Sweet Mountain Rancher

By: Loree Lough

CHAPTER ONE



NATE RESTED GLOVED hands on the gatepost and watched the long green van pull up to the barn. Over the past few days, he’d spoken several times with Eden Quinn, who’d called to ask if she could bring the teen boys in her care to the Double M for a weekend of communing with nature.

Right off the bat, he translated “boys in her care” to mean juvenile delinquents, and issued a matter-of-fact no. If they weren’t trouble, they’d be home with their parents or guardians instead of some county-run facility. Nate had to hand it to her, though, because after she repeated her spiel three different ways, he gave in. It was Memorial Day weekend, after all, and the ranch hands had scattered to the four winds, leaving him and Carl to hold down the fort. Once he’d taken the boys’ measure, he’d decide whether or not he could trust them alone in the bunkhouse. But no need to worry about that just yet, since it wasn’t likely they’d last until dark. In his experience, city folk shied away from work—the good old-fashioned hard work that involved powerful animals and manure.

As the van came to a stop, Nate thumbed his tan Stetson to the back of his head. The boys, staring out the windows, did their best to look older and tougher than their years. To date, his only experience with young’uns of any kind involved his cousins’ kids, all happy, well-adjusted and under the age of ten. Nabbing sweets without permission was the worst crime any of them had committed. Something told him this hard-edged bunch was long past lifting cookies before dinner, and he hoped he hadn’t made a gigantic mistake inviting them to the family’s ranch.

The noonday sun, gleaming from the windshield, blocked his view of the driver. After seeing the boys’ sour expressions, he half expected someone who resembled Nurse Ratched to exit the vehicle. Instead, a petite woman in a plaid shirt and snug jeans hopped down from the driver’s seat and slid the side door open with a strength that belied her size.

“Okay, guys, everybody out!”

Nate recognized the husky-yet-feminine voice from their phone calls. He’d been way off base, thinking she’d look like a burly prison guard. He guessed her age at twenty-four, tops. But she had to be older than that if she’d passed muster with the state officials who’d hired her.

One by one, the teens exited the van and stared gap-jawed at the Rockies’ Front Range. As Eden walked toward him, he noticed her high-topped sneakers that would probably fit his eight-year-old niece. Nate grinned to himself, wondering how feet that small kept her upright...and how long the shoes would stay white.

“Hi,” she said, extending a hand, “I’m Eden Quinn.”

The strength of her handshake, like everything else about her, surprised him. She pumped his arm up and down as if she expected water to trickle from his fingertips.

“Nate Marshall said I should meet him here at noon. If you’ll just tell me where to find him—”

“I’m Nate,” he said, releasing her hand. “Good to meet you.” He’d uttered the phrase, but couldn’t remember ever meaning it more.

Eden tucked her fingertips into the back pockets of her jeans. “I expected you’d be, well, older.”

“Ditto,” he said, grinning.

Eden rested a hand on the nearest teen’s shoulder. “This is my right-hand man, Kirk Simons, and these are our boys.”

Nate followed Eden and Kirk down the line, shaking each boy’s hand as she introduced them.

“Is that a Stetson?” one asked.

Nate smiled. “Yep.”

“Cool.”

At the other end of the line, Eden clasped her hands together and faced Nate. “So where do we start?”

He searched each boy’s face to single out the troublemakers. One or two gave him pause, but none showed any signs of blatant mutiny. He hoped the same would be true when the green van drove back down the driveway.

“Leave your gear in the van for now,” he said. “Let’s head on into the barn. Once we’re saddled up, I’ll give you the nickel tour of the Double M.”

“Saddle up? None of us ever rode a horse before.”

The kid looked sixteen, maybe seventeen, and spoke with an authority that seemed out of place, given the fact that he lived in a place like Latimer House.

“Just follow my lead and you’ll be fine,” Nate assured him.

“Can we pick any horse we want?”

Eden had told him the boys were fifteen to seventeen. This one, Nate decided, must have a growth hormone problem.

