No Cowboy Required
She hadn’t intended to come back to this mess. At twenty-five, she certainly hadn’t planned to own it.
Grace Harper drove up the dusty back road to the familiar two-story farmhouse and took everything in: peeling paint, broken screens, warped siding. Mom’s flowerbeds overgrown with monster weeds. A lump of nostalgia clogged her throat. Beyond the house, an old barn sat surrounded by leaning fences, crooked wooden structures, and acres of thirsty yellow pasture.
Grace stepped out of her rental Audi and onto the dirt driveway, wishing she’d worn her Converse sneakers rather than her Jimmy Choos. She’d dressed like she was going to her father and Sheila’s funerals, not like someone arriving a week late. But she’d learned in New York that presentation was everything—and it wasn’t like there was a manual telling her what to wear to meet her ten-year-old stepbrother for the first time.
She took a few careful steps toward the house. “Anyone home?”
Mr. Lincoln, her father’s attorney, had told her the housekeeper had been granted temporary guardianship of her stepbrother, just until Grace arrived, due to the circumstances. Circumstances. A nice word for dysfunction. Did folks blame her for some of that dysfunction? Probably. Did she care? She sniffed and shook off the question.
So, the housekeeper was watching JJ and taking care of the place while Grace scrambled to get to Reno, Nevada—or more specifically, twenty miles south. Unfortunately, the ranch looked like it needed a bulldozer, not a babysitter.
A scrappy mutt ran out of nowhere and yipped at her. Grace held up her index finger. “You stay right there.” The dog whined, then looked back and ran to a boy. A very dirty boy. The boy’s eyes widened at the intruder—her.
“JJ, is that you?” Grace asked. This wasn’t going at all how she’d hoped.
The boy and the dog ran into the barn, a sagging structure that didn’t look fit for field mice. Clearly the housekeeper wasn’t much of a guardian. Her stepbrother was steeped in grime, from his jet-black hair to his mud-caked shoes. And the woman obviously hadn’t told him Grace was coming. Embarrassment bubbled inside her, and she quickly squashed it.
Grace peeked inside the barn then carefully stepped in, bracing herself for the God-awful manure odor she hadn’t missed but would never forget. Except there was none. Her eyes adjusted to the dim light filtering in through the cracks in the wood panels. Where were the horses? Pete Palomino, Blackie the mare, even her father’s pride and joy, Josephine,
the wannabe racehorse—all gone.
Had Sheila made Grace’s father sell those beautiful horses? As much as the thought needled her spine, Grace knew she should be thankful. One less thing to deal with. She started across the bare dirt floor. “JJ, I know you’re in here. Come on out. It’s Grace.” Should she say stepsister? “You know, from New York.”
The shadows shuffled.
“I’m sure your mother told you about me.” Or not. Grace never spoke of her father and his second wife, whom she’d never met. Why should she expect something different in return? Her father had moved on to a new, ready-made family when he’d married Sheila. Did JJ call her father “Dad” or maybe even “Daddy”? It’d been seven years since Grace
had allowed either word to fall from her lips.
The boy stepped out of the dark corner, the mangy mutt cuddled in his arms.
“There you are. Hi, JJ, I’m Grace.” She stepped forward but stopped when the boy primed to run. “That’s a cute dog. What’s its name?”
“You can’t have him.” The boy’s arms tightened around the furry creature.
“I don’t wa—”
“You can’t have anything. Just leave.”
When she didn’t move, his face scrunched into a pout, his cheeks turning tomato-soup red. “Do you hear me? We don’t want you here!” He turned and ran out the barn’s back door.
“JJ, wait.” She stopped herself from running after him. He was scared enough. Chasing him might totally freak him out. Besides, she’d scuff her Choos. Maybe if the ungodly purchase price wasn’t languishing on her credit card bill, she’d feel better about it.
She looked around at the bareness, her gaze eventually shifting up to the loft, still filled with hay. And memories. Memories she wanted to forget but couldn’t, like the bittersweet memories of Noah. Her friend, her knight, her once-upon-a-time everything. Goose bumps ran up her spine. This loft had been their kingdom, where they’d dreamed big when they were small. Later, it became a refuge, where they experimented with alcohol. And each other. A place where they planned their escape, where they—
She whirled around at the sound of his voice, as familiar as if she’d heard it hours—not years—ago. But the man standing in front of her wasn’t the boy she’d left behind. Dark stubble had replaced peach fuzz. The lanky, thin frame she remembered had morphed into broad shoulders and hard muscle. Hard-work-earned muscle, not gym-sculpted. His stance was confident, proud. Imposing.
