Liberty Valley Love #4
by Josie Malone
Extraordinary pony farm manager Audra Dawson does it all, training ponies, teaching children to ride and looking after the livestock at Silver Lake Pony Ranch. She sets her sights on the man of her dreams—a man she adores, despite the fact he has other plans. He sees her as a friend, a potential sister-in-law, and a woman more capable than most Army generals—a cross between Gunga-Din and Alexander the Great—but not someone he wants to be involved with romantically. Meanwhile her employer’s two mischievous kids are determined to find the “perfect” man for her and they cast the Hero Spell.
A legend in his own mind, veterinarian Joe Watkins knows his destiny when he sees Audra again. She needs him as much as he does her. He'll capture her stubborn heart. Between Audra's family who puts the "fun back in dysfunctional," apparently random animal poisonings, a stranger who claims to have traveled through Time, and the trials and tribulations of the summer season on the pony farm, tensions increase with the summer heat. Will the magic last this time or is it just a fling brought about by the Hero Spell?
Release Date: November 30, 2021
Genre: Western | Time Travel Romance
A Pink Satin Romance
Everett, Washington - February 1st, 2018
Audra Dawson watched as her best friend casually sauntered into the Fandango Room at Billy-Bob’s Cowboy Bar & Grill. Ginger’s curvy body was wrapped in a fringed blouse, green suede skirt, and high-heeled cowboy boots. Pink and red curls framed her face and brushed her shoulders. Her makeup was better suited to a Saturday night out than an afternoon party. But the look worked for her, as the ample tips she made bartending at Billy-Bob’s could attest.
“So,” Ginger drawled, as she approached, “how are things coming along? You look ripe for murder. You look like someone kicked your dog, then stole your man. Or maybe,” she eyed Audra critically and amended, “like you’ve been talking to one of your sisters.”
Audra slowly lowered the roll of green crepe paper and tape dispenser she held, placing them neatly on a nearby table. “Clancy just blew through long enough to tell me the wedding is off.”
“After you made special arrangements for the lingerie shower, she and Kate insisted they had to have two weeks before the ceremony?”
“You wouldn’t believe all of the begging, conniving, and family blackmail it took to get this place, plus the hefty deposit I had to pay. And that’s not even counting the big family Christmas and all the extra stuff the twins ‘couldn’t live without’ at school this quarter. I’m so glad,” Audra said with mock solemnity, “that someone who knows their way around duct tape, rope, and a shovel, is here to help me bury the bodies.”
“That’s me.” Ginger did a little victory dance, more suitable for a twenty-something than a woman fighting her fortieth birthday. “I’ll break out the champagne so we can get good and soused before we clobber them.”
“Don’t tempt me. This is a damn nightmare.”
“More like the day of your dreams. You’ve been patient. You respected your sister’s boundaries while she played holy hell with everyone’s heartstrings. Now you finally have a shot at Ethan.” Ginger headed for the bar and the bottles of champagne. “Are you going to call him and offer a sympathetic shoulder?”
“Not until I figure out what to do about this shower.” Audra pulled out her cell phone and dialed her sister Kate’s number. It went straight to voice mail, so she had to be on the line with someone. “It’s me. I need to know what has your tail in a knot. And what the hell am I supposed to tell Mom?”
Thirty minutes later, she hadn’t heard back from either sister. She and Ginger were on their second glasses of champagne when the door opened. Her mother came in, followed by her older sister, Marlene.
Darlene Dawson looked around the half-decorated lounge—obviously checking the streamers that weren’t hanging from corner to corner, the unfinished party favors that hadn’t been arranged in plastic cowboy boots. “What’s going on?” She pinned Audra with the cobalt blue gaze that made everyone in the Dawson family ‘fess up to a million and one sins. “Why are you slacking? Where are the twins? Shouldn’t they be helping you?”
Audra blinked. She’d forgotten all about the two baby drama queens. She had five younger sisters, all of whom saw her as a cross between Public Enemy Number One, General MacArthur, and Dear Abby. “They got tied up with some college thing and said they’d be late.”
“Those two have lazy down to an art form,” Marlene said. “What can we do to help, Audra?”
“I don’t know.” Audra shrugged. “Clancy came in and told us the wedding is off. She and Kate have changed their minds. They’re not marrying the Killian brothers, not in two weeks, not on horseback on Valentine’s Day at the Lazy B, not ever.”
“Lions, tigers and bears—oh my.” Darlene eased out of a denim jacket and eyed Audra, then Ginger. “Pour us each a glass of champagne, Ginger. Give me your phone, Audra. I left mine at home in my other purse. I need to call and warn the boys’ mom before she arrives with her entourage and that gossip gal from the local paper. It’ll be okay, honey. Better broken engagements than divorces.”
