At heart, Elizabeth Palmer is a practical Jersey girl. And her life reflects that—until everything suddenly falls apart. In a bid to change her luck, the intrepid reporter accepts a job to write a story on a reclusive quarter horse breeder in Chatham Ridge, Georgia. To her surprise, she finds herself settling into the warm, inviting town—even joining the Southern Belle Book Club—and craving the company of the rancher she’s there to interview….
Hunter McCoy has good reason to keep his distance from the determined reporter. Tragedy has taught him to stick to things that don’t require his heart. But he can’t seem to resist the vulnerability he detects beneath Elizabeth’s tough demeanor.
But when Hunter is faced with the possibility of a terrible loss and shuts Elizabeth out, she will have to prove to Hunter that having somebody love you can heal all wounds…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When Elizabeth Palmer’s mother died in 2004, she left her only child three things: a fake ruby ring she’d bought at a garage sale, a tattered apron with a plastic name tag hanging askew from the corner, and one piece of advice: never bet on a losing horse.
The trouble with that advice was figuring out ahead of time which horse was going to lose, and which one was going to have a final kick at the end. Something Winnie Palmer had never quite gotten the knack of doing. She had, however, wasted nearly every dime of her diner paychecks at the track, betting on everything from dogs to ponies, searching for that elusive ticket that would drag her out of a life of poverty and set her down smack-dab in one of the mansions she cut out of the Sunday real estate section and tacked onto the fridge with little horseshoe-shaped magnets.
Elizabeth’s mother had been like Delta Dawn, that hopeless romantic in the song immortalized by Bette Midler. Standing in her Sunday best every spare minute of the day, hoping for some miracle to bring her to the castle in the sky. In the end, all it had taken was a few thousand Marlboros to give Winnie the gift of emphysema and a one-way ticket to a castle-less plot in Whitelawn Cemetery.
Whenever Elizabeth hit a crossroads, she would think what would Mom do? And then she did the exact opposite.
Until yesterday, when she’d quit her job, giving up medical insurance and a biweekly paycheck for a chance at pursuing the only dream she’d ever allowed herself to have. Now she was stuck in the middle of Nowhere, USA, and trying not to hyperventilate.
She needed something to eat. And a bathroom. Maybe then she could take a few deep breaths and convince herself that throwing away job security was a smart move for a thirty-year-old with bills to pay.
What had she been thinking?
That she needed a way out of a dead-end administrative job that was heading down a hellish road of bad fluorescent lighting and endless reams of computer entries and a fiancé who told her via text that, whoops, sorry we wasted two years together, but he was in love with the fifty-year-old cougar on the second floor.
And most of all, that Elizabeth wasn’t happy. She wanted more from her life, more from her days, and the only way to do that was to . . .
Do what her mom had done. Believe in the impossible, and take a leap into the unknown. Even if doing so scared the heck out of Elizabeth.
Elizabeth glanced again at the official assignment sheet from the horse-breeding magazine that had given her a chance with her first-ever freelance job. In a moment of insanity, Elizabeth had proposed an article on a topic she knew nothing about—breeding and training quarter horses. But after three hundred and seven query letters and two years of trying to break into a national magazine, Elizabeth wasn’t about to admit that to the editor at the quarter horse magazine who said yes to Elizabeth’s query letter. She’d wanted to be a writer most of her life, penning her own stories when she was a little girl, then taking on the company newsletter at Miller’s Property Management, and churning out a monthly quartet of articles. That newsletter writing, as boring and dry as it was to write yet another article on “managing weeds on your property,” was the one thing that made the rest of her days—spent doing bookkeeping—tolerable.
Then her boss decided to axe the newsletter program, which put Elizabeth square in the cold world of numbers and columns every single day, eight hours a day, with no creative break to look forward to. She’d started churning out query letters left and right, hoping for a break, any break. The original plan had been to add freelancing on in her spare time, but when Roger fell in love with the cougar, that had been enough. Either she was going to make a go of this writing thing or forever dream about the job she really wanted.
Every time she wanted to hyperventilate, she reminded herself that she had a solid six months of savings in her bank account, a strong résumé that would land her another dead-end administrative job in a heartbeat, and no ties to force her to stay in one place. And that her path of planning and schedules and responsibility had, in the end, left her lonely and unhappy, two adjectives she no longer wanted in her life. Okay, so maybe she wasn’t as impulsive and crazy as she could be. She’d done this whole thing with a safety net, after all.
So early that morning, she’d stowed an overnight bag in the trunk of her Honda, then headed out of New Jersey and down to Georgia. She had called the Silver Spur Ranch yesterday afternoon, talked to some woman named Barbara Jean, and made an appointment to meet Hunter McCoy at seven that night. An initial meeting, she thought, gather a little background information, do the formal interview the next day, and be back on the road by lunchtime.
Then she’d hit Atlanta at rush hour and spent an ungodly amount of time trying to get through the city center. By the time she got to Chatham Ridge, she was ravenous. She hadn’t spied anything resembling a drive-through in at least half an hour. Damn. She should have stopped when she was on an actual highway instead of these rural roads that rippled through Georgia like veins in a bodybuilder.
Even though it was close to seven, the temperature outside had gone from hot to holy hell in a matter of hours, and the sunny day she had welcomed when she’d stepped outside this morning had spiraled into the depths of Dante’s inferno.
