Kensington Pope’s mouth went dry as she stared at the bleak, deserted landscape of southern Wyoming from the window of the jumbo-sized pickup truck.
Oh my God! They’ve sent me out here to die.
The bleached pile of bones along the side of the two-lane highway she traveled on only confirmed her fears.
That, and the sign announcing the next town with the whopping population of twenty-two people.
She reached for her phone so she could text her friends back home about her dismal situation, only to realize there was no cell service.
I’m truly stuck in hell.
The truck hit a pothole, bouncing her off the cramped backseat of the king cab. Annoyance flashed through her, only to morph into outright fury when the trailer behind the truck hit the same road hazard. She could bite her tongue when it came to her discomfort, but she refused to see her beloved horse endangered. “Watch it! Westley is a prize-winning horse with champion bloodlines, and there will be hell to pay if he’s injured due to your reckless driving.”
Uncle Bobby glanced up into the rearview mirror, his eyes narrowed in what she could see of his reflection, but Aunt Tammy spoke before he did.
“We know how much Westley means to you, Kensi, and I’m sure Bobby is trying to dodge as many rough spots as he can.”
Kensi replied with a snort and crossed her arms. She’d bet a thousand dollars he was doing just the opposite to piss her off. He’d made it very clear at the airport that he wasn’t thrilled with her moving in with them for the summer.
The same could be said for her. This little hellhole of Wyoming was the last place she wanted to be. She’d planned out such a perfect summer in the Hamptons with her friends until her parents had drifted into her life long enough to dump her here.
Of course, she begrudgingly admitted that it was partly her fault. Parents that were never home meant she could throw the best parties in their Manhattan penthouse. The last one, however, went too far. The police had showed up, totally putting a buzz-kill on her epic end of the school year party, and her parents finally had to answer for her behavior.
But only after someone got hold of them on their yacht in Europe.
The absent parents were nothing new. She could count on one hand the number of months she’d actually been in their physical company. The rest of her sixteen years had been under the care of various nannies with the occasional Skype call from the genetic material donors. Last week, however, they’d decided she needed more “discipline and structure.” Hence why she was being forced to live in the middle of nowhere with her aunt, uncle, and cousin.
What a frickin’ nightmare.
“How much farther?” she asked, using the same flat and bored tone she used with her chauffeur back home.
“About half an hour,” her cousin, Sierra, answered.
Kensi groaned in her most dramatic fashion, head tilted up to the roof of the cab, before turning to Sierra. “Please tell me there’s a mall nearby.”
The girl shook her head and grinned. Sierra was a year younger than her and decades behind as far as fashion went. Her eyes were the same shade of blue as Kensi’s—the only sign of a family resemblance—but her mousy brown hair hung in two, thick, Elly May Clampett braids over a faded gingham button-down shirt. And like her parents, she proudly sported well-worn cowboy boots and an old, dusty Stetson.
The girl seriously needed help in the wardrobe department.
“Neiman Marcus?” Kensi asked. “Bloomingdales? Macy’s?”
Sierra’s grin widened with each shake of her head. “But if you like department stores, I know there’s a Kohl’s and a Sears in Cheyenne.”
As if I would ever be caught dead in either of those stores. So maybe haute couture was beyond reach, but she couldn’t give up all hope. “How about a Sephora?”
Sierra’s nose crinkled in amusement, and laughter edged her voice. “A what?”
“Oh, never mind.” Kensi turned back to the bleak landscape. Her redneck cousin was a lost cause.
“We’re not completely isolated from the rest of the world out here,” Aunt Tammy said from the front seat. “We do have the internet, and you can order just about anything online these days.”
It still wouldn’t replace the thrill of walking into a designer boutique and trying on the latest fashions while the employees catered to her every whim. Or the personal shopper who called when a new collection came in so she could be the first one in her group of friends to get her hands on it. Her last shopping spree had been well into the five-figure range by the time she’d finished, but her wardrobe had been the envy of her peers.
