Series: Howelton Texas #1
Genre: Contemporary Western Romance
Release Date: April 7, 2020
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A fragile heart, damaged from a devastating loss, must build walls for protection. The threats of an ex-con drive a mother to extremes to protect her son. With two souls hesitant to trust, will they find the forgiveness and freedom to love?
The last thing Ward Ramsey expects to find is Jayme Bonner on his doorstep, applying for his ranch hand position with her young son in tow. The complicated situation makes him want to turn her away, but the desperation in her eyes reaches him in an unexpected way.
Jayme never thought she'd be fleeing for her life and the safety of her son. Ward’s North Texas ranch could be the sanctuary she needs, and she throws herself into the job with all of her ranching knowledge and skills. As the two work closely together, feelings neither expected grow, and a passion hot enough to heat the cool nights ignites.
As love blossoms and long-held barriers fall, danger creeps into their newfound happiness. When Ward is injured by the ex-con hunting Jayme, the determined ranch hand decides it's time to take the battle to the hateful man out to kill her.
With her son, Dusty, asleep in the bedroom, Jayme Bonner picked up the forgotten mail and shuffled through it, her gaze freezing on the last, unexpected envelope sporting the logo of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Collapsing on the couch, mind in lock-down, she feared what this might mean.
Hands shaking and tensing her muscles for impact, she ripped opened the letter, growing instantly lightheaded as blood drained from her face. Dirk Blacke still had six years left on his sentence, and they’d let the man out of prison. When she was notified of the hearing, she’d been assured there was little chance he would be released because of his list of infractions inside. Blacke had attacked her and tried to kill her. Unable to face being in the same room with the hateful man, she hadn’t attended. Now that he was free, he’d keep his promise to finish her off. She had to protect Dusty. She had to run.
Two weeks later, Jayme opened her grit-filled eyes to the first light of dawn. Dew dappled the windshield and she rubbed her cold hands together to warm them. Dusty lay across the seat with his nest of golden curls in her lap. Even after sleeping another night in her old truck, her boy never complained. He tried so hard to make things easier on her. At eight-years-old, he cared more for her needs and feelings than any grown man ever had.
After leaving her last job in the middle of the night, without giving the foreman more than a note in the darkened barn, she’d run fast and hard from the hateful convict on her trail. Dusty was her life—she’d do whatever it took to protect him. Against this threat, running was her best and only option.
In the rear-view mirror, the dark circles under her eyes were testament to her exhaustion. She massaged her temples. They’d traipsed from one small North Texas town to another, stopping in at every feed store and gas station asking for leads on work. There were three more months of school left this year and Dusty was falling behind. Every day lost increased the pressure.
She was a ranch hand, but being a woman looking for a man’s job was no easy thing. A tip the day before had seemed promising, but it turned out to be an offer for more than ranch work after the guy had gotten an eyeful of her. And she damn sure didn’t want a job like that.
Lord, please let me have some luck today. My boy needs to be in school. She was down to her last fifty dollars and that didn’t go far when you were driving an old Chevy truck. She hated that Dusty had been living on the cheapest food she could buy for the last couple of days. She clenched the steering wheel until her knuckles cracked. Something had to change.
Starting up the truck, the engine loud in the quiet of the sleepy town, she patted Dusty’s soft cheek as he turned over and lay on his side.
She drove out of the little parking lot of the saddle store in Throckmorton and headed down Highway 380. There were some sizeable ranches up thataway in Haskell and Stonewall counties. Surely, Howelton, where she was headed, held more promise than the other towns they’d been through recently.
After thirty minutes of driving past green wheat fields running into the flat horizon, she came to the small farming community. The donut shop coming up on her left was more than she could resist. Her son needed a treat and he loved donuts more than anything in the world.
The truck’s engine stopped and the constant vibration from the old engine stilled. In the silence, Dusty sat up and knuckled his face. He spied the display through the picture window and turned wondering eyes her way.
She nodded her head and grinned.
Throwing his slender arms around her neck, he squealed like a baby pig and jiggled his short golden curls.
She laughed and tickled him. Her son had a way of lifting her heart, even on the toughest days.
