Iron River Ranch
Iron Springs, Texas
Victoria Bradford drove the old blue Chevy Malibu along the two lane road. Up ahead, a sign hung above a narrow dirt track running off to the west, IRON RIVER RANCH.
“Are we there yet, Mama?” Ivy, her four year old daughter, had asked at a dozen times since they’d left the Walmart parking lot in Iron Springs. The ten mile drive didn’t take long, but to a four year old who’d been in the car for days, they couldn’t reach their destination soon enough.
“We’re very close, sweetheart. This is the turn, right here.” Tory checked the gas gauge as the wheels left the pavement and started rumbling over the bumpy dirt road. Less than an eighth of a tank. She hoped the ranch wasn’t much farther.
More than that, she prayed the job hadn’t already been filled.
She sighed as the aging Malibu rolled along. She was basically in bumfrick Egypt, ten miles north of Nowhere Springs, almost out of gas, with twenty three dollars and thirty three cents in her wallet.
Last night, without enough money for a motel room and afraid to use her credit cards for fear Damon would somehow track her, they’d slept in the car in the Walmart parking lot. As soon as the McDonald’s opened, she had pulled into the drive-thru and bought Sausage McMuffins, then driven out to the ranch to somehow convince the owner to hire a woman with a daughter and no actual ranching experience.
She thought of the ad in the paper she had spotted last night on the counter in the Iron Springs Café. If she somehow managed to get the job, it would be perfect. Besides a steady paycheck and the ranch being way off the grid, the position included the use of a double-wide trailer.
After being on the road for the past three weeks, living out of motel rooms and suitcases, the trailer sounded like a palace.
“Look, Mama, there it is!” Ivy pointed toward the cluster of buildings up ahead, a couple of barns, several fenced training arenas, and a two-story home with dormer windows and a covered porch running the length out in front. A double-wide sat fifty yards away.
Vast stretches of open green pastureland surrounded the complex where horses and cattle grazed, and there were ponds and woodlands in the distance, and dense copses of trees.
The Chevy bumped over the last patch of road, pulled up in front of the house, and Tory quickly turned off the engine. No use wasting what little gas she had left.
“Mama, there’s a man over there by the barn.”
Her gaze swung in that direction. There was, indeed, a man. The noisy buzz of a saw covered the sound of their arrival, giving her time to assess him.
Shirtless, he was working with his back to them, broad, tanned, and muscled above a narrow waist that disappeared into a pair of faded jeans. The jeans hugged a round behind and long, powerful legs.
He was tall, she saw when he straightened away from his work and walked into the barn, with medium brown hair cut short. She got her first look at his face when he walked back out, handsome, with a solid jaw and masculine features, at least three days’ growth of whiskers.
The front of him was just as impressive as the back, a broad chest with solid pecs, muscular biceps, and six pack abs.
Unease filtered through her. This was a strong, powerful male. She knew first hand what a man like that could do to a woman.
Tory forced down the notion. Not all men were like Damon. Before she’d met him, she had been married to a good and decent man, the father of her child. Jamie Bradford, her high school sweetheart, was one of the gentlest people she’d ever known. Her father was a good man, before he’d fallen in love with his secretary and divorced her mother, leaving the two of them alone.
Tory took a courage-building breath. “Stay here, sweetheart.” Cracking open the car door, she slid out from behind the wheel. “Don’t worry, sweetie. Everything’s going to be okay.”
Ivy sank down in her booster seat, trying to make herself invisible. Tory had survived the fights, arguments, and finally the brutal beating Damon had given her that had put her in the hospital. Though he had never hurt Ivy, the little girl had seen the results of his mistreatment, leaving her with an unnatural fear of men.
Tory glanced at the big, thick-chested male striding toward her, shrugging into a blue denim shirt. Ivy would be terrified of him. If there was any other way, she would climb back in the car and just drive away.
There wasn’t. Tory started walking, meeting the man half way. She glanced around but didn’t see a soul besides the big man in front of her. Her uneasiness returned but she forced it away.
“May I help you?” he asked, and she thought that at least he was polite.
“My name is Tory Ford. I’m looking for Joshua Cain. Is that you?” He had blue eyes and a cleft in his chin. From a purely physical standpoint, the man was flat out hot.
“I’m Josh Cain. What can I do for you?”
“I saw your ad in the Iron Springs Gazette. You’re looking for a stable hand. I’m here to apply for the job.”
He just shook his head. “I’m afraid it’s a man’s job, Ms. Ford. Mucking out stalls and cleaning tack, feeding the livestock. It isn’t something you’d want to do.”
