Love Somebody Like You
Excerpt from Love Somebody Like You
Sally Ryland squeezed her eyes shut and opened them again, but the numbers on her computer screen didn’t change. The mortgage payment would come out of Ryland Riding’s bank account today, the feed bill was a month overdue, and her quarterly insurance premium came due in two weeks. She loved this place with all her heart, but most of the time she was treading water, desperately trying to keep the whole operation afloat.
If the bank foreclosed on this property, not only would her business go down the drain, but she’d be homeless. She’d lose her personal piece of heaven, not to mention her beloved horses and flock of chickens. She’d lose her way of life. Her independence. She’d be left with nothing.
But it wasn’t going to happen. Day by day, she hung on—even if it was by fingernails bitten to the quick. And so far today was proving to be one of the good ones. The mail had brought a couple of checks from riding students, totaling enough to hang on for a while longer.
Just as well Corrie had quit two weeks ago, and that Sally hadn’t been able to find a new assistant. Even though Corrie had worked for peanuts plus a free room, Sally needed every “peanut” now. This past weekend, a married couple who boarded horses with her had told her they’d be moving from Caribou Crossing to the Fraser Valley.
She stood up from the old desk in her office in the barn, stretched, and dug her fingers into her aching lower back. It was damned hard work handling this place on her own, but she’d done it before and could do it now.
It was Tuesday afternoon and the eight kids in her beginner children’s class—aged five to seven—would be here in an hour. Energy overcame the exhaustion that had dogged her footsteps since Corrie’s departure, and she bustled out of the office, smiling. She loved children as much as she loved horses, this countryside, and her chickens. Life was good after all. It was great, in fact.
She’d long ago put her old dream of a happy marriage and two or three kids behind her. Or, rather, her husband, Pete, had killed that dream. The charming boyfriend who had wooed her so romantically had, once they were wed, taught her how insidiously love could tip over into fear and pain. No way would she ever put herself in that position again—which meant she’d live her life alone.
She brushed aside the negative thoughts. Pete had been dead for three years. She was safe. Her life was her own.
The lesson horses that she’d brought in from the paddock waited in stalls. As she headed for the tack room to gather grooming supplies, the sound of a powerful engine coming down the driveway outside made her change direction. Striding down the wide aisle between the banks of stalls, she spoke to the horses who hung their heads over the doors, their ears cocked. “No, I’m not expecting anyone.”
She stopped in the doorway of the barn, squinting against early-July sunshine as a big silver pickup truck stopped in the parking area. Hitched to it was a battered silver and white trailer, the kind of rig that contained living quarters for humans and for horses. She’d had a smaller version in her barrel racing days. An image flashed into her mind.
A younger Sally, dressed in her brown and silver rodeo costume, leaned forward as her horse cleanly rounded the third and last barrel on the course and they sprinted for the finish line. The announcer’s voice boomed, “Looks like Sally Pantages and Autumn Mist are gonna chalk up another win today, folks!”
A punch of nostalgia hit her. For the mare that had been her partner and best friend. For life on the circuit. For the woman she’d once been. Before Pete.
Outside, the engine cut off, the driver’s door opened, and a man stepped down. With the sun in her eyes, she couldn’t see details, only the shape of a cowboy, from hat to boots. He had the stride of one, too: easy and athletic, confident and purely male. In her early twenties, she’d found that so sexy.
Now, she drew back into the shadows. At thirty-two, it was a very long time since she’d felt sexy. Men made her feel wary, not aroused.
Pete’s hands, gripping her shoulders . . . “Other men,” he said, “they only want one thing from you, baby. Don’t you lead them on now. Remember, I’m the one who loves you, who understands you. You’re my wife.”
She jerked her shoulders, banishing the memory as the man came toward her. Probably he was a prospective boarder, or a parent looking to arrange lessons for his child. Though she never felt comfortable being alone with a man, new business would sure be welcome.
“Sally?” he said as he approached, sweeping off his straw hat. “That you?” Where she stood in the shade of the barn, he wouldn’t be able to see her very well.
“Yes. Do I know—”
Oh my gosh. She did know him. Now that he was close, blocking the sun’s glare, she recognized that striking face with the dark skin and bold features of his aboriginal heritage. She hadn’t seen him in seven years, not since she married Pete.
“Ben Traynor?” She gaped at him, remembering the wiry bronc rider three years her junior, with his cocky swagger and those dancing chestnut brown eyes framed with long black lashes. “What are you doing here?”
He was all grown up now, that was for sure. Around six feet tall, he was still lean but more solidly muscled, nicely filling out clean Wranglers and a tan Western shirt with rolled-up sleeves. His left arm was in a collar and cuff sling.
