The naked cowboy in the gold-plated horse trough presented a conundrum.
In the purple-orange light of breaking dawn Mariah Callahan snared her bottom lip between her teeth, curled her fingernails into her palms and tried not to panic. It had been a long drive down from Chicago and jacked up on espresso, she hadn’t slept in thirty-six hours. There was a very good chance she was hallucinating.
She reached to ratchet her glasses up higher on her nose for a better look, but then remembered she was wearing contact lenses. She wasn’t seeing things. He was for real. No figment of her fertile imagination.
Who was he?
Better question, what was she going to do about him?
His bare forearms, tanned and lean, angled from the edges of the trough, an empty bottle of Jose Cuervo Gold dangling from the fingertips of his right hand. Even in a relaxed pose, his muscular biceps were tightly coiled, making Mariah think of hard, driving piston engines.
Like his arms, his legs lay slung over each side of the trough. He wore expensive eel-skin cowboy boots. She canted her head, studying his feet.
Size thirteen at least.
Hmm, was it true what they said about the size of a man’s feet?
She raised her palms to her heated cheeks, surprised to find she made herself blush.
Question number three. How had he come to be naked and still have his boots on?
Curiosity bested embarrassment as she tracked her gaze up the length of his honed, sinewy legs that were humorously pale in contrast to his tanned arms. No doubt, like most cowboys, he dressed in blue jeans ninety percent of the time.
She perched on tiptoes to peek over the edge of the horse trough. The murky green water hit him mid-thigh and camoflagued his other naked bits. Robbed of the view, she didn’t know if she was grateful or disappointed.
But nothing could hide that chest.
Washboard abs indeed. Rippled and flat. Not an ounce of fat. Pecs of Atlas.
A rough jagged scar, gone silvery with age, ambled a staggered path from his left nipple down to his armpit marring nature’s work of art. The scar lent him a wicked air.
Mariah gulped as captivated as a cat in front of an aquarium.
A black Stetson lay cocked down over his face, hiding all his features save for his strong, masculine jaw studded with at least a day’s worth of ebony beard. His eyes had to be as black as the Stetson and that stubble.
Mesmerized, she felt her body heat up in places she had no business heating up. She didn’t know who this man was, or how he’d gotten here, although she supposed that drunken ranch hands came with the territory. If she was going to be a rancher, she’d have to learn to deal with it.
A rancher? Her? Ha! Big cosmic joke and she was the punchline.
Less than twenty-four hours ago she had been standing in line at the downtown Chicago unemployment office—having just come from a job interview where once again, she had not gotten the job—her hands chafed from the cold October wind blowing off the lake, when she’d gotten word that Dutch had died and left her a horse ranch in Jubilee, Texas.
She didn’t call him Dad, because he hadn’t been much of a father. The last time she’d seen Dutch he’d been hovering outside her ninth grade algebra class, battered Stetson in his hands, his sandy blond hair threaded through with gray, his blue eyes full of nervousness, remorse and hope. Horse poop clung to his boots and he wore spurs—yes, spurs—against the polished maple hardwood floors of her Hyde Park high school. His Wrangler jeans had been stained and tattered, his legs bowed, his belt buckle big. He’d smelled of hay, leather and horses.
The other students had stared, snickered, pointed.
“Where’s the rodeo?”
“Who’s the hick?”
“How’d the cowboy past security?”
“He smells like horseshit.”
Dutch stretched out a hand nicked with numerous scars, beseeching Mariah to come closer. “Flaxey? It’s me. Your Pa.”
How many times had she fantasized that he would come back to her? Be a real dad? Love her the way she’d always loved him? But now that he was here, she didn’t want him. Not in her high school. Not among her friends. Not dressed like that.
Shame flushed through her. She’d walked right past Dutch as if she hadn’t seen him and when he called her name, she started running in the opposite direction as fast as she could, schoolbooks clutched tight to her chest, heart pounding.
Not only was she ashamed of him, but also she was still mad because he disappeared a week before her seventh birthday. He told Mariah’s mother, Cassie, he was going to see a man about a horse, and he just never came back.
They’d been living in Ruidoso, New Mexico at the time and Cassie waited three months for him to return while she cleaned rooms at the Holiday Inn and cried herself to sleep every night. When one of the wealthy thoroughbred owners in town for a race offered Cassie a job as his family’s live-in housekeeper, her mother snatched the opportunity with desperate hands. They packed up their meager belongings, moved to Illinois and didn’t look back.
