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Where on earth am I?
Meredith Bingham Turner pulled her generic gray rental car over to the side of the road—what little side there was. Rolling down the window, she peered down the drop-off to her right and frowned at the scruffy vegetation and huge prickly cacti that stood with their arms raised toward the blazing Arizona sun.
It was hot. Very hot. And she was very, very lost. Once again, she read the directions to the Rattlesnake Ranch that her friend Karen had e-mailed her, but something was still wrong, and there was no one around to ask for assistance. No cops. No pedestrians or joggers. No shoppers. No tourists.
Just lizards, scorpions and tarantulas.
She shuddered and quickly rolled up the window. She hadn't seen any of those creatures yet, but why tempt fate?
Two weeks ago, Karen had called Merry and asked for a favor. "I know you're busy, but it's important. My brother is at his wit's end. With Caitlin's psychiatrist bills, Louise's and Ty's tuition and all... Well, we might just lose the ranch if we don't do something drastic. Besides, I read about you and that George fellow in Celebrity Gossiper, and it sounds like you need a break, too."
Karen was right. She needed to get away from Boston and her corporation. She needed to get away from George Lynch, her latest "kiss and tell" ex-boyfriend. Whenever she thought of the headline in the Celebrity Gossiper: "Sensational Cook Not So Sensational in Bed," she wanted to scream.
Merry did the only thing that she could do. She turned it over to her lawyers.
"Of course I'll help," Merry had replied to Karen's request. "What do you need me to do?"
"Help us turn the Rattlesnake Ranch into a dude ranch. I can take care of the business end, but I'll need decorating help, menu-planning, maybe you could help with publicity. An endorsement by you would guarantee a full house."
"I'm coming up with ideas already," Merry replied. She was more than happy to help Karen. Karen had gone out of her way to help Meredith, a lonely introvert from Beacon Hill in Boston, loosen up at Johnson and Wales University. Those four years at J&W with Karen as her roommate had been the best time of her life.
Karen was her only friend in the world. She could trust Karen with her innermost thoughts, feelings and problems and know they wouldn't end up in the Gossiper.
Maybe it wouldn't be too awful here in the desert. All she had to do was to come up with some decorating ideas, lend her name to garner some publicity for the launch of the dude ranch, and then she'd fly back home to Boston and her beautiful condo overlooking Boston Harbor.
Karen believed there was a market for "wannabe cowboys," especially from the Northeast. Merry supposed that there were some city slickers who wanted to play cowboy for a week and go on trail rides and chuck wagon cookouts, even though it didn't sound like fun to her. Why would they travel all the way to Arizona? Then again, corporations liked that kind of thing for team building. Maybe that was the answer—attract the corporate crowd.
Whatever Karen wanted, Merry would roll up her sleeves and do anything she could to help.
Merry studied the map that the auto club had marked out for her and thought that she had to be somewhere on the little gray line between Dead Man Mountain and Galloping Horse Mountain.
Wild West names were just so colorful, but she wasn't in the mood for colorful names. She needed better directions.
She looked out of her rearview mirror. Not a car or a person in sight. Not a soul to ask how to get to Hanging Tree Junction—another colorful name. It would have been nice if someone had thrown up a sign at frequent intervals, so she would at least know if she was still in the United States and not in Mexico.
Maybe she should just keep going forward. The sun would be setting soon, and she didn't relish driving on twisting and turning mountain roads in the dark.
And then she saw him.
Her first real-life cowboy.
He was moseying, as they say, toward her, riding a big black horse. The cowboy wore a long white duster. Only a bit of faded denim was visible under his brown leather chaps with black fringe. As he rode closer, she saw that he had silver spurs on his boots.
She couldn't take her eyes off him. He looked so rugged, at one with the landscape. So did the rifle butt sticking out of a long leather rectangle hanging from his saddle.
Her mouth went dry and she braced herself, ready to floor the gas pedal.
The cowboy squinted into the sun. She couldn't make out the color of his eyes, but she'd bet the next royalty check from her latest cookbook that they were as blue as the sky above.
If she lived to talk about it, she'd have Joanne, her new publicist and assistant, hire him for the video shoot advertising Karen's dude ranch. He'd be perfect.
He tweaked the front brim of his white cowboy hat in casual cowboy fashion as he approached, and she melted—even though the air conditioner was on full blast.
His horse stopped at the side of her car and proceeded to wipe its nose on her window.
Thank goodness it was a rental car and not her Jag. He motioned for her to roll down the gooey window. With her foot poised over the gas pedal, she hit the button with her left hand and opened the window a few inches. She stared up at the cowboy, and wished she could see more of his face. The horse was tall and, so it seemed, was he. She craned her neck, keeping a wary eye on horse and rider.
"Howdy, ma'am." He did the hat-tugging thing again. "You lost?"
"I take it that means yes."
