Gentling the Cowboy

By: Ruth Cardello

Chapter One

No real adventure ever started by waiting patiently on a doorstep.
Still, Sarah Dery hesitated before reaching for the handle on the screen door of her friend’s immense white farmhouse. The shelter of the wraparound porch did little to alleviate the heat of the midday Texas sun, but was that a good enough excuse to enter? What if no one is home? Since there was no cell phone service, there wasn’t much else she could do unless she was willing to wait in her SUV.
Wiping one suddenly cold hand across a jean-clad leg, Sarah straightened her shoulders and opened the door decisively. She hadn’t survived the three-day drive from Rhode Island only to pass out from heat exhaustion on the porch because Lucy was late.
“Hello?” she called out. “Anyone home?” No answer.
The interior of the house was similar to the mammoth horse barn she’d searched a few minutes ago: well maintained, but lacking any personal touches. She was surprised that her friend lived like this, but perhaps when you worked all day on a ranch, decorating wasn’t a priority.
Sarah assessed the living room. It looked and smelled clean—the best compliment she could give it. The few pieces of wooden furniture, decorated with outdated, plain blue cushions, had probably never given a person a moment of comfort. She returned to the main foyer and appreciated the beauty of the room’s woodwork, even as she noted the lack of photos and artwork on the walls.
The house reminded her of the mansions in her hometown, built by wealthy factory owners who had long since left the area, along with their businesses. Although this house showed no obvious signs of disrepair, it felt cold. Empty. Can a house be sad?
She wandered through the downstairs rooms and marveled at the lack of electronics—no television, not even a radio. Lucy had hinted that her life in Texas wasn’t happy, but this was the first glimpse Sarah had had at how truly barren her life down here was.
No wonder she invited me.
Although she hadn’t seen her old roommate since college, they’d kept in touch via email and the occasional uneventful video chat. Until Lucy had asked, “How’s your writing going?”
What writing?
“I’ve been busy,” Sarah had said lamely.
“Didn’t you say that you’d taken the job at your parents’ company so you’d have time to write?”
Apparently, time was not the issue.
Can you be a writer if you don’t write? Like a musician who never picks up an instrument? Who are you when the person you are in your heart doesn’t match the life you’re living?
I always wanted to be a writer—tell stories that would sweep readers away on a journey of laughter, tears, and growth. I dreamed of discovering myself through the characters I crafted.
So why can’t I write?
What’s stopping me?
God, I need this trip.
Lucy said she was desperate for companionship, and the offer of spending a summer on a working Texas cattle ranch had been too tempting to pass up. Taking a deep breath, Sarah announced to the empty house, “I’ll admit so far this isn’t living up to how exciting I thought Texas would be, but it’ll work out.” Maybe I watched too much “Dallas,” but I’m not ready to give up on my fantasy just yet.
She could almost hear her brother’s telltale sigh, which was often followed by a lengthy lecture. Charles Dery was a successful Wall Street investor and a self-appointed dictator when it came to his little sister. Moving to New York rather than staying and working for their family’s construction company hadn’t stopped him from getting involved as soon as she’d announced she was taking a leave of absence from her office job at Dery and Son—a company that should have been named Dery and Reluctantly Employed Daughter.
“Mom and Dad called me. They’re upset. There is no way you’re quitting your job to travel cross-country alone.”
“Yes, I am, Charlie.”
“Why the hell are you doing this?” he’d stormed.
“I need this,” Sarah had fired back, knowing that a deeper conversation wasn’t possible between them. I need this.
Before it’s too late.
Maybe it already is.
What is it about a milestone age that makes a person reassess her life? She’d graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a bachelor degree in English, but she could easily have gotten a degree in basket-weaving for all she’d done with it since.
Lucy’s question had haunted her, especially during her last birthday party when the forest of candles on her cake had hit Sarah like a bucket of ice-cold reality. How did I lose myself?
She wished there had been one grand event she could blame, but the truth was it had happened much less dramatically than that—more like a flower wilting in the sun until the life she thought she was meant for was nothing more than a pile of dried-out, brittle regret.
Charlie said I should think of how this is affecting others and not be so selfish. Easy for him to say from New York.
