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Author Ruth Ryan Langan
Author Ruth Ryan Langan


by R.C. Ryan

The Cowboy Next Door


Monroe Ranch—Spring—Sixteen years ago

The calendar said it was April, but in the hills above the town of Haller Creek, snow still trickled from low-hanging clouds.

“Over here,” Mackenzie Monroe shouted as he and his crew of wranglers moved among the cattle milling about, searching out cows in need of help with birthing. It was calving season, and the grass beneath their boots was a sea of mud.

His three newly adopted sons, twelve-year-old Ben, eleven-year-old Sam, and ten-year-old Finn, were spending their first spring on Mac’s ranch.

These troubled brothers, after years of separation in the foster care system, were struggling to adjust to this strange new life. Though they’d finally achieved their goal of being reunited, they weren’t ready to trust adults, especially Mac, who expected them to handle ranch chores alongside his wranglers and the three old men who also made their home on Monroe Ranch.

Otis Green, a black man born on the south side of Chicago, may have looked like a fish out of water in the hills of Montana, but in truth, he’d found a forever home here.

Roscoe Flute, an itinerant cowboy who’d come to repair some equipment twenty years previous, had made himself at home in the bunkhouse and had never left.

Zachariah York, a retired lawyer, had come to heal a broken hip and had remained as part-time cook and house- keeper while the others saw to the more physically demanding ranch chores.

As old cowboy Roscoe paused to push his arms, elbow deep, up a bawling cow, the three boys gaped in horror.

While Ben and Finn were speechless, Sam yelled, “What the . . . ” He shot a sideways glance at Mac, who had forbidden cuss words in his home. “Why are you hurting that cow?”

“Not hurting her, boy.” Roscoe grinned, showing the gap where teeth once were. “She’s about to become a new mama, and having a bit of trouble. She needs a little help delivering her first calf.”

“Gross.” Finn was thoroughly disgusted, even though he couldn’t seem to look away.

“Yeah, gross. I thought nature took care of all that stuff.” With a sort of horrified fascination, Sam stepped closer.

“Sometimes a new mama needs a little help. That’s what a rancher does.” The old cowboy grunted, pulled, twisted.

There was a sudden gush of liquid, and then an opaque sac dropped to the ground. Minutes later the newborn calf broke free of the sac and let out a feeble sound. At once the cow, now as docile as she’d been agitated just moments be- fore, began calmly licking her new calf.

“Ewww.” Finn turned to his adoptive father. “If you think I’m ever going to do what Roscoe did, you’re crazy. I’m never going to be a rancher. That was disgusting.”

Sam, ever the tease, pointed a finger at his younger brother. “Oh, no. Now I bet you’re going to cry like a girl.”

“Am not.” Finn’s chin came up like a prizefighter. “And don’t tell me you’d ever do what Roscoe just did.”

Sam gave a negligent shrug of his shoulders, unable to resist a dare. “Before coming here, I had to do lots worse.”

Mac went very still, listening not just to the things these boys said but to what they didn’t say. He knew their years of abuse had been painful enough to have the boys setting out during a snowstorm to find freedom. That decision had led them to his ranch, where they’d forced their way inside, searching for food and shelter. His first inclination had been to contact the authorities. Instead, he’d followed his better nature. And now, though there were days when he wondered what he’d been thinking, they were legally his. His sons, though they were still the tough, ready-to-stand-and-fight- the-world delinquents he’d first encountered.

Mac knew it would take years, or perhaps a lifetime, to erase all the doubt and pain and mistrust they’d been forced to endure. Each of them carried scars, both physical and emotional. Ben, the oldest, did his best to look out for the other two. Finn, the youngest, took comfort in the presence of two older brothers. But it was Sam who worried Mac the most. Sam, the tough guy, the free spirit, who always man- aged to spit in the eye of rules. Sam, who could actually laugh in the face of danger. The boy was fearless, facing every challenge like a superhero, hands fisted, eyes steady, never holding back. And always, when life tossed him to the ground, the boy got back up, laughing.

Always laughing.

Was that healthy? Mac wondered. Did it mean Sam was leaving his past behind? Or was he merely masking his pain with false humor?

While Mac fretted, Sam followed Roscoe to the next cow. Before the old cowboy could pull on his rubber gloves, Sam stopped him.

“Okay. I saw what you did. Now it’s my turn.”

The old man shot him an astonished look. “You said it was gross.”

