When former lovers reunite at Mustang Ridge, old feelings run wild….
With guest season about to start at the ranch, Krista Skye needs to track down a new head wrangler fast. Unfortunately, the best man for the job is the last person Krista wants to see—Wyatt Webb, the college sweetheart who left her behind. Wyatt has major reservations about working with Krista as well, but he has his own reasons for wanting to stay in town.
Although Krista and Wyatt are all business at first, sparks fly as they work side by side, preparing for an upcoming country fair. Even though rekindling their relationship brings up painful memories, they’re not the same people they used to be—and neither can deny that there’s still something special between them. They have one last opportunity to save a good thing before it’s too late, but one of them will have to find the courage to take a chance on love....
|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
Once upon a time, one of the girls at the barn where I worked sidled up to me and whispered, “Tim likes you. He wants to know if you like him back.” And so began my first relationship—he was my first kiss, my first “I love you,” and my first a whole lot of other things. And for a splendid year, everything was perfect. We planned our futures, named our kids, and did all the things you do when you think there’s no way that something so great won’t last forever. But then I went off to college, and he stayed home to work in the family restaurant, and even though we promised nothing would change, everything did. He started making excuses, I started clinging, and things went downhill from there. And eventually, he became another first for me: my first heartbreak.
Maybe that’s why I love reunion romances . . . not because I want to get back together with Tim—who I hope is happily married with a restaurant of his own and a bunch of kids—but because I adore the idea of two people much like us finding each other years down the road, when they’ve had time to grow into their own skins.
Take Krista Skye and Wyatt Webb, for example. They loved each other utterly in college, but when Wyatt betrayed her—betrayed them—the pain almost destroyed her. Now, years later, she’s the heart and brains of Mustang Ridge Dude Ranch in the beautiful Wyoming hills . . . and she needs his help. So let’s saddle up, grab some of Gran’s famous biscuits, and join Krista and Wyatt for a wild ride!
“Knock, knock?” Krista cracked the sliding barn door and stuck her head through to scan the interior. “Anyone home?”
Horses moved in the stalls that lined both sides of the concrete aisle, offering her a couple of snorts and an optimistic whinny, which she interpreted as Got carrots? There was no answer of the human variety, though.
Stepping out of the summer heat, she scanned the stall doors. “Claire? Are you in here, honey? Your mom is looking for you.”
Instinct had Krista heading for the last stall on the right, where a small sparkly purple halter hung beside a nylon stall guard, which was only a couple of feet off the ground but was chest high on the fuzzy gray pony within. And, sure enough, she saw the toe of a small pink sneaker peeking out from a corner.
“Hey, Marshmallow,” Krista said. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen Claire, have you? You have? Where— Oh!” she said as the sneakers moved and a dark-haired girl eased into view. “There you are!” Phew. “Did you come to give Marshmallow another hug and tell him you’ll see him soon?”
The little lower lip went into quiver mode, and Claire’s big brown eyes filled as she whispered, “Next summer isn’t soon.”
Krista fought a small smile, knowing it wouldn’t help the situation right now. But as far as she was concerned, the response deserved something along the lines of trumpet fanfare, a big TA-DAAA and a standing ovation. A week ago, when the new guests had stepped off the airport shuttle, Claire had tried to make herself invisible, staying hidden behind her mother. Now she was sneaking out to the barn and talking back. Maybe that wouldn’t seem like a victory to some, but Krista would totally take it. Same for Claire’s mom, who had already booked a return trip for later in the season, swearing the staffers to secrecy because it was going to be a birthday surprise for the little girl.
“You’ll be back here sooner than you think.” Krista held out a hand. “Come on. Let’s make sure your mom packed Mini Marshmallow.” The stuffed toy wasn’t officially part of the ranch’s gift lineup yet, but she had given Claire one of the prototypes last night during the send-off campfire so she would have something more than memories to hang on to when she left.
Claire reached back to stroke the patient pony’s neck. “Do you think he’ll forget about me?”
Krista’s heart tugged, because of course the answer was yes. Soon, Claire and her mom would be back on the airport shuttle, heading home to their regular lives, while the people and animals of Mustang Ridge took a precious few hours of downtime before gearing up to do it all again with a new crop of guests. And while Krista would remember the quiet little girl who had started to creep out of her shell under the big, wide-open Wyoming sky, she doubted the same could be said of the pony.
But that wasn’t what Claire needed to hear. Krista sensed that she wanted—needed—to feel special. Didn’t everybody?
“Hey.” Krista lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I’ve got an idea. Can you get me the scissors out of the tack room? They should be on the shelf beside the door.”
As Claire quietly scooted off, Krista worked her fingers through the pony’s mane, sectioned off some of the longer hairs and began plaiting the strands together, weaving them into an intricate four-stranded pattern. She had just reached the bottom when the little girl returned.
“Thanks.” Krista took the scissors. “How attached are you to those pigtail ribbons?” They were pink to match the sneakers, and cute as the dickens with white and purple polka dots.
Claire pulled the ribbons free and handed them over, eyes going wide as Krista cut one of them in two, braided half into the lower section and used the other half to tie off the top. “Is that for me?” she whispered.
Freeing the plait with a quick snip that gave the pony a mini-Mohawk, Krista said, “It sure is, kiddo. Hold out your wrist.” The horsehair bracelet was a perfect fit, and she fastened it in place by tying the ribbon ends into a fat bow. “You can have your mom take it off for showers and such, or even for you to tuck away back home. You don’t have to wear it all the time—but this way you’ll still have a part of him with you.”
Claire touched the bracelet, tracing her fingers over the wiry gray braid. Then she smiled, making rare eye contact. “Thank you.”
How could the words sound so small, yet make Krista feel so big? Grinning, she said, “That’s not all. Watch this.” Taking the other ribbon, she sectioned off an inch of mane right behind the pony’s furry little ears and began a second braid, this time working the ribbon in about halfway down, so the pink with the purple and white polka dots showed alongside the gray. When she reached the bottom, she tied off the braid with a bow that matched the one on the bracelet. “See? Now he won’t forget you, either.”
Eyes wide and round, Claire touched the braid, then leaned in to wrap her arms around Marshmallow’s neck. Pressing her face into his mane, she whispered, “I’ll be back. I promise.”
