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Double Trouble. Miranda hoped the words emblazoned across the iron arch at the ranch's entrance weren't an indication of things to come. Well, there was no turning back now. She tossed a crumpled map onto the passenger seat and steered her new black pickup and creaky rental trailer through the gates.
A bittersweet smile formed upon her lips as the house appeared in the distance. This was it. A new home and a new life, away from everything in Washington, D.C.
The morning sun shone bright upon the white clapboards of the century-old farmhouse. A large whitewashed front porch spanned its entire width. Walnut and oak trees shadowed neglected flowerbeds filled with weeds. Miranda envisioned a vibrant wildflower palette planted against the starkness of the house and looked forward to a little garden work.
She pulled the truck into a shaded area close to the stables. Looking up, Miranda's breath caught in her throat. A rough and ready cowboy leaned casually against the weathered open door of the building. A grayish-colored dog sat at his feet, wagging his tail.
If the cowboy comes with the place, I must be in heaven.
Miranda peered over the top of her sunglasses and watched the man walk inside the stables. Then logic overruled fantasy. Miranda realized Jonathan must have arranged for him to welcome her to Ramblewood.
She stepped down from the truck, her body stiff from the long drive. The cowboy returned leading a deep chocolate-brown-colored horse.
Her eyes darted to a nearby corral where two more horses grazed. Coils of rope and feed buckets hung from the white fencing. Water troughs filled to their rims reflected the morning sky. She shook her head, willing the whole scene to disappear.
Something wasn't right.
Miranda grabbed the photos from the front seat. It didn't make sense. It was the same house. Same property. Why were the horses still here?
Maybe he's just using the place for a few days. The horse trailer next to the barn must mean the animals were being relocated soon.
"May I help you?" the man called out as he approached.
His tall, muscular frame flexed with each stride. The Texas sun had tanned his face a warm golden hue. Hair the same color as the horse he led peeked out from under his Stetson. A few days' worth of stubble enhanced his rugged good looks even further.
"Um " Miranda's mouth went dry. She regained her composure enough to ask, "Is this the Double Trouble Ranch?"
"Sure is, sugar," he drawled. The horse behind him nudged his shoulder forward. "What can I do for you?"
"I don't understand." Miranda surveyed the property.
Are those cows in the distance? She looked to the cowboy for answers. "This has to be a mistake."
His eyes narrowed. Miranda stepped back. The handsome features she was attracted to only seconds ago faded into a menacing glare.
"Who are you?" His jaw clenched.
Miranda had a sudden urge to flee to the safety of her truck, but both man and horse blocked her path. A fierce pounding began deep within her chest. She opened her mouth to speak, but the words wouldn't come.
"You're the new owner, aren't you?"
He stood too close for comfort. Miranda backed into the corral fence. There was no place to turn. With her adrenaline raging, anger suddenly overtook fear. Squaring her shoulders she stepped forward, inches from his face.
"Yes, and you are?"
"The former ranch manager." He handed her the horse's rope. "His name's General Lee. Good luck."
Stunned, Miranda looked up at the animal. He snorted and licked her cheek. "Eww!" She wiped her face and quickly lengthened the amount of rope between herself and the horse.
"Hey, wait a minute," Miranda called out after the cowboy who was walking away. The sound of hooves on the ground behind her stopped hershe forgot all about the rope she held. The horse nudged her forward.
"Cut that out!"
The cowboy stopped in front of Miranda's truck and looked down at the bug-splattered license plate.
"Washington, D.C., huh? What's a city girl like you know about owning a ranch?"
"Nothing!" she shouted. At her outburst General Lee tossed his head pulling the rope through Miranda's hand with a stinging burn.
The cowboy was back at the agitated horse's side, rubbing his palm between the horse's eyes and down to the end of his muzzle while he whispered words Miranda couldn't quite make out.
"Lesson one. Don't ever yell around a horse. Especially one you don't know," he warned. "Lesson twoalways wear gloves when handling a rope."
"But" There was no point in reminding him he was the one who'd handed it to her. She closed her eyes tight. It's all a dream. The Marlboro Man is just a mirage.
"I don't understand. I bought this place but I didn't sign on for this." She gestured toward the horse. "Why are you here?"
"I wanted to meet the person who destroyed my life." He stepped closer.
Didn't this man understand the meaning of personal space? He stared at her with deep brown eyes as if he expected an explanation. He may be drop-dead gorgeous, but she wasn't about to let him intimidate her. Yes, he was an incredible specimen of a man, but she needed to focus on the task at hand.
