Carter's Cowgirl, page 1part #8 of Quinn Valley Ranch Series
Table of Contents
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
OTHER BOOKS BY MELISSA MCCLONE
Quinn Valley Ranch, Book Eight
Copyright © 2019 Melissa McClone
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work, in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, is illegal and forbidden, without written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Characters, settings, names, and occurrences are products of the author’s imagination or used factiously and bear no resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, places or settings and/or occurrences. Any incidences of resemblance are purely coincidental.
Cover by EDH GRAPHICS
Cardinal Press, LLC
She was part of our lives for over twenty-one years, and each day with her was a gift. She lay next to me while I wrote each book I’ve published. She crossed the
Rainbow Bridge while I was writing this one.
Special thanks to the authors in the Quinn Valley Ranch series: Kirsten Osbourne, Pamela Kelley, Amelia Adams, Caroline Lee, Liz Isaacson, and Kay P. Dawson.
Early January meant freezing temperatures and snow in Quinn Valley, Idaho. The so-called slow time at Quinn Organics, but the work never ended for Carter Quinn. The chores continued during the colder, quieter winter months. He still cared for livestock, tended and harvested produce and herbs in the greenhouse, filled orders for his brother David’s restaurant food-supply business, checked on the bees, repaired whatever needed fixing around the farm, and planned for springtime.
Oh, and paid bills.
Lots and lots of bills.
Sitting at his desk, Carter sorted the mail into four piles: pay now, pay later, read, and recycle. His dog, Ruff, lay at his feet, enjoying his afternoon nap.
The good news was Carter had money to cover his expenses. The bad news was the farm’s income had remained the same since he’d inherited the property from Ben Martin, who’d been his boss, two years ago. Oh, there’d been a few gains here and there, but nothing that had continued into the following year.
Ben’s dream had been to take the farm to the next level. This was the year Carter wanted to make that happen.
A glance at the framed photograph of the two of them, taken when Carter was sixteen, filled him with warmth and a hint of nostalgia. Funny how an after-school job in high school had led to him spending half his life working the land that now belonged to him. If Carter had his way, he’d spend another fifty or sixty years doing the same thing and be buried here, too.
Just like the Martins.
Carter touched the photo. “I won’t let you and Frannie down. I promise.”
A person couldn’t walk five feet in town without bumping into a Quinn: aunts, uncles, cousins, and other extended relatives. Their family get-togethers, usually centered around a holiday, were legendary.
Carter couldn’t have asked for better parents in his mom, Marcia, and his late father, Richard. Same with his grandparents, Gertrude and Harley. But Carter was the second of five kids and one of twenty-five grandchildren, aka a part of the crowd. Not that Carter minded. He loved his big extended family.
But to Frannie and Ben Martin, Carter had been their only “child”—an employee who became a surrogate son. He’d had the best of both worlds, a family by blood who loved him unconditionally and another of the heart who gave him more than they should.
Still staring at the photo, Carter sighed. “Mom and Dad should have named me Lucky.”
Because that was how he felt and had for years.
Now to use some of that luck to make Ben’s dream come true, a dream that was Carter’s, too.
A car pulled up to the house.
He didn’t need to glance out the window to know who had arrived. His lips curved. His grandmother was like the sun, arriving at the same time each Monday to pick up a weekly supply of organic herbs for her and her friends. In exchange, which wasn’t necessary but she insisted, was a home-cooked dinner for him.
A fair trade, she claimed.
Carter went outside, leaving the front door open. Ruff, his head resting on his paws, remained on his cushion near the desk. The dog knew their weekly routine. He wasn’t about to give up his cozy, warm spot. Not even for Grams.
With each inhalation, the chilly air stung Carter’s lungs.
Bundled up in a long winter coat, hat, scarf, and gloves, his grandmother carried a casserole dish and a grocery bag. She climbed the front steps with a grace that belied her age. Her claim her grandchildren kept her young seemed to be true.
Handing him the items, she tsked. “Get inside. You’ll catch a chill without a jacket.”
“I’m not going to be out here long enough to get cold.”
After she went inside, she removed her outerwear before smoothing her gray hair. “You boys will be the death of me.”
He followed her in and then closed the door behind him. “What about the girls?”
Grams winked. “They know better than to go outside without a jacket in January.”
That made him laugh. Though Grams was probably right about his two younger sisters and his plethora of female cousins. “When I’m recovering from frostbite, you can tell me ‘I told you so.’”
The deep lines on her face spoke of a life full of smiles and laughter. She patted him on the arm. “You know I will.”
Of course she would. He wouldn’t expect anything less. She would also stay at his bedside until he was recovered because that was the kind of woman she was. Family meant everything to Gertrude Quinn, and her grandchildren were the apples of her eye. She just wanted those apples to multiply and bear fruit, aka great-grandchildren. The ones she already had and the baby on the way weren’t nearly enough.
