Excerpt for Diammond in the Rough by , available in its entirety at Smashwords













DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH


by Lori L. Robinett


Special Edition











DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH

A Diamond J Romance

Special Edition



By

Lori L. Robinett

Published by Three Creeks Press



Copyright © 2016 Lori L. Robinett

ISBN: 0692709789



Cover Design by JayCee DeLorenzo, Sweet & Spicy Designs



All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.



















This book is dedicated to my parents,

Dean and Alma Hazen,

for putting up with my obsessions: horses and books.













Acknowledgements:

There are so many people who helped make this book possible. The biggest thanks goes to my critique group: Carolyn Paul Branch, Colleen Donnelly, Ericca Thornhill and Jennifer Bondurant, without whom this story never would have gotten finished. I also greatly appreciate the input of those kind souls who agreed to be beta readers for me: Holly Atkinson (Evil Eye Editing), Patricia Spencer (live long and prosper), and Lynn Simmons. Also, a hat tip to Jon Angell, who helped me through the technical aspects of cattle rustling and sale barns.













Also by Lori L. Robinett:



Fatal Impulse

Fatal Obsession

Train of Thought



Non-fiction:

The Novel Idea Generator

















Looking for the bonus material? Read on after Gina's story ends . . .

Dear Reader,

Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to read my book.

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So . . . pop over to

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and sign up now.

Go ahead, I'll wait . . . :)



And you're back? Great! Let's see what's happening at the Diamond J . . .





















CHAPTER ONE: The Cowboy


Silver bells jangled as the cowboy pushed through the front door of the scrapbook store. Gina and Midge stopped in mid-sentence. The cowboy was tall, easily six foot, with a broad chest straining against a red plaid flannel shirt rolled up to expose muscular forearms covered with a dusting of dark hair.

Midge was the first to recover. “Welcome to Memories & More!” Her hazel eyes rounded as she took in the visitor.

Gina glanced at her friend. Midge was taller by a couple of inches, thinner by several pounds, and a natural blonde. Gina tugged at her cotton t-shirt. She always felt pudgy and drab next to Midge. “Can we help you find anything?” Gina ran her fingers through her thick hair to smooth the unruly waves. She should’ve pulled it back today.

“Not yet. Just looking right now.” Stubble shadowed his face, accentuating his strong, square jaw. Scruffy boots identified him as a working man. His faded jeans, ragged at the hem, molded to his thighs.

Gina’s jaw dropped, until Midge reached over and tapped her under the chin. The two pretended to work as they

watched him stroll around the store. Two other customers, both regulars, stopped shopping to watch him. Men weren’t unheard of in the store, but they were usually holding bags for their wives. The tall cowboy frowned as he examined the big color wheel posted on the wall.

Dottie, one of Gina’s best customers, approached the center island and dropped an assortment of papers on the counter. She tipped her head toward the cowboy. She mouthed, “Who’s the hottie?”

Midge shrugged and whispered, “Don’t know, but he’s fun to look at, isn’t he?”

The cowboy strolled closer. Dottie cleared her throat and said in a louder voice, “Did you hear about Frank and Ellie Donovan?”

Ellie was one of the Friday night scrappers. Gina asked, “What about them?”

“Rustlers. Stole every last cow they had.” Dottie made a clucking noise. “He was getting ready to send a bunch to the sale barn to make his farm payment. Woke up yesterday morning and they were gone.”

“That’s awful.” Midge let out a huff of air as she rang up the papers. “That’s the third one in as many weeks. Bernie & Jo Johnson were hit last week.”

Gina shook her head. “I sure hope they had insurance.” That kind of thing just didn’t happen in Wilder. It was safe. Low crime. Folks left their homes unlocked, dropped their car keys on their seats, walked after dark without fear. But the cattle rustlers were striking a deep blow, hitting the farmers where it hurt.

Midge slid Dottie’s change across the counter, which the other woman scooped up. As Dottie walked toward the door, she snuck a peek at the cowboy then glanced over her shoulder and winked.

The telephone jangled on the counter and the two women jumped. Midge snatched the receiver up. "Memories and More, where we help you preserve yours." She listened a second, then scrunched her nose and handed the phone to Gina, holding it like a stinky sock.

Gina sighed as she took the handset. As soon as she heard her ex-husband's voice, she knew the reason for the call and shook her head. “Don’t do this, Steve.” She fought to keep her tone civil, but her palms hurt where she pressed her fingernails into them. Acutely aware of the gorgeous man standing near the paper racks, she turned away and wandered toward the back of the store. Her eyes closed as she listened to her ex-husband’s litany of excuses.

Midge ducked around the paper racks and waved her hands to catch Gina’s attention, then mouthed, “Are you okay?”

Gina nodded at her friend, took a deep breath and hissed into the phone, “I have listened to your excuses over and over. Don’t walk away.”

Her lips pressed together as she listened to the disconnected voice. “I’m not walking away. Sometimes I can’t take Toby. This job—” He sounded stressed.

She cut him off. “Steve, please don't. I’ll—”

“You’ll what?”

She sucked in a breath. What would she do? That was easy. “Nothing.”

“This job’ll be finished up this next week. I’ll see you soon, sweetheart.”

After she punched the red off button, she scowled at the phone and marched back to the center counter. “That man absolutely infuriates me!" She set the handset down on the counter a bit harder than she intended, and winced at the sharp pop of plastic against glass.

Midge touched Gina on the arm. “You okay, Boss?”

Gina ran both hands through her thick hair, then shrugged as she glanced over her shoulder at the only customer left in the store, the cowboy. “I’m fine. It’s Toby that I’m worried about. He’s been looking forward to seeing his daddy all week.”

“And Steve’s not coming.” Midge rolled her eyes. “Again.”

“You got it. Says he’s got a job to do. Second weekend in a row.” She let out a sigh and stared out the big front window without seeing anything.