As the little girl reluctantly pulled away, the barn doors rolled open wider, and Claire’s mom, Vicki, stepped through, blinking as her eyes tried to adjust to the shadows. “Krista? Are you in here? Did you find—Aha!” Her features relaxed as she zeroed in on her daughter. “We figured you might have snuck back out here, Missy Claire. What were you doing, trying to see if you could smuggle a pony home in your suitcase?”
Krista chuckled. “I think the TSA might’ve noticed.”
“I would’ve paid the overweight charge,” Vicki said piously. “What have you got there?” she asked her daughter, noticing the bracelet.
As Claire crossed to her mother and held up her wrist, measured bootfalls rang from the other end of the barn, where a covered walkway connected the newer, guest-friendly structure to the older barn. Krista turned, expecting to see her head wrangler, Foster, even though he was supposed to have left half an hour ago. “Running late?” she called. “I thought— Oh.” She stalled when a stocky form stumped through the doorway. As eyes the same blue as her own landed on her and narrowed, she reoriented. “Hey, Gramps. How’s it going?”
Wearing jeans, a faded long-sleeve work shirt, and a layer of trail dust that said he’d gone out riding early, Big Skye didn’t look much different from when Krista was Claire’s age and had been his constant shadow. Back then, he had put her up in the saddle in front of him and called her his best little cowgirl. Now he just gave her a sour look and said, “Where’s Foster?”
It was stupid to be disappointed. She and Big Skye were getting along better these days, with him helping her out by managing the Over the Hill Gang—a herd of retirees and rescues that had taken over the top pasture. But that didn’t stop her from wishing things could go back to the way they had been between them.
Then again, Jenny always said she was the stupid optimist of the two of them. As far as Krista’s twin sister was concerned, Krista either needed to challenge their gramps to a duel—boxing gloves in the bonfire pit, maybe, or seeing who could go eight seconds on Buck the Bull—or grow a thicker skin.
Doing her best to channel a tough-skinned armadillo, Krista said, “Foster is probably halfway to the water park by now. He and Shelby are chaperoning Lizzie’s class trip.” A few years ago, that would’ve sounded like the biggest whopper ever told at Mustang Ridge, but these days her alpha male head wrangler was married and fully domesticated.
“Bueno needs a shoe tacked back on,” Big Skye grumbled. “Guess I can do it myself.”
“Wait!” Stifling visions of herniated disks and her gramps in traction—he was not a good patient—she thought fast. “Nick should be dropping Jenny off any minute. He can do it.”
“And charge us out the wazoo, no doubt,” Big Skye said with a cattleman’s typical reaction to the thought of calling the vet for something simple. Even if that vet was married to his other granddaughter and had to be reminded—repeatedly—to bill Mustang Ridge. But he tacked on, “Any minute you said?”
“They’re on their way.”
“Fine. Tell him to meet me by Bueno’s stall.” He nodded to Vicki and Claire. “Ladies.” Then he thumped back the way he had come, muttering about vets thinking they knew how to shoe horses, and how when he’d run the place, he’d had a dozen cowboys working for him who could’ve set a nail blindfolded.
“What’s that, sweetie?” Vicki asked as Big Skye’s boot steps faded into the shadows of the back barn. She leaned down, listened to her daughter’s whisper, and nodded. “That’s right! That’s the man from the videos.” Straightening, she grinned at Krista. “I had been talking for a while about wanting to bring Claire to a guest ranch, and a friend sent me a link to Mustang Ridge: The Cowboy Way. By minute three, I was ready to book our reservation.”
Krista’s lips curved. “I’ll be sure to tell him.” Big Skye might claim he had come around to supporting the dude ranch—sort of—because of logic and profit margins, but his becoming a minor YouTube celebrity hadn’t hurt the turnaround. “And my sister, Jenny. She’s the filmmaker in the family. She and Gramps made The Cowboy Way and The Early Years while she was on hiatus from filming Jungle Love.”
Vicki’s eyes lit up. “The dating show on TV? How cool! Did you see last season, when Bryce showed up riding that big black horse, pulled Valerie up in front of him, and took her galloping down the beach in the moonlight?”
“I remember seeing that episode.” With Jenny sitting next to her, saying stuff like, “See that cut? I bet she fell off two steps later,” and “Bingo. They totally had to redo her hair.”
Vicki put a hand to her chest. “Swoon! Oh, we should all be so lucky, to have a gorgeous guy like that show up and sweep us off our feet.”
Pass, Krista thought wryly. She had done the swept-up thing, and it hadn’t ended well. “Jenny isn’t on the show anymore. She moved back home and married our vet.” And thank goodness for that.
“Still, how cool that she had those experiences! I think a girl has to get out there and live a little, don’t you?”
“Absolutely.” Krista tipped her head toward the double doors leading out. “Are you two ready to catch the bus? Rumor has it, Gran baked chocolate chip cookies for the road.”
As they headed out—with Claire sending a final wave in Marshmallow’s direction—Krista fielded Vicki’s questions about her twin’s stint on Jungle Love and dished some PG-rated gossip on the contestants, amused yet again that Jenny ranked way higher on the cool scale than she did. That was just fine by her, though. She didn’t need glitz, glamour, or a handsome man to sweep her off her feet. She was good at taking care of the little things.
* * *
An hour later, after the last good-bye was said and the airport shuttle gave a cheerful horn blast as it crested the hill, Jenny elbow-bumped Krista. “Okay, they’re off. Now it’s our turn. I hope you’re feeling lucky!”
“On a day-to-day basis? Absolutely.” Krista took a long, satisfying look around them—from the sprawling ranch house, barns, and guest cottages nestled in their valley, to the ridgeline and the gorgeous mountains silhouetted against the clear blue sky. Despite what Big Skye thought, she was true to her roots.
“I’m talking about the mustang lottery, and you know it.”
“Yeah, but it never hurts to remember to be grateful for what you’ve got.”
“You go ahead. I’d rather look forward to what’s coming next.” Jenny bounced on her toes. “This is going to be fun!”