Dutch never missed a child support payment and he phoned a few times over the years, usually when he was drunk and feeling maudlin, the conversation generally ended with Cassie hanging up on him. Once in awhile he sent Mariah gifts at Christmas or for her birthday, but they were always inappropriate. One year a lasso. The next year a lucky horseshoe engraved with the words, Make Your Own Luck. Another year a pair of purple Justin boots, two sizes too small as if he thought she stayed forever seven.
Mariah’s cell phone rang playing Wagner’s “The Bridal Chorus”. She fished it from her purse at the unemployment line and checked the caller I.D.
A strange mix of anxiety, hostility and gratitude lumped up in her throat. Why was Dutch calling her after all these years? If he was broke and looking for money, he’s certainly picked the wrong time to call. On the other hand, it would be good to hear his voice again.
The weary woman in line behind her, holding a runny-nosed kid cocked on her hip, nudged Mariah, and then pointed at the poster on the wall. It was a symbol of a cell phone with a heavy red line drawn through it.
“Hang on a minute,” Mariah said into the phone, and then smiled beseechingly to the woman, “This’ll just take a sec.”
The woman shook her head, pointed toward the door.
“Fine.” She sighed, never one to ruffle feathers, and got out of line.
A blast of cold air hit her in the face and sucked her lungs dry as she stepped outside. It was the first of October, but already cold as a Popsicle. She liked Chicago in the spring and summer, but the other six months of the year she could do without.
“Hello?” Head down, hand held over her other ear, she scuttled around the side of the building to escape the relentless wind.
He must have hung up. Great. She’d gotten out of line for nothing. Huddling deeper into the warmth of her coat, she hit the call back button.
“Hello?” a man answered in a curt Texas accent. It didn’t sound like her father.
“Who’s this?” he asked contentiously.
“Who is this?” she echoed on the defensive.
“You called me.”
“I was calling my father.”
A hostile silence filled the airwaves between them.
“Mariah?” the man asked, an edge of uncertainty creeping in.
“You have the upper hand. You know my name, but I don’t know yours. Why are you answering Dutch’s cell phone?”
He hauled in a breath so heavy it sounded as if he was standing right beside her. “My name’s Joe Daniels.”
“Hello, Joe,” she said, completely devoid of warmth. “May I speak to Dutch please?”
“I wish…” His voice cracked. “I wish I could let you do that.”
A sudden chill, that had nothing to do with the wind, rushed over her. She leaned hard against the side of the building, the bricks poking into her back. “Has something happened?”
“Are you sitting down?”
“Sit down,” Joe commanded.
“Just tell me,” Mariah said, bracing for the worst.
“Dutch is dead,” he blurted.
Mariah blinked, nibbled on her bottom lip, felt…hollow. Hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny.
“Did you hear me?”
“I heard you.”
Joe’s breathing was harsh in her ear.
So her father was dead. She should feel something, shouldn’t she? Her heartbeat was steady. A strange calmness settled over her, but she didn’t realize that she’d slowly been sliding down the brick wall until her butt hit the cold cement sidewalk.
All she could think of was how she’d cruelly run away from Dutch that afternoon fourteen years ago.
“Mariah?” A whisper of sympathy tinged Joe’s voice.
“I’m fine. It’s not like my life is going to change,” she said quickly.
“I know you weren’t close. But he was your father.” Joe’s tone shifted, barely masking anger.
Oh, who was Mr. High-and-Mighty Joe Daniel’s to judge her? He didn’t know her. “How did it happen?” she asked, ignoring her own shove of anger.
“He’d had pneumonia for weeks. We tried to get him—”
Jealousy ambushed her. “We?” she interrupted.
“The cutters in Jubilee.”
She’d almost forgotten the slang term for people involved in the cutting horse industry.
“We tried to get him to go to the doctor, but you know Dutch, mule stubborn and set in his ways,” Joe continued.
No, she didn’t know Dutch. Not really.
“He just kept working. Workaholic your dad.”
That Mariah knew. Dutch lived and breathed horses.
