Widow Rachel Stevens is very happy with her job as a cook for the Lazy Sunset ranch where she is raising her son. However, the new foreman, Rusty McIntyre, is turning her life upside down. She could overlook how her son has begun to idolize Rusty, but she’s having a heck of a time ignoring the flutters in her stomach every time the man smiles at her.
But Rusty has problems of his own. His previously unknown fourteen year old daughter has just arrived to live with him. Used to always being on his own, now he has a young boy following him around imitating his every move, and a surly young lady glaring at him. Throw into the mix the tug he feels toward the ranch cook—who wants no part of him—and life is no longer as easy as it once was.
The brown-haired young boy rounded the corner, smacking his arm on a counter, bouncing off the display. With a yelp, he crashed into Rusty McIntyre. “Oomph.”
Rusty was shoved back into another counter filled with thread. Dozens of spools crashed to the ground, rolling in every direction. He straightened up and glared at the child who had finally come to a halt. “What’re you doing, boy? You can’t run around like that in a store. Where’s your mama?”
“Never mind, just get down on your knees and pick up all these threads.” Rusty knelt and started to gather them up. The boy hesitated for a moment, then joined Rusty on the floor, scooping up threads, then dropping them just as quickly.READ MORE
Rusty leaned back on his heels and used a fistful of thread to push back the brim of his hat. “I’ll get these.” He waved in the direction of the shelves stacked with canned goods. “You go fetch the ones that rolled over there.”
The boy scooted away just as a woman hurried up the aisle. “Will, what in heaven’s name have you done?”
“Nothing, Mama. I was just going to look at the candy barrel.”
Rusty stood, his hands full of thread. He deposited his load onto the counter and fixed the woman with a stare. “Is that your boy?” He nodded in the direction of the kid trying to hang onto the spools.
At the tone of his voice, the woman’s face went from anxious to surprised in a split second. She straightened her shoulders and offered him a cool glance. “Yes. That is my son.”
Rusty rested his hands on his hips. “Ma’am, I don’t mean to criticize, but you need to take better notice of what your boy is doing.”
“Indeed?” Her eyebrows rose to her hairline.
“He came barreling around that corner like his feet were on fire. Crashed into me, which caused this entire counter of thread to land on the floor.”
The woman turned to the boy. “Will, please apologize to the—gentleman.”
Rusty almost grinned at her hesitation to call him a “gentleman.”
The kid hung his head. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not me you have to apologize to, young man. You have to go on up there to the front of this store and tell that woman behind the counter that you’re sorry. Then you need to fix up the display that you—”
“Wait just a damn minute!”
Rusty jerked and glanced from the boy to the woman. She was so red in the face, he wouldn’t be surprised if her cheeks caught fire. Her eyes snapped, and she worked her mouth as if she wanted to say something but was too agitated to get it out.
“How dare you presume to tell my son what the proper thing is for him to do!”
She surprised the hell out of him by poking him in the chest. Not once, or twice, but several times until he had backed up and was pressed against the counter with the thread all piled in the jumble in the middle.
Despite her agitation, he couldn’t help but notice her smooth skin, dark blond hair and crystal blue eyes. And when she’d come racing down the aisle after her child, he’d taken in her curves. Yep, a fine-looking woman.
“He is my child, and I am perfectly capable of instructing him on proper behavior.”
Rusty leaned in toward the woman. “If that’s so, then this disaster would have been avoided.”
“Oh, how dare you! Have you never been a child, anxious to get somewhere? Or were you born old and crotchety?”
“Old?” He narrowed his eyes at her.
“Yes. Old. You are a grouchy old man.”
The blood rushed to his face at the audacity of this incompetent mother defending her recalcitrant child by calling him names. “Ma’am, I hate to add to the misery you already have by being saddled with this unruly child—”
“How dare you!”
“—but you are addled, and I am not old.”
“It doesn’t matter. You are grouchy, and mean to children.”
The boy had been watching them go back and forth, his eyes wide. Finally, he walked up to his mother and tugged on her hand. “Ma, can we go home now?”
She took the boy’s hand as all the air seemed to go out of her body, and looked down at the kid. “Yes, Will. We’ll go home now. But first we must straighten up this counter so Mrs. Wells doesn’t have extra work to do at the end of the day.”
