Excerpt: Summer Cowboy

Book Seven: Cowboy Heroes Series

SUMMER COWBOY

CHAPTER ONE

Becca Montgomery pulled the pick up truck into the almost empty graveled parking lot, dodging the large puddles, splashing through the smaller ones. The sun blazed in the freshly washed Wyoming sky. Dazzling reflections from the puddles almost blinded her. Nosing close to the weathered barn, she cut the engine. She slapped a Stetson on her head and opened her door to the windy morning. It had stopped raining only a half hour before. The sun had quickly melted the lingering clouds. The wind blew the scent of damp grass across her cheeks. It was cool for late May. Invigorating. Once the series of storms passed, the temperature was bound to go up.
The low line of dark clouds on the western horizon threatened more rain. But for the moment, she’d enjoy the sunshine.
“I’ve had enough rain to last this year and next,” she mumbled, walking quickly into the cavernous feed and grain store that catered to the ranchers for miles around.
It had rained for three solid days. Everything remained soggy from the wet spring, and the last few days of rain had only worsened the situation. She had cattle knee deep in mud, fence posts washing away, soggy hay and mud slicks where feeder roads led to the range. Instead of having the livestock trucks load cattle directly from staging areas out on the range, she’d now have to drive the cattle earmarked for the spring sale closer to a major road. A paved road.
Once the rain stopped and things could dry out a bit, that is. She so did not want to be out in a sloppy field trying to get recalcitrant cattle into a shoot leading to a truck.
She stepped inside the huge double doors and tipped back her hat. Taking a deep breath, she smiled as the smells of Bob Mason’s Feed and Grain filled her nostrils. Hay and leather, wood and oats; the scents mingled clean and fragrant. The huge old barn that housed the various accouterments needed by ranchers wasn’t warm, the coolness from outside hit no barriers when the wind swirled through the open building. Becca didn’t notice. She was used to the place. She remembered visiting the store with her father when she’d been a little girl. The place had held magic back then. Now it seemed merely functional, but the scents still teased her imagination, sparked fond memories.
Walking to the back, to the long counter on which Bob Mason rested his elbows, she smiled in greeting. She’d known him all her life and had continued doing business with him when her father died and left her the ranch. Bob was talking to a stranger, a tall man wearing the standard dark cowboy hat, jeans and boots. Becca moved toward the other end of the counter, fiddling with some of the display items, content to wait until Bob was free.
“Need any help?” Bob called.
“I can wait,” Becca replied, flashing a curious glance at the stranger.
“I’m surprised to see you. It’s supposed to start raining again before long, which will make it a mess driving,” Bob commented genially. “If you need something, you could have called.”
“A little rain never hurt anyone. Though if it doesn’t let up soon, I may have a few drowned calves.”
She looked straight at Bob, but could still see the stranger from the comer of her eye. He stood over six feet. His hat covered most of his hair, except for the dark strands that curled near his collar. His cheekbones were high and tautly covered, his jaw strong, stubborn. The broad shoulders of his denim jacket were damp, evidence he’d been in the rain before it stopped.
She turned back to the counter without looking her fill. She dare not give the stranger the wrong impression, though she angled herself against the counter so she could continue to watch him from the corner of her eye. One glimpse wasn’t enough.
Something about him stirred her senses. She wished she’d checked her hair before she slapped her hat on. She wondered who he was. Not from around here, that was for sure. She knew most of the cowboys in the area by sight if nothing more. Not that it made any difference. Once she ordered what she needed, she’d head for the post office to pick up the mail, then the lawyer’s office. Her immediate future didn’t lie in Wyoming. She almost danced a quick two-step in anticipation.
A warm glow spread through her at the thought of her surprise. She’d waited a long time for this and her excitement grew as she drew closer to finally putting her plan in motion. Only a few more days–
“Becca Montgomery,” Bob interrupted her musing. From the way both he and the stranger looked at her she knew it wasn’t the first time he’d called her.
“Yes?” She turned to face Bob, her eyes drifting involuntarily to the stranger once again. His gaze met hers, held. For a split second her breath caught in her throat. Her heart pumped just a tad faster. He wasn’t the best looking man she’d ever seen, but he came close. Who was he?
“I want you to meet a friend of mine from a long way back. Josh Randall. He’s looking for a summer job. Thought you could use the help out at the Lazy M. I heard you lost a hand a few months back,” Bob said.
Becca stepped closer, offering her hand to the tall cowboy. When he took it, a startling warmth flashed through her. Her breath caught and her heart rate tripled. Her gaze locked with his. His eyes were a stormy blue, deep and penetrating. The high cheekbones and planes of his face made him seem almost stern. His eyes narrowed as he studied her from her damp hat to scuffed boots. She hadn’t a clue to his thoughts, however, as his expression remained impassive.
She hoped her own thoughts weren’t clearly visible on her face. She was attracted to this cowboy. And that was a complication she didn’t want!
“Pleasure, ma’am.” His voice rumbled around them like thunder, deep and dark. When he released her hand, she felt a sense of loss.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Randall. Unfortunately, I don’t have a position open at the moment.” Though for one second she almost considered making one up just for the joy of hiring him. Summer only, huh? Pity, she wouldn’t be here even if she did hire him. Josh Randall looked like a strong man, not one to waste time or effort. Too bad he hadn’t showed up three months ago. Things would change when her brother got home in a few days. If he wanted to hire someone while she was gone, she’d let him make that decision.
She shook her head slowly when she turned back to Bob. “Marc’s coming home in a week or so. I can manage until then.” She looked again at Josh Randall, feeling a shy uncertainty in his presence. He carried himself with a confidence that she found fascinating and appealing. she wished she could offer him a job–and spend some time with him.
But not now. She had plans.
“Sure, Becca, just thought I’d mention it to you. So your brother’s finally graduating and returning home.”
She nodded, smiling broadly. “And will I be glad. After Brad Donovan quit last winter, I held off hiring anyone else knowing Marc would be home by June. But it’s been tough being down a man.” She looked at Josh. “If you’d been here last February, I’d have taken you on in a heartbeat.”
She looked back at the owner of the feed store. “How about Johnson’s place, isn’t he looking for someone?”
Bob shook his head. “Hired a man from Texas just a week or so ago.”
“Sorry,” she said, daring to meet Josh’s eyes once again. “If I hear of anything—”
He shook his head. “Thanks, but that’s not necessary. If there’s nothing open around here I’ll be moving on. I’m looking for a short-term hire for the summer. I’ll find something. ‘Preciate your help, Bob. Good to see you again.” He shook hands with the man, tipped his hat to Becca and strode from the building, the heels of his boots echoing on the wooden floor.
“Wow, he’s big,” she said, watching him walk away. Wishing–
“Yep, and he’s a good man, always a hard worker. He’s got some good recommendations from a couple of the big ranches south of here. Even ran his own spread for a while. Something will turn up for him. So what can I do for you, young lady?”

