Read an Excerpt
Last Chance Ranch
On his knees inside an empty stall, Zach Powell concentrated on nailing a loose board in place. Except for one horse with medical issues, Zach was alone in the barn. Or so he thought until he stopped hammering and heard the echo of footsteps.
Whoever was wandering around wasn't wearing cowboy boots, either. Boots made a distinctive clump-clump sound on the wooden barn floor, whereas this was a sharper click-click. After spending years in L.A. courtrooms, Zach was familiar with that noise.
For some reason, this woman was wearing stilettos in the barn. He'd only been working here a few weeks, but he hadn't seen a woman in stilettos anywhere on the ranch, let alone in the barn. He was curious enough to stand up and take a look.
She was five stalls down and totally focused on Ink Spot, a black-and-white Paint who'd been kept in because of a recent sprain. Tall, slender and blond, the woman wore cream-colored dress pants and a lemon-yellow blouse, probably silk. The shoes that peeked out were also yellow and probably designer, judging from the rest of her ensemblegold bangles on her wrists and gold hoop earrings. No doubt her short, sleek haircut was courtesy of a pricey salon.
She looked completely out of place here, except for the way she stroked the horse's nose. Whoever she was, she knew horses, which made her outfit even more puzzling. She touched the horse with great affection, reaching up to scratch under his forelock as she murmured softly.
Something about the way she communed with Ink Spot told Zach that she wasn't eager for company. He should just finish up his hammering and leave by the back door. On the other hand, she didn't look very happy. Zach knew all about unhappiness.
She'd been so motivated to seek the comfort of horses that she'd risked her expensive outfit by coming out to the barn. That meant she must be really upset, and by speaking to her, he could be intruding on a private moment. Plus, they didn't know each other.
He'd about decided to go back to his hammering when she turned toward him. "You're probably wondering what the hell I'm doin' here dressed like a Sunday school teacher."
No Sunday school teacher he'd ever known had looked like that, but the Southern accent clued him in. This had to be Jeannette Trenton from Virginia. Everybody on the ranch knew her story, even a new hire like Zach.
Last year she'd been Regan O'Connelli's fiancée, but then she'd cheated on him with Regan's best friend, Drake Brewster. Consequently Regan had left Virginia and moved to Wyoming. He was related by blood or marriage to quite a few Chance family members, and they'd all been incensed about Drake and Jeannette's betrayal.
Since then Regan had found a new love, Lily King. Then Drake had shown up to make amends, and in the process he'd become chummy with a local woman, Tracy Gibbons. Drake had also invited Jeannette to Wyoming so the three former friends could bury the hatchet. They seemed to have done that, but members of the Chance family weren't so quick to forgive and forget.
Zach could imagine why Jeannette had come out to be with the horses for a while. Even in his brief time here, he'd figured out that angering a Chance, or someone connected to a Chance, was a huge mistake. He gave both Drake and Jeannette props for braving that disapproval in order to repair their friendship with Regan.
So this was the woman at the heart of the controversy. He had no trouble picturing that, because she was stunning. Apparently she'd known that he'd been staring. Maybe she was used to men looking at her, because if she'd been attractive in profile, she was breathtaking full-on. Those green eyes were showstoppers, not to mention her kissable mouth.
He cleared his throat. "Um, I didn't mean to bother you. I heard you come in, and I thought maybe What? His mind went blank. Pretty embarrassing for someone who used to make his living as an entertainment lawyer, someone who'd dealt with A-list actors, directors and producers every day. She didn't have to know that, though. He wasn't that guy anymore.
"I was tryin' to help with the food for Regan and Lily's engagement party, but " She gestured to her blouse. "As you can see, kitchen duty is not my talent."
He walked closer. Yeah, now he noticed flecks of something that could be meringue or white frosting on the front of her blouse. "It sort of matches your pants."
That brought out a sad little smile. "You know, I told them that very thing, but they were all worried about the blouse, which I surely appreciated, but they don't have time to mess around with a klutz like me. I'd already dropped a bowl of chocolate chips. I thought I could frost that danged cake. I swear, how hard can that be? Turns out it's harder than it looks on TV."
He couldn't help smiling back. "Everything's harder than it looks on TV."
"Isn't that the God's truth? Anyway, I decided to make myself scarce and just naturally gravitated to the barn."
"I completely understand. You obviously know your way around horses."
"My folks raise them." She turned back to the horse. "Who is this, by the way?"