“And, I’ve told you many times not to run in stores, haven’t I?”
The woman turned to Rusty and looked down her nose. “Is there something I can help you with, sir?”
He almost laughed at her dismissal, but instead, tugged on the brim of his hat. “No, ma’am. Have a pleasant day.” With lengthy strides he left the store.
Rachel Stevens glared after the man. Of all the nosy, mean-spirited, rude people she had ever encountered in her entire life, that—that man was by far the absolute worst. How dare he chastise Will? She was a good mother. A very good mother, and he had no right to insinuate anything different.
“Ma, you’re crushing my hand.”
“Oh, sorry.” She released Will’s hand and began to sort out the threads. “Go on over there and check the floor to make sure we have all the threads.”
After about fifteen minutes of sorting and straightening the counter, she chose the last few items on her list and brought them to Mrs. Wells to add up her bill.
“What was that all about?” Mrs. Wells nodded toward the back of the store as she tied a string around the fabric Rachel selected for a new dress.
“Oh, nothing, really. Will was disobedient and dashed around the corner and knocked into a grouchy man who took it upon himself to chastise my child.”
“Never saw that one around here before.”
“And I hope to never see him again.”
“Good looking, though.”
“Huh. I didn’t even notice. I was too angry to notice anything.” The lie rolled easily off her tongue. He was a good looking man. The sunlight through the store window had highlighted the red streaks in his brown hair. He obviously worked for a living, with the way his shirt stretched across his muscular chest. His eyes were a shade of green she’d never seen before. But that wasn’t important. She had no need for a man.
“Honey, you need to start paying attention to the male of the species. That little boy of yours needs a daddy.”
“Will and I are doing just fine. We don’t need a man. I have my brother. Michael spends time with Will. And Uncle Jesse takes him fishing all the time.”
“Well, I wasn’t thinking in terms of fishin’. What you need is a man to warm your bed.”
“Mrs. Wells!” Rachel took a quick look at Will, but he was busy counting the licorice sticks in the jar on the counter.
“Mrs. Stevens, I have your wagon loaded.” Mr. Wells entered the store and walked behind the counter. He pulled out a candy stick and handed it to Will. “Here you go, son. I’ll put it on Big Bob’s bill.” He winked at Rachel.
“No, I’ll pay for it.” She fished in her drawstring purse and dug out a penny. She plunked it on the counter. “Come on, Will, let’s get moving before that storm blows in.”
Hand in hand, she and Will walked to the wagon parked in the front of Wells’ Mercantile. It had been loaded with a month’s worth of flour, salt, beans, coffee, sugar, spices, a round of cheese, and enough cloth for her dress and pants for Will. What made this load extra heavy were the tools Big Bob had her pick up. She climbed into the seat and tugged on her driving gloves as Will settled himself alongside her, sucking on his licorice stick.
With the wind kicking up, she retied her calico bonnet to make sure it was secure, and then snapped the reins to get the horses moving. They headed out of town, past the stores getting ready to close for the day. She shouldn’t have taken so long in the mercantile. The ten-mile drive to the ranch would take about two hours, putting her there early evening.
As was typical on her once-a-month trek into town, she’d left fresh baked bread and cold meat for the men’s supper, along with potato salad, cold beans, and plenty of pies. Mac would make the coffee and clean up afterward.
She kept her eye on the sky as they traveled. Oklahoma weather was tricky. Deep blue sky, lots of sunshine, and then within minutes a storm could blow in that uprooted trees and sent hail down on your head the size of a child’s ball. She tried to move the horses along, but with the heavy load they were towing, they could only go so fast.
“Ma, why were you and that man fighting?”
“We weren’t fighting, sweetie. He was just a grouchy person, that’s all. Don’t pay him any mind.” She glanced once more at the darkening sky.
“But I did run into him, and knocked him against the counter.”
“Oh, I’m not discounting what you did. I’m just saying he didn’t have to be so nasty about it.”
“I’ll bet he’s a cowboy.” Will bit off a piece of licorice.
“I like cowboys.”
“You see plenty of them every day.”
“And I like all the cowboys at Big Bob’s ranch, too. That’s what I’m going to be when I grow up.”
“Well, don’t get your heart set on it. You are going to college. Like Uncle Jesse and Uncle Michael. No cowboying for you.” Her one regret was getting married young and missing out on going to college. Her sister and brother went to college, and now Michael was a pharmacist and Ellie a schoolteacher like her Aunt Tori.
