Scroll down for my extended excerpt!
Rodeo star Derrick Samson is shocked when he discovers he’s engaged. Especially when it’s to his beautiful ranch manager and former high school sweetheart.
When Derrick returns home after retiring from years on the circuit, Penelope Martinez explains that the fake engagement was just a way to get her dangerous ex off her back. Now she begs him to continue the ruse, but Derrick wants none of it—it’s too risky being around the girl that broke his heart. Until he realizes how vital Penelope is to the success of his ranch. So he cuts her a deal: if she stays through the birthing season, he’ll agree to a fake engagement. Penelope is on board, however she has one more condition: absolutely, positively no kissing.
What was she thinking? No kissing the sexiest cowboy she’s ever known? Turns out that’s a rule that was made to be broken. More than once. To make the engagement seem real, Penelope moves into the ranch house where working closely together with Derrick makes it almost impossible to keep their relationship all business. Soon enough, they’re rekindling the old flame. Being with Derrick is wonderful—at first. But then he starts putting up barriers and pushing her away, leaving Penelope more than confused and wondering if what they have is real at all. It’s almost as if he’s hiding something from her…
She wants them to be together, but is her love strong enough to get past whatever is holding them apart?
Rancher’s Pregnant Ex is available from:
He’d parked at the very end of the long, winding drive, intending to approach his old place on foot. After all, Derrick Samson figured, he was home. All of this was his now. Walking the last few hundred feet might help him feel more at peace with having to return with his life in shambles. Or at least a little less like an astronaut dropped on an alien planet. He knew this place, back to front. He might not have ever imagined coming back quite this way…but at least he was settling into something familiar and fully known, fully understood.
That’s what he thought would happen when he shouldered his beat-up old duffel bag and started ambling up the drive. But with every step, his strides slowed, until he eventually stopped altogether and just stood there staring at the landscape.
He’d spent a lot of time on the rodeo circuit making good-natured barbs about the place he’d grown up, in the Colorado ranching country. “My dad wasn’t what you’d call a careful man,” he’d say, swallowing down the pain behind those words and turning it into a joke. “You’re probably picturing things all nice and neat and trim, right? Beautiful, well-groomed horses grazing on a hill at sunset? Yeah, it was nothing like that.”
But there they were. Three beautifully groomed horses, contentedly cropping the lush grass atop the rolling hills as the sun slipped lower on the horizon. Looking like something off a picture-perfect postcard and nothing at all like anything he’d grown up with—nothing like the wreck of a home he still caught himself expecting. He knew things had changed, but his memories were slower to catch up. This wasn’t the home he pictured when he thought of this place. It was so much better.
“Wow,” he muttered to himself as he spun in a slow circle. Every time he came back to the ranch, it was the same disorienting feeling. “She’s done such a damn good job.”
He still expected to see the old markers of his father’s carelessness. The old barn with the sagging, mossy roof. The dry, dusty patches of scrub that the irrigation never reached. The graveyard of rusted-out pick-ups and the teetering stacks of bald tires ringed with overgrown weeds. All those things his father had let slide as his condition got worse had disappeared the second Penelope Martinez had taken over running the ranch.
Everything looked beautiful, even better than when he’d been here last, over two years ago for his father’s funeral. The drive had been packed with cars then. But now it was empty, and nothing stood in the way of his view of the main house up ahead.
His heart gave a little leap at the sight of the wide, wraparound porch where he’d spent hours, playing with the dogs, doing his homework and waiting for his father to come in from his chores. Back when things were good around here. They looked pretty damn good again, and he wondered to himself if he could possibly do as well at the job as his ex-girlfriend.
Yeah, it was his ex-girlfriend who’d restored this place to its former glory. The thought didn’t really sting anymore. His and Penelope’s breakup was fourteen years in the past. It wasn’t like she’d broken his heart last week. No matter how fresh things felt. They’d been kids back then, and now they were adults, and Penny had clearly run this place with care and precision.
He’d been wondering how he was going to run this place himself now that his rodeo days were behind him, but it was pretty clear that the answer was, “Keep letting Penny do her thing.”
The question now was, would she do her thing with him here? Technically, she’d been working for him for the past two years, ever since he’d inherited the place—but all their interactions had been from a distance. Working side by side with him might be a whole other matter. He shouldered his pack again and continued his trek up the drive to find out.
As he neared the main house, he saw the front porch had changed, if only a little. In place of the ancient porch swing that squeaked in even the slightest breeze were two rocking chairs set facing each other. And they were currently occupied by a man and a woman. He couldn’t see the man’s face.
But he could see the woman’s, and the sight of it made his heart stall in his chest. Breathing hard, Derrick darted for the shelter of the strange pick-up that was parked in the turn-off. He needed a moment to collect himself, because the sight of Penelope Martinez all grown up still had him rattled. Derrick squinted, the better to take her in.