I tried to be the one who stayed behind to make everything okay, but the price was too high. Be good. Follow the rules. Avoid all unpleasant topics. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t be the perfect daughter in the perfect family. I’m an adventurer. A pioneer. Texans hadn’t stayed where the boat dropped their parents. They’d boldly left for parts unknown.
Like I did.
Life in Rhode Island wasn’t awful. Her office position at her parents’ company paid enough for her to live in her own apartment and afford a horse she rode four nights a week at an exclusive equestrian facility.
I didn’t have anything to complain about.
Or anything to look forward to.
Until Lucy called.
“Hello . . . anybody here?” The silence was eerie, but this wasn’t the movies––nothing extraordinary was going to happen.
Sarah grimaced. Nothing ever did.
Lucy had probably run to the store for some last-minute supplies. Isn’t that how it always works? You step away for just a minute and your company arrives.
A bead of sweat trickled down Sarah’s neck. The light cotton shirt she had chosen so carefully that morning was now plastered against her back. Sarah plucked at it while renewing her resolve. She’d adjust to the heat. Comfort didn’t matter. This was about finding herself, finding her voice.
She returned to the living room, plopped on the unforgiving couch, and flung out her arms in victory. I did it! The drive may have taken her three days, giving her horse time to rest along the way, but even that part of the journey had been amazing. Each bed and breakfast she’d stayed at on her way down had intensified her anticipation. Each time she’d told the other guests where she was going, she’d felt even more alive.
This is what life is about: seeing new places, meeting new people, grabbing life by the balls and squeezing until it coughs up a story worth telling.
I should write that down.
She whipped out the purple spiral notebook she’d purchased specifically for this trip and stopped halfway through recording her thoughts, hesitating before writing a word she normally avoided: balls.
I’m twenty-five, not five. Writers are not afraid of words. On the very first page of her notebook, she wrote, “Balls. Balls. Balls.” And smiled with pride. With renewed enthusiasm, she wrote, “Big balls. Hairy balls. Bald balls?”
Chewing on the end of her pen thoughtfully, Sarah decided to designate a section of her notebook to research topics. She drew a margin on the right side of the paper. In her finest penmanship, she wrote: Do some men shave their balls?
I should write: What woman my age doesn’t know that? But this is not about passing judgment. Positive energy brings positive results. Acceptance of yourself is the first step toward improvement.
God, I’ve been reading too many self-help books.
It’s time to stop thinking about why I’m not living the life I want and just live it.
Which was why she’d chosen to bring a notebook instead of her laptop. Real change sometimes requires a clean sweep. No more wasting time searching the Internet hoping a topic would end her writer’s block. No more reading countless articles on how to write. Just a pen, a notebook, and Texas. If I don’t write something this summer, I deserve to work for my parents for the rest of my life.
Time to color outside the lines.
No more settling for good enough.
Like Doug.
Her recent breakup with the man she’d dated chastely in high school, then slept with through college, had been as unexciting as any of the sex they’d ever had. Not that they’d had sex in months anyway. Which should have mattered, but it hadn’t. Because I didn’t love him. Just like every other choice I’ve made up until now, he was safe, the type of man everyone expected me to be with. Smart, successful, and someone who fit into her parents’ social circle. He’d never said a single thing anyone objected to. Tapioca in a suit. Bland in and out of bed.
Why was I with him for so long?
The wrong size shoe doesn’t fit just because you want it to.
She slammed her notebook shut and hugged it to her chest. She took another look around the room before whispering, “The only one who can give me the life I want is me. Right now. Right here.”
Returning to her more immediate concerns, Sarah looked down at the damp cotton material of her shirt. Who knew how long Lucy would be gone? What if she comes home and she’s not alone? I can’t meet people looking like this.
Coming to a quick decision, Sarah rushed back to her SUV for her luggage and a change of clothes. She left the heaviest pieces in the hallway and, taking just her small bag, searched for a place to freshen up.
The bleached-white downstairs bathroom was as spartan as the rest of the house, but it revealed a beautiful . . . no, a heaven-sent shower. She closed her eyes for a moment and imagined washing off the dirt and sweat under the cool spray.
Would it be so wrong?

