With her restaurant on the brink of failure, Kelley Martin comes home to Hearts Crossing Ranch both to renew her spirit and make some quick cash as chuck cook on the family’s famed city slicker wagon train adventures. Falling for handsome temporary geneticist Jason Easterday is definitely not on her list of things to do. And despite her wavering faith, Jason’s lack thereof shows her there’s no future for them...even if his kisses indicate otherwise. Always on the move, Jason Easterday has lived his life searching for...something. When he meets Kelley Martin and allows God into his life, Jason feels he's finally found his place. With Kelley at his side, he'll have a home of his own and a wife to adore. But Kelley won't give him the time of day, and she's leaving town to return to her ex. Now, he must find a way to hold his ground, get her back, and remain where his heart has led him.
“There’s a good-lookin’ cowboy out front who says he’s your ride back to the ranch. And he’s not one of your brothers.”
“What?” In her little back office, Kelley Martin looked up from the spreadsheets at Caffey, her wide-eyed waitress, and scrunched her lids shut to hold back tears. Numbers didn’t lie. Her pretty little eatery wouldn’t last the summer. Of course her ancient car had chosen this very morning to conk out. As of today, she’d have to depend on family to cart her around. But ask for money, no. That she couldn’t do.
Her chauffeur wasn’t one of her brothers? She groaned and gritted her teeth. What was that about? She sure wasn’t in any frame of mind to chat mindlessly with some ranch hand on the hour drive back to the Hearts Crossing. Was it a fix-up? That’s all she needed—some sort of quasi-blind date.
Even though the pain of her breakup with Ned was long over, she knew whoever waited for her wasn’t her ex. A rodeo star, he followed the PRCA circuit. They’d bonded during a blood donation drive five years ago, promising to save each other’s life—should need be. But that’s all they had between them. He hadn’t wanted to share her life. Now, everybody back home reckoned she was ready to rumble on the dating scene.
“Listen.” Caffey Matthews turned serious. “You go relax and have some fun on that wagon train. Stacia and I’ll hold down the fort just fine ‘til you’re back next weekend.”
In spite of her worries, Kelley had to burst out in laughter. There was really no fort to hold down. Her job as chuck cook on the city-slicker wagon trains her family ran each summer was something she heartily enjoyed, but the duties were far from relaxation. Starting last summer, she’d begun splitting duties with her sister-in-law Daisy so she could alternate working at Vegeterra every other week. And this year, well, frankly, she needed the extra money she earned on the wagon trains. Stacia, her sous chef, and Caffey, not bad with pastries, had long proven their worth, although the restaurant was always on her mind. Relax?
Then she squeezed Caffey’s hand. “Thanks, I know you’ll be fine. Now, I better see who’s out there and just what’s going on.” Kelley stood and forced a smile.
Caffey leaned forward in a strong hug. “Hey. It’s going to work out.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Kelley’s heart crumpled. She’d been so certain last summer that the Lord had led her here to Sunset Hills, but her personal venture as a restaurateur was failing, failing bad, and failing fast. A vegetarian restaurant and tea room in mountain country alive with hunters, fishermen, ranchers, and local law enforcement wanting doughnuts and burgers. She rolled her eyes. “What was I thinking? Too much testosterone and red meat around here for Vegeterra.”
Caffey leaned back. “Now, you know God doesn’t steer us wrong. And He never sends more than we can bear.”
“I do know, deep down, but it’s hard to believe in the day-to-day.” She didn’t say it out loud, but Kelley hated going home feeling like a failure.
“Unfortunately, it’s easy to do sometimes.” Caffey’s rueful tone turned into a laugh. “But God’s right there. Don’t you forget it. Now get going. I want to know who’s out there waiting for you.”
After Kelley headed into the dining room, she stopped so sudden in her tracks ropes might as well have been tied to her ankles. Good-lookin’ cowboy was an understatement. The guy was smokin’ hot. Had she combed her hair lately? She’d chewed off lip gloss hours ago. Holding a cup of steaming Joe, he leaned against the counter, taller than any human had a right to be. The whiteness of a long-sleeved shirt contrasted great with his tanned face, and the black Stetson riding his skull belonged there sure as dawn came every morning. Since the day of her birth, she’d been around handsome cowpokes and every version of Western man God had ever put on earth, and she never tired of looking, never at all.
