“Like I just told you, ma'am,” Stoney Buxton said, glancing up through squinted eyes at the fair-skinned woman standing over him. “I’m a rancher. I don't do wilderness tours. You'll just have to find someone else to guide you through that terrain.”
Though the sun floating in the cloudless sky in front of him made it difficult to see, he tipped the brim of his well-worn cowboy hat with the edge of the hammer he gripped between his fingers to get a better look at the young woman.
Now what in hell’s blazes is this?
She stood there, all legs, eyes, and lips pouting down at him. A picture of beauty, polished and gleaming like Sunday silver. Her long legs--he noticed every inch of them as his eyes trailed the length of her--would do better wrapped around a man's waist. Even hidden beneath her smooth fitting jeans he could tell those legs were much too refined and delicate to take the hard living of trailing through Wyoming wilderness. Her red manicured nails shone bright in the mid-day sun and matched the vibrant shade of her full lips. Her eyes, a soft shade of cinnamon brown, held a determined fire that told him she wasn't going to back down, no matter what he threw at her.
Something was seriously wrong with this picture.
“Gerald Hammond from the General Store said that you were the best guide in the area. I want the best.”
He saw her jaw set as a gentle breeze blew a wisp of hair over her forehead. She quickly brushed it away with an air of grace that spoke of money. Lots of it. Family money that paid for the designer clothes caressing every curve and valley of her body.
Pulling himself up to a stand, he stretched out the ache in his leg and his shoulder. That nagging ache was a constant reminder of the long days he now spent working the family ranch. And why he'd quit rodeo over a year ago.
“Old man Hammond said that, did he?”
“Well, he was mistaken. There are plenty of guides on the reservation that can take you safely through the Wind River Mountain Range.”
Her chest heaved with an impatient sigh. “Yes, I know. But I need something a little more than what they’re offering. Much more, in fact.”
She didn't blink, even when he shifted closer. He had to admire that she didn’t appear intimidated by him, seeing how he stood a good ten inches taller than her. Lord, but she smelled good, all sunshine and fresh rain mixed with a hint of vanilla. Bailing hay and stringing barbed wire didn’t afford him much opportunity to be in the company the likes of this pretty little eyeful standing before him. It was just one more thing to remind him of what he was missing now that he was off the road and home for good.
“I don't think you understand, Miss...?” He flipped his hand, palm up and waited for her reply.
“Ms. Summers. Melanie Summers. And I understand perfectly. I understand that I am in need of a guide for the next four weeks.” She sucked in a deep breath as he moved a step closer.
“What you're asking for is impossible at best.” He shook his head at the absurdity of her request. “Have you ever been in the wilderness? Have you ever even saddled a horse?”
She lifted her chin defiantly, the spark in her soft brown eyes fired up like the heat of the sun beating down on them. Her voice was sure. “I know perfectly well how to ride, Mr. Buxton.”
“I'm not talking equestrian jumps that a poodle could land at the country club. I'm talking wild terrain where you are no better than the animals that consider you their prey. Have you ever had eight hundred pounds of snarling grizzly breathing down your neck? Ever felt a hungry mountain lion's eyes on your back as she stalks you?”
She gasped softly, a small flash of uncertainty creeping into her sun filled eyes.
Stoney sputtered. “Just as I thought. Lady, roughing it isn't staying at the local motor lodge-”
Her eyes flew open in sudden surprise. “Wait a minute. The local motor lodge? My father got to you.” She said the words as a statement, he noticed, as if she was already convinced that it was fact.
Stoney arched an eyebrow.
“This just stinks!” Balling her fists, she spun on her heels, muttering something unladylike under her breath as she took a few steps along the corral he'd been repairing in the feed yard. Her soft red cotton shirt clung to her back, defining the lines of her slender figure as she took each labored breath. He couldn’t help but wonder how it would feel to run his hand along her small back.
As she turned to face him again, he saw that her determined fire was back. “No matter. This isn't between you and my father; it's between you and me. If you're holding out for more money, then fine. Whatever it is that he promised you for turning me away, I'll top in return for getting me safely through the next month.”
“Look, lady, I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about. But my refusal has nothing to do with money.”
