Tuesday, November 18, 2008

EXCERPT: Leave it to Chance

Leave it to Chance

by Sherri Sand

ISBN# 1434799883

Publisher David C. Cook

Genre Women’s Fiction (with strong romance)

Copyright 2008

Published date May 2008

Where it can be purchased Any major bookstore / Amazon

Website www.sherrisand.com

Single mom of three, Sierra Montgomery is desperate to find a new job to keep from having to move back home and be smothered to death by her mother's good intentions and overbearing love. So when Sierra inherits Chance, a quirky old gelding she doesn't have a clue what to do with, she thinks her best bet may be to sell the horse to cover another month's rent--a decision that devastates her children.

Enter Ross Morgan, a handsome landscaper who just happens to have an empty barn and fenced pasture... perfect for an old horse to live out his days as the pet of three wounded kids. Ross develops a soft spot for eldest child Braden...and he just might have one for Braden's mother. But what he doesn't have is time for distractions--he's got a landscaping business to run and nursery plants to tend.

But there's just one problem. Sierra's terrified of horses and--thanks to her past--wary of attractive men. Yet seeing the way her angry son idolizes Ross and adores that old horse forces Sierra to confront her fears. Will she remain distrustful and self-reliant, or will she seek help from God and those who love her?

Chapter 9

Chance, nose-down in the feed trough, munched the container of grain Sierra dumped in to distract him. The kids were spending the evening with Michael and Gina so the task of feeding the creature had been left to her. Outside the stall she perched on a hay bale and stared down at the pitchfork lying tines up in the middle of the stall floor. She stepped off the bale and clutched the grain bucket and metal spoon from the tack room. It was the only protection she could find.
The sound of the horse’s crunching slowed the closer she got to the stall door.
Then the sound of thick lips chasing stray granules around the stainless steel basin. Finally, heavy breathing and soft snorts as Chance made sure the container was thoroughly empty.
And still Sierra stood in front of the wide wooden door with its small barred window and black steel latch. I cannot do this. I cannot go in there with that . . . massive animal. Cold sweat dampened her forehead and prickled under her arms. But is it fair to endanger Chance? The pitchfork could cripple him if he stepped on it and freaked out. Then they’d have to put him to sleep and it’d be her fault. The kids would hate her. Come on, Sierra. Buck up!
Sierra lifted the latch. Chance swung his head around, ears forward. That was a good sign, wasn’t it? Flattened ears signaled danger, didn’t they?
Sierra took a step forward, then stopped motionless. Uh-oh, one ear forward, one back. Okay, two forward. One more step, then another halt. It felt like a sick game of Simon Says. An eternity later she reached the grain bin. Chance’s head was lowered somewhat, the perfect height to grip the halter and move his hind end away from the pitchfork. Sierra reached for the black halter. Up went the head. She dropped her arm slightly. Chance faced the wall, one baleful eye staring at her, left ear flat. How do I get out of here?
Sierra started to back out, but Chance matched her turn, angling his rump toward her. Paralyzed, she glanced about the stall, looking for some kind of help. Her gaze slid over the powerful hooves mere feet from her body. A picture of Molly flashed into her mind, lying in the hospital bed, deathly still, monitors beeping as her life drained slowly away. Sierra’s breath came in short gasps. Sweat welled up through her pores and flashes of heat zipped through her body. Sierra inched toward the rear of the stall. The door was closer to her right, but she’d have to move farther in line with the deadly hammers attached to the ends of Chance’s hind legs.
Chance tossed his head, Sierra screamed and sank into soiled straw, covering her head with her arms, waiting for the thrashing of hooves. But all she heard was a swish of hay. Her nerves sensed a void left by the retreat of the large warm horse body. She inched her arms down and sneaked a look over the top of them. Chance was gone.
The only sound was the ring of hoof on concrete as he trotted toward the end of the barn and out toward the corral. That and the throat clearing that came from just outside the stall. “You all right, miss?”
Sierra raised her head. A white-haired gentleman stared at her in concern.
What could she say? I thought I was being attacked by a horse that no one seems to think is dangerous?
Then she saw the smile he was trying to hold back.
She gave a self-conscious grin. “Did you see that wild beast go tearing out of here?”
He slapped his leg and chuckled. “I haven’t seen a sight like that since Starfire tossed ol’ Ross onto the manure pile.”
The man leaned forward and held his hand out. The skin was rough and weathered, like an old dried apple. It reminded her of a grandpa’s hand. A bit of comforting cushion behind the calluses.
He was on the short side, not much taller than Sierra, but he held himself with a presence that filled the space around him. His voice boomed, resonating through the barn. “You must be the boarder Ross told me about.”