Thanks to a progressive new mayor and some state funding, the nearby town of Three Ridges—well, nearby in backcountry Wyoming terms, at any rate—was undergoing a major renaissance, including the resurrection of the decrepit fairgrounds and the county fair that had long been an end-of-summer fixture. And with her usual flair, Mayor Tempe Tepitt—often called Tempest Teapot by those who got in her way—had added a modern twist to the old favorite by cooking up the Harvest Fair Mustang Makeover.
The premise was simple: Two-person teams would choose a training project from a group of fresh-caught wild mustangs. Six weeks later, the teams and their horses would meet at the Harvest Fair, where they would compete for prizes and bragging rights. Better yet, all the proceeds from the ticket sales would go to a local mustang preserve.
Last winter when the competition was first announced, Krista and Shelby—aka Foster’s wife, Krista’s BFF next to Jenny, and goddess of all things advertising—had jumped on the idea, even coming up with a new theme week and a plan for the ranch guests to cheer for Team Mustang Ridge in the ride-off. Now, the entry fees were paid, the cabins were fully booked for Makeover Week, and it was time for Krista and Jenny to head for the fairgrounds and pick their mustang.
She’s right, Krista told herself. This is going to be fun. Win or lose, she and Foster would be adding a new mustang to the herd. She’d be posting progress reports to the ranch’s Web site and social media outlets, so their growing network of guests could stay involved. And Makeover Week was going to be a blast, whether or not she picked a horse that could be turned into a superstar. Still, she had rodeoed through her teens and won more than her share, and even though she was committed to the whole “enjoy today” thing, she had to admit that the idea of competing in front of a big crowd put a stir of excitement in her belly. Not to mention that she had a plan for the prize money—one she thought Big Skye would like.
“I hope we get a good horse,” she said with a look toward the barn, where Foster and Junior had set up a quarantine pen in the riding ring.
“Too bad you’re human antimatter when it comes to raffles.”
“Why do you think I wanted you to come along?”
Jenny patted the camera bag slung over her shoulder. “Free advertising?”
“That, and because you’re the lucky one. Maybe it’s the hair.”
Although they were identical twins, Krista still used braids and ponytails to corral her long, fine blond hair. Jenny, on the other hand, had gone short and brunette, partly so it wouldn’t get in the way of the camera, and partly to distinguish herself from her sister. As if spending nearly a decade filming in exotic locations while Krista stayed home and transitioned Mustang Ridge from a cattle station to a dude ranch wasn’t enough distinction between the two of them.
“We’ve got a little time if you want to hit the Lady Clairol,” Jenny offered with a wicked twinkle. “I bet Mom’s got some you can use.”
Laughter bubbled up, followed by a guilty look toward the main house. “Shh,” Krista said. “She thinks nobody noticed.”
“She can’t possibly be that delusional. Anyway, if I’m your good luck charm, does that mean you’ve decided on your top picks?”
Krista patted her back pocket, with its folded-up program. “Foster and I swung by the holding pens earlier in the week and took a look. We came up with our top three choices and the bottom five, and I’ve got notes on the others, in case we wind up selecting in the middle of the pack.” Fingers crossed we go early, though, she thought, because she really, really wanted a certain big gray mare.
“Well, then.” Jenny hooked an arm through hers and aimed them toward the parking lot, where the horse trailer was hitched and the truck was ready to roll. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go get lucky!”
The fairground took up a hundred or so acres of high-country prairie, with a fringe of pine in the middle distance and the mountains rising beyond, jagged against the blue summer sky. The parking lots and paths were overgrown, wildflowers sprouted around half-repaired concession stands, and the smells of fresh sawdust and new paint mingled with the scent of horses. Trucks and trailers were clustered near the livestock building like cattle jostling for water, and the two hundred or so lottery-hopefuls and hangers-on were crammed into the adjoining arena, waiting for the selection process to begin.
Thanks to a longer-than-usual line at the diner, where they had stopped for burgers and fries, Krista and Jenny had missed out on the folding chairs and wound up sitting on the three-rail fence at the back, far away from the announcer’s stand, where a cylindrical wire crank-cage held several dozen Ping-Pong balls.
“They totally stole that setup from Wednesday-night bingo,” Jenny said, pitching her voice to carry over the crowd noise. “What do you think we’re going to be? B-8? Maybe N-31?”
“How about something in the G’s, for good-looking gray mare?” Krista bounced her boots on the bottom rail as four people climbed up into the judges’ stand. “Here comes the committee, or at least part of it.”
Tempe Tepitt stepped up to the microphone. She was short and bulldoggish, with steely hair pulled up under a baseball hat that was probably intended to play down the plum-colored power suit, but instead made it look like her head and body didn’t belong together. Behind her stood Marsh and Martin Lemp—a couple of sun-bleached, weathered cowboys Krista had known all her life, and who had been in charge of picking the makeover mustangs from the latest gather.
It was the fourth person in the small group that caught Krista’s attention, though. “What’s Sam Babcock doing up there?”
Dark-haired and dressed down in the same sort of jeans-and-a-plain-shirt routine the Lemps were rocking, the thirty-year-old rags-to-riches owner of Babcock Gems looked like he could be just another hired hand. More, he looked much as he had in college—big framed but thin to the point of gauntness, with his hands clasped behind his back to keep his fingers still.
Or maybe not. Maybe he had changed since then, just like she had.
“I guess he’s on the committee,” Jenny said, “or donating. Probably both. Trust me, by the time the mayor got done with Nick, he had gone from ‘sure I’ll sponsor one of the prizes’ to doing all the health exams and gelding operations for free.” She slid a look in Krista’s direction. “You okay?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be? It’s not Sam’s fault that his best friend turned out to be a jerk.” He had warned her, after all. “Besides, that was college. Everybody does dumb stuff in college.”
“Two words: naked skydiving.”
“Hey!” Jenny protested, laughing. “That was in the cone of silence!”
The mayor leaned in, gave the microphone a couple of taps, and then said in a rah-rah voice, “So, what do you say, folks? Are you ready to give me a ten-count, and we can get this party started?”
That got a cheer, and the crowd chanted along with her: “Ten . . . nine . . . eight . . .” Krista and Jenny chimed in at six, and when everybody got to “One!” all four big sliding doors on the nearby livestock building rolled open, revealing the horse-filled pens. The crowd clapped and whooped, and a few of the mustangs whinnied as if to say, “What’s going on out there?”