Her dark-blonde hair glinted in the sunlight, sending out flashes of those golden highlights that used to mesmerize him. She still wore it back from her face, in the thick rope of braid he’d spent hours playing with, twirling the end through his fingers as he listened to her talk. Her shoulders were still slim but strong, and she still held her head up high on that elegant neck of hers. He could distinctly remember kissing his way down it, tracing a path with his lips from her jaw to her shoulder. She looked the same, somehow, but better too, the years touching lightly on her, enhancing her like fine wine.
She looked gorgeous.
And she also looked irritated. He could see it in the tense line of her jaw. She lifted her hand and Derrick caught the flash of something. He squinted.
She had a ring on her left hand. On her ring finger. A flashing glint of diamond that made bile rise in his throat.
She was engaged?
Then the man she was facing stood up, and the bile rose even higher. He swallowed hard as he took in the silhouette of Will Reed. They’d been rivals for as long as he could remember, and the sight of him had Derrick instantly on the alert.
As Will stood up, Derrick straightened up too. What the hell was Will doing here? And why did Penelope look so upset?
And more importantly, who was she engaged to?
“I don’t understand,” she said, her clear voice carrying all the way down to where Derrick crouched. “What went wrong?”
Will shrugged. “I can’t really say. You know I put in a good word for you.”
Will mooned at her, but she looked away. Derrick found that he didn’t care for the way Will was looking at her one bit.
“Okay,” she breathed slowly. “This isn’t the end of the world. I can still find other ways to get the money.” She stood up. “Thanks for coming by to let me know.”
“Maybe your fiancé could help you out? Where is Derrick, anyway? I hoped I would run into him.”
Derrick’s heart stalled. He forgot all about the need to keep hidden and took a step forward.
They both snapped their heads towards him.
Where was her fiancé? Her fiancé… Derrick?
Penelope’s eyes went wide. She looked from Will back to Derrick, her expression like a trapped and frightened rabbit.
Derrick looked at her hand again. Now that he was close enough to see it clearly, he realized he’d recognize that ring anywhere. It was his mother’s engagement ring. On Penelope’s finger.
An old ripple passed between them as her eyes went round. She tilted her head just a fraction and Derrick knew what she was asking him. Please, her expression said. Please just play along?
Instinct and desire surged through him. He stepped forward. “Hey there, baby,” he said, holding her gaze and sliding his arm around her waist. It felt too good. Too natural to stop there. He pulled her close, her lush body flush against his, and without a moment of hesitation, he brushed his lips to hers.
She stiffened in his arms. It was the chastest of pecks, something that he’d give to his grandmother, but an undeniable thrill rippled through him all the same. The tiniest gasp escaped Penelope’s lips—from surprise or pleasure, he wasn’t sure—then she pulled back. She gave him another one of those wide-eyed, pleading looks before pressing her hand to his chest. “I missed you too,” she said, a little too loudly. “But let’s not be ‘that’ couple, okay?”
Derrick swallowed down his retort that he had no idea they were a couple again at all and instead just nodded. Whatever this was, she was calling the shots—at least for now. But make no mistake about it, he would be getting an explanation very soon.
Penelope turned to Will, who was standing stock still on the porch. His hands were balled into fists by his sides, and his normally ruddy complexion had gone a dangerous shade of purple. “Sorry about that,” Penny said primly, but Derrick couldn’t help but notice the note of relief in her voice.
“Yeah, no problem,” Will muttered thickly. “Good to see you again, Derrick.”
“Hey thanks, Will. Long time no see, huh?” Keeping things polite, he extended his hand in greeting.
Will looked at it like Derrick was offering him a dead fish. He gave him a weak shake, a single pump up and down, before he dropped it like it had scalded him and looked back at Penelope. “Well, I’ll be on my way. Just wanted to give you the news in person.”
“I appreciate that,” Penelope replied stiffly. She didn’t look like she appreciated it one bit.
Will waited a beat. Then with an explosive sigh, he stepped off the porch. Penelope slid her arm around Derrick’s waist. “Hold on,” she murmured out of the corner of her mouth. “Just till he leaves?”
He couldn’t really object to the way she pressed against him. And when she lifted her hand to wave goodbye to Will, he took it one step further, slinging his arm around her shoulders before joining her in waving to the retreating pickup.
As soon as Will disappeared around the bend, Penelope dropped her arm. “I am so sorry,” she exhaled shakily. Pinching the bridge of her nose, she blew out a long sigh. “Thank you for playing along; you didn’t have to do that.”
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Derrick confessed.
She nodded. “I know. I’m so sorry.”
“You keep apologizing,” he said warily. “Why?” He let his eyes settle on her ring. “And does it have anything to do with that?”
