Rancher Justin Granger hasn't seen his high school sweetheart since she rode out of town with his heart. Now, "too good for this small town" Rori Cornell stands on his doorstep, seeking a job as his cook and housekeeper. He can't turn her away, not with the sadness and worry in her cornflower-blue eyes. He'll just have to avoid her between meals. But when Justin discovers that Rori's big dream has always been him, he finds his heart softening. And an old promise yearning to be kept.
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June 01, 2010
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Excerpt from The Rancher's Promise by Jillian Hart
The Rancher's Promise
by Jillian Hart
"Justin, I finally got a call on the housekeeper job." "Oh, yeah? That's a shock." Justin Granger hefted the feed sack, settling the fifty-pound weight easily onto his shoulder. As a rancher, he was used to heavy lifting and in his line of work, this wasn't considered heavy. He followed his dad out the open front door of the feed store, waved goodbye to Kit behind the counter and squinted in the hot late May sunshine. "I was beginning to think that putting an ad in the paper was a waste of time and money."
"I figure we got lucky. Not many folks want to cook for the likes of us." His dad, Frank Granger, swung two feed bags into the back of the white pickup parked curbside. "I made the interview for later today. If that doesn't fit your schedule, then I can interview the gal on my own."
"A gal?" That meant a woman. Not promising, not at all. Justin tossed the sack into the back and closed the tailgate. "I wish Aunt Opal hadn't gone to Arizona. She's about the only female I want to trust."
"Not all women are like Tia or your mom." Frank gave the keys a toss. "I'm sure there's one trustworthy gal around these parts, at least enough honest to cook three squares for us and wash our socks."
"You're more optimistic than me, Dad." Justin hopped behind the wheel and turned over the engine. Cool air breezed out of the vents, a relief from the intense summer heat that had hit hard and early. Not the best thing for the crops. They mostly ran cattle, but they grew their own alfalfa, corn and hay. "I don't see why Autumn and Addison can't do it."
"Hey, if you want to tell your sisters to do housework instead of ranch work, be my guest. I'm not touching that with a ten-foot pole. I'd rather wrestle a rattler barehanded." Frank buckled up. "No, it's better we hire someone. I got a good feeling about this one."
"I hope you're right. I don't want to wind up with another closet drinker who falls asleep on the couch instead of fixing our supper." Justin checked the mirror. No traffic coming for as far as he could see, which wasn't a surprise. In a town the size of Wild Horse, Wyoming, it would have been a shock if there had been a car. He pulled onto the main drag, scowling. "If I remember, you had a good feeling about the drinker, too."
"Try to be more optimistic, son."
Justin rolled his eyes. Optimism was for birds and fools. He'd tried it once and hadn't liked it. He'd gotten his heart crushed and his illusions shattered because of it. In his view, it was wiser to expect the worst. Hard not to get disappointed or hurt that way.
"Looks like everyone's gettin' geared up for the festival." His dad sounded pretty glad about that.
"Guess so." Justin frowned, slowing down when the mayor held up a hand and walked into the road. Wild Horse was a small town with a handful of necessary businesses and an equal number of others tottering on the edge of failure, like The Greasy Spoon, which had been The Brown Bag eight months before. Justin stopped, wondering what the mayor wanted.
"Mornin', Grangers." Tim Wisener strolled up to the passenger window. "Got some exciting news. Just heard it from my wife a few minutes ago."
"Don't tell me you're finally going to be a grand-daddy," Frank teased in his good-natured way. "Both your boys have been married for how long and no little ones?"
"Too long." Tim shook his head. "Don't know what it is with kids these days."
Personally, Justin got the Wisener sons' view of things. Facing the prospect of marrying a woman was tough enough--something he never wanted to do--but trusting one to raise a family in this remote, ranching town and stick with it when times got tough was a whole different question. He didn't want to wind up like his dad, raising a family and making a living when a wife kept trying to bail him. That was one drama he wanted to avoid.
"Martha sold the old River Lodge. Deal closes right quick. It's a lady from back east, New York, I think, putting down cash for the place and the cottage and acres behind it."
"That is good news. This town could use something besides one sorry motel. Too bad it won't be up and running for the annual shindig."
