Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: Riding Hard: Ray

Book 7: Riding Hard Series

The cowboy was muscular, solid, and stepped right in her way. Drew never saw him over the pile of paint buckets, drywall joint compound, and aluminum duct tubing half sliding out of her arms, until it was too late.

She ran smack into him. 

The aluminum made a hell of a lot of noise as it clattered to the floor of the hardware store. The drywall joint compound followed, the bag splitting, white powder bursting over Drew’s jeans, the floor, and down the entire front of the cowboy, whose firm body was like a wall.

“Damn it,” Drew whispered as she scrambled for her items, dropping more in the process. “Damn it. Damn it.”

Mr. Fuller, the owner of the store, popped out of another aisle and viewed the mess with dismay. He’d kick her out, and then Drew would have to search far and wide for another store that had the mountain of things she needed so she and her daughter could sleep in rooms not falling apart.

Two large hands righted the broken bag of compound and set it against a shelf then reached for the tubing. 

“Careful now.” The cowboy’s voice was as large as the rest of him.

Drew risked a glance at his face, her own hotter than fire, and her breath deserted her.

If she had to run into someone, why did it have to be the best-looking man she’d ever seen in her life? He had dark hair under a black cowboy hat, a hard face softened by a few lines about his mouth, and wide shoulders with a sliver of chest showing above his now powder-coated black shirt. 

His eyes arrested her most of all. They were green, a shade of jade, which sparkled in contrast to his dark hair and tanned skin. 

Drew must have spent a full minute staring at his eyes. Not that she wasn’t aware of the rest of his body—as rock-hard and well-formed as an artist’s sculpture.

“Sorry.” Drew realized she needed to say something. “Didn’t see you. You okay?”

She pulled her gaze down to the huge splotch of white powder that started at his chest and fully dusted the front of his jeans.

“Damage isn’t permanent,” the cowboy said. “Let me help you with that. Hey, Craig—you got a cart or a trolley or something back there?”

Drew heard someone crashing around, and then a man not many years younger than the cowboy came around the corner with a flat dolly. The young man was Craig Fuller, son of the owner, who’d helped her find the right pipes and pointed her to the drywall section not ten minutes ago.

“Sorry about that. Should have given you this earlier.” Craig joined the cowboy in loading Drew’s things onto the dolly. He looked critically at the remains of the bag. “I’ll get you some more joint compound.” He dashed away.

Drew’s defenses softened. She was a total stranger here and had heard that small-town residents, especially in rural Texas, shut strangers out. But these two were gallantly picking up her mess, helping her without a word.

“I’ll pay for the broken bag,” she said quickly.

“No, I will,” the cowboy said. “I ran into you.”

Drew shook her head. “I ran into you.”

“Well, we can debate about that for a while, but I’ll win, so don’t bother.” The cowboy took a card out of his wallet and passed it to Mr. Fuller. “Add it to my order.”

Mr. Fuller didn’t give Drew time to debate. He took the cowboy’s credit card and moved to the register at the front. Craig headed there too, hefting the new bag of compound to show her it was waiting for her.

“What you need all this stuff for anyway?” the cowboy asked. “Looks like you’re repairing walls, plumbing, and electricity.” He turned over the coils of wire and switch boxes, as well as wire strippers and pliers. “Have a shack you’re fixing up?”

“Sort of.” Drew took a breath, tamping down her irritation, her anger, her near despair. 

Before she could explain, Craig called down the aisle, “The old Paresky house. This here’s Drew, Paresky’s granddaughter.”

The cowboy’s gaze flickered with interest. “Really? The Paresky … uh … place?” 

Drew’s eyes narrowed. “You were going to say dump, weren’t you?”

The cowboy’s cheeks reddened. “Well …”

“Don’t worry.” Drew let out an exasperated sigh. “It is a dump. But it’s my dump now.”

The cowboy looked Drew up and down with a gaze that would be considered rude—even homicidally so—in Chicago. But here, everyone stared at Drew like this. She was new, an oddity, and yet, she had roots in Riverbend.

On the other hand, she’d never been to this town, let alone the state. While Drew had been curious about her grandparents’ small town in a vague way, her life hadn’t given her time to think deeply about it.

She’d found what was known as the Hill Country and Riverbend itself to be beautiful. Refreshing. Calm. But she was already getting tired of being an object of curiosity. 

“Thanks so much for helping,” Drew said to end the conversation. “And sorry I ran into you.”

She grabbed the handle of the dolly, trying to plow it around the cowboy and back toward the register. The wheels stuck and went every which way, explaining the clattering she’d heard before.

The cowboy grasped the bar, brushing her hands with his warm ones. A flare of sudden heat shot through Drew, one she quickly suppressed, but her heart hammered. 

He expertly maneuvered the dolly through the aisle, turned it in the open space at the end, and pushed it to the register. “There’s a trick to them,” he said when she caught up.