Carter went into the kitchen and placed the casserole in the refrigerator. A peek inside the bag revealed a salad, pickled vegetables, dinner rolls, and cookies. No doubt the sides were provided by his grandmother’s besties—Betty, Maude, Nellie, and Ruby—who met every Wednesday to sip tea, drink coffee, and gossip.
He put away the items. If he didn’t, Grams would. “Thanks for bringing me dinner.”
“Least I can do when you provide us herbs each week.” Her assessing gaze ran the length of him. “You’re thinner. Good thing I added Italian sausage to the baked ziti. You need the protein.”
“I’m sure you’re right.” He knew better than to tell her he hadn’t lost any weight. No matter what he said, she’d want to bring by more food tomorrow just to prove her point. Once a week, however, was plenty. He didn’t want to take advantage of her kindness. “Thanks, Grams.”
She scanned the kitchen before glancing into the living room. “The house is cleaner than last week.”
His chest puffed out. His work had paid off. He’d also spent time earlier
She stepped closer. “Who is she?”
He had no idea what his grandmother was talking about. “She who?”
“The woman you cleaned for.”
Uh-oh. Once Grams got an idea in her head, she wouldn’t let go. Time for damage control. “There is no woman.”
“There’s always a woman.”
Not in his case. Or not in the way Grams thought or wanted.
In a town the size of Quinn Valley, the population of unmarried women wasn’t large, and many of those females were related to him. Several of the women who didn’t share the Quinn or McIver surnames had dated one or more of his cousins. Relationships could get complicated fast, especially with so many big family gatherings. Remaining single was easier in some—many—ways.
“I cleaned because the organic farming consultant I hired is arriving later today.”
As her shoulders drooped, she sighed.
“Maybe someday,” he added. “I’ll have another reason to clean the house.”
That was as much hope as he wanted to give his grandmother due to her mission to see him, his siblings, and all his cousins married.
She harrumphed. “Someday is too far off.”
“It is what it is.” He poured her a cup of coffee and then added a dash of milk and two teaspoons of sugar before joining her at the kitchen table. She also drank tea, but he was out and had forgotten to buy more. “The farm takes all my time. No woman is going to put up with the hours I work. Even fewer want to live out here.”
She sat and then raised her mug to her mouth. “Town isn’t that far away. The right woman wouldn’t mind being out in the country. You just have to find her.”
“I’m afraid the right woman doesn’t live in Quinn Valley, and I can’t leave the farm long enough to go search for her.”
Grams took a sip. As she lowered her cup, her face brightened. “Use one of those dating app thingies you can put on your phone.”
He cringed. Call him old-fashioned, but no. “I don’t know if there’s one for farmers to find spouses.”
Grams arched a brow. “Sounds like a business opportunity if there isn’t and you want to develop one.”
Carter laughed, but he didn’t think she was joking. “Maybe you can convince someone else to take on that task. I’ve got my hands full here. That’s why I hired a consultant.”
She stared over the cup’s rim. “Forget the consultant. You need a matchmaker.”
“I thought that was your job.”
Grams laughed, but then she narrowed her gaze in the half-joking, half-serious way he’d come to know. “I do my best, but you’re not even dating. And this is the farm’s slow season.”
This wasn’t the first time he’d heard that, so he repeated what he’d already said. “My list of chores still needs to be done each day.”
“Chores and this farm won’t keep you warm on a cold winter’s night.”
She would never give up, but Carter didn’t expect her to.
He forced himself not to grin. “That’s what heat and quilts are for.”
“What am I going to do with you, Carter Quinn?” Grams clicked her tongue. “Before you know it, you’ll have a beard down to your belly button, grunt when someone asks you a question, and forget to shower.”
He choked back a laugh because, despite the hyperbole, he knew she worried about him. “I’m sure my mom, brothers, and sisters would stage an intervention before things got that bad.”
“David is another of you youngsters who needs a wife. And don’t get me started on Maggie and Ivy. Your sisters need to settle down, too. At least Ryder married a good woman.”
“He did. And one who’s a top-notch chef.” As Carter thought about his oldest brother’s good fortune, he smiled. Ryder had hit the wife lottery after reuniting with his former girlfriend, Bethany Davis. “I’m sure the same thing will happen with the others.”
Grams tapped her finger against her chin. “Others including you?”
Carter had hoped his brother’s marriage, along with those of his cousins, Roxane, who was pregnant, and Renae, who had recently gotten married, would appease his grandmother’s longing for her grandchildren to wed. Especially since his cousin Andrew was engaged and his other cousins Brooke and Georgia seemed to be getting serious with their boyfriends. Unfortunately, the weddings, proposals, and burgeoning relationships had only lit a bigger flame under Grams.
