Emily Baker rarely dressed up for anything. But this was an important occasion, and she wanted to make a good first impression. Judging by the applause from the Fab Five, as the quintet of residents called themselves, she’d succeeded. Of course, they usually only saw her in scrubs, so perhaps the bar hadn’t been set that high.
“Go get ’em, and don’t take no for an answer,” Otis encouraged.
“Tell ’em we’ll take up a collection and pay the big bucks.” The two long gray braids that wrapped around Bess’s head were the only thing that distinguished her from her redheaded twin sister, Patsy. Bess waved a lace hanky at her as Emily stepped out into the brisk Texas air.
“Two bits, four bits, six bits a dollar. All for Emily, stand up and holler.” Patsy did a few snap movements like a cheerleader, and all five of them shouted like they were at a football pep rally.
Then Sarah, tall and thin with chin-length gray hair, put a key chain with a rabbit’s foot in Emily’s hand. “For good luck.”
“Okay,” Larry said. “We got to let her go. Let’s go to my place, get out the dominoes to pass the time while we wait for her to come back with the good news.” Every bit as tall as Sarah, he herded the bunch of them away from the door and down the hall.
When the Fab Five had come up with the idea for a “field trip,” she’d tried to talk them out of it, but ever since they’d read in the newspaper last summer about underprivileged kids going to the Longhorn Canyon ranch, they’d been begging to spend a week there too.
After a twenty-minute drive, Emily found the ranch with no problem. She parked her red Mustang in front of the house and checked her reflection in the rearview mirror. She fluffed up her long, dark brown hair, and reapplied her bright red lipstick.
She took a deep breath and wished that she’d figured out a better plan than just flying by the seat of her pants. Trying to figure out what to say first, she wasn’t watching where she was going, and her heel sunk into a gopher hole. She regained her footing just in time to avoid falling face-first, but in doing so, she stepped in a pile of fresh cow manure.
“Shit!” she muttered.
Amen, her grandmother’s voice popped into her head.
And if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, just then a tall cowboy with steel-blue eyes opened the door and stepped out on the porch. Lord, have mercy.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
She opened the gate into the yard and said, “I’m Emily Baker. We visited on the phone last evening.” She looked up into blue eyes.
“My brother, Cade, is the one that you talked to. He forgot that he had another meeting this morning in Wichita Falls. I’m Justin Maguire. Please come right in.” He stood to one side and motioned her inside.
She couldn’t track cow crap inside the house, so she kicked off her high-heeled shoes, leaving them on the porch. She glanced down at her chipped toenail polish and wished that she’d taken time to redo them. But not even ugly toenails would keep her from her mission—not after that send-off at the center.
“Should’ve been a little more careful about where I was steppin’,” she said.
Justin grinned. “That’s part of ranch life, darlin’. Evidently you haven’t lived on one.”
Oh, honey, you are so wrong about that, she thought.
As they crossed the foyer and entered a huge living room, she studied him from the corner of her eye. Scruff covered his square jaw, but she could see a very slight cleft in his chin. He walked with the cowboy swagger and confidence that would have women falling all over him. And he’d called her darlin’—did he flirt with everyone?
“We can talk in here, Emily. Have a seat anywhere. Sorry about the mess.”
“Thanks. I work at the Oakview Retirement Center in Bowie. Cade and I were going to talk about renting your bunkhouses for a week. Did he let you know if y’all have made a decision?” She spit it all out at once without taking a breath as she sat on the edge of the sofa, legs crossed at the ankle and back straight.
“He only told me that someone from the retirement center was coming by to visit about something as he was walking out the door fifteen minutes ago, but this is the first I’m hearing about it.” His forearms bulged beneath the rolled-up sleeves of his black, pearl snap shirt, and his hands were huge.
