Home > Hope on the Range

Hope on the Range
Author: Cindi Madsen

 


Chapter 1


   A package from FedEx was rare around these parts, since most people in Silver Springs, Colorado, adored the postman they’d had going on forty years and thought any other delivery method was akin to treason.

   Didn’t matter that Gerald’s eyesight was going or that he often mixed up addresses and delivered the wrong mail to the wrong people. Which was why Tanya had been so adamant about using another shipping method. Even in the privacy of her own bedroom, merely placing the order had caused her face to grow too hot. If one of the busybodies in town accidentally ended up with her package, she’d never hear the end of it. Especially since no one around these parts could keep a secret.

   Tanya’s heart pumped double time, and she barely refrained from snatching the large padded envelope out of the flustered-looking FedEx driver’s hands. A jingling bell filled the air as Winston, the three-legged goat Tanya had recently nursed back to health, hobbled over to see what was going on.

   The FedEx driver read off her name and, at Tanya’s nod, finally extended the parcel her way. “This place wasn’t easy to find.”

   “Real sorry about that,” she said, more to be polite, since being off the beaten path was pretty much the point of Bullhead Valley Dude Ranch. Admittedly, she was also distracted, her mind preoccupied with the contents of the envelope and keeping Winston from nibbling on the corner. Thanks to the peg leg she’d fashioned, the lopsided goat could get around well enough, and he mostly used his newfound mobility to eat things he wasn’t supposed to.

   After she informed the delivery guy that no, there wasn’t an easier way back to the main road, he left, and a hesitant sort of excitement rose. Tanya had learned to manage her hopes and expectations, but there was also that saying about desperate times and desperate measures. Unfortunately, that term fit her all too well lately, so this summer, she’d resolved to take back the reins on her own life.

   She did a quick scan to confirm she was still alone. Between the guests and the staff, solitude was a rarity on the dude ranch. A family of five had checked out shortly before the FedEx truck had arrived; there would be a new group arriving for a corporate retreat momentarily; and then there was the big-shot CEO who’d booked a cabin for the entire month, starting this evening. Apparently, he’d inherited some land and was thinking of getting into the ranching biz. The guy would undoubtedly change his mind once he discovered visiting a ranch and running one were two very different things. Seeing as how he was willing to pay for the full Cowboy Up package, far be it from her to discourage him from learning that lesson the hard way.

   With the coast clear, Tanya lowered herself onto a nearby tree stump. “Shall we have a look?” she asked Winston as she ripped open the envelope. The cardboard tab fluttered in the early-morning breeze, and a stray red curl stuck to her lip gloss. Usually, she wore her hair up and didn’t bother with makeup, but these days, she was making more of an effort.

   Because she’d lost her mind, as the book she withdrew from the envelope confirmed.

   How to Land Your Dream Guy: Tips from Today’s Top Dating Expert.

   A mixture of embarrassment and anticipation whirled through her as she cracked open the spine. She skimmed the intro, since she’d already read it online, and flipped to the first chapter—“Know What You Want.”

   Well, that was easy. Tanya continually found herself wanting the one thing she shouldn’t—her best and oldest friend, who happened to be her neighbor to the east. Butterflies took flight in her gut as she recalled Brady Dawson’s scruffy face and the way his lazy, crooked smile spread across it. Then the groove in his cheek would appear, a perfect little accent she’d been tempted to run her finger over the past couple of months.

   Okay, fine. It’d been closer to four months, maybe five. At first, she’d been sure it was some kind of delusional phase, mostly due to the shortage of eligible men and having no time for a social life. After all, she and Brady had sworn long ago never to let anything ruin their friendship. They’d seen it time and time again in their small town. Two people crossed the line, only for friendship to turn to hate.

   But they were different, right?

   They had to be, because the desire that arose every time Tanya was around her best friend wasn’t going away. Now she needed to figure out how to get Brady to see her as a viable option. If she managed that, it’d eliminate at least some of the risk so she could broach the subject of crossing lines. Although if she thought too much about confessing her feelings, she was seriously going to puke, so one step at a time.

   The screen door to the main cabin where she and her parents lived screeched open, and Tanya slammed the book closed, jammed it into the envelope, and tucked it behind her back. If Mom so much as caught a glimpse, she’d do a praise-the-Lord dance before pointing out the dating tips she thought Tanya should pay extra attention to. Namely any that highlighted acting more like a lady.

   “Mornin’,” Mom said, squinting against the early-morning rays as she held the steaming cup of coffee in her hands. “Did the Crawfords already check out?”

   As if he assumed Mom meant the question for him, Winston let out a loud bleat. His buck teeth gave him a perpetual grin, and affection flooded Tanya as she petted his furry head. “They hit the road right as the sun was rising. They also left their regards and wanted me to tell you how much they enjoyed their stay.”

   “Good, good.”

   Winston twisted his head so Tanya could give the underside of his chin attention. Due to her rep as the bleeding heart of the county when it came to animals, she’d gotten a call saying the goat’s previous owners were going to put him down in favor of amputating his leg and ended up driving over an hour to rescue him. In spite of Tanya footing the hefty vet bill herself, Pops had been upset she hadn’t asked before bringing Winston to the dude ranch. Luckily, the goat was a hit with the guests, although Pops made her promise to rehome him once he was fully healed.

   In her mind, “fully healed” meant until his leg grew back—so never. “Ready to go clean up a cabin? No eating the pillowcases this time, though. In fact, it’s probably for the best if you stay outside.”

   “You let him inside the cabins?” Mom asked, exasperation lighting the green eyes Tanya had inherited from her.

   Considering she did the majority of the cleaning, Tanya figured it wasn’t a big deal as long as the end result was the same. Good thing her parents hadn’t caught her sneaking Winston inside her bedroom when he’d first arrived, leaving her feeling like the rebellious teenager her parents had often accused her of being. “Er, I mean you have to stay outside like you always do.”

   Tanya rubbed the goat’s fuzzy ear, her voice more on the cooing than reprimanding side. “Shame on you for even asking, Winston.”

   Pops stepped out of the house, and Tanya crossed her fingers he hadn’t heard the conversation and that Mom wouldn’t go and enlighten him. Eventually, she and her parents would inevitably butt heads over Winston staying for good, but she’d point out how much she enjoyed having him tag along as she went about her chores and how good he was with the horses and guests, and fingers crossed, Pops would give in. “What’s everyone standin’ around for? We’re burning daylight.”

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