He shrieked, “You’re going to make me wet my pants.”
“Come on in, honey. Use the restroom while I get your donut and some coffee.”
“I’ll be quick.”
He hauled his cute little butt into the store and asked where the bathroom was. She shut her door, her own rear end sore from having slept sitting upright night after night, and walked inside.
A plump woman with kind, gray eyes stood behind the ancient wood-and-glass display. As Jayme came up, she said, “Good morning. How can I help you?”
The aroma of coffee and fresh, hot bread filled the warm air. Jayme’s empty belly rumbled loudly. She reached for it. Had the store clerk heard?
The woman grinned. “Sounds like you got here just in time, hon.”
She’d eaten very little in the past few days, after giving Dusty most of what she could afford. It was no wonder her stomach was complaining. Jayme smiled tentatively and pointed at the fluffy glazed creations. “I’ll have a large black coffee and one of those donuts, please.”
The woman poured her coffee, snapped a tight lid on the tall cup, then slipped a donut in a bag and gave them to her. Dusty skipped back into the room with an excited smile.
Jayme paid for her purchase and gave him his breakfast. “Here you go, buster. Enjoy.”
Dusty peered inside the small brown bag and frowned. “What are you going to eat?”
She swiped his hair out of his eyes. “I’ll have something later.”
He stared at the old hardwood floor, all the joy in his treat gone. “You’re hungry, too.”
Her little man, always looking after her, trying to be the man of the house. “Just eat your donut, hon. We’ll find something for me soon. This town has great vibes. There’s bound to be work here.”
He stood still, his face stubborn.
Oh, hell. She turned toward the counter to order another donut.
The lady handed her a bag. “No charge. I swear you deserve one for raising such a sweetheart.”
Tears burned Jayme’s eyes, and she lost track of what the woman was saying.
Dusty tugged on Jayme’s sleeve. “Mom, did you hear that?”
“She wants to know what kind of work you’re looking for.”
Jayme quickly wiped at the corners of her eyes. “Thanks for asking, ma’am. I’m a ranch hand and I’m desperate for a job. We’ve been looking a while, and that old truck drinks gas like a drunk on Saturday night.”
The woman sighed and shook her head. “My name’s Noreen. I’m telling you now so’s you’ll know who to cuss when you leave this job in your rear-view mirror. You’ll find work out at Ward Ramsey’s place. That ornery son-of-a-gun can’t keep help for nothing.” She tore off some register receipt and wrote down directions to the ranch.
Jayme thanked her for her kindness as her belly worked its way into a knot. She didn’t have it in her to trust men much, but her managers had never been jerks. No matter what this Ramsey was like, though, she had to try.
A half-hour later, Jayme and Dusty passed the cattle guard under the wrought-iron sign of the Double R Ranch. Peering down the road, she didn’t see anything like a ranch house in the distance. After driving a mile or so past wheat fields and grazing Black Angus cattle, she came to a mesquite pasture. Eventually rounding a bend, there appeared an old, fort-like, adobe-and-rock ranch house. She hoped they would end up at a barn. Soon they took a hard right at a thick copse of mesquite trees and prickly pear cactus. A well-built steel barn came into view with a dark-blue Ford truck parked in front.
She pulled up next to the truck and ruffled Dusty’s hair. “Stay here and don’t make a peep. You know the drill, right, hon?”
“Yep. Nobody wants a kid problem. I’m not here until you say so.”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it exactly like that, but yeah, you’ve got the idea.”
He wadded up their night-time blanket into a pillow, lay down on the seat, and closed his eyes.
Happiness swelled her chest for the first time in a while. He really was a great kid. She got out and stood for a few seconds, composing herself and saying a little prayer. The morning sun was kind to her skin, not yet blazing as it would be later in the day. God, she needed this job so badly. With a deep breath, she strode into the barn.
Though the doors let in the sunlight, no one was inside. Pitch forks and shovels hung in an orderly row, and boxes and bottles were stacked neatly on shelves—signs of a well-run ranch. She breathed in the light manure scent of healthy cattle and a whiff of the round bale of coastal hay near the rear.
