Heart racing in her chest with a rapid staccato beat and ears ringing, Jeanie woke with a start, rubbing her eyes to get the grime out of them and trying to forget the bad dream. Each night she dreamed the same thing.
The dream started with her standing in the darkness, and, slowly, a bright light glared in the distance, growing as it drew nearer. As the dream progressed, she discovered she was inside her room in Colorado in the house she shared with her sister Maddie. The lighting in her room was harsh and glaring into her eyes, making them tear up. Compared to the darkness at the beginning of the dream, the light was like the brightness of a midsummer sun. She reached for the jacket she needed before running out to the waiting truck and her date for the night. Just as she turned, a heavy object hit her head, and the light went out.
Before waking up each morning, she would have flashes of men talking and women using hushed voices, some crying. After the incident, this happened most nights. She had been kidnapped into a human trafficking ring. Her sister Maddie and her now-fiancé, Detective Derek Lewis, along with some of the Brotherhood Protectors had come in and saved Jeanie and several other women. Some nights the nightmares were worse than others and some not as bad. The dreams seemed to be telling her something she couldn’t remember when she woke.
The sheets were tangled around her legs, and she had to unravel them to get out of the bed. She swung her legs over the side and stepped onto the carpet. She padded softly over to the bathroom attached to the room she’d been assigned.
Most of her days started like this, and she needed to get out to the barn to get her work done for the day. There were horses she needed to take care of. The horses’ care was part of her therapy. Helping at the Brighter Days Rehab Ranch, and getting daily therapy for what had happened to her, was all part of the deal.
Jeanie brushed her long, dark-blonde hair and put it up into a ponytail at the back of her head. Blue jeans went on smoothly over her long legs. Next, she donned a soft, warm red-flannel shirt. Supple, well-worn brown cowboy boots completed the look, but being the owner of a fashion store with her sister, she always had to add a little touch of something to her simple daily look. On the ranch, wearing little bobbles got in the way of the hard work she did, but the simple belt she put on with her jeans had a turquoise and silver buckle, which satisfied her need to accessorize. Scooping up her lined jean jacket, she bounded down the stairs to get a quick breakfast. The kitchen was the heart of the ranch house, and freshly brewed coffee seemed to float toward her from the hallway.
As she came up on the kitchen, the other ranch hands lined the bar and sat at stools talking to the cook. All the hands were prior military and had been medically discharged from the military due to some sort of injury that had befallen them. Jeanie was new, and as she walked into the room, the men all stared and watched her walk in. Her father whom had been in the military was able to get her a spot on the ranch while she healed.
Gavin Blackstock sat at the end of the bar and patted the stool next to him. “Over here, Jeanie girl. Breakfast is almost ready.”
She grasped the stool and set down on it, nervously.
One of the other ranch hands, Abe, poured a large steaming mug of coffee and pushed it her way.
“Here, have a cup of joe, best in Montana,” said Jimmy Young. The ranch hand had lost his legs in Iraq. He moved around on his hands and used a wheelchair when he wanted to get around faster. He had yet to master prosthetics.
Jeanie had only been on the ranch for a brief time, but already felt the comradery these men shared, and they included her in their little family away from home.
“So, how is today looking for you, sweet girl?” Cookie Fite pushed fluffy yellow, scrambled eggs around in the skillet. The short, stocky, ranch cook was a retired Air Force Master Sergeant, who didn’t put up with any lip from anyone and ruled his kitchen like a drill sergeant. He was very protective of the ranch hands and treated them like they were his recruits. Jeanie appreciated being treated like a part of a military family. There was a comforting familiarity with the atmosphere since her father had been a career military officer.
“That little pony sure does like following you around,” Jimmy said.
She looked over at Jimmy. “Yeah, ever since I got here, she seems to like me and wants me to give her attention all the time.”
“Well, that is impressive,” he said while scooping mounds of sugar into his coffee cup. “None of us could get her to even eat when we were around, and you have her eating out of the palm of your hand.”
Gavin nodded. “Yeah, Hannah says she must have been beaten by a man, and that’s why she won’t give us the time of day.”
The miniature pony had been rescued from an owner who had neglected the little animal, and Brighter days Rehab Ranch had brought her here to recuperate and get used to being around men and other animals again.
Jeanie loved the little pony. The equine reminded her a little of Loulou, her golden retriever back home.
