Her Last First Kiss Chapters 1-3

December 29, 2018 Liz Isaacson

HER LAST FIRST KISS is coming on January 8, but you can read the first three chapters right now! You can preorder the book on Amazon right now and have it show up on your Kindle on release day.

Chapter One:

Scarlett Adams wiped her dirty hands down the front of her jeans, wondering what her life had become. She’d only been at Last Chance Ranch for two weeks, but it felt worlds different than the life she’d left in Los Angeles, only thirty miles away.

That couldn’t be right. Thirty miles?

She sighed and scraped her sweaty flyaways off her forehead. Surely this place was at least three universes from the life she’d known on Earth.

This was your choice, she told herself as she surveyed the room holding more stuff than she’d ever owned in her life. Yes, her mother had called her and said her grandfather needed help. And Scarlett had seized the opportunity to leave the city, something she’d been wanting to do since her divorce had become final.

No, she wasn’t wearing skirts and silks and heels anymore. She’d thought those things made her happy, but she knew now that they didn’t. Of course, neither did sleeping as late as she wanted, wearing jeans all the time, and cleaning out years of her grandfather’s hoard.

So maybe she hadn’t thought through this life choice as much as she should have. But how was she to know Gramps hadn’t thrown anything away since Grams had died? It wasn’t like Scarlett came out to the ranch all that often, despite the short distance from her previous apartment to this sprawling piece of land in the Glendora foothills, right at the base of the Angeles National Forest.

She was still in California—it only felt like she’d blasted off to the moon and was trying to organize it.

She picked up a jar with an unknown substance in it, hoping it was well-sealed and would stay that way. Probably something Grams had canned decades ago. Maybe grape juice. Scarlett wasn’t entirely sure, and she wasn’t going to find out. She’d rented an industrial-sized dumpster that she filled faster than the sanitation department would come pick it up. She’d made great progress on the ranch, getting the homestead cleaned out, as well as the three spare cabins that sat just behind the main house.

There were thirteen other cabins that sat near the entrance of the ranch, along with that robot mailbox she’d loved as a little girl. She smiled thinking about the contraption her great-grandfather had welded together and which her older brother had dubbed Prime, because he’d been learning about prime numbers in school at the time and there was only one robot mailbox like the one guarding Last Chance Ranch.

Those cabins had been empty for a while, and Scarlett hadn’t done much to them to make sure they were habitable. If she wanted to save Last Chance Ranch, she’d need to fill them with men and women willing to work. She’d need to find a way to pay those people. And she’d need to figure out how to get Gramps to let go of some of the stuff he thought he couldn’t live without.

Scarlett knew what he was doing wasn’t considered living. And she knew that what he couldn’t live without he couldn’t get back. Grams.

Another sigh left her mouth, and she gently set the jar of whatever-it-was in the wheelbarrow she was using to haul trash from what used to be a sun room to the dumpster. Oh, yes, this would be a sun room again, and she’d sit here with Gramps while he drank black coffee and she sipped chamomile tea. Oh, yes….

She dug back into the work, ignoring the sun as it continued to beat down on her. Item by item piled into the wheelbarrow until she tried to lift it and could barely do so. She hefted it into position and started for the dumpster, which was concealed on the east side of the homestead. That way, when the director for Forever Friends, the animal organization Scarlett had contacted to come see the facilities at the ranch, arrived, she wouldn’t see all the trash.

In fact, Scarlett was hoping to get all the trash off the premises before Jewel Nightingale showed up. Considering that the woman hadn’t even responded to one of Scarlett’s emails or phone calls kept her resting easy at night.

Oh, and all this physical labor. That certainly had her sleeping like a baby in a way her marketing executive job never had.

She passed a half a dozen cars and trucks on her trek from Gramps’s place to the garbage container, and she had no idea what to do about those. Gramps claimed none of them ran, and Scarlett certainly didn’t have the skill set to fix them. She could probably sell them and get some much-needed cash for the ranch if she could get any of the engines to turn over.