“Yeah. It is. But like you said, this is what a rancher does.”

“Listen, boy. It takes a lot of muscle to birth a calf. I don’t think you’re ready.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. You watch me. If you think I’m get- ting in the way, push me aside and take over. But at least let me try.”

The cowboy did just that, watching as the boy grunted, and sweated, and pulled until his arms had to be nearly falling off. But to Sam’s credit, he kept at it until, without warning, the earlier scene was repeated, and a contented new mama stood licking her bawling calf clean.

“I did it.” Sam turned to Roscoe and high-fived him.

The old man grinned. “Yes, you did. I think we’re going to make a rancher out of you, boy.”

While the other wranglers moved on, helping in other births, Sam stayed where he was, watching the cow and calf, and grinning like a proud papa. Mac walked over and dropped an arm around the boy’s shoulders. “You did good, Sam.”

“Thanks. That was so fuc—” He stopped, started again. “That was cool.”

Mac’s voice lowered. “And for that cuss word, you’ll do

Finn’s chores tomorrow.”

“I could have said a lot worse.” “I know.”

When the man walked away, the boy remained, his goofy grin intact. Hell, yes, he’d do Finn’s chores. Right now, he’d do Ben’s chores, too. He’d just helped deliver a calf. A year ago, living a life of misery, such a thing wasn’t even imaginable. Now here he was, free as a bird, living on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. Living a life he’d never dreamed possible.

Look at him. He was a damned cowboy like those actors in movies. Except this was even better. He was the real thing.

His laughter, unbridled, joyful, drifted on the breeze.


Monroe Ranch—Present Day

Hoo boy.” Ben, dressed in his crisp sheriff’s uniform, his badge winking in the late-summer sunlight, held his nose as Sam led his roan gelding past him into the barn. “My brother, the trail bum. How long have you been up in the hills?”

Sam began unsaddling his mount. “Three weeks. I know I smell. I’ve been in these clothes for days, and eating dust for miles.”

“It’s not just the smell. You look like one of those wild mountain men. If your beard gets any thicker, it’ll completely cover your ugly face. Not that that’s a bad thing.”

Sam gave one of his rogue grins. “That’s not what the girls at the Hitching Post say.”

His brother laughed. Sam’s prowess with both a pool cue and the ladies was well known at the saloon in the little town of Haller Creek. Men and women alike were drawn to his zany sense of humor and his love of a good joke. “If they could see you now, they’d have a change of heart.”

“It’s nothing that a shower and shave won’t fix.”

Ben leaned his arms on the stall’s door. “What kept you in the hills so long?”

“I offered to handle the herd while Dad and the others caught up on ranch chores”—Sam shot a pointed look at his older brother—“now that one of us has left ranching behind in favor of being a sheriff. You going to lend a hand, or just stand there trying to look important?”

Ben stood a little taller. “You think the uniform makes me look important?”

“Only in your own mind, bro.” Sam flung his saddle over the rail of the stall before filling troughs with oats and water. “I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that my big brother is on the right side of the law for a change.”

Ben laughed and Sam joined in.

Sam started toward the house, and then turned. “You coming?”

Ben shook his head. “I just got a call from Becca. She’s coming home early, so I’m heading back to town to pick her up. We’ll be back in time for dinner.”

Sam shot him a sideways glance. “You’d think after al- most a year of wedded bliss, things would change. You still rushing home to your blushing bride?”

“You bet.” The mere mention of Ben’s pretty young wife, Becca, had his grin spreading from ear to ear. “Since we’re still in that honeymoon stage, I thought I’d . . .”

Sam covered his ears. “Stop. Too much information. Re- member I’m your brother, not your confessor. Take all that gooey love stuff home, bro.”

“Yeah. I’m going. But before I leave I think you should know—”

Sam was shaking his head as he started walking faster. “Not now. I’ve got the longest shower in history waiting for me. I intend to grab all the hot water before Dad and the others beat me to it. Plan on heading to the Hitching Post after supper. I’m hoping I can lure a couple of suckers from the Murphy Ranch to challenge me to a game of nine ball tonight.”

“Okay. But before you go inside, you ought to know. Dad hired a housekeeper.”

“What?” Sam stopped dead in his tracks. “What’s wrong with Zachariah’s cooking and cleaning?”

