Big-city sheriffs don't belong in tiny Wild Horse, Wyoming. At least that's what rancher Autumn Granger thinks when handsome Ford Sherman sweeps into town and sets his sights on her. A country cowgirl, she can't possibly be his match. Like most newcomers, he'll eventually get restless with small-town life and leave it--and her--behind. But when rustlers attack her family's ranch, Ford helps her protect Granger territory. She finds herself hoping that he really is in Wild Horse to stay. Could her holiday wish of a happily ever after with this handsome lawman come true?
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August 31, 2010
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Excerpt from His Holiday Bride by Jillian Hart
Autumn Granger knew trouble when she saw it, even if she was on the back of a horse riding the crest of a rocky ridge at the tail end of a hard, cold day. She wrapped her scarf tighter around her neck, ignored the wintry bite of wind and focused her binoculars on the cluster of breakaway cattle swarming like flies in the field below.
Hard to tell one cow from another at this distance. Could be Granger stock, but it was impossible to read the brand with the sun slanting low in her eyes. She fished her cell from her pocket and hit speed dial. She was number three man around the ranch. Her older brother Justin would know the scoop.
"Yeah?" he answered, sounding out of breath. He wasn't having an easy afternoon, either.
"Do you have visual on the north Hereford herd?" She swung her binoculars around--nope, still couldn't get a good view--and swept the length of the fence line. Maybe downed barbed wire would tell a better story.
"Dad, Scotty and I are feeding them now. Where are you? "
"The ridge north of the ranch house. Cattle are out." Major bummer.
"I suppose there's a chance they could belong to the Parnells." Justin pondered. "If they turn out to be ours, will you have time to run them in?"
"Already on it." So much for getting off early. That's the way it was when you worked a ranch. The animals came first. She pocketed the phone and dropped the binocs, winding them around her saddle horn. When she drew her Stetson brim down a bit to better shade her face, her bay quarter horse twisted her neck to give an incredulous look.
"I promised you a warm rubdown and a bucket of grain, but we've got to do this." She patted Aggie's nut-brown coat. "Duty calls. Are you with me, girl?"
Aggie nickered a bit reluctantly and started the treacherous descent. Rocks and earth crumbled, speeding ahead of them down the steep slope. Autumn stood in her stirrups, leaning back to balance her weight for Aggie. Winter birds scattered, and in the brush up ahead a coyote skedaddled out of sight. The Grand Tetons marched along the horizon, majestic and purple-blue against the amber crispness of the late November plains. Something in the fields below reflected a blinding streak of light. Strange. She grabbed her binocs and looked again. She focused in until the image came clear. A police vehicle sat sideways in the road as if it had turned a corner, saw the cattle and hit the brakes just in time. Interesting.
That couldn't be the new sheriff, could it? Lord, please let him know what he's doing. We need a good lawman around here. The town had brought someone in from out of state, but rumor had it the city slicker hired for the job wouldn't be on until mid-December. Rumors couldn't always be counted on, and maybe this was proof positive. She gave Aggie more rein as the horse slid the last yard to the buffeting clumps of bunch grass below.
"Good girl," she praised, patting her mare's neck. Aggie gave a snort because she knew they would be heading back home the way they came, likely as not. The mare could not be looking forward to climbing up the slope.
Aggie'd had a long day, too. Sympathetic, Autumn lifted her binocs again. This time, she was interested in the cattle. She was close enough to make out the brand.
"Hey, there." A man in a brand new Stetson, black T, Levis and polished riding boots held up a hand in greeting. He stepped away from his four-wheel drive with "Sheriff" in black on the doors and waded through the fallow grasses. "The cows wouldn't happen to be yours, would they?"
"No, sir." She pulled up Aggie, straining to see every last cow flank. "These bear the Parnells' brand."
"Parnell? Sorry, I'm new around here."
"No kidding." When you lived in a small town, strangers stuck out like a sore thumb. "I'm Autumn Granger."
"Good to meet you, Miss Granger. I'm Ford Sherman." He knuckled back his hat to get a better look at her, revealing just about the most handsome face she'd ever set eyes on. Big blue eyes were striking against his suntanned complexion. His nose was straight and strong but not too big for his face, a complement to the slashing cheekbones and a jaw that would make most male models cry. A day's growth clung to his jawline, a rough texture on a man who was rumored to be city bred.
