The Convenient Cowboy

by

Ann B. Harrison

Marry me or walk…

Nate Hansen desperately needs a reboot to his playboy image that doesn’t involve women, drinking and fighting. Rehabilitation and building a solid future proves elusive as he can’t land a permanent job until someone mentions local widow Joy Mitchell who’s advertising a full-time ranch job. Perfect.

Joy Mitchell is desperate for a ranch hand to help keep her dead husband’s legacy alive out of the greedy grasp of her manipulative father-in-law. Nate’s reputation precedes him, none of it good, but the ranch is running on empty, and Joy makes the hard choice. Problem is the job she’s offering isn’t exactly what Nate had planned.

Nate knows what its like to lose everything, but seriously, become a mail-order groom? But Joy won’t or can’t compromise.

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Nate Hansen took the paycheck his boss of three days handed him, his self-esteem plummeting to the toes of his well-worn cowboy boots. Not again!

“But why? I thought you said there was enough work for at least a couple of weeks.”

The ranch manager shifted his feet and refused to make eye contact. “Sorry. Thought there would be, too, but the guy you were standing in for has come back from his vacation early and wants to get back to work. Boss said I have to let him start tomorrow.”

“Didn’t I do a decent job, Kurt? Surely, there’s something else I can do around here.” This was the third job he’d been let go from this month. Sure, it was only supposed to be temporary work, but he’d expected more time to show what he could do. Not what he wanted to face as he turned up for work this morning ready to show what he was made of.

“No, sorry, man.”

“Do you know of anything going at all? Maybe you can give me a reference or put in a good word with someone. I’m keen to work, you know that.”

“Not a lot going around that I know of.”

“Hey, Nate.” The ranch owner’s son rode past and got his attention. “I hear Mrs. Mitchell over at the Lazy Q is looking for someone to help her out.” He burst out laughing and rode off.

The manager turned away, but he tried to cover his own laugh with a cough.

If there was a job going, he needed to find out the details, no matter how amusing these cowboys found it. “Mrs. Mitchell? Can you tell me where her place is?”

“Sure you want to know? It’s not your average ranch hand job, you know.” Kurt dug his hands into his pockets and looked over Nate’s shoulder, not meeting his gaze.

“At this stage, I’ll take anything. Man’s gotta make a living the best way he can. Fill me in, and I’d appreciate it if you can put in a good word for me.”

“Not sure I need to do that. Figure your reputation with the ladies is all you’re going to need.”

Apprehension trickled down Nate’s spine. He’d tried so hard to distance himself from the man he used to be. He’d curtailed his drinking over the last six months, kept away from the bar and the ladies, and done his best to rebuild his life. If his brother Jethro could stay on the straight and narrow, make something of himself, so could Nate. So far, he doubted his new change of attitude was working as well as the charm he usually threw around like confetti. “I want the job because I can work, not because of the way I used to cat around. If Mrs. Mitchell has a job going, I want it.”

But if I have to charm her into it, look out, baby, ’cause here I come, ready to make my mark. Desperate times called for desperate measures, including breaking his promise to himself. But, hey, he was the only one who knew he was trying to make it without resorting to his usual charm.

“Okay. Let me give you directions, then.”

Joy slammed down the phone and swallowed the curse words. Damn her father-in-law for his fake concern over the loss of yet another ranch hand. He wasn’t going to break her and take over the ranch, no matter how much he pushed her. Not when her poor husband, Bradley, had entrusted it to her for their baby son. His father might think he could work the ranch better than she could, but it wasn’t going to happen. Not while she had breath in her lungs.

Her eighteen-month-old son’s wail snapped her out of her self-pity. He’d finished breakfast and thrown his bowl on the floor to get her attention. “Coming, baby boy. Momma’s coming.”

Young Toby sat by the table in his high chair, pounding his hands on the hard surface. He’d spread jelly though his blond locks and over his face and grinned at her now that he had her full attention. Frustration rushed to the surface, but she pushed it back. He was so adorable, but with the ranch to run single-handedly as well as looking after her child, an extra cleanup job wasn’t what she’d expected to derail her tightly planned day. She had to get down to the yard and feed the horses before they worked themselves into a lather.

“You little rascal. I’m going to have to feed you in the bath if you keep this up.”

Toby giggled as she attacked him with a washcloth. He was so like his father in looks, but their temperaments were completely different. Toby had to be on the go constantly, only stopping to sleep and eat, while Bradley had been happy to sit back and read when he had a spare minute.

He’d pored over articles on the web and in magazines about organic beef and shared his findings with Joy. When she was too pregnant to do much to help him, he’d lain beside her and read articles to her huge belly, convinced he was building a love of cattle in his unborn son. He’d cared about the land his grandmother had left for him, and wanted to run it his way.