“Nothing. But I guess Mary Pat told Dad about this woman who needed a job. And Dad—”

Sam held up a hand. Mary Pat Healy, social worker, visiting nurse, and homeschool advisor for the county, was the proverbial bleeding heart, eager to help every needy person in the entire state of Montana. “And Mary Pat asked Dad to work his magic and hire this poor old woman until she can get on her feet.”

“Something like that. But . . .”

Sam eyed a battered car that had seen better days parked outside the barn. “I guess a couple of old men weren’t enough for Dad. Now we’ve added an old woman to keep an eye on.” Sam climbed the steps to the porch and pushed open the back door without a pause, leaving his older brother to stare after him with a wide smile splitting his lips.

Once inside the mudroom Sam paused to pry off his filthy, dung-caked boots before strolling through the empty kitchen to the parlor, unbuttoning his shirt as he walked.

That’s when he spotted a small figure headed toward him carrying a huge box.

“What the hell?” His reaction was automatic. No sweet old lady should be handling something as heavy as this. “Here. That looks like it weighs more than you. Give me that.”

He forcibly took the box from her hands and had to blink twice. He found himself looking into amber eyes so wide, they seemed too big for the pretty face that framed them. To his astonishment, it was a pretty young face.

The woman’s features went from relaxed to fearful in the blink of an eye. “I don’t know what gives you the right to come barging in here, but if you aren’t out of here by the count of three, I’ll shout down the rooftop. I happen to know the sheriff is right outside.”

“I was.” Ben’s voice came from behind Sam. “Good thing I followed Sam inside.”

They both turned to see Ben standing in the doorway. He didn’t bother to hide his amusement. “I see I’m too late. You two have already met.”

Sam’s eyes narrowed. “Okay. What’s the joke? I thought you said Dad had hired an old lady.”

“That’s not what I said.” Ben turned to the woman. “This smelly cowboy fresh from the hills is my brother Sam.” To Sam he added, “Our new housekeeper, Penny Cash.”

At the mention of her name Sam’s lips curved into a teasing grin. “Really? Penny Cash? You’re making that up, right, Miss . . . Money?”

“What a tired joke. Believe me, I’ve heard them all.” She looked from Ben to Sam before taking the box from Sam’s hands. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll store these things in the mudroom and finish cleaning out the spare bedroom, which is now my bedroom.”

She started to brush past Sam, but he stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Okay. What are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere, cleaning up after a houseful of men? Are you on the run from the law?”

She glowered at the offending hand until he removed it. “Mackenzie Monroe knows everything he needs to know about me. If you have any questions, ask him. Or better yet, ask your brother, the sheriff.”

Ben slapped a hand on his brother’s back. “Better watch out, bro. Looks like she’s already made up her mind about you.”

She looked Sam up and down and wrinkled her nose at the offending odor before turning to Ben. “I find it hard to believe this trail bum is the brother you and Finn bragged about. The one who charms all the ladies from six to sixty.” Sam puffed up enough to say, “Yeah. They got that right.” She couldn’t hold back her laughter. “Poor things. They must be desperate. I pity them all.”

Without a backward glance she headed toward the kitchen, shaking her head.

When she was gone, Ben was grinning. “Way to go. I could see she was really impressed.” He paused a beat before adding, “Looks like you’re losing your touch with the ladies.” A grin spread across Sam’s face. “You think I care what one sassy female thinks?”

“Hell, yes. I know you too well. You never could resist a challenge. You’re going to brood until you find a way to charm her.”

“You got that right.” Sam turned away, eager for that shower.

“Welcome back to civilization, Samuel.” Zachariah, his lion’s mane of white hair framing a handsome, weathered face, looked up from his gin and tonic as Sam stepped into the kitchen.

“It’s good to be home.” Sam reached into the refrigerator, helped himself to a longneck, and took a long, cool drink.

Mac clapped a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Thanks for stepping in with the herd.”

“You know I don’t mind, Dad. I can’t think of anywhere

I’d rather be than up in those hills.”

Zachariah shared a knowing smile with Roscoe and Otis, who were grinning from ear to ear. “Unless it’s in town running the table at the Hitching Post.”

Sam chuckled. “Well, yeah. That’s a given.”

Mac indicated the young woman across the room. “Have you met Penny?”

“We met.” Sam couldn’t help but study her backside as she bent to remove a roasting pan from the oven. She was wearing slim denims and a faded T-shirt, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, making her look even younger.

She barely gave him a glance before setting the pan on top of the stove and lifting the lid.