“At least Gramps has all the keys,” she muttered as she approached the trash bin. She couldn’t lift the wheelbarrow up and over the lip of the dumpster, so she’d been throwing items in one at a time, or shoveling them in with a strong, plastic snow shovel she’d found in one of the barns.

How Gramps had ever bought a snow shovel in California, Scarlett wasn’t sure. But it worked great to get trash up and into the container.

In the distance, dogs barked from their runs in the area of the ranch Scarlett had affectionately called the Canine Club. Gramps loved the dogs too, and he spent most of his time with them on the north side of the ranch. When she’d asked him how many dogs lived on the ranch, he’d said, “Maybe twenty.”

“Maybe?” Scarlett hadn’t meant to screech the word. “You don’t know how many dogs live here?”

“There’s at least twenty,” he’d said again. And so, when Scarlett’s muscles screamed at her to stop using them so strenuously, she’d go out to the different regions of the ranch—Canine Club, Feline Frenzy, Horse Heaven, Piggy Paradise, and LlamaLand—and document what lived there. What breeds, if she could figure it out. How many dogs, cats, llamas, horses.

She’d searched on the Internet and asked Gramps dozens of questions about what they animals ate and how he paid for the food. He seemed to have a schedule of volunteers coming out every day, seven days a week, to walk dogs and play with cats.

Oh, and the ranch had come with exactly one cowboy—a man named Sawyer Smith who gave horseback riding lessons on Saturday mornings, took care of the horses and cattle, and managed the majority of the crops on the ranch.

Scarlett had hardly ever seen Sawyer in the two weeks she’d been at Last Chance Ranch, and that was just fine with her. At forty-three-years-old, she was not interested in another romance. Nope. Not happening.

She finished unloading the last of the trash from the wheelbarrow, the thought of returning to go through more garbage almost so depressing she could fall to her knees. But she didn’t. She kept her back straight and clapped her work gloves together, sending dirt and dust into the air.

The dogs were really barking up a storm.

Scarlett left the wheelbarrow behind as she stepped onto the dirt lane in front of the homestead and started down it. Another road forked to the left a ways up, and that led to Canine Club and several barns where the goats lived.

If she were being honest, goats terrified her, and she’d never been happier to have brought a friend with her to the ranch. Adele Woodruff had worked in the city with Scarlett, and she’d needed a fresh start somewhere with less smog—and less likelihood of a debt collector showing up while she was trying to answer phones. Adele lived in the cabin right next door to Gramps, and she’d been tending to the goats, claiming she had a great way to start bringing in cash for the ranch.

She wouldn’t tell Scarlett what it was though, but she worked in the pastures and goat arena for hours with the animals.

Scarlett didn’t see her as she passed the cat houses and entered the Canine Club. “What’s going on?” she asked Annie, a white bulldog mix who seemed to be the matron of the club. “Where’s Gramps?”

She opened the gate and entered the dog community, where she’d documented a whopping twenty-six dogs lived. “Maybe twenty” had been way off, and the budget to feed and care for these dogs exceeded what Gramps brought in from his social security and Grams’s death benefit.

Scarlett really needed the partnership of Forever Friends, and she needed it quickly. After deciding she’d call Jewel again once she got back to somewhere she could wash her hands, Scarlett pushed her fear away.

She had a lot of savings, and while she’d lost a lot in the divorce, it wasn’t all monetary. She wouldn’t allow herself to think of Billy and Bob for more than a moment. A quick whisper of thought, and then gone. It hurt too much that she didn’t have her own fur babies with her on this ranch where twenty-six other dogs lived. Billy and Bob would’ve loved the Canine Club, and they should’ve been there with her.

“Gramps?” she called, the moment where she thought of her own dogs over.

He didn’t answer, but a distinctly male voice said, “Hey, do you own this place?”

Scarlett spun toward the voice to find a tall, dreamy man wearing a cowboy hat and holding a leash.

“Scooby?” she asked, sure this man’s name wasn’t the cartoon character. “What are you doing with my dog?” Anger and iciness was the only defense she’d have against this man, she could tell.

