Horse trainer Trent Kimball is starting to believe his family's ranch is actually cursed. Still, it's a place to recover from both his recent divorce and a humiliating professional setback. That is, until Shelby Foster shows up, looking far too fine for cowboy country, and informs Trent that she is the owner of the Eager Beaver Ranch!
Shelby left everything behind to move to Montana. And she's not about to just walk away! Even if it means sharing a roof with a rude cowboy temporarily. As they wait for their papers, animosity turns into suggestive teasing. Then it becomes a sexy-sweet temptation neither can resist! Whoever produces the deed keeps the ranch. But will they lose something more important?
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The Eager Beaver was cursed. Trent Kimball had always been a skeptic, but right now, trying to get this damned old tractor to run, he was tempted to rethink his position.
His dad had moved the whole family off the ranch when Trent was sixteen, swearing by the words of Trent's great-granddad that anyone who tried to make something of the place was doomed to failure.
Three years later Trent's older brother had tried to give it a go but after seven years, he'd gone belly up. When Colby had blamed it on the curse, Trent had given him a load of crap about superstition and other nonsense.
In truth, if his bottom-feeding, soul-sucking ex-wife hadn't damn near cleaned him out, Trent wouldn't be here trying to whip the ranch into shape. But cursed? Nah, when it came right down to it, he wasn't about to jinx his future when he'd barely gotten started. Eight months was nothing when it came to building a new life.
Using a clean rag to wipe the sweat off his forehead, he squinted at the gap in the east corral where a pair of rails had come loose and fallen during the night. He'd get to that later today. The job he was on right now was far more urgent. He stared at the tractor engine. If he didn't get it running soon, he was gonna be in a world of hurt. Alfalfa wasn't cheap. He needed to be ready to plant come spring. And after building the stable his bank account was dwindling fast. He jerked the wrench. And caught the edge of his thumb.
He let loose a string of cussing everyone in Blackfoot Falls, sixteen miles away, must've heard. Mutt didn't even raise his head. The mangy hound stayed put, a huge lump of black fur curled up under the shade of a cottonwood. Damn lazy dog.
Violet, his unwelcome neighbor, didn't miss her chance to mock him and she sure as hell didn't hold back. The unseasonably warm fall breeze carried the sound of her cackling straight to him. He turned to the wiry old woman sitting on the porch of her double-wide parked near the faded barn. As usual she was smoking an oversize pipe and having a fine time in her dilapidated oak rocker.
One of these days she'd end up on her butt. Twice he'd offered to fix the chair for her. Twice. But as she so bluntly put it his carpentry skills sucked. Much as he hated to admit it, she had a point.
Though he was getting better. He'd done a meticulous job of finishing the inside of the stable himself, making sure it was hazard-free, before he'd brought Solomon and Jax, a pair of quarter horses he'd purchased a couple of years back.
Still, the laughter coming off the porch was frying his nerves to a crisp. Here he'd cleaned her gutters, repaired the stairs by her front door and built her a handrail. But had she thanked him?
Okay, so he'd done those things when Violet was off to town so she wouldn't give him any lip. And yes, the woman was a burr in his boot, but he didn't want her hurt. Just quiet. And minding her own business.
"I know you have an air conditioner and a TV inside, Violet Merriweather," he said, taking off his hat then resettling it on his head. "Why the hell are you sitting out here in the heat watching me?"
"You're funnier than any of them reality shows." She might've grinned, hard to tell with the pipe hiding half her craggy features. "Anyhow, I'm all caught up on Duck Dynasty!''
Trent sighed. If he had any sense he would've run her off the property when he'd first returned to Montana. The old woman had a knack for making him feel like a complete loser, and that was the last thing he needed right now. But she had no kids, no family since her brother had passed away some years back, and she'd watched him and Colby grow up. Over the years, Violet had become a fixture at the ranch. But they'd both been nicer then.
Somewhere in her mid-eighties, she was still spry and wiry, and had plenty of opinions she was more than willing to share. For all he knew, being cantankerous was the secret to staying young.
A stiff crosswind out of the west brought the aroma of baked beans and cornbread. Had to be coming from Violet's stove. Their closest neighbor lived three miles away. Another whiff and Trent's stomach growled loud enough for Mutt to lift his head. Or maybe it was the smell that roused the dog's attention. His eyes looked mighty hopeful.
"You think that's coming from our kitchen?" Trent snorted. "Dream on."
Mutt let out a huff.
