Retired rodeo rider Jessie Leigh has one more trick to pull off: partnering with ex-husband Payson MacCormack to save her ranch. Hope's Ride offers horse therapy for children, and Payson is a pediatric surgeon at the hospital set to certify the program. Their split wasn't exactly amicable, but Jessie's determined to make it work even if Payson's presence sends her heart racing.
With a promotion on the line and a passel of kids in desperate need of Hope's Ride, Payson should be focused on prepping the program for the hospital's review. But he can't concentrate on anything but Jessie. Payson's career and Jessie's ranch are depending on each other, but will working together bring the surgeon and the cowgirl closer together, or drive them apart for good?
About the Author
While living in the Snack Food Capital of the World, Heidi has trotted around the globe from Death Valley to Loch Ness in Scotland.
Heidi is on the Web at HeidiHormel.net as well as socially out and about on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
Read an Excerpt
Jessie saw the little boy slip into the corral before anyone else did. For cripes' sake, Jessie said silently, adding a litany of choice words as she raced after him, her knee throbbing with every pounding step. The corral was home to two geldings and a mare pacing nervously.
"Alex!" the little boy's mother screamed when the gelding trotted by him. Jessie couldn't waste her time or her breath to tell the silly woman to keep quiet. Instead, she focused on Alex as he stumbled through the uneven dirt, agitating the horses into snorting, then lashing the air with their hooves way too close to Alex's head.
He could have been her son; others had said so when he first came to the program. Her heart clenched every time she heard it. Alex's warm caramel curls were streaked blond from the sun, and his eyes tilted just a little at the corners, like hers.
The horses' hooves pounded faster as she made her way across the dusty corral. She had to get him out. Now.
"Alex, sweetie," Jessie said softly but firmly once she was beside him. She knew her height could be overwhelming for a little guy, so she squatted next to him. Her knee popped and cracked. Years of rodeo trick riding had left her two legacies: enough money to open Hope's Ride and battered joints. "Come on, Alex. Let's go see Mommy."
"No," the little boy said with a shake of his head.
"I know you want to ride the horses, sweetie, but it's time for you to go home. The horses need a nap," Jessie said.
The scuffling of hooves and the wet snorts increased in pace. Even with her experience, Jessie wouldn't be able to stop them if they got themselves into a full-out panic. She considered just grabbing Alex and running. Problemshe and running had parted ways years ago, exactly when her knee had been torn up to heck and back.
But, then, Alex suddenly took a few unsteady steps and fell. Small for his age from years of surgeries and his disease, he was at Hope's Ride to strengthen his muscles and build his confidence. Jessie scooted forward while he righted himself to sit in the dirt, tears streaking his dusty face. She wanted to pick him up, but she knew that his manly pride-in-the-making had been bruised from his fall. Coddling from her or anyone else would lead to a full-out kicking, screaming fit. The horses paced faster, tossing their heads with agitation.
"You can give Molly her treat if you come with me now," Jessie said, keeping her voice gentle, despite every instinct that told her to get moving. "Molly likes you best, you know. I bet she's hoping right now that you're the one bringing her the apple today." Molly, Jessie's childhood pony, had two speedsslow and slowermaking her a perfect introduction to riding for children who were reluctant to approach the large horses.
"Okay. I like Molly," Alex said. "She gives me kisses." He got up but didn't move. This meant that he was willing to have help. Jessie stood, too, ignoring her protesting knee.
"Great. How about I carry you back to the fence? That would be fun, wouldn't it?" Jessie asked as she leaned down. He reached up.
She heard an increase in the snorts and pounding of hooves as the threesome rushed by. She knew that they'd stampede in seconds. The corral fence was fifteen or twenty feet away. Even if she could run, moving like that would just add to the horses' agitation. With the big animals taking their cues from the humans around them, Jessie saw the disastrous day taking a ninety-degree turn for the worse when Alex's mom crawled between the rails of the fence.
The woman started running, yelling and waving her arms. The idiot, Jessie thought, just as she heard the thunder of hooves coming closer and caught the glimpse of a tall man moving smoothly and surely through the fence.
The horses went into a galloping panic. Jessie stood still to create a patch of calm.
