When you owe a man everything, how do you make amends? Meg Lennox isn't sure, but she better figure it out quick now that both she and Rio Carefoot are back in Wyoming. Hard to say that hiring him on her family's ranch will fix abandoning her first love years ago. Especially when her departure kicked off a chain of events that changed Rio's life…permanently.
But the job is a start. Working together she learns that the best parts of him are still there. How can she not be tempted? So maybe this is their chance to get close enough to try again. Or maybe she's kidding herself.
About the Author
Eventually she graduated to short horror stories and oil paints. She was working as an artist and a part-time librarian when she "discovered" her first romance novel and thought, "Hey, I can write one of these!" So she did.
Carrie is now the author of several books for various Harlequin lines, with many more crowding her imagination, demanding to be written. She has been a RITA and Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice finalist, but finds her greatest reward in becoming friends with her readers, even if it's only for the length of a book.
Carrie lives in the upper peninsula of Michigan, where the long winters still don't give her enough time to significantly reduce her to-be-read mountains of books. When she's not reading or writing (which is rare), Carrie is painting and decorating her own or her friends' houses, watching football, and shoveling snow.
Read an Excerpt
Meg Lennox held out one hand, offering a palmful of sweet feed to the balky gelding showing her his hindquarters. Behind her back she clutched the rope attached to the halter hung off her shoulder. The way the horse had reacted to her previous attempts to catch him, she might as well have been throwing a rattlesnake around his neck.
The chestnut lashed his tail. He wasn't easily fooled.
"Quiet now." She chirruped, shaking her palm like a gambler with hot dice. "Don't you want your dinner?"
Sloop's ears flicked back and forth. His head turned as if he might be persuaded, but the one visible eye rolled with suspicion, showing a white rim.
She stood still, even though the temptation to sidle closer was strong. The horse was almost within touching distance, the closest she'd come to catching him during their half-hour battle of wills.
"Hey, Sloop. Good fella. There's nothing to be afraid of. Don't run away."
Don't run away? The words pinched Meg's conscience. She'd always been good at running away.
She gazed past the fence and the weather-worn barn
to the rolling pastures of Wild River Ranch. It was early October in Treetop, Wyoming, and the rich grassy greens of summer had faded to tan and ochre. The upright stands of high-country aspen marched up the foothills in golden epaulets.
She'd loved the ranch, but not her life here. Ten years ago, at barely eighteen, she'd left behind her home and contentious relationship with her gruff, uncaring father. Forever, she'd thought.
But in all the years she'd searched, she hadn't been able to find the good life she'd expected. When times had gotten really tough, she'd instinctively fled back to Wyoming. To the ranch. Even though it hadn't been home for a long time, even in her heart.
Especially in her heart.
Meg turned her sigh into another crooning overture to Sloop. Some days, her hopes for the ranch—and herself—seemed as unattainable as the stubborn gelding.
She'd returned too late. Both parents were dead, the land neglected. Her prospects were as bleak as the metallic-gray sky.
But I'm home at last, even if it's only half a home. That's something.
She chirruped again. "Sloop. Please let me catch you. It's gonna rain."
The horse didn't mind being out in the rain, but she hadn't hammered and nailed the box stalls into shape for her own amusement. Renny and Caprice were already inside, pulling at the hay nets, their grain long gone. Only Sloop was being stubborn. His owner had warned her that the horse could be hard to catch. Meg had been certain she'd have no trouble. Once upon a time, she'd had a reputation for being good with horses.
Sloop swung around, his nostrils fluttering. The delayed dinnertime was finally getting to him.
She opened her hand. The feed was moist and fragrant in her palm. "There you go," she soothed him. "One more step and you're mine, you ornery old rat-tailed nag."
Ears twitching, the horse extended his nose to inhale the grain. She raised her other hand to his neck, sliding the halter rope across his flaxen mane.
She was just reaching around to catch it into a loose lasso when a truck burst around the bend, frame rattling, gears grinding. The flock of starlings that had been pecking along the fence line rose suddenly. Sloop flung up his head and wheeled away with a snort.
Meg threw the halter on the ground. "Dammit!"
She strode to the fence, calling a surly "What do you want?" at the driver of the pickup truck.
The door opened. A man stepped out. "Is that any way to greet an old friend?"
Meg stopped with one leg slung over the top railing. Everything inside her had seized into one tight, hard lump. Her shock felt an awful lot like pain.