“Work isn’t supposed to be fun, Mr. Cain. That’s why they call it work. I can muck out stalls, clean tack, and feed stock as well as anyone else.”
“Sorry. I’m looking for a man. I appreciate you’re coming out, but–“
“There are laws, Mr. Cain. Equal rights for women. Have you never heard of that? Lawsuits against discrimination?”
His jaw hardened. His eyebrows came down in a frown. “Are you kidding me? You’re going to sue me because I won’t hire you to shovel horseshit out of the barn?”
She could feel the heat creeping into her cheeks. With her fair skin, and fiery red hair, there was no way to hide her embarrassment.
She looked him straight in the face. “I need this job, Mr. Cain. I need the house that comes with it.” She forced herself to smile. “Why don’t we compromise? You give me three days to prove I’m up to the job. If I’m not, I won’t give you anymore trouble. Three days. If you don’t think I can handle the work, I’ll leave. I won’t argue, I’ll just go.”
A muscle jerked in his cheek. He didn’t like being pressured. He looked at her hard, then those condemning blue eyes traveled over her shoulder to something behind her.
“Who is that?”
She didn’t have to turn to know Ivy had climbed out of the car. Like Tory, she was small for her age, but her hair was blond instead of red, and her eyes were blue instead of green.
“That’s my daughter. She’s only four.” Desperate now, she could feel her heart throbbing softly inside her ribs. “We need a place, Mr. Cain. I’ll work hard. I’ll do whatever you need done. Just give me a chance.”
He swore the f-word under his breath, not loud enough for Ivy to hear. Damon wouldn’t have cared. She clung to the hope that represented.
“What do you plan to do with your daughter while you’re working? You can’t leave her in the house alone.”
Tory glanced wildly around. She had known this would be a problem. Before, she’d had money enough to hire a sitter or there was day care for employees’ kids.
She looked at the fenced yard off to the side in front of the trailer. The grass was sparse and in need of a trim. Maybe he’d had a dog or something, but it was clean and empty now. The weather was still good and there was a little gazebo with a table and benches in the middle. She’d be able to keep an eye on Ivy while she was working.
“She could play in the yard. She likes to color and she already reads kids’ books. She wouldn’t be any trouble. If this works out, I’ll have money to pay for a sitter.”
Cain looked at Ivy, paced away then back. “Dammit.”
“It’s just three days. If I do a good job, you won’t have to search for someone else.”
He ran a hand over his short brown hair, paced away, then walked back. “Did you sleep in your car last night?”
She refused to answer. She didn’t want charity from Cain for anyone else.
“Fine,” he said. “You’ve got three days. But I’m not cutting you any slack. You do a man’s job for a man’s pay. If you can’t hack it, you’re out of here.”
And from the look on his face, he was clearly hoping she would fail. Hell, maybe she would.
She managed to fake a smile. “Okay, it’s a deal.” She stuck out her hand to seal the bargain, for a moment didn’t think he was going to shake. Then he sighed and took hold of her hand, not too hard, just firm enough to let her know he was in charge.
“You start tomorrow morning. Six A.M. sharp. There’s enough food in the trailer to last a few days. I’ll bring you a quart of milk. After that, board’s on you. If you’re still here, you’ll need to make a trip into town for groceries.”
Relief filtered through her, so strong it made her head swim. She had a place to stay where no one would look for her. She had a job, which meant food and whatever necessities they needed. If he kept her on, she’d find a sitter to watch Ivy. She’d have time to figure things out, make a new plan.
She took a step back, set an arm around her little girl’s shoulders and drew her forward. “This is my daughter, Ivy. Ivy, this is Mr. Cain.”
“Hello, Ivy,” he said. He had an unusual voice, deep and resonate, but at the same time soft and oddly compelling.
Ivy shrunk back.
“Say hello, honey,” Tory said.
“I don’t want to stay. I want to go.” Clinging to Tory’s waist, she burrowed into her.
“She’s shy,” Tory said.
“The trailer’s unlocked,” Cain said. “It’s clean and ready to go.”
He turned and started striding back to the barn. She probably should be at least a little afraid of him. Oddly, she wasn’t.
Then again, she hadn’t been afraid of Damon, either.
About the author
Photo by Juan Carlo, Ventura County Star
New York Times bestselling author Kat Martin is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara where she majored in Anthropology and also studied History. Currently residing in Missoula, Montana with her Western-author husband, L.J. Martin, Kat has written 65 historical and contemporary romantic suspense novels. More than 16 million copies of her books are in print and she has been published in 20 foreign countries. Kat is currently working on her next romantic suspense.