Sneak Peek at Cowboy Ranch!
The second book in the Triple J Ranch series, Cowboy Ranch, is now available for Pre-Order! You buy your copy at Amazon now and on March 9th it will drop automatically into your Kindle or eReader the moment it’s available!
“No, no, this can’t be happening. Not now.” Callie Houston hit the top of her steering wheel with the palm of her hand as her 2012 Hyundai Santa Fe sputtered and slowed to a stop along the side of a dusty, desolate road.
Once she stopped, she tried turning the key, but it did nothing. Without much else to try, she turned the key again. Callie had zero car knowledge except to take it in for service every five to six thousand miles. And oh, it was best to change the windshield wipers every fall before the big rains began.
She sat there on the side of the road feeling as though she had the worst luck in the entire world.
Callie was on her way to a tiny town called Beacon Creek. It was supposed to be her treat for the rotten month she’d just had. All Callie wanted was to forget about her troubles and have some real down-home country fun.
The rodeo and summer carnival was something she’d read about, and could swear she’d seen on a Hallmark movie recently. It was exactly what she needed to put her worries behind her as she headed home.
Instead, she now had to deal with a car not working. She didn’t even know how far out of town she was. Would her cell phone even get any service there?
Once she was safely on the side of the road, she looked to her left and right. All she could see were barbed wire fences and brown grasses being nibbled on by cows. In the north, south, and west were the jagged peaks of mountains. The east was mostly plains, from what she remembered on her drive to Seattle.
This little stop wasn’t originally planned, but after her failure in Seattle, she wasn’t ready to go home to her empty apartment. She thought stopping off for a rodeo would recharge her and help her figure out what she would do next. Her savings account wouldn’t last forever, and she needed a job, fast.
She stepped out of her car after looking in front and behind to ensure no cars or trucks were coming and walked to the side of the road before she pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. Callie could have leapt for joy when she discovered she had signal. It was faint, but if it connected her to the roadside assistance service she subscribed to, she’d be happy with two bars.
Callie had always wondered what the small stakes on the sides of roads were for. The numbers never made any sense to her. Now she was grateful the highway authority put them out. Since she had no clue where she was, the towing company would find her thanks to those little numbers on the mile markers.
Once she hung up, she went and leaned against the fence post as she waited for a tow truck to arrive.
It wasn’t long, which meant she had to be close to town, right? When the blue-and-white truck with a crane in the bed came into view, she released a sigh.
A tall, lanky cowboy with dirty jeans, dust covering his shirt, and an old cowboy hat stepped out of the truck. “Howdy, ma’am. I heard you needed some help?”
She recoiled, and then remembered herself. The roadside assistance company wouldn’t have sent someone dangerous to help her. He was only a dirty cowboy who had probably been in the middle of fixing a car when he got the call to rescue her.
“Yes, thank you. I don’t know what happened, but it just stuttered and then rolled to a stop.” She pointed back to her sky-blue SUV and sighed. That car had gotten her through so many ups and downs. Her father had bought it used for her when she graduated high school, and then it carried the small belongings she had to her new life in St. Paul, Minnesota. Now it had abandoned her out in the wilds of Montana.
“Let me take a look and see if I can’t help ya get back on the road. How’s your gas?” The look he gave her caused her to bristle at his insinuation. She had gassed up not one hundred miles back.
“There’s still over half a tank of gas, sir.”
“Beg’n your pardon, ma’am. I’m Nick Sands.” He held out a dirty hand for her to shake.
Gulping down her angry retort, she nodded.
He looked at his hand and dropped it. “Of course, I was working when I got the call. I should have washed up, but thought a young lady shouldn’t be left on the side of the road. Please forgive the dirt.”
Callie smiled and realized she was being rude. “Of course. Thank you for coming so quickly. I really do appreciate it. I’m Callie Houston.” She put her hand back out, and he shook it lightly.
Resisting the urge to wipe her hands on her jeans, she turned back around to her car. “There’s plenty of gas, so I don’t know what else it could be. The check engine light never came on, and I haven’t had any issues other than what you’d expect from an eight-year-old car.”
Her father had insisted she take very good care of her car, and it would take good care of her in return. She’d had the oil changed every five thousand miles, done all the factory-suggested maintenance, and kept the car in the garage when not driving it. She didn’t even have that many miles on it for a car of its age.
