Lucky in Love by Stacey Coverstone

Publisher: Champagne Books
Contemporary Western Romance
June 2010
ISBN-978-1-926681-40-5

Formats:

Trade Paperback
eBook

Copyright © 2010 by Stacey Coverstone

Chapter 1

The Lucky Seven Ranch appeared to have run out of luck years ago. Jordan Mackenzie drove under the paint-chipped ranch sign and through the gate and parked her Jeep Cherokee in front of the small adobe house. From behind dark sunglasses, she peered out the front window of her vehicle. As she took a quick look around the property, she got a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Had she made a big mistake in coming here?
Shutting off the engine, she stepped out of the air conditioning and stretched her arms above her head. It had been a long drive from Colorado to New Mexico. She rolled her shoulders back and bent her petite five-foot-three frame from side to side to get the cricks out of her body.
It was early afternoon and the Southwestern sun hung high and hot over the parched ground. Beads of perspiration immediately popped up on her fair forearms and face. Thank goodness she’d changed out of the jeans she’d first put on this morning and into shorts and a tank top. It felt like a furnace here in the desert. She opened the car door again and rummaged through her purse for a hair band. Finding one, she tied her shoulder-length auburn hair into a ponytail then rubbed an ache out of her neck.
The drive had taken over eight hours, but she’d been so energized and excited that she’d driven it straight through, making only one quick stop for gas and snacks. She had fully expected to pull up to her great aunt Lydia’s house, unload her suitcases, and celebrate her good fortune before heading to town to take care of legal business. All that, however, would have to wait until she overcame her shock.
A lump formed in her throat.  First impressions meant everything to her. At first glance, this ranch was disappointing. It had only been unoccupied for a couple of months, since the death of her aunt. She guessed Lydia had either been too busy with the horse rescue operation to keep up the place, or else appearances hadn’t mattered to the woman. The problem had not been lack of money. The lawyer had made that clear in the letter.
The house itself was charming—just as she’d imagined —but the sidewalk leading up to it was in pieces. On closer inspection, she noticed spider-thin cracks traveled across the exterior walls and its old roof was in need of repair. The yard around it was a foot tall in weeds, and the apple tree in front was in desperate need of pruning. A clothesline stood in the side yard and a big laundry sink was against the wall, which led her to guess there was no indoor washer or dryer. She was a little worried about what the interior of the house was going to look like. She’d find out soon enough. But first, she wanted to check out the rest of the property to see what she was up against.
Jordan strolled over to the barn and slid open the creaky door. Relief flooded her bones as she walked up the center aisle to find the stalls seemed to be in good shape, though they needed to be mucked out and cleaned of cobwebs. There were only a dozen or so bales of hay piled in the back and they looked dry and moldy. They’d have to be removed. The barn could be cleaned up easily with a little hard work, she figured.
Peeking over a half door into the tack room, she spied leather saddles sitting on wooden saw horses, and bridles, bits, halters and lead ropes hanging from pegs on the wall. Feed buckets, a couple of water hoses, and some containers of horse treats sat on the floor, which was strewn with hay. This wasn’t so bad. Her spirits began to lift again. Upon stepping back outside, she walked around to the rear of the barn and examined an old horse trailer parked there. It looked like it hadn’t hauled horses in a long time. She noted the rust and thought a good scrubbing and a new coat of paint would do wonders. Two of the tires were flat, but it looked to be sound. Walking about fifty feet of pasture, she inspected the fence line and was thankful it didn’t seem to need to be repaired or replaced.
When she stepped into the corral, it was as if she could hear the whinnies and snorts of horses running in circles and kicking up billows of dust. From what she’d learned from the lawyer, Lydia had run a horse sanctuary up until the time of her death. The ranch must have been something in its heyday. Now, nothing stirred except some lizards scurrying amidst the dry grass. The lack of activity and quiet country setting caused it to feel eerily like a ghost ranch, not a lucky one.
Jordan walked around to the back of the house and discovered a courtyard enclosed within a crumbling plaster wall. She opened the squeaky gate, entered, and spied the remnants of a spring garden, a large overgrown bush stuck in the corner, and gnarly vines covering an old grape arbor.
A Mexican sandstone fountain stood in the middle of the courtyard, which she imagined was once the magnificent center of attraction, but now was cracked and stained. She wondered when it had last flowed.
Her gaze flew beyond the crumbling wall, out to the desert and the Sacramento Mountains. Scrub dotted the dry ground along with various kinds of cacti, some with yellow and pink blooms, and the afternoon light shone just right upon the mountains to cast a coppery gold glow onto the rugged peaks. The splendor of the view took her breath away.
