Exhaustion tugged at Ashley Richardson as she pulled her loaded-to-the-hilt car up to her brother, Ethan’s, dude ranch outside Crystal Springs, Tennessee and parked at the side of the huge two-story white frame farm house. The bright red baskets of geraniums hanging across the front of the wrap-around porch made her smile. Her mother’s touch, she felt certain, and a welcoming first impression, especially with the porch swings and rockers, all with red cushions.
Ashley leaned her head back against the car seat and breathed a sigh of relief that her long, hot, three-day drive was over. She hoped she’d made a good decision to come here and be the public relations director for the ranch, but if it didn’t work out she could always leave and find a job in Nashville.
She glanced at the lush rolling hills surrounding her. It was definitely beautiful, and right now she was glad she’d let Ethan talk her into moving here. If truth be known, it hadn’t taken much talking on his part. She’d been away from her family for thirteen years. Thirteen long years of running from herself. It was time to join her family. Time to come to terms with her past and move forward.
“It’s a perfect fit,” Ethan had told her when he’d offered the job.
She’d harumphed, not at all sure it was any kind of fit, let alone perfect. But it was a job and it was close to family – a huge plus at this point in her life – and it gave her time to figure some things out and find herself.
A sharp rap on her window had her practically jumping out of her hot, sweaty skin. She clutched her heart and shot daggers at Hank Bradley, co-owner of the dude ranch and the main source of her reservations about taking this job. Holding back a curse, she rolled down her window.
“Ethan had to go out to a building site. Said to welcome you. Pop the trunk. I’ll grab an armload.”
“That’s a heart-warming welcome if ever there were one,” she muttered, shooting him a fake smile.
“I do my best.” Tipping his cowboy hat at her, he sauntered to the trunk and grabbed an armload of luggage. “Follow me. I’ll show you your room.”
Ashley grabbed her two smaller bags, slammed the trunk shut, and followed him inside, where it was blessedly cool. He climbed the stairs and she followed, unable to keep from admiring the view. Men weren’t the only ones who enjoyed eyeing good butts, she mused. She’d known Hank since they were in junior high and he’d always had a cute butt. And broad shoulders. And a killer smile when he bothered to use it. Which was rare around her.
She shifted her gaze, chastising herself for admiring Hank’s assets, and continued to follow his long-legged stride, practically running to keep up.
When they landed on the second floor, he spoke. “Ethan put you in the new wing. Thought you’d enjoy the view and the peace and quiet it offered.”
“He got that right.”
Hank shoved the door open to a gorgeous mauve and cream colored suite, and Ashley sighed with pure pleasure. She set her two bags on the gleaming hardwood floor, kicked off her sandals and walked toward the antique four-poster, walnut bed, sinking her tired feet into a thick, cream-colored, area rug adorned with mauve flowers and dark green leaves.
She scooted onto the bed and bounced a few times. “This bed is magnificent. Where did Ethan pick this up?”
“My folks’ place. I cleaned their house out last month after Mom died.”
“Oh,” she said, at a loss for words. Seemed she was always at a loss for what to say around this man of few words. He certainly never talked about his family. She’d never heard anything good about his folks, and every time she’d asked Ethan about them he’d told her Hank’s family life wasn’t any of their business.
She ran a hand over a polished bed post and admired the intricate pattern carved into it. “I heard about your father passing a long time ago. I hadn’t heard about your mom. When did you lose her?”
“A few months ago. Heart.”
Ashley’s hand stilled. “I’m sorry, Hank. I can’t imagine losing my mom.”
“That’s because your mom’s one-of-a-kind. She’s been more like a mother to me than my own mom. Count yourself lucky.” Hank turned to go. “If you need anything, I’m right next door.”
“Seriously?” Irritation scraped through her. This was not what she needed. “When I was here at the first of the summer, you were living in a stall in the barn,” she said, rolling her eyes before she could stop herself.
“I’m expanding the barn. Adding some therapy horses and another arena. By the way, this is a Jack and Jill suite. We share a bathroom.” He nodded toward a door on the other side of the bed.
Ashley’s mouth fell open. “I’m sharing a bathroom with you?” she hissed, anger churning through her before she reined it in. She wasn’t sharing a bathroom with anyone, but especially Hank Bradley. She didn’t want to even see the man, and she sure as hell wasn’t sharing the intimacy of a bathroom with him. She and Hank could barely manage to be civil to one another so this would never work. Never. Not in a million years.
She’d have Ethan find her another room. Or move to a hotel if she had to.
“Calm down, Ash. I’m used to a stall. I rarely even shower.”
Chuckling, Hank left the room. Ashley closed the door forcefully behind his retreating back. Big brother would pay for this. Of course big brother had no idea how much Hank got on her nerves, but still. She glanced around the room and tried to calm herself. It really was quite lovely. A sitting area off one side of the room caught her eye. She started toward it, stopping when her bare feet sank again into the thick area rug beside the bed. She dug her toes into the plush rug and admired a walnut six-drawer dresser, complete with an oval, beveled glass mirror and wondered if that had come from Hank’s old house, too.
