Read Second Chance Ranch: a Hope Springs novel (Entangled Bliss) Online

Authors: Cindi Madsen

Tags: #Horses, #Cowboy, #reunited lovers, #small town romance, #susan mallery, #country singer, #rodeo, #Rachel Harris, #Terri Osburn, #Catherine Bybee, #rancher, #Nancy Naigle, #Kristan Higgins, #Category Romance

Second Chance Ranch: a Hope Springs novel (Entangled Bliss) (2 page)

BOOK: Second Chance Ranch: a Hope Springs novel (Entangled Bliss)
9.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Damn, now he was getting mushy, and he couldn’t let her do that to him. He wasn’t the guy she’d left behind for Nashville anymore, full of optimism and thinking all he needed was his horse, his truck, and his girl by his side and life would be perfect.

He gestured toward Lucy. “I think she’s waiting for you to pay for your groceries.”

Sadie glanced at the cashier, nodded, and then held out the money. “Sorry about the olives. I’ll just take the rest of the groceries, and I guess you’ll have to call for a cleanup or whatever.”

Now he felt bad again. He wasn’t sure if Sadie was in town for a visit or if she planned on staying awhile—no doubt he’d hear the gossip soon enough—but he needed to stay away from her. The woman was toxic, and there was no way he’d let her mess with his heart or his head ever again.

Sadie glanced at Royce as the cashier took the hundred-dollar bill from her.

He looked so much the same. Still tall—although she swore he’d grown another inch or two—chestnut hair shot with golden streaks from hours in the sun, despite the fact he wore a hat most of the time, and deep brown eyes. He’d filled out since high school, too, his chest stretching the fabric of his shirt, his defined arms several inches bigger around than they used to be. Like when she’d been in high school, she got a little breathless when she looked at him. It was one of the reasons she’d almost given up her singing dream and married him, regardless of the fact that they’d barely been out of high school.

Memories flooded her, snippets from nights in the back of his truck, legs tangled together, his hand in her back pocket, the starry sky overhead as the thump of his beating heart sounded against her ear. Even after she’d left, her heart ached for him for months afterward, a piece of it gone that she knew she’d never get back or be able to replace.

Realizing she was staring, she lowered her gaze, idly taking in the groceries he’d placed on the conveyor belt. Supplies to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a year, a giant bag of pancake mix and a jug of syrup, a case of Coke and one of Coors.

“You can buy beer now,” she said, finding it almost funny after how much effort they used to go to get it in high school.

“It’s one of my proudest accomplishments.” There was plenty of sarcasm in his words, but there was a hint of amusement in them, too. Her eyes drifted back to his as if they couldn’t help themselves, and his expression immediately morphed into a distant, tight-lipped one. Would it kill him to try to make this run-in easier?

There was so much she wanted to say, but she didn’t even know how to start, and considering the way her thoughts and emotions were whirring, she was pretty sure anything that came out would just be gibberish.

The cashier waved a couple of bills in front of Sadie’s face. “Um, here’s your change.”

Sadie took it out of her hands and noticed Grandpa standing next to the exit doors. Thank goodness. She’d needed to get out of here about ten minutes ago. Where was the damn time machine now?

After gathering her bags of food, Sadie headed toward Grandpa. For some stupid reason, she couldn’t help glancing back at her ex-boyfriend again, even though common sense told her to run as fast as possible.

He wasn’t looking at her, though. He was making small talk with the cashier. Going on with his life.

Probably the exact same way he’d done every day since she’d left this godforsaken town.

As soon as they were settled into the truck, Grandpa glanced at her. “You talk to him?”

He always could read her better than anyone else. There was no point in even asking who, or acting as though running into Royce hadn’t affected her. “Not really.”

The guy she hadn’t really talked to came out of Homeland Foods, and she watched him walk to a beat-up, mostly blue pickup truck. He opened the door and she noticed the white sign with the dark blue words
Dixon Horse Ranch & ARCFY
on the side of it.

“He still running both Dixon Ranch and Second Chance Ranch?” Sadie asked.

Technically, it was named the Alternative Ranch Camp for Youth, but since it was a program for troubled teens, people around here had nicknamed it Second Chance Ranch. Basically there were several studies that proved equine assisted therapy—putting people who had troubles with violence, depression, low self-esteem, et cetera, with horses—helped them. Some of the teens were sent because their parents thought they needed discipline or they didn’t know how to get through to them anymore, and some were court ordered to attend and prove they deserved to be back in society instead of picking up trash on the highway or sent to juvie. She’d always admired the Dixons for running it, and on her frequent visits to the ranch, she’d seen how much work it took for his parents to keep it going.

Guilt seeped in, filling her lungs. When she’d heard about Royce’s dad passing, her first instinct was to fly home and see if Royce needed her. At that time, though, nearly five years had already passed since they’d spoken, she was playing back-to-back gigs with two other girls she was briefly in a band with, and she didn’t know if he’d want her there anyway.