She had to look at him to talk to him, but when she did she noticed that the top two snaps of his shirt were undone, giving her a peek at light brown chest hair. She couldn’t get her thoughts together looking right at him. She’d expected the Maguire brothers to be her dad’s age. “There are five elderly folks at the center. They have some problems, but basically they’re pretty spry to be in their seventies.” She glanced down at the coffee table, where papers were strewn about. “You’re building a house? Are you an architect? I thought the Maguires were ranchers.”
“We are, but I’m trying my hand at drawing up the plans for our foreman and his new wife,” he answered.
Emily leaned forward. “Doesn’t look like it’s going to be very big.”
“Not here at first, but the design will make it easy to add on later.” He chose a chair close to the coffee table where the plans were laid out. “So tell me more about this idea you’ve got, Miz Barker.”
“Baker, not Barker,” she corrected him.
“Sorry about that. I’m better with faces than names. Might not be real good with names, but I never forget a pretty face.” He raked his fingers through light brown hair that had definitely had a cowboy hat settled on it not long ago.
Don’t flirt with me, cowboy, she thought.
“I’m the senior activities director at the Oakview Retirement Center and we try to have an outing for our patients a couple of times a year. One elderly gentleman asked that we visit a ranch for a week this spring. He had a big spread up near the Red River when he was younger. I can tell he gets homesick for all this.” She motioned with a flip of her hand.
“For the smell of fresh cow manure?” Justin chuckled as he glanced down at her feet.
A slow burn crept from her neck to her face. “And hay and baby calves and all that goes with ranchin’. Like I said, there are five of them who are interested, and they’re all in their seventies. They’ve got some arthritis problems, but none of them need wheelchair facilities. Otis was the rancher and his buddy, Larry, owned a construction business. Then there’s Sarah, Patsy, and Bess, who want to get away for a while. Sarah was a schoolteacher but grew up on a farm. Patsy and Bess are twins who were raised on a ranch back in the 1940s and 1950s.”
“Will there be medical professional folks to stay with them? And if this could happen, we’d have to have some paperwork showing we weren’t responsible for accidents,” Justin asked.
“I’ll stay in the ladies’ bunkhouse and will give their meds each day, and I’ll be in direct contact with the on-call nurse at the center. And we’ll be glad to sign a disclosure freeing you from all responsibility,” she answered. “Would it be possible for me to see the bunkhouses?”
“Sure, but I’ll have to talk to the rest of the family before I can give you an answer. You got a coat? It’s not far from here to the bunkhouses, but that north wind is pretty cold.”
“Just this jacket.” She looked down at the lightweight sweater that matched her dress.
“You can borrow one of ours. Be right back.” He whistled as he left the room.
Most of the time she was comfortable in her size-eighteen skin, but suddenly she was self-conscious. It would be so embarrassing if he brought back a jacket that wouldn’t even close over her more-than-ample breasts. But one look at the canvas work coat he held out to her when he returned had her wondering if there was a giant on the ranch.
“Excuse the stains. The coat belongs to my brother, Cade, but he won’t mind you using it,” Justin said.
She slipped her arms into it. The smells of ranch life lingered and made her a little homesick, but she brushed the feeling aside and headed for the door.
“Thought you might need these.” He handed her a box of tissues. “Or if you’ve got some boots or other shoes in your car…” He paused.
“I have work shoes out there, and I’ll change into them,” she said, quickly.
“Great. Can I get them for you?” he asked.
“I’ll take care of it.” She slipped her feet back into the shoes waiting on the porch. Thank goodness she’d left her oldest pair of Nikes in the trunk. She sure made a picture wearing a cute little dress, a work jacket, and her sneakers, but how she looked didn’t matter—what mattered was convincing the flirty cowboy to rent the bunkhouses. She couldn’t bear to go back to the center and tell the Fab Five that she’d failed.
He met her at the bottom of the porch steps and walked beside her to a bunkhouse and swung the door open. Years ago both bunkhouses were filled with hired hands, but these days most of the help on the ranch lived in town and commuted to work. Even though it was used only once a year now—when the ranch opened up to a few inner city, underprivileged kids—it was well kept and warm inside. And absolutely perfect for her ladies.
