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Falling for a Smart Cowboy - Chapter 1

Updated: Jun 16

1

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Falling for a Smart Cowboy by Karen Baney

Devon Vargas stretched out his long legs as he watched the sunrise from the secluded back patio of his parents’ home. It was an unusually cool June morning for Arizona, only in the upper eighties. The forecast called for the low one hundreds by the start of the gigantic party Mami had planned for him.

    Pink and orange painted the sky, casting a soft glow on the surrounding desert landscape. Towering saguaro cacti, their arms adorned with sharp spines, stood proudly against the horizon, their majestic presence a testament to the arid beauty of Arizona. At their apex, large white flowers blossomed, signaling the arrival of summer—a visual promise of the transformative monsoon season. Just one more sign of the changes in his life.

    His leg bobbed a steady cadence as his boots created a soft tapping sound against the wooden deck. Restlessness wound around his heart. Despite the tranquil surroundings, he struggled to find calmness. He ought to enjoy the peace. What had Rennie said the other day? She advised him to slow down to savor the present moment, urging him to let go of his perpetual pursuit toward the next achievement. Stop striving.

    Well, watching the sunrise counted, right?

    Not really. Even in the serene moment, his mind raced over a dozen things. Hiring a director for the children’s program before he left for Guatemala felt like the most pressing.     After the third children’s director hired in a year left last month, Devon wondered if he just wasn’t cut out to be a leader—not like his older brothers Dalton and Derin. There had to be something wrong with him, that these women kept leaving.

    He snorted. The first one, Angel, had been married and expecting her first child, so he could not honestly blame himself for her departure. He just wished she would have let him know she hadn’t planned to stay before he hired her.

    Then there was Ava. Piece of work. Great with the kids, but scatterbrained as all get out. Developing the program required a certain level of organization that Ava lacked.

    Devon cringed at his judgemental attitude. Ava didn’t deserve his internal criticism. In truth, it came out of his frustration with himself. He hadn’t had enough time to mentor her. She may have been able to learn it in time. Unfortunately, last fall his final project for graduate school had consumed much of his waking thoughts and energy. That’s why he hired Ava—to run the children’s program at his family’s guest ranch and resort.

    The last attempt to find a children’s director… He shook his head. It still chafed.

    “Mijo.”

    Devon looked up at the sound of his mother’s voice. He noticed the strands of gray in her dark hair as it framed her classic latina features—a heritage not visible in his own.

    “I thought I heard someone pull into the driveway.”

    Her flip-flops thwacked softly against the deck as she walked toward him. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafted from the mug in her outstretched hand, along with the tantalizing scent of vanilla cinnamon creamer. He accepted the offered beverage, sipping it a few times before setting it on the small wrought-iron table next to his cushy patio chair.

    “Are you excited about the party?”

    Devon frowned. Mami knew he preferred not to be the center of attention—at least not with adults. Leading kids, teaching them, encouraging them felt more comfortable to him.

    “Your papi and I are so proud of you. Two degrees.”

    Devon let the words bounce off his heart. A bachelor’s in secondary education and master’s in instructional design were necessary for his goal to become a history teacher. He didn’t see what all the fuss was about. It’s not like he was the first son to achieve the milestone. Dalton sported an MBA from Arizona State University. Dylan earned a bachelor’s in equine science at Colorado State University. Out of the four oldest sons, only Derin chose not to go to college.

    Mami reached over and squeezed his hand, sighing loudly. “You must learn to celebrate the good things in life.”

    She released his hand and stared into the distance. “So much like your papi. He never…”

    Though Devon said nothing as her words trailed off, they perplexed him. He was nothing like his easy-going, steady Papi. Surely, Papi had never been driven by some internal, insatiable desire to make his mark on the world. Devon could not explain where it came from, only that it nipped his heels at each accomplishment in his life—completely the opposite of his father and any of his four brothers.

    His oldest brother, Dalton J. Vargas the fourth, exhibited the most similarities to his papi. Entrepreneurial. Devoted husband and father. Since marrying River and the birth of their twins, Sloane and Elena, Dalton continued to follow in Papi’s footsteps.

    Not like Devon. He couldn’t wait to move off the family ranch. Go do something meaningful with his life, like the mission trip to Guatemala to work with children. Or like teaching history at a high school. Pour into the hearts and minds of the next generation, including sharing about Jesus, if the opportunity arose. If he liked the mission trip, he hoped to plan more during school breaks.

    He cleared his throat. “Mami, I really need my birth certificate. I’m running out of time to apply for a passport.”

    “Oh, mijo! I thought I gave it to you months ago.” Mami stood abruptly as her eyes shifted toward the house. “I better check on breakfast.”

    Before he could press her further, she whirled into the large ranch house. The sweet fragrance of her perfume lingered in the air. Devon sighed before draining his coffee. Then he entered through the back door.

    Mami leaned down to open the oven. A blast of heat warmed his arm as he walked by. Instantly, the spicy aroma of Mami’s huevos rancheros filled the air, reminding him how delicious the breakfast casserole tasted.

