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The Ranch Contract: A Cowboy Daddy Romance by Dinah McLeod – Sample

Chapter One

Lora Harrison still couldn’t believe that she’d agreed to do this. She must be crazy.

Or desperate.

She shrugged her inner naysayer off irritably. It was true that she was going through a rough time right now. Work hadn’t been great lately. In fact, she hadn’t had much work, which was a problem a B-list actress couldn’t afford to have.

Portions of her conversation with her agent, Alice, came back to her.

“They cut me out!” she’d practically shrieked on the phone. She was battling anger and dismay in equal measure.

“Calm down, there will be other parts,” her agent had tried to reassure her.

Only her phone hadn’t exactly been ringing off the hook lately. She just didn’t get it. When she’d broken into the acting world two years ago, things had gone well. Casting directors seemed to love her—both her looks and her acting ability. She’d gotten a few bit parts, and then a commercial. The commercial, much to the surprise of everyone who was involved, had gone international and after that, she’d started getting cast in movies.

“Alice loved me then,” Lora said to her empty car, scowling at her rearview mirror. “When I was making us both money. But now that I’ve been cut out of the movie, she ships me off to some ranch.”

“It’ll be good for you,” Alice had told her. “Sometimes a change of scenery brings with it a change in perspective.”

But she didn’t need a change in perspective. She needed to understand what was happening here. Once, she’d shared a set with some big A-listers. And now she was the girl who spent seventy hours on a part only to get cut in production. Alice had offered to pay for her to enjoy a mini-vacation, but Lora was thinking deep down that it was a parting gift before she told her to get lost and find a new agent.

Lora gripped the steering wheel tighter, her lips pinching together at the thought. Don’t think about this. Stop it. You’re going to the ranch to relax, maybe do some tanning in the sun, not to throw yourself a pity party.

Except that the moment she pulled up, the tires of her silver Prius causing the red dirt to fly into the air forming a dust cloud, she could tell that it was rustic. She’d been hoping for a spa. But from the looks of the place, she’d been hoping in vain.

She reached for her the phone without even putting the car into the park. Instead, she kept her foot pressed against the brake pedal, ready to put it into reverse the moment she’d texted her agent.

“This must be some sort of joke,” she muttered to herself. But the moment she jabbed in her security code to unlock her phone, she saw something that made her jaw drop: no service. That was it. She had entered 1694, and if she didn’t do something fast she would be forced to assimilate.

Not happening.

But the moment she moved her arm to put the car into reverse, there was a knock on the window that made her jump. Her foot lifted from the pedal, and her car jolted forward before she slammed her foot back on the brake.

“Whoa there!” the voice outside her window said.

Fantastic. Freaking fantastic. She was going to kill Alice. Sending her here must have been some idea of a joke, but Lora wasn’t laughing. Far from it.

Cheeks burning, she rolled the window down.

“Howdy there.” The man who spoke had a bona fide cowboy hat atop his dirty blond hair and was smiling at her through the glass.

Great. He even spoke the western lingo. She refrained from rolling her eyes—but just barely—and managed a smile. “Hi. Um, sorry about that.”

“Yeah, you’ve got to keep this mechanical bull in park.” He laughed at his own joke, his merriment only growing when she didn’t join in.

“Uh, well…” And suddenly it hit her. A brilliant idea, but it must be executed perfectly. “I just got turned around. I’ll just be on my way—”

The stranger’s smile didn’t falter. “You’re Lora, right? We got the call to be expecting you.”

Well, fuck. She was trapped. Trapped by a grown man in a flannel shirt and a cowboy hat who made stupid jokes and a cell phone that wouldn’t so much as tell her the weather. Which judging by the air wafting in through her open window was hot.

“Come on in. I’ll introduce you to Nate and get you settled in.”

“Where should I park?”

He pointed a little ways away and Lora drove in that direction, keeping watch in the rearview mirror the entire time hoping that he would wait for her inside so that she could make a quick getaway. No such luck. In fact, he ambled after her, waiting for her to get out of her car.

Just her luck, she would get the overly helpful employee.

Sighing, she opened the door and stepped out. She’d worn the wrong shoes to be at a ranch, she thought as she looked down at her designer wedges with dismay.

“Hope you brought some boots,” Mr. Helpful said, as though reading her mind.

Closing her car door, Lora stood up straight to get a better look at him. He was attractive, for sure. Tall and built in all the right places. But there was something about his cheerful, overly accommodating manner that she found annoying.