Tony considered taking the shotgun from the back of his truck when he saw the vehicle parked in his driveway, but quickly decided to toss this intruder off his land with his bare hands. Hell, it might even make my day.
A Rhode Island license plate? Someone had traveled a long way for a good old-fashioned Texas beating.
’Course, there was a slim chance that David had invited a buyer to pick up his horse directly from the ranch. No, David’s not that stupid.
Tony opened the door of his truck with more force than was necessary and took stock of the scene in his driveway. No one he knew would have driven this flashy gray two-horse trailer or matching silver Lexus SUV—neither of which appeared to have ever seen a day of work.
Upon closer inspection, the trailer looked more like a delivery truck than a pickup. The rear-loading ramp was still down. Someone had clearly unloaded a horse and led it into the barn.
He checked the barn’s interior first. Nothing out of place. The stalls were secure. He scanned the paddocks. All his horses were accounted for.
What the hell? Whoever had driven that trailer had had the gall to put their small horse in one of his paddocks, smack-dab in the middle of his prized quarter horses.
A delicately boned bay horse, Paso Fino by breed. Tony’s eyes narrowed. Pampered, by the looks of it. Definitely not used to working. The sparkling painted black hooves and pink halter stopped him in his tracks.
The intruder is a woman. Cursing, Tony strode toward the house, the pace of his footsteps picking up speed as his anger grew.
He considered each of his past female companions, although none were recent. He chose partners with care—experienced women who understood that he had nothing more than a few hours of mutual pleasuring to offer them. He didn’t promise them anything, and they were too smart to think they could come to his ranch uninvited and receive anything but a cold escort to the road. The only people who were welcome on his ranch were the ones who worked there, and even they knew to stay out of his way.
The pink-and-green checkered luggage that greeted him as he entered the house brought a rush of heat up his neck. He heard the downstairs shower running and a female voice mixed with the sound of the spray. Almost positive he must be hallucinating from the heat of the day, he walked toward the bathroom. With a bang, he opened the door, stepped inside, and stopped dead when he saw the outline of a small woman dancing behind the fogged glass.
She must not have heard him because she kept singing—some pop song, he figured. Not a tune he knew. The tone he chose was one that had cowered many grown men over the years. “What the hell are you doing in my shower?”
The water cut off and a hand shot out, grabbed a towel, and snatched it back behind the glass door. A second later, a wet blonde head poked out. “Hi, I’m Sarah,” she stated, as if that explained everything. “I didn’t think you’d mind if I took a quick shower while waiting for you. Sorry if I surprised you.”
Her face wore a warm, sheepish smile even while water dripped down from her hair across her forehead. He caught a glimpse of a bare arm as her hand came out to wipe the water away. His gut tightened in response.
Long, wet eyelashes framed two unguarded brown eyes. Small dimples made her classically beautiful features less intimidating. Here was a woman who seemed unaware that a man could have the air sucked right out of his lungs and be rendered speechless with just one look at her.
The front of his jeans became uncomfortably tight as his body came alive with the desire to strip and join her in the shower. He could see the outline of her towel-clad body and the expanse of exposed legs behind the lightly fogged glass. In her rush to cover herself, she hadn’t taken the time to dry off. He imagined sinking to his knees and burying his face in her damp pussy. Would it taste as sweet and fresh as her lips looked? Would she throw her head back and to the side when he lifted her naked against the shower wall and suckled the full breasts he could now only see the rounded tops of? Would her smiling mouth round in a gasp of pleasure as he drove his cock into her for the first time?
He wasn’t an impulsive man when it came to women, but the throbbing need that swept through him made him want to be.
Easy, cowboy. A man can’t be blamed for where his thoughts go when he finds a beautiful, naked woman in his shower, but thinking and acting are two different things. She could be anyone with God only knows what sort of intentions. Something that appears too good to be true almost always is. “I don’t know what made you think—”
Securing the towel chastely around herself, she stepped out of the shower. With shocking audacity, she smiled and put her hand out to shake his. “I admit I wasn’t sure if it was okay to take a shower before you came home, but I figured since I’m staying here for the summer you wouldn’t mind.”
Oh, hell no. “You’re what?”