Of course, that bill was just one of the reasons her parents had cited for banishing her from the city. It didn’t matter that they were billionaires. Apparently, someone her age shouldn’t own fifty pairs of Jimmy Choos. But they also had no idea what it was like at her school. If she wasn’t a trendsetter, then she was a nobody.
The truck hit another bump, and the trailer wobbled from side to side. Her heart skipped several beats in genuine fear. Images of the trailer tipping over and breaking one of Westley’s legs flashed through her mind.
Thankfully, the trailer remained upright.
She sent another withering glance at her uncle.
He met it in the rearview mirror and practically challenged to call him out.
“Gee, Uncle Bobby, have they heard of paving roads here in Redneckville, Nowhere?”
His knuckles blanched as he gripped the steering wheel even tighter, and even though he didn’t say anything, she’d gotten a rise out of him. Maybe if she continued, they’d send her back to New York, where she belonged.
A tense silence hung in the air in the miles that followed, making ten minutes feel like a century.
It all ended the moment the truck turned off the highway onto a gravel road. Sierra’s smile brightened, and her bubbly energy cut through the unease. “We’re almost home. Welcome to the Double Buckle Ranch, Kensi.”
Much like everything else she’d seen since they’d left Cheyenne, there was little to interest her. The same barren, brown landscape dotted by the same boring cattle that seemed to outnumber people here. But she faked a smile for the sake of her cousin. “Yee-haw.”
“I think you’re really going to like it here,” her cousin continued, oblivious to Kensi’s sarcasm. “The training facilities are top notch, especially the indoor arena. Mom even installed those markers you need for your dressage practice.”
Kensi couldn’t decide if she was more impressed that Sierra actually knew the correct way to pronounce “dressage” or the fact her aunt had gone through the trouble to accommodate her training. The Double Buckle Ranch was more than just a stretch of steak-producing pastureland. It was also home to one of the country’s elite rodeo academies. Both Tammy and Bobby Ramos had been rodeo champions back in the day, and once they retired from competition, they bought the ranch and opened it up to teach young, upcoming talent. The rough-and-tumble acts of barrel racing and bull riding were lightyears away from the precision and elegance of dressage, yet her aunt had gone out of her way to carve a small place for Kensi. Her throat choked up a little as she said, “Thank you.”
“And wait until the other students return in a couple of months,” Sierra continued. “I bet you and Mia would get along like beans and bacon.”
Kensi grimaced from the analogy. “Too bad I’ll be back in New York by then. Remember, I’m only here for the summer.”
And if the plan she was hatching worked, she’d be home even sooner.
Sierra’s smile faded. “Oh, I forgot. That’s too bad. I have a feeling you’d get to love this place once things kicked into high gear.”
I seriously doubt I’d ever come to love this place.
But instead of telling her cousin exactly what she thought, Kensi forced another tight smile. “I don’t see any buildings. How far away is the house?”
“Oh, about another half hour or so.” Sierra shrugged. “Dad’s going a bit slower than usual on account of your horse.”
That explained the crawling pace. If it wasn’t for Westley, she would’ve begged Uncle Bobby to go faster so she could finally be free of the cramped backseat and the Pollyanna sitting next to her.
After thirty minutes of crunching gravel barely covered up by the twangy country music radiating from the speakers, signs of civilization finally came into view. A glorified log cabin stood in the center of all the buildings, surrounded by two faded red barns, three smaller log cabins, and a large covered arena that was easily the size of a football field. Half a dozen fenced-in spaces dotted the periphery, some with actual cows in them. And of course, the obligatory rundown mobile home parked on the outskirts of the property added the perfect trailer park trash touch to this rustic compound.
I’m definitely not in Manhattan anymore.
Kensi hopped out as soon as the truck came to a stop in front of the main house. She dashed to the back of the horse trailer and unlatched the door, silently praying Westley had survived the journey without any significant trauma. Thankfully, the second he saw her, he greeted her with his familiar nudge and nuzzle.
She reached to give him a quick hug around the neck and stroked his nose.