Midge stepped forward, stopping beside Gina. Her right eyebrow arched up. “Is it legit?”

Gina shrugged. “Probably not. He always gets mixed up in things he shouldn’t.” She turned away from the window to look at her friend. Gina continued, “Trouble finds him.”

“Like when he was stealing from the distribution company.” Midge’s forehead creased. “You know, honey, that was a long time ago.”

“He let his buddies talk him into stealing beer off his truck.” Gina huffed at the memory. “When he got fired for that, I was stuck at home with our baby . . . Not smart. Not smart at all. I couldn’t depend on him then. Guess I still can’t.” He made her so angry. She was over him, but Toby wasn’t. It wasn’t fair. She walked back to the center island, with Midge trailing behind.

“You’re shaking.” Midge turned on her heel and walked toward the back of the store again. She called back over her shoulder, “Let me get you a water.”

Gina nodded and gripped the edge of the work counter until her fingertips were white, the blood forced from the tips. Why, after all these years, did Steve still have the power to get her so worked up?

They had only been together a year, but that year had been enough. She didn’t know if she’d ever trust a man again. She took a deep breath, straightened her back and squared her shoulders.

As she slipped behind the counter, her eyes wandered to a framed layout perched on an easel on the wooden album display case in the front window. All she could see was the back of the picture frame, but the image was clear in her mind. Toby wore his overalls, scuffed cowboy boots and a little John Deere hat, nestled among a heap of orange pumpkins.

He'd been three when the photo was snapped a couple of years ago at the Hartsburg Pumpkin Festival. After Steve had cancelled his weekend visit, Toby’d been heartbroken. She took Toby on a quick jaunt to central Missouri and they spent the day wandering the festival, snacking on all the good food. On the trip home, he insisted she fasten the seat belt over the big pumpkin he picked out. When she looked at her little boy in the rear view mirror, his right hand rested on the pumpkin.

And now he was a big boy going to school, his daddy could break his heart just as easily as he did back then.

“Here ya go,” Midge said as she held out a plastic water bottle. Gina twisted the cap off, put the opening to her lips and tipped the bottle. The water stung her teeth, went down cold and wet. It hit her like a jolt, but did nothing to cool her anger.

She slammed the bottle down on the counter, a bit of water sloshing out onto the glass. She yanked a paper towel from the roll under the counter and wiped up the spill with an quick swipe. “That man makes me so angry sometimes.”









CHAPTER TWO: Men!


“I never would have guessed.” The low rumble of the stranger's voice caught Gina off balance.

She gasped in surprise, turned at the low words, and took a good look at the owner of the voice. She’d all but forgotten the man in the store. He was even taller than she'd first thought, over six feet with broad shoulders. He regarded her with a crooked smile, his electric blue eyes twinkling under the brim of his worn cowboy hat. His teeth were white and straight, except for one front tooth that slightly overlapped the other. Thick dark hair curled around the edges of his Stetson. He tipped it back, leaned forward and rested his elbows on the counter. He slowly rubbed the rough stubble on his strong, square chin as he gazed intently at her.

“Gina?” Midge’s voice broke her reverie. For good measure, Midge poked Gina in the ribs. Color crept up Gina’s cheeks.

She shook her head and blinked. “I’m sorry. What was that?” She glanced down. He ducked his head and caught her eye. The right corner of his mouth twitched up in a grin, and she caught herself smiling back at him. Her eyes stayed locked with his as he stood straight. He was taller than her ex-husband, who’d been only a couple of inches taller than her. She pressed her lips together, irritated that she still compared every man she met to her ex.

His deep voice wasn’t loud, but had a quiet power to it. “I just said that I hadn’t been in here before, but hoped you ladies might be able to help me out.” He struck her as a gentleman, in spite of his attire, so much different than the brash tones of her ex’s voice.

Her first marriage had been the result of a hormone fueled sexual escapade that ended with her pregnant and him trapped. Their divorce was final before Toby mastered the art of crawling. And Gina had been alone ever since, if you didn't count the handful of disastrous dates she'd had over the years.

Gina stumbled forward as Midge’s hand pressed into the small of her back. Gina hadn’t even realized she’d taken a step back. The cowboy in front of her kept eye contact and winked at her. His eyes reminded her of a deep blue spring sky with lightning streaking across it.

Get it together! She cleared her throat, then spread her hands, palms up, to indicate the store. “Can we help you find something?”

Midge broke in, “Perhaps a gift for your wife or girlfriend?”

The cowboy’s grin faded. “No, nothing like that. I’m from the Diamond J Ranch and the boss is wanting to do a big shindig for Memorial Day and wants to send out invitations or flyers or something.”

Gina nodded and turned toward the blank cards and envelopes section against the north wall. His boots echoed on the wooden floor as he followed her, and when she stopped, they stopped. For a moment, she stood, aware of him right behind her. She could almost feel his heat radiating toward her, reaching out for her.

She gave herself a shake. Ridiculous. That’s what this whole thing was. How could she even think about being attracted to a man, much less some minimum-wage making cowboy? If she ever did allow herself to fall for a man, he would have to be perfect. A solid, respectable man with a good job, who was kind and caring and thoughtful. Someone who could be her partner, a good role model for her son. Preferably good looking.

Granted, this guy met the height and weight requirements.

But he looked dark and dangerous, which she didn’t need in her life.

She took a deep breath, gathered her thoughts and pointed to the display. “Here are some blank cards, or you could do something on 8 ½ by 11 paper. Do you prefer cards or flyers?”

He shrugged. She let her eyes wander up and down him one more time. Waves of dark hair peeked out from under his black Stetson, probably permanently curled around his hat. Yes, he definitely had the physical attributes her dream man would have, even the blue eyes, but cowboy didn’t fit into her equation anywhere.

She pulled a plastic bag from a hook and held it up. “A card would be my suggestion.”