Her extended hand shook, then fell to her side. She took a quick step back, eyes darting past him to a pile of clothes she had stacked on the counter near the sink. “I thought you knew.”
He towered over her, more out of habit than a desire to intimidate her. The press had become more creative recently in their attempts to interview him, but would they go this far? Her pale, creamy skin and pink manicured toenails warned him she’d be trouble. But, damned if he didn’t care. “I’m listening.”
She looked down at her state of undress, then back at him. Her eyes were as wide and expressive as a young filly’s. “I’m not dressed,” she said.
He hoped his swollen dick wasn’t as obvious as it was painful. “I noticed.”
Emotion deepened her already dark brown eyes. A line of exasperation creased her brow. “I’m sorry you didn’t know I was coming. I’m sorry I made myself at home while you were out.” She stopped and her voice softened. “The truth is, I’ve driven a long way to get here and I’m just too tired to fight about it. I’d like to get dressed. Did Lucy come home with you?” She began to slide around him, inching toward her clothing.
He sat back on his heels a bit. “Lucy?”
“Your sister.”
“I don’t have a sister.” This pretty little woman was about as loony as they come, but a man couldn’t be blamed for overlooking that when she stood there with her skin still pink from the heat of the shower.
She stumbled back a bit at that. “Y-you don’t?” Eyes big with surprise, she chewed her bottom lip nervously. “But this is the Double C Ranch.”
“Yes, ma’am, it is.”
“And you’re Lucy’s brother, Steven Albright.”
“No, ma’am, I’m not. My name’s Tony, Tony Carlton.”
He waited for a reaction to his name, then received one he hadn’t expected. His little shower beauty rubbed her forehead with the back of one hand. He watched her and worried for his sanity as he once again became mesmerized by her movements. He should care who Steven was, but instead all he could think about was how he wanted to redirect that hand to rubbing something else, something that was craving her touch in a bad way.
“I don’t understand. Isn’t this the Double C Ranch in Mavis?”
He removed his hat and wiped the wet sheen from his forehead. The residual steam from the shower added to an overall temperature spike caused by prolonged exposure to a scene worthy of mention in a men’s magazine. “Fort Mavis.” Her mouth dropped open and her eyes rounded with real shock. Not too much amused him, but her look of horror tickled what was left of his funny bone. “We’re almost a day’s drive west of Mavis,” he added.
She went pale, and then a deep red flush started at her neck and ran straight over her face. “You all right, ma’am?” he asked and went to her side right quick. He was not about to explain to Doc how a near-naked city woman cracked her fool head in his bathroom. Desire took second seat to concern.
Thankfully, she sat on the closed toilet seat. Her adorable shoulders slumped and she covered her eyes in a childlike attempt to disappear. “So,” the little beauty groaned, “I’m in the wrong town.”
“Yes, ma’am, it sure sounds that way.” He knew he should step out of the bathroom and let her get dressed. The mystery was solved. She wasn’t a reporter or a thief. No, she was just . . . blonde. The thought had the corners of his mouth itching to smile.
Regaining some of her composure, she brought her delicate hands down, stood, squared her shoulders, and met his eyes—knocking all coherent thought clear out of his head. “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted that gas station attendant. I was just so happy that he’d heard of the place.” Her color was back to normal, but her voice was a bit strained. “Does Texas have a lot of ranches named Double C?”
“Appears we have at least two,” he said, and this time he could not restrain the lusty grin that spread across his face. She was as adorable as she was sexy—a disconcerting combination. Had she turned up the heat and come on to him, he would have lost interest—well, after sampling whatever she’d offered.
Apparently a man could only go so long without sex before he lost his damn mind, because it appeared that she wasn’t the least bit interested in him. Truth be told, as the enormity of the situation sunk in, she wasn’t paying very much attention to him at all.
“I can’t believe I did this . . .” A look of self-disgust crossed her delicate features. “Oh, my God. My brother will never let me live this down. Only I would drive all this way to the wrong ranch.”
She paused and her eyes widened. “The wrong ranch.” Repeating the words slowly with new emphasis. She retightened the top of her towel with hands that shook a little. “I should get dressed.”
