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Love on the Range: A Looking Glass Lake Prequel

Contents

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COPYRIGHT

DEDICATION

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

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You don’t want to miss the quirky characters of Looking Glass Lake as they celebrate Marlee’s wedding in this secret deleted scene.

 

Marlee’s wedding is so romantic, Fern Aimstock and Crazy Hoss are already working on another matchmaking scheme.

 

Who is their target, and who else will find love in Looking Glass Lake?

 

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Rebecca Nightsong

 

[* *]

COPYRIGHT

[* *]

Copyright © 2016 by Rebecca Nightsong

Smashword’s Edition

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Printed in the United States of America by:

 

First Printing, 2016

www.rebeccanightsong.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

Cover design provided by Rachel Ault. ([email protected])

 

 

 

DEDICATION

This book is dedicated to my sweet husband, Kristoph Bartunek, my Moose.

 

Moose,

You are crazy and loving enough to let me quit my day job and write. Your handsome charm and strong but tender character inspire every story I write.

Thank you for throwing yourself wholeheartedly into this thing called marriage, and for truly living with me in understanding, as God’s Word instructs.

Thank you for letting me name the Moose Dimple Café after you.

Thank you for the pep talks when I was tempted to give up…you always knew exactly what to say and do to lift me back up.

May God reward you many times over for supporting the calling He has given me, and may He give you more joy than you can imagine.

 

I love you always,

Your Maui

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Marlee’s eyes hurt from being glued to the window the whole way to Looking Glass Lake.

She could hardly believe that she, Marlee Donovan, a city-girl from South Carolina, was sitting in an authentic old-west train, chugging toward a new job on an honest-to-goodness ranch.

[_Ahhh! _]

She stretched against the red crushed velvet upholstery. This train might be over a hundred years old, but it was far more comfortable than those cramped vinyl seats she’d squeezed into during her connecting flights across country.

Commercial jets boasted speed and efficiency, but the last leg of her journey to Looking Glass Lake was steeped in the genteel luxury of a bygone era.

What a perfect way to begin her new adventure.

“We’re about ten minutes away, Miss.” Lester walked down the aisle toward her. With his gray handlebar mustache and green and gold conductor’s uniform, he looked like he’d just stepped out of the pages of a Wild West history book. He took out a pocket watch and flicked open the cover. “Only a few minutes, and you’ll be on to your new job.”

Excitement skittered up her spine. “I can’t wait.” She laughed. “I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful it is out here.”

The old man smiled and tucked his pocket watch away.

“I had friends in culinary school who told me about the west,” Marlee said. “They said it was breathtaking, but I’m not sure that was the best word for it.”

Lester chuckled. “How would you describe it?”

“Delicious.” Marlee gazed out the window as the train chewed through a swath of forest and then crested a ridge. She gasped. Below them, a prairie rolled green and gold and deep purple over undulating hills. She itched to grab her knives and slice into the purple and golden plains and the deep blue-green of thick forests.

“The west is the kind of place that if you ate it, juice would run down your chin,” she murmured.

The old man patted her shoulder. “That there is the Camas Prairie,” he said. “I always thought it was the purtiest welcome mat any town could have.”

_Prettiest welcome mat. _

Lester’s words rolled through Marlee’s thoughts when she stepped off the train. She squinted her eyes in the sun, and adjusted the knife roll on her back to calm nervous butterflies in her stomach.

A town like Looking Glass Lake didn’t need a pretty welcome mat. Not when old-west charm oozed out of every corner. She should be taking pictures, but she was too busy gobbling up the scenery of this beautiful mountain town. It seemed almost sacrilegious to stop and mess with the camera on her new phone at a time like this.

The dusty train station platform was obviously ancient. It still carried the ornate ironwork at the ticket windows. And lining the streets, more old buildings with gingerbread trim and peeling paint greeted her.

She didn’t know where to look first. Her eyes skipped from one sign to another: Sleeping Dog’s Antique Parlor and Pawnshop, Mustang Sally’s Beauty Salon, and Canyon Sloop Marina.

Across from the train station crystal blue waters of the lake winked, and next to it, a two-story building lounged slightly crooked, its gnarled log construction looking like something out of a John Wayne movie.

A wide porch trimmed the building. Rockers lazed next to a few low-slung wooden benches. A large wooden sign above the door read, “Moose Dimple Pharmacy and Café.”

Marlee grinned. No doubt about it, Looking Glass Lake had “welcome” stamped all over it.

A little thrill ran up Marlee’s spine as she crossed the street. Lucky for her, the train had arrived early. She’d have enough time to poke around at the café across the way. Maybe meet some locals and see if they carried any fun things like jams or sauces concocted by farmer’s wives.

A tinkle of bells sang out as she shoved the door open.

The place seemed quiet enough. It still smelled like bacon from the morning’s cooking. Right now, the only customers were the stuffed teddy bears riding leather saddles across shelves throughout the room.

The room was divided into a café on one side, and a pharmacy on the other.

An old man with a bushy gray beard sat behind a cash register on the pharmacy side. He looked her up and down when she walked in.

“Hi.” Marlee smiled at the man.

He grinned back, blue eyes nearly disappearing into deep creases. “Girl, you best untuck yer jeans from yore cowboy boots. Folks will think you’re all hat and no cattle.”

Marlee blinked. “All hat and what?”

A redhead came out of the kitchen just then. She was a scrawny woman about Marlee’s age. She had on a pair of denim shorts, and an apron that barely hid knobby knees. Her pink t-shirt said “Cowgirls rule.”

“A woman can always show off cute boots,” the redhead said. She strode across the room, and shook Marlee’s hand. “I’m Annie.”

The smile Annie gave her was as warm as the smell of blueberry pie floating in from the kitchen.

“All hat and no cattle,” the old man chimed in. “It means you don’t know what you’re doin’. Means you’re all for show.”

“Ignore him,” Annie said. “Can I get you some lunch? Or pie?”

Marlee shook her head. “Someone’s going to pick me up in a few minutes. I wanted to see what kinds of home-made things you might have.”

Annie hooked her arm through Marlee’s and pulled her toward the pharmacy side of the building. “We sold out of Fern Aimstock’s peach preserves yesterday,” she said. “But there’s some garden produce.”

The old man walked around the end of the counter and stood next to Marlee. He had a big black umbrella he used as a cane.

“You must be the new cook at the Paycoach outfit,” he said.

Marlee nodded.

“I’m tellin’ ya.” He rocked back on his heels and tapped the tip of his umbrella on the floor for emphasis. “You keep those jeans tucked in, and you’ll look like a goat roper.”

Annie rolled her eyes. “Meet Crazy Hoss,” she said. “Usually, he’s a lot nicer to visitors.” She glared at the old man, and he glared right back.

“Nice to meet ya.” Crazy Hoss grinned and tipped his hat to Marlee. Then he turned back to Annie. “I ain’t trying to be ornery,” he insisted. “I’m just givin’ her some advice that might come in handy for her first day on the job.”

Marlee smiled at Crazy Hoss. Ornery or not, she liked this blustery old man and his soft whiskers. “What’s a goat roper?”

“A wanna-be cowboy,” Annie said.

“A faker,” Crazy Hoss corrected.

Marlee’s cheeks burned. Marlee Donovan wasn’t a wanna-be anything. “I’m a chef. A professional chef.” She straightened her shoulders. “I earned my diploma a few months ago.”

She’d barely scraped by. But they didn’t need to know that.

She looked down at her feet. “I only bought the boots because I thought they were cute.”

Crazy Hoss shook his head and a tsking sound came out of his beard as he headed back to his register.

“He’s been in a bad mood all day because he volunteered to help with a cattle drive, and everyone in town has been telling him he’s too old for it,” Annie explained.

“Oh.” Marlee relaxed. “I’m no cattle drive expert, but you seem in fine shape to me,” she said firmly, meeting his twinkly gaze.

“Fit as a fiddle.” He settled back onto his stool.

Marlee nodded at him before turning back to the vegetables. She knew something about how painful it was when people didn’t believe in her abilities.

There wasn’t as much variety as she’d have found in a city grocery. But everything was high-quality and had clearly come from well-tended gardens. There were bushel baskets of garden green beans, apples, peppers, spinach, tomatoes, and even a few cabbage heads.

Annie polished an apple with the edge of her apron, and then nestled it back in with the others. “We don’t have a grocery store, but we will when the new resort opens. I hope they’ll carry mangoes and papaya, too. I’ve been dying to make a good fruit salsa.”

Marlee’s new job was really a working interview. If she made the cut, she could stay in this tiny town. Already, she could imagine spending time with Annie after a shift at the ranch, pouring over new recipes, and concocting fun menus together.

But right now, she had to focus on making sure she didn’t show up at her working job interview empty-handed.

She bit her lip and did some quick math, figuring poundage and prices. She thought about how much money she had left. She’d searched for a job all summer but had found nothing until this opportunity came up. She was down to her last few dollars. She’d have to be careful how much she bought.

Maybe it would be safer to buy nothing. But Marlee couldn’t resist the call of those beautiful juicy-looking apples, or the way the rich smell of soil and green goodness clung to the spinach, green beans and peppers. Even the tomatoes seemed to hold sunlight under their thin skins.

“Get as much as you like,” Crazy Hoss said from his perch near the register. “I’ll deliver ‘em for ya. I’m headed out to the Paycoach ranch in a few minutes anyway.”

She couldn’t pass up that offer. Besides, she really should bring good produce with her. Who knows what the ranch had. Some chefs wouldn’t care. Some chefs didn’t pay much attention to the quality of their ingredients.

She might not have done well on the written tests in culinary school, but she knew how to pick good ingredients.

Her hands shook as she selected the perfect apples, and then scrutinized cabbage, beans and spinach.

This new job had to go well. She had to get this position.

Because going back home would never work.

Not when it would mean moving back into Mom and Dad’s basement.

Nope.

This time, failure was not an option for Marlee Donovan.

 

  • * *

 

Back at the train station, an impossibly tall cowboy leaned against a post, his long legs crossed, hat slouched over his eyes.

Marlee tip-toed when she got to the platform. She stopped, and fished for her phone. If he’d nap for a few moments longer, she could snap a picture. Send it back to Tanya. Her roommate would get more than a few giggles at the sight of this authentic cowpoke.

As soon as she held up her phone, he uncrossed his legs, tipped his hat back, and pinned her with black eyes.

She’d never seen lazy melt off a man so fast.

She froze, breath corralled in her chest.

_Caught in the act. _

And he didn’t look happy at all that she’d been about to turn his lazy nap into a permanent image.

She forced a shaky grin.

_Way to go, Marlee. _

Less than an hour in this town, and she’d already scored two embarrassing moments. She cleared her throat. “I’ve never seen a real cowboy before.”

“You’re late.” He stared at her with hard black eyes, mouth set tight, as if somebody had skewered the corners.

“Oh—” She gulped. So he was her ride. They’d sent a rude cowpoke to pick her up. She jammed her phone back into her jeans and raised her chin. “It’s not my fault. The planes aren’t flying into Looking Glass Lake today, for some reason. My flight was canceled, so I had to take a historic steam train for tourists.”

He looked at her, eyes unblinking.

Her neck heated, and she tossed her hair. “It’s no big deal,” she said. “You caught a few z’s in the shade, so what’s the problem?”

He crossed his arms and shifted his stance. Wider, if that were possible.

She swallowed. She refused to be intimidated by a hired hand. “And anyway,” she said. “I’m not late. The train was early, so I stopped for produce.”

Still, he said nothing. He swiped shaggy black hair off his forehead before jamming his hat back on.

She’d never seen eyes so dark. Black as night, even in the glint of mid-day sun.

“Besides, it might be wise to treat the new ranch chef with a little respect,” she said, her words coming fast.

She crossed her arms and arched her brows. Best to show him right now that Marlee Eileen Donovan was no pushover. “I could make every meal for the next six months a misery for you.”

His cheek muscle twitched.

Maybe this cowboy had a small sense of humor.

“In fact…” She mustered her most charming southern belle smile. She frosted it with the kind of fake sweetness only a real southern girl could whip up. “I could make nearly every meal talk back to you for hours. Since you need to brush up on your conversational skills.”

Something flashed in his dark eyes. A single dimple surfaced on his left cheek and then vanished.

Marlee blinked. Was that a smile?

Before she could decide, he stuck out his hand.

“Jett Maddox,” he said.

His rough hand closed over hers, and he pumped it once in a quick and efficient shake.

CHAPTER TWO

 

A zing went through Marlee’s arm as Jett’s large hand engulfed hers. She wasn’t a weakling. She logged plenty of time in the gym, and had always considered herself stronger than most women.

But in his hand, her bones felt as delicate as sugar lace. She shivered. She pulled her hand away quickly and then hitched up the knife roll slung across her back.

Jett didn’t seem to notice her discomfort. He jerked his thumb toward a battered and dusty old pickup truck. “Saddle up.”

Then, without waiting for her to introduce herself, he grabbed her suitcases and turned on his heel.

He lifted them like marshmallows, two in each hand.

Early that morning, those suitcases had given her a fierce backache, dragging them from the car to airport. But he swung them easily, the handles of each bag crammed into his beefy hands, and the bottoms of them splayed out. He had to hold them far away from his body so they wouldn’t bash into his bow-legged stride.

In the movies, cowboys were terse. So maybe he wasn’t rude. Maybe he was just terse. She had expected to like terse better than she actually did. Terse was uncomfortable. Terse meant she had more time to notice small things, like the way his muscles moved in his forearms where he’d rolled up his sleeves. And how the tiny lines near his eyes were etched, white against sun-bronzed skin. He’d spent so many hours outside, even his hat couldn’t beat the sun all of the time.

Oh, man. If only she’d had a chance to snap a picture for Tanya. But she didn’t dare make a move for her phone. He’d probably melt it with his glare if she even touched it.

Instead, she followed him.

He heaved her suitcases into the back of his truck with a thunk. A puff of dust rose, and she quickly turned her head away and then climbed onto the front seat. It might be best not to see the condition of his truck bed. This was the west. She should expect dust and dirt.

She could always get new suitcases when she finally got this job.

“It was a beautiful trip up here,” she said. She reached behind for the seatbelt, but Jett gunned the motor and backed out of the parking space. She yelped and tried to brace herself as the sudden momentum threw her forward, nearly knocking her head on the dashboard. He slammed on the brakes, treating her to a side of whiplash as he threw the truck into gear and roared out of the gravel parking lot.

Marlee‘s hands shook as she snapped her seatbelt. She gave it a good tug. “I can see you’re a man who doesn’t waste time,” she said.

He grunted, but didn’t look at her.

So much for making a good first impression.

Good thing the only person she really needed to impress out here was her new boss, and not the hick-town chauffeur they’d sent to pick her up.

 

  • * *

 

While Marlee chattered about everything she’d seen on the train ride to Looking Glass Lake, Jett was lost in his own thoughts.

It was hard to believe Silas Paycoach was really gone.

Silas was the best boss Jett had ever known. He was a big quiet man who had been as gentle with his family as he’d been with the livestock.

_Lord, help them. Comfort them. _

It was a short and silent prayer, but Jett knew God heard every word.

Jett tightened his grip on the steering wheel as a wave of sorrow crashed through his chest.

The Paycoach family hadn’t been the same since Silas’ death.

Jett had never seen Silas’ grown children act this way. Matt, Cheyenne, and Jaxson walked like they were in a trance, faces white and stiff. Austin couldn’t speak to anyone without blowing up at them, even though the doctors said he’d make a full recovery. West had started drinking.

Cody hadn’t been able to make it home in time for the funeral. Flights from Alaska’s Beaufort Sea weren’t easy to come by at the last minute.

And Logan, the second-oldest Paycoach boy who was Silas’ right-hand man, had simply left all the ranch stuff fall by the wayside. He hadn’t even appointed someone to take care of it in his absence.

They all refused to leave their mother’s side as they waited with her at the hospital. With every beep of the equipment, and every whispered conversation among staff members, Thelma Paycoach was reminded that the grip death had on her family hadn’t loosened yet.

Maybe the worst was yet to come.

So Jett had decided to step up and take charge. The cowpokes had low morale. Men slunk around the ranch, gloom hanging heavy over the corral and bunkhouse. Somebody had to man up and be the leader.

Not that he was the best leader. He’d be perfectly fine to spend the entire day on the back of a horse, or out mending fences. A whole day with nothing but earth and sky and the soft friendly sounds of horses blowing and neighing. Nothing but him, his horse, and God. No people. No talking. Just the wind.

But no one else wanted to step up. And the men had grown increasingly restless and grumpy as the days shortened and their late start to the cattle drive lengthened. No one could expect Logan Paycoach to head up a month-long cattle drive when his father had passed away last week and his sister lay unresponsive in the hospital at this very moment.

So in the end, there was only one thing he could do. Set aside his own heavy grief, and deal with the day to day business of a ranch spinning out of control.

There’d be time to sort through his sorrow later.

After the job was done.

“…don’t you think?”

Jett snapped his attention back to the present. The city-girl cook he’d picked up had wedged a question somewhere in her chatter. She’d just caught him zoning out.

“Well?” She dug at him, brown eyes sharp.

He drug his gaze back to the road, brain scrambling for something to say. Something all-purpose. “Depends on how you look at it,” he finally muttered. He snuck a quick look at her.

She sat, her gaze sweeping him from head to toe.

Like she was some fancy supermarket scanner trying to tally his worth.

Well, let her look. He had nothing to hide.

Maybe she’d detect his irritation for her constant yammering. It wasn’t respectful to encroach on someone else’s thoughts with chatter.

Out here, folks knew that.

“I guess that’s true,” she said.

He let out a small breath, relieved he’d passed the test.

“If a person was born here,” she went on, “maybe the sky wouldn’t seem so big to them.”

Okay. Maybe he could cut her some slack. The woman was new. She wasn’t used to the west, or the idea that silence was valuable.

Around these parts, a man didn’t take away somebody’s silence for no reason.

“But to me,” she said, “this sky is huge. I know people call it Big Sky Country, but I had no idea it would feel so—”

Jett downshifted and turned off the highway onto the rough gravel surface of Beaverslide Road. He glanced at Marlee.

She gripped the handle above the door, and chewed her lower lip. “Out here, it feels like when you take the lid off a pasta pot and you let all the steam out, you know?” She gazed at him with wide eyes that shone with excitement.

“Huh,” he said. He’d never thought of it that way.

“It’s like God taking the lid off us to relieve some steam,” she said.

He glanced at her twice between navigating the sharp turns in the road. He could respect a person who respected his land. And who respected God.

But then she launched into another long speech about how pressure was important in cooking, and how food could transform when put under pressure for even a small amount of time.

Wow. The woman sure could talk. It gave him plenty of time to size her up.

His first impression was that she was shiny. Shiny hair, shiny nails. Even her flannel shirt had some kind of glittery things all over it. He didn’t know fashion, but even he could tell this was fancy compared to what most of the women in Looking Glass Lake wore.

Her shirt was soft and drapey, with long flowing sleeves. As if somebody decided flannel alone wasn’t good enough and had sewn deep lace fluffy stuff onto the cuffs and collar. Dark jeans hugged her curves and tucked into bright purple rhinestone cowboy boots. She looked like an advertisement in a western travel guide. Or like a rodeo queen dressed in fluff and frizzle, designed to look beautiful next to an ad for some kind of de-worming medication.

Yup. Jett narrowed his eyes. She was dressed to sell something.

And the way she was yapping on without pausing for breath meant she was nervous. Probably worried about making a good impression in a place well out of her comfort zone.

He’d most likely be just as nervous in her world.

As her voice washed over him, he imagined her home.

Yeah, he’d hate her world. The city. Where a person was so surrounded by words—words coming in through the eyes and the ears. Words everywhere, so that a man’s own thoughts couldn’t be heard.

But maybe if a person grew up with so many words around all the time, it would be hard to be in a place where the word supply was short. It could get lonely in the west. Out in the middle of nowhere with just God and the pines. It could get achingly lonely. But it was a good ache. An ache that made a man feel alive and connected to God.

She’d never last through that. She’d have her fill of God letting off her steam.

Jett relaxed his grip on the steering wheel as he tried to focus on listening. Even if it was exhausting to listen to all that chatter, it had a strangely calming effect on him. At least it was somewhere to herd his thoughts. Somewhere other than the ranch and the tragedy that had hung so heavy on his shoulders for the past week.

Now, she was talking about Bible verses she’d read on the train ride.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands,” she mused. She turned to look at him. “It’s a lot harder to see the work of His hands in the city,” she said. “I’ll bet it makes people here praise God a lot more often.”

“Huh,” he said. Again, something he’d never thought of.

So maybe he was wrong about the exhausting part. He could listen with both ears if she was going to talk scripture and the beauty of the land that had become his home.

He glanced at her again. Her forehead was pressed against the passenger window, and she craned her neck to see the frothy creek as it tumbled and cascaded along the gravel road. Even though they were running late, he slowed down just a tad to give her a longer look at the creek.

Funny. With all that shininess, he hadn’t pegged her as the reading type. But she obviously spent a lot of time in her Bible, if verses poured out of her so easily.

At least she loved the Lord.

But still, that didn’t mean she’d make it out here in wild country.

Ten to one, she’d be high-tailing it for the first train back by breakfast. And he’d be stuck with finding another cook.

Something he couldn’t afford to do right now.

Jett swallowed as sweat prickled along his neck. Like it or not, he’d better get busy making it a bit more comfortable for her. Even if he had to make up some words out of thin air.

 

  • * *

 

Marlee sat back in her seat. She’d stopped trying to make conversation ten minutes ago, and now she stared at the creek, pines, and tangled wildflowers as they climbed higher and higher into the mountains.

She’d tried to draw Jett into the conversation with questions. But he’d given her answers that left the conversational burden squarely on her shoulders.

From that point on, all he’d contributed was single-syllable responses.

Maybe the man simply couldn’t talk much. Maybe he was slow. She’d heard how some people thought country folk were a little backwards in schooling and intellect. But she’d always assumed that was how it was in pioneer days, when people didn’t have schools to attend. Or when boys had to work the farms to survive, and going to school was a luxury they couldn’t afford.

Maybe the man had simply spent too much time in the sun. Maybe he couldn’t talk because the sun had bleached all his thoughts out.

Marlee giggled. It was an impish thought, but it made her laugh.

They rumbled over a wooden trestle bridge, and Marlee pressed her nose to the glass, watching the creek churn and heave under them.

Something about this land stilled her tongue and unzipped her eyes to soak it all in. A feast for the eyes.

And the town. She’d only been there an hour, and it had stirred something inside her. People here acted like a family. A huge and weird and very close family.

A pang jabbed through her, and Marlee tried to push thoughts of her own family aside. She’d been born as a “surprise” baby, fifteen years after her sisters. Both of her sisters felt like strangers to her. And in some ways, her parents had felt like strangers, too. Like she was an afterthought and not really part of the family.

What would it have been like to have a close family?

After Marlee had purchased her vegetables at the café, she’d stayed to talk with Annie. She’d watched as the local sheriff teased Annie. Annie had said she and Sherriff Mack had been best friends forever.

Watching Annie and the Sherriff at the café, she could tell they were close. Even though Annie had done all the talking and the Sherriff hadn’t said a word other than to tease the redhead. Behind all that jesting, it was easy to see the man was loyal and supportive. It would be nice to have that one day—a person to cheer her on.

She could have used a cheering section. No matter how hard she worked, it seemed like her grades were barely passable. Culinary school was no cakewalk—it wasn’t enough to perfectly execute technique. They wanted her to reach deep down into her roots and cook from the heart. Cook with flair and spirit.

Well, that was the problem. She had no ethnic spin to put on dishes. She had no roots to draw from. No home-made dishes with lovely memories connected. What she had was a picture of what she wanted to be. And that picture was always out of reach.

Well, it didn’t matter now. Now, she was about three thousand miles away from instructors who frowned when she wasn’t original enough.

A new place would give her inspiration. And maybe she’d discover her own style and flavors for cooking.

Maybe out here in the west, she could do what thousands of pioneers before her had done: make a new life for herself.

Starting with doing well at this ranch. They’d hire her as a line cook. After that, if she could earn a promotion to chef, and put in a few years working hard to get a good reference, she might have a fighting chance when she finally applied for a head chef position at the new resort when it opened.

“So.” Jett interrupted her thoughts. He shifted in the driver’s seat, and cleared his throat. “How long have you been a cook?”

Marlee chuckled. So the man could talk.

If Tanya were here, they’d place bets on when his next sentence would occur. Loser would do dishes for a week, and winner would get to control the TV remote.

“Actually, I’m a chef,” she corrected.

Jett frowned.

Marlee silently kicked herself. The man had made an effort at conversation, and she’d had to go and correct him. Maybe she had her rude moments, too. “Chef. Cook. It’s kind of the same thing,” she said.

But it wasn’t.

It mattered. A lot.

He slowed the truck, and smiled at her before turning onto a dirt road.

That smile sliced through her, clean to her brightly painted toes in her new boots. She blinked, stunned.

Before, he’d gone from lazy to pushy in sixty seconds flat. And now, he’d gone from rude to charming in less than half the time.

His charming came with a huge helping of handsome, garnished with a single rakish dimple in his tanned cheek. She stared at him, mouth open. It was like he was a whole new person.

“Cowpoke. Foreman.” He winked. His grin dazzled and a warm chuckle reached out to her. “It’s kind of the same thing, too.”

Marlee licked dry lips, her brain numb. Was he flirting with her?

She could almost hear Tanya’s voice: “He’s cute, but you gotta focus, girl.”

Her roommate would be right.

“So how long have you been a chef?”

“I recently got my diploma and certification, so not long,” Marlee said stiffly. Not that she wanted to discourage a decent conversation. But she was out here for work. Not for romance. Even if he was handsome when he smiled.

Jett had already turned his attention back to the road.

[_Foreman, huh? _]

If he was the best of the cowboys out at this ranch, Marlee dreaded meeting the rest of them.