He took the package of blank cards from her, and his fingertips brushed hers. His hands were rough and calloused, a working man’s hands, yet his touch was gentle. The cowboy turned the package over and looked at it from every direction, doubt clouding his tanned features. His hat dipped slightly on his forehead as his dark eyebrows pinched together in a frown. He glanced at her and asked, “What do I do with them?”

She pointed toward the clear acrylic stamps hanging above the cards and envelopes. “You can stamp the invitations. You know, a who, what, when, where sort of thing. Then you can put a square of colored paper on the front, maybe some stickers or stamps that go with the theme of your party.”

Midge called out from the center counter island, “Gina is really good at making invitations. She does custom work!”

Gina spun toward her friend and opened her eyes wide in warning, but it was too late. The cowboy had heard the offer and his face brightened visibly.

“Really? You do that?”

Gina shook her head and waved her friend’s suggestion off. “No, I don’t. I just do them for my friends sometimes.”

He stuck out his right hand and she instinctively reached out with her own. He enveloped her hand in his and shook. “Then, we should be friends. I’m Aidan. Aidan Brackston.”

“Nice to meet you,” she murmured as she stared at their hands. Her hand fit so well into his, and it felt right. Comfortable. Warm. Strains of Sinatra drifted through the speakers, and it took her a moment to remember the name of the song.

Never Let Me Go . . . How appropriate.

He prompted, “And you are?”

She blinked rapidly. “Right! Sorry! I’m Gina Montgomery.”

Midge called out again. “She owns this place.”

Aidan continued to hold Gina’s hand. She looked at him and he met her gaze, holding it. Finally, her eyes wandered to his left hand hanging at his side, still clutching the bag of blank cards. No wedding ring. No tan line.

"Just Gina," Midge continued. “All by herself.”

Gina yanked her hand back as if she’d been bitten. This time, the color raced up her cheeks. She glared at Midge, who casually went back to straightening the baskets of findings lining the counter, sorting all the little metal charms and chains and fasteners, then Gina became acutely aware of how close Aidan stood to her. She took a step backwards and cleared her throat.

Aidan’s eyes danced and the corner of his mouth twitched up. Her cheeks burned under his amused gaze. She nodded toward her friend. “Midge also does invitations. Her prices are reasonable and she does good work. Perhaps she can help you.” She felt so awkward, so stupid. Good looking men always made her feel like a gawky teenager, and she hated that.

“I’m sorry—” He started to protest.

Gina’d heard enough excuses for one day. Her jaw jutted forward as she marched toward the back room, disappearing through the swinging door. Once in the backroom, alone, she cursed herself for walking out. For not being strong enough to stand there and take whatever might have come next. What was she afraid of, anyway? She glanced through the tiny Plexiglas window and saw him standing at the center island, one elbow leaned casually on the counter, one foot propped up in front of the other, toe on the ground. Midge leaned back against the post, an easy smile on her face.

That’s what she was afraid of.

Having a nice, normal conversation with a nice, normal man. Why? Simple, because there was no such thing. All interactions with men were for one reason and one reason only, for the man to get the woman in bed. Midge gave her hope, though, because Midge was married to a wonderful guy that treated her right. They were partners in life. They had the kind of relationship she hoped to have someday.

But, she reminded herself, Midge and Doug didn’t have the pressure of a child. Her own marriage had been doomed from the start. It started with her fat and cranky, with hormonal fluctuations that would have caused the best marriage to form a few stress fractures. Their marriage erupted in an explosion of hate and anger and blame when she confronted him about losing his trucking job. Steve walked out and left her to raise Toby on her own.

Not that Toby was a burden. He wasn’t. But having him meant she had to put his needs above hers. She didn’t have time to date. She couldn’t risk dating someone who wasn’t perfect. Toby’d had enough disappointment in his life. If she brought a guy around and Toby started to like him, and then things didn’t work out . . . well, that just wasn’t something she could risk.

She couldn’t run off with every good looking cowboy that caught her eye.

Not even one with deep blue eyes that sent a charge down her spine every time he looked at her.

Gina pressed against the Plexiglas window of the store room again, just as the door swung toward her. The door smacked her face with a sharp POP and she fell backwards, landing on her backside with a thump.

Light silhouetted the dark figure in the doorway, radiating around him like a halo. He bent toward her, hand extended, and the halo turned into a cowboy hat.

Ah, there was that good looking cowboy she was just thinking about . . .

She reached up and took his offered hand, and he pulled her up so she stood mere inches from him. She'd been right about his height. She looked straight ahead at his broad chest. His muscles filled out his red plaid flannel shirt. Dark hairs curled over the shirt where his top two buttons were undone. Her eyes wandered up the curve of his neck, over the strong line of his shadowed jaw, and settled on his lips. They were parted slightly, welcoming, inviting. She looked at those amazing blue eyes . . . which were not focused on her eyes, but staring openly at her chest.

There was a sharp pop as she slapped his face.









CHAPTER THREE: An Invitation


Aidan blinked, his hand flew to his face and his eyes opened wide. Then he frowned and said, “What was that for?”

Midge appeared behind him and chimed in, “Yeah, what was that for?”

Gina’s hand fluttered in the air for a moment as if controlled by some invisible string, then dropped to her side. He was checking her out, but she’d been checking him out, too. Equal opportunity ogling.

"Oh, my gosh. I'm sorry." She looked down and admitted, “I don't know what got into me. I shouldn’t have done that.”

He shook his head and looked at her sternly. “No, you shouldn’t have.” His lips pressed together and his eyes narrowed.

The words hung in the air. Tension stretched. The clock on the wall ticked the seconds off. Gina swallowed the lump in her throat. It would serve her right if he smacked her back. Or if he walked out of here and told everyone he knew to stay away from the crazy lady at the Memories and More Scrapbook Store. She didn't need that kind of publicity. The poor economy had hit Wilder just as hard as the rest of the country. This store had been a dream come true for her. It allowed her to work flexible hours, to run Toby wherever he needed to go, to be there when he needed her.

