Gentle talkin’ Joe McIntyre needs a cook for the Double H guest ranch. What he gets instead is Jenny, a woman with no memory who brings out all of his protective instincts. Joe and Jenny find strength, comfort, and love in each other’s arms—until they're bombarded with a series of frightening secrets from her past. Will these secrets solidify their bond, or tear them apart forever?
Jenny Smith stared at the long, dusty road in front of her and once again questioned the impetuousness of her journey. Sighing, she swiped the back of her wrist across her forehead, wishing for a hat that blocked more of the blistering sun than her cheap baseball cap did. One painful step at a time, she made her way alongside the gravel road. The shrubs and dirt were marginally easier on her tired feet than the rough rocks.
As she shifted the small backpack containing all of her worldly goods onto her left shoulder, she silently cursed her dust-dry mouth. She’d run out of water almost an hour ago, and now she’d gone far beyond parched. Her stomach quivered with queasiness, and pain throbbed behind her eyes. She had no idea how far she had left to go.
To convince herself to keep going, putting one foot in front of another, she pulled the newspaper out from under her arm and unrolled it to look at the ad she’d circled nearly three days ago, while sitting in a doctor’s office in Williams Lake, British Columbia.
Help needed! Chef for guest ranch. Must be able to prepare three meals a day for up to fifteen people. Double H Ranch, Cache Creek, B.C. See Joe McIntyre.
At a loss for an alternative, Jenny had packed her measly belongings into a backpack one of the nurses at the hospital had given her. Then she bought a bus ticket to Cache Creek with the money donated by the nurses and doctors of the Williams Lake Hospital.
The bus had arrived in the tiny town of Cache Creek a little after one in the morning. After spending the remainder of the night in the bus station, catching catnaps between fits of restlessness, she asked for directions to the Double H. The walk wasn’t supposed to have been more than thirteen miles, a four-hour hike, in her estimation. But by eight that morning, the heat had already begun to swelter, forcing her to slow her pace.
Now, three hours later, she seriously questioned her sanity.
A little giggle, that even to herself sounded a bit hysterical, bubbled from her mouth. She’d been seriously questioning her sanity for several months now. She didn’t even know if she was qualified to cook for fifteen people. And what if this Joe McIntyre didn’t give her the job? What if someone else had already filled the position?
What in God’s name was she doing out here in the middle of nowhere in the blazing heat at midday?
She crested another hill and finally saw her destination. Or was she hallucinating? What stood before her looked nothing like what she’d pictured in her mind. Sure, there were barns, but the big log house looked more like a ski chalet in the mountains than a ranch house set among sagebrush and mesquite. And there were other houses. A few of them. Horses grazed in the corrals beyond the barns. Not a cow in sight.
Oh, no, what if this is the wrong ranch?
* * * * *
Joe McIntyre spread ointment on the sturdy gelding’s haunch. “That’s a boy,” he said in a soothing voice.
The horse flinched at the sting of the ointment and nudged Joe’s shoulder in protest.
“I know, big guy. You’ll be back in fighting form in a few days.”
Stepping out of the stall after reassuring the horse with a few well-placed scratches, Joe turned to face his long-time friend and partner. “Chigger will be fine, Colton. It’s not a deep wound.”
The men started down the long aisle between the stalls toward the door of the barn. Exhaust fans, set high in the eaves, blew air through the open space to keep the animals cool.
“Thanks Joe, I was really worried about him. I can’t believe he took on a wild stallion in a fight.” Colton chuckled. “And it was over me, not some pretty young mare.”
Joe had to laugh, too. Chigger had been born on the ranch nearly ten years ago. Joe had trained him to be a good cutting horse for working with cattle, but Colton had adopted him as his own. Now the old boy had gone to battle for his human. Not a bad thing, seeing that if Chigger hadn’t taken on the stallion, Colton probably would have been trampled to death.
Joe couldn’t imagine his life without Colton. Though no blood relation bound them, they’d been closer than brothers for more than twenty years. The thought of something happening to Colton sent a cold shiver through Joe. Colton, Colton’s wife, and their children were Joe’s only family.
He glanced over at Colton as they stepped from the cool barn into the arid desert heat that sucked the air right out of his lungs and the moisture from his mouth. The temperature had hovered around one hundred and ten for several days. The land was dry. They’d had no hint of rain for over a month.
“You coming in to see Cassie?” Colton swiped the sweat off his brow before resettling his Stetson onto his head. “She hates being stuck in the house all day with no one but the kids to entertain her.”
