Nate Marshall used to be a yes-man until being so agreeable cost him dearly. But Eden Quinn has a way of getting him to reconsider his "just say no" policy. Which is how a bunch of troubled teens end up at his ranch for the weekend. The boys in Eden's care are a handful, and Nate can't help but be attracted to the feisty, independent woman who keeps them in line. This cowboy knows Eden's no damsel in distress, yet it's clear hers isn't a one-woman job. If she's determined to do everything on her own, how can he help her let alone get her to fall for him?
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Nate rested gloved hands on the gatepost and watched the long green van pull up to the barn. Over the past few days, he'd spoken several times with Eden Quinn, who'd called to ask if she could bring the teen boys in her care to the Double M for a weekend of communing with nature.
Right off the bat, he translated "boys in her care" to mean juvenile delinquents, and issued a matter-of-fact no. If they weren't trouble, they'd be home with their parents or guardians instead of some county-run facility. Nate had to hand it to her, though, because after she repeated her spiel three different ways, he gave in. It was Memorial Day weekend, after all, and the ranch hands had scattered to the four winds, leaving him and Carl to hold down the fort. Once he'd taken the boys' measure, he'd decide whether or not he could trust them alone in the bunk-house. But no need to worry about that just yet, since it wasn't likely they'd last until dark. In his experience, city folk shied away from workthe good old-fashioned hard work that involved powerful animals and manure.
As the van came to a stop, Nate thumbed his tan Stetson to the back of his head. The boys, staring out the windows, did their best to look older and tougher than their years. To date, his only experience with young'uns of any kind involved his cousins' kids, all happy, well-adjusted and under the age of ten. Nabbing sweets without permission was the worst crime any of them had committed. Something told him this hard-edged bunch was long past lifting cookies before dinner, and he hoped he hadn't made a gigantic mistake inviting them to the family's ranch.
The noonday sun, gleaming from the windshield, blocked his view of the driver. After seeing the boys' sour expressions, he half expected someone who resembled Nurse Ratched to exit the vehicle. Instead, a petite woman in a plaid shirt and snug jeans hopped down from the driver's seat and slid the side door open with a strength that belied her size.
"Okay, guys, everybody out!"
Nate recognized the husky-yet-feminine voice from their phone calls. He'd been way off base, thinking she'd look like a burly prison guard. He guessed her age at twenty-four, tops. But she had to be older than that if she'd passed muster with the state officials who'd hired her.
One by one, the teens exited the van and stared gap-jawed at the Rockies' Front Range. As Eden walked toward him, he noticed her high-topped sneakers that would probably fit his eight-year-old niece. Nate grinned to himself, wondering how feet that small kept her upright and how long the shoes would stay white.
"Hi," she said, extending a hand, "I'm Eden Quinn."
The strength of her handshake, like everything else about her, surprised him. She pumped his arm up and down as if she expected water to trickle from his fingertips.
"Nate Marshall said I should meet him here at noon. If you'll just tell me where to find him"
"I'm Nate," he said, releasing her hand. "Good to meet you." He'd uttered the phrase, but couldn't remember ever meaning it more.
Eden tucked her fingertips into the back pockets of her jeans. "I expected you'd be, well, older."
"Ditto," he said, grinning.
Eden rested a hand on the nearest teen's shoulder. "This is my right-hand man, Kirk Simons, and these are our boys."
Nate followed Eden and Kirk down the line, shaking each boy's hand as she introduced them.
"Is that a Stetson?" one asked.
Nate smiled. "Yep."
At the other end of the line, Eden clasped her hands together and faced Nate. "So where do we start?"
He searched each boy's face to single out the troublemakers. One or two gave him pause, but none showed any signs of blatant mutiny. He hoped the same would be true when the green van drove back down the driveway.
"Leave your gear in the van for now," he said. "Let's head on into the barn. Once we're saddled up, I'll give you the nickel tour of the Double M."
"Saddle up? None of us ever rode a horse before."
The kid looked sixteen, maybe seventeen, and spoke with an authority that seemed out of place, given the fact that he lived in a place like Latimer House.
"Just follow my lead and you'll be fine," Nate assured him.
"Can we pick any horse we want?"
Eden had told him the boys were fifteen to seventeen. This one, Nate decided, must have a growth hormone problem.
