Nathan's Big Sky - M. L. Buchman - ebook
Opis

-a Henderson’s Ranch Big Sky romance- When Emily Beale and Mark Henderson retire to the family ranch in Montana, they enter a whole new world. Meeting all new people. Chef Nathan Gallagher’s escape from New York City lands him in the most unlikely of places: Montana. With his past dumped and his future unknown, he seeks something new. If only he knew what. Julie Larson, former rodeo star and born-and-bred cattle rancher, loves the prairie and the horses. The cattle ranch work with her three brothers? Not so much. The local cowboys labeling her as a Grade-A Prime catch? Even less. When she rescues Nathan from a near-death experience, her future and her heart alter past all imagining. The only place a New York chef’s future and a Montana cowgirl’s heart can thrive? Under Nathan’s Big Sky.

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Nathan’s Big Sky

a Henderson’s Ranch romance

M. L. Buchman

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To Gibson the dog, and the good friend who named him for one of my characters.

Also my thanks to my friends Pat and Donna for their guidance and stories.

Chapter 1

The silence was deafening.

Nathan gripped the crowbar-handle of his car’s jack so tightly that it hurt his hand but he couldn’t ease up. It was his sole hope of survival.

The only sound for miles on the emptiness of the Montana prairie was the hot-metal pinging of his cooling Miata sports car, lurched awkwardly to the roadside by a flat tire. The chill of the cold April evening almost hurt his lungs. The sun hadn’t quite set; instead it illuminated the clouds of his own breath like some horror movie with a fog machine turned on too high.

How was it that he’d come to this place to die?

Chefs were not supposed to die alone in the forsaken wilderness, they were supposed to have a butter-induced heart attack in the middle of a meal service. But the safety of his New York kitchen lay an impossible distance behind him. He’d bolted forty-eight hours ago, sleeping only a few fitful hours in Chicago before punching west as if all the hounds of hell were after him.

And they’d caught up with him in the form of a monster.

Two days to cross most of the country and now, like a gunslinger fated to his doom, he was going to be murdered in the emptiness of the Montana wilderness by the largest cow ever born.

It put Paul Bunyan’s mythically massive blue ox Babe to shame.

Purest black, it was an inkblot on the continuance of Nathan’s life.

Horns the length of a New York cabbie’s woes sprang from either side of its head, ending in points that looked sharper than his finest boning knife.

He’d hit Choteau, Montana, in the late afternoon for directions, as his little brother’s instructions had turned out to be utterly useless: “Henderson Ranch, just west of Choteau.” There wasn’t a single app on his phone that told him where the ranch might be. There’d also been no answer on his brother’s phone, but he was used to that. Apparently most of the ranch was beyond the pale of civilization and didn’t have reception. His brother had always been useless about answering the phone anyway, unless you were a pretty girl—them he’d always had a sixth sense for, even on a blocked number.

Maybe Patrick’s directions sucked because he was messing with his big brother. Or maybe it was because he assumed Nathan would never cross west of the Hudson River—which historically was a reasonable assumption—so it wasn’t worth the effort to be more descriptive.

A Choteau (Cho-toe that was almost Sho-toe) local had known the name, however. In a town only three blocks long, it made sense that he did. “Just go down the highway apiece until you hit Anderson’s farm. Can’t miss it. He has the last big white cow barn this side of Augusta. Take a right on the main road and go on until you’ve just about hit the mountains. Out onto the dirt a ways. That’ll set you in the right place.”

The “highway” was a narrow two-lane called Montana 287.

By the time Choteau was two miles behind him, he’d passed two Andersons, an Andersen, and an Andreassen. This driveway had no mailbox that he could see, but it had a big white barn and a road along one side of the property. The map on his cell phone said that Augusta was fifty miles ahead. Telling him “the last big barn before Augusta” counted as a local having fun chapping his ass. He must have taken one look at Nathan’s two-seater Miata and painted a little mental target on Nathan’s forehead—just as the monster cow now had one painted on Nathan’s life.

The turnoff road was a lane and a half wide. Nathan guessed that in its favor, it was paved and had an actual stop sign where it met the “highway.” Sunlight was streaming out the backside of the sign through several bullet holes. He wondered if someone was going to shoot him for being in a sports car instead of a pickup with a gun rack.