“Doin’ a damn fine job of it, too,” Grandpa said. “When Jim died, all these people in town were talking, the way they do, implying he wouldn’t be able to keep both running. There was lots of speculation he’d close the youth camp in favor of keepin’ up the horse ranch. But you should see the place now.” Grandpa started up the truck and it rumbled to life. “He and his mom have made it work. She does the counseling side of things, and Royce takes care of most everything else, including training roping horses for people around the state. Cory Brooks works out there with them, too.”

Cory Brooks was Royce’s best friend going all the way back to preschool, and Sadie was glad they’d found a way to work together, the way they’d always planned on growing up. Even though she was the one who’d moved away, an unexpected pang of being left out hit her. The three of them used to forever be scrunched in the cab of a pickup truck, headed to the next rodeo. If her best friend, Quinn Sakata, had gotten permission from her parents to go with them, they’d take a truck with an extended cab so they could all fit, but those times had been few and far between.

“They’ve had a few people come and go, and a couple of others work part-time, but those three keep it running somehow,” Grandpa continued. “And while there’s the occasional person who still raises a fuss about the supposed hoodlums being so close to town, there hasn’t been an incident since Royce took over.”

“What about the rodeo stuff? Is he still competing?”

“Oh, he usually does a couple of the local ones, but other than that…” Grandpa shook his head. “Don’t think he has the time—even before Jim passed on, he was doing less and less to try to keep up with the ranch.”

Sadie watched Royce’s truck turn down the road that led out of town as Grandpa turned in the other direction. She used to love that ranch, so much so that his place became her second home. More scenes of racing horses to the river, kisses on a blanket laid out next to the rushing water, and nights when kissing turned into more, played out in her mind, seeming more like dreams than real memories. While she might have to drive by just to see what the place looked like now, she’d never have the guts to go ask for the tour. Over the years, she’d tried her hardest to stamp out the longing that she felt whenever she thought of Dixon Ranch and the guy who lived there.

Don’t even start with that depressing line of thinking.

What she needed to focus on was getting a job, getting back on her feet, and then figuring out a way to get back to Nashville and her singing career. There were too many ghosts here, and the last thing she needed were more reminders of all the ways she’d failed at life.

Chapter Two

Royce turned up the radio, Aerosmith blasting from the classic rock station as he drove toward the ranch. At first he was trying to drown out thoughts of Sadie Hart, but it wasn’t working, so he decided to take them on instead. Objectively, she was still pretty, but it was like she’d spent the past few years getting rid of everything unique about her. The curves were gone, replaced by the too-thin type of body that was so popular in Hollywood—and Nashville, apparently. Her strawberry-blond waves had been lightened so much that none of the reddish hue remained, which was a shame. At least she still had those large green eyes and the adorable freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks that stood out even more when her skin flushed pink.

Her temper’s definitely still in place.
He found himself smiling at that—they used to verbally spar, all in good fun, their own sort of foreplay. The girl was passionate to the point of being blind to anything but her opinion, and when he dared to have a different one, her voice would rise higher and higher, and then he’d get fired up right back. Eventually he’d just pull her into his arms and kiss her until she sagged against him. It was the one weapon he could use to persuade her to see his side the tiniest bit.

His blood heated thinking about the countless kisses they’d shared. The nights lying out under the stars, cuddled under a thin blanket with nothing else between them, knowing they didn’t have long before one of their parents would be calling or texting to ask where they were.

For a moment, he was lost to the memories he’d kept locked away for years, and he wanted to go back and redo their meeting in the grocery store. Tease out a smile and see if it was still the same. Hear her laugh.

Then he remembered that the girl had ripped out his heart. He tightened his grip on the wheel. Sure, he was over it now, but it’d taken longer than he cared to admit. He’d learned his lesson, too. Nice guys
finish last. It wasn’t like he’d become a jerk, but he’d been more on guard during his short-lived other relationships. The more he blew off or pushed away a woman, the more aggressively she pursued him. It made no logical sense, but the female population ate that up. Until the moment she realized he was simply that busy with the ranch and not interested in putting forth enough effort to make it work on a deeper level.

The ranch. How the hell am I going to find someone who’s good with the teens
the animals?
He’d been struggling to find someone already, and that was before cutting the prospects at least in half by needing to hire a female employee. Which was probably something he couldn’t say, either, or he’d just be giving more people cause to sue him. Right now he’d settle for someone good with one or the other. He, Cory, and Mom could pick up the slack on the other side.

