A beautiful city slicker and a rugged cowboy…The perfect Wild West adventure. Cowboy Kenn Martin bears the guilt for allowing a coach to ruin his younger brother’s bright athletic future. Feeling unworthy of any happiness, he’s lost his faith in relationships and in God. When he meets Christy Forrest, he begins to hope for redemption but soon learns his past mistakes aren't something she'll easily forgive. On the Colorado wagon train adventure planned by her late father, landscape designer Christy Forrest seeks to find peace in the nature she loves. However, she can't let go of her anger at the drunk driver who killed her dad—or the woman who did nothing to stop the man from driving. Falling for Kenn Martin begins to lighten her heart…until she realizes the handsome cowboy carries heavy a burden all his own—a burden she’s not sure she can accept.
Mountain Cove, Colorado
Underneath the brim of his black Stetson, Kenn Martin squinted against the sun rising over Hearts Crossing Ranch. He rubbed Joe Montana’s flank, and the sorrel gelding whickered happily. Ah. Nothing he liked better than horse lather under his fingernails. It sure beat out chalk dust from a blackboard. He grinned. At least Mountain Cove High School had finally entered the 21st century and planned to put up white boards with dry-erase markers in September.
That was months away. He grinned again as he dismounted. No more school, no more grade books. No more students’ dirty looks. Aw, teaching was all right. It had paid his bills for six years now, and for the most part, he got along well with the kids. But trail master of wagon trains full of tourists was how he spent his summers, and he loved every second of it. Except…
“I’ll take care of Joe, bro.” His brother Bragg had come up behind him, silent like most cowboys. Kenn nodded and handed over the reins, barely able to meet Bragg’s eyes.
He’d ruined the boy’s future and hadn’t been brave enough yet to tell him so. Instead of the endorsements and fame of Olympic gold, Bragg was tied to the ranch. He had been the only one of the eight kids with an ambition to see the world and the talent to make it happen, and Kenn had taken that away from him.
“I had a good ride,” was all Kenn said as guilt rumbled in his gut.
“I’ll bet. How could it be otherwise? This is God’s country.” His brother’s words comforted Kenn a little as Bragg waved a hand toward the Northern Front Range alongside the Martin family’s three thousand acre ranch. Snow still tinged the mountaintops. As Kenn watched Bragg’s face light up, he wondered if maybe Bragg belonged here after all.
Nope. Kenn ground his teeth. God’s country?Even if Bragg felt that way today, he hadn’t always, and it had been Kenn who’d helped end Bragg’s dream. God. How could the rest of the clan admire Somebody so much who so often let them down?
“Airport shuttle’s pulling up,” Bragg called as he led the horse to the corral and brought Kenn quickly back to matters at hand.
He recalled the city slickers scheduled for three days of authentic Wild West adventure. A set of parents with twin boys. Two middle-aged couples and a mother-daughter combo. Kenn assessed them as they tumbled from the van. Boding well for the trip, the grown-ups all chattered like they’d been friends for years. Even the look-alike teens—probably starting ninth grade (Ah, Kenn knew the age well)—started to whoop eagerly when they saw the covered wagons. Kenn counted. Ten had been booked for the trip. Eight emerged…Make that nine.
The ninth guest reached for her gear, and Kenn’s heart bounced against his ribs in a way it hadn’t done since the first time he met Daisy. At the memory, he ground his teeth. She’d broken his heart, pure and simple. Still, he couldn’t help admiring this young woman’s beauty as well as her independence. Although she smiled at a ranch hand, she grabbed her big fat duffle bag and tossed it onto the luggage cart by herself. He couldn’t help a little snort. Like any woman, she didn’t dare travel light. Then she saw him, and her face brightened.
As she walked toward him, he leaned against a hitchin’ post and enjoyed the view. Maybe he ought to do his part, go halfway, but truth was, she walked like she belonged here, and he liked watching her confident strides. From beneath the brim of her straw western hat, she examined her surroundings; the way she peeked up at him, he knew the hat was no stranger to her head. And the rest of her attire fit the part, too. Turquoise beaded earrings that matched the bauble in the center of her hat’s crown dusted shoulders clad in a denim jacket. And her western boots, well, they were worn and broken in, and fit like a pair of socks over her skinny jeans. A June wind, still with a touch of spring, tossed her long, black hair and his heart pittered a tad.
