Photo of Sun Shaman courtesy of Happy Haven Farm & Sanctuary
In my last post I wrote a little about the plight of wild mustangs. My heroine in The Cowboy’s Twins, Faith Duggan, has a mustang sanctuary, and my hero Jax McKenna is a horse whisperer, though he would be appalled if anyone used that moniker on him. This book is very near and dear to my heart because my sister runs an animal sanctuary. I’ve seen firsthand the triumphs and agonies she’s gone through for the sake of her horses, dogs, cats, pigs…you name it, she saves it. So it was a very great privilege for me to incorporate her work into one of my novels. I fell in love with Jax and Faith, and I hope you will, as well.
So I thought today I would post an excerpt from The Cowboy’s Twins to introduce you to Jax and Faith. With no further ado, here they are:
Jax knew the Dennys’ spread hadn’t been kept up over the past couple of years, but he never imagined the sorry state of the ranch he encountered as he drove up and parked in front of Faith’s new home. Rotted shutters hung half off the hinges and the screens covering the windows were torn through. It looked as though some animal or another had made use of the ranch house while the Dennys were elsewhere. The house needed a fresh coat of paint and new shingles on the roof. The wraparound deck was weather-worn and needed varnishing, and the flower beds in front were overgrown with weeds.
And that was to say nothing of the outbuildings and land around the house. He guessed the barn must have been red once, but now it was a muted orange color. The fences that were supposed to contain the corral and what he could see of the pasture land were in dire need of repair. The hay field was so overgrown it would take a season, maybe two, to set it right, and that was assuming Faith owned the appropriate farm equipment, which he highly doubted.
He wasn’t even sure she had the right shoes.
It took him less than a minute of perusal before he knew that on his own, his labor wouldn’t be nearly enough for Faith to get this place into shape as quickly as she wanted. A community workday might be in order, and soon. She’d soon find her neighbors in Serendipity were generous with their time and talents.
One thing was certain—the property was in no way ready to host horses, especially wild ones.
He approached the front door, careful to avoid the rickety step, and rang the bell. When that yielded nothing, he knocked twice. When she still didn’t answer, he decided to have a better look around the place. Faith’s enormous, beat-up black SUV was parked in front of the house, so presumably she was around here somewhere. Searching for her was the perfect excuse—er—opportunity to take a closer look at the barn and surrounding countryside.
Get the lay of the land, so to speak.
Babies might not need spreadsheets, but it looked as if Faith’s ranch was going to take a lot of them. This was a huge, huge project. He suspected she had no idea how big.
It didn’t take him long to locate Faith. He called her name as he circled the barn and she popped her head up from behind a wall of hay bales. She’d tied her platinum-blond hair into a loose bun held together with what looked like a pencil. Wisps had broken free to frame her exertion-reddened face. She wiped her elbow across her brow and smiled.
“What are you doing here?” Her question might have sounded abrupt but instead held a tone of pleasant surprise.
He saluted sloppily. “Jax McKenna, reporting for duty, ma’am.”
She shook her head. “Oh. I wasn’t expecting you. You don’t have to do this, you know.”
Having seen the state of her ranch, he had to disagree. “I think I do.”
“There’s no need to feel obligated. I’m sure you’re up to your ears caring for your twins.” She absently brushed hay strands from her jeans. “How are they, by the way?”
“Active,” he answered. “Noisy. Up at all hours. Adorable. Perfect. And you were right about Mom—she’s gone nuts over them. This is the happiest I’ve seen her since before Dad got sick.”
“I’m glad,” she replied, sincerity beaming out of her warm smile. “So why are you here, instead of home with them?”
“I owe you.” Did she think he was the kind of man to renege on his debts?
Her gaze widened on him and Jax swallowed hard, struck by the sparkle gleaming in her hazel eyes. They were a beautiful, swirling mixture of green and gold that he found quite captivating.
“Oh, that.” She waved him away with a sweep of her hand. “I hereby absolve you of all your obligations inherent in offering yourself up for auction. Go live your life. Enjoy your babies. Be free.”
She wasn’t making this easy.
Go live his life? What life?
Until Faith and the twins had suddenly entered his life two days ago, he hadn’t even realized that he hadn’t been living—just going through the motions. He couldn’t do that anymore.
He didn’t want to.
He owed her, and not just because she had bought him at that silly auction.
Besides, she needed him, whether she was willing to admit it or not. And probably far more than she realized, if the state of her property was anything to go by.
“What are you doing?” he asked, ignoring the absolution of his commitment.
“Moving hay bales around. The guy who delivered them this morning dumped them right in the middle of my driveway and took off without a word. I’ve been hauling them one by one to the side of the barn. Hay bales are heavier than they look, by the way.”
