Home for a Cowboy releases tomorrow! And I’m so excited that today I’m sharing the entire first chapter below. Give it a read and share your favourite part/quote in the comments and I’ll choose a random commenter on Friday, June 12 to win a signed paperback copy. Happy reading!
Windsor, Wyoming, was as far from Philly as a person could get. And from Vermont too, which was where Marco Terlizzese had graduated from college just last month. Philly was history and modernization rolled into one big-city package, but also home and family, including a set of parents who didn’t understand why he wanted to work on a ranch so far from home all summer. Vermont was bubbling brooks and fall colors and covered bridges and the Green Mountains. Wyoming had mountains too, but where Vermont had mountains, Wyoming had fucking mountains.
The Rockies were… They were just… They were… Wow.
The fifteen-year-old silver Kia his grandfather had sold him four years ago chugged its way higher and higher, past small towns and medium-sized towns and lakes so still they were like silver-topped glass, through miles of scrubby bush, more miles of forested highway, and mountain peaks capped in white—even in June. More than once, Marco was tempted to pull over and explore, but he had somewhere to be. Someone counting on him.
Eventually, the map Las had hand-drawn and emailed him—along with a word of caution that satellite service sucked in the mountains and that his GPS might fail him—took him to the small town of Windsor, which was not very small at all. It was no Philly. Hell, it was no Casper, Wyoming, which Marco had stopped in about four hours ago for lunch. But it sure wasn’t the small everyone-knows-everyone town he’d been picturing in his head.
He rolled through what appeared to be downtown Windsor. It was quaint, almost exactly what he’d expected, which . . . points for him. Tucked between feed stores and supply outlets and tool merchants were a cozy mom-and-pop grocer, a couple of pubs, bakeries, restaurants, a post office, a bridal store, a general store, and a real estate office. It was thriving too, the sidewalks teeming with life, pickup trucks parked diagonally against the curb as men and women emerged from stores carrying heavy bags of what Marco could only assume was animal food of some kind.
It wasn’t a small town, but it appeared just small enough to bump into someone you knew while out buying eggs and milk at the store—as evidenced by the woman in a tan cowboy hat who stepped into the middle of the street to chat with the driver of the pickup in front of him.
He hit the brakes, coming to a full stop right there in the middle of downtown Windsor, a line of cars stretched behind him. He checked his rearview mirror. The driver behind him rolled down his window and waved at someone across the street.
Okay then. Waiting it was. He didn’t think honking would go over well.
He was fiddling with his phone a few minutes later, trying to find a non-existent satellite signal to get his GPS working, when Miss Tan Hat tipped her hat at her friend. Then she turned to Marco, looked right at him, and tipped her hat at him too.
Frowning through his sunglasses, he waved back.
Maybe she’d seen the out-of-state plates and was welcoming the newcomer? Or maybe she’d simply noticed his tiny not-at-all-suited-for-ranch-life vehicle and marked him as an out-of-towner.
Finally, he exited downtown Windsor on the other side . . . and was greeted with cloudless blue skies; rolling hills edged in knee-high yellow grass and heaped with lush, leafy trees; and in the distance, sharply peaked mountaintops. He was in the middle of a painting, had to be. He lowered the window, inhaling. Fresh pine with a faint undertone of cow. His hands loosened on the steering wheel and he sucked in a deep breath, expanding his ribcage. It was like his heart or his soul or his doubt-filled head knew this was where he was meant to be.
For the next three months, at least, while he figured out what he wanted from life. His communications degree could get him in a lot of places, especially in a junior role—if he had any interest in doing anything with it, that was. That was what happened when a major was chosen at random after a college recruited you for its hockey team.
Windsor, it turned out, was vast. Much more vast than the little research he’d done into the town had revealed. Tucked into a valley between two mountain ranges in western Wyoming, the town itself—which Marco had just driven through—appeared to be the economic and social center. To get to his destination, to his new summer job, his not-to-scale map took him another twenty minutes outside of town.
