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Excerpt for Comrade Cowgirl by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Comrade Cowgirl

By Yolanda Wallace

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2019 Yolanda Wallace

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.

Comrade Cowgirl

For cattle rancher Laramie Bowman, family always comes first. After her brother is injured in a rodeo accident, she accepts a lucrative position in remote Godoroye, Russia, to help pay his medical bills. When she meets the woman assigned to be her interpreter, however, her heart might end up getting lost in translation.


Anastasia Petrova would prefer to remain on the front lines of the seemingly futile fight for gay rights in her conservative homeland, but dwindling finances force her to leave Moscow to take a full-time job working as a translator for a pair of American trainers on a start-up cattle ranch. If she comes out to her new coworkers, she could lose the job she so desperately needs. But when she meets gorgeous cowgirl Laramie, how can she possibly deny her feelings?

What Reviewers Say About Yolanda Wallace’s Work

24/7


“This story is intense, exciting, a bit erotic, romantic and very, very good!!”—Prism Book Alliance


 “Ms. Wallace as always delivers an entertaining read that is fun and well researched. Thrill seekers this is your book.”—The Romantic Reader Blog



Break Point

“I adored this book. I’m not big into tennis but I cared about both of the main characters. I like that they both basically stuck to their morals to do the right thing rather than the thing that people were trying to make them do instead.”—Blow Pop’s Book Reviews


“Wallace captures the spirit of the time, from the changing attitudes of the Great Depression, to the terrifying oppression of the Third Reich, working in real events and people to construct a vibrant setting. The romance is strong…”—Publishers Weekly


“[Break Point] is so full of suspense, gads I nearly bit my fingernails to the quick! The characters are so easy to care about. The near constant anxiety as I worried endlessly for Meike’s life was almost too intense. It was interesting to see Helen grow and so painful to see what Meike was put through but when they were together it was such a relief!”—Prism Book Alliance


Break Point is a heart wrenching story set at the height of WWII with a refreshing perspective—of Germans who do not endorse of the actions of Hitler and his henchmen and of an American being manipulated by an FBI agent for government purposes. This is countered with the love story of two people, who might be destined to find completion together, but first, they must overcome obstacles that sometimes seem impossible—a compelling tale of history and compassion, destiny and enduring love.”—Lambda Literary Review


“If you are a sports fan this book will definitely appeal to you. …[A] well written tale.”—The Romantic Reader Blog



Divided Nation, United Hearts


“I found myself totally immersed in the story of Wil Fredericks, a woman who runs away to join the Union army disguised as a man and meets the woman of her dreams. …Yolanda Wallace has managed to write a wonderful love story set against the worst of times. I loved it and highly recommend this book. Five stars!”—Kitty Kat’s Book Review Blog


“Divided Nations, United Hearts delivers on its promise.”—Just Love Reviews



Tailor-Made


“An enjoyable romance that hit several harder-to-find demographics in the lesbian romance market: a religiously observant protagonist, an interracial relationship, and a gender-nonconforming protagonist.”—Veronica Koven-Matasy, Librarian, Boston Public Library


“Wallace has proven to be a varied writer who crafts diverse characters in a wide range of settings, and this take on a simple, sweet, butch/femme love story really showcases her soft writing style and firm grasp of lesbian romance. This story reads easily and flows smoothly. It had me smiling from the first page”—Love Bytes Reviews



True Colors


“[In True Colors], Robby has three jobs, none of which is likely to endear her to the President or his advisors. As well as working in her friend’s shop, she also writes a pseudonymous political blog and performs as a go-go dancer in a popular lesbian bar. When [the President’s daughter] Taylor asks her on a date, Robby at first thinks only of the gossip she might pick up for her blog. As the two grow closer, however, Robby—as well as Taylor—has to work out how much, if any, of her life she is prepared to sacrifice for love. I really enjoyed this book. …I definitely want to investigate this author’s back catalogue as soon as I get some spare reading time.”—The Good, The Bad and The Unread



The War Within


The War Within has a masterpiece quality to it. It’s a story of the heart told with heart—a story to be savored—and proof that you’re never too old to find (or rediscover) true love.”—Lambda Literary Review



Rum Spring


“The writing was possibly the best I’ve seen for the modern lesfic genre, and the premise and setting was intriguing. I would recommend this one.”—The Lesbrary



Murphy’s Law


“Prepare to be thrilled by a love story filled with high adventure as they move toward an ending as turbulent as the weather on a Himalayan peak.”—Lambda Literary Review



Lucky Loser


“Yolanda Wallace is a great writer. Her character work is strong, the story is compelling, and the pacing is so good that I found myself tearing through the book within a day and a half.”—The Lesbian Review

Comrade Cowgirl

© 2019 By Yolanda Wallace. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-63555-376-5


This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, New York 12185


First Edition: March 2019


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: Cindy Cresap

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Jeanine Henning

By the Author

In Medias Res

Rum Spring

Lucky Loser

Month of Sundays

Murphy’s Law

The War Within

Love’s Bounty

Break Point

24/7

Divided Nation, United Hearts

True Colors

Tailor-Made

Pleasure Cruise

Comrade Cowgirl


Writing as Mason Dixon:


Date with Destiny

Charm City

21 Questions

Acknowledgments

I always empathize with my characters when I’m working on a manuscript. Since this book is set on a Russian cattle ranch, I alternately found myself freezing from nonexistent frigid temperatures and craving cheeseburgers that were all too real. Note to self: pick a warmer (and less fattening) locale next time.

Writing is hard work, whether you’re working on your first book or your twentieth. Though it doesn’t get any easier over time, it does get to be more fun. I had a blast writing Comrade Cowgirl, and I hope you enjoy spending time with the characters as much as I did.

I would like to extend my usual thanks to Radclyffe, Sandy, Cindy, and the rest of the Bold Strokes Books team for providing the incredible support system that allows me to continue indulging my favorite hobby.

