The Cowboy's Mail Order Bride
Author:Carolyn Brown

Chapter 8

 

 

 

 

Moving wild cows in west Texas involved taking the dogs out to the flat acreage, gathering up the critters, and herding them through a gate into an adjoining pasture. In Ravenna, it was a whole different story.

 

Emily’s coat was buttoned up and scarf tucked in. Gloves warmed her hands, but the cold north wind slung the wet snow against her bare cheeks with enough force to make them sting. Greg had let the dogs out of the boxes on the back of his truck and they stood between them, waiting for the signal.

 

“Number these dogs so I know who to send after that rangy old bull first,” she yelled over the sound of the wind rattling the bare tree branches like bones of an old skeleton.

 

“You think they’ll listen to you?”

 

“I’ve been working with dogs my whole life.”

 

“I’ll stay here in case they balk at a stranger.”

 

She stooped down, looked each dog in the eyes, and then kissed him on the top of the head. “We’ll do fine, Greg. They like me.”

 

“Like is one thing. Respect and obey is another. Max trained them and I can work them, but we’re the only two people on the ranch that they’ll listen to.”

 

“They’ll listen to me, I promise. I know dogs like I know ranchin’,” she said.

 

“Oh, yeah?” His tone was as cold as the wind swirling around them.

 

She rubbed her gloved hands together to generate a little more warmth. “Did someone piss in your gravy this morning? You’ve been distant all morning. What’s your problem? Bad day or mad? And if I’m at the center of your mood, then what did I do wrong?”

 

He leaned against the truck fender. “Maybe we’re talkin’ about you thinkin’ you can make a workin’ ranch out of a hundred acres. Maybe we’re talkin’ about the fact that you aren’t going to be around here much longer and Nana is going to be so sad when you leave.”

 

“I can make a ranch out of a hundred acres and I’ll be sad when I leave too, but my roots are on Shine Canyon. Now are we going to bring those wild heifers up from the mesquite, or are you trying to start an argument because you are mad about something else?”

 

Greg pointed as he talked. “Okay, give it your best shot. Blister is number four. Angel is three. Merlin is two, and Coolie is the number one dog.”

 

Four new dogs in her world.

 

Four new people.

 

She tapped Blister on the head and pointed. The dog took off in a dead run while the others waited, every muscle quivering as they sat patiently waiting for the signal that it was their turn.

 

Blister circled the bull, yapping at its heels until it finally started moving. Trouble was, it lowered its big head and charged straight toward Emily. She held her ground and when the bull was inches from her, she twisted one leg to the inside just slightly. He turned and headed back to the mesquite thicket with Blister right on his heels.

 

It was an old trick that her father taught her and Taylor. He said it was kin to bull fighting without the red cape, and she’d just proven it for the first time for herself. Her heart raced and her chest hurt from holding her breath, but she’d never tell Greg that she’d been too damn scared to move.

 

She whistled shrilly. Blister ran back and sat down at her feet. She grabbed him between the ears and kissed him before she pointed at Angel. “Go on, baby girl, and show these boys how it’s done.”

 

Angel was a red heeler and her stance said that she was a no-nonsense girl. She crouched low, growled, and then took off with a yip, disappearing into the thicket. In a few seconds there was a ruckus that sounded like the bull was trying to uproot the trees. Then the old boy trotted out with Angel snapping at his heels and joined the herd.

 

“I’ll be damned.” Greg chuckled.

 

“Are they all herded up now?” she asked.

 

“No, there’s another pocket of them about halfway out toward the far fence. I’ll go open the gate and take Blister with me to get them moving if you want to drive down there and work some more with the dogs,” he answered.

 

 

“I don’t need to drive. I can walk that far,” she said.

 

“There’s about forty of them down there. You better take Coolie,” he said.

 

“You take him with you. I just need Angel and Merlin. I don’t like to see the cattle lose an ear or have a bloody lip in this kind of weather. And that’s why Coolie is the number one dog. He takes care of the matters when nothing else works, right?”

 

Greg nodded. “Be careful. That bull scared the hell out of me when he charged you.”

 

“Me too. I almost broke and ran,” she admitted.

