Rick slammed on the brakes, spun the Range Rover around and headed in the opposite direction, the wrong direction. Caught off balance by his sudden recklessness, Hannah’s bare feet slid from the dashboard, her heart pounded and adrenaline raced through her body. What he did next added to her uncertainty. Veering off the highway, he lessened his speed and rolled gently into the parking area of a quaint little chapel where a dozen or so guests tossed handfuls of rice toward a smiling bride and groom.
She turned down the thumping hip-hop music blaring from the radio. “Why are we stopping here?”
“You’ll see.” He was up to something. But then, he always was.
“We have two hours of driving ahead of us, and you know I want to get to the ranch before dark.” Hannah glared, showing her displeasure.
He flashed a grin her way. “Come on! Let’s do it.”
Tipping her head, Hannah’s pretty green eyes peered over the top of her sunglasses. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Hey, it’s me. Would I kid?”
He was exasperating but adorable, and could always make her laugh even when she didn’t want to. She shrugged off today’s nonsense.
“Wait here.” All smiles, he jumped out of the car and headed toward the chapel’s front steps, strutting with confidence.
The last few wedding goers lingered as Rick rushed up, grasped the preacher’s outstretched hand, and started talking. Before long, he glanced back at Hannah conveying another grin, this one loaded with mischief. What was he up to now? A surge of discomfort bubbled up in Hannah’s chest. The joke had gone a little too far this time. He’d been teasing her about getting married for several months, but lately, he’d campaigned for her hand with marked persistence. It had been funny, almost flattering at first, but now his silliness was on the brink of annoying.
He turned and loped back to her, his expression sheepish.
“Sorry, babe. No wedding for us today. The guy said we needed a Colorado marriage license. Imagine that. But he also said he’d be happy to perform a fake wedding ceremony if we were interested.”
One eyebrow lifted. “Oh really? A ‘fake’ ceremony? Doesn’t sound like preacher talk to me.”
“Maybe not those exact words, but …”
Hannah liked Rick. He was the only real friend she’d ever had. But marriage? No! That was not on her To Do list, and never would be. She was not about to let anything sabotage their upcoming adventure.
They drove on in a comfortable silence. With the music turned off, the purr of the engine lulled Hannah into a light sleep until the unfamiliar sound of gravel crunching beneath their tires prompted her eyes to open. She sat bolt upright, looking everywhere at once. “Are we here? This is our ranch?”
Mesmerized by the magnificent greenery visible in all directions—nothing like the dry desert she’d left behind—Hannah held her breath waiting for their new home, their ranch house, to come into view. When it appeared, the sight was dreamlike and almost too good to be true. Compared to the crammed apartments she lived in most of her life, this ranch house, though obviously old, was as substantial as a mansion.
She jumped from the SUV before it came to a complete stop and dashed toward her first real home. A home with her name on it, not some landlord’s name.
“Slow down, Hannah.”
“No way. Why don’t you hurry up?” she called out without glancing back.
He caught up just as she reached the top of the steps. Then, to her surprise, he scooped her into his arms and stepped toward the threshold.
Nearly nose-to-nose, she managed to say, “I think a few rules accompany such an action.”
“Since when did you become such an avid rule follower?”
They laughed, and he dropped a light kiss onto her forehead. “You ready?”
“Sure. Let’s go.”
The Great Adventure was about to begin.
When Rick leaned against the door awkwardly digging in his pocket for the house key, it creaked open—apparently, it had been left unlocked. He carried her inside. Hannah pulled away from his grasp and, with her feet firmly on the floor, shook her head in disbelief. “Oh, no.” Her eyes locked onto the shocking scene and her nose wrinkled at the musty odor. While the land was truly magnificent and the exterior was in good repair, the interior of the house was in dire need of … everything. Rick hardly seemed to notice the mess and showed no concern what so ever.
“I’m going to take a look around outside. Be right back.”
