The following is an excerpt from my current novel in progress, an untitled romantic/suspense based on a rural Canadian ranch.
This was a mistake. What was I thinking?
She hadn’t been thinking, obviously, or she wouldn’t be here, in Canada of all places, running a dude ranch with her two elderly housekeepers. She’d picked up her life in Texas and had dropped it like a nice little care package in the middle of the Canadian wilderness.
“Hello, my name is Abby Bennett, and I’m an idiot,” she muttered, rubbing her palms across her face, her voice seeming to echo in the emptiness of her new home office. Halfway expecting to feel the lines of stress this last six months had hurled at her, Abby brushed her fingers over the soft flesh, circling and massaging at her temples.
Damn her ex-husband for chasing her out of the country.
Damn her housekeepers for encouraging her crazy delusions of running a ranch.
Damn Connor Murphy for trying to steal from her.
And damn this damn Canadian winter.
Shuffling with double socked feet across the large room, Abby plucked a piece of wood from the top of the stack and pushed it into the fireplace. A cloud of embers erupted in objection to the new piece, but quickly quieted and began licking at its latest victim, the fire rising up and brightening the darkened room.
She’d been freezing since she’d flown north of the Rockies and couldn’t seem to get warm. It wasn’t cold for a Canadian winter, but it was cold for a native Texan. Not wanting to move away from the warm glow of the fire, Abby curled up on the hearth and stared into the flames, searching for the answers to her current problems—her lying, stealing ex-ranch manager, Connor Murphy.
He’d tried to steal from her. The bastard had actually tried to steal from her. Now he was gone, and she was short one ranch manager.
“Uhh—damn you, Abby Bennett, for being so stupid,” she moaned, banging her head into her open palms.
“Are you done pouting, or are you going to need a few more minutes?” said the crisp, accented voice of her elderly housekeeper and friend.
Surprised, Abby flung her head up so fast that it banged against the brick backing of the fireplace. Stunned for only a few seconds, she quickly recovered and glared at the small Austrian woman. Heidi was white haired and in her mid-sixties, but had the presence of a live grenade—when she wasn’t stalking in the shadows of her employer’s private study.
“What are you— How long were you there—stalking…creeping around in the shadows like some sort of…stalker.” Abby flustered for self control but it didn’t work. Rubbing the back of her pounding head she pushed off of from the mantel, needing to walk off some of her nervous energy.
“Long enough to know you’re pouting again,” Heidi replied, standing from the red cushioned armchair she’d been lounged in. In a brisk motion she reached up and jerked the heavy curtain away from the nearest window, letting in the midmorning sunlight.
“Agh—don’t do that!” Abby cursed, shielding her eyes from the sudden, blinding light.
“It’s after ten. Did you not sleep?” Heidi scolded, ignoring her boss and flinging open the next heavy drape. Not waiting for a reply, she went on. “Of course not. Because you do not let my sister and I do our job and find a new manager for the ranch. You stay up and pout and add lines to your pretty face.” Another quick jerk and a third window was unveiled, pouring light into the room with all the subtlety of a forest fire.
“Stop that! I don’t want them open,” Abby snapped. The sunlight bore though her closed eye lids, making her painfully aware of just how long she’d been awake.
“Come here,” her housekeeper commanded, suddenly standing in front of her. Her strong bony fingers clamped down over Abby’s wrists and pulled them away from her face. “Open your eyes, Bӓrchen. Let me see you. Ach! Horrible, just horrible. You look like death.”
“I’ve been working,” Abby said, pulling away.
“No, you’ve been worrying all night when you should have been getting a good night’s sleep.”
“Someone has to decide what we’re going to do next. We might have to sell the ranch—there’s no way I can a fill the position. I don’t have the slightest clue how to run the working side. I only have experience on the guest and financial ends of ranch life.”
“No, your job is to sit back and manage. My sister and I work the inn, and the ranch manager will work the land.”
“But we don’t have a ranch manager,” Abby said, exasperated. “I fired him, remember? He was stealing—”
“You think I forget?” Her accent came out thicker than usual; Heidi was beginning to lose her temper. “Elsa and I were at the town pub for three hours last night, looking for a new manager. We even started interviews…in a pub—like hillbillies!” Her distaste for hillbillies was obvious by the way her eyes bugged on the word.