Josh walked out into the sunshine glad to see it had stopped raining. Resetting his hat firmly on his head, he skirted a muddy pick up and headed to his own rig. The horse trailer gleamed silver and maroon in the sparkling light. The rain had washed off every trace of dust. He heard the muffled stomp of his horses as he approached. They’d had the run of a field yesterday so could stay in the trailer for a few more hours. Bob had given him the name of a rancher who would let his horses share his corral for the night. He’d grab a bite to eat and then head for the ranch. Once the horses were seen to, he’d look for a motel for himself. Tomorrow he’d head on north. Maybe the next town would have something for him.
Deliberately refusing to think about the woman he had just met, he pulled out of the parking lot and headed down Main Street. There had to be a cafe. Ah, there. He parked the double rig on a side street and walked back to the family-style restaurant. He didn’t have the time nor inclination to think about some pretty rancher who had barely come up to his chin. He had more important things to think about. He’d been looking for work for over a week. Not long by most standards, yet long enough for him to be impatient with the lack of success. And long enough to wish he’d found another job before quitting the last one. He didn’t want to eat into his savings. He was so close to his goal. A few more months pay and he’d have enough for a down payment on a spread of his own. By fall he hoped he’d be searching the market for a small ranch.
He needed to focus on finding work, not wondering how soft Becca Montgomery’s hands felt, or how silky her hair might be or what she’d look like in a dress. The jeans she wore clung to her hips snug enough to give him a fine idea of her figure. A bit on the thin side, but still all woman. Her jacket loosely covered her, but he bet she was slender all over. Scowling, he sat at the counter and ordered coffee.