If only I could run my hands
Miranda shook her head to erase the thought, watching the cowboy turn General Lee loose within the fenced area. The cowboy returned and gave her a conceited grin, as if he'd read her mind.
"You outbid me," he said.
"What are you talking about?"
"I know your type." He drew her hands to his chest and ran his thumbs over her skin. "Rich as molasses.
Everything in life handed to you on a silver platter. You come to these small Texas towns, buy ranches like this one and then turn them into housing developments."
He turned her palm upward while gingerly running his fingers over the welt from the rope. A chill ran through her. A part of her wanted him far away from her yet she seemed to be glued to the spot. Maybe it had been far too long since she last felt the touch of a man. But this wasn't just any manthis was a full-blooded cowboy who rattled her as no one ever had.
The reality of the situation kicked in and she pushed him away. "Not that it's any business of yours, but I bought this place to live on. Sight unseen, I might add. I don't know where you got your information from, but it couldn't be more wrong. I have no plans to build anything. I don't have that kind of money."
"Sure you don't." He ground his teeth together. "I poured the past fifteen years of my life into this ranch. Built everything you see here, with the exception of the houses. Double Trouble was mine. Then you came along. Ripped it right out from under me. Too bad I won't be around to watch when you try to deal with the cattle."
"Cattle?" Miranda gulped. So, those were cows in the distance.
"Those things out there with the big horns are called Longhorns. And they're all yours." He laughed. "Don't fret too much. It's only a small herd used for training the cutting horses."
"Look mister whatever your name is."
"Jesse," he interrupted.
"Look, Mr. Jesse, I don't know what's going on around here. There must be some mistake. I thought the sale included whatever contents the owners left behind in the house. I figured it meant furniture. It never crossed my mind livestock would come with the property and I never thought to ask. I don't know how to take care of them."
Miranda ran over the events of the past month in her mind. Her ex-fiance's lack of sympathy regarding her mother's death made her decision to move that much easier. When Jonathan Reese, her lawyer and best friend since eleventh grade, returned from Texas and told her he found the perfect place for her to start over, she found the opportunity impossible to resist. Memories of countless moves and dingy, cramped apartments led way to dreams filled with wide-open spaces and a farmhouse in the country.
Now she owned her dream. And while she may have seen an animal or two in the photographs, no one ever told her it was a package deal.
A rooster crowed and broke her train of thought. "Chickens, too?"
"You're telling me you know nothing about horses and cattle? Then why on earth did you buy a ranch?"
"I just told you, I didn't know it came complete with farm animals. I bought a house with land."
"Lady, this is a ranch! And ranches are for people with animals."
Miranda kicked at the dirt beneath her boots. She needed a moment to sort this out, to call Jonathan and get to the bottom of this.
"What did you intend to do with a fifteen stall stable?"
"There are fifteen horses?" If she didn't faint now, she would soon.
"Relax." Jesse smirked. "There's not quite that many now. So what happened? The truck wasn't expensive enough for you? Had to jump in whole hog and buy a Texas ranch to appease your shopping urges?"
Miranda's first thought was to slap him across the face. Thank heavens her good graces held her in check and she kept her hands where they were.
"Oh, get off your high horse. No pun intended there, cowboy." Miranda recoiled. "You know nothing about me!"
"Don't care to, either."
"If you are so concerned about the welfare of these animals, then why don't you take them with you?"
"And keep them where? My back pocket? Not a whole lot of room there, sugar."
Miranda ignored his arrogance. "Mr. Jesse, certainly there must be some room for them at your ranch."
"You sure don't listen very well. This was my ranch!" Lines of frustration creased his forehead. "And my name's Jesse Langtry, not Mr. Jesse."
"Jesse's your first name?" Miranda tried to hide her amusement. "Like Jesse James?"
"You got a problem with that, city slicker?" He folded his arms across his chest.
"City slicker!" Miranda found it harder and harder to keep calm. "Look, it's obvious there's been some sort of a mix-up here. Once I call my attorney, I'm sure I can straighten this all out. Maybe the previous owners would welcome their animals back. At no cost, of course."
Jesse whipped off his Stetson, gazed skyward and laughed as he wiped the back of his roughhewn hand across his forehead.
"How generous of you. But it would be next to impossible." His callousness faded as he continued. "They were killed in a car accident six months ago."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know."
It seemed Jonathan had neglected to tell her a lot of things about the ranch. Not that she'd asked him many questions. One look at the photos and she'd wanted to move as soon as possible. Now Miranda was desperate to get some clarification from her friend.