Her eyes went bright and shiny, and Derrick felt a moment of panic that she was about to burst into tears. But Penny was too strong for that. She pulled herself together with a visible shudder and laid her hand on his arm. “Let’s go inside,” she said softly. “There’s something I need to explain to you, and I feel too awful to do it out here in the light of day.”
“Pen? I gotta admit, you’re kind of freaking me out. What’s going on? And why are you wearing my mother’s engagement ring?”
She took another deep breath. “Because your mother gave it to me, Derrick. Because as far as the whole town of Half-Mile Creek is concerned, you and I are engaged.”
“Let’s talk about this inside?” Penelope tried to keep her voice from shaking as she looked at Derrick’s thunderous expression. She couldn’t tell if he was shocked or angry or some terrible combination of the two. Regardless, it hurt to see him looking at her that way. No matter how long it had been (fourteen years, Penelope reminded herself. She knew the length of their breakup down to the day) since he left town, she still didn’t want him to look at her with such a… look.
“We’re engaged?” Derrick finally asked.
“Obviously, um, no. And I told you I’m sorry for lying about it.” She touched her finger to her mouth. Brief as it had been, his kiss still burned there, lingering like a brand. He’d played right along so beautifully that she had almost believed this wasn’t going to go badly at all.
Not that she deserved to have him go easy on her. But she’d still hoped. Just a little.
“Let’s go inside,” Derrick snapped.
Penelope closed her mouth. It wouldn’t do to remind him that she’d already suggested that. She bent her head and followed him meekly into the kitchen.
It was strange having him in here, taking up all the oxygen in the room. She knew that by rights this was his house. But she’d been working here at the Samson Ranch since she was eighteen. Derrick’s own father had hired her on. Had made her forewoman five years ago. And for the last two years, since Mr. Samson’s passing, she’d been the one in charge here. This place felt like hers.
She needed to let those feelings go. Derrick was back, so he’d be running the show now.
She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry you had to find out this way,” she began, then immediately regretted prefacing her explanation that way. It made her sound so cold, and she didn’t want to be cold. She wanted to be okay. She wanted this weirdness to be over.
“Found out what, exactly?” Derrick’s eyes went to the ring on her finger and she twisted it nervously.
She took a deep, shuddering breath. He wasn’t going to like this. “Will and I were together, Derrick.”
Derrick’s eyes blazed, but his voice came out icy-cold. “And?”
“It lasted a while, I guess, but it was on again, off again. I thought it was pretty casual. When I realized it was more serious for him, I broke it off.” She rubbed her temples. “Or at least I thought I did. I very clearly said we were through. But Will wasn’t having it.” The more she talked about it, the more annoyed she became. If Will had just taken no for an answer, she wouldn’t be in this mess. “Well anyway, he wasn’t listening to me—or he thought he could change my mind. Flowers, presents, calling me at all hours…it was like the more I told him that it was over, that I just wanted to be friends, the more determined he became to ‘win me back.’”
Before long, it had started crossing the line from “annoying” into “harassing”—he’d text her all day long, getting angry and aggressive when she didn’t reply, as if he felt entitled to keep constant tabs on her. He’d show up drunk outside her apartment at three in the morning, begging to be let in. She hadn’t wanted to call the cops on him, not after all their years of friendship, but she’d known she needed to do something to get him to back off, once and for all.
She couldn’t tell Derrick all of that, though. With his temper, who knew what he’d do? Best to keep her explanation simple. “It was starting to stress me out and so one day I kind of just—snapped.”
She shrugged helplessly as she looked at him, searching for any trace of understanding. But instead, he seemed hell-bent on making an already awkward situation even more awkward. “Snapped how?”
She sagged down into the kitchen chair, making the old cane creak in protest. “We were at the diner. Your mom was working there then.” She looked at the ring on her finger with a smile. God bless Mrs. Samson and her quick thinking. “Will came in when I was having lunch and he just would not stop pushing, asking me why, why wouldn’t I go out with him, why the heck I kept acting like we were through when I knew he was the only guy for me and all that nonsense. So I told him I was seeing someone.” She shook her head at the memory of Will’s florid face, his ‘playful’ smile growing more and more strained until it looked like he wasn’t smiling anymore, just baring his teeth. “He laughed at that, wondering why that would stop us from having a good time.” Derrick widened his eyes and made a scoffing noise, which made Penelope feel a rush of gratitude. “I know, right? So I told him it was serious. Then he wanted to know how serious. So I said I was engaged. And that actually made him stop.” She hugged herself miserably. “But then he wanted to know how I’d met someone and gotten engaged so fast when I’d only called things off with him a month earlier, so I had to think quick.”
“Me?” Derrick asked. Softer now.
She nodded, tears pricking at the corners of her eyes. “It was the only explanation that made sense. You and I were pretty serious back in the day. If you’d come back into my life all of a sudden, then it would make sense we’d get to the engagement stage pretty fast.” At this, she had to look away. It was too painful, even now, after all these years, to say these things and have to watch his face as he reacted, or worse, didn’t. “So that’s my explanation. I told him we were over because I was engaged to you.”
