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If wishes were horses, the Jenson family breeding farm would be full of stud mares and furry new foals—not teeming with greenhorn tourists in stiff new jeans and shiny cowboy boots.
Samantha Jenson loosened the lead rope in her hand, allowing Diego another couple inches of leverage. The hot Texas sun glinted off the gelding's chestnut hindquarters, and she swiped at the sweat on her forehead with her free hand. It looked as if this weekend would be another scorcher.
She clucked to the gelding as she studied his limber gait. "Just another lap or two." Diego's ankle injury was slowly healing. A few more days of exercise in the training pen and he'd be ready to hit the trail—though probably just to be manhandled by another wannabe cowboy.
Sam's lips pressed into a hard line and she drew in the rope, slowing Diego's willing pace to a walk. "Good boy." It wasn't the gelding's fault he'd fallen a few weeks ago. Thanks to a careless rider who'd ignored the rules of the trail, Diego had been pushed too hard over uneven ground and tripped in a hole. It was by the grace of God he had only sprained his ankle, rather than broken it. Of course, the tourist hadn't even been bruised—didn't seem very fair.
Sam pulled the rope in closer until Diego's gait slowed to a stop. That probably wasn't the most Christian attitude to have, but it was hard to feel differently in the circumstances. At least God was looking out for her and her mother with the little things if not for the bigger things Sam would prefer. Avoiding a vet bill was nice, but it wasn't going to help bring back her father's dream.
Sam met the horse in the middle of the paddock and patted his sweaty muzzle, drawing a deep breath to combat her stress. No, nothing other than a big wad of cash would bring back the Jensons' successful breeding farm. She and her mother had turned the farm into a dude ranch to earn income, but to Sam, the problems that came with it weren't any better than avoiding the debt collectors. Sure, the new dude ranch business paid the mortgage and had kept the farm from going completely under last winter—and Sam would grudgingly admit running a dude ranch was better than being homeless—but Angie Jenson wasn't the one dealing firsthand with all the tourists. That job fell to Sam, as did filling all the proverbial holes that tourists left in their unruly wake—like horses with sprained ankles.
Sam gathered the lead rope around her wrist and trudged toward the barn, Diego ambling behind. To her left, green hills stretched in gentle waves, trimmed by rows of wooden fences. The staff's guesthouses to her right had been converted into cabins for the vacationers, tucked in neat rows like houses on a Monopoly board. One didn't have to look close to notice the chipped trim, peeling shutters and threadbare welcome mats. Angie was counting on her customers being so mesmerized with the horses that they wouldn't care about the less than pristine living quarters. Talk about pipe dreams. Her mom had suggested selling the ranch several months back, but after seeing Sam's reaction, she hadn't brought it up again. How could they sell? It was all they had left of Sam's dad.
Things sure had changed. Once upon a time, when Wade Jenson was still alive, one would be hard-pressed to find a single repair waiting on the farm. The grounds stayed kept, the paint stayed fresh and the ranch resembled exactly what it was—a respectable, sought-after breeding farm that had been in the Jenson family for three generations.
In a paddock nearby, Piper whinnied hello at Sam and Diego—or maybe it was a cry for help. Sam tipped her cowboy hat at the paint horse as she passed. "I'm working on it, Piper. I'll get things back to normal for us one day." She fought the words I promise that hovered on her tongue, afraid to speak them lest she end up like her father—a liar. Promises from Wade Jenson hadn't stopped the bull's thrashing hooves or the heart monitor from beeping a final, high-pitched tone, and they wouldn't make Sam's dreams come true, either.
She dodged a young boy kicking a soccer ball across the yard and narrowed her eyes at the kid's father, who stood nearby talking to Sam's mother. The man was so enamored by Angie he apparently didn't notice the glittering diamond ring still on her finger—or his son wreaking havoc. The ball slipped under the last rung of the wooden fence containing Piper and several mares, and Sam made a dive before the boy could do the same. At least the ball hadn't gone into the adjacent paddock, where several stallions left over from the breeding-farm business grazed. Gelding and mares were much more docile in comparison.