“He was out on the road,” the man said, glancing down at the big brown boxer. “Hound managed to make friends with him while I got the leash on.”

Scarlett noticed the golden retriever at the man’s side—no leash required. So he had enough charm to make dogs do things according to his command. Of course he did. Scarlett felt his charisma and charm tingling way down in her toes.

“I wasn’t sure if he came from up here or not. I just followed the sound of all the barking.”

“He belongs here,” Scarlett said, stepping forward to take the leash from him. “Scooby, you’ve got to stop digging under the fences.” And not just because Scarlett struggled to fill in the holes.

“I’m Hudson Flannigan,” the man said, reaching up with his now-free hand to lift his cowboy hat and push his hair back. He had dark sideburns and at least three days’ worth of a beard to match his salt-and-pepper hair, and Scarlett’s heart betrayed her by sending out a couple of extra beats.

He was her age.

So what? she asked herself in a harsh mental voice. She was used to looking for and finding details no one else did, and this man clearly hadn’t bathed in a couple of days. Probably as long as it had taken to grow that sexy scruff.

She gave herself a mental shake as she found the tattered cuffs on his jeans, the well-worn cowboy boots, the soft sparkle in his eyes. And the hint of grease under his fingernails.

“I noticed your mailbox on the way in,” he said, that voice like melting butter.

“What of it?” she asked, trying to keep a grip on Scooby, who probably weighed as much as she did. She almost scoffed out loud. That so wasn’t true. She was no lightweight, and though she’d lost ten pounds since coming to the ranch and starting the physical labor, she was easily still a size fourteen.

“It looked like it could use a tune-up,” he said. “Some of the pieces need to be welded together again.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “And I suppose you’re just the man to do it.” Did he wander the foothills, looking for jobs?

“I could,” he said. “I’m a master welder and I’m not bad with horses either.” His dog laid down, his tongue out like this was the most boring conversation on the planet.

An idea formed in Scarlett’s mind. She definitely needed help with the horses. She’d been tending to them every morning and evening, but she had no idea what she was doing. “We have sixteen horses here at the ranch,” she said. “I have a guy who does riding lessons on the weekend.”

Hudson nodded and touched the brim of his hat as if to say, Point taken. You don’t need me.

“I can’t pay you much,” Scarlett said quickly. “But I have a clean cabin you can live in. Hound too. And you can fix that mailbox, work with Sawyer in Horse Heaven, and….” She cocked her head, sure she was right about him. “How handy are you with cars?”

Chapter Two:

If Hudson Flannigan had been doubting why he’d turned up this obscure road when he’d heard a dog bark, he quit the moment that auburn-haired beauty asked him how handy he was with cars.

“I do all right,” he said evasively. He didn’t need to go showing his whole hand at once. He also couldn’t help the steady prayer that started in his head and wouldn’t stop.

Please, please, Lord. I need this job. Please help me get this job.

Over and over the words looped through his mind. Of course, if God cared all that much about Hudson, his marriage of ten years wouldn’t have fallen apart. Or at least the Lord would’ve given him a clue that his wife was being unfaithful. Or maybe the fact that Hudson had lived so long in unknowing bliss had been more merciful of the Lord. The jury was still out on that one.

And Hudson had been down and out since the divorce, almost a year ago now. He hadn’t stayed in one place longer than a couple of months, and the constant travel was tiring.

The woman nodded toward his hands. “Looks like you’ve worked on one recently.”

“Just my truck,” he said, wanting to hide his hands.

“Well, I’m Scarlett Adams, and I’m running this ranch with my grandfather. He’s got at least six vehicles on the property that need fixing, and if you do it, I’ll split the profit with you.”

Hudson’s eyebrows went up. “What kind of split?”

“Eighty-twenty,” she said without missing a beat.

He scoffed, almost offended but enjoying this game with Scarlett too much. “You’re joking, right?”

“We own the vehicles. They just don’t run.”

“Which makes them useless,” he said. “I’ll go…eighty-twenty in my favor.”

She gaped at him, those beautiful eyes like pools of pond water he could dive into and swim around in. When she started laughing, Hudson smiled.