Nick walked to the front of the Hyundai. “Can you pop the hood?”
“Sure thing.” She went to her car and pulled the lever to open the hood. Not wanting to get in his way, she stayed next to the driver’s seat and waited.
The tow truck driver’s head went under the hood for a few moments, and when he stood up and lowered the hood, she worried about the grave look on his face.
This wasn’t going to be an easy fix.
“I can tow you into the garage and have our mechanic look at it.” He went to work moving his tow truck in line with her car while she waited on the side of the road. It didn’t take him long to hook her Hyundai up to the tow truck.
When she got into the cab of his truck, she turned and looked at him. “How far is town?”
Once he was safely on the road, he looked at the woman sitting in his front seat. “Beacon Creek is about thirty minutes from here.”
She furrowed her brow. “But it only took you about fifteen minutes to get to me once I hung up the phone. How’d you get here so fast?”
He chuckled. “I was on my ranch, just down the road.”
“You own a ranch and work at a mechanic’s shop?” Callie shook her head, confused by the man next to her.
“Oh no, ma’am. My brother owns the shop. I just help out when he’s out of town. I’m a rancher, not a mechanic.” His speed picked up until he was driving fifty miles an hour down the road. Then he eased up on the gas and settled in for a slow drive in. Towing the SUV behind his truck meant he couldn’t do his normal sixty or seventy on the open road.
“Who’s going to fix my car?”
“We have someone who can fix your SUV, don’t worry. Mikey’s just moved here from the city, and he has experience with Hondas.” Nick smiled at her.
She shook her head. “No, my car isn’t a Honda, it’s a Hyundai.”
“Honda, Hyundai, foreign jobs are all the same.” He shrugged and kept his eyes on the road.
She wiped a hand down her face. “What am I going to do?” She thought for sure her poor car was doomed.
“Don’t worry, Mikey can fix anything.” He beamed in her direction before turning his eyes back to the road.
They drove the rest of the way in silence while Callie worried about what would happen to her Hyundai if Mikey didn’t know what he was doing.
When they arrived, a tall, burly man with messy black hair walked out of the shop, wiping his hands with a rag.
Callie jumped down from the truck and approached him. “Are you Mikey?” she asked without any preamble.
He smiled. “Yes, and I take it you’re the little lady who broke down on the road into town?”
She nodded. “Do you have any experience with Hyundais?” If this man didn’t know what he was doing, she’d have to call her father and ask him for help. Even though he was all the way down in Louisiana.
“Some. Most of what I’ve worked on were Hondas, but I’ve seen my share of Hyundais as well as other makes.” He scratched his head and watched Nick lower the SUV to the ground in front of the open bay.
It was late in the afternoon, and Mikey had been closing up the shop before they arrived.
“Do you have a place to stay for the night? I won’t be able to look at your car until tomorrow morning.” Mikey put the dirty rag in the back pocked of his dark-blue coveralls.
“I was hoping to find a hotel room here in town. Can you point me in the direction of one?” Callie bit the inside of her lip and prayed that the local hotel wouldn’t be too expensive. And she didn’t even want to think what the repairs might cost. Not yet, at least.
But she knew that with her luck, it would clean her savings out.
He shook his head and tsk’d. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but the hotels are all booked up for the carnival.”
Callie’s eyes widened and her body froze. “What? Are you sure?”
“Yup, my wife works for the Beacon Creek Inn, and she told me just last night that everyone is full up.” He winced and began to wrack his brain for a solution.
“Why?” Callie looked around and noted that there weren’t that many people wandering around. Granted, they weren’t in the middle of town, but the place didn’t look very big. Maybe they only had one tiny hotel with just a few rooms?
“The rodeo, ma’am. It’s a pretty big deal round these parts. Our one hotel and two B&Bs are all full. In fact, most of the cowboys who come to town bring their RVs, and even the RV park is full now.” He scratched the side of his head.
Nick walked over to them. “What about the Triple J?”
Mikey considered for a moment and nodded. “I’ll give Matthew a call and see if they have any room.”
“Triple J? Is that a bed and breakfast?” Callie would be happy with a bed and breakfast. It would probably be nicer than a boisterous hotel full of cowboys.
