Authors: Kimberly Krey
Ranch Hand for Auction
Copyright © 2015 Kimberly Krey
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer's imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
Interior book design by
Bob Houston eBook Formatting
To Mom and Dad, for the many seasons spent processing the grapes. A labor of love indeed.
Thank you so much, dear family, for your continued support and encouragement. And thank you, beautiful beta readers, for your speedy reads and feedback. Donna Nolan, thanks for sharing your gift for editing. Rocky Palmer, thank you for lending your editing skills as well. How grateful I am for each of you! Bob Houston, as always, thanks for your fast and efficient formatting. It’s always a privilege to work with you. Margie Lawson, thank you for the amazing week of learning and fun in your Immersion Master Class. What a gift that was; can’t wait to do it again sometime!
Meg’s mom always said that for a right-brained girl, Meg had quite a lot of left-brain in her. The right allowed her to create paintings that hung on walls throughout the country. The left is what got her paintings on those walls – her business sense.
So which side was best put to use when trying to get a man to commit? A man she’d been dating for three solid years.
That dilemma brushed over her mind in a painter’s stroke. Back and forth and over again as scents from the county fair wafted through the air.
“You want that one? He looks pretty good, doesn’t he?”
Meg’s dad had said the same thing about every ranch hand who’d been up for auction. She pulled her gaze from the sunny view of potato sack races on the grassy field, and shifted it back to the shaded stage, a good twenty feet before her. The metal picnic table benches weren’t getting any softer, and neither was her father’s resolve.
Billy Barnhart, proudest rancher in the state of Montana, patted the ranch hand on the back. “Travis here is built like a mule, will work like an ox, and won’t give you a word of grumbling. You provide his stay and he’ll provide the work. Put those dollars to good use and give Travis a fair starting bid of one-hundred dollars. Do I hear one-hundred for an entire week of labor?”
Her eyes ran over the guy’s bulky form. “No, don’t get him. We don’t need anyone that big. We’re making grape juice, not building a winery.” It was true, but secretly Meg was hoping they’d run out of ranch hands before her father could bid on one at all.
“One-hundred,” came a voice from behind. A woman’s voice. Meg spun around to see Mrs. Winstrom standing tall, one hand in the air, the other at her mouth where she bit at the tips of her nails.
“Wonder what she wants with him,” Meg said.
“Probably wants help removing the shrubs on that hillside of her property. Her husband passed away a couple years back, did you know that?”
Meg sighed, a mean ache sinking into her chest. “No.” A lot had happened since she’d left for college, hadn’t it? “Was it before Mom died or after?”
Her dad glanced at her, the blue green of his eyes working to hide his surprise. Meg was surprised herself, with as easy as the question had slipped out.
He licked his lips, set his gaze back on the stage. “After.”
She stifled the next question that arose, the
how did he die
question. What difference did it make? Sometimes people died before their time. Happened with Mom. Turns out it happened with Mr. Winstrom too.
“Hope Celia gets this one,” her dad mumbled. The comment made Meg realize that a bidding war was at hand, the bids falling between Celia Winstrom and old John Tucker.
Meg gave her dad a questioning glance.
“Tucker already scored two ranch hands,” he said, “And I’m sure he plans to work the kids near to death.”
“Three-hundred and fifty,” hollered Tucker, his face mad and red.
All eyes fell back to Celia, a hush falling over the crowd. The lovely woman gave the subtle shake of her head. Her gaze dropped.
“Three-fifty going once. Three-fifty going twice…” Billy lifted his gavel.
Meg’s eyes widened as she turned to the bidder. Her dad. “What are you doing?” she hissed.
“Four-hundred,” Billy exclaimed. “Our highest bid yet. Do I hear four-fifty?”
Tucker threw her dad a mean glare, but his lips stayed pinned. Billy started the countdown. Going once, and then twice. When no one piped up with a new bid, the gavel struck down.
to Thomas Bolton for four-hundred dollars.”
Her dad tilted his head toward Meg. “I’ll let Celia have him for her last bidding price and pay the difference,” he said in a lowered voice. “Can’t let John Tucker get the best of her like that.”
Her dad went on, grumbling things under his breath as the auction continued. Things like,
“What kind of man does that to a widow, anyway?”
drifting on the BBQ scented breeze.
Meg hid a smile. Her parents might have raised her in the country, among ranchers and farmers alike, but they had a whole lot of city in them too. Her father, one of the largest real estate brokers in the state, valued the peace and quiet, but he valued her mother’s wishes even more. And oh, how Meg’s mom had loved the country.
