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His Reluctant Rancher
A Three River Ranch Novel
By Roxanne Snopek, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Roxanne Snopek
All rights reserved.
Three River Ranch doesn't look nearly as welcoming as it did last summer, Desiree Burke thought. She drove beneath the rough-hewn sign at the gates to the mustang sanctuary and held tight to the wheel as it bumped and jerked in her hands. Ridges of ice clawed at her tires and threatened to pull her into the ditch that ran beside the long driveway. Leafless trees flanked the guesthouse like silent skeletal sentries, and in the distance, Bear Paw Mountain loomed cold and forbidding.
She shuddered, then mentally slapped herself.
"Mierda!" she muttered. "Next thing, you'll be looking for a guy with a ski mask and a chain saw."
But the shivers wouldn't go away, and she couldn't blame them entirely on the bleak Montana landscape. The last week had left her stunned and even—yes, she could admit it when she was alone—afraid.
But mostly, furious. What was the point of getting a titanium hip if you weren't going to use it? Her protocol was sound and would have been successful if Mama Marquesa Bruno had tried, even a little. Was it painful? Of course! The matriarch wasn't happy to find a therapist who didn't cater to her every whim, the way she'd trained her beleaguered offspring. Mama was a wily rock cloaked in sighs and pathos.
Until she rolled up against the hard place that was Des.
Only now Des was suspended while the American Physical Therapy Association investigated the complaint.
Mama Bruno got the last cackle after all. Des shuddered.
Even now, the memory of that moment made Des feel as if she couldn't get enough air into her lungs. She never dreamed a patient would sabotage her own therapy, out of spite! The Brunos would have crucified her if she hadn't managed to hijack the dramatic opus by catching the old bat before she hit the ground. Old ladies bruised like ripe plums and shattered like glass.
Des had always prided herself on being one step ahead of her patients, modifying her treatment strategy and approach to optimize their response. Yet she'd been outmaneuvered by a sharp-eyed crone who didn't want to be bossed around.
But hadn't Tina Jeffrey grabbed onto that golden opportunity with both meaty mitts? Since her first day, when Des had challenged the clinic's antiquated methodology, the two had been at loggerheads.
Des sighed. Naturally, she'd reacted with her customary tact, which was to say none. The word bitch had come up, as had the phrase when hell freezes over. Plus a few choice tidbits in Spanish that probably drove her boss even further up the wall.
Even if the complaint was withdrawn and Des was reinstated, she could never work under the same roof as Tina again.
But she had to work somewhere, and word traveled.
The hot rush of injustice rose again. She was good at what she did, damn it. Okay, so she pushed harder than other physiotherapists, so she took risks. She got results. In the end, her patients thanked her. On their feet.
Her throat tightened. She loved her job. She needed her job.
Des pulled her little sports car to a stop in front of the guesthouse and sat quietly for a moment, listening to the tick-tick-tick of the cooling engine before silence descended.
The darkening sky above and the endless expanse of snow-covered hills all around made her feel like a rabbit looking for cover. How did people live out here in all this ... space? She needed the reassuring hustle-bustle of the city, the noise, the shopping ... the lattes.
Rory had urged Des to get away and spend some time with her at the ranch. Then she'd thrown Des a challenge she knew would be irresistible: their good friend and neighbor was running out of medical coverage, without being anywhere near recovered from the car accident that almost killed him.
She hadn't used the word hopeless, but Des heard it anyway.
A week ago, she'd have been all over a case like this, eager to help a broken man regain his life. Now, the thought of dealing with another frightened, angry patient—and his family—made her break out in a cold sweat. But it wasn't Joe Gamble or even the prospect of failing that scared her. At least, not entirely.
It was the thought of working around Joe Gamble's son Zachary that had her nerves jitterbugging. And not in a bad way.
Which was the problem.
Zach's lazy cowboy grin was irresistible when he aimed it her way, and although Des had given no quarter, she was pretty sure he knew the verbal jousting was merely her opening salvo.
She was there for one reason, and one reason only. Rory. However, if she'd had a little spare time, she might have spent it with Zach. Why not? He was a carefree bachelor, enjoyable company, rumored to treat women well, and—most importantly—not looking for commitment.
Fine qualities in a guy, as far as she was concerned.
She wasn't averse to a bit of fun, and the first time they met, he'd made it clear that he was willing to play, but that's as far as they'd gotten.
And everything was different now.
She tried to imagine Zach's face without the grin, his voice without the banter, his eyes without the spark, and it made the muscles in her chest and throat constrict.
And that right there was what really scared her.
Because, grin or no grin, there was no way Des would end up like Rory, stuck out here with straw in her hair.