She cocked her head in disbelief. Her anger had vanished with the dust and was replaced with blue-blooded charm. “Oh, it’s always about money, isn't it?”
His jaw tightened. Yes, there was something definitely wrong here. And money had nothing to do with it. It had everything to do with this beauty standing in front of him, who was clueless about what she was getting her pretty little hide into. “No,” he replied tersely.
“Mr. Buxton, I need your help.”
“Tourist season is in full swing. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding someone else.”
He turned his back to her and began walking along the fence toward the barn, almost forgetting... Abruptly, he glanced up and saw the charred remains of the barn. The place where all his troubles had started just one year ago. It hadn't taken but a second for him to hear her boots digging into the dusty gravel behind him, jarring him from his thoughts.
“Then I'll do it myself,” she said to his back.
His whole body stiffened. He angled back to read her face, to see if she was just being a spoiled rotten rich kid, trying to get her way, or if she was actually serious. Seeing her head held high and her arms crossed in front of her, he realized she was dead serious.
And dead she'd be if she stepped one boot into those mountains alone.
“You'll do no such thing.” Frustration flaring, he lifted his dusty hat and forced his fingers through the thick crop of black hair before returning the hat to his head. “You just don't get it, do you? You're not asking me to take you on a theme park ride where you'll get to see the wonders of the world at a nice safe distance. This is God's country. The creatures that live up there don't know civilization, and you are no better than them. You could--probably will--get killed if you go out there alone.” His lips twitched, taking a good long appraising look at the woman in front of him. “You might even chip a nail on that pretty hand of yours.”
The condescending bastard! Melanie fumed inwardly. If there was one thing she didn’t need right now was an overblown ego for a guide. Unfortunately, she knew it was foolish to venture out in the wilderness on her own, given her medical needs. She exhaled, feeling a prickly heat, caused by the sun and jet lag, settle along her spine. “I’m not exactly a babe in the woods, Mr. Buxton. In fact, I probably know more about those wild animals you fear will eat me alive than you do.”
He tilted an eyebrow. “Oh, really?”
Okay, he was kind of cute, she admitted to herself, in a primitive sort of way. She probably would have thought more about it if he didn’t smell so much like a barnyard. Lord only knew how long he’d been baking out in the sun, gaining steam. But then again, cowboys in the rough and tough real world held little resemblance to the glamour that Hollywood gave them. “I’m a zoologist. I’ve studied all about animals and the wilderness-”
“Yes, but have you ever ridden that kind of terrain before? Met the beast face to face?”
He had her there. The only beast she’d ever encountered was him! Leading the sheltered life she had--albeit with protest--she hadn’t had the chance to venture into anything more dangerous than a walk through the Bronx Zoo. But she was determined to change that starting now. The deal she’d made with her father held only one requirement. She needed to stay one month in the wilderness, and he’d keep the funding for the Kenya project alive. Now that her dreams were within reaching distance, she wasn’t going to let some arrogant cowboy keep her down.
She answered honestly, with reluctance. “No.”
His mouth twitched, then gave her a half grin that made her insides stir and her mouth go dry. “Just as I thought.”
“But that doesn’t mean--”
“After I’m done here, there’s a long line of fence to repair before the weekend, Ms. Summer. I don’t have the time to waste baby-sitting some city girl with romantic notions about experiencing the wilderness. I’ve got work to do.”
Her blood burned through her veins. His dismissal of her may have signified the end of the conversation to him, but she was far from through with this overbearing cowboy.
Melanie followed his skinny little butt past the corral and all the way down a row of barbed wire rolled out on the ground along the fence, ignoring the reason she’d taken notice of his behind at all. “So do I. That’s why I need to hire you.”
He stopped short, and she almost plowed right into his back. Dust from the ground heaved up in a cloud, choking her. He twisted around and with his hard body mere inches from her, she had to crane her neck to look up at his face.
Immediately, she was sorry she’d taken a closer look. His rugged good looks and appeal were all too evident now. His shoulders seemed as wide as he was tall, giving him the kind of strength and power that had a woman longing to be wrapped in his arms. His thick dark hair, sweaty from working in the heat of the sun, curled around the edges of his cowboy hat. His features were sharply defined and his jaw was square. Although he’d yet to give up more than a quirk of a smile, she had the feeling that deep dimples marked his cheeks when he laughed.