Her thoughts were interrupted when her dad gave her a nudge. “That’s our guy.”
Meg’s eyes darted to the stage once more. She meant to glance over the tall figure as a whole, the way she had the rest of them, but her gaze got stuck on this one’s face. His eyes, to be exact. Deep, brown, delicious. And aimed right at her.
Meg’s heart kicked into a rapid, hopping pace, as if it had joined the sack races on the field. This guy didn’t look like the other fresh-out-of-their-teens ranch hands. He looked like a man. A melt-your-heart, hero-of-a-western-drama-by-day, wrangler-of-twenty-ton-cattle-by-night
Tall, muscled, and lean.
A stream of catcalls came from a huddle of rowdy women toward the front, but the cowboy’s gaze stayed locked on her. He eased into a slow grin, the tug at one corner of his lips higher than the other. A devastating dimple sunk deep into his cheek.
“Yes,” she blurted, “bid on him.” Sure, Meg had been entirely against this whole auction thing moments ago. And yeah, she was as close to a committed relationship as one could get, but perhaps what Dad said about having someone help her process the grapes was true. She couldn’t do it all on her own. And it’d be a shame to let the fruit simply rot on the vines like it had since Mom died.
“One thing I might add about Jake, here,” Billy Barnhart said, “is that he’s the very ranch hand who started this whole trend of the guys donating half of their weekly wages to our charitable cause. I also might add that Jake won’t be in the auction next year, as he’ll be running a ranch of his own by then.” Billy bumped him with his elbow. “Isn’t that right?”
Jake, as he’d been called, allowed for a modest nod.
If Meg didn’t know better, she’d say there was moisture in Billy’s eyes. A hint of redness too. He liked this one. Was more attached to him than the others.
Billy sniffed. “Let’s start the bidding on this fine man, shall we?”
“One-fifty,” her dad hollered.
Meg’s eyes went wide. It was the highest starting bid yet.
Tucker had already snagged a third ranch hand, but there he went, shooting his beefy arm in the air once more. “Two-hundred.”
“Two-fifty,” came one of the ladies in the catcalling crowd. A skinny brunette among them threw Meg a nasty glare.
“Three,” Tucker hollered with a nod.
Meg nudged her dad in the arm. “Four. Say four.”
“Three-fifty,” her dad shouted.
“We’ve got three-fifty,” Billy said, proudly. “Do I hear four?”
Meg’s racing heart was going for first place. Pulling from every reserve, thumping harder and faster to the point it hurt.
“Remember, folks,” Billy said, “these guys aren’t just for hard labor. No sir. Hand over an apron and put ‘em to work making preserves or bottling peaches. Jake here never has shied away from the kitchen, I can tell you that.”
As if on demand, the ridiculously handsome ranch hand lifted his shoulders, poised his arms before him, and began a display of charades – stirring while holding some imaginary bowl. The crowd laughed and cheered in response. Jake’s smile grew. Meg’s heart nearly collapsed.
If she was a mix of right and left-brain, this guy was a mix of his own. A blend of wholesome and mischievous all at once. That innocent dimple in his cheek, complemented by the brazen lift of his brow.
“Four-hundred!” It was that group of ogling women again.
“Four-fifty,” Tucker said, his face turning impossibly redder.
“It’s getting a little rich for my blood,” her dad said.
Meg gasped. “Dad, you have more money than all of them.”
“Yeah, but it’s just grape juice. We could buy some and save ourselves all the – ”
It was a new voice. A voice that seemed to take everyone off-guard. Even Meg. Heads turned. Necks craned. Eyeballs bulged.
And Meg gulped, knowing it was too late to swallow the bid that had just escaped her lips.
“Five-hundred dollars from the lovely Meg Bolton,” Billy said with a wink. “Good to see you back in town, doll.”
A rash of heat broke over Meg’s face. She was certain it was redder than Tucker’s. She focused on the difficult task of keeping her gaze off the handsome cowboy she’d just bid on while the countdown began.
“Five-hundred going once… going twice… and
to the lovely Miss Bolton.” The other ranch hands made sounds of oohs, ahs, hollers and hoots. One reached out to catch a fist bump.
“Jake,” Billy said, “looks like you’re one lucky man.”
Jake looked into a pair of sad brown eyes. “Don’t look at me like that, Bear,” he said to the dog, running both hands along the animal’s soft head. “You know Ms. Johnson will be over to care for you. Besides, with as much as I’m gone, I’m sure you’re starting to like her more than me, aren’t ya?”