 

“So what was your dog’s name that died? I know you probably told us, but I forgot. I’m sorry,” Greg asked.

 

“Bill was our Coolie. We only sent him in when the bull was too stubborn to work with the first three. They’ll miss him on the ranch,” she said.

 

It wasn’t until she was walking away with Angel and Merlin at her heels that she realized she’d said that they would miss him on the ranch, not we’ll miss him. It was a slip of the tongue. Emily was going home to Shine Canyon. She and Gramps had so many memories there that they’d both be happy doing what they could to build it all again.

 

Angel gathered up the rest of the strays in a few minutes, and when Emily turned Merlin loose to help, they worked together to keep them moving toward the gate on the far side of the pasture.

 

“That all of ’em?” Greg yelled.

 

She held up her right thumb and watched his lips move as he counted them when they went through the gate into the next pasture. She snapped her fingers and Angel and Merlin had a race back to the truck where they hopped up on the tailgate with Coolie and Blister and waited for Greg to open their cage doors.

 

Grace, in all its forms, deserted her. She took a step backward, stepped in a gopher hole, and boom! Snowflakes were falling in her wide-open eyes. Greg bounded off the tailgate of the truck and knelt beside her, jerking his gloves off and checking the pulse in her neck.

 

“I’m not dead,” she gasped.

 

“Then blink.”

 

“Look!” She tried to point toward the front of the truck, but her hand wouldn’t move.

 

A low guttural growl set the dogs to barking so loud that Greg looked at them instead of under the truck at the bobcat stretched out not five feet from Emily’s outstretched hand.

 

“Bob…” she whispered.

 

“I thought your dog’s name was Bill. Why are those dogs carrying on like that?”

 

“Cat…” she said.

 

Finally Greg understood what she said and tilted his head. He slipped an arm under her shoulders and one under her legs, picked her up, and carried her to the passenger’s side of the truck, whistling as if nothing was the matter.

 

Either the man was crazy or he was a bobcat whisperer.

 

He opened the door, set her inside, and then jogged through the snow to the driver’s side, got in, revved up the engine, and the bobcat ran out toward the mesquite trees.

 

“Whew!” He wiped his forehead. “I was scared that thing would take a swipe at my legs. Never saw one that big around these parts. If you hadn’t seen it we might both be scratched and bitten all to hell.”

 

“It’s a good thing we got the cows and calves moved out of here or we’d have lost one by morning.” That feeling of helping, of being needed, washed over her again, warming her soul from the core of her body to her outer skin.

 

She’d done it again: said we instead of you. Guilt slammed into her heart like a baseball and she mentally apologized to her grandfather for the slip.

 

“Are you okay?” he asked.

 

“I’m fine. The snow flat-out covered up that gopher hole.”

 

“Want me to take you home?”

 

Home?

 

Where was it? Happy or Ravenna?

 

“I’m fine. I’m not hurt. Let’s just get back to work so that when we go home we can get warm and not have to come back out in it today.”

 

Greg’s eyes locked with hers. “If you’re sure.”

 

“I’m sure. That big old bull with his horns didn’t scare me like that cat and his growl.” She managed a weak laugh.

 

***

 

“We really need to talk,” Greg said.

 

“Nothing to talk about.”

 

“Yes, there is. I lied about that date and it wasn’t right,” he told her.

 

“Greg, everything happens for a reason, and I think that Dusty calling me and you thinking it was an old boyfriend was just the big curve that said for us to slow down. Things were going too fast. Yes, you are sexy as the devil. Yes, I’m attracted to you. A woman would have to be blind not to be. We have ranchin’ in our blood and we have common interests, but I’m going home to Happy in a few days. It’s where my roots are. We shouldn’t start something that is just going to bring us pain when I leave,” she said.

 

“But what if it’s what would make us both happy?” he asked.

 

“It can’t. My roots are in west Texas. Yours are here. There’s eight hours between the two,” she said. “Tell you what, we’ll slow down and give it a week, until after the Valentine’s party, and then talk about it again.”

 

He sighed and adjusted his glasses with his thumb. “And then what?”

 

“Then we reassess and see if a week without the kisses and the almost sex has made us rethink the attraction. Now, are we takin’ the dogs home and bringing out the hay?”

