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Savannah Baron hit Send on the online order form for more canning jars and scratched another item off her to-do list. She grabbed the separate list she'd made for Gina Shelton, her employee, and walked out of her small office into the kitchen area of the Peach Pit, the farm store she managed on her family's large north Texas ranching and farming operation. She walked up next to where Gina was sliding a fresh batch of fried peach pies into the glassfronted display counter next to the cash register.
"Ben and Juan will be in later with a few more bushels of peaches. Half of them are for fresh baskets, half for a new batch of preserves. Ingrid Tollemey will be by around four this afternoon to pick up the dozen pies for the church fair. And"
Gina smiled and held up her hand. "You're only going to be gone a couple of days, not a month."
Savannah nodded, realizing she was micromanaging. She hated when she did that. "And you've done this before. Sorry. I get carried away."
"It's okay. But you better get going."
Savannah looked at the clock and hurried back into her office to grab her keys. She was supposed to meet her friend and fellow barrel racer Abby Morgan in Mineral Wells in three hours for a weekend of rodeo. It was about a hundred-mile drive, but she still had to load Bluebell into the horse trailer and toss her luggage and gear into the truck.
She heard the front door open, but she let Gina take care of the new customer. But when the phone rang, Savannah blew out a breath and answered.
"Peach Pit. How can I help you?"
"Savannah, I need for you to come to the house," her father said. "I've been going over the financials for your little store, and I have some concerns."
"Now's not a good time, Dad." Not that anytime was going to be particularly good.
Since her dad had broken his leg during a senior rodeo and been laid up at home, he'd been driving everyone bonkers with his pronouncements about how they should all be doing their jobs differently, which meant the way he would do them. She'd bet good money he was even pointing out ways Anna, the family's longtime housekeeper, could more efficiently vacuum or wash the dishes. If Savannah found a genie in a bottle who said he'd grant her only one wish, it would be to instantly heal her dad. Then he could go back to work at the Baron Energies company headquarters in Dallas or focus on anything other than her slice of the Baron pie.
"You can spare a few minutes. This won't take long."
The way he said it made her stomach knot. That didn't sound good, not good at all.
"Just close up or leave that girl who works for you in charge."
Savannah pressed her fingertips against the building ache in the middle of her forehead. "Gina, Dad. Her name is Gina. And I can't come now. I'm about to load up and head to Mineral Wells."
"It's Friday already? Damn, weeks are getting shorter."
No, he was just growing older and absolutely refusing to acknowledge it or slow down. That's what had gotten him that nasty broken leg, thinking he could still rodeo like he had forty years earlier.
"I'll see you when you get back," he said.
Though if she were lucky, by the time she returned from Mineral Wells he would have moved on to bugging someone else. She loved her dad dearly, but he was a man who liked to put his stamp on everything, especially things that had the name Baron attached to them in any way.
Before he could say anything else, she hung up and headed for the door, waving to Gina as she passed her. She had the craziest fear that if she didn't hurry, her dad would have someone roll him out in his wheelchair so he could talk business as she was loading up. And right now, she just wanted a weekend away to indulge her lifelong love of rodeo, hang out with a good friend and just maybe ogle a cute cowboy or two.
But ogling took a backseat to running barrels. She didn't ride as much as she used to, but it was still in her blood. The power of Bluebell beneath her, the thrill of cutting as close to the barrels as she could without tipping them over, the desire to win.
Besides, as busy as she stayed at the ranch, when would she find time to squeeze in a date? No, she'd had her time having fun with cowboys on the circuit. Now, she was a businesswoman determined to be as successful in her new endeavor as she'd been during the height of her racing years.
The warmth of the late-morning sun hit her as she stepped out of the store and headed for her truck. The drive up to the barns didn't take long, but it made her anxious nonetheless. She eyed the impressive stone-andwood home where she'd grown up as she passed by, hoping her dad was already otherwise occupied.
She waved at Luke Nobel, the ranch manager, as she parked next to the barn. She hurried into the cooler interior, irrationally concerned that her dad would find a way of making her stay to discuss business. Now that he'd pretty much accepted that Lizzie, her older sister, was doing just fine temporarily filling his shoes at Baron Energies, her dad seemed to be searching for any way to assert that he was still the man in charge around the ranch, in their family.
