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Excerpt for A County Girl’s Heart by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

A Country Girl’s Heart

By Dena Blake

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 Dena Blake

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

A Country Girl’s Heart

Kat Jackson is successful despite her estrangement from her parents and the loss of her wife. She’s resigned to live alone while struggling to maintain her dream ranch. When she falls for weekend cowgirl DJ Callahan, she soon fears all she knows to be true may be a cruel façade developed for her own protection.

DJ Callahan is a corporate lawyer who lives in the moment, never limiting herself to any one relationship. When DJ arrives at the Jumpin’ J Ranch, she has no plans to become involved with Kat, let alone open the door to her own past, which bubbles just below the surface, threatening to destroy her entire existence as a “big city lawyer.”

Having everything she could ever want in life, twice, is something Kat never expected. When she gets a second chance at love, following her heart will prove the hardest decision of all.

A Country Girl’s Heart

© 2018 By Dena Blake. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13:978-1-63555-135-8


This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: March 2018


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Shelley Thrasher

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design by Jeanine Henning

By the Author

Where the Light Glows


Unchained Memories


A Country Girl’s Heart

Acknowledgments

Thank you to Len Barot and Sandy Lowe for yet again giving me the opportunity to share my characters with the world. It’s still surreal to see them in print. This book is near and dear to my heart, and without my editor extraordinaire, Shelley Thrasher, it wouldn’t be the best that it can be. Shelley makes me a better writer. I’m also genuinely grateful for the BSB family; they have welcomed me completely, and the friendships I’ve made are truly wonderful.

Thanks to my big brother, Paul, for teaching me everything I needed to know about horses and rodeo. Thanks to Robyn for reading everything I write and giving me good, tangible feedback. To Kate for your direct, honest opinions and unwavering support, particularly when I’m deep into a book and don’t come up for air. To my kids for supporting me in life as well as in my writing. And always to my family for being the most awesome support system a girl could ever want.

To all you readers out there, thank you for reading. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed writing it.

For my cousin Dave, who had the most generous heart I’ve ever known. I miss you every day.

Chapter One

“I told you before, Ms. Whatever-your-name-is. I don’t want anything to do with her.” Kat slammed the phone into the cradle and whirled around to the kitchen counter. She snatched her leather work gloves from the table, threw open the screen door, and stepped out onto the porch.

Kat had tried to ignore it, but she couldn’t miss the headline plastered across every newspaper in town: Montco Oil CEO Dies in Fatal Car Crash. Just two months before, the horrific collision between her parents’ Mercedes and a semi truck had taken her father’s life and left her mother critically injured with a broken pelvis.

Squaring his jaw, Virgil scratched at the day-old, gray-spotted beard emerging from his chin. “She’s your mother, Kat. Why don’t cha just see what she wants?” he said calmly from the rocking chair positioned in the corner of the old, rickety wrap-around porch.

“I know what she wants.” Kat held her tongue. Her father-in-law obviously meant well, but he had no idea what a huge concession communicating with her mother would be. It would split open a wound she thought she’d forgotten long ago. From the twisting in her gut, she now realized it hadn’t quite healed. “She wants me in Austin to take care of her.” Kat blew the fundamental statement out with a slow, heavy breath. What came without a doubt for most children would not come so easily for Kathryn Jackson. She remembered clearly how that was her mother’s own doing.

She grabbed hold of the porch railing, tightening her fingers around it as she stared out onto the dream ranch she’d put so many years into creating. Sucking in a deep breath, she inhaled the marvelously pungent scent of horses and freshly cut hay.

Virgil’s foot teetered back and forth on the edge of the floor railing, prompting the chair to rock slowly. “Your mother needs you, Kat.”

“She needs me?” She squealed, vulnerability slipping out involuntarily. “Where was the mighty Elizabeth Belmont when I needed her?” Roughly smoothing her hair, she fastened it with a plain black hair band. “If she thinks I’m giving up everything I’ve worked so hard for to take care of her, she has another think comin’.”

Kat yanked her gloves on and headed down the steps and across the grounds to the horse stable. She didn’t want anything to do with her mother now. The only thing she’d ever wanted from her was love, and Elizabeth had never been able to give that freely.

“Will I see ya for lunch?” Virgil shouted, still settled comfortably in the rocker.

“Not till about one. I’m gonna take Minow out and check the trails for divots.” She glanced over her shoulder at him. “I don’t want any injured horses this week.” Besides that, she needed some space this morning. The constant battle between her conscience and her free will was about to do her in. After all, Elizabeth was her mother, but after what had happened between them, Kat couldn’t bring herself to see her, no matter what the circumstances. She needed to settle the problem in her mind, and the best place to be when she needed to think was out on the range.

She went inside the stable, took a bridle out of the cabinet, and continued into the first stall. “Hey, baby.” She stroked the horse gently. “You want to take me for a ride today?”

The beautiful black Arabian clicked her hooves slightly in response to Kat’s voice, and she slid the bit into the horse’s mouth.

“Okay, come on.” She led Minow out of the stall and across the breezeway to the tack room, where her custom-made saddle hung on a separate wall from the rest. Kat lifted the fifty-pound seat of leather from its peg, slung it across the horse, and cinched it tight. Minow held perfectly still while Kat mounted her and then trotted out by the corral when she nudged her sides with her heels.

Giving Virgil a quick wave, Kat took the first trail leading up the hill into the towering cottonwood trees. She weaved the horse through the massive shadowy patch of trees and emerged on the other side into the wildflower field, dotted with bluebonnets and paintbrush. She looked up into the sky and let the sun warm her face. Closing her eyes, she sucked in a much-needed breath of fresh country air. This was definitely the best way to clear her head. Riding had always been Kat’s release. Even when she was away at college and it seemed like she couldn’t manage the never-ending studying and constant pressure, all she had to do was close her eyes and she was out on the range again. The smell of wildflowers, the touch of early morning moisture in the air, and the endless sight of the vast, rolling countryside had always made her happy.