Did upstate New York even have roads like this one—not even two lanes wide and with no painted stripes? Or was that only legal west of the Mississippi? Manhattan and Long Island certainly didn’t. During his five years in Paris, he’d rarely been farther out than the Metro could carry him.

For thirty miles past the white cow barn, he drove unknowingly toward his doom as the mountains drew closer and closer. He kept assuming he’d reach them in another few miles and they insisted on teasing him just like his brother. After the unremitting flatness of the Great Plains, they had loomed tall and rough to the west as seen from Choteau. Now he was discovering that Australia wasn’t the only place that had an Outback.

The peaks kept growing bigger and climbing higher but the land remained flatter than the ocean off Coney Island on a hot summer’s day. The peaks’ jagged flanks were shrouded in snow despite it being April. He turned on the Miata’s heater as the sun settled toward the west, but he left the convertible top down because the view was so amazing. The blue sky arced forever over him until the mountains sliced it off like a kid’s construction project: sharp, jagged, unreal.

Each time he’d passed a ranch, he checked the name, but none said Henderson. He even pulled out his phone to check that he’d remembered it right—and almost drove his car into the gaping ditch. Not a good idea. For all he knew, there might not be another person down this road for a week. He’d seen a few tractors—which were far bigger than he thought they would be—far out in the fields, but no one else on the road.

With a crash and thud that made him check his rearview to see if he’d left an axle on the road behind him, the pavement ended.

“Out onto the dirt a ways.” Maybe the old-timer in Choteau hadn’t been completely chapping his ass.

He slowed down to preserve his suspension. A cloud of brown dust obliterated his past. If he wanted to turn around, he’d have to eat his own dust. That sounded like a properly cowboy-like metaphor for the last decade of his life. Two days ago he’d cut every tie to that past. If only he could figure out how that had led him to the Montanan Outback, he wouldn’t feel quite so overwhelmed at the moment. Twenty-eight years old and his life fit in a two-seater sports car—with room to spare. That might not be right, but it didn’t make it any less true.

For the last ten miles he’d been hoping to meet someone on the road to ask directions again. Or maybe how to escape, little knowing it would soon be too late.

The dirt road narrowed and then he actually hoped he didn’t meet anyone because he’d have to crawl to the side to get by them. Out here he wasn’t threatened by ditches anymore, they’d disappeared along with the pavement, but instead by barbed wire running close down either side of the dirt track. Not a chance that his Soul Red Metallic paint job would survive the encounter.

After a few miles of dodging potholes and gritting his teeth over washboard ripples, he started looking for a place to turn around. The road wasn’t wide enough to be sure he could turn even his small car without dinging it up.

He’d been climbing slowly since Choteau, and spring had turned back into winter. There was a bitter snap to the evening air that promised what looked like snow and ice up ahead…really was snow and ice up ahead. By this point the mountains were so high they looked as if they were going to roll over and land on him.

Manhattan didn’t have places like this. Neither did Paris, where he’d done his time at Le Cordon Bleu and three years servitude for Chef Guevarre—may his brutal training and magnificent palate both be in hell by now. There was something wrong about the flatness behind and the impossible mountains ahead.

Then, topping a low rise, facing straight into the setting sun, he was confronted by the beast from hell that was going to kill him.

He’d slammed on the brakes, skidding sideways on the washboard gravel, and barely managed to avoid hitting the cow. A tire caught in a pothole where it had blown with a loud bang that scared him almost as much as the creature of his doom had.

Now he stood in the middle of the road between his crippled car, pinging the last dying notes of its hot-metal song, and the monstrous black cow that was about to charge him. The damn thing didn’t so much as blink its malevolent eyes, as if it was trying to hypnotize him.

His only weapon choices were his chef’s knives, which would be very useful if the cow was already dead and butchered but not until then, and his car’s jack handle. Retreating into his car and pulling up the convertible’s roof would be pointless—this monster was so big it could practically step over the Miata. And the tips of its horns were actually wider than the car itself.

His ears rang with the silence, now broken only by a scuffing of one New York metro bus-sized hoof as the cow prepared to charge. Nathan had served a thousand roasts, ten thousand steaks, and this meal-still-on-the-hoof knew it. It had come to exact revenge for all of its spiritual forebears…fore-steaks?