Sam inhaled the amazing aroma that drifted toward him, making his mouth water.

Zachariah turned as Finn walked in carrying his ever- present briefcase stuffed with legal documents. “Ah. Finnian. Just in time for supper.”

Seeing Sam, Finn’s face creased into a wide smile and he crossed to his brother. “Hey. How’re things in the hills?”

“Quiet. How’s the lawyer biz going?”

“I picked up another client today.” He tossed aside his briefcase to accept a longneck from Mac. “You know a rancher named Edgar Hanover?”

His father thought a moment before nodding. “Does he have a ranch up on Stony Mountain?”

“That’s him.” Finn turned to Zachariah. “He wants to take on the county for creating a dam that dried up the branch of the Stony Mountain Creek that feeds into his land.”

Zachariah arched a bushy white brow. “I’ll remind you. The county has deep pockets, Finnian. They’ll spare no expense. You’ll be up against an experienced legal team that is kept on retainer for only one purpose—to shoot down the locals who complain about the way things have always been done.”

Finn turned to Sam, and the two wore matching dangerous smiles.

Finn took a sip of beer before saying, “I figured as much. That’s why I told Edgar Hanover I’d be happy to represent him.” In an aside, he said to Zachariah, “And I’m hoping you’ll give me the benefit of your expertise.”

“Going up against the big guns, are you, lad?” The old man rubbed his hands together. There was nothing he liked better than a chance to step back into the ring and use his years of experience as one of the top trial lawyers in the state. “You have as much of my time and expertise as you want, Finnian, my boy.”

They looked toward the door when Ben and Becca walked in holding hands. In Becca’s other hand was a leash attached to a big brown dog with floppy ears.

“Hey. What’ve you got there?” Sam was down on his knees, ruffling the dog’s fur and accepting sloppy dog kisses in return.

“This is Archie.” Becca’s voice was warm with love. “We just got him from the rescue in town. We thought about a puppy, but then we decided to give a second chance to an older dog that needed a home.”

“What breed of dog is he?”

“A pure mutt.” Ben drew an arm around his wife. “Becca always wanted a dog. I think he’ll be good company when I have to work nights.”

“And a great watchdog,” Sam said with a grin. “He’ll lick any intruder to death.”

The family was laughing as they gathered around to pet the dog. If a wildly wagging tail was any indication, Archie was lapping up all the attention.

Ben accepted a longneck from his father. “We were just taking a look at how our house is shaping up. Conway is doing a fine job.”

Mac gave a nod of approval. “Conway Miller is a good, honest building contractor. You two hired the best. When does he think you’ll be able to move in?”

“Not for another six or seven months. But that’s okay. Becca and I are comfortable in the little house in town.” Ben looked around. “I’m glad to see we’re not too late for supper.”

Sam gave a snort of laughter. “Some things never change.” He put an arm around his sister-in-law’s shoulders. “I thought Mary Pat was giving you cooking lessons.”

Becca nodded. “She is. But only when she’s in town, which isn’t nearly often enough to suit me.”

“Or to suit Dad,” Sam said in an aside, causing Mac to blush. “Have you met Penny?”

“We met in town before she came to work here.” Becca hurried over to give the young woman a hug. “Hi, Penny. I hope it’s all right that we’ve barged in on you without warning.”

“You know I’m used to cooking for a crowd. The more the merrier.” Penny bent to pet Archie.

It was obvious that Penny and Becca had already become comfortable with one another.

Becca reached for a platter. “The least I can do is help pass things around.”

As the others took their places around the table, Zachariah joined the two young women in passing platters of tender roast beef with garden potatoes and green beans, along with rolls warm from the oven.

To keep Archie busy, Becca took a plastic bag of dog food from her pocket and set it in a bowl in a corner of the room.

When they were all gathered around the table, Mac suggested they join hands in honor of their missing member, Mary Pat, who always insisted on a blessing whenever she managed to join them.

He smiled as he intoned, “We’re thankful for this food, this family, and those who aren’t able to be here with us this day.”

With murmured words of approval, they dug in.

“That was a fine meal, Penny.” Mac glanced at the young woman seated across the table.

For the most part she’d eaten dinner in silence, content to let the others carry the conversation.

“Thanks, Mr. . . . ” She paused and corrected herself. When Mackenzie Monroe had hired her, he’d asked her to call him Mac. “Thanks, Mac.”

“Where’d you learn to cook like that, Miss Penny?”