“We were at an event, Dutch swung off his horse, staggered, coughed. I could tell he was suffering. His face was pale and sweaty. He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Don’t call Mariah until after the funeral.’ Then he just dropped dead.” Joe’s voice cracked again. “He died with his boots on, doin’ what he loved.”
A long pause stretched out between them. Chicago and Texas in an uneasy marriage over the airwaves.
“Joe,” she murmured, “Are you okay?”
“No,” he said. “Dutch was my closest friend.”
Joe’s words finally hit her, a hard punch to the gut. Her head throbbed and she felt as if a full-grown quarter horse had squatted on her chest. Dutch was dead and the last thing he said was “Don’t call Mariah until after the funeral.” Her father hadn’t wanted her there.
“You’ve already buried him?” A soft whimper escaped her lips.
“At Oak Hill Cemetery in Jubilee. It’s what he wanted.”
She turned to stone inside. Iced up. Shut down completely. “I see. Well then, thank you for calling to let me know.”
“Wait,” he said. “Don’t hang up.”
Her hand tensed around the cell phone. “What is it?”
“Dutch left you his ranch.”
Dutch left you his ranch.
The words echoed in her head, breaking the thin thread of memory and bringing Mariah back to the present.
The morning sun pushed free of the horizon, bathing the ranch in a butter-and-egg-yolk glow. The joyous twitter of birds greeting the dawn, filling the air with song. How long had it been since she actually paid attention to birds singing? She blinked, seeing Stone Creek Ranch clearly for the first time in full daylight.
It was a country and western palace.
The main house sprawled over acres and acres of rolling grassland. On the drive up in the predawn, it had looked like a fat dragon sleeping peacefully after a heavy meal of virgins and villagers. In the daylight, it appeared more like a lazy, but handsome king lounging on his throne. Not unlike the lazy cowboy draped insouciantly over the horse trough.
Constructed from limestone and accented with wood finishes, the cowboy mansion boasted a Ludowici clay tile roof, an elevated stone porch and an accepting veranda. It had to have had at least five bedrooms, but probably more like six or seven. A circular flagstone driveway swept impulsively up to the house.
Mariah had parked just short of the main entrance, pulling her rental sedan to a stop by a planter box filled with rusty-red chrysanthemums. Numerous other buildings flanked the house. Horse barns, sheds, garages, all well maintained.
Dutch owned this?
She now owned this?
All these years her father had been living in luxury while she and her mother scrimped every penny. The emotions she kept dammed up flooded her—hurt, anger, sorrow, regret, frustration.
Yes, frustration. She had no idea how to run a ranch. She was a wedding planner’s assistant for crying out loud.
Correction. She used to be a wedding planner’s assistant. Used to being the operative phrase.
What was she going to do with the place? And on a more immediate note, what was she going to do with the man in the horse trough?
Tentatively, she inched closer.
He didn’t move.
The shy part of her held back, but the part of her that had learned how to slip into the role of whatever she needed to be in order to get the job done—and right now that was assertive—cleared her throat. “Hey, mister.”
No response. Clearly it was going to take cannon fire to get through his stupor.
You’ve got to do something more to get his attention. Hanging back and being shy has always puts you in hot water. Take the bull by the horns and—
Okay, okay stop nagging.
Okay, okay stop nagging.
She reached out and poked his bare shoulder with a finger. Solid as granite.
Come on. Put some muscle into it.
She poked again. Harder this time.
Not a whisper, not a flinch.
What if he was dead?
Alarmed, Mariah gasped, jumped back, and plastered a palm across her mouth. Dread swamped her. She peered at his chest. Was he breathing? She thought he was breathing, but the movements were so shallow she couldn’t really tell.
Please don’t be dead.
In that moment, the possibly deceased naked cowboy was the cherry on top of the dung cake that was her life. Three weeks ago, she’d lost her dream job working for the number one wedding planner in Chicago and then her vindictive boss had blackballed her in the industry. And now Dutch was gone too and she’d been left a ranch complete with a dead naked cowboy.
Be rational. He’s probably not dead.
Maybe not, but clearly he was trespassing and she couldn’t have him thinking that it was okay for him to go around stripping off his clothes and falling into other people’s horse troughs during his drunken stupors.
Be bold, do something about this.
Bolster by her internal pep talk, she stepped up to flick his Stetson with a thump of her middle finger. “Yo, Cowboy, snap out of it.”
