Here’s a free excerpt from my latest release, Cowboy Tough, which is available in bookstores now (E-book release date is February 5th).
Artist Cat Crandall has just arrived at the Boyd Dude Ranch, where she’s going to be leading a group of watercolor painters on a backcountry excursion led by an honest-to-God cowboy. But she’s not too sure about the ranch–or the cowboy.
Cat Crandall knew artists were supposed to suffer, but this was ridiculous.
Sure, Picasso lived in an unheated tenement and burned bundles of his own drawings for warmth. Modigliani died of tuberculosis in a sordid Parisian garret. And Van Gogh’s painting of his room at Arles is famous for its grim, depressing atmosphere. But asking a group of vacationing watercolor painters to spend two weeks living in the Boyd Ranch Bunkhouse was going too far.
Windblown and dilapidated, its siding weathered to a soulless shade of gray, the building looked like a stack of kindling someone had dumped on the open prairie when they realized it wasn’t worth burning. The front door was stuck shut, which was probably a good thing. Cat hated to even imagine what the interior of the building looked like.
But she was going to have to face it sooner or later. Her students arrived tomorrow, and she didn’t believe in running from trouble. Especially when she was in the middle of God’s great open spaces, with nowhere to run to.
Putting her shoulder to the battered wood, she gave it a shove. It popped open so suddenly she staggered inside, grabbing the back of a chair for balance.
“Ouch.” She turned her palm up and eyed the splinter jutting from her skin. Biting her lower lip, she pinched it out with her thumb and forefinger, wincing at the sharp pain. She winced again as she surveyed her surroundings.
She’d expected quaint and rustic; what she’d gotten was old and dirty. The plank floor was scuffed and studded with nail heads, and smudged windows revealed a desolate swath of yellowing prairie. The chair she’d grabbed, along with a mismatched companion and a crooked table, looked like thrift shop refugees from a war zone.
The place had advertised an “Authentic Wild West Experience,” and she supposed that wasn’t a lie; probably the old-time cowboys hadn’t lived much better than this.
But when she’d signed on with Art Treks, she’d been hoping for the Tuscany experience, or maybe the Loire Valley experience. Unfortunately, while they’d hired her to “facilitate creative plein air watercolor workshops in exotic locations around the world,” they’d failed to define “exotic.” Or “the world.”
For the next fourteen days, her world would be Wyoming. And this, evidently, was exotic.
“We call this one the Heifer House,” said a deep voice from behind her.
She whirled to see the Wild West himself standing in the doorway, feet planted, arms loose in a gunfighter stance. Well, that was exotic. It was a cowboy, decked out in full high plains regalia, but instead of six-guns he was armed with a bottle of Windex and a dirty rag.
He nodded toward another gray wooden structure, visible through the smeared window. It tilted tipsily windward on the far side of a concave dirt crater.
“That’s the Bull Barn, for the men.” His mouth was twisted into a sardonic smile, and she couldn’t help smiling back. His outfit was ridiculous.
The jeans were all right. The striped shirt was loud, but not outrageous. It was the oversized cherry red glad rag knotted round his neck and the chaps bracketing his legs that made him look like an extra from Paint Your Wagon.
Shoving the rag in his back pocket, he lifted a thumb and forefinger to tug down the brim of his hat.
“Ma’am.” He punctuated the greeting with a sharp nod.
Did he have to call her that? It made her feel about a zillion years old.
“I’m not a ma’am.”
“Oh. Sorry, ma’am.”
Was he trying to annoy her, or was he really that dumb? Cat looked him up and down and decided she didn’t care as long as he wore those chaps. They might make him look like a cartoon cowboy from the funny papers, but they hugged his slim hips and emphasized his muscular thighs. The leather tie at the front reminded her of a bow on a very nice, very masculine birthday present, and it put his assets front and center, making it obvious that under the cowboy costume was a very real man—maybe even a real cowboy, if such a thing still existed. He was tanned and muscular, with a swoon-worthy smile and dark eyes that invited her to reach over and untie that bow.
She adjusted the tilt of her broad-brimmed sun hat and looked away. She wasn’t here to gawk at men; she was here to keep her clients comfortable while they learned to paint landscapes in watercolor. And that meant she needed to do something about the less-than-stellar accommodations.
If it was just her, she wouldn’t care. Squalor was sort of an artistic rite of passage, after all. Picasso and Van Gogh would have welcomed the suffering, but her students couldn’t stay in this bare-bones bunkhouse. Neither could her fifteen-year-old niece Dora, who was arriving the next day. The kid had enough issues right now without adding splinters and pneumonia to the list. It might be August, but the website had warned that nights in Wyoming could be nippy.
Setting her fists on her hips, she tilted her chin up so she could meet the cowboy’s eyes. “This is not what I expected.” She was tempted to poke a finger in his chest, but now that they were eye to eye—or eye to shirt pocket—she realized he was bigger than she was. A lot bigger. “The website said ‘rustic,’ not ‘sordid.’ Are you in charge here?”
He grimaced. “If I was, d’you think I’d be wearing this monkey suit?”
She gave the monkey suit another once-over. “I don’t know. They look like cowboy clothes to me, and you’re a cowboy, right?”
“Not today.” He lifted one hand in a mock salute. “Today I’m the window-washer, Walmart greeter, and general step’n’fetch-it.”
He rolled his shoulders as if he wanted to squirm out of his shirt, then reached up and tugged at the oversized red bandanna around his neck. Tearing it from his neck, he shoved it in his pocket along with the window-washing rag.
Maybe he wasn’t a real cowboy after all. Those guys were famous for being comfortable in their own skin, and he looked like he wanted to rip off his fancy clothes and run for the hills.
The notion of him shedding his clothes almost made her smile in spite of herself.
“Guess I’m part of the rusticity.” He’d dropped the aw-shucks drawl, but his voice was still low, with a baritone timbre that seemed to vibrate at the base of her spine. “I’m trying to clean up the sordid stuff, though.” He stepped forward and offered a rough, calloused hand. “Mack Boyd. I’ll be your wrangler.”
She tried not to react as his big hand swallowed her small one, but she couldn’t help looking him up and down. If she could get him out of the monkey suit, he might be a decent model for a portrait. She wondered how he felt about posing naked.
If he was willing, she might overlook the accommodations.
To be continued….