“Four small bedrooms.” He pointed across the living/kitchen area and then swung his hand around to the other side. “And one big one for the supervisor. Look around if you want.”
“It’s perfect.” The small rooms had individual vanities with sinks.
“Take a peek in the bathroom of this one.” He led the way through the bigger bedroom.
“Oh. My. Gosh!” She clamped a hand over her mouth when she saw the enormous tub. Had it been built for Cade? He’d need something that big if he filled out the coat she wore.
“Back when the bunkhouses were built, we had this six-and-a-half-foot, big burly foreman. I shouldn’t say we, it was long before my time. All he asked for was a tub big enough to soak his tired bones in at night, so my grandparents had this special made for him,” Justin explained. “Before we go on to the boys’ bunkhouse, let me ask a few questions.”
She couldn’t take her eyes from that tub. “Sure. Ask anything.”
“What kind of activities will the ranch need to provide for these senior citizens?”
“I don’t think you’ll be expected to entertain them. They just want to be on a ranch, maybe be allowed to take walks and feel the freedom of being in the country.” She brushed past him on the way back to the living room. “Does the boys’ place look like this?”
“Exactly, only it doesn’t have the big bathtub. Just a nice-size walk-in shower,” he answered.
“I won’t actually need to see it then, but a walk-in shower is great. Larry has a bad hip, and Otis has a bum knee, so that’ll make things easier for them. Do you have a price in mind for the week?”
Justin shook his head. “Can’t even begin to think about that until I talk to the family. There’s all kinds of things we’ll have to consider.”
“I understand. When do you think you might have an answer?” she pressured.
“What week did you want to book the bunkhouses?” He led the way outside. “And you did say that you would personally oversee most of their stay here, right?”
“Next Monday would be great. Then they’d be back at the center for the Valentine’s Day celebration. But if that’s too soon, then maybe the week after Valentine’s?”
“I’ll talk to the family about both times and let you know,” Justin said. “So you’ve been working at Oakview for five years.”
“Yes, as the activities director. I plan things to keep the residents busy. We do Bingo Mondays. Craft Tuesdays. That kind of thing. And then there are outings, but this is a big thing. I’ve never had a week-long trip with any of them. It’s mainly just day things like a trip to the Dallas Zoo or maybe to the mall over in Wichita Falls around Christmastime. We did go down to McKinney for their light festival last year,” she answered. “And I’m talking too much. I just get so excited about my job. Helping the elderly is so rewarding.”
When they reached the car she pulled a card from the pocket of her dress and handed it to him. “Thank you, Mr. Maguire. I’ll be lookin’ forward to hearing from you. Here’s my card. I’ve written my cell phone number on the back.”
“I’ll definitely let you know by morning and possibly tonight.” Justin tucked the card into his pocket.
Growing up, Emily had never been a petite little slip of a girl. She topped out at five feet eight inches, and with the high heels that she loved but seldom got a chance to wear except for church on Sunday, she was up close to six feet tall. She glanced over at Justin and wondered if he flirted with all women.
Like a gentleman, he walked her to the car and opened the door for her. Tipped his hat and then turned to go back inside the house. She started up the engine and turned on the heat, then realized she was still wearing Cade’s coat. Leaving the car running, she jogged back to the fence surrounding the house and bunkhouses, opened the gate, and dashed up onto the porch. She rang the bell and waited.
She held the coat out to Justin when he opened the door. “I forgot to give this back. Thanks for letting me borrow it.”
“Darlin’, you can wear my brother’s coat anytime you want to visit the ranch.” He winked.
Thank God he’d already gone back inside, because as she was walking from the porch to the car, she stepped in that same cow patty—again.
“Well, dammit!” she swore under her breath. “Nobody rattles me like that.”
She stopped at the back of her car and got out a reusable grocery bag. She sat down in the driver’s seat, put her shoes inside it, tied the top shut and tossed it to the back, and hustled her bare feet inside the car.