He touched his hat by the brim and adjusted it on his head. “Look, there are more than a handful of outfitters in this territory. Any one of them would be more than willing to give you what you need for the right price.”
Sure they would, Melanie groaned inwardly. And then all it would take would be a quick phone call from her father, promising a hefty deposit to the bank account of their choice and the deal would be over. She’d be on a plane back to Long Island before her lipstick wore off her mouth.
No, she needed Stoney Buxton. From what Gerald Hammond had said, he was good on a horse and solid in the range. Most of all, he was invisible. No matter how hard her father tried or what kind of money he tossed around, he’d never find Stoney Buxton. That was the only way she’d get a fair shot at proving herself.
Melanie snapped her gaze back toward the house on the opposite side of the corral with the sound of the screen door slamming. On the front porch she saw a man sitting tall in a wheelchair, glaring down at Stoney. “What in tarnation has got hold of you, son? Why don’t you bring the girl in for a drink of something cool? Don’t leave her baking out there with the animals.”
“That’s what she wants,” she heard Stoney mumble under his breath. When she glanced up, his dark blue eyes met hers, and he grew flush. “Leave it to Pop to keep me in my manners. I’m sure Ma saw your car drive in and has something already set out for company. That is if you’d like something.”
Well at least she wasn’t getting hauled off the ranch like she’d suspected she would. It gave her more time to work on convincing Stoney to take her up on her offer. “That would be nice.”
They walked to the small farmhouse in silence. When she’d arrived, she’d noticed the ranch was smaller than some of the others she’d passed in the area. But the farmhouse had a nice welcome feel about it that put her at ease. She hadn’t noticed the ramp leading up to the front entrance when she’d pulled onto the property earlier. Stoney had been working by the corral, and she’d zeroed in on him as the point of contact.
A woman Melanie guessed to be Stoney’s mother greeted them at the door and welcomed her with a wide smile. Melanie suddenly felt completely out of place in a world she’d never known. The house was simply decorated with a mix of Indian rugs, beaded crafts and old furniture that had seen years of wear. As simple as the home appeared, with its lace drapes and braided rugs, it felt warm and cozy, like the Velveteen Rabbit who’d been loved a lot. A lump formed deep in her throat and she didn’t know why.
“My name is Adele,” the woman said warmly.
“It’s nice to meet you and...” Melanie swung around to greet the man in the wheelchair. She was caught by his overt appraisal of her, not quite sure it she met with approval or with censure.
“Wally Buxton,” he said, finally rewarding her with a wide smile, revealing deep dimples. Melanie returned the smile, again wondering if Stoney had inherited the same gene.
“It’s nice to meet you.”
Stoney stood at the kitchen door, filling it completely with his height and bulk, holding his hat in one hand, his hammer in the other. “Well, if it’s all the same to you, I’ve got some barbed wire that’s been needing my attention.” He put on his black hat and tipped it cordially before spinning through the door. Adele did nothing to hide the disappointment of his dismissal. Melanie fought to keep hers in check.
“Why don’t you come into the dining room?”
Still looking at the empty doorway, she said, “I don’t want to be any trouble.”
“Oh, don’t be silly. It’s no trouble at all. I rather enjoy having the company. Since my daughter, Delia, got married and moved away, I don’t get the opportunity to entertain much, except for these sweaty cowboys and they’re not fit to be in my dining room half the time.”
Melanie was raised with the finest that life had to offer. That included attending the best finishing schools that had groomed her to polish and shine herself for the world to see. What was expected of her all her life and given her parents pride at the many social functions she was forced to attend had always been the bane of Melanie’s existence. Still, in unpretentious company, she was glad her good manners and grace were something she could draw on to put her hostess at ease. She only hoped that when she was finished visiting with Stoney’s mother, Stoney himself would still be around for her to deal with on her own terms.
