Ever since striking it big on a gemstone claim in the Wyoming mountains, Sam Babcock has known luck is on his side—except when it comes to the people he loves. When he forms a surprising connection with an alluring newcomer staying at his friend Wyatt’s ranch, Sam starts to question everything he thought he knew....
Needing time and space to heal, former daredevil Danny Traveler is camping out in a valley beyond Mustang Ridge Dude Ranch. She wants to take care of herself for once—and a sexy cowboy might be just the distraction she needs. But when Danny discovers there’s much more to Sam than meets the eye, she begins to long for more than a casual fling. Can she convince the confirmed bachelor that it’s worth changing his ways for a chance at long-term happiness?
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Randye Kaye is an accomplished voice talent, actress, singer, broadcaster, and author. She received a Listen-Up Award nomination and starred reviews for Ben Behind His Voices, which she also wrote, bringing together the various facets of her career.
Read an Excerpt
PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF JESSE HAYWORTH
Also by Jesse Hayworth
We all know what they say—things change; people change; live in the moment because you never know what tomorrow might bring. But even if we keep up with our fortune-cookie fortunes and do our best with our deep breathing, we’re never quite ready for that moment where life goes BOOM and everything takes a left-hand turn, are we? I sure wasn’t five or so years ago when I woke up one morning (or so it seemed at the time) to find myself with no partner, a house I couldn’t afford, and no idea what came next.
Well, what came next was more life—those cookies tell us that life is what happens while we’re making plans, right? Tomorrow comes whether we’re ready for it or not. For me, a bunch of doors closed but a whole lot of windows opened, and suddenly that too-big house was humming with activity as my mom (who rocks) and a dear friend (shout out, Liana!) helped me paint and pack and get the heck out of Dodge.
Maybe I didn’t go as far as Danny Traveler does—all the way to Mustang Ridge, Wyoming—and maybe the healing I needed to do was very different from hers. But, like her, I made a new home someplace I never expected to be. And, like her, one day I met a big, broad-shouldered man from out West—one who knows how to ride and shoot and fend for himself, and who I absolutely wouldn’t have been ready for had I met him any sooner in my journey.
So welcome back to Mustang Ridge, dear Reader-Friend. Please join me in a story that is near and dear to my heart, about left-hand turns, moments that go BOOM, and how a former adrenaline junkie–turned–nervous Nellie puts the pieces back together with the help of a slow-talking cowboy who is far more than he seems. And if you’re in the process of putting a few pieces back together yourself, please know that you’re not alone.
Danny Traveler didn’t put much stock in luck or fortune-cookie sayings, but as the shuttle bus rolled beneath an archway that spelled out WELCOME TO MUSTANG RIDGE in horseshoes, she was starting to think that the whole “if you’re going through hell, keep on going” thing might have some merit. The last year or so had sucked eggs, but now, finally, she thought she might be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
Or, rather, the rainbow at the end of the tunnel. Because as the luxury bus glided between two pale, grassy fields—horses on one side, cattle on the other—it was headed straight for a perfect rainbow that arched over the pretty valley at the end of the driveway.
“Would you look at that?” Danny’s seatmate had her face plastered to the window. “It’s a sign!”
Danny made a polite murmur of agreement. Kiki-from-Cambridge had been talking in exclamation points for the entire three-hour ride, to the point that the heavily made-up—and generously endowed—brunette had seemed to be in danger of popping the snaps of her fringed Western shirt as she babbled on about everything from the gum-smacking guy who had sat next to her on the plane to the fact that she hadn’t been on a horse since she got bucked off a lead-line pony at the age of six. That made Danny wonder why she had decided on a dude ranch for her summer vacation, but she kept the question to herself and gave Kiki props for facing her fears.
Too bad she was doing it in close proximity at top volume.
Most of the others on the bus—twenty-some dudes and dudettes of various ages—had tuned Kiki out by the thirty-minute mark, leaving Danny wishing she had taken the singleton seat in the far back.
“Can you believe we’re finally here?” Kiki gave a happy sigh. “It feels like I’ve been waiting for this forever. What color horse do you hope you get? I want a yellow one! Pimento, they call it.”
Danny couldn’t help herself. “I think it’s palomino.”
“No, I’m pretty sure it’s pimento. And did you see the cowboys on the Web site?” Kiki made a yum-yum noise. “I’d like to take a ride on one of them!”
Trying not to picture a horse made of pimento loaf, a deli product called palomino loaf, or Kiki riding anything two-legged, Danny pointed out the window. “Oh, look! There’s the ranch! Isn’t it pretty?” Kiki made a happy noise and flattened her nose against the glass once more. The move made Danny wonder what she looked like from the other side, then give herself a mental kick for being bitchy. It wasn’t the other woman’s fault that she was winding down just when everyone else on the bus was gearing up. Hoping her internal eye rolls hadn’t been obvious, Danny asked, “Do you see any of those cowboys?”
“Not yet.” Kiki stared raptly as the valley unfolded in front of them. “But I see more horses, and you’re right. It’s sooo beautiful down there!”
And, yeah, if Danny hadn’t given up the window seat the second time Kiki leaned across her to ooh and aah before they even left the airport loop road, she would have been making a face print of her own on the glass. Because if the rapidly fading rainbow was a sign, Mustang Ridge itself was a vision.
The ranch was a mix of old and new, from the log-style main house and matching guest cabins scattered near an almost perfectly circular lake to the big steel-span barn that bumped up against an older wooden structure. Fence lines spidered out from the barns, enclosing horses, cattle, and riding areas, and bordering a dirt track that led through a perimeter fence and up a shallow slope to a ridge. Beyond that somewhere was Blessing Valley. Her valley.
Danny let out a soft sigh. It looked peaceful. Wonderful. And like it was exactly what the doctors had ordered.
