Charmed by the Cowboy - Signed Paperback
Charmed by the Cowboy - Signed Paperback
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She’s been left before, so now she does the leaving. Can he convince her to stay?
Blackwater Ranch Book 2
- Second Chance Romance
- Childhood Crush
- Redemption Romance
She’s been left before, so now, she does the leaving. Can he convince her to stay?
Maddie Faulkner can’t seem to find a place to call home, even in her twenties. Getting attached only makes it hurt more when she has to leave. And leaving is inevitable. For now, she’s back on the ranch she loved as a child and desperate to conceal any connection to the crimes of her parents.
Lucas Harding doesn’t know what to make of the new barn manager at Blackwater Ranch. She’s got walls he can’t seem to charm his way past. But they share a love of horses and a deeper connection he can’t explain.
The last thing Maddie should do is let down her guard. He’ll hate her when he finds out why she left Blackwater Ranch the first time. But when the time comes to say good-bye, her heart might be too attached to leave.
An inspirational story filled with promise and hope.
Charmed by the Cowboy is the second book in the Blackwater Ranch series, but the books can be listened to in any order.
Read Chapter One
Read Chapter One
“You can do this,” Maddie whispered to herself as she turned left at the rusted Blackwater Ranch sign. “You’ve survived everything so far. You can handle this too. God is with you.”
Her pep-talks tended to all be the same, but it sounded less creepy and weird when Dolly was around for some reason. Talking to a horse was more acceptable than talking to yourself.
Maddie Faulkner had dreamed about this day, but she never thought it would arrive. She checked her rearview mirror, hoping the horse trailer didn’t land in the culvert.
Once on the straightaway, she rubbed a sweaty palm on her jeans. What if this was a trap?
No, the Hardings weren’t the conniving kind. Anita Harding had sounded as sweet during the phone interview last week as Maddie remembered from her childhood. If that call could even be considered an interview. It had been a job offer on the spot.
Maddie brushed a hand over her brow and down the braid that hung over her left shoulder. The Hardings hadn’t deserved what happened to them the last time she’d been here. Would anyone remember her? Did any of them know what her parents had done? If Anita knew, she sure hadn’t let on during the phone call.
Maddie couldn’t believe the Hardings were letting her come back. It had been fifteen years since she’d stepped foot onto Blackwater Ranch, and she’d missed it with all of her heart. The ranch had been the only place she’d wanted to call home. Later, she’d realized it was just one more stop in a line of endless moves.
From Boise to Twin Falls to Jackson to Blackwater, there were few places she’d stayed in her early life for more than a couple of years. Some stops had been so temporary that her family hadn’t bothered to unpack.
The Faulkners had landed at Blackwater Ranch when Maddie was eight years old—not even old enough or smart enough to guard her heart from the impending break. If she’d known her parents would uproot her in a year and a half, would she have been able to enjoy the best time of her life here? Probably not.
Would she see Lucas and Asher? It was possible they still worked the ranch. Blackwater had always been a generational operation, and the Harding boys had loved working with their dad, Silas.
Her heart rate rose at the thought of seeing Lucas Harding. She wondered if he had changed. He’d been cute when they were kids, but she’d been wildly drawn to his free spirit.
Maddie chuckled to herself. Of course Lucas had changed. She hadn’t seen him since he was eight years old. He was probably married by now, and, besides, she wasn’t here to rekindle her old crush. She’d lost any hope of finding some kind of lifetime, over-the-moon love when she was still in middle school—when her world had fallen apart.
But, first, she had to find Asher. He’d been like a big brother to her when she was young. Should she just waltz up and tell him that her parents had schemed and plotted for months and ultimately stolen who-knows-what from his family before packing up and leaving in the middle of the night?
Maddie swallowed hard, knowing she wasn’t brave enough to put it all out in the open like that. She’d learned how to hide her true emotions years ago with practiced expressions and squared shoulders. But on the inside, she was a timid mess.
It was harder than ever to hold her head high when she wore shame like a weight on her back. Her time here at Blackwater Ranch had shaped her into the person she was today. She hadn’t kept up with any of the Hardings after she’d left, but she remembered some of them. Mama Harding made the best cookies, and Asher has been a quirky brother-like figure who looked after her.