Her chest rose and fell as she sucked in a deep breath and prepared to take whatever the cowboy wanted to dish out. She lifted her chin and pulled her shoulders back, ready to take her medicine. Midge caught her eye, looked pointedly at her chest and gave her a thumbs up. Gina’s eyes rounded and she shook her head slightly, frowning at her friend.

Her well-meaning, but ill-timed friend.

The cowboy – she had forgotten his name! – caught her look and glanced back toward Midge, who shrugged and tried to look innocent. She failed miserably, instead looking like an impish pixie.

He turned back to Gina and tapped his tanned cheek with an index finger. “You owe me for that.”

Gina nodded. “You’re right. I am so, so sorry. There is no excuse for—”

“Stop.” He held up his hand, palm out, in front of her face. “Words are empty.”

“Hey, now.” She frowned. “You were checking me out.”

His lips split in a wide grin. He drawled, “And you were checking me out, too, darlin’.”

She stuttered for a moment, unsure of what to say next. Finally, she continued, “I’m so sorry, Mr., uh—”

“Aidan. The name is Aidan, ma’am.”

That term raised her hackles. “Ma’am? Just how old do you think I am?”

His face held firm. No smile, no scowl. “Old enough to know better, I’d say. Now, about that apology.” Before she could interrupt, he held up his hand again. “There is something you could do to make it up to me. You know, for slapping a customer in the face for absolutely no reason.”

“I’m listening.” She regarded him warily.

“My boss, Beth Jameson, needs invitations. You can make invitations.” He turned to Midge and involved her in his negotiations. “Right?”

Midge nodded vigorously, then added, “Sounds like the perfect solution to me!”

Gina scowled at her friend, then at Aidan, and then let her shoulders relax. She threw her hands up in surrender. “Okay, you win. I’ll make the invitations.”

A smile spread across Aidan’s face, and his features softened as the tension left them. She looked at him, and wondered how it was possible that a man could irritate her and attract her at the exact same moment.

They moved through the doorway and into the store, Midge in the lead, followed by Aidan, with Gina behind. It gave her a chance to really look at him without fear of getting caught. His jeans hugged his legs, every muscle outlined by denim. Of course, he was wearing Wranglers. What else would a good cowboy wear? She breathed in his scent — freshly cut grass, hay and horse.

They sat down at a work table, side by side. His arm brushed hers as they looked at the various rubber stamps and patterned papers Midge laid in front of them. She felt every touch. Gina jotted notes on a piece of paper as she quizzed him about the event, details about the barbecue, things about the Diamond J Ranch.

“You know, it would be great to incorporate the name of the ranch into the design of the invitations,” she offered. She sketched out a diamond shape.

He nodded his agreement. “Beth would like that a lot, I think, and I know Beau would.”

“Good. I think I’ve got enough to get started then. How many do you need?” she asked as she sat back in the folding chair.

He shrugged, “I don’t know. Maybe a hundred?”

Her eyebrows arched. “Must be quite the party.”

He nodded. “Yup.” The word had two syllables, the way he dragged it out. “Lots of folks come out for this event.”

The Diamond J Ranch had been a fixture in Cardwell County for years. A legend. The old timers talked about the old days when the Jamesons would run their cattle the old way, actual cattle drives.

From the time she’d been a little girl, she dreamed of rodeos and horses and, yes, cowboys. And here she was sitting with one. She prodded, “And who are the lucky people on the guest list?”

He shrugged again. “Mostly rodeo folks, and some business people from around here. Beth wants to make an impression on folks and drum up business.”

She nodded, “Anyone I would know?”

He looked confused for a moment. “You mean my boss?”

She leaned toward him just a bit, feeling flirty, and let her arm brush against his. “I mean, would I know any of the business people around here who are invited?”

His eyes widened as recognition dawned on his face. “You want to come?”

Midge walked by and observed loudly, “About time. Yes, she wants an invitation.”

He grinned and looked down at Gina. “Well, then, absolutely make a hundred and one invitations. Consider yourself invited.”

She smiled back, sure Toby would think a day at a real live ranch was almost as exciting as going to a carnival or something like that. “Can I bring someone?”

His smile faded and he nodded once, then scooted away from the table. “How much time do you need to get these done?”

She slid her chair back and followed him as he strode toward the door, worried she'd been too pushy about bringing Toby with her. She walked quickly to catch up with him. “Today's Friday. I can have them ready by Monday. Would you like to come by and pick them up, or shall I deliver them to you out at the Diamond J?”

“I’ll have somebody pick them up.” He touched the rim of his hat as way of a goodbye and pushed out the door.

“Mmmm-hmmmm, he was yummy.” Midge said as she pulled a new pack of Echo Park patterned paper from a box. “You need help with those invitations?”

“No, I can handle it. In fact, I think I’ll get started right now.” Gina moved to the front of the store and watched out the big front window as Aidan crossed the road. He swung up into a dusty white Chevy pickup. When he reversed out of the parking space, his head swiveled back toward her and she ducked behind a display rack.

Gina shook her head at herself, then returned to the table and sat down. As she experimented with various stamps and designs, she allowed herself to remember how good he looked. Rugged. He had the look of a man who knew what it was to work for a living, well-muscled and tan. He’d smelled of hay, straw, horses, sunshine.

But guys who smelled like that never had two dimes to rub together. She reminded herself she was not looking for a man, but if she were, a ranch hand who probably made just enough to pay for his beer on Friday and Saturday nights was not going to make her dreams come true.









CHAPTER FOUR: Advice


As Aidan drove out to the Diamond J Ranch, he thought about finally meeting Gina. When Beth asked him to order invitations for the Memorial Day Barbecue, he’d jumped at the chance to meet the owner of the scrapbook store. He’d seen her around town, tried to be cool and confident, but his flirting hadn’t done any good. She had a boyfriend.