I would also like to thank the readers for their continued support. You. Are. Awesome.

As always, I would like to thank Dita for continuing to put up with me and all the characters in my head. Ride ’em, cowgirl!

Dedication

To Dita,


Your love of Westerns finally rubbed off on me.

Chapter One

Laramie Bowman hated hospitals. She hadn’t been inside one since she was born. Leave it to Trey to break her streak. Then again, breaking things was something her big brother was especially good at.

There were two hundred six bones in the human body and Trey had broken at least a dozen of his over the years, some more than once. And that was before he had decided to leave the family ranch behind in order to pursue his dream of finding fame and fortune on the rodeo circuit.

Trey was an excellent roper and he could wrestle steer with the best of them, but he was only a fair bull rider, the rodeo event that garnered the most attention from fans and media alike. Thanks to his skills in the timed events, he had been able to rack up enough points to win several competitions. He had the requisite collection of gaudy trophies and even gaudier belt buckles to show for it. More often than not, though, he finished well off the podium but inside the top eight, earning him just enough money to keep fueling his dreams.

His goal was to win one of the major events on the circuit so he could sign a lucrative endorsement deal and save some of the money he spent keeping himself and his horse fed and his piece of crap truck on the road. The sturdy pony was fairly young, but the ancient Ford was on its last legs. Depending on what the doctor said when he got out of surgery, Trey’s rodeo career might be, too.

Laramie held her hat in her hands as she paced the halls of Broken Branch General Hospital. Trey had been hurt before, but never this bad. She closed her eyes while images of Trey’s accident played through her mind.

Trey had lasted the full eight seconds on the bull he had been riding, a fifteen-hundred-pound Brahman with a bad disposition and an even worse reputation. When he had jumped off the bull and attempted to clear the ring so he could see how the judges had scored his ride, the bucking, spinning bull had made an unexpected turn.

The animal’s huge haunches had caught Trey in the side, sending him flying through the air. The crowd, Laramie included, had watched in horror as Trey had slammed into the unforgiving fence surrounding the ring. The bullfighters, once known as rodeo clowns, had prevented the bull from charging Trey’s broken body as he lay unconscious in the dirt. Now Laramie and her parents were waiting to see how much damage had been done.

Laramie fingered the bib number pinned to her denim shirt. She had entered the women’s barrel racing event so she could test her skills against Sherry Sampson, the sixty-year-old living legend who was favored to win the world championship for the umpteenth time, but she hadn’t had a chance to tackle the cloverleaf-shaped course before she had rushed out of the stands to kneel by Trey’s side. She had wasted her entry fee and a chance to earn a semi-decent prize check, but no matter. For her, family was more important than monetary rewards.

Rodeo was something she occasionally did for fun. It wasn’t a way of life. Ranching was. All she had ever wanted to do was follow in her father’s footsteps. To carry on the family legacy. She wished Trey felt the same. If he did, chances were he wouldn’t be in the mess he was in now—busted up and out of commission for the foreseeable future.

“Trey’s been into worse scrapes than this and came out smiling,” Laramie’s mother, Nancy, said. “He’ll be fine this time, too.”

Laramie didn’t know who her mother was trying to convince, the friends and family members crowded into the small waiting room, or herself.

Laramie’s father, Thaddeus Bowman Jr., was the quintessential cowboy. Hardworking, honorable, and economical with both his affection and his words.

“Yep.” He patted Laramie’s mother’s knee. “He’s a tough one, all right.”

“He gets it from you, Thad.” Shorty Johnson, one of the hands on Laramie’s family’s ranch, chuckled as he scratched his stubbled chin. The creases in the deep lines etched around his mouth were stained with tobacco juice. He was one of the wisest men Laramie had ever met, but he obviously hadn’t learned not to spit into the wind. “I remember the time you worked all day with a busted leg because you was too stubborn to admit it was broke.”

Laramie’s father’s mustache twitched as he tried not to smile. “I reckon that might have smarted some.”

“Hell, it hurt me, and I ain’t the one who was stuck in a cast for two months.”

Chuck Kelsey and Grant Mills, two other ranch hands, joined in the fun.

“That’s ’cause the docs can’t make casts small enough to fit your skinny frame,” Chuck said. “Anything they tried to put on you would probably slide down your leg like a stretched-out sock.”

“I ’spect they’d have to try the kids’ size,” Grant said.

“Sounds about right.”

Chuck and Grant, whose combined age was nearly a decade less than Shorty’s, shared a laugh at the older man’s expense.

Shorty’s ears turned red like they always did whenever someone got his goat. He stretched himself to his full five feet six inches and puffed out his scrawny chest. “I might be small, but I still pack a punch. Do either of you cocky bastards want to try me on for size?”

“You boys settle down now,” Laramie’s mother said. She treated all the ranch hands like family, whether they were related to her or not. They gladly returned the favor. Some hadn’t been home in so long she was practically the only mother they had. “This isn’t the time or place for all that foolishness.”

Chuck and Grant stared at their worn boots as they mumbled words of contrition.

“Sorry, Miss Nancy.”

“You’re right, Miss Nancy. Apologies.”

Shorty and Laramie’s mother were about the same age, but he looked chastened, too. “Is there anything you need us to do for you while we wait?”

“You can say a prayer or two in the chapel if you’re of a mind.”

Shorty looked like he was willing to do anything in the world except that. He ran a work-roughened hand through his thinning salt-and-pepper hair. “I’ve never been on what you might call a first-name basis with the man upstairs, but I’ll give it a try if you think it might help. Come on, boys. Let’s go take a knee.”

Chuck and Grant followed behind Shorty like a couple of calves trying to keep up with the herd. They had been doing that since the day they were hired. Even though he’d say otherwise if asked, Shorty liked their attention. They teased him sometimes, as young men were known to do, but when it came time to work, they didn’t hesitate to follow his orders. Shorty was their mentor and they, like the rest of the ranch hands, were willing to work themselves into the ground in order to earn his respect.