Drew took out her credit card—which would reach its max very soon—and paid for the rest of the supplies. She winced when she saw the total. 

The cowboy stood close to her, leaning on the dolly as Craig set the purchases on it after his father rang them up. The cowboy’s gaze stayed on Drew’s face as she slid the card back into her wallet.

Without a word, he pushed the dolly outside for her and around the corner to the dirt lot where the customers parked for the feed store. He went directly to her small car, probably figuring from the process of elimination which was hers. Of course, it was the only car in the lot—all the other vehicles were pickups.

“No way you’re getting all this stuff in your bitty trunk,” the cowboy said, rightly so. “How about I haul it in my truck?” He gestured to the big black Ford 250 parked near the hay barn in the back. “I know where the Paresky place is—on Ranch Road 2889, right?”

“Yes.” Drew swallowed. “But I can’t let you … I mean, it’s nice, but I don’t even know you.”

One thing to have a handsome stranger help her in the store, another to have him follow her to her house. Or precede her. Drew still wasn’t sure of her way around.

“I’m Ray.” The cowboy stuck out his hand for her to shake. “Ray Malory. Everyone knows me.”

She took his hand, finding his grip hard, fingers strong, his touch fanning the heat she’d tried to suppress.

“Drew Paresky,” she managed, withdrawing with difficulty. “Oh, right, you already know that.”

“How do you do?” The twinkle in his eyes told her the formality amused him. “Only makes sense—my truck’s plenty big enough for all this. I’ll meet you out there and unload it for you, then I’ll leave you be. All right?”

What could she say but, “Sure.” Turn down help when she needed it? A large vehicle that easily held what would take hers three trips to haul?

If he turned out to be an ax murderer, she could always lock the door and call the cops … if the locks on the doors actually worked, and she could find a cell phone signal.

Better idea—she’d get there before him and instruct him to leave everything in the driveway. Drew could barricade his way to the house and her daughter inside it if necessary.

The trouble was, Ray took off before Drew could get into her car and start it. He knew exactly where the old bed and breakfast lay in its derelict heap, and headed there without hesitation.

Drew caught up to Ray’s pickup after he’d turned onto the road to the B&B. On maps this route that snaked through the hills was marked as the 2889, sometimes labeled as FM—Farm to Market, sometimes RR—Ranch Road. The name changed every mile and a half for no reason Drew could discern.

She caught up to Ray only because he slowed to wait for her. The posted speed was fifty, and when Drew reached Ray’s truck, he was creaking along at about thirty. When she waved at him from behind, he sped up, taking off in a roar.

Drew’s car was a small Toyota sedan that had seen better days. Not bad for driving around—and parking in—a city and its burbs, but it was out of place in this vast land of endless and very straight highways.

Only one other vehicle passed them—another pickup—going the other way, west into town. The driver lifted a hand to Ray, and Ray waved back.

Did they know each other? Or just being courteous?

Was she kidding? Everyone knew everybody in Riverbend, at least it seemed so. She was the only incongruity, the new and intriguing fixture they gaped at. As out of place as her car.

Ray slowed and pulled onto the dirt road that led between fence posts—no fence or gate—to the B&B. She followed the lane between two hills that sloped down to a wide meadow. The land was deep green now, but Mrs. Ward, the lady who owned the diner, had told her that in spring, the hills would be purple with bluebonnets.

The B&B was a long, dilapidated two-story house situated in the curve of a drive. Trees lined the house’s west side, which would give it shade in the heat of the day, but the rest of the house faced a view—a beautiful one—of gentle hills and vast sky. The road lay hidden behind the folds of land, giving the whole place the illusion of isolated splendor.

Ray halted the truck near the garage—a two-story standalone building with rooms upstairs. Thank heavens for those rooms, which was where Drew’s grandfather had been living. They were the only ones habitable on the whole property. 

The water and electricity had been disconnected when Drew had arrived, and it had taken her a long time of arguing and producing deeds to the property before the county’s electric company would turn the power back on. They were surprised she hadn’t wanted to use the generator. For water, the property had a well and a pump, which Drew hadn’t understood how to work. A sullen man from the county had to come out and show her. In Chicago, you paid a bill and someone you never saw flipped a switch. 

Drew jumped out of the car as Ray hauled down the tailgate of his truck. Instead of unloading, he leaned on the truck bed, tilted back his cowboy hat, and studied the main house.

Drew’s heart sank as she looked it over with him. The porch sagged, the steps to it half gone. Windows were broken and boarded up, or had simply been left gaping without glass. The front screen door was long gone—she’d found the hinges in place but the screen door in the grass in the back.

That was nothing to the peeling paint, fallen gutters, missing shutters, and electric wires hanging like spaghetti—thankfully hooked up only to the generator that was shut down, out of fuel.

Inside was fading or moldy wallpaper—wherever it was still on the walls—rusty plumbing fixtures, outdated and non-working appliances, rotted floors, window air conditioners that hadn’t run since 1972, and unstable ceilings.