Of course she had a boyfriend, he told himself. She had curves in all the right places, wide blue-green eyes, freckles sprinkled across her nose and that mane of wavy auburn hair was hard to miss. He could imagine how it would feel to have that thick hair tickle his face, while he gripped her hips as she straddled him—

A blaring horn broke his train of thought. He jerked the wheel to the right and put the old truck back in its lane. The green Honda continued on its way and he waved an apology at the driver. Aidan glanced in the rearview mirror and took a moment to appreciate the last few minutes.

Gina was every bit as beautiful close up as she was from a distance. Dark red highlights streaked her thick hair, usually swept back in a low ponytail, but today it hung loose, spilling over her shoulders. And those eyes. Reminded him of the dark green moss that carpeted the forest floor.

Aidan maneuvered his old truck into his usual parking spot under the big oak tree, put it in park and waited for it to shudder to a stop. The door squealed in protest as he opened it. He slid out and slammed the door. As usual, it didn’t shut all the way, so he gave it a kick for good measure.

“Why don’t you just shoot that thing and put it out of its misery?”

Aidan looked around to find Beau leaning against the barn door, a piece of hay sticking out of his mouth, bobbing as he chewed on it.

“Nothing wrong with my truck,” Aidan said. “I know its quirks.”

Beau shook his head. “You know, you could get a deal on a new truck.”

Aidan shrugged, “I know. And when I’m ready, I’ll go. But for now, this ol’ truck’ll do just fine.”

Beau nodded toward the truck. “You know, you’re not fooling anybody driving that old heap.”

“Not trying to fool anybody. Just happy with what I got.” Aidan waved a hand toward the house. “Is Charlotte inside?”

“Yup.” Beau pulled the bit of hay from his mouth and dropped it on the ground.

Aidan started toward the house. “Okay, then. I’m gonna run in for a minute. You got something you want me to do after that?”

“Yeah, the fence on the yearling pastures needs to be replaced. Why don’t you grab one of the boys and work on fence?”

“Can do, Beau. See you later.”

“Hey, Aidan!”

Aidan stopped and turned in his tracks. “Yeah?”

“What’re you talking to Charlotte about? A girl?” Beau’s teeth flashed when he grinned. He waggled his eyebrows. “You know, I highly recommend settling down with a good woman.”

Aidan grinned. Beau wouldn’t have uttered those words a year ago. He’d been a confirmed bachelor until Beth Jameson came along. Aidan shrugged and said, “We all can’t marry the boss.”

“Lots of eligible bachelorettes around, and now that I’m taken, they’ll have their sights set on you.” With a shrug, Beau turned and disappeared into the barn. He called over his shoulder, “You don’t know what you’re missing!”

His friend’s laughter followed Aidan as he crunched across the gravel toward the big house. He tugged the back door open, slipped into the kitchen and the scent of fresh baked bread and roast beef greeted him. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This was what he loved about the Diamond J Ranch, about his life now.

Growing up, he was never greeted by scents like that. Here, the crock pot held a big pot roast, potatoes, onions and celery. Back then, the only good scent in the house was a fancy little pot with scented gel. His mother didn’t even fill that herself. Juanita, their housekeeper, filled it.

Charlotte lifted a fresh baked apple pie from the oven. "Afternoon, Aidan." She placed it on a cooling rack, then closed the oven and wiped her hands on her apron. Charlotte was a stout woman, with a rounded middle and chubby cheeks that were perpetually pink.

“Afternoon,” he replied. He clasped his hands together, then stuck them in his pockets and finally let them hang at his sides.

She glanced over at him, then grabbed the copper tea kettle from the stove and filled it with water. “I was going to make myself a pot of tea. Join me?” Though she’d lived in the States since she was a little girl, her voice still carried a hint of Irish brogue.

He glanced over his shoulder. He held fond memories of afternoon tea with his grandmother, but it wasn't a very manly habit.

She scoffed, “Ain’t none of the boys around to see you enjoying a bit o’ tea time.”

He grinned, scooted a chair back and lowered himself onto the seat. The tea kettle whistled merrily.

Charlotte pulled two cups from the hooks under the counter. “What are you in the mood for today?”

He rummaged through the little basket, located a bright yellow packet and tore it open. “Earl Grey.” He slid the basket back across the table.

“What’s on your mind?” Charlotte asked as she flipped through the varieties of tea.

One corner of Aidan’s lip pulled up in a half grin. “How’d you know something’s on my mind?”

She pinned him with her intense blue eyes and said, “That’s the only time you’re in my kitchen unless you’re here to eat.”

She sat down across from him, curled her plump hands around the cup and waited. The only sound was the soft tick of the oven as it cooled.

Aidan lifted the cup to his lips, but it was too hot and he sat it down. He sighed.

“So, tell me about her.”

The grin was full this time. “Do you know the gal that runs the scrapbook store in town?”

A frown appeared on Charlotte’s brow. “Carla something?”

“Gina.” Her name felt like warm chocolate on his tongue, rich and sweet.

She grabbed the honey bear from the center of the table and popped the top. After she swirled honey into her cup, she offered it to Aidan but he shook his head. She urged, “Go ahead. Tell me about her.”

“I’ve had a crush on her for a while, I guess. Seen her around town. Went in there today to see if she’d help with the invitations to the barbecue.”

Charlotte nodded her approval. He briefly ran through the conversation and events at the store earlier in the afternoon. He finished, “So the invitations’ll be ready Monday.”

Charlotte steepled her fingers in front of her as she considered the situation. “And you want to know if you should pick them up or have someone else do it?”

“Right.” He wanted an excuse to see her.

“And you’re worried about her bringing a date to the barbecue.”

His shoulders drooped. “Right.”

She sipped her tea, her index finger tapping the side of the cup thoughtfully. “Well, I think you should go pick up the invitations yourself. Get to know her a little better before you start worrying about a date that she may or may not bring to the barbecue.”