Otherwise known as Chatham Ridge, Georgia. Population: Not Nearly Big Enough.
The sun was just starting to wane when there was a low, menacing rumble from above and the skies opened up. Rain began to fall in thick, heavy sheets that pummeled her windshield and taunted her wipers. Elizabeth drove slowly down Main Street, peering through the veil of water, looking for something—anything—that would sell food. The lights were off at the little white building with a hand-painted sign that read BOB AND MARY’S SUNDRIES. There’d been a single gas pump out front, a pile of cordwood stacked and bundled with a makeshift sign that read THREE BUCK BUNDLE. But it was closed, as was the hardware store, the art studio, and the bank.
Finally, she spied lights and a tiny neon OPEN sign outside a brick-front building on the corner of Main and Pecan. She pulled in, then parked and made a break for it. She’d left her umbrella at home and the storm lashed at her pale pink dress shirt and dark blue pants with fat, soaking slaps. Too late she realized she hadn’t run into a restaurant but rather a bookshop/coffee shop. She stood in the entryway, dripping a puddle onto the hardwood floors and trying to catch her breath.
A buxom woman with a pile of gray hair swirled onto her head in a loose bun came bustling forward, her arms outstretched, her face bright with greeting. Before Elizabeth could react, the woman had wrapped one arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders and was tugging her into the store and over to a small café in the corner.
“Sweetie, you look about half drowned. Come on in. Let’s get something in you and dry you off before you catch your death.” She swung a bar stool away from the counter and pressed Elizabeth into it. “You sit tight and I’ll be right back with a towel.”
Then she hurried away, disappearing behind a swinging door. Elizabeth swiped the damp hair out of her eyes and looked around the bookstore, really a converted Colonial Revival home. It was warm and welcoming, she thought, feeling like a home more than a store. The hardwood floors gleamed, their darkened planks worn and dented from years of tread. A dozen bowl-shaped chandeliers hung over the space, casting a warm bright light into the nooks and crannies. The walls were a pale straw color, with thick wood molding that had the occasional hiccup flaw marking it as hand hewn. A sign above the café counter read HAPPY ENDING BOOKSTORE, in a bright pink curlicue script. The shop was large but cozy, with rows and rows of bookcases stuffed with books that formed a rainbow of straight lines. At the back of the store, a six-pack of wingback chairs ringed a small circular table set before a fireplace with a tiny flickering flame teasing at a pile of logs, and Elizabeth wondered if that was what you got with a Three Buck Bundle.
“Here you are, sweetie.” The woman draped a fluffy white towel over Elizabeth’s shoulders, gave her a firm squeeze to cement it in place, then went back to the other side of the counter. “I’m Noralee Butler, no relation to Rhett.”
Elizabeth couldn’t help but smile. “Nice to meet you. I’m Elizabeth Palmer.”
Noralee cocked her head and studied her. “Let me guess . . . New York?”
“New Jersey. Born and raised in the lovely city of Trenton.”
“Can’t say I’ve ever been there. I hardly ever leave my little corner of paradise. I figure the Lord planted me here so I could bloom, and that’s what I been trying to do for near on sixty-two years now.”
Elizabeth had exhausted her repertoire of small talk. “Do you serve food? I stopped in just to grab something to eat. I’m supposed to be out at the Silver Spur Ranch by seven and it’s already past that.”
“Hunter McCoy’s place?” Noralee waved a hand. “Oh, I know Hunter. I’ll give him a call. He’ll understand.”
Before Elizabeth could stop her, the woman was dialing, talking to Hunter, saying something about giving this poor creature a sandwich and a sweet tea, then she covered the phone and looked at Elizabeth. “You got a place to stay, honey?”
“I was planning on staying at the Motel 6 in the next town over.” She had another thirty miles to go to get there, and maybe she’d feel up to it after she had a little something to eat.
Noralee’s brows wrinkled. “Oh, I know that motel. And believe me when I tell you their idea of a sleeping establishment is pretty light on the sleeping and the establishment. Besides all that, in this storm, you’d be lucky not to get washed off the road, straight into a ditch. Don’t you worry, honey. We’ll get you something to eat and then you can head over to Hunter’s. He’s got a house big enough to hold a Boy Scout Jamboree, so I’m sure he can put you up for a day or two.”
“I can’t stay—”
“Hunter?” Noralee said into the phone. “This girl needs a place to spend the night, too. Oh, she’s no trouble at all. You got that big old house. . . .” A pause. “Okay, good. I’ll let her know.”
This had already gotten out of hand. A journalist didn’t spend the night at the house of the person she was supposed to be interviewing. “Mrs. Butler—”
“Oh, I’m not a Mrs., and nobody ’round here calls me anything other than Noralee. ’Cept for Cooter Whitman. That man’s full-time job is giving people nicknames. Now, don’t you worry about Hunter. He’s as fine a gentleman as they come. I’m not even sure they make gentlemen like him anymore. So, sweetie, if you want to catch Hunter—”
“Oh, no, not at all. I’m here to interview him, for a magazine. Nothing more.”
“Well, won’t that put a feather in the town cap? I’m just sayin’, Hunter is the most eligible bachelor in this town right now and I haven’t met a woman yet who hasn’t fallen half in love with him from the minute he said ma’am.” She waved toward the corner of the room. “Now you go get yourself freshened up and by the time you come back, I’ll have something warm waiting for you.”