Heading down the aisle, she eyed the dark cows in some of the stalls to her right. The double doors in the back were open.
A clear, masculine voice came from the small pasture behind the barn.
She exited the building and laid eyes on the source of the sound. Goose bumps ruffled the hairs on her arms. If this was Ramsey, he couldn’t be further from the cantankerous old coot of Noreen’s description. Jayme stared at a strikingly handsome man armed with a stock whip, moving some cows and calves toward a corral.
Her gaze roamed over his lean, broad-shouldered frame. His sculpted, sun-browned jaw clenched, leading to a frown on full, sensual lips. He tossed dark hair from his forehead. She caught her breath at an unwelcome ache in her core. Closing her eyes, she blocked his sexy body from her sight.
As soon as the cattle were in the corral, the gate slammed. She backed inside to the cool shade of the barn, waiting for him to enter.
Walking in, he hardly spared her a glance, though that frown of his was firmly in place.
She came toward him, her heart beating like a drum. “Mr. Ramsey?”
“I’m Jayme Bonner. Noreen, in town, said you might be looking for a hand. If you are, I’d like to talk to you about the job.”
He grabbed a pitch fork and pulled hay from the round bale then turned and looked her up and down. “For who?”
With a gulp, she steeled her resolve. This was always the hard part. “Me. I’ve been working ranches for years. I’m a damn good hand.”
He turned his back to her and forked more hay. “Don’t need a woman here. I need someone strong, who can work hard.”
She fidgeted from one foot to another and then caught herself. Please, let him see through his prejudice and give me a chance. “Well, that’s me. My old bosses gave me reference letters. Call them. They’re in Texas. They’ll tell you how hard I work and that I’m dependable.”
Without turning around, he shook his head. “You’re just not big enough. Can’t lift what needs lifting. Now, git.”
Stepping closer to him, she kept a note of desperation out of her voice. At least, she hoped so.” Please, just try me. I’ll prove I can do the job. Or take a minute to read one of the letters. It’ll tell you that I’m up to anything you put me to.” Oh, God, this has to work. I’ll beg if I have to. Dusty deserves better than what he’s been getting. I’ll do whatever it takes—well, almost.
She held out a reference letter, the paper crisp against her fingers. Take it, come on. Give me a chance.
Pausing, he turned around, his piercing stare shooting straight through her. He reached for the letter and read in silence. Finally, he looked up and studied her.
Warmth stole through her insides as he stared. Damn, the man was good-looking.
Then he grimaced, aiming that gaze of his over her shoulder.
She stood still, begging God to please help her land the job.
He shifted his hard gaze back to her. “I’ll give you a try for two weeks. Then we’ll talk. There’s a cabin. It needs some cleaning. Last assh—hand was a nasty son of a—” He puffed out a sharp breath and shook his head, muttering, “I’ll regret this. I know I will.”
Her knees went weak. Her mighty God had come through again. And not every ranch job came with a place to stay. Without it, the truck would have been home for her and Dusty until she could afford the first month’s rent somewhere.
She threw her hand out. “I promise, you won’t.”
Ignoring her hand, he stepped past her. “Follow me.”
Trailing Ramsey outside, her pulse racing with elation, she snuck a peek at her truck. Little smarty pants was still tucked away. The blue Ford backed out as she started hers.
She tailed Ramsey, her hands gripping hard on the steering wheel, as he followed the drive around and down about a half mile. A small, old-fashioned, faded-white house overrun with scruffy grass and weeds appeared. Behind it and down below glimmered a stock pond which would also provide water for the house since wells were rare in this part of the country.
Ramsey pulled up to the little house and got out.
She parked and walked over to stand near him.
He motioned to the house. “This has a key. It’s not locked since I didn’t clean it yet. Payday is every other Saturday.”
She nodded then headed toward her truck and opened the door. Heart in her throat, she said, “I need to mention something.” Dusty sat up, and she helped him out.
“Dammit! You didn’t say anything about having a kid!” Ramsey hollered.
Before she could speak, Dusty shouted, “Don’t yell at my momma! It’s mean!”