“You’re a funny guy,” she said, still giggling and still holding onto that boxer like she was trying to choke him.

Hudson stepped forward and took the leash from her. He let it slacken and hang at his side, saying, “Stay, Scooby.” The dog stayed. “I’ll just help you get him back inside then,” he said. “I didn’t own and operate my own mechanic shop for twenty years to fix someone else’s cars and not get paid for it.”

He moved past her, hoping she’d counteroffer. A place to live out on this beautiful land sounded mighty appealing.

Please, he thought again, wishing the last time he’d been to church wasn’t a month ago. But surely God understood why Hudson hadn’t gone. It was hard when people asked where he lived and he couldn’t give them an address.

He tried opening the door to the building she’d been standing in front of, but it was locked. Just like last time he’d tried. Maybe this gorgeous woman had distracted him too much.

“It takes a key card,” she said, squeezing in beside him and swiping a card in front of the reader. The door clicked, and she gestured for him to go in.

He did, his head swimming with the strawberry scent of her hair. She was dirty too, and somehow that added to her allure. “Where do you want him?”

“Over here.” She stepped over to one of the empty pens in the circular room. With ease, she pulled the bolt up and the gate swung in.

Hudson unclipped Hound’s leash from around the other dog’s neck and said, “Go on.” Scooby moved into the pen, and Scarlett locked him inside before facing Hudson again.

“Fifty-fifty,” she said.

“I want to see the cars,” he said.

Her eyes blazed with fire that wasn’t entirely angry, but that he knew would burn him just the same. And he didn’t mind. In fact, he thought he might like to be torched by this woman.

No, you don’t want that, he told himself. He’d been operating on half a heart since Jan’s betrayal. He hadn’t been able to go home, as his mom loved Jan as much as him. In fact, since the divorce, she’d hosted a birthday party for his ex-wife and they still played Bunko together monthly.

Hudson had always been a disappointment to his horse-training father, who didn’t understand how any son of his could be content with being a mechanic. So Hudson had wandered from San Diego to Sacramento, looking for odd jobs, anything that would fill the tank in his truck and get him something to eat.

Another day. Another dollar. Another job.

“Fine,” Scarlett clipped out. “Come with me.”

“C’mon, Hound,” he said as he followed the curvy woman back outside. The view was certainly better than any he’d had in a while, and he found another smile forming on his face.

His pulse seemed to start with the pleadings, every beat pushing out a please-please. Help-me. Please-Lord.

Scarlett marched down the road, Hudson matching her stride for stride. “There’s a couple of trucks,” she said. “Four cars, and that’s all in the main yard. There’s tractors and stuff in the equipment shed, though Sawyer says those run okay.”

“And do they?” he asked.

“I don’t really know,” she said. “I think everything around here needs a lot of attention and a good cleaning, the vehicles included.” She shot him a look out of the corner of her eye that he wasn’t sure if it was a glare or just a glance. “I’ve only been here for two weeks, and Gramps…well, Gramps is eighty-one-years-old, and a hoarder.”

Compassion ran through Hudson. She was stepping into a situation she couldn’t control. And making the best of it. Hudson had some experience with that, and he knew what kind of grit and determined spirit a person had to possess to do it.

“There they are,” she said, going around the corner of the house and stopping.

He paused too and took in the row of vehicles in front of him. The trucks were old—older than him, and maybe as old as her grandpa. If he could get those running, they’d fetch a lot of money.

The cars seemed to be old sedans, nothing important or all that note-worthy. But if they ran, and the upholstery was in good shape, he could get a few thousand for them. People bought cars like that for their teenagers all the time.

The numbers added up in his head, and he’d take fifty percent if she’d give it to him. He said, “Those cars aren’t worth anything. The trucks, maybe. Seventy-thirty.”

“Sixty-forty.”

“For me?”

“For you.”

Hudson peered at the row of vehicles like he was really thinking about it. Several long moments passed, and then he said, “Deal.”

