"There is no way I'm getting on a horse."
Elizabeth Harrington-Smyth pulled into the Twin Creeks Ranch parking lot, vowing she'd never attend another wedding, not even her own should she ever make time to date. So far, being her cousin Janice's bridesmaid hadn't been the greatest experience. And don't get her started on the problems with the whole destination wedding idea that was the trend now.
"Estes Park is so beautiful, and what better way to see the scenery than going horseback riding? "Since moving to Denver three years ago, Janice had gone all outdoorswoman. Today she really fit the part, wearing jeans, a denim shirt and a red bandanna tied around her ebony ponytail.
Elizabeth shuddered. "Looking at the mountains as I sat in the hotel bar was good enough for me."
"I think this will be a great bridesmaid outing," chirped Laura, obedient bridesmaid number one. Her Katie Couric perkiness had overwhelmed Elizabeth within five minutes of meeting Janice's coworker.
"I was hoping we'd get time to go riding. It's something I've always wanted to try," chimed in Claire, perfect bridesmaid number two, as they spilled out of Janice's Camry. In addition to being a morning person, Claire had the irritating characteristics of being tall, slender and possessing a disgustingly high metabolism.
"I let you out of the hike yesterday because you were queasy and tired from the altitude, but I want us to have a good time together," Janice insisted. "It's girl bonding."
"The wedding party activities are half the fun of being a bridesmaid," Claire said.
According to whom? Clearly, Elizabeth and the rest of the bridal party had different definitions of fun.
Dust swirled around her, making her sneeze. It seemed as if they were surrounded by bales of hay. At least she'd taken a Claritin this morning, so she wouldn't look like a red-eyed monster due to raging allergies.
"My idea of a good time is having a massage, facial and pedicure at the hotel, not riding on a smelly horse." Elizabeth waved a fly away from her face. "The outdoors is pretty to look at, but I'm not keen on actually being in it. I'll wait here by this fence—"
"It's a corral, Elizabeth," Janice corrected.
"Then I'll wait here by the corral. The rest of you go ahead and enjoy."
"I've never ridden a horse, but I'm willing to be adventurous, Elizabeth," Laura coaxed.
"You're here, so you might as well come with us," Claire added.
"I'm afraid my Jimmy Choos aren't meant for horseback riding." Now that was an excuse any woman could understand and respect.
"Didn't I tell you to wear sensible shoes that you didn't mind getting dirty?" Janice asked.
Elizabeth stared at her cute leopard print flats and her blood pressure rose. "All you said was wear sensible shoes, which I am. These are flats. I'd never have worn Jimmy Choos if you'd mentioned getting dirty."
"Sorry. I guess I must've forgotten the getting dirty part." Janice flashed her an I'm-the-bride-forgive-me smile. "There are so many details to planning a large destination wedding. I'm surprised I haven't forgotten more things. You'll have to make the best of the situation now."
The cool March breeze blew a strong odor of horse manure Elizabeth's way. "Too late. It smells terrible out here. Flies are everywhere, and the quiet is driving me crazy. Everyone moves too slowly! I almost mowed over two people when I walked down to the hotel lobby to get coffee this morning."
"Exactly why you should join us," Claire insisted. "You need to slow down and learn to appreciate nature's gifts."
"I'm in advertising. I determine what people appreciate, not the other way around. And who says I don't appreciate nature?"
"You have to go, Elizabeth," her cousin whined. "I want all of us to go. This means so much to me."
Elizabeth bristled. "Isn't it enough that I took off work to come for your wedding when I've got a major ad campaign due? Between all the activities, the spotty internet service and a slight case of altitude sickness, I haven't gotten half the work done here that I need to."
Her job was hanging by a thread. Devlin Designs wanted to launch a new jeans campaign and she had the perfect one all mapped out, but couldn't find the right spokesman. On top of that, the contract for the remainder of Devlin's business was up for renewal. No spokesman, no new campaign, no contract renewals—and then she'd be out of a job.
"What an honor, you taking off work to come to my wedding," Janice snapped.
