The little red sports car made a sharp left turn without a hint of slowing down; keeping its rapid pace as it drove through the open gate of the McCrea Horse and Cattle Ranch. The cattle and horses grazing in the two fields on either side of the dirt road took little notice of the car as it sped past. When it came to a stop, the driver’s door swung open, and out stepped the very leggy and beautiful Josephina McCrea. She stopped momentarily to look at the fields and farm. The large red and gray barn to the right of the mansion looked to be sturdy and well kept, and the fence that surrounded the mansion was as white and attractive as she had remembered it. To the left of the mansion, Josephina noticed the horse stables were also in prime condition, so she had to admit that the ranch had been well taken care of since she had left.
As she stood and surveyed the area, she suddenly realized how a small group of ranch hands working along the fence line had stopped to stare at her, and were whispering among themselves.
“You men get to work and watch your tongues. She’s McCrea’s daughter, Jackson’s sister, and possibly your new boss,” Steve Morgan, the Ranch Boss growled, as he walked past the group. This comment caused the men to go back to their task quickly without speaking any further.
Josephina McCrea turned to look at the magnificent Antebellum home in front of her. She sucked in her breath and held it, as she marveled at its beauty.
It is beautiful; she thought to herself.
The wraparound porch with its sleek white columns was a testament to the pride craftsmanship and attention to detail given by the men who had built the home well over a hundred years ago. The gray stone floor of the porch still shimmered brilliantly in the sunlight. She was pleased to see the exterior of the mansion had been carefully maintained by her father.
Grasping the stained wood handrails, she climbed the rocky steps, and then finally released the captured breath she had been holding, as a feeling of peace came over her.
When she entered the door, she paused a moment and was pleased to see the interior of the home was still just as lovely as the exterior. Nothing had changed; the immaculate decorations were just as they were before. The gorgeous spiral staircase was the first thing to catch one’s eye upon entering the McCrea home. It radiated beauty and elegance throughout its rocky steps and oak railings. Josephina’s mother, Etta, had always been very detailed in the décor of their home. Her love of beauty shone throughout the Antebellum styled mansion; from the glass chandeliers hanging down from the vaulted ceilings to the wood stained floors flowing throughout the home. These were just a few of the things Etta McCrea held onto during her many renovations. Josephina’s father, Hank was far more interested in his beloved ranch to care about renovations. He had given Etta full authority to make any changes she desired to the interior of their home, but the exterior and its grounds were under Hank’s careful and watchful eyes. The ranch was one of the most prosperous ranches in all of Utah, because of his unyielding scrutiny.
“Is that you Miss Josephina?” a voice asked from just outside of her vision.
Josephina knew immediately who the voice belonged. It was Calvin Rainthorn, her father’s assistant.
“Yes, it’s me.” she answered softly.
Josephina had not been home in seven years. She would not be there now if her parents, along with their pilot, had survived the plane crash when they left for London. For that reason, she came home for their memorials planned for that next weekend. While on her way to the ranch from New York, she had received a phone call from Calvin with the news that her brother, Jackson.
While climbing Dusty Mountain, he had fallen, gravely injuring himself. After the death of his parents, Jackson had gone climbing trying to come to grips with things before making any important decisions about the ranch. On his return home, one of his ropes failed, and he dropped more than 20 feet, hitting his head on a large rock.
Josephina quickly wiped away the tear creeping down her cheek as she did not want anyone to see her cry. She was always taught that tears were a sign of weakness, and she was not a weak woman. Her parents had taught her to be strong minded and unafraid.
Josephina had used that fearlessness and strong will the day they sent her away. She never let them see her cry the day she left. Unfortunately, she had to admit how sometimes life has other plans for us because she now found herself back to the very place she swore she would never return. She felt uncomfortable being here, as this was their home, not hers.
“Welcome home, Miss Josephina,” Calvin exclaimed heartily, as he walked into the room.
Josephina turned to look at him, “Thank you.” She could see Calvin’s hesitation, so she reached over and gently hugged him. “It’s good to see you again, Calvin.”
Calvin’s face lit up with a broad grin, “I’m glad to have you home, darlin’.”
Josephina pulled back from the hug and looked over Calvin’s shoulder at the man standing behind him. He looked familiar to her, but she could not recall his name.
The tall man held out one hand while removing his cowboy hat with the other, “Hello, Ms. McCrea. I’m Steve Morgan. I’m the Ranch Boss here.”
“Hello, Mr. Morgan,” she smiled, shaking his hand politely. “I remember you. You were childhood friends with Jackson. As I recall, you, Jackson, and Jacob were always getting into some kind of mischief,” Josephina commented dryly.
She had tried to forget her childhood on the ranch, but as she stood there the memories slammed into her, and she found herself irritated by them.
