Moving to Briarwood, Colorado had not been in Gilly Casey’s original life plan. Sure, she’d dreamed of owning a horse ranch, but as kind of a part-time gig, in Topanga Canyon maybe. But the best laid plans of this high-powered L.A. attorney turn to dust when more than her bar card is threatened. Fleeing to a life she had never imagined quickly becomes a cat and mouse game just to stay alive.
Luke Hudson’s road to Briarwood was no less bumpy. Hiding from his own demons, he’s no longer able to float below the radar when he recognizes the feisty Miz Casey is in more trouble than she’ll admit. Donning the hero mantle years after he’d shed that skin, Luke realizes that rescuing Gilly might just save him, too.
With so many secrets between them, does love stand a chance? When the past trains its loaded gun on them, truth may not be enough to safeguard Gilly and Luke.
Copyright © JOAN BIRD 2011
Cupping a hand against her forehead, Gilly turned in the direction of the main highway, squinting to make out what or who had veered onto the lane. Two figures, one in the driver’s seat, the other shotgun, appeared only as silhouettes as the unfamiliar vehicle rattled over the cattle grate. With the sun dipping low in the sky and her nerves hopping to attention at the shadowy specters occupying the cab, she wondered if there was time to run.
A cloud of dust rising from the parched dirt road whirled like a cyclone, spitting out an old truck. With a hard right it burst through the arched entry gate, reminding her the dangling sign needed repair. Right. Except she hadn’t re-named the ranch yet.
And she had to live through this encounter.
Surely this arrival would be friend not foe. Yet, Doc’s warnings about learning how to shoot came rushing at her. Right now though, there was nothing to do but act like she was where she belonged. This was her place and she best get used to it.
Preparing to meet whoever was quickly closing the distance, Doc’s other advice came to mind. Get some real jeans. Figuring any weapon was better than none,Gilly tucked the clippers into the single back pocket of her form fitting pants. For strength, she meditated herself into a black cocktail dress with two martinis under her belt. One-hundred-eighteen pounds of guts and power.
I can handle this.
The noise accompanying the mechanical demon trundling towards her had broken the solitude she was getting used to. Squaring her shoulders as the heavy-footed driver powered closer across what would one day be the front lawn, she summoned old habits. Just like court. Meet. Listen. Annihilate your opposition with superior intellect and finely tuned legal argument.
If that fails, stab ‘em with your clippers.
Curtains of shadow had fallen over the yard. The sky’s changing color nearly matched the orange and red leaves of the big Sycamore to her left. Seeing this, she simultaneously recognized another of her weaknesses. Absorbed in the fight with the unyielding rose bushes, she’d failed to notice the sun balancing at the edge of her horizon, ready to tip over the mountaintops and fall off to the west.
Narrowing her eyes didn’t help. The reflection on the windshield made it impossible to see the features of the truck’s driver, plus his huge hat was pulled down over his eyes. Well, she was pretty sure it was a he. Whatever it was, its form filled the cab behind the wheel.
Although desiring to adapt to her newly acquired country life, Gilly still couldn’t quash the thought of a sorely missed but firmly established L.A. rule. “Call first!”
Except animals didn’t use phones.
A big square head poked out the window, its body was draped half-in and half-out of the shotgun side. Huge ears flapped in a wind of the truck’s own making and massive black forepaws lay flat against the outside door. The creature seemed oblivious to anything but the ride itself. As the truck spun to a stop barely ten feet from her toes, the big mutt ducked inside, spun a few circles and sat, returning one paw to rest on the frame of the open window.
A dog? Swatting uselessly at the whirling dust, assured somehow by the presence of man’s best friend, she smiled to herself and her trepidation fled. For the moment anyway.
The animal looked more human than the shadowy specter at the helm. She could hallucinate from heat stroke, right? In the shadows of the late afternoon the dog had become so human Gilly believed it might just whip out a cigar, chomp off one end and light up.
Pulling her gaze from the mutt she watched the must-be-a-cowboy-person reach over, tease the fur on the dog’s head and punch open the passenger door. Off guard despite her warrior stance, Rover or whatever its name might be, bounded out as if Lassie were finally home. The dog charged her with all the sense of a rock.
Just like that.
Not ten seconds passed from the truck stopping to this mongrel slobbering and ignoring her indignant “Oof!” With the pooch licking her face, she really wanted to be pissed-off. Lawyer pissed-off. Instead all she could manage was a grin despite having landed, hard, on the open pair of clippers in her pocket.