The last thing Nathan was going to smell was the crackling dry grass of the prairie, the biting chill of the fast-approaching night, and the hot breath of the demon cow so big it seemed to block out even the vast expanse of the Montana sky. There had been fourteen hundred miles of flat since Chicago, but here, with his back up against the mountains, the vast horizon seemed far bigger than should be possible. His last-ever vision would be to actually see the curvature of the earth.

Then, impossibly, as if it wasn’t bad enough that his epitaph was going to read: Here a once-decent chef was trampled to death by a cow—trampled sounded like a marginally more pleasant way to go than gored—he heard a clip-clop sound coming from behind him.

He didn’t dare turn, because he knew the beast-cow would charge the moment he looked aside.

Still, the sound behind him grew.

Unable to stand it any longer—the sound was so close—he spun and raised his foot-long jack handle in one last desperate bid for life.

Backed by the sun, a silhouetted cowboy sat up on a horse even taller than the cow and looked down at Nathan from under the brim of his cowboy hat.

“What are you doing out in the road?”

Not cowboy, cowgirl. A soft voice, but no less disgusted for all that. Against the dazzling sun he could see that she wore cowboy boots, a heavy leather jacket, and had a rifle tucked close to hand.

Hope?

Maybe she could shoot the demon cow before it trampled, trompled, gored, or whatever demon cows did.

He tried to speak, but his throat was clogged dry with fear and road dust. The air was so dry it seemed to suck the moisture right out of him.

She rode around him and his car as if he wasn’t even there. “Go on now, Lucy. Scoot!”

A hell-beast named Lucy?

He’d had a great Aunt Lucy, but she hadn’t been very fierce—more the quiet and retiring type, which was perhaps inevitable beside her husband’s garrulous stockbroker charisma.

The woman rode her black-and-white patterned horse up to the “monster cow from hell” before he could warn her off.

Yet, in a startlingly sudden surrender, the gigantic animal turned and ambled back through a broken gap in the barbed wire fence that Nathan hadn’t noticed. As it walked, he recognized the scuffing sound that he’d thought proceeded a deadly charge—it was just the sound the cow made by walking.

After riding her horse through the gap as well, she then swung a long leg over the back of the saddle and came down out of the sky. Paying no more attention to him than if he was a bump in the road, she pulled out some tools and walked up to the fence.

He could only watch—numb with his unexpected last-second stay of execution and the biting cold—as she repaired the fence. It was only the work of minutes before she had three fine strands of barbed wire strung back up between the posts; her and the cow on one side and he and his broken car on the other. The flimsy wires had no chance of stopping a baby cow, never mind the hell cow Lucy, currently tearing at the low dead grass.

The woman had been towering in the saddle; on the ground she was still tall. Perhaps slender beneath the heavy leather jacket. Straight, light blond hair fell past her shoulders. Her cheeks were rosy with the cold, which he’d always thought was just a saying.

When she finished, he finally found his voice before she could disappear back into the landscape as eerily as she’d arrived.

“Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Henderson Ranch?”

“I can,” he could just see her eyes beneath the wide brim of her cowboy hat. They were as brilliant blue as the sky and seemed to be laughing at him, though her mouth wasn’t. What was it with locals chapping his ass today?

“Would you mind telling me?”

“Not a bit,” and she let it hang long enough to make him sigh.

The failing sun caught the cloud of his breath in the chill air.

“You’re standing on Henderson land.”

“I am?” he looked down at the road, but it was keeping its secrets to itself. “This doesn’t look like a ranch, it looks like a whole bunch of nothing.”

“It’s two ranches,” she sounded miffed by his description, which, he decided on review, hadn’t been the most tactful thing he’d ever said. “You’re standing on Henderson’s, but your passenger seat is on mine—property line runs up the middle of the lane. You’ve been on Mac and Ama’s land for the last five miles or so. If you’d like, I can chop your car in two and then you’ll be off my family’s land.”

“That’s okay. I like my car the way it is.”

“Even with the flat?”

“Okay, except for the flat.” Was this what passed for a sense of humor out here, or was she about to pull the rifle hanging on her horse’s saddle and make good on her offer—maybe shooting his poor car for trespassing before skinning it? Perhaps it would be safer if he kept her talking. “What are you doing way out here?”

“Riding the fence.”

