Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: Riding Hard: Hal

Book 8: Riding Hard Series

Lucy Malory glanced up from her keyboard in the tiny but bright reception area of Riverbend’s veterinary clinic to see the town vet, Dr. Anna, cell phone in hand, beaming at her.

“What’s up?” Lucy asked. 

Anna leaned a hip on Lucy’s desk. The young blonde woman was trim as ever, except for her very round stomach that indicated she’d soon be having Lucy’s brother’s kid. These days, Anna was high on pregnancy and found everything joyful.

“Ranch needs help with a calving,” Anna said, as though she’d announced someone was having a huge party in her honor. “Want to come?”

“Sure,” Lucy said without hesitation.

Lucy’s job as Anna’s veterinary assistant was mostly bookkeeping and paperwork, but Lucy enjoyed the opportunity to interact with the animals. She’d proved adept at holding a dog or cat calm while Anna injected various meds or examined eyes, ears, and mouth.

The livestock was interesting too—Lucy hadn’t realized how much she’d missed being around horses and even cattle during her years away in a pristine Houston-based condo.

Lucy shut down her files and caught up Anna’s bag full of large animal vet accoutrements. Anna was amused at Lucy for insisting on carrying all the heavy totes these days, but Lucy wasn’t about to let Kyle’s wife get hurt. Not only would Kyle be devastated, but Lucy had come to love Anna as well. 

Anna seemed especially chipper today. She trotted out to her truck, arriving well before Lucy, and had the pickup running when Lucy climbed in. Anna gunned the engine before Lucy could even latch her seatbelt, the truck’s tires spinning in the mud. The Hill Country had seen an unusual spate of rain this March and muddy puddles were everywhere.

“What’s going on?” Lucy adjusted her seatbelt and eyed her sister-in-law. Anna plowed through a puddle, laughing at the water spraying over the hood. “You going into labor, or something?”

“No, not yet.” Anna was due in early April, and both Kyle and Lucy watched her cautiously. Anna was healthy, though. Like a really healthy horse, she’d tell them.

“Then what?” Lucy asked. Anna’s overly cheery mood was sending up red flags. “You’re acting weird.”

“Am I?” Anna said, too brightly.

“Yes.” Lucy skewered Anna with a sharp gaze. “Where exactly are we going?”

“The Kennedy Ranch.” Anna spoke the words innocently.

Lucy stared at Anna in dismay, then she groaned. “I should have figured.”

Hal Jenkins was the manager of the Kennedy Ranch.

“If I’d told you, you wouldn’t have come,” Anna said. “And I really need your help.”

“Seriously underhanded, Anna.”

Anna sent Lucy a sideways glance. “You can’t hide from him forever.”

“Sure, I can.” Lucy forced a smile. “It’s easy. I go to work, I go home—everything’s fine.”

Lucy’s home these days was the small house in the center of town where Anna used to live. A cute, cozy abode that Lucy had started fixing up with her own decor. Walking distance to shopping or places to meet friends—not that Lucy had been doing much socializing. This job and a comfortable space to rest her head was all she needed these days.

Anna didn’t answer, but her silence spoke volumes. Everything wasn’t fine. Lucy’s entire life had changed more than a year ago when she’d walked out on her job, her boyfriend, and her rapidly advancing career.

Well, she hadn’t had much choice with the job and boyfriend. She’d assumed that Clyde would become her fiancé, until Clyde had announced his engagement in front of the entire company—to someone else. Then he’d fired Lucy.

Looking back, Lucy wondered what she’d ever seen in the asshole. Hal Jenkins would never pretend to be in love with her while all the time secretly planning to marry another woman. Hal would never gaze condescendingly at Lucy and say, “What we had was fun, but …” 

Hal would never say a mean word to anyone. He was kindhearted, spoke in a low but friendly voice, and the corners of his eyes crinkled even if a smile didn’t move his mouth. He was a big man who could make frenzied bulls in the ring suddenly tuck in their tails and run for the chute. At the same time, he was as gentle as summer rain.

Hal was a better man than Clyde, a hundred times over. His eyes when he spoke to Lucy—when he could bring himself to look at her—were warm and brown … 

The truck listed as Anna took a corner, and Lucy snapped herself out of her reverie. Damn it, why was she always thinking about Hal? There was nothing there. Or at least, if there was something, it was going nowhere fast.