CHAPTER THREE

 

When they roared up the gravel drive at the ranch and all the way to the back where the outbuildings were, Marlee saw urgency everywhere. The ranch was getting ready for something big.

Dust swirled as cowboys scurried by carrying saddles and gear. Some loaded horses into trailers, and cattle dogs scampered around the activity, as if they were the ones running the place.

“We’re late,” Jett barked as he jumped out, slamming the truck door behind him. “Leaving in forty-five minutes,” he threw over his shoulder. “So be ready.”

Before Marlee could slide out of the truck and ask him where everyone was going, and what he’d meant about being ready, he’d jogged to the barn, calling out orders to the men.

Marlee kicked at a rock with the toe of her shiny new boot.

Okay. This wasn’t the kind of place where she’d get a lot of direction. It was a sink or swim kind of place.

Squaring her shoulders, she narrowed her eyes and squinted through the dust, trying to figure out which building would hold the kitchen and mess hall.

“Be ready” possibly meant get lunch on for the men before they left. Marlee hesitated for a minute. She didn’t want to leave her suitcases in the truck. But he’d been clear about orders to be ready in forty-five minutes.

That didn’t give her much time to locate the kitchen and the head chef and get instructions for her lunch duties. Maybe after lunch, she’d be able to settle in. Find her room, unpack, and decide how she’d want to prepare the produce she’d bought.

Marlee spotted a long low building next to the barn. In front of it sat a truck where Crazy Hoss unloaded boxes of produce she’d bought in town. That had to be the kitchen.

Hitching her knife roll up a little higher on her shoulder, Marlee marched toward the building. Crazy Hoss was just coming out of the door when she arrived.

“Well, that’s the last of yore veggies.” He gave her a gap-toothed grin.

“Thanks,” Marlee said.

He tipped his hat and headed toward the barn where most of the activity was centered.

“Hello?” Marlee called out as she stepped inside.

The small cafeteria was empty.

Flipping the lights on, she headed back to the kitchen.

If lunch was supposed to be ready in forty-five minutes, why wasn’t the kitchen humming with activity?

Pushing through the doors to the kitchen, Marlee stopped in her tracks.

Gleaming stainless steel surfaces greeted her. But the place was completely deserted.

“Oh, no,” Marlee groaned.

No wonder they’d asked for help. Forty-five minutes until time to pull out, and the head chef at the ranch was nowhere in sight.

Marlee rushed past the boxes of produce Crazy Hoss had left for her on the counter. She raced to the pantry. There was only the barest of staples. A huge sack of beans and five loaves of sourdough bread.

A quick survey of the walk-in refrigerator and the big freezer revealed more bad news. There were frozen steaks, hamburger, and roasts galore. Commercial sized butter, mozzarella, mayo, and steak sauce in the refrigerator. Enormous packages of bacon, and eggs stacked in massive cartons. But there wasn’t a single prepped item in sight.

For a moment Marlee stood, frozen.

A to-go lunch was expected in less than forty-five minutes. She had no idea how large the crew was, and the head chef who had hired her after a phone interview two weeks ago was nowhere to be found.

Cassie Paycoach was the head chef here. Marlee had been so excited about working for her. The woman sounded about the same age, and she loved to laugh. The phone interview was more like a chat between two friends than a job interview. Cassie seemed smart, capable, easy-going and efficient. Marlee couldn’t imagine a woman like that abandoning her post.

Unless this was a test.

Marlee’s heart rate picked up at that thought.

This was, after all, a working interview. She wouldn’t know if she had the job long-term until she’d been here for at least two weeks. Cassie had told her the ranch preferred to give both employee and employer a chance to get to know one another longer than just a phone conversation.

Elation swelled in Marlee’s chest. If this was a test, Cassie was a smart woman. Give a fresh graduate a chance to prove her worth when thrown a time-line for lunch. And make sure there were only a few ingredients to work with.

Brilliant.

This was a challenge Marlee could meet. Her dishes might not be the most creative or elegant, but she was fast and she could think on her feet.

Marlee rolled up her sleeves, ran water in a large bowl and threw in the spinach and red peppers. She had to get started with prepping the vegetables, even if she hadn’t decided yet what she’d make.

The action kicked her brain in high gear, and her heart skittered with glee as ideas flooded over her.

It was going to be delicious. She had barely enough time to roast those red peppers and do a quick spinach sauté. She’d get bacon sizzling on the griddle. And if she moved quickly enough, she’d have crispy bacon sandwiches with rich sautéed greens and slabs of smoky peppers smothered with melty mozzarella…all piled on grilled sourdough.

If she did it right, she’d have cowboys lined up begging for those sandwiches for weeks to come, and Cassie would hire her on the spot.

She’d be one-step closer to her dream of working in a five-star restaurant when the big resort opened.

Marlee had peppers roasting, bacon sizzling, and rows of sourdough lined up already dressed with mayo when she heard the cafeteria door open.

That would probably be her new boss, coming to see how she was doing with the test.

Marlee reined in her smile and tried to focus on the mound of washed spinach in front of her. A quick chop, and she’d pop these in a hot skillet with garlic.

The clomp of boots came closer, and Marlee looked up as the doors to the kitchen opened.

Oh. Jett.

She paused for a moment, knife poised. “What are you doing here?”

Wasn’t he supposed to be outside somewhere, doing something with cows or horses or ropes? Something cowboyish?

He stood still in the doorway, mouth open as he took in the state of the kitchen. His face deepened, growing redder by the minute as his eyes slid over the grill and the counter.

Marlee followed his gaze and stood up straighter.

What was he getting so bent out of shape about? It was a pretty efficient workstation. She’d kept it clean and neat.

Not an easy undertaking when put to the test like this.

Plus, she was on task to finish ahead of the forty-five minute time-line he’d given her.

She might even have time to prep the bushel of green beans for dinner tonight, because they were already in a pan in the sink for cleaning.

“What are you doing?” he bellowed.

“My job,” Marlee retorted. “And don’t rush me.”” She clenched the handle of her knife. “You said I had forty-five minutes, and no one else is here to help. If you want to yell at someone, go find the head chef. She’s the one testing me.”

He stared and shook his head.

Marlee sighed. Why did he always treat her like a small child?

He opened his mouth, but then closed it and headed around the counter.

He grabbed her elbow and pulled her outside.

“There,” he said. He pointed straight ahead. “That’s your kitchen.”

*CHAPTER FOUR *

 

Marlee stared.

An old wooden wagon sat in the drive. It looked like something straight out of a pioneer museum. Even its wheels were made of wood, and it had a canvas top. The only thing missing was a team of horses.

And Laura Ingalls.

“I don’t have time for this.” She jerked on her arm.

With her luck, the bacon was already burning on the grill.

He held firm. “It’s a chuck wagon.”

“I don’t care if it’s the Queen of Sheba. I’ve got to finish lunch before the head chef gets here to evaluate my performance.”

His mouth tightened but he let go of her arm. “Evaluate your—”

Marlee heaved an impatient sigh. “My performance. You know, lunch. Get everybody fed before they leave.”

“There is no performance.” He flexed his jaw, and re-settled his hat, still staring at her. “We already ate lunch.”

Marlee’s mouth dropped open and all that beautiful momentum fizzled. She looked down at her hand still clutching her knife. A shred of spinach dangled off the blade.

“But the head chef—”

Jett folded his arms. “You’re the only cook we have.”

Marlee’s throat went dry. She licked her lips and stared into his puzzled black eyes.

“But I—”

“You’re all we’ve got,” he said again. He didn’t look too pleased about it. He cocked his head, and swept his eyes over her.

Marlee stared, her mind whirling. If they’d already eaten lunch, then Cassie must have cooked for them. So the gorgeous kitchen where Marlee was frying her bacon right now was Cassie’s domain.

Marlee’s stomach twisted in knots as realization dawned on her.

Because that meant her own domain must be the chuck wagon.

Horrified, Marlee stared at the chuck wagon, and then at Jett.

He shoved beefy hands into his jeans, and squinted down at her. “If you’re gonna cook for us on this cattle drive, you’d best saddle up, lady.””

Marlee blinked and tried to swallow, but her throat got stuck with all the dust kicking up around them.

A cattle-drive?

_Whoa. _

Cassie hadn’t said anything about a cattle drive.

“You’re crazy,” she croaked. “If you think I’’m going on a cattle drive.”

Jett shrugged, but stared at her with flinty black eyes.

Marlee raised her chin and stared back. Under any other circumstances, she’d have described this man to her roommate as drop-dead gorgeous. Today, she wished he’d just drop dead.

“That’s the job, lady. Take it or leave it.”

Panic burned her throat. It wasn’t fair. They should have told her she was expected to go on a cattle drive and cook in some ancient rattle-trap of a kitchen. She was a professionally trained chef. At the bare minimum, she needed a stove, refrigerator, freezer, and dishwasher. Counters for prep. Colanders and pans and—

Marlee pivoted on her heel and stalked back to the kitchen.

_No. Way. _

If she was smart, she’d pack up right now, and head back to town.

Instead, she flipped nearly-burnt bacon and then dove back into chopping the greens when she returned to the kitchen.

Pieces of spinach flew up from her knife into her face.

_Seriously. _

Marlee ground her teeth almost as hard as she lacerated the spinach.

Jett entered the room, but she ignored him and swirled olive oil in a hot pan, then added minced garlic.

The room bloomed with the rich deep fragrance of garlic. The scent of comfort food. Normally, it was one of her favorite cooking smells, but today, it carried no comfort. She stood with her back to him, trying to catch her breath and get her bearings.

Behind her, he cleared his throat again.

“We need to load up.”

“No, I need to finish the prep, and it’s gonna take the time it takes.” She avoided his gaze when she turned to finish washing and draining the green beans.

She lifted her chin. No self-respecting chef would waste food. Besides, she deserved a little bit of time to regroup and take these new expectations in stride.

A little bit of time to decide if she was as nutty as Jett.

Was she really considering going on a cattle drive?

“You can’t hurry food,” she said. Her voice came out as snippy as the spattering garlic. “That’s how it burns.”

“Not asking you to cook, lady,” he said. “I’m telling you to get on the trail. There’s no time for…” His lip curled as he glanced over the pile of greens. “Vegetables.”

“You know who says there’s no time for vegetables?” She leveled her knife in his direction with a glare.

He blinked twice and squished his eyebrows together, as if she’d just asked him to set up the punchline for a joke he didn’t remember.

“Unhealthy people, that’s who,” she said. “There is always time for vegetables.”

“The beans, cornbread and fixings are already on board,” he said. “This drive will take at least three weeks. Vegetables won’t keep.”

She nearly dropped her knife. “Three weeks?” she squeaked.

“If we’re lucky.” He folded his arms. Black brows lowered. “Six if we’re not.”

She gulped and turned, frantic thoughts skittering through her head.

Through the low kitchen windows, she spotted Crazy Hoss. The old man was surprisingly wiry and strong for his age. He tossed her suitcases in the back of the chuck wagon like they were dice.

Marlee winced. Perfume bottles. The delicate porcelain Native Indian maidens she’s picked up at the souvenir shop on her layover in Denver. She narrowed her eyes. Jett could count himself one lucky cowboy if nothing was broken.

She took a deep breath. “I need time,” she said. “To sharpen my knives.”

Yeah. Right. What she really needed was time to decide what to do.

Marlee sighed and rinsed her knife under hot water.

This was supposed to be a cakewalk job. A year getting a reputation as a reliable sous chef, and a good recommendation for working the resort in Looking Glass Lake when it opened.

It wasn’t supposed to be a six week cattle drive.

“Won’t need ‘em. Wagon’s got all you need.”

She bristled. “A good chef always brings her own knives,” she said.

She yanked a whetstone out and swiped her knife along its edge. The “zing” normally made her feel like her brain was being sharpened, as if preparing her for a challenge. But this wasn’t like any challenge she’d ever faced.

“Tell me now if you’re quitting.”

That did it.

She was going on an honest-to-goodness cattle drive. Like it or not.

There was no way she was going to let a smug-faced cowboy tell her she was a quitter. No matter how handsome he was.

Besides, she couldn’t stomach moving back into the basement at Mom and Dad’s house.

“I’ll cook myself if I have to,” he said. He swallowed hard, and his Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. He didn’t look too thrilled at the idea of his own cooking. “Either way, I’m getting up on those mountains.” He stabbed a finger in the direction of the snow-capped range behind the ranch. “And I’m bringing those cattle back, even if we gotta eat burnt beans every night.”

Marlee zinged her knife blade one last time, then she dried it on a towel and slid it back into its sheath in her knife roll.

The fire in his eyes was tempered with a kind of resolute bleakness, and his shoulders sagged slightly. Probably imagining the prospect of enduring burnt beans for three weeks.

Marlee sighed. The puppy dog look shouldn’t be so effective, coming from a hardened-leather cowpoke like Jett. But it was working its charm. Especially since the man clearly wasn’t pulling the mournful look on purpose.

He stood there, hands shoved deep in his pockets, face glum.

She tapped her fingertips on the gleaming stainless steel counter. Chuck wagon beans and cornbread, huh? Not the western resort type fare she had envisioned serving.

Cooking on a cattle drive wouldn’t do much good for the kind of experience she’d need to score a head chef position at the new resort.

But the man clearly couldn’t cook. Putting hot food in his belly at the end of a hard day? Yeah, that could bring satisfaction of a different kind.

A fleeting tingle chased up her spine, but she swept it away and bit her lip.

If she stayed, she’d prove she wasn’t a quitter. Bad test-taker in school, maybe. Mediocre chef, maybe.

Memories of disdainful looks from her instructors knotted her stomach. They’d told her that her food was boring.

Okay but not great.

So she wasn’t the most creative chef, either. At least not yet.

But a quitter? No.

Not Marlee Donovan.

“Ok, but I’m bringing my own knives. And the produce.”

He opened his mouth but she drilled him with a glare.

“Don’t you dare try to stop me, Jett Maddox.”

He started to say something again, and she pulled her knife back out and pointed it at him.

He put both palms up and backed out.

Smart man.

Marlee heaved a huge sigh when the door swung shut behind him.

_All right. _

She’d just won the first shootout in the OK Corral.

But had she really? Because she was off her rocker to even consider going. Making a good impression and landing this job seemed hard enough. Now she had to do it on a cattle drive?

Even as she searched the kitchen, found an old cooler and filled it with ice, her brain spun in circles.

She could still back out.

A wave of bitterness surged. No. There was no way she was going back home with her tail between her legs.

She crumbled cooling bacon and threw rows of sourdough bread in the oven to crisp into croutons.

Yeah, but backing out on this working interview didn’t mean she was quitting on her dream, did it? Surely, she could find another avenue to her dream job as head chef of a five-star resort restaurant.

But instead, she packed green beans in layers of paper towels in gallon-sized plastic bags to keep them fresh. She’d have to cook them on the trail within the first week, or they’d spoil.

Her hands trembled when she took roasted red peppers out of the oven and peeled them. They wouldn’t last a whole month on the trail, unless she packed them in oil. She lined the jars up on the counter and stuffed the sautéed spinach and garlic cloves in with the peppers.

Yep, she was crazy.

She’d only been camping once in her life. And she’d hated it. But she couldn’t stomach going back home in shame, either. She imagined knocking on Mom and Dad’s door with a heavy suitcase in one hand and the weight of failure dragging her shoulders down.

Worst of all would be the smug look on Dad’s face.

Marlee rubbed her head as she surveyed her handiwork.

Maybe there was another option.

She should use her last precious minutes to make a call and try to get hired on a cruise line. Maybe she could squeeze into a ship’s kitchen mopping floors and taking out the trash.

But she knew she wouldn’t. She hated water.

And besides, something about the west had already gotten under her skin.

Marlee raised her eyes and whispered a quick prayer. “Lord, please don’t let me regret this.”

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Outside, Crazy Hoss and an older woman helped Marlee settle her cooler in the back of the chuck wagon.

The woman introduced herself as Fern Aimstock.

“I normally run Mustang Sally’s Beauty Salon in town.” She beamed, pumped Marlee’s hand and patted her on the back at the same time, and then pulled her into a surprisingly strong hug. It was like being hugged by a slightly pudgy tornado.

“When we’re done here,” Fern said. “You should come in for a complimentary manicure.” She smiled and nudged Marlee. “That’ll put the lady back in you after this rough ride.”

Marlee swallowed. “Um…so how long is it going to be?” she asked.

“About a day’s drive up the mountain, and we’ll hit our first camp,” Crazy Hoss said.

“Crazy Hoss and I are going to drive the chuck wagon,” Fern said.

“We could find a seat for you back there with the bedrolls.” Crazy Hoss jerked his thumb over his shoulder to the bed of the wagon.

Marlee peered behind him. Under the canvas, thick rolls filled the back of the wagon nearly to the ceiling.

“Maybe you could sit on a bag of beans, like I did once,” Fern said, her eyes gleaming.

Marlee gave her a polite smile. She’d never seen anyone so excited about sitting on a bag of beans.

“The back of that wagon would be a comfy place for a tush of any size,” Fern declared.

Jett passed by Marlee and tossed another bedroll in the back of the chuck wagon.

“I could saddle up our oldest nag if you would rather ride,” he said. Though his tone was serious, the dimple in his cheek surfaced.

Marlee gritted her teeth.

She rounded on him, but before she could get a word out, he was already loping off toward the barn.

“Hold it right there, cowboy,” she hollered. But he didn’t slow down one bit.

She had to run to catch up with him.

“This whole cattle drive thing is news to me. I signed on to be a line cook. Do you know what that means?”

He finally turned around and looked down at her.

“It does NOT mean I’m in charge of a crazy kitchen on wheels in the middle of a cow field. It means I’m in charge of one station, and that’s it. But I’m a classically trained chef, and I have the chops to be your head chef for the trail if that’s what this cattle drive needs.”

“You angling for a raise?” His eyes glittered, and even though he didn’t move a muscle, she had the feeling he’d just squared off to face her down.

Marlee snorted. “I’m angling for some good communication for a change. You brought me out here as a line cook. If you want me as your head chef, to run the whole kit and caboodle on the cattle drive, then let’s discuss it. But you’ll have to pay me accordingly. That’s only fair.”

“We have a head chef,” he said stiffly.

Wow. A spark whizzed up her spine. He was a lot taller up close. Under the shadow of his hat, his black eyes looked nearly purple.

She sure wouldn’t want to be his enemy. But still, the man knew nothing about professional kitchens and how they should be run.

“Well, I’m not gonna be pushed around by some cowboy. I don’t care if you are the head foreman. The head chef is my boss. I demand to meet her in person before we leave.”

Before he had a chance to answer, a tall man came out of the barn.

The moment he stepped into the sunlight, all activity on the ranch halted.

Even dogs lying in the shade seemed to pant more quietly.

Marlee sucked in a breath. Maybe this guy was the owner. Maybe she was finally going to meet someone in charge—someone other than Jett.

“Logan,” Jett grunted. “Meet Marlee Donovan. Marlee, Logan Paycoach.”

Logan stuck his hand out, but his eyes were dull and distracted. Like he wasn’t really seeing her.

“Nice to meet you.” She smiled but nothing changed in his vacant look. It was as if she’d dropped a pebble into a pond and stood waiting for ripples that never happened.

“How’s it going?” Jett asked.

Logan’s face fell.

Jett put his arm around the other man’s shoulders.

Marlee took a step back. The two men were standing right there. Neither had moved, but she felt invisible to them.

“It’s bad,” Logan said. He kept his eyes on the ground, face hidden under the brim of his hat. “She’s still not waking up. Austin’s okay, but we’re afraid we’re gonna lose—” His voice choked off.

The skin on the back of her neck prickled. Something awful was happening to this family.

“Mom’s falling apart—” Logan stopped again.

“I’ve got this,” Jett said. His voice was low. “You need to stay with your family.”

Marlee peered down at her boots. Already, a film of dust covered them so the rhinestones barely winked out at her.

Logan nodded. “I can’t do that,” he said. “You’ll be short three full teams.”

Jett cleared his throat. “I’ll handle it.”

He put his hand on Logan’s shoulder, and bowed his head and began to pray. “Lord, we don’t understand why this is happening, but we know You love us and we need Your help.”

Marlee froze in place. Jett’s prayer was simple. Straight-forward. Unashamed.

She wasn’t used to people praying aloud for her, though it would feel nice.

Inside, she prayed with them.

After the prayer, Jett and Logan drifted into the barn.

And then Jett came back out, alone. Like always, he was a man on a mission.

“You can’t meet the woman who hired you,” he said as he stalked past Marlee. “She’s in critical care.”

Marlee blinked. That’s the woman they were talking about? The woman they’d prayed for?

Cassie Paycoach was in Intensive Care?

Marlee hurried to catch up with him.

“You could have told me.”

“I just did.”

“Yeah, but I mean before, when—”

…when she hadn’t yet made a fool of herself?

But she couldn’t argue with the look he gave her.

Now was not the time to stand around talking about who should have done what.

“Is there anything I can do to help them?”

“You can get your tail end up in that chuck wagon and hit the trail.”

She frowned.

“Right now, we got a late start going, and the only hold-up is you.”

CHAPTER SIX

 

At first, Marlee tried sitting up front, squeezed onto the hard wooden seat between Crazy Hoss and Fern.

As the wagon jolted over ruts and rocks, every bump bruised her tail bone. It was awfully hard to concentrate on what Fern and Crazy Hoss were saying.

They were telling her all about chuck wagons and ranching history and about how lots of ranches like the Paycoach’s still used horses and authentic chuck wagons when running their cattle.

“It’s a lot less stressful on the cattle to have horses herding them,” Crazy Hoss said.

The wagon hit something in the road, and pain shot through Marlee’s spine. Had anyone ever thought about how stressful chuck wagons were on humans?

“Some ranches use ATVs to herd, but that stresses the cattle,” Fern added.

“Stressed cattle means skinnier cattle,” Crazy Hoss said. “And then the ranch loses money.”

“But surely you could drive one of those food trucks up here for cooking,” Marlee said. “I could easily feed an army out of one of those things, and you wouldn’t have to use it to herd cattle.”

Crazy Hoss chuckled. “Them things are expensive. Besides, trail cookin’ doesn’t need to be complicated. And we like the chuck wagon. It’s a tradition.”

Who in their right mind would enjoy a tradition that was full of so much punishment and pain? Her rear end was aching so badly, she finally crawled into the back and settled onto the bedrolls. They were piled nearly to the canvas roof, so she sat with her neck hunched over, grabbing onto anything to steady herself as the wagon rumbled along.

Marlee couldn’t imagine either of her sisters in this situation. Maybe she should have given her career in accounting one more shot.

“Tell me about the Paycoach family.”

“That’s a sad story if there ever was one,” Fern said. She shook her head, eyes tearing up. “Silas and Thelma Paycoach knew they were made for each other since they were old enough to compete against each other in the mutton-busting competition. They built this ranch up and raised a family. Six of the finest young men around and two amazing girls. And now, Thelma had to bury her husband last week and her youngest girl is in the hospital and won’t wake up.”

Marlee stared outside, where bright sunshine splintered the mountain ridges with dancing fall colors. It was hard to imagine grief so terrible in a world this beautiful. “What happened?”

Fern shrugged. “Plane crash,” she said. “Austin was flying the plane. He’s Silas and Thelma’s middle boy. He runs the only airport around here. Normally takes up hunters or charters folks from the Boise airport.”

“That’s why my charter flight from Boise was canceled,” Marlee gasped.

Fern nodded.

“Was he okay?”

“Yeah. Broke his leg and a few places in his back. Doctors say he might not walk again. But he and Cassie were lucky to survive.”

_So far. _

Marlee shivered. The words shadowed the air, unspoken.

“Austin said his equipment malfunctioned. Had to make an emergency landing. Thelma refuses to leave Cassie’s side. Matt, West and Logan are doing their best to keep the ranch going, but they spend most of their time at the hospital, too. And Jaxson has a newborn at home and a sick wife.”

“Jett’s stepped up to run this place,” Crazy Hoss said. “That’s a fine cowboy right there. The kind of man I’d be proud to ride the river with any day.”

Marlee bit her cheek to keep from snorting. “He sure doesn’t talk much,” she said.

“When Jett picked you up from the train station, I’ll bet he didn’t tell you this was going to be a cattle drive.” Fern’s eyebrows rose.

“No,” Marlee said, her voice clipped. “He didn’t.”

Crazy Hoss cackled. “Don’t expect he would.”

“He didn’t tell me I was going to have to cook in a chuck wagon, either,” Marlee retorted.

“He’s a man of few words,” Crazy Hoss said.

“But he’s a good man,” Fern put in.

“I’m sure he is.” How many more times were they going to tell her how wonderful Jett was?

“Actions speak louder than words.” Crazy Hoss flicked the reins as they neared a steep grade. The horses picked up speed. “He’s a man of action if there ever was one.”

“He knew he’d scare you off if he told you about the chuck wagon,” Fern said.

Yeah, it was an authentic wagon, all right. Complete with the hard wooden seats that bruised her tail bone.

Both Fern and Crazy Hoss seemed awfully proud of it. But couldn’t they have at least upgraded the seats?

Marlee pulled out her phone, and started a text to Tanya. Her friend would get a kick out of Marlee’s chuck wagon distress. Besides, maybe a little laugh and some sympathy would help ease the pain in her tail bone.

“You won’t get a signal out here,” Fern said, gesturing to Marlee’s cell phone. “This area is too remote and rugged for anything but satellite phones.”

Marlee sighed and stuffed her phone back into her pocket. So much for distraction from the pain.

An hour later, Fern complained of her back hurting, so she climbed back to lounge on the bedrolls with Marlee.

Lounging wasn’t all Fern did. She also grilled Marlee about her love life.

“What about men?” Fern’s eyes twinkled. “A beauty like you has got to have a beau.”