“It’s a ranch that’s setting up to house a few ladies,” Mikey called back over his shoulder as he walked away.
Callie wondered what that meant, and turned to look at Nick. With a questioning look at the rancher, she waited for him to explain. When it became obvious he wasn’t going to say anything, she asked, “Why are they preparing to house ladies?”
Nick took his hat off his head and smiled. “Miss Elizabeth has been working with the homeless population in Bozeman. She’s set up a program to help rehabilitate women and get them back on their feet. Her family ranch is being renovated a bit to help house as many young ladies as they can.”
Callie blinked. She wasn’t opposed to helping the homeless, but living with them was another thing. However, if she was lucky, it would only be for one night. Two at most. Then she’d be back on the road, heading home.
When Mikey came out, he was smiling. “Miss Elizabeth will come by shortly to collect you and your things. They’d be happy to help out.”
Callie wasn’t sure what to say, or do. “Thank you. I do appreciate the help. But how long will it take you to fix my car?”
“I won’t know until tomorrow, when I can look at it. If you’ll give me your keys, I’ll be sure to check it out first thing in the mornin’. Until then, enjoy the Triple J. You won’t find a better meal than what Mrs. Manning cooks up, or the barbecue the brothers make.” Mikey licked his lips and looked off into the distance.
Nick chuckled. “The Mannings have the best beef in the country. You’ll see.” He smiled and waved as he walked back to his truck.
Callie looked between the two cowboys. “Where should I wait?”
A beefy finger pointed to the front of the mechanic’s shop. “There’s a waitin’ room in there. But first, you should probably get your luggage out and take it with you.”
Both of them walked to her Hyundai, and when she opened the back door, Mikey reached in and pulled her suitcase out. “Is this all you got?”
She nodded. “I wasn’t planning on a long trip.”
He smiled and walked her to the waiting room. When he set her suitcase down, he pointed to a small refrigerator. “There’s soda and bottled water in there. Help yourself. Sorry, but I’ve already cleaned out the coffee pot.”
With a heavy sigh, she waved away his apology. “Don’t worry, I typically don’t drink coffee this late in the day, anyway. Water will be perfect.” She grabbed a cold bottle and sat down to wait for this Miss Elizabeth to arrive.
The woman behind the counter always got under Luke’s skin. They’d been friends for as long as he could remember, but he couldn’t remember why they had never been a couple.
Leah was beautiful. She had long, chestnut-colored hair that went down to the middle of her back. Combined with her chocolate-brown eyes, she was a looker. Not too long ago they’d gone on a date, but it went nowhere. He remembered having a good time, but for some reason he’d never asked her out again.
A nigglin’ feeling in the back of her head told Leah to look up. She caught Luke staring at her, and felt the hair on her neck stand on end. Since that one date they’d had, she’d always hoped he would ask her out again, but he hadn’t. Instead, he just looked at her with an odd expression. It was as though he was trying to figure out who or what she was, and couldn’t seem to do it.
Her friend, Harper, had told her that Luke Manning had a crush on her, but he just didn’t know it yet. One day, he’d figure it out and the two of them would be the perfect couple. The only problem: Leah wasn’t sure she wanted that.
Sure, he was cute. Everyone thought Luke Manning was good looking. How could they not? He was tall, over six feet, and his brown hair had bits of auburn streaking through. His light-brown eyes with flecks of green and gold were mesmerizing. Not to mention his personality. When most people said a guy had a great personality, it usually meant he wasn’t very nice to look at. But not Luke. Nope, he was a keeper.
So why didn’t Leah’s heart leap in her chest whenever he checked her out? Could it be that she spent so much time joking around with him as a kid that she saw him as more of a brother? Or did she just want to guard her heart against his charms? Make no doubt about it, Luke Manning was a charmer.
“Hiya, beautiful. How’s yer day?” Luke smiled, and his eyes sparkled when he tipped his hat.
Leah’s stomach did a little flip. Nothing a gymnast would be proud of, but still, it was something. Maybe she was attracted to him and just didn’t want to be. “It’s been busy. This is the first lull I’ve had all day.” Leah returned his smile. “How ‘bout you?”
“Same, busy day. Matthew sent me in to pick up his special order. Said Logan called to tell him it arrived?” He put his thumbs behind his large, silver belt buckle, and took a few languid steps toward the counter where Leah stood.
