hat was hotshot Brooks Hedley, riding Smokin’ Jet Stream.” Skip Jansen’s singsong voice could barely be heard above the reverberating discharge of Brooks’s single-action revolvers. But even before the blue smoke dissipated into the dusky evening air, the applause of the crowd echoed the .45s’ explosive reports.
Onlookers were spread across the rolling hills of the Lazy Windmill ranch like frolicking puppies, perusing the vendors’ varied wares, sharing local gossip, or admiring Hedley’s marksmanship. Skip paused to let the crowd applaud, then boomed on in his best auctioneer voice. “As you all know, Brooks is South Dakota’s very own mounted shooting champion. Double-barrel shotguns or single-action forty-fives, don’t make no difference, he’s top dog in both. So if you wanna know more about America’s fastest-growing equestrian sport or just to grab an autograph, this is the chance of a lifetime, cuz Brooks and Smokin’ Jet’ll be right over there between the windmill and the—”
“If you ask me, that cowboy’s the one that’s smokin’,” Emily said.
Casie Carmichael turned toward the girl. Regardless of her mocha complexion and wild dreadlocks, it was easy to see that Emily’s face was flushed. But it was anyone’s guess whether that blush was caused by the unseasonable September heat or by her own fired up endocrine system. Emily Kane was eighteen years old and eight-and-a-half months pregnant. Hormones ruled the day.
“Don’t get yourself all excited,” Casie warned.
“Too late.” Emily didn’t bother to shift her attention from the cowboy’s midsection as he rode his prancing roan from the arena. Maybe it was because his belt buckle was as big as a hubcap, or maybe there were other distractions.
“I mean it,” Casie said. “If you deliver that baby in the alfalfa field, I’m taking it out of your wages.”
“You don’t pay me any wages,” Emily reminded her, and shifting her gaze a little higher, smiled at the approaching horseman. Perhaps her protruding belly was hidden behind the glass cooler that dispensed her homemade cider. Perhaps not.
“Drop that child on the Lazy and that unpaid status isn’t going to change any time soon,” Casie said, but Emily just gave her a jaundiced glance.
“Despite the fact that I plan to transcend the pains of labor by focused meditation and mental imaging, I fully intend to take advantage of St. Luke’s übermodern birthing center while doing so.”
Casie glowered at her a second longer, then sighed in relief. “Thank God. I was afraid you were going to go full-bore hippie on me,” she murmured and slipped her attention back to the vendors. While many of the wares were agrarian in nature, there were products of every imaginable sort. Emily herself had planned to sell hot chocolate and scones, but the unexpected heat had convinced her to go with raspberry cider, assorted jams, and picture frames she’d crafted from weathered barn wood. Emily was enviably creative and constantly considering new career opportunities.
“Besides, I’d have to be a cretin to pass up the chance to enthrall an illustrious doctor at said birthing center,” she added.
“Really?” Casie kept her tone dry and didn’t comment on the girl’s terminology. Apparently, Emily had read somewhere that using advanced vocabulary while pregnant could increase her unborn’s IQ. She’d rarely uttered a monosyllabic word since.
“Indubitably,” Emily said and offered the approaching cowboy her best come-hither smile.
“Don’t you think you’re going to be kind of busy while in labor?” Casie asked.
The girl shrugged and pressed her knuckles to the small of her back. “I’m sure I’ll have copious hours to seduce a senior citizen during baby massage classes or Kindermusik or something.”
“Sure. I’ll bet there are scores of doctors with flagging libidos and receding hairlines who’d give their false teeth for a spunky trophy wife with a ready-made family.”
Casie lifted one brow. “Spunky?”
Emily grinned. “Some consider that a euphemism for . . . challenging.”
Casie tried a daunting scowl, but in the half year since Emily’s arrival at the Lazy, she had not once managed to quell the girl’s indomitable spirit. It hardly seemed worth her effort now. “There’s something wrong with you,” she said instead, and tried, at least, to quash her own grin.
“I concur,” Emily said. Hedley had stopped his mount to speak to a bleached blonde. The tramp stamp on the small of her back was almost entirely visible thanks to the shirt that barely reached her belly button. “Like hormonal overload and swollen ankles. This has been a pretty great gig though, huh?” she asked, and slipping an absent hand over her belly, she glanced around the bustling property.