“Wow is right!” Kiki said, which might or might not mean that Danny had said the word aloud. “Aren’t those just the cutest cabins you’ve ever seen?”
The noise level increased as the other passengers roused from their travel fugue with exclamations of “There’s the pavilion where they have dancing!” and “Do you think we can fish in the lake?” along with lots of “Ohh, look at the horses!”
The rising chatter bounced around Danny as the young cowboy in the driver’s seat pulled the shuttle around in front of the barn and killed the engine. Getting on the intercom to project over the chatter of two dozen vacationers readying to make a break for it, he said, “Welcome to Mustang Ridge, folks! I’d like to invite you to hop on down, fill your lungs with some fresh Wyoming air, and connect with Krista, Rose, or Gran—they’re the ones wearing the green polo shirts and carrying clipboards. They’ll get you set up with your cabins and tell you all the cool stuff that comes next.” He gave a dramatic pause, then deepened his voice. “So . . . are you ready to take your first step onto the soil that’s been walked by cowboys of the Skye family for more than ten generations?”
As the group gave a ragged chorus of agreement, made up of lots of “Yeah” and “Woo” exclamations, Kiki scrambled over Danny and leaped into the aisle, where she did a shimmy-shake that set a whole lot of stuff shimmying and shaking, and hollered, “Let’s ride ’em, cowboys!”
The driver’s eyes went deer-in-headlights wide in the rearview mirror, and instead of doing the “I can’t hear you” thing that was probably next in the script, he popped the doors open and called, “Watch your step, folks! And welcome to Rustlers’ Week!”
Danny stayed put while the first wave of guests stampeded off. Then she and the stragglers filed out into a whole lot of sunshine. The minute her hiking boots touched down, she got a quiver of excitement in her belly. You’re here. You made it. Welcome to the next chapter of your life. Which was totally the power of suggestion, thanks to the bus driver’s rah-rah routine, but still . . . Moving away from the bus, she filled her lungs with dry, sweet-smelling air that carried the scents of horses, sunbaked grasslands, and a tangy kitchen-type aroma that made her stomach grumble and suggested that the claim on the ranch’s Web site about offering the best ranch food around wasn’t an empty boast.
“You must be Danielle,” a voice said from behind her.
She turned, doing a double take at the sight of a pretty, perky blonde who wore a green polo and a baby sling, and was entirely familiar yet not. “Krista. Hi! Yes, it’s me. But, please, call me Danny.” She peeked inside the sling and saw an infant’s head topped with blond baby-fine hair and a fat pink bow. “And this must be Abigail Rose.”
Krista’s lips curved. “Abby to her friends, which includes you. Any friend of Jenny’s is a friend of ours.”
“Jenny and I really only worked together for a month or so.” In a faraway rain forest, where Krista’s twin had been filming a reality dating show and Danny had been in charge of the zip-lining, bungee-jumping, and canyoneering dates.
It felt like another lifetime.
“If she says you’re cool, then you’re cool,” Krista said firmly. Then, to the baby, she cooed, “Isn’t that right, Abby-gabby? Your Aunt Jenny knows her stuff. And thanks to her, Danny here is going to hang out with the horses up in Blessing Valley for a while. Won’t that be fun?”
With her throat tightening, Danny managed, “I’m grateful. Really. I don’t know how to tell you what this means to me.”
Krista patted her shoulder. “Don’t stress about it—we’re happy to help. Jenny wanted to be here to greet you, but she took on a filming gig down in Belize for a friend of a friend. She and Nick will be back in a couple of weeks.”
“Seriously, you don’t know me from the next gal. You’re amazing to do this for me.”
“You’re welcome here at Mustang Ridge. And I mean it—we’re happy to help, honest.” Krista sent her a sidelong look. “I get that it feels weird, though. You’re way more used to doing favors than needing them.”
Danny eyed her. “Jenny told you that?”
“Nope, but like recognizes like.” Krista adjusted the sling as the baby shifted, curving into her mother’s body like a small, sleepy shrimp. “Up until a year ago, I had to be in charge of things no matter what. The ranch, the business, life in general . . . I might have asked for help now and then, but always on my terms.”
“And then she came along?” Danny nodded to the baby.
“Well, first her father came along.” Krista’s brilliant blue eyes gained a glint. “Wyatt. We were college sweethearts who crossed paths again at a time when I needed a cowboy, he needed some saddle time, and neither of us was thinking about romance. At least that was what we kept telling ourselves.”
“And you’re getting married soon.” Jenny had passed along that detail while Danny had still been trying to catch up to the idea that her freewheeling, country-hopping photographer friend was married to a veterinarian and living in Wyoming when she used to swear she would never return home for more than a quick visit.
A pleased flush touched Krista’s cheeks. “We’ve got a couple of months still until the wedding. Long enough to feel like I should change everything but not long enough that it’s an option, so we’re going with the plan we’ve got—family and friends under the pavilion as the sun sets behind the mountains.” Her expression brightened. “You’re invited, of course. Please say you’ll come!”
Danny had to stop herself from backpedaling, which was silly. Maybe at one point she had hoped the next wedding she went to would be her own, but it was past time for her to stop flinching over that. “I’d be honored,” she said. “Thanks for inviting me.”
“Brilliant! Don’t worry about dressing up, but if you want to shop, Jenny and I are always up for a girls’ night, or afternoon or whatever. And our friend Shelby—she always manages to make the stuff she finds in town look like it came out of a fashion magazine.”
“That sounds fun.” She couldn’t spend the whole summer alone, after all. Besides, she wanted to thank Jenny in person for e-mailing out of the blue to catch up, and then, when Danny gave her the short version of the past couple of years, responding with: Come to Mustang Ridge. It’s the perfect place to get your head screwed back on straight.