* * *
Stoney shook out the pain in his throbbing thumb for the second time in the last fifteen minutes. Damn that hammer. Damn the fence. Damn Melanie Summers for showing up here, flashing easy money around as if he was some mongrel sniffing for tidbits.
He tossed the hammer to the ground and inspected the raw skin on his thumb. No doubt the nail would be black and purple by nightfall. Serves him right for thinking about Melanie sitting with his mom, no doubt telling her things a mother wants to hear. He had a hard enough time trying to convince his folks his decision to go back to rodeo was good for the ranch. He didn’t need the likes of some city princess to do in all his hard work.
He heard the familiar sound of his father’s wheelchair rolling over gravel and swung around to greet him.
“Almost done?” the elder Buxton asked.
“Done breaking my hand, if that’s what you mean.” He shook out the lingering throb in his thumb. “I still have the section of fence in the far side where the herd broke through yesterday. There’s nothing but that old broken tree limb propped up, keeping most of the cattle inside the property line. After I’m through, I’ll take a ride out to see if I can round up the strays.”
He finally stole a quick glance at his father, who was just sitting in his chair, nodding his head. No outward emotion registered on his father’s face, but Stoney knew it was there, buried somewhere, eating at him.
Before the accident, it would have been the two of them riding out together. But since a falling beam that struck him during the barn fire left him without the use of his legs, Wally Buxton was limited to what he could do at the ranch from the confines of his motorized wheelchair. Knowing his father’s spirit would be broken if he couldn’t do anything but watch from the porch as he worked the ranch, Stoney had constructed as many wheelchair friendly devices to allow his father to work his ranch. Given his father’s determination and stubbornness--something both father and son shared--he’d made the best of it without much of a fuss. Still, there were times when his injuries were all too apparent and confining.
“I’m assuming the lady has some business with you,” Wally said, eyeing Stoney with amusement. “You know her from the circuit?”
“Does she look like the kind that hangs at a cowboy bar?”
“No, but I can’t figure how you’d meet up with a girl like her otherwise.”
He tossed his father a wry grin. “Thanks a lot, Pop.”
“She’s got some accent. Sounds like she’s from the East.”
“I didn’t ask.”
“But you’re wondering. I can tell. You’ve got Buxton blood running too strong through your veins not to notice a pretty thing like her.”
“And Mom’s no doubt pouring tea and planning my wedding, right?”
Wally laughed hard. “When was the last time you brought a woman out to the ranch for your momma to meet?”
“Never. And I’d like to keep it that way.” Stoney couldn’t help but laugh himself. The kind of woman he’d met during his time with the rodeo weren’t fit for meeting mother.
Buckle bunnies. That’s what some of the other cowboys called them. It was almost his due as a bull rider to have the prettiest offerings, and he’d taken what was offered when the time seemed right. No promises. No talks of commitment. It was the way it was.
It was the way he liked it.
Stoney watched as Wally stared out at the horizon for a moment, looking at the line of fence that bordered the property. This was the ranch he’d grown up on and his father before him. It was small in comparison to some of the other ranches in the area, but it earned them a good living, and it made them happy. Working together, they’d worked on expanding the ranch before the barn fire changed everything. But all those dreams died when the barn went up in flames.
“You going to tell me what her business is here?” Wally finally asked. “Or is she some well-kept secret?”
Stoney began hammering away at the barbed wire against the stake. “She wants a trail guide through the Wind River Mountains. I told her to go to the reservation.”
There was a silence made unbearable by the sun beating down on him, showing no mercy. And Stoney knew what his father was wondering. How on earth had she landed here?
Stoney answered his unspoken question, finding it hard to look his father in the eye. “Gerald Hammond sent her.”
There was another strained silence. Wally cleared his throat. “That was kind of him to be thinking of us.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I don’t have time for this. I’ve got too much work and with Mitch gone and...” Stoney blew out a frustrated breath and hammered with more force than necessary.
“Hammond must have thought it would be worth your while if he went out of his way to send the girl here.”
Stoney stilled. He knew exactly what was on his father’s mind. Medical bills left in the wake of Wally’s injuries threatened to take hold. Although the money Melanie was offering to pay for his services would go a long way toward bailing out the ranch, it still wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough. He’d weighed all their options, run the numbers backwards and forwards until his head hurt, and none of it looked good. Going back to rodeo seemed liked the answer to his prayers. A step in the right direction anyway.