Elizabeth ducked into the tiny one-stall ladies’ room at the back of the store. She washed up and tried to do her best to clean up the raccoon eyes of her mascara and the wet tangle of her blond hair, loosening it from its usual clip and letting it hang around her shoulders to dry. She blotted the worst of the water with the towel, as she peered into a reflection that screamed needs a good night of sleep. That hadn’t happened in a long time, and she doubted it would happen today. Elizabeth sighed, then headed back to the counter.
Noralee stood there, as proud as a peacock, beaming at Elizabeth. “Glad you had a chance to get the drowned rat off you. Now you sit right down and enjoy yourself.” She patted the chair.
Elizabeth wanted to say she’d get the food to go, but then she looked down at the plate and saw a muffin as big as a grapefruit sitting there, warm and welcoming. The scent of blueberries wafted up to tempt her. Butter pooled in the crannies of the halved baked treat, and before she could think twice, she’d eaten the whole muffin and washed it down with a full glass of sweet tea. “That was delicious.”
“Why, thank you. It’s my grandmama’s recipe. Lordy, that woman could bake a porcupine and make it taste like something from a fancy French restaurant. You come by here on a Tuesday and I’ll have her praline cookies. They’re usually gone within an hour. My most popular treat, next to the books, of course.”
“It’s a very nice bookstore.”
“It was my mama’s. Course, it was a dress shop when she owned it. She was always saying to me, Noralee, you get your head out of that book and live your life. Now I’m living my life, with my head always in a book. Funny how things work out like that.” Noralee leaned in, her soft green eyes bright with interest. “Tell me what you’re reading now.”
“Oh, I don’t read much.”
“Well, that is just a crime. I will make it my mission to find the right book for you. In fact, I’m going to talk to the Southern Belle Book Club tonight and see what they think. That’s why you caught me here after hours. It’s about time for those ladies to come on in and fill this place with chatter. Their meeting isn’t for a couple days, but sometimes they come in just because they want something to eat and a place to talk. And, of course, that’s what I’m here for.”
As if on cue, the door to the shop jingled and a quartet of women dashed inside, laughing and talking as they doffed their umbrellas and shook the water off. For a second, Elizabeth felt a stab of envy at the easy roll of conversation between them, the kind that marked lifelong friendships. They seemed happy, at ease in their place in the world, and at that moment, Elizabeth wanted to stay.
She shook her head and cleared her throat. “I, uh, should get going.” Elizabeth slipped off the bar stool and reached for her purse. “How much was the muffin and tea?”
“Oh, sweetie, you don’t owe me a dime,” Noralee said. “You just promise to come on back sometime soon. I guarantee I can find you something to read that’ll change your life.” She drew out the middle syllable of guarantee, as if the word was running away.
Elizabeth had no intention of returning. She was here long enough to get the story, then get back to Trenton. With one last thank-you to Noralee and a glance at the book club, already settling into those wingback chairs by the disappearing Three Buck Bundle, Elizabeth headed out into the rain again and down the road toward the Silver Spur Ranch.
She found it twenty minutes later, tucked at the end of a long, dark road. The storm had strengthened and now Mother Nature was attacking her car with fat droplets that hammered a one-two punch at her windshield. The wind had kicked up and was buffeting her little car. Elizabeth flicked on the high beams, and concentrated on the road between quick swipes of the wipers. The ranch itself was dark, but the main house at the end of the drive was ablaze with lights flanking the front door and either end of the wraparound porch. Twin rockers sat on the porch, seeming to beg someone to sit and stay awhile.
No matter what Noralee had said, Elizabeth wasn’t staying here tonight. It wasn’t professional for one, and for another, one woman’s word that Hunter McCoy was a gentleman didn’t make it a fact. She’d get the initial meeting out of the way, then find someplace else to stay the night.
Elizabeth took a deep breath, then got out of the car, using her notepad as a shield against the rain. She charged up the stairs and raised her hand toward the doorbell. The door opened before she touched it.
A tall man filled the doorframe, literally. He was at least six-two, with broad shoulders and a commanding presence that charged the air, making Elizabeth draw in a breath. His brown hair curled a little at the ends, as if he’d gone too long between haircuts, softening the look of command his body wore. One lock of hair fell over his brow, emphasizing eyes so blue they could have been oceans all on their own. He had on worn, comfortable jeans, a thick cotton white button-down, and a glare she could spot from Alaska.
So this was Hunter McCoy.
“Sorry you’ve come all this way,” he said, “but I want to make one thing clear before we go any further. I don’t know what Barbara Jean and Noralee told you, but I’m not interested in being in a magazine.”
That was a curveball Elizabeth hadn’t expected. “I’m sorry, Mr. McCoy, but I thought my editor spoke to you—”
“She did. I told her the same thing I’m telling you. I don’t want to be in the magazine. You can stay here tonight, especially since this storm isn’t gonna lighten for at least another couple hours, then get your things and be gone in the morning.”
“But Barbara Jean said—”
“Barbara Jean means well, but she thinks our DNA allows her to make my decisions for me. I don’t want to be in a magazine. I’m a private man, and that means I like my privacy.”
