Read an Excerpt
Pete Ledbetter watched his grandfather lift his glass of champagne to the employees of the Lazy L Ranch, near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. They were celebrating the end of their first season as both a working cattle operation and a dude ranch.
It had been a long summer, and now Pete looked forward to eight weeks of vacation, except for taking care of the cattle, of course. At least he'd have his brother's help with that.
But what was he going to do about Mary Jo?
He'd apologized, of course, but didn't think she'd accepted it. What worried him was that he believed she was leaving the ranch at the end of the month.
He couldn't blame her. All the blame rested on him. Last summer, he'd had the greatest night of his life with Mary Jo, but two days later he'd made a colossal mistake by sleeping with a guest. He'd let himself be taken in by the city girl's sweet talkin' flattery and come-hither smile. He hadn't thought about the ramifications of his action. But Mary Jo had. And quickly.
She'd given notice.
As the ranch chef, she played a big role in keeping their guests happy. Not only did Pete need to make amends for himself, he had to for the sake of the dude ranch, as well.
"Aren't you glad the first season is over?" Cliff Ledbetter asked him, a big grin on his face.
"Sure, Granddad." Pete mustered up a smile. He'd been against the idea of turning the Lazy L into a dude ranch after his parents' death, but Granddad and Jessie, his sister, had decided to go ahead. Their plan had worked out because Granddad had brought in Jim Bradford as manager.
Jim had gotten the job done, in spite of Pete's lack of cooperation, and he'd married Jessica to boot. All Petehad gotten last summer was a broken leg, thanks to his own stupidity.
"Granddad, what are Mary Jo's plans?"
Cliff stared at him. "She said she'd cook for the month of October, while Jessie and Jim are on their honeymoon, didn't she?"
"Yeah, I know, but what about afterward?"
"We haven't asked her to sign a contract for the winter season yet. I can take care of that in a couple of weeks."
Pete didn't want to say too much. Not today. And not when Mary Jo could overhear on her trips in and out of the kitchen.
She had to be tired, he thought. After all, she'd prepared breakfast for everyone that morning, and then put together their lunch celebration.
Without another thought, he got to his feet, picked up one of the plastic tubs and started gathering up dirty dishes. When it was full he followed Mary Jo into the kitchen.
"You don't need to do that, Pete. It's my job." She kept her face averted as she worked.
"You've done more than your share, Mary Jo. It doesn't hurt me to help a little."
Edith, Mary Jo's second-in-command, came in with another tub of dirty dishes. "Because of Pete, there wasn't much left for me to clean up."
"That was nice of him, wasn't it?" Mary Jo said, still not looking at him.
Pete wasn't fooled by her praise. He knew he needed to talk to her again, but this wasn't the time. Stoically, he began to rinse plates and glasses, stacking them in the dishwasher.
Half an hour later, when he finally left the kitchen, he ran into his brother, who was three years younger than him.
"Hey, Pete, how'd you get stuck doing the dishes today?" Hank asked.
"Mary Jo shouldn't have to do all that alone. Wouldn't kill you to help out this month, either."
Hank gave him a strange look. "Are you feeling all right?"
He shook his head. "What do you have planned for this afternoon?"
"Putting my feet up," his brother exclaimed with a grin. "Want to go for a ride?"
He nodded. "Sure. Why not?"
"Good. I'm going to ask Mary Jo to join us."
"Maybe you'd prefer for me to stay home?"
"No! She won't go with just me, but I think she'd enjoy a ride today."
"Okay, bro. I'll come along. I'll go saddle the horses while you persuade her."
Pete went back to the kitchen, but it was empty. He checked the main rooms, then finally went to the staff area and knocked on Mary Jo's door.
She opened it, but when she saw him, she closed it to a mere slit. "What do you want, Pete?"
"Hank and I are going for a ride, now that lunch is over. Would you like to come?"
"Hank is going, too?" she asked.
"Yeah. He's out saddling the horses."
"You're sure I can come?"
"All right. I have to change. Then I'll be down there."
"Great." He immediately left for the barn, not
wanting to hang around and scare her off. During the season, they hadn't had time to work out their problems. But Pete needed to do so nowhe wanted her to stay.
Time was running out.
Mary Jo opened the door to her room, looking around for Pete, fearing he might be waiting for her. It wasn't that she didn't like him. The problem was she liked him too much.
Still, she didn't intend to have anything to do with him. Ever again.
But she did want to ride, and since Hank would be joining them she wouldn't have to be alone with Pete. Because it could get chilly in the Rockies even in early October, she tied a jacket around her waist and set off for the barn.
Once there, she cautiously looked around for Hank. With relief, she saw him talking with his brother as they saddled up Biscuit, her favorite mount.
"You ready to ride, Mary Jo?" Hank asked when they were done.
"Yes, if you are." She held her breath, realizing that he might decline at the last minute. She didn't exhale until he climbed into the saddle.
She and Pete mounted, and Mary Jo finally relaxed. Over the summer she'd discovered a real affinity for horseback riding. She'd been on horses before she came to the Lazy L, but never on a regular basis. Once her schedule had gotten worked out so she had steady days off, she'd ridden twice every week.
"Let's take the trail down by the stream," Pete suggested. "I want to see how deep it's running."