A tap on her shoulder startled her. Gasping and spinning, she encountered a friendly-looking cowboy. A million miles away in thought, she hadn’t heard a vehicle come up the driveway. Flipping off her shades, Jordan scanned the man and guessed him to be in his late forties.
His tanned face was ruggedly handsome and he was at least six feet tall. He wore a plaid shirt with a western yoke and pearl snap buttons. His boots looked well broken in and a cowboy hat with a wide brim shaded his green eyes. She liked his quick, warm smile.
“Didn’t mean to frighten you,” he drawled. “I saw you pass my ranch. It’s about a mile back that way.” He hooked his thumb in the direction he was speaking of. “My place is the Circle B.”
She’d noticed the Circle B Ranch as she’d driven by. It was a large spread with fencing and barns that looked to be in pristine condition. The house, in particular, had caught her attention as she’d passed. It was an attractive territorial style home with a green tin roof, a grassy front yard, and classic desert landscaping.
“I figured you were Lydia’s niece,” he said. “Been expecting you any day now.”
“You’ve been expecting me?” Jordan’s mouth dropped open.
He nodded. “Before Lydia passed, she mentioned a niece. Said you’d be the new owner of the Lucky Seven.” He extended his hand. “My name’s Brannigan. Wyatt Brannigan. I’m your neighbor.”
Jordan pumped his hand up and down. “Jordan Mackenzie. Nice to meet you.”
“Same here.” He held her hand for a moment longer than she would have expected. When she cleared her throat, he grinned and let her palm slide out of his large hand and he rubbed his chin with thoughtfulness. “I imagine you’re more than a bit shocked finding your inheritance so run down.”
How did he know the ranch was her inheritance? She thought of asking and then decided to let it pass. After all, he’d been Lydia’s neighbor. More than likely, he knew more about
Lydia than she did. “I am,” she replied, “but I suppose it could be worse. I think the outside just needs some TLC. I’m sure the inside is in better shape.”
“You haven’t peeked in yet?”
“No. That’s next on the agenda.”
“Don’t get your hopes up there, either,” he chuckled. “I’m afraid Lydia wasn’t much of a housekeeper. It’s difficult to run a ranch alone. There are long hours and hard work involved.” He slid a querying glance at her. “Lydia preferred spending her time with the animals, as opposed to keeping house.”
“I can understand that, I guess,” Jordan said. Actually, she had no idea how much work it took to run a ranch. She fisted her hands on her hips and looked around again, sighing. Why did she think she’d be up to such a task? She was a city girl.  “I’ve never been around horses,” she explained, “but I always wanted a pet, growing up. I can see how animals might take priority.” She was making small talk to be polite.
The cowboy’s eyes slid up and down her body. “Lydia and I were neighbors for years. She was a proud woman. A good woman. I’ll miss her. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” Jordan didn’t feel it necessary to explain at that moment how she’d only met her aunt once in her life and didn’t know anything about her except what the lawyer had written in his letter.
When Mr. Brannigan tipped his hat back, Jordan caught the full effect of his sparkling green eyes. Grinning, his gaze roamed over her curves—starting at her legs, lingering on her well-endowed chest, and finally moving back to her face. He was checking her out, and not hiding the fact!
She prided herself on her intuitions about people. Sizing him up quickly, it was easy to see the man was loaded with confidence and seemed pretty laid back and easygoing. Those were attractive qualities. She liked the way he stood with his hands shoved into his jeans pockets, completely comfortable in his surroundings, looking like he had all the time in the world to kill. She also gleaned more than a hint of mischief behind those bright eyes and that crooked smile.
The intensity of his stare unnerved her while making her all the more curious…and interested.
“She was past eighty, you know,” he said.
“I wasn’t sure of her exact age, but I knew she was up there.”
He nodded again. “She told me once that the only way anyone would get her off this ranch was by way of a pine box. She loved it here.”
“I can see why. The desert is beautiful.” Jordan pushed the rickety gate open and held it for him to step through. She had things to do. He lagged behind as she led the way to the front of the house and back to the driveway.
As she strolled, she sensed his eyes boring a hole in her backside. When she turned quickly, she obviously caught him off guard, because a hangdog expression filled his face. She managed to stifle a grin.
“I’m a little tired from my trip and anxious to see the inside of the house. I drove from Colorado today. I hope you understand.” She didn’t want to be rude, but the day was passing and there was business to attend to.
“Oh. Sure thing.” He held his calloused hand out again and she shook it firmly.
“Thank you for stopping by, Mr. Brannigan. It was a pleasure to meet you. I hope we can talk again soon.” She tucked a strand of flyaway hair behind her ear and shifted from one foot to the other, waiting for him to leave.
“The pleasure’s been mine, Jordan.” He touched the brim of his hat and strode toward his pickup. Slowing his pace, he turned before he reached the truck and looked back at her. His eyes narrowed, but the smile remained. “I knew Lydia Albright for over twenty years. In all that time, she never spoke of family. I never wanted to pry. People live here in the desert for many reasons. Some are drawn by the mystery of the mountains, or the beautiful wildness of the land. Others are leaving behind a painful past.” When he stopped there, Jordan inhaled a deep breath, hoping he wouldn’t ask her why she’d come to New Mexico.