“Oh?” She’d like to have been a mouse in the corner during that conversation.
He chuckled, nodding his head at her expression. “It wasn’t as bad as you think.”
Sierra gave him a slight grin and raised an eyebrow. “And what do I think?”
He brought his arms together, one hand gripping the other wrist. He tipped back on his heels, like he was settling in for a good conversation. The playful twinkle was her clue. “You think that Ross wants to make glue of that old horse out there.”
Glue? That raised both eyebrows. Glue was made from horses? The implication lifted her hands to her hips, both of them fisted. He wanted her horse dead? She understood the loss of the plant, but to kill an animal over it—
“And sooner rather than later.” He was still nodding, the twinkle deepening. “But you’d be wrong.”
“I would?” Glue wasn’t made from horses?
“Yes. Ya see, ol’ Ross, he gets a little impatient at times. Downright testy at others.” He shook his head sadly, as if poor old Ross needed sympathy. “In particular when things get a little out of hand.”
“Like his mother’s prized bush getting eaten.”
He nodded approval at her understanding. “Ex—actly.” He drew the word out. “He needs a little time to adjust to having people underfoot.”
“And horses.”
He winked at her, the dip of his chin indicating Chance through the big doors in the corral. “They’re more people than you know.”
He changed posture, leaning an elbow against the stall. “Now when I got here, it looked like that horse was givin’ you a lesson.”
Sierra felt her forehead crease. “No, I . . .” She stopped. She wasn’t about to tell him she’d been scared to death.
He looked at her, his eyes reading right through to the words she wasn’t saying. “You were scared.” Only it came out “skeered.”
She waited, not admitting anything.
“Now, there’s nothing wrong with being scared. You just cain’t let the horse know it.” He nodded toward a black rope hanging from a nail on the wall. “Now get that lead rope.”
“Why? What do you want me to do with it?” Her throat tightened, making it hard to swallow.
“You’re goin’ to teach that horse a lesson.”
She laughed. A twittering, reedy sound. Totally unlike her. She’d never had a high-pitched girlie laugh in her life.
“Um. . . Mr. uh—”
“You can call me Sid.”
“Sid. Okay, Sid.” She firmed her stance. “I’m not going out there.” She punctuated the words with two short jabs toward the corral.
“Well, now. That does put you in a pur-dicament.” He stretched the word out while rubbing his variegated white and gray stubble.
Sierra lifted her chin. “The only predicament I have is how I’m going to get rid of that horse.”
“What’s his name? Lucky?” He raised wildly long eyebrows for clarification. The strands looked like free-range caterpillars that had crawled over each other in a crazed mish-mash.
He pursed his lips, then sucked them in as if he was about to deliver dire news “You have kids?”
She nodded. “Three.”
He shook his head and drew in a breath. “See, ol’ Chance out there, he’s not good for much anymore. Too old.” He leaned his whole back against the stall door. “Not good for more than the glue factory.”
There really is a horse glue factory? The kids definitely needed to wash their hands after crafts.
“But to your kids, I’m sure he’s finer than old Black Beauty himself.” She knew he was right. A sinking sensation started up near her shoulders and traveled down through her chest, compressing itself into a tight ball in her stomach.
“Once a kid sets his heart on a horse, you never can tear the dream out of him. You might not see it, but it’s there. Not many kids get a chance to lasso those dreams and ride them. You sell that horse–” He clicked his teeth— “and you might not get that opportunity back.”
A trembling started in her right leg. He probably couldn’t see it, but it was there, all the nerves screaming, “Run!”
She swallowed. But thoughts of her kids kept her from backpedaling to the van. She stared out toward the corral and that . . . horse. She would do this for her kids. Their hearts had been broken enough.
Sierra gave him a look to tell him she wasn’t deceived by his method. “I’m surprised you haven’t been snatched up by some telemarketing service. You’d be selling vacuums by the truckload.”
His raspy laughter reverberated through the old barn.
A few minutes later they stood side by side, fifteen feet from Chance, who chomped through the grassy corral as if they weren’t there. But Sierra knew better. Chance was already plotting his strategy to swing that hind end around. She didn’t need to understand horses to know what was coming next. A swift kick to the forehead.
A tingle started in her hands. She shouldn’t be out here. If she ended up permanently comatose, the kids would end up living with Michael and Gina full time.
Sid pointed to the horse as if Sierra couldn’t see him. “Now, you gotta show him who’s boss.”
Sierra threw him a look. “He already knows.”
He chuckled. “Well, that’s what we gotta change. You need to decide who’s boss. You or that grass eater. Think of him as a large lawnmower. You don’t mince words with a machine and ask it if it wants to mow the lawn. It doesn’t. It wants to be left alone in the garage.”