“Aww, you do remember him correctly!” Calvin teased.
“Yeah, you’re right. We were childhood friends and have remained friends all these years. I do have to admit that we did give our folks some fits from time to time,” Steve laughed as the memory of his childhood antics.
Josephina watched Steve as he fought to gather his thoughts. He looked as though he had something to say, but he only stood there with a strange look on his face, fiddling with his hat.
Josephina not being a patient woman decided to press on. “So, what’s troubling you, Mr. Morgan?”
“I was just wondering what you wanted us to do,” he shifted his feet nervously while rubbing the brim of his hat between his fingers. “I have cattle and horses to prepare for the auction, and the Rodeo in Salt Lake City is this weekend.”
“Then prepare them,” she said sharply while rolling her eyes, and openly displaying her annoyance with him. “I want you to see to things until at least next week. I’m also postponing my Parent’s Memorial until Jackson can attend.”
“Yes ma’am, I can do that,” Steve slipped his hat back on his head and then tipped the brim toward Josephina before he turned to leave the room.
Josephina watched him walk away, and she wondered what she would do if her brother never recovered because she was no rancher. She may have wanted to be at one time, but it was too late for that now. If Jackson did not wake up soon, she would have to make some tough choices about her family’s ranch, and its future.
“It’s wonderful to see you again, dear. I’ve missed you so much!” Esther Rainthorn, Calvin’s wife, cried, as she walked into the room and straight to Josephina, giving her a hug.
“It’s good to see you, too, Esther,” Josephina said, returning the hug. She was glad to see Esther, but she had forgotten how the woman would hug you so tightly that you could barely breathe.
“I’m sad that it took this to bring you home,” Esther added softly, wiping the tears from her eyes.
Josephina fought back her tears, as sadness stirred deep inside of her, “I know, Esther. I know.”
Esther took a deep breath, pushing her feeling aside, “I have your old room prepared for you.”
“Thank you and I believe I’ll make proper use of it right now. We’ll talk later.” She turned and walked through the large foyer to the spiral staircase. As she started up the stairs, she found herself counting each step the way she had as a child – all thirty-five of them. She then laughed, as she breathed out the last words of the song she had sung whenever she climbed them all those years ago. “I will not be scared; the noise is only the squeaks from the stairs,” she laughed to herself, remembering back at how the squeak of the stairs would frighten her.
Feeling refreshed after her nap, Josephina decided to go down to the kitchen and find something to eat. Once she had finished her meal, she went back to her room and called Evan to let him know she had arrived safely. She had just hung up the telephone when she noticed a soft whimpering coming from the other side of the bedroom door. She decided to see what it was and when she opened the door, she was surprised to see a beautiful black Labrador Retriever trot inside, wagging its tail, and softly whimpering.
“Hi, fella, come on in. I could actually use the company,” she smiled, petting the beautiful, black dog on the head. She was about to close the door when suddenly a little orange cat sauntered into the room. “Well, look at you,” Josephina laughed, as the cat brushes up against the dog, purring loudly. She bent down to pet them and noticed their nametags, Bo, and Sandy. “Well hello, Bo and Sandy. It’s nice to meet you,” she smiled, as the cat rubbed against her hand. She looked at these two friendly animals, and immediately knew that Bo must have belonged to her father, and Sandy was her mother’s.
Both animals wasted no time in jumping on her bed, and finding their place for the night. Josephina settled in the bed with Sandy purring in a low, mournful tone, and Bo nuzzled close to her face, softly whimpering. She gently caressed each of them and said with sadness in her voice, “I know, I miss them too.” She felt sorry for the loyal pair because she could see the sorrow in their eyes. “Goodnight,” Josephina whispered, as she turned out the light.
Josephina awoke the next morning to find her new friends still in bed with her. She smiled, as she patted them on the head. “I don’t mind having new bed partners, but you both need to understand that I won’t be staying, so don’t get too used to sleeping with me, okay? I’m going home as soon as things settle down here, and I don’t think New York City would be your kind of town.” Josephina rolled over to look at the clock and realized it was still early because of the different time zone. She was getting out of bed when she heard a knock on the door, “Who is it?”
“It’s Esther, dear.”
“Come in,” Josephina grabbed her robe from the bedside chair and put it on.
When Esther opened the door, the cat ran out. “I’ve already prepared your meal, Sandy. It’s in the usual place,” Esther laughed, as she watched the cat scurry toward the stairs.
“Meow,” Sandy replied, bouncing down the stairs in search of her morning feast.
“You’re most welcome,” Esther grinned. “Good morning, Miss Josephina. How are you this morning?”
“I’m fine, thank you, and you?”
“I’m very well. Do you have enough fresh towels?” Esther asked as she walked toward the bed.