Lucas was another story. Her feelings for him had been jumbled at best when her nine-year-old self had left Blackwater Ranch under the cover of darkness. How many times had he gotten her into trouble when they were kids? If her mother told her not to get muddy, he’d splash her clothes and laugh. She knew now that it’d all been fun and games to the playful little boy. How could he have known the tongue lashing she’d get when she had to ride home in her mother’s car covered in dried mud?
She’d had enough fun with Lucas in her short time at Blackwater Ranch to last her a lifetime. In the years after leaving Blackwater, Maddie realized that all Lucas had done for her was get her in trouble with her parents and leave her young heart raw and open for the breaking.
Before leaving the Kellerman Hotel this morning, she’d prayed for composure and plastered on her confident smile. If she couldn’t feel confident, she at least needed to make people think she was. How long her brave face held today depended on who she encountered first. Right now, she was holding it together with masking tape and a prayer.
Her trusty diesel pickup had the dust swirling behind her as she barreled up the long drive toward the main house. The two-story log home hadn’t changed a bit. She remembered everything about this place from the layout of the rooms to the smell of Mama Harding’s oatmeal raisin cookies to the storage house out back where she used to meet Lucas after school to play in the stables.
The land closest to Blackwater was gently rolling hills, but rugged mountains surrounded the wide-open expanse. This place was different from the Appalachian foothills in every way. The Tennessee mountains that she’d just left were rolling and green compared to the jutting Tetons and the gray Bighorn Mountains.
She parked in the open area in front of the main house and checked on Dolly as the dust settled. Traveling across the country with a horse wasn’t the easiest, so she’d planned plenty of stops. “How’s my girl?” Maddie brushed her hand down the mare’s neck. “You’re gonna love it here.”
Dolly had been with Maddie since she was sixteen. They’d barrel raced with the best of them in their hay day, but the old girl was getting past her prime.
Maddie pulled a treat from a bag in the bed of the truck and offered it to the horse. Dolly was her heart horse—the animal she’d formed an unspoken understanding with that would forever be precious to her.
They’d made a quick stop at the hotel where Maddie would be staying this morning before heading on into the ranch. She’d gotten up before sunrise to drive the last stretch, and Dolly needed to get out of the trailer soon. Maddie looked toward the main house before resting her head against the cool metal of the horse trailer.
“Dear Lord, please give me the strength to face them today. I need peace like only You can give me. Please calm my heart and sharpen my focus.” She whispered the last words. “I want to stay here no matter what happened last time.”
Lifting her head, she bit the inside of her cheek. It was dangerous to hope for a home after twenty-three years without one, but she was a glutton for punishment. At the very least, she had a job, and that was more than she’d had last week.
Letting her hand slip from Dolly’s mane, she made her way toward the main house. Anita Harding opened the door just as an excited border collie darted around the house and bounded onto the porch. Maddie reached down to quickly rustle the dog’s head.
“Good morning, Maddie.” Anita held out her arms for an embrace instead of a cordial handshake. “It’s good to see you again. You’ve grown so much.”
Taken aback by the familiar greeting, Maddie stepped into the hug and wrapped one arm around the woman’s waist. When was the last time she’d been shown affection by someone other than Aunt Brenda?
“It’s good to see you too, Mrs. Harding.”
The matriarch of the Harding family hadn’t changed much in the years they’d been apart. Her black hair was now streaked with gray, but her eyes held a kindness that Maddie almost mistook for innocence. It was impossible and thoughtless of her to think so. She knew Anita hadn’t lived an easy life. She’d raised five boys, been robbed by Maddie’s parents, and Maddie remembered talk of a fire that had devastated the ranch not long before she’d come to live there herself.
Such was the life on a Wyoming cattle ranch. You had to dry your eyes and press on through the tough times if you wanted the privilege of experiencing the good times.
Anita released the hug and patted Maddie’s shoulder. “You can call me Mama Harding. Most everyone else does.”
Maddie nodded and her smile grew. Maybe things would be better than she’d thought at Blackwater Ranch. Why had she been so nervous this morning?
Mama Harding waved Maddie into the main house and gestured to the long row of boot racks. “If your boots are dirty, you can just leave them here. If they’re wet, you can hang them up.”