Little did they know how much their lives were about to change. And while Krista hated knowing how scared and confused the horses would be at going from open range to holding pens and now to their new homes, the wild herds were growing too quickly for the shrinking rangeland to handle, making the sales and lotteries necessary.
When the crowd noise mellowed, the mayor lifted her microphone and said, “By the power vested in me, I declare the Harvest Fair Mustang Makeover officially open!” She paused for another cheer, this one louder and longer. “Today, you’ll be drawing names and choosing your mustangs. You’ll have six weeks to train your horse from the ground up, and when we all get together for the final ride-off, I expect to be blown away. So choose wisely!”
Krista took another look at the catalog, wondering if the gray mare was really her best bet. At seven, she was older than most of the others, which could mean that her training would move faster . . . or she could be too set in her ways, too used to being in charge of things. The last thing Team Mustang Ridge needed was for their mustang to take one look at the screaming-kid-loaded roller coasters and Tilt-A-Whirls, decide the horsepocalypse had come, and try to round up the others and stampede them to safety.
“No second-guessing,” Jenny said without looking up from her camera, where she was making the last couple of tweaks in prep for filming the lottery.
“Taking a minute for a reality check isn’t the same as second-guessing.”
“It is when you’ve got good instincts.” Jenny turned on the camera and aimed it up Krista’s nose. “What does your gut say?”
She batted the camera away. “That nobody wants to see my nostrils on YouTube. And knock it off. I’m being serious here.”
“Go for the gray. First choice is usually right, and all that.”
Boots bouncing harder on the bottom rail of the fence, Krista focused as the mayor finished reading through the rules and shifted back to her rah-rah voice to say, “In addition to helping bring attention to our part of the great state of Wyoming and getting some well-earned bragging rights, the winning team will take home cash and prizes totaling over twenty thousand dollars.”
As she ran down the list of sponsors—with Babcock Gems front and center, no big surprise there—Krista craned to see into the back corner of the barn, looking for something that said she was making the right decision. Was it too much to hope for a big foam finger coming out of the sky and pointing to one of the mustangs in a cosmic moment of “Hello, Universe speaking here”?
Nada. There was never a good foam finger around when she needed one.
Inside the barn, four guys moved around the pens with the saddle-swagger she associated with lifelong horsemen. Closest to her, grizzled, crotchety old Mel Lemp—an older cousin of Marsh and Martin—was holding a clipboard and glowering like he’d rather be somewhere else. Behind him, two younger cowboys were muscling additional pipe-corral panels into place, building the loading chute they would use to chase the horses onto their new owners’ rigs. And beyond them, over by the gray mare’s pen—
Krista straightened, feeling like she’d grabbed on to a strand of hot wire while standing barefoot in a puddle. “Whoa. Who is that?”
“Where?” Jenny swung the camera toward the barn.
“Don’t—” She bit off the protest, knowing she was lucky to have Jenny’s help in promoting the ranch, even if the whole being-filmed thing sometimes put her on edge. Especially when she was seeing things. “In the back corner. Jeans, dark shirt, brown felt hat.” Which stood out against all the summer straw and brought on a full-body shiver, followed by a whole lot of, It’s not him. It couldn’t be.
Except that it totally could. Sam was there, after all.
Jenny zoomed in and hummed. “Hello, he is built. Get a load of those guns!”
Which argued against it being Krista’s one-and-only ex, who had been wiry rather than jacked. “Is he . . .” She didn’t even know what she was trying to ask—couldn’t think past the sudden buzzing in her ears.
“Maybe you should pick him when the mayor calls your name.” Jenny dialed up the zoom. “Let me see if I can get his hip number.”
“Give me the camera.” She needed to get a look at his face, needed to know for sure.
“In a minute. Oh, yes. Very nice.”
Krista tugged at her arm. “Give it here.” Someone called her name, but she waved them off. “Hang on just a sec.”
Laughter sputtered and then swelled, yanking her attention away from the barn and back to the lottery, where most everybody had twisted around to look at her. Realizing she and Jenny had missed something major, she shot out an elbow and hissed, “Ssst!”
Her sister swiveled around, camera and all, and did a double take. “Um. Hello?”
“Are we interrupting something?” the mayor drawled over the loudspeaker, looking at them with the oh-for-Pete’s-sake expression worn at some point by every teacher who’d ever wound up with the two of them together in class.
Intensely aware of the red blink-blink-blink that said Jenny’s camera was getting every nanosecond of this, Krista called, “I’m sorry, Mayor Teap—er, Tepitt. Please continue.”
“I will . . . as soon as you pick your horse.”
“I—oh!” Excitement kicked. “Is it my turn?”
The mayor gave an exaggerated eye roll. “Okay, rewinding.” Holding up a Ping-Pong ball, she pantomimed taking it out of the bingo barrel and intoned, “And now, first choice in the inaugural Harvest Fair Mustang Makeover goes to”—she spun the sphere and read the name inked on it in Sharpie—“Krista Skye!”
The applause was sprinkled with laughter, and somebody yelled, “Go, Krista! Woo-hoo!”
Grinning, she shouted, “Well, then, I’ll take hip number forty-one!”
A murmur ran through the crowd, along with some knowing nods and a couple of Awww noises that said she and Foster weren’t the only ones who’d had their eyes on the gray.
“Forty-one goes to Krista Skye of Mustang Ridge Ranch,” Mayor Tepitt confirmed. “Best of luck with your new horse!” There was more applause while Martin got the bingo balls bouncing again, and then the mayor stuck in a hand and grabbed one. “Next up is going to be . . . Amos Allwood!”
As a skinny young cowboy with spidery arms and legs shot to his feet, Krista turned to Jenny and whisper-squeaked, “We got the gray mare!”
“Whee!” They high-fived, hugged, and did a little seated wiggle-dance to celebrate the lottery win.
Jumping down off the fence, Krista beckoned. “Come on. Let’s get her loaded and hit the road!” She turned for the barn and started for the nearest open door, but then hesitated, remembering the cowboy in the brown hat.
She didn’t see him, but he was back there. Somewhere.