A thick cloud of dust kicked up behind him as he turned onto the dirt road leading home. The cabins, barn, and fence sharpened into relief as he neared, all black outlines against the dark sky. He knew the position he needed filled involved hard work, and the pay was nothing to brag about, but it was all he could afford. The last two people he’d hired had lasted about a year each before quitting. One moved away, and one took a job at the hospital after her relationship with Cory fizzled out—Royce should’ve known dating coworkers was a disaster waiting to happen. Especially when one of them was Cory, who never could maintain a relationship for shit.

Royce pulled up to his house and cut the engine. The lights were only on in the girls’ cabin, so the boys were probably there, too. He sent Mom a quick text to check in, and she replied that she was playing games with the kids. She added that she’d send the boys to their cabin soon.

At least that’s taken care of.
Of all the things that could fall through, the teens couldn’t be one of them. They needed constant supervision, and he worried that Mom never got enough of a break. Neither did Cory, for that matter. Even though his friend didn’t live here, he probably felt like it. It was the Hotel California of ranches—check out anytime you like, but you can never really leave.

Royce dropped the groceries inside his place, planning on putting everything away later. He grabbed a cold Coke from the fridge, since he still had hours of work ahead of him, and headed to the barn. He checked on Chevy, his very pregnant horse. She whinnied at him and shook out her dark mane. He gave her some grain, taking a minute to brush down her reddish-brown coat, even though he had a hundred other chores to attend to.

“What am I going to do?” Talking to his horse seemed to help him work out his problems, even if her only input was neighs and nudges that usually meant
Stop being so stingy with the food
. “I thought I’d catch up before the new group got here, but I’m still behind, and it’s only gonna get worse.” Since this batch of kids was brand-new and Mom was focused on getting to know them so she could see what they needed most, they weren’t very good ranch hands yet. “And if that wasn’t bad enough, now I get to worry about covering my ass before someone takes me to the cleaners and I lose everything my family’s worked their entire lives for.”

Royce ran his hand across Chevy’s pregnant stomach—it wouldn’t be long until she had her foal. It’d be good not only to have her baby, but also to have her back to working condition. He and Dad had spent countless hours together breaking and training her, and he could still remember the way they’d celebrated when they discovered that she went after cows faster than any gelding they’d ever had. They’d planned on raising her to be a broodmare because of her cowy nature and strong bloodline, but after Royce entered a couple of rodeos with her, she proved that she was born to rope.

Now they were both out of the roping scene for the most part, but she was still his best horse. Of course, she’d need time to recover, and the colt or filly would need training, too—which just brought him back to his current problem of needing another person to help. It was looking more and more like he might have to let some of the qualifications go and just find someone desperate for a job.

The instant Sadie stepped inside the house, Mom jumped up from the couch. As much complaining as she’d done over the phone about how old she was getting, she looked the same, not even a hint of gray creeping into her bright red hair. Sadie threw her arms around her, squeezing her tightly, then she leaned over to hug Grandma before she tried to get up from her chair. The silver lining in her currently broke-and-jobless situation was seeing her family. Earlier this spring Grandma had gotten pneumonia and been hospitalized for a couple of weeks. Sadie had been worried about her—they all had—but the strength with which she hugged Sadie gave her hope Grandma was well on her way to recovery.

Grandpa watched on, silent but smiling, and her heart swelled. It was funny how one minute she wanted to escape town, and the next she couldn’t imagine leaving them again to live so far away.

Mom glanced from the suitcase Sadie had rolled in to the large duffel bag Grandpa had set down at the foot of the stairs. “Is that it?” She looked at it again, as if she might have missed a bag. “I know you said it was just temporary, but I expected more.”

“I would’ve brought more if I had my car, but it was on its last legs and there was no way it’d make the drive, so I sold it. I put most of my belongings in storage.” She didn’t mention that she’d used every last penny to rent the storage space and buy the one-way plane ticket.

Having a singing contract in reaching distance—for the second time, no less—only to have it all fall apart again had drained the last of the fight in her. When she’d tried to get back on the horse—or stage, as it were—she’d only managed to crash harder. All she’d really been thinking when she’d called Mom and told her she was coming home to spend some time with her, Grandma, and Grandpa was that she
to get away from Nashville and all of the pressure for a while. She’d be lying if she said running out of money didn’t have a little something to do with it. She might’ve been able to get her old job back if she hadn’t told her boss that she’d rather shovel horseshit than work for him when she’d quit. In hindsight, not the smartest way to go.

But she didn’t think she could’ve gone back and made one more phone call for that company anyway. Dialing up random people and trying to convince them to take surveys they didn’t want to was exhausting, she’d hated being inside during all the sunny hours of the day, and her boss was a jerk. She’d tried waitressing before, but she got distracted easily, started chatting and laughing with the customers instead of focusing on the food and her other tables, and ended up getting yelled at a lot, so it wasn’t a good fit, either. Sure, there were probably other jobs she could try, but she was too burned-out. A couple months to recoup and get back into fighting shape—repair the layer of thick skin one needed to have in the music industry and get her confidence back—and then she’d call up her agent and tell him she was ready to perform and try to get auditions again.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get to cleaning out your room,” Mom said. “I simply ran out of time. I washed the bedding, though. It’s in the dryer now.”