She stopped at a small stream about two miles out on the lower valley trail, slid off Minow, and propped herself up against a large walnut tree. Sleep hadn’t come easy these past few weeks, but here in her sanctuary, she could relax. She stared into the distance until her vision clouded and her lids dropped over her eyes.

Then she was there, Arizona Jackson, the only thing Kat loved more than God’s green earth. The woman who’d swept her off her feet almost ten years ago. The very same woman that her parents had forbidden her to marry.

“Arizona,” she mumbled, letting out a ragged breath. “What should I do now?” Her voice deflated, confusion filling her head. “I know I shouldn’t be bitter, but I just can’t help it.”

Without saying a word, Arizona put her mouth on Kat’s and their tongues mingled softly. Kat shuddered as Arizona unbuttoned her blouse and let her fingers tickle across her chest. After pushing the shirt from Kat’s shoulders, Arizona quickly replaced her hands with her lips, slowly roaming across the hollow of Kat’s neck to the soft skin of her breast. She let out a soft shudder, captivated by the touch of the woman she loved so much. Arizona’s mouth lingered, touching, teasing her wildly. Sensations rocketed through Kat, commanding her to react and quiver uncontrollably as she always had with Arizona.

The tremors subsided, and Kat heard the rapid rhythm of Arizona’s heartbeat pounding in her head. She opened her eyes as it faded with the dream. Arizona was gone again.

The sound of a galloping horse in the distance had replaced the comforting sound. Kat dropped her head forward, and tears streamed down her cheeks. Swiping the sleeve of her denim shirt across her face, she shrugged off the remnants of the dream and hauled herself to her feet. She stood waiting for her neighbor with her arms crossed across her chest as the pounding hooves of the horse came closer.

Victoria Maxwell was the kind of neighbor you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. A far cry from the kind of ranch owners Kat had encountered over the years, she didn’t seem like the kind of woman who would be interested in owning a ranch, much less smart enough to run one. For almost seven years, the woman had given Kat nothing but grief.

“I thought I told you to stay off my land, Victoria,” Kat shouted to the tall, surly woman on the approaching horse.

“Oh, come on, Kat.” She slung her leg easily around the rear of the horse and dismounted. “I thought we were friends.” Her voice took on its usual irritating drawl.

“With friends like you, a woman doesn’t need many enemies,” Kat said, firming her stance as Victoria strode toward her.

“You know I could be a lot nicer if you’d just let me.” Victoria backed her up against the tree.

“Not in this lifetime,” she said, tilting her head upward as Victoria’s six-foot frame towered over her. The blackness filling her eyes dampened the clean, engaging features of her long, narrow face as she moved closer and forced her mouth onto Kat’s.

“Get away from me.” Kat’s voice was muffled as Victoria’s hard mouth covered hers. She struggled against the powerful arms keeping her pinned to the tree and then decided to take another route to force her away.

A groan of pain gurgled from Victoria’s throat, and she flew back, wiping the blood from her lip. “You bit me.” She raised a hand to slap her, and Kat stood perfectly still, narrowing her eyes and silently daring her.

Victoria clenched her fingers into a tight fist and lowered her hand. “No.” Her thin lips flattened into a smile. “You’re not going to force me to damage that pretty face.” She ran her finger the length of Kat’s jawline. “You’ll come ’round eventually.” She let out a laugh and climbed on her horse. “And then you’ll be beggin’ for a lot more than a kiss.” She twisted her lips into a smile and rode off slowly.

“Stay off my land.” Kat didn’t move until Victoria was out of sight. Then she dropped to her knees and spewed what little she’d eaten for breakfast into the weeds. Just the smell of the woman turned her stomach. The thought of Victoria touching her again made her skin crawl.

Things had just started to improve financially at the Jumpin’ J when Arizona died four years ago. Although Kat hadn’t asked her, Victoria had stepped in to help with the day-to-day operation of the ranch whenever needed, making herself available to Kat under the guise of friendship. Easing herself into Kat’s life through her grief, the woman also offered some much-needed comfort in her time of loss. Kat didn’t know exactly how it happened, but out of gratitude more than anything else, she made the mistake of allowing Victoria into her bed. That was a lesson in trust Kat would never forget.

She leaned against the tree and remembered how Victoria had inserted herself into the business at the ranch and tried to take control—a testimonial to Victoria’s loathsome character. She’d taken advantage of Kat at her lowest point. Thankfully, she hadn’t given her any financial control, or Kat would’ve found herself out on the street. She didn’t know how she could’ve been so blind to Victoria’s motives. It was clear now that all she wanted was her land.

Kat hauled herself to her feet and shouted into the sky, “Why can’t they all just leave me alone?” Her voice echoed through the valley as she climbed onto her horse.

Kat looked up. If only Arizona were here now. She would know exactly what to do. She’d always been able to see through the anger and lead Kat in the right direction. She mounted Minow, kicked her heels into her sides, and the horse trotted up the hill.

After she inspected the trails without finding any major divots or obstructions, Kat made it back to the house just before two o’clock. She headed up the steps and saw the salad and large glass of iced tea Virgil had left waiting for her on the table. Entering the kitchen, she smelled the sweet aroma of freshly baked biscuits.

She slid into the old padded metal chair and scooted closer to the matching Formica table she’d bought many years ago at the antique mall in town. It didn’t look like an antique, but it certainly was aged enough. After she and Arizona had bought the ranch, Kat had furnished the house piece by piece as they could afford it. Like the rest of the furniture she’d picked out, the dining set had its own unique style.

Virgil appeared from the doorway to the living room. “Get your head cleared?”

“For today.” She glanced up and noticed his chin was clean shaven now, and he’d combed and waxed the ends of his handlebar mustache in his usual fashion.

He ducked through the doorway, crossed the small kitchen, and tugged open the oven door. Reaching in bare-handed, he cursed as he plucked the biscuits from the baking sheet and tossed them into a basket one by one. Then he slammed the oven door closed before dropping the basket onto the table.