Derrick was silent.
“I’m sorry. It was the only thing I could think of that would get him off my case.” She shook her head. “Your mom was there and she backed me up. Everyone overheard, of course, you know how it is around here, so people started congratulating me and I suddenly was trapped in this. By the end of the day, the whole town knew. Daisy Calder gave me a discount at the feed store as an engagement gift, Derrick, you know how great that’s been on the books? It’s helped the bottom line so much. And your mom seemed like she was having the time of her life with it. Gave me this ring and everything, telling people all about how it was hers and…” she trailed off, tapping her fingers on the table. “It’s become this whole… thing. And I can’t exactly go back on it now.”
“I don’t see why you can’t. How did you plan to keep this whole thing going once I came back? Did you and my mom really think I’d just nod and smile all the way down the aisle?”
“No, of course not.”
“So if you didn’t think we’d really get married, then what was your plan?” he pressed. “We’d say we split up—but then kept working together? You don’t think that’s going to add a whole new layer of awkward on top of things here?”
“It doesn’t have to,” she rushed to explain. “So you never met my friend Julia, but maybe you’ve heard of the Three Sisters Ranch?”
Derrick blinked in recognition. “The lady-run place down near Stowetville.”
She couldn’t help but giggle at his accurate summary. “Julia wants me to buy in to Three Sisters.” Just like it always did when she talked about her plans, her heart skipped a beat, though whether it was from excitement or nerves, she wasn’t sure.
“Wait, you’re leaving?” Derrick blurted.
Now she had to laugh for real. “You came home, Derrick. You really want me to stay?”
“Well, no, but I just…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I wasn’t clear on timelines here.”
“Neither am I anymore.” Penelope let out an explosive sigh. “I’ve been saving a while, but I am still short my stake. I was hoping to take out a loan to cover the rest. But the reason Will dropped by just before you came was to tell me I didn’t qualify.”
“How sweet of him to do it personally,” Derrick sniffed sarcastically.
Penelope rolled her eyes. “I know, right? If the loan had gone through, I could have been out of here in just a week or two, and there would have been no need for awkwardness or strain. We’d just say we changed our mind about the engagement and went our separate ways. Stowetville’s not really far, but it’s still a good hour’s drive from here, minimum. That’s far enough that Will wouldn’t be able to bother me anymore, and you could get on with doing…well, whatever you’d planned on doing.”
“But the loan didn’t go through,” Derrick pointed out.
“Right.” She took a deep breath to muster her courage. “So it seems to me like the simplest way forward is to just…keep the story going. It won’t be forever!” she rushed to say when she saw Derrick about to protest. “Just until I can finish saving up. Please, Derrick, I know this isn’t what you signed up for, but I just don’t see any other option.”
“Derrick, what’s the harm?”
“It’s a lie.”
“I know it’s a lie. But it’s not hurting anybody. And it’s gonna blow up in my face pretty bad if I get called out on it.” She pressed the palms of her hands into a gesture of supplication. “Is that what you want?”
“I want you to tell people the real story.” He crossed his arms again, and Penelope wondered if he was doing it to deliberately shut her out. Stubbornly refusing to consider her feelings and her side of the story. Only thinking of what was best for him and never considering anyone else.
What else was new?
“This isn’t just good for me,” she said, pleading. “It’s helped around here—really, it has. We’ve been getting discounts like you wouldn’t believe. You haven’t worked on the ranch since you were a kid. Now that you’re stepping in to run the place, don’t you want to start off with every advantage you can get?”
“Not if it means starting with a lie,” he said, unmoved.
She decided to try one last time. “Please, Derrick. I am actually begging you. Can you please play along for a few more weeks? Just till I figure out a way to get the money together and I move to Three Sisters?”
“I said no!”
Angry tears flooded Penelope’s eyes. She crossed her own arms in imitation of his. “Fine,” she said. “Do it your way. I give up.”
It wasn’t until much later that day, once she’d screamed into her pillow in frustration, that she remembered she’d said the exact same thing to him when he left her fourteen years ago this month.
* * *
There shouldn’t be this much to pack, Penelope thought to herself as she stuffed another unused dish into an already bulging cardboard box. For the past five years, she’d done little more than sleep here in her apartment. Her promotion to foreman had meant that she could afford her own place…but it had also meant more responsibilities. Her waking hours, hell, most of her life, had been spent at the Samson Ranch. She’d done a damn good job, but now that Derrick was back, there was no reason for her to keep on anymore.
So anytime these annoying tears would like to stop falling would be just fine.
She angrily knuckled another one away before taping the box shut. Her phone buzzed in her pocket and she breathed a sigh of relief for the distraction. She wiped her nose, cleared her throat and then lifted it to her ear. “Hey girl,” she greeted her best friend.
