Cowboy Under Fire

By: Carla Cassidy

Chapter 1

She cast a tiny shadow, but was as snappy as a ticked-off Chihuahua. Forest Stevens cast a huge shadow but rarely got riled up about anything. Still, since the moment the petite Dr. Patience Forbes had arrived on the Holiday Ranch, she’d fired him up in a way he hadn’t felt before.

Not that he’d done anything about least not yet. Despite the fact that she’d been on the property for the past three weeks, he had yet to do much of anything except tip his black hat as she stalked back and forth from her room next to his to the blue tent where she worked.

He was aware of the importance of her work. As a forensic anthropologist she’d been brought to the ranch by the discovery of a mass grave beneath an old shed that had been damaged in the spring by a tornado. The pit of bones had been unearthed when the ranch hands were tearing down the shed after the storm.

He now stood just outside the tent where she and her assistant, a middle-aged man named Dr. Devon Lewison, had been dealing with the bones of the dead in an attempt to put skeletons back together again and gather information so that identities could potentially be established or a clue to the killer might be discovered.

For the entire length of time that she’d been on the ranch, she hadn’t interacted with anyone except Devon and Chief of Police Dillon Bowie. She worked from dawn until dusk and didn’t take her meals in the cowboy dining room.

Forest hoped to change some of that. For a man who was six-four and strong as an ox, a ridiculous nervousness raced through him as he drew a deep breath and stepped in front of the doorway of the tent.

She immediately whipped around, her red, shoulder-length curls dancing with her movement as her green eyes narrowed in obvious irritation. “You’re blocking my light, cowboy.”

Moving left or right wouldn’t change the fact that he completely filled up the tent entrance. “My name isn’t cowboy, it’s Forest... Forest Stevens.” He quickly swept his hat off his head, as if that polite gesture would somehow turn her deep frown into a pleasant smile. It didn’t.

“Okay, Forest Stevens, what’s the problem?”

She stood before a stainless-steel table where dried brown bones were laid out in the quasi-pattern of a human being. Forest averted his gaze from the remnants of death to her.

“No problem,” he replied easily. “You’re staying in the room next to mine. I just figured it was about time we spoke.”

“Good. Now we’ve spoken. Goodbye.” She dismissed him by turning her slender back on him.

Forest stepped out the tent entrance and heaved a sigh of frustration. He shouldn’t be dismayed by her curtness. At least he knew not to take it personally. She hadn’t been friendly with anyone on the ranch. Even Dillon called her Dr. Dreadful or the dragon lady behind her back.

Dusty Crawford, the youngest cowboy working on the ranch, stood just a few feet away, and his dimples flashed as he grinned at Forest. “Ah, cut off right at the knees,” he said. “At least that brings you down to my height.”

“Very funny,” Forest replied and set his hat back on his head. “Besides, I wasn’t cut off anywhere. All I wanted to do was introduce myself to her and I accomplished that.”

The two men headed for the stables. “Dillon says the woman breathes fire whenever she opens her mouth.”

And a fine mouth it was, Forest thought. Perfectly formed with just enough plump to look utterly kissable. He grimaced and shoved the thought aside.

“He also says she must eat nails for breakfast and spits them out with a sharp sting with her temper. Even Cassie insists the woman has ice in her veins,” Dusty continued.

Cassie. There was still a dull ache in Forest’s heart when he thought of his new young boss. Three months ago Cass Holiday had been killed in a tornado that had ripped through the property. She’d left behind twelve cowboys who had loved her like a mother and a legacy of high standards and loyalty.

Cass had left the successful ranch to her niece, Cassie Peterson, a New York artist and shop owner. Over the last two months Cassie had surprised them all. With the help of foreman Adam Benson, she had jumped right in to learn the ropes of running such a big operation.

She wasn’t the woman her aunt had been, but she appeared to be trying her best to learn all there was to know about ranch life. Still, the cowboys working the Holiday spread considered themselves Cass’s cowboys, not Cassie’s men.

“Are you going into town tonight?” Dusty asked, pulling Forest from his thoughts. “It’s Saturday night, so I figure I’ll grab dinner at the café and then maybe amble over to the Watering Hole for a few beers.”

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