Kat’s mood perked up a bit at his twisted expression. “I have hot pads in the drawer, you know.”

“Yeah, I know,” he mumbled, rubbing the callused tips of his fingers together.

Kat smiled. The man had his own way of doing things and was too old and set in his ways to change now.

“How ’bout I make you a little chicken fry to go with that rabbit food?” He jerked open the refrigerator door and took out a package of cubed steak.

“This is fine, thanks.” She doused the salad with vinaigrette dressing before taking a biscuit from the basket and setting it on the edge of her plate.

He tossed the package of meat on the shelf inside the refrigerator and let the door close. “You need to put a little meat on those bones if you’re gonna keep working so hard,” he said as he flopped into the chair across from her.

“There’s plenty of meat on me to survive, Virgil.” She stuffed a fork full of lettuce into her mouth.

“A hundred and twenty pounds of pure strength, right?” Virgil chuckled, raking his fingers through his thick silver hair. “Arizona always said you could take her down in a minute.”

“I think she liked it that way.” She smiled lightly before pressing the napkin to her lips.

“I bet she did.” The edges of Virgil’s mouth tipped up slyly, forcing his hazel eyes to squint in the midst of his tan, weathered face.

Kat moved a wedge of tomato to the side of her plate, and her smile faded as her morning visitor entered her mind. “I ran into Victoria by the river.”

“Pushing the boundaries again, huh?” Virgil asked, his furrowed brow reflecting his concern.

“She tried.” Kat didn’t go into the particulars, knowing Virgil might set out to take care of her himself. Acting as both her protector and mentor after Arizona died, her father-in-law had been her savior at the ranch. The squirrelly old varmint had warded off many a hostile cowpoke. Without him, Kat wasn’t sure she would’ve been able to keep the ranch running this long.

He hopped up from his chair, sending it clanging against the counter. “Why don’t you let me have some of the guys rough her up?”

“Because she’s a woman, Virgil. We don’t rough up women. Besides, you know that won’t solve anything. She’ll just come back at us with her guys.” Kat set her fork on her plate and reached for her glass. “I really need to find out how she came by that land in the first place.”

“We’ve been through this before, Kat. The records in town say it’s been in her family since before you were born.”

“Something’s just not right about those records, Virgil.” She took a sip of sweet tea. “My grandfather owned all this land. Including the portion Victoria claims is hers.”

Virgil turned the knob on the window air conditioner and then slapped it when it didn’t fire. “Damn things never work when you need ’em.” He untied the bright-red bandanna from his neck, wet it in the sink, and replaced it before picking the chair up and sliding into it. “You could always ask your mother.”

Kat flashed him a firm look of warning. “Not gonna happen, Virgil.”

Virgil’s forehead creased. “Well, where else can you look?”

“I’m not sure, but I’m going to have to find out.” She finished the last of her salad, washed her plate, and set it in the drain board to dry.

“You sure you don’t want somethin’ else to eat?” he asked.

“No. I’m good. But if you have a little extra time on your hands, maybe you could fix that air conditioner.” She winked at him as she opened the screen door. “I’ll be in the barn if you need me.”

Chapter Two

“Damn that woman.” DJ slid the receiver from her ear and slammed it into its cradle. “She won’t even let me talk.” She slapped the open file folder on the desk closed. “Hell. I’ve called her about twenty times, and she acts like she doesn’t even know my name.” She was exaggerating the numbers, but it irked the hell out of her that the woman could be so rude.

Danica Jane Callahan wasn’t used to having someone dismiss her with such venom. She sank into her high-backed leather chair and mulled over the conversation. Twisting the chair around, she looked up at the cream-colored certificates strategically placed on the wood-paneled wall behind her. This was only one of the many aspects of being Elizabeth Belmont’s personal attorney she didn’t enjoy. She didn’t care for her methods, specifically the way she’d forced DJ into completing this particular task. If she was really looking for a response, she should still be calling her daughter herself.

She knew what came next and wasn’t looking forward to it. She was going to have to see face-to-face just what kind of heartless woman wouldn’t take the time to find out how her mother was recuperating after an automobile accident.

“Marcia,” she called, shooting up out of her chair. Swiping the file off her desk, she slid it into her leather briefcase and snapped it closed.

A small, red-haired woman poked her head through the doorway. “Yes, Ms. Callahan?”

“Unless I missed something, I’m not due in court for anything this week, right?”

“No. Not this week.”

“Good. I need you to make a reservation for me at this place.” DJ tossed a small pamphlet across the desk. “And cancel all my appointments for the next few days.”

Marcia’s lip slid into a sideways smirk as she picked up the brochure. “You’re going to a dude ranch?”

“It’s business.” The type of business DJ didn’t like to conduct.

“It must be, to make you take a trip to the country,” Marcia said with a chuckle. “Can I go?” Her eyebrows rose. “I’d love to see you on a horse.”

“Just make the reservation, Marcia.” DJ picked up a few more files and brushed past her to the doorway.

Marcia followed her out. “When would you like to arrive?”

“Tomorrow.” DJ dropped the files on her desk. “I need to go by and see Mrs. Belmont this morning.” Her stomach churned. DJ knew she wouldn’t be happy with her daughter’s adamant response. DJ had been a little surprised herself. “Then I’ll be heading to the courthouse to do some research. Call my cell if you have any problems.” She walked to the elevator.

“How many days?” Marcia said.

“Two or three.” Without turning, DJ held up her hand and wiggled her fingers indecisively.

“So, I can take the next couple of days off?” Marcia shouted after her.

“Nope.” DJ shook her head. “You still have some work to do on those files I just put on your desk.” She smiled as she rounded the corner to the elevator, catching what she knew was just the beginning of Marcia’s stinging protest.

DJ took the short drive west on Sixth Street to Winsted Lane and then drove through Old Enfield to the upscale neighborhood of Tarrytown. Elizabeth Belmont’s historic New Orleans–style estate was one of the oldest in the neighborhood. DJ often wondered what it would be like to own a house in this area, but property in this part of town was priced way out of her league. This neighborhood was filled with old money and dot-com millionaires who had housekeepers to answer doors and gardeners to keep the grounds groomed. Even if she could afford it, this lifestyle wasn’t for DJ.