What was it with men and machines? This was not going to work.
He continued, “You gotta grab it by the handle and point it where you want to go.” He pointed again. “It’s the same with ol’ Chance there. You gotta show him you mean business.”
Sierra looked from the large head to the tail. “And by grabbing him you mean what?”
“Take him by the rope and lead him like you mean it.”
“He won’t let me put the rope on him.”
The old man put both hands up the same way she’d seen Braden’s baseball coach do with the boys when he was short on patience and long on exasperation. “You don’t ask him if he wants the halter on. You tell him you’re doing it.”
A conversation with a horse?
He grabbed the rope from her limp hand. “Watch.” A slight limp emphasized his short choppy steps. If Sierra hadn’t been so nervous she might have smiled.
And there he was leading Chance back to her, grinning like all she needed was his helpful demonstration. Sierra realized she was walking backwards and she made herself stop, her toes digging into the soles of her shoes. Sid and Chance halted uncomfortably close. So close that when Chance turned his head and blew out a breath, Sierra got the warm moist air right in her face. It was like being pasted with wet grass.
He held the lead out. “Take him for a walk around the pasture.”
Words failed her.
Sid, apparently not respectful of personal boundaries, grabbed Sierra’s hand and wrapped her fingers around the tethered lead rope. “Walk him.” He motioned with his hand toward the far fence in the opposite direction Chance was facing.
It was a faceoff. Sierra stared at Chance. Big nose high, Chance stared right back.
“He won’t bite.”
Chance’s bottom lip quivered. Sierra took a half-step in reverse. “I think he disagrees.”
Sid laughed. “Now, lead the dad-blamed horse to the fence.”
Sierra went. More to get away from the big teeth right behind those lips. Chance followed. It was beautiful. She was actually leading the horse. They reached the fence, turned and Chance followed obediently at her heels. Then Chance’s chin bumped her shoulder. Sierra glanced back, right at the hairy lip that hid those great big chompers. He was much too close.
Nervous, Sierra picked up the tempo, preferring a taut three feet of rope between them. Chance lengthened his step and the rope slackened. She stumbled over a tight clump of grass and her knees hit the dirt. Momentum kept her stumbling and scraping forward, until she regained her footing in a fast walk, still holding the lead rope. Sierra threw another look over her shoulder. Chance trotted now, his mane frisking against his neck. Sierra bolted. Sid was waving his arms at her. She had to reach him. Chance was an out of control locomotive bearing down on her.
Sierra reached Sid, threw the rope at him and slid in behind his back, crouching to her knees as she quivered. Chance thundered to a stop, snorting puffs of smoke.
“Are you okay?” The shout made her turn and she slowly rose. Ross cleared the fence and ran through the tall grass toward them. He was actually sprinting. Like he was scared. For her? It had been ages since anyone had been afraid for her. She took a step back and bumped into Sid.
Ross stopped directly in front of her. Crowding into her personal space, his gaze darting over her as he checked for damage. He was making her nervous, and if he tried to run his hands up and down her limbs she might have to whack him. It was all she could do to not move back, but Sid and that horse were still behind her.
She wrapped her arms around her waist instead. “I’m fine.” At least the distraction had steadied her legs.
He ignored her and turned on Sid. “What on earth are you doing?”
Sid patted Chance’s neck. “We’re just getting the pair acquainted.”
Sierra rolled her eyes. She was not one-half of a pair with that beast, and getting acquainted was not what that near disaster had been.
Ross was still breathing hard. “By letting her loose in a field with a horse? Sid, she’s terrified of them.” Ross shot her a look, then stared at Sid again. “Come on, Sid.” He had his hands on his hips and annoyance wore grooves deep into his cheeks beneath snapping dark eyes.
Braden told him she was afraid? “I am not terrified of horses.” Fearful, yes, the kind that came from first-hand experience.
Remnants of frustration lingered in his eyes. “That wasn’t you hightailing it across the field?”
She placed her hands on her hips. “Well, when a beast is charging you from behind, what would you do?”
Sid and Ross both glanced at Chance, then each other. Sid didn’t even try to stop the chuckles. Ross looked at the ground, then raised his head. She couldn’t tell if he was mad or laughing at her. “It’s okay to be afraid, Sierra. I just don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be out here, pressured by him.” He jerked a thumb at Sid, then rounded on the older man again. “And don’t try to tell me you didn’t talk her into this, Sid. You know better.”
“Ross, I’m an adult. I can handle it,” Sierra jumped in.
His look conveyed disbelief. “By letting yourself get talked into something you don’t want to do?”
She pulled her jacket tighter around her body. “It worked out fine.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “I would feel responsible if something happened.”

