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One bar? One freaking bar? How far into the boonies was this place that they didn't even have decent cell phone reception?
Adam Clark held up his cell phone and watched the last bar blink away. Great.
His flight had been delayed, and he hadn't heard from either of his coworkers. Brandon and Ryan were flying in from London, and he assumed they'd be waiting for him at the ranch. At least they'd better be.
He sighed. This whole idea of spending a week at a real working dude ranch in Colorado had been Brandon's idea. He'd convinced them it would be great research for the new video game they were working on — and really, what could go wrong? Three computer guys from California acting like cowboys? It sounded like a super plan.
It wouldn't be the first dumb idea Brandon had talked him into. The three of them had met in college, rooming together in the Engineering dorm. After graduation, they'd gone into business together and had created one of the most popular video games on the market.
Their newest game would have a western theme, and Brandon had decided they needed to "experience the real West" if the game was going to feel authentic.
All Adam could feel right now was hot and uncomfortable. The stiff western-style shirt stuck to his sweaty skin, and he couldn't feel his toes at all. They were squished into a pair of "genuine snakeskin" cowboy boots that the salesman had said all the cowboys in Colorado wore.
He lurched against the back of the seat in front of him as the bus turned off the winding mountain road and passed under a sign that read Hawkins Ridge Ranch. It looked like they'd arrived.
The bus pitched to a stop, and laughter rang out as the excited families around him stood and collected their belongings. From what he could gather, he and his friends would be spending the week with three other groups: a family celebrating their teenage daughter's birthday, another family from Florida, who wanted to try a non–amusement park vacation, and one couple celebrating their honeymoon.
He followed the honeymooners, grabbing his luggage, then stepped out of the bus and shaded his eyes from the bright Colorado sun.
The scent of pine and freshly mown grass filled the air, punctuated with a haze of dust. His throat was already dry, and he looked around, hoping to spot a place he could get a drink.
A large timber lodge sat to his right, surrounded by a scattering of small cabins. In front of him stood a huge barn, with corrals spread out on either side. Behind the barn, green fields dotted with horses and cattle completed the landscape.
A curvy blonde woman strode purposefully toward the group, a straw cowboy hat on her head and a clipboard in her hands. An older cowboy sauntered next to her, and a brooding preteen shuffled along behind them.
"Hey there," the cowgirl called, a big smile on her face. "Welcome to Hawk's Ridge Ranch. I'm Skye Hawkins. My dad built this ranch for my mother the year before I was born. Now, I'm not saying exactly what year that was — I'll just admit that this handsome twelve-year-old is my son."
Her eyes cut to Adam, and she offered him a grin.
Light laughter rippled through the crowd, but Adam just stood there, staring at the woman. Just her smile had set something off inside of him. Something about her struck a chord with him, unsettled him somehow.
He shook his head. He was here to work, nothing else.
Skye dropped an arm casually around the shoulders of the sullen preteen standing next to her. "This is Cody. He'll be showing the Henderson and the Johnson families to their cabins."
Cody gave a half-hearted wave, but it didn't escape Adam's attention that the boy's gaze darted to the cute girl who was about his age. Memories of those awkward teenage years flooded his mind. Adam felt for the kid.
"This is Cal. He's the lead ranch hand and your go-to guy for just about everything," Skye continued, gesturing to the older man standing next to her. "Cal and Cody are gonna show y'all to the mess hall, where you'll experience some of the best western barbecue you've ever tasted." She smiled at the couple wearing matching cowboy hats, with ribbons proclaiming "bride" and "groom" wrapped around their brims. "We'd like to extend a special welcome to our newlyweds, the Logan's. We're thrilled you've decided to spend your honeymoon with us. Cal will lead you to your cabin, where we've added a few special touches to make this time memorable for you."
Okay, enough with the pleasantries. Adam just wanted to get to his cabin and get started. He wondered who'd be taking him to his cabin, and he silently hoped it would the cowgirl herself.
"We know you're anxious to get settled in, so we'll save the rest of the introductions until dinner. Please check out the information packets you each have in your rooms. You'll find camp agendas, meal times, and hopefully everything you'll need to have a great week here at Hawk's Ridge Ranch." Skye glanced his way. "You must be Adam."
He nodded. "Yep."
"Good to meet you. If you want to follow me, I'll take you to your cabin." She reached for his bag.
"I've got it," he said, as he noted the absence of a wedding ring. Hmm. Being away from civilization for a week might not be so bad ...
He grabbed his bag and fell into step behind her. She wore a light pink T-shirt tucked into a pair of snug-fitting jeans, their hems frayed at the bottom around the heels of her boots. A heavy brown belt with brass studs circled her waist, and though he did his best, he couldn't keep his eyes off the way her heart-shaped butt shifted with each step.