She rang the bell and admired the architecture as she waited. She loved these old mansions. Clandestinely embedded deep in the heart of Austin, they were extraordinary treasures. After a few minutes’ wait, the head cook, housekeeper, and self-proclaimed protector of the Belmont household met her at the door.

“Mornin’, Maggie,” she said with a nod as she entered.

“She’s upstairs,” Maggie said without hesitation. “And she’s a little on the crotchety side today, so mind your manners, young lady.”

“Thanks for the warning. I’ll try to improve her mood for you.” DJ gave her a wink and headed up the winding staircase.

“I know you will, darlin’. You’re the only one who’s managed to keep her sane for the past five years.”

Elizabeth Belmont sat propped up in bed eating her usual breakfast of oatmeal, fresh fruit, and coffee.

“Good morning, Elizabeth,” DJ said, in the usual polite manner she took on with all her clients, wealthy or not.

“What a nice surprise, Danica.” Elizabeth gave her a creeping smile. “Come sit. Have some coffee with me.”

DJ crossed the room, the heels of her shoes clicking against the hardwood floor. Picking up the small china coffeepot from the night table, she poured herself a splash before adding a touch to Elizabeth’s half-empty cup.

“I haven’t received a favorable response from Kathryn over the phone. So I’ll be heading to Kerrville in the morning.” DJ sat between the wooden arms of the small antique chair next to Elizabeth’s bed. She did so as ladylike as possible in the short chair, swinging her long legs to the side as she kept them pinned together at the knees.

“Will you be gone long?”

“That depends on how receptive she is.” DJ pinched the bridge of her nose. “Hopefully I’ll wrap it up right away. I have a lot of work waiting for me at the office.”

Elizabeth gave her a troubled look. “You remember our deal, correct?”

DJ squeezed her eyes closed as the gnawing in her stomach reappeared. “Yes. I remember.”

“You must bring her home to Austin.” Elizabeth spoke so nonchalantly, no one would ever know she was holding DJ’s feet to the fire. “You seem tired, Danica. You should really take a little more time to enjoy life.”

DJ didn’t acknowledge Elizabeth’s observation, but she was right. Looking in the mirror this morning, she’d seen the dull redness and dark circles surrounding her sunken eyes. The vibrant green color she remembered seemed to have faded to a pale sage. There wasn’t enough makeup in the world to hide the stress or her loneliness.

“Then I’d be really behind.” She tensed, thinking of the many cases she’d had to shuffle in order to make the trip to the ranch.

“Are you going to tell Kathryn who you are right away?”

“Telling her I’m your attorney might not be the best way to introduce myself.” DJ took in a mouthful of coffee and rolled her eyes slightly. “I’ve already experienced your daughter’s quick-tempered reaction a number of times on the phone.” Like mother, like daughter.

“It might be wise to become acquainted with her first. She might be more apt to listen.” Elizabeth reached into the drawer of her night table and took out an old porcelain-backed hand mirror.

DJ watched as she held the mirror up in front of her and narrowed her eyes at her reflection. “I’m not sure it will make much difference. As you know, I’ve made many calls that have gone unanswered. I don’t think she’ll be very agreeable.”

“I’m sure you’ll find a way to bring her around. For the sake of your family.” Elizabeth poked at the beehive surrounding her head, then swept a few stray strands of platinum hair into place.

“And if not?” DJ’s pulse raced as she shifted to look past the pattern of petite pink roses covering the back of the mirror hovering between them.

“Then, if nothing else, you’ll have a few nice relaxing days in the country.” Once she was satisfied every hair was in its appropriate place, Elizabeth cupped her hand behind her head and smiled before sliding the mirror into the drawer.

DJ clenched her jaw behind the cup she held to her lips. “I’ll get her here somehow.” Elizabeth Belmont had enjoyed the life of Texas high society since she was a small child and wasn’t accustomed to being disappointed. She wouldn’t be happy if she returned without her daughter, and the livelihood of DJ’s family depended on it.

“I know you will, dear.” She reached for the small china pot on the night table. “More coffee?”

“No, thank you.” The cup rattled against the saucer as DJ slid it onto the table. Carefully extracting herself from the clutches of the vintage chair, she let out a weary groan and stood up. “I’d better be going. I have a few more things to do before I head out in the morning.” This trip was going to be far from relaxing. She wanted to find out a little more about Kathryn Jackson before she landed on her turf. “Can I do anything for you before I go?”

“No, thank you, darling. Other than Kathryn, I have everything I need right now.” Elizabeth’s ruby-red lips curved into a satisfied smile.

DJ pasted on a smile and moved quickly to the door. “I’ll be in touch.”

* * *

As the elevator doors retracted, DJ could see Rosa dancing around the table to the tune playing on her iPod. The feathers swept across the table, sending dust into the air and onto the apron tied snugly around her waist. DJ set her briefcase and the bag of Chinese takeout on the decorative bench near the door and crept up behind her.

“Hello, Rosa,” she shouted, making her jump a foot.

Rosa took off her headphones. “I told you not to do that anymore! One of these days you’re going to give me a heart attack.”

DJ laughed as the woman who often boasted of being her second mother swung around and slapped an open palm to her shoulder. “That iPod is hands down the best present I’ve ever given you.”

“You’re home early today.” Rosa shrugged, impatiently turning to the foyer table to arrange the vase of fresh flowers.

“I thought I’d work a little from home this afternoon.” DJ retrieved her briefcase and food from the bench before heading into the kitchen.

“I haven’t started your dinner yet. Would you like me to make you a snack?” Rosa asked, trailing behind her.

“No, thanks. I picked up Chinese food on the way home.” She set the bag of food on the counter. “Want to join me?” She cocked her head and let the girlish grin she knew Rosa had grown to love creep across her face.