Marlee shook her head. In her first round of college when she’d gotten her accounting degree, she’d been far too busy studying for tests she could barely pass. And in culinary school, even though the tests were easier, she’d worked to pay her way. Both she and Tanya had been strict about enforcing their own no-dating policies.

Fern reached forward and patted Marlee’s knee. “Don’t you worry about that, darlin’,” she said. “This is the perfect place to meet a good man.”

Marlee swallowed a smile. If she had to guess about the perfect place to meet a good man, a cattle drive wouldn’t be the first to come to mind.

“I just hope I don’t meet a bear,” Marlee said. Maybe changing the subject would distract Fern. “Is it too much to hope that they’re all in hibernation already?”

“Goodness, no.” Fern laughed. “They won’t be hibernating until the snows set in for good. But don’t you worry about that. There is plenty of menfolk who would jump at the chance to protect you.” She chuckled. “That’s what I tried to tell Meg.”

“Who is Meg?”

“My daughter.” Fern sighed so heavily, she sank a little lower on the pile of bedrolls. “My old maid daughter.”

Marlee frowned. She’d only read that term in old-fashioned books. She had no idea people still used it.

“That’s why I’m here,” Fern said.

That got a cackle from Crazy Hoss up front. “Fern signed Meg up for this cattle drive, hoping Meg would catch the eye of a single cowboy out here.”

Fern bristled. “It was a great idea, and she should have listened to me. She’d be married up by now if she gave any of my plans half a chance.”

Crazy Hoss hooted with laughter. “It was the first time I’ve ever seen that sweet and gentle gal outright refuse to obey her mother.” The old man whacked his knee with glee. “So now Fern has to take Meg’s place for the cattle drive.”

“Honestly!” Fern flushed. “This is the perfect place for her to find a man.” She sniffed and turned her attention back to Marlee. “She’s great with horses, and simply stunning in the saddle. If you don’t look too closely at her face.”

Marlee’s mouth fell open, and she had to clamp it shut to hold in the gasp that bolted from her chest.

“It’s the truth,” Fern said, unperturbed by her own bold words and Marlee’s shock. “She’s my own daughter, so I can say it. It’s the plain unvarnished truth.”

“Now, Fern.” Crazy Hoss turned in his seat to pin Fern with a stern look. “Meg ain’t exactly been beaten by the ugly stick, and you know it. She’s a fine strong woman.”

Fern snorted. “Strong is what folks around here call a woman when she isn’t good-looking. But the truth is, Meg’s covered from head to toe in freckles, and she refuses to wear makeup or do anything with her hair because she’s too busy spending all of her time with her precious wild mustangs. She doesn’t realize how wild she looks herself.”

Marlee gazed out over Crazy Hoss’s head where the horses plodded up the winding mountain road. Beyond the horses, the face of the mountain rose, swathed in thick pine, with an occasional blaze of aspen. Out there somewhere were herds of wild mustangs. Maybe, if she could land this job, she’d track Meg down and ask her how a person went about spending time with wild mustangs.

“You, on the other hand….” Fern’s voice trailed off as she studied Marlee.

[_Uh-oh. _]

“You’ll be easy to marry off. You’re a real beauty.”

Marlee’s cheeks heated. “I’m just here to cook,” she put in hastily.

Fern laughed. She sat back, smiling and blinking like a contented cat. “A person can do two things at once, you know.”

Maybe she should have taken Jett up on his offer to saddle an old nag for her, instead of riding in the matchmaker’s chuck wagon.

But it was too late for that now.

 

  • * *

They pulled into camp as the sun set.

Marlee was sorer than she’d ever been in her life, but she had to ignore it if she was going to get through the evening.

“I’ll help ya with the tent,” Crazy Hoss said. He’d unhitched the team, and had hobbled them in a nearby meadow.

Now, he was pulling rope and canvas out of the wagon.

“The tent?” Marlee stared. She was supposed to set up a tent? This wasn’t something they’d covered in culinary school.

“The mess hall and kitchen,” Crazy Hoss said. He threw her a corner of heavy canvas. “You didn’t think you were going to cook in the wagon, did ya?”

Marlee lugged the canvas where he directed. She bit the inside of her cheek to prevent herself from groaning every time she had to move.

“Nobody expects you to be good at this,” Crazy Hoss said.

Marlee snorted. “I’m a professional chef,” she muttered. “Emphasis on professional.”

“That might be true.” Crazy Hoss bent to pound a stake. Then he straightened and squinted at her. “But we don’t expect you to be a good chuck wagon cook. At least not out of the gate.”

If Marlee wasn’t so tired, she’d have set him straight on that. It’s true she wasn’t good at a lot of things. She didn’t have the most avant-garde menus. But she consistently put out good food. Nobody had to worry she was going to be a bad chuck wagon cook.

“That’s why I’m here, you know,” Crazy Hoss said. “Jett figured you might need a bit of help to get yer head on straight when it comes to this chuck wagon stuff…but don’t let me intimidate you.”

This time, when he threw another canvas corner to her, she wasn’t ready, and she dropped it.

Nobody expects you to be good at this.

It stung because it sounded an awful lot like what Dad said all the time.

We don’t expect you to be good at school, Marlee. But this chef nonsense isn’t practical. You need to study something you can use in real life.

Marlee sighed. Dad had never said anything like that to her older sisters. He didn’t have to. One was a brain surgeon and one was a District Attorney. Marlee was the only family failure.

Apparently, not even a grumpy cowboy like Jett expected much from her. He’d never even met her, and he’d already lined up Crazy Hoss to babysit her on this trip.

How dare Jett make any assumptions about her! As if springing a cattle drive and a kitchen without running water on her wasn’t bad enough, now she had to report to a boss who had decided she’d fail before she even had a chance to get started.

On this working interview Cassie was supposed to make the decision, not a cowboy. Warm, funny and excited-about-food Cassie.

“You got any experience with outdoor cookin’?” Crazy Hoss interrupted her thoughts.

Marlee watched him pound in the final tent peg. “Yes.” Technically, it was true. There was the grilling class in culinary school, and then she’d even helped a team put together a real pig Luau for her catering class.

“I’ve had an awful lot of good Dutch oven meals in my day.” Crazy Hoss grinned and rocked back on his heels, patting his stomach.

“Don’t let him give you a hard time, Marlee,” Fern said as she brushed by with an armload of firewood. “What he’s had is a lot of cowboy slop served with a side of dry cornbread. And none of it prepared by a professional chef.” She dumped the firewood and straightened up, eyes bright with expectation. “This is gonna be good.”

Tense muscles eased in Marlee’s shoulders. Well, at least one person didn’t expect her to be a flop.

The tent they’d just put up hooked to the back of the chuck wagon, and they’d set up a couple of folding tables and benches so it formed a kind of dining area.

“Folks will only use this dining area if it rains or snows,” Crazy Hoss said. “They prefer to sit around the campfire. So it’s mostly all yours.”

She ducked inside the tent and followed Crazy Hoss to the back of the chuck wagon, where cupboards and drawers were built in. Dried blueberries, beans, dried beef, and other staples like flour, coffee and sugar nestled against each other neatly in the drawers.

With the table set up next to the food storage, her kitchen was a bit larger than she’d expected.

“There ain’t much room for haulin’ food,” Crazy Hoss said. “So we usually have beans and cornbread every night. Pancakes in the mornin.’ The cowboys take a couple biscuits with ‘em for lunch when they hit the trail. Some of the young ones bring their own protein bars. They’ll all be hungry as springtime bears come supper time.”

He plodded to the front of the tent and rolled canvas flaps back, securing them with ties. “If you show me where ya put yer soaked beans, I’d be happy to set ‘em on the fire for ya,” Crazy Hoss said.

Marlee blinked. “Um….”

Outside, the low-lying sun tinged everything in the camp with gold. It was a picture-perfect evening. The sky above purpled and blazed as cowboys finished pitching tents and gathered around the fire, talking and laughing and waiting for their dinner.

It was picture-perfect, except for one thing: nobody had told her she needed to put beans on to soak.

Crazy Hoss cracked his knuckles. “Might not sound like much, but beans and cornbread cooked in a Dutch oven over hot coals could feed a king, if he was in the saddle all day. I shore am lookin’ forward to this.”

“Um, I—” Marlee stammered, as her mind worked. The one thing the men wanted, and she couldn’t get it on to cook. And this was no normal kitchen. Improvising wasn’t going to be easy. “I’ve got something else planned,” she blurted.

It was kind of true. She could do something with that chipped, dried beef. And she’d brought along the produce she’d prepped at the ranch. Spinach, peppers, cabbage, tomatoes and green beans.

She took a deep breath. “I can handle it,” she said. “You go relax and I’ll get everything ready on my own.”

When Crazy Hoss left, Marlee let out a long sigh and rolled her head back, stretching sore muscles.

Seriously. Would it have been too much to ask to pack a propane grill? She’d never cooked with a Dutch oven, but Crazy Hoss had said something about cooking over coals.

How hard could it be?

Marlee got to work. She cobbled together a weak stew of chipped beef, tomatoes, and cabbage. She tossed in all the peppers she’d roasted and soaked in garlic oil that morning. That should give the stew a nice deep flavor, even though it wouldn’t be cooked for very long.

At the last minute, she even hustled up a quick dough for dumplings. They would thicken the broth, and between the stew and the garlic sourdough croutons she’d toasted earlier that day, there wouldn’t be an empty belly in camp.

Marlee settled several large Dutch ovens full of stew on the coals, and then plopped into a chair by the fire next to Fern.

Already, as the last bit of purple turned to navy blue in the sky above, cold rolled down from higher up in the mountains.

“We’ll push on to our base camp tomorrow,” Jett said. “It’ll be another full day of driving in the chuck wagon.” He peered at her, a question in his eyes.

“She’ll survive it,” Fern chuckled. She patted Marlee on the knee. “This gal’s tough.”

Marlee stretched and smiled sweetly back at Jett.

His doubtful look would come right off after he tasted the dinner she’d just created.

Yeah. She was going to survive this cattle drive. She might come back with mosquito bites all over, and a whiplash from the chuck wagon, but Marlee Donovan had already risen to the occasion and produced a dinner that would knock their socks off.

*CHAPTER SEVEN *

 

Marlee stirred the stew and took a plate from the first cowboy in line. She plopped a heaping serving of stew onto his plate.

Oh, no.

The dumplings had sunk to the bottom, and were stuck in one gritty burnt layer. Their charred edges taunted her from the steaming stew she’d just served.

For the next plate, Marlee tried her best to avoid dishing up the blackest parts. She prayed the burnt flavor hadn’t bled into the entire dish.

But when she finally sat down with her plate, she tasted the awful truth.

Not only had the dumplings burnt, but ash permeated the entire stew. Her stomach churned, threatening mutiny at the next bite.

Everyone else had their heads down, not looking at her or at each other.

No one spoke.

They all ate. And they ate with mournful faces.

And no one lined up for seconds.

But at least they ate without complaint.

One of the cowboy mumbled something about a full belly, and Marlee’s ears burned.

She wanted to take the shovel they’d used for the fire pit, and go dig a hole to crawl into.

Jett loped to the chuck wagon and pulled out a batch of cornbread Cassie must have baked in preparation for the trip.

Marlee’s face went hot, all the way up through her scalp. She was such a bad cook, she hadn’t even been able to locate the cornbread.

She tossed the last two charred hunks of beef from her stew into the campfire. The meat was so dry, the flames barely hissed.

By the time she drug herself into her kitchen tent to clean up after dinner, she was feeling beaten, tired and desperate.

Outside, everyone sat around the campfire telling stories. Talking about rustlers.

But in the privacy of the kitchen tent, tears stung Marlee’s throat as she faced down a huge stack of dishes.

“Get it together, Marlee,” she scolded.

What was wrong with her?

Despite the tears, she nearly giggled at her own ludicrous question. Everything was wrong. She deserved a good cry. Her body ached, she’d flopped majorly on her first day, and now she had a towering stack of dishes to wash.

With freezing cold water.

Oh. And after that, she had a freezing cold night to look forward to, sleeping on the ground. And then another whole day of a torturous chuck wagon ride.

Marlee poured a pail of cold water into a dishpan, rolled up her sleeves and started scrubbing.

Fall had dazzled so lovely that afternoon, casting the mountain skies in deep blue, and tinging the air with the smells of wet earth and leaves. But now, the cold was anything but lovely. Marlee shivered, her fingers nearly frozen in frigid dishwater.

This was by far the most miserable day of her career as a chef. This was even worse than the day she’d forgotten to take her knives home after class, and someone had stolen them. That had earned her an automatic failing grade, and she’d had to re-take the class.

Washing this particular batch of dishes with the stuck-on burnt stuff was the worst part of the worst day ever.

Could she really make it out here for a whole month?

A hot tear rolled down her cheek and splashed in the water. Maybe if she let herself cry, she’d feel better. Maybe if she cried enough, she could warm up the water a bit.

She heard the soft flick of tent canvas. Marlee sniffed and ducked her head, trying to dry her tears on her shoulder.

She’d been embarrassed enough today. The last thing she needed was some mouthy cowboy catching her blubbering into her dishpan.

Somebody patted her awkwardly on the back, and Marlee looked up.

Jett stood there, one hand on her back, and the other carrying a steel bucket of steaming water.

“Stand back,” he said.

She did, and he poured a little hot water into her dish pan.

She slipped her hands back under the water.

“Ahhh.” She breathed a sigh of joy as warm water soothed her cold fingers. “Thank you.”

In that moment, she forgot all about being mad at him.

How could a girl be mad at a man who had just transformed her dishwater into a nearly spa-like experience?

He grunted, and a small smile turned up the edge of his mouth.

She bent down, scrubbing harder now. Hot water made all the difference. She had six heavy cast-iron Dutch ovens full of gunk. They needed lots of scraping. If she kept on task, she could power right through them, and then finally collapse in her sleeping bag.

Jett set out another dishpan beside her.

Marlee stopped and watched him pour in hot and cold water. He rolled up his sleeves and took the first Dutch oven off the stack.

Marlee’s shoulders relaxed, warmth spreading through her. He was actually going to help her with the dishes. Fresh tears sprang to her eyes.

Who knew such a rough man could be so thoughtful?

“I set up a tent for you,” he said. “With a bedroll and a pillow.”

“Thank you,” Marlee said. She blinked the tears away and cleared her throat. She was too tired to care that she hadn’t done it herself. She’d pitch her own tent tomorrow.

And do the dishes on her own.

And not burn dinner.

She went back to washing the dishes. Now that she had help and warm water, the task seemed lighter. She snuck a sidelong glance at Jett.

His hat shadowed his face as he bent over a pot. “I made sure you got the warm blanket.”

Marlee laughed weakly. “There’s only one warm blanket?”

His teeth flashed in the dim light, and a dimple appeared on his cheek. This was the first time she’d seen him smile fully. Maybe he wasn’t the tough and grumpy cowboy all the time. He had a soft side in there somewhere.

“Mom made it for me,” he said. “First cattle drive I ever went on. One time I let Austin Paycoach use it.” His low chuckle filled the entire tent with warmth. “The men have been trying to steal it from me ever since.”

For a little while, they washed dishes in silence. It was a comfortable kind of silence.

Maybe it was the way orange and golden light flickered against the tent canvas from the fire outside. Or the fact he’d pitched a tent for her and had come to help with the dishes. Whatever the reason, Marlee suddenly wanted the dishes to last longer.

“Crazy Hoss told me you’re the only one holding this ranch together,” Marlee said, her voice soft.

Jett shrugged. “They’re my family.” He looked at her, dark shards of pain in his eyes. “Silas was more of a dad to me than….” His voice thickened.

Marlee reached out and touched his arm. “I’m sorry,” she murmured.

Outside, men laughed and Fern’s voice trilled to a high point. It must be Fern’s turn to tell the story.

Jett cleared his throat. “Why a ranch chef, Marlee?”

She let her hands swirl slowly in the dishwater.

[_Because I was tired of living somebody else’s life. _]

[_Because I was fired from my last four jobs as an accountant because I wasn’t detailed and fast enough. _]

[_Because I wasn’t good at anything else. _]

She shrugged, and tried to smile. “Why not?”

His eyes darkened, intensifying to a rich purple-black. They pierced through her, sifting, weighing and measuring her words.

He was silent, but she knew. She could feel he didn’t buy her flippant response.

“I was an accountant before,” she said.

His eyes showed no surprise. So she took a deep breath and went on.

“Let’s just say I’m a better cook than an accountant.”

Weird. Since she’d told Dad she was changing careers, she hadn’t allowed herself to think about the many times she’d been fired as an accountant. Why dwell on the past, when she had to put every ounce of energy into her new future?

But now, in the fire-glow of this tent, in the middle of the wild, talking to this cowboy about it seemed as natural as getting hungry.

She pinched her lips into a brave smile as his eyes did their thing…sifting, weighing and measuring her words again.

“You burned the stew,” he finally said.

A tiny gasp slipped through her lips.

Rude.

Except his voice was soft and his gaze held no judgment. And there was an odd tenderness in the set of his mouth.

Marlee took a quick breath and raised her chin. “Yeah,” she said. “That doesn’t mean I will next time.”

For a moment, they stood there, looking at each other.

Something in his face softened. “Good,” he said.

Good? That was all?

Tension dissolved in the air between them, and the murmurs of voices by the campfire mingled with the chirp of a lone cricket somewhere outside the tent.

It was like she’d passed some kind of un-written test.

She smiled. That was okay by her. Unwritten tests were the kind she could ace.

“Are there really rustlers?” she asked. “I mean, how can you know it’s rustlers and not hunters in the area?”

That loosened his mouth, and to her surprise, he told her stories about rustlers from a hundred years ago. And then stories about rustlers from that year.

He told her about how dangerous it was getting, and about how Sheriff Mack had responded to a distress call near Perry Creek and had found a Brand Inspector seriously injured. Rustlers had taken his gun, shot him in the leg, and rolled him into a gully to die.

“And then they shot at Ben Rockspur a few weeks ago, when he caught them stealing his cattle,” he said. “That’s where Austin, Silas and Cassie were flying.” He stopped, his mouth hardening. He looked like a man circling something he’d rather ride away from, but then he forged on. “They were flying over Ben’s ranch, where the rustlers were last seen, trying to locate their base camp.”

Marlee shivered.

“In a lot of ways, the wild west hasn’t changed much,” Jett said.

She finished drying the last dish, and put it in the wooden chuck box built into the side of the wagon.

Behind her, Jett was busy with something at the table.

She stood there for a moment, watching him.

The way his body moved, a person would think he was easy-going. His movements were easy. Efficient, but fluid somehow. It was only his eyes that were tense. And his mouth.

Well, maybe not tense. Maybe firm.

Jett turned around then, and pressed a tin mug of something hot into her hands. “Careful. It’s got a kick to it.”

He wasn’t kidding, and Marlee nearly spit it out. It was dark chocolate, with a little cayenne. At first, it tickled her throat and stung her eyes. But in the next minute, the heat moved down, spreading out in her belly, warming her in a way regular hot chocolate wouldn’t have done. Surprising. She normally didn’t like spicy stuff, but this hot chocolate was great.

Maybe it was because things taste different when they were cooked and enjoyed outside.

Maybe it was because the air was so cold, the stars themselves glistened like a frozen blanket of glitter.

She followed Jett outside, and they settled down by the fire again.

“You said you saw something on the way up here, Jett,” Buck said.

“A plane.”

Marlee smiled into her hot chocolate. In the tent when it had only been the two of them, Jett had no problem talking. Out here, he’d gone back to his two-word responses.

For a minute, nobody said anything. Everyone stared into the campfire, faces tense.

“Cain’t be no hunters,” Crazy Hoss said.

“Not on private land,” Jett agreed.

“The only men out here is us cowboys,” Buck said.

Ty sat back in his chair, and twirled a rope lazily. “Yup,” he said. “If we come across them rustlers, us old cowboys would take ‘em down in eight seconds flat.”

That led to talk of old cowboy legends.

Jett’s serious eyes sparkled black as the starry night in the reflection of the flames.

His gaze caught hers once in a while. It might have been the shadows, but there was almost a smile on his face when he looked at her.

Marlee nearly nodded off to sleep while they told tall tales.

Finally, she pushed herself up and stretched. “I’d better hit the sack,” she said. “See y’all at breakfast.”

She walked toward her tent, and pulled her sweatshirt tighter. Only five steps from the fire, and the cold pierced through to the bone.

“Marlee.”

She turned.

Jett stood there, shadowed in the night.

“You always sleep with your knives?”

She hitched her knife roll up. “A good chef always brings her own knives,” she said stiffly.

“You can leave them in the kitchen.” He took a step closer. “I wouldn’t let the bears eat you.” The gleam of his eyes told her he was holding back a laugh.

Marlee clenched her fist around the strap of her knife roll. Normally, she’d cook up a smart reply, but she was too tired. Besides, she didn’t know how much good it would do to explain the world of a professional chef to a cowboy.

“Here.” He took her hand and pressed something into her palm.

A small jar.

“Stinks,” he said. “But it works.”

“What’s this for?”

“For your…uh—” Even in the dim light, she could see his face redden. He ducked his head.

“You might have a sore…uh—”

Marlee’s hand went to her backside.

“Tail bone?” She raised her eyebrows.

“Yeah.” He looked away and shoved his hands in his pockets. “It’s a formula my buddy shared with me back when I was a hot-shot bronc buster.”

His lopsided grin told her he was poking fun at himself. “His grandfather shared it with him, and his father before him.” He winked at her, and she stared at the single dimple in his cheek.

That dimple was like God playing a joke on Himself. Why put a dimple in the cheek of someone who almost never smiled?

“Turns out even the toughest Indian warriors got sore.” He pulled something out of his other pocket.

She heard a click and a small light came on. He handed it to her. The flashlight was bright, even though it fit perfectly in the palm of her hand.

“It’s hard to read in the dark,” he said.

“How do you know I read?”

Again his teeth flashed white in the shadows. “You sure quote a lot of scripture for somebody who doesn’t read.”

A small frisson of pleasure warmed her skin in the cold mountain air. “Thanks.”

He tipped his hat, and then ambled back to the fire.

Marlee stumbled to her tent. Every bone in her body ached, and now, with the cold ratcheting her muscles into spasms, the pain only grew. As she rubbed the strong-smelling salve on sore limbs, she was surprised at the hot tingling that soaked into her muscles.

Stinky or not, the stuff was a miracle.

She crawled into her bedroll, and pulled the warm blanket over her body before reaching for her Bible and her new tiny flashlight.

Jett was strange. Abrupt at times, nearly to the point of rudeness. But he’d been kind. Maybe Crazy Hoss was right about him. Maybe Jett was a man of actions instead of words.

He’d actually listened to her. More than she’d given him credit for.

In the dark, she explored the edge of the blanket. It was some kind of fur skin, with a wool lining sewn on.

In all her wildest dreams of the Wild West, she’d never imagined she’d be sleeping under fur.

Within minutes, her body grew warm and her muscles relaxed. Except for the flat-as-a pancake pillow, she was almost comfortable.

Snuggling deeper, she opened her Bible to where she’d left off last night.

He leads the humble in what is right, and the humble He teaches His way. All the paths of the Lord are mercy and steadfast love, even truth and faithfulness—

A loud wolf howl pierced the night, and Marlee froze.

This was crazy. What was she doing out here in the west, huddled under a bearskin rug with burnt beans in her tummy and wolves prowling just outside?

She set her Bible next to her knife roll and flicked the flashlight off.

One thing was certain: she’d need God’s mercy and steadfast love if she was going to survive this.

And so would the Paycoach family. She squeezed her eyes shut and said a prayer for them.

And for Jett.

Somehow, she must have drowsed off during her prayer. The next thing she knew, the sound of the tent zipper yanked Marlee awake. She sat up and rubbed her eyes.

Fern poked her head in the tent. “Wanna borrow my wind-up alarm clock so you’ll be up in time for breakfast?”

_Wow. _

Everybody was in her business, trying to tell her how to do things. Just like at home.

Well, tomorrow, she’d prove she could handle herself.

“No, thanks,” Marlee mumbled. She dropped her head back on the flat pillow. “I’m using my cell phone.”

“Suit yourself,” Fern said.

Marlee was too tired to zip the tent flaps when Fern left. Besides, it was nice to see the glow of the coals and hear their muffled pops and to let the low voices of cowboys lull her to sleep.

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

Jett couldn’t sleep. He’d tossed and turned all night, eyes burning and unshed sorrow sitting like a full-grown bull on his chest.

Talking to Marlee about Silas had dissolved something inside. In those few moments, her gentle eyes had soothed raw places in his heart that he couldn’t put words to. But in the dead of night, when the cold crept in, so had the rawness.

Finally, Jett crawled out of bed and stumbled to the mess tent. It was still quiet in camp when he stirred up the coals, and coaxed them back to life.

Normally, the camp cook would be up right about now, starting the coffee boiling and getting breakfast on.

But Marlee had to be plumb wore out. She’d worked hard yesterday. For a city girl. And she’d been a trooper, taking it on the chin when the food was so burnt.

By evening, she’d about proven to him she might toughen up enough to make it through this thing.

No harm in whipping up the biscuits, gravy and bacon himself this morning.

Just this once.

It was what any good trail boss would do, if that’s what it took to help a greenhorn settle in.

Besides, she’d lasted longer yesterday than he’d figured she would.

Chatterbox or not, she’d earned some respect.

And maybe some slack, too. Because he was a softy, and he’d heard her sniffles last night.

She’d tried to hide them, but he’d seen how she’d ducked her head over the dishes. Nobody found washing dishes that interesting, unless they were trying to hide tears.

Then she’d given him such a soft and grateful look when he’d handed her the hot cocoa last night. Those were the kind of looks a cowboy had to be careful of.

But soft looks or not, the truth was still as stark as ever: Marlee Donovan was still a city girl. There was a good chance she’d wimp out on her first full day on the trail. And it was his job to make sure every person on this cattle drive could carry their own weight.

