Chapter One

Julia Finch’s lime green ’75 Dodge Dart stutters to a stop, clearly just as tired from the long drive as she is. She’s been pushing her trusty friend hard for the past three days and is surprised the car has made it this far. Julia figured it’d crap out somewhere in Kansas. Hell, or ten feet away from her rundown studio apartment in Chicago. Now she’s hoping to God it doesn’t die on her in this small Colorado town that she was detoured to. She didn’t pay much attention to the Falling Rocks signs, but when the highway was closed due to a rock slide, she realized maybe she should have heeded their warning.

She glances around the empty parking lot of the general store from the safety of her vehicle and wonders if she has stumbled into another realm. The town is straight from what she imagines the 1950s may have looked like. She hopes to God no one sees her and tries to be cordial. Julia always runs into someone somewhere who wants to learn more, ask more, look more than she wants or needs. And this place seems like just the spot where the people may have nothing better to do than ask questions.

Julia is angry about the detour. She just wants to drive and get away from Chicago, but now she’s in this wide spot in the road for who knows how long? She takes a couple breaths and tells herself to calm down. She’s farther along in her travels than she thought she’d be with only a couple days’ travel. She needs a shower and a good night’s sleep with clean sheets, so maybe this is the perfect opportunity.

When Julia stands, her knees ache, and she dreads the thought of getting back in her car for even another second. The temperature outside is warm, probably high eighties, and the sun is shining high and bright in the sky. Rocky, snowcapped peaks surround the town with a striking blue backdrop. Julia’s not sure if she’s ever seen a sky that color blue before. The colors are so vivid and beautiful that they practically take her breath away. She’d been so engrossed in driving and so pissed off about the detour that she didn’t even bother looking at the scenery.

Julia looks up and down the main drag before hastily yanking her long blond hair back into a ponytail. She’s hot and irritated, and this Podunk town is doing nothing for her mood. The street is littered with normal small-town staples: a pharmacy, a hardware store, a rinky-dink restaurant, a post office, and a Sinclair gas station with a giant green dinosaur in front of it. Quite a few people are walking from store to store, waving their hellos to each other, probably asking how the family is doing, how are the kids, how is little Suzie’s ear infection.

“Try not to stick out like a sore thumb,” Julia mumbles. She grabs a grocery basket on her way through the squeaky store door, slips the arm of her sunglasses over the neck of her black tank top, and tries to take her own advice. There’s an older woman with very short gray hair toward the back working in the deli and a younger woman by the cash registers dressed like she’s ready for a night on the town—certainly not this town. But another, more amazing town that actually hasa nightlife. Julia nods a greeting toward the woman behind the deli counter and starts down the first aisle.

Julia grabs a few necessities (Doritos, bananas, a loaf of bread, Little Debbie snack cakes, three large bottles of water) and stops by the deli counter, where she receives a gentle nod from the older woman. Her name tag says “Agnes.” Julia smiles. “Can I get a half pound of the smoked turkey?” she asks. Agnes peers at her from over a pair of glasses that have seen better days. The right arm is being held together with a piece of duct tape, and for some reason, Julia finds it ridiculously adorable.

“Sure thing, miss.” Agnes goes to work, slapping cold cuts onto the scale, occasionally looking up and glaring from over the top of the rickety glasses. “Just the turkey?” she asks, nodding toward Julia.

Julia crosses her arms and adjusts her stance. “Yes. Unless you have a suggestion on some of these salads.”

“Well,” Agnes says as she bags the cold cuts and slides the plastic baggie across the cooler, “I made them, so they’re all good.”

“You made them? Like, from scratch?” Julia is shocked. When was the last time she was in a grocery store where a single, solitary person just whipped up the pasta salad?

Agnes nods and when she does so, the extra skin under her neck nods along. She points to a couple of the salads. “This one here is good. I’m a fan of the broccoli raisin salad here.” And then her finger from behind the glass lands on one. “The potato salad is the best, though. My great-granny’s recipe. I’d get yourself some of that.”

“Okay, then,” Julia says, clearing her throat. “I’ll take a quarter pound.”

“Better take a half pound. You won’t be disappointed.”

“Well, all right.” A smile comes to Julia’s lips. “Thank you.”

“Is that all?”

Julia nods and picks up the bag of turkey. “Maybe you could,” she says and worries her bottom lip with her teeth, “tell me where I could get a room for a few days. Since, y’know, I’m not from around here.”

Agnes lets out a low chuckle, one that says obviously you aren’t from around here.She wipes her hands on her apron before saying, “There’s a motel a couple blocks down on your left. Should have some accommodations for your type.”

Your type? “Thanks,” Julia says after furrowing her brow. What the hell is that supposed to mean? My type?She makes her way up to the checkout line to pay. The young, leggy brunette running the cash register is helping a guy who’s wearing a long-sleeved shirt, blue jeans, and a cowboy hat. The girl is pretty in a way that screams for attention, especially considering the way she’s dressed, but she’s also plain in a way that is so small town that it almost makes Julia sad. It’s not like Julia’s much older than the girl. In fact, they may be the same age. Twenty-six, twenty-seven, but damn, Julia instantly feels like she’s lived a lifetime compared to this girl.

Julia hears the pretty clerk ask the cowboy if he’s hired a new ranch hand yet. He takes his hat off, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and laughs. When he answers that it’s not easy to find someone who will work for nothing, his voice is as smooth as silk with a country twang. Julia agrees; it sounds like a horrible gig.

When it’s Julia’s turn, the clerk eyes her suspiciously as she takes out each item from the basket and types in the numbers of the prices with ease. Julia feels uncomfortable and notices her palms are sweating.

“You’re not from around here. Where’d you blow in from?” the pretty clerk asks, a smile spreading across her bright red lips.

