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"What name do you want to go by while you're at the ranch?"
Michael James Hartford, aka Western writer Jim Ford, thought about how to answer Jack Chance, who was currently driving him to the Last Chance Ranch. Michael had flown to Wyoming from New York City so he could learn some cowboy basics before a publicity team put him in front of a video camera in three weeks. Nobody besides Jack was supposed to know Michael was also Jim Ford, who wrote as if he could ride and rope but ..couldn't.
He wondered if he should be known as Mike while he was here. A shortened name seemed better for a cowboy, but he already had his Jim Ford persona. If he adopted too many alternate names he wouldn't remember which one he should answer to. "Michael's fine," he said. "Michael Hartford. That shouldn't tip anybody off."
"Michael Hartford it is, then. I don't think you have anything to worry about, though. Some of the hands have read your books, but they'd never believe a greenhorn like you could possibly be the guy who writes those stories."
"Yeah, I know." Michael took the blow to his ego with good humor. His lack of cowboying skills really was an embarrassing joke.
"Besides, the picture in the back of your books shows you with a mustache. That really changes how a guy looks."
"I grow that mustache before I have to make any appearances or get my picture taken. Then I shave it off. I'll have to start growing it again next week. Between that and the Stetson, I've fooled just about everybody except my family, and they're not about to broadcast the fact that I'm Jim Ford."
"I don't get that. You'd think they'd be proud of you."
Michael laughed. "They would be if I wrote deep, philosophical literature. The Hartfords are old money, loaded to the gills with culture. They don't want to claim a pulp fiction author. That's actually worked to my advantage. If nobody knows who Jim Ford really is, then nobody knows that he's never been on a horse in his life."
"That still boggles my mind. You write as if you're a real cowboy. I would have sworn you'd done all those things. What's your secret?"
"Research." Michael felt good knowing he'd managed to get it right, despite his lack of experience. "Plus I grew up reading Louis L'Amour."
"Me, too. I didn't think I'd find his equal, but you've hooked me real good. I wish my grandmother was still alive. She would have loved your books, too."
"Thank you. That's high praise."
"I mean it sincerely." Jack shook his head. "But I can't figure you out. The way you write, I can tell you love the idea of being a cowboy. How come you never got the itch to spend time on a ranch?"
"You hit the nail on the head. I love the idea of being a cowboy, but I've avoided the reality, in case it doesn't live up to my image of it." Or I don't. "I'm selling a fantasy, and if I discover that fantasy doesn't exist.."
"Damnation. You mean this visit could burst your bubble? I don't want that on my conscience."
"Hey, Jack, you're not the one forcing me into this. The publicity department is to blame." He blew out a breath. "No, that's not right, either. I created this stupid situation all on my own. I chose to write about a world I don't know firsthand, and then I accidentally became a big success at it."
Jack nodded. "I noticed. Your name keeps getting bigger on the cover."
"If my books weren't selling so well the publisher would never pay for a video of me playing cowboy. My secret would be safe. But they made it clear I need to do this video if I expect continued support from the marketing team."
Smiling, Jack glanced over at him. "Cheer up, little buckaroo. It won't be so bad."
"Easy for you to say. I'm going to make a damned fool of myself, and you know it."
"Maybe so, but I'll be the only one who'll know it. Your lessons will be as private as I can make them."
"Thank you for that." Michael relaxed a little. "Bethany told me I could trust you." He'd met motivational author Bethany Grace on the Opal Knightly TV talk show and they'd kept in touch. When he'd needed riding lessons on the QT he'd thought of her, because she'd grown up in Jackson Hole.
"Bethany's good people," Jack said. "Did you catch her wedding to Nash Bledsoe on Opal's show?"
"Sure did. Nash is a friend of yours, right?"
"Yep." Jack checked his mirrors before pulling around a slow-moving semi. "Nash owns a little spread next door to the Last Chance."
"Bethany mentioned that. She inherited it, sold it to Nash and the rest reads like a romance novel."
Jack chuckled. "It does, at that. Poor Nash, though, having to get hitched on national TV. There was some talk of me being the best man at that shindig, but it was way better for Nash's dad to have that honor."