"Would you be Meredith Something Turner?" She raised an eyebrow. "I'm Meredith Bingham Turner."
"And you are?"
He pushed his hat back. "Bucklin Floyd Porter. But people call me Buck."
"You're Karen's brother!" Thank goodness. She recognized him now. She remembered seeing pictures of Buck and Karen's other siblings whenever Karen returned to college from visits home. She'd always thought he was handsome, but the pictures didn't do him justice—especially when he was in full cowboy regalia.
He nodded. "And you're the lady who's going to help turn my home into a dude ranch?"
She put the window down completely and leaned farther out. "That's me."
He shook his head, not seeming happy at all. "If you don't mind, I don't want to stand around talking in this heat. Karen sent me to fetch you."
"Fetch? As in dog?"
"Fetch as in she knew you'd get lost. She said you'd need road signs every couple of feet."
So much for the strong, silent cowboy. "Glad you're here. Lead the way."
She could see his eyes twinkling in amusement. They were blue. Sky-blue, just like she knew they'd be.
"You can't follow me, ma'am. I'm headed down there." He pointed at a path through the cacti. "I'd strongly suggest that you stick to the road."
He turned the big black horse and began to give her directions, pointing and waving his hand down the road. She stuck her head farther out the window to hear what he was saying over the blasting air-conditioning. As she did, his horse swung its tail, stinging her in the face.
"Yeow," she yelled, pressing her hand against her burning cheek. She leaned back into the car as the horse pranced beside her.
The beast swung its tail again. This time she was spitting the horse's tail hair out of her mouth and brushing it away from her eyes. Her elbow hit the horn.
The horse whinnied, took off at a gallop, leaped the guardrail and plunged down the cliff with Buck Porter hanging on for dear life. *** "Whoa, Bandit. Easy boy."
Buck pulled on the reins, but not too much. He might as well give Bandit his head and just go with it. The Bandit could handle anything.
Why the hell had the fool woman laid on her horn? Didn't she know that it would spook his horse?
Buck leaned as far back in the saddle as he could. Cactus needles stabbed into his duster and scraped his chaps. During the plunge down the mountain, it didn't take long to figure out that Meredith Something Turner was going to be trouble.
"She's a celebrity chef. She's on TV and has written several cookbooks," Karen had told him. "She'll bring in a lot of good publicity. Besides, she's my best friend, and I haven't seen her in a long time. We can do some catching up."
Buck didn't want any part of turning Rattlesnake Ranch into a dude ranch. He liked it just the way it was. Unfortunately, he didn't have much choice. He'd been outvoted by his two sisters and brother, who, along with him, each owned one-fourth of the Rattlesnake, left to them by their parents.
"Whoa, Bandit," he yelled, leaning back even more.
"Easy, big guy."
Finally, Bandit hit level ground and stopped dead in his tracks. Shaking his head, the big black stallion pawed at the ground with a hoof.
"Yeah, I know. I know. The city gal probably didn't know any better."
He heard a sound like the wailing of a coyote and looked up. There she was, hanging over the guardrail.
"Do you need help?" she yelled.
She'd made a megaphone over her mouth with her hands. If he did need help, what would she do? Make blueberry scones?
"No," he shouted back.
"Are you hurt?"
She was scaring every bird, animal and lizard within a fifty-mile radius. Bandit was fidgeting like he was going to jump out of his skin.
"I'm fine," he yelled. "Get in your car and go."
"But I don't know where to go."
"Go back to Boston," he mumbled, then shouted,
"Follow the road until the end. Turn left, then right, then your second left. Rattlesnake Ranch will be on the right."
"Any of these streets have colorful Western names? You know, something I can remember?"
"Like Beacon Hill?" he said.
"No. No names." No one ever bothered naming the dusty paths that ran through Rattlesnake Ranch, least of all him.
"Right. Left, left. Then turn right. Or did you say two rights? I should write this down. Right? Stay there until I get a pen and paper from my purse, will you?"
Oh, for Pete's sake. He had chores to do, and leading a city gal around by the nose wasn't one of them.
A scream cut through the air, startling the buzzards and vultures right out of the trees. Her again.
He released his grip from the saddle horn and catapulted off Bandit. Grabbing his rifle and rope, he ascended the same path he'd just ridden down.
"Meredith? Hey, Meredith Something Turner, are you okay?"
Silence. "Answer me, dammit," he shouted, struggling up the steep incline.
The gravel crumbled under his feet, but he was making progress. Cactus needles stabbed his arms through his duster, through his shirt. Sweat poured down his face as he scrambled higher...higher.
He set the rifle down, shook loose some rope, twirled it over his head several times and let it fly. It hit his target—a post of the guardrail. He tugged to test it and took up the slack. With his rifle tucked under his arm, he climbed up the rope hand over hand as quickly as he could.