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His eyes were wild with hatred. His breath escaped in hot, fast gasps. Everyone had told me that coming here was a mistake, and they were about to be proven very right. Unable to move, I watched as he leaned down. At the last second, I closed my eyes…
A soft, warm sensation tickled my outstretched palm. Then silence.
Opening my eyes, I met his for a moment before he tossed his head and snorted at my obvious fear. I had survived for now, but wondered what would happen next time.
My friend Jessica nudged me. “Hannah. Chill out, girlfriend. You lived through it.”
I sucked in a deep breath and stepped back from the massive chestnut horse on the other side of the wood slat fence. Killer—what an apt name. Turning, I managed a weak smile at Jessica. “Wow. You were right. That wasn’t so bad.”
She laughed loudly. “You passed apple slice administration 101, but just barely. It couldn’t be more obvious you’re afraid of horses. Tell me again why you wanted to work here on the Rocking H. Be sure to include the part that it has nothing to do with my brother Jacob.” When she mentioned his name, her face clouded, but in an instant was back to normal.
We’d had this conversation before, she and her sister Ashley and I, over coffee by the massive native-stone fireplace in the chuck wagon building. Now, Jessica and I walked away from the corral toward the dude ranch’s chuck wagon and guest housing. A cold wind blew my hair into my face. I pulled a scrunchie out of my jeans pocket, ran my fingers through my red hair, and created a thick ponytail. These days, looking good was reserved for evenings out, and there were few of those. How far I’d fallen since the days at Indiana University-Bloomington, when I didn’t leave the dorm floor looking less than my best.
“I’m still waiting for a job in environmental management,” I said. “I have profiles posted everywhere I can think of, and every night I follow up on whatever I find online. But in Serendipity, this is the closest thing to it.”
“Closest thing to a job or to environmental management?” She waved a hand, not expecting a response. “I know, I know. Ashley and I adore having you here while you try to find the right position to start your career. But we’re afraid that, even temporarily, it’s not a good fit for you.”
“I’ll get used to the horses. I’m making progress already, don’t you think?”
She was silent, but her facial expression spoke volumes.
“Okaa-ay. I will make progress. I’ve only been here a month, after all. I appreciate the two of you hiring me when the tree farm job ended. Especially since you sort of went behind your brothers’ backs to do it.”
“Jacob’s fine. He has plenty to take care of and keep his mind busy without second-guessing our staffing choice. And Michael—well, he doesn’t know what’s happening here except very generally.”
As far as I could tell, he didn’t care either. Three siblings lived and worked at the ranch—Jessica, Ashley, and Jacob. Michael, whom I’d never met, seemed to be a partner in name only. The fact that Killer, Michael’s horse, lived here seemed to indicate he had an intention of visiting sometime. Either that or he had abandoned the horse, just as it seemed he had abandoned his siblings.
The Rocking H Dude Ranch had opened just six months ago and had done better than most folks in Serendipity expected. For a small backward town, we had some outside-the-box businesses, like the bed and breakfast added to the Standish family’s Christmas tree farm across the road from the Rocking H. B&B guests stayed in tiny cabins sprinkled among the acres of Christmas trees. The location of Serendipity, twenty miles from the nearest interstate, had kept the town from growing as much as some of the other county seats, so recent improvements had been needed.
Jessica picked up her pace. “Come on. We have work to do.”
“Whatever I need to do today is an easy downhill slide from having my palm investigated by Killer’s mouth.”
“Muzzle,” she corrected, giggling. “And you’re probably right about that.”
We cleaned and straightened guest rooms while their occupants were on a trail ride with Jacob and Ashley. Twenty guests—a full complement, in spite of the chill November weather. When the guest rooms were finished, Jessica started dinner, and I cleaned the rest of the building interior. This day, like every day since graduating from IU in the spring, was light years away from what I envisioned.
Everyone returned mid-afternoon. After seeing to the horses with help from Jacob, Ashley, and Jessica, the guests burst into the chuck wagon laughing and cheerfully complaining of soreness. I served hot cocoa and soft drinks while the people who knew all things dude ranch finished up in the barn. Much of what happened here was beyond the scope of my position.
When the siblings entered the room full of guests, there was an obvious rise in enthusiasm. Every set of visitors relished the experience of playing cowboy for a few days while staying at the rustic dude ranch. Jacob’s handsome face was glowing with his enjoyment of the way he spent his work days.
When I handed him a cup of cocoa, he thanked me and put an arm around my shoulders. “Having you here with us on the Rocking H makes everything better, Hannah.”
Part of my reason for seeking this temporary job was to get to know Jacob, but so far that hadn’t worked out as planned. When we were together, he was funny, engaging, and flirtatious. But he was the same way with everyone else. I had fallen for him on sight, but months into our “relationship,” I was still nothing special to Jacob Hollingsworth.
The first time I met him was this summer when I was working at the Christmas tree farm. As new neighbors, he, Jessica, and Ashley paid a visit. He was tall and slim, in well-worn jeans and a pale blue Western shirt that matched his eyes. His tan was deep, and his Stetson white. To me, he was a perfect specimen of what a cowboy should look like. He even called my boss, Francie Standish Carrington, ma’am, which I thought was very brave. My mom feels old when people call her that, but I couldn’t tell what Francie thought about it.
It’s possible that Jacob’s sparkling eyes and brilliant smile helped soften the blow. They sure did things to me.
Now, one of the guests asked him a question. He crossed the room, squatted down next to her, and soon had everyone in the palm of his hand with his easy repartee and folksy stories.
I realized what I was doing wrong here. Being the support staff would never bring me close to Jacob. I needed to be part of the important goings-on of the ranch. My stomach clutched. That meant doing more than timidly feeding apple slices to horses. I needed to learn to ride.
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