He nudged her again, reminding her of their longtime ritual. A hug, a few strokes, followed by what he really wanted—the treats.
Kensi laughed and reached for the plastic bag of sugar cubes she’d stashed in her pocket before she’d left that morning. The whiskers that lined his lips tickled her hand as he lapped them up, earning another laugh from her. Bring reunited with her beloved Westley was the one bright spot of what had otherwise been a crappy day.
Once he’d consumed the sugar cubes, Kensi took him by the leads and led him down the ramp. “Where are we boarding him?”
Her uncle paused from unloading her suitcases from the back of the truck and nodded toward the nearest barn. “With the rest of the horses.”
There went her hopes that Westley would receive the special treatment he deserved. She just hoped he’d have adequate stall space and fresh, quality provisions. And air conditioning was a must in the summer heat. He was a champion, after all, and he required the best of everything to stay in top competitive condition.
Just as she came to the entrance of the barn, a young man appeared from the shadowed doorway, wiping his hands on a frayed bandana. He appeared to be about her age, maybe a year or two older, with dark hair and tanned skin. Like her relatives, he wore a faded shirt, weathered jeans, and dusty boots, but somehow, they only served to enhance his appearance. The shirt strained across his broad shoulders, and the rolled-up sleeves offered a glimpse of muscular forearms. The jeans hung low on his lean hips and hinted at a well-formed posterior.
But it was more than the clothes that intrigued her. It was mostly the sharp scrutiny of his gaze combined with the determined set of his jaw as he regarded her. Her cheeks flushed from his intensity, yet she couldn’t look away. One look at him, and she finally understood the mystique of the American cowboy.
She reminded herself that he was just a cowboy, falling well into the hired help range. Nice to look at, but not worth fooling around with. She held out Westley’s leads. “Take my horse to his stall and see that he’s properly bedded down for the night.”
He tucked the bandana into his back pocket and took one step toward her before stopping and drawing up to his full height—a good six inches taller than her.
“You heard me, farm boy. And see that he gets plenty of fresh hay. Alfalfa is preferred, but he’ll settle for quality timothy.”
But instead of taking her horse and doing what he was told, he squared his shoulders, continuing to stare at her as though she’d asked him slap his grandmother.
He had a Latino look about him, so maybe he didn’t understand what she’d said. “Comprendes inglés?”
His expression darkened into an insolent scowl. “Are you telling me what to do?” he asked, his voice carrying the same Texas twang Kensi’s mother had when she was pissed off.
The heat rising into her cheeks was probably due to afternoon sun and not embarrassment. Common sense would’ve dictated that she apologize, but she reminded herself he was hired help. As her father had always told her, she needed to set boundaries if she didn’t want them to walk all over her, and Westley’s care would suffer. “Naturally. You’re one of the farm hands here, right? Now take care of my horse so I can get a much-needed soak in the tub.”
A wave of red inched up his neck, but his attention remained fixed on her. Something dangerous lurked behind those dark brown eyes—something that made her pulse race and her knees quiver—but she didn’t dare back down. She’d never had a groom treat her this way.
A string of sharp insults formed in her mind, ready to be unleashed at a moment’s notice, but she trembled at the anger in those eyes. It was one thing to talk the talk, but he was practically daring her to carry out her threats, and she’d never had to do that before. Usually, her parents’ money kept anyone from denying her anything. But with one sharp glare, he’d revealed her innermost fear—that she was nothing more than a coward without her money to back her up.
Her uncle moved between them and pushed the younger man back. “Go to my office and take a load off,” he said in a tone that left no room for argument.
The farm hand gave her one more glare before turning around and retreating to the arena.
Then Uncle Bobby turned to her. “Let’s lay down a few quick ground rules here, Your Highness, ‘cause things around here don’t run like they do in New York City.”
“No shit,” she replied with equal animosity. It was easier to lash out her anger at Bobby since he was the one who controlled her fate on the ranch and whether or not she’d be sent back home.