She headed toward the sitting room, sighing with pleasure when she stepped into it. A light yellow chaise was in one corner, facing French doors that gave her a beautiful view of a meadow. A delicate Tiffany lamp sat on a side table, which looked like yet another antique. She wondered if it was a piece from Hank’s childhood home.
She sank onto the chaise and propped her feet up. Okay, so the room was lovely, but she still didn’t want to share a bathroom. What had Ethan been thinking? She wanted her privacy for crying out loud. No woman in the world would want to share a bathroom with a male stranger. Okay, so Hank wasn’t a stranger, but still. Ethan should have at least checked this out with her.
She stormed over to the bed and grabbed her cell phone out of her purse. She pulled up Ethan’s name then groaned and tossed her phone onto the bed. She could hardly complain when the room was free, and Ethan was paying her generously for her job. Besides, she also had a balcony, one of the few rooms that boasted that amenity. She walked back to the sitting room, opened the French doors wide and stepped outside. A sigh of pleasure left her as she took in the green rolling hills spotted with horses. To her right was the barn and arena, where five horses stood saddled and, she assumed, waiting for riders.
A family of four walked to the horses, and Hank stepped out of the barn, greeting them. He talked with them a minute, probably giving them instructions, then led the way to the horses. No one needed help mounting their horse, so they must have some riding experience.
Hank swung onto a gorgeous black stallion and headed out, the family filing out behind him into the south pasture. Ashley watched until they were out of sight, thinking a morning ride sounded wonderful. She’d have to do that soon. In the meantime, she had a lot of unpacking to do. That is, if she stayed in this room.
Reluctantly, she went back inside, opened a suitcase and grabbed some clean clothes. Picking up her small bag of toiletries, she headed for the bathroom. At least she’d have hot water this early in the evening. And Hank wasn’t anywhere around.
She opened the door to the bathroom and almost squealed with delight. A huge whirlpool tub greeted her. Talk about the perfect way to mellow after her long drive from California. She locked the door and prepared to indulge herself.
Ashley joined the breakfast crew early the next morning, smiling as she sat beside Ethan at the end of the table. Several guests were finishing up their breakfast and Ashley made a point of greeting them.
“How did everyone sleep last night? I slept like a milk-drunk baby.”
“Nothing like clean country air,” one man said as he scooted away from the table. “We’re heading out for a hike. See you all later.”
“Watch where you walk,” Ethan called after them. “Country life has country critters.”
The man nodded and escorted his wife and two teenage boys outside.
“So what are the big plans around here for Labor Day?” Haley asked after taking a sip of orange juice.
“Just the usual unless you want to throw something together at the last minute.”
“Talk about pressure,” she muttered around a piece of toast with fresh blackberry jam that practically melted in her mouth. “Looks like I have my work cut out for me.”
Hank sauntered into the room and sat across from them. “Mornin’. Did my snoring keep you awake, Princess?”
Ashley narrowed her gaze at him, angry and hurt and hoping only the hurt showed. The man barely talked to her, but when he did she often wished he’d kept his mouth shut. She took a bite of eggs, watched him as she chewed and remembered only too vividly the last time he’d called her Princess. His words still stung. “You need to grow up, Princess.”
She swallowed down her humiliation and shifted her attention back to the present and her brother. “We’ve got three nights until Labor Day. How about a barn dance? Invite the entire area, not just people staying here.”
Ethan practically choked on his food. “You think big. That’s a lot to pull off in a few days.”
“Wuss. How about in a couple of weeks? Make it a grand opening for the place? Don’t you think the Crystal Springs Dude Ranch needs a grand opening?”
Ethan leaned back in his chair, rubbed his flat belly and groaned with pleasure. “Sounds like a plan. Francie knows some ladies in town who own a place called Comfort Cafe. Bet you could get them to cater the food.”
“Francie knows everyone. Having her for a sister-in-law comes in handy, huh?”
Ethan grinned. “Matt did good.”
“Yes he did, and so did you when you finally convinced Haley to marry you.” Ethan’s grin covered his face, and Ashley was happy for him. “I’ll talk to Francie. How are she and Matt doing by the way?”
“Still two little love birds. Francie keeps trying to give Haley riding lessons, but she keeps declining.” Ethan chuckled. “Francie is persistent, so my money’s on her, not my beautiful wife.”
“My money’s on your beautiful wife,” Hank announced. “That woman found her voice and she’s never giving it up.”
“Good for her,” Ashley said. “Besides, Haley has her own strengths,” she added, taking another bite of scrambled eggs.
“How do you like those ostrich eggs?” Ethan asked.
Ashley’s mouth froze. “Really?” she mumbled around her food.
Hank pointed his fork at her. “You’re in God’s country now, Ashley. Pretty sure we’re having rattler for dinner.”
She swallowed her eggs. “You are so full of it.”