“You don’t miss a beat, do you?” Julia rubs her palms on her cut-off shorts and smiles.

“Don’t get a lot of tourists. You in town for long?”

“Not sure. Just until they can clear that rockslide,” Julia answers as she holds out a twenty-dollar bill to pay for the groceries.

“That’ll take a day or so,” the clerk says. “Those are very common, but dammit if they don’t act like it’s the first frickin’ time it’s ever happened.”

“Great.” Julia sighs. “I heard there’s a motel a couple blocks down?”

“The Hide-A-Way Inn.” The clerk narrows her eyes. “You don’t exactly look like the type that stays in one spot for long.”

Julia smiles, then glances around the general store. “You might be right about that.” She looks back at the brunette and nods. “Of course, people do change.”

“Not around here they don’t,” the clerk replies. “Name’s Toni, by the way.”

“Toni?”

“Well, Antoinette. But I hate the formality of it. So, Toni.”

Julia introduces herself and watches as the newly named Toni bags the last of her groceries. After a thank you and a “It’s nice to meet you,” Toni rips off a piece of receipt paper and scribbles a number onto it. “If you stay for longer, give me a call. We’ll go get a drink together. The Main Street Tap is a hole in the wall, but the bartender pours a mean beer. And you’re gonna need it. Those temps out there can be real unforgiving.”

Julia nods and shrugs. “We’ll see,” she says as she grabs her bags and heads outside, the temperature rising and rising.

 

v

 

Toni is absolutely right. The Main Street Tap is a complete hole in the wall. But it is right next to the Hide-A-Way Inn, which is a nice bonus. The bar is the epitome of an old dive bar on the outside—and surprise, surprise, that is exactly what it is on the inside. Dark, dingy, smelling like old beer and cigarettes. A sign behind the bar reads, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone, no matter who you are, who you think you are, or who your daddy is.”

“Can I get a Jack on the rocks and an ice water?” Julia asks over the dull roar of a twangy country music tune after she settles onto a stool toward the end of the bar.

The bartender, who looks like he’s about the same age as Julia, looks up from washing glasses, then down the bar top at her. He turns around, wipes his hands on a towel, and grabs the neck of the bottle of Jack Daniel’s. As he pours the dark liquid, the ice cracks in the fresh glass. He glances up again at Julia. “Anything else, Blondie?”

“An ice water?” she asks again.

“Like, with no alcohol in it?”

“Yeah, like, water. With ice.” Julia hopes her face isn’t showing that she thinks this guy is a complete moron. She watches him shake his head as he pours water over a glassful of ice.

“That’ll be four dollars.”

“That’s it?”

Yeah, four dollars.”

Julia can’t hide the shocked expression on her face. “Jack Daniel’s, right?”

“Look, Blondie, I gave you what you asked for.”

“Okay, okay. Geez.” Julia slides a five-dollar bill over the bar top to the man. He slams his hand onto the money and moves it closer to him. Julia stares at the glass of Jack in front of her. She tries to hide her eagerness to down the liquid but fails as she swipes the glass from the counter and downs the entire glass. She notices the bartender watching her. He’s rubbing his stubble, a look in his eyes that is both strange and scary. He places both of his palms on the bar top. His hair is a dusty blond, and he has deep blue eyes and honestly, he is really cute. If she was in the mood for sloppy sex with a man, she’d probably entertain whatever ideas are going through his head. She doesn’t turn down sex these days, regardless of who’s on the giving end. Equal opportunities, she likes to tell herself, when really all it means is she doesn’t want to be connected to anyone for any amount of time if she can help it.

Normally, she can help it.

“You need another?” the bartender asks.

She nods, he delivers, and she pays. It’s a beautiful dance, and she’s pretty sure that if she could afford it, she would sit here all day and drink herself into a deep, dark hole.

Julia ducks her head as she reaches for the glass, then looks at her phone. She’s been tapping at the screen trying to track how far she’s off the beaten path now that this detour has happened. The map keeps loading and loading, showing nothing but a spinning refresh wheel. She looks up at the bartender as she swirls the liquid in the glass, the ice cubes clinking against each other. “Am I not going to get a signal here?”

“Not really. If you wanted a signal, you should have stayed near whatever city that accent hails from.”

“Awesome,” Julia breathes. She slips her phone back into the back pocket of her cut-offs. “Do you think you could tell me how far the highway is from here? I’m trying to look it up on the maps app, but…”

He laughs. “Blondie, you’re pretty far off your path. You headed west?”

Julia tilts her head. It’s none of his business where the hell she’s headed. “Something like that.” She hears the bartender huff. What is it with these people? Why are they all so interested? When she glances around, she notices a man at the end of the bar top; his cowboy hat is sitting on the counter in front of him, and a small woman with dark hair and a pixie haircut is next to him. Julia overhears the man say something about a ranch hand and if he doesn’t find one soon, “Bennett is gonna have his head.”

“Wait a second,” Julia mumbles, making it obvious that she’s eavesdropping. It’s the same guy from earlier that day in the general store. “Hey,” she shouts at the bartender; he lifts his head and walks closer to her area. “What’s up with this guy?” She jerks her thumb toward the couple.

“Elijah?” the bartender asks. “He’s the lead rancher in charge of recruitment at the Bennett Ranch. Needs another ranch hand or Bennett is not going to be happy.”

“Recruitment?” Julia asks, a laugh escaping from her throat. “It’s not a college, for Christ’s sake.”

The bartender purses his lips and shakes his head. “You obviously do not know how perfect Bennett wants everything. And I mean everything.

“Yeah, probably not, since I’m not from around here.” The sarcasm is dripping from her words. “Why do they need another one so bad? Someone die?”

“Good gravy,” the bartender says, his voice low. “You need to watch your tongue, Blondie, unless you like enemies.”