“Hang on. Call me stupid, but I’m just putting two and two together and getting ex-boyfriend.” Jenny grabbed her arm and pulled her close. “You don’t think that was—”
“No.” Krista said, cutting her off before the name got out there in the universe, tempting the foam finger. “As far as I know, he’s never set foot in Three Ridges. It was seeing Sam that made me think of him, that’s all. The power of suggestion.”
It didn’t take them long to get the rig into position—they had both pretty much learned to drive with a trailer in tow, and the aluminum gooseneck was one of the nimblest in the Mustang Ridge fleet. It also had the bonus of being open inside, with padded walls and not too much room for the mare to hurt herself in the panic of being separated from her herd and chased into an unfamiliar metal box.
“The minute she’s on board, I want you to get moving,” Krista told Jenny, who was behind the wheel of the big white dually. “She’ll be less likely to bounce around in there if she has to focus on her balance. Keep it slow and I’ll catch up.”
After swinging open the trailer gate and fastening it in position, she headed for where Mel and the two younger wranglers were gathered beside the loading chute, muttering over clipboards. As she approached, another figure stepped out of the barn—big guy, brown hat, shoulders that went on for a mile.
Krista didn’t let herself slow down.
The cowboy kept his back to her as he gestured toward the horse pens. She caught a glimpse of dark brown hair that had a touch of red to it, making her think of a black horse that had bleached in the sun. Just like he-who-shall-not-be-named. This guy was taller and broader, though, his center of balance high in his chest rather than low on his hips. More like a calf wrestler than a bull rider.
Exhaling a relieved breath, she approached the huddle just as it broke up, and Mel and the two younger men headed into the barn. “Hi there,” she said to the big guy’s back. “I’m here for hip number forty-one.”
“Figured you might be,” he said, and turned.
Krista. Stopped. Breathing.
Because after all that it-couldn’t-possibly-be-him, it totally was. Wyatt Webb, her one-and-only ex, was standing right there in the flesh. And the bastard looked good.
A thin trickle of oxygen seeped into Krista’s lungs as she took in the familiar dark brown eyes, angular jaw, and the nose that carried a pronounced bump from one too many face-first landings off a bucking bull. There were those extra inches of height and breadth, though, and a layer of heavy muscle outlined beneath his work shirt. Even his hands were different, wider and thicker, with heavy calluses that didn’t come from reins or ropes.
He had grown up and done it well.
Annoyed by the sudden urge to tug at her logo’d polo shirt and wish that she had gone for something more in the makeup department—she looked good, too, dang it—she forced air into her lungs and refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing her surprise. Because he had clearly been expecting her.
“I need hip forty-one,” she repeated, forcing everything to be level and professional—her expression, her voice, her body language. “The gray mare in the far pen.”
“She’ll be along in a minute.” He paused, searching her face. “You looked good out there.” A nod to the arena, where a cheer said another name had gotten picked. “Happy.”
Heat stirred at the knowledge he’d been watching her. As metal gates clanged and unshod hooves thudded into the loading chute, she said, “What do you want, Wyatt?” He had to want something. Otherwise, why even make himself known?
“I wanted to apologize to you. To . . . I don’t know”—he scrubbed a hand across the back of his neck—“clear the air. I know it was a long time ago, and we’ve both lived our lives since then, but I wanted to say I’m sorry for how I handled things. You deserved better.”
“Yes, I did.” And once upon a time, she would’ve given anything to have him admit it. “Nice of you to make such an effort to track me down. Oh, wait. You didn’t.”
He shifted in his boots. “I’m staying with Sam for a couple of weeks in between jobs. He volunteered me for this, said you’d be here. I thought it would be easier this way, just running into each other.”
Easier for you, that is. Though, really, there wouldn’t have been a good time for this. She didn’t need an apology, didn’t need the mere sight of him bringing back a whole lot of memories that were better off forgotten. Didn’t need him. Jamming her hands in her pockets—and only then realizing they had balled into fists—she stepped back. “Like you said, it was a long time ago.” Behind her, the truck door slammed.
Moments later, boot steps approached, and Jenny said, “Is everything okay?” Coming up beside Krista, she fixed Wyatt with a look that said I know who you are and what you put my sister through. “Is this guy bothering you?”
Yes. “No. It’s fine. We’re done here.” To Wyatt, she said, “You’ll get the trailer gate when she’s loaded?”
He held her eyes for a moment, then nodded. “Will do. You take care, Krista Skye.” It was more of a good-bye than he had given her before.
“You, too, Wyatt,” she said, if only to have the last word. She didn’t let herself run, didn’t let herself shake, just climbed in the truck and slammed the door.
And wanted to weep.
Jenny grabbed her arms. “Ohmigosh! That was him, wasn’t it? That was—”
“Wyatt.” She made herself say the name. “Yes.”
“Unbelievable.” Jenny craned around to look toward the barn, where he had moved to man the gates of the loading chute. “Did he . . . Did you . . .”
To Krista’s relief, there was a sudden commotion in the barn, a couple of hoots and hollers, and then hoofbeats clattered on metal and the trailer rocked and rolled, making the truck shimmy and signaling that the new horse was aboard. Moments later, the trailer door banged shut and the latches clanged into place, and Wyatt’s voice called, “You’re all set!”
She put the truck in gear and hit the gas, not letting herself stomp down nearly as hard as she wanted to.
As they rolled past the hot dog stands, Jenny stuck her head out the window to get a better look at the trailer. “I can see her ears through the Plexi,” she reported. “You want to stop and double-check the latches?”
“No. We’re good.”
“You trust him?”
“To close up a trailer? Yes.” She would trust him with a horse anytime, anywhere. But as for anything more than that? Forget it. She may have gotten the care-and-nurture gene from Gran, but it was balanced by the one-strike-and-you’re-out attitude that came straight from Big Skye’s DNA.
“Soo . . .” Jenny drew it out as they turned onto the main road and the ride smoothed out. “You want to tell me about it, or should we pretend we spent the morning shoe shopping?”
So tempting. “If we went for shoes, then where did the horse come from?”
“Get one free with every flat of annuals at Maas’s Feed and Grain next door?”