“But it’s a wonderful opportunity for people to find out about your breeding operation and—”
“If people want to find me, they know how. It’s a small town, and I’m the only decent quarter horse breeder in the county. And people talk at reining competitions. Word gets around when you have quality horses.” He gestured toward the open door behind her. “Are you done letting the storm into my house?”
She debated telling him good-bye and just hitting the road again. But that would mean she had failed at her very first freelancing job on her very first day. Did she have it in her to send another three hundred and seven query letters, just to get a second chance? “I appreciate your honesty, Mr. McCoy,” she said with a smile, as if she had no problem with him refusing the interview. “And you know, you’re right. It is a long drive back to New Jersey. So if it’s okay with you, I’m going to take that offer of hospitality and stay here. I just need to grab my bag out of the trunk.” She started toward the car before he could change his mind.
She turned back.
He put out his palm. “Give me your keys. You get inside, dry off, and I’ll grab your bags.”
Elizabeth stared at him. Was this perfect stranger offering to do the chivalrous thing and get her things out of the car? In this Noah’s Ark storm? She thought of all the men she had known in her life and couldn’t list a single one who would do the same thing.
“Keys?” Hunter said again.
“Oh, oh, yes. Sorry.” She fished her keys out of her pocket and dropped them into his palm. “It’s just . . . I didn’t expect you to do that.”
“My mama raised me to be a gentleman, and not just when it’s convenient or I’m trying to impress a pretty lady.” A grin flitted across his face and filled her gut like honey drizzled on toast. Did he mean she was the pretty lady, or was he just saying that? “Wait here, ma’am.”
Holy cow. Noralee had been right. The way that man said ma’am set off a riot of fireworks in Elizabeth’s body. She fanned at her face, suddenly feeling ten degrees hotter.
He ran outside and, a minute later, was back with her small overnight bag and her briefcase, shiny new leather, bought for this very occasion. He set them by the door, then turned back to her. His gaze dropped and lingered for a moment. “I . . . uh . . . should get you a towel or something. You’re . . . soaked.”
She glanced down and realized that her shirt, which had been merely damp at the bookstore, had gotten so wet by her second run in the rain that it plastered the thin pink satin to her chest, outlined the lacy scoops of her bra and soft peaks of her nipples. Like a real-life wet T-shirt contest. Oh Lord. She yanked the briefcase up and pressed it to her chest and tried not to look disconcerted. “That would be great. Thank you.”
Hunter disappeared down the hall. Elizabeth leaned against the wall and let out a sigh. Great. So much for making a professional impression.
Her gaze landed on a small table to the left of the door. An empty crystal vase sat to one corner behind a small framed photograph of Hunter and a pretty blond woman. She was leaning into him, one hand possessive and protective on his chest, and looking up at him with a smile so wide, it seemed to last forever. Hunter had a cowboy hat tugged down on his forehead, masking his expression, but Elizabeth could see that his attention was locked on the woman in his arms. A wife? Fiancée? Girlfriend?
Regardless, it was a picture of love. Pure, unadulterated love. The kind Elizabeth had only seen in movies, and didn’t believe really existed. Heck, maybe it didn’t for Hunter and this mystery woman, either. For all Elizabeth knew, they could have had a big fight five minutes later over taking out the garbage or what to eat for dinner.
Hunter returned and Elizabeth jerked her gaze away from the photo. “Here’s a towel. Guest bedroom is at the top of the stairs on the right. I don’t get many guests, so it’s clean, but probably a little dusty. Breakfast is at eight, on the dot. You miss it, you’re on your own. Good night.”
Then he turned on his heel and disappeared down the hall. Apparently, that was the extent of his hospitality to unwanted reporters camping in his guest room. For an easy, quick assignment, Elizabeth had a feeling she was in for a Herculean effort.
Hunter McCoy stood on the front porch of the small white farmhouse that sat at the edge of the Silver Spur, sipping a cup of coffee and watching the sun rise. He’d watched near every sunrise behind his property, for as long as he could remember. Course, when he was a boy, he’d watched the sunrise with a mug of chocolate milk, standing tall and straight next to his dad and his granddad, pretending he was holding a cup of coffee like the men he’d so admired. Now it was just him running the Silver Spur. But that hadn’t stopped the morning tradition. In Hunter’s mind, it was a way to commune with his father and grandfather, maybe soak in a little of their wisdom as the sun crested over the trees at the far side of the land that had been in the McCoy family for as many generations as the state of Georgia had been in the union.
The sun started like a shy child, peeking between the trees, washing a slight gold over the long squat stables, the smooth oval training corral, the old red barn, the blooming flowers in the far pasture, then finally reaching tentative fingers across the lawn, up to the steps of the porch. The birds chattered in the trees, rising in volume as the land went from dim to bright. The horses nickered in their stalls, and from far down the road, Joey Barrett’s rooster crowed. At his feet, Foster, a furry lump of a dog that was part golden retriever, part moocher, snoozed in the early morning light.
For years, this land, this place, had filled Hunter with peace. But as he stood on the porch for the ten thousandth time, sipping another coffee he barely tasted, peace eluded him. He dumped out the coffee, then laid the cup on the railing and headed out to the stables. Work, that was his salvation. The only thing that kept him from drowning in a pit of his own misery.