“I usually don’t listen to my voicemails,” Julia shouted over the noise of the wind. She was probably in her truck, forever moving supplies from one end of her ranch to the other. “And I was really proud of myself for actually listening to the one you left me. Except, I gotta admit, Penny, I am even more confused now than I would have been if I just hadn’t listened at all.”
Penelope dropped down onto her butt in the middle of her half-packed living room and laughed ruefully. “What’s confusing about it?” she deadpanned. “All I wanted to know is if I could move to the ranch today.”
“Um, well for starters, why? And also, how? You told me you needed to finish up at the ranch—take care of the handover to Derrick so that everything would keep running smoothly. And also when? Because if you’re finally coming, I want to have champagne chilled and ready.”
Penelope laughed. “Skip the champagne and go straight for the hard stuff. I’ll need it.”
Julia’s voice softened. “Girl, what’s going on? You’re kind of wigging me out here.”
“Promise you won’t hate me?”
“I am physically unable to hate you,” Julia said immediately. “You know this. You could tell me you’re a closet serial killer and I’d congratulate you on your cool new hobby.”
“Yes, this is true, I guess. Okay, promise me you won’t say I told you so.”
Julia laughed. “That I can’t promise at all. My four favorite words in the English language are ‘I told you so,’ and you know that.”
Penelope laughed. “You’re right, of course.”
“I told you so.”
Penelope giggled. Talking to Julia made her so happy that she was in danger of forgetting why she’d called and left that message in the first place. “Well, you were right about what a bad idea it was to pretend to be engaged.”
Julia fell silent. All Penelope could hear over the hum of the connection was a sound much like a leaky balloon. Which meant that Julia was attempting to whistle. “Shit, girl.”
“Yup. Blew up right in my face, just like you said it would.”
“Derrick won’t play along?” Julia guessed.
“Absolutely refused to even consider it.”
Bless Julia. She knew better than anyone what this meant, so no explanation were needed. “I know you had high hopes here, Penny-Poo, but I always wondered why you thought that Derrick would just roll with this. What did you call him? Mr. Stubborn Mule?”
“Mr. Stubborn-As-An-Ass,” Penelope corrected. “And I know. I was giving him the benefit of the doubt.” And hoping he’d be the kind, fun-loving Derrick I fell in love with, not the stubborn, careless man who broke my heart.
“Does Will know?” Julia asked, cutting right to the heart of the matter.
“Ugh, no. Not yet anyway. That’s kind of why I needed to move there now.”
“You shouldn’t have to run from your ex,” Julia said gently.
“I’m not running from him, I’m…call it avoiding him.”
Julia laughed. “Whatever floats your boat. Well Penny-Ante, I can’t say I’m thrilled about your reasons here. But I am pretty thrilled you’re finally ready to pull the trigger on this whole thing. Just think about it, with your buy-in, we’ll be able to—”
Penelope swallowed hard. “I can’t buy in, Jules.”
“I heard today that the loan didn’t go through. I’m not sure why.”
“Okay, fine.” Penelope could practically hear the wheels spinning in Julia’s head. “But Penny, that was only one bank. You can find the money from somewhere else, right?”
“I don’t have time. I need a job. Now that Derrick is back, I can’t stay here. I’d be coming on as a worker, not as an owner.”
“I can’t accept that.”
“What?” Penelope’s stomach sank. She’d counted on having Julia to turn to. Was her friend truly telling her that that wasn’t an option?
“You know I’ll always support you,” Julia reassured her, making Penelope breathe a little easier. “If you really need a job and a place to stay, you’ve got it. But I’ve got a condition here. If the opportunity to get the money comes up again, I want you to go for it, you understand me?” Julia had a knack for sounding exactly like her mother when she got authoritative like this. “If staying in town longer means you can scrape together the funds, then do it. You deserve to be part-owner, and I don’t want you to miss your shot—or come to regret running away.”
“I’m not running away.”
“Aren’t you though? Packing up and leaving town in the middle of the night because you don’t want to have to deal with the fallout of the fake engagement?”
“That’s not what I’m doing.” Except, Penelope realized, that was exactly what she was doing. “Oh God.”
“Yeah,” Julia laughed. “I know you, girl. And if you come here tonight, you’re going to wake up in the morning and wonder what the hell you just did.”
“But what the hell should I do?”
“Go talk with Derrick again. Calmly and rationally. Like two professionals. Work out a schedule so you’re not just leaving him in the lurch. It’ll give you time to talk to other banks before you head out this way. And it’ll mean you can finally get closure on the two of you.”
“I already have that.”
“Do you?” The way she said it made Penelope wonder if she could somehow see the way her lips were still pink from Derrick’s kiss. “I’ve been listening to you bitch about that man for years now. You always had a lot to say about him to me. Go say some of that to him. And don’t let this hang over your head for another fourteen years.”