“Alright, folks, eat up. You got a busy day to look forward to from what I hear,” said Cookie, as he set out the food on the bar for everyone to serve themselves.
There were scrambled eggs, toast, pancakes, and hash browns. Along with the steaming pot of coffee, there was also orange juice. The ranch hands laid out plates and silverware, and everyone dug in with gusto.
Just as the hands finished and got up to help with the dishes, a knock sounded at the front door. Percy Pearson, the foreman at the ranch, strode to the front door to see who was there. Most people who lived, worked, or knew how ranch life went came through the kitchen’s side door.
Jeanie could hear male voices coming closer to the kitchen. The dishes were done, and everyone was going out the back door to get to their chores for the day. Jeanie turned to grab her jacket off the stool to leave when Percy, along with another man, walked into the kitchen. The man had rich, brown hair cut short in a military crewcut. He wore tactical khaki pants and a tucked-in polo shirt with military-issue boots. His eye where a striking brown, almost root beer colored with flecks of gold in them.
Percy brought the newcomer up to Jeanie and said, “Tyler, this is Jeanie. Jeanie…Tyler. He’s a new ranch hand. We need for you to show him the ropes around here.”
Why was Percy doing this? He knew she had problems with strangers. Still, Jeanie looked at Tyler briefly and stuck her hand out. “Nice to meet you, Tyler.”
Tyler seemed to be assessing Jeanie as he took her hand in his for a nice firm hand shake.
Jeanie didn’t falter but noticed how strong he was and how much taller he was than her, and, instantly, she felt panic. Standing her ground and not flinching, she cocked her head and said, “Follow me, and I’ll walk you through my choirs, and then we can do a tour of the ranch.”
Percy had moved off while they were assessing each other and had already left the kitchen to perform his morning choirs for the day, which left Jeanie alone with the new guy.
Jeanie straightened her shoulders, marched to the door, and held it open so that Tyler could walk through. “Follow me,” she said, her voice gruff. She stomped straight to the barn and to the stalls—her assigned area for most days.
Minnie could be seen peaking her little furry head from her makeshift stall. She was so small the ranch hands had fashioned a special stall just her size.
Jeanie couldn’t stay mad for long when she saw how excited Minnie was to see her, and she let the miniature horse out of her stall so that she could clean it out and feed her for the morning. Just like a puppy, Minnie wanted to be petted, so Jeanie started with grooming her. Forgetting that she had someone following her, she jumped with a start when Tyler cleared his throat
“Is this the typical horse they have here?” He said it with a little bit of a chuckle under his breath.
Minnie turned, likely just then realizing there was a man in her vicinity, and hid behind Jeanie.
Jeanie glared at Tyler. “No, she is not the typical horse. She’s a miniature horse, named Minnie, that was rescued and is afraid of men, so I take care of her while I’m here.” She drew a slow deep breath, trying to calm herself, because any nervousness she betrayed would be picked up by the little animal.
Tyler squatted near the little horse and quietly talked to her. Then he motioned for Jeanie to hand him the brush. He gently rubbed the brush down the horse’s sides while he talked to the animal in quiet, soothing tones. The more he talked, the calmer Minnie got, until she turned her head against his hand for a pet.
Jeanie sat in shock at how fast Minnie took to Tyler, which helped her relax somewhat.
When Tyler cleared his throat, Minnie jumped with a start.
Suddenly, a crack of thunder could be heard in the distance. It was the stormy season in Montana, and lightening was common this time of year. The animals inside the barn grew jumpy and moved around in their stalls, making nervous sounds as other ranch hands tried to calm them. While Tyler consoled Minnie, Jeanie started to clean the stalls she was assigned and feed the horses.
Jeanie was so focused on her work, she forgot about Tyler until he walked up next to her and started raking the stall she was in.
“So, how long have you been here?” Tyler asked.
Without looking up from her task, she murmured, “Been on the ranch for about a month.”
“So, what branch of service were you in?”
Jeanie stopped raking and turned to him, one hand on her hip while holding the rake in the other hand. “I wasn’t in the service. What’s with all the questions?”
His gaze narrowed just a little, and he shrugged. “Just trying to get to know the people I’ll be working with here.”
“I prefer to work and talk later.” Jeanie left the stall and moved to the next one, knowing she’d been abrupt and rude, but she didn’t want him hovering over her while she worked. It would be better for her to keep him at a distance.