“You must be Kennedy Martin,” she said, holding out her right hand, the ranch’s info brochure in her left. “You actually look just like your picture.”
“That tends to happen unless it’s a driver’s license. You can call me Kenn.” He touched his brim and then returned the hearty shake, liking the warmth of her fingers, but knowing full-well his professional parameters.
“Named for JFK, I presume.” She smiled and leaned her head back, deep-breathing the pristine air.
“You’d think. But no. My mother’s maiden name. She’s never forgiven me for shortening it.” He shrugged. “She makes sure all the PR materials display the entire moniker.”
“I’m Christy Forrest.”
“Welcome to Hearts Crossing.” It was his automatic response, but he read people well and knew she had more to say.
“Those mothers of ours.” She tsked with a bit of a smile, but her eyes held pain. “I regret that mine had a last-minute change of plans. But nothing would keep me away.”
“Glad to have you.” He was, but hoped there wouldn’t be hassles with the no show/no refund policy.
Whatever. Her lavender scent mellowed him.
“When do we leave?” Christy nodded firmly.
He nodded back at her eagerness, at everybody’s. Well, it still thrilled him a bit when the big wagons set off, the remuda of horses thundering behind. It was as close to the pioneer spirit modern folks could get.
“Soon as we’re loaded.”
Her gaze followed the ranch hands as they piled the passengers’ gear into the buckboard that would carry personal supplies and travel alongside the covered wagons. Built to be as authentic as possible, but with modern comfort in mind, the wagons had cushioned bench seats inside and rubber tires to ease the jostling of the trail. Kenn studied her and, just for a moment, he wished he had the opportunity to join her inside, but he’d be up ahead on horseback.
“We’ll get to Shadow Ridge for lunch,” he said as a blink of morning sun flashed in her dark eyes. “Chuck wagon’s already on its way. Nothing beats burgers, beans, and brownies on the trail.”
“I can’t wait. My airline doesn’t even give out pretzels unless we pay. I’m starving. How far is that?”
He shrugged. “Four miles or so. Then we’ll head to Hawk Meadow where we tent up for the night. Right now, you can get a cup of coffee in the bunkhouse if you want. Scones, too.”
“Scones?” Her laugh was bright and happy. “Shouldn’t I expect corndodgers or hard tack?”
“Aw. That’s all my sister Kelley’s doing. She’s chuck cook. All modern and trendy and vegetarian on top of it.”
“But you said burgers…”
“I also said beans and brownies.” He laughed out loud, and it felt good. “We’ll be on our way in twenty, thirty minutes. Hoop will give his orientation talk in a bit.”
She peered at her brochure again. “I presume you mean John Hooper Martin”
“Yep. Hoop’s ranch foreman and my big brother.”
The oldest of the eight, in charge of everything since Pa’s untimely death, it had been Hooper’s idea to start up the wagon train tours to stave off bankruptcy. But Kenn didn’t tell Christy any of that. “Come on. I’ll introduce you. I need to say howdy to the other newcomers, too.”
As they headed toward the bunkhouse, he noticed that her head barely reached his shoulder. Yet there wasn’t anything frail about her. That hat, those boots, her suntanned face, she was every bit a woman of the West.
The warm air of Shadow Ridge cuddled her shoulders as she looked out at the ranchland studded with cattle. The meadows were alive with wildflowers, and the mountains guarded Hearts Crossing like protective arms. Christy could almost feel God in the beauty surrounding her. She clenched her teeth. Almost. Because God wasn’t her friend. Not any more. Not after enfolding Daddy in His arms for that brief space of time only to end his life before anybody was ready. On Easter Sunday yet, with his retirement just a month away.
To celebrate the conclusion of his academic career, Daddy had planned a trip like this. Christy had gone ahead with the plans for her and her mother, but at the last minute, Mom hadn’t been able to bear Colorado without her man.
So Christy was here alone.
Missing her father more than ever, she sighed loudly and wondered if the woman sitting next to her heard. From the wagon rim, she forced herself to follow yellow butterflies chasing a creek along the trail. Even in everybody’s excited states, chitchat had ceased as eyes took in the glory outside. Christy settled onto the bench seat and let the churning sound of the wagon wheels relax her. To her amazement, the bench seat was comfortable, and she grinned. The brochure had promised Old West sensibility with a touch of 21st century sense.
