A Home with the Rancher

By: April Arrington

CHAPTER ONE

Lies always multiplied. That was one reason Danielle Vaughn never told them.

“I said what’s your name, ma’am?”

Danielle eyed the older man straddling the wooden fence and cringed, wondering how big this lie would get. At the moment, it stuck in her throat, feeling sharper and thicker than the angular mountains shrouded in dense fog at the man’s back. And it beat heavier through her veins than the rhythmic pound of a hammer in the distance.

He scoffed and the straw of hay clenched between his teeth flopped against his scruffy jaw. “You got one, don’t you, gal?”

“Danielle Vau—” She bit her tongue and winced. Jones. That was the one she’d settled on. Her lips trembled. Wasn’t it? “Danielle Jones. I’m here to see Mac Tenley.”

The man’s expression remained bored and he looked away, chewing on the hay and shifting to a more comfortable position on the top fence rung. “Mac’s busy. Whatcha want with him?”

His land. Or rather, her father wanted it. Danielle swallowed hard against the churn in her stomach. Despite his dismissive laughter and her misgivings, she’d promised to acquire it for him.

She glanced up at the sign hanging over the entrance of the gravel driveway, the words Elk Valley Ranch barely discernable on the weathered wood. Judging from first impressions and the photos she’d seen in the New York boardroom of Vaughn Real Estate, the guest lodge and cabins that lay beyond the winding drive would need a ton of work.

“My name is Danielle,” she repeated, returning her eyes to the man. “But I go by Dani.”

He stilled, his wrinkled brow furrowing as he faced her. “Dani Jones?”

She nodded.

His eyes narrowed then traveled down the length of her. His jaw slackened, the hay falling out of his mouth and his loud guffaws echoing across the peaceful Tennessee landscape. “Hey, Tim! Get a load of this.”

Dani stiffened.

The distant pounding stopped and moments later, a younger man rounded the bend in the driveway, carrying a hammer and frowning. “You think you could do at least ten minutes of work today, man?”

“Aw, forget that, Tim.” The man jumped off the fence, jabbed a thick finger in her direction then doubled over with laughter. “This puny girl here’s the man Mac said was coming to interview as new hand.”

Puny? Girl? Dani’s face heated and she gritted her teeth, wishing she wore her stilettos instead of flat-soled sneakers. She’d shove the sharp edge right up his chauvinistic—

“Mac’s gonna…” The man sucked in quick breaths between bouts of laughter. “Mac’s gonna have a fit.”

“I hate to spoil a boy’s good time.” Dani edged around the chuckling buffoon and extended her hand. “So I’ll just ask a man for assistance instead.” She smiled. “Tim, was it? I’m Dani. It’s nice to meet you and I’m sure it’ll be even nicer working with you since it’s obvious your help is lacking.” She jerked her chin over her shoulder as the man stopped laughing. “Would you please tell me where I can find Mac Tenley?”

Tim grinned, his handsome face lighting with amusement. “Yes, ma’am.” He took her hand, squeezed gently then pointed toward the lush line of poplar and cedar trees obscuring the winding driveway. “Just follow the drive up to the lodge and go on in. The office opened a half hour ago and Mac’s probably still in there.”

“Thank you.”

Tim’s grin widened and he tipped his Stetson. “Look forward to working with you.”

Dani nodded, her smile faltering at the kind gleam in his eyes. It was one thing to think up a lie and rehearse it in your head. It was quite another to actually tell it. Especially to an honest, hardworking man like Tim.

She returned to the battered compact car she’d parked at the ranch’s entrance, her lip curling as she passed the lazy cowboy standing by the fence.

That fool she had no qualms about deceiving.

He scowled and muttered under his breath, eyes dark with disdain.

Ignoring him, Dani opened the creaky door and slid behind the wheel. A few quick twists of her wrist and the engine sputtered to life then groaned its way up the graveled path. She pushed her foot harder on the pedal and held her breath, doubting the pitiful contraption would creep its way up the steep hill. A glance in the rearview mirror proved the two men staring behind her had their doubts, too.

“Focus,” she muttered, leaning forward and tightening her grip on the steering wheel. “Keep your head up and your eyes open.”

And what spectacular scenery there was for a pair of open eyes. Once she cleared the enormous hill and passed through the dense woods, the land opened up, sprawling in all directions and stretching lazily into the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. The summer sun tinged the mountain fog with rosy undertones and bathed the green valley in golden light.

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