"Mommy," Alex yelled. He wiggled against her side where he clung, drumming his dangling feet hard enough against her thigh that she loosened her grip for a moment. He broke away. She saw the gelding, Dickie, bearing down on them, his hooves huge and his eyes rimmed in white. Jessie reached outthank God she was close enough to nab Alex. In the same motion, she folded him under her as the gelding raced over them. The large horse instinctively lifted himself to jump over the obstacle in his path. Jessie braced herself for the smack of a hoof, but Dickie had cleared them. She didn't move. She had to protect the boy.
"Jessie, get the hell out of here," said a familiar deep voice from behind her, followed by a strong grip on her forearm lifting her up. She scrambled to curl over and protect the little boy. Payson, her ex-husband, kept his grip on her, while Alex's mother, who'd been pulled to the other side of the fence, was being held in place by program volunteers.
"Alex," she said, working to break free, as panicked as the horses. She had to keep him safe. It was her job. Her responsibility.
"I've got him," Payson said, easily lifting the child with his other hand. He tucked Alex under his arm. Dickie passed by again, but this time he gave them plenty of space, and the other horses were now being calmed by ranch hands.
Taller than her by a hand span, Payson moved quickly as he carried Alex and dragged her behind him, toward Alex's mother, who openly cried. He had them out of the corral before Jessie could catch her breath. He ignored her as he turned to Alex, running his strong, lean surgeon's hands expertly over him. It'd always amazed Jessie that Payson never intimidated children with his height. Could be his controlled calmness made them feel safe. When he was younger, his buttoned-up veneer had screamed prep school, but she'd always loved the dark intensity of his gaze, even when it reminded her of a big bad wolf eying a juicy jackrabbit.
Back in their day, when she'd see that look, she had to fight the urge to rip off her clothes and get him belly to belly in bed. And whenever she'd given in, once those starched and pressed clothes were off, she'd explored every inch of his tautly muscled body, one that always surprised her by being more cowboy than egghead. But that was back when she was young and didn't know the difference between lust and love. A few years of living with Payson had finally taught her the yawning gap between the two.
Alex would be fine with him. Payson's talent for healing children was the only reason he was here. Jessie would suck it up and court him to gain his hospital's stamp of approval for her program. Once she had that, then she'd get a steady stream of patients who would make Hope's Ride a paying operation. Right now, her dream of helping youngsters drained her savings account more and more each month.
Jessie turned away from the man and the memories. She needed to check on the horses and the other children. She also needed a few minutes to give her heart a chance to stop racing and to find a private place to have a cry.
Usually Payson stayed focused when he was working with patients but not today. Not with Jessie limping away from him. She wore her usual jeans and a Western shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Her cowboy boots were battered and broken in. Before the divorcenot now, of courseher casual outfit would get him hot under his suddenly tight collar. Physical closeness and sexual intensity had never been the problems in their marriage. It had been just about everything else, especially her devotion to the rodeo and her horses. He'd been amazed to hear that she'd retired from trick riding and wondered what had happened. It didn't matter, he reminded himself. She wasn't his wife. She wasn't his problem. She'd made that clear when she'd walked out and never looked back.
"Dr. MacCormack, are you sure he's okay? He looks a little flushed," Alex's mom said, finally getting Pay-son's attention by touching his arm.
"You're just fine, aren't you, buddy?" Payson asked the little boy standing next to him. "Bring him in tomorrow, so I can check that ligament in his arm. I've been meaning to do that anyway, right?"
He was sure the boy had not been hurt, but with a child like Alex, he couldn't leave anything to chance. Since Alex's birth, Payson had overseen the boy's care, including the multiple surgeries he'd endured in his short life. The geneticists insisted that he was affected by an unnamed syndrome. For Alex, the vague diagnosis meant that he had fragile tendons and ligaments that tore easily and stretched so that his bones became misaligned.
Payson had been annoyed that Karin, Alex's mom, had put him in the riding program, especially one run by his ex-wife. There were too many things that could go wrong. And he should know. He'd seen Jessie with bruises and broken bones. He knew intellectually that the therapy program had little or nothing in common with the trick riding that Jessie loved. Still, his gut insisted that the chances for recovery equaled the chances for injury. Not that his gut mattered. Evidence. Scientific evidence was all that was relevant. Jessie might run on gut and feeling, but not him.
He looked over his shoulder at his ex-wife, who hadn't gone very far before one of the program's volunteers stopped her. She didn't look all that different from when they had married ten years agowhen she'd been nineteen and he twentyin a ceremony that had given his Chanel-wearing mother heart palpitations.