After Shorty, Chuck, and Grant left, Laramie’s mother turned her attention in Laramie’s direction. “Sit down before you wear a path in the floor.”

Laramie didn’t like sitting still. After countless years of twelve- to fourteen-hour days, she was used to being on the move. To always having something to do besides sit and wait and imagine the worst. But she dutifully did as she was told.

“Are you worried about Trey?” her mother asked.

Laramie shook her head as the clock on the wall silently marked the passing of another hour. “He’s too stubborn to go out like this.”

“Then what’s on your mind?”

Laramie didn’t want to say, but her parents had taught her to be unfailingly honest.

“I’m worried about how we’re going to pay for all this. Insurance covers only so much, and the ranch’s finances are tight as it is without adding Trey’s medical bills to the mix. If he gets out of—” Seeing her mother’s stricken expression, she quickly corrected herself. “When he gets out of here, he’s probably going to be in rehab for a while. Physical therapy isn’t cheap.”

Her father regarded her through narrowed eyes. “Are you thinking about accepting that job offer?”

Laramie nodded. “I don’t see any other way.”

A few months before, the ranch was one of many in the area that had received an email from Sergei Ivanov, a Russian businessman whose fortunes had taken a hit after the bottom fell out of the oil market. To recoup his losses, he had decided to join the recently reinvigorated Russian agricultural industry. He bought thousands of acres of pastureland in the central part of the country, stocked it with cattle, and hired a bunch of locals to feed and care for them.

According to Sergei’s email, the locals didn’t have any idea how to do the jobs they had been hired to do, and he was on the lookout for two experienced ranchers to show them the ropes. Preferably American and preferably from Wyoming since the state’s climate was so similar to central Russia’s—relatively mild in the summer and nearly desolate in the winter.

Laramie’s father had taken one look at the amount of money Ivanov said he was willing to pay and laughed off the email as too good to be true. Laramie, however, hadn’t been able to dismiss the offer so easily. If Sergei was true to his word, he could provide her and her family a much-needed lifeline.

“Are you sure?” Laramie’s mother asked. “You’ve always been a homebody, and that place is an awful long way from home.”

“It typically takes two to three years to take a herd from ranch to market,” Laramie said. “If the hands are fast learners, I’ll be back in no time.”

“And what if they take a while to catch on? Their winters are just as long and cold as ours. What will you do if you get lonely? You can’t spend every night taking potshots at starving predators trying to make a meal out of the cattle. When it’s twenty degrees below outside, it feels pretty good having a warm body to snuggle up to.”

Laramie knew what her mother was getting at. Homosexuality was illegal in Russia. Even though Laramie didn’t wrap herself in the rainbow flag or march in pride parades, she had always been honest about her sexuality. Doing so in Godoroye, the small town where Sergei Ivanov’s ranch was located, could result in a much more serious rebuke than the occasional frown of disapproval she and a girlfriend received when they sat too close to each other in the bleachers at a college football game or slow danced in a cowboy bar.

“His company’s offering four times what I can make here. For that amount of money, I can stand a few lonely nights.”

“Three years’ worth?” Her mother turned to her father for backup. “Are you really going to let her do this, Thad?”

Laramie’s father started to say something, but he clammed up when Lloyd Whitaker, Trey’s surgeon, walked into the waiting room. Dr. Whitaker’s paper cap was soaked with sweat, and his scrubs were stained with blood. Trey’s blood.

Fearing the worst, Laramie swallowed hard. “How is he, Doc?” she asked as her parents clung to each other for support.

Shorty, Chuck, and Grant returned from the chapel just in time to hear the prognosis.

Dr. Whitaker removed his surgical cap and took a deep breath before he began to speak.

“When Trey was brought in, he looked like he’d been in a car crash. He had a ruptured spleen, four cracked ribs, a broken clavicle, and a dislocated hip, but we managed to repair the damage. He has a long road ahead of him, and he might need to have his hip replaced one day if arthritis sets in, but he’s going to be fine.”

“Oh, praise Jesus.” Laramie’s mother dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “When can we see him?”

“He’s in recovery now. I plan to keep him sedated a while longer. His body needs time to heal. I’ll fetch you as soon as he starts to come around.”

“Thanks, Doc.” Laramie’s father pumped Dr. Whitaker’s hand. “I appreciate what you did for my boy. The next time you need a case of steaks, just say the word.”

Dr. Whitaker squeezed Laramie’s father’s shoulder. “Let me get him back on his feet first, Thad, and I’ll be sure to take you up on that.”

“Tell it to me straight, Lloyd.” Shorty asked the question that was on everyone’s mind. “Will he ride again?”

Dr. Whitaker chuckled as he tried in vain to smooth his tousled hair. “Based on the extent of his injuries, I wouldn’t recommend it. But he’s a Bowman, so I know better than to tell him no. That will just motivate him to try even harder to prove me wrong.”

“Like father, like son,” Shorty said as he, Chuck, and Grant exchanged jubilant slaps on the back. “I told you he’d pull through.”

“Yes, sir, you sure did,” Chuck said. “If you’ll excuse us, Mr. and Mrs. Bowman, we’ll be getting back to the ranch now. It’s still light out and we’ve got work to do.”

“Thanks for coming, boys,” Laramie’s mother said. “Make sure you get something to eat before you work yourselves into the ground.”

“Yes, ma’am. We sure will,” Grant said. “Pearl isn’t as good a cook as you are, but she won’t be getting any complaints from me tonight, that’s for sure.”

After everyone cleared out of the waiting room, Laramie’s father took her by the arm and turned her to face him.

“If you’re taking that job just for the money, don’t. We’ll make a way somehow. We always do. But if you look me in the eye and tell me you’re doing it for the adventure, I will drive you to the airport myself.”