“No. If you show up tonight, I’m locking the gate. Deal with this first, then I’ll welcome you with open arms.
“You’re such a brat.”
“Yes, and you love me for it. I love you too. Now put on your big girl panties and go.”
Penelope hung up and looked around at the sea of boxes. “My big girl panties, huh? Now where did I pack those?”
Derrick tried all morning to get something done.
He knew, of course, that for the past five years, his father’s office hadn’t just belonged to his father. Signs of Penelope were everywhere. Her light, familiar scent hung in the air, even as he sat down in the cracked leather chair that had belonged to his father and his father before him.
It was too jarring to see how much the office had changed and also not changed at the same time. He didn’t necessarily need to call up his mother and ask her if she remembered where the deeds were filed, because they were right where they should be. But he was feeling really unsettled, and it felt good to hear his mama’s steady voice telling him how happy she was to have him back again. “You know I never once told you you were foolish running off like that,” his mother said lightly, that little lilt of amusement forever making her sentences sound like little songs, “but now that you’re back I’m gonna say it. You nearly worried me to death, Derrick.”
“Well, I’m back now, Mama. So quit your worrying.” He couldn’t help grinning.
But his grin faded once she said goodbye, making him promise to ‘get his prodigal butt over for dinner soon,’ and hung up, leaving him with no more to distract him from the overwhelming task of familiarizing himself with ranch operations. He tried, but he kept getting distracted by the familiar creak of the willow boughs as they rubbed together in the breeze. He kept drifting off, listening for the jingle of Duke’s collar, even though his faithful Lab had been dead well over a decade.
And so, after a futile morning spent staring at the ranch’s financials uncomprehendingly, he gave up and packed everything he thought he might need into one of his old rodeo duffels and headed into town to the only place with tables big enough to spread this all out. The Half-Mile Diner.
“Derrick! Welcome home!” The Half-Mile’s hostess, FiFi Hopkins, was as much a fixture in town as the diner itself. When he was a kid, he used to imagine that she was here first and they just built the diner around her. Before that, he figured she wandered in a circle, greeting people and asking about their mothers.
“You made your mama so proud,” FiFi went on, practically bubbling over with glee. “You and Penelope are going to make her some beautiful grandbabies.”
“Derrick! You’re back!” Gil Rossiter was at his customary post by the grill. He’d never leave it, but he lifted his spatula in salute.
Derrick lifted his own hand back, feeling a trifle overwhelmed. “I am…”
“There he is.” Ancient Jack Hall still lurked at the corner booth where he held court all day long, receiving visitors like a grizzled old king. So it was alarming when he actually rose from his throne to approach Derrick with a smile. “So the ole ball and chain make you come home finally, huh?” He clapped him on the shoulder, making Derrick almost choke. “Nah, I’m just joshing you. We all know Penny ain’t like that. Hell, she let you go off roping steer—”
“I rode broncs.”
“Same difference, right?” It wasn’t, but there was no space for Derrick to argue. “Man, she’s one hell of a lady,” the old man wheezed, breathing hot coffee fumes all over Derrick’s shirt. “You off doing your thing while she gets that place of yours gleaming. I hope you get down on your knees every night and thank the good lord for blessing you with a woman like that.”
“But you know all that, right? I don’t gotta tell you twice. Good to have you back, son.” Another thunderous clap on the back nearly gave Derrick whiplash.
“Thanks, Mr. Hall.” Derrick shook the man’s hand and then fled for the safety of the booth FiFi stood by. She beamed at him as he sat down and spread his menu in front of him. “You take your time,” she trilled. “I’ll pour you some coffee in the meantime. It’s on me.” She gave him a wink and scampered off to greet more customers before they could make it through the door.
Feeling overwhelmed, Derrick pulled the stack of papers from his bag and spread them on the table in front of him. Penelope had kept immaculate records over the years, and he ran his fingers down the neat columns of the ledgers admiringly.
She was good. In fact, she was more than good. She was an absolute whiz. There had been a steady growth curve in profitability ever since she became foreman five years ago—and in the past two years since she took over fully, she’d gotten them turning enough of a profit that they’d been able to buy fifty head of cattle to add to the herd and hire three more experienced hands to help with the upkeep. She’d bought their winter feed at rock-bottom prices and somehow managed to lock in those prices for a five-year contract.
But more than just her business savvy was the way she was running things—the way she’d built up the ranch’s reputation in the community. Derrick picked up a letter from the principal of the high school, thanking her for starting the internship program to give juniors and seniors real work experience for school credit. There was another letter in this file from Hal Dolan, an old hand he remembered working for his father ages ago. In the letter, typed up in Hal’s weirdly formal speech, the hand thanked ‘Miss Martinez’ for taking a chance on him after he’d parted ways with Derrick’s father. “I’ll never know what it was that led Mr. Samson to take such drastic action in firing me, but I am grateful to you for letting me redeem my name. Samson Ranch has always felt like home to me, but under your care, it also feels like family.”