Sadie wrapped an arm around Mom’s shoulders. “Thanks. That’s perfect.”

“Dinner’s in the oven,” Grandma said, and at the suggestion of food, Sadie smelled something buttery and creamy. “I made your favorite brownies for dessert, too. I wanted to celebrate you coming home.”

Sadie almost told Grandma that she couldn’t eat the delicious brownies with the calorific fudge frosting. Or whatever meat she’d most likely breaded and fried, not to mention the vegetables she nearly always served creamed, which sort of defeated the healthy aspect. Sadie had been on a strict diet for years, and carbs were so not her friends. Her agent always pointed out that she needed to look marketable to keep up with the rest of the competition, and she was told whenever she gained a pound or two. If Nolan had his way, she’d have breast implants, too. She’d actually considered getting them, but in the end, she really thought it should be about her voice. Showed what she knew. Sure, there were hundreds of good singers out there, but she’d networked, taken lessons, spent years pursuing a career, and she could sing, damn it!

Exhaustion seeped in and her shoulders sagged. With any luck, she’d figure out a way to get her mojo back. First things first, she was dying for a shower, and then bring on the food, because eating her feelings sounded like a great way to take care of them right now. She excused herself and dragged her suitcase upstairs.

“Is she okay?” she heard Mom ask, even though she was clearly trying to whisper. But with Grandma and Grandpa being a little hard of hearing, it came out as more of a yell-whisper.

Was she okay? It was the million-dollar question, wasn’t it?

“Seems okay,” Grandpa said. “Ran into Royce at the grocery store, and I think that was hard.”

Sadie groaned. They were already going to start speculating about her love life, and there was no doubt the entire town would be buzzing about it, too. Everyone had thought the rodeo star and the town’s singing sensation—if you counted state fairs, rodeos, and ball games—were going to make it. While most everyone in Hope Springs had speculated on what exactly had happened to break them up right before Sadie left, none of them knew the truth as far as she could tell. The only person who knew everything was Quinn, and she was so loyal she’d take it to her grave. There were definitely whispers about how Sadie thought she was too good for the town, though. Yet another reason she’d only been home twice since she’d moved away, both super-short visits where she’d honed her hermit skills.

Sadie pushed into her bedroom. Or maybe she’d traveled through the wormhole again. It still looked like the bedroom from her high school memories. There were the red curtains she’d sewn in class, because yeah, that had been required in the high school curriculum in this town. When the curtains were closed, you could see how crooked they were at the bottom. Posters of famous country singers lined the wall. Faith Hill, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and Keith Urban. That last one was up there because, yes, he was a good singer, but he was also nice to look at. He was still nice to look at, but nowadays, she was more of a Brantley Gilbert girl. How could she resist a male country singer with a bad boy look?

On the other side of the room were lots of pictures tacked to the wall, most of them of her and Royce. The two of them after one of his big rodeo wins, the time she’d sung at open mic night in a club in Casper, prom, posed together in their graduation robes. Each moment had been frozen in time, and now they served as a reminder of all the things that had gone wrong. She should’ve taken them down last time she was here, but she’d been depressed over how she’d almost signed a contract with a record label only for the band to break up. That was the first time her singing dreams had slipped through her fingers.

Sadie pushed her suitcase aside, sat on the floral, pillow-topped mattress stripped of its bedding, and flopped back on it. She wondered why Mom had never taken down the pictures and done something else with the room. It had been easy enough to avoid, since they’d often meet up for Christmases in Casper, where they’d get a nice hotel room and Sadie could spend the holidays with both her mom and grandparents and her dad and stepmom, who lived there. Somehow her parents had actually managed to have a civil divorce and were one of those broken-up couples who could still be in the same room as each other and be fine. Mom always said they’d just been too young. It was why she’d ingrained in Sadie career first, everything else could wait.

After seeing firsthand how hard Mom had to work to get through school while juggling a job, as well as being a single parent, Sadie understood why she felt so strongly about it. After all, Mom had done some modeling when she was younger and had even been offered a contract with an agency—a contract she’d given up to stay in Wyoming and get married. Now she worked long hours for little pay.

Sadie had sworn she wouldn’t squander any opportunity that came her way—that she’d follow her singing dreams and make enough money doing what she loved so her mom wouldn’t have to work anymore. Obviously that hadn’t happened.
Until it did, she refused to be a financial strain on her family. Especially since she knew it was hard enough for them to keep up on all the bills as it was, and that was before Grandma’s trip to the hospital and all the extra medications she had to take now.

BOOK: Second Chance Ranch: a Hope Springs novel (Entangled Bliss)
9.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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