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Maggie Mclntyre couldn't wait to unfold herself from the dusty wreck of a pickup truck sent from the Silver River Ranch.
It had been a long, tedious day that had started at dawn, when her nephew Danny was released to her from juvenile detention in lower Manhattan. Then they had had to change planes three timesstarting at JFK International Airportbefore they'd finally landed at this blip on the map called Mountain Springs, Wyoming.
And throughout the day, Danny had barely spoke three words to her, civil or otherwise.
To alleviate his worriesif he was indeed worryingshe'd tried to convince him that the Cowboy Quest Program would be a good experience for both of them, but she had a feeling that her monologue had fallen on deaf ears.
Still, Maggie hoped that at least some of her words would sink in. Maybe Danny would realize that they were in Cowboy Quest togetheras a familyand not only would they work on their communication skills and strengthen their bond, but they'd have a good time, too.
Where else could they learn to rope, ride horses, go on a cattle drive and basically live differently than what they were used to? It would be an experience that they'd remember their entire lives.
As she spoke, Danny remained silent and aloof.
Would there ever come a day when she'd be able to reach him? What had happened to the sweet boy that she'd watched grow up? When had he turned into a hostile and shuttered thirteen-year-old?
Finally, after a long, bumpy drive, they pulled into the entrance of the ranch. As far as she could see in the dusky light, there were miles of emerald-green grass shimmering in the spring breeze.
So this was the Wild Westalthough she hoped it wasn't too wild.
Maggie paused a moment before opening the door and studied the ranch house in front of her. Floor-to-ceiling windows jutted out from the middle of the two angled wings, and it reminded her of a birdin this case, an eagleabout to take flight.
The houseif that was the right termsat regally on a hill overlooking several outbuildings and the surrounding countryside. Brick walkways led to some of these outbuildings.
Maggie couldn't wait to explore.
Their driver, Quint, who was as quiet as Danny during the drive here, opened the door of the truck for her, and Maggie stepped onto a soft patch of Wyoming grass.
"C'mon, Danny," she said, zipping up her designer fleece coat. "We're here."
"Aren't you going to get out of the truck, son?" Quint asked.
In response, the wizened cowboy got a bored shrug from the sullen teenager.
Maggie hoped that the change of scenery would be what she and Danny needed to rebuild and strengthen their relationship, but that wouldn't happen if he wouldn't even get out of the truck.
Maggie had only herself to blame for the chasm between Danny and herself. When her sister, Liz, died two years agofour years after the boy's fatherleaving her as Danny's sole guardian, Maggie had immersed herself even more in her acting, her escape from the painful loss of the sister she'd so loved. Besides, she was a single mother now, and she needed to support herself and Danny. With a heavy heart, she'd realized too late that her absence from Danny had done him more harm than good. At a time when he'd needed her the most, she'd been working long hoursand Danny had been getting into trouble.
She had to have faith that Joe Watley's Cowboy Quest program would be her nephew's salvationand hers, too.
She hoped that Cowboy Quest would somehow help Danny realize that their shared grief was keeping them apart, and that he was acting out because he was afraid of losing her, too. Her job would be to help Danny accept the fact that he'd never lose her. She'd always be in his life, always be there for him.
If she and Danny were able to accomplish these important things, they would be well on their way to becoming a real family, and Maggie wanted that more than anything.
If Danny successfully completed the program, the family court wouldn't place him in a juvenile correctional facility.
If Danny were placed, that would mean she had failed him, and Maggie couldn't stand to bear that burden. Liz had given up so much to help Maggie's career in the theater. If she failed Danny, it would be like failing Liz, too.
As she looked around, she noticed a man walking toward hera big hulk of a man. Judging by his white hat and saucer-sized belt buckle, she concluded that he was definitely a cowboy.
Maggie tried not to stare at him, but she couldn't help herself. She felt as if she was being pulled toward him by some unknown force. He was the epitome of what she thought a real cowboy would look like. His straight black hair was pulled into a ponytail with a string of rawhide, and he wore a long-sleeved chambray shirt tucked into a pair of faded denim jeans.
If his high cheekbones were any indication, he might even have some Native American blood. His skin was a deep shade of brown, but that could be just from all the outdoor work he must do.
There weren't many cowboys in Manhattan, but he'd certainly stand out in a crowd among any. He'd probably stand out in a crowd here in Wyoming, too.
But what credentials did this big cowboy have, other than the fact that the family court judge seemed to have absolute faith in him? Could she really trust him with her nephew?
And why wasn't there any information about the program online?
He stopped in front of her and smiled warmly. "Welcome to the Silver River Ranch. You must be Maggie McIntyre." He yanked a brown leather work glove off and held out his hand. "I'm Joe Watley, and I'm in charge of the Cowboy Quest program. Sorry I wasn't able to pick you and Danny up at the airport myself, but there was a problem with one of my bulls."
Maggie held out her hand, and as he engulfed it in his, she felt a shock zip through her body, and all her senses were suddenly on alert. His calloused grip told her that he did more than run a program for juvenile delinquents and oversee a ranch. He did hard work.
