Ghosts of High Paradise Ranch, Book 1
When ranch foreman Thad McCade’s life is disrupted by something supernatural, he reluctantly allows a ghost whisperer in to try to clear his home. But Madam Ruby is not at all what he expected. She’s actually Cheyenne Redford, wears a business suit, and drives an expensive SUV. In seconds, she discerns the identity of the restless spirit, and Thad immediately ushers her out of his house. He’s not ready to face memories he has buried for years.
Despite her parent’s insistence that she work in their respectable family business, on weekends Cheyenne indulges her secret passion for communicating between worlds. This time, though, the spirit haunting the sexy cowboy is powerfully intent on making itself a nuisance, and its disturbances are escalating. Despite Thad’s resistance, Cheyenne is determined to find out why.
The hot Montana summer spurs a sensual attraction between Cheyenne and Thad, and they indulge their craving for a physical and emotional connection. When Cheyenne pushes the cowboy for more information to help her release the earthbound spirit, he walks away, leaving her heartbroken and confused. Can Thad overcome his fear and guilt before time runs out for the ghost…and before Cheyenne moves on with her life?
“Go ahead and fire me.” Thad McCade stared at his boss, Sayde Grant, across his kitchen table. “But I’m not taking a vacation.”
Sayde laughed, the crinkles around her eyes a telltale sign of her age. She tapped her pink-painted nails on the table. “Thad, you’ll do well to remember, High Paradise is my ranch, you’re my foreman, and as I see it, your well-being and the well-being of the ranch are interrelated.”
“Why do you want me out of here all of a sudden? Do you have another foreman in mind?” He ran his hand through his shaggy brown hair. He’d meant it as a joke, but he had to wonder what had gotten into her today. Had he done something wrong?
She shook her head, her gray braid skimming across her shoulders. “Of course not.” She rolled her eyes. “You’ve been an effective foreman for seven years, and before that, for five years, you were the best ranch hand I’d ever had, even though you hired on here as a pimply-faced teenager. There’s no way I could replace you.” Her voice softened and a little smile curved her lips.
Relief flowed through him. All those years ago, he’d come looking for a job; hungry, dirty, and exhausted from hitchhiking his way across four states to this northwest corner of Montana. He knew he’d found home when he saw this ranch tucked up against the Purcell Mountains. He ran his forefinger and thumb over his mustache, then down his goatee. Sayde had been more of a mother to him than his own had been.
“But…” She set her elbows on the table and stared into his eyes. “You never get away from the work. You never leave this ranch.”
He sighed. It was true. Since his wife passed away, he’d become more of a hermit with each passing year. He worked up a plausible untruth. “Ma’am, I get out more than enough. And it’s mid-October. It’s busy around here.”
“It’s always busy around here, and you’re working too hard. It’s gonna catch up with you.”
“I have a life outside work.”
The coffee cup in front of Thad tipped over, spilling black brew that ran straight toward the edge of the table and his crotch. He jumped up. “Son of a…” He couldn’t believe it happened again, and in front of someone else.
“Mm-hmm. See, even your poltergeist knows that’s not true.”
He forced a laugh as he mopped up coffee with a couple of towels. “Poltergeist, is it? It couldn’t be just my clumsiness?”
“I know you have a ghost, Thad. I’ve been watching. Being alone now…” Her gaze shifted off to another time.
Her husband, Barrett, had passed away nearly eighteen months ago, leaving her to run one of the biggest ranches in this half of Montana.
She blinked back to the present. “I’m awake some during the night, and I’ve seen lights going on and off over here, fading and going bright. Now, I know you haven’t installed dimmer switches.” Sayde gave him a smirk.
He set the towels in the sink and looked around the light blue kitchen that his wife had decorated. Over the years, there had been odd things happening, just now and then, but the last few weeks, the occurrences had begun to intensify. As if whoever haunted him had a timeline that was growing short.
“I don’t know, Sayde, I think it’s just my crazy imagination playing tricks on me.” He brought his cup to the coffee pot but decided better of it, and set the thing on the white countertop.
“You know what?” She put her palms flat on the table. “Let’s do this.” She stood. “I know a woman who can handle the situation, or at least appraise it.”