“Just passing by,” he said in a husky drawl. “It’s been a while.”
Her gaze lifted back to his face, even more handsome with maturity. Shaggy dark hair brushed past his shirt collar, hair that glinted with chestnut highlights that matched his eyes. Those amazing eyes. Eyes that, she realized, were making their own survey of her body and face.
“Yes, it has,” she agreed.
His gaze reminded her that she’d changed, too. Ben would remember her in figure-hugging pants and fancy Western shirts, with long, strawberry-blond hair and a touch of make-up. Now her clothing was loose and nondescript; she chopped off her hair with nail scissors when it got in her eyes; and the closest thing to make-up her face ever saw was lip balm. Not only didn’t she have the time to fuss over her appearance, but she had learned that it was safest to be semi-invisible.
As for Ben Traynor, he couldn’t be semi-invisible if he tried. She managed to tear her fascinated gaze from his face. The sling that looped around his neck and cuffed his left wrist sure did bring back the old days. And for a moment she was the old Sally, teasing, “Still can’t stay on a bucking bronc, eh?”
“Fractured my damned shoulder competing at Williams Lake.” The Stampede and Rodeo had been held this past weekend, the Canada Day long weekend.
“Fractured?” That was worse than she’d guessed. Grimacing in sympathy and regretting her joke, she said, “Sorry. How bad is it? Are you going to be out of commission?” Rodeo cowboys were notoriously tough to the point of being stupid. A broken bone wouldn’t necessarily stop one from riding.
Ben scowled. “Yeah. The doc says if I ride before it heals some, that’d probably be the end to my season.”
“Not to mention you could wind up with a serious enough injury that it ends your career. We’ve both seen that happen.” Some cowboys were so “macho” that the word was a synonym for “idiotic.”
He nodded. “And I still got a lot of good years in me.”
“If your shoulder’s that bad, are you supposed to be driving?”
“Nah. But what’m I gonna do? Sit on my butt in Williams Lake? Figure I’ll drive back home to Alberta, and catch up with the rodeo in a bit.”
“How long will you be out?”
“He says I should give it six weeks. So that means . . .” He gave a one-shoulder shrug.
“Three or four?” That must be one serious fracture.
“Worst-case scenario, I figure three. I heal quickly and I need to get back in the game. You know how that goes.”
“Yeah.” You only made money if you competed and placed. Earnings also determined whether you qualified for the Canadian Finals Rodeo and the chance to win higher purses, not to mention championships.
A grin snuck across his mouth, a cousin to that old cocky one. “Just so’s you know, that bronc didn’t buck me off until after the buzzer. I ended up taking first.”
Though she was impressed, she wasn’t about to act like a buckle bunny. She’d always hated the way those rodeo groupies oohed and aahed all over the cowboys. “Guess that’s some consolation.”
His eyes twinkled. “You always were hard on me, Sally Pantages. But damn, it’s real good to see you all the same. It’s been forever.”
And that brought her back to reality. She hadn’t been Sally Pantages for a long time. “It has,” she said stiffly. Since she’d last seen Ben, she’d given up barrel racing, married, moved from Alberta to British Columbia, bought Ryland Riding along with Pete, built up a business—
“I was sorry to hear about your husband.” His gruff voice cut through her thoughts. “It’s not right, a guy that young dying from a heart attack.”
Wondering how Ben had heard, she ducked her head and muttered, “Thanks.” She hated it when people offered sympathy. It sent sour pangs of shame and guilt through her. People assumed she was a grieving widow who’d been deeply in love with her husband. The bitter truth was, in the last year or two of her marriage she’d more than once wished Pete dead, and his death from a massive heart attack at age thirty had been partly her fault.
It was time to change the subject. Not to mention, time to get back to work. She straightened her shoulders. “Ben, I have kids coming for a lesson and I need to get their horses ready. It’s been nice seeing you, but . . .” And it had been. Not only was he awfully easy on the eyes, but for a moment he’d taken her back to the days when life was uncomplicated and fun. When she had been uncomplicated and fun. She’d actually relaxed with him, which was something she rarely did with a man. Now, though, she needed to get back to her routine.
“Can’t get rid of me that easily.”
For the first time since she’d recognized him, a shiver of anxiety rippled through her. The easy grin on his face did nothing to relieve it. A man’s smile and charm didn’t guarantee safety.
Ben went on. “’Sides, your sister’d have my hide.”
Her heart gave a painful jerk. God, how she missed her family. “You’ve seen Penny?”
