|The Loner's Heart
For those who believe in second chances…
Cowboy Trace Martin is fighting to hold on to both his ranch and his five-year-old daughter. This single dad may need a caregiver for his child, but will hiring Haylee Dennis, his neighbor’s attractive niece, be the solution to his problems, or the beginning of new ones? Because she has a secret…and he has a past.
Recently divorced, broke, and seeking to free herself from the tangled web of her ex-husband’s dubious business practices, city girl Haylee is hopeful a temporary job caring for a rancher’s young daughter will work out. When she meets the sexy cowboy who is the epitome of the strong, silent type, she isn’t prepared for the sparks that fly. But her attraction to the enigmatic loner may be one complication too many in an already complicated life.
Will two people with enough baggage to hobble a pack horse play it safe, or take a chance on love?
Haylee Dennis dug her fingernails into the edge of the leather car seat as her aunt Paula drove the SUV through the large puddles left by that morning’s soaking rain and down the long gravel drive of some stranger’s ranch. With each lurch and bounce, the words hire me became a silent prayer.
“So where’s the wife?” Haylee asked as outbuildings came into sight.
“As far as I know, he didn’t marry the mother. He’s never said a word about her either.” Aunt Paula drove onto a patch of dry grass, shifted to park, and shut off the motor. “And I didn’t ask. You let me do the talking. He’s not the most approachable son of a gun, but deep down he’s a good man. Just takes more digging to find it.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” As long as he didn’t lie, cover up, or manipulate. Those sins had recently risen to the top of her bad-guy list. “But how do you know he’ll be here?”
“Men have to eat lunch. If we are going to catch him, it would be now.”
Aunt Paula, dressed in her uniform of denim and chambray, hopped out of the car in one quick movement. For an older heavyset woman, she was pretty nimble.
Haylee emerged from the passenger side, her digital single-lens reflex camera hanging from the strap around her neck. She crinkled her nose at the smell of manure salting the freshly washed air. It was a ranch, after all, she reminded herself.
She noted the small white-framed house with a swing set in the side yard, the weathered barn before them, the beat-up truck parked haphazardly nearby. And the acres of grassed plains that rolled beyond to the gray shadows of distant mountains stretching to touch the thin clouds that striped the blue sky. This, not Denver, was what western living was all about.
Though the grounds looked well tended with neat fence lines and a decent layer of gravel marking the drive, none of it looked particularly prosperous.
Well, that could also mean he wasn’t doing anything he shouldn’t be doing. A thought that, until recently, would have never crossed her mind.
This was a real working ranch stripped of romanticism.
She snapped a few pictures, careful to get the framing right and to adjust for the bright sunlight heating the air. Stepping beside her aunt, Haylee’s white sandals slipped on the muddied footpath.
“There he is.” Aunt Paula pointed to a shirtless figure with his back to them in the shadow of the barn.
A tall, slender male with broad shoulders and muscled arms was dousing water on a beautiful chestnut-colored horse with a black tail and mane. He paid particular attention to the horse’s legs before reaching for the faucet to stem the flow of water.
Laying down the hose, he picked up the black Stetson sitting on the fence post, angled it on his head, and turned around. Haylee’s mouth went dry as the bare-chested cowboy emerged from the shadows, with dirt-spattered jeans that hugged lean thighs, boots caked with mud, and a muscled chest that he’d clearly gotten from honest work instead of a gym membership.
Lordy. This was her aunt’s neighbor? The man who was supposed to hire her? The man she’d be working for? She brushed her sweaty palms down the front of her white capris.
His face, partially shadowed by the brim of his hat, was all lines and angles and handsome enough that he could have starred in an Old West movie. All that was missing was a gun at his side…at least she hoped it was missing, considering the way he was frowning. A barking border collie followed the rancher, apparently eager to round up the intruders. But one word from the man and the barking stopped. Focused on their unexpected company, bare-chested cowboy and excited dog continued toward them without breaking stride.
Haylee was sorely tempted to raise her camera and start snapping, but her future depended on making a good impression, and she was well aware that some people didn’t like to have their pictures taken.
Aunt Paula waved her fleshy arm, as if he hadn’t already spotted them. He pushed up the brim of his hat, and even from a distance, she could see the frown deepen on a weathered face that sported a strong jawline, slightly long nose, and narrowed eyes.
Her aunt had failed to mention that her neighbor was smoking hot.