"You know as well as I do she won't share." Which was a shame. Anything beyond frying eggs and bacon tested his kitchen skills. He'd offered to pay Violet to cook for him, but she'd turned him down flat. "Don't look at me like that," he told Mutt who'd let out a whine. "You eat better than I do."
The dog had shown up the day Trent arrived. Halfway down the gravel driveway, he'd noticed Mutt trotting behind the U-Haul he had towed all the way from Texas. Most of the stuff he cared about probably could've fit in the back of his truck. But he'd jam-packed the small rental with a few chairs, an end table, his favorite couch, the king-size bed he and Dana had shared and a few other things he didn't particularly want, but damned if he'd let her have them. He'd been too angry to see anything but red.
Two days after the race that'd had him and everyone else in the racing world questioning his ability as a horse trainer, she'd walked into their bedroom with an empty suitcase and handed it to him. Told him she wanted a divorce. Just like that. How had he not seen that side of her before? They'd married too young, still in the giddy stage of love and lust when they'd eloped without a word to anyone. And in the three years they were together, he'd seen her angry, hurt, pouty, even spiteful at times, but to kick a man when he was already down?
Clearly he'd underestimated Dana's need to have a wealthy, successful husband. She'd given up on him before the dust had even settled. Her lack of confidence in his ability to train more winning horses, making the big bucks she'd never had trouble spending, had taken a chunk of his heart. That last race, that one missed call, couldn't have been the only straw. But he'd had no idea it would be the last.
As for their divorce settlement, he figured giving her the big house and fancy sports car he'd paid for with his bonus money was more than enough. Hell, he'd never wanted the big colonial anyway. Or the car for that matter.
Mutt turned toward the driveway. The dog was smart, probably half border collie, and at least five years old. Poor guy was on the homely side, with one brown eye and the other a spooky gold. It had taken two baths before Trent was able to tell Mutt's chest was gray.
When he let out a long, low growl, Trent shaded his eyes and peered toward the road. He didn't get many visitors, and certainly none driving black luxury sedans.
"It's okay, boy." Trent bent to stroke the dog's side, but kept his gaze on the car as it turned down the long driveway. He glanced at Violet. "You expecting anyone?"
"What do you think?" she muttered, her frown aimed at the slowly approaching vehicle.
Right, silly question. "Sit," he told Mutt, and the dog promptly obeyed. "Stay." As the car neared the barn, Trent tugged down the rim of his hat to block the afternoon sun and started walking.
The tinted windows wouldn't let him see the driver but he noticed the Colorado plates. Whoever it was had to be lost. Not many people came out this far. After idling for a bit, the engine was cut. Trent stood near the hood on the passenger side, dusting off the front of his jeans while he waited for the driver's door to open.
A few seconds later a woman stepped out. The breeze whipped long strands of honey-blond hair across her face, preventing Trent from getting a good look at her. With a delicate hand she swept the hair out of her eyes.
She blinked at him, then smiled. "Hello."
"Afternoon," he said, touching the brim of his hat. She was pretty. Real pretty. High cheekbones. Full mouth. "Can I help you?"
"I hope so." She glanced at the small brick house. "I think this is the Eager Beaver ranch? The sign on the post is really faded."
"Yeah, um " Trying not to grimace, he rubbed the back of his neck. Only the word Beaver was left on the wooden sign. He'd kinda thought it was funny. Until now. "I've been meaning to get around to that."
"Oh?" Her brows rose. She blinked again, looking confused as she scanned the rundown barn, sheds and chicken coop. When she lifted a hand and smiled, he saw Violet leaning forward. "I'm sorry," the woman said. "Please excuse my bad manners. I'm Shelby." She came around the hood, one hand extended, the other busy trying to keep from being blinded by the breeze tangling her hair. "Shelby Foster."
"Trent" His fingers grazed hers. He yanked his hand back just in time. Grease and dirt streaked his palm. "Sorry, I've been working on the tractor."
She smelled good, sweet. Not perfumy, but more like the first clean whiff of spring. And her eyes, they were green. Like fresh-cut hay. When she narrowed them he realized he was staring like a jackass.
"Okay," she said. "I'm not sure I understand. If this is the Eager Beaver, you must be" Her worried gaze darted to the equipment shed, then back to the house. "So, are you thecaretaker?"
"If I were, I'd be doing a mighty sorry job of it," he said with a laugh.
"Whew." Shelby grinned. "That's what I was thinking."