When Bear simply wagged his tail, Jake patted his head and came to a stand. He hoisted his duffle bag onto one shoulder and looked at the empty home, a bit of melancholy coming over him.
It wasn’t that he was unhappy with his place in life. Hell, he’d chosen it. But Jake wanted more. He wanted a woman by his side, someone to share his quiet evenings with when the workday was through. Perhaps have a few little ones down the road, a pair who’d make those evenings not so quiet after all.
Sure, he had his life set out for him. Owner of a rental property by his mid-twenties. A ranch that would be his in less than a year. But it was time to settle down and get started with the rest of his life.
An image of the lovely Meg Bolton, his bidder at the fair, seeped into his mind. She seemed different from the women in Jake’s past. Different in the best of ways. And he’d be damned if there hadn’t been some sort of spark between them as they locked eyes across the crowd. His belly warmed at the memory of that day. Even if it was two whole months ago.
Jake gave in to a grin as he locked up. He’d been looking forward to this week since that very day, and now it was here. At prior auction jobs, he’d had plenty of interesting encounters, some he’d shared with the guys while hovered ‘round the bonfire on late summer nights. But as he climbed into his truck, turned over the key, and eased out of his driveway, one thing was sure: this week – with the presence of the lovely Meg Bolton – was sure to top them all.
~ + ~
Meg tightened her grip on the steering wheel as she approached Maple Street, her mind spinning faster than the fall leaves whirling in the breeze.
“Wait,” she said, shifting the phone from one hand to the other. “You’re not home yet? Didn’t you say the guy would be there shortly after me?”
“Yes,” her dad said. “He’ll be there in less than twenty minutes.”
“And you’re not going to be home for another
The lengthy pause told Meg she wasn’t going to like his reply.
“Might be longer, Meg. You know I’ll be working nearly the whole time he’s here. I don’t see why tonight is any different.”
She covered a groan. Wasn’t it obvious? “We haven’t even met, Dad. It’s awkward. Especially since I’m the one who…”
“Who bid on the guy yourself?” He chuckled. “And it’s a good thing you did, too. Who knew that most of the other hands would have already left town by now?”
Meg appreciated her dad’s attempt to shift the focus. The truth was, the other hired hands had taken their leave, going back to school or other seasonal work. Billy had said the bidders could name the week they needed help, assuming no one would have a demand outside of the summer months. He’d been wrong. Meg and her father had only one purpose: process the concord grapes for juice, the way Mom always had. That couldn’t be done until fall.
“Just let the guy inside, show him to his room, and the two of you can pick a few bushels before it gets dark. I should be home in time to join you for dinner.”
The word made her panic. “What food do you have, Dad?” She hadn’t been there in over a month. Who knew what kind of things he had lurking in that fridge.
“I’ve got a few salmon fillets in the freezer. Some potatoes to bake. Should be good enough.”
Meg couldn’t believe she was doing this. Could. Not. Believe it. “All right,” she finally said, dragging out the word.
He chuckled. “All right. See you tonight.”
As the line went dead, Meg approached her house. She guessed it was still
She may have an apartment back in Denver, close to the university she’d earned her bachelor’s from, but this would always be home to her. The sun had just begun its slow dip toward the horizon, promising one of Meg’s favorite kinds of sunsets. The kind that mixed warm and cool tones in one gradual shift. Already the crimson stretch along the horizon faded into hues of pink, lavender, and eventually, the light blue of the sky.
The warm glow over her home made Meg think back on the day she’d painted her mom sitting peacefully in the patio swing on the front porch. Dad put the painting in a frame. Meg had been only fourteen at the time. Who’d have thought that just six years later, Mom would be gone?
The thought stung. It had been two years since she’d passed, but sometimes when Meg thought of it, she had to convince herself that it had actually happened. Mom really had died. She wouldn’t put her arms around her ever again. At least not in this lifetime. A stream of silent tears slipped down her cheeks.
No, Meg, don’t get caught up in that now. You’ll make a mess of yourself.
With fresh resolve she put the car in park, grabbed her bags, and dashed up the stairs. She still had to toss her things in her room, freshen up at the mirror, and – oh yeah – somehow face the fact that her life had become one giant dead end. Something she hadn’t been able to face during her eight-hour drive.
Three years. She’d been with Michael for three years now and still he wouldn’t commit. What was wrong with her that she still wanted to be with a guy who
if she dated other people?
Her bags hit the bed with a plop. She sped toward the mirror, touched up her makeup, and brushed through the strawberry blonde strands of her hair as a question came to mind: Just who was she trying to impress? Some ranch hand?