Ross stood in the barnyard after Sierra left. Cold air soaked into his denim jeans, making the fabric stiff and rough against his legs. But he didn’t move, not even when her car was long out of sight. The question hammered him: What was he doing getting wrapped up in her problems? Sierra Montgomery was one big complication. Single mom, ticked at God, messy ex-husband, and three lonely kids who’d attach to anyone she got involved with. He saw her eyes again. Vulnerable. Behind the fear lay uncertainty and pain. Definitely not what he needed at this stage in his life. It wasn’t hard to bring the protective shield up. He’d had plenty of practice. He walked back toward his house.
Ross stomped the mud off his shoes and let himself in through the back door. He wasn’t surprised to find Sid at his kitchen table nursing a cup of coffee. Another mug sat waiting. Ross slid into the chair across from him and took a sip of the steaming brew. Strong and fortifying. Sid’s coffee embodied his character.
“You certainly know how to treat a lady, Sid. I still can’t believe you turned her loose with that horse.”
Sid didn’t laugh. Just sort of smiled, his eyes faraway. “That gal’s had a lot of hurt.”
“Like most of the human population.” Ross wanted to change the subject.
“That girl is the ‘human population’ that is before us right now.”
“It doesn’t sound like she wants our help, Sid.”
The grizzled eyebrows glowered down at him. “Some cries are harder to hear than others.”
Ross knew better than to argue, but from what he could tell Sierra didn’t seem to be sending any kind of telegram, other than one that said to leave her alone.
The older man rubbed his jaw, then moved it back and forth the way he did when he was really chewing on something. “What that girl needs is some hope. You’re always saying you need a real bookkeeper.”
He had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach “I was just teasing you, Sid. I think the system we have works just fine.” The words came out fast and he swallowed hard. “And how is doing my books going to give her hope?”
“I’m jest gettin’ that feelin’ right here, son. In the spot God speaks to.” Sid poked a finger over his heart.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea. She—it’s complicated, Sid.”
Sid gave him a thoughtful look. “Have my feelin’s ever been wrong?”
Ross leaned his forearms on the table, pressing his fingertips together. “What if I get saddled with her as my bookkeeper and it’s just indigestion this time?”
Sid scratched through the hair above his ear, his right cheek hitched up in a grimace of regret. “Well, I’ve been meaning to tell you anyway, but my niece Leorna wants me to come back for a visit and what with getting that new pony Traitor in, I’m not going to be available to help sort the bills this month.”
Ross took a breath.
The old scoundrel continued, “Looks like you’ll be needin’ some help.”
“I’ll manage.” Ross bought some time with another gulp of coffee.
Sid rolled the stub of hay to the other side of his mouth. “And just how will you do that?” He shook his head. “I’d hate to see where you’re at in five months.” The next words were directed toward the floor. “Overpaying the nursery, underbidding jobs. Be a cryin’ shame after all that hard work. Especially with you working so hard on that Alex Cranwell job.”
Ross shook his head, feeling a grin tickle his lips, though he tried to hide it. “Nicely done, Sid. Though I didn’t know the Lord was into strong-arming people.” He should have covered his ears and locked the door when he heard Sierra’s screams from the field. One beautiful brunette with vulnerable brown eyes was a distraction he couldn’t afford.
“Yer forgettin’ Jonah and the whale. The Lord isn’t afraid to use a little muscle now and then.”
Ross tried one last time. “She probably isn’t qualified to do the bookkeeping.”
Sid folded his hands across his belly. “How is Mr. Cranwell doing these days?”
Ross scowled at his friend. “Fine, I’ll ask her. But all bets are off if she says no.” Something Sid had said worked its way from the back of his mind. “What’s this about Leorna wanting you to visit? You haven’t been to Kansas since you moved here.”
Sid scratched the back of his neck and wouldn’t meet his eyes. “We’ve kept in close touch.” He cleared his throat. “She thinks I ought to move back to be with family.”
Ross laughed. “Well, I guess she’s in for a surprise there.”
Sid chuckled, but kept his eyes on the floor.
“You’re not thinking about it, are you?”
Sid’s fingers bounced on the table and he gave him a brief smile. “Not anytime soon, son. Say, I better get back and check on the ponies.”

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