She peered through one of the countless dirty windows barely illuminating the kitchen and living room areas, watching him circle the house, then head to the corral. He glanced up now and then to give her a wave and a gleeful smile. She’d never seen him so excited. Not even on the day he bought the ranch.
Hannah’s attention returned to the bleak, neglected interior. Space was not an issue; she knew the ranch house had ample square footage. But every square inch of it was coated with dirt and dust thicker than the soles on her new, sparkling flip-flops. A thorough cleaning would be the first step—though a baby step—on this long staircase of unexpected chores.
I can do this. It’ll be fun.
She hadn’t planned on the adventure beginning with so many domestic tasks. The job before her was daunting, and a mental shopping list monopolized her thoughts. For inspiration, country living and ranch house magazines rose to the top of that list. A list that would be lengthy by the time they drove back to town for supplies. The drive would be lengthy too. There was nothing between the ranch and the nearest town except a windy, two-lane mountain road edged with pine trees, meadows, cliffs and boulders. No Dairy Queen, no Circle K, nothing. The seclusion of this ranch house threatened to take her breath away, but she managed to smile.
So this is what it’s like to be a country girl.
Hannah made several trips back to the Range Rover to fetch the suitcase, backpack, and the few small boxes containing her drawing supplies and personal mementos. It didn’t take long. She hadn’t brought much. Leaving reminders of her old life behind added to the excitement of this promising, new beginning. As she set the last box down, Rick bounded up the front steps two at a time, clutching a bottle of wine in one hand and a corkscrew in the other.
“Grab some glasses, babe. I’m about to make a toast to the first day of our ranch life.”
She gave him a teasing glare—she cringed whenever he called her ‘babe’—then searched in vain for two glasses.
“Sorry. No glasses, no cups, no mugs.”
“No problem.” He lifted the bottle into the air. “To the good life—my dream come true life—the ranch life!
He took a swig from the bottle, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then passed it to her. “Your turn.”
“Hmm. To never, ever again, wondering if I’ll have enough money to pay my rent.” She swallowed, sighed, then passed it back.
“I’ll drink to that.” Rick’s smile was contagious.
Swallow number two flowed smoothly down their throats. So did number three. Pausing, Hannah mused out loud that a bell pepper and mushroom pizza would go oh-so-nicely with the oaky, fruity merlot.
“Your wish is my command. I noticed a pizza place when we drove through Stillwater.”
“You don’t need to do that. Stillwater is a forty-five-minute drive from here.”
He shrugged. “I don’t mind. I’m hungry too. Want to come?”
Her mouth watered and her stomach growled for a pizza, but the rest of her could not face the long drive. “No. I’ll wait here and see what I can accomplish while you’re gone.”
Rick gave her a silly salute and headed out to the car.
She cracked open a grimy window to infuse the house with a little freshness and found herself captivated by the view of the lower pasture to the north. The land nestled comfortably between two pine-covered hills, forming a vast ocean of green. Dusk crept in unnoticed, the green hills faded to gray, and Hannah realized she’d lost track of the time. Rick would be back in less than an hour, and she’d accomplished next to nothing.
Hannah left the vanishing view and went in search of the bedrooms. Knowing this was a furnished, four-bedroom ranch house, she hoped to find at least two beds. She found only one, and that presented a problem. She and Rick had never slept in the same apartment before, let alone in the same bed. Rick wouldn’t have any trouble with the bed shortage, but Hannah wanted no part of that. She’d sleep on the tattered old loveseat in the living room, if necessary.
The sun disappeared below the western hills, and the gray of dusk quickly became the darkness of night. If she was going to explore the rooms, the closets, and all the other nooks and crannies while waiting for Rick to return, she’d need more light.
She flipped the nearest switch. Nothing happened. She tried another, then another. None of the lights worked. Odd. They all contained light bulbs; she’d checked. They couldn’t all have passed their prime at the same time, could they? She unscrewed one and shook it. The expected, faint rattling sound of a burnt-out bulb wasn’t there.
