Addison Malory let out an angry shout as she kicked the front tire of her old Ford pickup with the rounded tip of her cowboy boot. It hurt more than anything else, but she couldn’t have stopped herself from kicking something. She groaned at the painful throb that shot through her toes and into her foot. Resting her forehead against the chipped green paint, she took a deep breath and tried to calm the anger and frustration building up inside her.
How was she going to do her regular job and take care of the farm all by herself?
Anger flared again.
“Damn you, Ted Ballinger!” she shouted as she kicked the tire again, though less intensely. Slapping the green fender with her palms and letting out another frustrated, wordless growl, she pushed away from the truck, yanked open the driver’s door, and crawled inside. She pounded her fists against the steering wheel, then wrapped her fingers tightly around it and took a deep breath.
You’re acting like a child, Addie, she told herself sternly, then took another deep, steadying breath and released it slowly.
“I can do this,” she said into the empty cab of her old truck. “I’ll go down to Tri-Cities to find help, take out an ad, or do it all myself if I have to. I may lose half the crop, but I won’t let them win.”
She pulled the key from the pocket of her blue jeans and shoved it into the ignition. One turn and the old Ford’s engine roared to life. She threw it into gear and headed toward her long driveway.
A cloud of dust kicked up as her truck rolled over her dirt-pack dooryard, her mind returning to her troublesome ex-employees. She doubted Ted or his two buddies were around to bother her or her property, but she kept an eye out anyway as the events from an hour ago played through her mind.
Ted’s unwanted attentions had started small, a look, a hand on her shoulder, a word that said he knew better. All of it had simultaneously made her want to cringe and dig out her high-heeled boots for the extra height. Today was an all-new practice in frustration for her when Ted had presumed to crowd into her space and kiss her! When she’d pushed him away, he’d only grinned and stared at her ample chest.
“Come on, honey,” he’d said, dropping all pretense of professionalism, “you know you want it.”
“No, Mr. Ballinger,” she’d replied tartly as revulsion churned in her stomach, “I don’t want anything from you.”
He’d tried to coerce her by wrapping an arm around her waist and dragging her toward him. She’d used the momentum to drive her knee into his crotch and then, as he doubled over, she slammed her elbow into his jaw, dropping him to the ground.
Thank you, self-defense classes!
Glaring at her from the barn’s hay-littered floor, Ted had gritted his teeth as he crawled to his feet.
“You’re fired, Mr. Ballinger,” she’d said in a cold voice. “Get off my property, or I’ll call the authorities and have you removed.”
That made him chuckle, and she clenched her jaw. She and the sheriff’s department—well, one member of it anyway—were not on good terms, but she hoped they would, at least, do their job.
Ted cupped his groin as he glowered at her, clearly attempting to use his few extra inches of height to intimidate her. “You don’t want to do anything you’re going to regret.”
Fury bubbled to the surface—and a little fear, too—but Addie stood her ground. “Get out.”
“Sure, whatever. You’re a pity-fuck, anyway,” he said, and she blinked. “A fat girl should take what she can get.” He laughed at her soft gasp. “You sure as hell won’t do better than me.”
She’d frowned and hardened her expression. “Go. Now.”
Surprisingly, he left, chuckling to himself the whole time just to irritate her—though not before his last comments reinforced one of her biggest, and most secret, insecurities.
Nearly every man she’d ever met commented on her self-assurance and ‘pretty face,’ but she saw the truth in their eyes. They liked her, even admired her to one degree or another, but most of them never saw her as beautiful. She had smarts and a ton of confidence, but her weight—and how men often perceived her—had been a life-long struggle.
Addie knew she might be a little on the heavy side, with a lot of generous curves, but she wasn’t unattractive, and she wasn’t stupid, either. No matter how much she needed Ted and his friends’ physical strength for the farm, enough was enough. It had actually been a relief to kick him off her property.
The bad part was that his two coworkers went with him.
“We’re a package deal,” Ted had said, grinning at her as the three of them climbed into his truck outside the barn.
The youngest of the three, Jorje, hadn’t seemed to want to leave. His soft brown eyes had looked apologetic when the others grabbed his arms and hauled him into the truck. She wouldn’t have minded Jorje staying. He seemed different from the other two, but maybe that was just her wishful thinking.
“We’ll be back for our pay,” Ted said as he started his truck.