Laramie was daunted by the idea of spending three years in a foreign country with no idea how to speak the language or what the local customs were, but she was thrilled by the challenge. She had been in Trey’s shadow since they were kids. She had never minded it before, but maybe this was her chance to shine.

“Ranching’s my life,” she said, “but I always dreamed I would see more than the backside of a steer one day.”

“So did I,” her father said with a faraway look in his eyes, “but I guess my kids will have to do it for me.”

He draped his arm across her mother’s shoulder, signaling the matter had been settled. Her mother didn’t look happy, but Laramie knew she could count on her to support her decision. Whether her mother agreed with her or not, she trusted Laramie’s judgment.

“Watch out for yourself over there.” Her mother’s grip was firm, but her hands trembled as she held Laramie’s hand in both of hers. “Don’t forget where you came from. And, most importantly, don’t forget who you are.”

Laramie returned the pressure. “Never.”

She was a Bowman. It might not mean much where she was going, but it meant everything to her.


* * *


Anastasia Petrova ordered a kvas and turned her back to the bar. Even though she was in what was supposed to be a safe space, she couldn’t afford to let her guard down. Lyubov was the most popular gay club in Moscow, which made it a target for everyone who wanted to see the club shut down and its regulars thrown in jail for daring to frequent an establishment that catered to queers. That could be anyone from government officials to private citizens.

The fight for gay rights in Russia was an uphill struggle. It had been for years. None of the various organizations Anastasia had joined had been able to gain much traction in the seemingly hopeless battle to have some of their country’s more provincial laws overturned, namely the ones that labeled her and her friends as criminals simply for being who they were.

The current regime’s propaganda machine was much more effective at getting the word out than Anastasia and her cohorts were, but she refused to admit defeat. She spent her mornings organizing protest marches that yielded little to no results, she spent her afternoons trying to hand out flyers to disinterested or downright hostile passersby, and she preferred to spend her nights gleefully breaking most of the laws she hoped to eventually abolish.

“Would you like to open a tab?” a bartender in a black mesh tank top and gold hot pants asked as he filled a chilled mug with a fermented beverage made from rye bread.

“No, thanks.”

Anastasia slid a few rubles toward him. The cover charge had taken a large bite out of her limited budget. She needed to go easy tonight if she wanted to have enough money to pay her half of this month’s rent. One drink, perhaps two if she met someone she wanted to impress, but certainly no more than that. Otherwise, Mischa would be on the hunt for a new roommate, and she would be looking for a generous friend or sympathetic ex-lover who would allow her to sleep on their couch until she saved enough money to get a place of her own.

Mikhail Ivanov ordered his usual mors and leaned forward to check out the bartender’s ass as the bartender poured the drink. Kvas was slightly sweet, but mors wasn’t nearly as subtle.

“How do you drink that stuff?” Anastasia asked as Mischa gave the bartender a generous tip, along with his phone number. The non-carbonated fruit drink he favored was made from berries, fruit juice, water, and enough sugar syrup to send her into a diabetic coma.

“The same way I do everything else: with style.” He took a sip of his drink and checked out their surroundings. “This place is usually packed on Fridays. The crowd’s so thin tonight everyone will be going after the same people.”

“You’re not afraid of a little competition, are you?”

“No, having to work for it makes the conquest that much sweeter.”

“Not as sweet as that drink you’re guzzling.”

“You’re just jealous because I can drink as many of these as I want without having to worry about losing my girlish figure.” Mischa struck a pose like a supermodel on the cover of a fashion magazine. “But seriously. Where is everyone?”

“Didn’t you hear? There was another crackdown last week. A marriage equality meeting I was attending was broken up by a group of anti-gay vigilantes who chose to practice their own version of conversion therapy using crowbars instead of psychobabble. They cracked a few heads, but no one was seriously hurt.”

Mischa’s mascara-accented eyes widened. “Are you okay?”

“I escaped out the back door before they managed to surround the place. That’s why I always insist on meeting in venues that have more than one exit. Nothing ever happens to me. I’m bulletproof, you know that.”

“You’re lucky is what you are, but everyone’s luck runs out eventually. I’m worried about you, Ana. You’re starting to make a name for yourself. You need to be more careful.”

“I need to be less out, you mean?”

“You need to learn to play the game. How many jobs have you lost because you insisted on telling your bosses and co-workers that you’re a lesbian?”

Anastasia lowered her eyes. “Too many to count.”

“And what will you do if the next employer decides that firing you isn’t good enough and reports you to the authorities instead? You could be labeled an enemy of the state. No one talks about it, but everyone knows what happens to those people. Do you want to be the next person who dies or disappears under mysterious circumstances?”

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you actually cared about me.”

Anastasia tried to muss his perfect hair, but Mischa grabbed her hand before she could.

“I need you to stop joking around and listen to me for once.”

Anastasia was rendered mute by the seriousness in Mischa’s tone. She often teased him about sounding like a nagging aunt. Tonight, he was even worse than usual. She knew he meant well, but she wasn’t accustomed to having people worry about her. To having someone care. She wasn’t sure if she liked it.

She had been forced to fend for herself almost from the minute she was born. Her parents, whoever they were, had left her on the steps of an orphanage in Drezna when she was a few days old. She and dozens of other kids had grown up in that accursed place. Some had eventually gotten adopted. Others, like her, hadn’t been so fortunate. She had run away when she was seventeen and had been on her own ever since.

An armchair psychologist would probably tell her she fought so hard to update the definition of family because she didn’t have one of her own. Their arguments might have merit, but she wasn’t in the habit of self-examination. She had more important things to do than sit around navel-gazing. Like changing the world, for starters. Tonight, though, she’d settle for a drink, a few laughs, and a beautiful woman to share both. After, that was, she listened to Mischa’s latest lecture.

“I’m not asking you to go back in the closet,” Mischa said. “I know the very idea is anathema to you.”

