1 broken down mare
2 baby lambs
3 lost teens
And a busted up bronc rider with more balls than brains...
They all add up to trouble in Casie Carmichael’s book. She’s come back to Hope Springs, South Dakota, with only one thing in mind—selling the family’s tumble-down ranch and returning to Sioux Falls and her very practical fiancé. But leaving isn’t as easy as she imagined, not when every bedraggled stray in the territory has a homing beam straight to her barn.
Suddenly, angry parents, hairless goats and a former flame’s new heat aren’t Casie’s most pressing problems. Her own mixed-up heart is at the top of the list, and as she throws herself into making a safe haven for her motley crew, she realizes home is a lot closer than she thought.
Praise for Lois Greiman
“Greiman’s writing is warm, witty and gently wise.”
--Betina Krahn, New York Times bestselling author
“Lois Greiman is a natural storyteller.”
About the Author
Lois Greiman was born on a cattle ranch in central North Dakota, where she learned to ride with the best of them. After graduating from high school, she moved to Minnesota to train and show Arabian horses. She sold her first novel in 1992 and has published more than forty titles since then. A two-time RITA finalist, she has won such prestigious honors as RT Book Reviews Storyteller Of The Year, MFW's Rising Star, and RT's Love and Laughter.
With more than two million books printed worldwide, Ms. Greiman currently lives in Minnesota, where she is actively involved in horse training and animal rescue. You can learn more about Lois and her books at www.loisgreiman.com.
Read an Excerpt
"Hey, Case, you looking to buy another hairless goat?" Doc Miller was bent and arthritic and as wizened as an old apple, but he was still the best castrator in three counties, and not many octogenarians can say that.
"Tempting," Cassandra said and gave him a cheeky half grin that clashed irritably with her taut nerves and jumpy stomach. The conflicting aromas of horse manure and hot dogs were making her digestive juices curdle like old milk, though those scents had long been the mainstay of Hope Springs Livestock Auctions. "But I don't think any girl deserves more than one bald Nubian."
Doc chuckled. "Your daddy musta bust a gut when you brought that old buck home to the Lazy," he said, and accepting a basket meal from Benny Hudson, a gaffer ten years his senior, half turned toward his seated cronies. "Clay Carmichael was the hardest-working SOB I ever seen, but he didn't like nothing that couldn't pull its own weight. His missus, though ..." He shook his head and plucked a fry from the basket with knobby fingers. "She was like our Casie here. Had a soft spot for anything what breathed. That Kat, she could dance all night, waitress all day, and still be up feeding lambs before dawn. Some folks thought Clay didn't ..." His words puttered to a halt. He shifted uncomfortably on the metal folding chair and twisted back toward Casie as if he'd forgotten her presence. "Sorry, Case, I didn't mean to stir up hard memories."
"No." She tried a full-fledged smile this time. It felt funny on her face. Out of place and strangely gritty below the frayed visor of the Marlboro cap she'd found in the back of Clayton's closet. "No problem. Don't worry about it."
"So you're doing okay?" It felt as if the whole world were looking at her now. Waiting for her to make a decision, to do something. She wanted rather desperately to pull the cap lower, to let it swallow her whole. Instead, she cranked her smile into a taut grimace.
"Sure. I'm fine." Casie May Carmichael was always fine. Despite familial deaths and absentee fiancés, despite trampled dreams, exhausting hours, and the looming ferocity of unmade decisions. "Listen," she said and backed away a little, cheek muscles beginning to twitch. "I better get in there. They're just about done selling horses. Nice to see you, Doc."
"You too," he said, eyes intense below a forehead wrinkled like a basset hound's. "You take care of yourself, you hear?"
"Will do," she said and, barely avoiding a ponytailed three-year-old dragging a show bridle, escaped into the auction room. The irony of her chosen sanctuary didn't elude her; she'd been avoiding the place for months. Just being near the inner sanctum tended to bring home unnecessary memories ... and goats with alopecia.
"Three hundred dollars, three hundred dollars, three hundred dollars." Skip Jansen's singsong litany echoed from the overhead deck behind the sales ring.