“Sweetie?” a voice called from the other side of the bus. Moments later, a petite white-haired woman came around the front of the shuttle, eyes lighting when she caught sight of Krista. “There you are! I’m going to fix a few folk up with snacks while your mom and Junior show the others to their cabins. Do you need anything?”
“Nope, I’m good for right now, and Miss Abby is conked out.” Krista patted the snoozing bundle within the sling. “Bless her for being a good sleeper, and pretty much the best baby ever—not that I’m biased or anything. But before you go, Gran, I want to introduce you to Danny Traveler.”
The older woman’s face brightened. “Hello, dear! It’s so lovely that you’re here. How was your trip?”
“It was fine.” She had splurged on a direct flight and strapped herself in, chased an Ambien with a screw-top micro-bottle of white wine, and practiced her deep-breathing exercises. It hadn’t been fun, but she had made it through.
Gran’s eyes went sympathetic, as if she had said the rest of it out loud. “I stocked your camp with supplies, but come see me before you and Krista head out there. I have a little basket put together for you.”
“And by little, she means approximately the size and mass of the average blanket chest,” Krista put in.
Danny cleared her throat, suddenly overwhelmed—by the warm welcome, the chaos, all the people around her. To Krista, she said, “Do you need to help show people to their cabins? I don’t want to keep you from your guests.”
“You’re a guest, too.”
“I’m not paying nearly what they are.” Which was yet another reason to be grateful.
“No, but you’re staying far longer, and you’re not going to require as much hands-on time. Though, for the record, you’re welcome to participate in any activities you’d like. We’ve always got a spare horse or three, and there’s something magical about a long ride in the great big wide-open.”
“We’ll see. I’m planning on spending most of my time in the valley. You know, reading, walking, chilling out.” Working her way through the daunting collection of aptitude exams that had been a parting gift from Farah, her physical-therapist-turned-friend.
“Of course. But please consider it an open invitation.” Krista touched her arm—like she wanted to do more but could tell Danny wasn’t a hugger. “Come on. Let me hand Abby off to her nana, and then I’ll show you to your valley.” She laughed. “Now that’s not something I get to say every day! See? I knew I was going to like having you around.” She danced away, humming a happy tune and exchanging a few words with each of the guests she passed, introducing herself and the baby, and welcoming the newcomers to her family’s world.
Danny watched her, thinking, That. That was what she wanted—not all the people and the hustle-bustle of running a dude ranch, but that sense of loving life and doing exactly what she wanted to do. Too bad she didn’t know what that was.
* * *
An hour later, Danny was gunning along behind Krista on a borrowed ATV, anticipation growing as they steered their four-wheelers toward a narrow cut-through between two rock walls. They rode through a gap nestled beside a sluggish river lying low on its banks—Jenny had mentioned that the region was in the grip of a drought, with water at a premium and the fire danger high. Then, when the rocks opened up, Krista slowed and stopped, waving for Danny to come up beside her.
As she did, her mouth fell open and she had to remember to hit the brakes, because otherwise she might’ve rolled right into the lush valley ahead of them. “Holy . . . Wow,” she said reverently. “This is gorgeous!”
She had thought she was getting used to the dramatic beauty of the Wyoming backcountry they’d been bouncing through—all rolling hills and tree-shrouded rivers, with the mountains rising fat and purple in the distance. But this was something else entirely. Although the hills were dry and brown, the river valley was lush and green. Sloping banks ran up to the trees, and matching arms of stone wrapped around the green space, enclosing it in a geological hug that undoubtedly spanned hundreds of acres, yet felt safe and intimate. Especially when she saw a group of horses drift down to the water, almost lost in the distance as they stretched their necks to drink from the river.
“Welcome to Blessing Valley,” Krista said, grinning as several of the horses lifted their heads and pricked their ears toward the ATVs. “And there are your roommates—those are the mustangs of Blessing’s Herd, all forty of them, with Jupiter leading the way.” She pointed to a dark gray horse that stepped in front of the others as if to say, If you want to bother them, you’ll have to go through me to do it.
Danny didn’t want to bother anybody, but her lips curved at the thought that she would be sharing her home with the beautiful creatures. She’d never been particularly horse crazy, but the gray mare had a wise, knowing air about her. “She’s beautiful.”
“It’s thanks to her that we have the herd—Wyatt won a ‘train your mustang from scratch in six weeks’ competition with her last year, and the prize money went to buying an entire herd and setting up a sanctuary in this valley and the adjoining acreage.”
“Why not call it Jupiter’s Herd, then?”
“We thought about it, but we want the sanctuary to outlive a single horse or herd . . . so we named it after a foundling who was adopted by one of the earliest settlers in this area. Blessing. She married an early homesteader here at Mustang Ridge, making her my however-many-great-grandmother.” Krista grinned. “She’s a favorite of mine in the family tree, and the name seemed to fit.”
“Blessing Valley.” Danny drew in a breath of air that felt even cleaner and fresher than it had down by the ranch, though an hour ago she would have said that was impossible. She wasn’t sharing this air, though—it was all hers. A blessing indeed.
“Come on.” Krista restarted her ATV. “The campsite is about a mile in.”
A short drive brought them to where a bend in the river formed a spit of smooth ground. There, a firepit was lined with flat river rocks and surrounded by a cut-log seating area. As they rolled closer, Danny scanned the campsite, looking for the equipment she had sent on ahead.
Instead, her eyes landed on a hotel on wheels.
A big silver and purple RV was parked under the trees, with its awning extended to shade a small table, a couple of chairs, and an outdoor rug. The name RAMBLING ROSE was painted on the side of the RV in glittering script, and the tinted windows gave glimpses of pretty rose-patterned curtains and leather chairs.
And Danny was gaping again.
“I hope it’s okay,” Krista said, but she was grinning, like she could already see that it was far more than her guest had hoped for.