“Then what are you asking me to do? Be one person by day and another by night like you?”

In the mornings, Mischa dressed as conservatively as the other cubicle-dwelling drones in the accounting firm he worked for. When the workday was done, out came the makeup and more daring fashions.

“I’m the same no matter where I am or who I’m with,” she said. “Anything else is too much work.”

“We both know you’re allergic to that, right? Is that the real reason you can’t keep a job? Because you’re too lazy to make the effort?”

Anastasia winced. Mischa’s barb had unexpected sting.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. Come here.” He set his drink on the bar and gave her a hug. “I admire you for not playing by society’s rules. Maybe I’m a little envious, too. I want to tell my family who I really am, but they wouldn’t understand.”

“Then it’s a good thing I don’t have a family.”

Anastasia took a sip of her kvas to help her stomach the lie. She tried not to get too attached to anyone so she wouldn’t end up getting hurt, but sometimes she yearned to belong to someone so badly she couldn’t stand it.

“Do your parents still think I’m your girlfriend?”

Mischa laughed. “Mama keeps asking why it’s taking me so long to make an honest woman out of you.”

“You should tell her that’s never going to happen.”

“I’ve tried. She just changes the subject from weddings to grandkids.”

Anastasia nearly choked on her drink. “I love you, Mischa, but not like that.”

“The feeling is mutual, believe me.” He was quiet for a moment, then he gave her a tentative glance. “Are we okay?”

“Yeah, we’re okay,” Anastasia said as she locked eyes with a gorgeous redhead who was sending her all the right signals.

When the woman offered her an enticing smile, Anastasia knew she’d be taking her home tonight. She didn’t want to make her move too soon, though. There was no need to rush what felt like a sure thing.

“My finances aren’t okay, but we are.”

“If you don’t mind a change of scenery, my uncle has a job you’d be perfect for.”

“Which uncle?”

“Sergei.”

Anastasia frowned. “Isn’t he the guy who has memorized all the lines from John Wayne’s movies and asks everyone to call him Duke? The braggart who says the city of Ivanovo was named for your family but doesn’t have any evidence to prove it?”

Mischa nodded. “He’s a little weird, but he’s a good guy.”

“Is he still rich?”

“Not as rich as he used to be, but he still has more money than most.”

“What’s the job?”

“He recently got out of the oil business and bought a thousand acres of pastureland in Godoroye.”

Anastasia frowned. “Godoroye? That’s in the middle of nowhere.”

“I know, but it’s apparently the perfect place for a cattle ranch. Lots of room for the cows to roam and plenty of grass for them to eat while they do it.”

“Who does your uncle think he is, one of the Khachanov brothers?”

Viktor and Aleksander Khachanov were the principal owners of a prominent agribusiness company. Together, they had purchased more than a million acres of property in the Russian heartland, set up over a thousand ranches, and stocked them with almost four hundred thousand head of cattle. They hired locals to work on their ranches and brought in foreigners to train their employees. Brazilians. Australians. Even a handful of Americans had answered the call. The Khachanovs supplied beef to some of Moscow’s hippest restaurants, where customers were willing to endure a thirty-minute wait for a gourmet hamburger.

“Uncle Sergei says he wants to learn from the Khachanovs’ example,” Mischa said. “Their business model has proven successful and he plans to follow it to the letter. He’s hired a couple of Americans to train his staff. Neither of them speaks Russian and none of the ranch hands speak English so he needs a full-time translator to act as a go-between. I would love to get paid to be surrounded by a bunch of cowboys in tight jeans all day and night, but your English is better than mine. Do you want the job? It’s a three-year gig.”

“How much does it pay?”

“More than what you’re making now.”

“Funny.”

She didn’t want to spend three years dodging cow patties on a cattle farm several hundred kilometers from real civilization. And anti-gay sentiment was even worse in small towns than it was in vast metropolises like Moscow and Saint Petersburg. But a paycheck was a paycheck and she desperately needed one.

“I’ll think about it and let you know tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? Why not tonight?”

Anastasia finished her drink and set her empty mug on the bar. “Because I see someone who needs my company more than you do.”

Mischa followed her line of sight. “She’s pretty.”

“I know.”

“I think I’ve seen her somewhere before.”

“That’s supposed to be my line.”

“No, I mean it.” Mischa grabbed her arm. “I’ve seen her and the two guys she’s with.”

The redhead was standing between two nervous-looking men who were chugging bottles of beer. They were acting like it was their first time in a gay bar and they were trying to work up enough courage to make a move on someone.

“Did you see them here?”

“No.”

“Then where?”

“I’m not sure, but something doesn’t feel right.” Mischa set his half-finished soda down and pulled her toward the door. “Let’s go.”

“We just got here.”

“Trust me, okay?”

Anastasia didn’t protest. Mischa had a nose for danger. She had faith in his instincts. If he sensed something was off with the trio, she chose to believe him. Even if it meant she would be sleeping alone tonight instead of with the beautiful stranger she had her eye on.

The redhead sidled in front of her before she and Mischa reached the door. “Leaving so soon?”

The woman was even more enticing up close than she was from a distance. Ignoring the voice in the back of her mind trying to convince her that Mischa might be wrong for once, she tried to find a polite way to blow the woman off.

“We have a party to get to. Our friends are waiting.”

“I would like to be your friend tonight,” the redhead said. “Where’s the party?”

The way the redhead looked in her white lace blouse and black miniskirt, Anastasia wished she had a party to take her to, then steal her away from.

“On Nikolskaya,” she said quickly, naming one of Moscow’s most upscale streets.

“I know where that is,” the redhead said. “We will walk with you.”

“That’s okay,” Mischa said forcefully. “We can manage.”

“Are you sure?” one of the toughs with the redhead said. “You look like you need a strong man to protect you.”