Becca parked near the center of town. She’d ordered what she needed from Bob, loaded some of the things in the back of the truck after arranging to have the rest delivered. Glancing at her watch, she had plenty of time before her appointment with the lawyer.
Dashing across the street, she ducked into the post office. The postbox for the ranch was large and usually filled with fliers, magazines, and promotional materials, letters to the cowboys, as well as bills.
Gathering the day’s delivery, she returned to the truck and sat in the cab sifting through the mail, sorting advertisements from bills, journals from catalogs, the letters for her men. To her surprise, she found a letter addressed to her mixed up in the stack. It was unusual to find a letter for her.
Her stepmother rarely wrote. Usually she called, but even phone calls were few and far between. Becca had no other relatives, except for Marc, away at college, and Suzanne at the ranch. Her friends either texted or sent an email if they didn’t call. She didn’t expect letters in the mail. Bills, yes, they were always addressed to her.
She studied the envelope for a moment. Her address was typed, there was no return address. Tempted to rip it open, she decided to stretch out the anticipation a bit longer, savor the spark of excitement wondering who had written her. She’d grab a cup of coffee at the cafe and read her letter there. Tucking it into her shirt pocket, Becca finished sorting the mail. Curiosity burned as she tried to think who’d write her. The postmark had been blurred. She could hardly wait to open it, yet deliberately held off. She’d enjoy the anticipation a bit longer.
In a few moments she sat at a booth along the side wall of Carla’s Cafe. Her cup of coffee cooling before her. Scanning the cafe upon entering, she’d noticed Josh Randall at the counter, putting away a meal that would have lasted her all day. She nodded in passing, slipping into the booth the waitress indicated.
It was warm and cozy in the cafe. The black-and-white floor shone around the damp tracks of the customers. The lights gleamed, brightening the back of the café as the sun drenched the front. She reached for her letter. Plenty of time to read it before her appointment.
Glimpsing the signature when she pulled it from the envelope, she realized it was from Marc. Perplexed, she frowned as she began to read. When she realized exactly what he’d written, she leaned back in the booth, feeling as if she’d been kicked in the chest by a bull. She read the letter again. Her numb fingers let it drift to the table. Her eyes no longer saw the words dancing across the page, she was in shock.
He wasn’t coming back.
She couldn’t believe it. For years she had planned on the day he’d graduate from college and return to help run the ranch. She’d scrimped and saved, gone without any vacations she might have taken in order to keep things running on the ranch. Passed up personal opportunities in order to keep her family together. Stayed on the ranch and done everything she could until Marc could join her and shoulder some of the burden.
And now he calmly writes to say he wasn’t coming back!
For a moment her eyes filled with tears. She’d been planning on so much–dependent on Marc’s taking over and letting her have some time away from the ranch, from Wyoming. A chance to see something else of the world beside the Wind River Range.
Ironically, she’d been on her way to the lawyer’s to arrange to transfer part ownership of the ranch to Marc. It was to have been a surprise, a gift for graduation. A gift of love to her brother.
Instead, he wasn’t returning. He planned to go to California.
She couldn’t take it in. All this time she thought—
“Problem?”
The deep, sexy voice sounded familiar. Slowly Becca raised her gaze. She blinked the tears away and Josh Randall came into focus, standing by the booth, looking at her with some concern.
She shook her head, then nodded. “I—” She swallowed hard. “No, no problem. I just had a bit of bad news.” She gestured to the letter.
Josh slid into the bench, opposite her. “Anything I can do?”
She shook her head. Carefully folding the letter, she slipped it back into the envelope staring at it. She still couldn’t believe it. Why hadn’t Marc said anything to her before? Why had he hidden the fact he was taking computer courses, not the agricultural ones she thought he was studying? Why had he let her believe all along that he’d be returning to the ranch when he obviously had never intended to do so? He knew she was counting on his return.
She felt betrayed, hurt, stunned.
Suddenly anger washed through her, hot and strengthening. She especially thought it cowardly to write and not even call or show up to tell her in person.
She looked up and met Josh’s eyes. “Sometimes you think you know someone and it’s a bit of a shock when you discover you hadn’t a clue.”
He looked startled. “True.”
“Things have changed, Mr. Randall. I’m looking for a hand, after all. My brother won’t be coming next week.”
His eyes flickered to the letter, back to her. “Wants a fling after graduation?” he guessed.
“Not coming back at all, according to the letter.” She couldn’t keep the hurt from her tone, but she refused to let it stop her from functioning. She’d had other setbacks and overcome them, she’d manage with this one, as well. She just needed a little time. Time and some sort of explanation from Marc beyond his paltry letter. He could have come home and told her face-to-face. He could at least have called!
She thought of the travel brochures on her desk. Of the plans she’d outlined, the places she wanted to visit. She’d hoped to leave a week or two after he came home. Now those plans were dashed.
First things first, however. “Still interested in a job?” she asked.
“Depends.” He pushed the brim of his hat back and slouched a bit on the bench. His long legs stretched beneath the table near hers. His eyes held Becca’s. “Bob Mason didn’t get much of a chance to tell you what I’m looking for. I’m not just a regular cowhand. I’m looking to ramrod a place. Give the owner some time off so to speak. Shoulder some of the administrative burden as well as management. But only for a few months. By the end of the summer I’ll be leaving. I need to be up front and clear about that.”