“Thank you, no. Chinese has much too much salt. Makes my ankles puff up like balloons.” She pursed her lips and blew her cheeks out.

DJ chuckled at her animated expression. Visiting with Rosa was always a treat, one of the few forms of entertainment DJ allowed herself. On the occasion Rosa did join her for a meal, DJ always came away from their conversations knowing more about life than she had before. Along with being a skilled life advisor, Rosa was an excellent cook. DJ knew she had a family of her own and didn’t like keeping her later than necessary.

“You can go on home now if you want,” DJ said.

“Great!” She gathered her purse. “My sister’s coming to visit tomorrow, and this will give me a little extra time to prepare.”

“Rosa,” DJ called as she walked to the elevator door. “I’ll be gone for a few days. Why don’t you stay home and spend some time with your sister?”

Her eyes widened and a smile spread across her face. “Oh, that would be wonderful.”

DJ couldn’t help but enjoy her delight. “I’ll let you know when I’m back in town.”

“You’d better not be eating any of that fast food while I’m gone.” Rosa turned, her eyes darkening as she assessed her. “If you’re not careful, you’ll soon be very large, like my Antonio.”

“I won’t, I promise,” she said, following her to the elevator. “Don’t worry about me. You just have a nice visit with your sister.” DJ pressed the button, prompting the doors to open, and waited as Rosa entered and the doors closed again.

DJ walked into the kitchen, grabbed a beer from the refrigerator, and twisted off the cap. After taking a fork from the drawer, she slid the food across the counter before planting herself in the plush leather bar stool and crossing her legs. As she ate, she opened her file on the Jumpin’ J Ranch and thumbed through it. She’d spent most of the day gathering as much information as she could on Kathryn and Arizona Jackson. Elizabeth had filled her in on some of the specifics, but DJ knew Elizabeth well enough to suspect she’d probably left a few things out. DJ had hoped she’d be able to take care of this matter over the phone, but as Elizabeth had told DJ many times, her daughter was just as stubborn and hardheaded as her mother, and since she wasn’t receptive to one of their calls, the trip was unavoidable.

From the financial figures she’d obtained, DJ saw that the ranch had been running in the black for the past three years. Before that it had jumped back and forth a bit, slipping into the red during the winter months, which would be considered off-season for the ranch. Overall, it looked as though the Jumpin’ J Ranch was a profitable venture for the Jacksons.

After finishing her dinner, DJ tossed the empty food cartons into the trash before going into the bedroom to pack. She rolled a small designer carry-on bag out of the closet. Rethinking her choice, she pushed it into the corner and took a navy-blue duffel from the top shelf. DJ didn’t want to be too obvious about who she was. She didn’t know exactly how Kathryn would react to her mother’s lawyer in the flesh.

She dropped the bag onto the bed and threw in some shorts and a few golf shirts, along with a flannel shirt and some colored T-shirts and jeans. When she had everything packed, she reached up to the top shelf of the closet, fetched a large box, and opened it. She hesitated before lifting the vanilla felt cowboy hat out.

She slid it on her head and turned to the mirror. The size was still right, but the hat really didn’t fit her anymore. Wearing it used to be part of her daily life, but it hadn’t been out of the box for the better part of fifteen years. Now, staring at herself in the mirror, she felt strange and out of place with it on her head.

After DJ became a lawyer, she’d never put it on again. College and law school were her father’s choice, not hers. The anger and emptiness she’d felt when she’d left the farm had faded over the years, but her love for that way of life still burned deep inside. It took her a while, but DJ finally realized her father only wanted more for her than he’d ever had himself. She definitely had that now, and it was her turn to help out the family if she possibly could.

DJ took the hat off her head, set it on top of her bag, and then raked her hand through the short hair she waxed to stand at attention every morning. That style would have to go. She’d wash it and leave the curls free tomorrow. She stripped off her slacks and blouse and hung them in the closet. She wouldn’t need any clothes like that on this trip either. She needed to be natural, or she’d never make it past the front gate.

She crawled into the massive feather bed centering the room, and all but a few of the many pillows slid off onto the floor. Ignoring the irony of her current situation, DJ propped herself up against the headboard, opened the folder she’d filled with information about Kathryn Jackson, and studied it again.

Chapter Three

DJ was just leaving the Austin city limits when she picked up her cell phone, punched in her assistant’s number, and waited for her to answer.

“Danica Callahan’s office. May I help you?” Marcia’s unusually sweet voice resonated in her ear. She must have been enjoying her time alone in the office.

“Good morning, Marcia. Did you make my reservation?”

“Barely,” she said, her voice slipping into its familiar cantankerous tone. “You’re lucky they had a last-minute cancellation. It appears the Jumpin’ J Ranch is a very popular vacation spot.”

“Really?” The ranch must be doing better than the figures indicated.

“I practically had to beg, borrow, and steal to get the woman to give you a room.” Marcia’s voice rumbled with irritation. “Then I had to listen to her speech about May being the cusp of prime season. According to her, if I’d waited another hour, there wouldn’t have been anything available until the fall.”

“I’m sorry you had to go through all that, Marcia.” DJ smiled as she smothered a chuckle at Marcia’s exaggerated distress. Marcia wasn’t the sweetest assistant in the building, but she always got the job done and usually managed to take good care of DJ along the way. “Do you have the brochure handy? I didn’t have a chance to look at it yesterday.”

“I have it right here. What do you need to know?”

“Tell me about the place.” DJ changed lanes and sped around a car.

“It says here, the ranch is made up of roughly a thousand acres of pasture and small mountain terrain located in the Texas Hill Country on the outskirts of Kerrville, Texas, about one hundred miles southwest of Austin. Close enough to drive to for the weekend, yet far enough away to escape the big city.”

“Marcia,” she said flatly. “I know where it is. Just give me some basic information about the ranch.”

“Why didn’t you just say that?” Marcia’s voice rose in irritation. “The grounds consist of a working horse stable and corral, a regulation-size rodeo arena, and various riding trails throughout the hilly terrain. There’s also a seven-acre pond stocked yearly for fishing and a river snaking through the property used primarily for swimming and kayaking.” She sucked in a breath. “Is that enough basic information for you?”