Given Ernie Maas’s recent “two ducklings and a shrub, one low price” ad in the local paper, it wasn’t all that farfetched. Unfortunately, the charade wouldn’t appease Jenny’s curiosity, which on a scale of one to creepy stalker, fell somewhere around the National Enquirer level.
“Shoes, marigolds, and a bonus mustang,” Krista said, trying to keep it light when there was suddenly a whole lot of heavy inside her. “That sounds way better than an ex who couldn’t be bothered to get in touch, but wanted to do the apology thing when we ran into each other.”
Jenny made a face. “Which part was he apologizing for? Stringing you along, standing you up in public, or dumping you with a crappy Dear Jane letter?”
Ouch. Trust the filmmaker to bring things down to bullet points. They were accurate, though, and eight years was long enough for the wounds to heal. “We didn’t get that far. And, frankly, I don’t care. I’ve got better things to worry about—like a ranch full of guests arriving this afternoon, and a new mustang to train.”
She didn’t need Wyatt Webb or his apology. She had Mustang Ridge.
* * *
Wyatt was dog-tired by the time he got back to Sam’s ridiculously big house and let himself in through the kitchen. Dragging ass worked for him, though—the more tired he was, the less his brain would spin. And after his run-in with Krista, there was some serious spinning going on.
He had known she would be there today—hell, he’d had his guard up ever since arriving in Three Ridges, figuring they would cross paths at some point. He hadn’t figured he’d have trouble looking away from her when they came face-to-face, though, and he hadn’t expected to feel like he’d gotten caught staring at the sun. She had gleamed like the sun, too, with a white straw hat, yellow-blond hair, and tanned skin the color of pale honey. And she had looked exactly the same as he remembered, fresh and vibrant, like it had been eight days rather than eight years. Her hair was a shade or two darker beneath the sun streaks, and the coed bounce had turned to a woman’s poise, but he could’ve picked her crazy long legs and cowgirl swagger out of a crowd. Heck, he had picked her out of the crowd, even before the mayor called her name.
It was no surprise that the beautiful girl had grown into a knockout of a woman. It was also no surprise that she didn’t want anything to do with him. But being in Three Ridges had gotten him thinking about her, gotten him remembering. Maybe too much.
Lucky for him, he was good at moving on. He had just hoped to do it with a clearer conscience this time.
“That you, Wyatt?” Sam called from the front of the house, voice echoing through the under-furnished space.
“Yeah. Hey, hon, I’m home.”
“Ha! I’m in the game room.” The sounds of canned gunfire, explosions, and screams suggested he was killing zombies or something.
Wyatt followed the noises and paused with a shoulder propped on the door frame. One of the few fully furnished spaces in the whole place—along with the home theater, master bedroom, and kitchen—the game room at Casa Babcock bore a strong resemblance to the bridge of the Enterprise, except with a ratty sofa, a relic from their college days, facing the wall of monitors instead of captain’s chairs. Not zombies, he noted, glancing at the screen. Aliens.
Sam froze the game and spun in his chair. Wearing sweats, a ripped T-shirt, and yesterday’s stubble, he looked nothing like the unexpected heir to a gem-mining fortune, and everything like the guy who’d made it through his last year of college by volunteering for any medical study that would pay him a few bucks. “Well? I saw you talking to her. How’d it go?”
“About how you’d expect.”
Sam lifted the controller. “You want in on this game? Blow some stuff up? Might make you feel better.”
Wyatt wasn’t big into gaming but appreciated the offer of mayhem rather than touchy-feely. “Maybe in a minute. I’m going to call my sister first. It’s her birthday.” And he was already riled up. Might as well call the fam.
“Tell Ashley I said hey. Oh, and when you come back, bring my blue water bottle with you.”
“Sure. Where is it?”
“Ask Klepto,” Sam said darkly.
“Right.” Wyatt smothered a snort and headed for the kitchen.
He hadn’t figured out where his scruffy gray mutt was hiding his stash in the huge house, but when he did, it would be a heck of a pile. He should probably feel bad, but as far as he was concerned, Sam’s life needed some shaking up. Besides, he and Klepto had an understanding: He didn’t try to stop his dog from “appropriating” the occasional sock or shiny thing, and Klepto acquiesced to act housebroken.
As Wyatt rounded the corner to the kitchen, he was just in time to see the tip of a gray, wirehaired tail disappear around the corner of the fridge. He considered following but figured that finding Klepto’s stash would entertain Sam when they’d left. So instead, he grabbed the landline handset—cells were seriously unreliable out in the high country—and punched in his mother’s number, doing his damnedest to get Krista out of his head. Case closed, moving on.
His mom picked up on the third ring. “It looks like a Wyoming number,” she said, her voice muffled like she was relaying the info. “I think it must be Wyatt.” Then, voice becoming clearer, she said, “Wyatt? Is that you?”
He scrubbed a hand across the back of his neck. “Hey, Ma. Yeah, it’s me.”
“It’s Wyatt,” she called, like that was news to anyone in her immediate vicinity. “How are you, sweetie? How did the lottery go?”
“It was . . . interesting.”
“Lots of horses, lots of people.”
“Did you see anything that you liked?”
About five three, one ten, blond, and blue-eyed, with a swagger that makes a man want to do something stupid. So much for getting her out of his head. He cleared his throat. “I wouldn’t have kicked any of them out of the barn. Why, you in the market?” As far as he knew, she hadn’t been on a horse in thirty years. Back in the day, though, she had been a rodeo queen—it was how she’d met his old man.
“Not on your life. How are your sketches going?”
“They’re going.” And by that, he meant he’d thought about unpacking his pencils the other day. “How is Jack? Did that new chiro help any?” His mother’s husband had come along too late to be a father figure, but Wyatt would always be grateful to Jack for giving him his life back.
“He’s good. He said to say hello.”
They spent a few more minutes catching up, keeping to surface things because they did best that way. Then Wyatt said, “Is Ash around? I want to wish her a happy birthday.”
There was a beat of silence before his mom said, “She went back to Los Angeles last week. Didn’t she call you?”
“She—” He bit off a few choice words. “No. She didn’t. I take it she’s back with Kenny?”
