His Christmas Cowgirl(5)

By: Alissa Callen

Hal’s love and guidance had been unconditional even when he had lost his wife in a car accident and then his ranch when the bank had foreclosed. The first thing Garrett had done when he’d had enough money was to ensure Hal would be financially secure again. But instead of buying another ranch, Hal remained happy running Bluebell Falls.

Garrett speared a hand through his still shower-damp hair and headed downstairs. He wasn’t the only one Hal had opened his big heart to. Affection warmed Hal’s voice whenever he spoke about Peta. Garrett owed it to Hal to not only take care of Bluebell Falls but also its owner. And he’d start by checking on why she hadn’t returned inside.

The scent of French perfume lingered as he entered the hallway. Two oversize purple bags now sat stationed at the front door. He turned left and from the mudroom grabbed his boots and denim jacket. A sheepskin coat that had hung beside his jacket was missing. He left the house. When the night’s chill hit him he turned up the collar. He wouldn’t be surprised if in the morning a dusting of snow covered the high-country peaks. Winter would soon be here and he could only hope Hal would be back on the ranch he loved by Christmas.

Garrett strode to the front of the house and examined the stables, shed, and workshop as he passed but no lights signaled Peta may have gone inside. The ranch dogs were snug and silent in their kennels and gave no indication Peta had been near. He reached her truck but there remained no sign of her. He blew out a cloud of frosty breath. A flash of white caught his eye from over near the corrals and he peered into the moonlit gloom.

The only horse in that direction was skittish and unpredictable Scout. The chestnut rescue horse had struck up an unlikely friendship with Whiskers the stable cat. It would have been Whisker’s white patches on his black and white body he’d seen. But then a larger patch of white appeared and he recognized the missing sheepskin coat. His nerves tightened. Peta had entered Scout’s yard. Only two days ago Garrett had patched up the bruises of a young cowboy when a frightened Scout’s front hooves had glanced off his shoulder.

He strode forward. His first instinct was to call out for Peta to be careful but he clamped his mouth shut. Any loud noise would only spook the jittery mare whose agitated snorts already disturbed the silence. On soundless feet, he covered the distance to the corral and slipped through the fence. Then he stopped.

Instead of greeting Peta with pinned back ears, Scout nickered softly and made a beeline for her visitor. Peta offered the mare an apple and the sound of crunching carried on the night air. Whiskers walked along the fence, jumped to the ground and wrapped herself around Scout’s front leg. The chestnut lowered her head and rubbed her cheek against the cat. When the mare lifted her head, Peta stroked her nose.

He didn’t realize Peta knew he was behind her until she turned slightly and spoke over her shoulder. “I thought you said no one has ridden Scout after Hal’s fall.”

He kept his voice low. “They haven’t.”

Scout’s head lifted and she snorted as she examined him and then lowered her head for Peta to continue to rub her nose.

“You might not have ridden her but you’ve been working her haven’t you?”

“Yes. I have.”

“I thought so. The only other man she’d let get so close is Hal.” In the darkness he couldn’t pinpoint Peta’s exact expression but there was no mistaking her stern tone. “I also thought I made it clear she was to be left alone until I got home.”

“You did.” He walked over to the fence and Scout broke away from Peta to amble toward him. He rubbed her favorite spot high on her neck beneath her heavy mane. “She looked lonely and I wanted to prove that not all men are capable of cruelty. Hal told me about her past.”

Peta didn’t immediately reply and when she did, her voice had softened. “I was just trying to protect her but whatever you’ve been doing has made her less scared. Thank you.” Peta drew near, her eyes dark pools in her face. “You should have seen her when she arrived. You could have counted every rib and the bullwhip welts would have broken your heart.”

“Well, she’s as fat as mud now and has come to a good home. The connection between you is obviously already strong.” He hadn’t meant to reveal his thoughts but with the moonlight blurring Peta’s makeup and her ranch coat covering her designer clothes she resembled the unspoiled woman in the family pictures on the mantelpiece.

“Thanks. I hope so. But we’ve a long road to go and we will get there. It’ll just take time.”