Before the creeping feeling of anxiety had completed its journey from her head down to her toes, the problem became clear. No electricity. So much for Rick taking care of everything like he’d promised. And he should have been back by now. In fact, he was long overdue. Darn. She couldn’t call him. She’d left her cell phone in the Range Rover’s console. Then she remembered he liked his independence and, when it came to his whereabouts, he rarely checked in. He’d show up any minute. She was certain.
No electricity, no cell phone, and no neighbors that she knew of. Twinges of fear soon advanced to flashes of panic. The total darkness, the blackness—not even a street light off in the distance—brought on unwanted thoughts of lurking danger.
She curled up on the dusty leather loveseat and covered herself with the only available blanket. Was there a logical reason for Rick’s lateness? Maybe he had a flat tire, or something blocked the only road to the ranch. Could he have gotten lost? The drive was rather long and curvy, but it required making only one turn off Main Street. No! Getting lost made no sense. Perhaps he drank a beer while waiting for the pizza, and that one beer turned into many. He did like his beer.
The last of the wine did little to soothe her nerves. She lay alone in the quiet, unfamiliar darkness, and though she feared she might not be able to sleep, she dozed on and off. One nonsensical dream delighted her sleeping mind with mystical horses winging their way across the tops of pine trees. They smiled. They whinnied and beckoned her to join them.
Her dream-self was about to follow the flying herd when she awoke suddenly but didn’t know why. Checking her watch, she found its tiny light oddly soothing, though the time itself was not. It was 2:12 in the morning. Rick should have been able to find a way back to the ranch by now.
Hannah shivered, though a nervous sweat lined her brow. Having lived in Phoenix, Arizona for the past five years, she wasn’t used to such chilly temperatures. She hadn’t expected them here—at least not yet. It was August.
The house creaked with each gust of wind, and a sound like giant, calloused fingers scraped against a window. Just leaves on small branches, she told herself. The eerie hoot of an owl jarred her even more, but she continued to listen. All she wanted to hear was the crunching of dirt and gravel under the tires of their car. And if there was a pizza in that car, even a cold one, so much the better.
At first light, Hannah opened her eyes and surveyed the dreary, chilly room, half expecting to find Rick crashed on the sofa directly across from her. Surely he’d be there, probably tired, hopefully not hung over, ready to relate his adventure … or misadventure.
He wasn’t there. Beyond her breathing, the only evidence of life was the twittering of a few songbirds outside in nearby trees. On most days she’d be delighted by this cheerful sound, but not today. She listened for Rick’s footsteps walking in the door, water raining down from the shower, something, anything.
She struggled upright, trying to think clearly. The combination of Rick’s disappearance and a ranch house in which nothing worked properly had taken her far beyond the boundaries of her limited comfort zone. What should she do? What could she do? No phone, no car. She couldn’t clean if she wanted to. She’d found no cleaning products, not even a disgusting old sponge under the sink. Didn’t every household have one of those?
By 9:00 a.m. she could no longer ignore the queasy feeling in her empty stomach. She needed to expand her search for food, but she wasn’t feeling up to venturing into the basement, yet. According to a variety of grisly horror movies, a dark, strange basement was definitely a place to avoid. Instead, she sat on the steps of the back porch that overlooked the beautiful valley, elbows on her knees, chin supported by the palms of her hands. Only one good thought came to mind. The house and all this land belong to me.
That fact alone made her dizzy. The only thing she’d ever owned had been a run down, old Ford Focus. (On the bright side, it wasn’t a Pinto.) Now she was a landowner and the mistress of a Colorado ranch. She should be thrilled, but instead, she felt like a fish out of water. A very lonely fish.
Trace had almost given up. He’d received no reply to his knocks or his shouts, and he didn’t have time to wait around. With his main mission accomplished, he headed toward the truck.
“Come on, Oatie. Let’s go.”
