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The hot breath of Texas enveloped Jorie Peters like a steamy wet blanket.
"Ugh." She grimaced, swiping at a brow already covered by sweat.
So this was Texas?
Her gaze swept over rolling hills and grass-covered pastures. It didn't look a thing like she expected.
She inhaled a deep breath of resignation. The scent of fresh-cut grass made the humidity seem heavier. The building she'd parked in front of was filled to the brim with hay and at least four stories tall. Its dark shadow spread across the gravel road like a blob of ink. Three other outbuildings surrounded her. Farm buildings, she clarifiedone to her right which held tractors and one to her left which housed equipment, and some kind of long one out in the distance behind the building where she'd parked. She turned, her heel grinding into the gravel as she spun in place, wondering where to go. There was nothing that looked like a horse barn in sight.
"You can't park there."
Her heart jumped out of her throat. She turned, trying to find the voice's owner.
"I have another squeeze of hay coming in."
The words echoed, so much so that she couldn't determine where they came from. "Up here." Oh. Up.
Her gaze drifted along the hundreds of hay bales. And there he was, at least twenty feet above her, a tall, lanky male wearing an off-white cowboy hat. Well, this was Texas after all, and so she should expect the hat. She was a long ways away from Atlanta. He wore chaps, tookind of. They were too short for him, the leather flaps looking as if they belonged on a six-year-old and not a grown man. She watched as he began to hop down, navigating the uneven blocks like a billy goat, and when he stopped in front of her, all she could think was holy moly.
He looked like something out of a Hanes underwear commercial.
Boxers? Or briefs?
Dark, dark hair. Eyes the color of the Aegean Sea, the stormy kind of sea pirates sailed upon. Or maybe it was his dark good looks that made her think of pirates. He had rough stubble on his chin, and she had a feeling that by five o'clock he'd have quite a shadow on his jawline.
"You should park in front of the barn." His tone was stern.
"That's what I'm looking for." She swiped hair that was quickly turning into a corkscrew of blond curls off her forehead. She'd drawn her hair back into a bunmore professional that waybut as always, several strands had escaped. She was probably a mess after her twelve-hour drive. No doubt she had as much dust on her as her compact car. "I was told there was an office upstairs and that I should see Odelia Clayborne."
He swiped some sweat off his forehead, the motion allowing a better glimpse of his eyes. They were piercing. Truly amazing.
"You Jorie Peters?" His gaze swept over her black business suit and what suddenly seemed like a silly choice of shoesblack pumps.
"I am," she said in surprise.
"Barn's over there." He motioned with his chin, turning away as if about to climb the hay bales once more.
"You mean the big long building?" she called out after him.
He nodded, half turned. He smelled of hard work, the tangy scent of man catching a wayward breeze and drifting over to her. It reminded her that it'd been a long time since well, just since.
"The really big building over there," he explained. "It's a covered arena. One with stalls inside and an office upstairs."
Ah. That explained it. She'd been looking for her own idea of a horse stable. Red. Double doors. One with a white X painted on the front.
The sound of a tractor caught her attention. His, too. They both turned.
"Better move that car," he ordered, pointing as if she needed help identifying her vehicle.
Jorie immediately saw why. A huge stack of hay was headed in their direction, one propelled by a tractor of some sort, the driver's cab completely obscured by the grassy blocks.
Good heavens, how did the driver see?
"Thanks," she shouted as she all but dove for her car. That was all she neededa tractor to run over her Honda.
Her only possession.
She slid inside her vehicle, refusing to think about that. This was a new start. A new life. Her business in GeorgiaWedding Belleswas now defunct. A victim of the recession, just as she was herself. In her rearview mirror she caught a glimpse of the cowboy, the man watching her take off, hands on his hips.
No smiles. No words of welcome. Just "move your car."
How did he know who she was?
Whatever. She had more important matters on her mind, like meeting her new boss.
Jorie steered her vehicle past one of the outbuildings, immediately spotting a house in the distance to her left that'd been blocked from her view, although calling it a house seemed like a misnomer. The place would have done Gone with the Wind proud. Three stories tall. Four white columns that sprouted up from a wraparound porch, and dark green shutters on either side of the windows and there were a lot of windows. A porch swing hung between two of the columns. Rattan furniture was clustered near the corner of the rail. Behind the house a line of trees could be seen a few hundred yards away. Jorie wondered if there was a creek down there. It sure looked like it.
The oaks were huge, their shiny foliage a darker green than the grassy hills that surrounded them. Behind the mansion was another house, smaller, but just as beautiful.
Was that the bridal suite, the one her new boss had told her about? The place where brides were pampered in the hours leading up to their weddings? Masseuse, manicurist, hair stylistall brought in from the outside to make their day special. And not just brides, but the bridesmaids, too.
The road forked. She took the branch to her right.
Spring Hill Ranch was not what she expected.
