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“I can’t do it.” Spence Keller shifted his phone as he slowed his ’98 Chevy Silverado pickup and turned onto the road leading to the family ranch. The wheels bounced over the cattle guard with a familiar rattle as he drove under the old log archway.
“Are you sure?” Millie Carney, never one to take the first “no” seriously, proceeded to list all the reasons that Spence couldn’t afford to pass up the welding contract Carney Construction was offering.
“Millie, I appreciate the offer,” Spence said when she paused for breath, “and I may be available in the fall, but for now, I have a commitment.” With his dad looking at a second back surgery, Spence was needed on the ranch, and that was where he was going to be.
He and his brother Reed would keep the home fires burning, and hopefully, keep their dad out of commission long enough for him to heal. Daniel Keller had a reputation for pushing the envelope, and it would probably take both Spence and Reed to keep him contained during the busy time on the ranch.
Millie’s sigh was loud and long. “You’re my best guy.”
Spence smiled a little. “I bet you say that to all the welders.” He turned his head as a flash of red in the undergrowth near the creek caught his eye. He automatically slowed down, and a second later, he caught another flash of red. “Thanks for the offer, Millie. I’ll let you know when I’m done here. I’ve got to go.”
“Stay in touch,” Millie said rather than goodbye.
She barely got the last word out before Spence ended the call and pulled his truck to the side of the road. He rolled down the window and studied the area where he saw the color that didn’t belong. It could be a scrap of trash blowing through the brush, or . . . a small dog wearing a red neoprene vest.
Spence opened his door as the little dog sank into the tall grass, watching him from between the blades with wide brown eyes. Lost and afraid, it lowered its head uncertainly as he stepped to the ground.
“Hey, little one. You lost?”
The dog crouched lower.
Spence crossed the road, hoping that the pup didn’t jet back into the underbrush. As he got closer, the dog hunched its shoulders, as if trying to make itself invisible. Spence gently scooped it up with one hand.
“Hey there. Where do you belong?”
The neoprene vest was nearly new, with the loop of white plastic that had held the price tag still in place. It was odd that someone would spend the money for a pricey vest, but not bother with a name tag.
Spence held the dog against his shoulder and scanned the country around him. The Keller Ranch was bordered on the far side by the Hunt Ranch, nearly two miles away, and on the side where he now stood by the Lone Tree Ranch. Everything else was federal land. The little dog could have gotten lost from a campsite, or she could have crossed the Keller Ranch from the Hunt Ranch, or she had strayed from the Lone Tree Ranch. The Parker family, who owned the Lone Tree, were not the kind of people who put dogs in expensive neoprene vests. But they might know someone who did.
Spence carried the dog back to the truck and, after closing the door to make certain she didn’t try to bolt at the last minute, he gently set the quivering terrier on the seat beside him. She inched closer and set her chin on his thigh, officially melting his heart.
“We’ll find your folks,” he promised her. He put the truck in gear and drove to the nearest wide spot, executed a three-point turn, then headed back in the direction from which he’d come. The Lone Tree Ranch turnoff from another mile up the county road. Spence made the turn, then drove east for another mile before pulling into the property.
Hank Parker had died almost two years ago, and his daughter Hayley had taken over. From the looks of things, she’d poured a lot of energy into property maintenance. The buildings were old, but freshly painted, the driveway newly graveled. A large, neatly laid out garden was protected by a deer fence, and the flower beds bordering the front of the house were immaculate.
Hayley always had been an overachiever, noted for both her academic prowess and her shyness. Spence’s friends had joked about her being so quiet that no one realized she was there while they were talking, thus allowing her to know a lot of deep, dark secrets. Spence didn’t know if that had been true, but he did know from firsthand experience that quiet Hayley Parker had a backbone of steel.
The little dog jumped to her feet as soon as they’d passed the main ranch gate and now stood with her hind feet on the seat and her front paws on the passenger-side window ledge, her nose pressed to the glass. Maybe the Parkers did believe in dog clothes.
He stopped the truck and got out, leaving it idling. The little dog now had her nose pressed against the driver’s window. If she wasn’t home, then she was in a place she liked.
He started for the house, but a clattering noise in the barn on the opposite side of the driveway caused him to change direction.
“Hello?” he called as he approached the open bay doors.