Derrick set that file down and raked his hands through his hair. His father had fired Hal? He pressed his lips together and briefly considered going to the old man’s house and apologizing on his father’s behalf. Maybe even try to explain that it wasn’t his father’s fault. That the erratic moods and the impulsive behavior were part of the condition that eventually took his life. The condition Derrick had only found out about years later.
But Penelope had quietly righted that wrong. Just like she’d righted so many other wrongs. She’d made it so he could return home to a prosperous, popular, well-run business, rather than the slipshod, debt-ridden place he remembered. He ran his hands over the reams of paper in front of him, all the evidence of her skill.
She was leaving. Would he be able to do the same kind of job?
He had no idea. And they were moving into one of the most crucial portions of the ranching year. Fall birthing season was almost upon them. He well remembered the long nights, the constant visits from the veterinarian. Birthing time required long hours, a steady hand, and the ability to think of every contingency so you could be ready to switch gears at a moment’s notice. But mostly you needed to know your herd like the back of your hand. Which he didn’t.
But Penelope did.
He frowned and pulled another file toward him. This one contained all the accounting records for the ranch, all neatly arranged in a very pretty Excel spreadsheet.
Shoot, he’d need to learn Excel, he realized, and squinted and took another look at the columns.
Then looked again. “This ain’t right,” he muttered and pulled out his father’s ancient, clacking calculator. A quick summation of the debits column showed that the ranch’s expenses should be almost double what Penelope had entered.
A fine sweat broke across his hairline. Was Penny fudging the numbers? If so, she hadn’t bothered to hide her tracks. Everything seemed to be accounted for, and yet the totals seemed absurdly low across the board. Almost as if she’d subtracted fifty percent off the top.
In fact, it was pretty much exactly like that.
It hit him all at once and he sat back with a gasp. The discounts. She’d told him about how Daisy had given her discounts at the feed store as an engagement present—and that there were other discounts, as well. That was what he was seeing now. She’d dutifully marked the full price of everything in the ledger, but when it came to the final tallies, the difference made sense.
With everything costing less, she’d put them solidly in the black for the year, and it was only June.
Damn, he thought for the millionth time this morning. If only she hadn’t left. He wished now he’d been less of a hard-ass about the whole thing. Sure she’d been wrong to lie like that, but he could have at least ended things on a better note. If nothing else, he wished he’d gotten her number—what would he do if he needed to call her up in an emergency?
Like asking her how the hell to do his job?
Goddamn, he was a real idiot.
“Hey there, son.”
Derrick looked up with a smile. “Mornin’, Mr. Dole.”
His father’s mentor shook his head disapprovingly. “How many times I gotta tell you to call me Tom?”
Derrick smiled. “At least fifty more, Mr. Dole. How are you?”
“Same ole same ole. But who cares about me?” The older man’s eyes glinted. For all that he seemed like the prototype of the stoic Western cowboy, Thomas Dole was a notorious gossip. Derrick always wondered why he didn’t open a hair salon instead of riding the range. “So where’s the wedding gonna be?” Tom demanded, sliding into the booth across from Derrick and taking his hand like an old granny. “Is Penny being all Bridezilla on you? Nah, she wouldn’t be like that. That girl’s got a good head on her shoulders. And damn can she negotiate.” His handlebar mustache wobbled as he whistled through his teeth. “Wooheee, let me tell you, she damn near talked me into giving her the shirt off my back. I’m gonna make next to no profit on that job and I ain’t even mad about it, because it’s so damn impressive. One hell of a firecracker, that one.”
Firecracker. That had been Derrick’s name for her. A strange surge of possessiveness took hold and he slid his hand away.
The old cowboy noticed. “I mean no disrespect. She’s your lady, ain’t no question about it. You sure know what you’ve got, that’s why you finally got a ring on her finger. Smart guy, wifing her up like that. She’s something special.”
“I know,” Derrick blurted, before he could think. “Um, thank you.”
Tom took the hint. “Welp, you look plumb strung out. I just wanted to wish you well.”
“Thank you, Mr. Dole.” Derrick felt bad all of a sudden. “Say hi to Mrs. Dole for me. And let her know I’ve been dreaming about her peanut butter pie the past two years.”
“She’ll have you set in no time, son. Careful what you wish for, you’ll be eating pie for the next two years to make up for it.” The old cowboy chuckled and stood up, dusting imaginary dirt from his boots and striking a pose like he was about to ride off into the sunset.
But what he really did was scurry over to the next booth to gather more gossip.