The cowboy’s Christmas is what they called it on the rodeo circuit. The biggest rodeos and the best purses were up for grabs for the best of the best during the month of July. Stoney would be up against the best bull riders the circuit had ever seen. Up until a year ago, he’d been considered one of the best. He was banking on that still being true.
“This last year was worse than we’ve seen in a long time for the ranch. Taxes are higher. Medical bills are out of control. We’re running out of choices, son,” Wally said, still looking out at nothing in the horizon.
Stoney felt his chest tighten. This ranch had Buxton blood and sweat all over it. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if they lost is all. “I know, Pop. That’s why I’m going back to rodeo. I made some good money before, and it’s helped the ranch. There’s no reason-”
“You know how your momma feels about you riding rodeo again. One cripple on this ranch is enough.”
Fire spit through Stoney. He straightened his spine and towered over his father in the wheelchair. Before the accident, they use to meet eye to eye. “You’re not a cripple, Pop,” Stoney said, softer than the fire in him would have allowed if he hadn’t taken control of it. Despite his obvious position over his father, Stoney felt like a little kid defending his hero. And his father had been--still was--his hero for all of his twenty-eight years. Being confined to a wheelchair had wounded his father’s heart, but not his spirit. Wally Buxton still had the power of an ox.
They stared at each other for a long while, not needing words to hear their thoughts. That’s the way it had been with them for as long as Stoney could remember. Wally was the one to break through the silence. “Come on. Your momma made some cherry pie and I’m sure Ms. Summers isn’t going to touch it, so we might as well have at it.”
He didn’t have time for another break today. He’d already wasted too much time warding off Melanie Summers and her wild ideas. His work load had doubled since Mitch Broader, their only ranch hand, left to take care of family business back east. With his father out of commission, that left the brunt of the ranch’s workload on Stoney’s shoulders.
He blew out a resigned breath, knowing it was important to his father. “Sure, Pop.”
He walked alongside the motorized wheelchair. He was getting accustomed to slowing his wide strides to keep in step with his father as the chair moved against the gravel. He stayed at his father’s side out of respect the man deserved. His father rolled into the house before him.
He found Melanie sitting at the dining room table, one long leg draped over the other, a smile that seemed curiously triumphant written on her face. His mother wore an uplifted expression he hadn’t seen in her for the better part of a year.
What the hell was going on?
Adele pushed the dining room chair aside so Wally could position his wheelchair at the head of the oak table. “Melanie and I were just having a lovely chat about her plans while she’s in Wyoming.”
Stoney eyed Melanie, a nagging suspicion floating up his spine. “Oh? And what would they be?”
Melanie averted her gaze for just a moment before lifting her soft brown eyes to him, shining a Cheshire cat grin, and giving fuel to that eerie feeling taking hold of his gut. One bat of her dark eyelashes and he knew he’d been had.
* * *
“Didn’t you hear a damn thing I told you by the corral?” Stoney said, storming out the door after Melanie. He’d held his anger in place long enough to make it out the screened door, slamming it in his wake. “You’ve got no business coming here, filling my family full of dreams that aren’t going to come true.”
Melanie spun on her boot heels, propped her sunglasses on the bridge of her nose, and looked at Stoney over the wire rim. “I have every intention of fulfilling my end of the bargain.”
“No one in their right mind would throw around that kind of money. My family has been through enough to-”
“Which is why I think this business arrangement will work out well for both of us.”
“Now how do you figure on that? Who’s gonna do all the work around here for the next month while I’m out there traipsing through the wilderness, keeping your pretty little hide alive. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re a little short of hand right now.”
“With the money I’m prepared to pay, you’ll be able to hire someone to take your place. As for keeping me alive, I don’t want any special treatment. I can hold my own.”
Stoney sputtered. “That one is still open for debate. Do you even know what it costs to hire a ranch hand to work sun up to sun down for a whole month?”
“Fifteen thousand dollars is not all that much for what I’m asking,” she said. It was much higher than she’d originally intended on paying, but a lot lower than she’d consider if Stoney could do for her what Gerald Hammond said he could.