Ryan Mitchell had other ideas now that Bradley was gone. But pilfering her ranch hands was the last straw.

A knock at the door startled her. She hurried to answer it, with Toby clinging to her leg. Something he’d done more of late as the heated phone calls and visits from his grandfather had escalated and left Joy in tears. Poor little guy was feeling insecure, and she couldn’t blame him.

“Mrs. Mitchell? I’ve come about the job.”

Joy stared at the man on her doorstep. Someone had to be playing a joke on her. This cowboy was nothing like the other applicants. He looked familiar, but her frazzled and overtired mind couldn’t put a name to his face. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“Someone told me you have a job going. I’m in need of employment. I’d prefer permanent, but if you only have casual work, I’ll take that too.” He smiled down at Toby clinging to her leg. “Cute, ain’t he? Anyway, as I was saying, I’m looking for work, and I’m pretty sure that my last boss will give me a reference. Been filling in around Marietta until I can find full-time employment. I really want to sink my teeth into something.”

Holy crap. Sink his teeth into something? Did he even know how that sounded, looking as good as he did? Get hold of yourself, Joy. You need this man. Things are getting desperate. “Did he tell you what the job was?” She swallowed. Nobody had applied in person before, and this man wasn’t who she would have hired unless she were a local bar owner, desperate to draw in female customers.

“No, ma’am, but I’m sure I’m up to the task.”

Oh, he so was. Tall, dark, and handsome didn’t quite sound good enough for the cowboy at her door. He had nervous energy running through him that would worry most people, almost like a caged mountain lion who’d had a bad week hunting.

But she was too desperate to be picky, and the other two applicants didn’t have the least bit of appeal. Not that she’d seen them face-to-face, nor did she want to. They’d applied by mail via the newspaper office where she’d placed the advertisement. The first applicant was too old to even consider. She’d be the one looking after him if his age was anything to go by. The other gentleman had sleazebag written all over him. Last thing she wanted was a fortune hunter, and that greasy suck-up letter had oozed its writer’s character, from the smell of cheap aftershave he’d drenched the envelope in to the flowery words he’d used.

She needed a hardworking cowboy who would take care of her and her son. Not someone who’d get a foot in the door with an attitude that screamed “takeover in progress.” The man standing before her was used to working. His hands were callused, his jeans worn, and his boots dusty and in need of reheeling. Even his battered hat looked like it belonged to a hard-working cowboy. Pity he had the sexy swagger to his stance.

“What’s your name, cowboy?” Toby put his arms around her leg, leaving jelly marks from his sticky fingers on the worn denim. Some cleanup job that’d been.

“Nate Hansen.”

Oh, heck! No wonder she thought she recognized him. Little sister Cassie had fallen for this love ’em and leave ’em man last fall. He’d broken her heart, and she still bemoaned how he was perfect for her. Sounded like he didn’t agree, as they never got past the third date.

“Seems your reputation precedes you. Not sure I’m willing to employ someone who cares more about drinking, fighting, and flirting with every lady in town. I need someone who’s prepared to work an honest day’s work, not play.”

He looked down at his feet and sighed before meeting her gaze. “Mrs. Mitchell, give me a chance. I’ve been doing my best to mend my ways, to make a go of it ever since my grandpa died. I know my reputation, and I’m doing everything I can to move on from that, I promise. My brother Jethro is running the ranch and there ain’t enough work for all of us. But if you want references, I know there’re people who’ll give you one, tell you how hard I work.”

“But what have you done long-term, other than drink and fight?” And break girls’ hearts.

“Guess you got me there. Only work around has been short-term, you know. That’s why I’m keen to take on something I can sink my teeth into, something permanent where I can make my mark. If you’ll give me a chance, I’ll prove to you that I’m a good risk. I’ve changed. Ask my brother or his lawyer if you like. I know she’ll vouch for me too.”

“Who’s his lawyer?” It was so tempting to take him on, but something still niggled in the back of her mind.

Could she trust him, knowing his reputation? It was hardly six months ago that Cassie had come crying to her over Nate Hansen. Joy had been secretly pleased the hard-partying, womanizing slob had dumped her sister. Cassie didn’t need the kind of grief an affair with Nate could bring. How could she let herself believe that he was a new man and even consider bringing him into her life now? She had a child to protect!

“Sadie St. Martin and Layla Watson.”

Joy swallowed back her relief. Her lawyer and the lady who wrote up Bradley’s will when he found out he was going to die. “I know them.”

“Great, so you’ll call and at least get a character reference then?”

Joy gripped her son’s hand and lifted him up onto her hip, ignoring the sticky fingers as he clutched her shirt. Toby tucked his head into her neck and watched the stranger at the door. “I guess I can do that.”

“So, what’s the job?”

“I need a husband, Mr. Hansen. And I don’t have much time left to choose one.”

End of Excerpt