Her life didn’t exactly pass before her eyes, but Gilly envisioned the Briarwood Gazette headline all the same. “No Point in Delivering the Viking Range. New Ranch Lady Kilt by Rabid Dog!”
Part true, as she was pretty sure she was being licked to death. Either that or this was some kind of new super facial that removed a layer of skin better than the best laser technology Beverly Hills had to offer.
“Hey, Boy!” Accompanied by a sharp whistle.
In a heartbeat – divested of about eighty pounds of muscle, fur and drool- she lay prone and staring up at a dusky sky. Boy? The stranger she’d yet to identify had spoken it as if the title were the dog’s name. Too bad. She’d been thinking about naming it, Gandhi.
Trying to gather her wits, she wondered if Cowboy Buckaroo here had plans to go all chivalrous on her. The thought inspired her to action.
Leaping up, she planted her feet and faced the stranger. Uncaring about likely wild hair and hat head, she was so ready to go legal on Mr. Buckaroo. Until he took a few steps. For some ungodly reason, his walk, something in his manner, soothed her. He was all cowboy shy and ‘Ah, Shucks, ma’am’ like.
Maybe that was an act. Either way, if he called her ma’am? She’d have to kill him.
An aura of certainty wrapped him like a cocoon. Confidence had never failed her before, so why couldn’t she breathe? Gilly tried counting the toes inside her tennis shoes. Her Zen way of chasing away nerves. It had always worked in court. Yeah, and in court she’d been wearing pumps.
The stranger was tall, even if she was gauging him without her Ferragamo’s. Tall-tall. Which meant she’d have to look up. Inherently knowing to do so would reveal his eyes beneath the brim of the hat, she was a little afraid of what she’d see there. Like right before he strangled her or something.
Once upon a time, she’d been able to dispatch foes clad in three thousand dollar suits with only a few well-placed words, but that recollection did nothing to calm her nerves.
This was different.
No air in Gilly’s lungs.
It speaks. It was lean, with a sonorous voice and it smelled good. It also just called her ma’am. She was going for the clippers.
“Ma’am?” A question this time, a sort of rumbling like distant thunder in a single word.
“Hey.” Gilly’s mouth had moved though obviously not connected to her brain. No kidding. All she could muster was “Hey” like some surfer-girl at the Huntington Beach Pier.
“Hey?” He repeated her as if he needed a translation.
Clearly her opening remark was not going to be quoted down through the annals of time. Maybe she could blame the sudden ineptitude on sunstroke or the sniffing at her ankles and knees. Hot air. Wet tongue. Befriending the mutt slobbering at her feet seemed the better choice than discourse with the stranger. Looking down at the cowboy’s tail wagging sidekick, its big head and soft brown eyes focused on her, a remarkable thing happened.
Love at first sight.
This wooly mastodon masquerading as a pet was marked like a world map. Dark shapes, jigsaw puzzle pieces floating like continents on seas of grey. Except the dog had solid black ears and feet. Tilting sideways, volunteering a soft arff, it smiled. She was absolutely sure of it. Understanding surrounded the pools of dedication she read into the fabric of the funny animal’s irises. It reminded her Doc had wanted Gilly to get a dog.
Warned her actually.
She needed one.
Shaking her head as the brown eyes seemed glued on her, between drooling and panting it seemed to say, ‘You can trust me.’
Was she supposed to blindly trust the creature’s chauffeur?
Bending down, she tugged at the big ears, enchanted by the softness. As if the critter sensed her appreciation of his most splendid feature she was rewarded with another lick across her face. Was the four-legged fur ball here to stay? Maybe Doc had taken the decision on the whole dog thing out of her hands.
And was she supposed to let the cowboy stay too? Smiling to herself – not likely. Unless he could utter something other than that four-letter word that started with an “M”.
Since moving to Briarwood three months ago, she had been working on change, including extricating cuss words from her vocabulary. She figured ma’am for one of those that should never be uttered in the presence of a lady.
From her vantage point she noticed a scar on one of his knees through gap in the nearly seam-to-seam torn jean leg. It seemed doubtful the cowboy knew his attire would make him all the rage in Hollywood.
Straightening up, inhaling, her frontal lobe still refused connecting to her tongue. I can’t just stand here. Yet she did. The innate ability to look someone straight in the eye vanished. Weird. It had always been integral to her very being.
Lawyering-101. The problem being, application of that talent meant passing her eyes over his thighs, his hips.