He nodded, took a couple of gulps of his tea, and set the cup down with a thump. “You sure I should go pick them up?” A frown furrowed his brow as he stared down at the half empty cup.

"She's not Tracy." Charlotte's voice was soft, kind.

At the mention of his ex-girlfriend, Aidan felt a surge of anger. "I know." They'd dated for several months before she'd shown her true colors.

"I know how disappointed you were when she started planning how to spend your trust fund."

He huffed out a sigh. His mouth curled up in a wry smile. "She racked up all that credit card debt, and though I'd pay it off for her."

"Don't judge this new gal based on what someone else did."

"I wish I hadn't told anybody about that money.”

Charlotte lifted one shoulder. "Your last name is Brackston. That name shows up all over this state. People are bound to put two and two together."

"Thanks for the tea." He scooted his chair back.

He let himself out the back door and headed for the barn to round up fencing supplies and help. He trusted Charlotte. She and Mr. Jameson had had a strong, steady relationship for years. Theirs was a love that was comfortable and nothing like the convenience that seemed to hold his own parents’ marriage together.

He wanted to feel a love that deep someday.









CHAPTER FIVE: Falling in Like


As Aidan and Joe, the other ranch hand, worked on the fence that afternoon, he thought about what Charlotte said. The more the thought about it, the more he thought he would go pick the invitations up himself. If Gina was working, he could chat her up a little, find out a little more about her.

If her friend Midge was working, maybe he’d ask a few questions. That woman was a firecracker if he ever saw one and he’d bet dollars to donuts that Midge would be straight with him. Maybe she’d even give him a few hints and tips. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Well, he didn’t know what the way to a woman’s heart was, but her friends were definitely the gatekeepers.

The two men worked hard checking and repairing loose and missing fencing. Much of the woven wire looked good, but they found a section along the north pasture that needed to be replaced. Within a couple of hours of working under the blazing sun, both stripped off their shirts and tossed them on the XRT.

They stopped a couple of times to drink cold water from the thermos, but neither wasted time talking. Sweat slicked their backs, trickled down their faces, burned their eyes.

Aidan swiped his arm across his forehead, then grabbed the post driver and slammed it down on the new t-post. Metal clanged against metal, drowning out his grunts. A loose group of cows gathered around, watching the men work.

Aidan glanced at the animals, then at the fence. Keeping the herd secure was a full-time job. Like most ranchers, they occasionally had a cow get out — usually a young calf. But what worried him the most was the spate of thefts that had plagued the area recently. The entire tri-state area had been affected, but Cardwell County had been hit hard recently. Every animal was at least a thousand bucks on the hoof, probably more.

Keeping the herd safe had become even more important to him since he'd invested in fifty head himself. Beau and Beth allowed him to run his cattle with the ranch's herd, but he hoped to have a ranch of his own soon. Every time he saw one of his bright red ear tags on an animal in the pasture, he felt a surge of pride.

With a grin, he turned back to the task at hand. The sun was hot, and the sooner they got the work done, the sooner they could get back to the house and drink a cold one.

Finally, the last post was driven into the ground and the woven wire attached. The two men tossed their tools into the bed of the vehicle, slung their shirts over their shoulders and climbed onto the XRT, with Aidan driving and Joe in the passenger seat.

Joe yawned loudly and raked his dirty blonde hair back from his face. “Dang, this beats the old days, don’t it?”

Aidan looked sideways at his buddy. “Say what?” He peeled his leather work gloves off and tucked them between the dash and the windshield.

“You know, the old days. ‘Member when we used to have to make a couple of trips to haul fencing supplies out here?”

Aidan laughed. “I remember more than one flat from driving my pickup out here ‘cause you didn’t want to make more than one trip. Convinced me that we could drive the truck out here, no problem.” He pressed on the accelerator and the XRT lurched forward.

Joe snickered. “Didn’t hurt your truck none.”

"Guess not," Aidan spun the steering wheel and headed for the barn. “But the thorns from all those danged locust trees did a number on my tires.”

The vehicle bounced along the fence row. Joe said, “What’d ya have to do in town this morning?”

Aidan felt heat warm his cheeks at the memory of his visit to the scrapbook store. “Ordered invitations for the Memorial Day party.” His mind immediately flashed to Gina, gorgeous, with curves in all the right places and thick, auburn hair that fell in waves past her shoulders. She was a firecracker, too. He touched her cheek with his fingertips, remembering her palm connecting with it.

He grinned. She was a feisty one. Would she be interested in a ranch hand like him? Most women weren't, unless they figured out who his family was.

Then again, Gina was no ordinary girl. She was a business owner, all woman, with a sultry expression that drew him in. Sexy as hell. He hadn’t been on a date in ages, and the lack of action left him thirsty as a man crossing the Sahara. And Gina was the oasis shimmering in the distance.

The XRT lurched to the right. The steering wheel jerked out of Aidan’s hand. A couple of t-posts rolled out of the bed of the ATV with a loud clatter. Hands grasped for purchase as Aidan aimed his foot at the brake and slammed down. The XRT ground to a stop.

Aidan blinked and stared straight ahead into the stretched woven wire that had passed their inspection earlier in the day.

Joe exploded, “What the hell was that?”

Aidan’s mouth opened and closed. Finally, he got out, “I – I don’t know. Guess I wasn’t paying attention.” Damn it! He’d been daydreaming about Gina’s curves, her breasts, her hips, what it would feel like to run his hands over every inch of her body.

“Damn right you weren’t paying attention. You knew that gully was there. I even warned you we was coming up on it and you flat out ignored me.” Joe slapped the dash in a show of exasperation.

“I didn’t ignore you,” Aidan retorted angrily. He needed a night out worse than he'd realized.

Joe faced him, glaring. “You sure enough did. Have been all afternoon.”

“Have not.”

“Have, too.”