“Never say never.” That seemed a good answer.
“The sooner, the better,” his grandmother countered.
“Patience is a virtue, Grams.”
“I’m too old to be patient. And I miss seeing your dimple.”
He touched the left side of his face. “It’s still there.”
“Could have fooled me.” She downed the rest of her coffee. “I wish I could stay longer, but I made a double batch of the ziti. I’m dropping off a pan for Celeste Stevens.”
The woman had injured her back in a fall at her aromatherapy shop—Scentiments. Lindy, her niece, who had moved to Quinn Valley to care for her aunt, was running the store and engaged to the local UPS delivery guy. “How is Celeste doing?”
“Her recovery is going slow, but backs can take time to heal properly.” Grams stood. “Are the herbs ready?”
From the mudroom, Carter retrieved the box containing the bags of herbs for his grandmother and her friends. Inside each were individual packages of basil, lemongrass, lavender, sage, thyme, rosemary, parsley, and whatever else the women had requested for their cooking needs and smoothie obsessions.
He gripped the box when Grams tried to take it from him. “I’ll carry this out for you.”
“You’re a good boy.” She placed her cup in the sink. “Eating all that dirt when you were little doesn’t seem to have affected you the way your mother feared it would.”
Carter wasn’t sure how to reply to that. “That must be the reason I love working the land.”
“Must be.” His grandmother’s eyes twinkled. “I’ll be by next week, but you’re welcome to visit me before then.”
She and Grandpa lived at Quinn Valley Ranch along with their eldest son, Harvey; his wife, Charity; and their five children: Rhodes, Betsy, Georgia, Jessica, and Camille.
“It might do you good to get away from the farm for an hour or two,” Grams continued. “Everyone needs a break.”
Which meant he’d better pencil in a visit in a few days or she’d be calling him with a reminder. “I can drop off the herbs next week if that’s easier for you or the weather’s bad.”
“I enjoy our visits here. Gives me a chance to see what you’re up to with the place,” she admitted. “And I’ve been driving in the wintertime decades longer than you’ve been alive. Snow and ice have never scared me.”
“Does anything scare you, Grams?”
“The thought of my grandchildren not falling in love and ending up alone terrifies me.” She rose on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “So find a girlfriend and make it permanent.”
No matter what anyone said or did, she would never give up hope that all of them would settle down. “I’ll do my best. You never know. Maybe a woman will find me.”
She beamed. “That kind of attitude makes a grandmother proud.”
The way her face lit up pleased him. He only hoped she wouldn’t be too disappointed when he remained single.
As Avery Scott filled her pickup’s gas tank on the outskirts of Quinn Valley, Idaho, her breath hung on the cold winter air. Goose bumps covered her skin, so she shoved her hands into her jacket pockets. She should have put on her gloves and hat before getting out of the truck, but she’d been thinking about her arrival at her final destination.
Her newest job brought her from California’s Central Valley to this small town in Idaho, a short distance from Riston and a bit farther from the slightly larger Lewiston. According to the map app on her phone, t
Filling her tank, however, was going slow. The gas flowed like molasses in January. Yes, it was January, but she wanted to get on her way so she could arrive at Quinn Organics and see some of the farm before the sun disappeared below the horizon. Oh, she’d been sent photos, but more than once, she’d arrived somewhere at nighttime and been surprised what the light of day had exposed.
Sure, she’d done her research and checked the farmer’s references—each gave glowing recommendations that spoke about his work ethic and love of the land. He’d also sounded professional on the phone, which was why she hoped this job wouldn’t be a bust like some of the others, when clients had preconceived ideas of what needed to be done or wouldn’t take her suggestions and her seriously.
From her peripheral vision, she noticed someone who hadn’t been there when she’d pulled up. A glance showed a twenty-something-year-old mechanic gawking, if his gaping mouth was anything to go by, from a garage bay.
Not wanting to embarrass him or encourage further attention, she stared at the gas nozzle.
“Hello there,” a male voice rumbled from behind her.
Avery faced him. “Hey.”
The mechanic sauntered toward her. Over puffy clothes, a jacket perhaps, he wore a pair of blue coveralls stained with oil streaks along with steel-toed boots. The guy was cute in a popstar-goes-country kind of way, if she were interested.
But she wasn’t.
He came closer, until he stood between the pump and a garbage can. “I haven’t seen you in Quinn Valley before. New to town?”
Avery hoped he was only being friendly and wanting to provide good customer service. She didn’t like being hit on, but she couldn’t be rude. The professional voice she used to answer business inquiries should work well with him. “First time here.”
“Are you going to the hot springs?” he asked, keeping his distance. Maybe he didn’t want her number.
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