Jessie's blond-streaked hair was still long enough to pull through the back opening of her ball cap and trail down her back. She might have been a native Arizonan, but she only wore a Stetson when she was riding in the rodeo parade. He didn't need to be close to know that her eyes remained the smoky green of sagebrush. She might be tall and thin, but muscles, earned every day by riding, cleaning stalls and moving hay bales, gave her a shape that filled out her jeans and her pearl-buttoned shirt.
Not that those curves affected him anymore. Obviously. When he had the time and interest to start dating, he'd choose a woman who moved in the same circles as his family, a woman who wore stilettos and never dusty, scarred boots. He might not be close to his parents, the way Jessie was with hers, but finding an "appropriate" woman might help him find common ground with his mother and father.
"Molly," Alex said. "I want to give Molly her apple. Miss Jessie promised."
Payson could hear the rising hysteria in Alex's voice. Why wasn't the boy's mother calming him? Instead, Karin fluttered around and looked at Payson to intervene.
"Next time, Alex," Jessie said as she neared them. "Molly understands that you need to go home today. How about you wave goodbye?"
"No," Alex said and shook his head. "I want to give Molly her apple."
With more fluttering from Karin, Alex's face got redder. Payson picked up the boy, thinking briefly that he could've had a child around Alex's age. His and Jessie's child. "Which one?" he asked shortly.
Jessie didn't say a word but moved off slowly. He followed, refusing to notice how her Wrangler jeans outlined the shift and roll of her muscles. Alex chattered and Payson nodded absently during the mercifully short walk.
"Wave goodbye, Alex," Jessie said. The little boy waved his arm and a fat Shetland pony that looked vaguely familiar raised her head and gave a long friendly whinny on cue, followed by a bouncing jog to the fence.
Alex wanted more, though, and wiggled and squirmed until Payson finally put him on his own feet. The boy, holding tight to Payson's hand, walked to where the pony had its nose forced between the slats of the fence.
"She wants to give me a kiss," Alex explained as they neared. The boy put his cheek to the pony's lips, and Molly nibbled gently, making the boy squeal in delight. Payson braced himself for the animal to bite Alex or lash out with a hoof. Instead, the pony looked as though she was smiling as she pulled away and shook her mane into place. Her head came back through the fence and Alex tugged on Payson's arm. "She wants to kiss you now."
"It's time to go," Payson said.
"No. Molly wants to kiss you."
"Yes, Payson," Jessie said, laughter clear in her voice. "Molly likes giving kisses."
"No. She only likes to kiss little boys, and I'm not a little boy," he answered. No way was he letting that pony near him with its mouth or any other body part. Molly's lips smacked together, and Alex tugged on him again. "Fine. I'll let her give me a kiss if Miss Jessie gives me a kiss, too."
He knew it was a challenge. One he was sure that Jessie would decline. Instead, she snapped, "No problem." Her surprisingly soft lips curled into an evil grin.
Payson leaned over so the pony could touch her lips to his cheek. The smell of oats and molasses wafted over him as the little animal chuffed a breath across his face. He pulled back quickly. Jessie grinned. He reached up his hand to check his face. Slimy pony slobber. He strode forward before Jessie could move and wiped his cheek on hers. She laughed, and he covered her mouth with his to wipe that smirk off her face. Their lips met, and hers parted and softened. Damn. His hand moved down her back, and he pulled her close.
"Dr. Mac, Dr. Mac, I want to go now."
Saved by the kid, Payson thought. No way he resented that. He and Jessie were over long ago. Having his heart ripped out once was more than enough. "Sure, Alex. Let's go." He easily swung the boy up into his arms and carried him to his mother's car.
He knew whatif he went with his knee-jerk reactionhe'd tell the hospital administration about the program: therapy riding posed an imminent danger to patients. He'd seen a youngster miss being trampled by inches. He would not talk about what had happened to his brain when he saw Jessie go into that corral. Time had stopped. That usually only happened during surgery, when everything went away except the small field of skin exposed by draped hospital fabric. When the seconds stretched out, making each of his movements deliberate and slow. Often after surgery, he was surprised by the amount of time that had passed.
"He's going to be okay, right?" Jessie asked as they watched the boy and his mom drive away.
"Yes," he said tightly, not willing to argue with her about safety right now. "What about you? What's up with your knee?"
"Nothing." She shifted, and the silence stretched between them, tense and heated. "I want to invite you to come back another day. Alex is doing really well out here. In fact, so well that he's starting to misbehave because he has the strength and confidence."