“No. No thank you.” He didn’t need one of Sayde’s psychic advisors poking around in his house. “There’s nothing here that I can’t handle.”
The screen door opened an inch and smacked shut.
They both stared at it, then looked at each other.
“Just the wind, right?” Sayde lifted one gray brow. “Even though the trees aren’t moving at all?”
Thad’s jaw tightened. Each night for the last five days, around six or seven, his truck keys would rattle in the bowl by the door, then the screen door would creak open a crack and slap shut. Sometimes the porch light snapped on, too. Somebody trying to tell him to get out? Take a drive? Every night, he ignored it, and it went away.
“Thad, that’s a sign. Someone is trying to communicate with us, and this woman I know—”
“Ma’am, I’d really prefer not to do this.” It wasn’t often they butted heads about anything, but this was his private life.
She held up her index finger. “You’re forgetting who owns this house.” She pointed to herself. “Now, if I was concerned that you had an infestation of rodents, I’d have an exterminator come out. Even if you swore up and down that the rats were your pets.”
He had to bite his lips to keep from laughing. “You’re saying I’m infested?” He leaned back on the counter, his fingers curling around the edge of the countertop.
“I’m saying that I’m concerned about what’s happening, and I don’t want it to affect you.”
He had a joke on his tongue about her only being worried about losing a hard-working foreman to a ghost, but he knew it was more than that. She really did care about him as a person.
“And if this woman can…” She waved her hands up toward the ceiling. “Fluff these spirits to where they can rest, well then we’re doing some other entities a favor, too.”
How could he say no to that logic? “Okay, fine. Bring on the ghost buster.”
“Perfect. You won’t regret this.” She pushed open the screen door, then turned back toward him. “And once we’ve taken care of this, we’ll talk about your vacation.”
He smiled and shook his head. “You’re the boss.”
The next morning, Thad rode the fenceline on the lower eighty acres. New hires meant the need to double-check all their work, even though they’d been teamed with an experienced hand. The field of wildflowers stretching for miles in front of him hadn’t been flattened by the cattle yet, and he stopped to look.
The sun angled over the mountains, turning the colors blindingly intense. Butterflies flapped their wings as they flew between blossoms, fuzzy white tufts of seed parachutes drifted on slow, warm air currents.
Melissa would have loved this.
His chest tightened. Not as bad as it did the first couple years after she’d passed, but still a pain lingered there. He turned Gator toward the middle of the field and kicked him into a run. The leopard Appaloosa took his head and raced across the field, kicking up clods of dirt.
Thad leaned over him, letting the smell of earth and the taste of freedom race through him. His hat flew off but he kept going, loving the feel of the powerful animal under him. The gelding slid a few times as the terrain became rockier near the river, but kept steady. Thad eased back, slowing them until they trotted along the riverbank, then stopped. Gator took a drink from the fast-running, clear water.
At one time in his life, he would have raced Gator through the river and up the other side, but he’d learned how fragile life could be, how one little slip could bring it to a devastating end.
He dismounted and walked the horse a ways, listening to the birds, watching the shadows on the mountains as clouds passed over them. If Sayde forced him to take a vacation, he’d head up there. Somewhere no one had been before, camp and live off the land for a week. That was his idea of time off. If Sayde had her say? She’d have him booking into a singles resort in Cabo, or a cruise on some love boat.
He’d done a honeymoon getaway at a Mexican resort seven years ago with Melissa, but he’d only gone along—and pretended to enjoy it—because it was something she’d wanted to do.
The land was what he loved. He jumped up onto Gator’s back and turned him toward home, heading back the way they came to pick up his favorite hat.
Just because he hadn’t had a vacation since then…yeah, seven years was a long time. Sayde was wrong about one thing, though; he did get to town. Once a month or so, when the urge grew too strong, he’d head to a bar and find a willing lady to spend a couple hours with him, sometimes even a night.
The problem was, he always returned home with a belly full of guilt. Intellectually, he knew he couldn’t betray a wife who’d been dead for five years. But how could he tell his heart that?