Even though the towel concealed more than shorts and a tank top would have, picturing what lay beneath was torturing him. He’d managed to clear his head of images of her writhing with pleasure beneath him, but they were clamoring to return. It was time to make a hasty exit while he still had the mind to. Mustering a nod, he stepped outside and closed the door behind him.
Too soon, she was with him again. No makeup. No shoes. Just wearing a simple flowered sleeveless blouse and a pair of tan shorts, whose midthigh length were likely considered modest. And it still drove him damn near crazy. He wanted to run a hand up one of her long legs, to test if they were, in truth, as soft as they appeared.
She rushed by him and disappeared into the living room. He followed, aroused but trying to remain irritated by the presence of this stranger in his home.
She has to go.
“I really am sorry about this,” she burst out with her rapid-fire Northern accent. “You probably think I’m crazy. I guess I am.” She paced back and forth in front of him, a barefoot beauty. “I knew I should have bought a map.” She waved her cell phone in the air. “It worked the rest of the way down here, but not when it really mattered.”
Leaning against the doorjamb, he felt the stirring of something even more worrisome than lust. A tickle of adrenaline licked through his veins as his high-energy intruder came to a stop in front of him. It had been years since anything had made his heart race and his breath catch in his throat. Something about this woman pulled at a part of him he’d long considered dead.
Oblivious to how close he was to hauling her to him and tasting those tempting, pursed lips, Sarah said, “I’ll get my stuff and be out of here before I cause any trouble.”
“Trouble?” Dammit, now why didn’t I simply agree?
She turned away, bent, and gave him a delightful view of her never-ending legs as her shorts rose up. She didn’t seem to notice, just kept rummaging through her luggage. “With your girlfriend or wife or whatever.”
“No trouble,” he drawled. Crazy must be catching, because he was having difficulty reconciling what he knew he should say with the damn fool things coming out of his mouth.
“There they are,” she exclaimed happily and pulled out the most impractical pair of boots he’d ever seen: knee-high, polished leather, with ridiculously spindly heels and some sort of strap across the top. She held them up next to one leg. “I bought these special for this trip. Do they match?”
Who the hell cares? No man would ever ask her to take them off. No, those were the kind that stayed on all night.
She sat on the couch as she pulled them on. Her big brown eyes studied him intensely. He’d bought horses with less of a perusal than she was giving him. He wished he had taken the time to shave that morning. His plaid shirt was covered with dust and sweat from working in the hot afternoon. The old jeans he’d thrown on without a second thought that morning were layered with grass stains. Not much to look at.
“Could I bother you for one more thing?” Her voice was huskier than before. “May I use your phone?” She held up her cell phone. “This thing is useless here and my friends must be worried by now. They expected me hours ago.”
He nodded, not trusting himself to answer. The way she continued to look him over . . . slowly . . . from head to foot had him fumbling for sanity. He pointed to the land phone on the small table in the corner of the room and wordlessly watched her walk to it.
“There’s still no answer.” She waved the handset helplessly in the direction of her distant friends. “I guess I should just head over there and wait till they get home.”
“Are you sure you can find the place?” he asked without missing a beat, surprising himself.
Replacing the receiver, Sarah’s eyes narrowed at him even as her dimples revealed her good humor at his teasing. “A cowboy and a comedian?”
Tony shrugged. “Can’t say I’ve ever been accused of being funny before.” He’d never had much to laugh about and didn’t see any merit in acting the clown, since the world was full of those who took to idiocy naturally.
Her expression softened. “Well, you should try it more often. It suits you.”
The compliment jolted him like a brush with electric fencing. Tony retreated a step and almost fell when the back of his boot met her suitcase.
She advanced and reached to steady him but he stepped back again, evading her touch.
The sound of the front door opening had never been so welcome. Women make men stupid. Plain and simple. Wasn’t that what his father had always said? He didn’t need more proof than practically falling on his as**s because a woman half his size had complimented him.
The shuffle of boots across the wooden floor announced someone’s intention of joining them. Melanie. Her presence wasn’t a surprise. As his housekeeper, she used his kitchen on a daily basis to prepare meals for him. Normally, however, she was better at minding her own business.
Yep, she was fixing to break the one rule he’d laid down the day he’d hired her and, for a reason he wasn’t comfortable exploring, he wasn’t prepared to correct her in front of Sarah.