Laura and Claire slid a few feet away, obviously wanting to avoid the awkward conversation.
In addition to the wedding, Elizabeth had hoped to spend a little time with her parents, who were flying in as well. But when she'd checked her voice mail after arriving in Denver she'd learned they weren't coming.
"I'm sorry, Janice, really. I'm out of sorts. Did Mom and Dad tell you they've headed off to some mountain in Germany on an archeological dig? I haven't seen them in forever, and though I shouldn't be, I'm pretty disappointed."
"No. How could they do that at the last minute? Don't they know we'll have to pay for their dinners whether they're here or not?"
Elizabeth shrugged. "They said a bone flute and an erotic figurine had been discovered there. If these pieces are authentic, it'll be the best example Upper Paleolithic art ever. They insisted they absolutely couldn't pass this up."
"They say that about every dig."
"You think I'd be used to their last-minute cancellations by now." Elizabeth smiled weakly. This kind of parental disinterest and disappointment had filled her life for as long as she could remember. "Then there's work. My job's on the line with this campaign."
"Come on, Elizabeth. You're not going to lose your job. They'd have to hire three people to replace you," Janice said.
"We're on the verge of losing a client that represents over half of our business." Her cousin didn't realize how precarious the advertising business was.
Elizabeth was good at what she did. She knew this crazy ad world well. No one had given her the management supervisor job; she'd earned it. She'd started at the bottom and from there studied the market, worked hard, learned from her superiors and was the ultimate team player. She gave two hundred percent without being asked, and had eventually secured her current position. Unfortunately, sometimes hard work counted for squat.
"If we lose this account the company will have no choice but to lay off a lot of people, including me, since it was my account."
"Work is all that matters to you." Janice crossed her arms over her chest. "You're a workaholic. You always have been. You're just like your parents."
Ouch. "I am not, and that's a low blow."
"You need to get some balance in your life," Janice continued, shifting into sympathetic mode. "You're all work and no play. You need to date. Have fun."
Elizabeth winced, knowing where the conversation was headed. Why did every married or engaged person feel they possessed a sacred duty to impart relationship advice to single relatives and friends? "Work is so crazy right now I don't have much time for anything, especially dating."
"Is it a time issue, or is it because no guy meets enough requirements on your ridiculous checklist?"
"It's not silly. I have to know what qualities I want in a partner, and what things are deal breakers."
"You'll be surprised how fast you'll throw out that list when you find the right guy."
Elizabeth had begun to think the right guy for her didn't exist. Or if he did, she worried she wouldn't find him without a map and a guide.
She grabbed a deep, calming breath. "Can we start over? I know I haven't been the most fun lately. We've had one round of layoffs already at work, and with this client halfway out the door, I'm way past stressed out."
"It's really that bad?" Janice asked, genuinely concerned.
"I'm sorry my wedding turned out to be poor timing for you." Janice reached out and clasped her hand. "I appreciate you being here, considering what's going on with you. Is the altitude sickness getting any better?"
Biting her lip to hold back her emotions over her cousin's unexpected empathy, Elizabeth nodded. "I'm tired and a bit queasy, but I can handle it, as long as it doesn't get worse."
"Look at that gorgeous cowboy walking our way," Claire said, popping up beside them. "Not that your wedding isn't reason enough, but this guy makes the entire trip worthwhile."
Janice squeezed Elizabeth's hand and let go. "Yum-oh." Her face lit up like Times Square after dark. "Elizabeth, you've got to see this guy. He's behind you a few feet. Turn, but don't be obvious that you're looking."
Behind her in the corral stood an attractive cowboy. His dark brown hat cast a shadow over his face, but didn't conceal his strong jaw or classic cheekbones. Dressed in a simple navy button-down shirt, jeans, chaps complete with leather fringe, and dusty cowboy boots, he was the real deal.
"I'd be willing to risk getting hay in all sorts of awkward places for a little time alone in the barn with him," Claire said.
"Close your mouth, Janice, or you'll start catching flies," Elizabeth teased. "Plus you're getting married tomorrow."