She always talked to herself when she was agitated. Slapping the steering wheel, she was determined that she wouldn’t say another word, but it didn’t work.
“I’m an independent woman. I paved my own way. I proved that when I left my folks’ ranch and made my own choice about life.”
Her phone rang. She picked it up from the passenger seat and put it on speaker. It was crazy to think that it could be Justin calling to say that he’d made a quick phone call and everything was set on go, but she crossed her fingers anyway.
“Hey, sis, I know you’re at work.” Her brother’s voice sounded agitated. “Are you in the car? I hear road noise.”
“Yes, I am, Taggart.” She went on to tell him why.
“You must be aggravated. You never call me by my full name unless you are,” Tag said.
“I wanted this resolved right now,” she said.
“Join the club.” Tag sighed.
“What’s goin’ on?” she asked.
“Matthew is driving me crazy. Hud and I think we should invest in the property up for sale right next to our ranch, but he won’t even hear us out. We even offered to manage it on our own. Our big brother wouldn’t have to do anything more than he does now. But oh, no, he says the ranch can’t spend the money,” Tag said.
“Buy it on your own,” she said.
“We could, but then we wouldn’t have operating capital,” he said. “When you come home next month for the reunion, will you talk to him?”
Dammit! One of the many reasons she’d left West Texas was because she didn’t like being the only sister, who had to settle arguments among her three brothers. Matthew, the oldest, had always been the bossy one, and the twins, just a year younger than Emily, were always in some kind of trouble with him.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she agreed. After all, she’d only be there for a weekend. Maybe she’d even enlist her parents’ help in settling the argument. They’d have a much better insight into whether the twins would be ready to take on that responsibility.
“Thanks, sis. So you’re going to spend a whole week on a ranch? That doesn’t sound like you.” Tag chuckled.
“Hey, I like ranchin’,” she said. “I just don’t like all the paperwork, and as the girl in the family, that was about to fall right in my lap. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that the rest of my life. I’m pulling into work right now so I’ve got to go.”
“Will you talk to Matthew about buying the property while you’re here?” Tag asked.
“I promise,” she said.
“Lookin’ forward to seein’ you,” Tag said.
“Me too. Bye now.”
She hurried across the parking lot in her bare feet, leaving both pairs of soiled shoes in the back seat of her car. The Fab Five were waiting in the lounge for her.
“So?” Sarah asked. “Did he say yes and knock your shoes plumb off your feet? I heard that both of them Maguire boys look like sex on a stick, but the older one is married. So which one did you talk to?”
Otis sniffed the air. “Hell, no, he didn’t. She stepped in cow crap. I’d recognize that smell anywhere. Was it going in or coming out?”
“Both,” she admitted.
“Well, darlin’, when you live on a ranch, you learn to watch where you’re puttin’ your feet. I remember when we graduated from high school our principal told us that we could wear our cowboy boots to the ceremony but he’d better not get a whiff of bull shit or he’d send us home.” Otis’s round baby face beamed every time he got to tell a story about his past.
Patsy poked him on the arm. “Enough reminiscing. What did they say? Do we start packing?”
“He has to talk to his family about it first,” Emily answered.
Sarah clapped her hands. “That’s not a no, so we’ve got hope.”
Patsy hugged Emily. “We’re goin’ to break out of this joint for a whole week. There’s no way he could refuse someone as beautiful as you.”
“Break out,” Bess said. “Like you did when we were kids and you got thrown in jail for tryin’ to sneak in the window at daylight?”
“It was your fault. If you hadn’t gone and called the police before I got inside, I wouldn’t have got caught,” Patsy argued.
“Did you flirt with him a little?” Larry asked. “We should have told you to do that.”
“I did not!” Emily exclaimed. “I just stopped back to tell y’all because I knew you’d be anxious. Hopefully, he’ll call tomorrow and let us know for sure. I’m going to gather up my stuff and go home.”
“Fair enough,” Sarah said. “Let’s go pray.”