“That’s perfect, Marcia. I do appreciate your patience.”

“Oh, and they’re LGBTQ friendly. Maybe you should stay a few weeks and find yourself a wife.”

“I’m happy just the way things are, Marcia.”

“Right.” Marcia let out a breath. “Anything else?”

“Not at the moment, thanks. I’ll let you know if I need something.” DJ caught sight of a mileage sign ahead. Seventy-five miles to paradise.

“It says here to stop at the gate and push the button on the intercom for directions to the office.” Marcia’s tone sweetened. “Now, you just relax and have a good time. I’m sure you can use the break.”

“Thanks.” DJ hit the end-call button on the screen and tossed her phone onto the passenger seat.

By the time DJ drove up to the huge wrought-iron gates of the Jumpin’ J Ranch, it was almost eight o’clock and the gates were wide open. They were probably left that way during the day. They looked to be electronic and were most likely controlled by the key-card slot on the intercom. Rolling the car up next to it, she pushed the button and waited for a response.

“Jumpin’ J Ranch. May I help you?” a woman’s voice chanted.

“DJ Callahan. I have a reservation.”

“Yes, Ms. Callahan. We’re expecting you. After you come through the gates, take an immediate right, and that road will lead you directly to the registration office.”

“Thank you.” DJ threw her BMW 440i convertible into gear and sped through the gates. She drove the short distance and cursed as gravel from the road clanked noisily against the wheel wells of the car. She parked, and after superficially inspecting the black clear-coat paint, she proceeded up the steps to the registration building.

“Don’t they believe in asphalt out here?” she said to the wisp of a girl behind the counter, who was probably barely into her twenties.

“I’m afraid you’re in the country now, Ms. Callahan. Things are a little different out here.” The young woman behind the counter smiled politely. “I’ll need a credit card and a driver’s license, please.”

DJ raised an eyebrow. “Then I would think, being in the country and all, you people would be a little more trusting.”

“Things aren’t that different.” She gave her a subtle wink.

She managed a smile as she fished her wallet from her bag, then tossed the items onto the counter. “What kind of room do I have?”

“You’re staying in what we call a guest lodge, complete with a minibar and Jacuzzi.”

“King-size bed?”

“Extra-long, eighty-five inches.”

“My assistant booked it,” she mumbled in explanation. In truth, after one too many nights of sleeping in beds not quite long enough to accommodate her six-foot frame, DJ made a habit of asking before paying.

“I just need you to sign here, and you’re all set.” The girl marked the spot and handed her a pen. DJ signed and pushed the paper across the counter.

“Here’s your key card, Ms. Callahan. You’ll need it for both your room and the main gate if you come or go after hours. If you happen to lose it, just let us know, and we’ll get you another one.”

“Thanks,” she said, slipping it into her back pocket. “Where do I go to find my room?”

She slid a small map of the grounds across the counter. “Here’s where you are now.” She tapped her pen over a small structure on the paper. “And here’s your lodge.” She trailed the pen an inch or so and circled a larger building. “Go back out to the road you came in on and then take a right. After about a half mile, you’ll see the barn on your left. Take the next right. Yours is the first one on the left.”

“What are these other buildings?” She traced her finger across the map.

“Those are bunkhouses.”

She drew her brows together. “Bunkhouses?”

“They’re used for deluxe cowpoke packages. With that package, you room in a bunkhouse with up to ten other guests of the same gender.”

Her eyes widened as they flew up to meet the young lady’s. “I do have a private room, don’t I?” She’d had her fill of roommates in college and wasn’t about to put up with a bunch of cowhands snoring through the night. She was too old and set in her ways to make those kinds of sacrifices.

The young lady’s smile broadened. She was apparently amused at her frenetic reaction.

“Sort of. Your sleeping space has a sliding door, but you do have to use the community bathroom in the building.”

“That’s all you have available?”

“I did have a private room when your assistant booked, but she thought you’d like this better.”

“Seriously?” I’m gonna kill her.

The girl nodded. “I can probably have you moved to one in a day or two, but right now they’re all full.”

“It’ll have to do.” She hoped she could finish her business with Kathryn Jackson right away and wouldn’t have to stay more than a day or two.

“The rooms really aren’t bad for the amount of time you spend in them.” She moved her pen across the paper, continuing with her detail of the grounds. “This is what we call the chow shack, but it’s really just a cafeteria. The bar and the general store are located in the same building.”

“You have a bar?”

“Yep. It’s a friendly little place. Stays busy most nights with guests and townfolk.”

“What’s this little house here?” DJ pointed to an unlabeled square on the page.

“That’s Mrs. Jackson’s house. It’s off-limits to the guests,” the girl said.

“Jackson as in Jumpin’ J?” DJ kept her eyes glued to the map.

“Yep. They should probably take it off the map, but it’s a good landmark.”

DJ looked up at the girl. “She doesn’t like to mingle with her guests?” DJ’s mind was working. The house was off-limits, but the map didn’t show any kind of barrier between it and the rest of the grounds.

The girl’s lips spread into a soft smile. “Don’t worry. You’ll see plenty of her during your stay.”

“Thank you for your time, miss.” She tipped her hat and headed out the door.

A gravel road, framed in white iron-rod fencing, actually did lead DJ directly to paradise. Horses grazed in the fields, and abundant trails meandered up into flourishing, tree-covered hills. The ranch was beautiful. Almost too beautiful. As she inched the car forward, the usually dormant feelings beginning to twist in her gut overwhelmed her. Who would’ve thought the scent of horse manure would bring them out in such force?

DJ threw the shift knob into neutral and let the car glide to a stop on the side of the road. She had to get a grip on her emotions. She couldn’t very well show up on Kathryn Jackson’s doorstep with tears streaming down her cheeks. While she’d been living full-time in the city, she hadn’t had to deal with the persistent feelings that still dwelled in her heart. She wiped the moisture from her cheeks, sucked in a ragged breath, and flipped the visor mirror open to check her reflection. She removed the small amount of black from under her eyes before she popped the gearshift into place and continued farther.