When the guy made a clumsy attempt to stroke Mischa’s face, Anastasia spotted the gun stuck in the waistband of his pants. Mischa must have spotted it, too, because he tightened his grip on her arm.

“Maybe next time.”

They walked out of the club and onto the street. As they walked, they constantly looked over their shoulders to make sure they weren’t being followed. Anastasia doubted the trio would try anything on a crowded sidewalk, but she didn’t want to take any chances.

“Now I know where I’ve seen them before,” Mischa said once they were a safe distance away. He touched her arm, signaling her to slow her pace. “It was in a selfie in my friend Marat’s phone. Those three must have been who he crossed paths with the night he was bashed.”

Three weeks before, Marat’s neighbors had made repeated calls to the police to report a disturbance. When the cops had broken down the door to Marat’s apartment, they had found him beaten and bloodied on his bedroom floor. The official investigation had chalked it up as a sexual encounter that had turned violent. Everyone except the police knew better, even though Marat had been in a coma ever since and had been unable to identify his attackers.

“We should go to the police,” Anastasia said.

“And do what?”

“Describe what those three look like so the cops can arrest them before they attack someone else.”

Mischa lit a cigarette and blew out an angry plume of smoke. “The police don’t care about people like us, Ana. Most of the cops I’ve come across would rather reward people like that than arrest them. They can do anything they want to us. We’re the criminals, remember?”

Anastasia hated the helpless feeling that washed over her when she realized Mischa was right. She looked back at Lyubov. How could a place whose very name meant love be the target of such hate?

She had moved to Moscow in search of a better life. Perhaps one day she could finally find it. If not here, then somewhere she could truly be free. Getting there took money. Money she didn’t have.

“Tell your uncle I’ll take the job.”

Chapter Two

“If I had known I’d have to spend three whole days catching planes in three different countries,” Shorty said as he and Laramie headed to the baggage claim area after their plane landed in Moscow, “I never would have let your mama talk me into following you all the way to Russia to keep an eye on you.”

Laramie tried to determine which of the many luggage carousels corresponded to their flight. As she and Shorty traveled farther and farther east, she spotted fewer and fewer signs that were written in English. She had gotten real good real fast at figuring out what various illustrations were supposed to represent, but she couldn’t make heads or tails out of Cyrillic. The alphabet was filled with so many strange symbols it reminded her of a physics equation, and math had never been one of her strong suits.

“Save the tough talk for Chuck and Grant,” she said as she searched for someone who might be able to lead them in the right direction. “I’ve known you longer than they have so I know all about the tender heart you’re hiding underneath all that bluster.”

Shorty slapped his sweat-stained Stetson against his leg. “Just make sure that’s a secret you keep between me and you, hear? There ain’t no reason for you to run around telling everybody else about it.”

“I’ll keep your secrets if you keep mine.”

“That’s a promise I doubt either one of us will come close to breaking. Not here, anyway.” He resettled his hat. “I don’t know where the hell we are now, but it ain’t Wyoming, that’s for sure.”

“Welcome to Moscow, Shorty. Tonight, it’s our home away from home.”

He took a wary glance around the bustling airport as hundreds of passengers speaking what sounded like nearly as many languages hustled to and fro.

“Given a choice, I’d rather sleep in my own bunk. At least I’d know what I’m in for.”

“I know what you mean.”

Shorty looked as uncomfortable as Laramie felt. She couldn’t blame him. They had flown from Denver to Chicago yesterday, followed by an overnight flight that had taken them to Frankfurt, Germany. Today’s first leg had taken them from Frankfurt to Saint Petersburg, their second from Saint Petersburg to Moscow. Their final destination was Godoroye, a town nearly three hundred miles away, but the airport that serviced it was so tiny it received flights from Moscow only three days a week. The next available flight wasn’t until Wednesday morning, which meant they would have to check into a hotel for the night after they met with Sergei Ivanov, their new boss.

She was tempted to hop a train to get the final part of the journey over with, but she had heard the Russian transportation system was notoriously finicky and she was too worn out to deal with the added stress. At that moment, all she wanted to do was find someone who spoke English.

After she spotted a uniformed airport employee, she walked over to him and held out her boarding pass. “Can you tell me—”

Nyet,” he said sternly before she could finish her sentence.

“Do you speak—”

Nyet,” he said again before he abruptly turned and walked away.

“I take it nyet means no,” Shorty said sarcastically.

“And you thought you weren’t going to be able to understand what anyone was saying over here.”

“If we stay long enough, I’m sure I’ll pick up a few other choice words along the way.”

“Just make sure you don’t teach any. We came to train these boys, not corrupt them.”

Shorty grinned, a welcome sight to see among so many grim faces.

“I’ve got to leave my mark somehow, don’t I? These next three years will seem a lot longer if I have to worry about holding my tongue. If these fellas are real cowboys, they’ll be able to take a good dressing-down without running home crying to their mamas.”

“As long as nothing gets lost in translation.”

“Speaking of which, how can we be sure the translator Ivanov hired is saying what we want him to instead of making stuff up?”

That was one of many unpleasant scenarios running through Laramie’s mind. She hadn’t had a good night’s sleep since they’d left Wyoming, her thoughts preoccupied by everything that could possibly go wrong. She was used to taking orders, not giving them. She was starting to wonder if she was ready for the increased responsibility. She had felt certain she could handle the challenge when she left Broken Branch, but more and more, doubts crept in the farther she found herself from home.

It’s too late to second-guess yourself. You’ve already jumped out of the frying pan into the fire.

And she was starting to feel the heat.

At thirty-one, she was too old to need looking after, but she was glad Shorty had decided to make the trip with her. It would be nice having someone familiar to lean on when she felt like she was about to fall flat on her face.

“I guess we’ll just have to lead by example,” she said, trying to allay Shorty’s concerns as well as her own. “Most of what we do can’t be taught. It has to be learned from experience.”

“Sounds like we’re going to be spending most of our time playing charades,” Shorty mumbled under his breath.