When she married Billy, she’d expected to spend her life taking care of him, their home, and children. College was the furthest thing from her mind. Then Billy died when Will was a mere baby, and she found herself either having to live off her aunt and uncle, or finding a way to support her and her son. Since she’d always been a good cook, she was fortunate to find a job as a cook at Big Bob Richardson’s ranch, The Lazy Sunset.
“What about Uncle Hunter? He didn’t go to college.”
“That doesn’t matter. He works as a federal marshal. They don’t need college.”
“Then I’ll be a federal marshal like Uncle Hunter.”
Rachel had learned shortly after Will had begun to talk that it paid to pick her battles. Fighting about college when her son was only nine years old didn’t make a heck of a lot of sense.
“Ma, are we gonna make it home before the storm?” His licorice stick finished, Will wiped his mouth on his sleeve as he looked anxiously at the sky.
“I hope so. Mr. Wells did a good job of covering everything with a canvas, but if the rain is strong enough, we might have a problem.”
They continued on in silence, the sky becoming darker and more threatening. When the first fat drops of rain started to fall, Rachel pulled the wagon over, under a copse of trees. The shelter wouldn’t be perfect, but it was better than nothing.
The storm was violent, but quick. They huddled together, Rachel doing her best to keep as much of the rain off Will as she could. Her bonnet was soaked, the sodden brim covering her eyes and nose.
“Ma, I think it’s over.” Will wiped the water from his cheeks and pulled away from her embrace. Only nine years old and already he felt uncomfortable when she hugged him. Rachel sighed; he was growing up much too fast.
“I believe you’re right.” She turned up the brim to push it out of her eyes and slapped the reins to get the horses moving again. Although the storm had passed, the sun had begun its descent and the encroaching dusk made the ride difficult. If she didn’t get back to the ranch soon, with the cloud cover, darkness would make the rest of the trip impossible.
The sound of horse’s hooves behind them cheered her. Perhaps whoever was traveling this same path could ride alongside them for a while until she reached the turnoff for the ranch. Even though she’d never had a problem on this road before, she reached under the seat and patted the shotgun she kept just in case. No sense in being reckless.
“Howdy, ma’am. Not a good night to be out, is it?”
The deep voice prickled the hairs on the back of her neck. Please, God, it couldn’t be. She turned, and the brim of her hat fell once more to cover a good part of her face. She tilted her head back and groaned.
“You!” the man said.
“Yes. I can assure you, sir, I am as thrilled to see you as you no doubt are to see me.” Rachel flipped the brim back once more and stared into the green eyes of the man in the store. It was just her luck he would be the one behind her that she’d hoped to have as company.
“Why are you riding around in the rain?”
“I am not riding around in the rain. I’m sure you can see from my wagon that I’m returning home with supplies. We were caught in the storm.”
“I can see that. Where is your husband?”
Oh, the man was just full of nerve. How dare he question her, instead of being a gentleman and offering to help them reach home safely. “I am perfectly capable of traveling to town on my own to get supplies.” Did the entire world think a woman couldn’t deal with life without a big, strong man to boss her around?
He grinned as if she made a joke. “Well, in that case, ma’am, I’ll be on my way.”
“No, wait!” Lord, how she hated to ask this man for any favors, but it was getting darker by the minute and she was afraid the horse would step into a hole or the wagon get caught in mud. As much as it pained her, she would have to ask the man to stay with them until she reached her turnoff.
“As a matter of fact, I could use the company. I’m only a couple of miles from home, but I don’t want to run into any trouble in the dark.”
“Ah, and yet you are perfectly capable of traveling to town on your own to get supplies.”
She gritted her teeth to keep from telling this obnoxious man to go on his way and she would be fine. But she couldn’t take a chance with Will alongside her. Swallowing the sour taste of her pride, she attempted a smile. “I guess once in a while things don’t quite work out as we planned.”
He threw his head back and roared with laughter.
“I fail to see the humor, sir.” The brim fell once more to cover her face.
“I’ve seen men eat rotten food with a more pleasant look on their face than yours just now, ma’am.”
Her stomach in knots with having to deal with this horrible man again, Rachel snapped the reins and the wagon moved forward.