He couldn’t ease up on her just because her velvety brown eyes with their long thick lashes made him feel a little weak in the knees.

Nope. If she wimped out, he’d have to treat her like any other cowhand. He’d have to fire her.

He couldn’t go easy on her. But there was nothing wrong with helping her get a running start since she was so new.

Starting with getting the biscuits on.

Jett was nearly elbow-deep in biscuit dough when Crazy Hoss ducked under the tent flap, rubbing his eyes.

“Coffee on yet?”

Jett handed him a mug and then followed the old-timer to the campfire where Fern hunched near the crackling flames.

Jett set the biscuits on and then squinted at the sky. It was nearly dawn and hungry folks were gathering around the campfire. A couple of cowboys came out of the mess tent.

Jett frowned. Even Ty was up.

But not Marlee.

By the time Jett choked down his flat, dry biscuits, the sun had broken out above the ridge.

Still no Marlee.

He didn’t mind making breakfast, but he’d expected her to be up by now. At least make an effort. It was already time to saddle up, and his camp cook had slept through breakfast.

“Boss,” Crazy Hoss interrupted his thoughts. “You gonna wake up Sleeping Beauty this mornin’?”

Jett grunted.

Fern laughed. “Yeah. With love’s true kiss?”

He glared and pulled his hat brim down so they couldn’t see his eyes. Fern and Crazy Hoss were some of his favorite people.

Even if Crazy Hoss poked his nose into everyone’s business. And even if Fern spread that business all around the county. Crazy Hoss owned the café in town, and Fern was an old cowgirl-turned housewife, turned gossipy beauty salon owner. Neither one of them had been on a cattle drive for over a couple of decades. And they weren’t being paid for this one, either. They’d volunteered when they had heard the Paycoach family was in need.

Yup, they were good people. But even good people got under the skin when they nosed into his business.

Jett strode to Marlee’s tent. If he let her sleep too much longer, his cowhands would think he’d gone soft. He’d find them slacking off. Taking naps when they should be flushing out the cattle that were spread out all over the mountain.

There was no way he was going to let that happen. Especially when the Paycoach family counted on him to hold things together during this time of crisis.

She’d left the flaps open, and the foot of her sleeping bag stuck out of the tent. She must have scootched down sometime in the night. He wouldn’t be surprised if she was half-eaten by skeeters.

He nudged her foot with the toe of his boot.

She stirred, but then a small snore drifted up.

He nudged her again, harder this time.

She groaned, and rolled over on her back.

“Marlee,” he barked, and kicked softly at her foot. Maybe tomorrow, he should hook up an IV and attach Crazy Hoss’s coffee. It was straight caffeine and mud. The smell alone could wake a hibernating bear from ten paces.

“Marlee.”

She squawked and sat up, hair wild and face wilder still.

He laughed. She was cute. Like a disgruntled bear cub.

She hurled a potato at him, and burrowed back under the sleeping bag.

He chuckled. She was feisty. He should have known that when she’d assaulted those veggies yesterday with knives flashing. He’d never seen spinach and peppers surrender so fast.

But feisty or not, Marlee posed a problem. Besides the fact that she’d slept in, a woman who would sleep with potatoes in her tent didn’t know the first thing about securing food in camp.

He’d bet his eyeteeth she didn’t know how to put food up to keep it from bears. Besides, there was the signs of rustlers he’d seen on the way up. He couldn’t leave her in camp alone. She’d be a sitting duck.

Nope. He was going to have to leave Fern and Crazy Hoss in camp with her this entire trip. That meant he’d be down another team of wranglers.

He wrinkled his nose as a strong odor wafted toward him from her tent.

He grinned. She had used his muscle rub.

Maybe he’d let her sleep in a bit longer after all. But only because he didn’t want to follow Fern’s advice to wake her with a kiss. He imagined her lips tasted like strawberry lip gloss.

He pressed his own lips together in a tight line.

Whoa, Jett. Ease up.

He had things to do. He had a family’s entire livelihood resting on his shoulders. Best he get on the trail and take care of business.

Moonin’ around Marlee’s tent just because he wanted to see her pretty face first thing in the morning didn’t do anyone any good. Besides, what would he do, anyway, if she woke up and smiled at him?

Probably stare. Wouldn’t be able to squeeze a single word out.

Yup. He was one smooth cowboy, all right.

If anybody could make a fool out of himself without saying a single word, it was Jett Maddox.

CHAPTER NINE

 

Marlee stretched and rubbed her eyes. They felt gritty after the dusty ride yesterday.

She was going to have to teach Jett some manners. She did not appreciate his little practical joke. Waking her in the middle of the night. What was that? Some kind of western hazing?

But then she smelled bacon.

[_Wait. What? _]

She grabbed her phone, a groan dying on her lips.

_Dead. _

No. Her phone never died. She’d bought one with an extra-long battery life on purpose, and it had a full charge when she went to sleep last night.

But her heart sunk to her frozen toes as she squirmed around and jerked her boots on. It had to have been the cold that drained her battery so fast.

Wishing she were dead wouldn’t help. But it gave Marlee’s brain something to distract her from the stiffness in her body as she crawled out of her tent and tried to stand.

She stumbled toward the fire where Crazy Hoss and Fern sat with coffee in hand.

“Mornin’ sunshine.” Crazy Hoss grinned, his gray whiskers bristling with almost as much cheer as his eyes. He handed her a steaming mug.

Marlee took two gulps of the bitter stuff and squeezed her eyes shut to keep them from falling out. She’d heard tales of cowboy coffee, but had assumed they were exaggerations.

They weren’t.

But she was in desperate need of caffeine. She’d slept deeply, but was so groggy by the time the sun came up, she’d hallucinated throwing a potato at someone.

She couldn’t tell if the grogginess came from the cold fresh air, or if it was a side effect of the ointment Jett had given her last night. Then again, it could be from sleeping on a bag of potatoes. The pillow Jett had left with her bedroll was as flat as a Kansas prairie. She’d had to get up in the middle of the night and look for something to put under it. The only thing she’d found was a bag of potatoes.

“Jett and the boys went on ahead,” Crazy Hoss said. “I’m gonna help you get camp torn down and move on.”

“Move on?” Marlee scowled.

“We’re about halfway to our main campsite,” Crazy Hoss said. There’s not enough firewood here to keep us going for a month.

Marlee gulped.

A month. Jett had told her it would be a month, but she was hoping that was another cowboy exaggeration.

Turns out, it wasn’t.

“Normally, the chuck wagon cook has to clean up and tear down alone,” Fern said. Her eyes shone like that was the best tidbit of gossip she’d come across her whole life. “Prep for supper, pack up the gear, and harness the horses.”

“Alone?” Marlee squeaked. She didn’t know the first thing about harnessing horses. And she wasn’t crazy about the idea of being left alone with hungry bears prowling the area.

“Yup.” Crazy Hoss grinned.

Fern leaned forward. “But Jett told us to stay behind.” She waggled her eyebrows at Marlee.

“Said ya might need our help,” Crazy Hoss said. His grin was so big, all her groggy brain registered were teeth and whiskers.

Marlee glared and stabbed at her biscuits.

“Like a hole in the head,” Marlee muttered under her breath. Jett had already told her the ranch was short-staffed. He must really think she was incompetent if he’d kept two of his cowhands back at camp to babysit her.

And she couldn’t blame him, because she had slept in this morning…slept right through her first breakfast shift. Whatever she had to prove as a city girl now just got a double helping added. Now, she had to prove she wasn’t a lazy cook who slept in all the time.

Crazy Hoss stood up and lumbered toward the chuck wagon where he started untying the canvas spread over the makeshift dining area.

“If I were you, I’d stretch my muscles some,” he threw over his shoulder. “Sore muscles can make a body awful cranky.”

“It’s not the sore muscles making her cranky,” Fern crowed. “I think it’s a handsome cowboy.”

Marlee bit her tongue. Lashing out at the people who were helping her wouldn’t earn her any favors. “That’s not how I’d describe him,” she grumbled.

“Who, dear?” Fern asked.

“Jett.” Marlee wanted to stuff his name right back into her mouth the moment it slipped out. Yup, she’d stepped right into the older woman’’s trap.

Fern’s eyes gleamed. “So you do think he’s handsome. And can you believe such a handsome cowboy is single?” She patted Marlee’s knee. “Did you know he’s the only cowboy in these parts with just that one killer dimple?”

Marlee blinked. Did the woman ever stop with the matchmaking?

She glanced at Crazy Hoss in a silent plea for help, but the man’s eyes gleamed behind bushy brows as he rolled and tied canvas. He was enjoying this too much to stop Fern. It was up to Marlee to change the subject.

And the way she’d let everyone down that morning was the first topic that came to mind.

“I set my alarm clock,” she said. “But the battery went dead.”

“Don’t you worry none,” Crazy Hoss said. “Jett fried up the bacon himself this morning.”

Marlee groaned and covered her face with her hands.

“It ain’t all bad.” Crazy Hoss patted her awkwardly on the back. “It don’t hurt him none to be a cowhand and camp cook at the same time. Back in my day, every camp cook was also a good cowpoke. Most outfits needed him to be in the saddle when he wasn’t slingin’ flapjacks.”

Marlee sat up straighter. Maybe there was a chance to redeem her pride after all.

“But not all cooks go out on the trail, honey,” Fern said. “So don’t you worry.”

“But some do?” Marlee asked.

Crazy Hoss nodded.

“And the ranch is short-handed,” Marlee said slowly.

Fern nodded.

“And I’ve told you I can ride,” Marlee said. She chuckled and hopped up to grab a plate of pancakes. “So I guess that’s settled.”

Crazy Hoss stared. Then he threw his head back and laughed, his whiskers jutting out.

“You sure about that?” Fern shook her head. “You know pride goes before a fall. And the fall off a horse’s back is a lot rougher than it looks.”

“You’ll have to talk to Jett,” Crazy Hoss said. “He decides who rides and who don’t.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Marlee smiled. “I’ll show Jett what I’m made of.”

“If he don’t turn you down flat,” the old man chuckled.

Marlee grinned.

Yeah. Jett wouldn’t like the idea. But she still had to give it a shot.

If a man could cowboy in the day and cook in the evenings, so could she. She’d just have to get creative.

And get almost no sleep for the next few weeks.

And get the most frustrating man in Big Sky country to say yes to her half-crazy idea.

CHAPTER TEN

 

The next morning, Marlee rose early, thanks to Fern’s wind-up alarm clock.

She had the fire going, biscuits on and bacon already sizzling before anyone woke.

Marlee stepped a little outside the perimeter of firelight. If she followed the line of the makeshift corral that the men had put up for the horses, she’d reach a lookout point. Maybe as the sun came up, she could get a glimpse of the lake everyone in town talked about. Looking Glass Lake should be nestled down in the valley, and she couldn’t wait to see it.

Jett had told her it glowed with light, reflecting a brightening sky even before the sun came up. And last night, Crazy Hoss had told the legend of the Native American chief the lake was named after. Chief Looking Glass had lived his whole life working for peace, but then had died in war.

Crazy Hoss had said that according to legend, if a person peered into the lake long enough, they would find their real identity staring back at them.

If she looked into Looking Glass Lake now, she’d most likely see her sister’s faces staring back at her.

What it would feel like to be free of the expectation to be like her sisters?

The verse she’d read that morning in Galatians floated through her mind.

Each person should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else.

Well, that’s why she’d worked so hard to get through culinary school. And it was why she’d come out west. It was time to stop trying to be someone else. It was time to just be Marlee Donovan.

She tipped her head back to look at stars so close she wanted to reach out and touch them. She gulped in air so sharp it nearly sliced her lungs in half. It was like a crisp sorbet. She didn’t know air could be so fresh, but still be packed with so much scent.

A horse nickered in the darkness and a twig cracked.

Marlee froze, her heart lurching to her mouth. Were rustlers coming for the horses?

A figure moved in the darkness, and Marlee jumped.

“Just me.”

Jett stepped out of the shadows.

Marlee blew out a hard breath and her heart clattered back down where it belonged.

“Did I scare you?” His grin flashed in the shadows.

She ignored him, stuck her nose in the air and headed back to the kitchen.

He followed her, ducking under the tent flap and standing across the table from her.

She took an apple from the bushel basket on the table and began peeling it, hoping the action would calm her shaking hands.

Jett gave a low whistle. “You sure are determined to make us cowboys eat our fruits and veggies,” he said. “Do you serve fruit with every meal?”

“This is for dinner tonight,” Marlee said. “I’m prepping now because I plan to head out with you men and help bring in the cattle today.”

He snorted, laughter lighting his face.

Marlee frowned. Last night, that dimple seemed charming. This morning, it had her steaming under the collar.

“Didn’t know you had such a good sense of humor,” he chuckled.

Marlee’s hands flew to her hips, and she dropped the apple.

It rolled to his feet, but she ignored it, glaring up at Jett.

“The joke’s on you if you think I’m gonna sit around the kitchen all day.”

He rubbed his chin, and blinked. “You’re a chuck wagon cook,” he said. “You’re supposed to be in the kitchen.”

She took a deep breath and bit her lips. Hard. She wanted to correct him.

She wasn’t a cook. She was a chef. Big difference.

But now wasn’t the time. Now was the time to try the logic that had worked so well on Crazy Hoss and Fern just yesterday. Now was the time to prove she was not somebody who slept through her first morning on the job. She was somebody they could count on. In the kitchen and in the saddle, if necessary.

“Some cooks are also ranch hands.”

He grunted and widened his stance.

“And the ranch is short-handed right now. You could use more help if you’re going to get the cattle out of the mountains before the snow sets in. You said so yourself.”

He didn’t say anything, but his brows relaxed a little, and he rubbed his jaw.

Her skin prickled. She could imagine how his skin would feel, with its stubble so short it would only sting a little bit. But she shouldn’t be imagining that right now. Not if she wanted to make her point.

“And I can ride,” she said quickly.

His dark eyes flickered. He was going to say no.

“All I’m asking for is a chance to prove myself.”

His eyebrows shot up, and a thrill of satisfaction straightened her spine.

Yeah. That got his attention real good.

She shrugged. “I spent some time on my uncle’s farm every summer,” she said. “So I know my way around a horse.”

He grunted and then turned on his heel and left the tent.

Marlee snorted. So he was probably some kind of a horse snob. Riding experience only counted on ranches and not farms.

She scooped the apple off the ground, and dashed at it with a towel. She was half tempted to leave the dirt on it and bake it into his own special apple dirt-dumpling tonight. That would teach him to ignore her offer.

“A nice mouthful of genuine Rocky Mountain dirt ground into his Apple Brown Betty,” she muttered, jabbing viciously at the apple with her peeler. She almost took the skin off her knuckles when it slipped. “That’s exactly what this situation calls for, and I’m the chef for the job.”

She stiffened when a gust of cold morning breeze told her someone had entered the tent.

Most likely Jett, based on the silence behind her.

She lifted her head high and tried her best to focus on peeling apples. She discovered it was a lot harder to do when her nose was up in the air.

But so be it.

She nearly jumped out of her skin when his arm brushed hers. He set a tin mug of coffee down on the folding table, but he didn’t step away from her.

That runaway heartbeat—the one that had surprised her when he’d startled her outside that morning—was back. Her skin prickled again, too.

He cleared his throat.

He had to know how he affected her. Her heart was thumping along at a gallop so loud even Crazy Hoss could probably hear it way over there by the fire.

Her face flamed hot, and she was grateful for the shadows of the tent. Grateful she’d set her nose so high in the air.

“You’ll need caffeine,” he said. “It’s a long ride.”

 

  • * *

 

A few hours into the drive, and Marlee’s body screamed at her for being so stubborn.

She’d ridden before, yes. But not all day. And Calamity, the horse Jett had saddled for her, was not the sleepy nag Jett had said she would be. Plus, she didn’t seem to like Marlee. She had a habit of sidestepping every time Marlee wanted her to turn, and when Marlee tried to get her to stop, she took a few extra backwards dancing steps that had Marlee’s heart seizing up in panic.

Why had she ever thought this was a good idea?

As a kid, riding the farm horses wasn’t anything like this. She remembered the smell of them, the soft velvety noses, and how she’d wanted to ride all day.

But she’d been able to climb down when she grew tired of the horses, and find something else to do. Like target-shooting with her cousins.

Even a kid wouldn’t be excited about a day-long butt-whupping on the broad back of an ornery horse.

But what alternative did she have? Rattling along on a hard board bench with Crazy Hoss, hoping bears weren’t planning a surprise raid of their food.

Besides, her gut had been on a steady simmer since Jett’s attitude that morning. She had to prove she could pull her own weight, and so far, she hadn’t proven anything by burning every single meal so far. Even the pancakes at breakfast.

Fern slowed down ahead of her, and turned in the saddle, a pleasant laugh on her lips.

Marlee tried to make clutching the saddle horn with both hands look graceful.

“You ain’t got nothin’ to prove.” Fern squinted at her from under the brim of her tan cowboy hat. “You’re pretty enough to just sit around if you want, and you’d still get that man’s attention.”

Marlee snorted. Calamity shied to the right at the sound, and Marlee dug her fists into the cantankerous mare’s mane. She wanted to kick the horse for smarting off like that, but that could make Calamity burst into a gallop.

“I don’t want his attention,” Marlee corrected. “I’m simply trying to be a good trail cook and help the Paycoach family in their time of need.”

“Then impress him with your food,” Fern said. “You’re just like my Meg.”

Marlee sighed. She didn’t need to hear more about Meg’s woes over finding a good man. She’d heard enough of that yesterday.

But even if she wasn’t distracted by Calamity’s meanderings, Marlee still would not have been able to stop Fern’s chatter.

“Meg is too afraid to use her feminine charms to lasso herself a man,” Fern said.

Marlee grunted as Calamity trotted around a stand of trees. Uphill. Away from Fern. That was the first time the horse seemed to read Marlee’s mind. Time to get away from talk about getting matched with the grumpy cowboy.

But Calamity was only interested in checking out a bush, and she headed right back to Fern’s side. Fern waited patiently.

“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with wanting a man,” Fern said. “It’s how the good Lord made us.”

Marlee laughed. “What scripture says that?”

Fern rolled her eyes. “It’s in the very first book,” she said. “Don’t you read your Bible? Says as soon as God was done makin’ Adam, He said, ‘It’s not good for man to be alone.’”

There wasn’t much Marlee could say to that.

“It’s the first thing God said that wasn’t good. And I reckon He knows.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

When Marlee and Fern came to the creek Jett had told them about, they turned and headed up the mountain.

“You know,” Fern said as they rode. “I think you already got Jett’s attention. Why else would he have you workin’ so close to him?”

Marlee grunted. She’d never grunted so many times in her life. Maybe Jett’s ways were rubbing off on her. But conversation with Fern didn’t exactly leave her many other options. And besides, Jett was nowhere in sight.

Not what Marlee would call working close together.

Jett had said there was a meadow up here where the cattle sometimes liked to hang out and graze. Cold weather should have driven them to lower pastures by now, but he’d said it would be good to check it out anyway.

And he’d promised he’d be heading back their direction with a few cattle he’d spied over the ridge. If Fern and Marlee found any livestock, Jett would help them drive the cattle to the next campsite where a corral was set up. All Fern and Marlee needed to do was flush them out of the brush and into the meadow before he got there.

It didn’t sound too hard.

But then again, the idea of being a line cook at a ranch hadn’t sounded too hard, either.

“Yup,” Fern was saying. “He wants you close by.”

“Maybe because he expected I’d need rescuing,” Marlee muttered. Just like everyone else in her family. Being the youngest meant being rescued, even if she didn’t need it.

Fern pulled her horse to a dead stop, her mouth halfway open. “A rescue,” she said. “That’s not a bad idea.”

But Calamity was in no mood to stop for conversation. She pushed past Fern, blowing through her nose.

By the time they got to the meadow, Marlee was ready to set up her tent right there in the middle of the wildflowers and crash for the night.

But it was only four o’clock in the afternoon. And even though the shadows were already starting to lengthen, and a fall sunset was on its way, there was no way she wanted her boss catching her in a catnap.

“You go to that side of the meadow, and I’ll take this side,” Fern said. She flicked at her horse with her heels, and the bay took off, straight for the trees. For an old woman, she sure looked good in the saddle.

Marlee sighed and tightened her grip on the saddle horn.

“All right, Calamity,” she whispered. “Let’s go find a cow.”

But she squeezed her eyes shut and said a quick prayer that she wouldn’t find one. She had no idea what she would do with it if she found a cow. If she couldn’t get the horse she was riding to follow directions, how in the world was she going to get a cow to obey?

Marlee gave a tug to the reins, trying to guide Calamity toward the trees.

Calamity snorted and jerked her head in the opposite direction, and started backing up instead of turning.

So Marlee tried the other side. Again, Calamity tossed her head and this time, she neighed and reared up slightly before dancing backwards again.

“You mangy fleabag,” Marlee screeched as she clung to the saddle horn.

“You’ve got to take control,” a man’s voice called out from the trees.

Marlee leaned forward in the saddle and squinted.

Jett sat on a tall roan horse, grinning as he headed her way. He was relaxed in the saddle.

Take control? What did he think she was trying to do? Take a nap?

Jett’s horse came up next to Calamity, and Jett sat back in the saddle, eyes shadowed by his hat. “Sit up straight. Bouncing all around in the saddle just confuses her.”

Marlee straightened then. Not because he’d told her to, but because his attitude frayed her nerves.

“You expect her to listen, but when you’re all over the place in the saddle, she has no idea where you really want her to go,” he added.

How in the world did he know she’d been bouncing around in the saddle?

“Hold the reins firm, but not tight.” He demonstrated with his horse. “You gotta have soft hands and give her some room in the head. You don’t want to constrict her so much. How would you like it if somebody kept pulling back on your head all the time?”

Marlee looked down at Calamity. Sure enough, the mare’s neck was arched because Marlee had choked up on the reins.

“Yank her in like that, and she’s not going to trust you at all,” Jett continued, his voice softer. “Would you trust someone who didn’t give you any breathing room?”

Marlee loosened her grip, and let the reins out. Calamity tossed her head, and immediately relaxed, standing calmly.

Jett grinned. “I see you ride with your knives, too.” He gestured toward the knife roll slung across her torso.

Marlee’s blood simmered, sharpening the aches in her body. These knives were too expensive to just leave laying around at camp. She needed them close at all times. They weren’t like those cheap knives she and her cousins used to throw into the homemade dart board on the farm.

“I see you ride with your attitude,” she huffed.

He threw his head back and laughed.

Just then, Fern broke through the trees ahead, two heifers scampering in front of her.

“Hiyah!” Jett leaned forward and his roan sprang into action, heading the cattle off before they could dive back into the tree line.

He eased them back toward Fern and Marlee.

“That one rascal about got the jump on me,” Fern said, breathing hard. “I thought I’d lost him for sure, but then he spooked at a stump, and I closed in on him.” She grinned, took off her hat and swiped at her brow with her arm.

Jett grinned. “Feels good to get back in the saddle, I reckon,” he said.

“It’s been too long,” Fern said.

“Yup,” he nodded and paused a minute. “But let’s bring ‘em in easy,” he said. His eyes flicked to the cattle, restraint etched in the lines around his mouth.

Crazy Hoss had said stressed cattle got skinny and lost the ranch money. She hadn’t expected this much tact and patience from a hard man like Jett, especially when it came to losing the ranch money. But here he was, toning down Fern’s boisterous behavior with a gentle touch.

“No sense in stressing them any more than we have to.” He shifted in the saddle and his big roan circled behind the cattle. “You ride point. Marlee and I will ride drag.”

“Sure thing, boss.” Fern slapped her hat back on. She clicked at her horse and loped down the trail, leading the way for the cattle to follow.

As they headed down the trail, Marlee saw a cloud of dust on the road up ahead. That must be Crazy Hoss driving the chuck wagon.

“A few more hours until we get to camp,” Jett said. “You’ll be glad to get out of the saddle.”

Marlee ground her teeth to keep her anger from boiling over. How dare he tell her how she felt. Truth be told, she wasn’t sure she could be peeled out of the saddle at all. Pain fused her to Calamity’s broad back and her mouth had hardened into a permanent grimace of torture. But she was too tired to do anything but glare at him.

As they neared the road, Fern slowed and whistled for Crazy Hoss to stop the wagon.

Marlee could see the two of them talking but couldn’t quite make out their words.

“I’m too old for this,” Fern said when Marlee and Jett caught up with them. She rubbed her lower back and screwed up her face.

“Said she’s got somethin’ happenin’ with her sciatica,” Crazy Hoss said.

“I might have to ride back to camp in the wagon with Crazy Hoss.” Fern slid off her horse and tied it to the back of the chuck wagon.

Marlee stared. In a million years, she’d never describe that rickety old rump-busting chuck wagon as more comfortable than a saddle.

Jett narrowed his eyes and rubbed his chin. “Sciatica, huh?”

Marlee took another good look at Fern as she hoisted herself up on the wagon bench. The woman didn’t wince once as she vaulted onto the seat.

Crazy Hoss shook his head. “I had a sciatica once,” he started.

Fern shushed him. “It’s an old folk’s thing.” She waved her hand at Jett. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“You didn’t look so old when you came bustin’ out of the bush a minute ago,” Jett said.

“Sciatica’s a funny thing.” Crazy Hoss smiled lazily. “Comes and goes.”

“Yup.” Fern grinned. “Never can tell when it will hit ya. One minute, you’re roundin’ up cattle, and the next minute, bam!” She slapped her hands together, and Calamity shimmied under Marlee.

“Looks like you two will have to get them cows to camp alone.” Crazy Hoss chuckled and tipped his hat. “See you back at camp.”

 

  • * *

 

Perfect. He was down another cowhand in Fern, and Marlee’s boasts of being able to ride were clearly not founded.

Unless by “ride,” she’d meant clinging for dear life onto the back of the best cow horse in the Bitterroot Range as if it would throw her unexpectedly.

