Home > The Rancher's Wager

The Rancher's Wager
Author: Maisey Yates

 


One


   Cricket Maxfield had won any number of specious prizes in the game of life. From being born youngest in her family, barely rating a passing glance from either of her parents and being left to essentially do as she pleased, to being the only Maxfield sister born with both pigeon feet and buck teeth.

   The latter was largely solved by braces, the former was mostly dealt with by casts on her feet when she was a baby.

   She hardly walked turned in at all anymore.

   All the way to a decrepit ranch that had been buried in her father’s portfolio, discovered after his disgrace, and unwanted by anyone else in her family.

   She had a feeling, though, that she was about to win the strangest prize of all—six feet and four inches of big, rock solid cowboy.

   She couldn’t have planned it better if she’d tried.

   Oh, he didn’t think he was going to lose. She knew he didn’t. Because he had been betting like a fool all the way through this hand, and he had no idea that she had just gotten the absolute best hand possible.

   No. He was playing like a man with a full house or a straight flush.

   But she was a woman with a royal flush.

   This final hand was always the most interesting part of this charity fundraiser, and it was the first year that Cricket had ever been in the hot seat for Battle of the Gold Valley Stars charity poker tournament.

   This was the grudge game. This was the game for spectators.

   Huge amounts of money had already been counted and distributed in previous rounds, all of it donated by businesses as each player had fought tooth and nail against each other, pouring cash into a pot for the sole purpose of giving back to the community. Now came the part where things got interesting.

   Rivals tried to get back bits of their own, as hotly contested items that had been tussled over at rummage sales, and family heirlooms that had gone back and forth in this game for decades, were all put in the pot.

   Cricket was currently wearing an oversized black leather jacket with fringes—won in the previous round from Elliott Johns, the guy who ran a water filtration company in the area. She also had an oversized black cowboy hat that she had already won from her current target. It was resting low on her head, and smelled vaguely of sweat, which was unnerving, since smelling Jackson’s sweat made her feel strange. Just the idea of it.

   It was a bit like that feeling she’d gotten when she was a child, and had been tempted to do something she knew she shouldn’t. A strange tingling low in her stomach, that then went lower and spread down her thighs, making her feel restless and strange. She shifted in her chair, her dress slippery on the material of the seat. Another specious prize. A hand-me-down red gown originally worn by her sister Emerson to this event.

   Cricket’s fidgeting was just anticipation. And being so close to Jackson Cooper.

   A man she usually avoided.

   From afar, she had made a study of the Cooper family over the years. Something she was embarrassed to admit.

   She had gotten to know Jackson’s brother, Creed, a little better over the past few months, since he’d become her brother-in-law. She’d acted shocked and appalled and said any number of things about her sister Wren when she found herself involved with a Cooper. It had gone way past involved now, and they were married with a baby. And Cricket had sworn to Wren, up and down, that hardheaded, irritating, stubborn cowboys would never ever be her type.

   Cricket was a liar.

   Jackson made her feel strange...but he was also the only one of the Coopers who could answer the questions she needed answered.

   Because of Wren, she couldn’t really talk to Creed. And she didn’t really want to talk to the youngest Cooper either, even though Honey was closer to Cricket’s age. She’d never found the other girl approachable.

   In some ways, Cricket was jealous of her.

   Honey was a country girl. A tough cowgirl. And she just seemed to fit with her family. In a way Cricket did not.

   Case in point, Cricket had never really had much of anything to do with the family winery. But she was a fantastic card player. And with their father officially out of commission—having been exiled in disgrace, and for good reason—Cricket had been nominated by her sisters to take his place.

   And Cricket was about to take it all.

   “I’ll raise you,” she said.

   Oh yes, it was time. In that pot were a great many things she was interested in. Jackson’s cufflinks. His watch. A pony from his ranch.

   She’d only had to offer a diamond bracelet—wasn’t hers anyway—a case of Maxfield reserve wines, and the dollar from her father’s very first sale, which still hung in his vacant office, framed on the wall. Something that Jackson said he was going to give to his father.

   The Maxfield and Cooper families were rivals from way back, though that rivalry had been dented some by her sister marrying Creed.

   Still, sitting here across from a Cooper brought out her competitive spirit. Especially because right along with that competitive spirit, Jackson also brought out that complicated sensation she could honestly say she wasn’t a fan of.

   And now it was right down to the final bet.

   “I bet myself,” she said.

   “Excuse me?”

   “I bet myself. I will work for Cowboy Wines for free for thirty days.”

   His brows shot upward. “That’s pretty rich.”

   “You afraid?”

   He snorted. “I’ll see you. And raise you. I’ll work at Maxfield Vineyards for thirty days.”

   “No,” she said. “The winery doesn’t need you. You’ll work at my ranch for thirty days. And sleep in the bunkhouse.” She desperately needed a ranch hand. And she knew that Jackson Cooper knew what he was doing when it came to horses.

   Cricket wanted as far away from the uppity confines of her upbringing as possible. And this ranch was her one way to get there.

   “And if I lose...”

   “You’ll work at Cowboy Wines, in the tasting room. Dressed up in cowgirl boots and a miniskirt and serving our guests.”

   He was trying to scare her or humiliate her. But she’d grown up with James Maxfield. She’d been made to feel small and sad and unwanted for years. It was only recently she’d started to suspect why her father had treated her that way. But after a lifetime of humiliation, a miniskirt and waiting tables wouldn’t defeat her. “Deal.”

   And she wouldn’t lose. She wanted his forfeit and wasn’t worried at all about her own.

   She needed Jackson on her ranch. Unfortunately, she was all stalled out. Didn’t quite know where to begin. That’s where Jackson would come in handy.

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