He assumed that meant something to someone other than him, but he couldn’t figure out how to ask what. Her horse stepped up to her and rested its chin over her shoulder. She reached up a gloved hand and patted it on the cheek a couple of times.

“I was looking for different,” and it didn’t get more different than the woman in front of him.

“Thought you were looking for Henderson’s.”

“I was. I am,” and he was on the verge of being turned into a babbling idiot. He’d left New York looking for a change. For something he’d never done, someone he’d never been. Couldn’t get more different than a burned-out New York chef and a tall, blond cowgirl out “riding a fence” who had a horse for a pet.

“Their drive is another mile yet, on the left. Can’t miss it,” she tipped her head toward farther down the road. Then, in a move so smooth she might have been doing it since birth, she stepped one foot up into a high stirrup and swung atop the tall horse. He’d briefly dated an American Ballet Theater dancer—sleeping through her performance had not earned him many bonus points—who didn’t have the grace or posture of this cowgirl. Cow-woman. Was that a real phrase? She stepped once more into line with the low sun and he lost her in the glare.

“Thanks,” he called out. One of his more charming lines.

“Need help with the tire?”

“I can change a flat.”

Her blinding silhouette nodded as if that might be a miracle worth witnessing, then tipped her hat and turned to ride away. He couldn’t argue with that conclusion, but it would be too embarrassing to admit his gross incompetence.

“Will I see you again?”

“It depends,” she spoke over her shoulder without fully turning.

“On what?” Nathan had to call more loudly as she headed away perpendicular to the road.

“On how long I can avoid you.”

Unwilling to turn, Julie Larson kept an ear out. It took a bit, but then she heard a soft laugh.

A minute later, the rattling sound of someone jacking a car—a sound far enough away to be no louder than the ticking of a lone cricket. Anything else was lost beneath the sound of the last of the dry winter grass swishing against Clarence’s hocks, but that laugh intrigued her. She didn’t know why the man made her more prickly than a stinging nettle.

This had been the last stretch of the fence line. There were a half dozen places where the winter had snapped a post and occasional runs where wood rot had finally taken down a whole stretch of wire, but nothing bad in the entire run. In the morning she’d grab one of the hands and a truck; they’d have the spring pasture put together before the cattle were ready for it. Old Lucy had somehow slipped in early, but she’d been a certified escape artist since her third day afoot.

Will I see you again?

“Not a chance, city boy. I’ve already got my big strong man. Don’t I?” she leaned forward to scrub at the side of Clarence’s neck as his ears pricked back to listen to her. What was it with city boys and a woman on a horse? For that matter, what was it with cowboys and a woman on a horse?

Number One question: You aren’t married? (delivered with an astonished gasp). Twenty-six and single was definitely a crime. Or at least a freak of nature.

Number Two question: Wa’ll how about me, darlin’? (as if a lame Texas accent worked wonders in the Montana Front Range).

I was looking for different.

What had he meant by that? Didn’t matter—he was Mac and Ama’s problem now.

She leaned in just enough for Clarence to lift up to a quick trot. It was still comfortably above freezing, but there wasn’t a cloud in sight so it would chill down fast once the sun hit the horizon. Even now the long shadows of Old Baldy and Rocky Mountain stretched across the prairie leaving her in a narrow slash of red-gold sunlight across the still-brown prairie.

Julie resisted Clarence’s urge to gallop. She didn’t want him to get all heated before a cold night in the barn.

Different. The city boy had that right. A sports car in the land of pickup trucks. A convertible in a place where rocketing winds and plunging temperatures defined seven months of the year. He had tousled dark hair, warm eyes, and an easy smile that seemed to be aimed first of all at himself.

Different. She looked at the sweep of land around her, the Larson barn, house, and sheds coming into view, and wondered at it. There were so many things to love here, but different wasn’t one of them.

Clarence asked again with a shift in his stride. She eased off and let him slip into a canter. Even big, handsome boys like him deserved to have some fun. She tugged down on the brim of her hat to make sure she didn’t lose it and decided that she deserved some fun, too. She gave Clarence his head and between one stride and the next he took her to the pure exhilaration of a full gallop over the rolling pastureland.

Why anyone would want different when they could have this, she didn’t know.

In New York, turning onto someone’s driveway said that you were close to the house. Out here it apparently meant only that you were in the same time zone.