Inside, opposite the wooden bleachers worn smooth by a thousand overalled onlookers, the ugliest horse on the planet was being dragged about by a boy in a threadbare baseball cap. The mare was gray and bony, with a head like a ten-gallon jug and feet large enough to support a pachyderm. She had calcified splints below both knees and windpuffs above urine-yellow fetlocks. Two yards from where she trudged through the sawdust, a pudgy little ringman stormed the enclosure like a rotund crusader searching for infidels ... or bidders. Both seemed in short supply, prompting a lower gambit from the auctioneer.
"Two hundred then! Do I hear two hundred, two-hundred-two-hundred-two hundred." Skip's voice echoed in the dank chill, but except for a few snickering comments among friends, his audience remained mute. Nevertheless, he rattled on like an overwrought jackhammer until finally yammering to a halt. "Come on, folks ..." he wheedled, slowing the pace and ribbing the crowd with manipulative camaraderie. "Quit sittin' on your hands, or doing whatever else you're doing with 'em, and make us a bid. Gilbert's boy here needs a new pair of Lucky Brands."
The crowd chuckled. Skip grinned, folksy as a shock of corn as he leaned toward the ring from his overhead perch. "This your horse, son?"
The kid bumped a nod.
"What can you tell us 'bout her?" It was a ploy as old as chewing tobacco: get the owner to warm the buyers' nostalgic bones with homespun tales of equine bonding, long hours on sunlit trails, and years of careful nurturing, but the boy tightened his lips and remained silent.
As for the horse, she stopped short. Spreading her hind legs, she spattered a half gallon of pungent urine onto the sparse wood shavings beneath her ill-kept hooves.
And the auctioneer punted.
"Well, looks like she's a mare," he said, tickling the crowd. "So she can produce for y'. And she's got that perty dappled coloring."
Cassandra shifted her gaze from the boy to the horse. "Pretty dappled coloring" was a euphemism for tuffs of hair that hadn't yet shaken loose in the dubious spring thaw and probably never would.
"Got good height, too," Skip rambled. "Must be fifteen one if she's an inch. Can you ride her, son?" The boy jerked an additional nod.
"Well, there you go. She's kid-broke and saddle-ready." He was gearing up again, his singsong voice taking on that lethal velvet edge. "A bomb-proof gray that's roped some steers and rode some range. Who'll give me two hundred dollars? Two hundred, two hundred, two hundred."
"Ho!" shouted the ringman and gazed toward the upper bleachers like a raptor spotting prey.
"Two fifty now. Two fifty," the auctioneer chanted.
Relief slipped stealthily into Casie's bones. It was hardly her job to save every gimpy beast between Montana and Minnesota, but she was glad someone had made a bid. Someone was willing to give the old girl a chance. Turning, she scanned the seats behind her. The crowd was sparse at eight forty on a blustery Monday night, the bidder obvious.
He was a heavyset man with a kind face and gigantic ears. A Good Samaritan who ...
"Damn," said a cowboy who slouched against the metal rail beside Casie. "I'd be embarrassed to send that nag 'cross town much less cross the border." Shaking his head, he spat tobacco into a dented Mountain Dew can. He seemed to be speaking to no one in particular.
"What's that?" Casie asked. She was civility personified. Cassandra Carmichael was always civil.
The cowboy shook his head and wiped his mustache with the back of his right hand. "Toby should have more pride than to ship her out. But I guess he don't have much choice since they closed them U.S. plants."
Casie glanced at the mare again, stomach twisting with something akin to premonition. "Toby?"
"Toby Leach." The cowboy jerked a nod toward the bleachers. "... Buys 'em for kill and ships 'em north."
"Oh." Cassandra tightened her fist around her modest engagement ring and glanced toward the Good Samaritan gone bad. He was laughing, as was the man in the battered Stetson who sat beside him. Laughing as though they didn't care if the horse was hauled from Hope Springs straight to hell.
But that wasn't her concern. She remembered that somewhat belatedly, then turned resolutely away, ready to flee, but the mare caught her attention again. The hair had been rubbed off the bridge of her bowed nose by a ragged halter as old as herself. Her dark skin looked rubbery beneath the frayed pink nylon.
"Do I have two fifty?"