The dog poked his fox-like face around the far corner of the house, barked, then turned and disappeared. Apparently, the red-speckled heeler had something more important to do than “go” but it was unlike Oatie to disobey such a simple command. Intrigued, Trace left the truck and went to see what the dog was up to.
Oatie stood on all fours, his tail drawing circles in the air, seeming excited with what he’d found. That’s when Trace saw her. He stared boldly, struck by her appearance.
Striding closer he said, “I see you’ve met my dog.” He reached out to shake her hand but got no response. “My name’s Trace. Trace McAllister.”
He withdrew his unshaken hand, feeling awkward. The young woman didn’t say a word. She didn’t even blink.
“You must be Hannah. Is Rick around?”
Either he was invisible, speaking a foreign language, or her ability to hear was limited. He repeated his words a little louder, but still received no reaction. Dammit! His list of chores was long and he needed to get going.
“Well, miss, I’ve brought the livestock according to the deal. The horses are in the front corral, and the cows—”
She glanced up and looked him right in eye. “Cows?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said slowly. “Two horses, four cows, and six hens. They’re all in your charge as of today.”
The pretty young gal’s startled expression made him grin. She was definitely not from around here. Probably just another city slicker acting out a fantasy, but this one seemed confused.
Oatie sat down beside her, and she rubbed his ears. That’s odd. Trace frowned, scratching his head. The dog usually spent a little more time getting to know a stranger before he’d cozy up like that. But there he was, quite content with her hands on his ears. Lucky dog.
“Here’s my phone number,” he said, handing her a well-worn card from his back pocket. “Have Rick give me a call. When do you expect him?”
Her answer was slow in coming, making him wonder if she’d overdosed on sleep aids or had jet-lag, or something. She was definitely out of it.
“I … I don’t know,” she replied, her voice soft and fragile.
Oatie licked her cheek, and she actually smiled. Her face lit up from that slight change in expression, and he couldn’t help but notice her bright green eyes and her long blond ponytail. Then her sweet smile disappeared, the serious—or was it sad?—expression returned. Those eyes looked up at him again and words spilled from her lips.
“I have no phone, no electricity, no food, and no transportation.”
With each word, the volume of her voice faded until it was nothing more than a whisper. Trace never had much talent when it came to comforting women, but he couldn’t leave her like this. He’d do what he could.
“I’ll make some calls to get the electricity and the landline turned on for you. Sorry. It seems Rick misunderstood his responsibilities. Here. Take my ranch phone.”
She didn’t reach for it, so he set it down beside her.
“Is someone delivering the animals’ feed today?”
The horses, Lewissa and Clark, would not be happy without their oats. In fact, they could make the young woman’s life more miserable than it already was. Fortunately, the cows would be content eating grass in the lower pasture for now.
He raised his voice, needing an answer. “Hannah, I didn’t see any feed for the animals. You’re expecting it today, right?”
Her shining green eyes appeared dazed and on the brink of tears. He hoped she wouldn’t cry. When a woman cried it turned him inside out.
“I don’t know. Rick took care of all those things.”
She was an odd one for sure. Pretty, though. No, that wasn’t quite right. She was beautiful … like a young Gwyneth Paltrow.
Oatie’s head now lay in the gal’s lap. He seemed content, even happy to remain there. Trace, on the other hand, shifted his weight from one boot to the other, not sure what to do or say.
“I’ll do what I can to help you with the animals until your husband gets here,” he offered, “but I’ve got to take the hens back. Without feed, those birds won’t stick around. I can’t stick around either. We’re shorthanded again. Tell you what, since you’ve got my ranch phone, you can call my cell number if you need me. I’ll be back tomorrow with some feed for all the animals.”
He frowned, feeling helpless. “Come on, Oatie.”
What have I gotten myself into?
* * *
The dog gave Hannah another lick on her cheek before following after Trace. She watched them walk away. Who was that cowboy, that good-looking cowboy? She shook her head and shoved her observation aside. This was not the time for frivolous thoughts about a handsome man. After all, her friend was still missing.