The man jerked his head back and blinked then took a closer look at Dusty, eyeing his thin little frame up and down. Ramsey nodded his head slowly. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have yelled at your momma.” Tipping his hat to Jayme, he climbed into his truck, backing up and heading down the road toward the barn.
She let out a long breath and squeezed Dusty’s shoulder. “Thanks for standing up for me, son.”
The house had good bones with wood floors and a large picture window in the small living room. The place held very little furniture, but she could live with that. She’d learned not to acquire more than would fit in the back of her truck. She couldn’t very well search for work paying for a U-Haul. Taking whatever a bunk house offered was something she accepted. This house was a pig sty, though. They’d have to clean it before bedtime.
There was something else they needed to do first. Loading Dusty up in the truck, they went by the school to register him. She was thinking positive thoughts about her new job and the rancher who set her pulse to racing.
They got back to the little house and she started to work, first unpacking their clothes into the dresser in the bedroom. Her prized possession, Dusty’s current school photo, went on top. It was the only decoration that traveled with her wherever she went.
Thankfully, there were some cleaning supplies under the kitchen sink and she spent the afternoon scrubbing the house clean. A quilt her mother had made before Jayme’s birth went over the back of the worn couch, finally making the old cabin feel like home.
That night, sleep evaded her. Noreen had been right. Her boss was a hard man—just like her father. She fiddled with the covers and turned over for the second time. Remembering working with her cold, dominating father, she bit her lip. This job could be painful.
A loud sound woke her. Her head shot up. What time was it? She checked the clock on the bedside table. Eleven-thirty. Her cell phone pealed again. Hoping Dusty didn’t wake, she punched the green button and whispered, “Hello?”
“Hi there, bitch.”
Blacke! She gasped, cold terror racing through her limbs.
“That’s right. It’s me. You think you can hide? Think again. I’ll find you. And jail gave me lots of time to think about what I’ll do to you when I do. You and me? We’re going to have some fun. Sleep good now.” He hung up.
She lay there, clutching the phone and unable to move. Prison hadn’t changed him at all. He was coming for her. She shivered, suddenly icy cold and vulnerable.
She moved to the couch and covered herself with the quilt her mother had lovingly made. Its usual calming magic held no sway tonight. How could she protect herself? How could she protect Dusty? The man was brutal, insane when he was angry. His attack was proof of that. She’d never felt quite as alone as she did right this moment.
She needed a plan. She’d get rid of the phone. It felt tainted now that his horrible voice had come through it. Running her hand through her hair, she clenched a handful, pulling it tight. But, wouldn’t it be smarter to let him call her? He might slip and give her clues to his whereabouts or what he was planning. God, could she bear to hear his voice again? Let him threaten her?
They’d never spoken on the phone before. And in the years since he’d been in prison, she’d never considered that, as senior hand at the ranch, he might have had access to her phone number. She’d tried to put all thoughts of him and her rape as far from her mind as possible. That had been a mistake.
Ward Ramsey reached into the refrigerator for a cold beer. After being fidgety all afternoon, now he couldn’t sleep. A house over 150 years old was never truly silent. It creaked and popped and whispered all night long. He sat down in his recliner, needing the comfort of the room with its smoke-stained rock fireplace and worn leather furniture. How in the hell did he offer the woman a job?
The antique mantle clock ticking was the only real sound once he settled in at night, unless Skippy snored. His Australian Shepherd, asleep near the sofa, lifted his head and looked at him.
He heaved a sigh. He’d told the woman no, he didn’t need her, and the next thing he knew, he’d shown her the cabin. Shaking his head, he groaned. He had actually hired a female ranch hand.
When he’d walked in the barn and gotten a clear look at her, a hot jolt of desire surged through every inch of him. She was the first woman to get his blood pumping in a very long time. The direct way she stared at a man with those wide, green eyes surprised him. He felt the heat from that gaze pulsing all the way to his boots. She must have found being gorgeous wasn’t a bonus while working on a ranch.