To the Windsor Ranch, which Marco had done extensive research on, wanting to know what kind of place he was going to work for. It had the honor of being the oldest ranch in the state continuously under Windsor family ownership. Currently, it was owned by Whitney Windsor-March and Derek March. Their son, Lassiter, was the guy Marco was nursing a four-year crush on.
If he was honest with himself, Las was seventy-five percent of the reason Marco was here. An invitation to work at the Windsor Ranch wasn’t what he’d expected when he’d asked Las out on a date a couple of months ago on a cold April night. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected exactly, so Las’s rejection hadn’t come as a surprise so much as taken the wind out of Marco’s sails. But a firm no thank-you followed by a job offer? It was out of left field but so what? After all of thirty seconds of weighing the pros and cons—the cons consisting mostly of having no idea what he’d do on a ranch, the pros consisting entirely of Las . . . okay, almost entirely. The rest was made up of nonexistent plans for after graduation—he’d agreed.
Maybe it’d turn out to be the stupidest decision he’d ever made given he’d never been on a ranch. Or near horses. Or cows. Or any large mammal, really.
But spending the summer with Las? Getting to know him better than their quick encounters at the small, outdoor coffee shop—the Coffee Cart—that Marco had worked at on campus had permitted? Maybe becoming something more than friends?
Sign him up.
Didn’t hurt that this gig paid well and included room and board.
He had a feeling he’d entered Windsor Ranch land when he started seeing the cows he could smell. Huge fields—pastures?—with men and women on horseback. Then the cows were behind him and ahead of him to his left, up on a hill, was his first glimpse of Windsor Ranch House: a wide, wooden building with arched glass front doors, peaked windows, and a wraparound porch. Making a left, he passed under the ranch’s gate. Square and made of wood, two old-fashioned sconces decorated each of the two vertical posts, and an iron sign hanging from the top proclaimed this to be Windsor Ranch, est. 1879.
Marco had a huge Italian family, but he didn’t know his family history past his grandparents. Had no idea who his great-grandparents had been or how they’d lived. Hell, he didn’t know which past relative had first emigrated to the United States. It wasn’t something that was talked about in his family. And here Las was, with so much history he could probably write a book on it.
They came from two different worlds. City boy and country royalty.
The driveway wound through meadows and fields and a small pond. A cowboy on horseback tipped his hat at him. Marco lifted a hand in a casual wave, then rested it on the windowsill. The air was cool; he suspected it was typical for mid-June in this part of the country.
The guest house came into view again as he crested the final hill, the driveway opening up into a large circular parking lot with spots along the sides. Marco backed into one on the right, turned off the car, and stepped out.
It was quiet. Glen Hill, Vermont, where he’d attended college, had been quiet too, but not like this. There was always noise on campus, even at night. Music from someone’s dorm room, students chatting as they had a smoke outside, banging pots from the dorm kitchen, cars driving into the adjacent student parking lot, heavy footsteps trodding down the hallway.
He didn’t think he’d ever heard silence like the silence of Windsor, Wyoming. Gentle wind leafing through trees. The distant sound of a mooing cow. Some kind of insect loudly buzzing. Far below was the road that had brought him here, and beyond that, on the other side, yet more cows dotting the rolling landscape.
“What are you smiling at?”
He whipped around . . . and there was Las, all six feet of him, outfitted in blue jeans, black cowboy boots, and a blue-checked shirt rolled to the elbows. A green jewel glinted on his belt.
Marco sucked in a breath and patted his hair down. No doubt it was now a shoulder-length mess, frizzed and teased by the wind. He took Las in, head to toe, including the chocolate-colored cowboy hat that covered hair that was nearly black. Marco had once accused him of not looking like a cowboy; on campus, Las had been smoothly casual, not a hint of his roots in sight. But here? In this environment, with the boots and the hat and the shirt? Marco didn’t know how he’d ever mistaken him for anything else.
“When you asked me to come work here for the summer,” Marco said, hands on his hips, “you didn’t tell me you were Wyoming royalty.”
Las cocked his head. “Huh?”
“Lassiter Windsor-March of the Windsor Ranch in Windsor, Wyoming.”