“And no one was interested, were they?” Abby said, tempted to push the old woman from the room and slam the door behind her. “I know what they think. A writer from the states has no business owning a ranch when she can’t even work it. I’ve heard the rumors too, Heidi.”
“I’ll take care of the rumors. They don’t know you or your experience with ranches. If anything, it only makes them look stupid. You were raised on your grandparent’s ranch. It is in your blood, Bӓrchen.” Heidi said, placing her hands on Abby’s cheeks. “You will not fail what it already yours.”
Wanting to cry, Abby closed her eyes, letting the old woman pull her into a soft embrace. Over as quickly as it had begun, Heidi jerked and grabbed Abby by the arms.
“Oh! We must hurry—you don’t want to meet him looking like that, do you?”
“Meet who?” Abby said, furrowing her brow in confusion.
“I was going to tell you, but you were pouting—”
“Tell me now,” Abby interrupted, pulling her wrist from Heidi’s viselike grip. God, please don’t let her have to meet anyone today—looking like this, as Heidi said.
“Last night at the pub, Elsa and I kept hearing talk of a man called Morgan. They spoke of him like a god, both idolizing him and fearing him. They say he does not come to the town much; that he lives in an old cabin near the river. He hunts for his food and drinks from the waters, and only come to the town for supplies.”
“Sounds like a lot of the men around here,” Abby said.
“No,” Heidi snapped, abruptly. “He is not. They say he could lead the sun. That men stand in awe of him and would follow him over the edge of a cliff.”
“It doesn’t sound at all like you’re making this up,” Abby said, skeptically, one eyebrow raised.
“I’m summarizing. Pub patrons are crass.”
“Oh—so you’re embellishing. Then by all means, go on,” Abby replied, sarcasm dripping from each word. Heidi scowled at her, but continued.
“We did not see him but left word—and incentive—for the pub’s owner to spread the word that we were looking for a new manager.” She paused, and looked to the ground briefly before going on. “We didn’t stay late, you see...and I couldn’t sleep. I came downstairs to check to locks and pour myself a cup of warm milk, when I saw the light on in your study. I peeked inside, saw you were not sleeping either, nor were your working on your computer, and I knew you were worrying too…about the ranch. So, I decided to get dressed and go back to the pub.”
“Alone? In the middle of the night? Are you crazy?”
“It was not that late and I am a grown woman. I will do as I please,” she replied.
“You’re a crazy, old woman,” Abby muttered, rolling her eyes.
“I went to the pub and paid a man to take me to where Mr. Morgan lives—”
“You what?” Abby shrieked. “You don’t know anyone here! He could have killed you and we wouldn’t even know where to find your body!”
“You write too many crime novels, Bӓrchen. Some people can be trusted…when money in on the line,” Heidi said, nonchalantly. Waving her hand in dismissal, she went on with her story. Open jawed, Abby listened. “My guide did not know exactly where Mr. Morgan’s cabin was; only that it was off of the old logging trail. We drove up and down the trail several times before we found the dirt road that led to his cabin. I explained to Mr. Morgan who I was, why I was there, and asked if he would be interested in the job.
“He is here now, interviewing with my sister. After she’s finished with him, he will come to interview with you—for a final approval, of course.” Heidi finished.
Abby narrowed her eyes at the elderly women. Something was off; Heidi had wrapped up her story rather quickly, and the Austrian was not the type to skimp on details.
“What about the meeting at his cabin? What happened there? What did he say?” Abby probed.
“He said,” she explained slowly, “that he would think it over, and get back to me. And he has.”