"Ink Spot. He's nursing a sprain, so he didn't get to go out."
"His bad luck, but my good luck. I wasn't thinkin' the horses would be out in the pasture, but of course they would be on a fine day like this. Back home they tend to bring them into the air-conditioning in the heat of the day." She stroked the gelding's neck. "And who would you be?"
Because she wasn't looking at him, he didn't immediately understand she was asking for his name. But he'd already supplied the horse's name, so she had to mean him. "I'm Zach. Zach Powell."
She continued to caress the horse. "I suppose you know who I am." Her version of I sounded more like ah.
"I didn't until I heard your accent."
She was quiet for a moment. "It's real strange, knowin' that people talk about you behind your back. Of course, people do that all the time. You just don't know it for sure. In this case, I do."
"For what it's worth, I have no stake in this situation. I started working here last month and I'm not related to any of the players." He could add that his law training predisposed him to remain impartial until he'd heard all sides of a story. But for now, he was just a cowhand, and that suited him fine.
"You're new here?" She glanced at him with a spark of interest in her eyes. "Where'd you come from?"
"Then I'm pleased to meet you, Zach Powell. I have to say you're the first person who hasn't looked at me with thinly disguised suspicion, like I might suddenly sprout horns and a tail. Well, I take that back. Sarah Chance seems willin' to suspend judgment, and her cook, Mary Lou, is friendly. But Regan's sisters " She sighed.
"No, and I can't say as I blame them. I don't have a brother, or a sister, either, for that matter. But if I did, I'd probably behave exactly the same way. They're loyal and I admire that. I just don't know what to do."
"Well " Zach hesitated. He had some thoughts, but it wasn't his place to make suggestions.
Her gaze sharpened. "What? If you have ideas, speak up. I could use some advice."
"All right. You look great, but you don't exactly blend into the scenery."
"Don't think I don't know it." She glanced down at her outfit. "My mother taught me that wearin' nice clothes is respectful, plus I'd heard that the Jackson Hole area was filled with celebrities so I thought this ranch might be dress-for-dinner sophisticated. I should have asked Drake more questions before I flew out here." She swept a hand down her body. "Everything I packed is like this."
"And Drake didn't say anything once he found that out?"
"We haven't discussed my wardrobe choices. The poor man is so in love with Tracy he wouldn't notice if I ran around naked. Same thing with Regan."
Zach would certainly notice. Thanks to her comment, he was picturing that scenario in vivid detail. He tried to erase the image, but his libido wouldn't cooperate. He hadn't been involved with anyone for months and had thought he didn't miss sex all that much. Judging from the stirring in his groin, he'd missed it more than he'd realized.
To take his mind off the subject, he focused on a potential solution to her problem. "You need to go shopping."
"I think you're right, but I don't know the area. Where should I go?"
"Shoshone has a few shops, but if you want to get what you need, you'd better go to Jackson."
She took a deep breath. "Then I'll just head to Jackson, I guess. Do you recommend any particular stores? No, wait, never mind. I can figure it out. You've been a big help already, and I"
"I get off at five. Give me time to shower and change, and I'll drive you up there. We can take my truck. Everything stays open late for the tourist trade."
Her shoulders sagged in relief. "That sounds fantastic, but are you sure it's not too much trouble?"
"No trouble at all. I could use a couple of things myself."
"Then I'll pay for gas."
He smiled. "Not necessary."
"No, seriously. And I'll buy dinner. It's the least I can do."
He started to argue with her. He hadn't dated since making this drastic change in his lifestyle. Previously he'd been the high roller who picked up the tab, and having her pay for gas and food felt weird. His wages at the Last Chance were a joke compared with what he used to make in Hollywood, but he'd invested well and didn't ever have to work again if he chose not to.
Unless he planned to explain that, though, he might want to keep his mouth shut and accept her offer. "Okay, thank you. That would be very nice."
"I'm staying at the Bunk and Grub. Do you know it?"
"Yep. Nice bed-and-breakfast down the road."
"It is. Very nice. At first I was in the cabin Drake rented, and he said I was welcome to it now that he's moved in with Tracy. But it's kind of remote, and I'm a city girl. I'm not all that brave when it comes to things like well, grizzlies."
"Don't blame you. I'm really careful out at my campsite. I keep everything bears might want locked up tight inside the Airstream."
She blinked. "Campsite? You don't live in the bunkhouse?"