“I think it’s going to take a little more than drywall compound to fix this place up,” Ray said in a slow drawl.

“No kidding. That’s for repairing the apartment where my daughter and I are living.” Drew waved at the main house. “As you can see, you’re right. A total dump.”

Ray said nothing for a long time, then he left the truck and walked to the main house, stopping shy of the porch and gazing up at it, hands at his sides.

Drew joined him. “It doesn’t look any better from here.”

Ray glanced down at her, his green eyes unreadable. “You really going to reopen it?”

“I don’t have a choice.” She put her hands on her hips. “I mean, I do, but I don’t. My grandfather left it to me, but only if I can fix up the B&B and make it pay within a year. If I don’t …” Drew made a slicing motion with the side of her hand. “I get nothing. Not the large amount of money waiting for me after that, no property, and I’d still have to pay all the taxes before it gets gifted to a developer, as per the conditions of the trust. And yes, I quit my job to come out here to maybe give my daughter a better life and live on property that has been in my family for generations. How hard could it be? I asked myself. And here I am.” She regarded the house in growing anger. “I don’t know a damn thing about renovating houses, and I don’t have the money to hire someone to do it for me. And I don’t know why I’m spilling this to you, a total stranger.”

Maybe because he stood in companionable silence, letting her talk without judgment. 

“Not a total stranger.” His voice held mirth. “You did dump drywall compound all over me.”

Drew’s laugh held an edge of hysteria. “I am so, so sorry.”

Ray shrugged, powerful shoulders moving. “I live on a ranch with cows and horses. What do you think they dump on me? Not to mention my little brother.”

A man with cows and horses and a younger brother sounded more normal and human and real.

Not that Ray Malory was fake in any way. He had a presence that had made the Fullers, father and son, fade into the background. He’d taken over, loaded her stuff, led the way out, and now looked over the house as though he knew exactly what he’d do with it. 

“Mom?” The door that led to the stairs to the apartment banged open, and Erica charged out, colt-like limbs flying. “Who’s this?”

She didn’t ask the question in timidity, fear, or with any caution. Not Erica. Her daughter was a tough kid from the city—at least, that was how she saw herself.

“Ray Malory,” Drew said quickly. “From Riverbend. He helped me bring the supplies from the hardware store.”

“Oh, sure, you went shopping and came back with a guy.” Erica grinned. “Hi, I’m Erica,” she said to Ray. “You single?”

“Erica!” Drew turned to Ray in mortification. “I’m sorry. I found her on my doorstep one day and made the mistake of feeding her.”

Erica chortled. “That would be funny if I didn’t look just like you.”

“It’s okay.” Ray, fortunately, was amused. “I am single, as it happens. So’s my brother. But I think he has a crush on the vet.”

“The vet?” Erica widened her eyes. “As in veterinarian? Girl vet or boy vet? Is your brother gay?” She asked in avid curiosity, with no condemnation. 

Ray’s mouth twitched. “Dr. Anna is a lady. If my brother is gay, he hasn’t told me.”

“Would be so cool if he was gay.”

Ray rubbed his lower lip. “He might be. I’ll ask him.”

Drew cut off the conversation before it spun out of control. “Erica, did you finish sanding those cupboards?”

“Yep. Smooth as a baby’s bottom. Not that I’ve ever touched one. Gross. Have you been inside our wreck, Ray?” Erica waved at the house. “It’s a pile of garbage. And this town is nothings-ville in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t even have a mall. I mean, where do you shop?”

Drew quivered in embarrassment. “Apologize, Erica. You don’t move into someone’s hometown and criticize it. There are malls in Austin. We saw them on the way through, remember?”

“Yeah, but that’s so far away. Sorry, Ray. I bet you love this place. Riverbend. All five square feet of it.”

“I do love it.” Ray spoke without defensiveness. “But it takes some getting used to. I grew up here, so I know everything about it, good and bad.” He looked down at Erica, at his ease. “We don’t have malls because they’d go out of business, but we have the best pies on the planet at Mrs. Ward’s, and most people in Riverbend have got your back.”

Erica listened, actually listened, and even looked thoughtful. “Well, maybe I’ll give it some more time. I doubt we’ll stay long. Mom won’t be able to save this place, and we’ll go back home.”

She stated this with conviction. Erica hadn’t wanted to move to Riverbend, and Drew didn’t blame her. Erica had friends, connections, a life back in Chicago. But she’d also had to dodge gang kids and drug dealers right on the school grounds. Not that small towns didn’t have drug problems—they did, more than people knew—but Drew had decided she didn’t want Erica being threatened anymore.

Before Drew could answer, the peace of the late afternoon was shattered by a long, drawn-out scream.

Drew whipped her head around to stare at the house. Shadows were lengthening, the September day starting to die. The cry came from inside the derelict house, like a shriek from an unholy creature caught in hell.

Return to Ray

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