Definitely a cowgirl’s paradise, she thought, gliding into the space in front of the guest lodge. The building looked like an old horse stall. Noting the old-fashioned carpentry, she laughed. That’s exactly what it was, an old horse stall. Only now, it had been framed out into separate rooms. She roamed the hallway and found her space, as the young lady called it, to be the third stall on the left. The room consisted of a bed, not very wide, but extra-long, a dresser with a mirror, and a small refrigerator. The space wasn’t great but not as bad as she’d imagined. After tossing her duffel and hat onto the bed, she walked to the end of the hall, found the bathroom, and surveyed the multiple sinks, toilets, and shower stalls. This part of the ranch wasn’t DJ’s idea of paradise, but at least the place was clean.

After unpacking, DJ went outside and took the short walk over to the little white house with blue trim. She wanted to get a look at how the ill-mannered eldest daughter of Elizabeth Belmont lived. She stopped at the corral just across from the house, slung her arms across the top railing, and nodded at the young, dark-haired man leading a horse carrying a little girl around the circle. She looked enough like him to be his sister, but at second glance, seeing the gentle way he tended to her, DJ figured he was more likely her father. DJ’s father had started her and her brother and sister riding the same way.

Chapter Four

Virgil picked up the phone on the second ring and pressed it to his ear.

“Oh yeah?” His lips curved into a wide smile.

He chuckled. “We’ll take good care of her.”

“You got another live one coming.” Virgil winced as he took a sip of hot, black coffee. “City girl, straight from Austin. DJ somethin’ or other.”

Kat kept her eyes fixed on the work schedule for the day. “Good. I can use an extra set of hands today. Is she ready to work?” The Jumpin’ J Ranch was definitely not the place to go if you were looking for a relaxing vacation. All the guests here were required to participate in the many tasks that kept it running, from cleaning out horse stalls to herding cattle. When you stayed at the Jumpin’ J, you received the full experience, which also meant pulling your own weight.

“Dunno, but I get the feelin’ she didn’t book the stay herself,” he said as he peeled away a stray fleck of peach-colored paint from the window pane.

Kat eyed her father-in-law. His voice was too cheerful. Something was up. “What makes you say that?”

“Take a look.” Without turning, he raised his hand and gave her a two-fingered motion.

Kat pushed away from the kitchen table, and the metal chair legs vibrated against the old linoleum floor. She wandered over to the screen door and peered out through the mesh. There, by the corral, stood a tall woman with a head full of short, unruly curls the color of a pearl palomino. Dressed in khaki shorts, a white polo shirt, and loafers, she leaned easily with her arms draped across the top rail of the corral, stroking Minow’s cheek.

“Not another one.” Kat let out a groan of aggravation. Plucking her baseball cap from the door peg, she slipped it on and tugged her ponytail through the hole.

Virgil grinned in amusement. “I’m sure you’ll have her whipped into shape in no time.”

“Thanks. I appreciate the confidence.” She went out the screen door, letting it slam behind her. Virgil enjoyed watching Kat break in the city folks. It drove her crazy when someone showed up expecting to be catered to as if they were staying at a luxury resort.

“Welcome to the Jumpin’ J, Ms…”

“Calla…Callen.” DJ cleared her throat. “DJ Callen.”

“Ms. Callen.” Kat gave her a slight nod of acknowledgment. “I’m Kathryn Jackson. Most people call me Kat.”

DJ casually glanced over her shoulder, and Kat got the feeling she was being checked out. The woman was attractive enough, but that kind of attention was something to which Kat had never grown accustomed.

“Do you know how to work a horse, Ms. Callen?” Kat asked in a pleasantly sweet Texas drawl.

“I’m not here to work. I’m here to relax,” DJ said as she turned to face her.

“Well, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. This is a working ranch, Ms. Callen. Everybody pitches in. Including the guests,” Kat said, her voice turning firm yet still holding its soft, feminine edge.

Not making eye contact with DJ, she led Minow out of the corral. Kat was careful not to give the solo guests any sort of encouragement. She preferred families, but unfortunately, part of her clientele consisted of single women and men looking to work more than just the ranch.

“Good morning to you, too.” DJ’s pointed tone prompted Kat to stop and square her shoulders.

Kat bit her tongue, swallowing the caustic retort waiting to roll off the tip of it. After all, the woman was a guest. Maybe she was just at the wrong place. “If you’re not up for it, perhaps you’d like to move to the lodge down the road. They have a nice pool to float around in there. I’m sure you could handle that.”

The woman’s bland expression didn’t change until one side of her lip tugged up into a cockeyed smile. “I think I’d rather stay here.”

The way DJ looked at her prompted a fleeting shiver to run the gamut through Kat. She suddenly felt like DJ was a hawk and she was her prey.

“All right then. All you have to do is walk the horse around the corral a few times.” Kat led Minow to DJ, reached up, and took the bridle off. “It goes on like this.” She slid the bit into the horse’s mouth and the leather strap over her head. “There’s another bridle on the fence.” She flipped her head toward it. “Now, if you would, Ms. Callen, please get that filly over on the other side of the corral and give her a little workout.” Kat hiked her leg up, slid her foot into the stirrup that hung just about at her waist, and then swung onto the horse. “Oh, and when you’re finished with that one, you’ll find five more in the stable,” Kat added before riding off to the barn.

What was that about? Her first instinct had been to welcome DJ, as she usually did with new guests. But when she’d caught a glimpse of DJ’s sea-green eyes, Kat’s survival instincts had kicked in at full force. She’d totally surprised herself with the attitude-filled banter she’d spluttered.

Kat climbed the steps, leaned against the loft opening, and watched DJ slip the bit into the filly’s mouth. After sliding the leather strap over the horse’s head, she stroked her gently before guiding her around the corral. A welcome breeze swept through the loft, and Kat smiled. She wasn’t impressed, just a little surprised to see that the city girl seemed to have a way with horses.

