Cassie bent over and jammed the shovel into the smelly mix of hay and horse dung. The pungent odor hung heavy in the air as she flung the shovelful of mixture into the wheelbarrow. Almost done.

The streaming rays of sun licked the barn through the open door. Ownership of the Golden Mustang Dude Ranch was everything she’d dreamed of and more, with one small exception. Her ex-fiancé had ridden off into the sunset—without the girl. He’d lasted two months before declaring he couldn’t handle ranch life.

Cassie snorted. Ranch life.

The dude ranch was so far removed from real ranch life it wasn’t worth the effort to explain. The Mustang made good money from the guests that came for the atmosphere. Very few vacationers sought out a real ranch experience. They came to use the spa and lounge by the pool. In winter they came for the snow and the pageantry of Christmas. Most folks weren’t looking for anything more ranch-like than a short jaunt on horseback.

If this were a real ranch, the animals they cared for would be their life’s blood instead of relegated to ambiance. The last of the dirty hay landed in the wheelbarrow. Cassie wiped the sweat off her brow and set down the shovel. With a solid grip, she lifted the barrow and headed toward the compost pile. Hay and horseshit mixed with kitchen scraps made fantastic dirt. Back in the barn, she spread fresh hay in all the stalls she’d cleaned. The raspy rumble of a masculine throat clearing startled her.

“Shit! Do you always sneak up on people like that?” She returned to spreading hay.

“Sorry, ma’am.” He tipped his hat in a mingled greeting-apology.

“No worries. I was probably over-focused on a simple task.” She glanced back and smiled at him. Whoa. That was a real cowboy. Not some duded-up city boy. Worn jeans molded to strong thighs. His shirt fit him like it was made for him, and the Stetson on his head would have looked wrong anyplace else. She stopped spreading hay and faced the stranger. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“I was hoping to get in a quick ride. Feeling kind of antsy.” He let his gaze drift down her body in a slow, blatant appraisal.

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