Thinking of that brochure brought Kennedy Martin firmly to mind. For a flash, she wished he was sitting beside her instead of Jennie Blake. Of course, her seatmate was plenty nice. But whenever Christy could, she caught sight of Kenn atop his sorrel, striking and rugged as his picture, a real man of the Western outdoors with sun-squinted eyes, a storybook Stetson framing light brown hair, several days of scruff brushing his cheeks. His way on a horse let her know he’d been riding since before he could walk. Maybe they’d even keep in touch after these three days. Maybe…Hmmmm. Behind their bandannas, his brothers all wore manly silver crucifixes as testament to the family’s trust in God. Maybe he could help her regain the faith she’d lost.
Something she knew she needed to regain.
“I smell grub,” one of the Blake twins shouted as they neared the stopover. Christy’s stomach growled. The chocolate chip scone had been delicious, but that had been hours ago. She couldn’t wait to meet Kenn’s sister Kelley. The irony of a vegetarian chuck cook in charge of hearty menus that featured hefty portions of Hearts Crossing’s own cattle had Christy giggling.
“How’d you do?” Kenn was at her side to help her down as soon as the wagon parked in a sun-bright meadow so breathtaking words stopped in her throat. For a moment, she wobbled as she got back her ground legs.
“Oh, Kenn, it’s grand. Glorious. More than I could have imagined.” She smiled with delight at the sight of him, and all thoughts of her wavering faith vanished in Kenn’s presence. “Although I don’t think the Blake boys are happy about leaving their iPods and cell phones behind.”
He chuckled. “That’s the rule. No electronic devices. Hearts Crossing Wagon Tours are as close to nature as we can get. One customer pouted the whole trip. He couldn’t believe we don’t have Wi-Fi.”
“Yeah. Mitchell firmly believes three days without texting will ruin his life.”
Both of them laughing, Kenn led her to a fragrant meal, arranged buffet style on the back of the chuck wagon. Portable tables and chairs were set up, but a group of boulders did nicely for seating as well. Around the bluff, ponderosa pines and mountain alder trees thirty feet tall reached to the clouds. The creek she’d noticed along the trail burbled nearby, and with birdsong in the air and that exquisite sky overhead, Christy couldn’t imagine a setting more perfect.
“It’s like I had a checklist and could mark what I want. And it’s all here,” she mumbled as Kenn handed her a tin blue spatter plate.
“Hmm?” Deep brown eyes looked down at her, sun-streaked brown hair ruffling the back of his neck in the breeze.
“It’s just perfect. More even than your brochure promised.” For a flash, she pondered what Mom would be doing back home in Pomona. After his retirement, Daddy had wanted to move to Palm Springs near Aunt Ruth, but so far, Mom refused to leave the house on Faculty Row.
Christy filled her plate with fragrant down-home fare while Kenn took twice as much. “Just perfect,” she repeated.
“Well, we aim to please.” Without even talking about it, Kenn and she headed for the boulders at the same time. Through her jeans, the rock was warm and soothing.
“So, cowgirl, it’s perfect, huh?” Kenn definitely had a triumphant tone in his voice, but his eyes had a glint that set her heart to smacking hard against her ribs three or four times.
She gobbled a brownie before answering. No dainty manners here despite that glittering gaze. “Absolutely. The only thing I need now is to ride a horse. I can do that, can’t I?”
“You’re a horsewoman?” Kenn didn’t sound completely surprised, and she got it. Her hat, the boots. Gear she wore on her landscaping projects.
“Well, I don’t know about that, but I can ride. I took lessons at Girl Scout Camp when I was thirteen.” Of course that had been, well, seventeen years ago, but wasn’t it like typing or skiing? Once you learned, you never forgot?
Kenn swallowed a big bite of burger and then pursed his lips. He had a hearty appetite to be sure, but took his time. Nothing messy or wolf-down for this cowpoke. “Yeah, all right. We got some mounts good for greenhorns.”
Obviously he’d done the math and realized it had been a long time. She gave him a rueful grin.
“I read your rules,” she said. “I’m wearing padded bike pants.”
“You’re somethin’.” He chuckled as his words warmed her through in a little drawl all his own. “Then you can mount up after we eat. How’d you hear about us?” He took another masculine, but mannerly, bite.