Completing her work quickly, she turned back to Tyler, noticing how his muscles moved beneath his shirt and how his jeans clung to his buttocks. Jeanie shook herself to clear her head of any attraction, and then said, “Follow me, and I can take you on a short tour of the ranch before we start working the horses for the day.”
Tyler hadn’t felt this uncomfortable since first joining the military. Starting over was hard. The military had become his life and family. After having endured most of his unit being shredded from multiple IEDs, he needed time away from the world to recover. That was why Hank Patterson had sent him to this ranch. He needed to heal and to adapt to civilian life. Hank’s promise that he’d be part of the Brotherhood Protectors, when Tyler was ready, kept him going. Knowing he’d be back with his military family was the goal, one he’d work hard to reach. Still, adjusting to life outside the sandbox would take time.
He blew out a breath. Following Jeanie around made him feel as though she was babysitting, and he felt ready to do more.
In two long strides, he caught up to her. “Where are you from?”
Jeanie turned and looked at him while walking toward the ranch hands’ bunkhouse. “I’m a military brat, so I’m from all over, but my sister Maddie and I live in a small town in Colorado.”
Minnie followed at Jeanie’s heels like a little puppy would, eager for attention. Tyler couldn’t help noticing how Jeanie’s hips swung as she walked and how her jeans clung to her long legs. To keep an eye on her would be easy, but the need for real action made him anxious. Tyler was a mover and a doer and hadn’t slowed down once during his years in the military.
Jeanie walked him through the shotgun-style building with its small kitchenette, open showers, and rows of small rooms with a bunk in each. “This is where the ranch hands stay, and I’m sure Foreman Pearson will get you assigned to a bed later, so make sure when we’re done with the tour that you check in with him,” she said then walked toward the main ranch house.
The scenery on the ranch was spectacular…rolling hills as far as the eye could see with green grass and specks of little blue flowers. The sky was dark and gray due to the storm that had dumped rain while they’d been in the barn. The mountains in the distance were snowcapped, and there was a cool breeze even though it was slightly warm outside.
A couple more strides and Tyler was right back at her side. As she walked, she stretched and bent over slightly to pat Minnie on the head. She gave him a sideways look. “So, what branch of service where you in?”
He didn’t miss her quick glance or the tone of her voice—a little rough, like she knew she had to be polite but would rather be anywhere else but with him. He wondered what her story was.
Not turning to look at Jeanie this time, Tyler said, “I served with the 75th Ranger Regiment, until about 6 months ago when I was medically discharged.”
Tyler noticed that Jeanie slowed slightly but continued toward the house. Her boot caught on the edge of a rock, and she stumbled slightly. He grabbed her arms, so she wouldn’t fall and faced her to make sure she was okay. Instantly, he stilled. He could see she was scared. Her breathing grew labored, and the whites of her eye showed. Her body trembled slightly.
Jeanie gasped and shook off his hands. “I’m okay. Follow me.”
Concerned for the way she’d acted but knowing he couldn’t ask any questions, after all, he barely knew her, Tyler followed her to the ranch house. As they stepped on the porch, Jeanie went to the side door that opened into the kitchen. Minnie followed her through the door, something Jeanie treated as natural, so he shrugged and followed them both inside.
“This is the kitchen,” she said, waving a hand. “We normally eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner in here, unless we have a barbeque. Then we do that at the ranch hands’ bunkhouse. Normally, visitors, Cookie, and Hannah Kendrick’s, the ranch therapist, stay at the ranch house, and the hands stay at the bunkhouse.”
“Where do you stay, Jeanie?” he asked, and then wished he’d bit his tongue because of her expression.
Jeanie cocked her head to one side, her eyes narrowing. “I also stay at the ranch house.”
She started to turn, and he moved closer and gave her a one-sided smile. “By the way, you can call me Tye, everyone I know does.”
Jeanie’s mouth twitched. “I don’t know you yet, so Tyler will work for me.”
With a big grin stretching across his face, he nodded. He could tell from their interactions so far that she was a stubborn one.
After touring the ranch house, Tyler followed Jeanie out on the porch. A loud thundering sound could be heard, and a lot of dust was in the air. Just as Jeanie stepped off the porch, Tyler grabbed her back. Several horses galloped past, hell bent for leather.