“With the mud, it might go easier if I drove the wagon for you.”
She raised her chin. “No, thank you.”
He shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
Then the dratted man began to whistle. She felt as if the top of her head would blow off with her anger building so. In her agitation, she failed to see one of the horses wander too close to an indentation made by another wagon wheel. She yanked the reins back but not before the wheel hit the rut and the wagon slid, then came to an abrupt halt. Slowly the front wheel sank into the mud.
“Is there a problem, ma’am?”
If she spotted a smile on his face she would haul out her shotgun from under her seat and shoot him. Taking a deep breath, she turned, the smile on her face as stiff as Uncle Jesse’s starched shirts. “It appears we’re stuck.”
The man swung down off his horse and sauntered over to her wagon. Crouching down, he examined the wheel in the fading light. “Yep, you’re stuck.”
Rachel huffed. “I know that.”
“You and the boy, out of the wagon.” After issuing this order, the man strode into the woods as she and Will climbed down to stand alongside the wagon. He hauled back a large tree limb.
Rachel and Will waited, shaking from their wet, soggy clothes. If she didn’t get Will home soon, he would end up sick. She pulled him to her side, trying to warm him up, but the child’s teeth chattered.
After wedging the limb under the stuck wheel, the man turned to Will. “You think you can climb up on that wagon seat and hold those reins to steer the horses?”
Will’s eyes rounded and he nodded furiously.
“Wait a minute. Why can’t I steer the wagon? Will is too young.”
“No offense, ma’am, but Will weighs less than you, and you and I will be pushing the wagon from behind.”
Rachel shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t like the sound of this.”
The man nudged the brim of his hat back and rested his hands on his hips. “Do you want to get out of here? Or would you prefer to spend the night shivering in your wagon?”
“Ma, I can do it.” Will was almost jumping up and down in his excitement. “I can.”
Soon it would be full darkness, and truth be told, she had no idea how to get them out of the mud. She glanced at the man who viewed her with raised eyebrows.
“Very well. Will, climb up onto the wagon seat. But be very careful.”
He climbed up and took the reins in his hands, then turned to look at the man. “Now what?”
“Hold on, son. Just let me and your ma get behind the wagon. When I tell you to, slap the reins, but not too hard; we don’t want the horses bolting. This has to be slow and easy. Slow and easy usually works just fine.” As he looked at her, his grin told Rachel he was not talking about the wagon.
Oh, how she wished when they pushed the wagon, he’d fall head first in the mud.
The brim of her hat landed on her face again.
“Put your shoulder to the back of the wagon, ma’am. When I give your son the word, we both push. Use all the strength you have. If we do it right, the wheel should go over the limb and out of the mud.” He rotated his neck. “Ready?”
“Okay, Will, go ahead and slap those reins—not too hard.”
“Yes, sir.” Will had to slap the reins twice before the horses paid any attention. They started up, and Rachel and the man pushed. After several grunts and pushing with all her might, the wagon moved forward and the wheel rolled over the limb. The whole thing rocked and she thought for a minute it would overturn.
“There you are, ma’am.” The man leaned back and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Then he tugged on the brim of his hat and headed to his horse.
Rachel scooted onto the seat and took the reins from Will. As much as she hated to do it, the good manners she was raised with took hold and she looked in his direction. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” That lazy grin did strange things to her insides. She was most likely hungry and cold. It couldn’t be anything else.
The group continued on their way until they reached the turnoff for the ranch. “Thank you again, sir. I appreciate your help.”
He gave her a brisk nod and frowned as she turned onto the lane underneath the arch with “Lazy Sunset Ranch” in large letters. “You live here?”
His frowned deepened. “Are you Mrs. Richardson? Big Bob’s wife?”
“No. I’m the cook for the ranch.”
He grinned. “Well, I’ll be.”
“I’m Rusty McIntyre, the new foreman for Big Bob.”COLLAPSE
Amazon Review wrote:
This story is full of surprises will make you laugh and cry and hold your breath, but will keep you turning the pages as it pulls on your heartstrings. Great read!
Amazon Review wrote:
I loved the characters, Ms Hutton sure knows How to bring her character's to life. Can't wait to read the next one.
Callie does a wonderful job with presenting strong, independent females in male-dominated settings. This book is another great story about an inspiring female.