“Why don’t we let Mr. Marshall choose this time,” Kirk said. “He’ll know better how to match you up with a horse that isn’t a runner, or worse, one that isn’t of a mind to move at all.”

The suggestion satisfied them, and like mustangs, the boys charged ahead, laughing like four-year-olds as they raced toward the barn.

“Hey, fellas,” he called after them, “hold it down, or you’ll spook ’em.”

Instantly, they quieted and slowed their pace. This might not be such a bad weekend after all. If they survived the ride—and what he had in mind for them next.

As the assistant joined the boys, Eden fell into step beside him. “This is really nice of you, Nate. Not many people are willing to give kids like these a chance. I hope you’ll consider inviting them back. At your convenience, of course. Because being out here in the fresh air, learning about horses and cattle...” She exhaled a happy sigh. “I just know they’re going to love this!”

Since losing Miranda, Nate had made a habit of saying no. But there stood Eden, blinking up at him with long-lashed gray eyes. He couldn’t say, “Let’s see how the rest of the weekend goes,” because yet again, his brain had seized on the “kids like these” part of her comment. What had they done to earn the title?

“I wasn’t the best-behaved young’un myself.” He hoped the admission would invite an explanation.

“That’s true of most of us, don’t you think?”

Nate noticed that Eden had to half-run to keep up with his long-legged stride. Slowing his pace, he said, “So how did you hear about the Double M?”

“Oh, I didn’t tell you when we spoke on the phone?”

She had, but he wanted to see her face as she repeated it.

“We have a mutual friend. Shamus Magee. He suggested this might be a good change of pace for these city-born-and-raised boys of mine.”

His grandfather often referred to Shamus as “good people,” and that was good enough for Nate.

“And I asked for you, specifically,” she continued, “instead of your dad or one of your uncles.”

“Why?”

“I read all about you in Sports Illustrated. You know, the issue where they featured major leaguers who...”

She trailed off, telling Nate she didn’t know how to broach the subject of the accident that ended his pitching career—and killed his fiancée—two years ago.

“Does the shoulder still bother you much?”

“I can predict the weather now,” he said, grinning, “but that’s about it.” It wasn’t, despite months of grueling physical therapy. And the head shrinker that’d helped him come to terms with his Miranda issues. But he had no intention of dredging up bad memories with someone he’d just met—and would likely never see again.

“They’d never admit it,” she said, using her chin as a pointer, “but they were more excited about meeting a baseball star than spending the weekend at a ranch.” She paused for a step or two, then added, “Think you’ll ever go back? To baseball, I mean?”

“No. Too much damage.” He reflexively rotated the shoulder and winced at the slight twinge. “But it doesn’t keep me from doing things around here, so...”

He’d never seen eyes the color of a storm sky before. Funny that instead of cold or danger, they hinted at warmth and sweetness. He hadn’t felt anything—anything—for a woman since the accident, and didn’t know how to react to his interest in her. Nate tugged his hat lower on his forehead. Unfortunately, it did nothing to block his peripheral vision.

“And anyway, that was then, and this is now.”

She leaned forward slightly, looked up into his face. “Ah, so you’re one of those guys who isn’t comfortable with compliments?”

Nate only shrugged.

“The boys were fascinated when I told them about your baseball history.” She glanced toward the barn. “Something tells me when they get to know you better, they’ll have an even bigger case of hero worship.”

Hero worship. The words made him cringe. Before every game, fans from four to ninety-four lined the fence beside the outfield, waving programs, caps, even paper napkins in the hope of acquiring a signature. He’d taken a lot of heat from teammates when a kid in the autograph line slapped the label on him. “We’re not heroes,” he’d blurted, thinking of his cousin Zach, who’d served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan, and his cousin Sam, a firefighter in Nashville. “Fans oughta look to soldiers, firefighters and cops as their heroes, not a bunch of overpaid athletes like us.” The beating he took from the media had taught him to let his teammates do the talking from that point on, but it hadn’t changed his mind on the subject.

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