He noticed the reporter’s car still sitting in the driveway, caked with mud now that the rain had stopped. She was a tiny little spit of a thing, that Elizabeth Palmer, one of those take-charge women from up north who didn’t take no for an answer. Hunter made a note to talk to Barbara Jean. He’d made it clear, hadn’t he, that he wasn’t interested in the magazine article? He wanted his peace, and by God, if he couldn’t have that, he’d at least have his days uninterrupted, one following after another until they became a blur and his mind stopped whirring.
He greeted each of the horses in turn, running a hand along their velvety muzzles. Foster followed along, nosing at the horses and moseying through the barn. Hunter stopped at the last stall and waited at the gate, but the bay roan mare inside didn’t move from where she stood at the back of the stall. He clucked his tongue. “Hey, Dakota. Wanna come see me today?”
Diamond Heel Dakota’s dark brown tail flicked left, right, and she shifted her hooves, but didn’t move. The pale-colored mare with the dark legs and dark mane and tail had been here for a week now, and had yet to warm up to anyone. Hunter never should have bought her—she was scarred and skittish and had turned mean in the years since Hunter had last seen her, and according to Billy Ray, Dakota was long past her reining days, too, especially since that accident two years ago. A practical man would have let the horse go, because seeing her made a part of Hunter hurt in ways he couldn’t begin to explain. Maybe it was guilt, maybe it was a desire to fix things long past fixing. But when Billy Ray said he was just going to send her off to the slaughterhouse, Hunter had pulled out his wallet and taken her home.
Hunter reached in his pocket and withdrew a small red apple. “Got a treat for you, Dakota.” Foster perked up, wagged his tail.
The horse didn’t move. Hunter stood there a while longer, then set the apple on the gate. “I’ll be back tomorrow, Dakota. And the day after that.”
The stable door opened, casting a shaft of light down the long wooden corridor. A single shadow followed, the long, thin figure of Carlos, who had been the right-hand man at the Silver Spur for forty years. “Hey, boss. Our girl talking to us today?”
“Nope. Maybe tomorrow.”
Carlos cast a doubtful look toward the last stall on the right. “She’s stubborn, that one. There’s a reason Billy Ray unloaded her on you.”
“She’s difficult. Not impossible.” She’s been hurt. I understand that.
Carlos chuckled. “You’re always the optimist.”
“I don’t know about that. I just see . . .,” a second chance, “. . . hope in her, for the future, for the ranch. And I want to get my money’s worth.”
Carlos shook his head and clapped a hand on Hunter’s shoulder. “You can pretend all you like that this is about dollars and cents, but I’ve known you a long time, boss, and not only are you an old softie when it comes to these horses, but you’ve also always run this business like it’s a family.”
Maybe because it was pretty much all the family he had left now. The horses, the workers, the hay in the stalls, the beams above his head. It was what got him out of bed in the morning, what kept him putting one foot in front of the other. Without the Silver Spur, Hunter would have curled up into a corner a long damned time ago. Dakota gave him a reason to try, as if healing that horse could help mend the mistakes of the past. So far, Hunter was batting a thousand.
“We got work to do,” he said to Carlos.
“We always do.” Carlos grinned, then headed off to feed the horses.
Hunter started toward the water troughs, then stopped when the front door opened and the reporter from yesterday came out onto the porch. She stood there, her face upturned to greet the sun, wearing a pair of black dress pants, low heels, and another of those silky shirts—this one dry and dark blue, which sent a ribbon of disappointment through Hunter.
He shook it off. He wasn’t interested in her. Hell, he hadn’t been interested in anyone for so long, he wondered if maybe he should add monk to his job title. He had his work, and that was all he wanted, all he needed. This little spit of a thing standing on his porch was another complication—and Hunter was going to handle her like he handled all other complications.
By shaking her off like a burr on his leg.
After Elizabeth woke up at the butt crack of way-too-early, she eyed the window in the second floor room and wondered if it was possible to sneak out without breaking a leg. Maybe if she tied the bedsheets together, or fashioned a rope out of the drapes?
She’d lain there, a hand on her chest, concentrating on long, deep breaths. She was in over her head. What had she been thinking? Why had she thought this would be a good idea? She wasn’t the kind of person to up and quit a perfectly good job just to follow some silly dream she’d had when she was an overly emotional teenager, filling lines of a composition book. She wasn’t a professional journalist—she was just some bored bookkeeper with a few newsletters under her belt and a crazy fantasy of being a writer.
Not to mention, the hunk of a man she was supposed to interview made any kind of coherent thought impossible, even if he was a little . . . prickly. In his teeny-tiny Facebook photo, most of his looks had been obscured by a cowboy hat. She hadn’t been prepared for how . . . overpowering he was up close. The kind of overpowering that made her common sense flit away.
Yes, she’d leave. Drop Hunter McCoy a note and tell him she’d forgotten a meeting with the prime minister of England or developed a sudden case of malaria. Something believable like that. She had gotten up, gotten dressed, and had her bag in her hands, ready to leave, when she heard the screen door below her open with a squeak and shut with a slap.
She glanced out the second story window, and past the edge of the porch roof, and saw a sliver of Hunter standing on the back porch with a cup of coffee in his hands. He stared at a giant field of bright yellow and orange flowers or maybe at the trees just beyond them, for a long time, a man who seemed to have no trouble staying quiet, still, at center with himself. She felt almost like a voyeur watching him. Of course, if she were a true voyeur, she’d be watching him do something else, but that was not what she was here for. Not at all. Nope, not going to happen, not today, not tomorrow.
