The Cowboy's Second Chance
Black-sheep cowboy Gunner Buckton is home for one reasonto keep Blue Thorn Ranch in his family where it's been for generations. No onenot even Brooke Calderwill take it from him. The cute, down-home widow may not look like a slick developer, but she works for one. Along with her adorable daughter, she's a threat to his homesteadand to his wounded heart. Brooke needs this job. Gunner may be as ornery as a bull, but it's her task to win him over. The battle lines are drawn. Only problem is, around the handsome Texan, she doesn't know which side she's on.
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"Could you please move your buffalo?"
Brooke Calder looked out her car windshield to squint suspiciously at the hairy brown beast currently staring down her hatchback. Buffalo didn't charge, did they? Stampede, maybe, but she wasn't about to get a set of horns impaled in her front grill, was she? She leaned out the driver's-side window and smiled at the cowboy who had just ridden up beside her car.
The tall man tipped his hat with an amused grin and moved his horse closer to the car. "Daisy is a bison, ma'am. And she don't always cooperate, so I hope you're not in a hurry."
She was. These days Brooke was always in a hurry.
She applied her sweetest community-relations voice. "As a matter of fact, I am. So if it's not too much trouble, can you please get her off the road?" The bison's human companion looked a bit scruffy around the edgeshandsome, but definitely too young and rough-hewn to be one of the shiny-suited ranchers she often had to deal with as a community-relations specialist for DelTex Real Estate Developments. A ranch hand?
Foreman, more likely. He sat his horse with a commanding air of power.
He leaned toward her, widening the grin. "I'd like to oblige, but Daisy may not be interested in playing nice today."
Brooke couldn't imagine what days bison chose to play nice. "Is she a wanderer?"
"No, just pregnant. Very. Mamas don't usually stray away from the herd unless they're looking for a quiet place to give birth."
Daisy shifted her weight and gave a low, rumbling moan. Brooke didn't know too many people who'd consider the middle of the road a dandy place for childcalf-birth. Buffalobison, Brooke corrected her thoughts, were supposed to be intelligent animals. She'd never win a strength battle of brute animal vs. compact car, so perhaps diplomacy was the way to go here. She leaned out the window to speak in a direct, friendly address. "Congratulations, Daisy. If you'd be so kind as to move, I want to get home to my little girl, too. I'm sure you understand, so could you give me a couple of feet to ease on by?" The ground on either side of the road was muddy, and Brooke didn't want to chance getting stuck by going off-road in a car definitely not designed for off-roading.
The man pulled his horse up to stand even with the creature, who swung her enormous head to look at him. She had pretty eyeshuge and chocolate-brown, with a wise kind of character to them. "What do you say, Daisy? Shall we let the lady pass?"
Daisy did not seem inclined to move.
"Please, Daisy?" Brooke couldn't believe she was pleading with a giant wall of brown fur.
"Let's just give her a minute." The rancher adjusted his hat. "So, what brings you all the way out here, ma'am?"
"I just came from a meeting over at Ramble Acres."
That caught his attention. He sidled the horse back to her window while Brooke calculated how much of a late fee she'd incur by picking Audie up past six at day care. Again. "You with DelTex?" His tone made it clear that this would not be a mark in her favor.
"I'm Brooke Calder. I work for Jace Markham in the community-relations department."
A sour expression overtook the man's face. "Jace Markham at DelTex. Huh." The words had a definite edge, and Brooke began to wonder if he'd instruct Daisy to stay put for a week or two.
"Do you know Markham, Mr .?"
"Buckton. Gunner Buckton. Junior, that is."
Oh. The possibility of bison horns in her front grill increased considerably. While Brooke wasn't intimately familiar with all the details, she was aware of a file in the officea thick one, at thatwith the Buckton name on it. It wasn't full of fan letters to DelTex, that was for sure. Somehow she'd associated the ranch with Gunner Buckton the senior, but he'd passed a while back, hadn't he? This meant Mr. Markham had been locking horns for the past few months with Gunner Buckton Junior, the man currently beside her on horseback.
Buckton's now-scowling demeanor didn't bode well for any assistance getting Daisy to move. He looked more prone to inciting Daisy to charge, if bison did that sort of thing. Then again, on a hot afternoon at eight months pregnant, Brooke had been easy to incite, too. The memory of her late husband calling her "Bronco Brooke" while rubbing her very swollen feet shot into her mind and she swallowed hard. Be nice to the very pregnant bison, Brooke, and maybe she'll move out of the way.