“No.” She tried to keep her voice as level as possible. “I didn’t bring boots.”

“Huh.” That same white-toothed perfect grin again. “Who doesn’t bring boots to a ranch?”

“My agent didn’t mention a dress code.”

“Oh, well. We’ll get it figured out. Where’s your bag? I’ll carry it in for you.”

Without a word, she pressed down on the button on her key fob and with three long beeps the trunk opened.

Mr. Helpful arched his brows, grin bigger than ever. “Well, shoot, that’s the fanciest mec—”

“Please, don’t say it.”

“—mechanical bull I’ve ever seen.”

Lora leaned her head skyward and groaned. What had she gotten herself into?

But the man in front of her showed himself once more oblivious and picked up her gym bag, grimacing. “What’s in here? Barbells?”

“I’d think a big, strong man like you could handle it.” And without giving him a chance to answer she whirled on her heel and started for the ranch house. She’d noticed those muscles rippling under his flannel, but he was just too… weird for her to move beyond visual enjoyment.

As she stomped toward the house she noticed other details. There was a large shade tree right in front of the ranch house and as she approached she saw that the trunk was thick and the bark gnarled. It was kind of cool. Her eyes took in the cobblestone brick of the house, alternating gray and cream. The shutters were red—both a rustic and cowboy color, she supposed, and a statement piece. There were pink azaleas in the window box and old-fashioned lantern boxes giving light on either side of the door.

It certainly looked nicer at second glance than it had when she first pulled up. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad…

“Go on in,” Mr. Helpful called out.

Spoke too soon.

But she reached for the doorknob anyway and turned it, stepping inside cautiously. The inside was full of warm light, hardwood floors that shone, and the kind of décor you’d expect from a ranch. There was a deer head mounted above a brick fireplace. But there were surprising things, too. An antique golden dome clock sat atop the fireplace, its golden globes ticking away the seconds. And more flowers—in fact, vases covered every available space, the flowers every variety and color she could think of, as well as a few she couldn’t name.

“What do you think?”

But before she could answer, a man came striding into the room. Though he wore a cowboy hat just like Mr. Helpful, it suited him better. Otherwise, he was in a pair of well-worn faded blue jeans that were torn at the right knee, and not to be fashionable. A white undershirt was all that he had on top, his muscled arms and shoulders on full display for her enjoyment.

And she intended to enjoy every minute. Lora knew that she was gawking, but she didn’t care. Damn, he was sexy.

“Hey, you must be Lora. We’ve been expecting you.”

Oh, my. His deep, gravelly voice simultaneously sent shivers down her arms and made a jolt shoot straight to her sex. Her eyes traveled up, past the powerful arms, the broad chest, and to a strong jaw, full lips, deep brown eyes, and black hair. Bangs draped over his forehead, making his eyes stand out even more.

Those intense eyes were on her, sizing her up. She knew that he expected an answer. “I’ve been expecting to be here,” she murmured. Immediately she knew how ridiculous she sounded. God, what an idiot.

But he smiled at her like he didn’t mind. His smile…

She was putty. If her knees went any weaker, she’d collapse right here on this floor and be thankful for the pleasure of lying on his floor. Maybe he’d find mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in order. Could she get that lucky?

“I’m Nate. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He stuck his hand out toward her, but like the gaping moron that she was, all she could do was stare.

Take his hand, Lora. Come on, you can do this. Be normal, for heaven’s sake. But what was normal in the presence of this perfectly toned Adonis?

“My agent told me about this place,” she blurted out, pleased with herself for finally thinking of something to say. She even reached out and touched his hand, but it was more an awed, unbelieving stroke than a shake.

Nate either didn’t notice, or didn’t care. “Alice, right?”

She nodded, feeling more tongue-tied by the moment. “You… you know her?”

“Sure do. She’s come here a couple times.”

Suddenly, she felt the need to reevaluate her opinion of her agent.

“Let’s get you checked in.” He reached out a hand and Mr. Helpful handed over her duffle bag. Nate didn’t wince at the weight, which raised him even higher in her estimation. But he did arch a brow at her.

What was it about that dark brow going up, an almost warning look on his face that made her shudder in a way that wasn’t at all unpleasant? She had no idea. The only thing Lora knew for sure was that Cowboy Nate was evoking things in her she didn’t know she could feel.