"Oh, they offered to put me there. But then I'd have to store the Airstream, and besides, I like living in it. So Jack gave me permission to park down beside the creek that runs through the property."
He laughed. "The one and only. A legend in his own time."
"So I hear. I haven't officially made his acquaintance. Do you get any electricity down there?"
"I have a little generator. Don't run it much. Mostly I cook over the campfire and I have a solar water setup outside for taking showers."
"Sounds primitive." But instead of looking appalled, which would make sense given her city-girl orientation, she seemed intrigued.
"It works for me." Then it occurred to him that he'd just painted a picture of him naked. From the gleam in her eyes, could she be enjoying the image of him standing under that solar shower? Hmm. "So how long will you be sticking around?" He was suddenly more interested in that.
Her jaw tightened. "I'm determined to stay until after the engagement party, no matter how unwelcome I may be." Then she clapped a hand over her mouth. "Did I just say that out loud?"
"You did, but you said it to the right person. I'm not here to judge. I'll bet socializing with this crowd is a bit uncomfortable for you."
"You don't know the half of it. But like I said, I can't blame them at all. I'll tough it out because I want to give Regan and Lily a big hug on their special day. That's important to me."
He wondered if Drake's new romance bothered her. She might have been hooked on the guy and now he'd moved on. "So the party's tomorrow night. Are you leaving Sunday?"
"I didn't want to run off like my danged tail was on fire, so the plan is to fly out Monday."
"I see." Not much time to get to know each other. That was sort of disappointing given that some mutual attraction seemed to be developing.
"And I need to get back to my job."
"I'm a lawyer."
"Is that so?" He should get an Academy Award for his casual response. Inside he was laughing his head off. He'd worked so hard to leave that profession behind, and now he was making goo-goo eyes at a member of the clan. The last person in the world he'd ever date would be another lawyer. "What's your specialty?"
"Do you need legal advice?"
"I ask because usually when I mention that I'm a lawyer people's eyes glaze over. But if they have a legal issue, then they want to know what kind of lawyer I am, either because they might hire me or, in some cases, they're after free advice."
"I know." Whoops. "I mean, I'll bet. But I don't need a lawyer." Not in any sense. "I was just curious. Anyway, you have to survive until Monday."
"I do, but I'm sure more appropriate clothes will help me with that. That's so obvious I can't believe I didn't think of it, although I wouldn't know where to go. The party's being held outside, so jeans would be good."
"And boots." Zach glanced down at her yellow shoes.
"Guess so. These aren't going to work for a bar-beque." She lifted one foot to peer at the sole. There wasn't much surface area to the bottom of her stiletto, but the little that existed was dotted with smashed chocolate chips, dirt and bits of straw. "Good Lord." She groaned. "I probably tracked chocolate chips all over Sarah's hardwood floor on my way out."
"Worse yet, the housekeeper is one of Regan's sisters. Cassidy idolizes that brother of hers. She's already wantin' to snatch me bald-headed, and now she'll have to clean up my trail of chocolate. I'll have to go back inside and apologize to her. To all of them." She glanced up at Zach. "You must think I'm a total screwup, but I swear I'm not. At least not normally."
"I believe you."
"Do you?" She met his gaze. "I don't know why. I'm the woman who cheated on my fiancé with his best friend. Then I showed up here in designer clothes more suitable to a country club than a ranch, and obviously I made a mess of things in the kitchen." Her voice caught. "If that's not a description of a screwup, I don't know what is."
She seemed to be on the verge of tears and he considered pulling her into his arms and letting her have a good cry on his shoulder. She probably needed to release some of that tension that had her wound way too tight. But they'd just met, and he also sensed a Southern reserve in her. If he coaxed her into crying it out, she might be horribly embarrassed afterward.
Besides, if she were going back inside to apologize for the chocolate on the floor, she wouldn't want to have red, puffy eyes. He'd only known her a short time, but he could already tell she wouldn't want her vulnerability made public. Unfortunately, her natural reserve might be working against her, too.
So he settled on words of encouragement to shore her up instead of physical contact that would make her lose her cool. "You can't be a total screwup. You flew out here and made peace with your ex. That took diplomacy and guts. Even though you know nothing about cooking, you volunteered to help prepare the food for tomorrow's party while working with women who aren't all in your corner. That takes nerves of steel. I'm just a bystander to this drama, but from my perspective, you're pretty damned incredible."