Abby blinked, knowing there was something that her housekeeper wasn’t telling her. “What’s wrong with him? Is he old? Gimp? Cross-eyed? Toothless?” She ticking off the traits of every rural, mountain man she’d seen in movies. “Hairy? Ah—he’s hairy, isn’t he! You know how much werewolf-men creep me out—”
“He’s not hairy. Or old, or gimp. He sounds like the perfect man for the job.” Heidi said as she turned and walked around Abby’s large desk. Opening the drawer, she pulled out a small cosmetics bag. “Now come here so I can make you look presentable. Elsa will be done interviewing him by now. Ach—look at these hideous bags under your eyes! ”
In less than five minutes, Heidi had brushed out Abby’s tangled red hair, smeared concealer on the dark, sleep deprived bags, blushed and mascaraed, and, finally, smeared a tinted lip gloss across her dry lips. “Blot, Bӓrchen. There, much better. Not your usual beauty, but nothing that a man will not appreciate.”
“Appreciate? Since when do I care if ranch hands appreciate me?”
A knock on the closed office door brought her head up. Heidi dropping the cosmetics and their bag back in to the desk drawer. “Ahh, Bӓrchen, I told you that Mr. Morgan was not old or hairy,” Heidi said, timidly. “But, he is…rather attractive. I believe you will want him to…enjoy the view.”
Suddenly, it all made sense. No wonder Heidi hadn’t said anything about her visit to Morgan’s cabin—she hadn’t wanted to give anything away. This wasn’t about hiring a ranch manager, so much as it was about setting her up.
“No, no, no,” Abby said, deciding to stop whatever matchmaking attempts the two sisters had planned, but the old woman had already started to walk away. “I need a manager, not a boyfriend. Tell him to go.”
“You need both, and we need to stay in business. He is the best candidate we could find. Even Elsa is impressed. Why do you think I am here and she is with him?”
“Because you’re both evil and want to put me in an early grave,” Abby muttered under her breath.
“He’s in his thirties, blond hair—and those broad shoulders that you like. Umm, if I were not an old woman…”
“You’d still be trying to drive me crazy.”
They were to door and Heidi was reaching for the knob when Abby grabbed her arm. Hissing in her ear, she said, “I mean it Heidi, I don’t want him. Find someone else.”
Heidi must have heard the panic in her employer’s voice, because she turned and patted Abby’s arm. “You must forget about Andrew, Bӓrchen. Not all men are the same, after all. Do not be afraid; today, we are hiring a manager, not a husband.”
Before she could respond, Heidi had opened the door and Abby had to clench her jaw to keep it from hitting the floor. Standing in the hallway was a man, over six feet tall with blond hair and ice blue eyes.
Abby took an involuntary step back as he mind went wild. What was he doing hiding in the deep forests of the Cariboo? He should be on the cover of Men’s Fitness or GQ…or Playgirl.
“Abby, this is Jake Morgan,” Heidi’s older sister, Elsa, said as she stepped into the room. “Mr. Morgan, this is my employer, Abigail Bennett.”
The living, breathing Adonis followed Elsa into the room and extended a hand to Abby.
“Ms. Bennett, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said in a voice that dripped honey. “Thank you for seeing me.”
Grabbing his hand, she nearly jumped. He was warm—God, he was warm—and she had the sudden impulse to sink into him and absorb his heat, getting rid of the winter’s chill once and for all.
“Oh—uh, thank my housekeepers. They’re the ones that found you.” Did she really just say that? “I appreciate your coming, Mr. Morgan.”
“Call me Jake.”
“Of course. And I’m just Abby.” Really? Just, Abby? “I mean, just call me Abby.”
Behind Jake, Abby could see her two housekeepers squirming, little grins on their wrinkled, old faces. The little Brownies—Gremlins!
Realizing she was still clutching his hand, she jerked it free, startling her housekeepers.
“Abby, my notes on Mr. Morgan,” Elsa said, handing her a clipboard. “I believe you’ll be quite impressed. He’s more than qualified for the job.”
“I’m sure he is,” Abby said, thinking that her maid was full shit. Jake Morgan looked more likely to be seen on a Hollywood red carpet, than on a working dude ranch.
“We’ll leave you both to it,” Heidi chimed in, a smile on her face as she grabbed her sister by the arm and towed her from the room.
“Thank you, ladies,” Abby said, automatically. “Mr. Morgan—”
“Uh, yes—Jake, have a seat,” she corrected, leading him over to her desk. Her socked feet swished across the carpet, the only noise in the room.