The voice was deeper, rougher. But she recognized it, even if the face and physique were a stranger's.
Her first love. The boy whose life she'd carelessly ruined on the night she ran away.
The man she'd most dreaded facing up to, even ahead of her dad.
Meg dropped back down into the dirt, keeping the fence between them. As if Rio had any chance of getting close to her. She'd wrapped barbed wire around her heart.
"Rio," she said flatly. "You're not supposed to be in Treetop."
"Neither are you."
"I've been back since July."
"Three days for me."
Meg grabbed the fence rail to steady herself. She didn't want Rio to know how badly she was thrown. "What brings you here?"
He glanced away. "My mother's still around."
She understood the underlying implication. "Around" meant living in as a housekeeper for William Walker Stone on his multimillion-dollar spread east of town. Any Treetopper asked would have said that Rio returning to the Stone ranch was about as likely as Meg coming back to her father's place.
Well, look at them now. There must be some fine skating in hell.
"I heard that," she said. He was glowering. Still holding a grudge? "But I meant here. Wild River."
"You wrote an ad. Help Wanted."
The classified ad for a stablehand had been running in the Treetop Weekly for the past month. She'd had two applicants, a kid who could only work after school, and the town drunk who had a history of holding odd jobs only long enough to fund his next bender. She'd taken the kid's number.
Rio rested his hands on his hips, face turned to follow Sloop, who was prancing at the far end of the pasture. Rio wore jeans and a chambray shirt beneath a new-looking leather jacket lined in fleece. The black hair she'd once braided down his back barely reached his collar. He'd filled out some during the past decade, but the weight was all broad shoulders and lean, hard muscle. He'd be twenty-nine now. One year older than herself. Only one, yet even when they were kids he'd been the wiser and nobler one. He'd already known that love could mean sacrifice.
She still hadn't looked into his eyes. Her gaze was fixed somewhere near his left shoulder.
Rio's Adam's apple bobbed. "Room and board, the ad said, plus a small salary."
"You're applying for the job?"
"What—" She bit the inside of her lip. "My dad passed away. It's just me here now."
"So I heard."
"Right. Even though I swore I'd never return." With all the fervor of a hot-blooded teenager who had no idea of how rough life could really get.
Rio's eyes narrowed. "Why did you?"
"I had nowhere else to go," she said before she could stop herself. Rio didn't have to know that she'd retreated here, a failure. If he realized how barren her life had become, he might get the idea that she was looking for more than help with the horses.
He nodded perfunctorily. "I know what that's like."
Meg could sympathize. While her dad had been a hard, emotionless man with no idea how to raise a daughter, Rio's father had never even acknowledged him. Of course he'd understand what it felt like to be homeless. Her estrangement had been her own choice.
She cleared her throat, hoping to keep the shaki-ness out of her voice. "You've been in the army all this time."
"Yeah. Until five weeks ago."
He'd been deployed to heavy action in Afghanistan several times, she'd heard around town. There were old acquaintances eager to fill her in. Stop-lossed the last time, they'd said, called back to action just when he'd thought he was out for good. His mother had been devastated.
Meg's eyes squeezed shut. My fault.
She certainly owed him a job, at the least. Why he'd want work as a stable hand was a mystery she'd have to consider later. Right now, the prospect of having Rio live on the ranch with her was almost incomprehensible. Only in a small, hidden place deep inside had she ever considered seeing him again. Making it up to him.
She wasn't ready for any of that.
"I don't think it's going to work out," she said. The part-time kid would have to do.
Rio didn't question her. He moved along the fence. Sloop had stopped showing off and was watching them with his head hung low, his ribs bellowing. The bucket of grain she'd been using to lure him was parked nearby.
"How many horses?" Rio asked.
"Just three." Her training and boarding business wasn't off to a flying start. "But I've got two more coming to board for the winter—" maybe "—and I thought I'd pick up a few green prospects at the fall auction in Laramie. Work with them through the winter, sell for a profit in the spring."
Rio shed his jacket. "Make you a bet."
"What?" Once she'd have taken up any challenge, but she'd lived in Vegas the past six years. Wagering was a losing game.
"If I can get that horse into the barn within ten minutes, you'll hire me on a trial basis." He didn't wait for her assent, just climbed the fence and picked up the bucket and the halter. He coiled the rope neatly, watching her out of the corner of his eye. Much like the stubborn chestnut, except his whites barely showed.