Stoney’s face hardened. “Money like that may be nothing to you, but it keeps bread on the table for working folks.”
“I didn’t mean to imply-”
“I know what you meant to do. You think you can buy me like a piece of stock at a cattle auction. I’m not for sale. And I’d appreciate kindly if you’d leave my family out of whatever death wish you have.”
She stifled a retort about the death wish and kept to the pressing issue. I can’t do that. This is much too important to me.” He shook his head and stared at her like he was looking right through her.
She was struck by his strength once again as he fought to keep his control in check. The tight set of his jaw belied his control and she got the feeling he could lift her without any effort and toss her over the fence if she pushed him.
And she’d push him, all right. It meant that much to her to prove to her father and herself that she could last a whole month in the wilderness without the aid of medical intervention. Only then would her father agree to keep the funding for the Kenya project. But she knew her father. He was determined to keep her from going at all cost. And he had a lot more money than she could combat with which to do it.
“Adele told me about the hard times the ranch has had. This money could help you and your family. I’m glad to be able to do that for them. The only thing I ask is that no one knows we’ve gone.”
“What’s this all about? Why is this so important?”
“My reasons are my business.”
He crossed his muscled arms across the expanse of his chest and studied her for a moment. “You wanted for something?”
She giggled at the sidelong look of suspicion he gave her. Not only because of the absurdity of it, but because he just looked too damned cute. “You’ve got an imagination to go along with all that muscle. No, I’m not on the run for any crimes.” Only from my father and his control. But that was none of Stoney Buxton’s business, and she was determined to keep it quiet.
He eyed her, the tick in his jaw twitching, telling her he didn’t find any of this amusing.
She coughed out the rest of her laughter, knowing she wasn’t going to get very far irritating him. He was a business man. She knew how to handle business men, although most of them wore designer suits and smelled of expensive cologne, unlike the sweat and dirt she smelled on Stoney. Still, she turned on her best charm. “Look, I don’t know you.”
“And I don’t know what kind of struggles you and your family have gone through. That’s really none of my business.”
“But it doesn’t take much more than 20/20 vision to look around here and figure out you could use a little help.”
He rolled his eyes and stepped off the porch stairs. “I’m not looking for charity.”
“You need money,” she said to his back.
Stoney swung around to face her again, tossing her a cool look. “And you’re just the person to open the check book.”
She cocked her head. “Don’t be foolish. This could help both of us. You don’t look like the type of man to shy away from honest money.”
He drew in a deep breath and could hardly look her in the eye. She knew he wouldn’t step anywhere near her request if it held the stench of a handout. Men like Stoney were as complicated as the earth was old and the ground ran deep. For him, it had to be honest and earned. Nothing less would do.
“I’m not looking for you to carry my bags or draw the bath water,” she said when he didn’t respond.
His laugh was rich and hard and he dipped his gaze beneath his dusty leather hat, shaking his head. When he lifted his head again, she saw them. He had dimples. Deep, and completely adorable. Her heart betrayed her confidence and fluttered wildly.
“Good, because you’d be sadly disappointed.”
She forced air into her lungs and placed her hand on her chest to steady her rampant heartbeat. “I’ve checked out the prices the other outfitters are charging for extended trailing. It’s only right that I pay a little more since I’m asking for a personal guide. This isn’t a handout, just a fair business arrangement. I’m prepared to make the same offer to one of the other outfitters, too. That is if you’re stubborn enough to decline.”
He took a long appraising look at her, much like a man does when he finds a woman attractive, as if he was weighing the option to pass her by or dip his head and kiss her waiting lips. It filled her with a strange sense of longing she couldn’t define.
“I may be stubborn, lady, but I’m far from dumb.”
Her eyes widened, almost afraid to believe her good fortune. “So what are you saying? Will you help me?”
He rolled his dark eyes, kicked his dusty cowboy boot in the hard, dry dirt, and said almost under his breath, “I’m gonna live to regret this.” Then looking at her straight on with sapphire eyes as dark as a moonless night, he said, “You’ve got yourself a guide.”
# # #