Two days later, Sayde dropped by the horse barn.
Thad leaned on a stall door watching the wrangler walk a new half-broke horse through the building.
“She’s a beauty.” Sayde stopped next to Thad.
“She is. Will she be your new ride?” The minute he said it, he regretted it.
“Aw, Mazie.” She walked back to the last stall in the barn and put her hand inside. “Hi, girl, how are you today?”
The old palomino slowly lifted her head.
“It’s me, old friend.” Sayde patted her pockets.
Thad headed toward her, digging a handful of sugar cubes out of his pocket. He gave them to Sayde. “She’s holding her own, but she doesn’t want to leave her stall often.”
The old horse sniffed the air, let out a groan, and shuffled over toward them.
“You’re sure she’s in no pain?” Sayde fed the sugar to Mazie and petted her gently.
“I’m sure. Vet’s got her on some meds. She’s sleeping a lot, but doing okay.” The horse wasn’t long for this world. Sayde had raised her from a foal, and would be the one to make any decisions on her longevity.
“She’s a good old girl.” Sayde turned her face away and swiped at her cheeks.
Thad wandered away, giving her some space. He understood the connection between them. His wife had been very attached to her horse. If he could have managed it, he would have buried them together, but…
“Thad?” Sayde followed him.
He stopped and waited, pushing aside the pain that threatened his composure. “Yes, ma’am?”
“I set up a time for my friend to come out and visit your house.”
He’d been hoping she had forgotten. “You weren’t joking about that, huh?” Not only would his space be invaded, but he’d need to do some cleaning up first. “When’s she coming?”
“Tonight?” Thad spun on her. “Are you serious?”
“Is that a problem?” Her brown eyes widened, as if hoping he had a date or something.
“No, just…” How fussy would he sound if he said his house was a mess and he couldn’t have company?
“She’s going to be in the area for work, so I told her she could come stay here a few days.”
Thad’s head jerked back. “You’re going to let her stay on the ranch?”
She gave him a little smile. “She’s my friend, Thad, besides being a ghost whisperer.”
“Ghost. Whisperer.” Those two words together made no sense to him.
Sayde started walking, and Thad had to catch up. “Are you sure she’s not just using you? You know, trying to…” What was the word he was looking for?
“Con me out of all my money?” She kept walking.
“Yes. It’s happened.”
Sayde waved a hand at him. “When you meet her, you’ll understand. Madam Ruby will be joining me for supper, then I’ll send her over your way about eight. Unless you’d like to have supper with us?”
Thad shook his head, then watched his boss stroll toward her house. “Madam Ruby, my ass.” While this ghost whisperer checked out his paranormal activity, he would be running a background check on Madam Ruby.
That night after sunset, Thad sat on the porch, his booted feet propped up on the railing. The clock he and Melissa had received as a wedding gift gave eight bongs. “Witching hour for Madam Ruby.”
A few minutes later, from the direction of Sayde’s house, two headlights headed his way along the gravel driveway.
He dropped his feet and stood. This’d be her, probably driving a VW Beetle, or an old ‘60s van with psychedelic flowers painted on the side.
Instead, a sleek black foreign-made SUV pulled up to his porch.
The driver’s door swung open, and two long, pale legs in sexy black pumps swung out.
“Hello.” Her voice floated soft, melodic.
He trotted down the steps and stopped right in front of her. This couldn’t be her. “Ma’am? Can I help you?
“Sure, thanks.” She put her hand out.
It wasn’t quite what he’d meant, but he took her hand.
A sizzle raced up his arm to buck in his chest like a spring colt. He helped her stand.
She stood nearly as tall as him, gorgeous, strawberry blonde hair falling below her shoulders. Her dark gray pinstripe suit fit her curvy body well, the skirt sliding down her thighs, covering nearly to her knees. She’d painted her lips a tempting coral color, but when her gaze met his, oh, those eyes. A blue like an early morning Montana sky. They seemed to read him down to his soul.
“Ma’am, can I help you find something?” She had to be lost.
“If you’re Thad McCade, I’ve found what I’m looking for.”
“Yes, I am.” She shut her car door. “I’m Madam Ruby.”