"Whoa there, partner. What's your name?" Sam caught the kid's belt loops just in time.
"Davy." He struggled against her grip.
Sam couldn't help but smile at the freckle-faced kid. A toy water gun stuck in the waistband of his jeans and dirt smeared across his sunburned forehead. How many times as a child had she probably looked the same, playing in the yard between chores? Her anger cooled like a hot branding iron dunked in water and she ruffled the boy's already mussed hair. "You can't go in the paddock with the horses, Davy. They might step on you."
Davy crossed his arms and glared a challenge at her. "My ball went in and they're not stepping on it."
Sam's grin faded at the sarcastic logic. "Park it. I'll get it for you." She shot him a warning look before she easily scaled the fence and jogged toward the black-and-white ball. She rolled it to him and hopped back over into the yard. Davy scooped up the ball and took off without even a thank you.
Sam's annoyance doubled as she led Diego into the cool shadows of the barn, the familiar scent of hay and leather doing little to ease her aggravation. She secured the gelding and forked over a fresh bale of hay, then yanked a halter from its peg and headed for Wildfire's stall. If this was still an operating breeding ranch, there wouldn't be little terrors running around scaring the horses while their dads flirted with her mother. Sam's father died only two years ago, and this was the way they honored his memory? By catering to city greenhorns and risking the welfare of their livestock? Tears pricked her eyelids, and Sam roughly brushed away the moisture. Cowgirls don't cry, her dad always said. They get back on the horse and keep riding.
But Sam's dad never told her what to do when he wasn't there to give her a leg up.
A horn honked from the parking lot near the barn, and Wildfire startled, kicking the stall door with his foreleg. "Easy, boy." Sam soothed him with a gentle touch on his muzzle before peering through the barn window.
An expensive luxury sedan was parked near the first guest cabin, its shiny rims catching the July sun and nearly blinding Sam with the glare. The windows were tinted so she couldn't see inside, but it had to be the Ames family. They were scheduled to arrive within the hour, and Angie had already cautioned Sam on being extra attentive to the wealthy guests. Apparently this family owned a multi-million dollar corporation of some kind in New York. How they ended up in the nowhere little town of Appleback, Texas, remained a mystery to Sam. But VIPs were VIPs.
"They're staying three solid weeks, and if they tip like they should," Angie had said earlier that morning, "we'll be able to make all of our bills and have money left over for the first time in ages." Her eyes had shone with such excitement at the prospect Sam almost didn't notice the heavy bags underneath them or the frown lines marring the skin by Angie's lips. But Sam had noticed, and it was the only thing that kept her from protesting. That, and the prospect of having to waitress again to make the house payments. Those exhausting months last year were definitely not ones she wanted to relive.
The doors of the car opened and a well-dressed couple in their early fifties exited the vehicle. The lady smoothed the front of her white pantsuit as she cast a gaze over the horses in the pasture. The car's trunk popped open, and the man emerging from the driver's seat shaded his eyes with one hand as he looked around—probably searching for a valet or bellhop.
Great. One more chore for Sam to pull off—like acting as full-time stable hand, groom and trail guide wasn't enough to keep her busy. She considered hiding in the hayloft like she did that time she was ten and failed her math test. But avoiding reality didn't work—she should know. She'd been trying that for two years now.
"Guess it's now or never." Sam slipped the halter back on its peg, and Wildfire snorted his disappointment. "I'll be back for you in a minute." She looked out the window again to see if the couple had managed to grab their own luggage, just in time to see a silver convertible squeal to a stop beside the sedan. A dust cloud formed around the tires, causing the woman to take several steps backward and cough.
The driver's side door of the sports car opened and a guy in his mid-twenties slid out. He surveyed the ranch over lowered sunglasses, his expression shadowed.
Wildfire ducked his head and blew through his nose, pawing at the stall floor. Sam rubbed the white splash of hair on the gelding's forehead, a frown pulling her brows together. "I know exactly how you feel."