Kenny was his younger sister’s deadbeat ex-boyfriend . . . or he had been, the last time Wyatt checked. After two years of on-again, off-again, she had finally moved back home, got a waitressing job, and started saving the money she wasn’t paying in rent to attend community college in the fall.
At least that had been the plan the last time Wyatt had talked to her.
“You shouldn’t be so hard on him,” his mother chided.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“There was a tone.”
“Maybe we should change the subject. How is your garden coming?”
“You just don’t understand how women think.”
So much for changing the subject. “The guy is a loser, and he drags her down with him.” The drummer for a band that booked just enough gigs for its members to convince themselves that they didn’t need real jobs, Kenny was a self-absorbed, self-important dope who, when Ash had spiked a temp of one oh four with the flu on a night he was supposed to play, had loaded her in a cab and told the driver to take her to the ER, leaving her to figure out how to pay for the ride and the meds.
“He’s young,” his mother said. “They both are. They’ll figure it out as they go along.”
Like you did? Or like he had? His mother’s marriage to Jack—her only marriage, mind you, as Ash and Wyatt’s old man hadn’t ever quite made it to the altar—was the exception to the otherwise ironclad rule that both sides of his family sucked at relationships, and that was because Jack had the perseverance of a limpet. “I’d rather see Ashley figure out things for herself,” Wyatt added. “Once that starts happening, ten bucks says she’ll go for a different kind of guy.” Like one with a job. Maybe even a retirement plan. Hey, there’s a thought.
“She doesn’t want another guy. She’s in love with Kenny.”
“She’ll get over it.”
“You don’t get to choose when to love someone,” she said tartly. “It’s all or nothing.”
Which was ironic, really, given how many times she had fallen in and out of love with his old man. “I’m just saying I’d rather see her stay with you guys and go back to school. Maybe while she’s doing that, Kenny will pull himself together.”
“You could help him with that, you know. You’ve got connections.”
Not as many as she liked to think, but still. “I tried.” Several times, in fact, allowing Ashley’s pretty-please eyes to overrule his common sense. “I got him a sit-down with Nigel at Studio 101. He never showed.”
“He was having car trouble, remember?”
“Yeah, I remember.” It had been his car that time, the flu the time before, and a hangover the time before that. Always an excuse, just like he’d heard from his mother all through childhood. Your father didn’t mean it; he’s just tired; he’s changed; you should give him another chance. . . .
“You should give him another chance.” Her voice merged with the memory, sparking a burn of frustration in his gut. “Ashley loves him. And she loves you, too. You should call her. Tell her you’re not mad.”
“I thought I was calling her.” But where the first few minutes on the phone with his mom had been fine, now he just wanted to hang up.
“She’s got a new cell. Let me get you the number.”
“Just tell her to call me when she gets a chance, okay?”
“Are you coming for a visit soon? The side gutter is overflowing again, and with Jack’s back bothering him . . .”
“I’m not sure. I’ll let you know in a few days.” He ducked a few more questions and finally said, “I’ve gotta go, Ma. I love you.” Which was true—he loved them both, her and Ashley. But he had long ago learned that loving someone wasn’t the same as wanting to be with them, or even having much in common.
Hanging up the phone with more force than necessary, he grabbed a couple of beers out of the fridge and headed for the game room. Suddenly, he was in the mood to kill the heck out of some aliens.
The next morning, when the alarm went off, Krista woke fuzzy-headed and fuddled from dreams that had involved lots of prancing hooves and a cherub wearing fringed chaps and wielding squirt guns.
“Ohhh-kay, then,” she said, and sat up in bed, rubbing her eyes as things came into focus around her—mercifully without the kid.
A few months ago, her mom had insisted that the room needed a facelift, and in a two-week orgy of paint chips and fabric swatches, the rodeo-princess-turned-businesswoman décor had given way to a rustic, homey blend of earth tones and comfortable fabrics. The centerpiece was a hand-carved bureau that had a herd of galloping mustangs flowing around three sides, with the same movement picked up in the swirling pattern of the bedspread and a wall collage made from Krista’s favorite prize ribbons.
Her mom had described it as “equine eclectic with a modern Italian touch.” Krista didn’t know about that, but she figured it said, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” And she liked that.
After dressing for the day, she headed downstairs and followed her nose to the big commercial kitchen that took up the back of the main house. There, exposed beams and potted herbs provided homey touches, baking racks bulged with muffins and sourdough rolls, and she could practically feast on the yeasty air.
“Morning, sweetheart,” Gran caroled as she bustled between the ovens and the pantry. Wearing jeans and a mock tee under a bright yellow apron decorated with singing peppers, she looked far younger than her years, even with the wispy white of her hair escaping from beneath a denim ball cap.
At the butcher-block end of the long counter, her round-cheeked assistant cook, Dory, said, “Hey, Krista,” and waved a jalapeno. Then she went back to her pile, coring the small peppers and sticking them upright on a custom-made rack. Over the course of the day, the peppers would be roasted, skinned, and turned into Gran’s famous green chili, which had its own page on the Web site, its popularity second only to her sourdough starter, fondly called Herman. Who had his own Twitter account.
Excerpted from "Harvest at Mustang Ridge"
Copyright © 2014 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 HARVEST AT MUSTANG RIDGE:
"Jesse Hayworth writes delightful tales that will wrap themselves around readers' hearts. With breezy, light-hearted writing and plenty of laughter, charm and emotion, Jesse Hayworth gifts her readers with a book that will keep them turning the pages and rooting for these wonderful characters."—New York Times bestselling author Jill Gregory
Praise for WINTER AT MUSTANG RIDGE:
“Jesse Hayworth has just become one of my favorite authors.”—New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Kristan Higgins
Praise for SUMMER AT MUSTANG RIDGE:
“A superb read with...realistic characters, a gorgeous setting, humor, a touching subplot, and a beautiful story.” —New York Times bestselling author Catherine Anderson
"This heartwarming story is a keeper."—RT Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Loving this whole series. They stand alone, but I enjoyed reading from the first book through. Looking forward to the next.