“This is a good place to start fresh because people around here don’t ask a lot of questions,” he continued. “I knew Lydia had her secrets, but I can’t even begin to guess why she never mentioned you. It was only near the end that she said she had a niece at all—when she told me she was leaving you the ranch. She obviously cared for you. Seems a shame you never came to visit her.”
Taken aback by his presumptions, Jordan’s eyes grew wide. “Do you always speak with such honest familiarity to people you don’t know, Mr. Brannigan?”
He rubbed a hand across his chin again. “I’m afraid so, Jordan. You’ll get used to it.”
She bit back a smile. His honesty and forthrightness was refreshing. Still, she debated whether to reply. Her family was none of his business. Then again, Lydia had been his neighbor and friend for a long time. It was only natural for him to be curious about her. She was an interloper. If she responded to him, he might be satisfied and leave. Then she could get on with all she had planned for the afternoon.
She shifted her stance. “I only met my aunt once when I was a child. She was my grandmother’s sister. I remember they argued. Lydia left and no one in the family ever mentioned her again. I hadn’t even recalled meeting her until the day I got a letter telling me she’d died and left me her ranch here in Tularosa. I’ve no idea why she left the Lucky Seven to me. But, to be completely honest, I’m glad she did. I’m one of those people needing a fresh start.” She nibbled her bottom lip then asked, “Does that sufficiently answer your question, Mr. Brannigan?”
He shook his head. “Yep. I think it does. For now anyway.”
She watched him retreat. He opened the door to his pickup and stepped onto the running board and looked up. “I just about forgot. The horses are at my place. I moved ‘em over there right after Lydia passed.”
“I wondered where they were. It would have made sense to ask you, but I was planning on talking to the lawyer about them.”
“She asked me a few weeks before she died if I’d care for them until you arrived.”
Jordan’s head tilted. That didn’t make sense. “Before I arrived? What do you mean? How would she know at that time I’d even be coming? I could have sold the ranch from Colorado, sight unseen. In fact, I did think about that, for about a minute.”
He shrugged. “Don’t know. Maybe she hoped something would draw you here. Lydia never ran out of hope. You could tell that by the animals she took in.”
“How many horses are there?”
“Six. She sold three a few weeks before her death. You do know she ran a rescue operation here, don’t you?”
“Yes. Well, I learned that from the lawyer. He mentioned it in his letter.”
“Lydia didn’t have much of a head for business, but she never could turn down an abused or neglected horse. They were her passion. She spent every last dime she had to help those animals.”
Jordan knew that wasn’t exactly true. Besides inheriting the house and the ranch, the lawyer’s letter had stated that Lydia had also left her one hundred thousand dollars. Apparently her great aunt had been more of a businesswoman than her neighbor had realized.
“So, when would you like me to haul them over?” he asked.
She shoved her hands into her hip pockets. “Would you mind keeping them a while longer, until I can get a few things settled? I noticed there isn’t any good hay in the barn, and to be honest, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. I don’t know the first thing about horses—although I’m anxious to learn. I might need to get some pointers from you, if you wouldn’t mind.” She sensed he’d be a good teacher, and he was friendly and seemed willing to help.
His mouth curved up. “I’ll be glad to show you the ropes, and I can help out with fresh hay, too.  Just let me know when you’re ready.”
“Thanks, Mr. Brannigan.”
He finally climbed into his truck, turned the key and the vehicle started up with a roar. Sticking his head out the window, he said, “You’ve been calling me Mr. Brannigan, but my friends all call me Wyatt. Besides, the ‘mister’ makes me sound ancient.”
She thought that over a moment. “Let’s give it a little time—see if we become friends,” she teased. “Anyway, I think I prefer Brannigan over Wyatt. It suits you. I’ll stick with it, if you don’t mind.”
He responded with a deep belly laugh and raised his hand to wave. “Have it your way. Just remember to leave the mister off. See you soon, I hope.”
She returned the wave and watched as he drove down the driveway and out of sight. Whirling to face the adobe, she said aloud, “Okay. Let’s see what kind of a mess you’ve left me with, Aunt Lydia.” ❖
________________________________

Buy Stacey’s LUCKY IN LOVE at:
Amazon
Champagne Books
Stacey Coverstone is a multi-published author of western and paranormal
romance.  Like the heroine of this story, she is lucky in both life and love.

Visit Stacey’s website at:  http://www.staceycoverstone.com.

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About Vicki Hinze
USA Today Bestselling and Award-Winning Author of 40+ books, short stories/novellas and hundreds of articles. Published in as many as 63 countries. Featured Columnist for Social N Worldwide Network and Book Fun Magazine. Sponsor/Founder of ChristiansRead.com & CleanReadBooks.com. FMI visit www.vickihinze.com.

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