At the turnoff, the first one in miles, a big arch of wood weathering to gray crossed above the dirt drive—no smaller than the road he’d been on. The headlights barely caught the carved “Henderson Ranch” in big letters with a horseshoe nailed in at either end.

It had taken forever to change the tire, thank goodness the manual had pictures or he’d still be out there wondering what a lug nut was. Though a flashlight certainly would have helped. He’d been able to see the manual in the dome light, but he’d finished hanging the wheel in darkness by feel alone. Even with the top up and the heater on high for the last stretch, he wondered if his fingers would ever recover.

A mile or more up the lane and around a low hill he spotted a porch light and had never so felt like he was coming home. To his left were several big barns and sheds. A few small houses lay beyond them. The main house, the one with the ever-so-welcoming porch light, was a big, two-story, log cabin structure. The foundation was stonework and the roof disappeared steeply into the night. There was a real elegance to the place—no less than a Long Island mansion, but in a style all its own.

When he’d finished changing the tire, he had stood up—and was utterly alone. The only sound was the chattering of his teeth. He’d swear he could hear the starlight puncturing brilliant holes through the ice-cold air.

Where was the stunning blonde now? Had she ridden off into the dazzling sunset and gone back to some Montana fairyland in the sky? He could almost believe it. She’d galloped away so fast into the orange sun that it was as if she’d sucked the light out of the sky with her slipstream.

He’d never had a pet and the women he’d dated never had anything bigger than a cat, but the cowgirl made a horse seem like such a natural companion that it was hard to imagine her with anything less.

“Not going to find a welcome there,” he told the night.

She’d ridden away from him without a name or a backward glance.

Had her driveway been around the next bend, or was her family ranch so big that he’d need to set his watch ahead an hour in order to find her?

Well, he was here. Finally. Unsure where else to go, he climbed out of the car and stumbled up the ranch house’s broad wooden steps onto the deep porch that ran off either direction into the darkness. The door was a warm red with a semicircular arch of glass above that glowed with a soft light.

He knocked. Waited. Knocked again harder. If he had to camp in his car on this Arctic night, he was in deep trouble.

The door creaked open and a tall woman with dark, Native American features and waist-long straight hair—black and shot with steely gray—looked at him eye to eye. She wore jeans and a simple flannel shirt. She was positively majestic, except for her pink bunny slippers.

She noticed the direction of his attention, “A Christmas gift from my daughter-in-law. She has a curious sense of humor.” The first words spoken between them. She had a warm, steady voice, as if nothing in the world could ever surprise her.

Then she looked right at him for a long moment as he shivered on the threshold.

“You are lost,” she said simply and stepped aside, then waved him in.

“No,” Nathan stepped into the firelit warmth chaffing his hands together. “If this is Henderson Ranch, I think I’m found.”

If the woman smiled, it wasn’t on the outside.

“Sorry, best line I’ve got after the crazy evening I’ve had.”

She turned and walked away without another word, but he had the impression that he should follow.

He almost lost track of her when he stepped forward. The entryway gave way to a massive great room. Cedar finish, gigantic beams, shining hardwood floor, and a towering stone fireplace: it was an absolute showpiece. But it was also much more than that. Red and brown leather couches were gathered in comfortable groupings. Geometric throws of strong colors were draped over the backs of the couches.

“This is like a cliché out of Montanan Architectural Digest.” His tact-o-meter had never been high but tonight he seemed to be hitting new lows.

“Yes,” her voice echoed from somewhere back to the left.

He tracked her through an arch into a large dining room, with a rough wooden table that could seat thirty or more family style, and into a kitchen.

“It is what most guests expect when they come to vacation on a working ranch. It makes them happy when they find it just as they’d expect. It has been three generations since my family wove Cheyenne rugs. But I researched and studied the techniques and now teach classes for guests because they expect it from someone like me.”

“I suppose that’s irony at its finest.” A weaving class taught by such a striking and regal Cheyenne woman, he’d sign up for that class in a heartbeat. “Do you at least enjoy it?”

“Very much, or what would be the purpose?” This must be the Ama of “Mac and Ama’s” that the blond cowgirl had referred to.

He meant to ask some polite question next, perhaps even introduce himself, but that thought was gone the moment he looked about the kitchen. The chef in him almost drooled with envy.