 

“We’ll take the dogs home, but Max is bringing the hay. We’re going to load up the cubes and feed thirty lots of cows today. They need more than hay in this kind of weather,” Greg said.

 

She held up her fingers. “Thirty lots. Four lots per truckload. If we hustle we can be done by dinner, right?”

 

He shook his head. “Hopefully there won’t be a lot to do after dinner. Tomorrow, we’ll be working with a full staff, so you won’t have to help.”

 

She cut her blue eyes across the cab of the truck. “Do I make you nervous, cowboy?”

 

“Am I making you nervous talkin’ business sense? You know I’m right about it takin’ more than a hundred acres to make a ranch,” he shot right back.

 

“You don’t make me nervous, and honey, if my heart is in it, I could make a ranch out of five acres. It’s all about how much heart you put into it. Let’s talk about something else. Where did you go to high school? I didn’t recognize that tassel in the picture.”

 

He drove slowly over the icy path toward the ranch house. “I went to high school in Houston, where my folks lived all my life. Dad hated ranching and he went to work in an oil company in Houston right out of college. They worked in the same firm and now they are partners in it. But in the summertime they let me come to the ranch. Nana wanted me to be a part of her and Grandpa’s lives, and it sure saved a lot of hassle with nannies or sitters. Dad hated ranching, but Nana always said it skipped a generation, because I loved every bit of it.”

 

“So it’s your ranch now?”

 

“No, it’s not mine yet. It will be mine when Nana thinks I’ve learned enough. I started at the bottom rung when I came to live here permanently. She said I had to learn it all before she handed it over to me,” he said.

 

He was glad that the conversation had steered away from Dusty, darlin’, even if that was a girl cousin. “What about you? You live on the ranch your whole life?”

 

“From birth. And I couldn’t wait to get away from it. I was going to be a lawyer or maybe an engineer. By the time the second college semester rolled around, I’d changed my major to business agriculture. It didn’t take me long to realize where my heart was.”

 

 

He parked in front of the dog pens. “There’s no need for you to get back out in the cold. I can put the dogs in the pens and drag their boxes off by myself.”

 

***

 

She didn’t argue, since she was just barely able to feel her cheeks, and even through two pair of socks, her toes were tingling with the cold. She wanted to tell him about the old gals’ interference in his love life, but that little bout with the bobcat said maybe it was a warning. God would strike her dead in a horrible way if she told anyone what went on behind the closed doors of the bazaar meetings.

 

Greg finished the job and hurried back to the truck. “This is crazy. We didn’t have weather like this in December. I bet the thermometer has dropped ten more degrees, and that wind can cut right through jeans.”

 

The blast that followed him into the truck told Emily that he wasn’t exaggerating one bit. “Better the wind than a bobcat’s claws. We’ll work fast so we can snuggle up close to the fire.”

 

He wiggled his eyebrows. “Snuggle?”

 

The desire to kiss him was so strong that she almost lost her resolve, almost forgot all about anything but Greg and always having him by her side. “Remember what I said, Greg Adams.”

 

He was sexy even when his lips were blue with cold and his glasses were fogged over. His grin shot the temperature in the truck cab up, and it was her turn to swallow a groan. He drove straight to a barn, backed the truck in, and shook his head when she started to open the door. “These are fifty-pound bags of feed. I’ll load them.”

 

“I’m not a wimp. I’ve been tossing bags of feed for years. I’m going to help.” She got out of the truck and headed toward the stacks of cattle cubes. The brand was the same that Gramps bought and griped about every time he had to resort to using it to supplement the hay. It didn’t come cheap, but then things that were worth anything were costly.

 

When they had loaded the feed, Greg drove through blowing snow out to a lot at the back side of the ranch. “We’ll start back here and work our way toward the front of the place. Max has already been here with the hay, so he’s a few steps ahead of us. Hard to believe in this kind of weather that it’s almost spring, isn’t it?”

 

She nodded and inhaled the warm air inside the truck one more time before hopping out when he parked. Winter was supposed to be on its way out of the country in February, not hanging on like an old love to a relationship that had died long before.