Glad for her own mouthful, she gathered her composure and took her own time to reply. She’d save the sob story for another time. “My late father. He was a professor of American studies and loved the Old West. I guess growing up with TV Westerns, this is something he always wanted the family to do.”
Suddenly she realized she had to explain somewhat. She was here alone, after all. “But he… passed away before he got the chance. So I’m here representing all of us.” She nodded, her hat bouncing along with her head. Daddy had given it to her one birthday not long ago.
“Well, whatever reason brought you here….” Kenn’s voice was soft, but she heard every word above the lunchtime chatter and wind in the trees. “…I’m sure glad it did.”
She liked what he said, wanted to know whatever he would share with her without being nosy. “I know all the nightmare stories, about real wagon trains getting caught in snow in the Old West. So I know you don’t do these tours in winter. What do you do then?”
“Ski on weekends. Rest of the time, I guess I’m a kindred spirit of your dad. I teach American Lit at Mountain Cove High. About eight miles from Hearts Crossing.”
Something fun and crazy skittered up her spine. A teacher? American Lit? Didn’t they say girls always ended up with guys like their fathers? She held off an eye roll and shoved the foolish thought from her brain.
“What about the rest of your family?” she asked, quick to change the subject. “Do you all help out?”
“Yep. All eight of us,” Kenn stretched out his legs. “When we were kids, Pa told us right off the ranch couldn’t sustain everybody. So we have other jobs and help out here when we can.”
“Wow. Eight. That must be some Thanksgiving dinner. I’m an only child.” Even she heard the trace of wistful in her tone.
“Must be lonely.”
Christy shrugged over her last bite of brownie. Never shy about food, she’d taken two. “Well, yeah. But Faculty Row was a tight community. Most of the profs had kids. But tell me about the eight of you.”
“Me and Hooper, you already know. I’m the fourth. Kelley, after me, is sous chef at a restaurant in Denver. Uses her vacation time to cook for the tours.” He slathered more barbeque sauce onto his burger. It was delicious, and she wondered if Kelley made it from scratch. “You sure you want me to go on? Could be a snooze-fest.”
“Oh, yes. Inquiring minds want to know.”
He shrugged. “All righty, then. Rachel’s second-oldest, after Hoop. She’s an attorney, and Hearts Crossing is her biggest client. Right now, she and Nick are expecting their first child. A boy.” His shy grin melted her heart. “Third born, Pike is a wrangler—” he pointed to another good-looking cowboy working with the string of horses “—as well as a large animal vet. Scott comes after Kel. He and I take turns as wagon master and alternate running our Cowboy College. He’s also our webmaster and runs our on-line store. ”
“Yep. Back at the ranch. Our three-day workshop on ranching skills. Roping steer. Branding. All the things you can imagine a cowpoke ought to know how to do.”
“Cool.” It did sound great, inviting even. His large and busy family intrigued her. “But that only brings us to six,” she said.
“Bragg’s a CPA.”
For whatever reason, he stumbled over the name, and his fingers tensed around his fork, but then he spoke up in his usual tone. “He’s busy during tax season for folks all over Jackson County, but rest of the time, he tends the ranch finances. And Chelsea, well, she was Ma and Pa’s little afterthought. She’s a freshman at Boulder. My alma mater. You?”
“Oh, I love Boulder. It’s noted as a ‘green’ campus. I’m a landscape architect in Calabasas, California.”
For a moment, sadness surged. It was Dad’s insurance money that had helped her expand Forrest for the Trees Landscape Design in the high-end community. Business had really taken off, recession or not. Of course the guest feature on HGTV last winter had certainly helped.
She forced out the words as casually as she could. “Dad used to read to me every night. Regular stuff like Where the Wild Things Are and Little Women. When I was in middle school, he started me on Walden. Thoreau taught me something about myself I hadn’t known.”
“What was that?” His voice was soft.
She looked down at her toes, somehow shy. “That I wanted to get down and dirty with nature.”
“Thoreau’ll do that to you.” Kenn spoke the name almost reverently. Wind rustled like music. “We’ve something in common, then. After reading him, I knew I was meant to teach American Lit. And get my nature fix here at Hearts Crossing.”
Something in common. Christy liked the sound of that.