She scoffed. Meg may have felt some serious butterflies when he’d caught her gaze months ago, but they were long gone. Fleeting, really. Yet even as that thought ran through her mind, her body proved it a lie. A fluttery flash in her chest. A dose of warmth to her cheeks. She didn’t even know the guy and already parts of her were misbehaving at the memory of him.
she reminded herself. His name was Jake. She took a step back from the mirror, flicked off the light so the sun could stream through the windows, and fought to hold back a satisfied grin. This was hands-down the most flattering lighting there was. And Jake would see her in it.
Meg shook her head, insulted by her own musings. It was simply her way of getting even with Michael. Besides, the artist in her would never stop thinking about lighting and what it does for a person’s skin.
Her phone let out a familiar ding, reminding her of the texts she’d missed while driving. The press of a few keys showed they were from Shayna; AKA fiancé to Michael’s best friend. Meg skipped straight to her very last text:
Did you make it there all right? Don’t make me call the police in that little town of yours and make them gallop on over to your place.
Meg laughed. Shayna liked to think Meg’s hometown was like that of an old western.
Sorry, please don’t summon the county sheriff. He’s been hunting down a gunman who shot out the saloon and robbed the mercantile. No, really. I made it just fine. The cowboy should be here any minute.
Shayna’s reply came in seconds.
Oh, joy! Be sure and do a do-si-do square dance thing for me. And watch out for those cow patties, ya hear?
Will do, darlin’. Have a great week. Tell Michael not to miss me too much.
She pushed send, rethinking the final comment. Inwardly, Meg doubted he’d miss her at all. Michael wasn’t one for texting and phone calls. He preferred being together, which didn’t happen often, due to his busy schedule of school and work.
A knock came at the front door, and Meg’s heart sped into a crazed beat. She adjusted her top on the way down the hall and swooped one last hand through her hair. While rounding the corner she realized she hadn’t closed the front door behind her, just the screen.
On the other side of the glass stood a specimen even more attractive than she recalled.
More heart pumps happened as she hurried through the room, a bit of remorse creeping in at not having a moment to compose herself behind the heavy oak door.
“Hi.” The word sounded short and incomplete, like someone snipped it off with a pair of sheers.
Jake tipped his hat, gave her a nod. “Howdy.” Deep masculinity – that was the sound of his voice. Rich and low and yummy yum yum.
The stubborn brass handle fought against her as she tried to open it, jamming as it often did. Her face filled with warmth. “Sorry, this door hates me.” She bonked it with the side of her fist.
The cowboy chuckled under his breath in that deep tenor. “I can see why.”
At last the stupid lever clicked into place, allowing her to push open the screen door. “Sorry,” she said again. “Come on in.”
He gave her another nod and stepped inside. A spicy, masculine scent wafted through the air in his wake. She sucked in a deep breath of it while her gaze wandered over the exposed part of his forearm, appreciating the muscled contours there.
“Where should I uh…” He spun full-circle in the front room, a slow turn as he eyed the art on the wall.
A beat of panic rushed through her as he lingered on the painting she’d done of her mom. “Downstairs,” she blurted. “I’ll show you.”
Jake trailed after her through the kitchen, the dining room, and finally down the stairwell.
“How many people do you have in your family?” he asked from behind.
“Since my mom died it’s just me, my dad, and my older brother. He’s married though and has two kids. They live a few hours away.” She led him to the spare bedroom, flicked on the light, and sniffed at the stale air, wishing she’d thought to bring down an air freshener.
“So now it’s just you and your dad here?” He shrugged the duffel bag strap off his shoulder and stepped into the room.
“Actually, I moved out after high school. I went to an art school in Denver, graduated in the spring, but just haven’t gotten myself to fully… move back, I guess.”
He dropped his bag on the bed. “So your dad’s here by himself most of the time?”
Her shoulders slumped. “Yeah. Sadly, he is. Though he works enough that I’m not sure he minds too much.”
“I see. Well…” Jake rubbed his palms over his jeans. And there went that dimple, the one she’d forgotten about until that moment. The sight caused a trace of heat to zing through her chest.
“Where should we start?” he asked.
Start? Start what?
With the large bed behind him and that hint of seduction in his eyes, she’d forgotten her own name.
“Start,” she repeated. “Yes. Out back. I’ll show you.”
According to her grandmother, there were two kinds of trouble to get into: the kind you regret and the kind you don’t. Meg could tell that the days ahead – spent with the woman-melting man at her heels – could be trouble indeed. She only wondered which kind it might be.