“You just got paid yesterday,” she replied and then waved a hand at the barn, “and it doesn’t look like you did anything that I asked you to do today. So, don’t plan to get paid for not working.”
He’d glowered at her and spun his tires in the dirt, throwing debris into the air as he sped out of her yard and down the long drive.
The whole incident could have been much worse, but it still left her with more work than she could successfully handle on her own and, among a myriad of other things, a leaky barn in need of repair.
Reaching the end of her mile-long dirt driveway, Addie took a moment to breathe and calm herself. She stared out her windshield at the wide expanse of pastoral land that had been fenced-in long ago by one of her neighbors. The low rolling hills in varying shades from light brown to dark green went on for miles until they culminated in the higher ridge known as the Manastash, which wandered westward and arched around to the northeast and into the Cascade Mountains. Together they formed a horseshoe-shape that encompassed their little valley of farms and ranches, and the growing college town where she was now headed.
Feeling more relaxed by the peaceful scene outside her windows, Addie sighed and turned her truck onto the dust-covered road to town. She didn’t mind the drive; it was beautiful, and this time of year, there were all kinds of crops and things to see along the way. Mostly tall stalks of corn and huge, swaying fields of dark green Timothy hay grew on either side of the road beyond the fences and irrigation ditches that hugged the roadside. Green, leafy shrubs or trees grew in patches here and there and she passed a few other farm buildings along the way.
Even though she’d grown up in the suburbs of Seattle, she’d always had a country-girl’s heart. Her plan to move over the mountains and find a way to make both of her dreams work—farming and writing—had never been far from her mind. This year, with a little coaxing from a friend in town, she’d finally done just that.
She’d become a freelance writer after college, working on some ghost writing and even managed a few books of her own. She now wrote for an assortment of magazines and online sites all over the world, as well as putting out another novel tow or three times a year. All of it allowed her the freedom to work from anywhere. She’d done well enough to scrape together the funds to buy her rundown farm with a little left over. It had been a good deal and in a great location; she just hadn’t realized how unfriendly most of the town’s folk would be toward an outsider.
She wiped the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand, making another mental note to get the truck’s air conditioning fixed. It was hot and dusty, but with the windows rolled down, the loose tendrils of her hair furled in the wind, slapping and sticking to her neck and face. Too late again, she wished she’d thought to bring a hat for this trip. Maybe I should just start leaving one in the truck.
She turned right at the next lonely intersection and had just shifted into third gear when she saw another truck parked on the side of the road ahead. The truck was about ten years older than hers—which at times seemed older than dirt—and had its fair share of dents and scraps in its blue exterior. The hood was up and huge, white clouds of steam billowed out from the engine.
She slowed down to see if they needed some assistance, but the driver’s seat was empty and no one was in sight. She hadn’t seen anyone on her way here, which meant the driver must be hoofing it back to town.
“They’ve got a long walk,” she muttered. The highway entrance was about a mile back the way she’d come, and the center of town, where the stores and service stations were located, was another several miles the other way.
Shifting gears and speeding up, Addie went back to her thoughts and was surprised by the first thing that popped into her head.
If Jared had listened, I wouldn’t be in this mess…
She shook her head. Where had that stupid thought come from? Even if he had been an adrenaline-junkie, it’s not as if Jared wanted to die. They’d met during her final year of college, snowboarding on the slopes of Stevens Pass, and that look she’d come to expect from men never entered his eyes. He’d been handsome, funny, reckless, and a little wild, and she’d been instantly smitten. His death two years later had left Addie’s heart in pieces, but she’d picked them up, locked them away, and gone on with her life.
She used to think she missed Jared because she had loved him so much, but lately, she’d begun to wonder.
Though capable of taking care of herself, she missed the feeling of a man’s hard body beside her at night, of having someone to lean on, a partner.
She pressed her lips together as she stared out the truck’s dirty windshield.
Right now, I’d settle for a decent man’s hard, warm body to keep me company tonight, she thought wryly, then tilted her head. Okay, maybe that’s a little much. It’s not as if she’d ever had men knocking down her door—attention from men like Ted Ballinger excluded. She wasn’t as fit as some women and she’d never be a swimsuit model, but she did okay when she put forth the effort. But that was the problem… She always had to make the effort, and she hadn’t felt up to that effort for some time. Men never chased after her like all the romantic stories on TV or in books. She was just the girl-next-door who usually ended up being a friend rather than a lover. It was depressing.