So the old nag would be hauled up to Canada. Better that than a slow death of starvation and disease. Better that than ...
But at that precise moment Casie's eyes locked on the gray's. As deep as forever, they reflected a hundred tattered memories. Memories of tears and laughter and half-whispered secrets. Of years of service willingly given. Of loyalty and trust and bone-wearing disappointment. She flicked her ears forward in one final hopeless query.
"Two fifty." The words escaped Cassandra's lips unchecked.
The ringman twisted toward her in surprise; then, "Ho!" he yelled, jerking his hand in her direction.
Skip Jansen grinned, showing a misshapen, gold- capped molar. "Two fifty! I've got two fifty. Do I hear three?"
"I got three cents," someone yelled and the crowd laughed.
"That's three hundred dollars, Emil," chided the auctioneer, then picked up the pace again, slurring his words. "Two seventy-five then. Two seventy-five."
The chubby ringman glanced past her. "Ho!"
Casie tightened her jaw. So Toby what's-his-face had bid again, she thought, and fought back a half dozen long-lamented weaknesses. Some of them concerned goats with unsatisfactory follicles. On more than one occasion, poultry had been involved.
"Three hundred now! Three hundred."
The mare shifted her gaze toward Cassandra once more, one last beseeching entreaty. And for an endless second the world seemed to stand still, to pause, to wait in breathless anticipation as faded nostalgia streamed through Casie's mind.
"Okay," she said and nodded, more to her own checkered past than to the ringman.
And that was that. Not another word from Toby, not another chance to back out. Not a prayer of acting like the practical, forward-looking woman she had vowed to become.
Instead, she slunk through the sparse crowd toward the back stalls.
Oh, she knew she should stay a while, wait for her tack to sell, collect her check. But she had no wish to withstand the ribbing she would take, no matter how well meaning; she'd come, after all, to make a little money, to clear a path for her escape from South Dakota once and for all. To allow her to bolt into her new life like a thoroughbred at the starting gate. Yet here she was buying a broken-down old plug that would delay her exit from the Lazy for at least another few weeks.
By the time she found her purchase, the mare was alone, standing with one hip cocked and bottom lip drooping, no halter, no hope.
After scanning the dirt floor, Casie found an abandoned twine string. Slipping it around the mare's neck, she glanced down the empty aisle, then gave the twine a tug. The gray remained resolutely immobile.
"Come on, mare." Casie pulled again. The animal stretched her neck forward a bit but didn't move her oversized feet. "Listen ..." She peered to her left, fearing she'd be found by some well-meaning condolence giver. But the aisle was filled with nothing more than hazy, misshapen shadows. She turned back to the gray. "I'm broke, I'm exhausted, and recent circumstances strongly suggest that I'm certifiably insane, so if you don't want to end up in Fido's food dish you'll move your sorry hind end," she whispered, and the mare, old, but not stupid, followed her slowly from the stall.
The parking lot through which they trudged was pockmarked and dim. Casie tried to hurry the old mare along, but her newly acquired steed was not the sort to be rushed. Despite the snotty precipitation that spat at them from a hard, northwesterly angle, the mare shuffled along as if marching to a silent dirge. Half-frozen raindrops glimmered in the dull overhead lights and struck like needles, making it seem an eternity before they arrived at the trailer. An old stock type, it had long ago lost all distinguishable color. The door groaned like a crypt as it swung open. Inside, it smelled of dust and despair. Horse and human wrinkled their noses in unified distaste just as someone emerged from the auction house behind them.
Casie glanced at the looming building and the approaching newcomer. God save her from the well-meaning denizens of her birthplace, she thought, and stepping into the darkness of the trailer, gave the mare a tug.
There was nothing with which to tie her. Nothing to feed her, no way to entice her, but the gray followed nevertheless, stepping stiffly inside and heaving her bony hindquarters up with an audible grunt. Turning the animal loose, Cassandra hurried out without glancing at the oncoming pedestrian. Trying to pretend she was in no hurry, she strolled around the trailer, opened the driver's door, and slid behind the steering wheel. A pile of unopened mail, old wrenches, and empty cans crowded her. She crowded back, glanced to her right, and froze.