Ethan Ames never thought he'd see the day where his mother teetered in high heels on dirt-packed ground—on purpose. Then again, he never thought he'd see the day he joined his family on a rural working vacation, either. He shouldn't have taken that back-roads exit off the interstate. Nothing was stopping him from speeding farther west and finding some real fun in Vegas—nothing more than his mother's disappointment, anyway. Or his father's incessant phone calls and threats. On second thought, Vegas wouldn't be much fun without an expense account—and his father knew how to hit Ethan where it hurt.
One would definitely have to pay Ethan a bundle to get him to admit that deep down, he was a little curious about this country life thing, after all. He shut the door to the convertible
and pulled his duffel bag from the backseat. At least the rental company had given him something decent to drive this time.
"You really shouldn't speed like that, Ethan." Vickie Ames touched her hair, as if the motion could protect it from the country air.
The passenger door slammed, saving Ethan from answering. His cousin Daniel slid over the hood and landed beside Vickie. He looped an arm around her shoulders. "Don't worry, Aunt Vickie. Ethan never passed ninety-five miles an hour." He winked and slung one booted foot over the other.
Ethan rolled his eyes. Leave it to Daniel to blend in with new surroundings like a chameleon. He'd picked up those stupid cowboy boots before they'd even left New York and propped them up on the dashboard for the entire drive from the airport. Ethan didn't think real cowboys would splurge on designer tooled leather like that for a three-week vacation. And what was with that Dukes of Hazzard move he just pulled on the car hood? Ethan snorted.
His father, Jeffrey, cleared his throat. "If you two would quit clowning around and find the valet, we could get settled a lot sooner."
Ethan shouldered his duffel. "I don't think this place has staff like that."
"The boys will get the bags." Vickie shot Ethan a pointed glance that clearly said to get busy.
Jeffrey looked around, the permanent frown between his bushy brows tightening even further. "This place is more rundown than I thought. We should get it for a song." His lips stretched into a line. "It better be worth this charade."
"It will be." Vickie gestured around them, her red manicured nails startling against her white suit. She looked as out of place as a bull in Saks Fifth Avenue, just smaller and better dressed. "You know we just need to find a reason to get the owner to sell to us for cheap—before she gets wind of the highway relocation. You said yourself this would be the perfect place for a mall after they move the interstate. So quit complaining—a dump is exactly what we're looking for."
Ethan shook his head. Only his mother could get away with telling Jeffrey what to do. If he or his cousin had tried that, well, it wouldn't have been pretty.
Jeffrey's face purpled. "I still don't see why we all had to come down here to the middle of nowhere and cut a work week short. We could have just sent the boys to make the offer—"
"It's about appearances," Vickie hissed under her breath. "You know the owner is hesitant to sell in the first place. She doesn't even want her daughter to know why we're here. She wants to feel like the person who buys it will take good care of it. You think she'd be more willing to warm up and accept an offer from two businessmen in suits, or to a vacationing family of four? She'll never believe that we want to keep the place as a ranch if we make an offer from New York."
Jeffrey's lips disappeared beneath his mustache. He looked as if he wanted to argue, but wasn't sure what to say.
"Uncle Jeffrey, we'll handle the bags. No problem." Daniel grabbed the largest of the suitcases from the trunk and hefted it to the ground. "Where to?"
Ethan took a second bag, trying not to snicker at Daniel's obvious attempt at kissing up to his father.
"I think check-in is inside there." Vickie pointed to a two-story farmhouse with a wraparound porch. Paint peeled near the faded trim and the stairs leading to the front door looked saggy, as if they'd held up one person too many over the years. "They'll have our cabin numbers. I requested the two biggest ones they had."
Ethan's mouth twitched as he studied the crumpling architecture of the house. "After you, Daniel." He wasn't about to stand on that top porch step with a suitcase. He was likely to go straight through to the grass.
"I'll check us in." Vickie brushed them aside. "You boys get the rest of our luggage." She lightly scaled the steps and disappeared inside the run-down building, an unspoken warning floating in her perfumed wake. Don't upset your father.