Derrick let out a long sigh and looked at the papers fanned out in front of him again. What Mr. Dole had said only confirmed his worst fears. There was no getting around the fact that Penelope had clearly worked some magic on the ranch. He might have been born to it, but she was the one who kept the place running. He hadn’t worked on the ranch since he was in high school—and he’d never been the one in charge. She knew all the ins and outs that he had no idea were even part of the operation.
How the hell was he going to manage without her?
He rubbed the back of his neck. FiFi, seemingly sympathetic to his frustration, topped off his mug. He glanced up at her in thanks, and then blinked at the apparition over her shoulder.
FiFi followed his gaze, and her plump face broke out in a wide smile. “Oh, there she is, your lady-love,” she trilled. “I’ll leave you two alone,” she hissed, loudly enough that the people in the table across the way all turned and craned their necks to see who it was Derrick needed to be alone with.
But he barely noticed that, too busy staring at Penelope. Had the force of his wishing somehow summoned her here?
He was so happy he leaped to his feet. She took a startled step back.
“Hi!” he blurted.
“Uh—” She looked around, catching a glimpse of the rapt audience they’d attracted. “Hi,” she squeaked.
He bent down. Engaged couples kissed, right? So it would be totally normal if he just—
“Ow!” She turned too fast and their noses collided. For a moment, Derrick saw stars.
“Oh god, I’m sorry, uh, here.” She dabbed at his face with a napkin for some reason. The onlookers all turned away, probably embarrassed for him and wondering how he’d managed to land a girl like Penelope in the first place with smooth moves like those.
Oh wait, he hadn’t landed her. But that was the whole problem.
“Have a seat,” he urged her.
She hesitated. “I just wanted to talk to you about the handover,” she said, keeping her voice low. “It was…unprofessional of me to just walk out like that. Of course, I’ll make sure you have all the info you need to take over before I leave. I came by to discuss it with you, and one of the hands said he saw you here when he came by to check on the repairs. Do you want to set up a time for a meeting?”
He swallowed. The handover. She was leaving.
“The handover. Right,” he said slowly. “Uh, would you sit down? Please?”
She blew out a sigh, but she sat down, folding her hands primly on the table. “What’s up?”
He swallowed again. “I’d like to know if you’d be willing to stay on a bit more.”
She shook her head immediately. “No thank you.”
She frowned at him and leaned in. “Well for one, I don’t really want to be here once everyone knows I lied to them. That’s going to be…pretty humiliating.” Her lips twisted into a pained expression and she shook her head sadly. “And Derrick, your mom backed me up, remember? I can handle being called a liar ’cause I deserve it. But I really don’t want it rebounding on to her, too. She doesn’t deserve it. Oh, goddammit,” she breathed softly and Derrick got the feeling she wasn’t talking to him anymore. Her voice faded and she looked out the window. “I can maybe write a letter and leave it with you, taking all the blame?”
He sat back. He hadn’t realized this would blow back on his mother, too…but really, he hadn’t realized a lot of things. “I don’t want either of you getting fallout from this, if I’m being honest, Pen.” Licking his lips, he tried again. “What if we don’t break up, then?”
“You could stay, like you planned to in the beginning.”
She frowned. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea anymore—us working together, I mean.”
Damn, he’d really screwed this up. He needed her to be willing to work with him. What could he say to change her mind? A plan started forming in his brain. “You were trying to get a loan, right?”
“How about… your fiancé applies with you? If I co-sign, you’re bound to get it, right?”
She blinked at him. Her mouth softened. “You’d do that for me?”
“For a price.”
Her face fell and she scowled and he couldn’t help but laugh. “Settle down there, firecracker, it’s nothing you can’t handle.”
“What is it?”
“Stay on. Be my fiancée, live at the ranch, until birthing season is over. By then I’ll know the ropes. That’s all I’m asking.”
“You say it like it’s not much. I’ve got a job waiting for me, Derrick. I started packing my apartment.”
“So throw the packed stuff into a truck and move onto the ranch. It’s what an engaged couple would do anyway, wouldn’t they?”
Her mouth twisted, and he knew he had her. “You’re about to laugh,” he said.
“I am not.”
“I know that look.”
“No you don’t.”
“You’re thinking about it.”
“Okay, I am,” she said, standing up and slamming her hands down on the table so that the silverware rattled.
The onlookers all twisted in their seats. Derrick saw her throat tighten as she swallowed hard, and suddenly he felt like an ass doing this here, in front of all these people, when he knew how afraid she was of looking foolish or dishonest in front of everyone.
“FiFi?” he called, “Can I get the check?” He gathered his papers.
Penelope watched him. “What are you doing?”
“We need to talk about this in private, and there’s only one place I knew of where you and I can be private.”
Her little pink tongue flicked out. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes you do. You know exactly what I mean. I’m heading to the bleachers, just like old times.” He grinned at her. “Come with me?”
Rancher’s Pregnant Ex is available from Amazon and it’s 99c until February 24th!