Jax chuckled. Toting hay bales wasn’t much of a challenge for him. He could tote them two at a time and not even break a sweat, but then he was twice her size and had been doing it all of his life.
And why was she worrying about hay, anyway? Horses were a long time off, weren’t they? First things first. Her house was falling down around her and she was out here performing unnecessary manual labor?
“You could have called me.”
She shook her head. “No. I can do this myself.”
He lifted a brow. She was nothing if not stubborn. But he couldn’t fault her for that. It took a tough person to handle life on a ranch. He wasn’t convinced she was that person, but she certainly showed gumption.
“Can you give me a hand with the tarp?” She pressed one side of an olive-green tarp into his hands and he helped her unfold it. Together they parachuted it over the top of the stack of hay.
“What are you pegging it down with?” he asked, scanning the ground for tent pegs and a mallet.
“Pegs?” Her brows lowered, crinkling over her nose. “Right. To keep the tarp from blowing away. I should have thought of that. I—” She stalled, dropping her gaze. “I don’t know what I’ll be using.”
Of course she didn’t. Now, why wasn’t Jax surprised? If ever he’d known someone completely unprepared for the challenges facing her, it was Faith Dugan. Initiative and good intentions could take a person only so far.
“I found the old tarp in a corner of the barn,” she explained. “Maybe there are some pegs there, as well.”
“Hold on a sec. I’ll go look.” Jax jogged into the barn, figuring he’d have a better chance of finding something that would work for the tarp, especially if they had to improvise.
He couldn’t find any tent pegs, but he did locate some large nails that were long enough and thick enough to do the task. He grabbed a handful of them, along with a rusty old hammer that was hanging on the tool wall.
When he returned to Faith, she was standing with her back against the wall of hay, a distant gleam in her gaze. She looked tired, and for the first time he noticed the dark circles under her eyes.
She brightened when she saw what Jax was carrying.
“I know I must seem woefully ill-equipped to you,” she admitted as Jax went to work nailing down the tarp. “It’s a slow process, but I’ve been making a list of everything I’ll be needing to keep the ranch running. I’ll add pegs to the list, and maybe even an extra tarp or two.”
That must be some list.
Jax fought against the smile that crept up the right side of his lips.
“So if you see anything you think I ought to add,” she continued, obviously not seeing Jax’s expression, “please speak up.”
If it were anyone but Faith, he would have spoken. He would have told her how crazy her whole scheme was and how she should turn around and go back to wherever home was. He would have told her flat out how he doubted her ability to turn the falling-down-around-her house and equally scrappy outbuildings and land into a working ranch. Unless she was independently wealthy, she’d have money issues to add to what must already be multiple quandaries. Running a rescue operation on her own would be a challenge even on a tiptop ranch. Setting up her sanctuary while keeping the place from falling apart was a heavier load than any one person should be able to manage.
She was so—so earnest. She was obviously trying hard to make it work, and she wasn’t about to take no for an answer. He didn’t think she’d listen to him even if he did list all the reasons her plans would not work. She appeared dauntless, despite the mountains she was looking to scale. She didn’t see the process as much as the end product.
Her dreams were real to her.
And completely outrageous.
In some ways he envied her that outlook. He saw things in black and white. Mostly black. Definitely no pink—at least until his daughters had shown up in his life.
Either Faith didn’t see the problems she was facing or she was making a conscious choice to ignore them. Of course, a rainbows-and-unicorns attitude would take her only so far. Eventually she’d figure out that her operation was far too grand a scale for one woman. But he decided he wasn’t going to be the one to bust her bubble. Not today.
“My first two horses are arriving right away,” she informed him brightly as she tugged one of the ends of the tarp so he could nail it down.
Jax’s hand slipped and he slammed the hammer into his thumb. He yelped in pain and shook his hand in the air, then stuck it in his mouth to nurse it.
In an instant, Faith was crouched by his side, pulling her hand into hers. She examined him closely and murmured sweet nothings.
Jax was muttering, too. Something else.
“I’m fine,” he insisted, snatching his hand out of her grip. His thumb was throbbing and all he could think about was how soft and supple her palms and fingers were and how it was a shame ranch work would ruin them. Something was really messed up about that.
“At least let me get a bandage for you.”
He uttered a sound that was half a laugh, half a scoff. “I don’t need a bandage, Faith. Nothing’s broken. The hammer didn’t even pierce the skin.”
Her expression fell and only then did he realize she was offering a bandage because she wanted to do something for him. Because she felt sorry for him.
He hated it when that happened. Pity was the worst, even if it was over something as stupid as him being careless with a hammer and slamming it on his lousy thumb. He barely restrained himself from growling in frustration.
“I’m fine,” he said again, and then figured he’d better distract her before she ended up threatening to put his whole arm in a sling. “What’s next after the hay?”