For some reason she'd been thinking single-story buildings, white picket fences, maybe a rustic-looking barn. This place looked like a movie set. Sure, off in the distance were the white fencesshe'd followed one down a long, sweeping driveway for what must have been at least a milebut this place was a private sanctuary that took Jorie's breath away. No wonder brides flocked to the location to get married. She could picture a carriage rolling down the hills to a wedding tent pitched beneath a grove of trees.
"Here we go," she said as she pulled up in front of yet another strange-looking building. This one had a massive opening in the front. Inside she spotted a horse and a rider, the pair galloping around so fast it was a wonder the man's hat didn't fall off.
Her door creaked when she slammed it closed, something that'd been happening more and more of late. With over 100,000 miles on the odometer it was a wonder the car had made it to Texas.
"Hello?" she called out to the rider.
It wasn't a cowboy.
It was a cowgirlor maybe cow-woman was a better description. The rider had gray hair, the light blue shirt she wore clinging to a trim body that belied her age. She skidded to a stop, literally, her horse leaving twin tracks in the arena dust.
"Jorie?" the woman called out in surprise.
She was at least twenty feet from her, and yet her vision must have been sharp, especially since the arena was set back from the entrance. Jorie slipped inside the building through a massive opening. It was at least twenty degrees cooler inside.
Even though her eyes were still adjusting to the darkness inside, Jorie could see the woman's teeth flash.
"Why, you are Jorie, aren't you?" the woman said, her southern accent catching on vowels and elongating them.
She wore chaps, too, and they were as short as the ones worn by the man in the hay barn, only these had fringe and silver conchos up the side. Beneath the chocolate-brown leather she wore jeans, and tucked into those jeans was a fancy Western shirt complete with white fringe along the front that complemented the woman's light eyes and gray hair.
"My goodness. I didn't expect you for another day." The woman jumped down from her brown horse as if she were twenty rather than the sixty Jorie judged her to be. A horse neighed, and Jorie spotted a row of fancy stalls on the other side of the piped fencing that encircled the arena.
She'd driven straight through. Barely stopping to use the rest room in Louisiana, Jorie was ashamed to admit that she hadn't had the money to spend yet another night in a hotel.
"I was anxious to get here."
The woman clucked, her horse's neck stretching out as it reluctantly followed behind. The closer she came to Jorie, the more the tension in Jorie's shoulders eased. The woman's eyes were a balm to Jorie's battered soul. They were kind, unlike that cowboy's eyes.
"Well, I'm glad you made it, honey." She patted the neck of her horse. "You must be exhausted."
That was an understatement. She hadn't had sleep in, well, in a while. She'd passed the point of being hungry, too. All she wanted was a bed.
"Why don't I get Ryan to show you to your quarters?" She opened a gate, the metal catch clanking and echoing across the arena. The horse she led, an animal with a brown body and a black mane and tail, snorted. "He's my son." She flashed another smile.
And Jorie put it all together. Actually, she should have realized it the moment she looked into the woman's eyes. They were the same color. Only it was hard to fathom the two of them being related. The woman in front of her had a generous smile and kind eyes, while her son had well, suffice it to say the apple had fallen far from this tree.
"Come on. I'll introduce you two."
"I think he's unloading hay."
"Did you see him?" the woman asked, motioning Jorie to follow as they headed down a wide aisle along the front of the building and toward the row of stalls. Jorie noticed her hat then, fancy stitching embroidered into the brim. Some kind of floral design with rhinestone crystals in the middle.
"Actually, I think we've already met."
The woman stopped, gray brows lifting nearly to the brim of her hat. "Oh?"
"He's the one who told me where the barn was."
"Ah," the woman said, as though given the key to a great mystery, at least judging by the expression on her face. "And I'm sure he was his usual charming self."
That was an understatement.
"Don't mind him." Her new boss smirked a bit as she shook her head. "He hates how my idea has taken off. Thinks it's silly. Can't stand sharing the ranch with a bunch of spoiled brides, as he calls them. Claims it's a pain in the butt to be dealing with a steady stream of visitors."
"Move your car."
Yeah, she could see that.
"We have a wedding coming up and he always gets a little cranky beforehand."
"Good to know."
"Calls it the 'invasion of Normandy.'" The woman looked heavenward in mock dismay. "Come on." Jorie felt something nudge her shoulder, and she eyed the horse warily. She wasn't a big fan of the animals, not that she'd had a whole lot of interaction with them in Georgia.
"We'll take your car up there. That way you can park it out in front of your new apartment," Odelia said. "Let me put Chex away."
Her own apartment. A place to live. A monthly salary. Financial security. It was why she'd driven hundreds of miles to go to work for a woman she'd never met, all in the hope of taking Odelia's little "hobby" to the next level. The reason she would suck it up and make nice to her new boss's son, even though she suspected she and this Ryan guy would never get along.
"I'm so glad you've met him," Odelia was saying.
"Um, yeah. Me, too."
"The two of you needed to make each other's acquaintance."
As long as she got to keep her distance from here on out, they'd get along just fine.
"Especially since the two of you will be sharing an office."
Odelia must have seen her surprise. "Oh, don't worry." She gave Jorie a wide smile. "His bark is worse than his bite."