In the past few months, the Lazy had undergone a host of changes. Fences had been added, buildings had been re-roofed, and the chicken coop that had once been a bunkhouse had, with the help of kindly neighbors, been restored enough to house guests who wanted a chance to experience ranch life.
Casie had no idea how things had gotten so out of hand. After her father’s unexpected death, she had fully intended to sell the ranch and hightail it back to her life in the city. But a few unforeseen circumstances and the surprising arrival of a trio of teenagers had convinced her to stay a while . . . maybe take in a few paying guests, perhaps give a couple of horseback-riding lessons. But then one of those above-mentioned guests had suggested a symposium on cattle sorting. Emily had come up with the grand notion of inviting equestrians from other disciplines, and suddenly they had a dozen little-known sports represented and scores of vendors.
“I don’t even know how all these people heard about us,” Casie admitted. She also wasn’t sure how she felt about having so many people on her private property, but the extra income was more than welcome. As was all the help that had been so freely given over the past few months. There was rarely a day that some generous neighbor didn’t amble past her after planting a new post or mending an antiquated implement.
“It’s called the Internet,” Emily said. “If you’d come in from the barn every once in a while, you maybe would have heard of . . . Hey,” she said, employing an exaggerated drawl as she smiled up at the man on the blue roan, “that was some mighty fancy shootin’. If those balloons were desperados, the townsfolk would have pinned a star on your chest by now.”
“Thanks.” Brooks Hedley glanced down at them from his stout gelding. Not past his twenty-fifth birthday, he had unruly blond hair curling out from beneath a stiff felt hat. To Casie, his round face and pointy goatee always made him look a little more like a billy goat than the Old West sheriff he hoped to emulate, but he seemed extremely popular with the female faction. “It’s hotter than the Fourth of July out here, huh?”
“Climate change,” Emily said.
He shifted his head, camel-colored hat tilting a little. “What’s that?”
“Climate . . . Never mind,” Em said, making Casie think she really must be attracted to Brooks if she wasn’t going to venture into her environmental spiel. “Want some cider? It’s made from the Lazy’s own raspberries.”
“Sounds great,” he said and swung his leg over the gelding’s hindquarters. His fringed chaps flared for a moment before settling around lean thighs as he took the glass she offered. He drank it in one gulp, not seeming to notice that the cup was made of one-hundred-percent-compostable material. Emily was hell on wheels when it came to details. “That’s not half bad,” he said, eyeing the empty receptacle. “What do I owe you?”
“Not a thing,” Em said. “We just appreciate you coming to the Lazy.”
“That’s awful nice of you,” he said and shuffled his well-polished boots, setting his jingle bob spurs to jangling. “Well, I guess I should be getting over there.” He jerked his goatee toward the wooden water tank that sat at the base of the windmill. “Folks will want to pet Smoke, here,” he said, and nodding a farewell, sauntered away. The blue roan followed.
“Some folks might want to be petting
” Emily murmured to his back.
“Emily!” Casie scolded softly.
“What?” she asked, and tilting her head a little, watched him walk away. “He’s got hindquarters like well-watered garlic cloves.”
“Will you quit staring at him?” Casie glanced around nervously, though the crowds seemed to be ignoring them entirely. “They’ll think we’re all a bunch of perverts here at the Lazy.”
“Don’t be ludicrous,” Em said and tilted her head in the opposite direction. “People will think you’re a perv if you
appreciate that. I mean, seriously, that’s some prime grade A, all-American—”
Emily raised her brows a little and managed to draw her attention from the retreating sharpshooter. “Admit it.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Admit he’s got a great ass or I’m going to march up to Skip’s bird’s nest there and tell everyone that Cassandra May Carmichael can no longer identify prime beefcake when she sees it.”
Casie glanced after the reigning mounted shooter, hoping the last hundred gunshots had rendered him mostly deaf. “Will you lower your voice?”
“Say it,” Emily ordered.
“I’m trying to build a decent reputation for us.”
“Say it,” Emily repeated.