Julia gulps and waves her hand. “I’m sorry.”

“No, just,” the bartender leans forward, “a lot of drama there. Not one to gossip, so you’ll have to ask someone else.”

“A bartender that doesn’t like to gossip? Where the hell am I?” Julia asks before lifting her glass.

He pushes off the bar top and starts to walk away. “You don’t need to worry about that since I’m sure you won’t be sticking around long.”

Julia rolls her eyes and downs the rest of her whiskey. “You’re right about that.”

 

v

 

“Oh, no, no, no,” Julia pleads when she tries to start her car for the tenth time. She keeps pumping the gas, praying, and cursing, and she’s getting the same result. She cannot afford this right now. Not at all. The last thing she needs is for this car to do exactly what she has been dreading. She bangs her forehead on the steering wheel and groans. “This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.”

“It seems to me that it is happenin’, City Girl.”

Julia rolls her eyes, keeps her head on the steering wheel, and says, “I’m pretty sure she’s dead.”

“Well, that’s a real shame.”

Julia raises her head and is taken back by who is standing there. “You?”

“Huh?”

“You. You were in the bar. And the grocery store.”

The man slides his thumbs through the belt loops of his jeans and makes a clicking sound with his mouth. “Look, do you need help or what?”

Julia watches as the woman he was at the bar with strides up behind him. “Elijah, honey, what’s going on? Who is this?” She points nonchalantly as if she’s trying to be coy.

“Young woman here’s got a busted Dodge. I think we should get ol’ Ray to help her out.” He motions toward a car shop that’s literally right next door. Julia isn’t sure if she’s annoyed at the convenience or impressed.

“I can handle it.” Julia stands from the car and places her hand on the roof of the green beast. “I honestly don’t even know if I can afford whatever’s wrong with her.”

“No, no.” Elijah waves a hand at Julia. “Caroline, go get Ray. We’ll get this taken care of for you.”

Julia’s shoulders fall after Caroline jogs over to Ray’s Autobody. She disappears inside, and within seconds, an old man that looks a lot like Clint Eastwood is following her, wiping his hands on a dirty red cloth as he walks. When he gets closer, the first thing Julia notices are the deep wrinkles in his face. He has a very worn Colorado Rockies ball cap on, which he adjusts upward before he reaches out to shake Julia’s hand. “I’m Ray, ma’am. What seems to be the problem?”

“She won’t start.”

“Did you flood her?”

“No. I didn’t flood her,” she says, complete with an eye roll. At least Julia hopes she didn’t flood her. She’s going to feel like an idiot if that’s it.

He smiles, showing off some pretty gnarly teeth, but there’s something about the twinkle in his eye that nudges the judgmental chip off Julia’s shoulder just slightly. “So, she’s just not turning over? Can I get in and see?”

Julia moves to the side and offers him full access to the car. She watches him get in, try to do what she had been trying, then get out quickly, and pop the hood. He’s moving very well, considering how old he looks. She’s surprised. Not impressed. Just surprised.

He works quickly under the hood, checking fluids and looking at sparkplugs, before he emerges. “I think it’s just the alternator. But I’d like to get it over to my shop to be sure. Elijah? Can you help me push it? Ma’am, get in here and steer.”

Julia does as he asks, throws the car in neutral, and in the rearview sees Elijah and Ray start pushing. She steers the car toward the auto body shop. She hears Ray shout to steer it right into one of the open garage doors. She puts the brakes on when they get into the spot in the garage and climbs out. “So—”

“Now, even if it’s just the alternator, it’ll be about a week to get the part. I don’t have one to fit this. But I can get one. It just takes some time here.” He motions to their surroundings. She had a bad feeling he was going to say something like that. “But if more is wrong that just that…” His voice trails off, and he folds his arms across his chest. “Just prepare yourself for the worst.”

“And that is?”

“She might be going to that big car farm in the sky.”

Elijah chuckles and stops immediately when Julia snaps her head toward him. “What do you mean? Like, you might not be able to fix her?”

“Uh, no, ma’am. I can fix her. But if it’s an alternator, it’ll be anywhere between three and four hundred dollars. If it’s not the alternator and it’s something else entirely, do you have a couple thousand dollars? Because it could get pricey.”

Julia’s stomach falls to her ass, and she gulps.

“I didn’t think so.” Ray puts his hand on her shoulder and squeezes. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep in touch here with Elijah and let him know what’s going on with her. Deal?”

“I don’t even know these people,” Julia says. She realizes that she’s whining, but she doesn’t care.

“Well, looks like you’re going to get to know them.”

Julia walks out of the garage with a dark gray cloud hanging over her head. She wants to cry. Now what is she supposed to do? She was only going to dip into her stash for one night, but there’s no way she’ll be able to afford fixing her car. That cash was supposed to get her to…Well, somewhere farther away than this one-horse town. That’s for sure. She was hoping to just barter with ol’ Ray, but that’s probably not going to happen. Her stomach is in knots. She cannot fucking believe this is happening.

“City Girl?”

Julia stops and sighs. “What?”

“I was just thinkin’…”

“Don’t hurt yourself, cowboy,” Julia mumbles.

“Easy there, killer,” Caroline says with a voice that is much higher than earlier. She sounds a little like a cat in a fight.

“Look, I’m just tryin’ to help you.” Elijah moves so he’s standing in front of Julia. “Why don’t you come back to the ranch with me? I have a feeling you’re going to need to make some money.”

“I thought the pay was nothing.”

“It is,” Elijah says. “But I can always help you out with the car if you work hard. Are you a hard worker?”