“Vince?” A muffled feminine voice sounded from the backside of the tractor. “You’re late.”
“Not Vince,” Spence said.
A wrench clattered to the ground, followed by a muffled curse, then Hayley Parker walked around the back of the tractor, coming to a stop near the wide rear tire. It appeared to take her a second to recognize him, although Spence would have known her anywhere. Her auburn hair fell around her shoulders instead of being caught up in the low ponytails she’d favored when they’d gone to school together, and the glasses were gone, but other than that, she’d barely changed.
He didn’t think so, so maybe it was the shock of seeing one of the nomad Kellers in the vicinity that put that surprised look on her face.
“Spence. It’s been a while.”
He smiled and noticed that she didn’t drop her gaze after speaking, like she used to. “It has. I’m home until fall, helping. Dad is having back surgery at the end of the month.”
“So you stopped by to say hello?” she asked.
He felt color creep up his neck. That would have been the neighborly thing to do, considering how she’d done him a solid back in the day, but the truth was that he’d never thought to stop and say hello to his shy neighbor. Once their adventure had ended, Hayley had seemed fine never speaking to him again, putting their relationship back where it had been before she’d saved his ass. A nod in the hallways when they’d passed one another, but only if she couldn’t pretend that she didn’t see him.
Spence was still searching for a suitable reply when Hayley suddenly smiled. “It’s good to see you, Spence.”
He tipped his head to one side. She’d been teasing him? Hayley Parker wasn’t the type who teased. Or at least he hadn’t read her that way back when he’d been a thick-headed teen. He allowed himself a half smile as he met her challenge.
“What if I am here to say hello?”
She pretended to consider, then shook her head. “I don’t see it happening.”
He spread his hands. “Yet here I am.”
She crossed her arms and shifted her weight, a faint smile still playing on her lips as she lifted her eyebrows. “Did you stop to say hello?”
“I stopped because I found a dog.”
“Really?” She came out from where she’d stood half-shielded by the tractor tire, suddenly interested. “What kind of dog?”
“A small one. Scruffy hair. Wearing a red harness thing.” As he spoke, he knew that he was probably going to have a dog on his hands for a while, because Hayley did not seem to own the animal.
“Do you have the dog with you?”
“I do.” He motioned toward his truck with his head, and together they walked through the open bay door and across the driveway. “Indulging in a little tractor repair?” he asked as they crossed the gravel. He was surprised; not because she was a woman—no brother of Em Keller was going to make that mistake—but because she’d always been so deeply academic.
Perhaps the way she’d gotten you out of the shed should have clued you in to the fact that she had hidden skills.
Indeed, it would have, if he hadn’t been so focused on making the big game.
“Maintained equipment lasts longer.” She glanced up at him as if to ascertain whether he was aware of that life hack.
He was, but he wasn’t familiar with this not-so-shy side of Hayley. Well, it had been over a decade since they’d last spoken, when she’d graduated high school the same year as his younger twin siblings, Cade and Em.
The dog came alive when Hayley leaned into the truck.
“What have you been up to, Greta?” she said to the wiggling terrier, before glancing up at Spence. “I know this dog.”
“I fostered her before she found her forever home.”
“I found her beside the road, hiding in the bushes. Any idea who adopted her?”
“Someone on the Hunt Ranch.”
So his least likely scenario—that the little dog had crossed Keller property from the Hunt Ranch—was the correct one. Huh. She didn’t look like she had that many miles in her short legs, but he couldn’t say he faulted her for leaving the Hunt Ranch. He had issues with the management there.
“Do you want me to deliver her home?” he asked.
“Why don’t you leave her with me, and I’ll contact the shelter, and we’ll work it from that angle.”
The dog climbed into her arms. “I am,” she said, rubbing the dog’s ears, before giving him a sideways look. “I’m glad you found her.”
“Yeah.” He pushed his hands into his rear pockets. Time to go, but he wasn’t quite ready. The change in Hayley was intriguing. Gone was the girl who rarely met your gaze and in her place was a confident woman.
“Have you been home long?” he asked.
She gave him a curious look and once again he felt as if he’d put his foot in it. They were neighbors, with a narrow strip of federal land separating the two ranches, but he’d left home at eighteen, returning only for holidays and family emergencies, while Hayley had . . .