"No sense borrowing trouble, chica. You've got enough of your own." She got out of the car, shoving all thoughts of Zach firmly from her head.
"Hola?" she called, pounding on the door. "Rory? Anyone home?"
She walked around the porch to the back of the guesthouse, and there stood Rory's mini-SUV. Des breathed a sigh of relief, then went closer and peered in. Lulu's car seat and various toys littered the vehicle that stood tucked under the carport. Farther back, by the original ranch house that was still undergoing renovations, she could see Carson's pickup truck.
As she trudged through the snow toward it, she could hear the muffled sounds of a nail gun. And voices.
Des pushed open the door. A burst of warm air, tangy with the scent of freshly cut wood, rushed against her face.
"Hola? Rory?" she called again. "Can I come in, or have you still got the plague?"
A bang sounded in another room, then footsteps. Her best friend ran out to greet her, grinning widely, baby on her hip, her shaggy dog squeezing ahead of her.
"Hey, Mistral." Des squatted to let the dog get her sloppy greeting out of the way. "Long time no see, my hairy girlfriend." She also used the time to prepare herself for Rory's unerring ability to see behind her defenses.
"Mistral, enough." Rory spoke with authority, and the chocolate-colored dog obeyed immediately, but not without whining.
"Honestly, four years of training and it's ruined the minute she sees you."
"Hardly!" Desiree laughed. "She knows what you want before you want it! But I don't care. I love to be loved." She shooed the dog away and stood up. "Aurora McAllister-Granger, I thought having a baby made women all fat and frazzled. How is it that each time I see you, you look better than ever?"
"You're such a liar! I love that about you." Rory gathered her into a tight one-armed hug. "Nursing melts the weight off. I can barely eat enough to keep up. And you want to see frazzled? Wait until about midnight, when this little piranha flips her switch and starts screaming nonstop."
Desiree kissed the baby's face, then pulled her from her mother's arms. "Not my little Lulu, I don't believe it. Come on, honey, let's get you out of this draft before you catch your death. Auntie Des won't let her only godchild get pneumonia. Your spots aren't even totally gone yet!"
"Please. Winter's barely started. Besides, we rancher girls are tougher than that." Rory paused, and her voice softened. "Des, I'm so glad to see you!"
"Even though you're still living in a construction zone and your baby just got over the chicken pox and the last thing you need is a friend in the grip of a major career crisis?"
"My door is always open to you, Des, you know that." She should have known Rory would recognize the panic that bubbled just below the surface. "Carson! Look who's here!"
Rory led Desiree through the front room to what would soon be a spectacular gourmet kitchen. Rory's cowboy husband straightened up from the sawhorse and slipped off his work gloves, a grin spreading over his face.
He slapped his hands against long, denim-clad legs, sending clouds of sawdust everywhere, then opened his arms for a hug. Des returned the embrace, squishing Lulu between them, happy to admit she'd been 100 percent wrong about Carson. Rory's marriage might have had an unconventional beginning, but Des had never seen her happier.
Even living out here in the freaking wilderness.
"Thank God you're here," he said. Then his voice grew somber. "I mean, I'm sorry for what you're going through right now, don't get me wrong. But the Gambles are really having a rough time."
"I might not be able to help." Panic bubbled again, accelerating her heart rate. "I'll do what I can, but persistent brain injuries are tough. I don't want to disappoint them."
"Des," Carson said, "this family is about as low as one can get right now. The closest rehab is four hours away. Marnie can't get him in and out on her own, and even if Zach could afford the time to drive him there—which he can't—their HMO has given them the boot. You're his last hope."
"Well, he'd have to be desperate, wouldn't he?" She winced at her own pathetic attempt at levity.
"No one who knows you believes Tina's story, Des."
"True or false isn't the issue," she said, hating the bitterness she heard in her voice, hating that she cared so much what people would think. What Zach would think.
Carson and Rory exchanged glances and suddenly she understood.
"You haven't told them!" A tiny, traitorous part of her heart leaped, grateful that Zach wasn't privy to her humiliation.
"We gave them the broad strokes. The details don't matter." Rory shrugged. "They need what you have to offer, and you're free to give it. Someone else's lies don't change the facts."
"I hate to say it," Carson added with a grimace, "but she's right. Zach's not exactly thinking straight these days. Let's not give him something more to chew on."
"Besides," Rory said, "once he sees you at work, he won't care about that ridiculous complaint. He'll know the truth."
"If you say so." She'd have to make damn sure she impressed him before he found out, then. No pressure or anything.
"And who knows." Rory patted Desiree's shoulder. "You might find that the country life suits you. Home is where the heart is, as they say."
Des snorted. "Home is where the espresso is. Remind me, where's the closest Starbucks?"