He was definitely out of place on a Wyoming section road. She wondered how long he would last in these parts. Two weeks, a month before he headed back to urban life?
"I'm trying to find Mustang Road. All I know is that this isn't it." He had a nice grin, friendly and unguarded, but it didn't reach his eyes. Probably a story there, but she didn't care to know it. Likely as not he wouldn't be around long enough, and besides, whatever it was, it was personal.
She wasn't exactly the type of girl any guy went for. "It's Mustang Lane, and you are about as lost as a soul can get, Sheriff. You need to backtrack to the main county road. Stay on the pavement until you hit the other side of our spread."
"And I would know that how?"
"It's the first intersecting road you come to. You have a dazed look on your face. Where are you from?"
"I'm guessing you haven't seen so much open land except in an old Western?"
"I noticed it on the plane when I flew out to interview, but I kept close to town. Didn't get a chance to wander off the main street."
"Out here it's mostly ranches, rangeland and cattle. You've got to keep on eye on cows, or don't you know? They're going to tear your vehicle apart."
"What?" He whipped around. Sure enough, the mammoth black-and-white creatures had abandoned their grazing to gnaw on his four-wheel drive. They clustered around it like a mob, mouths and tongues and teeth bent on destruction. One cow tried to pry the wiper off the windshield, another chewed on the side-view mirror. Several leaned through the open window licking the seats. Another pulled a clean T-shirt out of his duffel and waved it in the wind like a prize.
"Shoo!" He didn't know the first thing about cattle in real life, but he'd read plenty of Westerns where they were easy to scare into a stampede--not that he wanted a stampede, but this was a dire situation. He was responsible for that vehicle. How was he going to explain teeth marks to the town council? "Get up. Move along, little dogie."
The entire herd swiveled their heads in unison to study him curiously. Not one of them was the least bit scared. Not a single hoof shifted. The animals returned to chewing, licking and digging through his possessions as if he were no threat at all.
"Move along, little dogie?" The woman on the horse laughed, a warm and wonderful sound. She dropped her reins, her hands at her stomach, watching him as if he was the funniest thing she'd ever seen. "That was a good one. I needed that."
"Glad to help out." He might be inexperienced with cows, but he understood hard work. "Tough day?"
"Tough and long." She swiped her eyes. "Sorry, didn't mean to poke fun at you. Do you know anything about cattle?"
"Not in real life." There was a lot he could tell her, but he didn't. He rather liked the way she watched him with a crook of a grin and a look as if to say she had seen this before. Let her think what she wanted. He gave his hat a tug and turned his attention to her. "I read a lot of Westerns. Or, I did when my granddad was alive. He got me hooked on them. We would sit and read side by side for hours at a time."
"You must miss him."
"He passed on about eight years back, and yeah, I still miss him."
"I know how that is." She'd lost her mom when she'd been in high school, and then her grandparents died one by one. It was the cycle of life--birth and death, love and grief--turning like the seasons, unable to be stopped. "Next time you come across cows in the road, you have to consider what you're dealing with. Range cattle are used to being herded. Pets are not."
"And what I've got here are pets?"
"Parnell has four daughters and 4-H animals galore. Watch and learn." She reined her horse toward the herd.
A cutting horse, he realized, a beautiful creature with a dark brown coat and a long silky black mane and tail. An American quarter horse, pedigreed, by the looks of those fine lines. Considering the dishpan profile, the wide, intelligent eyes and the impeccable conformation, his guess was a very well-pedigreed mare. Even more beautiful was the woman in command, sitting straight in the saddle as if she'd been born to ride. Woman and horse sliced through the middle of the swarm. Autumn Granger pulled something out of the pack tied behind her saddle.
"Look what I have, guys. Cookies." Wintry sunshine burnished her strawberry-blond hair as she held up a sandwich bag and rattled it.
Cows swung in her direction, abandoning the mirrors, the bumpers and his luggage. Dozens of liquid brown eyes brightened with excitement as she opened the bag and shook it again. The enticing scent of homemade snickerdoodles carried on the wind, and even his stomach growled.