Audra stared at her. At fifty-seven, her mother was more of a realist than a romantic. While she claimed she loved both men who proposed to two of her daughters, Darlene was the first to quote divorce statistics and remind everyone that “happy ever after” belonged in movies and books, not real life. She’d even told Kate and Clancy that marriage was an institution, and they didn’t have to be committed yet. Why didn’t they live with the guys and forego getting hitched?
“What do we do now?” Audra asked. “How do we handle it when everyone arrives expecting a party?”
“We tell the truth,” Darlene said, taking a filled glass from Ginger. “Your sisters have changed their minds and then we’ll have a party anyway. I have a horsy sitter doing chores and I’m spending the night at Marlene’s. We can’t return the cake or get back your deposit, so we may as well enjoy the afternoon.”
“The girls will sort this out sooner or later.” Marlene accepted her own glass. “There’s too much between them and the boys to let these engagements end today. Believe me, sooner or later, we’ll see Clancy and Ethan and Kate and Gavin married.”
Ginger brought the bottle of champagne over to Audra and whispered. “I hope not. Snag the guy, quick. You take Ethan and I’ll jump Gavin. They deserve to have grown women in their beds, not temper-tantrum-throwing twits.”
* * *
April sunlight sparkled off the neatly mown, emerald lawn in front of the two-story log cabin that Ethan spent years restoring on the Killian homestead. Audra parked her Ford 150 near the back door and switched off the engine. She’d debated what to wear for hours before settling on black jeans, low-heeled boots, and a black shirt with a Southwest print. She didn’t want to look desperate even if she was or as if she was chasing the man who thought he loved her sister.
Even though I’m after him, Audra thought, and I’d be soooo good for him. I’d never do anything to hurt him. I wouldn’t break his heart into tiny jigsaw puzzle pieces for fun.
The back door opened, and she beamed at the big man in the opening. Six-foot-six, he wasn’t just all muscle, even if he looked like a lumberjack in a plaid flannel shirt, blue jeans, and wool socks. His corked boots waited on the porch. An engineer for Boeing, he had brains too.
Her pulses thudded in excitement as she slid out of the pickup. “Hi there.” She walked around to the passenger side and pulled out the picnic basket. “Hope you’re hungry. I brought dinner.”
She strolled toward him and watched a smile creep across his rugged features and land in silver-gray eyes. Even with the salt and pepper brown hair, he still reminded her of the boy she’d met so many years before.
“Sweetheart, if you’re cooking, I’m starving.” He took the basket from her. “I smell fried chicken.”
“And the rest of your faves too.” She’d spent her one day off a week cooking for him and loved every minute of it. “So, how was South Carolina? I can’t wait to hear all about the new plane.”
* * *
Ginger filled a glass with Riesling and put it in front of Audra. “Drink up. You’re spending tonight with me and I’m driving so you can get snockered. How could this happen? You’ve given your heart and soul to Xanadu Arabians for the past three years. How did they have the gall to pass you over for farm manager when you’ve been running the place for the last six months?”
Audra choked down a swallow of wine, trying to drown her tears. She couldn’t cry in Billy-Bob’s, not when everything would be reported back to family, friends, and other horse professionals in the county.
“What are they thinking?” Ginger wiped down the bar. “Didn’t old man Bergstrom say they had the best breed auction ever with you in charge? They actually turned a profit last year.”
“I know.” Audra chugged down the rest of the white wine. “I was there, remember? He said I could stay on as Jack Abbot’s assistant, that Jack would be glad to let me run the breeding program.”
“Jack is a lazy, worthless good-for-nothing, and he’s now reached his level of incompetence.” Ginger picked up the empty glass and replaced it with a full one. “He’d have you doing all the grunt work while he reaped all the bennies.”
“I know.” Audra stared into the depths of her wine glass. How could she say she’d miss the horses more than the people at Xanadu, especially the filly she’d raised from an orphaned foal? And the Bergstroms wouldn’t sell her the horse she loved. She struggled to swallow the lump in her throat and keep up her professional front.
Taking a deep breath, Audra said, “Jack is a good trainer if he gets close supervision, but there’s a lot more to running a purebred horse operation than handling the stock. Bergstrom said that if I went to work at my mom’s, he’d sue her because of the non-competitive clause in my contract. I don’t know what I’m going to do. My family will freak if I move out of Washington State to find a new position.”