“Okay? Are you serious? I was expecting a pop-up camper and a six-pack tethered in the river. This is . . .” Too much, overwhelming. “Is the RV yours?”
“My parents’. He’s Ed and she’s Rose, and when the snow starts flying up here, they head south and go looking for stuff they haven’t already seen. Thus, the Rambling Rose.”
“They don’t mind my using it?” Please say they don’t mind. Danny had told herself that camping out in the middle of nowhere would be a good way to figure out what came next in life. But the posh bus tucked into the private valley suddenly seemed like her own personal slice of solo heaven.
“That depends. Are you planning on throwing any wild parties?”
“I’m not, but I can’t speak for Jupiter and her buddies.”
Krista gave her a shoulder bump. “I can pretty much guarantee she’ll stay out of your way. She enjoys people well enough—I think we amuse her—but she takes her duties very seriously when it comes to keeping the herd out of trouble.”
“Then we should be okay on the no-parties thing.”
“Excellent. Let me show you around the RV. It’s not big, but there’s a whole lot of features packed into the square footage.”
The whole it’s not big comment didn’t fully sink in until Danny put her foot on the steps going up and found herself facing a dark, narrow opening. And stalled as the oxygen suddenly vacated her lungs.
Oh, crap. Not now. Please not now.
Stomach knotting, she muttered under her breath, “Don’t be a wuss. It’s bigger than the airport shuttle.” Except the shuttle had been all windows and open space, with a wide aisle and lots of room for people and luggage. What little she could see of the RV was packed to the gills, with drawers and cabinets tucked into every available square inch. And it was dark.
“So you probably saw outside that you’ve got solar and wind power.” Krista flipped on the lights, brightening the gloom to unnatural fluorescence. “The keys are in the visor in case you need to move it.” She wiggled into the narrow aisle that ran between the popped-out kitchen and the matching breakfast nook on the other side. “You can fold the table away to make this a sitting area.”
As Krista demonstrated, Danny hovered just inside, keeping one foot hanging out the door.
“Then down this hall—it gets a little narrow here—you’ve got your three-quarter bath. There are a couple of tricks I need to show you, so you’re going to want to crowd on in here with me.” Krista said it like it was no big deal.
Then again, to normal people it wasn’t.
Taking a deep breath, Danny forged down the tunnel, not letting herself see how it stretched out longer and longer, like a horror-movie hallway. Hoping Krista couldn’t smell the fear oozing from her pores, she dug her fingertips into the doorway molding and managed to give a nod that she hoped related Go ahead instead of I’m gonna puke.
She could deal with this. She would deal with it, damn it. The last thing she wanted to do was seem ungrateful when Jenny’s family was offering her the perfect getaway.
Krista gestured, lips moving as she went over a process that only half stuck—something about a cross of toilet paper in the bowl and keeping the gray water to a minimum. All Danny really heard, though, was a Charlie Brown–like wah-wah-wah-whahhh and a whole lot of blood rushing in her ears. Breathe in, breathe out. That was basic. It was mandatory. In. Out. In. Out.
Finished with the bathroom, Krista squeezed back through the narrow opening and forged even deeper. “This is the bedroom. We put the stuff you shipped in here, figuring you’d want to organize it yourself.”
To a normal person, it probably looked like a king mattress flanked by a wardrobe and a drop-down desk, with two big duffels on the floor. To Danny, it was a cluttered dead end with a tiny window that let in the light but wouldn’t let her out no matter how hard she screamed.
For the love of God, don’t scream. Jamming her fingernails into her palms hard enough to draw blood, she sucked a thin trickle of oxygen through her nostrils.
“It’s all pretty self-explanatory.” Krista reversed course and headed back up the tunnel, talking all the way as she pointed out a fire extinguisher and a stack of manuals sealed in a Tupperware box under the sink.
Danny’s feet stayed glued at the bedroom threshold. Breathe in. Breathe out. You’re not stuck. You can leave anytime you want. See? You’re moving now. One foot, then the other. Turn. Walk, don’t run. You don’t want her to know you’re a head case. A weenie. Broken.
One torturous step at a time, she trudged back up the tunnel, sweating like it was a hundred and ten degrees rather than a shady eighty or so. Until, finally, she made it down the steps, through a walled-in opening so narrow that her shoulders brushed against either side, and out into the bright yellow sunshine of the green, green valley, with its bubbling water and open sky.
Where she could breathe again. Sort of.
“Anyway, I think that takes care of the basics,” Krista said, seeming unaware that Danny’s brain had gone all Blue Screen of Death there for a few minutes, leaving her stomach knotted and her lungs struggling for air. “There’s a satellite phone in the glove compartment for emergencies, and you’ve got the ATV for when you’re ready to come back to the ranch for Gran’s cooking, a real shower, and some company. You can explore with it, too, but watch your terrain and your fuel, and leave enough breadcrumbs so you can always find your way home.”
She paused, as if it was Danny’s turn to say something. Which it totally was, but she didn’t know what to say or whether she could get it out even if she knew.
Say something! Don’t be a wuss. Fixing her eyes on the river—watching the water keep moving, never stuck in one place—she swallowed hard and managed, “I don’t know how to thank you. I . . .” Horrifyingly, her eyes threatened to fill and she choked. “I’m sorry.”
Expression shifting to one of utter sympathy—but not pity—Krista touched her hand. “No, I’m sorry. You came here to get away from people, and here I am nattering away at you.”
“It’s not that. You’re lovely. It’s me. I’m just—”
“Seriously. Don’t stress.” She squeezed Danny’s arm. “I glommed onto you the second you stepped off the bus. I’d blame it on hormones or being a new mom stuck in babyland twenty-four-seven, but I’m surrounded by adults on a daily basis.” One corner of her mouth kicked upward. “Confession time: I’m a little jealous of your getaway, and kind of wishing Wyatt, Abby, and I could set up camp farther upstream and hide out until the wedding.” She sighed. “Which we totally can’t do. But it sure sounds nice.”