“Rule number one is that you and you alone are responsible for your own horse.” His pointer finger traveled between her and Westley. “You two are a team, and you know your horse better than anyone else. Having someone else care for your horse will only weaken the bond between you.”
“It’s never affected our bond before,” she countered. She didn’t mind brushing, and maybe she could handle feeding, but she drew the line at mucking out stalls. “What if I hire someone to do all that for me? That farm boy looked like he might benefit from a few extra dollars.”
Bobby crossed his arms and shook his head, his wide-legged stance indicating he wouldn’t budge an inch on his edict. “Not going to happen. And furthermore, rule number two: you’re to treat everyone here as equals, including Javier. There’s no pecking order on the ranch, unless you count me and Tammy at the top. The rest of you young-uns are all on the same playing field, and y’all are all part of the Double Buckle family. As such, you’ll be expected to contribute to the chores just like everyone else.”
She raised her hand to silence him. He was already ticked off at her, and maybe if she kept pressing her luck, she’d be on the next plane back to New York. “Excuse me, Uncle Bobby, but you’re forgetting one thing here. I’m not one of your little cowboy kids. I don’t even want to be here, so you can just spare me the big happy family talk because I have no desire to even belong to your bucking bronco clan.”
He sucked in a deep breath through clenched teeth, and she could almost picture him counting to ten as he exhaled.
Good. Maybe he’ll give me a ride back to the airport tonight.
Unfortunately, he managed to keep his temper in check. “I don’t know what kinda game you’re playing, Kensi, and I don’t want to know, either. The fact of the matter is that you’re here until your parents make other arrangements for you, so you can either make this easy for yourself, or you can keep on with that attitude of yours and find yourself in a whole heap of hurt. It’s your choice.”
He turned on the heel of his boot and strode back into the arena, his ramrod-straight spine the only sign of his annoyance.
Score one point for her. If she continued to push his buttons, he’d eventually reach his breaking point and would be glad to be rid of her.
Westley nudged her toward the barn, pulling her from her plotting and reminding her of his more immediate needs. He’d had an even longer day with a flight in a cramped stall, followed by the bumpy ride in the trailer.
She ventured into the barn, noting the surprisingly neat and well-kept stalls inside the faded walls. In the middle of the row, she found one stall with a garland of flowers draped over the door, framing a sign that said, Welcome, Kensi and Westley.
Definitely Sierra’s doing. At least Kensi knew where Westley would be boarded.
Kensi peeked inside and noted the mounds of fresh, clean hay on the floor. It looked satisfactory for tonight. She led him inside and went off to hunt for a feed sack and some oats, silently cursing her uncle’s rules about having to do everything for her horse.
Javier Cruz marched straight to the punching bag hanging in Bobby’s office and buried his fist into it at full force. He followed it up with half a dozen more jabs until he’d gotten a healthy chunk of anger out of his system.
“That stuck-up, spoiled little bitch!”
A punch marked each word as he spat them out, and by the time he’d finished, a cool rush of calm washed over him. But he threw in one shot for good measure as he added, “Farm boy.”
Once he’d gotten that out of his system, his lungs burned, but in a good way. He’d much rather take out his frustration on the bag than on the new girl.
The funny thing was, until she opened her snooty mouth, he actually found her kind of pretty. Oh yeah, every inch of her screamed rich city girl, from the frilly little dress that barely covered her behind to the clunky high-heeled sandals on her feet. But damn, did that outfit show off one lovely pair of tanned, toned legs that seemed to go on forever.
Stop thinking with your dick, dumbass. She’s not your type.
But then, he’d always been a sucker for a great pair of legs. The top half of her wasn’t too bad either, once he ignored the prissy way she’d looked down her nose at him. Her hair had been the perfect shade of sunny gold, and her eyes were as blue as the sky. Too bad those pouty pink lips had been twisted in a sneer, or he might’ve found them pretty, too.
One thing was crystal clear from his brief encounter—that girl spelled trouble. And he’d already had his fill of trouble in his seventeen years. He didn’t need to go chasing after more of it.