“Let’s hope we have better luck in the future than we are today.”

“Are you American?” someone asked after a second employee walked away without giving Laramie the information she needed.

“Yes, I am.”

Laramie was so grateful to hear someone besides her and Shorty speaking English she barely noticed the thick accent in which the words were delivered. What she couldn’t miss was the beauty of the woman who had sought her out.

The woman’s dark hair was styled for comfort rather than fashion. She was wearing jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt with a picture of a defunct boy band on the front. Laramie wasn’t too keen on the woman’s taste in music, but she liked what she saw.

The woman’s eyes were so blue they reminded Laramie of the sky back home. One of them, at least. Her left eye had an imperfection similar to the one sported by an actress on one of Laramie’s favorite TV shows. A birthmark that made it appear that her pupil had blown. The image was arresting.

“This is you?”

The woman pointed to the sign she was holding, a laminated piece of paper with Laramie’s and Shorty’s names printed on it.

“Yes, it is,” Laramie said with a sigh of relief. She felt like she and Shorty were finally starting to make progress.

“I am Anastasia Petrova,” the woman said. “I am translator. After you get luggage, I take you to office of Mr. Ivanov so he can discuss job with you.”

Laramie was anxious to get the meeting behind her so she and Shorty could do what they had come here to do: work.

“Laramie Bowman. Pleased to meet you.”

Laramie held out her hand. Anastasia regarded it for a moment before giving it a tentative shake. She did the same when Shorty removed his hat and extended his hand.

“You are Pernell Johnson?”

“You can call me Shorty, ma’am.”

“Shorty?”

Anastasia said the word as if trying it on for size. She must have liked the fit because she flashed a shy smile as she released Shorty’s hand.

“Don’t be fooled by my small stature,” Shorty said with a wink. “I make up for it in other ways.”

“I will…how you say?” Anastasia scrunched her face into an adorable frown as she tried to come up with the appropriate phrase. “Ah.” Her face lit up when she finally found the phrase she had been searching for. “I will take your word for it.”

“Well, all right then.” Shorty leaned to whisper in Laramie’s ear. “I don’t know how good of a translator she is, but she’s got spunk, I give you that.”

Anastasia certainly had something, though spunk wasn’t the word Laramie would have used to describe it. She had been told she and Shorty would be provided with a translator, but she had no idea who that person would be. She had been expecting someone who looked as rough-and-tumble as the land she and Shorty would be ranching, not someone who seemed so slight she would probably blow away in a stiff breeze.

Anastasia looked like she was in her mid to late twenties, but her eyes belonged to someone several decades older. Laramie wondered what sights had left her with such a haunted look. She quickly banished the thought from her mind. She hadn’t flown halfway around the world to chase after a woman, no matter how intriguing. She was here to make enough money to keep her family’s ranch going and earn enough leadership experience to be able to run it one day. She couldn’t allow anyone to get in the way of her goals. Her family’s future depended on it.

“May I?” Anastasia reached for Laramie’s boarding pass. She examined it for a minute or two, then said, “You will follow me, yes?”

“You bet your sweet ass—” Shorty quickly turned apologetic after Laramie shot him a look. “I mean, yes, ma’am, we sure will. Lead the way.”

“You never told me your real name was Pernell,” Laramie said as they trailed Anastasia through the maze of carousels.

Shorty screwed his Stetson back in place. “What did we say about keeping secrets?”

“You will find bags here.”

Anastasia pointed to a carousel that had already started ferrying luggage from the plane to the terminal. Laramie recognized a few of the people surrounding it as passengers from her flight. The middle-aged man wearing white knee-high socks and black sandals had been seated in front of her. He had inclined so far he had practically slept in her lap the last two hours of the trip.

She relaxed a little, knowing she and her belongings would soon be reunited. Having tangible reminders of home made her feel less like a stranger in a strange land. She didn’t care about her clothes. She had brought jeans and work shirts. Nothing fancy. She could buy more if she had to. But she would be lost without her saddle. She’d had the same one since she learned to ride, and she longed to put it to use now. To strap it to a decent mount and spend hours tending to the herd.

Did the men she would be training even know how to ride a horse? Lord, she hoped so. Because if they didn’t, she and Shorty would have to teach them how to do that, too. One more thing to add to her growing list of duties.

“Have you been working for Mr. Ivanov long?” she asked as Anastasia returned her boarding pass.

“No, today is…how do you say? My first day.”

“So I guess we’re both still learning the ropes, aren’t we?”

Anastasia frowned as she considered the question. “I am sorry. I do not understand. What are you meaning by ropes?”

“Huh?”

Laramie felt like they were talking in two different languages even though they were allegedly speaking the same one.

Looks like the ranch hands aren’t the only ones who’ve got a lot to learn.


* * *


Anastasia didn’t know what to make of the Americans. Shorty’s gruff exterior provided a stark contrast to his impish sense of humor. He lacked sophistication, but she liked the fact that he was unpretentious. He seemed to have nothing to hide, which meant she would always know where she stood with him. She definitely couldn’t say the same as far as Laramie was concerned. Shorty made his feelings and intentions clear. Laramie’s thoughts were harder to discern.

Try impossible.

At least Shorty allowed his true personality to shine through. Laramie seemed so caught up in making a good first impression she couldn’t relax and be herself.

After their initial meeting, Anastasia was left wondering if Laramie ever thought about anything other than work. Did she ever go dancing, have a drink, make love, or do anything remotely resembling fun? She was so dedicated to her job she probably never did anything that didn’t involve the care, feeding, or marketing of cattle.

Anastasia could be single-minded, too, when the cause was dear to her heart, but she wasn’t immune to succumbing to an attractive distraction every now and then.