Ethan and Hank grinned at each other. Ashley frowned at them. “Some things never change, and you two guys are one of those things. You’ve been egging each other on since grade school.”
“It’s become a fine art, don’t you think?” Ethan punched Hank in the arm.
“My end of it has. Not sure about yours.” Hank took a sip of coffee, a smirk on his face, and Ethan laughed.
“Okay, how about a nature hike and barbeque on Labor Day?” Ashley suggested. “Just for the guests.”
Ethan pondered her suggestion then looked at Hank. He arched his brows. “Don’t look at me. Just remember they’d have to watch for rattle snakes, depending on where the clues are.”
“God you’re a spoil sport.” Ashley scooted away from the table. “You two think about it and let me know. I’m going for a morning ride. Which horse do you suggest, Hank?”
He shoved away from the table, picked up his plate. “I have a couple that would be a good choice for you. A bay mare and a gray gelding. Why don’t you show her, Ethan? I have work to do.”
“Sorry. No can do.” Ethan stood. “I have an early appointment with a client in town. When you get a few minutes, Ashley, Haley and the kids would love to see you.”
“Sure thing. I’ll ride to your new house, tie the horse at the fence post.” She grinned. “You do have a fence post, don’t you?”
Laughing, Ethan grabbed her up and twirled her around. “Good to have you here, little sis.” He set her down, kissed her cheek. “See you later. Hank’ll take good care of you. Answer any questions you have.” Ethan grabbed his cowboy hat and headed outside.
Hank’s gaze coasted over Ashley. “I’ll meet you in the barn after you change into riding clothes.”
“Just show me which horse and where the gear is. I can take it from there.” Ashley walked outdoors and pulled in the fresh morning air, not about to dash upstairs and change because of what Hank said. She would change after she’d saddled her horse. Hank knew she was an experienced horse woman. Why did he always have to goad her?
She walked to the corral and leaned over the railing, spotting the gray gelding immediately. She clucked and his ears pricked as he watched her with interest, chewing on some hay. Several of the other horses glanced at her, but the gray walked up to her and stretched out his neck. She patted his sleek, dappled coat.
Hank joined her, resting his arms over the top railing. Big hands, Ashley thought. He rubbed the gelding’s face and the horse shoved his nose closer. Gentle hands too. “Jagaer can be a bit spirited and stubborn but you’ll be able to handle him.” Hank gave the gelding one last pat. “The prettiest area is the south pasture. The tack room is the third door on the right. Have a good ride.” He headed toward the barn without even a good bye.
“Hank, wait.” He stopped and turned, one eyebrow arched. “It’s obvious we’ll be running into each other a lot. Don’t you think it’s time we tried to get along?”
He studied her a minute, and she felt uncomfortable, exposed like some teenager who had just been caught doing something she shouldn’t be doing. “You just want to butter me up so you’ll get more bathroom time,” he finally said.
Ashley laughed, irritated that he could amuse her as easily as he irritated her. “I’m serious. We’ve been at odds since. . .” She swallowed hard and shrugged. “Well, you know.”
He nodded. “Yeah, I know. I pissed you off bad. You don’t forgive easily.”
“What? You never gave me a chance to talk to you again, let alone forgive you. Besides, you didn’t really need forgiving,” she added, looking down and kicking at the dirt. “I’m the one who needs forgiving.”
“I forgive you. Have we cleared the air now?”
She glared at him. “I just want us to get along. I’ll be living here a while and it’d be a lot more comfortable if we could just be” – she hesitated. “Friends.”
He walked back to her, his stride long and loose, and stopped practically on top of her. She had to crane her neck up to not be looking at the middle of his chest. “Friends, huh?”
“Yes,” she all but squeaked.
His blue eyes were intense, taking in her face as if memorizing every detail. She felt herself grow hot.
He leaned so close their noses almost touched and she could feel his body heat radiating off of him. He rubbed the dark stubble on his chin. “Nope. Don’t think I want to do that.”
And just like that she was eighteen years old and stupid again.
Hank stepped back. “Let me know if you need anything though.” He pivoted and strode toward the barn as if once again he couldn’t get away from her fast enough.
Humiliation suffused her face as she watched the arrogant jerk jump over the corral fence and enter the barn. What did he do in that damn barn all the time? Avoided people would be her best guess, since he was so distant with them. Or maybe it was just her he was distant with. There was a time back when they were kids, she’d followed Ethan and Hank around like a puppy dog, and for the most part Hank hadn’t seemed to mind.
Then everything had changed.
Her spirits took a nose dive. She’d hoped Hank didn’t hate her anymore, but she’d been wrong and it stung. A lot. She would definitely ask Ethan for another room tonight.
She went into the house, fully intending to enjoy her ride this morning even if Hank had upset her. Hurrying to her room, she changed into jeans and boots, eager to gallop a horse across the pasture and forget about Hank’s dismissive and hurtful response to her pathetic attempt to repair the understandable grudge he held against her – and even more eager to outrun her fear that coming to Crystal Springs might be the second biggest mistake of her life.