Calamity was Jett’s horse. They’d spent so many hours working cattle together, the mare could practically do the job on her own, without a rider.

That’s why he’d let Marlee ride her today, and he rode Fat Cat, Logan Paycoach’s big roan.

But Marlee wasn’t exactly what Jett would consider a rider. Not that he expected much from a city girl. Still, he was in desperate need of more cowhands.

He snuck a glance at Marlee, and admired the story playing out in the tight set of her lips. The woman was clearly in pain, but she wasn’t complaining. In fact, she’d improved her posture significantly since he’d given her pointers earlier.

But this harsh terrain didn’t give any points out for effort. And he couldn’t afford to, either. He’d be okay with taking her out on a trail ride for the fun of it. But this wasn’t a leisurely trail ride.

This was wild country.

Normally, the entire Paycoach family went on the cattle drive. Without them, the ranch had less than half their usual manpower. Plus, the ranch was late in getting started in the drive. Late and down cowhands. Bad combo.

And even if they weren’t short on help, there were the bears. With the early cold sweeping in, bears were getting crankier and more desperate about getting their bellies full before hibernating for the winter.

To top it all off, just today he’d come across more evidence of rustlers in the area…a ring, the ash still warm from a fire that morning. In the dust around the fire pit he’d found the unmistakable marks of running irons. Only rustlers used those.

Somebody had been up there near the meadow, and they’d been careful to put out their fire before dawn. Whoever it was didn’t want to be seen.

All afternoon, he’d chased the question around. What to do about those rustlers? What would Silas do if he were still here?

“What are you thinking?”

Marlee’s voice cut through his contemplation, and Jett stretched his shoulders. “Silas.”

“You miss him,” she said softly.

He nodded.

“I wish I could have met him.”

Jett smiled. Worries about rustlers slunk to the back of his mind. “He’d have liked you,” he said.

She blushed and ducked her head, a curl brushing her cheek. Something sweet swelled up in his chest.

“Mom was sick and couldn’t work,” he said.

A soft sound slipped from her—not quite a sigh. Her eyes warmed from velvet to a golden color that reminded him of honey.

Why was he telling her this? He took a deep breath, savoring the fresh deep scent of the fall forest, and the words just came out.

“Silas Paycoach fixed up a small apartment for us on the barn, and said we’d always have food, shelter and spendin’ money as long as I pulled my own weight. I was only nine.”

Marlee inched Calamity closer, and leaned forward, peering into his eyes. Thick brown hair tumbled over her shoulder. Even after a long dusty day on the trail, it still bounced shiny and rich. He wanted to reach out and drag his fingers through it. It would feel as warm as the comfort in her eyes. Warm and soft against his rough hand.

He swallowed hard, and yanked his eyes back to the cattle. He needed to get his mind back to the ranch. Back on his responsibilities. Besides, his hands were so calloused, he’d probably get them tangled in her hair and pull it.

“After mom died and I graduated, Silas said I’d earned a permanent spot on his crew if I wanted it.”

He dared a glance at her.

_Bad move, cowboy. _

The mix of admiration and respect shining in her eyes drilled him right in the chest.

“I can see why you couldn’t turn that offer down,” she said. A soft laugh bubbled under the surface. “You were born in the saddle.”

Jett licked dry lips and watched her flick a long swath of hair over her shoulder. When she looked at him like that and complimented him, she might as well have taken a whisk to his insides. She scrambled him in a way he’d never felt before. His heart was acting as stubborn as any bronc he’d tried to bust when he was young and dumb enough to climb on them.

He couldn’t think of anything else to say, so they rode in silence for a while.

Above, the sky was beginning to turn from a deep blue to an eggshell, and clouds scudded along the rim of mountains. They’d be treated to an amazing sunset soon, and would likely pull into camp about dusk when the whole world had turned to blues and purples.

Fat Cat pinned his ears and arched his neck.

Jett tensed.

Something wasn’t right.

He leaned back in the saddle slightly and the big roan came to a stop.

“What’s wrong?” Marlee brought Calamity to a halt.

Jett listened carefully. The road curled between two small ridges, and both slopes were covered in trees. Everything was quiet.

“Nothing,” he said. He stretched his arms casually, and then moved Fat Cat forward again, trying to look nonchalant. But his thoughts focused on rustlers.

This was private ranch land. Nobody had any business being on this land unless they were a part of the Paycoach outfit.

No doubt about it. This was the wrong time to babysit a greenhorn from the east. No matter how crushed-velvet soft her brown eyes.

Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a flash through the trees on the opposite side of the road. But when he turned his head, there was nothing.

Marlee was saying something about apple dumplings, and he wanted to listen, but his senses were tuned into the land around him.

Behind them about a hundred yards, a large rock tumbled down the embankment and onto the road.

Jett forced himself to keep riding straight ahead and not turn around to look.

There had to be at least two of them.

Maybe more.

*CHAPTER TWELVE *

 

He had to decide what to do, and fast. Out here, in these remote mountain canyons, no cell phone would get a signal, and the only satellite phone was at camp. The sun would be going down soon.

Should he stay on the road and hope he and Marlee could get into camp before dark?

That was one option, but he didn’t like it at all. He didn’t like the naked feeling of being on the road while whoever it was out there had the high ground on the ridges.

They had a full view of him and Marlee. But he couldn’t see them.

He and Marlee needed to get out of their line of sight, somehow. Around the curve up ahead, there would be a tree-covered draw leading up to a ridge.

And if he and Marlee could get into the tree line before the two riders rounded the bend, then they might not be seen.

Then, if he could get up to that ridge, and out to the rock outcropping that overlooked the road, he’d be able to see the road below him and catch a glimpse of the men following him.

At least then he and Marlee would have the high ground.

But they’d have to push the heifers, and they’d have to ride hard to find the tree line. And once there, they’d have to ride quiet and hope in the fading light, they wouldn’t be seen.

The rock outcropping had a few small caves. If worse came to worse, they could hunker down for the night.

“You feel like a race?” he asked. He tried to keep his voice relaxed.

She turned and stared, shock widening her eyes. “Are you crazy?”

He shrugged. “Good exercise for the horses,” he said. “I race the Paycoach cowboys all the time. Builds cowmanship.”

Her lip drooped for a minute, and her hunched shoulders told him how tired she must feel. A small crease appeared between her brows while she considered his challenge.

She was going to say no, and he’d have to figure out something else.

But then she sat up straight and gave him a small determined smile.

“You’re on,” she said.

Her voice cracked a bit with exhaustion, and his heart went out to her.

This woman didn’t just have pride. No. It went deeper than that. She had integrity. She had backbone.

She might not be born in the west, but backbone was what the west was made of.

He set the rules. “Race to the trees. No yipping or yelling to your horse or the cattle. Then collect your horse, stand quiet and calm. Good athletes are all about self-control and horses are no different.”

“Then what?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

She tilted her head and studied him. “You know you’re going to beat me. So it’s not really a race.”

“Backing out?”

She tossed her hair back and straightened in the saddle. Her eyes flashed with gold flecks of defiance.

His stomach tightened and his throat went dry. Time to scrape his jaw up off the ground before she caught him drooling over her.

“No,” she said. “But I don’t see why you’d want to race if there’s really no competition.”

“It will give me a better idea of how you’ve improved since this morning if I see you in action,” he said.

“You say that like you’re my teacher.”

He shrugged. And waited while she chewed her lower lip.

Finally, she kicked Calamity forward a bit.

“Say when, cowboy.” She drew herself up tall in the saddle and laughed over her shoulder, and Calamity turned and kept turning in a nice crisp circle. It happened in one smooth motion—a clarity of thought that played out from rider to horse, and he had to swallow his grin. For a split second, turning that horse so natural without thinking about it, she looked like a bona fide cowgirl, and it sent his insides zinging. Maybe she’d make a horsewoman yet.

He gave a soft “yip” to the cattle, and flicked at their heels with his lasso, and then they were off in a flash the moment they rounded the bend.

He was more than half worried she’d fall off Calamity when in a full gallop. But when he glanced over, she didn’t look half bad in that saddle. Not half bad, but certainly more than half scared. She still bounced a little too much like a greenhorn, but she leaned forward like he’d taught her, reins loose in her hands. Either her previous riding experience was coming back to her, or she had natural talent. He’d never seen anyone improve so quickly in such a short time.

It was a quick sprint to the tree line, and when they reined in, he put his fingers to his lips. She raised her eyebrows in question, but then sat back in her saddle, perfectly still, Calamity calm under her.

He motioned for her to follow him, and they set out slowly and silently up the draw.

Marlee was unusually quiet. He expected her to gloat that they’d nearly tied. But she was probably too tired to celebrate, judging by the sag in her shoulders.

But tired or not, he was grateful she was quiet.

It was hard to shush a woman like Marlee.

Every now and then, he’d pause and listen, but he heard no signs of anyone following.

Any decent tracker could pick up their trail and follow them up here, but he was betting these men weren’t trained trackers. According to the brand inspectors, the rustlers poking around in this area weren’t a sophisticated bunch. They had rigs and money. But they typically took the easy way to the cattle. Even if it meant nearly getting caught. And they were growing bolder.

And besides, they would never expect Jett and Marlee to have gone off the road. In this case, darkness would work to their advantage. Already, shadows between the trees were growing murky and thick.

All the way to the ridge, Marlee was quiet. Together, they slipped through the trees, riding a little below the top of the ridge so they wouldn’t be silhouetted against the orange and purple sunset. Jett rode point, with Marlee trailing behind the heifers.

Finally, they came to the rock outcropping. This one looked like a big square pie, where God had cut out a nice fat wedge. And just like Jett had remembered, there was plenty of sagebrush and fallen timber around. He could herd the cattle against the crevice and stack up a makeshift brush fence. And next to that was a small cave. The perfect size for Marlee to curl up in for the night.

He’d have to spend the night under the stars, keeping guard.

It would be a cold night.

He was about to dismount when Marlee’s soft voice came to him through the purple shadows.

“Do you think we lost them?”

He swung out of the saddle and stared up at her. She had known all along. But she hadn’t let on. “Yeah.”

She shrugged at his silent question before she slid off Calamity. “I noticed you listening on the trail, before you said we should race.”

He blinked and his ears went hot. She’d been watching him?

“You listen with your whole body.” She laughed softly. “It’s pretty obvious. How do you know they’re gone?”

“I don’t.”

Her eyes widened.

He hated saying it. Hated seeing the fleeting fear in her eyes before she squared her shoulders. He half expected her to tear into him.

But she just bit her lip and turned to her horse to loosen her bedroll.

He stepped in to help her with the bedroll and saddle. He had planned on removing her hands to unbuckle the bedroll himself.

But instead, he found himself putting his hands over hers. Her fingers were cold.

He almost thought he heard her catch her breath.

He almost thought she leaned into him slightly.

But then he heard a soft chattering. The woman was freezing.

He rubbed her fingers for a moment between his warm hands, trying not to think of how soft they were.

And then he remembered what he had been doing. Getting her bedroll down. The sooner he had it ready for her, the better. At least she could stay up off the cold ground while he climbed up to scan the road.

“We might stay here tonight,” he said. “Depends on where they are.” And if he could even see them in the dusk.

He took a pair of binoculars out of his saddlebag.

“Not much light left. I gotta leave now if I’m going to spot them.”

She swallowed. She clearly didn’t like the idea of being left alone, and he couldn’t blame her. Already, the mountain range was beginning to echo with mournful howls. With the bears bedding down for the winter, soon the wolves would rule the range. Their lonely cries dug into him. Normally, he loved their howls, but lately they reminded him he’d just buried the only man he’d thought of as a father figure.

“I need you to work on a brush fence for the cattle,” he said. “Pile up sage brush and whatever wood you can move. It will make them feel safe. Less likely to wander off. Then keep warm until I get back.”

She nodded once, and hitched her leather knife case up. He’d seen her do that so many times before. A nervous habit. He was starting to feel tuned-in to her now. That was easier to do now that she wasn’t talking as much.

He headed toward the granite face. He’d climbed it many times before, so he was certain he’d get up there fast.

But he’d never had to scale it to look for criminals.

And he’d never had to leave a vulnerable woman behind to do it.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

Jett laid on his stomach, surveying the land as long as he could before darkness swallowed everything. He swept the binoculars back and forth—along the road where they had come, and also up ahead where it bent and then descended into a creek bed.

No signs of human activity. No startled birds, no flash of metal against the dying light, no soft snort of horses.

For a little while, there were only distant wolf calls and the scrapes and crackles of Marlee dragging brush down below.

But he watched anyway, hoping he’d see something—anything indicating the rustlers hadn’t noticed where he and Marlee had turned off the trail.

It was hard to say what men like that were thinking. Most cattle rustlers were cowardly thieves, stealing cattle when they were sent up to mountain pastures, or taking them a little at a time from ranch corrals in the dead of night. Most were stealthy, slinking off in the shadows like the yellow-bellied curs they were, whenever someone came close to them.

But these men were different.

Ben Rockspur had caught some rustlers in the act two weeks ago. They were loading up some of his heifers near dawn, and they’d shot at him as they’d fled. That’s why Austin had flown Silas and Cassie over the Bitterroot Range that fateful day. They’d been trying to spot where the rustlers were holing up.

Silas was like that. He always took it personally when somebody messed with his neighbors.

But these thieves weren’t like other rustlers. They were bold. And dangerous enough to open fire in order to get away with the cattle.

But rustlers following behind on a cattle drive in daylight? That was odd. It carried a high risk of getting caught.

Maybe they were more bold because the Paycoach Ranch ran the best beef around—Angus cattle. Angus fetched top dollar. Something any rustler would salivate over.

More likely, they were closing in now because they’d heard Silas was gone and they figured there would be no one to protect the herd.

Jett’s nostrils flared as he took a deep breath, blood pounding hard in anger. He’d protect this family’s ranch until his dying breath if he had to. Outnumbered and cut off from camp like this, he’d have to do some fancy maneuvering if he was going to out-think them.

He considered their position again.

It might be a good thing that he couldn’t see the rustlers. But it might also be very bad.

It was possible he and Marlee hadn’t fooled them. It was possible the rustlers had followed them and were near their makeshift camp now, waiting for Marlee and Jett to settle in for the evening, so they could snatch the cattle from under their noses.

His spine prickled.

Marlee was down there alone.

Jett slid over the edge and began descending as quickly and silently as possible.

Down below, Marlee had a small fire going. She wasn’t going to like this, but they’d have to put it out. They couldn’t take any chances that they’d be seen up here.

Already, he was starting to think maybe they should have gone on ahead to the camp with everyone else.

Jett grunted when his foot slipped, flinging his weight back.

Adrenaline burst through his body, blood roaring in his ears. He swallowed hard and tightened his grip on the ledge above him. His hands began to slip off the granite, but he dug in harder, ignoring the pain as the sharp rock cut into his hands.

Stretching, he reached with the toe of his boot. Pebbles skittered loose as he scrambled to find a toe-hold in the darkness.

But it was too late.

 

* * *

 

Every muscle in Marlee’s body ached from sitting in a saddle all day, and then dragging sagebrush and deadwood around cattle huddled in the cleft of the rocks.

This cattle drive was far worse than she’d imagined it would be. So far, she was failing at everything. Cooking. Helping with the cattle. Getting out of bed on time.

Even her body was failing, her limbs weak as she drug brush and heavy logs. Cold drove her aches and pains bone deep.

She stumbled as she drug the last piece of brush into place.

Could she make it? How much farther could she push herself? Already, she’d forced herself far beyond what she’d thought she was capable of. But she had to keep going.

With numb fingers, she gathered firewood and pine needles in the failing light, and rummaged in saddle bags until she found some matches.

When the tiny flame sputtered into life, she nearly cried. There wasn’t much she could do about blisters and an empty stomach. And she sure couldn’t waste time worrying about where rustlers might be out there in the darkness, but she could get some heat going to ease her tight muscles.

Jett probably wouldn’t like where she’d placed the fire. He’d say it was too close to the sagebrush fence, or not close enough to where they’d be sleeping, or maybe too close to the overhanging tree boughs. But she didn’t care. He could move it when he got back if he wanted to.

Something cracked in the darkness of the tree line.

Marlee froze. She held her breath, her whole body straining to hear over the thump of her heartbeat.

But there was no other noise.

It was most likely a gray squirrel, curious about her fire. She was probably just a bit jumpy. Spooked about being out here in the dark and the cold without Jett. Or anyone else.

Nothing but the cold breeze prickling along her neck.

Exaggerating any noise because she felt so vulnerable.

Ten minutes ago, she’d thought she’d heard the soft nicker of a horse coming from the trees, too. It had scared her until she’d realized it was probably just the sounds from Calamity and Fat Cat, bouncing off the rocks.

She shook herself and turned back to the fire. No sense in getting jittery.

Fear wouldn’t help her stick this out.

Marlee held stiff fingers over the heat and smoke and stared into the fire. She needed to calm down. Needed to take slow, even breaths and force her thoughts in another direction.

Like the look on Dad’s face when she’d left. The stern disapproval and the way he’d shaken his head. He hadn’t said much, but his face screamed disappointment. The last thing he’d said to her cut so deep, it still bled.

Don’t come back until you’re ready for a real career.

Marlee scooted closer to the fire and set her chin. Like it or not, this was her career. And if she was going to make it, she had to keep pushing.

Flames flickered lower.

She didn’t have the luxury of getting spooked at the slightest sound. And she’d get nowhere by sitting around feeling sorry for herself.

Right now, she had enough strength to get more firewood.

And enough strength to shove away thoughts of failure.

Firewood. Warmth.

“Lord, thank you for warmth,” she said through stiff lips, and then forced herself to stand and trudge beyond the firelight to find more wood.

She had just fed the fire and stretched out on her bedroll when she heard a grunt and then a shower of pebbles hitting behind her.

“Jett?”

There was no answer.

[_Maybe it wasn’t Jett. _]

She grabbed her knife roll, flicked it open and sprang up, a chef’s knife in both fists. “Jett?”

There was crashing and then a terrible sickening thud and a man’s groan.

Two scrambling steps and she was there, bending over him. Her breath came fast, and her heart thudded, blood whooshing loud in her ears.

Jett lay on his back, eyes closed, face white in the firelight and twisted in pain.

Marlee knelt, fear balling up in her stomach. “Are you okay?”

He grunted.

“I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean,” she snapped. She swallowed a sob.

Fine nurse she’d make. She trembled all over.

What if he was seriously hurt? She wasn’t a medic. She had zero first aid training. There were rustlers nearby, and now Jett lay nearly unresponsive.

“I’m okay,” he said, but when he opened his eyes and tried to sit up, he gasped again in pain.

“I’ll help you—”

“Put the knives down first,” he said through clenched teeth.

But before Marlee had a chance to move, a raspy voice spoke behind her.

“Put the knives down, lady. Real slow. And step away from the cowboy.”

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

Marlee froze, her eyes flying to Jett’s face. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead, catching the firelight. The man was in a lot of pain, but his eyes were steady. They were telling her to be calm. To follow instructions.

She glared at him. The thing Jett Maddox always seemed to forget about her was that she was not a quitter.

“I’d listen, if I were you,” another voice said. “We just want the cattle, but we can’t have y’all two interferin’ with our little party.”

Stories of the rustlers whirled through Marlee’s head. These men might kill them anyway, no matter what she did. They’d shot at Ben Rockspur. And besides, no thief wanted witnesses.

She started to lower her hands. Right in front of her knees, Jett’s gun was strapped to his hip. If she was quick enough, she could pick it up when she set the knife down.

“Just drop them knives,” the first voice said. “No need to ease them down.”

“I refuse to drop them,” she hissed. “I’m not taking a chance at accidentally slicing him.”

“Suit yourself,” the voice said. “But that fall he took probably already did all the slicing he can take.”

Marlee gulped. That might be right.

All the more reason to get these men out of there so she could get Jett some real help.

 

  • * *

 

Maybe Marlee had cracked.

Jett glared at her and tried to get her to read reason in his eyes. But she wasn’t paying any attention to him. Her gaze was locked on his gun.

“Gonna get us both killed.” His voice was so hoarse from pain, he could barely hear it himself.

Maybe she hadn’t heard him either. Because she didn’t move a muscle. Didn’t even blink.

Like it or not, he was going to have to somehow get moving, even though every painful movement assaulted him with waves of blackness closing in. The minute she got a hold of his gun, the situation was going to get out of control real fast.

But to his horror, he couldn’t move his arm. He tried again and again as her hand came down, closer and closer to his holster. But each time, his vision clouded over with pain, and the nausea nearly overwhelmed him.

Between the adrenaline and the pain, everything happened both fast and slow at the same time.

Marlee drilled him with one last look—her brown eyes hardened with determination—and then in a flash, she’d un-snapped the holster and slid his gun out in such a smooth motion, he wasn’t sure she’d really gotten it.

And in the next moment, she’d whirled and fired three times toward the darkness where the men lurked.

Somebody yelped, and Marlee hollered like a banshee. Silhouetted against the fire, she charged toward the darkness, hair flying, and knife-blade flashing. She cocked her arm and threw her chef’s knife hard in the direction of the yelp.

A solid thunk, and a shriek. And then dust and curses flew, and the ground shuddered with hooves.

And then her face floated up above his, curls falling over her shoulder and brushing his face as she cupped his face in her cold hands.

She didn’t look like a banshee now. Nope. She looked like a woman who was about ready to dissolve into tears.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

Marlee couldn’t help it. The tears came so fast, they dripped off her chin and splashed his face before she could stop them. Jett’s face was as white as whipped cream, and his eyes kept rolling back in his head. It was too dark to tell if he was bleeding.

“Please, God, let him be okay,” she whispered.

A few minutes ago, he’d been awake enough to insist she leave his gun alone. But now, his eyes were closed, and he lay so still.

Was he even breathing?

Her arms trembled as she bent over him, holding her cheek to his lips. They barely warmed from his breath.

“Jett,” she whispered.

But he didn’t respond.

Complete helplessness closed in like a pack of wolves circling their prey. She choked back a sob and smoothed his hair back from his face. She slid a trembling finger under his jawline, searching for his pulse. It was there. But she wasn’t a trained medic. She had no idea if it was too fast, too weak, or too slow.

“All Your paths are mercy, steadfast love, truth and faithfulness.” She murmured the verse she’d read last night and as her heart reached for God’s help, the panic began to clear.

At least enough for her thoughts to come one at a time.

Should she move him? She’d heard that was a bad idea. But he was probably in shock, and it was cold and growing colder. Cold was very bad for shock. And people could die from shock.

She leaned in, pressing her flushed cheek to his as she gathered her thoughts.

Even if she did try, how could she drag him all the way over to the fire?

“Jett, wake up and please tell me what to do,” she whispered, even as her mind raced to piece together a plan of action.

“What you’re doing is good.”

Jett’s rough whisper startled her, and she jerked her head back.

His white face lay motionless, except for a twitch at the corner of his mouth.

“I’m glad you appreciate my concern, cowboy,” she bit out. She dashed at her tears with the back of her hand. Nothing doused panic like a flood of anger.

He started to chuckle, but it ended in a groan that tightened her gut and had her leaning forward again.

Instinctively, she smoothed his hair back again, and stroked his cheeks, soft murmurs of comfort slipping out of her lips.

“Nobody’s ever fussed over me like this.”

She froze, then yanked her hands back.

“Ouch!” He yelped as his head hit the rock under him. “Easy now.” He opened his eyes, a twinkle of humor edging out the pain she’d seen in them earlier.

“Faker.” Marlee folded her arms.

He grunted as he tried to sit up. She watched as his face tightened with pain. He struggled for a minute, then laid back, eyes closed and breath coming hard.

“I’m not helping if you’re going to make fun of me,” she muttered.

“Sorry,” he said. His eyes were still closed, and his voice hoarse. “Trying to distract myself from the pain.”

Marlee swallowed panic. “What hurts?”

She reached for him again. At her touch, tension in his face released and he opened his eyes. The humor was gone, replaced by pure pain. Her throat burned with tears again.

“My shoulder,” he said between slow breaths. “It’s dislocated.”

Marlee’s stomach clenched. “What do we do?”

He looked into her eyes, then, and she had the strange sensation that he was searching for something. Dread twisted her stomach tighter, but she set her chin. She had to be strong for him.

“You need to jerk it back in place.”

Marlee gasped. “No,” she said through stiff lips. “That sounds painful, and I don’t think I can—” She sniffed. “We should get you back to camp with the others, and they’ll know what to do.”

He shook his head and his dark gaze fixed on her, unwavering.

She pressed her lips together and hugged her chest. The adrenaline that had fueled her strike on the rustlers was fading, and her arms and legs trembled. Her muscles were so weak now, the idea of climbing back up on Calamity and riding back to camp seemed impossible. And there was no way she could shove Jett’s shoulder back into its socket.

“Marlee,” he whispered.

She sniffed and swiped at her tears. Behind the pain in his eyes, there was gentleness and strength. She sucked in a breath of frosty pine air. His eyes told her he believed in her.

It felt good. No one had ever looked at her like that. Like she was capable of more than she knew. But still, her gut knotted and turned on itself.

“It will hurt,” she said.

“Yup.” His eyes held her steady.

“I don’t know how,” she whispered. She didn’t want to hurt him. He was irritating. He was arrogant. But he was also…sweet in his own way. She swallowed a lump.

“I’ll show you,” he said. “But I need you to be quick.”

She stiffened and then blew out a calming breath. While he waited for her to muscle up some courage, he was in pain. Yet his eyes held hers with tenderness. They told her that she wasn’t the kind of woman who would sit on the sidelines, no matter how often she doubted her own abilities.

“Ok,” she said. Her voice sounded far stronger than she felt.

“I’ve had this happen before,” he said. He was trying to keep calm, but pain squeezed short breaths out between words. “Kneel next to my side, just under my armpit, and—” He stopped for a moment and breathed hard.

Marlee scrambled on the cold rock with numb and trembling limbs until she was in place.