She turned toward him, that long dark red hair swinging in its ponytail. “Deal.” She extended her hand and he took it, ignoring the fizz of attraction now simmering in his bloodstream.

They shook hands, and she said, “I’ll get the paperwork drawn up. Do you want to see the cabin?”

* * *

An hour later, Hudson filled Hound’s bowl with fresh, cold water from the hose on the side of his new cabin. He left the dog to drink as he went up the back steps and into the cabin Scarlett had let him choose for himself.

There were thirteen almost identical cabins here at Last Chance Ranch, and he’d chosen the one in the corner of the U-shaped arrangement. It had a bigger yard for Hound, and a row of huge oak trees along the grass that would shade his place from the setting Western sun.

“Thank you,” he whispered to the empty room, the kitchen on his right, dining room on his left, and living room in front of him. The cabin was a box, with a hallway that led to a bedroom and a bathroom on the other side of the kitchen. So not somewhere he’d live and raise a family, but for him and Hound, it was perfect.

Absolutely perfect.

It had running water, which meant he could shower every day. A washing machine and dryer took up space in the bathroom, which meant he could wash his clothes whenever he wanted. There was a single couch in the living room, a table with two chairs in the dining room, and a bed, so he didn’t have to live in the back of his truck with the camper shell anymore.

His was full-size, and he could stand up almost all the way right in the doorway. If he wasn’t so tall, he’d be fine. His bed sat at the back of the truck bed, and he passed a kitchen with a microwave, sink, and two-burner stove on his left to get to the bed. He had plenty of storage for his stuff, and a bench he could sit on to put on his boots. But no toilet. The shower had a twenty-gallon tank that stayed hot when he decided to use it. He also had  a built-in heater and air conditioner in the shell. Not that he needed the temperature regulators in May in California. He had used the heater a few times on rainy days in the winter, especially farther north.

He’d been eating a lot of microwaveable meals and canned foods, already prepared things like granola bars and bags of chips, and as he gazed at the full-sized stove and oven in the kitchen of this cabin, he thought he’d died and gone to heaven.

He could cook. He could do laundry. He could bathe. Hudson had never been happier, and he bent to retrieve his backpack so he could get out his charger, plug in his phone, and get it powered up while he showered. Then he’d call his brother Brent and tell him all about the stray dog that had provided him the opportunity to be proud of himself again.

After all, in the course of the last couple of hours, he’d gotten a job. A place to live that wasn’t on wheels. And a pretty redhead who kept popping up in his mind’s eye, despite her frosty reception of him.

He frowned into the warm spray of the shower—his best bath in months, by the way. He wasn’t looking for another girlfriend. His heart and life had been through the shredder lately, and he just needed something stable to figure out how to be the new Hudson now that he wasn’t part of a couple.

The past year had been one of great learning for him, but it was mostly how to be by himself. He wasn’t sure who he was without Jan, or how to be that person in a permanent place. It was easier to be a good person and be kind when he was just passing through.

Now, though, he’d have to figure out how to be kind and good and Christ-like when he saw the same people day after day.

Refreshed from his shower, he went out to his truck and got his welding tools together, determined to get his first job on this ranch complete. When he opened the front door, he found Scarlett coming up the steps with an older gentleman on her arm.

With her eyes down, she didn’t see him immediately, so he said, “Hey, let me help.” He moved to help her grandfather up the steps, and the old man looked up with pale blue, watery eyes.

“Gramps wanted to meet you,” Scarlett said. “He said Scooby is his favorite dog, and he’s just so grateful you found him and brought him back.” Her voice carried a measure of sarcasm and she rolled her eyes halfway when Hudson looked at her.

“Oh, it was no problem,” Hudson said, his kindest voice employed. He smiled at Scarlett and then her grandpa. “I’m just glad I found where he belonged.” He looped his hand through the old man’s arm too and steadied him as he moved up the steps.

“Gramps, this is Hudson Flannigan. He’s going to fix up all the vehicles on the ranch.” She beamed at her grandfather and then Hudson, the brightness of her smile fading a bit when their eyes locked.