“Hey.” She grabbed for words, for composure, sadly aware on another level that he was the only customer since lunch. Even then, the crowd had been far too thin for comfort. “I’m Kelley. I guess you’re my ride?” She grabbed for confidence, too. That she could always fake. Did it every day, trying to convince passersby to come in and order something.
He touched the brim in an old-fashioned, endearing way, then a split second later, removed the thing revealing harvest-colored hair worn just a touch too long, and eyes brown as nuts. “Jason. Jason Easterday.”
“Oh, of course. The geneticist.” And artificial insemination guy standing in for her brother-in-law Nick during his deployment. How on earth could she possibly have missed meeting Jason at her visits back home? “I can’t believe we haven’t met yet. You’ve been here a few months now.”
His carved cheekbones shadowed a luscious grin. “Aw, my main gig’s Hearts Crossing, but I do consulting for BeauVine Genetics at other ranches. Likely I was away on business during your times home.”
“Well, it’s good to meet you now.” Under-statement again. Was that really her voice? She sounded like a sixth grader talking to her first crush.
“Same here. Your mom described you to a tee. I’d know ya anywhere.”
The way his eyes danced from her head to boots and his grin tweaked between lean, carved cheeks had her tingling. Sparks flared. Confidence, composure, she reminded herself. Ma hadn’t been nearly as thorough with her description of Jason in return.
He put down the mug and held out his hand, a strong callused one. Obviously a worker and a rider. When he closed his fingers around hers, warmth from the cup started to melt her bones. She straightened her knees and hung on tight for a long, delicious second.
“Anyway,” he said, pulling his hand away, “when somebody said you needed to hitch a ride back home, I offered. Your chariot awaits, milady.” He swooped his hat close to the floor like a great lord might have done for some medieval princess.
Her heart did a silly thump. “Well, thanks. I guess. I hope I’m not keeping you from anything. Or taking you out of your way.”
“Nope. Fact is, I had an appointment along the way at the 3M. It’s all good.” His grin squinted his eyes like sunlight, and summer-streaked hair brushed his shoulders. She reckoned she glowed.
Caffey sauntered in, not flirty, just in love and oozing it. “How’d you like a plate of Sloppy Josephines before you head out?” she asked.
“Um. That anything like Sloppy Joes?” Jason’s grin grew.
“A tad yes and a tad no. Same sauce fixin’s but eggplant and Portabella instead of meat.”
“Thanks. Some other time.” He glanced at his watch. “I, well, we better make tracks. I’ve got a date tonight and want to get in a trail ride first.”
Kelley’s spirits, already damp, sagged painfully. No, this wasn’t a set-up then. He was attached, and she admitted she was crushed. The tingle he gave off, well, it had to be nothing more than the aura of a charming, handsome guy. “Let me get my bag,” she managed, then turned the table on Caffey. “Jason, this is Caffey Matthews. Soon to be Mrs. Rhee Ryland if you know the local ranchers.” Local meant anybody for fifty miles.
“That I do. Ma’am.” He bowed, polite. “Done some testing for beef tenderness at the Bar R. Nice man you snagged.”
“Fate. And Faith,” Caffey said
After a reassuring hug from Caffey, Kelley put little Vegeterra in the waitress’s hands. She wasn’t going to pray any more. God had let her down when all she’d done was trust His guidance. But that annoying little voice echoed in her head. Had she trusted Him? Truly? Had her desires and wants to have this restaurant made her ignore God’s ultimate will? She shook her head a little. This was all something to think about some other time.
“Stacia and I will handle afternoon tea just fine, Kel. You know that. I know a thing or two about pastries.” Caffey winked. “You go now. See you next week.”
With a quick longing, Kelley paused at the threshold and peeked back inside. She’d tried hard to design an eatery that was trendy but rustic enough to fit Sunset Hills. Burgundy and gray, exposed rough brick. Vegeterra mightn’t be magazine-worthy but it did her proud. For a little while yet. Her heart sagged
“Nice place,” Jason said as he picked up her duffel. Just three months ago she’d splurged on her neon sign, and again her heart panged, almost with grief. What an unsellable waste.
