into the big room that was both kitchen, living, and dining room. Two things hit her at once. First, the cabin was in disarray, ransacked even. Where were her things? The door stood wide open. Was that pile of stuff on the porch hers? “What in tarnation?” she muttered to the room. Second, there was a man, a very big, very broad, rugged, sexy looking man, standing in the middle of her room, glowering. At her. Her body gave an involuntary shiver. This was a real live man. Not some chew chawin’ horny teenaged p*****t following her around the rodeo showing off a buckle ten sizes too big for his britches. This was a man. Virile, hard, built. A line of tattoos covered one bulging, straining bicep, all the way to his enormous forearm. Jeezus shitballs, the guy had Popeye arms. But it was his face that took her breath away, and made her pulse quicken in places she’d never felt before. His jaw was chiseled and hard, and his mouth was made for sinning. His face was tanned enough to make his blue eyes pop like stars. Underneath his straw Stetson, dark hair was cropped close, too close for her taste. His hips were narrow, thighs bulging under his denims, and with his boots on, he dominated the space. He must be six-and-a-half feet tall, at least. Warmth pooled in her belly. She only stopped staring when her arm grew tired. “Who are you and what are you doing in my cabin?” She asked with as much authority as a young woman fresh out of the shower, wearing nothing but a towel and holding a plunger could muster. “I could ask the same of you,” he growled. The timbre of his voice sent a thrill through her. She remembered stories from her grandmother about Elvis having a voice that made you swoon. Was this what they’d been talking about? She could listen to that deep, gravelly voice all day. He could say the word, and she’d let him sweet-talk her into the kind of sinning even church wouldn’t save you from. She clutched her towel a little harder, because for a split second, the idea had come to drop it, to beg this strange man with the beautiful voice and the perfectly sculpted body to touch her in all her secret places. The places she only touched late at night, under cover of darkness to ease the ache that sometimes throbbed between her legs. It was throbbing now, so hard, she had to clench her thighs together for relief. She drew herself up to her full height of five-feet-four and gazed up her nose at him, throwing as much command into her voice as she could. She’d gentled thousand-pound horses, she could certainly handle a grumpy man. “I’m the foreman here, and it seems that you’ve dumped my clothes on the porch. Can you kindly put them back?” The only hint that he gave that he was surprised by her answer was a tiny widening of the eyes. A less observant person wouldn’t have caught it. “Like hell you are,” he growled. “I’m the foreman here and you’re trespassing in my cabin.”
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