“Cheer up,” Anna said. “Maybe Hal won’t be around today. It’s a big ranch. He might be in the back section working on whatever.”

Yes, that would be better, wouldn’t it? If Hal wasn’t there at all? Much easier, Lucy thought morosely. Right?

Damn it.

* * *

Hal waited on the gravel drive in front of the Kennedy ranch’s office trailer and tried to quit checking the horizon for the dust that would announce Dr. Anna’s arrival. Anna hadn’t said she’d bring Lucy along, but these days, as Anna was ready to pop with her son or daughter, she usually did. 

Hal vowed he wouldn’t choke this time when he saw Lucy. He’d say in easy tones, “Hey, Luce, how are things going?” Then he’d enjoy the sound of her voice as Lucy outlined her plans to return to stockbroking in some far-off place, maybe Los Angeles or a big city back east. 

Lucy had never out-and-out said she was leaving, but she’d hinted at it whenever they’d spoken. She’d shaken the dust of Riverbend from her feet before, and she’d do it again.

Hal wished he could be easy with women like the Campbell and Malory brothers or his friend Jack. After Lucy and Anna finished up today with the calving, Hal could walk Lucy to the truck, open the door for her and say, “Hey, baby, how about we go out this weekend?”

Hal’s face heated. He couldn’t ever imagine the words Hey, baby coming out of his mouth. 

He also didn’t want to watch Lucy look everywhere but at him while she thought up an excuse not to go. He sure needed to figure a way out of this stalemate between them before he did something crazy like blurt out to Lucy exactly how he felt about her.

Hal’s phone pealed, thankfully tearing him from his thoughts. He slid the cell out of his pocket and studied the screen, lit up with a number he didn’t recognize. That wasn’t unusual—Kennedy’s ranch did business with people all over the country. Or it might be a telemarketing call, but Hal still answered, to be polite.

“Hey, this is Hal Jenkins.”

“Jenkins. How are you?”

The male voice was hearty and strangely familiar. Hal frowned in puzzlement a moment, before cold stole through him.

Couldn’t be. That was over with—Hal was done.

“Don’t hang up,” the voice said. “I want to talk to you.”

“Well, I don’t want to talk to you.” Hal wrenched the phone from his ear, thumb hovering over the red button to end the call.

“You’re going to want to hear me out.” Nate Redfern’s arrogant tones floated up from the speaker. 

Hal lifted the phone to his mouth again. “The hell I will. If I see you anywhere near me, I’m going to kick your ass so hard you’ll never sit down the rest of your life.”

“You’d like to think so, but I have things to say you might want to listen to.” 

“Seriously?” Hal’s body tightened like it hadn’t in years. His jaw began to ache, and his neck muscles grew rigid. “I told you, I’m finished with you and your crew. You don’t want to mess with me.”

“I’m not messing with you. I’m in town. Yes, your Podunk shit town you’re trying so hard to hide in. I know all about your perfect new life and your cute new girlfriend …”

Hal clenched the phone so hard he feared the plastic would break. “You stay the fuck away from—”

Redfern’s laughter sounded then cut off as he ended the call. 

Hal lifted his head, barely able to see through the red rage that misted his eyes. He’d hoped Redfern would be in prison for many years to come—he’d even heard the rumor that Redfern had died inside. The man had pissed off enough people that plenty wanted him six feet underground. But no, Redfern was alive and trying to wedge his way back into Hal’s life. 

And he knew about Lucy.

As Hal glared at the hilly horizon, he spied the plume of dust he’d so eagerly searched for before the call. 

At the front of the plume was Anna Lawler-Malory’s small pickup, minus her shoeing trailer today. He couldn’t tell if there were one or two people in the cab, but his throat closed, and his heart banged until he was queasy. If Redfern came anywhere near Lucy, Hal would … 

Hal wasn’t certain what he would do. Best thing if Redfern never saw her at all.


Hal thrust the phone into his pocket, stretching the hand that had cramped around it. He set his mouth in a firm line and strode grimly forward to meet the truck.

Return to Hal

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