“Oh.” Las stepped off the front stoop and headed for him, gracefully confident. “My family has a long history in this area.”
“You don’t say.”
Stopping a foot away, it was Las’s turn to take Marco in. Marco knew how he looked after a three-day drive across the country: his loosest, most comfortable old jeans; a long-sleeved T-shirt; running shoes; and hair that needed a comb. Not his best first impression, though infinitely better than the ratty sweatpants he’d been wearing when he’d asked Las out in April.
Las’s smile was as quiet as the ranch. He stuck his hands in his back pockets like he didn’t know what to do with them. “It’s good to see you, Marco.”
Marco couldn’t help the bubble of warmth that spread through him at Las’s words, uttered with such soft sincerity. “You too.” Las’s eyes, as dark as his hair, pierced him with fierce intensity, and he fidgeted. “Am I okay parked here?”
When Las had rejected his invitation to take him out, he’d cited something about them graduating soon and going separate ways. Marco could’ve talked his way through that one, but Las’s tacked on I don’t really date had stumped him. Despite the rejection, Marco’s crush hadn’t abated one bit, and seeing Las for the first time since the end of the semester filled his belly with swooping butterflies.
“For now,” Las said. “While we get you settled with HR. Then we’ll drive to the staff cabins—there’s a separate parking lot for staff there—and I’ll give you a tour, introduce you to people you need to know.”
“You? You’re my tour guide?” He’d expected someone in HR or maybe whoever he’d be reporting to.
Las shrugged. “I volunteered.”
Jesus. Marco’s heart was going to bounce out of his chest if Las kept saying nice things.
Lassiter Windsor-March did not consider himself Wyoming royalty. Sure, his maternal great-great-grandfather had founded the town and established the ranch. And yes, the ranch was the biggest economic provider in Windsor—it employed locals, donated money and goods to the town, and contributed to the tourism industry. But this was ranching in Wyoming—it was often harsh, always competitive, ever-evolving, and sometimes, unrewarding as fuck.
Not right now, though. Right now, he had Marco at his side as Las led him through the guest lodge to the Human Resources office at the back of a side hallway. And man, he looked good. Windswept was Las’s new favorite look on him. Not that he’d seen many others.
There was Coffee Cart Marco, with his hair tied at the nape of his neck, loose strands falling about his face as he served coffee and tea and the odd croissant. Then there was College Student Marco, which Las had rarely seen despite them attending a small school—they hardly ever bumped into each other on campus. College Student Marco left his brown, shoulder-length hair untied to frame his handsome face. Finally, there was Pizza Night Marco. Pizza Night Marco had been at Mama Jean’s—Glen Hill’s only pizza joint—with his friends the night in April that Las had been stood up. Pizza Night Marco had looked immensely comfortable in sweatpants and a hoodie branded with their college hockey team’s logo, and Las had been so envious of the casual attire when he himself had been dressed to impress. When he’d spotted Marco entering the restaurant with his friends, Las had given his no-show a bare additional three minutes to make an appearance—after the thirty Las had already waited. If there was anywhere Las didn’t want to be, it was on a date, and a blind one at that. It was the first and last time he let a friend set him up.
Pizza Night Marco wore his hair loose like College Student Marco, but Pizza Night Marco’s had a kink in it, like it’d been tied back at some point, and was tangled and wavy instead of glossy and straight.
Sexily rumpled Pizza Night Marco had walked Las home and asked him out on a date. Las should’ve said no and left it at that; instead he’d turned Marco down and then spontaneously invited the guy he couldn’t stop looking at while he lined up at the Coffee Cart every Thursday—the day of Marco’s weekly shift—to work on his family’s ranch as seasonal staff for the entire summer.
Three months of big, burly Marco, with his quiet smiles and his kind eyes and his wonderful hair and his gold skin that would only get more golden in the high Wyoming sun while Las tried not to act on the impulse to jump his bones. Las didn’t date and he certainly wasn’t into casual sex—he wasn’t interested in a temporary fling; he wanted something lasting. A commitment.
And that meant Marco was off-limits.
Did Marco still want to date him?
