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The country road resembled a snake as it undulated across the rolling plains and then flattened as it neared the tall mesas in the distance. Even though they were just beginning the transition from spring to early summer, Mother Nature didn’t pay much heed to calendars. The day was sunny and had warmed enough to have heat shimmer in waves off the asphalt surface of the two-lane blacktop highway. Those who had lived long enough in the area knew that each day could be a different climate given the whim of and hour of the day.
Rio Montez hoisted the saddle higher on his shoulder without breaking stride. The long-haul trucker he hitched a ride with had gotten him from the foothills of New Mexico, down across the high plains of the panhandle of Texas, and as far as the turnoff that would lead him toward the entrance of his final destination. He was used to taking long hikes in rougher terrain, and the final two miles of his journey were of no hindrance to him. The key was centering one’s mind on another place, another goal, and keeping the momentum moving forward. And the goal that was driving him on this lone walk was a hard taskmaster on his soul.
That was why the lime green jeep was almost upon him before the engine registered in his occupied brain. The vehicle passed him, edging far over in the left lane in a safety move. He saw the brake lights flash on and a couple of seconds later, the jeep had pulled back into the right lane and sat idling in the roadway, awaiting his approach. One had to keep their guard up when hitching. However, Rio doubted anyone who would drive a vehicle that color, with a huge sunflower painted on the wheel cover of the spare tire attached at its rear, would likely turn out to be a crazed felon.
When he stepped to the opening, his mind was definitely put at ease when he saw the driver. A nun, in full black and white regalia, sat behind the wheel. The rose-colored lenses in the wire-rimmed glasses she wore were a bit unusual, and the large gold cross on its chunky chain was different, but each to his or her own he figured.
“You lose your horse, cowboy?” The question came with a grin as her head nodded at the saddle.
“Something like that.”
“Where you headed?”
“The Braxton ranch.”
“Then that would make you Rio. Hop in.”
Her reply took him by surprise for a moment. He considered it as he opened the rear door and slid his saddle in, then his backpack followed along with his grandfather’s rifle in its fringed ceremonial scabbard. As soon as he folded his tall frame into the front passenger seat, the jeep took off, leaving him to make a quick grab for the door handle next to him. Rio threw a glance toward the driver as he snapped the seat belt into place.
“How did you know my name?”
“I could say that I’m a gifted psychic, but I’d just be pulling your leg. I’ve known Josie Monroe…Josie Monroe Braxton, that is, and her husband, Chance, for ages. We all went to school together. I’ve heard mention that you were going to take on the running of their new horse program. They’re excited you agreed to come on board. You must be very good at what you do with horses. Chance wouldn’t allow just anyone near his prized animals. How long have you known him?”
“I don’t…not really. I met the foreman of the Monroe ranch a few months back. He called me when the job came up.” He didn’t elaborate past that point, keeping his gaze on the road ahead of them.
“You seem to travel light,” she remarked.
“Well, you’re lucky that I happened to be heading out to the ranch. It’s a hot day for a little walk in these parts. I’m picking up Josie for a meeting.”
“I appreciate the lift.”
“You’re welcome…my son.” She gave him a serene smile and then increased her foot pressure on the gas pedal. “You ever been to Braxton before?”
“It’s a good place with good people. You’ll be working for two of the best. Although I might be a bit partial.” She grinned but found no response.
He kept silent, his gaze locked on whatever lay beyond his open window. The silence stretched for a few minutes. Rio slid a glance toward the driver and his eyes caught the fact that the long skirt of the black habit she wore was hiked upward to rest at the tops of her knees beneath the steering column.
The length of toned, tanned leg drew his attention and something long dormant stirred low in his midsection. The day grew warmer around him and he sat straighter in his seat, mentally berating himself for taking notice of the leg and thinking impure thoughts. He had been without a woman for a while, but that was no excuse for such thoughts about a nun! He kept his vision glued to the approaching hills.
Rio hadn’t come to Texas to be sidetracked by a female or anything else. Once his mother had been laid to rest, he picked up the phone and put his long-idled plan into motion. The first step had been to call and accept the position he had been offered three weeks prior—overseeing the management of the horse operations for Braxton Ranches. It had been easy enough simply because his hard-earned reputation and unique talent put him at the top of any major horse rancher’s wish list.
Then, he emptied the adobe dwelling of all their belongings gathered over the past thirty-odd years. He gave the more personal ones to a few of her friends. The other items he donated to the charity on the reservation in her name. There were only a few items he chose for himself—her small silver cross that hung on a bit of leather tucked inside his shirt, a turquoise necklace that had been handmade and passed down through three generations, his grandfather’s rifle, and a letter that had been read and reread so often over the years that the paper was worn as to be almost see-through. Rio chose to push its existence to the nether regions of his mind.
Ma’am? Just how old do I look to him? Dee just might have to revise her first impression of the man. Her swift glance caught his profile. She was used to tall men in her life, and this one would certainly fit right in with Chance and the other men of her acquaintance. She guessed he was at least six-four. Tall, dark, and mysterious. Those would all be good adjectives for him. The longish length of his raven black hair hung past his collar in back. The straw cowboy hat on his head looked to have been tap-danced upon by more than a few horses.