Okay, so the man was good-looking. She’d met good-looking men before. Plenty of them.
Except none of the men she had met said ma’am quite like he did, like the word was a caress, sliding down his tongue—
Hunter shook his head, muttered something under his breath, then he tossed out the rest of the brew and headed to the barn. She watched him stride across the lawn, the dog at his heels, and lowered her bag to the floor.
Hunter McCoy walked like a man with a mission. He had purpose, confidence, in his steps, a man who knew his place in the world. She envied that.
So what was she going to do about it? Go crawling back to her dead-end job and those flickering fluorescent lights? Or was she going to suck it up, get out there, and get this interview done? One article didn’t make a career as a writer, but one article did take her a step further into the writing career she’d dreamed of since the first time she’d picked up a pencil.
She headed downstairs and out to the porch. The warm Georgia sun greeted her like a hug, and she paused midstep to take it in, let it settle into the pores of her skin. In a few hours, it would probably be hot and sticky and miserable, but right now, the air felt like heaven.
“Mornin’,” Hunter said as he returned from the barn. The word was half grunt, borderline unfriendly. In the distance, pairs of horses moved through the corrals, mommas with their foals, tails high and proud and streaming in the slight breeze.
“How early do you get up around here?” She stretched and tried to rub the sleep out of her eyes. Good Lord, the sun had barely risen and here she was, having a conversation. Before coffee. Surely, a sign of the apocalypse.
“As early as I can. It’s a ranch. Work’s never done. And in my world, the animals eat before the people.” He started to move past her.
“Wait a second, please. I know last night you said you didn’t want to do the interview—”
“I’ll say it again this morning, if need be.”
“But . . .” She refused to take no for an answer. There had to be a way to convince him that this would be worth his time. “But I can do this quick as a bunny and be out of your hair before you know it. That way you’ll make me, my editor, and Barbara Jean happy.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “You’re like a dog with a bone, you know that?”
She raised her chin, shot him a grin. “I’m from Jersey, Mr. McCoy. No isn’t in my vocabulary.”
He gave her an assessing look, his gaze sweeping over her dress pants, low heels, and a new shirt just like the one from yesterday. “Looks to me like you’re dressed to take me to dinner, not ask me a bunch of questions I don’t want to answer.”
She glanced down at her clothes. “I didn’t realize there was a dress code for an interview.”
“There is if you’re gonna be around horses. And men who work around horses.”
She could see him relenting. It was in the teasing light in his eyes, the way he had yet to leave. “I’m sure I’ll be perfectly fine in this. I wasn’t planning on talking to the horses. Just you. Surely we can sit here and—”
“Darlin’, I don’t sit for anything other than meals, and half the time, I don’t even do that. This is a working ranch, which means if you wanna to talk to me, you gotta trot along behind me all day. And if you want to be more than just a gnat on my ass all day, you’ll lend a helping hand.”
Darlin’. Oh my God. If she’d thought the way he said ma’am was sexy, that was nothing compared to the way darlin’ rolled off his tongue. She had to take in a breath before she could get her brain back into the realm of common sense. Like the part where he said he wanted her to help him, and that he would do the interview. “Wait. Did you just say that you want me to . . . help?”
“Everybody ’round here pulls their own weight. Part of the deal. You get a roof over your head and three squares, and in exchange, you pitch in.”
Pitch in? Surely he didn’t mean she’d do anything with the horses, or the barn. Maybe she could sweep the kitchen or something, uh, not ranch-y. Or domestic-y. Maybe this was a good time to tell him that her best and only homemaking skill was ordering moo shu pork. Martha Stewart would surely be horrified, but Martha Stewart wasn’t standing in Elizabeth’s Anne Klein pumps, trying to land a career-starting interview. She sensed that Hunter was the kind of man who respected hard work, and if she wanted to get him to open up, she was going to have to, as he said, pull her own weight. Or fake it.
“I’d be glad to help,” she said. “Do whatever you need.” Besides, she hadn’t planned on being here for more than a day at most. She could feign skill at whatever task he gave her for twenty-four hours. Couldn’t she?
He smirked. “Whatever I need?”
“Well . . . I mean . . . not whatever, but . . .” Damn. The man kept turning her into a stammering fool. She was a Jersey girl, for God’s sake. She could handle New York City traffic, rowdy construction workers, and uppity doormen. She could surely handle one cowboy with a Southern drawl. “I meant work. Nothing untoward, of course.”
“Of course. Nothing untoward.” The smirk lingered on his face. “If you’re going to pitch in, then I suggest you change or those pretty little shoes are gonna be ruined.”
“This . . . this is all I brought. Maybe I could run to the mall or—”
Hunter rolled his eyes. “You told me yourself, you’re a Jersey girl. Surely I’m not supposed to tell you how to dress yourself? Come find me when you have some boots and some common sense.”
He turned on his heel and started off across the lawn. Elizabeth hurried down the steps and after him. Just as Hunter had warned, her heels caught in the damp grass, thickened into mud by last night’s rain. She jerked off the shoes and ran barefoot to catch up with his long strides. The mud kicked up around her as she ran, peppering her skin and clothes.