"Follow me." She circled around the car. The cattle bounded after her, and the earth shook with the force of their powerful hooves.
"It was nice meeting you, Sheriff." She tipped her hat.
She looked awesome and powerful on the back of that horse, but up close it surprised him to see that she was petite and fragile. For all her presence, she was a bit of a thing with a heart-shaped face and delicate features, big, hazel eyes and a sugar-sweet smile. Slim and graceful, she leaned closer. "Don't worry, they'll go around you. This isn't a rampaging stampede."
"Where are you taking them?"
"Back to the Parnells. Easiest route is the road." She glanced over her shoulder. "You had best stop off at the feed store and tell Kit at the counter you need molasses treats to keep in your rig. Next time you'll be on your own, city boy."
The enormous creatures broke around him, their heads upraised, sniffing the air, their eyes bright with cookie hopes. They dashed around him, shaking the ground and jarring his teeth, and then they were gone, obscured by the rising cloud of dust like something out of an old cowboy movie. But it wasn't the cows he missed. The cowgirl stayed on his mind, the sweetest thing he had ever seen. He pulled the keys from his pocket, rescued two shirts from the ground and stalked over to his rig.
Autumn ended the call and tucked her cell into her pocket. Parnell would send someone over. The cattle would be taken care of soon. If there wasn't a single problem getting home and she sped through Aggie's care and a super-fast shower, she might make it into town to meet her friends on time. Maybe. She could only hope at this point. The work day wasn't done yet, and who knew what would happen next?
A cow's sharp moo broke into her thoughts. What was wrong now? She twisted in her saddle. The bulk of the cattle were following her, straining for the cookie bag, but the ones in the back glanced behind them nervously. Another heifer took to lowing in protest. And could she blame them?
Not one bit. The new sheriff had caught up with them. He trailed behind the herd in his Jeep, strobes flashing. What was the man thinking?
"You are going to wear out those lights," she called above the plod of three dozen cattle.
"Miss Granger, you and the cows are a traffic hazard." He leaned out the window, his dark hair tousled by the wind. "I don't want anyone to get hurt, so I'm escorting you."
"Turn the lights off. They are giving me a headache and the cows aren't liking it."
"Sorry, no can do. It's procedure."
"I can keep this herd together if they bolt, but I'd rather not work Aggie that hard. She's had a long day, too."
"I don't want to get fired. The lights stay on."
"Don't you know better than to argue with a woman who's packing?" Not that she would shoot him or any-one--the Colt .45 she carried was strictly for frightening off wildlife and the occasional rattler--but it was fun to see the question pass across his face.
"You've got a permit for that?"
A permit? Autumn found herself grinning wider. He wasn't too bad for an outsider, especially when he cut the lights. Nope, not a bad guy at all. The big question was how long he would last before he went the way of three out of the last four lawmen who'd held his job. They'd run back to city life as fast as they could bolt.
She rode along, attention on the cattle. The animals closest to her held their heads up and their tongues out, trying to hook the cookie bag. When she hit the main road, she leaned right and led the herd along the pavement. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the sheriff's SUV ambling the wrong way in the oncoming lane, headlights bright to warn any approaching traffic.
A little overkill, considering the only vehicle they came across was Jeremy Miller in his semi-sized tractor rumbling toward them at a leisurely clip. Autumn waved when Jeremy did.
"Who's the yahoo with the lights?" The rancher leaned out his window.
"The new sheriff."
"Just my luck. I didn't think he was supposed to start until December."
"Neither did I." She glanced over her shoulder. The sheriff had eased back behind her to give the tractor his lane. "Did you see Parnell back there?"
"Spotted two of his girls riding down the hill. They ought to catch up with you in a few." Jeremy tipped his Stetson and raised his window, so that air conditioning and satellite radio kept him comfy and entertained as he rolled along. She suspected he waved to the sheriff, but she didn't look to be sure.
I give him three months tops before he heads back to Chicago, she thought, glancing over her shoulder. Yep, there he was back in the oncoming lane, trying to keep the cattle from drifting over into it, determined to protect the ranching population of White Horse County from a few cows on a rangeland road. Poor guy. Probably really thought he was helping.