“Fine,” Casie said through gritted teeth. “The man’s got a decent . . . hind end.”
“What’s that?” Emily turned her head as if to catch a faint murmur. “I can’t seem to hear you.”
Casie rolled her eyes, but couldn’t quite resist being drawn in by the girl’s ridiculousness. “All right,” she said. “If his ass was any prettier, I’d—” she began, but suddenly Emily shifted her gaze slightly to the right and opened her eyes wide.
“Hey, Mr. Dickenson,” she said, voice suddenly dulcet, face the picture of innocence.
Casie felt her mouth go dry. Felt her heart thump in her chest as she froze, mortified into immobility, but in a moment she realized her foolishness. Emily had a penchant for practical jokes, but she had tricked her one too many times. “Very funny,” she said and shook off her fear. “Extremely amusing.” Richard Colton Dickenson hadn’t been spotted anywhere near the Lazy since he’d galloped back to the rodeo circuit more than four months ago. Not that it mattered. He wasn’t her type anyway. But Emily had always had a soft spot for him.
The girl grinned and shrugged in a win-some, lose-some gesture. “Dickenson has a better ass than that old wannabe sheriff anyway,” she said.
an ass. In fact—” Casie began, but something in Emily’s expression stopped her cold. She shifted her eyes sideways.
“Hey, Case.” Colt’s voice was little more than a dark rumble from behind her.
Emily grinned sheepishly and Casie turned, not quite ready to relinquish the hope that she was imagining the deep timbre of his voice. But she wasn’t. He stood not four feet from her, rust-colored shirt open at the collar, sleeves rolled away from broad, dark-skinned wrists.
“Dickey,” she said. The easy tone she had shared with Emily was immediately absent. Her more usual stiffer-than-hell, stickup-her-butt persona had returned. But Dickenson just smiled.
“It’s nice to know you’re thinking about me,” he said.
She cleared her throat. “I thought you were in—”
“Hell?” he asked.
She felt her face flush. They had shared a similar conversation some six months before. “What are you doing here?”
He shrugged, an economical lift of capable shoulders. In some ways he had changed little since their shared childhood . . . Native American complexion, black hair, sharp humor shining in his earthy eyes. But a new scar nicked through the corner of his right brow, unsettling her stomach. “I was in the neighborhood.”
“Are you saying the Lazy is close to hell?” she asked, but if she was looking for a fight, he ignored the gauntlet.
Grinning, he glanced to her left. “How you feeling, Em?”
“Gigantic,” the girl said and placed both hands on her ponderous belly. “Heard you’ve been teaching those Wyoming broncs a thing or two. Won All-Around at Big Sky, huh? Not too shabby.”
His eyes smiled at her. It had been abundantly clear that he’d liked Emily since the first day they’d met. He treated her like a sweet kid sister while he mostly reacted to Casie as if she were a case of hoof-and-mouth. Not that she cared. “Listen to you, with your cowboy lingo,” he said.
Emily had been pure city before landing at the Lazy. And though she had become a dynamite cook and a first-rate organic farmer, her dreadlocks and ghetto chic wardrobe still spoke of a different world. “Casie said you were pretty good on bulls, too,” she added.
He raised a brow and glanced sideways. Casie clenched her teeth, holding in the curse words that threatened to boil out.
“Head Case said that?” he asked.
“I may have said you were
of bull.” She gave him a level stare. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I should talk to—” But he interrupted her. No big surprise there. If she had a nickel for every time he had done so in their lifetime, she could invest in another hundred acres.
“Quite a shindig you put on here.”
She nodded, proud despite herself, of what they had managed to put together. “The kids did most of the work.”
“So Ty’s sorting cattle these days?” Dickenson’s eyes were as mesmerizing as she remembered, alternating between quiet playfulness and outright impishness.
“He’s getting to be a hell of a rider. And that spavined old gray you brought home . . .” He grinned as if remembering their fractious meeting at a sales auction some months before. “It’s hard to believe she’s still on her feet, much less winning competitions.”
have known if he had stuck around. He would have seen the gray blossom like South Dakota sunflowers. Would have watched her bloom right along with Ty, Casie thought. She forced a casual shrug. “She seems to like the work.”