    “Morning!” Dalton greeted him, pouring coffee into two large mugs. “Congratulations, Dev. Are you excited about the party?”

    Why did everyone keep asking him that?

    His older brother leaned against the counter, sipping the brew while he waited for an answer. When a baby’s cries echoed down the hall, Dalton pushed away from the counter.

    “Sloane is up. Be right back,” Dalton said before scurrying from the kitchen, leaving the two mugs of coffee behind.

    His grandfather, Padre, chuckled from his spot at the kitchen table. Devon never understood why they called him Padre, since the word meant “father” in Spanish. Not grandfather. Maybe because he was Papi’s padre? He shook off his musings as Padre spoke.

“Reminds me of Tres when you boys were little. Always stealing moments with each of you.”

    When Padre glanced at him, a shadow fell over his countenance for a moment before he smiled. Something about Padre’s initial reaction set Devon’s nerves jittering. Ever since Padre revealed the dramatic family secret about the loss of their sister—a twin to Derin—last spring, Devon wondered if there were more skeletons in the family closet.

    “Joining us for breakfast?”

    “I just came to watch the sunrise. I’ll grab something from the coffee shop before heading over to see if Dylan needs help to set up for the morning equine therapy session.”

    “They ended for the season yesterday,” Papi said as he finished pouring himself a black coffee.

    “Don’t they usually meet on the first Saturday of June?” Devon asked, confused.

    “Not this year. We’ve been planning your graduation party for months. Didn’t want to split focus away from you.”

    Mami placed a turquoise trivet on the center of the table. Yes, like many random facts, Devon knew what a trivet was. Papi donned the oven mitts and carried the casserole dish over to the table. When he removed the oven mitts, Papi placed his hands on both sides of Mami’s face before kissing his wife. Devon thought it might have been a little too heated for first thing in the morning, and in front of their son.

    He wondered for half a second what it might be like to love someone that deeply for so long. They had to be nearing the forty-year mark soon, given Dalton’s age of thirty-six. Then Devon remembered, he didn’t have time for love right now. At twenty-six, he still had plenty of time for it. Later. Much later.

    “Coffee?” Papi asked, raising the pot after he filled a mug for Mami.

    Devon shook his head. Papi came over and squeezed his shoulder. His father’s blue eyes searched his.

    “Stay. Have breakfast with us.”

    Devon sighed as Mami set a tall glass of orange juice on the table for him. Guess he wasn’t getting out of it. Sitting next to Padre, he studied his father. Papi’s blue eyes matched Derin’s. Not Devon’s green ones. Dylan and Drake shared Mami’s chocolate brown eye color. Though Dalton’s gold eyes differed from their parents, they were a replica of his abuela’s. No one had green eyes. Not one, save Devon. Not even his cousins.

    Why he suddenly noticed these things, he could not say. They bothered him all the same. He may have started paying more attention after Padre’s slip up about their late sister.

    When River, Dalton’s wife, padded into the kitchen, she propped Elena on her hip. Her long blond hair piled on the top of her head in a messy bun almost out of reach of her daughter. Elena’s blue eyes lit up when she spotted Devon. Could she be old enough to recognize him? He held out his arms, offering to hold his six-month-old niece. As he gazed lovingly at her, he marveled at how soft and squishy she looked. He let her grab his finger, and she rewarded him with a drooling gurgle. Goodness, he loved the little bug.

    The next generation of Vargas children had finally arrived with the birth of Dalton’s twins last December, Sloane and Elena. Dylan and Brisa were expecting their second child in August. It surprised Devon that Derin and Madison had announced no children on the way yet. Their first anniversary was only a few weeks away. The two had been inseparable since Madison moved to the ranch.

    Devon studied his family as Mami handed out plates. The dark circles under Dalton’s and River’s eyes seemed less pronounced compared to a few weeks ago. The twins must be sleeping for longer stretches. He caught Dalton studying his wife and noticed the look of adoration. Yeah, each of his older brothers had fallen deeply in love.

    When Elena fussed in his arms, River took her from Devon. Within seconds, Sloane joined in. River excused herself to feed them both. A smile tilted the corner of his mouth. She had really taken to motherhood, just as Dalton had become a doting father.

    A longing tugged at Devon’s heart. Strange. He had not felt this before. This curiosity about fatherhood. He had no time for such longings. He hadn’t even started his new career yet. Hadn’t announced he planned to leave the ranch for good.

    The clanking of silverware following the prayer pierced his conscience. He ought to tell his family about his plans. But first, he really needed to hire a children’s director. One that could run the program and make his absence from the ranch less noticeable.

__________


   Raina Crawford pulled onto the dirt and gravel drive of Vargas Guest Ranch & Resort just outside of Wickenburg, Arizona. A Saturday interview date still confused her. The resort manager, Renata Vargas, confirmed the date and time by email again yesterday.

    As she parked in front of the office, she blew out a slow breath. This job had been made for her. Children’s programming director at the family run resort on a guest ranch. Kids and horses. Nature and amenities. Could it be any more perfect?