Emily stopped in her tracks and turned around to look at them. “Pray?”
“Yep, if all else fails then give it to God.” Sarah grinned.
“Pray, nothing.” Otis moved over closer to Emily and inhaled deeply. “That smell of fresh cow patties is better than any women’s perfume in the world. If he says no, I’m going to offer to double whatever he wants to rent them cabins to us.”
“You’d think they were in prison.” Nikki pushed a medicine cart around the corner and met Emily coming down the hall. “Where are your shoes?”
“Smelling up my car. They’re probably ruined. I stepped in a pile of cow manure.”
Her best friend for the past five years was stifling a giggle. “Before or after you talked to the Maguires.”
“What?” Nikki’s giggle turned into a full-fledged laugh.
“It’s not funny. I saved up for weeks to buy these shoes. And it was so humiliating. Here, Justin Maguire is waiting to invite me in and I have to kick off my smelly shoes at the door.”
“Oooh, I hear Justin is pretty cute. What happened after that?”
“I managed to step in the same cow pile on my way back to the car, but I was wearing my old work shoes. I can wash them,” Emily answered.
“You really went inside in your bare feet? Did you get cow crap on your pantyhose, too?”
Emily walked along beside her. “Yup. I didn’t wear hose today. I was there to get him to let the Fab Five stay on the ranch, not impress him. Besides, what choice did I have?”
“Bullshit! You would’ve worn your scrubs and work shoes if you didn’t care about impressing him.”
“I was trying to be professional.” Emily headed toward the break room to change into scrubs.
“Whoa! Hold the horses!” Nikki laughed. “I’m your best friend. You’re all flushed. If just meeting him does that to you, how are you going to be when you are around him for a whole week if he does say yes?”
“Very careful,” Emily threw over her shoulder.
Justin heard the kitchen door squeak, but he didn’t look up until Levi entered the living room. Levi was like a second brother to him. His adoptive mother, Mavis, had been the ranch cook for years. And his father, Skip, was the ranch foreman before Levi took over the job.
Levi leaned over Justin’s shoulder and pointed.
“Claire wants a bigger closet and a bathroom big enough to put in a garden tub,” he said.
“Yes, I do.” Claire looked down over Justin’s other shoulder. A short blonde with a big heart and a sassy attitude, she’d stolen Levi’s heart last November when she got stranded on the ranch during a winter storm.
“I thought that if we extend this wall out six feet”—she pointed to an outside wall—“that should do it, and the rest of the room could be given to the kitchen for a bigger pantry. Is it doable?”
“I don’t know. That will sure enough cause structural problems.” Justin slid a sly wink at Levi. “This started out as a little house and it just keeps growing and growing.”
“Don’t tease me, Justin Maguire!” Claire shook her finger at him. “This is doable.”
“Of course it is.” Justin grabbed her finger. “But remember, once the foundation is laid, you can’t keep changing your mind.”
Her other small hand closed over his. “But you said we could knock out the closet at the end of the hall and add on later when we have a dozen kids.”
Justin chuckled. “Levi, I see why you married this woman. Those big blue eyes are irresistible.”
“Don’t I know it.” Levi slipped an arm around her waist and kissed her on the forehead.
“Hey, we got news!” Retta yelled from the front door.
Cade’s arm was draped around Retta. “We had the ultrasound done and…” He smiled.
“There’s going to be a little girl on the ranch at the first of summer,” Retta said.
“Mama is going to be over the moon.” Justin beamed.
Claire moved away from the plans and tiptoed to hug Retta. “Congratulations! Have you started thinking of names yet?”
“I want to know when we’re buying her a pony,” Levi said.
“Longhorn Canyon hasn’t had baby girls in years,” Justin said. “I’d buy her a pony for her first birthday, but I bet her daddy brings one home when she’s born.”
“I’m already thinking about the quilt I’ll make her,” Claire chimed in. “Maybe something in gingham with an eyelet lace border.”
“That sounds adorable,” Retta said as she eased down into one of the recliners.