But for Hudson, his whole soul lit up like a solar flare, and he had a hard time tearing his eyes from hers.

“Good, good,” her grandfather said. “That lawn mower stopped working a few weeks ago, too. Maybe he could look at that.”

“I could,” Hudson said as a feeling that he’d just signed on for a heck of a lot more than he’d thought. This ranch needed a lot of work—it was called Last Chance Ranch, after all. And Hudson definitely felt like he was on his last chance.

Chapter Three:

Watching Hudson interact with Gramps was entirely unfair. He talked with him like they’d known each other for years, not just a few minutes. And they used words she didn’t understand the meaning of, like “carburetor” and “late-model Ford.”

Why couldn’t they just speak English? Why did Hudson have to be so handsome in that cowboy hat? Why did his cologne have to fire up every dormant female cell in her body?

Scarlett had argued with Gramps for fifteen minutes before giving in and driving him over to what she’d dubbed the Community. Well, Hudson was the only member so far, but Sawyer was planning to move into one of the cabins instead of commuting from nearby Pasadena. And Adele lived here now, though not over in these cabins.

She figured if she gave Gramps what he wanted in regard to meeting Hudson, next time she wanted to throw away something he claimed he needed, she could use this to get rid of it. She didn’t want to hurt her grandfather, but the pile of items they could sell was growing and growing, and they needed the money.

Hudson served ice water and offered her and Gramps granola bars. Scarlett declined, and not just because oats and honey went straight to her hips. She didn’t want to eat in front of Hudson yet, her insecurities about her plus-sized body rearing their ugly heads.

Of course he’s not interested in you, her mind whispered to her as they made small talk. Gramps fell asleep within minutes, leaving Hudson talking to himself and Scarlett trying to figure out what emotion she’d seen in his eyes as they’d come up the steps.

“So where are you from?” he asked, lifting his water glass to his lips.

“LA,” she said. “Well, really a bit south of there. Newport Beach. My parents live there still. I worked as a marketing executive at a firm in LA for a long time before coming here.” She pressed her lips together, thinking the granola bar would’ve stopped her from spewing so much about herself in a single breath. “You?” she squeaked out, realizing she knew absolutely nothing about this man. He could be an axe murderer for all she knew, and she’d just hired him and given him a place to live.

“My shop was in Santa Monica,” he said.

“Oh, right on the coast.”

“Yes.” He seemed to be experiencing the smell and splash of the ocean as he stared at something past her. Then he shook himself and said, “It did well for a lot of years.”

“So why don’t you have it anymore?” Scarlett shot a glance at her still-snoozing grandpa. She really didn’t have time to sit on this lumpy couch and make small talk. But she couldn’t get herself to leave.

“I sold it after the divorce,” he said, taking another long drink of water.

“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry to hear that.” She watched him, and he looked sorry too for about a second.

“Yes, well, I didn’t want to be cheated on again.” Pain definitely crossed his face this time, and Scarlett wondered how long it had been since the divorce. But she wasn’t going to ask.

“I’m divorced too,” she blurted, wishing she could suck the words back in. “It’s been going on for about three years now, and was just finalized about four months ago.” She heard the discomfort in her own voice, but she couldn’t erase it. Didn’t even know how.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It sounds like it didn’t go well.”

“We fought over our dogs,” she said. “That’s why it took so long.” She crossed her arms over her chest, trying to keep the perfect storm of emotions inside.

“No fighting in mine,” he said. “Jan had already moved in with her other boyfriend by the time I filed.”

Surprise filled Scarlett, and she didn’t know what to say. “Some people suck,” she said, which caused Hudson to chuckle.

“Yes,” he said, smiling. “Some people do.” He leaned forward in the chair he’d brought in from the dining room. “You’re not one of them, are you, Scarlett?”

The way he said her name made her want to do nothing but sit on this couch and talk with him. Which meant she had to get up and leave. Now.

“I try not to be,” she said, thinking of the red brick church Gramps had dragged her to the past couple of Sundays. Why couldn’t she get herself to stand up and go?