If she said horses he was going to burst something.
“First things first. I need to fill the troughs with water from the pump.”
He gaped at her but she didn’t notice.
Did she realize how many trips it would take to fill a large trough with buckets of water from the pump? And that was to say nothing about the strain of doing all that pumping, or hauling heavy buckets of water.
He sighed. This was going to be a long afternoon.
But apparently she was just getting warmed up.
“I figure I’ll put hay down and hang an oat mixture in a bucket in the corral and then leave the gate to the front pasture open for easy access. I know the horses will need plenty of room to run, especially since they’ll have been cooped up in a trailer for so long by the time they arrive here.”
She pointed to the gate that led to a small meadow. Her plan would work in theory, if it wasn’t for the terrible condition of the fences. The fence next to the road was in the worst shape. Wooden beams had been knocked about and some of the poles were completely unearthed.
Repairing that part alone would be a lot of work, but she could take her time with that—if she’d given herself time. The land wasn’t going anywhere and neither were the fences. The problem was, there wasn’t any time and there were a lot of fences. If the ones closest to the house were in this bad of condition, he dreaded to see what the rest of the thousand acres looked like.
Faith was a smart woman—she’d just never had to work on a ranch in such poor condition before. She still didn’t understand just how much effort it would take to fix up this dump. She’d no doubt soon realize that his help alone would be nowhere near enough, even if he continued to help her, and at this point, he couldn’t see how he could not. It wasn’t in him to walk away from a lady in distress, even if the woman in question had bitten off far more than she could ever chew.
She’d said that she didn’t have the money to hire any help, but he’d say she needed two wranglers at least. Worse, even if she had the funds, she might discover it was difficult to find a wrangler willing to work a horse farm—especially a sanctuary with wild horses. Serendipity was cattle country. Jax was one of the few who raised horses, and he trained his herd for cattle ranching.
Unlike many areas, the ranchers around Serendipity didn’t necessarily object to horse farms. They just knew cattle. A wild horse refuge? Some would believe it was a sad waste of good grazing land. There might be some resentment, although Jax hoped her neighbors would be better people than that.
Maybe she could find a teenager willing to do some work for her after school and on weekends. A youth working part time wouldn’t charge as much as a full-time professional wrangler. He had a couple of girls in mind who were especially good with horses. Before he brought his idea up to Faith, he decided he’d speak to the girls and their families to see if they were interested.
It would have to be soon, if Faith had horses coming in immediately.
“You’re planning to fix the house up before you get too busy bringing in too many horses, right?”
He hadn’t even seen the inside of the place, but based on everything else he’d viewed so far, he imagined it would be far from livable. “Are you staying at the Howell’s Bed-and-Breakfast until you’re ready to move in?”
It was a reasonable guess, seeing as there was no hotel in Serendipity. The Howell’s B and B was the one and only place for guests in town to stay.
“Oh, I’m already moved into the house.” She waved a hand as if to dismiss the thought. “I brought everything I needed to live on in my SUV.”
He’d been thinking about the condition of the house itself, but moving her belongings was yet another hurdle to jump. She couldn’t possibly have fit everything she owned into her SUV, even if it was one of the bigger models. What about her furniture? Dishes? Sheets and towels?
There might be a functional appliance or two inside the house but Jax doubted Faith had found much in working condition. He imagined it would take weeks to put together anything remotely livable.
If she hadn’t hired a moving company yet, he’d probably have to help her with that, as well. There was no way she would be able to move big furniture on her own, and even if she could, he wouldn’t let her. He supposed he could always get his brothers to help with that. Their thick muscles were good for something, even if their thick heads were not.
“So you have the rest of your stuff left in storage somewhere?”
“Oh, no. I sold or gave away everything I wasn’t bringing with me. I’ve got everything I need. I towed a horse trailer in with me. It’s old and not pretty to look at, but it’s reliable.”
That was better. Not ideal, but better. He wouldn’t have thought of moving his belongings in a horse trailer, but whatever worked for her. “I see. So you brought your furniture in your horse trailer, then. How bad is the interior of the house?”
She gazed at him as if he’d just grown a horn in the middle of his forehead. It wasn’t as if he’d asked her to explain the theory of relativity—just how she planned to live in a house that raccoons and field mice probably rejected.
“Of course not. Why would I bring furniture in a horse trailer? That was for all my horsey stuff.”
It was all Jax could do not to burst out laughing, or smack his palm against his forehead, or both. This woman had clearly tied her good sense to the top of her SUV on her way down to Texas and it had come loose from its binding and bounced off to the side of the road. On second thought, since no sane person would have bought this run-down ranch in the first place, maybe her good sense was something she’d lost a long time ago.
And didn’t it just figure that he’d be the one to get caught up in this totally implausible and thoroughly ridiculous project?