“We had a visitor while you were gone,” Justin announced.
“Who? Oh, that woman from the retirement center, right?” Cade sat down on the arm of Retta’s chair.
Justin shifted his focus from the drawings to Cade. “That’s right. Emily something from that Oakview Retirement Center in Bowie for elderly folks.”
“You plannin’ on checkin’ into a nursing home?” Retta teased.
“Would you please finish our house plans before you check into the retirement place?” Levi said in mock seriousness.
Justin set his jaw. If they were teasing him this much just because a woman came to the ranch, the week she was there they’d really act up. “Y’all don’t deserve to know what she wanted.”
Cade laid a hand on his shoulder. “Oh, come on, brother.”
Justin went on to tell them, ending with, “I told her I’d have to talk to the family before I gave her an answer.”
“Why would these elderly folks want to visit a ranch?” Levi asked.
“Some of them are former ranchers or farmers and they miss the life. I thought we could hire Mavis to come out and help with the cookin’, but if y’all don’t think this is a good idea, then…” Part of Justin wanted them to nix the whole thing right then. The other part wanted them to vote unanimously to say yes. The downside was that Levi and Cade were so happily married that they’d immediately start playing matchmaker.
Justin could sidestep all of that for a week. At almost thirty, he still had a few years left in him to sow lots of wild oats. He liked hitting the Rusty Spur bar on weekends and bringing a different woman home with him. If a woman even mentioned anything longer than a one-night stand, he jerked on his boots and got the hell out of Dodge.
Besides, as soon as he finished the plans for Claire and Levi’s place, he intended to draw up a set for his own house. There was plenty of room in the ranch house, but a new baby would sure enough cramp his love life. Nothing would send one of his weekend women running quicker than a baby’s cries through the whole house. Not that he didn’t love kids—he couldn’t wait to be an uncle. But Cade and Retta needed the space to be parents, and it was time for him to move out.
The cabin! He thumped a palm against his head when he thought of the little house on the back side of the ranch. Why didn’t I think of that before? It’s plenty big enough for a bachelor, especially since it’s so private. It wasn’t a five-star hotel, but it was livable. Claire and Levi had stayed in it for a day or two during that bad snowstorm a few months ago. And sometimes friends of the family used it for a hunting cabin. It would be perfect for him until he could get his house built.
“Are you listenin’ to a word I’ve said?” Retta raised her voice.
“I’m sorry. I was thinking about house plans,” Justin answered.
“Cade thought we could ask Mavis to help out that week, but I can manage breakfast and lunch for six extra people.” She glanced over at Claire. “Could you help out with supper after you close up shop too?”
“No problem. I can even make the dessert for each evening and bring it with me,” Claire said.
Justin looked at his brother and Levi. “So what do you two think?”
“I want to know what Emily looks like,” Levi said.
“Tall as Retta.” Justin frowned, trying to think of details to give them. “Remember Gretchen, the bartender at the Rusty Spur until last year. Well, give her brown hair, blue eyes, a curvy body, and take away about thirty years.”
“Pretty, then?” Cade asked.
“Yep.” Justin nodded.
“Lookin’ back over the last year, you got to be one crazy cowboy to invite a woman here, even for a week,” Cade said.
“Just because you fell in love with Retta and Levi did with Claire when they came to the ranch don’t mean—”
Levi butted in before he could finish. “Be real careful. Fate has a way of kickin’ a cowboy in the seat of the pants when they say never.”
“All teasing aside,” Cade said. “I’m for it. But we won’t charge them for anything,” Cade said. “We don’t make the kids pay, so I wouldn’t feel right making the elderly pay. I just don’t want them to be disappointed in their little trip.”
“Why would they be?” Levi asked.
“This is a busy season with calving going on, so we won’t have much time to entertain them,” Cade answered.
“Emily says that they won’t need to be entertained. I imagine that they’ll eat, sleep, maybe walk out to the barn to see the animals, and then come back for another nap.” Justin laughed.