She held back a snort, but just barely. Shaking her head, she said, “Don’t mention him.”
“Who? My brother?” Luke asked.
Leah chuckled. “No silly, my brother. Logan took off at lunch to go over weddin’ plans with Elizabeth, and he hasn’t returned yet. He was supposed to cover me for lunch when he was done, and I’m starvin’.” With the thought of food, Leah’s stomach gurgled. Then she wondered if those butterflies a moment ago had been from hunger and not from the cute cowboy standing in front of her.
With raised eyebrows, Luke whistled. “Sounds like someone’s gettin’ a bit hangry. Want I should head over to Rosie’s and get you somethin’?”
She shook her head. “Nah, I’ve been snackin’ on these here new protein bars Logan had us stock last month.” Leah pointed to a small box on the counter that only had two bars left.
“Whoa, little filly. How many of those bars did ya eat?” He chuckled.
She tilted her head and pursed her lips. “I didn’t eat them all. I only had two. The rest have already been sold. In fact, we’ve gone through all the boxes Logan bought. This here is all we’ve got left.” She pointed to the two lonely bars in the box.
“Hm, maybe I should buy them.” He picked one up and read the ingredients and then put it back down. “Nah, that’s one of those healthy bars for people with food allergies.” A shiver ran down Luke’s spine just thinking about how gross the bars must be.
Leah’s laugh had him smiling. “Silly cowboy. They’re actually really good. Some people are a bit addicted to them.”
“But they don’t even have real sugar in them. Coconut sugar crystals? Really?” He stuck his tongue out.
Leah pulled one bar out and opened the package. “Here, try it. On me.”
The cowboy scratched the afternoon stubble on his jaw and pulled back.
“Oh, come on now. Don’t be a baby. It’s not like it’s going to hurt you or anything.” She giggled.
“Hmph. Alright, but if it makes me sick, then you have to make me an entire batch of your beef jerky.” He put his hand out for the healthy food bar.
Leah nodded. “Deal.” She handed him the opened package.
He took a little nibble. “Hm.” He furrowed his brows and took a little bit bigger bite. “Not bad.” Without even thinking about it, he took a full bite and chewed the nuts covered in dark chocolate and a hint of mint. “It’s actually kinda good.” He chuckled at his joke. “See what I did there? It’s a Kind bar.” He laughed before taking a bite a quarter size of the bar.
Leah shook her head. “Boys.”
While he continued to chew his overly-large bite, he took the last bar out of the box and handed some cash to Leah to cover both.
She handed him back half the money. “I told you the first bar was on me.”
He shook his head. “Nuh-uh. I can’t let a little lady pay for something that good.” When he swallowed the last of his bite, he asked, “Speaking of great food, when are you going to make up another batch of your famous jerky?”
Leah’s head tilted down, and she looked up through her lashes. “You like my jerky?”
He nodded as he filled his mouth with the last of the Kind bar.
“Well, I guess it all depends on when you give me more tri-tip.” She smirked, knowing that would get him to give her an entire side of beef if she promised him some of her beef jerky.
It took her three days to marinate the jerky, and then another two days to dehydrate it enough for the Manning family. But if they supplied the beef, she’d be happy to spend a week making jerky.
The Triple J Ranch, owned and operated by the Manning family, had the best beef in the country. Maybe even the world. At least, that’s what all the residents of Beacon Creek thought. Ranchers came from far and wide to learn how the Mannings raised such tender beef. And grocery stores all got in line to get their beef when the cattle went to slaughter.
Luke stood up taller and cleared his throat. “Really? You’re ready to make more?”
She nodded. “Sure, why not? It’s been a while.”
He thought about their supply of tri-tip and said he’d get her thirty pounds by next week.
When she agreed, he smiled and asked, “Great. How about that special order?”
“Right.” Leah had forgotten why the middle Manning son had come into her family’s general store to begin with. “Be right back.”
Leah walked to the back room, and Luke looked around the store, checking to see if there was anything new that he had to have.
His mind wandered to the pretty salesgirl, and he wondered if asking her out for dinner would be weird. They were going to be in-laws of some sort soon. Was she going to be his sister-in-law? He wasn’t sure how it all worked, but once his sister married Leah’s brother, they’d be family. Maybe not by blood, but still.