Kat was busy tossing hay from the loft when DJ came into the barn with the freshly exercised filly.

“Any particular horse you want me to take out next?” DJ shouted up to Kat, sputtering when a pile of hay flew down on top of her.

“Sorry,” Kat said, doing her best to contain a chuckle. “Stall number five, the brown one with the white spot on her nose.” She continued tossing hay on top of her. “But be careful. Sometimes she can be a little temperamental.”

Kat peeked over the edge and saw the horse tied to the barn door latch but no sign of DJ. She jumped at her voice behind her.

“Didn’t you see me standing there?”

“Geez,” she said, spinning around and losing her balance.

DJ grabbed at her arm in what Kat took to be an attempt to lessen her fall, but she was too far gone, and DJ fell along with her into the hay. Sprawled out flat on top of her, DJ chuckled as Kat struggled beneath her.

“This isn’t funny, Ms. Callen. Please move.” The weight of DJ’s shoulder smashed against Kat’s face, along with the potent smell of her cologne, was smothering. She struggled and twisted, fighting to catch just the smallest amount of fresh air.

DJ eased up onto her elbows, and her smile widened when Kat put both hands on her shoulders and shoved DJ off to one side.

“Ouch.” DJ’s smile faded quickly.

Kat shrugged, scrambling to her feet. “Really? Like little old me could actually hurt you.”

“I’m not kidding,” DJ said gruffly, her voice showing definite signs of anguish.

Kat brushed the hay aside and saw that three out of four pitchfork tips had punctured the fabric of DJ’s shorts.

“Oh my God!” She dropped to her knees and quickly removed the implement.

“Hey, take it easy there.” Her voice rose momentarily.

Kat pushed DJ’s shorts up slightly to examine the small scratches. She swept her fingers across the bare skin below them, and DJ tensed momentarily, magnifying the muscle in her thigh.

“They’re just flesh wounds.” Kat lifted the fabric to check for further damage and hesitated when a rush of warmth cursed her body. “You’ll be all right.” She took a bandana from her pocket, soaked it with bottled water, and cleaned the wounds.

“You sure?”

“Uh-huh.” DJ would be fine, but Kat didn’t know what the hell was going on with her. She dropped the cotton fabric quickly and offered DJ her hand, hoping she didn’t notice the heat simmering in her cheeks. “If you go over to the house, Virgil will tend to it for you.”

“Thanks.” DJ rubbed her thigh gently as she stood up. “I’ll take care of it myself.”

“Suit yourself,” Kat said and returned to moving the hay.

DJ descended the steps and stood just beneath the loft.

“If you’re sure you’re okay, those horses still need to be worked.” She tossed another pile of hay on top of her. “Oh, and you might want to cut back on the cologne a bit. The horses don’t care for it much.”

“Do you see me standing here?” DJ shouted, brushing the hay from her shoulders.

“Yep.” Kat tossed another pile over the edge and smiled. “If I were you, I’d have moved by now.”

“People actually pay for this?” DJ left the barn, plucking hay from her hair.

* * *

Kat pushed the hay to the side and stood at the edge of the loft opening. Plenty of guests were in the corral today, but without the faintest idea why, Kat kept her eyes glued on one in particular, DJ Callen. She just couldn’t seem to take her eyes off the city girl with the muscular thighs.

She watched her lead another horse out of the stable and gently stroke the powerful animal before sliding the saddle onto its back. After cinching it tight, she tried to put her foot in the stirrup, and the horse jerked away quickly.

Kat could see DJ talking as she circled around to face the horse. She stroked the horse’s neck and seemed to be soothing it with her voice until the animal rested its head on her shoulder. Then she moved slowly next to the horse and slid her foot into the stirrup again. The horse stood perfectly still for DJ this time, and she mounted her easily. Riding slowly at first, she had the horse worked into a gallop before they went up the trail and into the trees.

Kat skipped down the steps and smiled to herself about the unwavering stranger. Not as much of a city girl as she makes herself out to be after all. She filled the water barrel in the corral before walking across the yard to the house. Virgil met her at the door with a large, cold glass of water.

“Hot out there today, huh?”

“Muggy is what it is.” Kat drank half the glass and let out a sigh of satisfaction. “And it’s not even summer yet.”

“What were you and the new gal doin’ in the barn for so long?” He folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the counter. “She had quite a grin on her face when she came out.”

Kat finished her water and wiped the small trickle running down her chin. “She’s a little clumsy. She tripped and fell on me in the loft.” Virgil didn’t need to know the woman had scared the bejesus out of her.

“Oh, yeah?” He smiled curiously. “That all?”

Kat turned to the sink to refill her glass. “I forked her,” she mumbled, bringing the glass to her lips again.

“You had sex with her?” His voice cracked in surprise.

Kat’s eye widened and she choked, sucking enough water in her lungs to strangle herself. “Certainly not, Virgil.” she sputtered, dragging her sleeve across her face. “She fell on me, and when I pushed her off, she rolled onto the pitchfork. It scratched up her leg.”

Virgil chuckled and smiled sheepishly. “I’m sorry. It just sounded like you said…”

“Like I ever talk like that. You need to have your ears checked, Virgil.” She raised an eyebrow and brought the glass to her lips again. “Or your mind scrubbed.” The picture of the city girl’s cream-skinned thigh popped into her mind, and Kat shuddered. “Maybe we both do,” she mumbled, yanking the screen door open and going outside. Virgil had beaten her to the thought. Her imagination hadn’t made it quite as far as his yet, but after seeing that bare skin, that’s where it was heading.

* * *

Kat slipped out of Minow’s stall and waited until she saw her newest guest go into the general store. She’d had enough interaction with the city girl today. Spending her time running around in circles, accomplishing absolutely nothing, didn’t make for a productive day on the ranch. She hurried across the yard, up the steps, and jerked the screen door open.


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