Okay. Danny could breathe again. She could think. Sort of. As her pulse started to slow, she made herself focus on the conversation, grateful to Krista for smoothing things over and giving her time to pull herself back together. “I guess you could camp out for your honeymoon,” she suggested, her voice only a little wobbly. “Or, I don’t know, a bachelorette party?”
“Ooh!” Krista straightened, eyes lighting. “I like that!” Then she laughed at herself. “And here I am, nattering again while my mom is undoubtedly spoiling the bejeebers out of Abby.” She didn’t sound at all put out by the prospect. “I’m going to go, and leave you to your valley. But if I could make one suggestion?”
Torn between wanting the other woman to stay and wishing she were already gone, Danny said, “What’s that?”
“Don’t wait too long to dig into that basket of Gran’s. You look like you could use a cookie or three.”
The black and green helicopter came over the trees and hovered above the clearing, looking like a giant dragonfly checking out some prehistoric field. Really, though, the rent-a-chopper pilot was probably just making sure his client hadn’t been overly optimistic when he promised a safe landing spot. And, well, said client had admittedly been watching too many monster movies of late.
Sam Babcock grinned up at the flying machine. “What do you think, Yoshi? Should we buy a chopper and have it pimped out to look like Mothra?”
The brown-and-white-splotched paint gelding swiveled his ears back at the sound of his rider’s voice, then forward again as the helicopter eased down, bobbling some in the crosswind.
“Yeah, yeah. You’re right—waste of money, bad for the environment, think of the bunnies, yadda, yadda. Still, it’d almost be worth it to see the look on Axyl’s face, don’t you think?” The crusty old rockhound—a longtime family friend and Sam’s right-hand man when it came to work stuff—was worth his carat weight in blue diamonds, but he didn’t have much of a sense of humor.
Yoshi snorted as the chopper finally settled in for a landing and the rent-a-pilot killed the engine. Moments later, the doors popped open and Axyl emerged, wearing fatigues and his trademark bushy beard, followed by Sam’s engineers, Murphy and Midas. With a stubby blond ponytail, battered sandals, and the sort of cargo-pants-plus-button-down getup that cool kids paid a ton for in Boulder, Murph looked more like an off-season ski bum than a whiz-kid mechanical engineer. In contrast, Midas was taller and bulkier, with cropped hair, dark clothes, and tattooed knuckles. But while Midas might look like a bouncer from the sort of club that wouldn’t let Murph in the door, he was a top-notch geologist and mining engineer.
As they climbed down from the chopper and headed for Sam, Axyl was scowling, and Murph and Midas were arguing, with lots of hand waving and disgusted looks. In other words, business as usual.
Sam guided Yoshi out of the trees. “So, what do you guys think? Heck of a view, right?”
“View, shmew,” Axyl grumbled. “I know you like to buy up open space, and that you wanted to field-test the prototypes out in the backcountry, but why here? It’s in the middle of farking nowhere, and there are too damn many trees. Why not buy something closer to Windfall?”
Flipping open one of the bulging bags strapped behind his saddle, Sam said, “Because of this.”
The wind died suddenly and he could’ve sworn the sun brightened a notch as it hit on the six-sided rod of deep red gemstone he had dug out of the side of a rocky hill less than a half mile from where they were standing.
“No way!” said Murph, his eyes going round.
“Hot damn!” Midas said in a moment of rare agreement with his nemesis.
Axyl just looked at the stone for a minute, then sniffed. “Not bad.”
“What do you mean, not bad?” Sam said. “That’s a hell of a find and you know it!” Okay, maybe not five-figures good, but still. The deep ruby-red crystal pulsed with an inner glow that said jewelry-quality carats, and lots of them. It had been his first find on the new piece of land, confirmation of the quiver he’d gotten in his gut when he first rode up the shallow hill a few weeks ago.
“You didn’t find that in the middle of all these trees,” Axyl said, still looking unconvinced. He hated horses and helicopters, and only barely tolerated four-wheelers. As far as he was concerned, if he couldn’t get to his destination on a Harley, then it wasn’t much of a destination. Unfortunately for him, most of the remaining pockets of decent gemstone in the state—at least the ones that could be gotten at without stripping the land to the bone—were in the back of beyond.
“There’s a gully on the other side of the trees.” Sam pointed. “Past that is as gemmy-looking a hill as I’ve seen in a while. Come on, I’ll show you.” Seeing Axyl hesitate, he prodded, “Aw, come on, old man. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“I could wind up living out here for the rest of the summer in some cobbled-together shack with solar panels on the roof, a cistern on one side, and a composting toilet on the other.”
Midas elbowed Murphy. “Did you get all that?”
“Shut it,” Axyl grumbled. But his eyes stayed locked on the crystals. “Any more like that?”
Sam patted his saddlebag. “I got lucky. Started poking around this morning and hit on a good-size pocket.”
“Lucky is right. Let me guess. You had a feeling about this place.”
“Something like that.” And that was all he was going to say on the matter. All he needed to say.
The grizzled prospector glanced around, studying the trees now rather than scowling at them. “You name it yet?”
“I was thinking of calling it Misty Hill.”
The crow’s-feet around Axyl’s eyes eased up. “After your ma. That’s nice.”
Actually, Sam had decided on the name that morning, when he’d woken up wrapped in his bedroll and found himself surrounded by a dense, low-lying fog despite the drought. But, yeah, maybe there had been something subconscious at work there, too. His ma’s name had been Mary, but everybody had called her Misty—except his father, who had called her “My Mary” or, more often, “your Ma, bless her soul.”