Rio had dark eyes, a deep midnight blue that was nearly black. Her reflection in them used to make her feel beautiful, though the girl she'd seen in the mirror had been anything but.
Meg looked at her grimy hands. She wiped them on her equally grimy sweatshirt. "His name's Sloop."
Rio didn't play coy. He walked directly to the gelding, cutting a swath through the fawn-colored field. She heard him murmuring—a soft, velvety sound that brought back memories of teenage trysts in the tight, enclosed space of his pickup truck. Lying together in the cool grass by the river. Their bodies tangled and wet in the hot golden light of the haymow.
She closed her eyes. They'd been sixteen and seventeen. Too young to know that they were playing with fire.
"Sloop," Rio said softly, making her look again. He might as well have said sweet, the way he used to when he kissed her.
The horse's ears were on a swivel, flicking back and forth. He'd thrown up his head. His flanks quivered as Rio approached. But he didn't move.
Rio held out the bucket. Sloop lunged for it. The halter went on so fast the feat seemed almost a sleight of hand.
"That was no fair," Meg called. "I wore him down for you."
Rio's sandpaper chuckle drifted across the pasture. "You ought to know, Meggie Jo. All's fair in love and war."
She flinched. She hadn't been called Meggie Jo in a very long time. Only her mom and Rio had been allowed to use the nickname, though her father had often said Margaret Jolene Lennox in his most forbidding tone, when he'd been calling her to his study for another dressing down.
Rio rubbed a hand along the horse's neck, giving Sloop a moment with the grain before he took the bucket. Meg got her emotions in check and went to push the corral gate open wider, then the Dutch door to the box stall, even though both were already ajar.
Rio, living on her ranch. That couldn't possibly work.
But why not? First she could make it clear that she wasn't looking for any sort of romantic reunion, and then she could make amends. If that even mattered anymore, so many years after she'd made a wreck of both their lives.
Rio led Sloop into the stall. The horse was docile now that he'd been caught, nickering hello to his sta-blemates, then nudging his nose at Meg to prod her into fetching his feed.
She ran her hand along the gelding's flank, moving slowly only because Rio stood on the horse's other side and suddenly the stall seemed smaller than before.
He looked at her over the chestnut's withers. "Flashy horse. Registered?"
"AQHA." American Quarter Horse Association. "Bonny Bar's Windrunner, which somehow got translated into the stable name Sloop. He belongs to a woman from town. She's a beginner, but she hopes to show him next summer. I'm going to work with them till then."
"Look at me, Meg."
Her throat ached. "I can't."
"I'm only me."
"It's been ten years and then some."
"We've both changed. But I still know you. You know me, too."
She met his eyes. A searing heat sliced through her, the arc of a flaming arrow. She pictured Rio, bare chested, bronzed and beautiful as he pulled back the bowstring.
She forced out the words. "That's why it won't work."
"Or why it will."
She was afraid of that, too.
"Why do you want this job? It's nothing. Not challenging or rewarding. Hardly any pay. And isolated."
"Exactly what I'm looking for. See, it's the room and board that's valuable to me. I can do the work easily and still have time for… other things."
The horse shifted between them, curving his neck around to nuzzle at Meg.
"That's personal," Rio said.
She eyed him.
"Nothing sinister," he said. "Just a project I'm working on."
"All right, if that's the way you want it." She ducked beneath Sloop's neck and took the bucket from Rio. His fingers brushed against hers, but she jerked away, trying to make it look as though she'd only been moving toward the stall door.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Pretty ordinary story. Nothing to recommend it.
We have angel max and nudge. We are about to have an iggy and have no fang or gazzy
In Treetop, Wyoming, Meg Lennox takes over running the family ranch with the death of her father. Her former lover who once took a fall for her when she ran away, Rio Carefoot arrives in answer to an ad she put in the Treetop Weekly offering a job at Wild River. Although Meg has doubts, she knows she owes him so hires the veteran. Rio proves to be a super employee. However, their attraction to one another remains as strong as it was years ago. Meg wants a second chance, but needs to forgive herself for the errors she made while Rio also wants a second chance but distrusts the woman who still owns his heart. This is a warm second chance at love ranch romance starring two likable endearing protagonists. Each needs to move on if they are to have a future together; but to do so he must forgive her transgression so that she can forgive herself. Fans of simple sweet stories will enjoy the rancher and her hand as the Cowboy and the Cowgirl come home to each other. Harriet Klausner