"Why don't we let Mr. Marshall choose this time," Kirk said. "He'll know better how to match you up with a horse that isn't a runner, or worse, one that isn't of a mind to move at all."
The suggestion satisfied them, and like mustangs, the boys charged ahead, laughing like four-year-olds as they raced toward the barn.
"Hey, fellas," he called after them, "hold it down, or you'll spook 'em."
Instantly, they quieted and slowed their pace. This might not be such a bad weekend after all. If they survived the rideand what he had in mind for them next.
As the assistant joined the boys, Eden fell into step beside him. "This is really nice of you, Nate. Not many people are willing to give kids like these a chance. I hope you'll consider inviting them back. At your convenience, of course. Because being out here in the fresh air, learning about horses and cattle " She exhaled a happy sigh. "I just know they're going to love this!"
Since losing Miranda, Nate had made a habit of saying no. But there stood Eden, blinking up at him with long-lashed gray eyes. He couldn't say, "Let's see how the rest of the weekend goes," because yet again, his brain had seized on the "kids like these" part of her comment. What had they done to earn the title?
"I wasn't the best-behaved young'un myself." He hoped the admission would invite an explanation.
"That's true of most of us, don't you think?" Nate noticed that Eden had to half-run to keep up with his long-legged stride. Slowing his pace, he said, "So how did you hear about the Double M?"
"Oh, I didn't tell you when we spoke on the phone?"
She had, but he wanted to see her face as she repeated it.
"We have a mutual friend. Shamus Magee. He suggested this might be a good change of pace for these city-born-and-raised boys of mine."
His grandfather often referred to Shamus as "good people," and that was good enough for Nate.
"And I asked for you, specifically," she continued, "instead of your dad or one of your uncles."
"I read all about you in Sports Illustrated. You know, the issue where they featured major leaguers who "
She trailed off, telling Nate she didn't know how to broach the subject of the accident that ended his pitching careerand killed his fiancéetwo years ago.
"Does the shoulder still bother you much?"
"I can predict the weather now," he said, grinning, "but that's about it." It wasn't, despite months of grueling physical therapy. And the head shrinker that'd helped him come to terms with his Miranda issues. But he had no intention of dredging up bad memories with someone he'd just metand would likely never see again.
"They'd never admit it," she said, using her chin as a pointer, "but they were more excited about meeting a baseball star than spending the weekend at a ranch." She paused for a step or two, then added, "Think you'll ever go back? To baseball, I mean?"
"No. Too much damage." He reflexively rotated the shoulder and winced at the slight twinge. "But it doesn't keep me from doing things around here, so "
He'd never seen eyes the color of a storm sky before. Funny that instead of cold or danger, they hinted at warmth and sweetness. He hadn't felt anythinganythingfor a woman since the accident, and didn't know how to react to his interest in her. Nate tugged his hat lower on his forehead. Unfortunately, it did nothing to block his peripheral vision.
"And anyway, that was then, and this is now."
She leaned forward slightly, looked up into his face. "Ah, so you're one of those guys who isn't comfortable with compliments?"
Nate only shrugged.
"The boys were fascinated when I told them about your baseball history." She glanced toward the barn. "Something tells me when they get to know you better, they'll have an even bigger case of hero worship."
Hero worship. The words made him cringe. Before every game, fans from four to ninety-four lined the fence beside the outfield, waving programs, caps, even paper napkins in the hope of acquiring a signature. He'd taken a lot of heat from teammates when a kid in the autograph line slapped the label on him. "We're not heroes," he'd blurted, thinking of his cousin Zach, who'd served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan, and his cousin Sam, a firefighter in Nashville. "Fans oughta look to soldiers, firefighters and cops as their heroes, not a bunch of overpaid athletes like us." The beating he took from the media had taught him to let his teammates do the talking from that point on, but it hadn't changed his mind on the subject.
"I hope they know what a bunch of garbage that is and how to recognize a bona fide hero when they see one."
Confusion drew her eyebrows together, and he pretended not to notice by focusing on the boys, who stood just inside the barn. A few still looked bored, but most seemed excited about saddling up. And then there was the smallest one, with that deadpan expression. He'd have to keep an eye on that one.