She was just about to thump the Stetson again, when one of those sinewy arms snapped up and his steely hand manacled her wrist. The tequila bottle made a dull pinging sound as it fell against the ground. Big fingers imprinted into her skin.
“Eep!” Oxygen fled her lungs. Panic mushroomed inside her. So much for being bold.
“Never thump a man’s Stetson,” he drawled without moving another muscle, his voice as rich and luxurious as polished mahogany. “Unless you’ve got a death wish. You got a death wish?”
“N…n…no.” Mariah stammered.
She tried to pull away from the Clint Eastwood clone, but pushing against his grip was like trying to bully marble. In fact, struggling seemed to only ensnare her tighter.
With a lazy index finger, he slowly tipped the brim of his cowboy hat upward, revealing eyes as black as obsidian and he studied her with a speculative scowl like he was the big bad wolf just aching for her a reason to eat her alive.
Oh man, oh wow, oh just kill me now.
He was one hundred percent alpha male, the kind who staked a claim on a woman with one hard sultry stare and who would fight to the death to hold onto her. The kind of man whose self-confident arrogance had always unsettled her.
His gaze lasered into her as if he could see exactly what she looked like with no clothes on, his intelligent eyes full of mysterious secrets. He didn’t seem embarrassed in the least. In fact, he had an air of entitlement about him. As if he had every right to sleep off a berserk bender in her fancy horse trough.
Strangely enough, he made her feel as if she was the naked one.
Who was this man? Did he live here? Was he one of her Dutch’s cowhands?
Even though he was sitting up and she was standing, he seemed to tower over her. He would tower over her when he was on his feet. Of that she was certain. Almost everyone towered over her.
The steady pressure from his strong fingers stirred a bizarre fluttering inside her. Her stomach quivered. Unnerved, Mariah marshaled her courage, gritted her teeth. “Please let go.”
His smile exploded, exposing straight white teeth. This cowboy possessed serious star quality. “What if I don’t?”
“I’ll dunk your Stetson in the water.”
His devilish eyes narrowed. “You wouldn’t dare.”
Her knees wobbled. She was scared witless, but she learned a long time ago to hide her fears behind bluff and bravado and act brave whether she felt it or not. Ignoring her sprinting pulse, she swept the cowboy off his head with her free hand. A thick tumble of inky black hair, two months past the point of needing a trim, spilled out.
“Try me,” she said as tough as she could, hoping her voice belied her trembling legs.
His hard laugh clubbed her ears as he slowly released her. Mariah slapped his hat down on his head and snatched her arm back, held it across her chest. He hadn’t hurt her at all, but his sizzling body heat had branded her.
“What’s the deal?” She glared. “You don’t have indoor plumbing?”
“You’re funny,” he said. “And I don’t mean ha-ha. Who are you?”
His ebony voice unnerved her. That and his big, lean, bare body. It occurred to Mariah that she was completely alone here with this stranger. If this was a slasher flick, she’d be in deep trouble.
She swallowed hard, notched up her chin and silently repeated the mantra her mentor and former boss, Destiny Simon, had taught her. Never let ‘em see you sweat. Then again, Destiny had been the one to put her in the sweatbox, so what did she know? “I should be asking you that question.”
“Oh yeah?” An amused smile played at the corner of his mouth. “Why’s that?”
She drew herself up to her full five foot one. “Because my name is Mariah Callahan and this…” She swept a hand at the land around them. “Is my ranch.”
“Oh yeah?” he repeated.
“Yes, and you’re trespassing.”
“Am I?” He lowered his eyes half-mast. Bedroom eyes the exact color as the cup of strong coffee she’d snagged at the Starbuck’s drive-through in the last big town she’d passed.
He studied her as if she was the most comical thing he’d ever seen. As if he wasn’t lying naked in a gold-plated horse trough looking as sexy as three kinds of misdemeanors.
Not that she cared. Not really. She had no room in her life for men--especially those of the cowboy persuasion. She knew just enough about cowboys to know she never wanted one.
“You sure about that?”
His words gave her pause, but determined not to let him intimidate her, she plunged ahead. “I just inherited this ranch from my father, Dutch Callahan and I’d appreciate it if you’d remove yourself from the premises immediately.”
“Okay.” He made a move to hoist himself up.
“No wait.” She shielded her eyes with her hands. “I don’t need to see that.”