The two sat in silence. The engine of the XRT rumbled quietly beneath them. In the distance, a crow cawed and a horse whinnied. Joe pointed at the fence in front of them. “Looks like we are gonna have to replace this stretch of fence after all.”

With a heavy sigh, Aidan reversed the XRT out of the wire, then slid out of the driver’s seat and scooped the t-posts up. He tossed them back onto the bed of the XRT with a grunt, then grabbed the fencing pliers and the fence post driver. Without a word, he worked loose the two fence posts that were leaning crazily, placed new t-posts and drove them into the hard ground with ringing ferocity. Joe sat in the XRT and watched, a grin playing the corners of his mouth, arms crossed over his sweat streaked chest.

Aidan returned to the bed of the ATV and pulled a couple of tensioners out of the bed, affixed them and tightened the stretched woven wire. He gave it a few test tugs, wiggled the fence posts and, satisfied the fence was secure, hopped back into the driver’s seat of the XRT.

He pulled away, watching his path more carefully this time. Joe held his tongue for nearly a minute. Judging from the muscles twitching in his jaw, that was all he could handle. “OK. Enough. What the hell is going on with you?”

“Nothing,” Aidan snapped.

Joe fired back, “Bullshit.”

Aidan sighed. He could try to avoid it, but that wouldn’t work forever. It’s hard to hide something from someone you work and live with. His chest rose and fell again with another sigh. Jeez, he’d been sighing a lot lately. “Okay, here’s the deal. I tell you, but you tell nobody, got it?”

Joe nodded.

“I’m serious man. Just between you and me.” He punctuated his demand by pointing at Joe, then himself.

Joe looked sideways at Aidan. One thick eyebrow rose. “Yeah, sure, cross my heart and all that stuff. What gives?”

“I met a woman.”

Joe hooted and slapped his knee, but Aidan held up his hand in the classic symbol for stop. He said, “When I say I met her, I mean just that. We just met. No date. No nothing. Just met.”

Joe rolled his eyes. “Couldn’t close the deal, huh?”

Aidan frowned and the ATV sped up. “It’s not like that. She’s a really nice lady.”

“Then why would she go out with you?”

Aidan started to sigh yet again, caught himself, and frowned. He gripped the wheel tighter, his knuckles turning white.

Joe pressed on. “Who is she?”

“Owns the scrapbook store in town.” And she has the most amazing blue-green eyes.

Joe’s eyes widened at this, and he gave a low whistle. “She is hot.” He drew out the last word.

Aidan smacked his buddy in the arm. “Don’t talk about her like that." She was good-looking, but there was more to her than that. She was different than the rodeo bunnies he'd dated. "Say, do you know if she’s seeing anybody?”

Joe shook his head. “Ain’t never seen her with nobody. Ask Charlotte, she’d know.”

Aidan nodded, not willing to admit that he’d already talked to Charlotte. “Anyway, that’s it. She’s on my mind ‘cause I met her today. Guess I got a little distracted.”

Joe hooked his thumb over his shoulder at the freshly repaired fence behind them and snorted, “I’ll say.”

They reached the barn and Aidan nodded toward the bed, anxious to change the subject. "Make sure all the wire gets back to the barn? There's been a lot of thefts in these parts lately."

As Joe hopped out of the XRT, he nodded. "Meth heads, probably. Taking scrap to the recycling depot for quick cash."

There was more to it than that. Aidan could feel it in his bones. This area used to be safe, but now anything metal had to be locked up and whole herds of cattle had been taken. Druggies wouldn’t be organized enough to pull off the thefts. Aidan left Joe to put the fencing supplies up while he headed for the barn to clean stalls.

Maybe one of the boys playing poker tonight would know something. If the Sheriff had found any leads, somebody at the game tonight would know about it. Word traveled fast in a small town like Wilder.

He pushed away thoughts of rustlers and turned to the task at hand. For once, he was glad that work didn’t stop at the Diamond J Ranch just because the calendar said it was the weekend. Beau, the ranch foreman, and Beth, the new owner of the ranch, wanted the ranch in top shape for the upcoming barbecue. The event was a kind of coming out for Beth, since she'd officially become the owner of the ranch earlier in the month. The party was only a week away, and a lot of chores remained to be done to get the grounds and stock ready.

He worked his way methodically through the barn, raking up the old straw and laying down fresh. As he wheeled a cartload of manure out to the compost heap, he swept his arm across his forehead to clear the sweat.

Working at the Diamond J was hard work, nothing like the job he would’ve had if he’d worked the family business like his father wanted, but he wouldn’t go back for anything. The heavy leather gloves were hot, his back ached with exertion, but this was honest work. Again, nothing like the family business.

He emptied the cart and returned to the barn to start on the next stall. Would Gina be disgusted if she knew what he did every day? Or would she respect him for being a hard worker, earning an honest living? He thought about the trust fund his grandfather had left him. He had access to it now that he was thirty, but he hadn’t dipped into it yet and had no intention to do so. He was doing just fine on his own.

His brow furrowed when he remembered Gina asked to bring someone with her to the barbecue.

Even so, he couldn’t wait to see her again. If she had a boyfriend, so be it. But he wasn't ready to give up just yet. He scooped a forkful of dirty straw, putting his back into it.

The faster the weekend went, the sooner Monday would arrive.









CHAPTER SIX: Crop Gossip


Gina placed an acrylic mask with a paisley design over her sheet of cardstock and spritzed a bit of purple ink with a metallic shimmer, then lifted the template. The resulting pattern was understated and elegant. As she examined the result and considered her next layer, a sharply dressed woman appeared from around the corner of the paper racks and gasped. “That is absolutely gorgeous!”

Gina grinned as she admired her handiwork. “Thanks. Something so easy adds so much to the project.”

“Indeed. I’ll have to remember that for my next card.” The woman scraped a folding chair back and sat down across from Gina. “You going to do a Christmas in July card class this year?”