Using Patches as his example, Nate showed the teens how to approach a horse and where to stand, and after saddling each horse, he explained how their attitudes would put the animals at easeor rile them. Before long, the group was ambling single file on the bridle path that ringed the Double M pond before meandering into the woods beyond the corral, doing their best to stay upright and in control of their mounts. "I'm just so proud I could cry!" Eden said, bringing her horse alongside his. "They'll remember this for the rest of their lives. I can't thank you enough, Nate. You don't know how much good you've already done them."
He was too busy wondering what her hair looked like under that Baltimore Orioles baseball cap to answer. Was it long and thick? Or did it just seem that way because of the curly bangs poking out from under the bill?
She quirked an eyebrow, proof that she'd caught him staring.
"What's with the hat? You're not a Colorado Rockies fan?" With any luck, she'd believe it had been the Orioles logo that had captured his attention, not her pretty face.
"I was born in Baltimore, and my dad held season tickets. He took me and my brother to nearly every home game." On the heels of a wistful sigh, she added, "I sure do miss him "
"How long ago did you lose him?"
She waved, as if the question was an annoying mosquito. "My folks were killed nearly fifteen years ago."
Her tone told him something more sinister than an accident had been responsible for their deaths. But how her parents had died was none of his business. Maybe he'd ask Shamus.
"Afterward, we came to live with my dad's parents, here in Denver. After graduation, my brother went back east for a while. Joined the Baltimore County police force. But a year or so ago, Stuart signed on with the Boulder PD." Smirking, she drew quote marks in the air. "To keep an eye on me, he said."
A good idea, considering what she did for a living. "How old were you guys when you moved here?"
"I was twelve, Stuart was nine."
Nate could only shake his head. At that age, he'd spent half his time shirking chores and the other half thinking up excuses when his parents caught him at it. The tension continued through his teen years, but these days, he considered them close friends. Nate glanced ahead at the boys, who had lost or been taken from their parents and now looked to Eden as their surrogate mother.
She leaned forward to whisper something in her horse's ear. This may have been the boys' first time in the saddle, but it definitely wasn't Eden's. "So your dad was a native Coloradan?"
"Yes, but he joined the army right out of college and they stationed him at Fort Meade, where Mom was a clerk in the records office." She looked over at him. "What about you? Did you move to Maryland when the team signed you?"
"No, I was already out there, attending the University of Maryland."
"Oh, that's right. I remember reading about that in the article. You were majoring in animal husbandry and playing for the school's baseball team when a scout saw you."
Nate snickered quietly. "You remember more about that fluff piece than I do."
"I'd hardly call it fluff. But it says a lot about you, that you don't buy into your own publicity." Eden winked. "Gotta admire a guy who's comfortable in his own skin."
Miranda had majored in communications and minored in psychology, so he'd heard enough psychobabble to choke Patches. Her insistence on analyzing his every word, action and reaction had been the main bone of contention between them. If she hadn't taken her eyes off the road to rant at him about his indecisiveness.
"Long, long way between then and now," he ground out. And to smother any platitudes she might spout, Nate said, "Did you and your brother spend summers back east?"
Eden was silent for several moments. "No. My mom's parents visited once, about five years after " She shrugged. "We raced around doing so many touristy things, there wasn't time to reconnect. We saw them a time or two after that, and then their health declined."
She fell quiet again. "Stuart looks a lot like my mom, and I inherited her mannerisms. It's nobody's fault that we reminded our grandparents of their only child, but it explains why it was tough for them to be around us." Another shrug. "Listen to me, droning on and on about the past. What a bore!"
He laughed with her, although he found her anything but boring. Nate nodded toward her charges. "Takes a courageous woman to take on a challenge like that."
She glanced ahead on the trail, where the boys joked and talked as if they didn't have a care in the world. And for the moment at least, they didn't.
"Oh, believe me, I haven't reached all of them," she said softly. "Yet."
He might have asked what she meant, if he hadn't noticed one of the boys leaning too far right in the saddle.
Eden saw it, too. "Uh-oh. Thomas won't take it well if he falls."
Man, what he wouldn't give to know what that meant!
"Don't worry. Nobody will fall. Not on my watch."
Nate rode up the line, knowing Thomas's mount would automatically match his own horse's pace. "Thirsty?" he asked, holding out a bottle of water.
"No way. If I let go of this handle, I'll end up in the pond."
He didn't bother correcting the boy. "Use your knees, everyone," he said loudly enough for the others to hear. "That'll let your horse know you're the boss and help you keep your balance."