As if he didn’t have enough totally implausible drama brewing in his own house.
Had he stepped into some alternate nutty alternate universe where everyday life was upside down and backward?
She hadn’t really answered his question about the condition of the interior of her house. He was afraid to ask again, but he did it anyway.
“So you’re—what? Camping out in your living room?”
Her smile was so fast and genuine that he found himself almost completely drawn into it.
“Pretty much. The Dennys left some furniture. It’s not anywhere close to new condition, but I don’t need much. I brought my sleeping bag, and the old couch is comfortable enough for now. There’s no air conditioner so it gets pretty hot in the daytime, but I’m outside most of the time anyway so that won’t matter. I open windows at night. I have plenty of food in the pantry. God is good. I have no complaints.”
Maybe she didn’t, but he did.
“Nevertheless, don’t you think we ought to start by repairing the house?” It wasn’t a suggestion, it was a rhetorical question, but Faith apparently interpreted it as if he were asking.
“Oh, my. No,” she exclaimed, waving her hands in a dismissive motion. “I don’t have time to worry about myself. My living conditions are just fine. I need your help to fix the front pasture.” Her teeth nipped out and grabbed her bottom lip again as she thoughtfully surveyed the meadow in question. “I think we can lodge the horses in that field until I have enough time and resources to repair the other fences. I know the hay field is a disaster and I’ll need to rotate the herd so they can graze, but one step at a time, right?”
Jax felt as if he was tripping over those steps she mentioned.
“I can help mend fences,” he offered cautiously. “But you’re right. The perimeter is going to take a while to fully secure, not to mention the fences between pastures. The Dennys didn’t happen to leave you a swather for the hay field, did they? It’s severely overgrown. You should take care of that soon—you know, in all that free time you’ll have because this place will be so easy to fix up.”
He was teasing.
Her gaze widened in alarm but when he curved his mouth up she chuckled. “I thought you meant it needed to happen right now. Today.”
“I’m sure we can borrow a swather from one of your neighbors when the time comes. Not today.”
She nodded. “And the fence? How fast do you think you can help me fix the loose beams in the front meadow? I know I’m asking a lot out of you, but is there any possible way you can take care of it today?”
“Today?” he repeated, his voice tightening. He’d come over to see how she was settling in. She hadn’t even been expecting him. And now she thought he was somehow going to be able to mend her impossibly unfixable property in a single afternoon? Did she realize how labor intensive fence-mending was? And what would she have done if he hadn’t shown up? Tried to handle it all herself? “Faith, you can’t just—”
“But it’s important,” she interrupted. Red splashed across her cheeks. “You see, I’ve got a mare and her foal coming in this afternoon.”
“This afternoon?” he roared, caught completely by surprise. When she’d said she was expecting horses to arrive right away, he thought she meant this month, or this week.
Her eyes widened epically and he realized he’d hurt her feelings, maybe even scared her. He took a mental step backward, lifted his hat by the crown and ran a hand through his hair.
“Look,” he said, carefully modulating both the tenor and the tone of his voice. “I understand how important this is to you.”
“Do you?” She folded her arms in a defensive gesture and narrowed her gaze on him. “Do you really? Because honestly, that’s not what I’m getting from you.”
He frowned and settled his hat back on his head. “Is that right?”
“Yes. I’m getting more of a grizzly-with-a-thorn-stuck-in-his-paw vibe. So if that’s all you have to offer, then thank you, but I’d rather figure this out on my own.” She was looking toward him, but yet not really looking at him, her gaze just slightly averted.
Jax cringed. For a moment he’d thought Faith might be different. That she might be able to look beyond his scarred face to the man within. There had been a few minutes at the picnic t when he’d thought they’d shared something, if not special, then at least normal.
But at the end of the day, she called it as she saw it—saw him.
“If that’s what you want,” he muttered.
Even as he said the words, he knew he couldn’t just walk away from Faith and leave her to do it all on her own. At the very least, there were plenty of fences to be mended, over many acres of land. He could do the work somewhere far away from the house and she wouldn’t even have to know he’d been there.
If she didn’t want him on her property, he wouldn’t be able to fix up her house for her, at least not directly. But he would find others who could, people he trusted to do their best work and give her a good deal for it.
“Go.” She choked out the word and pointed at his truck. “Just go.”
“Yeah. Okay.” He nodded and tipped his hat, conceding as graciously as he knew how. His gut tightened painfully but he ignored it. “Best wishes to you with your hobby horses.”
Have you ever stepped out in faith to pursue a dream? Comment below for the opportunity to win an autographed copy of The Cowboy’s Twins.
The Cowboy’s Twins is available now in print form wherever Harlequin books are sold and as an eBook from your favorite online retailer.