After six weeks in Wynott, Wyoming, Sierra Dunn gave up on love.
Powering up her laptop, she logged into HeartsOnFire.com. There was her picture, all bright eyes and perky smile. And there were her dreams and desires, summed up in twenty-five words or less.
HARDWORKING IDEALIST SEEKS WORLD PEACE, JUSTICE, AND AN INTERESTING MAN FOR FUN AND ADVENTURE. NO WHINERS, TORMENTED ARTISTS, OR DEADBEAT MUSICIANS NEED APPLY.
When she was living in Denver, the ad had generated a few dates with aging hipsters who thought "fun" and "adventure" were code words for kinky sex. None of them were interesting, and all of them were whiners when they found out that her idea of fun was roller coasters and rock climbing.
Moving the cursor down to the bottom of the page, she hit the Delete Profile button and a box popped up, blinking frantically.
Are you sure you want to give up on love?
Yup, she was sure.
She hit the kill button then gazed out the small slice of window she could see from her office at Phoenix House, an old Victorian home that had been repurposed as a group home for foster children. There was a hardware store straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting across the street, with a tattered awning and a bench on which old men chewed over the news every morning. A rusty pickup, mostly blue with a red tailgate, was parked askew with one wheel up on the curb. There were no window-shoppers cruising the sidewalks, no traffic backed up at the single streetlight, no taxicabs, no street vendors. And she sincerely doubted there were any interesting men.
Actually, there were interesting men in Wynott. The trouble was, most of them were over seventy-five and none of them seemed to grasp the concept of a group home. Half of them were convinced she was running a juvenile hall for delinquents, and the other half thought she was a single mom with five kids. Since Isaiah was African-American, Carter as blond as Brad Pitt, and Frankie a dark-eyed Italian, they probably figured the kids had at least three fathers. It was all a bit of a shock for a small Wyoming town.
That was probably why her call for volunteers had gone unanswered until today, when her boss had called to let her know he'd talked a friend of his into volunteering as a sports coach. The guy should be arriving any minute. In fact, he was late. Hopefully, he'd...
There might not be any men in Wynott to make her heart flutter, but the sound of the old home's doorbell never failed to make it leap in her chest. Jacob Prescott Wynn, the founder of Wynott, had built Phoenix House with every deluxe feature the Victorian era had to offer, including delicate gingerbread eaves, hand-carved wood paneling, and faceted glass doorknobs. He'd also installed a pullout doorbell that made a sound like the "you lose" buzzer on a game show. It was so loud, it scared the bejesus out of half the neighborhood every time Sierra had company. This was very helpful to the women in town, who kept the gossip grapevine growing and found Sierra's comings and goings to be fine fertilizer.
She headed for the front door, wondering what kind of sports coach Mike Malloy had come up with. The owner of Phoenix House and the son of a senator, Mike was an overgrown frat boy. His friends reminded Sierra of a bunch of overweight Labrador retrievers, falling all over the place with their tongues hanging out. They were rude but good-natured, handsome but a little soft in the gut.
Swinging the heavy wood door open, she gaped at her guest. Surely, surely this wasn't any friend of Mike's.
There wasn't an ounce of frat boy in this guy. Not an ounce of fat, either. Just to make sure, Sierra let her gaze drift downward from the brim of his battered felt hat to his broad shoulders and muscular chest, which were both hidden-unfortunately-by a plaid Western-style shirt. He was wearing some kind of fancy belt buckle too, with a picture of a horse on it. Squinting, she tried to read the lettering around the edges but found herself distracted by the very obvious bulge beneath it. The jeans fit just fine everywhere else but seemed a bit strained here.
The hat. The hat. Look at the hat. And stop staring at his-his whatsit.
She'd once heard a country song about how you could gauge the quality of a cowboy by the condition of his hat. Barstool cowboys had shiny new hats, but real cowboys had hats that had been through everything from snowstorms to stampedes.
This guy was apparently the real thing, and the battered brim shaded the hard gray eyes of an outlaw. His jaw was darkened by stubble that made him look like he'd just come off the Chisholm Trail with Kevin Costner and Tom Selleck, though she suspected he could outride and out-rope both of them.
"I'm supposed to talk to the manager," he said.
He didn't sound like Kevin Costner or Tom Selleck. He sounded like Sam Elliott, all gravelly and masculine. His voice curled into Sierra's ear and slid down her backbone, coiling up somewhere warm and making it even warmer.
"The manager?" he repeated.
Sierra sighed. At five foot next-to-nothing, with short, blond hair and dimples that popped into being if she even thought about smiling, she was rarely taken for authority. Certainly no one ever guessed she'd been a Denver cop for three years. She'd gone into law enforcement figuring she'd be helping people, but instead she'd found herself escorting the same petty criminals in and out of the revolving doors of the justice system-crime to prison to parole to crime. She wasn't sure who she was really helping.
Then, a child abuse case inspired her to go back to school, majoring in social work and child psychology. When she'd returned to Denver as a social worker, she'd worked some hard cases in dangerous neighborhoods. It had been her oversized tough-girl attitude, born from a childhood on those same streets, that kept her safe.
It was her tough-girl attitude that got her the job at Phoenix House too. These kids needed special protection, and her combination of a social work degree and law enforcement experience had made her the perfect applicant.
So where was that tough-girl attitude now?
Evidently it had taken a break to curl up in her belly with Sam Elliott's voice.
"I'm Sierra Dunn, group mom here at Phoenix House." She started to extend a hand, but he kept his fists jammed deep in his pockets.
No handshake? No problem. His paws were probably dirty anyway.