"That doesn't mean I'm dead. I can still appreciate the exceptional scenery."
Elizabeth shook her head. "Sure he's good-looking, but what's so fantastic about a cowboy? I don't get it. They smell like horses. They spend a good part of their days cleaning manure out of barn stalls. What about that inspires romance?"
Claire looked ready to tackle the cowboy. "They're so rugged. So strong."
"Janice Rogers and party," cowboy hottie called out in a lazy drawl.
"That's me, or us, rather." Janice waved her hand and gave him a big smile.
"Let's see about getting you ladies on some horses." He pointed to Claire. "Come with me."
Claire beamed and practically ran over Laura to get to the cowboy. Then she introduced herself, giggled and tossed her hair.
Elizabeth laughed. Watching this show unfold might be fun, after all.
The ranch hand tilted his hat and nodded. "Rory."
"Even his name's gorgeous," Laura crooned dreamily to no one in particular.
"Clem, help this lady with Biscuit."
Claire slowly started moving toward an older cowboy, but kept glancing over her shoulder at Rory all doe eyed.
Then he motioned to Janice, who stepped on Elizabeth's foot in her haste to reach him.
"Watch it," Elizabeth snapped.
"Sorry," her cousin said, but her gaze remained locked on the cowboy. If he offered to sell her the Rocky Mountains right now, she'd be whipping out her MasterCard.
Wait a minute. Elizabeth smiled. That's exactly what she wanted people to do—open their wallets. Thank you, Lord, for sending the answer to my prayers. She just might be able to pull this campaign out of the fire.
When she'd proposed that Devlin Designs center its men's jeans campaign on a cowboy, she'd had this type of female reaction in mind. Micah Devlin liked the idea, but not the models she'd suggested. Now she understood what he'd meant about something being missing in all the models dressed like cowboys. They weren't authentic.
Bingo. Yes, sir. Rory could be the answer to all her problems.
By the time he motioned her forward, she had a tentative pitch mentally mapped out.
"I hope the horse knows what he's doing, because I don't have a clue," she joked as an icebreaker. Starting her conversation with, "Come to New York to model designer jeans," seemed a little abrupt. She needed to loosen the guy up first. Appear to be interested in his life here in the great outdoors.
"As long as you hold on to the reins and sit up straight, you'll be okay. We haven't lost anyone yet."
"Elizabeth might be the first." Janice laughed. "She's not exactly athletic."
Rory looked her up and down with eyes that were liquid gold. She could feel herself blush, something she hadn't done in years.
"She looks like she can handle herself well enough."
Apparently chivalry wasn't as dead as everyone believed.
"Put your left foot in the stirrup," Rory said as he pointed toward the saddle. "Then grab hold of the saddle horn with your right hand and pull up while you swing your leg over."
She glanced at the horse, an amazingly large one, and then back at Rory. The man had to be kidding. "Have you noticed how big the horse is, and how short I am? There's no way I can get up there."
"You are a little thing," he said, smiling.
Again, she blushed. This blushing was getting a little out of control.
"I'll help you."
How, exactly? She pictured this gorgeous man pushing her butt to shove her into the saddle. Could this experience get more humiliating?
She'd get on the horse on her own if it killed her. After placing her foot in the stirrup, she grabbed the saddle horn. Then she pushed off with her right foot and pulled as hard as she could. She was about to swing her leg over the saddle when she started slipping back down. Then she felt Rory's firm hands on her rear end, and next thing she knew, she was sitting on the horse.
Now she wished she hadn't skipped so many Pilates classes lately.
A minute later they headed off down a path into the great outdoors. The trees formed a canopy around them as they rode. The mountains loomed, harsh and demanding, making her feel incredibly insignificant.
Birds chirped. Wind rustled through the leaves. A stream babbled past. How did people stand the quiet?