“Misty Hill it is,” Sam said, his voice going thick. Clearing his throat, he added, “What do you think, Murph? You going to have enough sky to work with, or are we going to need to cut some trees?”
“Hm.” Murph, who was the overlord of all things solar-powered at Babcock Gems, studied the clearing, squinted along his outstretched arm to make some thumb-level measurements, and got a look on his face that Sam recognized as meaning, Stand back, folks, I’m doing calculus in my head. After a moment, he nodded. “I can make it work.”
“Good. Get going on plans and a supply list. You know the routine. Take Axyl’s cobbled-together-shack idea, make sure there’s room to sleep, cook, hang out, and sort rocks, and keep it as eco-friendly as you can get it.”
“I want a separate building to house the prototypes,” Midas put in. “We’ll want as many as we can airlift or motor out here. It’s time to do some serious field-testing.”
Murph’s mouth flattened. “Not if by field-testing you mean treating the equipment like a bunch of crash-test dummies. This is precision machinery we’re talking about here.”
Midas held up both hands. “Hey, it’s not my fault that your inventions don’t always stand up to the real world.”
“There’s a difference between regular use and ‘Whoops, I just dropped a fiber-optic probe four stories into a caldera.’”
“The grip was like a wet banana.”
Murph’s face went a dull, infuriated red. “Only for someone who forgets he has opposable thumbs.”
“So,” Axyl said to Sam, his voice carrying over Midas’s squawk, “you want to show me that crystal pocket?”
“Sure. Back here, through the trees.” While the other two escalated from “Damn thing should’ve been shockproof anyway” to “Oh, yeah? Says the guy who totaled his new mountain bike because he was watching a hawk,” Sam patted Yoshi’s rump. “You want a ride?”
Axyl snorted. “Not on your life, boyo.”
They headed off as the engineers went straight past “your momma” territory into geological insults. It was background noise to Sam, though, like the crunch of a shovel or the ring of a hammer on stone, and it faded quickly once they got into the trees, with Yoshi picking his way and Axyl grumbling about the smell of sweaty horse.
When they reached the other side of the narrow forest band, the grumbles cut off as Axyl got his first look at the slope where Sam had found the gemstone pocket. The old rockhound came up beside Yoshi and scanned the huge, rocky expanse, which rose a couple hundred feet in almost no time, with streaks in the blocky stone chunks suggesting that most of it was metamorphic rock with some amphibole. The high temperature, high pressure, and slow cooling processes that went into forming the stones were also the forces that generated species of corundum—like rubies and sapphires—and other valuable deposits. Better yet, there were glittering inclusions of vermiculite schist, which was another marker that valuable stones could be nearby. And the rocky slope stretched on for miles.
Axyl whistled, his beard a-quiver.
“Admit it,” Sam said, prodding. “It’s a good piece of land, and not just for field-testing the new gadgets.”
“It’s okay.” Then, with his expression flattening to something that was almost a smile, Axyl allowed, “It’s better than okay. Even if you hadn’t found that crystal pocket, I’d have to say it’s got a damn good look to it. Gemmy as hell.” He studied the glitters, which tempted a rockhound to imagine riches beneath. “Your old man would’ve liked this place.”
“I thought so. It’s got a great view, a good place to stick a campsite, and a whole lot of potential for surface mining, but no guarantees.” Trooper Babcock hadn’t been the best prospector out there, certainly hadn’t been the luckiest, but he had loved the land and the thrill of the hunt.
Digging into his saddlebag, Sam came up with his custom-molded, reverb-dampening rock hammer—one of Murph’s earliest contributions to the team—and held it up in challenge. “One hour, best specimen wins, Midas judges?”
Axyl unslung his pack and pulled out a scuffed rock hammer that probably had a cousin in a museum somewhere. Lifting it and getting a gleam in his eye, he added, “Loser buys the beer.”
* * *
Danny’s early days in Blessing Valley had passed in an odd slow-motion blur, where each hour seemed to stretch endlessly, yet somehow she was already into her second week and running low on food. She wasn’t ready to return to the ranch, though—wasn’t ready for chaos and human noise—so she had taken to supplementing her stores with the edible berries, greens, and flowers she found on long walks that took her along the river and up gentle slopes. She was usually dragging by the time she returned to camp, ready to wolf down a quick meal, fire up her solar-powered electric fence, and crawl into the tent she had set up beside the dark, narrow RV. She rarely made it through a night without the dreams finding her, though, and she never slept in.
On day nine—or was it ten?—she emerged from the tent not long past dawn, to discover a beautiful morning of pale blues and pinks in the sky, with birds singing up in the trees, the river bubbling in its banks . . . and a pair of squirrels sitting on the table, surrounded by a mound of white-paper confetti and in the process of tearing more shreds from a gutted paperback.
“Hey!” she said, stomping a foot. “Stop that!”
The bushy-tailed thieves levitated off the table, up onto the RV’s awning, and from there to an overhanging branch, where they clung, chittering down at her like she was the one who was trespassing. Reddish brown, with tufted ears and puffed-up cheeks, they would’ve been cute if they’d been minding their own business.
“That’s my book!” she exclaimed, recognizing one of the self-help, find-your-path-in-life guides she had packed in the bottom of her duffel. “Where did you get—” She broke off at the sight of a narrow gap where the RV’s door should have been tightly closed. “Ohhh, no. I didn’t!”
It was entirely possible, though. She had forced herself to go into the camper last night to snag the last of the canned soup, and although she had mostly gotten over feeling like the walls were going to snap in on her at any second, she still got shaky being inside the tight quarters, and she always rushed to get back outside.
Yeah, she might have left the door open. And a couple of squirrels might have gotten into the beautiful RV, with all its gadgets, custom touches, and shiny things.