He didn’t have a clue what she’d done.
“I don’t spend much time here,” he said. “Work keeps me on the move, so I’m not up on community news.”
She gave a faint shrug. “After I finished college, I moved back home, and Dad and I ran the ranch together until he passed away.”
“Did you get a degree in Ag?”
Her smile twisted in a self-deprecating way and again he was struck by the way she met his gaze instead of glancing down. “Nothing as useful as that. I majored in English Lit with a minor in education.”
“But you’re not teaching?” It was a Wednesday in early May. A workday.
“A lot of ranch work to be done,” she said simply.
“You have help, right?”
“I do.” She left it at that. Looking around, Spence had to assume she had competent help because the place was immaculate. New roofs on the buildings. Late spring flowers bordering the two-rail fence bordering the front yard. The only project he could see in progress was the half-finished corral near the barn. A pile of pipe lay in front of the completed section, rusty from the weather, making him wonder how long the construction hiatus had been going on.
But rusty pipe aside, Hayley Parker appeared to have a handle on life . . . as did he. It wasn’t your normal existence, taking welding contracts all over the west, having no real home base, drifting here and there, but it suited him. And for the life of him, he didn’t know why. He just liked being able to pick up and go whenever he wanted or needed to. He had a feeling it was a latent gene from his wild man father; however, his mom’s dad had also been born under the proverbial wandering star. Maybe he had no choice. He was wired to roam.
“It was good seeing you, Spence.” Hayley hugged the dog to her shoulder as she stepped away from the truck, clearing the way for him to get into the driver’s seat. Spence took the hint.
He got into the truck, then leaned an arm on the window frame. “I don’t think I properly thanked you for saving me that night in high school.” He wanted her to know that he still appreciated all she’d done for him.
“You didn’t.” She shrugged. “Unless you call steering clear of me a gesture of thanks.”
Spence’s eyebrows drew together at the candid reply. “I thought you wanted it that way.” She’d certainly been no friendlier after their adventure. If anything, she appeared to avoid looking at him. He’d honestly assumed that she wanted little to do with him after being shocked when she’d walked by him the following day in the hall without more than a quick glance.
She considered, then said, “I can’t fault you for that. I wasn’t good at putting myself out there back then.” She put a slight emphasis on the last words. “I needed . . . I don’t know . . . help?”
“Which I didn’t give,” he admitted. “Sorry about that, because I owed you.” The entire varsity basketball team owed her. He’d been top scorer that night, and Lucas Barstow, whom he was certain had locked him in the equipment shed, fouled out early on. Lucas had planned to be the big hero, and he wasn’t, thanks to Hayley.
“You did owe me,” she agreed with no hint of blame. “The important thing is that I got you to the game.”
“I was having some doubts about whether we’d make it when the cop pulled us over.”
Hayley made a small dismissive hand gesture, as if talking a cop out of a ticket was all in a day’s work. She’d done a helluva job of it too. Spence, who’d thought life as he knew it was over when the reds and blues had shown in the rear window, had been beyond stunned when Hayley managed to get them back on the road in a matter of minutes.
“Never doubt me.” She met his eyes and smiled while idly stroking the dog’s ears. Now he felt like dropping his gaze.
“You’ve changed,” he said.
As soon as he said the words, he knew he was wrong. She hadn’t changed. She’d tapped into whatever had given her the moxie to sweet-talk the cop that night. And to break the hasp on the equipment shed to let him out.
“We all grow up, Spence.”
He wasn’t certain how to take the statement and was debating a reply when a small Jeep came into sight on the far side of the big pasture where Hayley’s Angus grazed.
“Vince, my foreman. I need to get this little girl situated and get back to work. Thanks again, Spence. I’m glad you found her.”
“No problem.” The words came out gruffly. Nothing like being reminded that you were a self-centered teen to brighten the day.
He lifted a hand, then wheeled the truck around onto the driveway. He glanced in the rearview mirror, saw that Hayley was watching him go, and let his gaze linger longer than he should have. A split second later he jerked the steering wheel hard to the left to avoid hitting the gatepost.
Nice going, Keller.
He resisted the temptation to check the mirror again and continued down the driveway. One showy maneuver per visit was his limit.
End of Excerpt