Not that it should matter. The shock of the last few months would take a long time to wear off. And the irony was, her ex-husband hadn’t cheated on her, nor was another woman involved—things that usually led to the dissolution of a marriage.
“Bet you’re surprised to see me,” Aunt Paula said.
In unison the man and dog stopped a few feet from Aunt Paula. The dog promptly sat down, as if he’d been given some silent signal. The hot cowboy nodded his greeting. “Mrs. Johnson.” His gaze strayed to Haylee. It was direct and unsparing, as if he was sizing her up…and found her lacking.
At five foot two she was used to being overlooked and underestimated.
“This is my niece, Haylee Dennis.”
Haylee’s throat constricted at the sound of her maiden name. She had taken her marriage vows seriously…until she couldn’t. The man she’d said those vows to was not the same man she’d divorced.
“Ma’am.” The cowboy touched the brim of his hat, drawing her attention away from his chest (had she been gawking?) to a pair of intense hazel eyes flecked with gold. For some reason hazel was not an eye color she associated with a man who looked like he’d stepped out of the pages of American Cowboy. His eyes should have been a deep brown to go with the thick dark hair that escaped the band of his hat when he pushed it up. Or gray to go with his cool demeanor.
“We are hoping Haylee will live at our house until we sell the place, while we head out to New Mexico. There’s a house come up for rent down there in a community where we have friends, and we want to grab it.”
Aunt Paula had placed her house and five acres of land on the market three months ago. That it hadn’t sold was likely due, in Haylee’s humble opinion, to the small size of the two-bedroom cabin, the large barn in need of repair, and the homestead’s remote location. A location that suited her needs at the moment.
Aunt Paula placed her hands on her hips. “I told you we were selling months ago.”
His eyebrows arched, as if he couldn’t quite reconcile that statement. “Sorry to see you go.”
“Mr. J just can’t take another Wyoming winter, what with his arthritis. It’s acting up even now. Haylee needs a place to stay. We need to move.” Aunt Paula glanced Haylee’s way.
Haylee had been working to rebuild her freelance freight-auditing business, but with only one client, and that client brand new, she needed some sort of steady income. Though she was staying with her aunt rent-free, she still needed utilities, gas, food, and general necessities. Her personal savings was small, and she hadn’t asked for anything from her ex-husband, which neither her family nor friends could understand. But how could she take Roy’s money and still look herself in the mirror?
“Hope you know what you’re in for.” His drawl came over as more of a growl, like the dog sitting patiently at his side had spoken for him. “Winters are pretty brutal.”
“I’ve spent several years in Denver already.” And she was originally from Chicago, where winters weren’t exactly mild.
“Uh-huh,” he said and shifted his gaze back to her aunt.
Haylee’s stomach dipped. This wasn’t going to work. Haylee would only have two options: move in with her friend in Cheyenne, though she was likely allergic to Jenna’s cat, or move back to her parents’ in Chicago, the thought of which caused an ache in the pit of her stomach.
“Mr. J has her all fixed up. Had the generator repaired. She’ll be fine.” Aunt Paula positively beamed. “And we are hoping the place will sell long before winter.”
“What can I help you ladies with today?” He nodded toward Haylee. “That camera around your neck for something?”
“Just a hobby. I’m taking pictures of Aunt Paula’s place and the surrounding area to put in an album for her.” Haylee knew how quickly things could change, and she thought her aunt would appreciate a memory book of the way things had been when she lived on Cottonwood Road.
“Is Delanie here?” Aunt Paula looked around as if the child would pop out of thin air.
“She’s at school.”
“Summer’s coming though. Have you thought about what you’re going to do now that her sitter, Camille, is gone?”
“Her preschool has a camp program. It’s a half-hour drive but…” His voice trailed off.
“We’ll, that’s why we’re here.”
He didn’t say anything, just stared at Paula, with an expression of someone waiting for the dentist to pull his bad tooth.
“Haylee is looking for part-time work. Thought she’d be able to care for Delanie after school, like Camille did. She’s developing her own business. Something on the internet, but right now she’s looking to pick up some extra money until it gets off the ground. And she’d be right down the road.”
The gaze he swung to Haylee froze her in place, as if a blast of arctic air had enveloped her. She heard her heartbeat in her ears as she waited for his response. First one beat, then another…and another.
He crossed his arms over his bare chest. “Her preschool is working out fine.”
The balloon of hope she’d filled with her aunt’s optimism, and which had been slowly leaking air since she’d arrived at the Martin ranch, popped.