“I’ve changed jobs for years, my dear, so let me tell you the proper response when you get screwed by a boss. Tonight, you get drunk. Tomorrow, you move in with me. And then, we call around and find you a stable management job that’s out of Xanudu’s reach. As for your family, it’d do them a world of good if they had to grow up and stop dumping on you.”
* * *
Lynn glanced around the cafeteria but didn’t see her brother anywhere. Where had he disappeared to now? He was supposed to eat lunch with her and the other eighth-graders because he didn’t get along well with kids his own age. Granted, he’d made a few friends with some of the sixth-graders, but Jake was just too smart for his own good. Maybe, things would be better at their new school in the fall.
Carrying the tray with her pizza and salad, Lynn headed for the table where her best friend, Cassie already sat. “Have you seen Jake?”
“Yeah. He took his lunch and went outside. He said he had some serious thinking to do.”
Lynn sighed and put her food on the table. “Thanks. Be right back.” She found her brother sitting alone on a bench in the school courtyard in the June sunshine. “Do you want to tell me what’s going on with you?”
He peeled plastic wrap from his peanut butter and jam sandwich. “We have a problem.”
“I’ll say. You’re out here when you’re supposed to be with me.”
“No, Lynnie. We need to cast a spell and I have to think it up.”
“Oh no.” She shook her head. “Not again. Mom’s fine. She and Sean are getting married and we’re going to Eastern Washington in two weeks. And Audra Dawson is doing great at running the farm.”
“Yeah.” Jake bit into his sandwich and chewed. “She’s a hero and she needs one.”
“What?” Lynn stared at the sandy blond, blue-eyed demon posing as her younger brother. “You can’t do that. Not to a stranger. You can’t conjure up a man for our new manager.”
“She needs somebody who makes her laugh. A guy who loves her best of all.” Jake looked at his watch. “You better go eat your lunch. I’ll tell you when I need you to help me.”
“I’m not doing it, Jake. No way. No more ‘love’ spells. Not again.”
* * *
He’d left Pullman at five this morning and he’d arrived in Everett in time for a late lunch. He pulled into an empty slot in front of the veterinary office, recognizing the new white Ford 150 his father had posted pictures of on the practice’s website. Joe Watkins eased out of his Jeep, stretching to his full five-feet-eight-inches, and rolled his shoulders. In faded blue jeans and a Washington State Cougars sweatshirt, he didn’t look like the new Dean of the Veterinary Medicine department.
Well, he wasn’t the Dean yet, he reminded himself. He’d been offered the position, but he hadn’t accepted it. He’d asked for time to think about it. For now, I’ve come home to visit Dad, see a few friends and relations, plus be the best man at Sean Killian’s wedding, but only if I like the bride. Hell, I may even attend my high school reunion.
And for the first time in years, he wasn’t teaching the summer session that started in mid-June. He’d enjoy the nine-week break, call it a vacation, and think about taking a sabbatical to write the perfect book on equine medicine. Or then again, he’d have enough time off to realize he wanted to go back to school with the kids and take over his department.
He headed inside, scanning the waiting room with its comfortable sofas and chairs, magazines on the tables, and chew toys in a basket in the corner. Some things didn’t change, and his old man was one of them. He’d never gone for the new plastic seats. If his patients had to wait, they might as well enjoy their time. And so should their humans.
A heeler-border-collie pup looked up from where it ripped at a stuffed teddy bear and greeted him with a baby yap. The slender brunette, in jeans and a sloppy sweatshirt, flushed. She looked as if she wanted to cringe back in the chair, disappear with the puppy, leash, and all. “Sorry.”
“No worries.” Joe grinned at her and didn’t say a word about recognizing her from the newspaper and TV articles. She’d undoubtedly heard enough about being battered by an intruder to last a lifetime. “Puppy shots?”
“Yeah. It’s the last booster and his rabies, too.” The woman relaxed a little.
Joe lingered inside the doorway. “Aren’t you Nina Armstrong, the gal with the horse rescue place? How’s that going?”
She eyed him suspiciously, then inclined her head accepting the questions at face value. “It’s fine. Donations are up and horse abuse is down, so everything works.”
“Good to know.” With the economy the way it was, he didn’t believe her for an instant, but wouldn’t say so. He nodded at the puppy who kept chewing on the toy. “You have a cute fellow.”
“Thanks. Pooka loves Doctor Art. He’s the best.”
“He’s an inspiration.” Laughing, Joe crossed to the desk but didn’t see Sarah Holmes, the receptionist who’d run the office forever. He walked to the first examining room and opened the door and spotted his dad bandaging a gray kitten’s leg. “Hey, is there a doctor in the house?”