“Me too,” Hudson said. “I was going to go get started on that mailbox, but I’m pretty tired.” He hooked his thumb at Gramps. “So maybe I’ll just stay here and nap with him. Bring him back when he wakes up?”

He was offering her a way out, and part of Scarlett didn’t want to take it. Another part did, so she scooted to the edge of the couch and stood up. “That would be great. He lives in the eastern-most cabin behind the homestead.”

“Are you in the homestead?” Hudson asked, following her to the front door.

“That’s right,” she said.

“And it’s just me, you, Gramps, and Sawyer.”

“And my friend Adele,” Scarlett said. “She lives next door to Gramps. I’m going to be hiring more people. We’re doing okay with what we have, but we need help.” She looked at him, thinking maybe he knew people who needed a job.

“So five humans. Sixteen horses. A bunch of dogs. I saw goats too, and I definitely smelled pigs,” he said.

“And don’t forget the cats and the llamas,” Scarlett said. “There are over one hundred animals here at Last Chance Ranch. I’m trying to get Forever Friends to name us a rescue ranch so we can get some funding.”

Something like disbelief crossed his rugged face, which was now clean-shaven. Scarlett almost reached up and slid her fingers down his smooth skin, stopping herself at the last moment. Definitely time to go.

With the heat of the sun on her back, she stepped out of his house. “How about I get your number so I can come get Gramps?”

“Oh, I’ll just bring him back when he wakes up.” Hudson smiled like he was trying to save her the trouble. Maybe he didn’t want to give her his number. His way of saying, No thanks, but nice try.

“He won’t wake up until morning,” Scarlett said, her voice a bit harder now. “So I’ll just come down in an hour and get him.” She turned and shaded her eyes against the setting sun. “It’ll still be light then.”

Scarlett went down the steps and tossed a, “Thanks Hudson,” over her shoulder as she practically sprinted away from his house. Well, her house. The cabin on the ranch, which she now owned.

The weight of the world seemed to press into her shoulders as she walked down the road and turned to go down another one. Five cabins lined this street, with a grassy area across from them. Even if she could get enough cowboys to fill these cabins, she wasn’t sure she’d ever get caught up with the work that needed to be done here.

She banished the defeating thoughts and told herself to focus on the positive. Focus on what she could control, not what she couldn’t. Gramps took care of the dogs. Adele took care of the goats and the cats. Sawyer took care of the horses and cattle, leaving Scarlett to the llamas and pigs—which felt about right, actually.

So Hudson would focus on the vehicles, and as the summer continued day by day, bit by bit, Scarlett would get Last Chance Ranch up and running, if it was the last thing she did.

Because she needed just one more chance. Please, Lord, she prayed as she turned toward the homestead. “Everyone here just needs one last chance….”

From dogs, to llamas, to humans, this ranch provided a small piece of safety and security when they couldn’t find it anywhere else. At least Scarlett wanted it to, and she made a mental to-do list as she walked.

First up? Email Jewel Nightingale at Forever Friends again.

* * *

“I don’t know, Adele,” Scarlett said the next morning, stirring another spoonful of sugar into her coffee. In the city, she’d rarely drank the stuff, but since coming to the ranch, she found she needed more than tea to make it through the day.

But when that sun room was finished, she was definitely going to sit there and bask in the golden warmth of the day, tea cup in her hand. That day was not today, and she had eleven potbellied pigs waiting for their breakfast.

“But you emailed her again, right?” Adele sat at the bar, her own coffee cup in front of her, both hands wrapped around it like it was cold that day. Which it wasn’t. Her straight, chin-length hair wouldn’t go into a ponytail, and not for lack of trying.

“Yes.” Scarlett sighed. “I emailed her again, and I called and left a message last night. It was after five, though.” She shrugged and looked at her friend. “I hired a guy to fix the cars in the yard.”

“Great,” she said without missing a beat. “Maybe he can look at my car too. It’s making that pinging sound again.”

“What are you planning on with the goats?” Scarlett asked, and Adele opened her mouth to answer. All at once, she snapped her lips closed again.