A shadowy figure sat in the passenger seat, hunched, dark, and silently waiting for her arrival.CHAPTER 2
Casie clawed for the door handle, but her skittering fingers couldn't work the latch. She twisted her neck to the right, ready to dodge out of her assailant's reach. But her intruder, it seemed, had his shoulder pressed against the passenger window and was staring at her in open-mouthed surprise.
She paused, managing to still her extremities, though her heart clattered with panic as she tried to make sense of the situation. Her right hand, she discovered, was grasping her keys like another might a stiletto.
"So ..." The stranger's voice was low and edged with something that might have been animosity. On the other hand, it could very well have been amusement. "How's it going?"
She narrowed her eyes. Then, as exhausted neurons began to fire with steadier regularity, she tilted her head and tried to see past the brim of the intruder's cowboy hat. A slanted, too-familiar grin peeked out at her.
"Hey, Case," he said and pushed up his Stetson to reveal dark coffee eyes.
Relief and irritation sluiced through her in equal measures. "Holy Hannah!" She was barely able to manage that much as she lifted her pseudoweapon toward her stuttering heart. "You scared the life out of me."
Richard Colton Dickenson removed his hat, placed it on the left knee of his frayed jeans, and grinned. "Holy Hannah? Don't tell me you still haven't learned to cuss, Case."
"I can cuss just ..." She shook her head, finding the no-nonsense course she had vowed to follow. "I thought you were in Abilene or Las Vegas or hell ... or something."
He raised his brows. "Hell?"
"That last one was just a guess," she said and reminded herself that she'd long ago outgrown her need to spar with battered bronc riders who had more balls than brains. "What are you doing here?"
He fiddled with the brim of his hat but didn't shift his gaze from hers. "Broke my arm in a bucking chute in Cheyenne," he said and lifted his casted right from beneath his canvas jacket as proof. "Thought I'd come home to heal."
Casie glanced down. His thumb looked swollen, his fingers painful, but she knew better than to care. "I mean, what are you doing in my truck?" she said.
He grinned a little, a sharp reminder of a hundred times he'd teased her to distraction. It wasn't easy getting Cassandra Carmichael riled. But Dickenson had a knack for it. In a high school class of sixty-four students, he was the only one who had mastered that particular feat. "Did I scare you?"
She would have liked to deny it, but she lied even worse than she swore. "You were lurking in my truck," she reminded him. "Of course you scared me."
"I don't lurk," he said. "Hunker maybe. Hang out." He chuckled. The sound was lower than she remembered. His eyes looked tired, his left cheek bruised, dark with a magenta hue in the overhead lights. "Maybe I loitered once in Reno." He dropped his head against the cushion behind him and sighed. "I didn't mean to scare you." His tone sounded fatigued and sincere, but she wasn't foolish enough to believe in his earnestness. That mistake tended to invite frogs down her back and sheep droppings in her Jell-O.
"Then maybe you shouldn't have hidden in my truck like a ..." she began, then stopped abruptly as a new realization filtered in. Narrowing her eyes, she glanced at his off-kilter grin, his hat, his clay-colored canvas jacket. "That was you."
He raised Indian-dark brows over eyes that perpetually looked amused. "What's that?"
"That was you in there with Toby what's-his-face."
"Leach." He nodded. "Yeah. I'm doing a little work for him."
"For a killer buyer?"
He shook his head once. "Now don't go getting on your high horse, Case. The man's not Satan. He's just trying to make a living like everybody else."
"Sure." She tried to keep the emotion out of her tone. Unbridled emotion, Bradley said, caused more foolish decisions than ignorance and alcohol combined. Her fiancé also thought her parents had been a testimony to that truth. They'd been like fire and oil, her father stubborn and stoic, her mom hot-tempered, vivacious, and pretty. Casie was nothing like her mother. But her voice warbled a little when she spoke. "By slaughtering horses."
"It's better than letting 'em starve to death," Dickenson said, seeming leery of her tone. "And it's not like he's buying Secretariat. Dammit, I mean ..." He jerked a thumb toward the auction barn. "What were you thinking in there?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Finding Home"
Copyright © 2012 Lois Greiman.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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