“Bend my elbow until my arm is extended straight.”

He groaned as she followed his instructions, and she bit her lip.

If this didn’t work, they were going to be in a world of hurt.

“Now, I’m going to relax my muscles as much as I can. You move my arm. Don’t jerk on it. Use a smooth motion and take my wrist. Pull slightly on my arm to give it a bit of tension. Then move it up like you’re having me make a snow angel.”

Marlee took a deep breath and squeezed her eyes shut in the dark. Tears oozed out. She was a chef, not a paramedic. She was a city-girl, not a tough cowboy.

How in the world had she gotten way out here in the middle of nowhere, attacked by rustlers, and trying to take care of an injured man while freezing to death?

Her pride. That’s how.

“Marlee.” His voice brushed against her softly in the darkness. “You can do this. You’re a lot tougher than you look.”

A sob tore past her lips as she gripped his wrist and then moved his arm up.

He cried out with a tortured groan that stiffened her resolve, and then there was a popping sound.

Marlee tightened her grip. “Did I get it?”

His laughter, full of relief, surrounded her as he tugged lightly, pulling her toward him. His arms closed around her.

“You got it,” he said. His voice sounded stronger now, and he curled his fists in her hair.

Marlee laughed, too, letting relief and the warmth of his arms melt into her shaking body.

 

  • * *

 

Jett held Marlee close, even though pain lashed through his ribs. He didn’t care that her laughter nudged against his ribcage, intensifying the discomfort.

He pulled back, running his hands over her hair. Her eyes were wet with tears. For him.

As her laughter died, something expectant sparked in those deep brown eyes. He could breathe through his pain, but he wasn’t sure he could muster a single breath with those velvet eyes softening over him.

He wanted to kiss her.

Pull her closer, and feel her sweet lips against his. Wanted to show her with his mouth everything he was thinking and feeling.

But he couldn’t. He had to keep his mind on the job at hand. He was no good to anyone laying there, letting the pain addle his brain into thinking up delirious visions of kissing a feisty brown-eyed chef with wild silky curls.

Nope.

He needed to get himself together. Get them both to safety. And then finish the job of getting the cattle back to the ranch.

He cleared his throat, and shifted. “I think I broke a few ribs,” he said.

Marlee blinked. In an instant, the melted warmth of her chocolate eyes cooled. Carefully, she pulled out of his arms, a flush tinging her cheeks in the light of the campfire.

Oh, man. He didn’t mean to embarrass her.

It’s just that he couldn’t keep holding her. He’d have kissed her. Already, he was starting to forget why kissing her was a bad idea.

“Anything else hurt?”

He shook his head. “Only a few scrapes and bruises, I think.”

“If your shoulder still hurts, will you be able to ride?”

Jett tightened his mouth. It wasn’t shoulder pain he was dreading. It was the excruciating pain he’d face while bouncing around on Fat Cat with broken ribs.

“No choice,” he said.

He sat up and a piercing wave of blackness and nausea hit him.

He waited a moment, waiting for the ache to subside before he tried to stand.

“Put your weight on me,” she said, sliding her shoulder under his armpit.

He opened his mouth. He wanted to say if he did that, he’d end up squashing her small frame. But the effort and torture to stand was like swimming against a current of agony. It stripped his strength, left him gasping for air, and nearly buckled his knees.

“Good thing we haven’t unsaddled the horses,” she said.

He grunted because there was no way he could get his tongue to work when moving his feet took all his strength.

When they got to Fat Cat, he leaned on the saddle for a moment to catch his breath.

He wasn’t entirely sure how he’d make it up on the big roan.

In the quiet, wind mewled along the rocks around them. By now, the wolves’ calls had subsided somewhat, and even the crickets were still.

“Maybe we should stay here, Jett,” she said. “They probably won’t come back, and we could stay warm enough if we keep a fire going.”

Jett shook his head in the dark.

The air smelled sharp. That meant snow. Tonight.

“Can’t,” he said. “Snow.” He wanted to say more, but that was hard to do with his jaw wired shut from the agony of cracked ribs and a throbbing shoulder.

She stood, quiet and calm by his side, her hand circling in trails of comfort along his back. He looked down at her. In the starlight, her dark eyes seemed larger.

He stifled a chuckle. He’d never been so grateful for pain in all of his life. Because otherwise, he might do something rash and kiss her right there.

He sucked in a breath, put his foot in the stirrup, and mustered all his strength to swing into the saddle. He almost didn’t make it, but Marlee braced him from the ground.

Yeah. That was painful. The ride back to camp was going to be sheer torture.

But they couldn’t stay here.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

Marlee drug her battered body into the mess tent to finish the dinner that Fern had started.

Out by the campfire, Fern Aimstock and Crazy Hoss fussed over Jett, rigging a makeshift sling to stabilize his shoulder, and wrapping his ribs tightly.

Marlee rushed through preparations, anxious to get back to the campfire. Fern already had the beans prepped for the fire, so Marlee whipped up a quick batter for cornbread.

Normally, she’d spend more time piddling with seasonings and getting it all just right. But tonight, she was too tired.

And she wanted to get back to Jett.

Sure, he was going to be all right. But still. It would feel better to sit next to him. See him eat. Watch his eyes brighten. See him relax in the warmth of the fire.

Make sure he was okay.

She grabbed the beans and ducked out under the canvas flap.

Jett sat on a log next to the fire. Their eyes locked, and he gave her a tired smile. Fern was tucking a blanket around his shoulders, and Crazy Hoss was wrapping his ribs.

Marlee smiled back and then knelt to nestle the Dutch oven over the coals. A quick boil and then a two-hour simmer, and dinner would be on. Her rumbling stomach reminded her that was a long time to wait.

Especially for a man that could use a pick-me-up right now.

So Marlee headed back to the tent for the green beans Jett had wanted her to leave behind. She also grabbed some bacon, a cast iron skillet, and a handful of dried blueberries she’d spied in one of the drawers of the old chuck wagon.

She came back out with her arms full, and knelt by the campfire. If pioneer women could figure out campfire cooking, so could she.

“…we tried to lose ‘em,” Jett was saying.

Marlee glanced up. Crazy Hoss’s eyes were ready to pop right out of his head and roll down his gray beard. Fern’s mouth hung open, and every single cowpoke around the camp leaned forward.

“Marlee put up a brush fence, and I scrambled up Chimney Point to see if we’d lost them.”

Marlee could feel his eyes on her, but she focused on her task. Balancing the big skillet on two hot rocks of the fire ring seemed to work pretty well. While the skillet heated, she broke the green beans into small pieces with her hands.

She could fall asleep right here by the fire, its warmth melting stiff muscles, with Jett’s voice rolling over her.

“Well, did ya?” Crazy Hoss was impatient for the rest of the story.

Jett shook his head once. “About the time I’d figured out they’d crept in behind us, I realized I’d left Marlee down there alone and defenseless.”

Buck gave a low whistle, and all eyes turned to Marlee.

Ty’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “So ya had to go down and save her,” he said.

“No, sir.” Jett kept a straight face, but Marlee caught a twinkle in his eye.

A warmth that didn’t come from the fire spread through her.

“Well then, what happened?” Crazy Hoss demanded.

“I tried to go down and save her,” Jett said. “But it was dark, and that old rock wall plumb threw me.”

Fern gasped.

Marlee swallowed a grin and snapped a bean. She didn’t know Jett was such a storyteller. She could imagine him around the campfire, telling stories like this to his kids.

“So you pulled yourself together and tussled with a few rustlers,” Ty said. “Took a few wallops to the ribs and a crack to your shoulder and then saved the little lady.” The lanky cowboy grinned, confident in his foreman.

“No, sir.” Jett grinned this time, and Marlee had to look away because her stomach was doing flips and dips.

But she could feel his eyes on her still. Warm. Admiring.

Honest to Betsy, she was gonna drop the beans if she wasn’t careful.

“I tell you what, boys,” Jett said. He lowered his voice, and the air around the campfire bristled with drama. “I tussled with a slab of granite, and took a crack to my shoulder from a boulder.” He shifted his weight and winced.

“It was dark,” Jett continued. “So Marlee had no idea it was me behind her on the ground squealing like a stuck pig.”

Marlee rolled her eyes. “More like I’ve always imagined what a badger would sound like.”

The cowboys laughed, and Jett started to laugh, but then winced and pressed his free hand to his side.

“For all she knew,” he said, “I was a rustler, so when I opened my eyes, there she was, leaning over me with a big old butcher’s knife in each hand.”

Fern guffawed.

“Chef’s knife,” Marlee corrected. But no one heard her.

“Now, don’t ‘spect me to believe that,” Crazy Hoss said. “You tell the tallest tales of any cowpuncher I know, and that little gal is as sweet as they come.”

Jett’s eyes widened. “I’m shooting straight,” he said. He crossed his heart.

“Well, I’ll be.” Crazy Hoss swiveled his shaggy head in Marlee’s direction, and she squirmed as the entire group looked her over.

“I was down for the count when those rustlers came in,” Jett continued, his voice growing more gravelly with tension. “Marlee was there, kneeling at my side and doing her dead level best to wake me up, a knife in each hand.”

Marlee bit her lip to stop a giggle. She could already tell this was the kind of story that was going to grow every time he told it.

She shrugged her knife roll off her back, and selected the perfect blade to cut the bacon. The hot pan sizzled as she threw chunks of the pork on, and her mouth watered at the sweet and salty smell.

“They had us cornered and at gunpoint, and there wasn’t a thing I could do. But Marlee wasn’t ready to give up.”

Marlee scanned their faces, all turned toward Jett.

There was no sound except the crackling fire, and the sizzle of bacon. She grinned and dumped green beans into the pan, enjoying the hiss as she stirred them into the grease.

“Now, right off, I could tell she was gonna do something crazy.” Jett sat back and stroked his chin.

“Because of the knives?” Buck asked.

“No, sir.” Jett’s teeth gleamed in the firelight. “I meant I could tell first time I laid eyes on her at the train station that she was gonna do something crazy one day.”

One of the cowboys whooped, and they all laughed. Crazy Hoss slapped Marlee on the back, grinning like a madman.

Marlee shook her head and snorted. “If I do anything crazy,” she chimed in, “it’s because he drove me to it.”

That got Fern laughing harder, and Marlee chuckled.

Jett grinned and then groaned, clutching his ribs. “Easy, now.”

Goose bumps rose along her arms. Because it was true. Those black eyes and that single dancing dimple, and those rough kind hands…yeah, they could drive her a bit crazy, all right. Already today, she’d had several insane thoughts of kissing him.

Thank goodness there had been other more dangerous things to occupy her mind.

“Well, she did something crazy, all right.”

Laughter died, and once again, all eyes were on Jett.

“They told her to put her knives down nice and easy.” Jett’s voice fell to a hush, and he spread his hands out like he was slowly laying weapons down. “But she went for my gun, and before they knew what happened, they were looking down the wrong end of a barrel, and it was smoking.”

“No!” Fern shrieked. She grabbed Marlee’s arm. “You shot at them?”

Marlee shrugged and stirred the beans. They were beginning to caramelize nicely. “It was either them or us,” she said. “Besides.” She threw in a handful of dried blueberries. “I had to get back to camp to make supper.”

That got a good laugh.

Marlee smiled, dished up her impromptu sauté and handed them out to the men. It was good timing. They were too engrossed in the story to notice the only thing on their plates right now were greens.

“I’ll say one thing,” Jett said around a mouthful of green beans. “You sure are serious about your food. I never had beans with chewy stuff. This could win a blue ribbon.”

Marlee flushed with pleasure. “Those are the vegetables you didn’t want me to bring along.” Marlee couldn’t resist throwing him a teasing glance.

“This is the first dish I’ve tasted of yours that wasn’t burnt,” Ty piped up.

Jett elbowed the younger cowboy in the ribs, knocking his hat down into his eyes.

“What?” The lanky cowboy set his hat back on straight. “I ain’t allowed to tell her she’s improving?”

“Good beans,” Crazy Hoss said. He cleaned his plate. “But I want to know about the shootin’.”

“Well.” Jett put the last bite of beans in his mouth and raised his eyebrows in a salute to Marlee. “There she was, guns blazing, and steam comin’ out her ears—”

“That’s a bit much,” Marlee put in.

Jett held up his good hand to stop her. “I’m telling the story,” he said firmly. “I was the witness. You were too busy saving the day to see how it all went down.”

Marlee rolled her eyes, but a small zing went up her spine, and raised the hair on her neck. This is what it felt like to have someone brag on her. It was nice. Like she was ten feet tall and weightless at the same time.

“So there she was, guns a’ blazin’—” Ty prompted.

“Yeah, and dust was flying.” Jett stretched his legs. “Men were callin’ out for their mommas, and trying to get their horses to turn around. But Marlee wasn’t satisfied with a little gunfire. No siree. Next thing I know, that gal has got her knives out, and she’s looking like one of those knife-throwing genies in the circus. The prettiest angriest banshee I ever saw.”

Fern nudged Marlee. “Sounds to me like he’s sweet on you,” she whispered loudly.

Marlee flushed. Better to ignore the comment and let Jett carry on with his story.

“Those rustlers took off like a pack of kitty-cats with a grizzly after them. And then next thing I know, Marlee’s got her Florence Nightingale hat on. Not five minutes later, she’s got my shoulder back in its socket, and somehow lugged me onto Fat Cat and poof, we’re back here, and she’s feeding us the best green beans in the county.” Jett grinned, teeth flashing in the darkness as he leaned back. “That about sums it up, boys.”

Cheers erupted. Cowboys whooped and whistled, and she was being pounded on the back, questions coming at her from all directions.

“How’d you learn to throw knives like that?”

“Do you think you hit anyone?”

“Think you could do it again for the county fair?”

Marlee sat there, stunned. Across the flames, Jett smiled. If it wasn’t for the admiration in his look, she’d think he was making her the butt of a joke. She wasn’t Florence Nightingale or a genie or a pretty banshee.

“Tell us how it happened from your perspective,” Fern said.

“Yeah, and don’t leave anything out,” Buck said.

More cheers and whoops.

She held her hands up. “Whoa, Nellie!” She raised her voice to be heard over the ruckus. Honestly, cowboys were like kids sometimes.

The hubbub died down to a few chuckles.

“That’s not exactly how it went down, but I’m too hungry to tell it,” she said. “So somebody else is going to have to tell the next story.”

“I was sweet on a woman from the circus once,” Crazy Hoss said.

Marlee sat back then and listened as the old man spun a crazy yarn about a woman with a peg leg who beat the men in every footrace.

She was so tired, she could barely focus as one story spun into another. She laid her head back, and thought instead of how she had felt when Jett came crashing down the cliff. The sickening thud. The way he’d fought off pain and forced himself to stay conscious.

When the rustlers had come, she’d only thought of one thing: protecting him. She’d never felt so fiercely about protecting anyone before. But then again, she’d never had to protect anyone from real harm.

Laughter and stories swirled around, mixing with smoke from the campfire. Every now and then, her eyes drowsed shut. But each time she opened them she saw Jett. Sitting back quietly, black eyes softened by the campfire, he watched her.

Even though she’d just saved his life, and even though he was battered and banged up, having him near made her feel safe.

“Let’s check those beans.” Crazy Hoss’s voice floated toward her, and Marlee sat up, rubbing her eyes. She struggled to stand, but Fern pushed her back gently.

“It’s okay, honey, I’ll get it.”

Crazy Hoss dished up the beans and cornbread, and Fern handed the plates out.

Marlee took her plate. And promptly spat out her first bite.

Burnt.

Again.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

Marlee’s eyes stung as her empty stomach turned on itself.

Worst day ever to burn the beans and cornbread. But she’d done it.

Silence around the campfire was punctuated with a few coughs as the men forced their dinner down.

“Those green beans you made earlier sure were good,” Jett finally said.

[_What, was he being smart? _]

But his eyes were still soft, and he chewed solemnly, swallowing easily.

Marlee blinked back tears and forced herself to swallow a bite, too.

It wasn’t only that she was hungry. Every person here had worked a long hard day. And she’d let them down. They had to shovel burnt food into their bellies and crawl off to sleep, or go hungry.

“Yeah, what did you put in them green beans, anyway?” Crazy Hoss asked.

“Almonds?” Fern asked. “They were kind of nutty.”

Marlee shook her head. “They’ll taste like nuts sometimes when you cook them in bacon grease,” she said.

She kept her spine rigid.

They were being awfully nice about it. Following Jett’s cue. But for some reason, it wasn’t helping. Hot tears still pressed against her eyelids. She sniffed.

“They kind of reminded me of pancakes,” Buck said.

Marlee let out a watery laugh. “That’s because I put in some of the dried blueberries we use for pancakes,” she said.

And that’s when it hit her. The apples. She’d prepped apples for apple dumplings that morning. With all the excitement and exhaustion, she’d forgotten all about it.

She shoved to her feet and ran to the tent. Thirty minutes over steady coals, and she could feed them something more than burnt beans.

When she went back to the campfire, Jett stood up.

“What’s that?”

“Dessert.”

His eyebrows shot up and he moved to her side. Bending over, he whispered, “Did anyone ever show you how to adjust the temperature in a Dutch oven?”

Marlee stiffened. Where was the admiring Jett of only a few moments ago?

“I’m a certified chef,” she reminded him.

“Yeah, and I’m a tough cowboy,” he whispered. “I had to let a girl save my life today, and you don’t hear me whining about it.”

Stung, she tipped her chin up and met his gaze. His black eyes still echoed the admiration they had earlier. They held her patiently, waiting.

One of the verses she’d read came to mind like a whisper from God.

Where there is strife, there is pride, but wisdom is found in those who take advice.

Jett was right. She had saved his life. And the last thing she wanted to do was whine about somebody giving her advice.

But pride was an awfully hard thing to set down when a girl didn’t have much in her life to be proud of.

She looked down. Her fists clutched the pot handle, white knuckles shining. “I’ve never cooked with Dutch ovens,” she admitted.

He put an arm around her, and the stiffness eased out of her shoulders. He squeezed and then let go.

“You don’t want to put it directly on the bed of coals in the fire,” he said. “There are too many of them.”

He showed her how to adjust the number of coals for the right temperature, and how to space the coals for even heat.

“What heat do you need?” he asked.

“Three-fifty.”

“A ring of coals on top, and one ring on the bottom ought to do it,” he said.

She set the Dutch oven over a ring of coals, then carefully arranged another ring of coals on the top of the lid, using the tongs like he’d showed her.

“How long are you going to make us wait for dessert?” Buck demanded.

Jett returned to his seat. “You can’t rush food,” he said. “That’s how it burns.”

Marlee smiled. That’s what she’d said to him the day they’d met, when he’d tried to rush her in the kitchen.

“About as long as it takes to tell a story,” she said.

“Now that depends on who’s doing the tellin’,” Ty said.

“I need a long story. About twenty-five minutes long, so Crazy Hoss should do the telling,” Marlee said.

Everyone laughed, and Marlee stretched back in her chair.

“Most folks around here know that my father was one of the crew that ran the Spokane steamboat back in eighteen ninety-three, but what you didn’t know is that he was a pirate….” Crazy Hoss was off and rambling through another hilarious story.

Above, the stars twinkled. The entire front of her body was nicely roasted in warmth from the fire, and her nose was so cold she could barely feel it. She was wrapped up in pine air and a wool blanket that Jett had brought her. And she was surrounded by people who didn’t care if she burned the food.

So far away from home. And yet this was her home.

Twenty-five minutes later, the only thing better than the taste of hot and sticky apple dumplings was the sound of her friends scraping their plates clean.

Maybe Marlee Donovan could make it on the trail after all.

 

 

  • * *

 

Marlee lugged a pail of boiling water into the tent, mixed it with cold water and started on the dishes.

“Should have let me get that for you.” Jett ducked inside the tent and crossed to the table. With his free hand, he opened the cupboard, looking for another dishpan.

Marlee stepped in front of him, and closed the cupboard firmly. “Not tonight,” she said. “You’re an injured man.”

She looked up at him, caught in his eyes.

They stood close. Too close. Close enough that warmth from his body radiated against hers. Something quivered in her stomach and squeezed at the breath in her lungs. She ducked her head and scurried around him, back to the dishes.

“I’m alive thanks to you.”

Marlee swallowed a chuckle.

“Let me in on the joke.” A smile waited at the corners of his mouth.

“My dad,” Marlee said. “When I left for this job, he said not to come back until I was ready for a serious career.”

Jett’s eyes flashed and his nostrils flared. “I don’t see the humor,” he growled.

She put a hand on his arm, stroking lightly as if calming Calamity. “I keep wondering if he’d think saving a life is serious enough,” she murmured. Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. Her muscles ached, bruised by the grueling trail and the merciless doses of adrenaline she’d endured. But here she was, thinking about disappointing her dad.

Jett reached out for her, tugging her toward him. “It’s serious,” he said. He smoothed a curl that had stuck to her cheek.

His touch calmed her. A kind of quiet expectancy washed over her.

“So seriously, thank you.” His voice came to her, soft in the golden light of the tent.

He let go of her hand then and moved next to her, leaning against the table.

Marlee swallowed, her throat dry. He made her feel like a success instead of Marlee the Mistake and General Disappointment.

“For what? Burnt beans?” She put her hands back in the dishwater, so he wouldn’t see how badly they were shaking.

His smile was quick, the dimple peeking out.

Marlee looked down at her hands, focusing on the bubbles in the dishwater.

“Thank you,” he said again. “I can’t say it enough.””

She flushed. “You’re a cowboy. You’d have found some way to get out of that fix.”

He just looked at her for a long time. He scooted closer.

“Some fixes are easier to get out of than others.”

She laughed, but his gaze was serious.

He was relaxed and in no hurry, letting his eyes drift over her face, up to her hair, and back down to her lips. He moved like he had when he’d ridden toward her on Fat Cat earlier that day…relaxed and fluid.

But her heart skittered even worse than Calamity had when she’d choked up on the reins.

Shadows danced on the walls of the cook tent from the golden fire flickering outside.

Jett tipped his head and leaned toward her and Marlee forgot how to breathe.

[_Was he going to kiss her? _]

He pressed his thumb in the indent of her chin. It was the gentlest of touches. Her eyes drifted closed. But then she popped them back open real fast, blood whooshing in her ears.

“Some fixes a man might not want to get out of,” he said. He searched her eyes then, and her head fell back as he stepped even closer.

His eyes danced with fire flicker and his dimple hinted at flirtation, but those black eyes held her with their intensity.

“Honey, you got more of that—” Fern broke in through the tent door. “Oh.” She stopped when she saw them. “If you’re having a moment in here, I don’t want to interrupt.” She chuckled and started to back out.

But Jett turned and strode toward the door, leaving Marlee stunned.

“No, ma’am,” he said. He paused by Fern and looked down at her. “Nothing to interrupt. Better get you some more of those apple dumplings. Might even cure that sciatica of yours.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

For the rest of the cattle drive, Jett was the perfect gentleman. The perfect gentleman boss.

No more hints at flirtation. Unless she counted the daily evening ritual of pouring her a spiced hot chocolate after helping her with the dishes.

But that might be his way of being a good trail boss, just trying to keep employee morale up.

But Jett hadn’t poured anyone else hot chocolate.

Not that she’d had much time or energy to think about it. Riding every day was more brutal than she’d anticipated. Today, she and Fern rode drag, following behind the herd and watching for stragglers.

“How does it feel to survive your first cattle drive?” Fern called out when they topped the last crest. She pulled her horse to a stop and turned around in the saddle.

Marlee scooted Calamity up next to Fern and stopped, too.

Below, a bellowing tide of cattle streamed down the gravel road, dust swirling over them. Beyond that, the ranch buildings nestled in the valley below, waiting for eager cowpokes to return.

“It feels like I’ll need to sleep for a whole month,” Marlee said.

Fern laughed and they moved forward again. “That’s how I felt on my first cattle drive, too.”

Calamity’s ears pricked and she lifted her head and quickened her pace.

Marlee chuckled and leaned forward to rub the mare’s neck. “I’m excited to get home, too,” she murmured.

Jett rode just ahead of them. She heard his distinctive “hiyah” and the cattle moved faster, too. Was he anxious to get home?

“I’ll bet he’s got some mixed feelings,” Fern said. She nodded in Jett’s direction.

Marlee swallowed a lump. As the cattle drive had gone on, worry had spread throughout camp. They weren’t finding nearly as many cattle as in years past.

Then, on the last night, the men had come across a makeshift corral with signs of cattle and horses. When the men got back to camp that night, Jett had said it was rustlers. They’d been there a few weeks before the cattle drive had started, and had swooped in. Jett said he guessed they’d stolen over forty head of cattle.

At over one-thousand dollars a head at the cattle sale, that meant a big loss for the Paycoach ranch.

By the time they pulled into the Paycoach ranch, pretty much everyone was relieved that the drive was over, and feeling unsettled about the loss of so many cattle.

The men worked to secure the cattle in their winter pastures, and then headed to the barns to put up the horses.

“You go ahead and get dinner on,” Fern said. “I’ll take care of Calamity.”

Marlee didn’t waste time arguing. Sore and tired as she was, she headed to her kitchen on stiff legs that had grown more accustomed to riding than walking.

Stepping inside, she ran her hands lightly over the shining surfaces. If her arms were big enough, she’d hug the big ovens. She’d never been so happy to see a modern kitchen in her life.

This was her kitchen. Her very own…at least until her new boss came back from the hospital. Whenever that was going to happen.

After feeding the tired and hungry crew, maybe she’d have time to check and see how Cassie was doing.

She said a quick prayer for Cassie and the Paycoach family and then started in with dinner preparation.

As she sliced potatoes, Marlee glanced out the long low windows. She loved the view from this kitchen. She could prepare meals and still feel a part of what was going on around the barn and corrals.

Outside, Logan Paycoach and Jett stood talking near the barn. Jett put his hand on Logan’s shoulder. The two men bowed their heads. They were praying again.

