The Ranch She Left Behind

The Ranch She Left Behind by Kathleen O`Brien Read Free Book Online Page B

Book: The Ranch She Left Behind by Kathleen O`Brien Read Free Book Online
Authors: Kathleen O`Brien
clothes and cowboy boots were black, his hands were silver, and his face and hair were gray. At first glance he looked like a statue, but Penny realized quickly that he was covered in mud from head to toe—his thick blond thatch sticking out like a witch’s broom, and his white teeth and blue eyes gleaming from his gray face like jewels embedded in a cave wall.
    He hugged Penny as if everything were perfectly normal, though, and seemed shocked when Rowena cried out in a mixture of laughter and horror. “What do you think you’re doing? You’re going to ruin Pea’s pretty dress!”
    “Why?” Alec reared back, insulted. Then he glanced down at his hands. “Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Trouble was chasing a duck. I had to stop him. He’s even dirtier than I am.”
    “Great.” Rowena rolled her eyes—but there was no real anger in her voice. From the start, Rowena had doted on this rascally little boy. “That dog’s not coming in the house until he’s clean. And neither are you.” She poked the tip of her index finger onto the center of Alec’s head, and twirled it to signal that he should turn around. “Barn hose. Now.”
    Alec smiled, showing those diamond teeth and cracking the drying mud around his lips. He never minded being scolded, which was a good thing, since he seemed chronically to be in trouble.
    “See you later, Penny,” he said, waving a filthy hand, dislodging gobbets of mud, which then rained onto the porch. “If you use my room, be careful. Definitely don’t open the jar under the bed, okay?”
    “Oh, my dear Lord.” Rowena laughed out loud. “Scat, you disgusting creature!”
    They both watched the boy trot away, whistling merrily and calling for his dog. He passed Barton James, the general manager Ro had hired last year, and the two high-fived each other. Barton never so much as blinked at the mud that caked the boy.
    “Penny!” Barton bounded up the stairs, apparently as delighted to see Penny as if they were best buddies, when actually she’d met him only a couple of times.
    But everyone loved Barton, and Barton loved everyone. She accepted his hug without reservation—laughing when he had to slip his guitar around to his back to make room. How he managed to get so much accomplished, and yet always be strumming some tune on that old thing, no one could ever understand.
    “Good thing you’re here,” he said merrily. “I’ve just about got the older two Wright gals married off, and I was wondering who I’d matchmake next.”
    Penny laughed. “Not me,” she assured him. “I’ve sworn off men for an entire year.”
    He frowned, as if she’d said she ate little green Martians for lunch. “Poppycock,” he said. “A year? At your age? Can’t be done.”
    “Barton, not everyone is as romantic as you are.” Rowena shook her head. “Hey, see if you can find Bree, okay? Let her know Penny’s come home!”
    “Done,” he said. He kissed Penny one more time, then held her at arm’s length, appraising her. “I’m thinking an older man. Not old like me. I wish. But a few years older than you, maybe. Seen the world. Would know how to treat a lady.”
    “Barton.” Rowena gave him The Look.
    “Okay, okay,” he said, grinning, and then he sauntered off, swinging his guitar back to the front.
    Rowena turned to Penny with a smile. “Sorry about that. He really is such a darling old man. But he can be a bit much sometimes.”
    “I love him,” Penny said honestly. Barton was obviously a treasure—the perfect general manager for the ranch. Not only was he a charmer who immediately won over every female guest, he was also a former dude ranch owner himself and knew everything. More than once, he’d kept the neophyte Wright women from making terrible mistakes.
    As he told it, he’d tried retirement for a couple of years and hated it. He was born to work, and the harder he worked the happier he was. There wasn’t a chore too lowly, or a responsibility too heavy for him to take on with a

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