Cassie, the sweetheart, was seven and a half months pregnant with twins and was supposed to stay off her feet. Colton and Cassie had only been married for a year and already had a pair of adopted twin five-year-olds.
“Of course I’m coming in. I miss having her around. And since there isn’t a lot we can do in this heat, I might as well enjoy some womanly company and air conditioning.” Joe chuckled at Colton’s narrow-eyed glare. “Even if it is with your woman.”
Joe enjoyed nothing more than seeing Colton happy. The fact that they finally had a woman on the Double H to add her charm, wit, and temper to theirs when they needed it was definitely a bonus.
Joe followed Colton into the shade beneath the overhang covering the wide, southern-style porch that wound around the big log home Wyatt, Colton’s father, had built after Colton adopted the twins.
Just as they reached the door, Joe glanced back toward the road. Someone was headed their way on foot.
“You expecting someone, Cole?” he asked as he stepped back down onto the gravel path.
Colton wandered down next to him. “Nope. Not today. Who in blazes would be out walking in this heat?”
Joe tipped back his cowboy hat and squinted through the waves of heat shimmering off the sun-scorched ground. “Looks like a woman.”
“Yeah,” Colton said in agreement. He headed across the yard toward her.
Joe studied the woman as he followed his friend. She was an itty-bitty thing—couldn’t be much more than five feet tall. Her faded blue jeans had to be a good two sizes too big, because they barely hung on her hips. She looked as if she could use a few solid meals. The strap of a knapsack hung over one shoulder, and she had her head down. The bill of her black baseball hat masked her face.
As she grew closer, Colton called out to her.
She lifted her head and stopped dead in her tracks.
“Welcome to the Double H,” Colton said as they approached her. “Can we help you with something?”
She swept her gaze between him and Joe, her eyes wide with wariness and fear. Why was she afraid?
Joe frowned, until she settled those pretty, wide eyes on him. They were the most intriguing shade of golden brown he’d ever seen. More like amber.
“Ma’am, are you all right?” Joe asked softly. Her cheeks glowed a dangerous shade of red. Her full lips were chapped and pale. Limp tendrils of sweat-dampened hair clung to her long, shapely neck.
Shivering visibly in the blazing heat, she snapped her mouth shut and glanced at Colton, then back at Joe.
“Ma’am—” Joe repeated in the same gentle voice he used whenever he worked with frightened animals. Anxiety and confusion filled those lovely eyes, and he didn’t want to alarm her any further. She looked...lost. “I think we need to get you out of the sun. You’re looking a might peaked there, sweetheart.”
The lady held out the newspaper she had clutched in her hand. Just as her pale lips opened as if she were about to say something, her eyes fluttered shut and she crumpled. Both Joe and Colton lunged for her, but only Joe got his arm around her before she hit the ground.
“Come on, take her inside. We need to get her cooled off,” Colton said with a shake of his head as he steadied Joe. “You got her?” He scooped up the newspaper she’d dropped.
“Yeah.” Joe easily lifted the delicate woman in his arms and headed toward the big house. It had the best air conditioning of all the buildings, and looking after the woman would give Cassie something to do besides sit around all day. “She doesn’t weigh much more than my saddle.”
“Hope she’s all right. What in hell is she doing out walking in this heat? Do you think we need to fly her into Kamloops?”
“Not right now.” Joe stepped into the cool interior of the house behind Colton, the limp weight of the woman’s body pressed against his chest. Heat radiated off her like a furnace, and her heartbeat thumped too fast. She might be in some serious medical trouble. He prayed she wasn’t. “Let’s hope she’s just suffering from heat exhaustion. Might want to give Doc Mallory a call and see if he can come out here.”
“Take her up to Dad’s room for now, I guess,” Colton said. “I’ll call Doc.”
Joe carried the woman up the stairs.
“Cassie girl, you up here?” he called out as he entered the spacious bedroom that had once belonged to Wyatt. Laying the feverish, listless woman onto the king-sized bed, he scowled at the reddened skin on her cheeks and arms. That sunburn would hurt like hell by tomorrow morning.
“Shh,” Cassie admonished him as she came into the room, bustling as fast as her rounded belly would let her. “I finally got the twins down for a nap. What are you doing?”
Joe stood up after depositing the lady on the bed and took her pack off her shoulder and the hat from her head. A disarray of tangled, unevenly cropped, platinum blonde curls fell around her face.