Justin didn't tune in to the older men's conversation. This couldn't have waited? He hadn't the time or inclination to worry about the old lodge. He had a ranch to run and time was wasting. Now he had a new woman to worry about. Personally, the family did need a cook, but he didn't have high expectations.
His dad kept talking, and Justin really didn't listen until his ears perked up at the mention of horses. Along with a fine herd of Herefords and Angus, they raised and sold working ranch horses. That was his sister's love. She possessed a knack for working with animals that no one in these parts had.
"Martha will be thrilled." Tim backed away from the truck. "I'll tell her to get a hold of Autumn."
"You do that, Tim. See you around."
Now that his dad was done jawing, Justin put the truck in gear. Something familiar caught his attention. He swung back to look at the woman walking along the sidewalk up ahead. She had dark blond hair with gold highlights, blue eyes the color of hyacinths, and his heart skipped three beats. He would know that heart-shaped face anywhere.
Rori. His high-school sweetheart. His palms went slick against the steering wheel. His pulse lurched to a shotgun start and galloped like a runaway horse. What was she doing back in town?
Not his business, he decided, whipped his gaze away and hit the gas. The truck zipped forward, but he didn't let his eyes stray from the single yellow line. He was over her, done with romance and emotions that took a man up and down and lower still. White-knuckled, he prayed she didn't notice them as they rolled by. Too bad he knew the sheriff was parked behind the library sign with radar, or he'd get up some speed and leave her behind in his dust. In fact, maybe a ticket would be worth it.
"Slow down, son." Frank buzzed open his window. "Rori! What are you doin' walking around town?"
Leave it to Dad, who had to chat with everyone. Tempted to keep on going, Justin bit the bullet and hit the brake. He could man up and face the girl who'd broken his heart, who had as good as told him he wasn't good enough for her. No need to let her know how that broke him. Back then he'd been too young to know a smart man didn't let a woman into his heart. All they did was cause wreckage and ruin.
Yep, he could handle this. He shoved the gear into Park and pulled the brake. Might as well get this over with. Let her see she didn't have an effect on him these days.
"Hi, Mr. Granger." She looked a mite surprised, folded a lock of silken hair behind her ear and approached the truck. Her gaze cut through the windshield and when she spotted him behind the wheel, she winced. The way her top teeth dug into her bottom lip, worrying it, was a clear sign. She wasn't comfortable seeing him either. "Justin."
"Rori." No need to sound overly friendly. Likely as not she was back in Wyoming only to visit for a few days. Probably attending Terri Baker's wedding. Had he thought it through and realized running into her might be a possibility, he would have stayed on the ranch and let his dad run the errands.
"Looks like you've got a problem, missy." Dad leaned out the window to get a good look at something. "Your horse threw a shoe."
"He's trying to. It's come off just enough that I can't ride him back to Gram's. I can't get it off, wouldn't you know?" She was a master of the shy grin. "I didn't think to bring a shoe-puller with me."
Don't get sucked in by that grin, Justin told himself. No way, no sir. He'd stopped being immune to her smile when she'd taken his heart, stomped it to bits and shoved it back at him. He opened his mouth to tell her they'd be happy to call her grandparents for her, but Dad unbuckled and opened the door.
"We got some tools. We can improvise." Frank's boots hit the blacktop. "Justin, get out here and help while I dig through the back, will ya?"
If it were anyone else--anyone--he'd have done it before his father could volunteer him. Justin's grip tightened on the steering wheel. Why hadn't he kept driving when he'd had the chance?
Gritting his teeth, he yanked the belt loose and tumbled into the road. With every step he took, he felt the weight of her gaze. He didn't like it, but there wasn't much help around on a Sunday afternoon. There was no one handy to take over the task of helping the lady in distress. Most of the businesses in town were closed and aside from the mayor out for a stroll, there wasn't a soul on the streets.
"I'll go put in our lunch order." Frank handed him a flathead screwdriver, a pair of pliers and a battered roll of duct tape. "You can stay here and help Rori."
"No, Dad." He couldn't believe his own father would do this to him.