He slowly paced the length of Bobby’s office while he waited for him, pausing every now and then to study a buckle or a trophy he hadn’t noticed before. Every wall in the office glittered with Bobby’s awards. The man was a legend in the rodeo world. There were hundreds of kids who’d have given their left leg to be standing where he was, but unlike the other students of the Double Buckle Rodeo Academy, Javier had absolutely no interest in competing on the circuit. He’d seen what it had done to his father, and that was warning enough.
Several minutes passed before Bobby threw the door open, slammed it behind him, and plopped down in his chair. He propped his boots up on the desk and tossed his hat toward the coatrack with elegant ease, finally relaxing his face into a grin when the Stetson landed perfectly on a hook. “How are you holding up?”
“Better than I was a few minutes ago,” Javier answered. “She got to you, too, huh?”
“She’s been getting to me ever since we picked up that little princess at the airport.” He ran his hands along his cheeks. “If she wasn’t Tammy’s kin, I would’ve thrown her out of the truck about five miles into the trip.”
The image of her wandering the highway in her outfit amused Javier, and he sat down in the opposite chair with a half-laugh. “Why didn’t you?”
“‘Cause Tammy kept going on and on last night about how this was divine intervention and that God had brought Kensi to the ranch for a reason.” He dropped his boots from the desk and leaned forward. “She didn’t want to listen to me when I said we’d just gotten stuck baby-sitting the spawn of Satan.”
Bobby let out a low whistle. “And then some. From what I gather, the girl’s never been told no in her life, and that’s what got her into this mess. Now, Tammy and I are the ones who have to clean it up.”
Part of Javier knew he shouldn’t pry too deeply into the family’s personal issues, but he couldn’t resist getting every juicy detail he could about her. If she truly was the devil’s offspring like Bobby had hinted, then he’d have a much easier time avoiding her. “What all did she do?”
“Threw a party in her parents’ fancy penthouse that not only caused almost a quarter-million dollars’ worth of damage to the building but also got the police involved and several people arrested for underage drinking and drug use.”
“And where were her parents during all this?”
“Somewhere along the French Riviera,” Bobby replied, tilting his nose up in the air to accentuate the haughty tone in his voice. “At least they could legitimately claim no knowledge of the party and escape any charges. Miss Priss luckily had been clean and sober when the cops showed up, or she’d be facing charges of her own.”
“She’s what—fifteen? Who was watching her while her parents were gone?”
“She’s sixteen, and from what Tammy’s told me, she’s been mostly raised by the household staff. Seems Tonya and her silver spoon hubby thought it might be fun to have a baby—until they realized how much work they were. So, they skedaddled after a couple of months to travel the world and left Kensi with a nanny. Been that way most of her life.”
At least Javier understood why she’d never been told no in her life. Hard to tell the one paying you that she can’t get what she wants. “So why here? Why not some fancy convent school manned by nuns with rulers?”
Bobby chuckled. “If anyone needs a good swat with a ruler, it’s her. And I suppose that’s why they sent her here. Tammy and I don’t deal with bullshit, and she’s going to learn that real quickly.”
“Tough break for her.” Javier stretched out in his chair. “Thanks for bailing me out again.”
“Any time. You’d be wise to steer clear of her until she learns her place, especially considering your court date is coming up, understood?”
“No problem there.”
“Good,” Bobby said with a conclusive nod. “And now that we got that out of the way, tell me what you think about this kid in Hawaii.” He clicked around on his computer until he found the video file he wanted.
Javier always welcomed a chance to watch new talent. He might not have had any desire to be a rodeo superstar, but that didn’t keep him from loving to watch the sport. Especially when someone could rope as well as the kid in the video could. If Bobby had his way, this kid would be enrolling the Double Buckle Rodeo Academy in the fall.
And hopefully, the snobby little ice princess would be ancient history by then.
Want to read more? A Cowboy’s Sweetheart will be available June 25, 2018