Julia looks at his eyes, at the way he’s standing and how he’s handling this entire exchange. He’s uncomfortable, and so is Caroline, who’s perched right behind him. Julia’s mind flashes back to her past, to the things she’s had to do, how hard she’s had to actually work sometimes, and she knows this guy has no idea what she’s been through. She nods and finds a way to not glare at them both and their holier than thou attitudes.

“Then come with us. We aren’t gonna hurt you.”

Jesus, Julia hadn’t even thoughtabout that.

“Caroline, let’s help get her things.”

Caroline watches Elijah walk away before she looks at Julia. “Listen, I don’t think this is a good idea any more than you do. But the ranch is safe and free, and we both know you can’t afford to stay anywhere else. Just take our help. And stop looking at me like I’m some sort of horrible person.” She takes off toward the garage, leaving Julia standing there, dumbfounded and, sadly, a little embarrassed.

 

v

 

Julia feels like she’s been in Elijah’s old Ford pickup forever when she finally sees the road they’re on coming to an end. She has no idea why she decided to accept the help these people were offering, but the longer she sits in the passenger seat with Caroline squished between her and Elijah, the more she feels as if maybe she is doing the wrong thing.

Of course, most of her life she’s done the wrong thing. At least according to her birth parents, who sought her out and ridiculed every single thing she had ever done to survive. Her mind flashes back to their disappointed faces, to her mother’s eerily similar blond hair, and how she said, so calmly and with no emotion, “I’m so glad we gave you up.” And her father’s simple nod and eyes that were hers and chin dimple that she hated she inherited from him. The memory of the encounter makes bile rise in her throat. She tastes it in her mouth; she wants to hang her head out the window, but any movement and she’ll throw up. She closes her eyes, breathes in deep, and presses the feeling out of her mind, body, and soul.

Who cares if she doesn’t always choose the right path? Honestly, she can’t stay forever in this town, so maybe this will pan out in the end. She’s gotta keep going. Where to? She doesn’t really know—just knows where she doesn’t want to be anymore. But this? Heading up to a ranch with a random cowboy and his cowgirl in the middle of East Jesus Nowhere, Colorado?

What the fuck is she doing?

She has no real clue, aside from hopefully being able to get her car fixed and escape, but the reality of having no other option and the fact that this is actually happening is starting to seep in as she sees the giant wooden overhang with an ornate metal Bennett Ranchsign proudly displayed.

 

Chapter Two

Julia hates admitting it, but the mountains are absolutely breathtaking. The higher she gets, the bigger they get. It’s an odd phenomenon she isn’t sure she understands. They stretch forever, though, surrounding her, making her feel a lot safer than she counted on and in a way she never thought nature could. They extend so high into the sky. She looks out the rolled-down passenger window of the truck at the snow-capped peaks. She breathes deep and takes the mountain air into her lungs. It’s weird how the air almost has a familiar taste, like pine sap and cotton candy.

They follow the dirt road as it winds around, switchback after switchback, and climbs up and up, going through maple trees and then aspen trees and then pine trees. The road finally levels, and she wonders how far up the side of a mountain they’ve climbed because her ears need to pop from the change in altitude.

Julia checks the clock on the dusty truck dash and notices that it’s taken almost an hour to get here from the town limit, and there is stillnothing around, until all of a sudden, a log home sits in the distance. As they get closer, she sees a large, red barn off to the left and two circular horse corrals. There is a smaller, more run-down cabin to the right under a group of aspen trees that looks as if it’s lived through quite the action. Storms, age, and lack of upkeep have made it look almost dilapidated.

They pull up to the side of the red barn and park next to two more Ford pickup trucks. As she emerges from the truck, she watches as Elijah helps Caroline out of the driver’s side. The way Caroline smiles before she starts walking away toward the log home is sickening.

“So, City Girl,” Elijah finally says as he approaches her.

“Y’know—” Julia says but is cut off when Elijah raises a hand to silence her.

“We need to get you a pair of gloves. You ready to start working?”

“Whoa there, cowboy,” Julia says with a huff. “I have to start right this second?”

“Ain’t no better time. Daylight’s a burnin’.” Elijah rocks on his heels and raises an eyebrow. “The quicker you start workin’, the quicker you can get that car fixed, and the quicker you can run away like I’m sure you do best.”

“Insulting me isn’t exactly the way to get me to work hard.” Julia is getting mad. Who does this guy think he is?

“Well, I reckon you don’t have much of a choice. Am I right?” He studies Julia. “Unless you’re curious?”

“The only thing I’m curious about is why you’re helping me.”

“Listen here.” Elijah folds his arms across his chest. He looks as if he’s kind, but his demeanor is completely the opposite. “Cut the chitchat, okay? I need the help. And I thought you were a hard worker?”

“I am.”

“Then? What’s the problem?”

“Nothing.”

“You want that car back, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. I just don’t know if this is the job for me.”

“Because all you’re good at is running away?” Elijah drops his words and then turns to walk toward the barn, motioning for Julia to follow him.

“I’m not a runaway,” Julia shouts, rushing up to help him slide the large barn door open. “Quit acting like you know anything about me.”

“Okay, then,” Elijah says over his shoulder.

“I’m too old to be a friggin’ runaway.”

“You sure shouldn’t be in this town if you’re trying to hide from someone.”

“I’m not hiding.” She’s defiant in her tone and body, but her heart is racing because she ishiding, and she isrunning, and goddammit if she’s going to start telling people here why. No one needs to know, especially this random cowboy in this random town. And he doesn’t really want to know the sad, stupid details of her sad, stupid life. No one does.

Elijah stops what he’s doing and looks over at her. He smiles a crooked little grin and asks, “Ain’t ya, though?”

Julia folds her arms across her chest.

He takes a red handkerchief from his back pocket and wipes his brow. “Look, I don’t have time to stand around yakkin’. You gonna help or not? I can get you back to town, and you can figure things out for yourself if you rather. I don’t really give a good goddamn.” He folds the red paisley material back into a square and pushes it into his pocket again.