Inside, the meeting room looked exactly the same as it had almost fifteen years ago. The stained wood walls and rustic light fixtures were casual and inviting. The long tables were empty, but Maddie recalled this room full and bustling with excitement at meal times in her childhood.
Mama Harding pointed toward three rows of hooks just inside the door. “You can hang your hat here.”
Maddie hung her ivory cowboy hat on an open hook and followed Mama Harding.
“You remember the meeting room. Breakfast is thirty minutes before sunrise, lunch is at noon, and supper is at half past six every evening. If you miss it, you’re on your own.”
A tall older man stepped into the room followed by a young boy who couldn’t be older than three. Maddie recognized the man as Silas Harding, Anita’s husband.
“Maddie. I heard you were comin’.” He extended a hand in greeting. “We’re glad to have you here.”
“I’m glad to be back, Mr. Harding.”
Mama Harding held out an open hand to the boy, and he rushed to grab it. “This here’s Levi. Aaron’s boy. He hangs around with us sometimes while his dad works.”
Maddie let her mask dissolve and revealed a genuine smile for the boy. “Hey, Levi. Nice to meet you.”
Levi gave her a small wave as he clung to Mama Harding’s hand with his. “Hey.” His eyes were a dark green like his father’s and grandfather’s.
Maddie would find out what the Harding brothers looked like now, but she remembered small features about each of them. They could be divided by their eye colors and linked back to one parent. Noah, Lucas, and Asher shared the rich brown eyes of their mother, while Micah, Aaron, and now Levi, had Silas’s emerald eyes.
Silas pulled his wife in close with one arm and kissed the side of her head. “I’m taking Levi to the feed and seed. We’ll be back soon.”
Maddie watched as Levi followed Silas out the back door and felt a tiny pull in her chest. Levi was lucky to have a family who cared about him.
“Have a seat.” Mama Harding gestured to the table. “I’ll be right back with the forms you need to sign.”
Maddie studied the meeting room as she took the first seat at the table and rubbed the tips of her fingers over the grooves and knots in the wood. She could do this. She needed this job. Dolly needed a place where she could have room to roam with other horses. And, most of all, Maddie needed a home.
Shaking her head, she pressed the pad of her finger into the jagged edge of a splinter in the wood. Thoughts like that would get her in trouble.
Mama Harding returned with a few papers and a pen. She passed the loose forms to Maddie and indicated a few places she should sign.
While Maddie sealed her position at the ranch, Mama Harding told her a little about the general operations. When she started talking about the horses, Maddie eased the pen to the table and listened intently. She’d found her love of horses here, and it lifted her spirits to be back. A lot had happened since her time here, but one thing hadn’t changed. Horses were her life, and her life was horses.
Out of all the places Maddie had lived over the years, if there had ever been one she’d secretly wished she could call home, it was Blackwater Ranch. Leaving the first time had broken her young, innocent heart.
Maddie had to keep her guard up this time. It was just a job, and sometimes jobs didn’t work out. Getting her hopes up that she would be able to stay here was a surefire way to ensure she was left hurting again when things didn’t pan out. After all, if she hadn’t found her resting place in her first twenty-three years, what kind of hope did she have of finding it now?
“We can fix up a cabin for you if you’d like to stay on the property,” Mama Harding explained. “Housing wouldn’t be an extra charge, but just know that there isn’t anything fancy like TV or the internet. You can only find those things here at the main house.”
“I’m sold. Where do I sign for the free living quarters?” Maddie jested.
Mama Harding waved her hand. “I’ll get the boys on it. They can probably have it livable in a few weeks.”
“That’s great. I’m staying at the Kellerman Hotel, but I’d prefer to be closer to Dolly.”
Mama Harding smiled. “Dolly has a place here too. If you have any questions about getting her settled in, you can ask Lucas. He spends the most time with the horses.”
Maddie tensed at the mention of Lucas’s name. She’d been foolish to think she could avoid him. He was her boss now, and the only thing she should be concerned with was letting him know she was a trustworthy, reliable worker.
Mama Harding stood before Maddie had a chance to relax. “Let’s go. He should be here any minute, and he’ll help you and Dolly get settled in.”
Maddie squared her shoulders and schooled the protective mask over her panic. She would face Lucas Harding with a smile, and she prayed she could forget about her old feelings for him and keep her new job.