“Yes, thank you.”
Bo jumped from the bed and stretched as Esther placed a tray with a coffee cup and a small coffee carafe on the bedside table. Esther whispered to the dog, “Bo, I should have known you and Sandy would find your way to Miss Josephina.”
“I appreciated their company last night,” Josephina said, as she walked to the mirrored dresser.
Esther reached out and gently patted Bo on the head. “The poor thing came back to the ranch hungry, wet, and cold. He wouldn’t stop barking until we followed him back to where Jackson had fallen.” There was a tone of sadness in her voice.
Josephina glanced down at the big, black dog. “So, you were with him when he fell? I’m sure you were scared.”
“Yes, I’m sure he was,” Esther replied.
Josephina leaned down and rubbed Bo gently on the back, “You did good, boy.”
“How did you sleep last night, dear?”
“I slept well,” Josephina said, as she brushed through her long and tangled hair.
“It’s the fresh country air, dear. Everyone sleeps better in the mountains,” Esther teased.
Josephina rolled her eyes, as she looked back into the mirror. Once she had finished pinning her hair up into a bun, she slipped on her glasses. “That’s what Daddy always said, but I sleep just fine in the city.” Josephina tried to hide her displeasure because of the need for her to return at this time, but Esther knew better.
Esther frowned and said in a quiet, but firm voice, “I’m sorry about the reason you’re here, but I’m glad you came.”
Josephina turned away from the dresser and walked toward the closet, absentmindedly looking through the clothes hanging there from the night before. She knew that Esther meant no harm, but this sentimental conversation was more than she could handle at the time.
“Please, let me know when you’re ready for breakfast so I can inform the cook,” catching on to Josephina’s hint.
“I only eat a small bowl of cereal and drink coffee for my breakfast. There is no need to prepare anything special for me.” Josephina kept her back to Esther so as not to make eye contact.
“Well, that’s easy because the coffee is free and flowing all day,” Esther pointed to the coffee carafe sitting on the bedside table.
“That’s nice to know because I do enjoy my coffee,” Josephina smiled, as she looked over at the tempting coffee waiting for her.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Yes, would you have a horse prepared for me? I want to take a ride before going to the hospital.”
“I can do that for you,” Esther smiled, and then she turned and left the room.
After breakfast, Josephina walked to the stables where she found Steve standing next to a magnificent, dark brown mare; her regal poise gave her the appearance of sculpted marble.
“Good morning, Miss McCrea,” Steve said cheerfully, as he saddled the horse.
“Good morning, Mr. Morgan,” Josephina responded politely. “She’s beautiful.” She gently rubbed the horse on the neck.
“She’s an American Saddlebred and her spirit matches her beauty,” he said, suddenly feeling the warmth spread up his neck and across his face at his statement.
Josephina smiled but decided not to respond.
“Miss McCrea, you do remember how to ride, don’t you? Macy is gentle, but if you’re rusty, you shouldn’t…” but she cut him off before he could continue.
“Of course I remember how to ride! I’ve continued riding since I left here,” she turned to look directly at him, letting him know she was not pleased.
“That’s good to know, but if you’d like, I can send someone with you,” but no sooner had the words left his mouth than he knew he had overstepped his bounds.
“It won’t be necessary, Mr. Morgan!” Her eyes burned with anger, as she took the reins from the now understandably shaken Ranch Boss. “Thank you, I can handle it from here.”
“You’re most welcome, Miss McCrea,” Steve stepped back from the horse, wanting to put distance between them.
Josephina led the horse out of the stable with Morgan walking behind her. “Please, be careful.”
“I will,” were the only words she said as she mounted the horse and rode off toward Otters Creek.
Once she had crossed the first creek that ran behind the stables, she nudged the horse into a slow canter through Clover Field, named for the thick clover growing there. Josephina had forgotten how beautiful it was with the lush green fields, and snow topped mountains off in the distance. She rode for about twenty minutes when she came to a small valley known as Dry Bones. It was dusty and rock-filled and was the only place on the one-thousand acre ranch that was not flourishing with green grass and wildflowers. Josephina turned her horse to the east and made her way up into the foothills of the Old Forest, as she had always called it.
Filled with tall and proud trees, the Old Forest was a beautiful and enchanting place. It was one of the places Josephina had loved most when she lived here as a child. She had enjoyed long walks and shared many special picnics in the beauty of the Old Forest.
With the fragrance of the wild flowers and the cool breeze on her face, she prodded Macy into a run and for the first time since her return, Josephina felt completely at peace.
Once she reached Otter’s Creek, she dismounted and led the horse to the water for a drink. Josephina pulled her canteen from the saddlebag and sipped some fresh water while gently stroking the horse’s mane. Next, she walked across the dirt bank to a large oak tree where she decided to relax against the tree’s trunk.