A wide forehead, straight nose, squared jawline, along with the high cheekbones that definitely highlighted his mix of Native American and Anglo heritage, were a strong combined vote to add gorgeous to the list of adjectives. However, he was gorgeous in a different way than most good-looking men. There was something raw, an untamed aura around him, which gave a definite edginess to his whole persona. Her every nerve ending was aware of him. And that was something that added intrigue—her reaction to him. It was also strange but there seemed something vaguely familiar to her, yet she would have remembered if she had ever seen him before. This Rio was someone she wasn’t likely to forget too soon.
The most striking feature he possessed were the ice blue eyes that made her breath catch quickly in her chest when he had stepped to the door of the jeep earlier and met her gaze. The shade reminded her instantly of the mountain pool she had once seen when her father and mother had taken her on a graduation trip to Italy. They had gone on a day trip into the Alps. The water was clear and pure and reflected the cloudless blue sky above it. She had never seen anything so mesmerizing since then. Until the man named Rio had looked at her.
It was just as well that their destination was nearing. She needed to remember that this was probably just another cowboy who would eventually move on down the road. And she wasn’t in the market anyway. Look, but don’t touch.
Tall gates appeared to the right and the jeep did a turn, the wheels bumping over the metal grates of the cattle guard. A half mile down the road and the jeep pulled into the drive next to a two-story wood and stone ranch house sitting at the top of a small rise. They stopped at the bottom of the sidewalk. She didn’t cut the engine, but just gave a light tap on the horn. Her passenger was already stepping out of the vehicle, moving to extricate his saddle and other items from the back.
At the same time, a tall cowboy exited from the closest barn and headed in their direction. The front door of the house opened, then shut as the figure of the woman, clothing bag in tow, hurried down the steps toward them.
“I’m coming, Dee!” the woman called, before she quickly took a brief detour and joined the man moving from the barn. She threw her arms around his neck and he dropped a kiss on her mouth before she turned back toward the jeep, his arm around her shoulders as they walked together.
“I’ve brought you a special delivery, Chance. Meet your new horse whisperer,” Dee called out as the pair got near enough.
She watched with interest as Chance stepped forward and met Rio with a strong handshake and welcoming smile on his face.
“Horse whisperer indeed,” Chance said. “Welcome, Rio, I’m Chance Braxton and this is my wife, Josie. It’s great to finally meet you as I’ve heard both Tom and Clem, our foremen, extoll your praises for weeks now.”
“I appreciate the welcome. I doubt I can live up to whatever they might have said, but I’ll do my best while here.”
The newest hire turned after that and moved to stand at the open window of the jeep once more.
“Thanks for the ride, ma’am. I appreciate it.”
“You are welcome, my child.” Dee just couldn’t resist adding the last couple of words, more as a response to his ma’am reference than anything else.
Rio stepped back, holding the half door open for Josie to slide into the front passenger seat. He shut the door and then he touched the brim of his hat in the manner of most well-schooled Western men. He rejoined Chance at the end of the sidewalk, once more shouldering his saddle.
“I would tell you to keep my wife out of trouble this afternoon, Sister Dee, but that would probably be a waste of time, knowing what happens when you, Josie, and Rissa all get together these days,” Chance teased their friend with an easy grin.
“Yes…you should probably pray…a lot! Must run!” Dee responded with a brief wave of her hand. The jeep was soon disappearing down the driveway.
“It’s a good thing we’re doing this fund-raiser for the new family room in the hospital’s children’s wing or else I would be seriously rethinking my agreement to participate,” Josie said, using a ragged outdated magazine to fan herself. “Now I see why nuns stopped wearing these long skirts and raised the hemlines a bit. You could sweat ten pounds off a day in the summer.”
“That is certainly a ladylike thing to say. You should say ‘perspire.’ I think that is terminology more in keeping with our attire at the moment.” Marissa Flanagan threw her friend a feigned look of superiority, from her stance in front of the single window air-conditioning unit of the small classroom where they had been told to wait. She was holding the folds of her long sleeves and skirt upward as much as possible to capture any cooling air.
“I don’t know about you,” Josie responded, “but I sweat.”
Their conversation was interrupted by Dee’s return to the room. “The good news is that we have one nun too many for this skit according to the director.”
“What’s the bad news?” Rissa asked, her eyebrows raised with a pointed look aimed at her friend.
“Well, it isn’t exactly bad news. Or should I say, it isn’t bad for one of us.”
Josie’s gaze narrowed on Dee. “I’m getting a not so great feeling about this. Just who would that ‘one’ of us be?”
“Ladies, being the wonderful friend I am, I fell on the sword. I volunteered to forego the calling and give up the habit, so to speak.”
Both women locked their attention on their friend. “That’s very charitable of you, I’m sure. Just what will you be doing now? Since this was your idea that got us into this mess to begin with, you better still be in this show,” Rissa warned, a skeptical brow raised in Dee’s direction.
“Trust me; my new costume leaves a lot to be desired, such as the need for more material.” With that statement, she brought the garment out from behind her full skirt and held it up. There were a couple beats of stunned silence, then both Josie and Rissa burst into hoots of laughter.
End of Excerpt