A few minutes later as she guided Bluebell into the trailer, she finally began to relax a little. After all, if there was one thing her father loved as much as being a tough businessman, it was rodeo. Thus the broken leg.
She ran her hand down the sorrel mare's neck. "You ready to race?"
As if she understood, Bluebell tossed her head in a way that looked as if she were nodding. Savannah smiled as she closed the gate on the trailer and headed toward the driver's side of her truck. She'd ridden other horses in events before, but none had even come close to Bluebell's natural ability. The mare seemed to thrive on the competition every bit as much as Savannah did.
Savannah slid into the truck and started the engine. "Well, girl, let's show them how it's done."
As the miles ticked away, Savannah's mind wandered from the upcoming competition back to the farm store. She was putting her heart and soul into the Peach Pit, building its offerings and reputation. She had big plans for the store, if only her dad would stop nitpicking. He ought to just be glad she was home more than she used to be. But since breaking his leg in that rodeo for old coots wanting to relive their glory days, he'd questioned everything from how she arranged the store's products to the font on the sign.
If she were more like either of her sisters, she'd have told him to cut it out by now. But she wasn't. No, while she wasn't a pushover, she was the quietest of the three girls, the one who didn't tend to raise a fuss. She didn't like turmoil or contributing to it. There were already enough dynamic personalities in her familyher dad, Carly, her younger brother Jetwho were more than enough to fill that role of fuss-raiser. She just wanted to do her job, do it well, and enjoy time with her family, making up for all the time she'd spent on the road.
As the rodeo grounds finally came into view, she let those concerns fade away. She felt the familiar surge of excitement she always did on competition day. Sometimes she still missed traveling the circuit, but then she'd remember the times she'd been alone in some motel in Wyoming or California yearning for the comforting environs of her family's ranch. After years of living and breathing rodeo, she'd scaled back. Now she competed about once a month, devoting the rest of her time to the Peach Pit, making a name for the store and herself with her peach- and pecan-flavored treats. The Barons were driven, and she was no different in that respect.
She made the turn into the area that held the outdoor arena and the expo center and spotted Abby's rig. Since Abby was a full-time cowgirl with one national championship to her name and well on her way to another, she traveled with a nice horse trailer with living quarters. Sometimes her brother Aaron, a bareback and saddle bronc rider, would travel with her. This weekend, however, Aaron was home nursing a nasty case of the spring flu. So it was a girls' weekend, just what Savannah needed.
Savannah smiled as she pulled up behind Abby's trailer to find her friend kicked back under the pullout shade with a big glass of lemonade.
"About time you got here, girlfriend," Abby said as Savannah slid from her truck.
"Some of us have other jobs, oh, lady of leisure."
Abby laughed and hopped up to give Savannah a hug. "Want some lemonade?"
"In a bit. Need to let Bluebell work out the kinks first."
Abby followed her to the back of Savannah's trailer. "You have a run on peach pies? That why you're late?"
Savannah glanced at her friend. "Just for that, you don't get any of the one I brought."
"Now that's just mean."
Savannah laughed, feeling more of her stress sliding away as she opened the trailer and got Bluebell out on solid ground. She led the mare away from the cluster of trucks and trailers, and Abby fell into step beside her.
"I just had to make sure I'd taken care of everything before I left for the weekend. And then Dad called as I was trying to get out the door."
"Still a thorn in your side?"
Savannah gave her friend an exasperated look. Abby had always thought the elder Baron should "take a chill pill."
"He's just frustrated because he can't go to work. He's bored."
"Brock Baron and boredom. That's a bad combo."
While Savannah had to agree, she also felt as if she had to defend her dad. He might drive them all crazy in turns, might be a trifle too demanding, but he was a good father. Sometimes you just had to look a little deeper to find it under all the gruff exterior.
"As soon as he's able to go back to work, things will get better."
"When will that be?"