His own feet were still killing him, and he tried to focus on what she was saying instead of how badly his toes were being pinched in the stupid snakeskin cowboy boots.
Brandon had insisted they show up decked in full gear. It would help them get in the cowboy mindset, he'd said. But now, as he limped along behind Skye, Adam wished he'd just worn his usual Converse sneakers.
"I hate to break it to you, but I received a call from Brandon Moore this afternoon. He and Ryan, the other gentleman in your party, won't be joining you today."
Adam's head snapped up, the pain in his toes forgotten. "Wait. What? Brandon and Ryan aren't coming? I thought they were already here."
"From what I gathered, they couldn't make their flight from London. They said they've been trying to reach you on your cell phone. I told them reception up here is awful."
He pulled out his phone and squinted at the display. "More like non-existent. Did they say when they'd get here?"
She shook her head. "No, they weren't sure. They said to tell you there'd been some complications on the London project, something to do with a server that couldn't handle all the traffic and a massive crash, and that you'd know what that meant."
Yeah, he knew.
Brandon and Ryan had gone to London to release their newest video game, and it must have been more popular than they'd planned. They'd had five thousand preorders, but if the release had been too big, it could have crashed the server. They'd been worried that could be a problem.
But now their problem was going to be his problem. Because he was the one stuck doing a solo week at Camp Cowboy.
How had he let Brandon and Ryan talk him into this? Sure, it had made sense at the time. None of them had a clue about being a cowboy, other than what they saw on television. This week, they were supposed to learn how to ride a horse and swing a rope. They'd get a feel for what a real working ranch felt like, smelled like.
This wasn't a totally new idea for them. They'd gone on location before to research their other games, but those locations had involved beaches, beer, and women in bikinis.
Still, there was a reason Brandon was in charge of marketing and production — he could talk them into doing most anything. Adam had almost started to look forward to this trip ...
But not now.
"I'm sorry about your friends. I hope no one got hurt," she said.
"In the massive crash."
"They'll be fine," he assured her. Or at least they would be, until he killed them when, and if, they ever showed up.
"That's good. Hopefully, they'll still be able to join you later this week.
They'd better. The heel of his boot caught on a rock, and he stumbled then caught his footing.
"I'm fine," he grumbled. "Just not used to walking in these stupid boots."
"Yeah, they do take some getting used to. Those are some fancy boots." She didn't quite hide her amused smile.
Stupid salesman. "They were Brandon's idea. He thought we should dress the part this week. You know, western shirts, boots, the whole nine yards. But I think I blew it."
Her gaze traveled up and down his outfit. "I'd say you almost pulled it off, but the Stormtroopers on your belt give away the fact that you might not be a real cowboy."
He grimaced. "I was hoping no one would notice. I couldn't find my brown leather belt this morning, and this was the only other thing I had."
"It's kind of cool. It gives you like a 'space cowboy' kind of vibe." She let out a laugh. "So, is this your first trip to Colorado? It has a lot to offer, like the mountains, and skiing, and we've even got a pretty great football team. Go Broncos." She gave a little fist pump.
"I like the Broncos. They had a good team last year. Does your husband watch a lot of football?" Wow. That was smooth.
She cocked an eyebrow at him. "I'm not married."
"Me neither." Shit. "Sorry. That was clearly not the appropriate response. I meant to just say that I'm sorry."
"Don't be. Cody's dad was an asshole. I dodged a six-foot tall bullet when he walked away from us."
"Still, I know that being a single mom isn't easy. I was raised by one. My dad was killed in a car crash when I was about your son's age."
"Oh, now I'm sorry."
He shrugged. "It was a long time ago."
"Still, I think it's different when your man intentionally walks away."
He shrugged. "I don't think either sounds preferable."
"I don't mean to sound bitter. I'm over him. I just sometimes think about how one stupid decision can alter your entire life, you know?"
He did know. "So, where would you be if you hadn't made that one decision? Still running this dude ranch?"
"God, no. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love this ranch, it's my home. And I wouldn't give up Cody for the world. But I never imagined myself back here. I had big plans. I met Cody's dad when I was in college, where I was studying equine science. I'd hoped to get into vet school and move to Montana. Then I met a cowboy who swept me off my feet, literally. I thought we were in love, that we'd get married and move to Montana together. Then I told him that I was pregnant."
"I take it that didn't go so well?"
She chuckled. "Uh, no, not so well at all. He was a rodeo guy who was in town for a circuit. Turned out he liked riding bulls better than riding me." She clapped her hands to her mouth, and a tinge of pink colored her cheeks.