“At the rodeo in Wainwright. She was volunteering at one of the concessions. We got chatting. She said her sister used to barrel race and gave your name, so I said I used to know you. When I mentioned that I was heading out to Williams Lake, she told me where you were, and about Pete. She asked me to stop by if I had a chance.”
“She did?” It was almost six years since Sally had spoken to her family, since they’d cut her out of their lives for marrying Pete and moving here. Once, she and her younger sister had shared confidences, ganged up on their parents, done each other’s hair. Now, after all this time, Penny had asked Ben to drop by and see her? “How is she? Did she say—” Frustrated, Sally shook her head. “No, sorry, I don’t have time to talk.” She was desperate for news, but her students and their moms would be here soon.
“I’ll help you get the horses ready.”
She eyed his sling, knowing he needed to wear it so the broken bones would heal in the correct position. “What can you do with one hand?”
“I’d be real happy to show you.” His low, suggestive chuckle and the gleam in his eyes left no doubt that he was talking about more than saddling a few horses.
And Lord, for one quick, astonishing moment, she felt a responding tingle of sexual heat. Turning quickly to hide the color that flamed in her cheeks, she said crisply, “If that was an attempt at flirtation, I’m not interested.”
“Okay, sorry. Old habits, I guess.”
Old habits? Hah! No doubt he still cut a swathe through the buckle bunnies.
“I’m right-handed,” he went on. “I can help with the horses. Then how about I hang around while you give your lesson? Maybe give my horse some water and exercise. After, we can talk about Penny.”
He sounded matter-of-fact, with no hint of teasing innuendo, and he’d offered her the best inducement in the world: news of her family. She shot him a glance over her shoulder. This was Ben Traynor. He might’ve been a cocky young charmer, moving from conquest to conquest, but she’d never heard a single word about him being mean to a woman. Or to an animal. She’d always liked the respectful way he treated horses, even including the broncs he rode, those trained buckers whose immediate mission in life was to toss him out of the saddle and onto the dirt of the arena floor.
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She’d probably misinterpreted his comment about showing her what he could do with one hand. Why would a sexy guy like him be flirting with a drab, worn-out woman like her?
Though she wasn’t big on trusting men, something told her she was safe with Ben.
“Sure,” she said. “Thanks.”
* * * * *
Sally had changed, Ben thought as he followed her into the barn. There were moments when she seemed like her old self, but she was less outgoing and more guarded. Like she wasn’t sure whether she trusted him. But then he’d been twenty-two the last time she saw him. She didn’t know what kind of man he’d turned into in the past seven years.
She was older too—must be thirty-one, thirty-two now—and it showed in a bunch of ways. She was leaner than before, in body and face, and he’d never seen her in practical work clothes before—though the sway of her hips and butt were still sexy despite the loose jeans. Her fiery copper-gold hair used to hang well past her shoulders; now it was short and curly, framing her face. She still had that cute dusting of freckles across her nose and cheeks, but her forehead and greenish gray eyes had tiny creases that suggested her life wasn’t a bed of roses. She looked like she could use a weekend at a spa.
Or a weekend in bed. Which he’d be happy to provide. To be honest, that was one of the reasons he’d agreed when Penny had asked him to look up her sister. He’d always had a thing for Sally and, according to Penny, she’d been a widow for three years.
Sally shot him a glance over her shoulder, and he quickly raised his gaze from her backside as she said, “How about you groom? It’d be hard for you to do up saddle cinches and put on bridles, working with only one hand.”
He could manage, but this was her turf. And a mighty impressive operation from what he’d seen so far. “Whatever you say, boss.”
“I’ll pick out their hooves, though.”
“That’d be good.” They both knew it was a task that took two strong hands, one to support the hoof and the other to use the pick to clean out dirt, manure, and stones.
She went to the tack room and returned with a box of supplies, which he sorted through as she brought a chestnut mare from its stall and put it in cross ties. With the horse securely tied in the middle of the aisle, Ben groomed and Sally wielded the hoof pick. Then she put on the saddle pad, saddle, and bridle while Ben went into the next stall and began to groom a small pinto gelding.
Ben had been injured enough times over the years that he was pretty proficient with a single functioning arm, even if his fractured shoulder hurt like a son of a bitch. Besides, being around horses was one of his favorite things. Sally’s animals weren’t prime stock but they were healthy and had good manners. The tools and tack were worn but well maintained.
When he moved to the next stall, he peeked at Sally as she put the pinto in cross ties and saddled it with spare efficiency and quiet, affectionate murmurs. He figured he wasn’t likely to hear her whispering sweet nothings in his ears anytime soon, not with the way she’d cold-shouldered his attempt at flirtation.