Flies swarmed around her and the horse. She wanted to swat at them, but feared she'd fall off if she took one hand from the reins. To keep her mind off the insects and her already screaming thigh muscles, she focused on Rory at the front of their little caravan. The set of his shoulders spoke of his confidence. He moved in the saddle with a casual grace. Everything about him said how comfortable he was in his own skin. Then there was his voice as he tossed out tidbits about the area and its history. Slow, melodic and deep, it wrapped around her like a warm hug.
Rory pointed to the towering oak to his left. "That's our wishing tree. If you make a wish and circle the tree three times, your wish will come true. Feel free to hop down and make a wish while we're here."
Laura and Claire immediately vaulted off their horses, dashed to the tree and circled it three times. "What did you wish for?" Janice called out as she joined her friends.
"I wished to find someone as wonderful as David," Laura chirped, referring to Janice's fiancé.
Claire giggled. "I wished Michael would propose."
Janice dashed around the tree. "I wish that I'll always be as happy as I am right now."
Why did people wish for things like that? Only the foolish wished for something impossible.
"What about you?" Rory asked. He'd dismounted, and now stood beside Elizabeth.
Even if she were willing to get off her horse and risk needing Rory to give her another boost into the saddle, the only thing she'd wish for
was landing him as a spokesman for the jeans campaign. Wishing wouldn't
make that happen. She'd rely on her business skills to accomplish it.
"I think I'll pass."
"Come on, Elizabeth, make a wish," Janice coaxed. "What could it hurt?"
If only her cousin knew.
The remainder of the ride passed in a blur of trees, rocks and mountains. Three hours later, when they returned to the corral, Elizabeth didn't like the outdoors any better, but she knew her instincts about Rory had been dead on. He'd make the perfect spokesperson for Devlin Designs men's jeans. He spun a good tale, which would work well in TV commercials, and then there were his looks and the way he moved. A guy either had a presence or he didn't, and Rory had it in spades.
"I'm a management supervisor at Rayzor Sharp Media. It's an advertising agency," she said, ignoring her protesting muscles when he helped her off the horse. "You'd be the perfect model for one of my clients. You have a presence that can't be taught or faked, while you're real enough to connect with the average man."
He laughed. Not a good sign.
"I'm not interested, but thanks for asking."
"It's a major national campaign. The exposure would be excellent."
She reached into her purse, pulled out a business card and held it out to him. "You could get a free trip to New York out of the deal."
"Right now all I'm interested in is getting this horse taken care of," he said as he reached for the reins.
Her stubbornness kicked up a notch. She couldn't give up when so much rode on this campaign and Rory's participation.
"Elizabeth, hurry up," Janice yelled from the parking lot.
"Lady, the rest of your party's ready to go."
Let 'em wait. "Did I mention the job will pay around thirty thousand dollars? Surely a ranch hand like you could use the money."
Rory pushed his hat off his forehead a bit. Now she had his attention.
Dark coffee-colored eyes peered down at her. The look in those eyes could sell refrigerators to Eskimos. Or hopefully, designer jeans to the average man. Or the average man's significant other.
Then gravel crunched under car tires, drawing his gaze away from her. When his attention returned a moment later, his interest had vanished.
"Lady, the next tour group pulled into the parking lot, and I don't have time for this."
She held out her card again. "If I agree to leave, will you take my contact info, and consider my business proposal?"
"Deal." Rory snatched the card out of her hand and shoved it in his shirt pocket. "But don't count on hearing from me."
That was okay. She believed in positive thinking. If she sent good karma into the world, good things would return to her. Now if she could only collect by getting Rory to agree to model—because she needed this cowboy or she was out of a job.
THREE DAYS LATER Rory sat in his worn leather desk chair as the banker he'd known all his life told him he couldn't approve a second mortgage.
"Rory, if things were different, if we were still a family owned bank, maybe I could approve this, but I've got stockholders to answer to. Twin Creeks carries too much debt to justify another loan."
He thanked John, reassured him that he understood it was simply a business decision, and hung up the phone.
Rory's chin sank to his chest. He'd already tried to sell some of their horses, but most folks were having financial difficulties, too. He'd looked for extra work, but there were too many unemployed people out there and no one was adding on help anyway. The second mortgage had been his last palatable choice to get the cash his mom needed. There had to be something he could do—his mom's life depended on it.