Her shoulders drooped. She was tired of being alone. Tired of dealing with the never-ending problems that began when she’d refused the advances of her closest neighbor Mark Harden. He’d seemed like a nice, solid guy, but…
She sighed. Right now, she was just plain tired.
She shook her head to clear it of her difficulties with Mark and sat a little taller. She had more important things to think about than Mark Harden. Such as how to find workers for the farm. She barely knew anyone here, having just moved in about three months ago, but she did have one good friend. Veta, her best friend from college, had settled here and opened a café with her sister only a few blocks from the school they’d both attended. Veta had started Sisters Coffee Café right after graduation. Her sister, Lana, was in her second year at the same college and had always treated Addie like a sister, or a long-lost aunt.
Addie only got to see them maybe once a week, and she wasn’t about to take advantage of their generosity by asking them for help with her farm. Veta would offer to ask her husband to aid Addie’s troubles, but he had his own work to do and the sisters had their own business to worry about, too.
Few laborers existed around town who didn’t already have a job that kept them plenty busy. And she wasn’t about to take Mark Harden’s offer of assistance, either. He’d be worse than Ted, and how would I get rid of him after the harvest? She sighed; he wouldn’t leave her alone, even if she demanded it. She’d already tried, and so far, he’d kept his distance since their last…disagreement.
Brushing a loose strand of her blonde hair from her face, Addie focused on the long stretch of pavement in front of her. The last thing she needed was to have a problem on the road. That’s when she noticed a man strolling along the rock- and dust-covered verge in front of her. Tall and lean, he wore cowboy boots and Wranglers that fit just right. The wind plastered his blue western shirt against the hard planes of his back, outlining every shifting muscle. He had that cowboy walk—loose and sinuous, but all powerful grace—that she’d always loved. That was one of the reasons she loved country-life. She smiled as a little tingle of attraction warmed her insides.
He didn’t look familiar, but considering her short residency here, that didn’t mean all that much.
Maybe he’s with the rodeo, she thought. The town was full of tourists and cowboys from all over, and had been for the last few days.
Her eyes drifted over his body, impressed with what she saw as her truck rolled up to him and continued right on by. She glanced in the rearview mirror and noted that his front looked almost as good as his back, though she couldn’t see his face due to the tilt of his head and the wide-brimmed straw hat he wore.
Hmm… Without realizing it, her foot had slowly backed off the accelerator. I wonder if he’s single…?
“Whoa!” Her head snapped to the front and she straightened up in the seat, adjusting her steering so she didn’t run off the road.
A deep breath steadied her nerves.
“Where the hell had that come from?” she muttered to herself. Yes, she was lonely, but she wasn’t really interested in one-night stands, either. At least, she didn’t think she was. She’d never had one, never even thought about it…not until now, apparently. Down, girl.
The truck slowed and then lurched, the engine trying to die, and she jammed her feet on the brake and clutch pedals. The truck came to a sudden, idling halt, and she looked back over her shoulder.
Maybe he could use a job. That would solve some of her problems, but he was a stranger. She couldn’t trust him. Could she?
The cowboy had glanced up briefly, but then dropped his eyes and continued ambling along as if her truck hadn’t almost stalled out only a few yards away.
“Oh, what the hell.” She shifted into reverse. “He can’t be worse than Ted or Mark.” She’d find out what he was doing here, and if he had any experience or references she could check, she’d offer him the job. With his rundown boot heels and lack of transportation, it looked like he could use a little help.
Maybe he could solve my loneliness problem as well?
She froze in her seat.
Wow! Am I that desperate?
“Let’s just start with a ride,” she told her inner harlot.
Ignoring all the voices in her head telling her that this was not a good idea, she backed up the truck and skidded to a quick stop, kicking up dust as she did. The man halted, turning away from her and waving at the debris that clouded the air around him.
“Sorry about that,” she shouted out the open passenger window.
The man coughed and when he looked up, her heart fluttered and flipped stupidly. He was handsome—more than handsome, with a rugged appeal she couldn’t ignore. Her mouth went dry when she met his bright blue eyes. He frowned at her, looking both alarmed and confused.
She smiled, hoping to alleviate his concern. Opening her mouth to speak, she prayed she didn’t sound as nervous as she felt. “Need a ride, cowboy?”