He let out a loud laugh. He liked this woman. She surprised him. And he wasn't surprised by much anymore.
"Sorry, I should not have said that."
"It's okay. It was funny."
She grinned at him, and he felt another tug of attraction. He wasn't used to being this affected by a woman. Sure, she was pretty. Gorgeous, actually. But more important, he liked that she made him laugh, that she had spunk.
"I can't believe I'm telling my whole life story to a complete stranger."
"We're not exactly strangers. We've known each other for a good ten minutes already."
"Good point. We're practically BFFs."
BFFs? The thoughts he'd had about the way Skye's butt looked in those snug jeans didn't fall anywhere near the friends category. "Right. And BFFs don't have to be embarrassed about spilling their guts to each other. Usually they get drunk and sloppy before they start leaking their innermost secrets. So I may have to buy you a beer at the bar before you tell me anything else." He tried not to cringe. Somehow that had sounded much better in his head.
She turned the corner, leading him toward a log cabin set back against the hill side. "I'm afraid the only bars you'll find around here are the chocolate bars we sell in the gift shop."
Hmm. He wasn't sure if he'd just been dissed or if she was still trying to be funny.
"Then next time, we'll just have to get sloppy over chocolate."
"I don't think there's anything left to tell. I've already spilled my most humiliating secrets." She stopped at the bottom step of the porch to the cabin and glanced at him. "I don't usually tell anyone about Cody's dad. It's not just that I was dumped, but it changed everything in my life. I had to drop out of college and come back home with my tail between my legs. I mean, I'm fine with my life now. I love my son and wouldn't change what happened. But still, it was hard."
"You seem to be doing pretty well, in spite of it."
"Thank you. You're sweet."
He shrugged. "Not really. Apparently I'm kind of an asshole myself, sometimes. At least, according to the last woman I dated."
She continued up the stairs of the porch. "But you're not seeing anyone now?"
She'd asked the question innocently enough, but he couldn't help the grin that stole across his face. "Nope."
"Well, here we are," she said, effectively changing the subject as she unlocked the door to the cabin. "This is Hillside. It's one of our largest cabins, so you and your friends should be comfortable."
Adam dropped his bag and set his backpack on top of it as he gazed around the sparsely furnished room. A sofa and coffee table sat in front of the cabin's main focal point, a large stone fireplace. The floor was faded hardwood covered with colorful rag rugs.
The windows were covered with blue and white gingham curtains, and a set of bunk beds sat against one wall. Two doors led off to the right. One was closed, but Adam could see a chipped porcelain sink through the other and assumed it was the bathroom.
The cabin was straight off the set of Bonanza. He half expected Hoss or Little Joe to come sauntering into the room.
His shoulders sagged at the thought of spending the next week here. There was no television, no refrigerator, and the sofa looked about as comfortable as a rock. At least he wouldn't be stuck sleeping on one of the bunk beds. Brandon and Ryan could share those — if they ever showed up. It would serve them right for ditching him.
"Nice place," he told Skye, who seemed to be waiting for his reaction.
When he was working, he usually stayed in four-star hotels with 24-hour business centers. But she looked so proud of the cabin he didn't want to say anything to upset her. He wasn't that much of a jerk.
"This is one of my favorite cabins." Skye fluffed a blue pillow on the sofa. "It's one of the older ones, but it's also the biggest and it's quiet, since it's set a little farther back. I think it'll work out really well for you. And for your friends, when they show up."
"Thanks. It is quiet." A slight breeze ruffled the curtains of the windows, but all he heard was the gurgling of the stream that ran behind the cabin. "That will help, because I do have a lot of work to get done while I'm here. Do I need a specific wifi password, or is it just open?"
She let out a laugh, and his stomach dropped. He had a feeling he knew what was coming.
"You don't need a password at all, because there is no wifi. The only internet access is in the main lodge, and even that is limited."
He gave her an incredulous stare. "Are you kidding me? No wifi? And no cell phone service? What kind of place is this?" The third ring of hell? How was he supposed to get any work done?
"It's the kind of place where you're supposed to forget about the real world and just enjoy being in the mountains, soaking up everything nature has to offer," she replied, planting a hand on her hip.
He arched an eyebrow at her. Unfortunately, he didn't really do nature. He kept in shape by working out religiously at the gym, but other than that, he spent the majority of his time at his desk, either at home or at the office.
She gave him a knowing smile. "But it's also the kind of place that leaves freshly baked chocolate chip cookies in your room to enjoy when you arrive." She pointed to the two doors. "Bedroom's through there, and bathroom's on the right."
Excerpted from "Catching the Cowgirl"
Copyright © 2017 Jennie Marts.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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