Noah stared up at the loft and then shifted his focus to her. “Remembering old times?” The mischievous glint in his eyes hadn’t changed, nor had other things. His hair was still thick and black, one random curl hanging over his forehead. His dark-blue eyes were still as deep as Lake Tahoe. His lips? Firm, full… Were they still totally kissable? Her mouth dried at the thought, and heat sprawled through her stomach, then lower.
What was wrong with her? She wasn’t a teenager anymore. This was the guy who’d broken her heart; pulverized it. And it wasn’t like she was Celibate Celia in New York, pining over him. Noah Taylor shouldn’t affect her body, shouldn’t affect her anymore. And he shouldn’t be here.
This trip was supposed to be in and out, nice and easy. Sell the ranch, scoop up JJ, and skedaddle.
Noah’s gaze rolled down her body, lingered on her too-high heels, then climbed back up. “The city’s treated you well,” he said.
Bronzed abs peeked through the rip in his dirty T-shirt. Reno had treated him well. Very well. Not that she’d ever admit it, especially to him. “How did you know I’d be here?”
He lifted a brow. “You stopped at the Stop-n-Gas,” he said, as if that explained everything.
And actually, it did.
“Mrs. Walters.” The Stop-n-Gas’s manager and resident town gossip. Grace had almost forgotten about the lack of privacy in her hometown.
Noah smiled. “You know she’s always had a soft spot for me.”
A spot that had never included Grace. Noah had the advantage there: his father was the town preacher. Hers was the town joke—or rather, had been.
“So Mrs. Walters called you.” Grace would be annoyed, except that the old woman wasn’t just a gossip. She’d given Grace some Skittles for JJ. Noah wasn’t Mrs. Walters’s only favorite anymore.
Noah pushed past her, closed the barn’s back door that JJ had left open and turned to face her again. “It took you long enough to get here.”
He wasn’t referring to the time spent at the Stop-n- Gas. She hadn’t meant to take so long to get home, but her boss had made anything else impossible. No one said “no” to Simon. Not even Grace as his lead—okay, only—photographer, his protégé. Heck, people reorganized major life events, including funerals, around Simon.
“I did the best I could.” Which, of course, wasn’t enough. Her best had never been enough for anyone here—not her mother, her father, or even for Noah. “I left a message on the home phone.” Though why did Noah care? “Why are you here?”
“Are you here to stay?” he asked cautiously, ignoring her question. His stare pressed against her soul, assessing her, judging her. Just like always. But Noah had no right to judge. He’d given up any rights he had, any trust they’d shared, seven years ago. Grace forced herself not to squirm or hightail it out of the barn.
“For a couple weeks.” She straightened her back. She owned this place now. Noah wasn’t going to push her around on her ranch. “I’ve got a lot of things to take care of and little time.”
“What kind of things?”
“Things that don’t concern you.”
He flinched, almost indiscernibly. Anyone else would’ve missed it, but Grace recognized his gestures, knew him too well. Or used to. He waited, most likely for a better answer. If she was right, she knew he’d outwait her.
“Fine.” She pushed a wayward brown curl behind her ear. “I’m putting this place up for sale. As soon as possible.” She had meetings set up like dominoes, and a list of things to do over the next two weeks to get her plan in place.
Noah clenched his jaw. “Your daddy loved this place.”
She tried to ignore how his words stapled themselves to her heart. Once upon a time, it wasn’t just her father who had loved this place. But that was before The Incident, before the world turned pear-shaped. She adjusted the cuffs of her jacket. She should have worn short sleeves. The warm, arid air, though typical for late May, was stifling. “My father loved his horses, too, but it looks like he was able to part with them just fine.”
“There are still other animals. JJ takes care of them. They’re his friends.”
“JJ will make new friends.”
“That’s it? You’re here to sell the place and haul JJ away from his home, his life—to New York where he knows no one?”
It was her turn to flinch. He was right; her stepbrother didn’t know her, probably didn’t know anything about her. She wasn’t proud of it. Truth be told, she wished things were different. But they weren’t, which was why Grace had been shocked to learn her father and Sheila had named her as guardian. Apparently, Sheila had no relatives to take JJ, so Grace was the only choice.
“I’m… No. I don’t need to explain myself to you, and I certainly don’t need your permission for anything I do.” Sure, New York City didn’t have rodeos or wild horses or miles and miles of wide-open space. But that didn’t mean JJ wouldn’t grow to like it just as she had. Grace clasped her hands, twisting them together. “This ranch is mine now. I can do whatever I want.” She took a deep breath and pulled at the edge of her linen jacket to smooth out the wrinkles. “I need to find the housekeeper. She’s expecting me.”
“And she’s going to help you get this place ready for sale?”
“She will.” Grace sniffed and crossed her arms. “Once I talk with her.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.”
“And why’s that?”
A smug smile spread across his lips. “I’m the housekeeper.”
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