She hadn’t been at the ranch long. In fact, she hadn’t met any of the large Paycoach family except for Logan. The family spent nearly all their time at the hospital with Cassie, and only Logan was at the ranch when the cattle drive had returned home. But she could tell by the talk around the ranch that the family was very close. This had to be painful for them.

She had scalloped potatoes and ham in the oven, and a green salad prepped in no time. She was pouring brownie batter into large sheet pans when the mess hall door opened, and cowboy boots clumped on the wooden floors toward the kitchen.

She had her back to the door, but whoever had entered was miles ahead of dinnertime.

“You’re early, cowboy,” she sang out. “Dinner’s not for another hour, so tell your pals they’ll have to stay out of my kitchen, no matter how good it smells.”

She popped the brownies into the oven, and turned around, wiping her hands on the towel tucked into her apron.

The smile melted off her face.

Jett leaned against the stainless steel counter behind her, arms crossed and face weary.

She didn’t ask what was wrong. She was starting to understand this man. When something was wrong, he needed time to think about it. When he was ready, he’d talk.

Why in heaven’s name he’d come to her kitchen to think about it, she had no idea.

But she was glad he had.

She’d finished her work for dinner, but he could help her prep for tomorrow’s hash browns.

“Here.” She shoved a bag of potatoes in his hand and a peeler.

He gave her a blank look, raised brows questioning.

She shrugged and gave him a small smile. “Sometimes life doesn’t feel so bad if you focus on something small like peeling a potato.”

He nodded, his face still serious. Then he turned to the sink, and got busy peeling.

They worked in silence for a minute, except for the skitch of the potato peeler.

Marlee finished a batch of fudge frosting and put it in the refrigerator to cool. She grabbed a towel to dry her hands.

“Cassie’s gone,” he finally said.

“Oh, no.” Marlee dropped the towel, tears springing up.

Jett set the potato peeler on the counter, and turned toward her, eyes bleak. “I can’t—” He looked down, the brim of his hat blocking her view of his eyes. “I’ve worked here almost my whole life,” he said, his throat working. “They’re my family. And Logan said I’ve got to run this place for a while. Said he and Matt….”

Marlee swiped at her tears with the back of her hand. What could she say to him? What comfort could she possibly offer?

Jett looked up then, those black eyes sharp with pain. “I haven’t told them about the cattle loss yet. How do you say to a man who just lost his dad and sister in the space of a few weeks that he lost half of his cattle, too? That he might lose his ranch, too? It’s—it can’t come in the same conversation.”

Silently, Marlee prayed, asking God for the right words of comfort. But no words came. Maybe this wasn’t the time for words of any kind.

_God, please comfort him. _

She took the half-peeled potato out of his hand and put her arms around him. He wasn’t wearing his sling any longer, but she moved gently, so she wouldn’t jar his ribs. She laid her cheek against his chest.

For a moment, he stood there. And then he put his arms around her, too. Uncertain at first, but then he pulled her tight and rested his chin on her head, the stubble from his chin stinging her scalp through her hair.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

During the next few weeks, Marlee settled into a rhythm.

After serving breakfast to the men, she spent the rest of the morning prepping for lunch and dinner. And after serving lunch, she had a few hours to herself.

Sometimes she went into town and had pie at the Moose Dimple Café with Crazy Hoss and Annie and Fern’s shy daughter, Meg Aimstock. Sometimes Fern was there, if Mustang Sally’s had a lull in customers. Fern had even roped her into a few matches of Boggle since Fern was preparing for a Boggle tournament at the senior center.

Sometimes, she hiked the slopes near the ranch, telling herself that bears were tucked away in their dens because snow had already dusted the pines and aspens with its lacy ice.

And during all of that time, Jett seemed to avoid her. Since she’d put her arms around to comfort him, he hadn’t come to the kitchen. Not once.

He’d hugged her—really held onto her like a drowning man with a raft. But after that, he almost avoided her. At least on the trail, he’d helped with dishes and poured her spicy hot chocolate. They’d shared danger and victory. He’d taught her about riding. And she’d learned from him.

Although they hadn’t talked much out there, they’d come to an understanding. They shared something that felt real.

But now? Now, it just felt odd.

Last week at the funeral, the little town had put Cassie in the frozen ground next to her father while snow swirled around Thelma, Matt, Logan, West, Austin, Jaxson and Cheyenne. Jett stood behind Logan, looking like a bodyguard in a cowboy hat, as if he could defend the family against anything.

But inside, he had to be feeling so frustrated that there wasn’t anything he could do to protect them from the most painful suffering they endured right now.

She missed him. Missed their companionship while riding for rogue cattle. Missed their conversations over dishes and missed sharing hot chocolate with him. But she couldn’t blame him.

The Paycoach family didn’t own grief over the loss of Silas and Cassie. It was Jett’s sorrow as well.

Marlee sighed and set her Bible on the gleaming stainless steel counter and then started the coffee.

The door opened, and Marlee heard boots.

It was early for a cowboy to be inside. It wasn’t breakfast time yet. She’d barely set the coffee on for herself, and outside, stars still shone.

Her heartbeat quickened. Maybe it was Jett.

But it was Logan Paycoach. Haggard lines and dark circles carved grief deeply into his face.

“We’re out of coffee down at the house,” he said.

“Sure,” she said. She scurried to the kitchen to grab a mug. She paused a moment. Should she bring two mugs out? Her southern sense of hospitality told her to sit down and share coffee with the man.

But he was her boss, and he was grieving. And he was a busy man. Maybe he just wanted to take it with him and get on with his day. She peeked around the corner. He was sitting down, cowboy hat on the table next to him, his face in his hands.

She grabbed two mugs, the cream and sugar and the whole pot of coffee.

When she poured the coffee, he took it immediately and nearly downed the full mug, so she topped it off again before pouring her own.

“That was the first honest-to-goodness cattle drive I’ve ever been on,” she said.

It was a good place to start a conversation. If he didn’t want to talk, he could let it stand.

Logan tried to smile, but the effort made him look even more tired.

Poor guy apparently wasn’t sleeping well.

“You own this place, so I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I burned every dinner for the first three days,” she said. “I’m not used to Dutch oven cooking.”

He laughed, and at least a little light came into his eyes before flickering out.

Marlee chuckled. She could hardly believe she was confessing her shortcomings to the man who would decide whether she would be hired for the job.

But the cattle drive had changed her. Jett’s gentle way with horses reflected his light touch with the crew.

Including her.

His easy-going attitude about her burning the food had dissolved her pride.

In fact, everyone had been good-natured, refusing to tease or make any comments. Instead, they’d given her time to figure it out.

“I finally got the hang of it,” she said. “After Jett had mercy on me and showed me how to use Dutch ovens.”

“I hear Cassie brought you here for a working interview of sorts. You work a while and then she’d decide whether to keep you on?”

“Yeah.” Marlee looked down into her coffee.

“How long?”

“It was supposed to be a two week trial,” she said.

“You should have said something.”

She shrugged. “Decisions about my future didn’t seem very important when….”

…when they’d just buried Cassie and Silas.

Logan cleared his throat. “Yeah,” he said, his voice roughened with emotion.

“Thanks for the coffee,” he said. “Coffee’s a great kindness when sleep is hard to come by.”

He jammed his hat on and strode toward the door.

Pausing, he turned to look at her.

“You deserve a decision,” he said. “I’ll let Jett know. It’ll be his call.”

*CHAPTER TWENTY *

 

The timer buzzed, and Marlee swallowed a few butterflies as she peeked into the oven.

The bubbling cobbler teased her taste buds.

Perfection.

Carefully, Marlee slid it out of the oven. Crisp golden edges oozed with caramelized peachy goodness, and across the middle of the cobbler, the pillowy cloud of dough boasted a buttery-sweet golden shell.

During her last year in culinary school, Marlee had perfected her peach cobbler recipe. The secret ingredient she’d used made it knock-down drag-out good, even by southern cobbler standards. It had won several awards in contests, and it was the only dish she’d made in culinary school that had been a clear home run. The only one she’d been truly proud of.

Marlee filled a tray with servings of the hot cobbler, and then scooped out some of her own homemade vanilla-bean ice cream for each dish.

She had to work hard to keep her feet from dancing in glee as she carried the tray to the cafeteria where the cowboys waited patiently for their dessert.

She served Jett first.

“Since you’ve got a tough decision to make about hiring me, I thought I’d sweeten you up with my famous signature dish.” She laughed as she set his plate down. “It’s won awards. I call it ‘Mad Marlee’s Peach Cobbler.’ It will prove why I’m the only chef for the job.”

Jett nodded, his face serious.

“Mad Marlee,” Buck chuckled. “That’s about right.”

“I bet them rustlers thought you were loony as a pole cat, comin’ straight at them with those kitchen knives.” Ty waggled his eyebrows at her.

But Jett didn’t crack a smile. He looked down at his plate and cleared his throat.

Crazy Hoss had dropped by for a visit with Fern and Gene Aimstock because Annie had kicked them out of the Moose Dimple Café. It was the first Monday of the month, which meant Annie and Meg were doing a deep clean of the café.

Marlee served them, too, hands electric with nerves. She shot another look at Jett’s serious face.

Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider and not your own lips.

Marlee pressed her lips together as one of the verses she’d read that morning surfaced above her nerves. Maybe mentioning her awards was a little overkill.

Crazy Hoss took a bite, and then closed his eyes and groaned.

Fern took one look at him, and shoveled three quick spoonfuls into her mouth.

“Spongey and crisp at the same time,” Ty said around a mouthful of cobbler.

“Chewy, peachy, sticky goodness is what it is,” Fern said before stuffing her mouth again.

Marlee sat down with a mug of coffee, a smile warming her face.

She might not be a five-star chef yet, but she knew how to put out good food. The look of joy on someone’s face when they ate her food always filled her with little prickles of pleasure. This is what she’d come here to do: prove once and for all that Marlee Donovan was no failure.

“Stick-in-your-teeth caramely goodness is what it is,” Gene said.

Marlee sighed with content. That was high praise indeed, coming from Gene Aimstock, who rarely spoke. Normally, his wife did all the talking and the poor man couldn’t squeeze in a single word.

But today, Fern’s mouth was crammed with cobbler.

“Gooey snuggled under a blanket of…I ain’t even got the words for it,” Crazy Hoss said.

“Maybe you are a little touched in the head,” Fern said to Marlee. “If you can cook like this, you must be mad to come out here and cook for a bunch of cowpokes. Girl, you should be workin’ in a five-star restaurant.”

“My mouth can’t get enough,” Ty said.

“You done spoilt my taste buds, that’s what you done.” Crazy Hoss stared down at his empty plate. Then he picked up his spoon and licked it clean.

Marlee glowed and took a sip of her hot coffee. She glanced at Jett, and her glow faded.

The man sat there like he was playing a poker game, instead of enjoying the best dessert of his life.

Even Crazy Hoss noticed.

“Whattsa matter, boss?” Crazy Hoss asked. “Don’t like peaches?””

Marlee’s hands trembled. She nearly sloshed her coffee, so she set her mug down. Dread squelched elation. “You’re not giving me the job.”

Jett looked at her, his expression pained. “Let’s talk about this later.”

She folded her arms. “Now is a good time for me. And you have nothing to do right now but eat peaches, so spit it out, cowboy.”

He didn’t say anything. Instead, he poked at the cobbler.

Marlee sniffed and tossed her curls back. He shouldn’t have a single bit of cobbler left on his plate. It was that good. Everybody had said so.

“You might as well say it.” Crazy Hoss sighed. “The lady asked you fair and square.”

Jett cleared his throat. “I can’t hire you, Marlee.”

“Yes.” She glared at him. “You can. You just won’t.”

He winced. “I can’t. You have no trail-ride experience except for the last one. We have several cattle drives a year. With the ranch understaffed, we’re going to need a chef who can also work as a good cowhand.”

“I can learn. And I wasn’t doing too badly by the time this last drive was over.”

Jett tensed. His lips flattened into a thin line. “Too dangerous.”

“But—”

“Even for experienced hands, it’s dangerous. Look what happened last time we went up.”

“Yeah,” she said, her voice raising. Her throat burned. “That was great experience. I was the one who saved your hide, if I remember right.”

He shook his head. “I know, but I have to make the right decision for the Paycoach family. I can’t give you the job just because you’re crazy enough to charge rustlers in the dark. You also need experience.”

“I’m experienced. I’ve been on a cattle drive already.”

“Your safety is my responsibility—I can’t feel good about…you might get hurt.”

Marlee blinked back tears, spine buzzing with anger. “I should have known you’d be too stubborn to change your opinion of me. All you saw that first day was a city girl who needed to toughen up in the saddle. Well, I did that, but I’m still not good enough for you.”

She shoved away from the table and marched toward the kitchen.

The scuffle and stomp of boots behind her said he’d followed her, but she ignored him, heading for the big double doors.

He grabbed her elbow and turned her toward him before she got there. “It’s okay. I’ve thought this through. You can get a job at the Rockspur outfit. They’ll probably be hiring a cook soon, and the chef there won’t do cattle drives.”

Marlee stared. The man had a lot of nerve to plan her future. A lot of nerve to decide what Marlee Donovan was and was not capable of.

“You sure they’re hiring, boss?” Crazy Hoss hollered from the other end of the mess hall.

Jett’s face reddened. “It’s easy enough to double check,” he mumbled.

Marlee gasped.

“You’ll be safer there, Marlee.” He stepped closer, his voice soft and pleading.

She twisted away from him and backed up a step. “You don’t get it, Jett Maddox.” Biting her lip to hold back a sob, she fled to the kitchen before he could see her hot tears.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

 

Marlee stared at Jett’s office door and tightened her grip around the strap of her knife case.

[_The Lord makes firm the steps of the one who delights in Him; though he may stumble he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with His hand. _]

Failing her working interview at the Paycoach ranch was a big stumble, all right.

Lord, I’ve failed completely. Please hold me up.

Marlee hitched up her knife roll, picked up her suitcases and then pushed into Jett’s office.

He cleared his throat and stood up when he saw her.

She set her suitcases down.

“Marlee,” he said. His face tightened.

The smile she gave him nearly cracked. Tension spread all the way along her jaw and through her neck and shoulders.

“I wrote a letter of recommendation.” He handed her an envelope, and Marlee stared down at it.

She didn’t need a letter of recommendation. She needed a job.

She needed to not have to go home and tell Dad that he was right about her being a failure.

More than that, she needed to stay here.

Here on the Paycoach ranch.

Here in Looking Glass Lake.

Where she felt like she was family, and where the stars seemed so close she could touch them at night. Where people ate her food until their bellies ached, told her it was the best they’d ever had, and weren’t afraid of gaining a little weight.

And where a dark-eyed cowboy bragged on her around the campfire, showed her how to ride a horse the gentle way, and gave her his heart every evening in a mug of cayenne-laced hot chocolate.

Okay. Maybe that last part about his heart had been her imagination.

Whatever the case, it was over now.

“…and your last check,” he said.

He handed the check to her, and she looked up. His face was drawn tight in weary lines, eyes darker this morning. Heavy.

She drug her gaze away from his and focused on the check.

It was larger than she’d expected.

He poked a finger down his collar. “For working the cattle,” he said.

She raised her brows. That didn’t completely explain the amount. It was far more than she should have received for cooking and working the cattle. “Looks like guilt money to me,” she said.

“Nope.” His nostrils flared, and his eyes flashed. “No guilt here. You came out here and didn’t know our needs had changed. It’s only fair that we pay your travel expenses.”

She shoved the check in the pocket of her jeans and fought a swirl of emotions.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves.

Tears pricked and she blinked rapidly to clear them.

He’s the one being conceited, Lord, she argued silently.

But she knew it wasn’t true.

Jett was right. Silas and Cassie’s deaths had changed the ranch’s needs. Her own needs paled in comparison when she thought of it that way. Maybe he was right to guard the family’s ranch so fiercely.

But that wasn’t the problem.

The problem was that he thought her so incompetent, he’d fired her.

Marlee sniffed and hitched up her knife roll.

If she was careful with the money, she might be able to make this last through the next two months while she hunted for another job. She’d have to cut back a lot, but anything was better than having to move back in with Mom and Dad.

Anything was better than once again proving she would always be the baby of the family in need of rescuing.

“Nice ridin’ with you,” she said, her voice flat. Then she picked up her suitcases and lugged them to the door. Her throat burned.

She’d thought they had an understanding. She was proud of everything she’d learned. She was even starting to look forward to the next cattle drive in the spring.

She had started to think that maybe God had brought her here to find not only a job, but also a family and the kind of man she’d thought only existed in her dreams.

Except it had turned into a nightmare.

And the man of her dreams thought she was a failure.

She opened the door, but it knocked a suitcase over. She bent to yank it aside, but stopped when she saw Jett’s boots.

He’d come to take her suitcases.

She almost didn’t let him. But he tugged gently, and she finally let go.

He carried her suitcases out, both handles crammed into one hand.

Outside, Crazy Hoss waited with the truck running. The old man was heading back to the Moose Dimple Pharmacy and Café today, and had volunteered to drive Marlee to the train station.

Jett swung her suitcases in the back of the truck. She ignored him and went to open the truck door, but he stopped her.

His rough hand closed over hers on the handle. She froze, keeping her back rigid.

Maybe he was going to stop her.

Please, God, let him stop me.

Her heart pounded with longing.

Maybe he was right. Maybe she could swallow her pride and check with the Rockspur ranch to see if they’d hire her.

“Marlee—”

She squeezed her eyes shut. All he had to do was say something—anything to let her know he really wanted her to stay in town.

Well…that and maybe he was sorry for humiliating her in front of everyone.

But she sat there, staring at his hand for what felt like forever. His knuckles were chapped. Worn and seasoned from sun and wind and cold.

Apparently, he had only that one word left to say to her, because he didn’t say anything else.

So she tugged on the handle, and hoisted herself up in the truck, keeping her gaze free of his.

Those black eyes could lasso her so easily, and she wasn’t sure he’d be gentle with her heart, since the last time, he’d dashed every hope.

She shut the door firmly.

Crazy Hoss cleared his throat.

“All set?”

Marlee nodded.

As Crazy Hoss pulled away from the ranch, Marlee kept her gaze straight ahead.

Jett was getting smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror now—a part of her past.

It was time to remind herself that good chefs might serve a variety of dishes, but regret wasn’t one to linger over.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 

Crazy Hoss unloaded the suitcases on the train station platform. Since the train wasn’t going to arrive for another few hours or so, it didn’t take him long to talk her into going to the Moose Dimple for a complimentary lunch.

At the Moose Dimple, everyone crowded around her.

Fern Aimstock was there, and so was Meg. Even Annie, and Grand-Etta. Grand-Etta had just returned from visiting family in Boise, and she wanted to hear about Marlee’s daring rescue of Jett.

Meg and Annie swooned over the romance of it.

“Usually it’s the man riding to the rescue, but not Marlee Donovan,” Anne beamed.

She dished an extra helping of peach cobbler onto Marlee’s plate.

“I heard about your amazing peach cobbler, so I took a stab at it. What do you think?”

Marlee tested the cobbler. “It’s delicious,” she said.

“It’s good, all right,” Crazy Hoss said. He was on his second helping. “But Marlee’s is a whole world better. Hers is crispy and chewy all in the same bite but in different places.”

Marlee flushed, and snuck a peak at Annie.

Annie grinned, unfazed. “It’s all I’ve heard since you made it,” she said. “So I didn’t really think I could out-do you.”

“I wish you would stay.” Meg sighed. Her gray eyes glowed, her freckled face rapt with love for her animals. “You’d love my horses. I’ve just gentled a new mustang that would be perfect for you if you wanted to ride with me. She’s a deep cinnamon brown, and has a sweet nature with only a tiny dash of feisty. A lot like you,” she said shyly. “I haven’t named her yet, but I think Cobbler has a nice ring to it, don’t you?”

Marlee swallowed a lump. She covered Meg’s hand with hers and smiled.

“Yeah, I wish you’d stay, too,” Annie put in. “You could teach me how to make your amazing cobbler, and we’d put it on special here at the café every year during peach season. You’d be famous, and with a dish like that, I’m sure the resort would hire you in a flash as soon as they open.”

Marlee’s heart lurched. If only she could stay here in Looking Glass Lake.

Crazy Hoss grunted. “I always said cowboys are dumber than bricks when it comes to romance.” He blew out a breath in disgust, stirring his gray whiskers. “But once they get the hay outta their brains, you’d never find a more loyal kind of man.”

“Then Jett just might need our help getting the hay out of his brains,” Fern declared. “Anybody can see Marlee would be a great choice for that ranch, and an even better choice for him to marry up with.”

Marlee pushed away from the table. The train didn’t come in for another forty minutes, but the talk was starting to get a bit uncomfortable for her.

Any more of it, and she was sure the skin on her cheeks would set in a permanent blush.

“Well, I didn’t give him the choice to marry me,” she said crisply. “And as much as I’d love to stay in this little town…” She swallowed. “He’s made his choice, and I have a train to catch.”

It was hard. Almost as hard as watching Jett fade away in the rear view mirror. But she did it. She hugged everyone and said goodbye, and trudged across the dusty street to the train station…even though that meant leaving her heart behind in the Moose Dimple Café to do it.

 

  • * *

 

Marlee wasn’t a bit surprised when Fern followed her to the station.

“Don’t you worry one little bit,” Fern said. She sank down in the bench next to Marlee.

The two women watched as a bird hopped down, pecking at the ground near their feet.

“I told Crazy Hoss to go and get Jett. If he hurries, he’ll have time to get here before your train arrives.” Fern sat back and folded her hands over her round tummy. She tipped her head back, gazing up at the sky and smiling. “Ah, I do love a clear blue fall afternoon.”

Marlee pressed her lips together. “I wish you wouldn’t have done that,” she said.

Fern gave Marlee an unruffled smile. “When you’ve lived here awhile, you’ll realize what everyone else does.”

“What?”

“It’s hard to stop me when I get a good notion to fix a gal up with her man.”

Marlee rolled her eyes. “He’s not my man.”

Yeah. That was the problem.

He wasn’t her man. She’d started to think of him as…well, as at least a possibility. A possibility for something thrilling. She’d started to imagine maybe long horseback rides and spring and fall roundups where they’d sit around a campfire inside a circle of warmth while wolves howled and crickets sang and stars flickered overhead. Maybe even sleigh rides in winter.

And maybe one day, they’d ride out to the meadow, but this time Jett in a tux and she in a long white gown flowing down the back of her horse.

And then maybe one day they’d have their own ranch. They’d have quiet dinners after a long day working under open skies. There would be a patchwork quilt on their bed, and a big commercial oven in the kitchen.

They’d have a barn cat and two cow dogs.

They’d go to church on Sunday morning and look at seed catalogs and dream together on lazy Sunday afternoons about where to plant the heirloom tomatoes and whether they should build a tack room onto the barn.

But those were romantic notions that belonged in fairytale books.

If fairytale books had cowboys in them.

No, Jett wasn’t her man. She’d gotten way ahead of herself when she started putting Jett in those dreams. He’d never said he wanted to be there. He’d never kissed her. She’d just gotten carried away with the dream.

“You don’t have to claim him to be your man.” Fern chuckled. “It doesn’t work that way. God’s the one who decides.”

Marlee traced the carved leather of her knife roll. She’d chosen that design because the scrolls and roses had reminded her of the west, and she’d been excited about starting a new life out here.

Excited about proving she could make a life for herself, no matter what her father thought.

“Did you forget he fired me?” She scowled and covered the carved leather with her hands. Some things were easier if she didn’t look at them. “He fired me in front of everyone.”

Fern snorted. “Is it so wrong for a man to want to protect the woman he loves?”

“Yes,” Marlee blurted. “When he does it like that.”

“Honey, I hate to tell you this, but if you’re gonna complain when a man like Jett doesn’t love you in a perfect way, you aren’t ever gonna be happy with any man.”

“I’m not going to compromise on—”

“Nobody said compromise,” Fern said. “I’m just saying give him some space to mess up. In case you hadn’t noticed, we all mess up.”

Marlee chewed her lower lip.

_Mess up. _

That’s what she’d done her whole life. From the very moment she’d come out of the womb, all she’d done was mess up. And her family never let her forget it.

“Pride is a trap, honey.” Fern’s voice was almost as soft as the sun dancing over their heads. “It gets you stuck seeing things only one way.”

Marlee blinked back sudden tears. It was strange but so warming to be understood. It was almost as if Fern had read her mind. All through her life, she’d felt more and more stuck with every failure.

That’s why she loved the west. Because here, no one was breathing down her neck to make sure she was perfect. Out here, she’d started to forget the pride that had ruled her life. Out here there was freedom instead of being stuck all the time.

If only there was another way to look at things. But right now, the train’s mournful whistle sounded around the bend, echoing the heaviness of Marlee’s heart.

Fern put an arm around Marlee’s shoulders and squeezed. “Hey. Life gets messy. We just have to make the most of the mess. Nobody cares if it’s not perfect.”

Marlee sniffed and tried to smile through her tears. She’d spent most of her life trying to prove something. What? That she could be perfect? That she would never fail?

Well, Fern was right about one thing. There was nothing like a cattle drive and a serious dark-eyed cowboy to show her all the places she wasn’t perfect.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

 

Marlee settled into her seat.

Outside, Fern, Meg, Annie and Crazy Hoss had gathered.

Fern waved a pink handkerchief. Annie dabbed at her eyes with her apron.

Crazy Hoss blinked rapidly and even his whiskers drooped mournfully. He’d probably need to borrow a corner of Annie’s apron soon.

Marlee pressed her hand to her fluttering stomach.

She could still get off.

She could at least check to see if the Rockspur ranch really was hiring a cook soon.

She shrugged off the knife roll, and placed it carefully in her lap, running her fingers absently over the carved leather. It was hard to imagine herself begging strangers for a job that wasn’t even posted yet.

But before she could decide, the train jerked and whistled and started its slow pull away from the platform.