Hell, she had a kid. He took a long swallow of beer. How had he not seen that coming? He expected her to let some kind of dog out. He couldn’t have that boy running around this place. A weight landed hard on his chest as he glanced at the photos on the mantle. Something he rarely did.
One was his wedding picture, taken all those long years ago. Elizabeth had been so beautiful and carefree that day. He shut his eyes and breathed deep, shuddering breaths.
He looked up again—apparently this was a night for scourging himself—and gazed at the other photo. His three-year-old son, Caleb, laughed at him, reaching out with his little palm open. Panting, he leaned forward and put his face in his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. The accident should never have happened. He should have been with them.
He clenched his fists and groaned softly. If he were driving, he could have prevented the wreck. But he put the damn ranch ahead of his family one too many times. Elizabeth and Caleb had paid the ultimate price.
No, having the woman and her son here wouldn’t work. However, she had two weeks. As a man of his word, he’d keep it. Then she was out of here.
Jayme, jittery from lack of sleep, was at the school when the doors opened the next morning and sat with Dusty while he ate breakfast. Then she walked him to his new class and met his teacher, leaving the woman her phone number for emergencies. Now she just had to get permission from her hard-ass boss to pick up her son from his afternoon bus.
It was eight o’clock when she drove up to the ranch. Ramsey skewered her with those brown eyes of his as she entered the barn.
“You’re late,” he snapped. “Don’t make it a habit.”
Shaky all over after the threatening phone call last night, she found it hard to face her boss. Resorting to a detested nervous habit, she tucked a bit of loose hair behind her ear. “I took Dusty to his first day at school.”
When he didn’t make a comment, she chewed on her lip then asked, “What time do you want me here in the mornings? You didn’t say yesterday.”
“Seven-thirty. Start the feeding if I’m not here yet.”
She could do that. Dusty’s bus picked him up at a little after seven. “Sounds good.”
“I guess you ride?” he asked.
“Yes, sir, and rope.”
She nodded. “Yes.”
He grunted and scratched his cheek. “Any experience on tractors?”
She nodded again. “John Deere, yes, sir. I can run a dozer and a backhoe, too.”
He narrowed his eyes, sizing her up. “Guess you mend fence all right, too?”
“Yes, sir. I can string a damn tight fence, as well.”
“Yes, sir.” She frowned. What was this? Twenty questions? Was he trying to trip her up?
He kept on. “Done any well or pump work?”
“I was beginning to wonder,” he grumbled.
Sucking in her bottom lip, she kept her peace. This man, the one who revved her pulse, was exasperating. But, in truth, he had the right to grill her. Couldn’t he be a little less grumpy about it, though?
He threw his thumb over his shoulder. “Go hook up my truck to the flatbed. We’ll buy a load of feed this morning.”
The trailer was on the truck when Ramsey walked over and got in the passenger side. He'd checked the lights’ connection on the trailer first.
It was jury-rigged and she’d had to work out the wires. He must have figured she wouldn’t get it right. He figured wrong and the look he gave her had some respect in it.
He said, “Drive back out to the main road. I’ll tell you where to go when we get into town. I get my stuff at Howelton Feed.”
Jayme glanced at her boss. His silence on the twenty-minute ride to town had been fine, but she was all too aware of his tall, hard body blocking the sun on the other side of the truck.
Ramsey drew quite a few interested looks, which he ignored, on arriving with an unfamiliar woman driving his rig. He left her in the truck while he did his business, but when he came back, he tossed a new light connection for the trailer on the truck seat. “You know how to put that on?”
“Good. You can do it when you get some time this week.” After that, he ignored her.
Which was fine with her. She couldn’t imagine what kind of conversation this grouchy man would find interesting.
When they returned to the ranch, he had her reverse up to the feed room. Shoving open his door, he nodded at the trailer. “We’ll unload. I’ll toss them to you.”
“Sure thing.” Her boss was a man of few words, all right. Turning her head to avoid watching his muscular shoulders bunch as he hoisted the feed, she grabbed the bag he sent flying her way.
His gaze tracked her closely as she easily caught and stacked the bags in the feed room. What was he thinking? Was he realizing how capable she was of doing this job or was he sizing her up as a woman like other men had? She hoped it was the former. It wasn’t good to have the men she worked with thinking of her as female, especially her boss.