Braving a study as far as his mid-section she settled on the blue and black checked shirt. A desire to see him without it intruded. There must be poison in the rose bush, or the slender blade of sour grass she’d chewed earlier was locoweed. Poisoned or not, the last two buttons of his shirt were in fact, undone.
He was un-tucked.
Flustered and distracted she stepped on the dog’s tail. With a howl it jumped up. Spinning like a top, again catching her off guard, she once more landed butt first on the hard ground.
The hovering mystery soap-opera “ma’am” caller now had sanction to laugh. At least it seemed unlikely her circumstances could get any worse, right? Without warning a pair of strong arms attached to calloused hands reached under her armpits, lifting her unceremoniously. Effortlessly. Despite her squirming, he stood her like some dime-store mannequin upright and on her feet.
Gilly hated being wrong.
But there it was.
It could in fact get worse.
She should be furious, righteously indignant, fractious, rancorous, lawyer-like. Instead, the unsnapped buttons on the man’s shirt held her captive. It had that-washed-so-many-times-it-might-not-make-it-again look. Which was driving her crazy because she wanted to touch the fabric. And she had an even greater urge to touch what lay beneath the cloth.
Her eyes spurred by a will of their own, embarked on a walking tour. Up past a slice of exposed chest, stopping fascinated by an incredibly sexy Adam’s apple…
“Ma’am? You all right?”
… that bobbed when he spoke.
It was back. The “ma’am” thing. Between the ‘ma’ams’, her wounded rear end and the unannounced visit, she was darn close to playing a modern day Doc Holiday. So close, her fingers twitched as she calculated how fast she could draw her clippers. But the anger that had her fantasizing about a duel with shears slipped away as she stood frozen, entranced by a day’s worth of dark stubble that cloaked his square jaw. She was mildly disappointed that shadows cast by the broad brim of his hat foreclosed reading his eyes.
“I just wondered…’cause you’re so quiet and all.”
Perhaps she should give him a chance.
“Do you need some water?” The bass tones of his speech drew her in. “You seem flushed.”
That voice earned enough points that she should let him off the hook for being responsible for her wounded behind and bruised ego. Especially since his blue-grey eyes expressed genuine concerned for her wellbeing.
And she might have. Let him off the hook. Even accept his visit with grace.
Except he spoke again.
Male-cover-model-of-a-hot-romance-novel reacted to lifting her off her petard, not with an “aw shucks”. Not with a “Sorry, Miss”. But by chuckling. Fleeting. Barely. She felt it more than heard it. He seemed to be suppressing outright laughter. As she pondered suing him for assault her hand reached to her only weapon, the clippers. But with the touch to her pocket, she winced. The injuries from falling were worse than she thought. She should revenge her honor. Her dignity.
Where’s my clippers?
She was definitely going to sue.
“You look a little weak. I couldn’t help but notice that tool in your pocket. Clippers, right? Are you hurt?” His eyes were sharp, but with humor not sarcasm. He’d raised his head enough that the shadow from his hat shifted away. Looking directly at him, she dove into lapis pools parked on either side of a perfect nose.
Courage and bluster. Nice idea if it would take. She was already struggling just to backstroke away from his inexplicable magnetism. Any plan of attack was torpedoed with a realization the cowboy’s hands were still gently supporting her.
“Hold still a minute…please?” Turning her body to one side, he spent a full ten-seconds or so staring at her behind.
Shit…shit…shit! Despite his tentative hold on parts of her body, Gilly let her hand reach back to the place his eyes seemed to find intriguing. Patting the fabric she was stunned to find her hand wet. This discovery melted her bravado.
Humility now seemed a better course than murder.
“Dang. I guess I broke skin.” Awed at the power of her cheap clippers, she caught the cowboy’s teasing look.
He seemed genuinely concerned as he leaned into her, closing the space between them just enough to study the patch of jeans where Gilly’s skin must have broken when she landed on the filthy tool.
“Hmm …” was all he offered. Tilting his head a little to the side, re-establishing the space between them, his mouth melted into a grin that created dimples on either side of his face. “When was your last tetanus booster?”
“I…” Apparently her mind hadn’t come back on line and the signals firing from the nerves at the crook of each elbow where the cowboy’s hands lightly remained had permanently fried her brain.
“I don’t know.” And she didn’t. She’d never stabbed herself with dirt-covered shears on a ranch before. She’d barely done dishes in L.A. let alone come into contact with rusty nails and the like.