“Please. Don’t tell me.” The chitters increased overhead when she opened the door the rest of the way and stuck her head into the dim interior, blinking to focus her eyes as she scanned the driver’s seat, with its lush leather covering and the embroidery running down the side, spelling out RAMBLING ROSE. She didn’t see any scratches or holes, though, and there didn’t seem to be anything out of place farther down the narrow tunnel, in either the sitting area or the kitchenette.
The creatures had been in there, though. They had gotten into her duffel. Who knew what else they had done?
Forcing herself up the RV steps, she ignored the fear-prickles. Knock it off. You’ve been in here a bunch of times. Nothing bad has ever happened, and nothing bad is going to happen this time, either. Holding tight to that logic, she edged into the darker, narrower hallway beyond the kitchen, past the bathroom-coffin and finally to the bedroom. Where, darn it, she saw that her duffel was open, the contents torn and strewn across the bedspread, with shreds of bright yellow packaging—all that was left of a forgotten bag of Peanut M&M’s—dotted over the things that had decorated her room at the hospital, then rehab: two gift-shop teddy bears, a mug that read CLIMB FASTER: GRAVITY IS ONLY A THEORY, and a dozen paperbacks—stories about climbers, castaways, and explorers, all with get-well notes on their inside covers that were signed “Love, B.” And, front and center, a framed, zoomed-in snapshot of her standing alone at the tippy-top of a high, rocky precipice, wearing climbing gear and a bright, eager smile.
Hissing out a breath, she stumbled back a step, her vision graying around the edges. She remembered the cloudless sky and the perfect sunny day spent with her parents and sister, remembered her mother caroling “Cheese!” as she snapped the picture, even remembered having a blister on the back of her left heel, where her sock had worn through on the long hike to reach the out-of-the-way Grade IV climb. But as she backed up another step and banged into the too-close bedroom wall, things shifted, turning the sunny day dark and dismal, and pulling the invisible ropes that suddenly wrapped around her so tightly that she couldn’t breathe.
High walls on either side of her, pressing in on her, folding her into an impossible pretzel and kinking her diaphragm, making it hard to breathe. Rocks beneath her, above her. On her. Trapping her.
She clawed at her throat, part of her knowing that meant her hands were free, but unable to make it matter as her vision tunneled narrower and narrower until all she could see was the yellow confetti and the stranger in the picture, who looked like her, except that she was ready to take on the world, ready to—
The noon sun beat down on the horse and rider as Yoshi descended into a dry wash, his movements swinging the saddle back and forth while Sam whistled “Home on the Range” to the beat, thinking there was something seriously cool about playing cowboy, riding out under the big Wyoming sky with a scraggly scruff on his face and nobody else for miles.
Granted, the average old-timey cowboy wouldn’t have had his saddlebags loaded with uncut gems—that would’ve been more the bailiwick of a pick-wielding miner with a couple of pack mules. Or maybe a bandit, riding a fast horse and looking over his shoulder to see if there was dust on the horizon. “Bandit, definitely,” he decided. “Don’t you think, Yosh?”
The gelding shook his head, making the bit jingle.
“I’ve got a month’s pay in stones,” Sam drawled, getting into character as the sure-footed horse started up the other side of the gulch, “a six-shooter, and a disguise. So, stick ’em up, pardner!”
Sure, the red bandanna that made up his disguise had started out wrapped around some muffins four days ago, courtesy of a stopover at Mustang Ridge on his ride out to Misty Hill. But he had tied it around his neck after breaking camp that morning, and now pulled it up to cover the lower half of his face, settling his Stetson on his brow and pretending it was bad-guy black felt rather than summer straw.
Dropping his reins as they hit the flatlands once more, he drew from his hip, cocked his thumb as if his index finger were the barrel of a pistol, and fired at a nearby rocky outcropping, imagining the posse that’d been sent from the nearby—in backcountry terms, at least—town of Three Ridges to take him down and recover the stolen gems. “Pew, pew, pew!” Okay, maybe the noises were more sci-fi blaster than Wild West six-shooter, but whatever. “Pew, pew!” The last imaginary shot took out the imaginary marshal who’d been right on his tail, and Sam blew across the tip of his index finger. “There you go, Yosh. That’s the way it’s done!”
The paint gelding snorted and broke into a jog, headed for the distinctively stacked landmark stones that were becoming clearer with each mile, letting him know that Mustang Ridge was just a few valleys away now, maybe a couple of hours at an easy pace.
“You want to bum some dinner?” Sam asked his horse, even though his stomach was already grumbling with a hells to the yes on that one. “Wyatt did say we should swing back by on the way home.”
Granted, Sam’s college buddy would no doubt get in some more digs about it being time for him to grow up and settle down—Wyatt was full steam ahead when it came to his new baby and upcoming wedding, and seemed to think Sam should be revving up to take the same fall. But he figured he could handle another dose of “You need to quit with the flings and find yourself a real relationship” if it came with chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, and gravy thick enough to walk on.
“Off we go, then,” he said, nudging Yosh into a lope that rolled down one hill and up the next. The horse’s hooves beat a syncopated tattoo on the sunbaked earth, kicking up dust that coated the back of Sam’s throat, tasting like—
* * *
The flames roared up toward Danny, heating her skin and making her hair crackle around her face as she tossed in another paperback and watched the pages curl and blacken in the firepit. “Good-bye—”
A sudden clatter of galloping hooves brought her whirling around, her heart leaping into her throat as she pictured Jupiter and the herd stampeding through camp. Then a loaded-down brown-and-white-spotted horse burst through the trees, carrying a big cowboy wearing a mask on the lower half of his face.
At the sight of her and the fire, the man hauled back on the reins and flung himself out of the saddle, hitting the ground even before his horse had come to a skidding stop. He advanced on her. “What in the blazes—”
Survival instincts taking over, Danny threw the last paperback at him as hard as she could, nailing him in the face.