No, no. Thing one to add to his list of Things Not to Think About While Marco Is Here. Marco was temporary. Here and gone once his three-month seasonal contract was up.
Las had dealt with enough temporary to last a lifetime. Marco wouldn’t be one of them. Friends? Yes. Anything else? Not unless Marco stayed.
Nobody ever stayed.
Not the seasonal workers Las used to befriend as a kid, before he knew better. Not his high school friends, most of whom had left the state for college and hadn’t come back. Not Ben, his childhood best friend turned high school sweetheart that Las had followed to college in Vermont, who’d broken up with him via phone when Ben had decided to stay permanently in England where he was spending the first semester of their junior year on a student exchange program.
They’d had plans for the future, all of which had involved returning home after graduation, finding a little apartment together in town until they had enough saved up for their own house, and working on the ranch together until Las’s parents decided to retire, upon which time Las and Ben would take over—Las taking on his mom’s managerial role on the business side and Ben replacing Las’s dad as head of marketing for both the guest and business sides—and none of which involved a semester abroad and never coming back.
After almost two years, the hurt of that phone call was more of an echo rather than the piercing stab that had knifed his chest when Ben had told him he was staying overseas. Still, as much time as he’d had to get over the loss of his boyfriend—and he had—there were moments when he missed his best friend.
Marco’s head was on a swivel, taking in everything at once. “This place is…”
Las tensed, awaiting the verdict, and tried looking at his family ranch from the perspective of a city transplant. Exposed beams, cozy furniture on a maroon rug set next to a stone fireplace, black-and-white images on the walls depicting the history of the ranch, bright lighting, a check-in desk tucked into a recessed alcove. It wasn’t the glass and chrome five-star hotels of major cities, but neither was it the total rustic experience some expected of a ranch in the heart of cowboy country.
Windsor Ranch had luxurious rooms and rental cabins; boasted casual dining in the café as well as a high-end restaurant; included an athletic facility, heated outdoor pool with a view of the mountains, and a small spa; offered guided hikes and horseback rides, fishing, mountain climbing, white-water rafting, year-round bird-watching and wildlife-viewing tours, kids activities, and shuttle service to the nearby national parks; was a thirty-minute drive to the nearest ski slopes; catered to family getaways, romantic weekends, and corporate retreats alike; and had been consistently voted the number one guest ranch in Wyoming in Travelers’ Digest Yearly for the past four years.
And all of that while capping the maximum number of guests at thirty to ensure the family vibe the ranch was known for.
So yeah. It wasn’t glass and chrome. It was understated elegance and casual luxury. Las had no patience for guests who complained about the Wi-Fi that turned spotty when it rained or the lack of satellite television or the inadequacy of the nightlife in town. One of the many reasons he didn’t work in guest services.
“It’s amazing,” Marco said. “It’s like you brought nature indoors.”
“Oh.” Momentarily speechless, Las scratched his chin. “Yeah. My great-great-grandfather—the founder of Windsor Ranch—was a bit of an environmentalist. Tried to disturb as little of the land as possible when he built on it, and every generation that’s expanded it has done the same. That’s why it looks like the trees are about to grow into the house.”
And if Las had his way, the ranch would, one day, add another accolade to its long list of accomplishments by becoming a working ranch that respected biological diversity. Windsor Ranch had an opportunity to partner with the United States Nature Conservancy—the leading land conservation organization in the country that protected habitat for both wildlife and future generations of children—to test the best cattle grazing practices that would also enhance wildlife habitat on their land. Las just had to put a proposal together that his mom would actually listen to.
“Is this what you’d call a dude ranch?” Marco asked.
Las weaved them through the employees-only back hallways. To their left, a wall made almost entirely of large picture windows gave them a view of the horse barn, a long red and white structure straight out of a children’s picture book.
“I suppose,” he said. “But it’s also a working ranch. All the fun stuff happens on the other side of the highway.” Fun,meaning away from anything related to the guest services side of their business. Las had no interest in it; he spent ninety-nine percent of his time on the other side of the highway, working on the ranching side of the business that his mom managed.