Calm down, girl. You’ve seen plenty of hot guys before.

Which was true. In her business, each and every person she met was beautiful. That was their job, and they excelled at it. But Nate… there was something different there, though she hadn’t put her finger on it just yet.

“Miss Lora?”

Ooh, she was ‘miss’ now? He made her name sound sexier than she’d ever thought it to be. “Yes. I’m sorry. Of course. Lead the way.” She knew she was rambling, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself. Cheeks ablaze, she followed him as he crossed the hardwood floors and went up a long set of stairs. She was panting a bit by the time they reached the top, and wasn’t altogether sure it had anything to do with the exercise. He had led the way, after all, and her eyes had gotten to drink their fill of his gorgeous behind.

When he stopped at the door and turned to face her, Lora felt her cheeks go from warm to five-star alarm heat. The way that his dark eyes danced almost made her believe he was telepathic and knew every naughty thing she’d been thinking.

“You okay? You look a little flushed.”

That cemented it. He knew. He knew, and he was teasing her. “I… I’m just… excited to be here.” Wow, what a difference fifteen minutes could make.

He gave her a smile before turning back to the door and opening it. But he stepped back and gestured her inside.

“Thanks,” she murmured as she walked past him. The room surprised her. It was small, but neat and airy with a big bay window and white gauzy curtains that were floating in the breeze that wafted in through the open window. There was a quilt that looked handmade draped over the bed, which she fingered gently before she took a seat.

“I hope it meets your expectations.”

“Yes, it’s very nice.”

“Great. Alice mentioned that you’d stay a week to start with, and then we’d go from there.”

Lora heard this pronouncement with some surprise. Go from there? She couldn’t afford to be out of work any longer than that. If you were gone too long, people forgot about you, their brains making room to remember new names and faces that were perhaps even prettier than the ones they’d forgotten.

“What else did Alice say?” she asked, looking at him demurely through her lashes.

“Well, I’ve got to tell you, the woman she described is… you don’t match her description so far.”

“Oh?” Curiosity won out over her desire to play coy. “Why is that? What did she say?”

Nate just laughed, the sound warm and comforting, somehow.

“I hope you’re not disappointed, at least.”

But he didn’t rise to the bait. “Not from what I’ve seen so far.”

Which was good… wasn’t it? She couldn’t quite be sure without knowing what had been said about her. But never mind. She could just ask her. Yes, Alice had a lot of explaining to do. “By the way, my cell phone doesn’t get service out here.” She made a face.

“Yeah, we like things old-fashioned out here.”

“What?” Forgetting to be tongue-tied for a moment, she laughed. “You don’t use a cell phone?”

“No, ma’am, I don’t. We have a house phone downstairs.”

She gaped at him. “But, I mean, what do you do when you leave the ranch?”

Nate chuckled, but this time the sound irritated her because she knew he was laughing at her. “We do what folks used to do before cell phones. If we want to talk to someone, we go visit.”

“Yeah, but… I mean, that’s fine if you really need something, but…”

“Listen, Miss Lora, I know it sounds silly to someone like you, but I promise you can live without your phone for a week.”

I’m not so sure about that, Buckaroo.

“Your stay has already been paid for, so why don’t you give it a try?”

Damn it, she didn’t think she’d ever be able to say no to that face. And he must have known it, because before she knew it he was producing a small stack of papers from the desk drawer and laying it out.

“What’s that?”

“This is just the contract we require for each guest. Miss Alice might’ve paid for your stay, but you, as the actual guest, need to be the one to sign. Come over and give it a look.”

Unconcerned, she walked over and peered over his shoulder. But rather than glance at the contract, she inhaled his manly clean scent. “What does it say?”

Nate didn’t laugh this time. In fact, he looked a tad bit stern when he said, “You need to read it for yourself, ma’am.”

Ma’am. Yes, she really was weak in the knees. In fact, she might like it better than ‘miss.’ She couldn’t decide. “Do you have a pen?”

Those dark brows went up again. “You’re just going to sign it?”

She shrugged a shoulder. “You said I have to, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but I really think you should—”

Spotting one on the desk, she leaned forward and plucked it out of a basket full of paper clips, post-its, and a neat stack of clean white paper. In one clean motion, she uncapped the pen and leaned down, signing her name with a flourish. “There.”

But he didn’t seem amused, or even surprised.

The look that crossed his face was one she couldn’t mistake.

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