Michael was beginning to get a bead on Jack's personality so he made a calculated guess. "You didn't want to do it, did you?"
"Hell, no. Not after I found out I had to wear makeup" Jack grimaced.
"It's not so bad, little buckaroo."
"Maybe not for a city slicker like yourself, but real cowboys don't wear makeup."
"What about your friend Nash? I guarantee he had on makeup during that wedding."
"Only because otherwise he wouldn't get to marry Bethany. Bethany was beholden to Opal for letting her out of her TV contract, and Opal was determined to stage that wedding on TV."
"What a guy won't do for love." As he said it, Michael realized he had no personal experience to go by, and that was a damned shame.
"Ain't it the truth. My wife, Josie, has got me wrapped around her little finger. Between her and my kid, Archie, I'm like a bull with a ring in its nose. They can lead me anywhere."
Michael grinned. "I seriously doubt that."
"No, really. They've got me hog-tied. How about you? Is there some citified lady calling the shots in your life?"
"Kind of, but that's not really the problem. The high-society women I meet don't interest me, but I can't date the ones I meet as Jim Ford because they think I'm a cowboy, which I'm not." He didn't like being caught between worlds, not belonging in either one, but he hadn't figured out what to do about it. He envied a guy like Jack, who knew who he was and where he fit in.
Jack tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. "But you will be a cowboy."
Michael felt a jolt of pleasure at the possibility. But he had to be realistic. "In a week? Not likely."
"Are you doubting my ability?"
"No, I'm doubting mine."
"Well, cut that out right now. First and foremost, a cowboy faces every challenge with an air of quiet confidence."
"Of course he does, especially if he's a hero in one of my books." Michael looked over at Jack and expected they'd share a laugh over that. Instead, Jack seemed totally serious. "Wait, you're not kidding, are you?"
"No, I'm not. Being a cowboy is a state of mind. You can start working on your attitude before you ever put your booted foot in a stirrup."
"I see." Michael was fascinated. For years he'd assumed that the larger-than-life cowboys in his books didn't exist in reality. But Jack Chance was proving that assumption had been dead wrong.
After a year working as the housekeeper at the Last Chance's main house, Keri Fitzpatrick, former Baltimore socialite, could wield a mean mop. She'd learned the basics from her boss, Sarah Chance, and the cook, Mary Lou Simms. Following their instructions, Keri could clean windows like nobody's business and polish bathroom fixtures until they sparkled like fine silver.
But she'd challenge anybody, even a professional armed with power equipment, to eliminate some mysterious smell left by eight adolescent boys. They'd been part of the Last Chance's summer program for disadvantaged youths, and they'd moved out early that morning. She'd been cleaning nonstop ever since except for a short lunch break with Mary Lou.
The second floor, where the boys had slept in two rooms fitted with bunk beds, was warm, and she dripped with sweat. Putting her hair in a ponytail to get it off her neck hadn't helped cool her off much. She'd opted for jeans instead of shorts because she'd anticipated getting on her hands and knees for this job.
Sure enough, she'd had to clean some gunk off the baseboards. God knew what it was. She'd dealt with this last August right after being hired, but she was sure the previous year's batch of kids hadn't left a stink this bad. She'd noticed a slight odor yesterday, but had thought it would leave with the kids. Instead, it was worse.
Glancing at her watch, she gasped. The wealthy tenderfoot from New York City was due any minute. She'd been told very little about him, but Jack had said the guy was used to the best.
Keri had been raised in luxury, too. Although she didn't live that way now, she knew exactly how to prepare guest quarters for a wealthy man. She'd spit-shined his room, which was at the other end of the hall, right across from her room. The crockery vase of wildflowers she'd placed on his dresser gave off a delicate aroma.
The poor things couldn't begin to compete with the stench coming from the boys' rooms. She'd already tested the situation, and the entire top floor, including the tenderfoot's room, smelled like a garbage dump. Opening all the windows hadn't made a dent in the foul odor.