“Thanks.” She followed him down the street to a big white Ford 150. Pick-up trucks and all-wheel-drive vehicles crowding the street meant a normal busy Saturday afternoon…for the tack shop, the feed store, the boot repair. Betty’s Dry Goods and Gifts. Every business but hers.
“I have to ask, why vegetarian?” Jason asked. “Here in cowboyland, I mean.”
With a sigh, Kelley decided to explain. The June sun warmed her skin but not her spirits. “It used to be a regular little diner, but I had the notion I’d expose vegetarianism to cattle country.” Even she heard the bitter twist to her words. “The old owner died, and his daughter didn’t want the business, so I leased the building cheap. I need to replace the stove,”—the words hurt because while true, it wasn’t going to happen—”but most everything else was in decent shape. I felt the call to be a chef with my own place…God knows why.” She muttered that last part to herself.
Jason held the door open for her, and she waited until he’d settled under his seatbelt behind the wheel to see if he was interested enough to want her to continue.
“So how’s the vegetarian deal doing? Those Josephines didn’t sound half bad. Smelled good in there. Although I am a meat-eater through and through.”
She reckoned he was just being polite. After all, he’d refused the meatless meal.
“Well, I am not judgmental against carnivores.” She had to laugh, for it was true. “I mean, I’m the daughter of a cattle rancher. But it all started when my favorite steer got auctioned off at the county fair for my college fund. Grand Market Champion.” She blinked back tears. “Broke my heart right in two, and ever after, I never ate anything with eyes. I was nine, I think.”
“Didn’t think to start up a tavern? A bar and grill, maybe?”
“Nope. I didn’t want to have to be a ‘policeman’ on top of everything else.” She stretched her legs and tried to do the same with her spine, where tension had set up permanent residence. “Even though business isn’t brisk. Make that business is downright terrible, I’d never forgive myself, you know, if somebody had too much to drink at my place, then went out and hurt themselves, or worse, somebody else.”
“Hmm…” Jason glanced at her with a quick nod, then maneuvered his truck through the tiny but bustling town toward the highway.
Just glimpsing the pine-lined foothills sheltered by the towering Rockies wrapped the familiar sense of peace around Kelley’s shoulders, and she calmed a little. A breath of springtime still lingered in the June air, but the green hills had already started their summer tan. Or maybe it was just leaving the little town of Sunset Hills behind, even temporarily, that loosened her shoulders.
“Well, maybe you could start adding some burgers and hot links to your menu,” Jason went on, eyes careful on the road winding through the hills. “You cook that kind of stuff on your wagon trains, don’t you?”
“Sure.” Of course she did, but she doubted the question had come from him. Ma with her amazing instincts had put him up to it, for sure. Although Ma had always hoped to keep her clutch of hatchlings close to the ranch, she wouldn’t want her daughter to fail. Kelley knew that for sure.
For a flash, he grinned over at her, and her heart pumped quick at the warmth of his gaze.
“Yeah, I cook those things,” she admitted. “Truth is, I don’t know what the future holds. Coming home to Hearts Crossing always helps me sort things out, and I’m looking forward to the first wagon train of the season. Watching those tourists’ faces when they see the wagons, the mountains, a fish in a stream, well, I’m hoping it all might remind me how downright lucky I am.”
1 How would you convince a friend who has been exposed to many non-Christian spiritual paths that life with Jesus is the true journey?
2 When family members appear intrusive or annoying, what Bible story/Scripture helps comfort you and grant you patience?
3 How can both the good and hard times of a past relationship continue to strengthen your faith? Inspire you? Lead to good works in Christ?
4 How do you think the Lord wants us to honor and respect the animals in our lives, house pets as well as service animals and livestock?
5 Jason's parents, while not present in the book, will definitely become an important part of Kelley's life in the near future. How might she help guide them to true faith while showing respect and love, without antagonizing them or "preaching" to them?