“Ow!” He reeled back as she fled past him to the four-wheeler.
Flinging herself aboard, she twisted the key and hit the button to start the engine, but nothing happened. Her breath hitched in her lungs as the stranger reoriented himself and started toward her. She scrambled off the ATV, grabbed her pack from the tent, yanked out her anti-critter revolver, and cocked the hammer. “Freeze!” she shouted, even though he’d already done exactly that, making like a statue when he saw that she was armed.
“Whoa, lady, hang on.” His voice was low and resonant, his granite-gray eyes more focused than scared as he added, “Finger off the trigger. I’m not going to hurt you.”
She kept her finger right where it was. “Then why are you wearing a mask?”
Sudden understanding dawned. “Oh, for— Hang on. Don’t shoot. I’m just going to pull down the bandanna.” He did just that. “Sorry. Forgot I was wearing it. Is that better?”
Not really. Because dang. Without the bandanna, his face was a whole lot of stubble, dark skin, and angles put together in exactly the right combination.
Which didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. Hot guys could be dangerous.
“Who are you?” she demanded, her heart drumming against her ribs. “What do you want?”
“I’m a friend of the people who own that RV,” he said with a nod toward the Rambling Rose. “And what I want is for you to point that gun someplace else.”
She kept it on him, but took her finger off the trigger. “Who?” she pressed. “I want names.”
“Rose and Ed Skye own the bus,” he said without hesitation. “Their daughter, Krista, is a month or two away from marrying my college roommate, Wyatt Webb. They’ve got a daughter, Abby, and—”
“Okay.” Pulse slowing, she lowered the hammer. “I believe you.”
“Good.” His eyes sharpened on hers, putting a quiver in the pit of her stomach. “Then do me a favor and kill that fire before you torch the whole damn valley.”
She glanced past him, to where it was starting to burn down, now that she wasn’t lobbing pictures, books, and men’s XL T-shirts into it anymore. “It’s fine.” And she didn’t want to talk about the fire. The cathartic burn had seemed like a really good idea when she found herself sitting outside the RV with the contents of the duffel strewn around her. Now, though, it seemed silly and overdramatic, like skywriting TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF MY LIFEfrom one horizon to the other rather than just saying it out loud.
Excerpted from "Firelight at Mustang Ridge"
Copyright © 2015 Jesse Hayworth.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Mustang Ridge series:
“An instant classic.”—New York Times Bestselling Author Kristan Higgins
“A superb read: a gorgeous setting and a beautiful love story.”—New York Times Bestselling Author Catherine Anderson
“Hayworth paints the setting so beautifully you won’t want to leave.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Plenty of laughter, charm, and emotion.”—New York Times Bestselling Author Jill Gregory
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I can't say enough great things about these books. I love each new story - with the new main characters - BUT I love that we get to visit with the characters from the previous books. You really feel like you're visiting friends each time you open one of these stories. I won't say more because I encourage people to try these books for themselves. You'll be glad you did.
If you enjoy a beautiful love story written without explicit sex you will love this entire series... This is the story of Danny, a severely damaged super jock following a devastating fall while climbing and Sam, a lucky millionaire, who fears everything he loves dies so he stays away from any commitment.. Danny goes to Mustang Ridge, a dude ranch in Wyoming, to recover from her fears and meets Sam.. Their story will touch your heart... The characters from the previous books are all present and I consider Ms. Hayworth one very fine story teller...
Could not put it down! This is a great addition to Mustang Ridge. Danny and Sam are two great characters who's story was a great read. Jesse Hayworth, Mustang Ridge is a terrific series. This is a must read.
A great return to the Mustang Ridge family! Loved Sam and Danny and loved the visit with the earlier cast. The story flowed smoothly and I enjoyed the balance of fun and drama, never too much of either. You can enjoy a square dance even if you know you may have nightmares in the night. Jessica Hayworth doesn't disappoint. I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment.
LOVED it! First of all, the confession: I'm a HUGE Jesse fan! I'm a fan because I've NEVER been disappointed in a single books she's written. I've loved and re-read all of them. This series is amazing. The way she describes the beauty of the land... you want to visit. The gals are all people you'd want for your best friends. And the men... oh yeah, they're the ones you definitely want! LOL.... Danny and Sam are just the perfect couple--a perfect complement to each other. I loved how they saved themselves... they supported each other, but they each stood on their own. Wonderful addition to one of my favorite series. I so want to try this one day! If only it were real..... ;)
Great story, lots of emotion, tears, laughter, love. Heartwarming and engaging from the very beginning. I love a good series and this is one of my favorites - I love getting to visit my 'friends' at Mustang Ridge!
Firelight is another great book in the Mustang Ridge series. Danny and Sam's story along with the regular folks and a few animal characters make this an awesome but also tender love story. Jesse will get you hooked from the beginning and each book just keeps getting better. You will want to visit the dude ranch and see for yourself what this is all about. Don't miss the opportunity. You won't be disappointed. I was given this book for my honest opinion. Thank you Jesse for this experience.
New favorite in this series, love the friendships. The writing gives you a happy feeling.
This is a fantastic read and a great addition to the Mustang Ridge series. These books are great small town romances and Firelight is one of the best. This story brings us two great characters, Danny and Sam. Danny is taking time away from her overbearing family to heal both physically and emotionally and trying to figure out what comes next. Sam a local, finds Danny intriguing and enjoys her company way more than he thinks he should. He is just so afraid of losing anyone else in his life, he feels getting close to Danny is just too risky. But the magic of Mustang Ridge seems to be working on these two.... Lovers of small town romance, ranches, and hot cowboys need to read this one fast! I highly recommend it.