The aspen leaves were golden now and the wind blew through them, making them quiver. Mary Jo loved this time of the yearthe colors, the smells, the briskness in the air. She breathed deeply, absorbing every detail, until Pete rode up beside her.
"We came through the first season of the dude ranch very well, I think. We learned a lot, too. Don't you agree, Mary Jo?"
"Yes, of course."
"I want you to know I'm not going to fight Jim and Jessie anymore."
Riding alongside him, she nodded. "They've certainly proved themselves this summer."
"And Hank's agreed to follow their suggestions, too. He's going to cull a few horses from guest status."
"He is? Which horses?"
"You won't believe it, but Biscuit's one. She's better off with one of us riding her." His eyes raked Mary Jo from head to toe. "See? You don't have a problem with her at all."
Something about the way Pete looked at her made her cheeks flame. Quickly, she looked down at her mount. "N-no, of course not. She's a perfect lady."
His response did nothing to cool her down. In a suddenly husky voice he said, "That's because she's got a perfect lady riding her."
Pete watched Mary Jo closely. She kept her distance from him, and he couldn't blame her. She'd trusted him once, and then he'd betrayed her. He hadn't realized it at the time, until Jim had explained it to him. Pete had been careless with her heart and he regretted it.
Didn't matter. No matter how apologetic he was, she wasn't going to trust him. But he hoped they could at least become friends again.
"Hey, Mary Jo, do you want to herd cattle with us this month?" he asked suddenly.
She swung around, and the expression on her face was one of terror. "No! I'll cook for you, but I can't herd cattle."
He laughed. "I was just teasing. We'll settle for your excellent cooking. But you've really become a good rider."
"What are your plans after this month? Are you going to take a trip?" Pete asked.
"II haven't decided." Her cheeks flared red again.
Despite her answer, he was worried about the future. Hank had ridden a little ahead, and this was the best chance Pete was going to have to talk to her. He cleared his throat and launched right into his prepared speech. "Mary Jo, I know I made a mistake when I didn't take things seriously between us, but I've apologized before and I'll apologize again today. Please, can't you forgive me?"
Her chin came up and she stared straight ahead. "I forgive you, Pete. But I haven't forgotten."
With a silent groan, he closed his eyes. "Okay, I understand you haven't forgotten. But can't we at least be friends?"
"What difference does it make?"
"I don't want you to go!" Careful not to reveal too much, he corrected, "I mean we don't want you to leave the ranch."
"I'll be here until November."
"Come on, Mary Jo. Think of us. We need your good cooking."
"You can easily find another chef, Pete. I'm sure that won't be a problem."
"We won't be able to find one like"
"Hey, are you two coming?" Hank called over his shoulder.
Pete stifled a curse. His brother would have to choose that moment to interrupt. Mary Jo clucked to Biscuit to catch up with Hank, and Pete knew the moment was over.
But he wouldn't give up. He had to make her stay. He might be offering friendship, but what he really wanted was for her to love him again.
They had crossed the icy stream and gone into the next pasture, closer to the mountains. When they topped a hill, Hank halted.
"What's wrong?" Pete asked.
"I don't like the look of the sky. Did you check the weather before you came out?"
"No, it didn't occur to me. Why?"
"I think we're going to get a storm."
Pete scanned the sky. It was no longer blue, and a layer of dark clouds was moving in. "We'd better start back," he agreed, nodding abruptly.
"What kind of storm?" Mary Jo asked.
"I believe we're going to get our first snowstorm. At least up here. It may just be rain close to the house."
"Oh. I didn't bring my slicker." She had put her jacket on awhile ago, as soon as they'd neared the mountains.
"It's my fault," Hank mumbled. "I should've tied some rain gear on the saddles."
"It's all right, Hank," Pete said. "We'll turn back, and if we move quickly, we might beat the weather."
They headed toward home, riding at a lope to try and reach the barn before the storm broke. When it did, they were still quite a ways out. And instead of occasional flakes, almost at once the snow began falling fast and furiously.
Hank pulled up. "We can't ride in this. I know a place near here where we can take cover until the storm ends."
He turned in a southerly direction, and the other two followed him. When he rode under an outcropping of rock he halted his horse and dismounted. "This will be better than trying to ride through the snow."
"But wouldn't it be better to press on to the barn?" Mary Jo asked.
"No. We'll wait until the storm stops. I'll build a fire and we'll be okay."
Pete was beside her before she realized it. "Come on, Mary Jo, let me help you down. Hank and I will gather firewood while we can still see."
"Let me help," she answered.
"You're not going out, Mary Jo. Hank and I will do it. You stay here and keep the horses from wandering off."
He could tell she wanted to protest, but she remained silent.
He and Hank moved out into the storm and began looking for wood. It wasn't easy, with snow swirling in their faces and already covering the ground. When both he and Hank had an armful, they returned to the shelter.
"You stay here and get the fire started, Hank. I'll look for more wood," Pete offered.
"Okay, but don't go too far," his brother warned.
Mary Jo watched Pete go back out into the storm, immediately losing sight of him. She might be angry with him, but she didn't want him hurt, or lost in a snowstorm. She remembered when she'd first met him. He was tall and lean and darkly handsome, and something about him had tugged on her heart.
When he'd flirted with her, she'd responded. When he kissed her, she'd wanted more. So much more that she went to bed with him.
Then, two days later, he'd slept with one of the guests.