“I’m not leaving,” she said. “I’m here to do this interview, and if that means I have to follow you around barefoot, I will.”
A grin played at the corners of his mouth. “Are you normally this much of a pain in the ass?”
She parked her fists on her hips. “Depends. Are you normally this impossible to deal with?”
The grin widened. Lit his cheeks, raised his brows. “I’m not impossible. I’m practical. I have a business to run here. I don’t need to be mollycoddling some reporter who didn’t have enough sense to bring a pair of boots to a ranch.”
“I assure you, I don’t need any mollycoddling. I am quite capable of taking care of myself.”
“You”—he took a step forward, then, before she could react or catch her breath, he swiped away a hunk of mud that had plastered itself to her face and dropped an amused glance to her mud-splattered silk shirt and dress pants—“are the very definition of a woman who needs mollycoddling.”
“You have read me wrong, Mr. McCoy.” She drew herself up, trying her best to look strong and resilient in an outfit better suited for a dinner party than an interview. And trying to pretend that the momentary touch of his finger on her forehead hadn’t ignited a flame deep in her nether regions. She must be hypoglycemic or something, because all this man had to do was breathe and she wanted to faint in his arms like some nineteenth-century virgin. “And if you allow me to follow you around today, I will do my job without interfering with yours.”
He considered her. “One time,” he said after a while, raising a finger. “You get in my way one time, and the interview is over.”
“One strike and I’m out?” She grinned. “You’re a tough ump.”
“I have to be, Miz Palmer. This”—he waved at the acreage that encompassed the Silver Spur—“land is more than just a place to raise some horses. It’s life, pure and simple, and I don’t take that lightly, not at all.”
“Neither do I,” she said.
His gaze swept over her again, discerning, disapproving, but still slightly amused and maybe just a bit curious to see where this would lead. “We’ll see about that.”
In the end, Hunter had heard his mama’s voice in his head admonishing him about being rude to visitors, and he’d led a still-barefoot Elizabeth Palmer back into the house. The fancy heels she’d had on earlier had clumps of wet grass stuck to the heel, and her pant legs were wet and clinging to her ankles. She wouldn’t last five minutes on the Silver Spur dressed like that, and that silky shirt she had on would be glued to her skin as soon as the heat and humidity started rising. The thought of that shirt plastered to her skin—just like the one last night—sent his mind spinning down some treacherous paths. Best to get her what she needed and get her the hell out of here.
He had no idea if there was a store nearby that would have what she needed, and he didn’t want to waste time giving her directions or shuttling her to town himself. Before he could think twice about what he was offering, his mouth was moving. “I have some extra women’s clothes that are about your size,” he said.
“That would be great. Thanks.” She followed him up the stairs and down the hall to a bedroom that hadn’t been opened in two years.
As soon as he stopped outside the door, he regretted doing this. What was he thinking? Offering this infernal woman, a woman he didn’t even want in his house in the first place, some clothes? These clothes in particular?
His hand rested on the knob. It was cold to the touch, a hard, inanimate sphere of brass. He rested his opposite palm on the pale oak door, as if he could feel the past through the cracked surface. His eyes closed, and his heart clenched, and bile rose in his throat.
I’ll be right back.
He’d left this door closed for two years because a part of his heart had heard I’ll be right back, and thought if he just left the room as it was, just let time stand still in that space, she would return. Roaring into his life with that throaty laugh of hers and those legs that stretched a mile.
I’ll be right back.
But Jenna hadn’t been right back. The wife he was supposed to have and the life he had planned were gone in an instant, on a rainy, moonless night. All he had left was this closed bedroom door and a granite headstone in the Chatham Ridge cemetery.
“Uh, is the door locked?”
Elizabeth’s voice drew him back to why he was here. The reporter. Damn it. This was why he didn’t want people around. Why he had told Barbara Jean to cancel the interview. Because reporters asked questions and the last thing Hunter wanted to do for anyone was provide answers.
“I just remembered I have to give Dakota some medicine. You’ll find boots and jeans in there. But don’t touch anything else. And shut the door when you’re done.” Then he let go of the handle and stepped back, spinning on his heel and heading down the stairs again as fast as he could. He heard the door open above him, and he hurried back outside before he threw Elizabeth Palmer and her questions out of his house.
Carlos was out in the paddock, working with one of the colts, giving it a beginner lesson in running the barrels. The eager colt looped in and out of the barrels, his tail high, his pace good, strong. He’d make a fine racing horse someday, and that gave Hunter hope for the future. It had been a while since the Silver Spur had had a winner on their roster. And an even longer while since they’d had a balance in the black in their books.
Barbara Jean would tell him that this interview was exactly the kind of publicity Hunter—and the ranch—needed. That even a small mention in a magazine like that would get the ranch’s name in front of the people who made the decisions, who were looking for strong, trained foals ready to drop into their racing programs.
But Hunter knew that he had to be careful. If he let this reporter start asking questions, she’d open the one door he kept locked all the time. The one in his head that still blamed himself for Jenna’s accident, the one that told him half the reason the Silver Spur was doing so poorly was because Hunter wasn’t up to the job. Hadn’t been up to the job in a long damned time.
Yet, like a glutton for punishment, he kept on trying to make the impossible work. His father would say that either made him a dreamer or a fool. Or both.