That had been kind of weird. In the old days, she’d have flung back something teasing, like how it’d take more than a fuzzy-cheeked boy’s hand to satisfy a woman like her. One of those comments that’d have him waking in the middle of the night, hard and aching from dreaming about her.
Sally Pantages. The barrel racing queen, while he was a kid honing his skills as a saddle bronc competitor. The sexy, curvy woman with fiery hair to match her sassy temperament. Yeah, he’d had a crush on her and she’d been the reason for more cold showers than any other gal he’d ever met.
As she finished with each horse, she took it out of the barn. When she came back to move the next one, a bay mare, from its stall to the cross ties, she said, “Ben, you said you have a horse in that trailer?” Her slightly raised voice carried easily into the nearby stall where he was working.
“Yeah. These days, I compete in team roping as well as saddle bronc. I’m a heeler. Got myself a great horse, Chauncey’s Pride.”
“Where’s your header?”
He frowned, again cursing himself for having fallen wrong and broken his stupid shoulder. “That’d be Dusty Whelan. Remember him?”
“I think so. Hair to match his name, right?”
“Yeah, that’s him. A good guy. He and I haul together in that rig out there. But since I’ve got this busted shoulder, Dusty hitched a ride for him and his horse with another cowboy who had room.” Ben put some extra force behind the rubber curry comb he was using to remove loose hair and dirt from a black mare’s hindquarters. “The other guy’s pretty new. Competes in tie-down roping. He wants to try team roping, but couldn’t find a partner. Dusty said they could see how they did together.”
“You’ll be fit again soon, and back roping.” Her tone was consoling.
“You bet I will,” he said grimly. No way was he letting some new kid take his place.
Once, he’d been the new guy. Back then, Ben had hoped to prove himself, and make Sally stop seeing him as a kid. Before it could happen, Pete Ryland had swept her off her feet. The man hadn’t even been a cowboy. He’d been in construction or some such thing.
Pete and Sally had been crazy in love. So much so that she’d given up barrel racing, and done it mid-season when she’d likely have gone on to win another Canadian championship. And to compete at the National Finals Rodeo in the U.S. and maybe become world champion.
Ben shook his head. He remembered wondering what it would be like, to love and be loved in such an all-consuming way. Couldn’t imagine it himself, not if it meant giving up rodeo.
His boots silent on the straw-covered floor, he walked to the stall door, ready to move on to the next horse.
Sally, with the bay mare in cross ties, had paused in her work. Her head was down and her shoulders were slumped. A hand rested on the horse’s shoulder, not stroking but more as if she was holding herself up. Ben saw her body move as she heaved a silent sigh. Then she straightened, rubbed her lower back, and returned to work.
Spunky Sally Pantages had fallen in love and given up rodeo, and look how things had ended up for her. Widowed, and, from what he’d seen, operating this big, successful spread on her own. Whatever combination of hard work, grief, and loneliness she was experiencing, it had bowed her shoulders and put lines of strain around her eyes.
For the first time since Ben had met her all those years ago, she brought out his protective side.
Right now, the best thing he could do for her was help out, and so he did exactly that as they readied nine horses. She’d taken eight of them outside and had just finished bridling a gray gelding when Ben heard the sound of an approaching vehicle.
“That’ll be the first of my students,” Sally said.
“Want to go say hi and I’ll bring this guy out?” He stroked the gray’s neck.
“Thanks.” She took a battered straw hat from a peg and left the barn.
He put on his own hat—a nicer one than he normally wore, since he’d kind of dressed up to come see her. After untying the gray, he led it across the barnyard to the hitching rails where the other horses waited. Sally stood by a white SUV, talking to a plump brunette and a little boy and girl. The dark-haired kids wore pint-sized Western gear, though with riding helmets rather than cowboy hats.
Ben tied the reins to a hitching rail with a little assistance from his left hand and patted the horse as he watched the students arrive.
Soon they were all there: five girls and three boys around the age of six. The moms clustered around Sally, but a few of the kids came to say hello to the horses. An older boy stared at Ben. “Hey, didn’t I just see you at the rodeo in Williams Lake? Aren’t you Ben Traynor?”
“You bet.” He flashed a grin, happy to greet a fan.
The kid eyed the sling. “You fell off.”