If this had happened in Phoenix, Hannah wouldn’t have worried. There Rick had a full-time job as a waiter, and he often played street basketball with several guy friends. He’d meet anyone, anytime, at any watering hole. Back home it hadn’t been unusual for several days to pass without seeing him, especially during the workweek.
But this was not Phoenix. This was a remote area of Colorado inhabited by ranchers and the occasional hermit occupying a primitive cabin. At least that’s what she’d heard. Now, with each passing moment, concern for Rick’s safety gnawed at her gut and clouded her thinking.
I can’t just sit on these steps all day. I’ve got to do something.
She stood up a little too quickly, and her world began to spin. Grabbing the rough-edged railing to keep from falling, it dawned on her that she’d had nothing more than wine and water since yesterday’s lunchtime burger on the road. A logical reason for the dizziness. She needed to eat. There had to be a can of something edible lying around.
There were still a few rooms and closets to explore, as well as the barns and stalls. She might even venture into the basement now that the midday sun beamed brightly above, and she had a phone—a ranch phone. How was that different from her cell phone? She picked up the strange, clunky object to make a 911 call. Easier said than done. It worked nothing like her cell phone. Frustrated, she vowed to try again a little later.
After an hour spent in dusty closets, cupboards, and drawers, she craved cleaning products almost as much as food. A knock at the front door put an end to that ridiculous thought. She hesitated. No one knew she was here except Trace and Rick. Rick wouldn’t knock, and Trace had said he wouldn’t be back until tomorrow. She peeked out the window closest to the door and spotted a middle-aged man.
“Pizza delivery,” he called out.
He might as well have shouted, Land Shark. She squinted at his face, trying to decide if the man looked trustworthy or not. He was carrying something that resembled a pizza box, but that made no sense. Home delivery way out here? No way. Did he think she was that gullible? She promptly reached over and locked the deadbolt.
“Come on, lady,” he said, exasperation evident in his tone. “Open up. I have a pizza for someone named Hannah. Is that you?”
Could Rick have set this up? He was quite the jokester. Maybe she’d find a note inside the box. No. Her head could not wrap around that scenario.
“No one delivers pizza this far from town.” She spoke with enough confidence to make any man think twice about causing her harm.
“They do if Mr. McAllister places the order.”
McAllister? Her thoughts rewound. Trace McAllister. Why would a ranch hand go to the trouble of sending her a pizza?
A gentle breeze carried the spicy aroma of honest-to-goodness pizza through the window, and hunger defeated caution. She yanked the door open and took charge of the pizza box. She tried to tip the man, but he refused to accept her money. By the time his vehicle was out of sight, she’d devoured her first, delicious slice. Not long after that, only half the pizza remained. She hadn’t even bothered to pick off the pepperoni.
That was the best pizza I’ve ever eaten.
With the feeding frenzy over, she felt physically stronger and ready to give that darn phone another try. Hoping to renew her spirit, she sat on the front porch with phone in hand and breathed in the fresh mountain air. She explored the numerous buttons on the phone but suddenly stopped, distracted by her uncanny ability to notice the subtlest of scents. Horses? Glancing to her left, she spotted two horses standing in the corral not far from the house. They seemed perfectly at ease, swishing their tails at flies and lowering their mouths to the soft green grass.
As far as she could recall, she’d never been in the presence or scent range of a horse before, and she hadn’t expected their scent to be so pleasant. Now that she lived in the high country of Colorado, she suspected that many new scents would tickle her nose and, possibly, bring her joy. Hannah watched the horses until the sun dipped below the mountaintop and the evening chill returned.
Back inside, Rick’s absence dominated her thinking once again. If only he’d return she could get on with her life and he could get on with his. She longed to set up her art studio—she loved the sound of that—and resume drawing. After that, she could dive into her new project: concocting essential oils. That would require some research as well as the planting of an herb garden.