"They didn't have any children, so the house went to Fran's sister. Since she had no use for it, it went up for sale." Jesse pulled his hat down low, shielding his eyes. "You and I both bid on it. I lost and you won the whole shootin' match. I was only watching the place until the estate was settled."
Miranda supported herself against the truck. A house was one thing, but animals? She had plans of starting a small business in town once she moved to Ramble-wood. Only her ideas were more along the lines of a clothing boutique. This wasn't what she expected at all.
From what she could see of his face, he was distraught over the loss of his friends and home. Miranda felt a small pang of guilt. While she wanted a place to call home and to start a family of her own, she didn't want to destroy someone else's life in order to get it.
She'd soften her tone with him and try to get on friendlier terms. "So what exactly does a ranch manager do?" If she was lucky, maybe she could even convince him to stay and help her for a few days, or until she figured out what was going on here.
"I oversaw the entire spread, as well as being the head trainer."
"Trainer?" Miranda repeated.
"I train cutting horses."
Miranda stared blankly at Jesse.
He rolled his eyes. "Cutting horses are used to move cattle around, among other things."
"I see." A scene from an old Western flashed through Miranda's head. "I didn't realize people still did that."
"Sure they do." He took a deep breath. "Listen, I have another job waiting for me in Abilene, but I'll stay around for a bit and feed the livestock. I don't work for free, and I'm not staying long. Just long enough for you to decide what to do with all of this."
"Really? You'll stay?" Miranda saw a slight glimmer of hope. "That would be great!"
"Don't get ahead of yourself, I'm only here temporarily. What's your name?"
"Miranda. Miranda Archer," she said, eagerly holding out her hand.
He took her hand in his and turned her palm over once again. "It's not too bad. The sting will go away in a few minutes."
The gentleness of his touch sent her mind in the opposite direction of pain. Maybe I can find out if cowboys really do roll in the hay. Heat rose in her cheeks at the thought.
"Well, Miranda. Come on." Jesse motioned to her. "We've got plenty of work to do."
"Work?" Miranda glanced at the pile of her belongings packed into the truck. "I just got here. I haven't even had a chance to see inside my house."
She didn't wait for a response. Miranda retrieved a few bags and headed up the porch stairs. Jesse bounded ahead of her.
"Not now." He took the bags from her and dropped them on the porch. "Until you hire a new foreman you need to learn how to take care of these animals. Like I said, I'm not staying long."
He couldn't leave! What would she do?
"Show me around later." Miranda shooed him away.
She really was desperate to see the house and wasn't about to wait a minute longer. The house had played a major part in her move to Ramblewood. From the listing information the Realtor had emailed her, it had a great deal of charm and a homey quality. Ever since, Miranda pictured herself there, with a husband and a houseful of children. The fact it was a thousand miles away from Washington, D.C., was an added bonus.
"Let's get a few things straight, Miranda. I'm not your personal tour guide." Jesse took her arm and steered her down the stairs. "You can see the house on your own time. The sooner I show you what to do around here, the sooner I can be on my way."
He walked ahead to the stable entrance and waited for her. Miranda was torn. It was probably wise to pacify the cowboy for the time being. After buying the house and the truck, she only had enough money left to tide her over for a year. She not only needed help with the ranch, she needed a friend in town. Not an enemy.
"Oh, well, I'm sure this won't take long."
Inside, the pungent smell of hay assaulted her senses, causing her to sneeze. Jesse took a pair of leather gloves from his back pocket and gave them to her. He grabbed another pair from a shelf and put them on as he walked to the last stall.
"Do you have sneakers or work boots to put on?" he asked. "What am I asking? You wouldn't even know what work boots look like."
Miranda narrowed her eyes at him. "What's wrong with these?" She stuck out one foot, proud of her new red-and-turquoise leather cowboy boots. They sure were pretty.
"They haven't even been broken in yet. Those are meant for riding, not walking. You'll regret wearing them in five minutes flat."
"I'll be fine, thank you." She pushed a few long strands of hair behind her ears as she strutted past him.
"Suit yourself." Jesse unlatched the stall door and stepped in to stand beside a large gray horse. "Tell me. Do all rich city girls buy property without seeing it?"
Again with the insults?
"You don't quit do you?" Miranda tried to think of the shortest way to explain her situation. "My best friend is from San Antonio and he thought the Hill Country would be a perfect place for me to start over."
"What was so horrible you had to run away? I know! You ran out of places to shop."