He chuckled, clearly finding her amusing, and sank back in the trough. But beneath the incongruous smile, she spotted the shadows that dug into the hollows beneath the angular blades of his cheekbones.
“Your father, huh?” he said.
“That’s funny. I don’t ever recall you coming to visit him.”
Was that an intentional dig? Or just an innocent observation? Mariah glanced over at him. There was nothing innocent about this guy. “You knew my father?”
He crossed his middle finger over his index finger. “We were like that.”
She felt envious, melancholia and irritated. “We were estranged.”
“And yet, he left you this impressive ranch. I wonder why?”
Sarcasm. From a naked cowboy. The guy was cocky.
Mariah shifted her weigh, feeling like she was being indicted or mocked. “I didn’t say it made any sense.”
“That’s because it doesn’t.”
“Look,” she said. “Could you just go?”
He shook his head. “I’m just not buying it.”
“That you own this ranch. Perfect hair. Perfect makeup. Perfect fingernails.” He waved a hand at her. “You look like a Barbie doll.”
“I’m not tall enough to be Barbie.”
“Barbie’s sidekick then.”
“I don’t know what they call Barbie’s sidekick. Tonto Barbie. Doc Holliday Barbie. Sundance Barbie. Pick one.”
“Are all your references movie cowboys?
“Pretty much. Except the Barbie one. I could call you Calamity Jane instead if you preferred symmetry.”
Seriously annoyed, Mariah sank her hands on her hips. “Do I have to call the cops?”
What a jerk. “I’m calling the cops,” she threatened, pulling her cell phone from her purse.
“Are you always this friendly?”
“Whenever I find a naked cowboy in my gold-plated horse trough I am. I’m pretty sure there’s laws against public nudity, even in this backwater place.”
“First off, I’m not naked,” he said.
She couldn’t stop herself from raking a gaze over his amazing body. “You look naked.”
“Appearance can be deceiving. For instance you look stuck-up.”
“Sometimes appearance can be deceiving, but on the whole, I’ve found that generally what you see is what you get.”
“So you’re saying you are stuck-up?”
“I’m saying you look like a drunken derelict.”
“Hung-over derelict,” he corrected. “I’m not drunk anymore.”
“Excuse me for missing the distinction. I’m sure your mother is so proud.”
“I have underwear on,” he offered.
“How comforting.” As if a little strip of soaking wet cotton cloth hid anything. Why she should find that even more tantalizing than full nudity, she had no clue, but she did.
And that bothered her. A lot.
“Secondly, this isn’t public,” the cowboy continued. “It’s private property.”
“I know,” she said. She couldn’t believe this conversation was happening. Had she driven down a rabbit hole when she wasn’t looking and ended up in Wonderland? She half expected to see the White Rabbit pop up at any moment, muttering about being late. “My property.”
“Thirdly, it’s not your horse trough.”
Her finger hovered over the keypad. Should she call the cops? By challenging him, was she making things worse? Maybe she should just walk away and let him get out of the horse trough at his own pace. She was thirty hours without sleep and hungry and sad and strung out from the road and she wanted to find a place to curl up and take a nap, but first, she had to set things straight with this cretin.
Before she could make up her mind whether to call the cops or not, a Sheriff’s cruiser motored up the road.
“Ha! Apparently someone else has already reported you,” she said. “Nice of them to save me the trouble.”
“I wouldn’t gloat too hard,” he observed. “The deputy will be on my side.”
“Why’s that? Just because you know each other? The good old boy network in action?” Mariah clenched her teeth. She’d had enough of cronyism in Chicago.
“Nope. The deputy is a woman.”
“Then why are you so sure she’ll side with you? Did you sleep with her?”
“Does that bother you?”
“Why should it bother me? I don’t care who you sleep with. Why would I care about who you slept with?”
“You tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“Why you’re upset at the idea that I slept with a lady deputy.”
“I’m not!” She snorted.
“You look upset.”
“I’m upset because you’re naked in my horse trough.”
“This conversation is going around in circles.”
“It’s not your horse trough.”
“Nope, because it’s not your ranch.”
“It is and I can prove it.”
“It’s not and here’s the reason why. My name’s Joe Daniel’s, this here is Green Ridge Ranch and I have a sneaking suspicion you’re looking for Stone Creek.”