When Mack Cash's mysterious one-night stand shows up at the dude ranch where he works, he is stunned. And just as he suspected during their night together, Beth Richards is no buckle bunny, despite the getup she was wearing. Instead, she's just the kind of woman he's looking forsexy, sure, but also down-home and whip-smart.
Mack's obvious attraction is just the boost Beth was looking for after a hurtful divorce. She loves the way he looks at herand sees her. Except for one thing. He wants a family, and Beth can only disappoint him. She's already failed at love once and she can't go through it again. That's why she has to let Mack go .
About the Author
Award winning author Marin Thomas writes western romances for Harlequin and Tule Publishing Group as well as women's fiction for Berkley Books. She graduated from the University of Arizona and she and her husband live in Phoenix. When not writing she spends her free time junk hunting and researching ghost tours. Learn more about Marin's books at www.marinthomas.com or sign up for her newsletter at http://bit.ly/MarinThomasUpdates.
Read an Excerpt
"Damned tractor broke down again." Mack's brother Conway entered the bunkhouse and removed a bottled water from the fridge.
"Thought you finished harvesting the pecans last week," Porter said.
"I've got a few acres left." Conway nodded to Mack, juggling fruit. "What's he up to?"
"Merle Haggard is getting ready to run off and join the circus."
"Real funny." Mack caught the pieces of fruit and glared at his brothers. If he wasn't tied in knots over Just Beth he might challenge Porter to a scuffle after being called by his proper name.
Grandma Ada had insisted that their mother name all her sons after country-and-western legends because she loved their music. Mack didn't buy the story. No matter what any of his siblings thought, he believed his mother had been dropped on her head as a baby, leaving her judgment permanently impaired. He and his brother Willie Nelson had taken nicknames after they'd entered kindergarten, and the teasing led to playground fights and weekly trips to the principal's office.
"Can you guys be serious for a minute?" Mack asked.
"Sure," his brothers answered in unison.
Porter Wagoner was still single like Mack, and Con-way Twitty, who everyone had believed would remain single the longest, had been the second Cash brother to marry. He was already the father of six-year-old twins with another set on the way early next month. Maybe Mack should talk to his eldest brother, who always gave sound advice. "Never mind. I'll stop by Johnny's before I head out of town."
"Johnny and Shannon are in Payson at a rodeo," Con-way said. "They took little Addy up there to show her off to Shannon's friends."
Fine. "You guys ever have a one-night stand with a woman you could swear isn't a one-night-stand woman?"
The brothers exchanged puzzled glances then Porter spoke. "What are you talking about?"
Mack set the apples and orange in a bowl and paced in front of the TV. "I met this woman at the Number 10 Saloon last month before Christmas when the band was playing a gig there."
"And you went back to her place after the bar closed," Porter said.
"Am I telling this story or are you?" Mack asked.
Porter held up his hands. "Sorry."
"So we make eye contact and" Mack pointed his finger when Porter opened his mouth "the sparks are there. We go to a motel"
"Which one?" Conway asked.
"Does it matter?" Mack scowled. "We're at the motel and while we're becoming acquainted and stuff, I get this feeling that she's not really who she is. You know what I mean?"
"No," his brothers echoed.
Frustrated, Mack shoved his fingers through his hair. "She dressed like a buckle bunny, but she drank red wine." And she drove a Lexus.
"I've never dated a girl who liked wine," Porter said.
Conway scrunched his brow. "Come to think of it, neither have I. The girls I dated drank beer."
"Did you search for her on Google?" Porter asked.
"I'm not a stalker," Mack said.
"What's her name?" Porter asked. "Maybe I know her."
Porter and Conway exchanged glances. "Did you get her number?" Conway asked.
Mack's face burned and Porter hooted. "She wouldn't give you her number, would she?"
"There are hundreds of women who'd fall all over themselves to date a musician," Conway said. "Why are you preoccupied with a one-night stand?"
Mack opened his mouth then thought twice about telling his brothers the truththey'd laugh him out of the bunkhouse. "Never mind." He grabbed the duffel bag he'd filled with clean clothes. "I'd better get going."
"Isi's put a roast in the oven," Conway said. "Stay for supper. The twins would love to throw the football with you."
That was another thing that bugged Mackhis sister-in-law had taken the last single Cash brothers under her wing after Buck had married Destiny and moved to Lizard Gulch. When Mack had learned that Isi had lost her brothers at a young age, he'd grudgingly accepted her hovering. Meddling women aside, the dude ranch was an hour's drive from the farm, and there was nothing between here and there but a dilapidated ice house that sold year-old beer and stale snacks. "I guess I could eat before I take off."
"Good." Conway headed for the door. "Porter, you're washing the dishes tonight."
"What are you going to do?" Porter trailed Conway outside.
"Work on the tractor."
"You're always tinkering with the tractor." Porter's voice filtered through the open windows. "I don't think there's a damn thing wrong with the engine. You just don't like doing household chores."
"You ever try to help a woman who's eight months pregnant?" Conway's voice began to fade. "It's like facing a charging bull "
Once his brothers were out of earshot, Mack closed his eyes and envisioned his body entwined with Beth's. He'd had a one-night stand with a woman named Just Beth at the El Rancho Motel.
There was no doubt in his mind that he'd pleased Beth, but there had been something off about her behavioralmost as if going to a motel with a man had been a first for her. When she'd snuggled against his side after they'd made love, he'd wondered if maybe he was ready to settle down.
Except Beth wasn't what he was looking for in a wifehe wanted a girl-next-door type. She was a woman who went to a motel with a man she'd met only hours earlier. Before he'd fallen asleep, he'd asked for her number but she'd refused to give it to hima first for him. Her rejection had left him with an uncomfortable feeling in his gut.
Why the heck did it bother him that Beth didn't want to see him again? Was he losing his touch with the ladies? Mack popped off the bed, took his duffel and left the bunkhouse.
"Uncle Mack!" Conway's son Javier raced toward him, his brother, Miguel, hot on his heels.
Mack set the bag in the truck bed. "Where's Bandit?" Mack scanned the yard but the dog was nowhere in sight.
"He's in the house." Javier squeezed Mack's thigh. "How come you're never here anymore?"
He ruffled the dark mop of hair. "'Cause my job is far away." He broke free, walked over to the porch steps and picked up the Nerf football. "Who wants the first pass?" Before he had his arm cocked to throw, Miguel took off. He tossed the ball, but the kid missed.
"Javi's up next, Mig."
"Don't throw it too hard, Uncle Mack." The boy ran with his head downan athlete he was not.
"Here it comes, Javi!" The ball smacked him in the chest, knocking him to the ground. Mack hurried across the yard, worried he'd hurt his nephew. "You okay, Javi?"
"I think so."
"Hey, Javi" Miguel sat next to his brother "you almost caught that."
"I know." Javi got to his feet and the brothers exchanged a silent message.
Mack glanced between the boys. "What's going on?"
Mig nodded to Javi then both boys tackled Mack to the ground. A scuffle ensued and they rolled in the dirt, laughing. Mack made a big show of accepting defeat, and the boys straddled his chest and pumped their fists in the air.
The porch door opened, and Conway hollered for them to come eat. The twins scampered away, leaving Mack staring at the blue sky. He and his siblings had grown up without fatherstheir grandfather had been their only male role model. Mack had been surprised when his brothers had begun having babies of their own, but after watching Johnny, Conway and Will interact with their kids, Mack had decided just because his father had wanted nothing to do with him didn't mean he couldn't be a good father himself.
He crawled off the ground and brushed at his clothes. Time to quit moping over Just Beth. January had ushered in a New Year and a new resolution to refocus his efforts on finding a woman he could build a life with.
"I hope these accommodations work for you, Beth." Dave Paxton, the owner of the Black Jack Mountain Dude Ranch twirled his cowboy hat on his finger and tapped the toe of his boot against the tile floor Monday afternoon.
"This will do fine, Mr. Paxton. I appreciate you letting me stay here until I figure out what to do." The ranch owner and Beth's father had been former college roommates at Sacramento State.
"Call me Dave." He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry to hear about your divorce. I doubt your father's too pleased with Brad."
"Actually, Mr I mean, Dave." She dropped her gaze, hating herself for feeling embarrassed when she had nothing to be ashamed ofshe hadn't done the cheating. "I haven't told my parents yet."
Beth didn't know if her father had told Dave about her mother's breast cancer scare, so she didn't go into detail. "Mom's been having a few health issues lately and I'm waiting for the right time to tell her."
"I hope she's okay."
"She's doing fine now." Beth's mother had two biopsies and had finished radiation treatment right after Thanksgiving. With her mom still weak from treatment, Beth had wanted to wait until she was stronger before spilling the beans about her failed marriage.
"Your parents have no idea you're staying at the ranch." It was a statement, not a question.
"Once I figure things out, I'll make a trip home and talk to them." It was the second week of January and she hoped to decide on a game plan for her future by the end of the month. "I'm more than happy to pay for the use of my cabin."
"I don't want your money, but there is a favor you can do for me while you're here."
"I'd like you to take a look at my retirement portfolio. It hasn't made as much money as I'd hoped the past few years, and I'm wondering if I need to change investment firms."
"I'd be more than happy to give you my opinion."
His silver head bobbed. "Good." He grew quiet, his attention drawn to the window. The ranch owner had been distracted from the moment Beth had arrived.
"Is there something the matter?" she asked.
"Millie walked off the job a few days ago."
"The housekeeper." His face turned ruddy. "Millie and I have been courting for about a year."
His fingers tightened against the brim of his hat. "We've had disagreements before but it's not like her to leave me high and dry."
The ranch housekeeper hadn't been the only one left high and dry. Beth's home had sold within a week of going on the market in mid-December, and she'd had to scramble to put her belongings in storage and find a place to live. Not only had she been forced out of her home, but she'd been forced out of her job. She hadn't been fired, but how on earth could she work for the woman who was about to give birth any day to her ex-husband's baby?
Needing a temporary place to live and lick her wounds, Beth had perused apartment listings when she'd remembered that her father's college buddy managed a dude ranch. Her parents had visited the retreat in the past but Beth had never gone along with themhorseback riding wasn't her thingbut a ranch was the perfect place to hole up and not have to worry about running into her ex and former boss while she contemplated her future. Besides, if she'd remained in town, she'd have been tempted to drop in at the Number 10 Saloon and ask Mack Cash if he was up for a second go-round with her.
"You're frowning," Dave said. "Don't you like your accommodations?"
"No, the cabin is perfect." The place had all the essentialsa TV, queen-size bed, love seat, chair and a private bathroom. The best part of the cabin was the covered porch that offered a stunning view of Black Jack Canyon. "If you don't hear from Millie soon, what will you do?"
"Start interviewing new housekeepers." He walked to the door. "C'mon, I'll show you the rest of the place."
Unpacking would have to wait. She left her purse on the bed next to the suitcase then locked the cabin door and accompanied Dave along the stone path that broke off from the main walkway used by the guests. "How many employees do you have?"
"Two full-time workers and three part-time. You'll meet them at supper." He glanced at Beth. "You're welcome to take your meals in your cabin, but the cowboys are expected to eat with our guests." Dave smiled. "Folks like to listen to their tall tales."
Cowboys. Beth would never hear that word again without thinking of Mack. Even nowthirty-four days after their night at the El Rancho Motelshe couldn't get his image out of her head. She didn't understand how a few hours with an almost complete stranger had left a lasting impression on her. First on the get-her-life-back-inorder list was to forget Mack.
Dave stopped at the adobe cantina and held the door open for her. "This used to be an old mission outpost for Jesuit priests several centuries ago."
Beth spun in a slow circle, taking in the plastered walls and dark wooden beams crisscrossing the ceiling. A large fireplace took up a good portion of the room and resting on its mantel were portraits of Spanish matadors. A pair of sofas and chairs covered in cowhide sat near the fireplace. "It's beautiful."
"This was the main room of the mission. The third owners of the guest ranch converted it into a saloon and a dance hall."
"Wow, this place is full of history."
"There's information about the ranch in the guest packet in your cabin."
"How many owners has the ranch had?" Beth asked.
"Seven. The land that the ranch sits on used to be part of a three-million-acre grant from the King of Spain to the Ortiz brothers of Mexico."
"How long ago was that?"
"1812. The Gadsden Purchase was signed in 1854, determining the border between Mexico and the United States and the ranch fell inside the U.S. boundaries."
"Who got the land after that?" she asked.
"Former Union Colonel William Sturgis bought the property and renovated the mission. When the Mexican Revolution came, Pancho Villa fired on the main house."
"By main house you mean the building with the lobby and dining room?"
He nodded. "You'll see the cannonball embedded in the stucco wall when we go inside the building."
She wandered closer to the bar and ran her hand over the horse-saddle seats. "Cute idea for stools."
"There have been a lot of famous guests at this ranch over the years."
"Politicians or actors?"
"A few of both. Author Margaret Mitchell wintered at the ranch and Zane Gray also wrote here."
Beth found the information fascinating. "Any presidents?"
"Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. We've had a couple of ranch guests through the years report seeing an apparition in this room. You'll let me know if you spot one, won't you?"
"I don't believe in ghosts," she said. Seriouslyshe majored in business and math in college. She possessed an analytical brain. Logic, not emotion, ruled her actions and decisions, which was probably why she couldn't put her night with Mack behind her. She'd acted out of characternormally she dealt with facts not feelingsbut the country-western singer had broken down her barriers and reached a touchy-feely place inside her that she hadn't known existed.
"We're empty right now, but we're full up on the weekend." He walked to the door. "Be sure to take advantage of your stay and go horseback riding."
"I've never been horseback riding."
When they stepped outside, Dave said, "One of our trail hands will give you lessons."
Beth couldn't imagine herself riding a horse. Then again she'd never envisioned herself entering a motel room with a stranger.
There was a first time for everything.