She picked up the clunky cell phone again, ranch phone, she corrected herself, when a new thought struck her, making her pause. What if Rick had ditched me or changed his mind about our hastily made plans? She blinked, stunned at the possibility. No. He’d been so excited about the opportunity to transform his dream into reality. He wouldn’t bail out on that, would he? She pushed those distressing ideas from her mind but realized the alternatives were likely far worse.
She needed to think, take some action, but instead, she surrendered to mental exhaustion and slipped into a deep, dark sleep.
As the early morning sun streamed through the window, Hannah stretched, uncurling from her spot on the loveseat. Another night had passed without incident or Rick’s return, but because she’d met two of the locals, Trace and the pizza guy, she faced this new day feeling more hopeful than anxious.
With curiosity, she flipped one of the light switches, then squealed with joy when the overhead light went on. Electricity! In the corner of the room sat an ancient-looking telephone, and she dared herself to pick it up. Voila! A dial tone.
“Yes!” She high-fived the air and then acknowledged her new appreciation for the little things.
Her giddiness was short-lived, overtaken by her ongoing concern for Rick’s welfare. But now that she had a regular phone, she could call the authorities and get him some help … if that’s what he needed.
The sound of energetic barking interrupted her call. Determined not to embarrass herself due to her current state of undress, she quickly wrapped the one and only blanket around her like a beach towel and made it to the door just in time to greet her visitors.
The ranch hand and his adorable dog stood side-by-side, one smiling, the other wagging its tail.
“Good mornin’, Sunshine. Sleep well?”
Today, Hannah took a good look at the cowboy’s face. “As well as can be expected. Good morning to you too,” she said, matching his smile. “Thank you for the pizza.”
“You’re welcome,” he replied, tipping his hat and widening his grin. He looked slightly puzzled, though. Probably due to her change in demeanor. She’d acted like a zombie when they’d first met. “I was hoping you’d join me for a lesson this morning on how to store feed and how to dispense it to the animals.” His eyes followed the blanket dress she wore. “But I can see you’re not quite ready for that kind of activity.”
“Give me ninety seconds and I will be.”
She closed the door, grabbed yesterday’s clothes, and ran to the bathroom. With her bare hand, she wiped the grime off the mirror, then stared at her reflection. There stood a woman in desperate need of a shower, clean hair, and lip-gloss. Oh well. Throwing on her clothes, she added a baseball cap and sunglasses, then dashed out the door for ranch lesson number one.
Enjoying the view of the handsome and obviously strong cowboy, Hannah stood back and watched Trace unload and store the feed. The chickens scurried in and around the open horse stalls, pecking and scratching at every little crumb. They really do say bok-bok! Until today, she’d thought only cartoon chickens made that sound.
“This should last about a week,” Trace told her. “Now let’s feed these critters.”
He took her through the basic steps, then frowned at the hens. “Are you sure you want just six? I’d be more comfortable if you had one more.”
Hannah gave him a sideways squint, unsure.
“I could bring you a rooster. Then you’d have eggs and chicks. You could sell them. People do buy them, you know.”
“I did not come to Colorado to run a chicken ranch,” she said matter-of-factly with her hands on her hips. Their eyes met, and Hannah blushed. “Sorry. That didn’t come out quite right.”
He didn’t laugh out loud, but she detected a subtle grin pushing at the corners of his mouth. Avoiding her eyes, he turned back to the business of opening the bag of oats, and she let herself admire the strong, lean line of his body, his snug jeans, his— What is wrong with me?
Their conversation came to an abrupt halt at the sound of an approaching vehicle. Seconds later an unfamiliar SUV turned in and parked.
“It’s the sheriff.”
“Good! I can tell him about Rick’s absence.”
Trace looked down at her, his eyes dark with concern. “Well, he’s a she.” He scratched his head. “And a house call from her is never good.”
A petite, auburn-haired woman stepped out of the car and walked toward them. Her face showed no expression, but as she drew closer she studied Hannah and the surroundings.