Julia studies his face, his eyes, the way he seems so sturdy even though he’s not much bigger than she is. He’s definitely a dick, but there’s a moment when this guy becomes endearing. “So, you promise this whole manual labor routine will help me get my car fixed? Because I swear to Christ, I am not about to do this for nothing.”

Elijah nods. “And you can stay in the cabin over yonder. The car, free livin’, and meals in exchange for hard work.”

She looks away from Elijah, around the property, at her surroundings. The green of the trees is so vibrant against the blue of the sky. And the white trunks of the aspen trees remind her of the papier-mâché trees she used to make in high school drama club. The corral looks pretty run down, and it’s in desperate need of some extra love and attention. She could actually help out around here. She knows she could. And she needs her car back desperately. That’s non-negotiable. An inner voice tells her she should think twice before accepting the offer. In true Julia Finch style, though, she shakes Elijah’s hand and ignores the inner voice. “You got a deal.”

His eyes sparkle as he grabs her hand and shakes it hard.

Elijah then motions toward a wheelbarrow and a pitchfork. “Grab those tools there,” he says. “First things first: muckin’ the stalls.”

“Shit. You, uh, you were serious about starting today?” she stammers, finding her bearings when she sees his irritated look and feels as if she’s already in trouble. Julia catches a pair of leather gloves he throws at her face. “Just so you know,” she says, trying to catch up while pushing the wheelbarrow. It almost falls over twice, and the pitchfork and shovel slide out and clang onto the ground. She picks them up, completely embarrassed by her inability to push a freaking wheelbarrow. How is she going to muck stalls and chuck hay bales? “I’m not real great with animals.”

He wrinkles his nose. “Or people?”

She scoffs as they round a row of stalls. “You’re a real comedian.” The scent of manure and hay is so strong that it makes her stomach churn. Clearly the heat isn’t good for the smell. She adapts, though, and breathes through her mouth. She remembers another time having to do this when she was younger. It had to do with a small car, vomit in a plastic 7-Eleven bag, and a hitchhiker.

The three horses hanging their heads over the stall doors start snorting loudly when they see Elijah approaching.

“We have a total of five horses. But we rotate the horses in the stalls from time to time, so you’ll have to keep them all clean.”

“Great,” Julia responds.

He doesn’t acknowledge her tone but instead carries on with, “Two horses are out now—Samwise, an American quarter horse, and Sweetie, a black Arabian. These others are Scout, he’s a paint, and the pinto, Sully.” His voice trails off as he goes over to a tall, white horse and lets it nuzzle his face. “And this…this is Jazz,” Elijah murmurs while petting the side of the horse’s face. “She’s mine.”

“She’s beautiful,” Julia says. “And huge.” She cannot believe how tall the animal is. She feels like the shortest person alive standing next to it.

“Yeah, she’s a white Arabian. Pretty big for her breed, about seventeen hands.”

“What the hell’s a ‘hand’?” Julia asks, transfixed by the giant animal.

Elijah’s words echo through the barn when he turns and waves his hand. “This is, City Girl.”

“You’re a realcomedian.”

“It’s a measurement,” he finally answers, showing her on his hand. He gathers a leather strap on the side of the door to the stall. He unlatches the stall door and swings it open, revealing Jazz, who looks gigantic. She moves around her stall a bit before Elijah rubs his hand along her side. “Roughly about the size of a palm. It’s four inches. So, Jazz is about six feet tall from the withers,” he motions to the shoulder, “to the ground.”

Julia is about a half second away from freaking out. How is she going to learn all of this? Should she be taking notes? She didn’t even take notes in high school! But as she watches Elijah explain different parts of the horse and attach a lead rope to a halter, she’s so mesmerized that it takes her by surprise. An hour ago, she was ready to slug this guy right square in the jaw for taunting her, and now she’s listening as if there might be a quiz afterward.

“Now, come here.”

“No way.”

“You have to get to know the horses. It’s part of the job. And stop acting scared. They can smell fear.”

“Perfect,” Julia mutters. Her heart is beating so loud she wonders if the horse can hear. Her knees are shaking, too. Not only is she freaking out, but she’s also afraid of being scared now because the horse is going to smell it radiating off her. Just great. She steps closer to the horse, which instantly bows its head and tries to pickpocket her shorts. The horse picks its head up, and next thing she knows, there’s a warm mouth gently nibbling the palm of her hand. “Hi, Jazz. My name is Julia,” she says next to the horse’s head. She gets a snort of air on her hand in return.

“So, you know something about horses.”

“Yeah, a little.”

“Okay.” Elijah hands her the lead rope. “Now walk her.”

“Uh…”

“Part of the job.” His voice is not kind when he says it, and it’s making her so self-conscious.

“Come on, Jazz,” Julia whispers, her voice cracking. “Let’s do this together.” The horse instantly follows her when she pulls gently on the lead. “Where am I taking her?”

“The corral.”

Julia leads the horse, who is now nudging Julia on the back of the arm. She smiles as they’re walking, hearing the gentle clip-clop of the horse behind her. “Good job, Jazz,” Julia says over her shoulder as they approach the corral. The gate is open, so she leads the horse in and unlatches the rope from the halter. When she turns to walk away, the horse continues to follow her, and she just laughs. “No, Jazz, you stay here.” The horse stops, and Julia looks back at Elijah.

Elijah looks at Jazz, then at Julia. “If you respect the horse, the horse will respect you. It’s all about respect. Don’t forget that.”

“I’ll remember.”

“By the way,” Elijah reaches out his hand, “it’s nice to meet you,Julia.”