He released her hand and tugged his glove back on. "The vet had just arrived, so I couldn't leave, but I'm sure that Quint took good care of you."
"He did. And Mr. Watley, I'd like to thank you for accepting my nephew into your program," she said with more conviction than she actually felt.
"Call me Joe." He pushed his hat back with a thumb. "I believe that you're participating in my program, too, Ms. McIntyre."
Judge Cunningham felt that six weeks of Joe's Cowboy Quest program would be a good bonding experience for both of themin fact, he'd made it a condition of her ability to maintain custody. Maggie hoped with all her heart that this program would solve all their problems.
"It's good to be here." Maggie forced herself to keep her eyes on Joe's and stop her inspection of his muscular body. "Danny is very happy to be part of your program and be here on your ranch."
"I doubt that very much, since he won't even get out of the truck." Joe's onyx eyes twinkled and a smile twitched at the corner of his mouth. "And I doubt that you're thrilled to be here, either. It's a far cry from Broadway."
"You know about me?" Maggie asked.
"I have a copy of the probation officer's report."
"I see," she said, unnerved. "Well, I'm here for Danny, and I'm going to do my best."
"So will I."
Maggie remembered the serious probation officer who'd come to her SoHo apartment to interview her and Danny in order to prepare an investigation. The officer had stated that the report would go to the judge to assist him in deciding what to do with Danny. Now Joe had a copy of the report. Maggie didn't know if she wanted him or his staff or anyone else knowing about her family problems, but then again, he probably needed the information in order to help.
Still, what could this cowboy do, when the best social workers and psychologists in New York City couldn't get Danny to change his behavior?
Maggie looked back at the pickup. Danny still sat in the front seat, and Quint still stood by the opened passenger door, looking amused. The set of the boy's shoulders told Maggie exactly what Danny was thinkinghe wanted to be anywhere but here.
But they were both here because Danny had been acting as a lookout while his so-called friends were burglarizing a nearby grocery store. The others had gotten away, but Danny was arrested and refused to name the others involved.
She'd had a talk with him about being a leader instead of a follower, but apparently it hadn't sunk in, judging by his attitude.
She met Joe's gaze and stiffened her shoulders. This would be just as hard as she'd thought.
Maggie began walking toward the pickup to have a word with Danny, but Joe placed his hand on her shoulder. "I'll take care of it. He's my responsibility now."
His light touch was warm and reassuring, and Maggie felt the same relief wash over her as she felt when the curtain closed at the end of a performance and the audience erupted in applause. It was then, and only then, that she could relax.
But she couldn't relax here. The Cowboy Quest program would be work, hard work. Her plan was to throw herself into the program just like she did when she prepared for a new role. She loved Danny as if she'd actually given birth to him, and she would do whatever it took to heal their broken relationship.
Joe walked over to where Danny sat. "Welcome to the Silver River Ranch, partner. I'm Joe Watley. I'm in charge of the program."
Maggie let the low timbre of his voice wash over her, relax her. Joe didn't waste a word, and he spoke with complete confidence and authority.
Danny looked away, but Joe pressed on. "I hope you don't expect Quint to unload your luggage. Every cowboy here hauls his own weight, and that means you, too. We'll get you settled in the bunk-house, and then we'll take your aunt's things to the main house."
"The main house?" Danny asked, looking up for the first time.
"Did you expect her to stay in the bunkhouse with the other participants?" Joe asked with a grin.
"Where are you going to be?" Danny asked. Sarcasm dripped from his voice like icicles melting from a roof.
"I'll be staying in the bunkhouse with everyone else." Joe met Danny's eyes. "And it's to your credit that you're looking after your aunt. Being respectful to women is part of the Cowboy Code."
"The Cowboy Code? Spare me." He rolled his eyes. "That's lame."
"It's not lame. The Cowboy Code consists of general rules for gentlemanly behaviorthings that any good citizen should follow. And believe it or not, you got one of the components." Joe grinned. "One down, several to go."
Danny didn't turn away, but blinked, stunned. Slowlygrudginglyhe climbed out of the truck.
Maggie was impressed with Joe's response to Danny's sarcasm. He'd taken what could have been a sensitive subject and ended it on an upbeat note.
Was Danny worried that she and Joe might get close?
She wondered, not for the first time, what went on in a thirteen-year-old boy's head. Why would he think that they'd live under the same roof and get involved just like that? Merciful heavens, she'd just met the man.
Was Danny worried that she'd spend more time with Joe than with him?
Then it dawned on her. Steve Rayborn. She remembered when Danny had thought that she was serious about Steve, a costar in her last musical. A dear friend, he'd helped her through Liz's two-year battle with cancer and her ongoing struggle to act like a parent. When Maggie finally confronted Danny about his silent treatment and rude remarks toward Steve, the boy had admitted that he thought Maggie was going to marry Steve and that they wouldn't want him.
Realizing how frightened her nephew was of losing the only family he had left, Maggie explained that Steve was just a friend, and that Danny would always be first and foremost in her life.
Now, though, it seemed that Danny's old insecurities were resurfacing. But she hoped that Cowboy Quest would finally put her fears to rest.