Buckton's eyes narrowed under the shadow of his hat. She could almost watch him choose to keep a polite tone as he asked, "What DelTex business brings you onto Blue Thorn land, Ms. Calder?"
Brooke looked down at the pavement below her wheels. "I wasn't aware I was on Blue Thorn land, Mr. Buckton. I'm next to it" she nodded toward the fence just behind him "but just passing through on my way back into Austin. That is until Daisy decided to play roadblock." She could do without the suspicious glare touching the corner of the man's startling blue eyes.
"She's just looking for some solitude," Buckton said, shifting his gaze back and forth between Brooke and Daisy. "She wants a little space to share with the young'un when the time comes."
"Don't we all?" Brooke replied. When was the last time she'd spent an unhurried afternoon with Audie? Suspecting she'd lost her chances with the rancher, Brooke leaned out the window to try again with the bison. "Mama to mama, Daisy, could we hurry things along? I expect we all want to get home to supper."
Daisy actually snorted in reply but didn't move. Brooke began to feel like snorting herself. "Is that bison for yes or no?" At the moment, it looked like bison for I'll take an hour or so to think it over.
"I really don't want to be late picking up my daughter." She wasn't quite sure if she should address her plea to Buckton or Daisy. Neither seemed all that inclined to listen to her.
Buckton scratched his chin. He was rather nice-looking for someone not so nice. "Did you try your horn?"
"Of course I did. First thing, but " The flimsy, near-silly horn was one of the things Brooke hated most about her little car. She demonstrated its cartoonish beep again for the rancher, feeling the color rise to her cheeks. To Brooke's dismay, Daisy lifted one hoof as if investigating whether she'd stepped on a squeaky toy.
Buckton snickered. "I see your point." He tried unsuccessfully to hold back a laugh. "Baby ducks wouldn't get out of the way of that horn."
Brooke didn't have time for this little standoff. She made a show of looking at her watch, then up at the rancher. "I really am in a bit of a time crunch here. Can you think of anything that might get Daisy to move?
I'd be obliged."
Buckton looked at her for a long minute, his sky-blue eyes piercing under the shade of his hat brim. Hadn't she read somewhere that all the Bucktons had the same striking turquoise eyes? Was that where the ranch name had come from? Mr. Markham had certainly made his share of jokes about the Blue Thorn being the "Big Thorn" in his side. Brooke offered Buckton a "pretty please" smile and checked her watch again. Audie hated it when she was the last child to be picked up from day care, and her lonely face sitting on the center steps never failed to make Brooke feel like the Worst Parent of the Year.
Buckton seemed to ponder his options for a moment then suddenly wheeled his horse around and shouted,
"Hee-ya, girl!" at the massive bison. Daisy lifted her nose from its inspection of Brooke's car hood, swung her huge head between horse and car and then unceremoniously lumbered off in the direction of the open gate Brooke saw down the road. Without a single look back, Gunner Buckton followed his beast.
"Well," Brooke said to the empty car, "if I'd have known yelling at it would have worked " She called out a cheery "Thank you!" as she drove past Buckton while he swung down off the saddle, presumably to shut the gate behind Daisy.
He simply tipped his hat as she drove by, but when she checked her rearview mirror a few seconds later, he was still standing by the gate, staring at her little car as it hummed down the road.
She'd met the legendary Gunner Buckton Junior. Brooke didn't know if that made things better or worse for the troubled relationship between that man and her boss. Right now the only thing she knew for certain was that it made her late.
Gunner shoved his saddle onto its stand in the horse barn tack room with a bit too much force. The action made his foreman, Billy Flatrock, look up from his work, one bushy eyebrow raised in inquiry. "What's up with you?"
"You'll never guess who Daisy introduced me to this afternoon." Gunner took off his gloves and whacked them against his pant leg, raising up a cloud of yellow dust that swirled in the ribbons of slanted gold light coming through the barn windows.
"Daisy making introductions? I know she's good with people but I didn't think she was feeling so friendly now." Billy shook his head as he squinted at one of his tools.
"She's gonna calve early, Billy. I'm sure of it with the way she's behaving."
"Yep. She'll be our first this year," the Native American confirmed.