The doors to the barn were open and a small crowd milled in front while a couple of ranch employees in jeans and black Windsor Ranch T-shirts gave instructions. Las didn’t see his sister but knew she was there, most likely inside the barn in her closet-sized office, and he made a mental note to introduce Marco to her as soon as they were done in HR.
“Really?” Marco’s eyes—a dark blue that reminded Las of the Wyoming sky at night—blinked at him in confusion. “I must’ve missed that on your website.”
“We’ve got some of the best cattle in the state.”
One corner of Marco’s lips lifted. “You’re boasting.”
Las shrugged. “When you’ve got something to boast about…” He bumped their shoulders. “Not you, though. You don’t boast.”
“I don’t have anything to boast about.”
“That so?” Las stopped them in front of a door with a gold plaque that read Maeve Seymour, Human Resources. “You don’t think helping the Glen Hill College Mountaineers win at the Frozen Four this year is anything to boast about?” It was Marco’s turn to shrug, awkward and pleased. “And didn’t you tell me Washington’s NHL team invited you to their development camp in DC? Why aren’t you boasting about that?”
Another shrug. “There’s nothing to boast about. I’m a goalie. With the small amount of opportunities in the big leagues for my position, I know not to get my hopes up.”
Las knocked on the door. “Maybe you should have more confidence in your abilities.”
“Maybe I’ll just keep being a realist.”
The door flew open. On the other side stood Maeve, white curls cut close to her head. “Lassiter.” She turned to Marco. “This must be your friend from college. I’m Maeve.” They shook hands. “Come in.” Waving them in, she returned to her desk. “I’ve got the paperwork ready.”
Las sat in the chair next to Marco’s while Maeve went around her desk, tuning them out as Maeve handed over emergency contact forms and personnel forms and whatever else Marco needed to sign. Probably some waiver that said he wouldn’t sue them if he broke an ankle on the trails.
Las had no reason to be here. Typically, Maeve would escort a new hire on to wherever they were going next—usually to the office of whoever would be their supervisor. It was probably why Maeve kept shooting him an eyebrow raise, but it’d been several weeks since he’d seen Marco and he wanted to drink his fill. Look but not touch.
That should be his personal tagline for the next three months.
He tuned back in when Maeve mentioned the vacation policy.
“Uh.” Marco scanned that sheet of paper. Vacation Policy for Contract Employees it said at the top, and then a full page of legalese that could be summed up in one sentence: contracted employees are entitled to two weeks unpaid vacation. “Did Las mention that I’ll need a few days off early next month?”
“He did.” Maeve gestured in Marco’s direction. “If you flip that sheet over, there’s a form on the back you can fill out to claim any vacation days. Your supervisor will need to approve it.”
Those few days off were for the NHL development camp. As good a reminder as any that Marco was temporary. Even if Washington didn’t add him to their roster, he’d be heading back to Philly, or wherever his job next took him, inside of three months like every other seasonal staff member Windsor Ranch had employed as far back as Las could remember.
And not only did Las not do temporary, his place was here. On this ranch. At the end of the summer, he’d be starting grad school in Laramie, but after that? He was coming right back home and he wasn’t leaving again. His future partner had to love this place as much as he did.
Twenty minutes later, Marco had signed his life away and was the owner of one employee handbook and three brand new black T-shirts with the Windsor Ranch logo stitched in white on the upper left. Las led him out of the building’s back exit and hung a left. Outside the early afternoon sun was high, not quite warm enough to beat the chill in the air, a leftover from a cold spring.
“What’s next?” Marco asked.
“I’m going to introduce you to the assistant manager of outdoor guest activities.” The guests who had previously milled in front of the barn were gone, off on a trail ride led by one of Windsor Ranch’s seasoned wranglers. “She’s got an office in here.”
As they entered the barn, Marco’s lips pursed. “Am I going to be working with horses? Because I have to be honest, I don’t know anything about them.” And then, seemingly to himself, he muttered, “Thought I’d be leading hikes.”