The cowboy seemed to be mulling over her answer, continuing to stand dangerously close as he did so. She’d decided not to stab him for calling her ma’am. Even with his un-tucked shirt and end-of-day growth on his chin, her cowboy gave off a subtle undertone of classy aftershave. The wafting scent lifted a vague memory of another man from under a blanket in the recesses of Gilly’s mind. But all the concoctions brewing in her head slipped away at the moment she dared a look at the chest that rose and fell directly level with her chin. Raising her gaze, she read an inquisitive glint behind his eyes.
“Well, you’re going to need one then.”
“Need one what?”
“A tetanus shot. Like I said.” So close, his breath whispered over her cheeks. “I suppose you know the soil on this land has been treated with manure for likely longer than that rose has laid claim to your fence.”
Her hand came up, accidentally brushing his chest. Holding her palm like a stop sign she bit her lip. “Okay, I get the picture. Fertilizer.”
“In a word.”
“Where will I find a tetanus shot in Briarwood?”
“It’s a shot into muscle just like a horse.” He smiled.
“Thanks…” Again glancing over her shoulder, trying to study the wound, “I think.”
His head snapped back and laughter bounced around her as if she were immersed in the sound through headphones. Comfortable in his skin, she mused. Curious. How this beat-up truck driving cowpoke, maybe hick, would have access to the scent that tugged from a life she mostly regretted and was working to forget. She couldn’t fathom. The memory forced a glimpse of the past into her mind that she tried to dispel by focusing on the stranger.
But not before a tear escaped one eye.Oh, damnation on a Popsicle. Revealing weakness to a stranger was so not on the menu.
As the cowboy shifted his weight, a cleaner smell snapped off the old haunt of memory. Like chivalry was indeed making some kind of Briarwood comeback, a hard-worked thumb dusted away the traitorous sign of her emotions.
One miserable tear that couldn’t be missed.
She stepped out of his spell.
“I think it’s more likely I’ll die of old age than lock jaw…seeing as how I’ve been called “ma’am” a million times in the space of five minutes!” Using her gloved hand without thinking, trying to salvage some pride by swiping at the streak of moisture that obviously gave her away, Gilly grimaced, realizing her mistake. The dirt on her gloves had likely transferred to her face.
Buck, or Lucky, or Bob, or Ornery -whatever his name was- laughed again.
Her good nature winning out, she joined in. As her face crinkled in reaction to her giggles, Gilly felt the sunburn too late to salvage her skin, but at least it might be severe enough to conceal the blush spreading to the roots of her hair. The shadows should help too, right?
Glancing at the mountains to the west, she noticed the sun had officially slipped below a strident peak. The range that ran north to south had begun to glow purple like a patriotic song and waning daylight stepped away to a chill. With it came the recognition that her physical body was thirsty, tired and filthy.
Not to mention that she had to pee. Desperately.
Tugging off the garden gloves, she struck out her right hand, professional-like. “Gilly Casey.“
He obliged, but only with “Luke.”
His large hand dwarfed Gilly’s and as often happened when she felt out of place or intimidated, she overcompensated and finished with her killer court room grip. Only Luke – since that’s all the intel she had -winced. Barely perceptible. She forced herself to stifle a “gotcha” smile.
“Sorry.” Forgiving him a little for what she had initially believed to be arrogance. It was in her nature to be dubious about much that walked into her life. Reverting to old habits honed by years of negotiation she found herself again tempted to judge him, convinced she had him pegged. Except her cowboy shoved his hands in his pockets and shuffling his feet, ducked his head. A reaction at odds with his earlier confidence. Clearly he was avoiding a direct look, yet moments ago he’d been all gutsy-like; touching her face.
The cowboy’s eyes sought out his traveling companion. Following his glance, Gilly allowed a moment to observe the uncensored joy of a dog lolling about in dried grass. As it happily slurped away at parts of its body in a way only a dog can, the realization hit. If Luke was here to give up the mutt, he wasn’t thrilled about it. There was obviously a bond between the dog and this man with one name.
“Doc Moore sent me out here to give you the dog.”
Suspicion confirmed, Gilly’s “ah ha” moment was best kept to herself.
Jumping up, the animal circled then sat, his tail, thump, thump, thumping at her feet. Yet it was the dog’s eyes that got her in trouble. The dog’s. Not the man’s.
Good thing she hadn’t spent too much time foraging Only Luke’s eyes. There was trouble there. Understanding, without knowing him at all, that a girl could end up ambling down the path from the subtle lights in his irises, deeper, straight to his soul.
Since it was evident to Gilly that Boy – apparently the creature‘s full name – didn’t need to speak to become a fixture in her heart, she couldn’t help ponder whether the cowboy would fit there too.