Leaning against the tree, she suddenly felt a gentle nudge on her hand that made her go rigid. When she opened her eyes and looked down, she found herself looking into the soft, brown eyes of the Labrador, Bo. Josephina let out a soft laugh, and then she sat down and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Thank you for coming with me, Bo.”
Bo settled down next to her, laid his head on her lap, and closed his eyes. As Josephina relaxed against the tree, she looked around at the beauty of the landscape. She took a deep breath, recalling memories from happier times when her family would come here together. They would camp along the creek’s banks, and would hike along the nearby trails that led toward the mountains.
Josephina removed her glasses, laid them on the ground next to her, and then rubbed her eyes before closing them. She leaned her head back and sat there motionless, enjoying the warmth of the sun as it moved across the sky. She was completely caught up in the tranquility of the moment when she felt Bo stand, letting out a low, growl. “What is it, Bo?” She opened her eyes to see what had alerted him, suddenly realizing someone else was nearby.
Josephina quickly grabbed her glasses, pushing them onto her face, but what she saw caught her by surprise. A man was walking out of the water, and he was completely naked! Her breath caught in her throat as she watched the water glisten on his perfectly muscled body in the sunlight. Josephina quickly pulled her eyes away from the unsuspecting man standing on the shore, but the vision of his perfect body in the afternoon sun still danced in her mind. She looked down at Bo, who was now standing beside her with his tail wagging, unaware of the predicament, when she suddenly felt her cheeks grow warm. “Some guard dog you turned out to be!” she laughed, as she reached down and patted him on the head.
Josephina found herself transfixed and not sure what to do when she realized her eyes had once again fallen back on the man. What is wrong with me? She scolded herself, but no matter how hard she tried, she could not bring herself to look away.
It was obvious to her that his muscles were those of a man who had known hard work, not from lifting weights in a gym. His skin was a deep, rich, brown, and although she could not see his face beneath the facial hair, she was convinced he must be quite handsome. His long, dark hair flowed down his shoulders and onto his upper chest. She watched as his hair seemed to dance in the wind, and she found herself wondering what it would be like to have her fingers gently comb through it.
Josephina stood there transfixed, completely caught up in her fantasy when she suddenly realized she had been staring at the man for several moments. She tried to move, but for some reason her legs would not cooperate, and her eyes seemed frozen in place; she suddenly felt a strange tightness in her throat. Who is he? Does he work on the ranch and why is he out here with no clothes? She glanced over at Macy, who was calmly grazing on the lush green grass by the oak tree. Come over here you dumb horse! The words screamed in her mind as she tried to will the animal to come to her. She knew she would have to make her feet move if she wanted to leave but did she want to?
The image of this man held her hostage, as he stood on the creek’s edge with the sun caressing his body. This sensual vision created a burning desire to touch him in ways that made her body tingle with excitement.
“What the hell is wrong with me?” She cursed herself.
Josephina knew she did not have time for such desires because she needed to stay focused on the task at hand. Stop thinking that way! I came here to do a job, and then go back home! I do not need this kind of distraction now, but… Suddenly a feeling of pain and anger began to stir in the pit of her stomach at the memory of the last man who had caused the same feelings in her. Stop it! I will never allow myself to be hurt like that again.
Josephina closed her eyes, forcing the image of him from her mind. I have to get away from here! She quickly mounted Macy and rode away without looking back at the mysterious stranger.
Jacob Rainthorn stepped out of the creek onto the bank, allowing the sun to dry his magnificent body. He suddenly had the burning sensation come over him of being watched. He slowly turned to see the woman standing under the old oak tree doing her best to appear as though she did not see him, but he knew better. He decided to act as though he believed himself to be alone. However, the delight he felt when he recognized Josephina McCrea almost betrayed him. He was pleased to see that she had not changed in the seven years since she had left. Her skin still resembled fine porcelain and her auburn hair glistened in the sun. She had her hair pull up in a bun, but he noticed the small strands of auburn hair that had escaped to caress her long, slender neck. Even the black-rimmed glasses she wore could not hide her beauty.
He found it intriguing how the beige-colored riding britches she wore displayed her petite figure in a pleasing way. Also, how her green buttoned down blouse was open just enough to offer a seductive invitation of her firm and ample breasts. He smiled, as he imagined how satisfying it would be to get reacquainted with her.
Jacob knew he should have been a gentleman and moved away from the creek to retrieve his clothes, but he had enjoyed the sensual game as it played out between them. The hunger burning in her eyes, and the flush on her cheeks as she rushed to get away stirred the passion in him as well. “Our next meeting should be quite interesting,” he chuckled, as he watched her ride away.
Thank you for reading the excerpt and I hope you enjoyed it.