"You won't care after you taste my coffee." Carson dropped a kiss on Rory's cheek, then one on his daughter's fuzzy head. "Go on, ladies. You've got lots of catching up to do. I'll be another hour or so."
"You sure?" Rory lifted one hand to his cheek. The quick, casual exchange held so much intimacy that Des had to look away.
"God. Get a room, will you? Gimme Lulu's bag. We'll meet you in the guesthouse, Rory."
"I'm coming, I'm coming," Rory protested with a laugh. But first she grabbed her handsome husband around the neck and reached up to give him a proper kiss.
Des zipped up Lulu's jacket and held the child close as envy ripped through her. "I'm sorry, preciosa, I had no idea they were torturing you like this. I'd have rescued you earlier."
But as she made her way back over the snow, the sweet-smelling bundle clutched tightly against her, her arms were trembling, and not just from the cold.
* * *
Zachary Gamble told himself that the rest of his own work could wait until tomorrow, that Carson needed him more right now, that he was only being a good friend.
But as he pulled his pickup around the guesthouse to stop in front of what would soon be the new lodge, he suddenly became aware of muscles in his abdomen and chest letting down their guard, allowing air to rush in. He dropped his head and closed his eyes, relaxing for the first time that day.
The real reason he'd fled Twinridge was that if he spent another minute—another second—within earshot of his mother, he was at serious risk of becoming a howling lunatic. The effort of holding them all together was more than he could bear right now. Here, he could be himself. Here, he could breathe.
That wasn't the only reason he'd rushed to Three River.
He opened his eyes, got out of the truck, and looked over his shoulder.
That was the little white sports car he remembered. Trust Des to drive something impractical like that, out here in the dead of winter. Someone should confiscate her keys before she killed herself.
"Looking for someone?" Carson leaned against the lodge door, arms crossed, an irritating smirk on his face.
"Finished early." Zach elbowed past his friend and surveyed the stacks of hardwood that would soon cover the floor. "I figured you could use me. I was right."
Carson looked at him through narrowed eyes, then tossed him a tape measure. "Here. You can cut the boards for the hallway."
For ten minutes or so, they worked with only the tinny sound of a banged-up transistor radio to break the silence. Finally Carson straightened and rubbed his wrist against his forehead, leaving a streak of sawdust.
"Celia moved back yet?" he asked.
At the mention of his sister, Zach felt the tension return to his chest. Celia was in her final year of veterinary college, the only thing she'd ever wanted to do.
"She okay with that?"
"She doesn't have much choice, does she?" Now not only could they not afford her tuition or room and board, but they needed her to work. "She'll have to redo the year, anyway."
"Yeah, you and me both."
"You sure you're okay?"
Zach was so sick of sympathy, so sick of people not knowing what to say, so sick of everyone checking up on him and his family, that he bristled. "I'm fine."
Predictably, Carson ignored his tone. "Of course you are. Your truck flipped a half-dozen times, your brother's dead, your dad's in a wheelchair, your business is circling the drain, but you're fine."
"You're an asshole."
"You're an idiot."
Normalcy restored, they resumed working. Carson had been friends with Cale, too. Maybe that's why he could say things to Zach that no one else would dare utter.
Of course, he never knew when to quit.
"I know you're really here for Des." Carson tilted his chin in the direction of the guesthouse. "She's with Rory. Go say hi. And oh, while you're at it, would you please end this crazy self-imposed vow of chastity? If you won't do it as a favor to me, your friend, who has to endure your foul temper, then do it for the pharmacies in the greater Lutherton area, who rely on you relying on them for all your condom needs."
"What are you talking about? I'm getting as much action as ever," Zach lied. "I'll finish this section first. Besides, I'm sure the women want to visit."
But before he could procrastinate any longer, he heard the unmistakable sound of her high-heeled footsteps stomping up to the lodge. She thumped the snow off against the porch railings and then pushed open the door.
Zach froze, the board in his hand poised motionless. The cold air had whipped a blush to her cheeks and the tip of her nose. Those big dark eyes peered out from the mass of even darker curls spilling over the collar of her coat.
Snow White, all grown up and sassy.
"Hey, Zach. I thought that was your truck."
She lifted her hair away from her neck with both hands and attempted to smooth it over one shoulder. The board slipped from his hand and bounced onto the floor with a clatter.
"Des ..." As she moved her arms, the opening of her coat gaped, just enough for a glimpse of the curves beneath, and he couldn't remember what else he was going to say.
"I wanted to tell you how sorry I am about your brother, and your dad's injury. I couldn't believe it when Rory told me. You weren't hurt, though?"
Excerpted from His Reluctant Rancher by Roxanne Snopek, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2013 Roxanne Snopek. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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