“And here I thought you’d just keep calling me City Girl.” She shakes his hand, and he smiles at her. An honest to God smile. It almost takes her breath away.

“I still might.”

“Oh, great.”

“Now, let’s go clean those stalls.”

Dread washes over Julia at the idea of having to smell the manure and having to get dirty and having to chuck poop into a wheelbarrow. And now she has to find a way to remember all of this information? She still has time to quit and leave. It’s not as if she signed a contract. She can just call a Lyft. A Lyft could totally find her, right? Of course, that would mean spending money she needs to save for the car. And it would mean continuing to run. Does she really want to keep driving and running? She’s never tried the whole “staying in one place” thing, and she has always envied other people’s ability to commit to a person, a place, a feeling. Would it be a bad thing to just not fight it? She’s spent her whole life fighting everything and everyone. And life has always fought back. And won. Maybe now’s the time to try her hand at winning.

 

v

 

After mucking six of the eight stalls, Julia feels fairly sure that her whole pep talk about winning is biting her in the ass. Her arms are going to fall off her body. Drinking two doubles of Jack Daniel’s before working in the blazing heat was not a good idea. And even though the gloves helped, she still developed a couple of blisters. She smells horrible, too—sweat, liquor, body odor, and manure. It’s a scent cocktail she never expected to be privy to. Her hair is sweaty. Julia put it into a bun, but it hasn’t helped keep her any cooler. There is dirt covering every inch of bare skin, especially her legs. She’s understanding the concept of jeans, even though she’s so hot she could burst into flames right now. She would hate to see herself in a mirror because she is sure she looks a little like a barbarian. Julia leans against the wall in Sully’s stall—he belongs to Caroline—and takes a long drink from the water bottle Elijah had brought her. It’s lukewarm now but feels and tastes amazing nonetheless.

Julia wipes her mouth with her dirty forearm and takes a deep breath. She can hear commotion on the other side of the barn, so she goes to check it out. It’s Elijah and a woman with long, dark hair that’s pulled into a ponytail at the base of her neck. Even though she’s smaller than Elijah, the woman looks sturdy. She’s dressed in the normal ranch attire, except she has an old, beat-up straw cowboy hat hanging from a string around her neck. The jeans she’s wearing are hugging her body like a glove with a flare at the boots. Julia cannot help but notice the curve of her ass and the way her hand is shoved into her back pocket. She feels her mouth go dry when her eyes travel up the woman’s waist to the swell of her breasts under the dingy, blue plaid button-down that is tucked into the jeans. Julia is instantly captivated and feels herself hanging on every word she can hear coming from this woman’s mouth.

Julia’s ears perk at the name Bennett, and the realization that this must be one of the owners of the ranch hits her in the chest. Great. This is the woman she’s going to have to impress so she can get her car back? The woman is rubbing her temples, pointing her finger at Elijah, and crossing her arms. She’s standing very straight, like an arrow, and her body language is saying anything but excited to meet the new ranch hand. This is not going to be easy for Julia. She has never been good with authority. And she can tell immediately from this woman’s posture and tone of her voice that it will be no different with her. Her mind flashes back to years earlier and her inability to straighten up and fly right. Julia is immediately dreading the rest of her time at the ranch, and she doesn’t even know for how long that time will be.

“Free? You call a living space and three-square meals free?” Julia hears the woman shout.

“No, no. That’s not what I mean. She needs to get her car fixed. I figured we could let her work here, and I could work something out with Ray.” Elijah fumbles with his hat in his hands and his head held high. “I need the help. I can’t keep doin’ this on my own.”

“We can’t just have strange people staying the night here, Elijah. You know that.”

“I know, ma’am. I know. But she needed the help. You know I can’t just leave someone stranded. It’s not in my nature.”

“Don’t act like you aren’t a hard-ass when you need to be.”

Elijah chuckles. “I know.”

The woman crosses her arms, then points her left index finger again at Elijah. “You’re responsible for teaching her everything. You hear me?” Elijah nods. The woman scoffs. “Does she even know how to ride?”

Elijah places his hat back on and pulls it down a bit. “It can be taught.”

Jesus, Elijah!”

“She’s been muckin’ all day. You can even go check her work on the stalls.”

Julia hurries and gets back to the stall where she was working. She slips the gloves back on, breathing in through clenched teeth when the leather rakes over her blisters. She fumbles with the pitchfork but gets back to work, spreading fresh hay on the stall floor. Her heart is in her throat. She knows this can’t be good.

“Julia?” Elijah’s voice is behind her now.

She stands straight, turns, and plasters a fake smile on her face. “Hi,” she says with a crack in her voice. “I’m Julia.”

“I’ve heard,” the woman replies; her voice is hard but smooth, her lips are full and dark pink, and the way her mouth moves is intriguing in a way Julia had not anticipated. “And you have no experience.”

“That is true,” Julia responds, keeping her cool, but not very well. The woman’s beauty is breathtaking and rather overwhelming, and it’s taking everything in Julia to focus. From a distance, Julia couldn’t determine her age, but up close, she can see creases at the corners of the woman’s eyes, and tiny lines at the edges of her mouth, probably from that frown that hasn’t left her face. She looks like she might be around forty-five. A really good forty-five, though. She wears her age well, like a badge of honor. Her eyes are unlike anything Julia has ever seen before, fierce yet tired. Julia wants to yell at herself for even giving this woman’s eyes a second thought. But she looks sad, as if she’s made it through a lot of heartache and pain. Her skin, although aged, looks so smooth, and the color is beautiful, a shade of light brown that resembles coffee with just enough creamer. There is dirt smudged on her left cheek and across her neck. Julia hates eye contact, but as she catches this woman’s eyes and holds for the briefest of seconds, she notices a flash of something in them. Was it kindness? Was it the same feeling of intrigue? She has no idea, but she realizes their gaze has locked a second too long when the woman’s left eyebrow arches the tiniest of bits. It causes the hairs on the back of Julia’s neck to stand at attention. She needs to pull herself together, or she’s going to come across as a bumbling fool. Julia goes to prop the pitchfork against the stall wall and fumbles it again, causing the handle to almost smack her in the face. She catches it but is so embarrassed that she can barely feel her legs. Once Julia has the tool safely stored away from her, she looks at Elijah. His forehead is in his hand, and she’s not sure if he’s laughing or crying. Either way, she is positive she wants to jump from one of those high cliffs and never see this woman standing in front of her again. Julia clears her throat. “But I am a quick learner. And I’m more than fine with working off what I owe for my car.”