"Justin, you might as well go with your father," Rori spoke up, clearly not comfortable being left alone with the likes of him. "I can do it myself."
"That's not the way we do things, little lady. Justin, you can catch up with me at Clem's." Frank hopped in behind the wheel and pulled the door shut, looking pleased with himself.
He'd seen that mischief in his dad's eyes before. Playing matchmaker, was he? What, did he think that Rori with her model good looks and college education was going to take a shine to the same cowboy she hadn't wanted years before? Justin shook his head, vowing to give his dad a piece of his mind later. The pickup's engine revved and the vehicle took off, leaving him behind in the middle of town with the sun blazing and a hint of old anger beginning to brew.
"I'm really sorry about this." She did look sorry. Sorry about being forced to see him again.
That made two of them.
"Don't worry about it. This will only take a second." He stalked around her and approached Copper with an outstretched hand, palm up. "Hey there, old boy. Remember me?"
The gelding snorted, his tail swished and he nickered low in his throat.
"Guess you do." He stroked the horse's neck. "He's gone gray around the muzzle. He's gotta be what, twenty?"
"Autumn's mare is getting up there, too." Justin's face softened as he stroked the horse again. "Looks like your grandfolks have been taking good care of him."
"He's happy on their farm. He rules the roost."
"At least that hasn't changed."
"Justin, you might as well hand over the tools and let me do this." She took a deep breath. Talk about awkward. Nothing could cover up the fact that she'd hurt him long ago, and the pinch around his dark eyes told her he well remembered. "I'll return your tools later."
"I don't mind." He looked as if he did. Tension corded in his neck as he ran one hand down Copper's back leg; his jaw went tight. A sure sign that he minded very much.
This was so not a good idea, especially when Copper refused to lift his hoof. She knelt at Justin's side. Being near him felt strange. Enmity radiated from him like the sun's heat off the earth. She wished she could elbow him aside and take over. "I know how to remove a shoe," she insisted. "Let me do it."
"Still as stubborn as ever."
"Are you talking about me or the horse?"
"Hard to say. Right now the both of you are giving me a headache." His grin belied his words.
She touched Copper's pastern, and the gelding obliged by lifting his hoof.
"That's more like it." Justin fell silent, head bent as he edged the screwdriver beneath a bent nail head and gave it a good tap with the pliers.
It didn't look as if he was going to relinquish the job. She scooped up the roll of tape he'd left on the pavement. It was hard to believe after all this time she was face-to-face with him. What were the chances she would run into him on her first trip into town? And it wasn't fair. She hadn't been prepared. She hadn't been back for more than a few days, and here he was in real life--not a dream or a memory--his ruggedly handsome face as emotionless as granite.
Time had been good to him. The old affection she'd once felt was like a light going on in her battered heart. Not that she loved Justin--no, there was no chance of that now and he would never feel that way about her again.
So, maybe it wasn't old affection she felt. Lord, let this be simply a touch of nostalgia. At least, she could pray it was so.
She studied the rugged cut of Justin's profile, the shock of dark hair spilling over his forehead, the straight slope of his nose and the spare line of his lips. Familiar and dear, but time had changed him, too. It had matured his face, sculpted hollows into his cheeks and fine lines in the corners of his eyes. His shoulders had broadened, he was a man in his prime and looked every inch of it.
With a few yanks, he pulled the last nail out of Copper's hoof and the horseshoe clattered to the pavement.
He plucked the tape from her fingers without meeting her gaze. He tore off a few strips and expertly lined them along the edge of Copper's hoof, working quick but competently, still an accomplished ranchman. There was something about Justin's combination of down-to-earth country, stoic strength and capability she would always admire.
"That ought to get you two home. Just go slow. No galloping." He lowered Copper's hoof to the ground and retrieved the shoe. "Want me to put this in the saddle pack?"
"Sure." The wind gusted in a hot airless puff, stirring leaves in the aspens that marched down the sidewalks. A dust devil whirled a thick funnel in the feed store's lot, giving her an excuse to look down the main street. The sidewalks were as empty as the road. Way down at the far end of town, the distant sound of kids' voices rose from the drive-in, known for its selection of ice cream.