The McAlister family had gone through their savings to pay for the medical bills when Rory's dad had suffered a heart attack behind the wheel and sent his truck into a ditch, putting him and Rory's younger brother, Griffin, into the hospital. Then two years ago, when his dad's heart finally gave out, Rory cashed in most of their stocks to pay for those bills and his dad's funeral. Now, their mom had gone as far as she could with her cancer treatments and was left with one alternative, which turned out to be experimental—and expensive.
You have another alternative. You just don't like it.
He pulled open his middle desk drawer, shoved aside some papers and located Elizabeth Harrington-Smyth's business card.
He twirled it between his fingers as he stared out the window. The snow-capped Rocky Mountains filled his view. Though he'd seen them every day of his life, their beauty never failed to amaze him. Some people thought they had a magnificent view when they looked out at a city skyline. Personally, he didn't understand the appeal. Give him what God had created any day. Man's creations were strictly amateur in comparison.
His hands tightened around the chair arm and the worn leather creaked in protest. Visions of his dad sitting in this same chair flashed in Rory's mind. He still missed the old man every day. More so lately, since the doctor had found the inoperable tumor on his mother's brain. How he wished he could talk to his dad about what to do, even though he knew what his dad would say. Do whatever's necessary to get the money for your mother. She's a good woman. The rock of this family, and she damned well deserves every shot to beat cancer.
Knowing his mom had only one alternative didn't make this call any easier. Rory willed his hand to reach for the phone.
Not even a twitch.
Picking up a phone. Such a simple action, so why couldn't he?
Because this call would change his life irrevocably. But at least it was his choice, as opposed to bankers and doctors calling the shots. Life was full of choices. Some turned out well and some sucked pond water. All a body could do was think things through, make a careful decision and deal with any fallout.
The last thing Rory wanted to do was leave this ranch, even short term. He loved the land, the horses, and the hard work that made his muscles ache at the end of the day. He loved the mental challenge of managing the ranching business.
A quiet knock sounded on his office door. "Come in, Mom."
"How'd you know it was me?"
He smiled. "The ranch hands and Griff knock loud enough to break down the door. Avery rarely bothers to knock."
His mom grinned, but weariness filled her eyes, twisting his gut as she walked across the office. Until the last year she'd been active and energetic. Then she'd started chemo. The constant nausea had almost killed her, but hadn't done anything to shrink the tumor. Now, thanks to the steroids the doctor prescribed and her lack of energy for the long walks she enjoyed, her weight had ballooned. At least her hair had grown out enough for her to wear it in a short, spiky style. Despite all that, she hadn't given up. Talk about strong.
Her quiet strength always amazed him. She never complained, and remained positive. He'd always loved his mom, but now he admired her in a different way.
Rory said a silent prayer that this experimental treatment would work.
"Griffin is ready to take me and Avery to the airport." His mom stopped in front of his desk. Her frail hand rested on his forearm. "Are you sure we can afford this treatment, since insurance isn't covering it? It's so expensive."
Thank goodness for Avery. His little sister, who'd always driven him crazy, wanting to tag along with him and his friends, had turned out okay. Since their mother's diagnosis, she'd stepped into the family caretaker role. Avery coordinating their mom's appointments and accompanying her had allowed Rory to focus on putting food on the table and keeping the ranch afloat. He couldn't ask for a better sister.
"Don't worry about the money, Mom. I've got the situation under control."
She squeezed his arm and peered down at him. For a moment he worried that she'd read the lie in his eyes.
"If you're absolutely sure."
"I'll worry about the finances. You concentrate on getting well." He stood, walked around his desk and enveloped her in a hug, wishing he could take on this fight for her.
He couldn't bear to lose her, too. Not so soon after losing his dad.
She kissed him on the cheek, and he pulled away. "Now, get out of here. I don't want you to miss your flight."
Once his mother had closed the door behind her, Rory returned to his desk. He picked up the business card, flipped open his cell phone and dialed.