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Authors: Julianna Keyes

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Just Once

BOOK: Just Once
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Cover

Title Page

Just Once

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Julianna Keyes

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Omnific Publishing

Los Angeles

Copyright Information

Just Once, Copyright © 2013 by Julianna Keyes

All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher.

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Omnific Publishing

1901 Avenue of the Stars, 2nd Floor

Los Angeles, California 90067

www.omnificpublishing.com

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First Omnific eBook edition, October 2013

First Omnific trade paperback edition, October 2013

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The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

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Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

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Keyes, Julianna.

Just Once / Julianna Keyes – 1st ed

ISBN: 978-1-623420-67-3

1. Contemporary Romance—Fiction. 2. Dude Ranch—Fiction. 3. Colorado—Fiction. 4. Summer Love—Fiction. I. Title

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Cover Design by Micha Stone and Amy Brokaw
Interior Book Design by Coreen Montagna

Dedication

For my parents,
who support my dreams, no matter how far-fetched.
I love you too.

Chapter One

I S
TARE
O
UT
T
HE
P
ASSENGER
S
IDE
W
INDOW
at the pretty mountain scenery bumping by, smiling at the realization that nothing has changed since I was last here. I remember my first time riding down this well-worn dirt road: heart in my throat, fingers gripping the door as I peered out at a world that had nothing in common with my Manhattan home.

I can still feel faint tremors of that excitement, the thrill of entering an unfamiliar world just waiting to be explored. The only difference is that now I’m old and weary. Old and
wise
, I correct myself, directing a frown inward. And unlike what some people might say, I’m not jaded, just discerning. No more foolish decisions, no more living on a whim like there are no consequences. There are consequences—this I know.

“Nothing’s changed, huh?” Hank Endersley asks. His kind eyes crinkle as he smiles from beneath a battered brown cowboy hat.

“Nothing,” I half-lie, returning the smile. The ranch hasn’t changed, but I have. I’m exhausted. I feel like I’m thirty going on sixty. What have I been doing to age myself so prematurely? I’m a travel writer, not a warrior. I don’t save lives or defuse bombs, I don’t teach in the inner city or solve crimes. I don’t even donate blood. I’m just tired. And I’m old. And, in my weakest, darkest moments, I admit that I’m lonely.

In ten years of travel writing, I’ve been almost everywhere, done and tried most everything. I’ve met thousands of people, shared drinks, kisses, touches, beds, but they’ve all been fleeting. Some fun, some sincere, but all finite. All ending with me getting on an airplane, promising to keep in touch, then inevitably forgetting. Distance will do that. It’s why I haven’t been back to the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado since I was nineteen, why I haven’t seen Hank Endersley’s kind face in ten years.

The old blue pickup rattles down the road, its ancient inner workings jostling against the rusted frame. I peer ahead through the dusk at the familiar arch that spans the dirt road, announcing
Ponderosa Pines Ranch
when you arrive and
Via Con Dios
when you leave. A hundred yards beyond the arch, the main ranch house comes into view: a low, sprawling wood cabin nearly a hundred years old and made to last a hundred more. Colorful flowerbeds line the pathway, and hanging baskets decorate the porch that runs the length of the front. It’s warm and beautiful, and while my career has taken me to extravagant, luxurious, tropical locales, this is the one place that has always made me feel like I’m on vacation—which is ironic, since I’m here to work.

Hank steers us past the ranch and down the road a little way to the equally old and rustic home he shares with his wife, Mary. Evidently she hears us coming—who on earth couldn’t, really—as the front door opens and she steps out, wiping her hands on a tea towel and grinning from ear to ear.

I’m exhausted, but her smile is contagious, and as soon as Hank stops the truck I’m out and covering the distance to the house.

“Kate!” she murmurs in my ear. Her softly accented voice envelops me almost as tangibly as her arms.

“Hi, Mary.”

“It’s been too long.”

“I know.”

“Too, too long.”

“I’m sorry.”

“We have all your stories. I read your book three times.”

I smile into the thick curls of her gray hair. “You did not.”

“I did.”

I hear Hank’s plodding footsteps as he approaches. “Let her go, Mare,” he orders. “What’s for dinner? We’ve got to feed her. I could hear her bones rattling.”

“That was the truck,” I protest, resisting the urge to sob as Mary releases me. I follow them inside the house, into its familiar smells of roast chicken and lemon. Instantly my traitorous stomach rumbles.

“Told you,” Hank says from somewhere down the dim hall.

Mary leads the way to the kitchen and dinner, which for me is two plates too many of chicken and mashed potatoes and apple pie. It’s delicious, and I can’t remember the last time I had a home-cooked meal. I’m comfortable in restaurants. I’m comfortable dining alone and making notes on the notepad I keep in my purse. As much as I love Hank and Mary, as much as the years between us fall away with each passing second, their scrutiny, their caring, makes me squirm. Finally I can’t suppress a yawn, and Hank clears the plates as Mary fusses over me.

“Tea?” she asks. “Milk?”

“I couldn’t.” I shake my head. “I’m stuffed.”

She looks satisfied. “Good, then. Good. We’re so glad you were able to come back.”

“Me too. The timing was perfect.” I smile at them, grateful that two of my favorite people in the world haven’t forgotten me after a ten-year absence. Then I yawn again.

“Let’s get you to bed,” Hank says. “I had one of the girls set up your room in the bunkhouse, but you can sleep here tonight. Who knows what time they’ll settle down.”

Ah, the bunkhouse
. The thought of it makes me smile. And I know just what time those girls will settle down: never. Not until the last day of summer has passed and they’re all heading home and the rules of real life return. I worked here for three summers as a teenager, and I’m pretty sure I never slept more than four hours a night.

Now, however, is a different story. A twenty-hour trip from Thailand and a stomach full of mashed potatoes and gravy makes me think I could sleep forever. I let Mary lead me up to the second floor, into the small bedroom with dormer windows and a single bed with a patchwork quilt. The room is cool and quiet, and while I know I should go downstairs to collect my luggage, I don’t. Once the door is closed I climb under the covers in my jeans and sweater and fall fast asleep.

As many times as I’ve woken up in strange places, you think I’d be used to it, but I never am. A rooster crows and I open my eyes, confused and squinting against the lemony sunlight spilling through the thin curtains. I take in the slatted wood on the ceiling, the soft green paint on the walls, and eventually it comes to me.
I’m here
, I think.
I’m back
.

I shower quickly and pull my blond hair into a ponytail while it’s still wet. I smile as I think of my mother, a professional socialite if there ever was, and her constant warning that my thick hair—my “best feature”—will fall out if I don’t style it.

I’m downstairs by seven, but Hank and Mary are already there, the breakfast dishes cleared. Mary offers to make me something, but I decline. I rarely eat in the mornings, but I do need coffee.

“They have the good stuff in the kitchen,” Hank says, referring to the lodge kitchen. “Guests’ll be in now, so just help yourself.”

“Go around back,” Mary suggests. “You remember the way?”

I nod. “Is Saturday still exit day?”

“It is.”

Hank and Mary own and operate an exclusive dude ranch—a four-star resort that invites the wealthy and weary to escape their stressful everyday lives and spend a week in the mountains. They put on blue jeans and cowboy hats, ride horses, eat gourmet meals, and go to bed early, exhausted by the fresh air and exercise. Guests arrive Sunday evening and stay until Saturday afternoon, and because today is Saturday, the guests will be leaving after lunch. My plan is to stay out of the way while the staff finishes up—there’ll be time for introductions later.

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