“Hey there, Jane. Don’t often see you out this far from town.”
“There’s been an accident.”
Hannah, at a loss for words, gasped. This is about Rick.
Trace stepped in. “Tell us what you know.”
“Actually,” she said, looking directly at Hannah, “I’m here to find out what you know.” Just like her expression, the woman’s words lacked emotion.
Finding her voice, her response trailed out. “I … I don’t know much. Rick and I drove here two days ago. We came inside and toasted our new home with a few sips of wine. He drove back into town to pick up a pizza and … and never returned. End of story.”
As the seriousness of the situation hit Hannah, her breathing sped up. Stars blinked in her darkening vision, and she caught herself stumbling sideways. During her teenage years, she developed a tendency of feeling faint when her stress level soared, but she hoped the cool Colorado air would help with that inconvenient affliction.
“Where is he? I want to see him.” Her voice trembled at the thought of her good friend injured before he’d had a chance to explore their new ranch property.
Jane looked at Trace, then at Hannah, then back at Trace. “I’m afraid you can’t do that,” she said, shoving her hands into her pockets. “It seems the car veered off the road, rolled down a steep embankment, then crashed and burned.” The sheriff paused taking a deep breath. “At this point, we assume the charred body we found is that of your husband.”
Hannah’s body began to sway and she slumped to the ground. Disoriented, she felt as if she were floating upward. As near consciousness returned, she saw light and shadows, and heard the sound of muffled voices. She also felt cradled by strong, warm arms. Trace.
“I’ll check back later,” Jane told him, then headed out.
He gazed down, his steel blue eyes sharp with concern. “You okay?”
“I think I passed out for a few seconds.”
Trace kept quiet, but Oatie whimpered and put his chin on her thigh.
Then she remembered the sheriff’s words and sat up straight. Reality hit her hard. Rick was dead. She slumped back down, giving in to tears.
“I’m sorry, Hannah,” Trace said, running a soothing hand over her back. “I can’t even imagine what it would be like to lose a husband … or any loved one, so suddenly.”
She shook her head. “No. It’s not like that. Rick isn’t, I mean, wasn’t my husband or my boyfriend. There were days when I didn’t even like him. But I liked our deal, our plan.” She rambled and said too much. “It’s complicated. I won some money in the lottery.”
His eyebrows rose, his head cocked, but he didn’t speak. He listened.
“My bad-luck life had turned around. I never had money before, and as weird as this sounds, I was totally stressed out not knowing how to handle it, or what to do with it. So when Rick came up with a plan where we both could live a life we’d dreamed of, all that stress melted away.”
She stared straight ahead trying to believe the unbelievable. She could imagine Rick’s laughing eyes and his familiar teasing smile. A hole seemed to open in her chest, leaving her feeling oddly displaced and sorry for her friend’s untimely death.
Several moments passed before she could speak again. “So here I am, a city girl in the middle of nowhere. And now he’s gone, forever. I’m alone with two horses, four cows, and a whole bunch of chickens.” She sighed, reaching down to pat Oatie’s head. “What am I supposed to do? My dream was simple: I just wanted time to draw, to plant a garden, and to live somewhere nicer than my small Phoenix apartment.” Scanning the room, she sniffed then added, “I think it will take me a year just to clean up this place.”
She looked up at Trace, the stranger providing silent comfort. His eyes were gentle, his expression soft with sympathy.
“Thanks for staying with me.” She placed her cool, slender hand on top of his warm, rough one. Neither hand moved.
“Not a problem. I do have an appointment in town, but I can cancel it if you—”
She shook her head. “I need some time to think. Thanks for your offer, though.”
He stood, ending their brief physical contact. Oatie bounced to his side and the pair walked quietly out the front door. Except for the fact that he was handsome and kind, Hannah knew next to nothing about this cowboy, but could not imagine coping with the current situation without him. She sat for a moment taking in the rugged scent that lingered on the palm of her hand. A trace of Trace.