Desperate to find the source, she went through everything againclosets, drawers, even under the bunk beds. Finally she found a kitchen matchbox crammed so far under one of the bunks that she'd missed it when she'd swept and mopped. Using a broom, she nudged it free and nearly gagged. She'd found her culprit.
She shouldn't have looked, but after all this effort, she wanted to know what was in that box. As she slid open the matchbox, the smell got worse. She stared at a very fragrant, and very dead, mouse. It rested on a carefully folded tissue, and a second tissue covered the lower part of its body, so only the head was exposed.
Guessing what had happened wasn't hard. She'd been around the boys enough to understand how their minds worked. They'd found the dead mouse, decided it deserved a decent burial and put it in the matchbox. Then they'd forgotten all about it.
Now what? She could throw it in the trash, but that seemed wrong. They'd folded the tissues so carefully, and she was touched by their concern for the little creature's final resting place. Silly as it seemed, she wanted to bury it the way they'd intended.
Okay, so she would. Holding the box, she walked into the hall. She didn't dare take the smelly thing down the back stairs and through Mary Lou's pristine kitchen, so she made for the curved stairway leading to the front door. If she was very lucky she could get rid of the dead mouse before the tenderfoot arrived.
Luck was not on her side. The front door opened and Jack Chance ushered a broad-shouldered man through it. From this angle he didn't look like a tenderfoot. His jeans were slightly worn and his blue chambray shirt was faded. His leather suitcase was scuffed up some, and even his hat seemed broken in. If she didn't know better, she'd think this was a seasoned cowboy, and a nicely built one, at that.
Jack closed the door behind them. "I'll take you straight upstairs so you can get settled in before dinner."
As Keri froze in position, unsure whether to go up or down, Jack spotted her. "Ah, Keri! Perfect! You can show Michael to his room. Michael Hartford, this is Keri Fitzpatrick, our housekeeper. I'm sure she has your room all ready."
Michael Hartford glanced up. "Nice to meet you, Keri."
"Nice to meet you, too." Whoa. Cute guy. Square jaw, strong nose and dreamy eyes that were an unusual blue-gray color. He looked vaguely familiar, too, although she was sure she didn't know anybody named Michael Hartford.
She'd love to show him to his room, but not while she was holding an extremely dead mouse. "Um, Jack, before I show Mr. Hartford to his room, I need to"
"What's that godawful smell?" Jack wrinkled his nose.
"I found a dead mouse under one of the bunks."
"It's in that box?"
"Yes, and I"
"Let me have it." Jack started up the stairs. "I'll throw it in the trash."
Although it might not be wise to disagree with the man who signed her paycheck, Keri couldn't let him take the mouse. "That's okay. I'm going to bury it out back. I won't be a minute. The guest room is all ready." She started down the stairs.
"You're going to do what?" Blocking her passage, Jack shoved his hat back with his thumb as he stared up at her.
She paused on the step above him. "Bury it." Jack could be intimidating, but she'd also seen him melt whenever he was with Archie, his little son. Jack had marshmallow insides. "The boys fixed it up with tissues and everything, like it was in a little coffin."
Jack's mouth twitched and amusement flickered in his dark eyes. "Keri, those boys are gone. They'll never know what happened to the mouse. Besides, they obviously forgot all about this burial they'd planned."
"I realize that, but it was a sweet impulse, a sign they cared for this little creature. I think it proves that they made progress while they were here, and I'd like to carry out their wishes."
"Or else it was meant as a joke."
"I prefer to believe it was sincere."
"All righty, then." Jack moved aside to let her pass. "Bury it deep. Put a few stones on top. That thing stinks to high heaven and I don't want the dogs digging it up."
"I'll dig a deep hole." She gave their visitor a quick smile as she walked past him. "Welcome to the Last Chance Ranch, Mr. Hartford. Sorry about the dead mouse."
He smiled back. "May it rest in peace."
"That's the idea." She held his gaze for a little longer than was polite, but he had such beautiful eyes, especially when they were lit up with that warm smile of his. She hoped he wouldn't always associate meeting her with the smell of dead animals.