"Don't know yet." Not soon enough. "A break like that isn't an easy thing at his age. To hear him tell it, the physical therapist is going to kill him first."
After Savannah tied up Bluebell next to Abby's blond mare, Rosie the Pivoter, she accepted a cold glass of lemonade and sank into the lawn chair next to Abby's. As soon as she was seated, she laughed.
"I just realized why you parked here."
"I have no idea what you're talking about." But the mischievous look on her face said otherwise.
Savannah snorted. "So you didn't park strategically so you could check out every cowboy who strolls in and out of the barn?"
"Oh, I guess it is a good view."
Savannah shook her head and took a big, refreshing drink of her lemonade. "So, when are you going to decide which of these guys you want to stick with?"
"And miss out on the fun of keeping them all guessing? You know, I could ask you the same thing, Miss Queen of the Peach Farm. You could have anyone you wanted, or maybe you've got your eye on a peach-picking farmer."
Savannah gave a short laugh at the idea of falling for anyone who worked on the produce farm, even the entire ranch. They were too old, too young, or married. Well, Luke was good-looking, but she couldn't imagine thinking of him as anything more than a friend.
"I have my hands full without throwing a guy in the mix."
"Yeah, right. I saw you eyeballing Cannon Russell earlier."
"Doesn't hurt to look a little." And Cannon, one of the bull riders, certainly wasn't hard to look at. A long, lean, bull-riding machine. Of course, she wasn't the only one looking. He always had a gaggle of buckle bunnies following him around like a swarm of mosquitoes looking for a taste.
Still, Savannah couldn't stop looking at all the guys. She blamed her sister Lizzie. After all, how could she be around Lizzie and her fiancé, Chris, see how crazy in love they were and not be affected?
"I'd give him a seven."
Savannah pulled herself back from her thoughts and shifted her gaze to Abby. "Seven? Are you blind? He's at least an eight and a half, probably a nine."
"I like to leave a bit of a window on the top end of the scale in case someone ever really knocks my socks off."
They fell into assigning hotness numbers to every cowboy who walked by. When Abby started calling out the numbers loud enough that the cowboys in question could hear them, Savannah wanted to crawl under her hat. When Cannon strolled by and Abby hollered, "Seven and a half," Savannah shushed her and swatted her on the arm. Abby just hooted.
Savannah shook her head and called out, "Don't mind her. Tourette's."
Cannon laughed a little then headed off to talk with some of the other bull riders.
"I don't know why I hang out with you," Savannah said.
"Because you love me."
"So you think."
Abby laughed again and climbed into her living quarters to get ready for the evening's ride. Savannah downed the rest of her lemonade before grabbing her bag to change clothes, too.
When they both emerged from the trailer, the grandstands were filling up and the smell of grilling hamburgers permeated the air. Savannah's stomach growled, but she rarely ate anything close to when she was supposed to ride. Her dinner usually came in the slice of time between when she finished riding and the bull riding event started.
They headed toward the back curve of the arena next to the grandstands, chatting with other competitors along the way.
"Mmm-mmm, your boyfriend is looking good tonight." Abby nodded toward where Cannon was standing with Liam Parrish, a former bronc rider who now ran the company that provided the rough stock and staff for the rodeo.
"You know, the way you keep finding him, I think you might be the one who has the hots for him."
"Not gonna lie. I wouldn't mind sampling his wares, but I'm not fighting the gauntlet of bunnies to do so."
She turned at her name to see a good-looking man standing a few feet away. Tall, nicely built and wearing the ubiquitous cowboy hat, jeans and boots. But he wasn't part of the rodeo. She'd been around rodeo competitors for enough years to be able to peg one. Something about him seemed familiar, though, but she couldn't quite place it.
He tipped his tan Stetson back a bit, revealing more of his close-cropped auburn hair and light eyes. "Travis Shepard."
"Oh, hey." She smiled and moved in for a quick hug, noticing that Travis had changed a good bit since she'd last seen him. Taller, built more like a man than a teenage boy, and, wow, he'd certainly grown into a looker. Suddenly feeling uncharacteristically awkward at that thought, she stepped back from him. "How long has it been?"