Harvest at Mustang Ridge is the 3rd book in the Mustang Ridge series. Fans of the series will definitely enjoy this one because the author is sure to include all the favorite characters from previous books, I suggest that anyone just starting out go back to read the first ones so that it gives them a better connection and understanding of the bond between the characters and the reasons behind what brought our main characters Krista and Wyatt together in the first place and why their actions and reactions are the way they are. I felt the story was well written but as someone stepping in mid series it made it hard to follow but it didn't make me enjoy the story any less. Jesse writes very well and knows how to construct a great story.
Readers return to Mustang Ridge with Jesse Hayworth in her third book in the series, Harvest at Mustang Ridge. This is a heartwarming story of two people taking a second chance at love. Hayworth has a knack for writing not only the human characters in her stories, but the animal characters as well. Readers looking for a book that is about friendship, family and the ties that bind will love this one! What I liked: Jesse Hayworth knows how to write a book that will tug at your heartstrings. Often readers know from the onset that the main couple will eventually have a happy ending with Hayworth's books, but it's the journey that makes all the difference. The Mustang Ridge series has introduced readers to a family that loves the land, the people and the animals that make up their home. The Skye family is close knit, determined and they have each others back. Readers will not be able to find any faults with this bunch. They are realistic and lovable at the same time. I loved getting to know Krista who actually runs the ranch in Harvest at Mustang Ridge. She was a great character who deserved a great story and Hayworth certainly gives it to her. Krista and Wyatt have known each other for a long time and I enjoyed the way they interacted with each other. Hayworth gives readers a couple who probably shouldn't like each other given their past and shows that time does heal wounds and that second chances are possible. I felt like these two characters had so much depth to them. Krista is determined to make the ranch a success and even bites back her pride to ask Wyatt for help. Wyatt is an artist, a metal sculptor. I loved the idea of his career and that he felt he real inspiration came from being home. These characters were just right for each other and that came across in the writing so well. Another thing I appreciate about Hayworth's writing is her ability to write the animals in her books. She has a way of understanding how these creatures view the world. I've been around a horse or two in my day and this author knows horses. Right down to how a wild mustang might be feeling as it is introduced to life on the ranch. I loved Klepto the dog, he was a great character as well. I once had a dog that would grab things right out of your hand if you weren't quick enough to stop her. LOL! I loved that aspect of this book. The animals were as real as the humans! My favorite part of this series and especially this book is the interaction of the Skye family. The main characters Krista and Wyatt see the majority of the time in this book, as it should be, but the secondary characters include the rest of Krista's family. The Skye's are something else. They are so realistic. They aren't the perfect family where everything works out just the way you think is should. They have real emotions and real struggles and like a family should, they pull together when they need to. I loved that about this book. What I didn't like: Not much to add here, this was a great book and a welcome addition to the series! Bottom Line: If you like books about family, friendship and cowboys, this is a good choice for you. Hayworth has a knack for writing both human and animal characters and the family dynamic of the Skye family is extremely enjoyable to read. The romance was heartwarming and ended perfectly and readers will love all of the things that make Mustang Ridge a great place to read about.
Wow! Another great "can't put the book down" read!! The characters are real and the story unravels with just the right touch. I have enjoyed every book by Jesse Hayworth and really hope that she continues writing these heart-felt wonderful books!! I really Recommend all the books in Mustang Ridge.
You just can't go wrong with a Jesse Hayworth/Jessica Andersen book. I'm not the first/only person to say that. She's one of my auto-buy authors. I anxiously await the next book she puts out. Her Nightkeeper series remains one of my all time favorites. I've never really wanted to take a vacation at a mustang ranch, but after reading this series, I'm tempted!! This is the 3rd book in the series and it's about second chances. Can you really make it work even better than it was before? Well, Krista and Wyatt did. After a journey through much heartache and challenges and lots of fun along the way, these two cross over from childhood sweethearts to adults finding their HEA. We get to see the other couples often in this book--which I LOVE--because it's also all about family. Love this series!! Can't wait for the next one--Firelight at Mustang Ridge--out in February. Jesse/Jessica rocks!! I'd recommend this series to anyone!
I like to read and want to be taken into the story. Harvest At Mustang Ridge is one of those books. This is the third book in the series, but you do not need to read the other’s first. This book stands on its own. Krista and Wyatt’s story is one of the best I have read this year. This is a must read.
You can never go wrong with a Jesse Hayworth/Jessica Andersen book and once again this book is proof. Krista and Wyatt’s story is fabulous, tender, yet filled with conflict as these two find their way back to each other, not to what they had before, but to something better, stronger that will last a lifetime. And if their story isn’t enough to grab your attention (and heart) then the rest of the Skye family should do that for you, because this is also a story of family. Absolutely loved it and am looking forward to the next one already.
Will Krista and Wyatt take a second chance on love? Find out as you read this sweet and tender story of finding love again. You will be hooked in right from the beginning as I was. Dude ranch, cowboys, and romance! What else do you need! This is the 3rd book in the series and will look forward to the next installment. Don't miss this series and Jesse Hayworth is a 5 star author. She is a keeper on your shelf.
Another fabulous addition to the series. I loved "revisiting" Mustang Ridge - and this time the central love story is about second chances. And oh, what a story it is. My only complaint? I have to wait for the next book!!! But Ms. Hayworth promises it will be out in February. So now I have to wait - and maybe read the books over again. They're that good. I highly recommend these books.
Loved Loved Loved it!! Cowboys, small towns, and romance, the perfect combination and no one does it better than Jesse Hayworth! I adore this series and I was not disappointed with this book. It's a beautifully written second chance story and the characters of Wyatt and Krista are perfect. This book as well as the series is one I highly recommend.
I want to visit Dude Ranch. I really enjoyed this story as I did " Summer" and "Winter at Mustang Ridge". It has Cowboys. Full of fun characters with great interaction, beautiful scenery description and did I mention cowboys. Lots of family, friends, romance and plenty of steam. Never dull ! I recommend all of the Mustang Ridge series and am looking forward to Firelight at Mustang Ridge.
Very well written and enjoyable series... Enjoy the adventures of the Skye family whose Wyoming ranch has been in the family for 10 generations... The switch from cattle ranching to Dude Ranch has not been without a lot of family angst and it has been fun to experience... Add to the family dynamic the guest stories and you have good to great reading... Enjoyed Krysta's story in this book and look forward to her wedding to Wyatt in the next book... Recommend to all...