“You are. My sister oversees the seasonal employees contracted to work in outdoor guest activities. And because she’s a weirdo, she’d prefer an office in the barn instead of the house like everyone else.”
“Psht.” His sister exited her office as Las and Marco approached. “Says the guy with a tent in the woods.”
Marco turned to him. “What?”
Las crossed his arms. “It’s nothing.”
“It’s his hideout,” Alice said, a smile playing around her lips.
“Oh,” Marco said. “I thought you lived there.”
Las opened his mouth to respond; Alice beat him to it. “He goes there when he needs to be away from people.” A beat, then, “Which is basically all the time.”
With a sigh, Las glared at his sister. “You suck.”
Smiling broadly, she held a hand out to Marco. “Alice Windsor-March. Nice to meet you.”
“Marco Terlizzese. Same.”
Alice’s eyes narrowed. “Say your last name again?”
Marco did so, slower, no doubt used to people stumbling over its pronunciation.
“Huh. Good thing you’re the only Marco here this summer and I won’t have to learn how to pronounce it.”
Marco’s shot of laughter was loud in the relative quiet of the barn. So loud that, several stalls down, a horse poked its head over the door and snorted, a loud huff through his nostrils.
“Oh wow.” Marco’s voice was soft, a little reverent. “He’s beautiful.”
“She,” Las and Alice corrected.
“Can I go say hi?”
Las shrugged. “Sure.” Alice raised an eyebrow at him.
Marco set his employee handbook on the floor against the wall and piled his T-shirts on top of them before heading for Harriet’s stall.
Keeping Marco’s admission that he didn’t know anything about horses in the back of his mind, Las kept half an eye on him while he spoke to his sister. “What?”
Alice waited until Marco was out of earshot and said, “That’s mean.” She leaned back against the doorjamb to her office and caught his eye. At nearly the same height, it wasn’t difficult for her. “We both know your horse hates everyone but you.”
He shrugged again. “I have a good feeling about this.”
Alice’s eyebrow went up. “You never have a good feeling about anything.”
That was true.
“Remind me again why you invited him to work here?”
“I just…” Las scratched his cheek. “He didn’t have anything planned after graduation. Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Oh, I see.” Her eyes, the same near-black as his, widened. “You like him,” she whisper-shouted.
“What? No. I don’t like anyone.”
Her snort mimicked his horse’s at a lower volume. “Well, that’s certainly not true. You just pretend you don’t.”
“What? That’s not… No, I—”
“Look.” She squeezed his forearm. “I know Ben hurt you—”
He stiffened, his back going ramrod straight. “I don’t want to talk about Ben.”
“Fine. I’ll talk about him.”
“That’s not what I—” meant, but she was already steamrolling over him.
“I know he hurt you, but you can’t let one idiot hold you back.”
“Get back out there. Meet someone new. Start dating again.”
“Meet who, Alice? I’ve known everyone in this town forever and I’m not interested in any of them that way. And everyone new I meet is only coming through for a season. What’s the point of dating someone who will be gone in four months or less?”
“Hey.” She pointed a finger at him. “You can have a lot of fun in four months.”
“I’m not interested in a fling. I don’t want the fun without the—” He broke off. Clenched his jaw.
The romance. The heart. He’d had it once, with Ben. He wanted that feeling again, where the room lit up when his partner walked into it. Someone who didn’t just make his heart jump but made it perform a circus routine in his chest.
He shook his head at his own foolishness.
Marco’s voice drifted over to them. Las and Alice turned to look and found Marco petting Harriet between the eyes as he spoke to her.
“Huh.” Alice nudged his shoulder with her own. “Guess your horse doesn’t hate everyone.”
Something funny tumbled in his stomach, the sight of man and horse etching itself forever in his long-term memory. “Told you I had a good feeling,” he said weakly.
Later, after Alice and Marco had spoken about schedules and training, Las and Marco headed out of the barn side by side. Las paused briefly at Harriet’s stall to give her a kiss on the muzzle. “Don’t get too attached to him,” he whispered.
And wasn’t sure if he was cautioning his horse or reminding himself.
Copyright 2020 Amy Aislin. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.