It wasn’t a commercial kitchen, not really, but neither was it a residential one. There was a large prep island with a wide array of cast iron and copper pans hanging on iron hooks above. Below were sheet pans, cutting boards, and a dozen other handy containers for large-scale meal preparation. The gas range had a dozen burners, and there was a broad griddle plus three ovens. A pair of big Sub-Zero side-by-side refrigerators dominated one end of the room. And it wasn’t merely the space: it had the best of everything from its borderland between residential and commercial. The pair of the largest residential KitchenAid stand mixers, a big Cuisinart, a Vitamix blender and juicer: everything a chef could need to have unlimited options. The cabinets were bright oak and the counters dark granite. It screamed cozy efficiency.

At the other end of the room was another dining table, this one for a dozen at most. The family dining room. There was also a single gathering of chairs and couches around another stone fireplace. So, not just the family dining room, this was the part of the house used by the family, whether or not there were guests.

“Can I stay forever?” He meant it as a joke but the woman, who had yet to introduce herself, simply put on the teakettle and pulled out a drawer with a dozen flavors of tea for him to choose from. He selected chamomile because his nerves definitely didn’t need caffeine at this point.

As he watched the kettle not boiling, Ama set about other tasks. By the time he had his tea, a steaming bowl of vegetable beef stew and a slab of homemade bread were waiting for him on the big table. He dipped the first slice and tasted the stew. Carrot, sweet parsnip, chunks of potato, and long-cooked beef in a thick gravy that was so good it was dribbling down his chin as he tried to eat it too fast. Thyme and bay, salt and pepper, and a dash of…not hot sauce…Worcestershire Sauce. The beef was tender and rich—definitely grass fed to get that degree of flavor with a moderate Burgundy red wine.

“Now I’m definitely found!” If this was farm cooking, he was all over it.

The woman tipped her head as if to say maybe.

“I’m Nathan Gallagher, Patrick’s brother.”

She nodded as if that much was obvious, even though he and Patrick looked nothing alike. Sons of different fathers—his own hadn’t stuck much past conception. Patrick’s had arrived before Nathan’s birth and raised them both as his own.

“Is my little brother around?”

“He is in Great Falls, then Bozeman, making deliveries and getting a load of supplies. He should be back tomorrow night, maybe the next. Your bedroom is through there,” she pointed to a door off the kitchen. She couldn’t have known he was coming, he barely knew he was coming himself until he arrived here. Yet she’d said your bedroom not as if he was a visitor or guest, but as if he somehow belonged here.

Though it would only be for a few days, Nathan welcomed the suggestion of stability. The world’s rug had been yanked out from under his feet in the last few days and even a moment’s respite was welcome.

He really was in heaven. Another taste of the stew. It was simple, rich, but there was one flavor more that he couldn’t quite identify. “What’s—”

But he was alone in the kitchen as if it had always been that way. He never heard her leave on her bunny slippers and now he wondered if he’d dreamed her, just like the cowgirl and her two-toned horse.

Chapter 2

Julie dreamt of clowns.

Small ones. Tall ones. Wide and narrow. All driving teeny, tiny cars and brandishing teeny, tiny steel bars at one of the gentlest cows on the range.

And all making her want to smile. Not at their ludicrous gestures and overblown reactions, but because they all smiled at her as if she was something special.

The only clowns she was used to were the ones at the county rodeos to distract the bulls after the rider was thrown. On this cold April morning, the summer rodeos were still too far off for even dreaming. She hadn’t decided if she’d sign up this year or just go and watch from the stands.

She rolled out of bed in time to help Ma with the cooking. Dad and her three older brothers came in from the barn as they were finishing up, with Dad handing out orders like usual.

“Matthew, get that bale stacker greased and going by noon. The cows aren’t going to feed themselves for another month yet. Mark and Luke, check the Poplar Creek pasture. They’re dropping their calves like hotcakes right now; bound to be a couple in trouble out that way. Julie—”

She always wondered how much it irritated her father that he’d had a girl instead of a boy that he could name John, but he was such a stern man that she’d never dared ask. At least he’d resisted naming her Johanna. That would have made it even more of a slap in the face.

“—finish riding the spring pasture fence line today.”