He stepped inside, glancing around the newly renovated house as if he was looking for decorating ideas, but he wouldn't find any at Phoenix House. The old place's renovation had apparently busted the state's budget, so the furniture consisted of refugees from various government offices-gray metal desks, dented file cabinets, and chrome chairs with ugly vinyl cushions.
"Name's Ridge Cooper. I'm from Decker Ranch, out west of town."
"Oh. I've heard of you," she blurted.
You couldn't spend five minutes in Wynott without hearing about Ridge Cooper and his brothers. The three cowboys and their rodeo exploits seemed to be the single source of pride for a town that had fallen on hard times. The men in town spoke of the brothers with envy, the women with admiration.
Sierra didn't get it. Riding wild horses didn't make this guy any better than Ed Boone, who ran a thriving hardware store despite the town's economic struggles, or Colt Carson, who had turned the hole-in-the-wall Red Dawg Bar into a cross between a senior center, a soup kitchen, and a Wild West saloon. Tying up baby cows for a living didn't make him better than Phoebe Niles, who was raising an energetic granddaughter on the slim profits from a gas station at the edge of town. Ed and Colt and Phoebe were the people who kept Wynott alive. Not the Decker brothers.
"I'm looking to volunteer." He glanced down the hall, where the boys were cheering and razzing each other over a video game. The old house's high ceilings and cavernous spaces amplified everything.
"How many you got?" he asked.
"Only five right now. We're set up for more, but that's it so far."
He nodded. "No problem. I'm used to dealing with a herd. You just have to anticipate what they're going to do. Jink left when they zig, right when they zag."
He gestured as he spoke, like his left hand was a cow and his right a mounted cowboy. The left hand didn't stand a chance; it was headed off in a heartbeat.
"These are kids, not cows," she said.
Sierra felt like she was arguing with the boys. You could go back and forth for an hour and never resolve anything.
"No, I meant that's what you call them. Cattle, not cows," he said.
"All right. Cattle." She narrowed her eyes. "What are you going to teach them, anyway?"
He shrugged. "Riding. Roping. Rodeo."
She should have known. He wasn't exactly dressed for soccer.
Leading him across the hall to the old walk-in pantry she'd claimed as an office, she edged past her rickety fiberboard bookcase to her scratch-and-dent desk. The cowboy dropped into the old captain's chair across from her, but rather than crossing his legs like a normal human, he tilted the chair back on two legs and draped one booted leg over the arm. Maybe sitting in chairs wasn't enough of a challenge when your day job was sticking to the saddles of bucking horses.
And that day job was a problem. She needed someone who could make a commitment. From what she'd heard, rodeo cowboys were always on the move.
"You travel around a lot, don't you?" She kept her smile friendly, but her eyes watched for signs of weakness. Volunteers for this kind of work always arrived all bright-eyed and hopeful, ready to save the world one kid at a time. But her boys were slow to trust-with good reason-and most folks gave up when they didn't get the warm fuzzies they were expecting. Gave up and walked away, just like the boys' families had.
"You'll do more harm than good if you take off on these kids once we've started."
He'd taken off his hat upon entering the house, so she got the full force of those eyes. Darkness cut through the gray, reminding her of broken crystal, and his gaze was direct.
"I'll be here," he said. "Trust me."
She decided she might as well take his word for it. Not because she'd deluded herself into thinking he was some paragon of cowboy virtue, but because he was so abrupt she figured he wouldn't bother to lie to her.
But she couldn't figure out why he wanted to do this. He didn't seem like your typical do-gooder dad or concerned citizen. In fact, he seemed almost reluctant. She needed to probe deeper.
"Do you have any experience with children?" she asked.
"I was one once," the cowboy said.
The question slipped out in a tone of disbelief.
"Okay, I don't know much about kids," he admitted. "But Mike thought it was a good idea to teach your boys to ride, maybe rope a little." He flushed. "Well, not your boys. I know you're not..."
"That's actually how I think of them." Sierra smiled. "They're my boys as long as I'm here. And I'm hoping everyone else will see it that way too. If people can see us as just another family, the boys can really feel like they belong here."
His eyes narrowed. "In Wynott?"
"Well, sure. Why not?"
He didn't laugh. She didn't blame him. Everyone here had probably heard the joke about a million times. Old Jacob Wynn had had a playful sense of humor, but after a hundred years, it was probably getting a little stale.
"This is the last-chance placement for these kids," she said. "They've been rejected, over and over, from one foster home after another. They run away. They play hooky. They steal. They fight. And they don't think much of authority."
The cowboy smiled for the first time. "Sounds like we'll get along great."
"I hope so," Sierra said. Ridge Cooper seemed like an unlikely ally, but he had influence in this tiny town, and she'd take any help she could get. "It's not the kids' fault. Authority's never done a thing to earn their trust, and the rules have never worked for them, either. The foster care system in this state is terrible. Not just in this state. In this country." She realized she was ranting and reined herself in, settling back in her chair and smiling. "I think Wynott can help fix it."
He snorted. "How do you figure that? This town's about ready to tumble down and go back to the land, dust to dust. The folks who still live here are either too poor to leave or too tired to try."
She started enumerating the town's charms on her fingers. "Small-town setting. Isolation. Elderly population. I'll bet a lot of these old folks spend all their time watching what goes on and gossiping. Am I right?"
He nodded with a wry smile, just as she expected.
"It's small, it's safe, and there are plenty of folks to watch over the kids," she continued. "I'm hoping Wynott can become a real hometown for them. I've always thought that might be the way to go with foster kids." She ignored his disbelieving stare. "Maybe if we give them roots, they'll stop running."