Gunner watched the sedimentthe dust of his landslowly settle to his boots. It had been a wet spring, but the air had the smell of a long, dry summer. Would a drought play right into DelTex's land-grabbing hands? "Actually, it wasn't much of an introduction. Closer to a standoff, really." It was kind of fun to watch Daisy stare down the pretty little gal from DelTex's offices right there in the middle of the road.
"Sounds more like one of the bulls than Daisy."
Gunner sat down on the nearest of the dozen or so wooden storage lockers that lined the tack room. "She got out again, Billy. Through the northwest fence. We've gotta find a way to keep that gate locked until we can replace it. If she'd have crossed over onto Lar-key's land, it wouldn't have ended well."
"We got more than enough creek on our side of the fence. She don't need what's on Larkey's. She'll get stuck in the mud one of these days if she keeps that up. I keep tellin' her she ain't no water buffalo, but I don't think she pays me any mind." Billy was a trusted friend, and one of Gunner's few allies when he had first returned to the Blue Thorn. One of the last few members of the Tonkawa tribe, Billy claimed to have conversations with several of the animals on the ranch and knew so many uncanny things that no one could work up the courage to question his claims. Even the vet was known to ask Billy's opinion now and then on a particular animal's state of mind.
The amusing image of Brooke Calder's baby-blue car came to him again, idling like an impatient toddler in front of Daisy's curious black nose. "Daisy was standing in the middle of the road, blocking this DelTex lady's car from getting by." He didn't buy her "just passing through on my way back from Ramble Acres" story. No matter her pretty looks, Gunner knew the kind of folks who worked for DelTex. There wasn't a one of them who could be trusted.
Billy's bushy gray eyebrows knotted together. "DelTex, huh?"
Gunner picked a bit of grass off his hat as he ran his fingers around the worn rim. "Young. Nice-looking. She works for Jace Markham."
"Markham." Billy spat the word out as if it tasted bad as he returned one tool to his box and picked up another to inspect. Markham and his DelTex buddies had been trying for a long time to convince Gunner and his family to sell the land surrounding his back creek. "I guess I'm glad Daisy blocked her in the road."
Gunner hadn't minded it too much himselfexcept for a hint of guilt over what she'd said about needing to pick up her daughter. Had that been the truth? Brooke looked about his age, but he didn't recall seeing a wedding band on her hand. There was definitely one of those child booster things in the backseat of her car, though. "Are they trying some new tactic on us? After all, I've always figured anyone who worked for DelTex ought to look " He searched for the least mean word, coming up empty. He'd imagined anyone who worked for Jace Markham to look more reptilian.
"Like Daisy?" Billy let out a laugh that quickly dissolved into a cough. The man's long years on the Blue Thorn were catching up with him.
"Yeah, like Daisy."
The older man wheezed his agreement into a bright blue bandanna handkerchief. Everyone at the Blue Thorn carried or wore the blue bandannaone of Dad's silly traditions no one had the heart to give up, even though the man had been gone over a year now. "Guess that means that Ramble Acres business is starting up again?" Billy commented.
"Hasn't ever stopped, really." Ramble Acres may look like some pretty development on their shiny brochures, but once it got built, Gunner knew what it really meant for Blue Thorn Ranch and many other area properties. Growing housing developments meant ranch land would disappear in the name of condos and shopping centers.
"That's no good." Billy stood upthe creaky process of unfolding his long legs bringing an extended groan from the man. There weren't many people on the Blue Thorn taller than Gunner. Even though Billy was well into his sixties, he stood six-three. When Gunner was five, he'd believed the stories his dad told him about Billy's dad being from a tribe of giants that rose up out of the creek.
"No, it isn't good. I've told him we're not selling that land around the creek, but they don't seem to listen." No fancy developer was going to buy any piece of his creek.
"It ain't right, I tell you." Billy settled his hat on his head.
"I won't let them have our land or our water." Big words, but even Gunner knew that ranchers hardly ever won such battlesespecially against behemoth companies like DelTex.
Billy put a hand to Gunner's shoulder. "It've killed your papa to give up one inch to those idiot developers." Some people thought the upscale residential development going in near the Blue Thorn was a fine idea. Too many ranchers were tired of the hardships of the ranching life and ready to sell, so they welcomed developers with deep pockets like DelTex. Gunner, like his father before him, wasn't ready to sell off any land, but it was getting harder and harder to hold the line.
You can't have my land, no matter how many pretty ladies you send to bat their eyes at me, Gunner challenged them silently in his mind as he pulled the tack room door shut. It ain't yours to take, ever.