Laramie might consider herding cows an enjoyable diversion, but Anastasia could think of much better ways to pass the time. She could be doing several of them right now. Instead, she was being forced to shepherd two complete strangers through the streets of Moscow so they could spend the afternoon meeting with Mischa’s eccentric uncle. Hopefully, she wouldn’t have to babysit them tonight, too. Mischa had planned a surprise going-away party she wasn’t supposed to know about, and she wanted to enjoy every second. It was her last night in a real town for the foreseeable future, and she wanted to make it a night to remember.

After Laramie and Shorty located their possessions, Anastasia grabbed a luggage cart so they could pile their suitcases and saddles onto it. She couldn’t believe they had dragged the bulky saddles all the way from America. The well-oiled leather certainly smelled good—like a mixture of sweat and sunshine—but the only horse she had ever ridden was on a merry-go-round, and she intended to keep it that way. If she wanted to risk life and limb, she didn’t have to travel all the way to Godoroye for that. She could stay in Moscow and do it for free.

Chances were she would be working for free, too, since no company she knew wanted to be associated with an out lesbian, and the gay rights organizations she did volunteer work for couldn’t afford to pay her a decent salary.

She would have been lost without Mischa. She was grateful he had put in a good word for her with his uncle. Sergei had been more than happy to hire his favorite nephew’s “girlfriend.” Would he have been so generous if he knew the truth about their relationship? Probably not.

Now she had to find a way to be true to herself without betraying Mischa in the process. She couldn’t out herself without casting suspicion on him, too. Her family had already turned their backs on her. She would never wish the same fate on her friends.

Shorty pushed the heavily laden cart through the crowded airport as Anastasia led the way to ground transportation. For such a small man, he was stronger than he looked. Was there also more to Laramie than met the eye? While Laramie’s attention was diverted by a group of Lithuanian tourists in tie-dye T-shirts squabbling over which sight to see first, Anastasia give her a once-over.

Laramie was at least a head taller than Shorty. The tips of her shoulder-length blond hair were bleached nearly white from constant exposure to the sun. She wasn’t wearing a hat today, but she must wear one when she worked because the top half of her forehead was bone white and the rest was as tanned as her handsome face. She had broad shoulders and the thick thighs of a footballer, though Anastasia suspected the well-developed muscles had come from hours spent gripping a horse’s sides while riding at full gallop rather than running after a soccer ball for ninety minutes at a time.

The mental image of Laramie astride a horse like a Valkyrie from Norse mythology gave Anastasia an unexpected rush of pleasure. Powerful women always got her going, and Laramie exuded strength from every pore. Anastasia was wildly attracted to her, but she knew nothing could possibly come of it.

If she and Laramie slept together even once, they would have to keep the encounter a secret from everyone in the company they both worked for. If they made it a common occurrence and successfully managed not to draw attention to themselves, that didn’t change the fact that Laramie would be returning to Wyoming after she imparted the knowledge she had been hired to share.

Why should Anastasia literally risk her life on something that wasn’t meant to last? On someone who would walk out of her life as easily as she had sauntered into it?

She hoped Mischa had invited more women than men to tonight’s party. She wanted a pleasant memory to hold on to while she spent the next three years silencing her own voice in order to act as someone else’s.

When she, Laramie, and Shorty reached the sidewalk, she hailed a cab and gave the driver the address to Sergei Ivanov’s office, which was located in a skyscraper in Moscow’s commercial district. Laramie and Shorty climbed in the back seat of the cab. She took the front. She would be sharing quarters with them soon enough. Until then, she needed some space.

“Take the long way around,” she said in Russian as the taxi driver started the meter. “Show them a little of what the city has to offer.”

“Gorky Park and the Kremlin?” he asked.

“Red Square, too. Try to get as close as you can to Saint Basil’s Cathedral.”

She had never been inside Moscow’s most famous church, but visitors couldn’t seem to get enough of the fanciful architecture.

“Who’s paying for this tour, you or them?”

He looked at her as if he didn’t think she could afford the fare.

“Don’t worry about it. You’ll get what’s coming to you.”

She flashed some of the money Mischa’s uncle had fronted her for cab fare. Even with the impromptu detour, the bills in her hand were way more than she needed for the drive from the airport to the office and the short jaunt from the office to the hotel. Perhaps she could conveniently forget to return what was left at the end of the day. No, being considered a thief would not only reflect badly on her but Mischa as well.

She wasn’t used to taking someone else’s feelings besides her own into account. No wonder she couldn’t manage to keep a girlfriend. She had thought it was because she was too open, but perhaps it was because she was too selfish.

Something to work on while I’m stuck in Godoroye.

Even though she couldn’t speak the language, Laramie seemed to sense something was amiss.

“Is there a problem?”

Anastasia turned to look at her.

“We have time before your meeting with Mr. Ivanov so I asked driver to show you some popular attractions,” she said in English. “Would you like to take tour now or see city on your own?”

Laramie and Shorty conferred with each other. He seemed keen on exploring Moscow after the meeting so he would have time to take it all in, but she said something about having to be at the airport at the butt crack of dawn and he changed his mind.

Anastasia made a mental note to do some research on common American colloquial expressions so she could figure out what they meant. If she couldn’t understand what Laramie was saying, how was she supposed to explain it to someone else?

“Now’s fine,” Laramie said.

Anastasia relayed the information to the taxi driver, who put the car in gear and pulled into traffic.

“Your friends have strange accents,” he said. “Where are they from?”

“Wyoming.”

The word was so exotic she said it slowly so she would be sure to pronounce it correctly.

“Where is that?”

“The American West.”

She hadn’t known anything about Wyoming until she’d gone on the internet and performed some research. The images she had come across were breathtaking. Wide grasslands with snow-capped mountains looming in the distance. Gorgeous waterfalls spilling into crystal clear rivers. And shaggy buffaloes roaming everywhere. The huge animals looked like yaks but were twice the size. She wondered if they looked as big in person as they did in the photographs she had seen. If so, what a sight they must be.


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