Or would it even matter? Leah was a couple years older than he was, which he thought was hot. But would she want to date a man two years her junior? Ten years ago, that would have been just gross to his barely teen mind. But ten years from now, the age difference wouldn’t mean anything.
Something on a shelf caught his attention, and he decided to shelve the idea of asking Leah out. At least until he could talk to Matthew. His oldest brother would know what to do.
Just as he went to pick up a black Stetson, his cell phone rang. Shaking his head, he reached for the phone instead. “Yup, this is Luke.”
“Oh good, I caught you,” Elizabeth Manning, Luke’s older sister, said.
“What can I do for ya, sis?”
“I’m supposed to head over to the Grease Monkey and pick up a woman whose car broke down on her way into town, but I can’t get away from the wedding planner. Can you pick her up and take her home? She’s going to be staying at the ranch until her car’s fixed.” His sister sounded exasperated. In the background, he could hear Logan groaning and complaining about another issue with their wedding plans.
Luke didn’t know why they didn’t just have the weddin’ at their ranch. They had a big enough back patio that if they brought in a large tent, they could handle the guest list. But Elizabeth and their ma wanted a larger wedding that wouldn’t fit in the backyard.
“Sure, I’m at the general store now. When I’m done here, I’ll head over. What’s her name?” Luke wasn’t sure he was ready to leave the store yet. He was still debating asking Leah out for dinner. Maybe he could come back into town the next day when he finally made up his mind.
“Thank you! You’re a life saver. Her name’s Callie Houston.”
“Sure thing, but you owe me one,” Luke joked.
“If memory serves, you owe me at least a million by now,” Elizabeth teased.
The Manning family never kept track of favors owed, but they liked to joke about it.
“Oh,” Luke added, “Leah said that Logan was supposed to be back a while ago to break her for lunch. You might want to send him back here soon.” He looked up when he heard footsteps coming toward him.
“Oh, nuts. That’s right. It was only supposed to take a short time over lunch. What time is it?” Elizabeth squeaked when she looked down at her watch. “I gotta go, I’ll see you later.” She hung up before Luke could even say his goodbyes.
“Geez, sis. Nice chatting with you, too.” He shook his head and chuckled as he put his phone away.
“Was that Elizabeth? Did she say anything about my wayward brother?” Leah asked when she set a package on the counter.
“Yes ma’am, that was her. She and your brother are stuck at the wedding planner’s office. It sounded like there was some issue going on. I told her to send her fiancé back here. I don’t think they realized the time.” He shrugged. “I don’t get the whole weddin’ plannin’ thing. Why can’t we just have a big barbecue in the backyard after the ceremony in the church?”
Leah laughed. “Are you serious?”
“Yeah, why?” The area between his eyes creased.
She sighed. “For one thing, our church isn’t large enough to seat everyone invited. Plus, your backyard isn’t exactly conducive to a sit-down dinner.” She threw her hands in the air. “And never suggest a barbecue for a wedding dinner. The bride would never get the sauce out of her white dress.”
“Dress? What self-respectin’ cowgirl wears a dress? No, all brides should wear jeans and a cowgirl shirt. That way, they don’t have to worry about getting dirty.” He wiped his hands. “Easy peasy.”
“I can’t wait to see how your future bride takes your ideas for her weddin’ day.” Leah chuckled and handed him the package.
“I wouldn’t marry anyone who didn’t love BBQ as much as I do.”
“Okay, we’ll see,” Leah responded, knowing that one day he’d be in for a rude awakening, and she hoped she’d be around to see it. If nothing more than to get a giant laugh. She’d have to make sure she remembered to bring popcorn when he approached his future bride about the wedding he envisioned.
“We shall.” Luke waved as he walked out of the store.
His mind shifted to the task ahead. “What kind of woman wants to stay at our ranch? The ladies’ dorms aren’t even ready yet.” He shook his head and made his way to his truck and the woman he had to pick up.
So, what do you think? Curious about who Luke is? What about Callie? And then there’s Leah. If you’ve read book 1 you know who Luke and Leah both are, and you might even remember that they went on a double date.
Come on down to the Triple J Ranch and see what the Manning family is up to! Cowboy Ranch is available for pre-order now, and goes live March 9th!