Well, then. It was decided. The train was in motion now, and it was best she take her lumps and move on.

But that was hard to convince herself when she looked back at Crazy Hoss, Fern, Meg and Annie as the train picked up speed.

Like Jett, they grew smaller and smaller, until they vanished in her past.

Marlee sighed and sat back in her seat thinking about Fern’s words.

Pride is a trap, honey. It gets you stuck seeing things only one way.

How else could she see this, besides the glaringly obvious fact of her own failures?

Well, if nothing else, she had gotten the experience of riding on an authentic old train. She’d met some wonderful people. She’d found out what she was really made of when it came to bravery. She’d learned some mean Dutch oven cooking skills. And she’d gotten to go on a real live, honest-to-goodness cattle drive. Amazing experiences most chefs would never have.

The only cost to her was time.

And a broken heart.

Marlee’s heartbeat picked up as she pulled out the envelope Jett had given her that morning. She hadn’t asked him to write a letter of recommendation. As she unfolded the letter, her fingers trembled.

It was typed. Professional and crisp, reflecting their relationship as boss and employee.

She almost closed the letter back up at the sight of his signature. It was bold and efficient. Masculine.

Instead, she clenched her teeth and began to read.

Instantly, her vision clouded over with tears as she read. Three paragraphs of glowing words. And then a list of “Reasons Why You Should Hire Marlee Donovan.”

She sniffed and wiped at the edge of her eye as she finished reading. This letter proved he hadn’t fired her because she was incompetent. He’d listed a lot of good reasons to hire her. That did dull the ache a little. But he still hadn’t hired her.

“Tickets, please.”

Marlee smiled up at Lester, dressed in his conductor’s costume. She loved this old tourist train with its authentic details.

“Back so soon?” Lester slowed when he came to her seat.

Marlee straightened her shoulders. “Yes,” she said. “I guess the job wasn’t for me.” She held out her ticket.

“Well, now…” He peered at her through mournful eyes as he punched her ticket. “That surprises me. I was sure you’d love it out here.”

“I do.” She sighed.

“Just too much dust, then, I guess,” he said and handed her ticket back.

“No. A little dust never hurt anyone.”

“Too dry? Got yer allergies on overdrive?” He peered at her even more closely.

“No,” Marlee said. She looked down at her knife case and traced scrolls and roses.

Her heart had been on overdrive, maybe, but her heart and soul and body had never felt better than out under the sun with the wind in her hair and the Killdeer calls and the smell of pine, horses, sagebrush and the rich Camas Prairie.

Lester folded his arms and leaned against the seat across the aisle. “Yer homesick for family?”

“No,” Marlee murmured. But it wasn’t technically true. She was homesick for family already…but she was homesick for her Looking Glass Lake family, not her real family.

And she was homesick for Jett.

“Well, don’t that beat all.” He chuckled. “I’m plumb out of reasons.”

Marlee looked up. She blinked. “Plumb out of reasons?” She heard herself repeat.

“Except for maybe a broken heart,” the old conductor said. He shook his head and patted her on the shoulder before he moved on.

Marlee stared at the back of the seat cushion in front of her.

Outside, the country she’d fallen in love with unfurled next to the window, but she barely noticed.

She’d just read Jett’s reasons why she’d be a good hiring decision. She’d just thought about many of her own reasons why she wanted to stay in Looking Glass Lake. But how many reasons did she have for leaving?

Only one.

Pride.

Pride kept her stuck. Kept her from turning around, exactly like Fern had said.

“Plumb out of reasons,” she whispered, and her heart hammered louder and louder in her chest. Pride wasn’t a good enough reason for anything in her life. Not anymore.

Because she knew Crazy Hoss was right. Jett was the most loyal kind of man. Loyal in love, yes. But loyal in all ways.

She’d been too proud to accept the best part about Jett.

He’d told her he couldn’t hire her because the ranch needed a good cowhand and a good camp cook rolled into one. And she’d put her own pride above his loyalty to the ranch.

She’d been a blind fool.

But she didn’t have to keep it up.

Asking about the job at the Rockspur ranch wouldn’t mean she was a failure. It would mean Marlee Donovan wasn’t a quitter. And pride or no pride, that was still true.

There was another stop in two hours, and as long as she dumped her pride, she’d be free to get off the train and find some other way back to Looking Glass Lake.

Because once she got the hay out of her own brain, life would get a whole lot easier.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

[* *]

Jett had just thrown his saddle over Calamity’s back when Crazy Hoss rumbled into the driveway, pulling a horse trailer behind his rig.

“Cattle drive is over, old-timer,” Jett said when Crazy Hoss ambled over.

“Ain’t that a shame,” Crazy Hoss declared. He watched Jett cinch the saddle. “That was some kind of excitement.”

Jett grunted. Excitement wasn’t what he was feeling right now.

What he felt tasted metallic and raw, like a dry thunderstorm that refused to roll through in the dead of summer. That’s what he’d been feeling ever since he’d handed Marlee the letter of recommendation he’d written, and she’d stomped out of his life.

He’d tried to tell her to stay. But he didn’t know how. He still wouldn’t be able to hire her if she did stay. And she’d made it crystal clear she would only stick around if she got the job.

He’d probably have this feeling in the pit of his stomach for weeks. Like he’d just eaten a belly full of hard leather. But a few weeks out fixing fence lines ought to calm him down some.

All he really needed was hours in the saddle with the wind, Calamity and God to work out that thundercloud stuck in his chest.

“Glad to see you’re saddlin’ up,” Crazy Hoss said. “I thought I might have to talk you into it.”

Jett straightened up and narrowed his eyes. Something big was coming. And it would be about Marlee. Most likely some message Fern wanted Crazy Hoss to give him. Some instructions on true love and going after the girl and never giving up.

Crazy Hoss jerked a thumb over his shoulder toward the trailer. “I brought the peace offering,” he said.

A cinnamon mare poked her head out of the horse trailer.

“Meg Aimstock decided to name her Mad Cobbler,” Crazy Hoss grinned. “There ain’t no way Marlee could say no to such a purty horse. Just look at that face.”

Jett snorted and eyed the mare. Mad Cobbler was a beauty all right. She was a wild mustang Meg Aimstock had gentled, but she was sweet as any wild thing ever was. Sweet, spirited and strong. Like Marlee.

But it would take more than a good horse given as a peace offering to get Marlee Donovan to stay. It would take an apology.

And Jett never lied.

“I’m not sorry I didn’t hire her.” He planted his feet and folded his arms.

He didn’t like it any more than Crazy Hoss did, but the truth was, not every cowboy got to ride off into the sunset with his dream cowgirl. Some cowboys had to tend to the harsh realities of life, no matter what it cost them.

Crazy Hoss nodded, but Jett had the feeling the old man wasn’t in full agreement. “You did what you had to do,” Crazy Hoss said mildly.

“But…” Jett narrowed his eyes, waiting for Crazy Hoss to spill the beans.

The old man stood there a little too casually, lips pursed in a nearly-silent innocent whistle as he glanced around the barnyard. Looking anywhere but at Jett.

“I figure a girl like Marlee is worth trying a little harder for,” Crazy Hoss said.

Jett swallowed and the thundercloud in his chest crashed. “I wrote her a letter,” he said. “If she thinks I didn’t hire her because I don’t respect her, then that letter should have set her straight. But she wouldn’t even read it.” He shrugged and swung onto Calamity’s back. “I did what I could.”

“Silas Paycoach hired you because he knew he could count on you,” Crazy Hoss said.

Jett’s heart squeezed. He swallowed the ache in his throat, but it wouldn’t budge. “Exactly,” he said.

Finally, the man understood. Maybe Crazy Hoss would leave him alone now. So he could head out to mend the fence line and be alone with miles of barbed wire and icy wind and the ache in his throat.

“He knew you weren’t a quitter.” Crazy Hoss laid a hand on Calamity’s shoulder, and squinted up at Jett. “He knew you’d always find a way when it came to taking care of the most important things.”

That wily old coon…just when Jett had thought Crazy Hoss would leave him in peace to go off and lick his wounds, the man had to say a thing like that.

Jett cleared his throat. He could almost imagine Silas walking toward him from the barn, calling out his favorite saying.

Cattle is cattle. People is what counts.

“Low blow,” Jett muttered. “Bringing Silas into this.”

Crazy Hoss grinned and slapped Calamity’s shoulder. “You know as well as I do that he’d want you to figure out a way to keep Marlee on without letting the ranch suffer. He’d have you over a barrel until you figured out a solution.”

Jett gathered the reins in one hand and clenched his jaw. Crazy Hoss was right about Silas.

In the distance, a train whistled. Marlee would be boarding in only a few minutes.

“We’ll never catch the train,” Jett said. “I’ll call her when she gets home.”

“Piffle.” The old cowboy glared. “Give her a chance to get all the way home, and I doubt she’d give a rangy cowpoke like you a second look,” he said.

Jett swallowed hard and flexed his grip on the reins. He doubted Marlee would ignore him like Crazy Hoss said. She’d talk to him. She wasn’t unreasonable, assuming he could come up with some kind of compromise.

But blood pumped hard in his veins as if his body was already gearing up to ride.

Crazy Hoss was right. Jett didn’t want to leave something like that up to chance.

Jett fished out his cell phone, and texted his friend.

URGENT. SLOW TRAIN BEFORE CLEARWATER. NEED TIME TO CATCH MY GIRL.

_My girl. _

His heart pounded even louder. Under him, Calamity shimmied, sensing his drive.

“My advice, ride hard and figure it out in the saddle. I’ll saddle up right behind ya.” Crazy Hoss cackled. “If you can’t convince her, maybe she’ll listen to an old man.”

Jett grinned and settled his hat tightly on his head.

“Hiyah!” He leaned forward, his heart surging as Calamity leapt toward the trail.

_Figure it out in the saddle. _

Maybe that’s what he should have done all along. That’s where he did all his best thinking.

They shot down the gravel drive, and he eased Calamity around the curve. And as Crazy Hoss whooped behind him, Jett urged Calamity forward.

He’d just left the thundercloud in his dust.

Now he had to catch the woman he loved.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

 

Jett rode hard.

He had to get to Marlee.

He was coming up on Dead Man’s Canyon Road now. Hopefully, in Marlee’s eyes, he wasn’t a dead man riding.

“Come on old girl,” he whispered to Calamity, leaning forward. “A little farther, and we’ll get her back.”

Her neck strained, and they charged forward, down the steep hill. He was grateful he had a Rocky Mountain horse who could ride this terrain.

All the way, his heart bounced between anger that he’d let her go, and gratitude for Calamity’s speed.

And the whole way there, he strained to see the train and its puffing above the tree line.

As they closed in on Dead Man’s Canyon Road, he heard the whistle. He had to catch it. Once it went beyond Dead Man’s, the track plunged into thick forests and mountains, and there was no way he’d be able to catch it until its next stop over two hours away.

And that was if he was lucky enough to get through the winding mountain roads in time. He knew he’d never make it by truck…not with all the road construction the highway department was trying to squeeze in before winter hit.

Dead Man’s Canyon Road and Calamity were his last hope of reaching Marlee.

If any horse could catch that iron beast, it was Calamity. Winding track and hilly terrain meant the train would go slower than its usual forty miles per hour. Calamity’s speed easily hit the thirty miles per hour range, maybe a bit less with the terrain. But they had cut across rough country, and the train had taken a circuitous scenic route, running along the Clearwater River.

If his buddy had received his message before leaving the station, the train would be traveling slower than normal.

If not, there was no way he’d catch Marlee, no matter how fast he rode.

Calamity picked up speed when they hit the road.

“Atta’ girl,” he said.

Behind him, Crazy Hoss followed at a slower pace on Lariat, the Paint horse he’d grown fond of. He was leading Meg’s chocolate mare for Marlee.

Up ahead, Jett heaved a sigh of relief when the train rounded the river bend. Just in time.

He leaned back in the saddle, and Calamity slid to a stop directly over the tracks.

“Ok, girl.” He leaned forward and smoothed her neck. The mare was breathing fast. “Let’s hope she forgives us.”

He’d put his heart in the letter. If that didn’t tell her how he felt, he didn’t know what would.

But she’d ignored it and walked right out of his life, as easy as pie.

He straightened in the saddle, his face tight. There was only one way to find out if she was willing to listen this time.

Jett swooped his hat off and waved it in the air.

As the train neared, his friend’s face beamed at him from the engine. Curt reached up, blasted the whistle and whooped before setting the brakes hard.

“Easy, girl.” Jett soothed Calamity. She pranced nervously as the iron beast screeched in front of her and finally settled to a stop in a hiss of steam.

Jett swallowed dust and road grime in his throat, and what felt like a barrel of minnows in his gullet.

Well, this was it. One great leap of a risk.

Hopefully, she wouldn’t shut him down with only one look.

 

  • * *

 

Marlee peered out the window. That was odd. The train had stopped, and they were nowhere near the next stop.

She slid the window open and peered out. Up ahead, where the track curved, a horse and rider sat on the tracks.

She pulled back into the train car.

“A fake hold-up, huh?” She grinned up at Lester who headed her way. “Nice touch.”

She poked her head back out the window before he responded, not wanting to miss a moment.

The horse pranced on the tracks, and Marlee smiled at the picture. A high-strung horse. A foolhardy bandit. Any minute now, and the town Marshal would probably be along with his tin star and a Deputy, and there would be a fake shoot out.

The rider pulled off his hat and waved it in the air, shouting something.

Her heart thudded.

That rider was awfully familiar.

She gripped the edge of the window. “It can’t be,” she whispered. She’d barely picked her hopes up and dusted them off. She wasn’t ready to put them back in the saddle again.

“He’s askin’ for you, Miss,” Lester said.

She went numb, staring.

Her cowboy. Sitting in the middle of the tracks, trying to calm a nervous Calamity.

She bumped her head when she pulled it back in, but she didn’t care. Slinging her knife roll across her back, she hurried down the aisle to the door.

When it opened, Jett was there to meet her. Calamity breathed hard and tossed her head. Jett’s face was flushed, and his eyes intense.

If he hadn’t just ridden all the way across rough country to stop a train, she’d have guessed he was mad.

Her trembling hands fluttered to her mouth, but she couldn’t even squeak out a single word.

“Somebody told me once that Marlee Donovan is not a quitter,” he said, leaning forward and peering at her.

Marlee blinked, her throat clogged with emotion.

Calamity shifted under him, and he bent automatically, his hand smoothing the mare’s neck.

“I’m sorry. I just wanted to keep you safe,” he said.

She rolled tear-filled eyes. “Yeah.” She smiled. “You already told me.”

Anxiety squeezed crinkles at the corners of his eyes.

She melted a little more every time he looked at her.

“I’ve been thinking. I can hire you, but only if you promise to let me teach you to ride and how to work cattle. If we get enough good weather we might have you ready for the spring drive. But I can’t pay you the full salary at first because I’ll have to hire an extra cowhand until we can get you up to speed. It’s the best I can offer, but it’s fair.” For a man who didn’t talk much, he looked like he was spending every single word he’d ever earned.

“Why would you do that? Why hire two people for one position?”

She knew why. But she needed to hear it anyway.

And this time it wasn’t about pride. This time it was about what her heart needed. This time it was about looking before she leapt.

Because that’s exactly what she wanted to do right now: leap from the stairs of the train right into his arms, if he’d let her.

And if Calamity didn’t throw them both.

“Well, I got to thinking and I realized that it’s the right thing for the ranch.” He took his hat off, and swiped his brow with his sleeve before settling his hat back on.

Warmth spread through her chest. Tough-as-leather Jett Maddox was nervous. Nervous and talking like his life depended on it.

“Once that fancy resort opens up, tourists might want to go on a short trail ride. And then have an authentic chuck wagon dinner. Now that you’ve learned the ropes, you’re the best Dutch oven cook around.”

“Don’t forget her famous Mad Marlee’s Peach Cobbler,” Lester whispered loudly. “It’s all Crazy Hoss has been talking about.”

The warmth in her chest tingled in little bursts that moved out to her fingertips. Marlee swallowed a smile. “So you want me for my cobbler?”

Jett’s brows lowered, and his eyes darkened. “Do I have to spell it out?”

She grinned. It wouldn’t hurt to let him muddle through the mess he was making of this.

That’s what life was about. Making messes and figuring out what to do with them.

And this mess was starting to feel as thrilling as she’d hoped it would be.

Crazy Hoss broke through the trees then, and behind him came the cinnamon mare. “Meet Cobbler,” he said when they’d come to a stop.

Marlee grinned at Jett. “You came prepared, cowboy,” she teased.

Jett went beet red and glanced down where his hands rested on the saddle horn. When he looked back up at her, it was with a determined set in his jaw.

He dismounted, handed his reins to Crazy Hoss, and then in one long leap, he was on the stair with her.

Marlee sucked in a breath, stuck in his dark eyes.

So dark, they were like the dark chocolate mugs he’d poured for her. Rich and deep and almost black, and with a hint of cayenne—a heat that started at the back of her throat and spread all the way down to her toes in their dusty boots. If she looked closer, she knew she would see every flicker of firelight they’d shared, and even more in their future.

He took his hat off then, and put both arms loosely around her neck, pulling her closer, and holding his hat to shield them from the tourists on the train.

“I like you,” he whispered. “A lot.”

He dipped his head. And then stopped short of brushing her lips with his.

She took a quick breath and tightened her grip on the knife roll strap.

“I was thinking,” he said in a low voice, “If you stick around, I might grow on you, too.”

“You ain’t a wart, boy.” Crazy Hoss’ voice floated toward them. ““Growin’ don’t cut it. You gotta tell her what you’re good for.”

Jett ignored him.

And to Marlee’s joy, he didn’t use any words.

He closed his arms around her, dug his fingers in her hair, and kissed her. Three light fiery kisses that tingled like she’d hoped, and then a fourth kiss that deepened and flowed through her—a rich and chocolaty spice far better than any dessert she’d ever had.

Jett stirred up her hopes, planted them directly in the saddle, and had them galloping again, racing through every dream she’d imagined and more.

When he pulled away, cheers and whistles broke out.

“Actions speak louder than words,” she whispered.

He pulled her to his chest. “Something like that,” he grunted and then let go.

He vaulted into the saddle and then shimmied Calamity close to the train. He reached out for Marlee, but she hesitated.

“Don’t worry about your luggage,” Lester piped up. “I’’ll bring it on the return journey tonight.” He swiped at watery blue eyes with a red handkerchief.

“Thank you.” Marlee laughed and hugged him before she turned to grab Jett’s arm.

Jett swung her up behind him.

Closing her arms around him, she breathed in his scent. The smell of open skies and rolling prairie.

“You know we did fetch her a horse to ride.” Crazy Hoss chuckled behind them as they took off toward Dead Man’s Canyon Road.

“In a minute,” Jett said.

When they’d gotten a few paces from the tracks, the train whistled and pulled away, steam churning all around.

On the road, Jett helped her down, and brought Mad Cobbler over. He started to take her knife roll, but Marlee clenched her grip and hung on tight.

“It’s only for the ride.” He chuckled.

Reluctantly, she let go and watched as he stowed them away in a saddle bag.

“Worried we’ll stumble into rustlers on the way home?” He teased, dimple flashing.

She would have walloped him good if he hadn’t just kissed all the vinegar right out of her. But instead, she smiled. “I wouldn’t mind saving your life again if a kiss is my reward.”

He threw his head back and laughed. The deep rich warmth of it rolled over her, as delightful as pulling a fresh-baked apple pie out of the oven.

He was still smiling when he kissed her again and then settled her into the saddle.

The three of them rode down Dead Man’s Canyon Road and around the bend. At the crest of a ridge, Marlee slowed her horse.

Before her, the Camas Prairie rolled under a fiery sunset, all the way to Looking Glass Lake.

Jett sidled Calamity up close and reached for her hand.

Marlee sighed. “You know…” She tipped her head and peered at him from the corner of her eye. “I was starting to think you were all hat and no cattle when it came to romance,” she said.

Jett grinned and squeezed her hand.

Crazy Hoss scooted his Paint horse up next to Jett and leaned across his saddle horn, grinning. “Nope,” he said. “Jett’s the real deal, all right. He’s as loco as the rest of us flea-bitten varmints.”

Marlee laughed.

By now, the sun simmered low on the horizon. Orange and purple streaks dressed the air in splendor.

Just the kind of sunset a real cowgirl could ride into.

GET JETT’S LETTER AND MARLEE’S WEDDING FOR FREE

Curious about the letter Jett wrote for Marlee? It’s all here!

Plus, Marlee celebrates her wedding in this secret deleted scene.

Marlee’s wedding is so romantic, Fern Aimstock and Crazy Hoss are already working on another matchmaking scheme.

Who is their target, and who else will find love in Looking Glass Lake?

 

CLICK THE LINK AND CLAIM YOUR FREE SCENE:

http://rebeccanightsong.com/marlees-wedding/

 

THANK YOU FOR READING!

Rebecca Nightsong

 

 

 

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Nightsong grew up under the wide-open skies of Idaho, where she spent long days in fluffy petticoats and lace, chasing geese and riding goats (since sadly, she had no horses).

As a bossy sister in a large family of all boys, she may or may not be guilty of making her three-year old brother lie down on a hard strip of lumber in the middle of the pasture to take a pretend nap when playing “pioneer families.”

Today, Rebecca lives with her husband, who is a constant source of inspiration. She spends her time in her quirky fictional world of Looking Glass Lake, bossing around characters who frequently boss back.

You can connect with Rebecca at: www.rebeccanightsong.com

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Thank you to my Mama, for always making me sit on the kitchen stool to read my English papers aloud and for giving me my first feedback. People always say family won’t give honest criticism of writing, but I know that’s not true with you.

Thanks, Dad, for letting me talk your ear off about anything at anytime. I love our talks.

Thank you to Jana Hillsberry, for listening to early scenes and laughing in all the right spots. Your laugh is inspiring!

Thank you to Kayde and Addy, for loving my stories. No, I don’t have the bus-driver beauty-queen story done yet, because I’m working on the stow-away story. ;)

Thank you to Steve, Dan, Andrew and Jesse Hillsberry, and to Chris Harada, for challenging me and being the kind of brothers I have to work to keep up with…and for letting me practice my storytelling skills on you.

Thank you to Rachel Ault at for the talented graphics and artwork. We’re a dream team because it’s so much fun to dream up stuff together. And as a friend, you make life a little more crazy and a little more sane all at once.

Thank you to Heather Woodhaven, author extrodinaire and faithful friend. You are so encouraging and your advice is always spot-on. Getting a beta-read from you is like getting ready for prom together…I know you’ll always grab me and slap on a pair of dangly earrings if I need them, and you’d never let me go outside with a curler stuck in my hair!

Thank you to my writing pals in Idaho: Becky Avella, Hilarey Johnson, Kristine McCord, Lisa Phillips, Angela Ruth Strong and Heather Woodhaven. Girls, we’ve got something special, and I can’t wait to get back to Idaho to jump back into brainstorming sessions and prayer together and other writerly fun.

Thank you to my writing pals in Virginia: C.j. Chase, Cynthia Howerter, Luana Hugel, Carrie Fancett-Pagels, Anne Payne and Dina Sleiman. You were the best part about being away from home for so long.

Thank you to Larry Hayhurst for being a great mentor and inspiration, and being willing to connect me with people for research. I never went wrong listening to your advice, and I always felt stronger knowing you were in my corner.

Thank you to Ardie Noyes, for your encouragement. I keep my “that was easy” button dusted off and I punch it after each chapter!

Thank you to Richard Garner at Fish Tail Bar G ranch in Virginia. You gave me a true cowboy’s welcome, made me feel at home, and were generous with your time and knowledge. I can’t wait to write more about mustangs in future books. (P.S. Please note: No horses were given treats in the making of this book!)

Thank you to Al Blank and Jane Newby. You gave freedom and encouragement…what every girl needs, sometimes more than anything else.

Thank you to David Hillsberry, for giving me the “be your own boss” bug.

Thank you to Kristin Bailey, Hannah Eaton, and Camille Hammond, for being the kind of friends I’ll never grow out of, no matter how long we’ve known each other or how far away we live from one another…I wish we could all live in Looking Glass Lake next door to each other.

Thank you to Vincent Muli Wa Kituku, for treating me like a real writer before I believed it myself.

Thank you to Judy Tinney, for sharing your heart and that sunny corner in your office in Denver.

Thank you to Pat Shaw, who spurred me to just quit my job and write.

And thank you to Jesus. My best friend and the one who has blessed me with such richness in friends and family. Every good and perfect gift comes from You.

 

 

 

 


Love on the Range: A Looking Glass Lake Prequel

A plucky city girl. A tough cowboy. Romance in cowboy country. When a crisis cripples the ranch, stern cowboy Jett Maddox is suddenly promoted to foreman. Just in time for the fall cattle drive. No sweat. Except for the new spitfire cook who is way too soft for wild country. City-girl Marlee Donovan knows failure. She’s already on her second career, and her family is sure she’ll fail again. But plucky Marlee packs up her chef’s knives and heads west for a cook’s job on a ranch anyway. She’s ready to prove herself. As Marlee struggles with the hardships of life in the west, Jett finds himself falling for her. And Marlee is drawn to the unexpected soft side of the gruff cowboy. But when tragedy at the ranch escalates, a difficult decision must be made…and Marlee’s stubborn streak could cost her everything. Love on the Range is a prequel to the Looking Glass Lake series of contemporary Christian romance. If you like sweet and clean love stories with quirky characters that get you laughing, then you’ll love Rebecca Nightsong’s world of imperfect people who dare to put their faith and love in action. Saddle up and enter cowboy country to start this love story today!

  • ISBN: 9781310679902
  • Author: Rebecca Nightsong
  • Published: 2016-07-12 06:20:15
  • Words: 43107
Love on the Range:  A Looking Glass Lake Prequel Love on the Range:  A Looking Glass Lake Prequel