“You almost got me.”

“I sure did.” Scarlett smiled and sipped her coffee. “And you go down to town entirely too much. What are you buying down there?”

“Groceries,” Adele said evasively.

“Groceries?” Scarlett didn’t take her eyes from her best friend. “Honey, I know we like to eat, but nobody eats that much.”

Adele laughed and tucked her hair behind her ear, where it would just pop back out in a few seconds. “Hey, I’ve lost twelve pounds since coming to the middle of nowhere.”

It was Scarlett’s turn to laugh, and she did, loudly and for several seconds. “Adele, this isn’t the middle of nowhere. It’s five minutes down the road to a gas station.”

“A dirt road,” Adele said. “And you look like you’ve lost some weight too.”

“Ten pounds,” Scarlett said. “I haven’t dropped a jean size though.”

“So this new guy…does he like curvy women?”

“I have no idea,” Scarlett said. “I barely got his name. He said he owned a car shop in Santa Monica, and I was like, ‘you’re hired.’ I need those cars off the lawn, and we need the money to feed the billions of animals here.”

Adele scoffed. “So you’re telling me this man isn’t good looking?”

“I don’t know,” Scarlett said again. “And besides, I’m not looking for a date.” Her memory flashed back to last night when he wouldn’t give her his phone number. When she’d gone back to get Gramps, the exchange had happened quickly as Hudson had been on the phone. His brother. Whatever. Scarlett had brothers too, thank you very much.

“Are you looking for a date?” Scarlett asked, her eyebrows going up. “Want me to introduce you?”

She watched as Adele wrestled with herself, the battle lasting only a few moments before she said, “No, of course not.”

“I mean, Hudson’s definitely better than Jackson.”

“I’m not looking for a date,” Adele said. “Period.”

“Good. Neither am I,” Scarlett said. “That’s why we came up here, isn’t it?” A sliver of doubt passed through her, and Scarlett didn’t like them. So Hudson was handsome. Devilishly handsome. With facial hair and without. With that dark cowboy hat and without. So he smelled good. Oh, so good. Didn’t mean she wanted a taste of him.

“Hello,” Adele said, making the two-syllable word into three. “I asked if you were going to put out any more help wanted ads.”

“Yes,” Scarlett said, giving herself a mental shake. She didn’t have room for Hudson in her mind, not with the dozens of tasks she had to complete that day. And up first were those pigs and llamas, and then she had a date with the plastic snow shovel.

“Good, because I need help with the goats, and you need at least three more people to help Gramps with the dogs.”

“Really?”

“Really,” Adele said as she slid off the barstool. “He loves those dogs, sure. But they need more exercise than he can give them, and even the volunteers aren’t enough.”

“Plus, they always seem to be in the cat houses.”

“Well, they’re air conditioned,” Adele said. “That’s where I’d be too.”

“The dog enclosures are temperature regulated,” Scarlett said, going down the back steps.

“Well, they’re supposed to be,” Adele said. “Can your mechanic look into that?” She cast Scarlett one last look before heading for the corner of the house and turning north toward the goat fields and pens.

Scarlett heaved in a deep breath and faced east, where the pigs and llamas lived. When she stepped from grass to dirt road, her phone buzzed in her back pocket. She pulled it out and checked the number, but it wasn’t one she had stored in her phone.

Forever Friends, she thought, and she swiped the phone on a moment later. “Hello?”

“Scarlett?” a man asked—definitely not Jewel Nightingale.

“Yes,” she said slowly. She hadn’t even placed a help wanted ad yet, so who was calling her that wouldn’t be in her phone? She’d wanted to erase everyone she’d worked with and been friends with. Really make a clean break from everything she’d had in her life when she’d been part of Scarlett and Vance, Vance and Scarlett.

But she hadn’t. She’d taken a baby step and left the city. Another one when she’d accepted Gramps’s offer to sign the ranch over to her. Another one every day she stayed here and cleaned and worked and didn’t run back to Los Angeles.

“It’s Hudson,” he said. “And I think you better get down here.”

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