STETSON © LdyJessika® 2009 ldyjessika@aol.com

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Chapter 1

She’d been riding her horse about three hours when the trail suddenly ended at a gate. Knowing she should turn around she instead opened the gate that led out of the park into a large pasture. Glancing toward the sky she realized the sun was mid sky and the heat would be getting unbearable. Her horse was taking the heat in stride, but she knew a cooling down period was long over due. She started toward a grove of shade trees, when glancing upward toward the hill she noticed a man on horseback. The hill was steep yet the black Quarter Horse easily picked his footing down the slope. The month of June brought the hills of California to a rich golden - the contrast of the black horse and the hillside coloring made the rider appear ominous. Her horse whinnied a greeting, as the rider trotted into the grove of trees. She felt uneasy, but decided it was due to his appearance. He looked as if he belonged in an old western movie. They type where that bank robber was being pursued by the Sheriff and he wasn’t the Sheriff. His black Stetson low on his brow, his black leather chaps over black jeans and a black shirt furthered his image to be unfriendly, until he smiled.

His voice sounded deep but friendly, "Kind of hot to be riding out here. I think you must be lost. The gate a ¼ mile back ends the park. This is my property you’re riding over and the trail goes to my house. You lost or coming to visit me?"

His broad smile and even white teeth made his beard appear blacker - then she noticed his eyes were a rich hazel green, that sparkled when he smiled.

Still feeling uneasy she stuttered, "I’m sorry. I knew this trail eventually veered out of the park when I rode through the gate, but I’ve always wanted to know where it led. I just followed it, but didn’t realize it was private property."

Pushing his hat back on his head he pinned her with his stare but chuckled, "You had to follow it through a closed gate that says Private Property. I also recall the latch being rusty. You must have given it quite a push to get that latch to open?"

She knew she was caught trespassing, "Well, the gate seemed like it wanted to be opened, so I kind of kicked the latch with my boot heel and the gate swung open. I can head back right now if I’m trespassing. Well, I realize that I’m trespassing but my horse could really use a rest, so I can head back in about an hour."

He grinned, "Well, I’d think kicking a gate open would have told you that you were trespassing. If you want to continue following the trail you’re welcome to a cup of coffee. Unless, you’re husband will come gunning for me or something. My name is Chard Walker, what’s yours?"

Jessika wasn’t sure she wanted him to know she was single and that no one would be looking for her so she answered, "Not married but my best friend, Marnie is expecting me for dinner. My name is Jessika."

He laughed, "Didn’t invite you to stay for dinner, only coffee so your dinner with your friend is safe."

She stammered, "Uh, I didn’t mean it that way, I only meant someone would know I was missing if I was very late."

Again, he laughed, "Didn’t have a mind to keep you missing, or that late, or force you to follow a trail for a cup of coffee. You sure you want to ride the rest of the way? You’re sure a spookie thing."

Jessika was embarrassed, "I’m not spooky, just cautious. And besides, you can have a wife that can be, as you said, gunning for someone."

Pulling his hat back lower over his eyes he answered, "Nope, she hated ranch life. Too much dust, too many horses, too long hours. She’s quite gone, quite divorced and don’t plan on having another one." He turned his horse toward the north and she followed.

Jessika snidely answered, "Good, I wasn’t about to apply for it. Don’t get your worry going."

He pulled his horse to a stop, "Are we fighting? Have we even known each other long enough to have a fight?"

She laughed, "No. Sorry, I’d always wanted to see where this trail leads and thanks for the offer for a cup of coffee."

They continued slowly. The heat was now the hottest of the day, but soon they entered the ranch and walked the horses into a barn.

"Better wipe them down and cool them off slowly. Don’t let him drink too much water. We can let them out in the back paddocks. It’s cooler there and shaded, but they won’t cool down too fast. You can put your tack over here and use this lead line."

Jessika wasn’t used to taking orders the way he was giving them out. Do this. Do that. Put this over here. But, since it was his barn and her horse needed the rest she undid the tack, used the halter and lead line that he’d pointed out and put him in the paddock. Turning to him she smiled, "You have anymore ranch hand orders I should listen to?"

Taking his hat off to reveal long black hair pulled back with a rawhide string he grinned, "Sorry, just kind of a habit – come on up to the kitchen and we can have coffee, or lemonade. I’m kind of partial to a tall glass of lemonade."

Walking toward the ranch she looked at the surroundings. He must have had about 20 horses in paddocks, a large arena and two round pens for training. She wondered why he had so many horses, but didn’t ask. She’d had her horse for the last 10 years and at 20 years old, in her opinion, he was still the best. She’d never understood how horse owners kept trading, selling and changing horses all the time. She thought a safe question was, "Chard, have you lived on this ranch a long time?"

He smiled an odd smile when he answered, "Long enough, I guess." They’d walked into the house when Chard pointed to her left and said, "Here, you can put your boots over on that mat and then just head through that door and wait here in the den room - I’ll get the lemonade." She didn’t bother telling him that she’d never said she wanted lemonade, but decided that she’d let it go this time. Walking into the living room she liked the surroundings. It was rustic in western décor with a large couch, rocking chair and a huge stone fireplace. The wooden floor was highly polished with large throw rugs. Sitting down on the couch she stretched leg muscles and sighed.

"What’s the matter, I make lousy lemonade?"

She was about to say she didn’t look forward to the long ride back, but then thought that sounded like she wanted to stay over. If he thought she wanted to stay over then he’d think that she wanted sex and he’d probably start now. She sat there staring at him with the thoughts going through her mind trying to think of an answer. Finally she asked, "I don’t suppose there’s a short-cut back to the park to take?"

He laughed, "Sure, you can cut an hour off if you go over the mountain where I was coming over, but not sure your horse is that much of a trail horse for being off the trail?"

She wanted to say her horse could beat his any day of the damn week but Shane wasn’t known for his speed but his calm personality. "I think Shane may not be up to that after the ride out here. I better start back in a few minutes so I can take it really easy with him. He is a good horse but no young boy anymore so I don’t like to push him."

Finishing up they walked outside, "Well, Jessika you can do one of three things. Since I’ve already figured out you don’t take a liking to listening you can either ride over the mountain to save time…you can take the long path back which will probably tire your horse since he only rested about an hour or…"

She cut him off, "OR? No thanks I’m not staying over so my horse can rest!"

It seemed his eyes got blacker then they were and his smile totally disappeared. He sounded fed up, "OR, you can have a ride back in my truck and Shane can get a ride back in the trailer. The road over there goes around the opposite hill and goes down to the main road. OR, you can sit here and stew that I wasn’t really asking you to stay over night." He walked to the barn without looking back.

Walking in to the barn she quietly said, "I think number three about driving me and Shane home sounds really nice if it is still an option?" She was about to say she’d pay him for the gas and mileage but thought maybe she’d wait until home before making the offer so not to upset him again. "What do you want me to do to help?"

He turned and grinning at her answered, "A real difficult task for you – can you just hop up into the truck and do nothing?"

Laughing she said, "Yes, I can actually handle that quite well." Watching in the side mirror she saw him load Shane without any problems and in a moment the driver door opened.

"So, Jessika, I guess we can get you back off this mountain and your curiosity I suppose was satisfied?"

Slowly pulling out onto the road she thought there was a lot more she wanted to see up here, "Well, it is really nice riding up here. A lot nicer then riding in the public parks. Kind of being out and away from all the troubles. Almost like a magical place. I almost.."

He cut in quickly, "I guess you wouldn’t mind then coming back to ride?"

Laughing she answered, "No doubt about it. I’m sure then I’d get it out of my system."

They looked at each other and comfortably smiled.