She came to a stop at the doorway. “You have company? Do you need anything?” She looked over as she spoke and for a moment the two women simply stared at each other.
A man would have been hard-pressed to say if these two women could get along. Life hadn’t been kind to Melanie, and she’d spent almost as much time hiding on his secluded ranch as he had. Although she was likely only a few years older than Sarah, they couldn’t have been more different. If the two were cats, Sarah would be the fluffy white pampered city type that would likely run at the first sign of a rodent. Melanie was a brown bad-tempered barn cat: useful to have, but better kept outside.
Not that she ever showed her temper around him; no one did and stayed.
He was still debating how to get both out of his house when Sarah stepped forward with the huge, welcoming smile he’d seen on her face when she’d thought he was her friend’s brother.
She took Melanie’s hand in hers and shook energetically. “Hi, my name’s Sarah.”
Melanie pulled her hand free. Did he imagine the hiss? Careful, Sarah. Feral cats aren’t real good when cornered. He figured he could intervene before things got ugly, but most creatures got along better if you let them sort it out for themselves.
Sarah’s smile didn’t dim as she waited for the other woman to speak.
“Melanie,” his dark-haired housekeeper said curtly.
In the high-speed way she spoke, Sarah said, “I can only imagine what you must be thinking, but this is much more ridiculous and innocent than it looks.” She took her phone out of her back pocket and waved it between them. “I mean, who knew it wouldn’t work out here, right?” She looked over her shoulder at Tony and said, “Your husband was just letting me use your phone.” Then she flushed a delightful shade of pink. “Okay, your shower, too, but he didn’t let me use that. I mean, I did use it, but that was before I knew you would both be here. Which, you should be, because it’s your house. So why wouldn’t you be here? I’m the one who shouldn’t be here. And I’m actually just leaving.”
Melanie, who’d simply stared at Sarah during this overflowing river of speech, raised her eyebrows and stated succinctly, “I’m not his wife.”
“Whew,” Sarah said with a laugh, then stopped and looked at both of them again. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. If you’re his girlfriend or whatever, I’m cool with that. It was just that—whoa, explaining this to a wife would be so much worse. Not that anything happened.” Sarah closed her eyes briefly as if the thought pained her, then continued earnestly, “Unless you count that he saw me naked, and that totally wasn’t his fault.”
Melanie said blandly, “I work here.”
“Oh, I thought . . .”
“No,” Melanie and Tony said in unison.
Another blush spread across Sarah’s cheeks. The quick look she gave Tony sent his heart racing and his thoughts scattering.
“Sarah isn’t staying,” he said gruffly. “As soon as she locates her friends, she’s leaving.”
Sarah deflated a bit at his harsh declaration. “Yes, in fact, they should be there now. I should head out.”
I’ll probably regret this. “Melanie, make a second plate for dinner. Sarah and I will eat in the dining room.”
Hard to say which woman he’d shocked more. Sarah looked back and forth between them as if seeking reassurance. “I am hungry. If you’re sure it’s not too much trouble?”
Melanie didn’t say a word, but she didn’t have to. In fact, he preferred she didn’t. He wasn’t ready to explain to anyone, not even himself, why he was reluctant to see Sarah leave.
It was more than how his body responded to hers. He wanted . . .
He wasn’t sure what exactly.
Was it because she had no idea who he was? She was neither intimidated by his reputation nor excited by the idea of being with a man many considered dangerous. No, she looked at him like there wasn’t a reason in the world why they couldn’t be friends . . . or more.
Tony had been alone so long that he’d begun to believe he preferred it that way. In the beginning it had been easier, and over time it had become comfortable. Tonight he didn’t want to be a man with a past he regretted. He didn’t want to be angry. He wanted to have an uncomplicated dinner with a beautiful woman. Knowing she was leaving after their meal made it much easier to allow himself to enjoy it.
Melanie had just finished setting two places at one end of his dining room table when he and Sarah entered the room. No one would have guessed this was the first time anyone had sat there in the five years he’d owned the place. He preferred the solitude of the small kitchen table. He wasn’t about to mention it though––women would falsely read meaning into something like that.