She tossed another bag into her pile. What made such a handsome man wear that cold, hard look, anyway? He was so unfriendly. She hoped he got that stick out of his butt soon.
With both of them working, the job wasn’t so bad. While she closed up, he pulled the flatbed over and unhooked it by the other trailers.
Ramsey strode into the barn where she awaited his next orders.
Being tall and strong for a woman, she usually felt like one of the guys. But something about this big, rock-hard man made her feel small and surprisingly feminine. Not exactly what she wanted while she worked. Clearing her throat, she looked into the pen beside her.
Hands on his hips, Ramsey frowned and pressed his lips into a thin line. “We’ll take an early lunch. Be back here in an hour.”
She nodded as she watched him stride off. What was this attraction? How could she feel drawn to the man when he obviously couldn’t stand the sight of her?
A few minutes later, standing in her tidy little kitchen, she drank four glasses of water, her stomach growling. That would have to hold her until this evening. Her cupboards were bare. The remaining fifty dollars in her wallet needed to last as long as possible.
No way would it carry her two weeks. She had to ask for an advance, but not on her first day. And how she dreaded the asking. Standing on her own two feet was something she prided herself on. Even growing up with her father, she’d always felt alone. Caring for herself was a habit and asking for help came hard. But taking care of her boy was the most important thing in her life.
Maybe after work she could stop and buy a few things at the little grocery store in town—beans, milk, eggs, and such. She qualified for free breakfasts and lunches at school for Dusty. Dinner was her only worry now.
She took off her boots and socks and lay on the old bed in the small, stark bedroom, thanking God for finding this job. Instead of resting, however, her heart ticked like an overwound clock. The menacing phone call haunted her.
Dirk Blacke, after his first violent attack, would finish what he started. Nowhere felt safe. With her stomach burning, she turned over, staring at the age-stained wallpaper and smelling an old house that had been damp too many times. She focused on one thought—she had to protect Dusty and keep herself alive.
Tamping down hard on her fears, she clenched her fists. She was doing all she could. Maintaining a low profile and staying here in Howelton, far away from South Texas where Blacke knew to search was a good first step. This morning she wrote to her last boss, telling him where to mail her final paycheck, and asking him to keep her location secret. He was a good man and she knew she could trust him.
Pulling the extra pillow to her belly, she squeezed her eyes shut. The weight of her responsibility crushed her into the lumpy mattress like a thick layer of concrete.
Sleep had been hard to come by since receiving the parole letter. Her meager precautions seemed meaningless in comparison to the destruction Blacke could rain down on her.
She needed to ask about meeting Dusty’s afternoon bus, but it had never seemed like the right time. A tough guy like her boss would not be thrilled. Time was running out.
She kept a close watch on the time and was back at the barn in an hour, dreading the talk she needed to have with Ramsey.
The blue truck arrived shortly after.
The early-afternoon sun glared into her eyes. Her hands were trembling, dammit. Taking a breath, she clenched her fists and met Ramsey as he headed toward her, locking gazes with him. “The bus will drop Dusty off at ten minutes after four down at the end of the lane. I have to be there to pick him up. He does his homework while I work.”
Ramsey stared, eyes squinted nearly shut. “What if you’re somewhere that you can’t be there at ten after four?”
Dammit. He isn’t going to make this easy. She hardened her mouth. “I don’t plan on being somewhere that I can’t get him at that time.”
He thrust his head forward, squared his shoulders, and parted his lips to say something.
I can’t back down. I have to make this work. She cut him off. “Look, you’re my boss, and I know you can tell me where to go and what to do. I’ll work long hours and do every hard, nasty chore you assign me at this place, but the one non-negotiable is that I pick up Dusty when he gets here. I’ll go right back to what I was working at afterward. None of my bosses have ever had a complaint. I hope you’ll give me a chance, too.” She looked into his eyes, searching for some give, a hint that he might understand her need.
He stared, a dark frown on his face, and then nodded slowly. “Two weeks.”
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