“Already done. I fixed a lot of little things yesterday. I’ll take the F-150 and some posts. I’ll have the whole spring pasture clean and tight by midday.”

“Good girl.”

“Then I’m switching over.”

That just earned her a grunt.

She had her own business to run, no matter how busy the spring season was on a cattle ranch. Frankly, if she never saw a birthing cow again, it would be too soon. It was freezing April and they were as likely to drop their newborns on a wind-torn snowbank as a soft bed of winter grass in a sheltered hollow. Cows started out dumber than most sheep, but the more trouble they were having, the dumber they became. The twins, Mark and Luke, were likely to find a hard birth in the middle of a stream where the cow could also fight the battle of hypothermia and drowning, as if giving birth weren’t a challenge enough for a woman.

“Don’t forget we’ve got a party tonight. I expect you all to be clean and presentable,” her father rode over her reminder that J. L. Building was launching its second year tomorrow—its first full year if she could find the contracts.

Wait. “What party?”

Her father’s scowl said she should have kept her mouth shut and asked Ma.

But May Larson saved her only daughter, something she didn’t do much for the boys. “Hendersons. Mark and your friend Emily are moving back to the ranch.”

“Oh, that’s tonight?” She barely remembered it as news at all. She didn’t know Mac and Ama’s son particularly except that he was ex-military of some sort. Julie had met him a few times, but the guys tended to cluster around the “military man” so she’d had little contact with him.

She knew Emily a little better and liked her well enough. She was a stern, taciturn blonde—an incredibly striking one. On the rare occasions they were together, they drew puzzled looks. Other than her white blond to Emily’s golden, folks who didn’t know them seemed split on asking if they were mother-daughter or sisters. Probably because she was an Easterner, it was impossible to tell what Emily was thinking and Julie had always been a little uncomfortable around her. Julie would never label her as a friend.

Dad’s scowl said exactly what he thought of Julie not keeping up on such things. And probably a hundred other things wrong with her, like her still being single rather than bringing another man into the family to work the ranch. Oh! Which was exactly why her father wanted her to be excited about tonight’s party. It would be the first gathering after the hard winter snows and hands would be coming from all the ranches around. The place would be packed with eligible bachelors.

Someone please shoot her now. She’d rather spend the night with Lucy out in a cold camp.

Then the last piece connected.

J. L. Building’s one contract for work was at Henderson’s, enough to last her through the first month or more. And that’s where that guy in the tiny clown car had been headed. With the way her luck ran with men, he’d be on the ranch the whole time she was working there, underfoot and in the way.

The local boys had learned not to mess with her. A hand on her ass was likely to earn a slicing swing with the short end of a hard lariat rope across theirs. That settled most of them quick enough.

But city boys were like puppy dogs—she never quite had the heart to shoo them away so harshly that they’d actually remember it.

She suspected that she’d have to make it extra clear this time.

Nathan hadn’t thought to close the curtains so he woke when the sunrise pounded into his face. He could have slept a dozen more hours. He’d barely slept in his final week in New York—being a chef at a high-end restaurant like Vite, sleep wasn’t a big part of his life. Then the two-day mad dash across the country.

He tried pulling the covers over his head, but the room was freezing. He peeked out and saw a thermostat on the wall. He hadn’t noticed it last night. With the bowl of warm stew inside him and twenty-two hundred miles behind him, he hadn’t noticed much of anything. The thermostat’s little handle was slid all the way to the left.

He bolted from the barely warm covers and into icy clothes that had him rushing into the kitchen praying for a cup of hot coffee. At sunrise he expected to be alone. It was an hour he was wholly unfamiliar with except as the time of day for that brief excursion to do the day’s shopping for the restaurant at the fresh markets.

His normal day started in late afternoon, ran through dinner service, a couple of bars, half a night’s sleep, a few hours of shopping if he couldn’t palm it off on some other chef, more sleep, and waking in time for a late lunch before prep began for the next dinner service.

He stepped into the gorgeous farm kitchen now flooded with early morning sunlight. The dark granite warmed. The rich oak glowed and the burnished steel did some other welcoming adjective that he’d think up after he had some caffeine flowing through his system.

Ama Henderson was at one of the counters greasing up a pair of big waffle irons.

Nathan found a mug, filled it from the round glass pot on the commercial dual-bay coffee maker. A brief search turned up cream and sugar.