“And the living arrangements and food, too,” Elijah attaches to the end of her sentence after he has composed himself.

“Yes, and that. Those.” Julia feigns a smile, still so embarrassed she may as well just sleep with the horses in a manure pile. “I love food,” she adds, instantly feeling like an asshole for saying it.

“I trust you’ll come to work from now on dressed appropriately?”

“Yes, of course,” Julia says as she shakes off the feeling of the woman’s intense gaze. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize—”

“I know you didn’t. Because you don’t have experience,” the woman says, eyeing Elijah now.

“Mrs. Bennett—”

“Miss.”

Julia shakes her head. “I’m sorry?”

“I am not married. It is Miss Bennett.”

“Oh, my bad,” Julia mutters. “I just assumed.”

“Everyone does.”

Julia struggles to find her bearings. As far as first meetings go, this one has been a total fucking disaster. “I just wanted to say that I am very excited about this opportunity. I promise.” She’s lying. She’s not excited at all. In fact, after this meeting, her stomach is in knots, and she’s wondering what the fuck she’s doing and why she’d ever want this job.It’s still not too late to leave and figure something else out.

The woman turns around and heads away from Elijah and Julia while shouting, “You’d better not disappoint me,” over her shoulder.

“Is she talking to me or you?” Julia whispers to Elijah.

“Both.” Elijah shakes his head before he opens his mouth to speak. “I am very sorry,” he says, barely above a whisper.

“And to think I was scared of the horses,” Julia says.

“Yeah, boy, were you wrong.”

“Tell me about it,” she replies, picking the pitchfork back up.

“Give that thing a break for a minute.” Elijah grabs the tool from Julia and walks out of the stall. “Food.”

 

v

 

A delicious cheeseburger and potato chips wasn’t exactly what Julia expected after working her ass off mucking stalls, but it is exactly what she got. And the best salad she had ever tasted. So, she decides she’ll stay at least for a night for the food. May as well.She happily munches away as she sits next to Elijah at the picnic table in the backyard area of the log home.

“Who all works here?” Julia asks around a mouthful of burger.

“Well, there’s me and you, of course.”

“That’s it?”

Elijah takes a drink from a water bottle, then sets it back on the table. “We just lost Penn.”

Julia gasps. “Oh God, I’m so sorry.”

“What? Oh! No! Wait! She’s not dead. That’s not it at all. She’s still alive,” Elijah explains with more of a drawl than she’s heard from him before.

“She? Penn sounds like a guy’s name.”

Elijah shakes his head, “Ah, no. Definitely a woman. Her name is Penny, Penn for short. She’s more accustomed to the ranch life than I am, though. Better with the horses, too. She just…” His voice trails off. “You know, it’s not your business.”

“You’re not going to tell me what happened?”

“Nothing that concerns you and your position here, so probably best to not ask too many questions.” Elijah devours his cheeseburger, glancing over at the back porch of the house every so often. “There’s Ed, he helps Elena run the business side of the ranch. But he’s on vacation until vaccinations.”

“Elena?”

That’sMiss Bennett.” Elijah’s eyes are wide as if saying, I can’t believe you just asked that.

“Geez, sorry. How was I supposed to know? It’s not like she introduced herself.”

“She probably never will.” Elijah shoves the last bite of the burger into his mouth, chews, swallows, and watches as the door from inside opens onto the porch and Caroline steps outside. “And you met Caroline,” he says, his voice all dreamy.

“Goodness, keep it in your pants, man.”

Elijah blushes ten shades of red and pulls his gaze away from the dark-haired woman. “She, uh, she works with Cole. Homeschooling.”

“Who’s Cole?”

“I am,” comes a voice from behind where they’re seated.

Julia turns around and sees a young man standing in the grass with dirt smeared across his face. He’s wearing a dirty and tattered Colorado State University baseball hat that has probably seen better days. There’s a pin in the bill that says Rock Star. She notices that he’s wearing an old Ramones T-shirt, which makes her smile widen. He’s tall and lanky with the blackest hair she’s ever seen. His skin is so tan that Julia looks like a bag of flour next to him. “Hi there.” Julia smiles, offers her hand. “Nice to meet you.”

He returns the smile, takes her hand, and shakes it firmly. “I’m Elena’s son,” he says as he walks over, grabs a plate, and piles it high with salad. “I’m so hungry.”

Julia watches him start to eat the salad as if someone is going to take it away from him. “All you’re eating is salad?”

“Well, it’s a big salad,” Cole says, his mouth full of greens.

Elijah jerks a thumb at Cole. “Might be one of the only vegetarians I’ve ever known.”

Julia’s impressed with this kid already. “Health reasons or…”

“If I say it’s inhumane to the animals would you start a debate with me? Because I really don’t want that.”

Julia shakes her head. “Absolutely not.”

“Then that’s the reason. I mean, you know we don’t go to the store and buyground beef, right?”

Julia’s eyes go wide, and she swallows the food in her mouth. “Does he mean…?”

Elijah smacks Cole across the arm with his cowboy hat. “Don’t make me get the hose, Cole.”