“I’m sorry?” She asked, turning to him on wobbly knees.
“Are you cold?” He said, eyes going to her feet. “Your feet are double socked and you hand felt like ice when we shook.”
“Ah, yes. I’m not used to these long, cold winters. I’m from Texas. Our winters are shorter and, generally, warmer.”
“It’s nearly over. Only about a month left. How long have you been here?”
“Um, about three months,” she said, wondering how on earth he had this effect on her. Making it behind her desk, she sank into the soft chair. At least now she didn’t have to worry about her knees giving out. Following her lead, he sat down opposite of her.
“What about you? Did you grow up in Clinton?” she asked, continuing with the conversation.
“No, I didn’t. I was just passing through and decided to stay a while,” he replied, not answering her question.
Looking at the clipboard Elsa had given her, she read the first line.
Gorgeous, it read, scrawled in a small, slanted print. One the next line was he’s the one. The third line was a bit more promising.
“You’ve worked on a ranch before?” she asked, hoping to God it wasn’t true. If he was qualified, she’d have to hire him. And if she hired him, he’d be around...distracting her with his Brat-Pitt-meets-Channing-Tatum good looks.
“Yes. My father’s family owns a ranch up north. I spent quite a bit of my childhood working it, as well as good few years in my twenties. It’s quite a bit cooler up there,” he added half grinning, a twinkle in his blue eyes making her squirm in her chair.
Averting her eyes, she looked everywhere but at him. It was embarrassing; did he know what that look was doing to her?
“And did the cold drive you south?” she asked.
“No, the cattle did. I’m not all that fond of cows. I understand you prefer horses?”
“Yes. Our guests don’t come for cows. They come for horses…and the countryside.”
“Umm. This ranch is meant to be an escape. Wild open country, warm fires, horseback riding, fishing.”
“Beautiful,” he said from low in his throat. His tone was different from before…creamier, like whipped chocolate. “The view is…breathtaking.”
Were his eyes boring into her, or was she just imagining it? Feeling her face flush, she looked back to the clipboard.
Broad shoulders. Long, agile fingers. Strong jaw. High cheekbones. Muscles atop muscles. What’s under the hood?
Damn it—what was Elsa thinking? Heidi must have put her up to this. Skimming further down the page she saw carved from marble and if I were forty years younger…
At last, she read dual citizenship.
“You have dual citizenship?”
“Canadian and American,” she said, shortly.
“Care to elaborate?”
“My father is Canadian. My mother was American,” his voice had dried out, no longer the tempting honey from before. He didn’t want her prying, and he was letting her know it.
“Will you be sticking around for long?” she asked instead as a shiver raced down her spine.
“A while. I’m in no hurry to go anywhere,” he said, his voice creamy again. “Especially now, with this…opportunity knocking at my door.”
“Oh, yes. Sorry about Heidi. She can be...direct.”
“She was more that direct,” he said on a laugh. “Nearly drug me out of bed to come meet with you. Said the job and the owner were, how did she put it? Intoxicating.”
He was drinking her in—that was the only explanation for what those blue eyes were doing, flicking from her eyes to her lips to her breasts. Gazing back up, into her eyes, he smiled that sumptuous half smile, captivating her so that she couldn’t speak. Lingering like a lover, the silence stretched for an electrified moment.
“Yes…the land is spectacular. I’m quite pleased with the area,” she said, hoping this attraction was all one sided. Preferably, her-sided. Surely she was imagining his interest. He couldn’t be flirting with her…
“Elsa had mentioned a trial period. Three months, I believe is what she said?” Jake said, bringing her attention back to business.
“Yes, three month,” she said, stumbling over her thoughts. This is a business meeting, Abby. An interview. Get your mind out of the gutter. “After that, benefits and bonuses will be arranged.”
“Excellent. I’ll start tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” she repeated.
“And if you have doubts at the end of my three months, we’ll go our separate ways. No hard feelings,” he added, standing and extending his hand to Abby.
Mechanically, she reached to take his outstretched hand, shaking it while wondering what had just happened. He’d stood, reached the door, and closed it behind him before she’d even realized what she had just done.
She’d just hired Jake Morgan.