He didn’t see any batter going yet.

She made no comment as he pulled out a steel bowl and a basket of eggs. They were dirty, like they’d been rolled in mud. He carried the basket to one of the sinks and began to wash them off. “Do your store your eggs in mud puddles?”

“Chicken shit,” she didn’t look up.

For a moment he wondered why they would do that. When the obvious reason registered—because that was the other thing besides eggs that was under chickens—he lost control of the egg he’d been washing and it hit the bottom of the sink with a sickening splat. In his world eggs came from clean little cardboard cartons, not from…chickens.

Ama might have been smiling as she passed him carrying a large plastic container filled with sausage meat. It didn’t look as if her sausage meat came from neat little Styrofoam trays covered in plastic wrap either.

Once the rest of the eggs were clean, he began cracking them into the bowl. “How many?”

“A dozen eggs should do.”

From that scant clue as to how many they were feeding, he began building a waffle mix. She didn’t tell him where things were, leaving him to discover that milk was in the steel jug in the dairy fridge, and which cupboard held the baking powder and flour. When he didn’t have enough flour, she pointed him toward another door.

“Oh. My. God.” This time he could feel her smiling at his back, though he didn’t turn to see.

The door led to a pantry that could feed an army. There were walls of staples. Lidded plastic buckets on the floor were labeled: rice, lentils, red beans, black beans, and more. There was an entire wall of shelves dedicated to canned goods. Not canned like from a store, but canned like the glass jars that cost him ten or fifteen dollars apiece at Dean and DeLuca’s in SoHo. Asparagus, beans, corn…the whole alphabet of vegetables was represented. Jam jars nudged up against quarts of cherries and tomatoes—maybe he’d died and gone to heaven. A massive chest freezer was packed solid with bags of frozen fruit. Another with cuts of meat wrapped in brown butcher paper.

It was so overwhelming that he had to look at the empty container in his hands to remember what he’d come in to find. Flour. Right. He dipped a couple of scoops from a fifty-pound bag into the container and wandered back into the kitchen completely dazed.

Ama had taken over the waffle mixing. His delay would have put the meal out of sync if she hadn’t.

Rather than switching back, he handed off the flour and took over the sausage. She’d made patties and dropped them on the griddle. He knocked off a cooked bit and tasted it. Pork, heavy on the salt and light on the pepper.

Nathan ducked back into the pantry and grabbed an onion and a jar of roasted red peppers in oil. He diced both down quickly and got them running on the griddle. Thyme and a shot of Tabasco. More pepper, but no more salt. Soon the kitchen was thick with the smell of good sausage, fresh butter sizzling on the griddle, and hot waffles.

People started coming into the kitchen through the back door. They brought a wash of cold air and the smell of dry grass and sunshine in with them. Wow. He wasn’t first up, he was last. Minutes past sunrise and they’d all been outside working. That explained the two pots of coffee that had been going.

As each person came in, Nathan dropped an extra egg on the hot grill. Another taste of pepper-onion mix, then he added a touch more hot sauce and a pinch of tarragon.

No one spoke to him—they’d all know who he was by this point—but he could hear them chatting about the morning’s work. Horses, farm equipment he’d never heard of, and cabins under construction—a lot of discussion on that last point. But he was too busy cooking to let it be more than a wash over him.

Ama began handing him plates with a trio of giant waffles on each. Big appetites here.

With a broad spatula, he dropped a sausage patty beside the waffles, smothered it with the onion-pepper mix, slipped an over-easy egg on top of it, then handed off the plate. Finally, no one arrived to take the next plate.

In confusion he slipped out of the zone and discovered that he had no more eggs to serve either—the last one was crowned over the sausage on the plate he was holding.

He turned and everyone was sitting at the kitchen table. They all had plates before them and were busy dressing the waffles with butter and syrup.

The transition was always hard, but this one was stranger than most. He generally made a point of cooking the staff meal himself. Before the day’s dinner service began, he would serve everyone a plate, and himself last. They always ate together before the night’s mayhem began. Even Chef Guevarre, despite all of his control freak madness, always sat and ate with the crew—though he’d never cooked for them as that would be a “waste of his time and talent.”

But this was no table with hungover chefs, predatory sous chefs, and waitresses dressed far more to please with their bodies than their personalities.