She smiled at Otis, easy in his company. “I have three brothers. I learned early that growing young men like to eat.”

“I bet your ma was a good cook, too.”

She stared hard at the table. “My mom died when I was ten.”

Otis stared helplessly at Mac, who strove to lighten the mood. “I’m sorry to hear that, Penny . . . Mary Pat said you earned your teaching certificate at the university in Bozeman.” She nodded. “I started studying online, and finished at

Becca put a hand over Penny’s. “I went to college there, too. I bet we were there at the same time. Wouldn’t it be something if we had mutual friends?”

Penny gave a shake of her head. “I didn’t have much time to socialize. I carried two jobs while I was there. I worked in a little café in the mornings, and right after class I worked in a coffee shop off campus.”

“And I thought my schedule was tough. When did you sleep?” Becca asked.

Penny gave a short laugh. “Good question. Mostly I went without it. But I didn’t mind. Getting my teacher’s certification was worth it.”

Sam winked. “I always thought it would be fun to be teacher’s pet.”

Seeing the heat that stained Penny’s cheeks, he added quickly, “But if you’re a teacher, why aren’t you teaching?” Mac turned to explain. “Penny was brought to Haller Creek by the school board to replace Nancy Carter.”

Sam nodded in understanding. “Pryor Carter was telling everybody that he and Nancy were finally having a baby after six years of trying.”

“Unfortunately, Nancy lost the baby.” Mac sipped his coffee. “She and Pryor have been really shaken by the loss. Her doctor said work would be the best way for her to move on with her life, so she asked Chet Butler and the board to keep her job available. The board agreed that they were legally bound to honor their commitment to her, since technically she was still under contract.”

Sam glanced at Penny. “But what about your job?”

She shook her head. “Mr. Butler explained that since I never got a chance to sign a contract, I had no legal rights.”

“Couldn’t you teach somewhere else?”

She sighed. “With school already in session, all the positions are filled. Mr. Butler offered to let me sub whenever one of the teachers needs a day, and I’m happy to do that, but I have a lot of college debt to clear. I need a full-time job, and Mary Pat suggested I come here.”

Sam arched a brow. “Not surprising. Mary Pat seems to have a logical solution for every problem under the sun.”

Sam’s words had Mac nodding. “That’s our Mary Pat, all right.”

“Do I smell pumpkin pie?” Roscoe’s question had Penny pushing away from the table, glad for the change in conversation.

Over her shoulder she called, “I think it’s cool enough to cut now. I made whipped cream, too.”

“I’ll help.” Sam walked to the refrigerator and removed a bowl mounded with whipped cream. Even before he reached for a spoon he’d dug his finger in to taste. “I’ll be darned. Not out of a can or carton, but the real thing.” He dipped a big serving spoon into it and ate it in one gulp.

Finn chuckled. “That’s the fastest I’ve ever seen you offer to help. Now I know why.”

“So do I.” Penny fished a second spoon from the drawer and took the bowl from Sam’s hands. “After you’ve licked that one clean, you can put it in the sink. I don’t want you passing your germs around to the rest of us.”

“Hey.” Sam tried to reach over her shoulder with the spoon, but she was quicker and snatched the bowl away.

She shot him a withering look. “If you want a piece of pie, you’d better not try that again in my kitchen, cowboy.”

While Sam stepped back, the rest of the family hooted with laughter.

“Guess the lady told you who’s in charge, bro.”

At Finn’s taunt, Sam was forced to drop the spoon in the sink and take his place at the table. But one bite of pumpkin pie smothered in whipped cream had his smile returning.

Penny Cash may appear shy, but she certainly knew how to take charge. And she could cook. He was willing to overlook her obvious character flaw as long as he could indulge his sweet tooth on something as good as this.

“So,” Finn said around a mouthful of pie. “I guess you must have missed your nights in town while you were stuck up in the hills with nothing but cows for company. Planning on heading to the Hitching Post tonight?”

Penny’s head came up sharply, and she regarded Sam with a look of disdain, the way she might study a big, hairy spider.

Seeing the look of disapproval on her face, Sam gave a slow, reluctant shake of his head. “That was the plan. But after three weeks in the hills, and a full stomach, I’ve decided I need to sleep in a real bed.”

He saw the rigid line of Penny’s back as she walked to the stove and couldn’t resist adding, “There’s time enough for teaching the yokels the game of nine ball some other time.”

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