Hunter headed into the barn, ignoring the mile-long to-do list in his head, and heading for Dakota’s stable. Foster kept pace at his master’s heel, tail wagging, eager to start the day. The dog loved being around the horses, almost as if they were part of his canine family.
The apple was gone. Hunter took that as a good sign. Dakota had ignored yesterday’s apple, knocked the one from the day before onto the floor of the stable. But third time was the charm, and she’d eaten this one. He lifted the latch on the door to her stable and let the door swing open a couple inches.
Dakota watched him with wary, wide eyes. Hunter didn’t take a step, just let the door do all the moving. Foster snuck around Hunter’s legs and poked his head into the stall.
“Hey there, girl,” Hunter said softly. “I’m not going to come in there. Not going to make a move you don’t want me to make. Just standing here, talking gibberish you probably don’t understand. You have a history here, girl, even if you don’t remember it. Your momma and your daddy were amazing horses. And I bet they made you into something amazing, too.”
Dakota raised her head, rolled back her upper lip, and bared her front teeth.
“Is that horse going to bite you?”
Hunter didn’t turn toward Elizabeth’s voice. Didn’t move at all. He kept his eye on Dakota, his tone as easy and gentle as before. “Nope. That’s just her way of processing the new world around her. It’s called flehmening. Horses do it to get a better smell of new things.” Like unwanted reporters walking into the stable.
Foster edged forward a little more, his tail beating against Hunter’s leg. Dakota snorted and shifted her weight. Foster stilled, waiting until the horse calmed, then he moved another couple steps into the stable.
“Is the horse going to crush the dog?” Elizabeth asked. “She keeps moving her feet.”
“They’re saying hello. Testing the waters,” Hunter said, then went back to talking to the horse. “He’s a good dog, wouldn’t hurt a fly. You can trust him.”
Dakota shifted some more, lifting her hooves, putting them down again. Another snort, then she lowered her head, eyeing the dog. Foster just kept on wagging his tail, as friendly as an overeager neighbor.
Something trilled, and the sudden noise scared Dakota, who reared up and backed into the stall, hitting the wooden wall with a thud. Foster scooted out of the space, and Hunter backed up, still talking soothing quiet words as he moved. “It’s okay. Just a stupid noise. Won’t—”
Excerpted from "When Somebody Loves You"
Copyright © 2015 Shirley Jump.
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 The Sweetheart Sisters novels
“Jump’s stories sparkle with warmth and wit and glow with strong, heartfelt emotions. This is real romance.”—Jayne Ann Krentz, New York Times bestselling author
“Emotional and unforgettable, thumbs up for Jump.”—Lori Wilde, New York Times bestselling author
“Intriguing, heart-tugging, and splendid in its sexiness.”—USA Today
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
a young woman sent by her editor to interview a quarter horse trainer finds him surly and evasive. they dance around each other...she to get the story, and him to avoid telling it. eventually she gets the story, and they realize they have soomething special. loved this story, but then i love all shirley's stories!!!
Review: When Somebody Loves You (The Southern Belle Book Club) by Shirley Jump http://wp.me/p3d0RZ-3bc Publication Date: October 6, 2015 Genre: Contemporary Romance Reviewed by: Reading in Pajamas/ Donna Rated 4.5 Stars REVIEW: I enjoyed this light romance that was only about two people, one overly cautious and the other closed off. They were each dealing with their pasts in their own way and both a bit stubborn. I liked Elizabeth and Hunter from the start and just loved their friends and family who kept at them to see what was right before their eyes. I thought the small-town hokum talk was a bit much in the beginning so I was happy to see that ease off. This is just a feel good story set on a small town ranch and I loved it. *Review copy provided by Penguin in exchange for an honest review.
When Somebody Loves You by Shirley Jump is the 1st book in her new The Southern Belle Bookclub series. This was a very nice romance of an unlikely couple that looked like it was destined to fail, as neither of them were interested in any kind of relationship. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Palmer, our heroine, has lived all her life wanting to change her life and do what she always dreamed of doing. She uproots herself, takes a job as a journalist, and leaves New Jersey to go to a small town in Georgia, to interview and write up an article on an reclusive quarter horse breeder. Hunter McCoy is our hero, and from the start he isn’t very friendly to Elizabeth, when she arrives for the prearranged interview for her magazine. Hunter has closed himself off emotionally, after the tragic death a few years ago of his Fiancee to a tragic accident that he blames himself. Hunter is also over protective of his sister, preventing her from joining him on the ranch to help train and breed horses. Though Hunter is difficult, Lizzie finds him very attractive, and does all she can to keep her feelings private. She is openly welcomed by Hunter’s aunt and sister, as well as the ladies of the Southern Belle Bookclub. For the first time in her life, she feels comfortable, and happy in this environment, especially with new found friends. This was a fun and sweet story, as Hunter slowly falls for Lizzie, allowing his heart to melt. Lizzie already knows she has fallen for Hunter, who begins to act nice, and even romantically. They both have their own issues; Hunter learning to cope with the tragedy, and learning to let go; Lizzie being afraid to give herself a chance in a new town, with friends, and a possible love. Will Hunter and Lizzie find a way to come together? You will need to read this book to find out. Shirley Jump created some very likeable characters, and I look forward to seeing many of them get their own stories as the Southern Belle Bookclub continues.