"Wait a minute" His indignation only lasted a second. But then he got so distracted by her long slender legs, he forgot what he was about to say. "Who are you again?"
"No. I mean why are you here?"
"Well " With a tentative smile she glanced at the porch that needed repairing. "I'm the new owner."
He pushed up the brim of his hat as if that would improve his hearing. "Come again?"
"Okay, not new. Actually it's been a year. But this is the first time I've come to see the place for myself."
Trent studied her face, the overly bright smile, the uncertainty in her eyes as her gaze swept toward the barn. It didn't seem as if she was joking and somehow he didn't think she was crazy.
"Who put you up to this?" he asked, closely watching her reaction. "Was it Colby?"
Her puzzled frown seemed genuine. "Put me up to what?"
"I know you're not the owner because I am."
Shelby raised her eyebrows. "You can't be."
"Yes, ma'am, I can." He removed his Stetson and shoved a hand through his hair, damp from sweat and starting to curl at his nape. He jammed the hat back on. "This ranch has been in my family for four generations."
"I don't understand," she said, a flicker of panic in her eyes. "How is that possible?"
Trent sure hoped she wasn't a victim of one of those auction scams. Buy property sight-unseen for cheap, then find out the paperwork is fake. The car, the clothes screamed success. She didn't look like someone who'd be that foolish. "There are a whole bunch of ranches around Blackfoot Falls. Maybe you got confused?"
"Any of them named the Eager Beaver?"
At her insulting tone of voice, any sympathy he'd felt for her dimmed. He liked the name, dammit. "Let's back up here. What makes you think you own the place?"
"I have the deed."
"The deed it's a legal document"
"I know what a deed is," he said, cutting her off. Hell, did she think he was some hayseed? Which brought to mind "You don't look like a rancher or an outdoor kind of gal." He'd started his inspection with her fine leather boots, probably perfect for a night in the city but not out here. Her designer jeans could go either way, he supposed. But her clingy blue top? And those full pink lips.
He finally met her eyes. An icy chill darkened them and dared him to say another word. Or take another look.
Trent just smiled. She was safe from him. He was done with women, but looking was an entirely different matter.
From his kitchen window, he loved watching the sun dip behind the Rockies. Didn't mean he planned on climbing them.
Lifting her chin, she said, "Now that we've established I'm the owner, who are you?"
"We what?" And here he'd worried she might be the victim of a con. Jesus. She really did think he was a country bumpkin. "You have a deed? I'd like to see it."
Her confidence faltered. Or maybe swiping her tongue across her lips was supposed to distract him. It almost worked. "I don't have it with me," she said, taking a deep breath that made her chest rise. "It's with my things, which will be arriving next week."
"Your things?" He stared at her, and she nodded. "No. No way. You call whoever's hauling your stuff and" From his peripheral vision, he noticed Violet edging closer. He didn't need her sticking her nose in this. "Let's go in the house," he told Shelby in a more reasonable tone. "We can get something cold to drink. Figure this thing out."
She moistened her lips again, her expression cautious as she inspected his stained brown T-shirt, worn jeans and dusty boots.
"I'm not gonna bite," he said when she didn't move.
"Fine." With a toss of her hair, she picked her way through the gravel to the porch steps, having some trouble with those skinny, impractical boot heels.
He followed behind, torn between checking out her shapely rear end and keeping an eye on Violet. It would be just like her to stir up trouble, for sheer sport if nothing else. When he saw the old busybody closing the distance between them, he whistled for Mutt to run interference. At best, Trent had a fifty-fifty shot the dog would listen.
Shelby stopped at the screen door and turned to him.
"Go on inside. It's not locked."
She glanced past him, then entered the house.
He caught the screen and smiled when he saw that Mutt was doing his job. Violet stood near the barn, spewing curses and trying to evade the dog's long eager tongue. She liked the mooch well enough, even slipped him treats, but she couldn't stand him licking her.
"Come on, boy." Trent waited for the dog to bound up the steps and charge inside.
Yanking off his hat, he walked into the living room. Looking terrified, Shelby stood frozen, against the far wall where Mutt had cornered her. Jesus, he hadn't considered.
"Come," Trent commanded, but Mutt ignored him.
Shelby figured if the dog was going to bite her, he'd have already done so. She tucked her purse under her arm, and crouched to pet the big shaggy fur ball that had to be over sixty pounds. She loved dogs but couldn't for the life of her identify his breed.