Ben grimaced. So much for impressing a fan. “Yeah. I got the bronc until the buzzer, but then he got me.” Ben had hung on for the required eight seconds, then before he could jump free or the pickup riders could help him get off, Devil’s Eyes had tossed him. Ben had landed badly, on his shoulder, and felt jarring pain, but he had risen quickly and waved to signal—with his right hand—that he was okay. As he had sauntered from the arena, he’d had a bad feeling that this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill injury. The sports medicine team at the rodeo had sent him to the hospital. The rest was history.
“You were in the roping, too,” the boy said as some of the other children wandered over.
“Yeah. Team roping.” He and Dusty had come second. Thank God that event had been scheduled before saddle bronc.
“You’re the heeler, right?” the kid asked.
“I am.” The other kids, the moms, and Sally had now gathered around.
The boy turned to the others. “His partner’s the header. He ropes the steer’s head or horns, then Mr. Traynor ropes the hind legs.” His know-it-all tone reminded Ben of how he’d been as a boy, hooked on rodeo and ready to tell the world about it.
“That’s right.” And, thanks to Devil’s Eyes, Dusty was trying out another heeler while Ben was twiddling his thumbs waiting for his damned shoulder to heal.
“Mom?” The boy tugged on his mother’s hand. “I want to take rodeo lessons. Mr. Traynor can teach me.”
Flattered, Ben tapped the kid’s helmet. “Sorry, not me. I’m a doer, not a teacher.” He sent a smile in Sally’s direction. “Takes a special person to be a good teacher.” Though he had yet to see her at work, he knew that anything Sally Pantages—Ryland—did, she’d do well.
She acknowledged the compliment with a smile. “Kids, it’s time for our lesson. Ben, d’you want to take your horse out of that trailer and give him some water, food, and exercise?”
“Appreciate that.” Chaunce was a good traveler but, like Ben, he’d rather stretch his legs than be confined to the rig.
He walked over to the trailer as the kids mounted up, some with Sally’s assistance and some using a mounting block. A couple of parents drove away; the others seated themselves on wooden bleachers at one side of the ring.
Ben gazed around, checking out Sally’s spread. As well as the barn, two riding rings, and a couple of fenced paddocks with grazing horses, she had an indoor arena. It was a smart setup, allowing her to be operational year-round and to accommodate boarders as well as riding students. The farmhouse, set apart a ways, was small and attractive, but could use a fresh coat of paint and maybe a new roof. Interestingly, the chicken coop and run looked to be in better shape.
All in all, it was a mighty impressive place that she and her husband had built. Ben shouldn’t be surprised that the woman who owned it wouldn’t be attracted to a man like him. Maybe the truth was that Sally would always be a few steps ahead of him—steps that took her out of his league. And that was a damned shame, at least as far as he was concerned. All the same, he looked forward to sitting down together with a couple beers and catching up.
In the ring, mounted on the gray gelding, Sally had the students walking their horses, working on proper posture. She sure had a different lifestyle now, from back in her rodeo days. It was a nice life, he guessed, if a person liked settling down in one spot and having a daily routine. Hard things for a guy like him to imagine doing.
Instructing the students, she looked more like the old Sally, not guarded and stressed but relaxed and happy. Easy in her body, free with her smiles.
She’d always been a natural with kids. He remembered her patience, her smiles when children would ask for her autograph and chatter about their riding experiences and dreams. He’d expected her to have two or three little ones of her own, but so far he’d seen no sign of any. Her sister hadn’t been sure, saying Sally hadn’t even notified the family about Pete’s death; they’d found out when an acquaintance in B.C. mentioned it to them.
He shook his head, unable to fathom being so distanced from family. It sure didn’t fit with the outgoing barrel racing queen he’d once known.
Ben entered the living quarters of his rig and downed a painkiller and a glass of cold water, then he went through to the back where his horse was stabled. “Hey, Chaunce. Bet you could use a drink too, and some fresh air and a stretch.”
Working one-handed with his horse’s cooperation, he got Chaunce’s bridle on, but skipped the saddle. The horse, smart and even-tempered, exited the trailer easily and stood while Ben used the ramp as a mounting block and eased onto his back. He urged the gelding forward, down the access road. Chaunce had a smooth gait that didn’t jar Ben’s shoulder, and the painkiller was starting to work.
“We’ll check out the countryside,” he said to his horse as he turned him onto a trail. “Then when Sally’s students are gone, I’ll introduce you to her. Bet she’ll let you hang out in her paddock, maybe even let me park the rig here tonight.”
Chaunce bobbed his head.
“Wonder if she’ll offer me dinner?” Ben mused. “Nah, better if I invite her out to eat.” In the old days, she’d let him buy her an occasional beer, but had refused to go on a real date.
Not that tonight would be a date. She’d made it pretty clear she wasn’t interested in him that way.