A hearty laugh laced with the signs of puberty cascades from Cole’s mouth before he takes a long drink from a water bottle. He points at Julia. “Are you the new ranch hand?”

Julia nods, still trying to get over the fact that they’re eating family cattle. Are they like pets? What the hell is going on? “You look like you’re about twenty-five years old,” she says with a joking tone before moving on from the burger to her own salad.

“I’m sixteen,” he says around a mouthful of salad. “Where are you from?”

Elijah lets out a laugh, then answers, “She’s from the city, little man.”

“What city? There are a lot of them.”

“Chicago.”

“That’s awesome!” Cole’s smile fades, though when he finishes with, “I’ve never been out of Colorado. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just,” he takes a deep breath, “I’ve always wanted to see the world. Or at least somewhere other than this wide spot in the road.”

“Sometimes, the world is rough, kid,” Julia replies. “But I know what you mean.”

Cole groans when his name is shouted from the barn door. He shouts over his shoulder, “What, Mom?”

“Did you finish fixing the fence on the back forty?” Elena yells. Julia looks over at her standing there with her hands on her hips, tapping her left foot on the gravel.

“Yes, I finished it,” he yells back and then rolls his eyes. “Does she think I want to deal with her wrath?” he asks Elijah while leaning over his plate.

“Man, is she always like this?” Julia says out of the corner of her mouth toward Elijah.

“She was better before…” Cole looks as if he knows he shouldn’t continue the sentence. He ends up clearing his throat and finishing with, “You just learn to not piss her off.”

“Don’t let your mother hear you say that word,” Elijah says before he stands from the picnic table and stretches. “Okay, Julia, let’s get back to work.”

She reluctantly stands with her plate and starts to follow him. She’s going to like this kid and his Elena Bennett insights. “See you later, Cole.”

“Bye!” he says enthusiastically. “It was really nice meeting you!”

 

v

 

Julia closes the door to the last stall and takes a deep breath. She’s done! Finally! She’s finished cleaning and mucking, and all she wants is a beer and more food. Maybe chicken this time?

“So,” comes Elena Bennett’s voice from a few stalls away. “Why are you here?”

Julia makes her way toward the voice in the stall that had been empty when she first started. Now it holds a beautiful brown and white horse—the American quarter horse, she presumes—and Elena is brushing its side. “Excuse me?”

“Why are you here? Colorado. This town. My ranch. Why?”

Julia opens her mouth to respond, and Elena cuts her off with, “And spare me the ‘it’s none of my business’ routine. It is my business now that you work here.”

“My car—”

“Not good enough.” Elena’s voice is as dry as a piece of toast.

Julia pauses and chooses her words wisely. She watches Elena, her hands, her tan, toned arms, the way she methodically brushes her horse. Everything about Elena is mesmerizing. “Well, I can’t leave until it’s fixed, so it’s going to have to be good enough.”

“Why were you passing through town? Drugs? Don’t you dare bring drugs on this ranch.”

“Jesus, lady, I’m not a drug smuggler. What the hell?”

“Then?”

“I was getting out of the Midwest, out of Chicago. And without that car you won’t let me talk about, I can’t really keep going,” Julia finally answers.

“And where were you headed?”

“You don’t strike me as the kind of person that reallywants to know.”

Elena’s eyes stay glued to the horse’s side, and she clears her throat. “I guess you’re right. I don’t really want to know.”

Julia lets out a puff of air because of course she was right about this woman’s inability to actually beinterested.

“I hope you realize that as soon as that car is finished, you need to be on your way. Understand?”

“Yes,” Julia answers and holds back an eye roll. She really wants to ask why she would want to stay in such inhospitable conditions, but she refrains.

A silence falls between the two women as Elena continues to brush the side of her horse. Her hair is still in a ponytail, secured at the base of her neck, but it’s looser than it was earlier in the day, and there are wisps of hair that have snuck out, framing Elena’s face. She has this intense expression that Julia is sure she has never seen on another human being before, and she’s not sure what to do with the feeling it’s causing in her stomach. She hates that she’s letting this woman get under her skin, but it’s clear this is how she functions with everyone. And while it may be irritating and intimidating—considering they barely know each other—Julia decides for once in her life it’s best to not rock the boat.

Elena clears her throat and looks over Samwise’s haunches at Julia. “What is your last name?”

It’s not a strange question, but it’s one that no one else has bothered to ask, and coupled with Elena’s intense stare and dark eyes, it throws Julia off guard. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Your last name. You do have one, don’t you? Don’t tell me you’re one of those millennials that decides to go by a single name like you’re Madonna or Cher.” Elena makes her way to the other side of her horse and looks directly at Julia, an eyebrow arched to her hairline.

Julia shakes her head and immediately feels like an asshole. “It’s Finch. Sorry. I just, people don’t typically care what my last name is.”

“Finch?” Elena asks, still looking at Julia.

“Yes, like the bird.”

“Are birds your thing, then?” The question is sarcastic, but there’s something in Elena’s eyes that makes Julia think maybe she really does want to know.

“Yeah, I mean, I guess,” Julia replies.

“Any particular reason?”

“They’re free.” Julia’s response is so quick and matter-of-fact that the look that washes over Elena’s face is something Julia wants an explanation for. In that fleeting moment, Elena seemed like an actual person, and it was frightening. And insanely stimulating.

“Are you not free, Miss Finch?”

Julia doesn’t think she should answer the question. Regardless of what this woman has said, it isn’t any of her goddamn business. But she finds herself compelled to respond. She opens her mouth and answers with, “I am now.” She waits a beat before bowing her head and slipping the gloves from her hands. “Thank you for this, for helping me out, Miss Bennett. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

And with that, she turns and heads away from the stall.