That class was still two months away, but was already filling up fast. Gina nodded and looked across the table at her customer. She would recognize Christine Dorman anywhere, and never ceased to be surprised at the woman’s appearance, which never changed. No matter where she was, what she was doing, or what time of day it was, she looked exactly like her billboards and for sale signs. Her dark hair was cropped close to her head, accentuating her high cheekbones and wide, toothy smile.

Christine pursed her red-stained lips. “Put me down for that class then.”

“Will do.” Gina held up the pink heat gun and raised her eyebrows. “Do you mind?”

“Go right ahead.” Christine’s brow pushed together as she watched Gina wave the small gun across the paper.

As Gina dried the spray, her thoughts turned to the good looking ranch hand from the Diamond J. A little tremor of excitement ran through her body at the memory of him.

She glanced at Christine. That woman knew everything and everyone in the little town of Wilder. Before Gina allowed herself to think about him anymore, she wanted to know more about him. After all, she was a single mother and had more to think about than whether or not he made her tingle with desire.

After she flipped the heat gun off, she cocked her head and looked at Christine. “You know a lot of people in this town.” She caught her lower lip in her teeth. She felt like a teenager with a crush.

Christine’s whitened teeth gleamed when her lips split in a big smile. “Of course. I’m the number one real estate agent in Cardwell County. I make it my business to know the people in this town.”

Gina glanced around to make sure no one was listening. Midge had taken the afternoon off since she was working late at the crop that evening. “We were visited by an employee of the Diamond J today, and I wondered if you might know him.”

Christine’s eyes sparkled at the mention of the legendary Diamond J. “I know several of the folks out there. Charlotte is a dear. And Beau does such a good job of running that place. I thought for sure I’d have a shot at the commission on that place when Jonathan Jameson passed away.” She made a clucking noise. “And I hope if and when his daughter gets tired of living out in the sticks and moves back to Kansas City, she’ll give me a call.”

Gina liked Christine, but the woman was too focused on money. One shoulder lifted in a half shrug. “This guy is just one of the ranch hands. His name’s Aidan.”

Christine’s bright lips pressed together in a tight grin and her eyes slid left then right. She leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “You mean Aidan Brackston. He’s downright yummy, isn’t he?!”

One corner of Gina’s mouth twitched up in a grin. Yummy was definitely a good descriptor of the cowboy. She made a rolling motion with her hand. “So, spill. What’s the scoop on him?” Please don’t let him have a girlfriend, please don’t let him have a girlfriend.

One perfectly drawn eyebrow arched up. Christine whispered, “You understand, this is all just between you and me?”

Gina nodded eagerly.

“He’s had me looking for a place for him for ages. He’s very selective. Knows what he wants, and doesn’t want to settle. He’s not in a hurry. Wants just the right thing, not just whatever happens to pop up.”

Gina blinked. “I thought the Diamond J provided room and board as part of the employment?” Why would anyone pay for a place when they had a place to live for free?

Christine said, “They do, but that cowboy wants a ranch of his own.”

“Oh?” After a beat, Gina sighed. Her shoulders drooped. “Oh. He’s getting married or something.”

Christine shook her head and her dangly earrings swung. “Oh, no! I think this was just for him. Never any mention of a woman, girlfriend or otherwise, and he was always alone when I took him for viewings. No woman would ever move into a house without seeing it first.”

That was true. “Maybe he’s surprising her?”

Christine cocked her head as she considered that, then shook her head. “No. He never used the term ‘we’ - it was always ‘I’.”

Gina turned her attention to the supplies in front of her, processing this new information. She placed her pictures on the layout, moving them to get the placement right. He was available. Single. That was a good thing.

But how could he afford acreage on a ranch hand’s salary?

Christine tapped her chin thoughtfully. “The thing that was surprising was what he wanted and what he chose. He was very particular about the architecture of the place. Said he’d really like to have something by Frank Lloyd Wright, but you know there just aren’t many of those here in Wilder. Closest I could find was the Sondern House in Kansas City. It went up for sale in 2003, so I thought the new owners might be persuaded to sell, but no.”

Gina blinked. Why would a cowboy be interested in Frank Lloyd Wright? How would he even know about an architect like that?

Christine continued on, warming to the topic. “But when that sprawling Prairie style house on the west side of town came up for sale, I thought of Aidan immediately.”

“Wait!” Gina looked up from her layout. “You mean the house on Grant Lane? With all the windows and the flat roof?”

Christine nodded. “Precisely.”

Gina frowned. “That place looks expensive.” It was all she could do to afford her little two bedroom, one bath house.

Christine’s eyes flared and her head bobbed. “Yes, it is. The commission would’ve made Christmas very special for my grands this year.”

Gina’s jaw dropped. That was odd, right? How could a cowboy who worked as a ranch hand make enough money to afford something like that? It made no sense at all.

"Apparently, he's come into some money recently, so I thought he might want to jump on something." Christine sighed heavily and shook her head, then continued, “But he wasn’t interested. He’s dead set on owning land of his own. At least forty acres.”

What was Aidan into that he could afford to buy a house like that? Gina pressed her lips together. She’d made one bad choice. She wasn’t about to make another. This called for caution.

“I really need to get going.” Christine pushed away from the table and stood. “Wish I could stay for the crop tonight, but I have to show a house.”

Gina blinked, still thinking about Aidan. She added absently, “I’ll put you down for the Christmas card class.”

Christine waggled her manicured fingers at Gina and called out, “Sounds good! See you soon!”

Gina didn’t have time to mull over how Aidan could afford a ranch. Not only did she have a hundred invitations to make for the Diamond J Ranch Barbecue, but the store hosted a crop on the third Friday of each month. Women started to arrive about 5:30 that evening, pulling their cars up in front to unload carts and bags and rolling totes.

Gina greeted the regulars and introduced herself to the two new gals who'd heard about the event from Crop Circles, the scrapbook store in Tranquility, about thirty miles to the west, just this side of the Kansas state line.