 

“Crap,” she mumbled. Every single thing that happened circled her thoughts back around to Greg.

 

She crawled up in the bed of the truck and handed feed down to him. He wasted no motions as he slit the tops open with his pocket knife, snapped it shut, and shoved it back in his pocket before picking up the bag and dumping it in the feed trough. It didn’t take the cattle long to leave the big bale of hay behind and wander over to the feed trough.

 

“Look at them go after it,” he said.

 

“To the cows, hay is steak. That stuff is chocolate cheesecake,” she said.

 

“That your favorite dessert?”

 

She shook her head. “I like it just fine, but it’s not my favorite.”

 

“What is?”

 

It was on the tip of her tongue to say that he’d do just fine for dessert and she’d take it before dinner, after supper, or even for breakfast. She wasn’t even particular about where. It could be in the hayloft, in a nice warm bed, or in the backseat of his truck. But she was the one who’d laid out the rules. A whole week and then a big party where lots of pretty women would be all dressed up and flirting with Greg. And that would be nothing compared to the bazaar auction.

 

“Well, what is your favorite dessert?” Greg dumped the final bag into the trough and tossed the empty bags in the back of the truck.

 

She jumped over the side, landed square on her feet, and beat him inside the cab. “I guess it would be pecan pie with ice cream. Or maybe chocolate sheet cake like my grandma used to make when I was a little girl. What is yours?”

 

“Peach cobbler and Dotty’s cinnamon rolls right out of the oven when they’re so gooey and hot that you have to blow on them before you can take the first bite.”

 

Gooey.

 

Hot.

 

First bite.

 

Damn! Those words put pictures in her mind that shouldn’t be there, visions that would make a sailor blush and a cowboy kick at the dirt in embarrassment. But by damn, it would sure enough warm her up.

 

Whoa, girl! She brought her thoughts to an abrupt halt.

 

“What are you thinking? It looks like you are fighting with yourself or an imaginary person. You seeing ghosts or something?” Greg chuckled.

 

“You might say that. Tell me more about the Valentine’s party. Clarice and Dotty are all excited about going shopping for it, so it must be a big deal, but Dotty says that wild horses couldn’t drag her to the thing. Rose and Madge are going, so why isn’t she?”

 

“We belong to the North Texas Angus Association and they have a few parties a year. Sometimes they do a Valentine’s party; sometimes not. This year they’re having one. It’s not a sit-down dinner but a dance with an open bar and refreshment table. The guys wear their Sunday getups, usually a jacket, and the ladies get all dolled up. Rose and Madge were married to ranchers, so they are still honorary members. Dotty wasn’t, and it’s hard to explain, but she wouldn’t go if she could. She doesn’t like big parties like that,” he said.

 

“But she’s all excited about the bazaar party.”

 

“That’s different. It’s got to do with the church. That puts it in her ballpark.” He parked at the next lot. “Ready to fight the cold again?”

 

“Might as well be. Don’t want the cows to starve. Guess we could move them all into barns and take the baby calves in the house.” She grinned.

 

“You tell Dotty that.” He laughed.

 

Just before noon, they met Max and Louis, who drove up with a load of feed. Max hopped out and yelled, “Go on to the house. We’ll get this one since we’re loaded. When we got to the end of the line with the hay, we started working our way back with the feed. We get this one done and it’s finished for the day, thank goodness. I can’t feel my fingers anymore. Who would’ve thought we’d have this kind of weather in February? It ain’t normal.”

 

“Thanks! You’ll get no argument from me. Louis, come on to dinner with him. Dotty will have enough to feed an army today. She’s making tortilla soup,” Greg hollered back.

 

Louis waved over his shoulder and nodded.

 

“Looks like we get to call it a day after all,” Greg said.

 

“The snow is coming down harder. Maybe the weatherman was wrong,” she said.

 

“Emily…”

 

“Greg…”

 

They both started at the same time.

 

“You go first,” he said.

 

She didn’t hesitate. “You ever think that maybe you should think of settling down?”

 

He turned on the windshield wipers and looked at her. “You askin’ me to marry you?”

 

“No, sir,” she said before she turned and looked out the window.