“Helping this woman. She walked into the ranch yard and passed out,” Joe said as he unzipped the woman’s pack and rummaged through it for a wallet or something that would hold some form of identification. “Do you know her?”
“No.” Cassie touched the stranger’s flushed face with the back of her hand, then hurriedly unbuttoned the woman’s blouse. “She’s burning up.”
“Heat. She probably walked all the way out here.” Joe located a small canvas purse inside the pack and pulled it out. “Colton’s calling Doc.”
“She walked here? That’s ten miles. I can’t walk across the yard in this heat without feeling faint.” Cassandra stripped off the woman’s shirt then moved down the bed to remove her shoes. “Jeez, she’s a tiny thing.”
“Her name’s Jennifer Smith. All she has for identification is her Social Insurance card, a B.C. ID, and a B.C. Health Care card. I see her address, but no phone number. She’s from Williams Lake. Has about thirty dollars in cash. That’s it.” By the time Joe finished relaying the stranger’s identity, Cassie had stripped the woman down to her bra and panties and was struggling to stand.
With a teasing grin, Joe lent her a hand and helped her to her feet. “You sure there’s only two in there?”
Cassie gave Joe a disgruntled frown and a sigh of disgust before heading for the ensuite bathroom. “I’ll get some wet cloths. We need to bring her temperature down.”
“Anything I can do?” Joe asked.
“Stay with her in case she wakes up.” Cassie disappeared into the bathroom and turned on the water.
Joe sat on the edge of the bed and pushed a few straggly hairs out of the woman’s eyes. She was too thin. Not emaciated, but skinny. He searched for visible injuries and found stretch marks on her belly and the sides of her breasts, mostly hidden behind the underwear and her bra. They were still a bit pink, not yet faded to white. Joe prayed her only medical condition was the heat. They could deal with a little dehydration, but if she had other medical problems, they’d need to fly her to the hospital.
He checked the rest of her body and found no injuries, although she had numerous pink scars. One of the most prominent was a bad one on her forehead just below her hairline. A few more were scattered across her arms and hands, and a long one ran down her right thigh. Some of them, especially the one on her thigh, had obviously been stitched.
Cassie waddled her way back into the room just as Colton stepped through the door.
“How is she?” he asked.
“She hasn’t moved.” Joe shifted out of the way to let Cassie lay the cool cloths across the woman’s body. “She’s breathing all right. Her pulse is a little faster than it should be.”
“We’ve got to get her temperature down,” Cassie said as she draped the cold, wet cloths over Jennifer’s torso and thighs. She folded a third washcloth and set it on the woman’s forehead.
“Doc will be here in about twenty minutes,” Colton said. He held out the crumpled newspaper the woman had been carrying. “She circled your ad for a cook for the guest house. I’m guessing that’s why she’s here.” He met Cassie’s eyes. “How you feelin’, babe?”
“I’m all right.” She sent her husband a sweet smile. “I spent the morning in bed, just like you told me to.”
“Good girl.” Colton slipped his arm around Cassie and splayed his hand over her round belly as he looked down at Jennifer.
Joe couldn’t help the tiny tug of envy that struck him whenever he saw Colton and Cassie together. They always touched, held hands, and petted each other. Joe hadn’t experienced any physical contact like that in a long time.
“I hope she’ll be all right,” Cassie said. “She should have come to by now, don’t you think?”
“We don’t know how long she’s been out in the heat,” Joe said softly as he picked up Jennifer’s hand and turned it over to show Colton the scars on the inside of her forearm.
Colton looked from Jennifer’s arm to Joe. “You think she’s in trouble?”
“I think she might be,” Joe answered. The scars, to him, looked like defensive wounds. Wounds inflicted as she’d shielded herself from an attack.
“Should we call Rob?” Colton asked, referring to the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer responsible for policing this sparsely inhabited area of British Columbia.
“Let’s wait and see what Doc says.” Joe didn’t want to cause the woman any more problems than she might already have. If she was running from something, or someone, he wanted to see if they could help her before bringing in the law.
Although many, many years had passed since Joe had dealt with the law in any way other than when Colton had caught some poachers on his land, he didn’t relish getting too cozy with them. He’d had enough trouble with them to last a lifetime.
He lifted the wet towels one by one and flipped them over, to put their cool sides against the woman’s hot flesh. Then he sent up another little prayer that she’d be all right.