What was that western saying? No sense beating a dead horse.
“That’s great that she enjoys school. It was very nice meeting you.” Haylee turned on her heel to leave, but her foot stuck in the mud, and she wobbled. Before she knew it, her butt met the damp hard surface of the ground. Mud splattered on her white capri pants, her navy top, her hair, her bare legs and arms, and the camera. Startled from her fall, she sat there in a puddle of mud.
Her aunt’s laughter filled the air as Haylee felt a wet tongue on her cheek and looked into a pair of dark sympathetic doggie eyes. A chuckle bubbled in her throat looking for an escape route. Life had been so hard lately that being covered in mud seemed as good a reason as any to let go. So she sat, petted the soft coat of her new fur friend, and let laughter consume her. So much for making a good impression.
But her laughter ceased when strong hands reached under her arms and suddenly she was lifted up and onto her mud-covered feet as if she was nothing more than a bag of feathers. She turned to face her gallant knight.
Trace’s grin was broad, and his hazel eyes sparkled in the sun’s golden light, as if he was actually seeing her, Haylee Dennis, instead of some generic version of irritation. His features, seemingly carved from rock a minute ago, had softened with his smile. An unwelcome twinge occurred near her heart.
“You okay?” he asked, his grin still wide.
“Fine. My ego is a little bruised though.”
His mouth crooked up, and for that split second, Haylee felt a connection has he held her gaze.
Her aunt bustled over. “You know that drive to and from camp is killing you. Haylee could help there. And who watches Delanie when you get back? Taking her out in the pastures with you may be all right in June, but not when you have to harvest hay or move the herd.” Apparently Aunt Paula was not going to let a positive moment go to waste.
He broke the connection, turned his attention from Haylee to her aunt. “Delanie enjoys spending time around the ranch.”
“So you can’t use any help, Trace Martin?” Aunt Paula demanded.
He shifted his weight from one foot to another. His serious countenance had returned, but he didn’t utter an answer.
“Thank you for your time,” Haylee cut in. Any more and her aunt would sound like she was begging.
“Sorry.” His look was sympathetic.
Haylee didn’t need sympathy—she needed a job. One with enough flexibility to allow her to build her client list, and this had seemed perfect. Considering how much Haylee loved children, if she could get paid to chauffeur Delanie to and from school and watch the child for the few hours after camp, it would have been ideal. Haylee would have most of the morning and afternoon to work on developing her business, and Trace would have someone to watch his daughter when he was still busy with the ranch. Alas, it was not to be.
Even though he didn’t know her, it was clear he didn’t like something about her and wasn’t interested enough to find out more.
While Aunt Paula said goodbye, Haylee patted the head of the dog. At least he seemed to like her. Nothing more to say, she turned, this time with more care, and headed for her aunt’s SUV, brushing what dirt she could off her body and clothes.
“We just need to work on him, is all,” Aunt Paula said as she put the SUV in gear and headed back down the gravel drive. “Men like him take a little time to get used to an idea.”
“I think his no was pretty final. Men like him also don’t change their minds.” The mud that remained was beginning to dry on her skin, making her feel even more uncomfortable, if that was possible. “You understand, Aunt, that I don’t have a choice. I have to go where I can find work, as much as it pains me.”
“Roy seemed like a decent guy. I can’t believe he left you with nothing or that the courts wouldn’t make him give you something. What kind of lawyer did you have?”
Her aunt didn’t know how mistaken she was about Roy. “I didn’t ask for anything. We were only married two years.” And she hoped that period would be just a footnote in her life and never become the headline.
“What can we do?”
“Jenna is taking me to a rodeo tomorrow. I’ll see if taking my allergy pills makes any difference with her cat. If I can handle it, I’ll ask her if I can move in with her in Cheyenne, and then I can periodically check on your place.” She’d try anything if it meant she didn’t have to move back in with her parents in Chicago, but having her allergies not kick up would be a miracle. And though Jenna would help her without question, moving in with Jenna without paying her full share of rent would be a difficult pill to swallow. At least with her aunt, Haylee would have been taking care of the place in lieu of rent.
But Aunt Paula shook her head. “I just wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving our place unattended with so much of our stuff still there. The agent said furnished places sell better, and we need any edge we can get. We just won’t go to New Mexico, is all. I’ll call first thing on Monday and tell them that we can’t rent the place.”
Failure never got easier.
Excerpt from The Loner’s Heart ©2018. These are works of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogues in this book are of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental.