Excerpt from CLAIMING THE RANCHER'S HEART

“There’s a whole herd of ‘em.”

Stacie Summers stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and stared. Since arriving in Sweet River, Montana two weeks ago she’d seen an occasional cowboy. But never so many. And never clustered together. “What’s the occasion?”

Anna Anderssen, Stacie’s friend and Sweet River native, came to a halt beside her. “What day is it?”

“Wednesday,” Stacie answered.

“June 2,” Lauren Van Meveren replied. The doctoral student had seemed lost in thought since the three roommates had left Sharon’s Food Mart. But now, standing beside Stacie in the bright sunlight, she couldn’t have been more focused.
Though Lauren would normally be the first to say that staring was rude, she watched the cowboys pile out of the Coffee Pot Café with undisguised interest.

“Wednesday, June 2,” Anna repeated. Her blue eyes narrowed in thought as she pulled a key fob from her pocket and unlocked the Jeep Cherokee parked at the curb.

Stacie shifted the heavy sack of groceries to her other arm, opened the hatch and dropped the bag inside.

“Bingo,” Anna announced with a decisive nod.

“They were playing bingo?” It seemed odd to Stacie that a group of men would gather on a Wednesday morning to play a game. But she’d quickly discovered that Sweet River was its own world.

“No, silly.” Anna giggled. “The Cattleman’s Association meets the first Wednesday of the month.”

While that made more sense than bingo, Stacie wondered what issues such an organization would address. Ann Arbor, where she’d grown up, was hardly a cattleman’s paradise. And in the ten years she’d resided in Denver, not a single cowboy had crossed her path.

When Lauren had proposed moving to Anna’s hometown to research on male-female compatibility for her dissertation, Stacie had tagged along. The search for her perfect job--her bliss--as she liked to call it, wasn’t going well, and a change of scene seemed a good idea. For some reason, she’d thought Sweet River would be like Aspen, one of her favorite towns. She’d expected cute, trendy shops and a plethora of doctors, lawyers and businessmen who enjoyed the great outdoors. Boy, had she been wrong. “I’ve never seen so many guys in boots and hats.”

They were big men with broad shoulders, weathered skin and hair that had never seen a stylist’s touch. Confident men who worked hard and lived life on their own terms. Men who would expect a wife to give up her dreams for life on a ranch.

Though the air outside was warm, Stacie shivered.

Lauren’s eyes took on a distant, almost dreamy look. “Do you know the first cowboys came from Mexico? They were known as vaqueros, the Spanish word for ‘cowboys.’”

Stacie shot a pleading look in Anna’s direction. They needed to stop Lauren before she got rolling. If not, they’d be forced to endure a lecture on the history of the modern cowboy all the way home.

“Get in, Lauren.” Anna gestured to the Jeep. “We don’t want the Rocky Road to melt.”

Though Anna had injected a nice bit of urgency in her voice, Lauren’s gaze remained riveted on the men, dressed in jeans and t-shirts and boots, talking and laughing in deep manly voices.

One guy captured Stacie’s attention. With his jeans, cowboy hat and sun-bronzed skin, he looked like all the others. Yet her gaze had been immediately drawn to him. It must have been because he was talking to Anna’s brother, Seth. There could be no other explanation. A testosterone-rich male had never made it onto her radar before. She liked her men more artsy, preferring the starving poet look over a bulky linebacker any day.

“You know, Stace”, Lauren tapped a finger against her lips. “Something tells me there just may be a cowboy in your future.”

Lauren’s research involved identifying compatible couples and Stacie was Lauren’s first guinea pig, er research subject.

A knot formed in the pit of Stacie’s stomach at the thought of being paired with a ropin’, ridin’ manly man. She sent a quick prayer heavenward. Dear God, please. Anyone but a cowboy.

***

A couple weeks later, Stacie dropped into the high-back

d wicker chair on Anna’s porch, braced for battle. When Lauren had arrived home after an afternoon run, Stacie had told her they needed to talk. She’d stewed in silence about the prospect of match number two long enough.

While she knew it was important for Lauren’s research that she at least meet this guy, it seemed wrong to waste his time. And hers.

Stacie was still formulating the “I’m not interested in a cowboy” speech for Lauren when a cool breeze from the Crazy Mountains ruffled the picture in her hand. She lifted her face, reveling in the feel of mountain air against her cheek. Even after four weeks in Big Sky country, Stacie still found herself awed by the beauty that surrounded her.

She glanced out over the large front yard. Everywhere she looked the land was lush and green. And the flowers…June had barely started and the bluebells, beargrass and Indian paintbrushes were already in riotous bloom.

The screen door clattered shut and Lauren crossed the porch, claiming the chair opposite Stacie. “What’s up?”

Stacie pulled her gaze from the breathtaking scenery to focus on Lauren.

“Your computer hiccupped. It’s the only explanation.” Stacie lifted the picture. “Does he look like my type?”

“If you’re talking about Josh Collins, he’s a nice guy.” Anna stepped onto the wrap around porch of the large two-story and let the door fall shut behind her. “I’ve known him since grade school. He and Seth are best friends.”

Stacie stared in dismay at the teetering tray of drinks Anna was attempting to balance. Lauren, who was closest, jumped up and took the tray with the pitcher of lemonade and three crystal glasses from the brunette. “You’re going to fall and break your neck wearing those shoes.”

“Ask me if I care.” Anna’s gaze dropped to the lime green pointy-toed stilettos. “These are so me.”

“They are cute,” Lauren conceded. Her head cocked to one side. “I wonder if they’d fit me. You and I wear the same size—”

“Hel-lo.” Stacie lifted a hand and waved it wildly. “Remember me? The one facing a date with Mr. Wrong?”

“Calm down.” Lauren poured a glass of lemonade, handed it to Stacie and sat down with a gracefulness Stacie envied. “I don’t make mistakes. If you recall, I gave you a summary of the results. Unless you lied on your survey or he lied on his—you and Josh Collins are very much compatible.”

She wanted to believe her friend. After all, her first match with Big Timber attorney Alexander Darst had been pleasant. Unfortunately there’d been no spark.

Stacie lifted the picture of the rugged rancher and studied it again. Even if he hadn’t been on a horse, even if she hadn’t seen him talking with Seth after the Cattleman’s Association meeting, his hat and boots confirmed her theory about a computer malfunction.

A match between a city girl and a rancher made no sense. Everyone knew city and country were like oil and water, they just didn’t mix.

Sadly, for all her jokes about the process, she was disappointed. She’d hoped to find a summer companion, a renaissance man who shared her love of cooking and the arts.

“He’s a cowboy, Lauren.” Stacie’s voice rose despite her efforts to control it. “A cowboy.”

“You got something against cowboys?”

The deep sexy voice coming from the front steps sent a jolt through Stacie. She dropped the picture to the table, turned in her seat and met an unblinking blue-eyed gaze.

It was him.

She had to admit he looked even better up close. He wore a chambray shirt that made his eyes look strikingly blue and a pair of jeans that hugged his long legs. There was no hat, just lots of thick dark hair brushing his collar. He continued to lazily appraise her. The glint in his eye told her he knew she’d put herself in a hole and was desperately searching for a way to shovel out.

Trouble was she couldn’t count on Lauren, who appeared to be fighting a laugh. Anna, well, Anna just stared expectantly at her, offering no assistance at all.

No, she was definitely on her own.

“Of course I like cowboys,” Stacie said, feeling an urgent need to fill the silence that seemed to go on for hours, but lasted only a few seconds. “Cowboys make the world go round.”

His smile widened to a grin and Lauren laughed aloud. Stacie shot her a censuring look. Granted, her response might not have been the best, but it could have been worse. She’d been caught off guard. Startled. Distracted. By his eyes…and his timing.

Why, oh why, hadn’t she kept her mouth shut?

“Well, I can’t say I recall ever hearing that saying before,” he said smoothly, “but it’s definitely true.”

Okay, so he was also gracious, a quality sadly lacking in most men she’d dated, and one she greatly admired. It was too bad he was not only a cowboy, but so big. He had to be at least six feet two, with broad shoulders and a muscular build. Rugged. Manly. Not her type at all.

Still, when those laughing blue eyes once again settled on her, she shivered. There was keen intelligence in the liquid depths and he exuded a self-confidence that she found appealing. This cowboy was nobody’s fool.

Stacie opened her mouth to ask if he wanted a beer—he didn’t look like a lemonade guy--but Anna spoke first.

“It’s good to see you.” Anna crossed the porch, her heels clacking loudly. When she reached Josh, she wrapped her arms around him. “Thank you for filling out the survey.”

Josh smiled and gave her hair a tug. “Anything for you, Anna Banana.”

Stacie exchanged a glance with Lauren.

“Anna Banana?” Lauren’s lips twitched. “You never told us you had a nickname.”

“Seth gave it to me when I was small,” Anna explained before shifting her attention back to Josh. She wagged a finger at him. “You were supposed to forget that name.”

“I have a good memory.”

Stacie could see the twinkle in his eyes.

”I have a good memory as well,” Anna teased. “I remember Seth telling me you and he preferred the traditional dating route. Yet, you both filled out Lauren’s survey. Why?”

There was a warm, comfortable feel to the interaction between the two. Stacie found herself wondering if Josh and Anna had ever dated. A stab of something she couldn’t quite identify rose up at the thought. It was almost as if she were...jealous? But that would be crazy. She wasn’t interested in Josh Collins, cowboy extraordinaire.

“Seth probably did it because he knew you’d kill him if he didn’t,” Josh explained. “I completed the survey because Seth asked and I owed him a favor.” He shoved his hands into his pocket and rocked back on his heels. “I never expected to get matched.”

He’s no more excited about this date than I am. Stacie pushed back her chair and rose, finding the thought more comforting than disturbing.

“I’ll try to make the evening as painless as possible.” Stacie covered the short distance separating them and held out her hand. “I’m Stacie Summers, your date.”

“I figured as much.” He pulled a hand from his pocket and his fingers covered hers in a warm firm grip. “Josh Collins.”

To Stacie’s surprise a tingle traveled up her arm. She slipped her hand from his, puzzled by the reaction. The cute attorney’s hand had brushed against hers several times during their date and she hadn’t felt a single sizzle.

“Would you care to join us?” Anna asked. “We have fresh squeezed lemonade. And I could bring out the sugar cookies Stacie made this morning.” His easy smile didn’t waver, but something told Stacie he’d rather break a bronc than drink lemonade and eat cookies with three women.

Though several minutes earlier she’d been determined to do whatever it took to cut this date short, she found herself coming to his rescue. “Sorry, Anna. Josh agreed to a date with one woman, not three.”

Lauren rose and stepped forward. “Well, before my roommate steals you away, let me introduce myself. I’m Lauren Van Meveren, the author of the survey you took. I also want to extend my thanks to you for participating. ”

“Pleased to meet you, Lauren.” Josh shook her hand. “Those were some mighty interesting questions.”

Stacie exchanged a glance with Anna. Obviously Josh didn’t realize he was in danger of opening the floodgates. If there was one thing Lauren was passionate about, it was her research.

“I’m working on my doctoral dissertation.” Lauren’s face lit up, the way it always did when anyone expressed interest in her research. “The survey is a tool to gather data which will either support or disprove my research question.”

“Seth mentioned you were working on your PhD,” Josh said. “But when I asked what your research question was, he couldn’t tell me.”

Stacie stifled a groan. The floodgates were now officially open.

Lauren straightened. “You’re familiar with the dissertation process?”

“Somewhat,” he admitted. “My mother is working on her PhD in nursing. I remember what she went through to get her research question approved.”

“Then you do understand.” Lauren gestured to the wicker chair next to hers. “Have a seat. I’ll tell you about my hypothesis.”

“I suggest we all sit down,” Anna said with a smile. “This may take awhile,” she added in a low tone only loud enough for Stacie to hear. Stacie slipped back into the chair she’d vacated moments before. Josh snagged the seat beside her, his attention focused on Lauren. Even if Stacie wanted to save him, it was too late now.

Lauren’s lips tipped up in a satisfied smile. “I was ecstatic when I got my research question approved.”

“And that question is—“ Josh prompted.

Shoot me now, Stacie thought to herself, just put a gun to my head and shoot me.

“Having relevant, personally tailored information about values and characteristics central to interpersonal relationships increases the chance of successful establishment and maintenance of said relationships,” Lauren said without taking a breath. “It’s a concept already embraced by many of the online dating services. But my study focuses more on what goes into a successful relationship rather than a love match.”

“Very interesting,” Josh said, sounding surprisingly sincere.

“What made you decide to do the research here?”

“Anna suggested I consider it—”

“I told her about all the single men.” Anna poured a glass of lemonade and handed it to Josh. “And that I had a house where she could stay rent free. I decided to come along since there was nothing keeping me in Denver.”

Josh shifted his attention to Anna. “Seth mentioned you lost your job.”

“My employer was supposed to sell me her boutique.” Anna took the last seat at the table. “Instead, she sold it to someone else.”

Josh shook his head, sympathy in his eyes. “That sucks.”

“Tell me about it,” Anna said with a sigh.

The handsome cowboy seemed to be getting along so well with her roommates that Stacie wondered if anyone would notice if she got up and left. When her gaze returned to the table, she found Josh staring.

“It’s been great catching up.” He drained his glass of lemonade. “But Stacie and I should get going.”

He stood and Stacie automatically rose to her feet. No matter how mismatched they were, going with him seemed a better option than staying and talking research with Lauren or rehashing job disappointments with Anna.

Josh followed her to the steps. Though he’d given her a quick once over when he’d first arrived, she caught him casting surreptitious glances her way.

If the look in his eye was any indication, her khaki capris and pink cotton shirt met with his approval. Stacie felt the tension in her shoulders begin to ease. Anna had said he was a nice guy and his interactions with her roommates had shown that to be true.

There was certainly no need to be stressed. But when she started chattering about the weather, Stacie realized her nerves were still on high alert. Dear God, who talked about weather on a first date?

But if Josh found the topic unusual, he didn’t show it. In fact he seemed more than willing to talk about the lack of rain the area had been experiencing. Apparently moisture was needed to prevent summer forest fires. He’d just started telling her about a particularly bad fire near Big Timber a couple years earlier, when they reached his black 4x4.

He reached around her to open the door. When she stepped forward, he offered her a hand up into the vehicle.

“Thank you, Josh.”

“My pleasure.” He coupled the words with an easy smile.

Her heart skipped a beat. She didn’t know why she was so charmed. Maybe it was because Mr. Big Timber attorney had gotten an F in the manners department. He hadn’t opened a single door for her or even asked what movie she wanted to see. Instead they’d watched an action flick he’d chosen.

Josh, on the other hand, not only opened the door without being asked, he waited until she was settled inside the truck before shutting the door and rounding the front of the vehicle.

She watched him through the window, admiring his sure, purposeful stride. The cowboy exhibited a confidence that many women would find appealing. But as he slid into the driver’s seat, her attention was drawn to the rifle hanging in the window behind her head. Her earlier reservations flooded back.
But how did she tell this nice guy that he wasn’t her type?

“I can’t get used to how flat the streets are,” she said, buying herself some time. “When Anna talked about her hometown, I pictured a town high in the mountains, not one in a valley.”

“It can be disappointing when things aren’t what we expect,” he said in an even tone.

“Not always.” Stacie’s gaze met his. “The unexpected can often be a pleasant surprise.”

They drove in silence for several seconds.

“Did you know I’m psychic?”

She shifted in the seat to face him. “You are?”

“My powers,” he continued, “are sending me a strong message.”

“What’s the message?” Stacie didn’t know much about paranormal stuff, but she was curious. “What are your powers telling you?”

“You really want to know?” Josh’s blue eyes looked almost black in the shadows of the truck’s cab.

“Absolutely,” Stacie said.

He stared unblinking. “They’re telling me you don’t want to be doing this.”

Stacie stilled and for a moment, forgot how to breathe. She adjusted her seatbelt, not wanting to be rude and agree, but hating to lie. “What makes you say that?”

“For starters, what you said about cowboys.” His smile took any censure from the words. “That coupled with the look in your eye when you first saw me.”

Though he gave no indication she’d hurt his feelings, she knew she had and her heart twisted at the realization. “You seem very nice,” she said softly. “It’s just that I’ve always been attracted to a different kind of man.”

His dark brows pulled together and she could see the puzzlement in his eyes. “There’s more than one kind?”

“You know,” she stumbled over her words as she tried to explain. “Guys who like to shop and go to the theater. A metrosexual kind of guy.”

“You like feminine men?”

She laughed at the shock he tried so hard to hide. “Not feminine…just more sensitive.”

“And cowboys aren’t sensitive?”

“No, they aren’t,” Stacie said immediately then paused. “Are they?”

“Not really.” Josh lifted a shoulder. “Not the ones I know, anyway.”

“That’s what I thought,” Stacie said with a sigh, wondering why she felt disappointed when the answer was just what she’d expected.

“So what you’re saying is this match stands no chance of success,” Josh said.

Stacie hesitated. To be fair she should give him a shot. But wouldn’t that be only postponing the inevitable? Still there was something about this cowboy…

Cowboy. The word hit her like a splash of cold water.

“No chance,” Stacie said firmly.

Josh’s gaze searched her face and she could feel her face heat beneath the probing glance.

“I appreciate the honesty,” he said at last, his face showing no emotion. “For a second I thought you might disagree. Crazy, huh?”

This cowboy saw, Stacie decided, way too much. For a second she had been tempted to argue…until she’d come to her senses. Josh might be gentlemanly and have the bluest eyes she’d ever seen, but the bottom line was, they were too different.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t be friends,” Stacie said. “Of course, you probably have plenty of friends.”

“None as pretty as you,” he said. He cleared his throat and slowed the truck to a crawl as they entered the business district. “If you’re hungry we can grab a bite. Or I can show you the sites and give you some Sweet River history.”

Stacie pondered the options. She wasn’t in the mood to return to the house or to eat. Though Anna had given both her and Lauren a tour when they’d first moved to Sweet River, she didn’t remember much of the town’s history.

“Or I can take you home,” he added.

“Not home.” She immediately dismissed that option. Since they’d cleared the air, there was no reason they couldn’t enjoy the evening. “How about you do the tour guide thing? Then, if we feel like it, we can eat.”

“Tour guide it is.”

They cruised slowly through the small business district with the windows down. She learned the corner restaurant had once been a bank and that the food mart had been resurrected by a woman who’d moved back to Sweet River after her husband died. His was an interesting and informative travelogue, interspersed with touches of humor and stories from the past. “…and then Pastor Barbee told Anna he didn’t care if she dressed it like a baby, she couldn’t bring a lamb to church.”

Laughter bubbled up inside Stacie and spilled from her lips.

“I can’t believe Anna had a lamb for a pet.” She couldn’t keep a touch of envy from her voice. “My parents wouldn’t even let me have a dog.”

He looked at her in surprise. “You like dogs?”

“Love ‘em.”

“Me, too.” He chuckled. “I better…I’ve got seven.”

Stacie raised a brow. “Seven?”
“Yep.”

She marveled that he could look so serious when telling such a tall tale.

“Wow, we have so much in common.” Stacie deliberately widened her eyes. “You have seven dogs. I have seven pink ostriches.”

Josh cast her a startled glance. “I’m serious.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Okay, one dog and six pups,” he clarified. “Bert, my Blue Heeler, had puppies eight weeks ago.”

He seemed sincere but something still wasn’t making sense. “Did you say Bert had puppies?”

“Her given name is Birdie.” The look on his face told her what he thought of that name. “My mother chose it because Bert loves to chase anything with wings.”

Stacie laughed. “I bet they’re cute. The puppies, I mean.”

“Want to see them?”

She straightened in her seat. “Could I?”

“If you don’t mind a road trip,” he said in a casual tone. “My ranch is forty miles from here.”

He was letting her know that if she agreed, they’d be spending most of the evening together. And he was giving her an out. But Stacie didn’t hesitate. She adored puppies. And she was enjoying this time with Josh.

“It’s a beautiful day,” Stacie said, not even glancing at the sky. “Perfect for a drive.”

“Don’t give me that,” he said, a smile returning to his face.

“I’ve got your number. You don’t care about the drive. Or the weather. This is all about the dogs.”

“Na uh.” Stacie tried to keep a straight face but couldn’t keep from laughing.

He did have her number. And she hoped this was all about the dogs. Because if it wasn’t, she was in big trouble.

 

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