    Raina glanced in her rearview mirror, relieved to find her curly hair had not frizzed up. The drier Arizona climate seemed kinder to her natural curls.

    After exiting her beat up old Ford Focus, miraculously still running after the long drive across multiple states, she ran a hand down the length of her modest skirt, smoothing out any wrinkles. Doubt crept in. Perhaps a skirt seemed too professional for a job working with children. Oh well. It’s not like she would start today if hired.

    As she scanned the area, the sun warmed her back. The bright yellow paint on the resort office building popped against the natural backdrop of desert mountains striped with multi-colored striations. Gold, rust, white, brown. The bright blue sky stretched overhead from horizon to horizon. Not a cloud in sight. The perfectly manicured plants brought pops of lilac, orange, and gold, softening the bleakness of the desert. She breathed deeply, enjoying the sweet fragrance in the air, wondering which plant it came from. She wouldn’t mind living in such a beautiful place.

    When she stepped toward the office door, she frowned. The lights were off. Then Raina tried the door. Locked.

    Glancing at her watch, she still had a few minutes before eleven. Perhaps Renata would arrive shortly. Or her husband Devon. From her phone conversation, it sounded like Renata managed the resort and her husband managed the kids’ program. Raina envisioned a sweet middle-aged couple. Entrepreneurs, judging by the expansive property. From the turnoff on the highway, it took her another ten minutes to reach the place.

    This job would provide the critical experience Raina needed for her goal. Having survived the foster system since her tenth birthday, she longed to open a program for middle school foster kids. She wanted it to be a place they could come to experience unconditional love and acceptance. A safe-haven. A glimpse of what life could be like. Something to give them hope for their future. Just like the loving couple who taught her about Jesus.

    She had only been with them for three months. She had been eleven or twelve. In the sixth grade, if she recalled the timing. After her parents died, Raina had been shuffled from group home to foster home to group home again. Mostly, she tried to hide. Fade into the background and let the rowdy kids take the brunt of any harsh treatment by the adults.

    She did not know how she had ended up with the Radcliffs. She only remembered how, for those brief months, she felt treasured. Loved. They told her about Jesus and how He loved her. Wanted to walk beside her no matter what life threw at her. No matter where she found herself.

    When the social worker tore her away from the older couple, dropping her into another group home, Raina wailed the entire car ride. The pain in the couple’s eyes told her they truly had loved her as much as they said. Life became much harder after that. She learned how to protect herself. She remembered to talk to Jesus when alone. Raina had survived solely because of the hope she found in Jesus and with the Radcliffs. It had been enough to save her.

    Only now, in her mid-twenties with a college degree to her name, did she feel like she was becoming her real self—the woman God designed her to be. She may not have any close friends. She may have rarely experienced love from adults growing up. But Raina Crawford had been filled with the love of her Savior. She could give love to the kids that crossed her path. She could bring them hope. And maybe, just maybe, she could be a Radcliff to the hurting children God placed in her path.

    Raina puffed out a breath of air. Except she first had to win this job, learn everything she could, become the best, and save up money to start the refuge she dreamed about. With God on her side, it would come to pass. She knew it deep in her soul.

    The blistering sun warmed her skin to almost searing, rousing her from her wistful thinking. Sweat beaded at her hairline before her wild, curly mane absorbed it. Raina glanced at her watch again. Quarter after eleven. She sighed and trudged back toward her car, disappointed the interview did not happen.

    A man’s deep voice boomed over a speaker, muffled by the walls of the building next door. Raina veered toward the sound, pausing at the double door entrance long enough to notice the sign: “Closed for a private event.” For a few seconds, she debated about entering what must be an air-conditioned room. When sweat trickled down her back, she yanked the door open, desperate for relief from the summer heat.

    Her face flushed as she realized she had stumbled into some sort of celebratory party. The smoky aroma of BBQ wafted toward her, causing her mouth to water. Perhaps she could snag a bottled water before driving back to the hotel to try again on Monday.

    “Madi and I are pregnant!” The deep voice sounded over the speakers.

    The people swarmed the giddy man and the stunning blond standing next to him. Hugs and congratulations mixed with tears of joy. Smiling faces surrounded the lovely couple. What would it be like to have someone in her life care for her like that?

    Raina’s eyes roamed the room. The decorations didn’t fit with a gender-reveal or baby announcement. They were more subdued, like that of a graduation party. Yet, no one wore a cap and gown. In fact, most of the men wore western-style shirts, jeans, and cowboy boots. The women’s outfits ranged from flowing maxi dresses to western shirts and jean shorts. She had never met a friendlier-looking crowd. A pang of homesickness—for the home she never had—threatened to further dampen her mood. She quickly stuffed it down.

    As she continued scanning the crowd, her eyes landed on the most heavenly pair of green eyes. Eyes like hers, only not as bright green. The breathtaking cowboy wore a solid olive green shirt, neatly tucked into the trim waist of his deep indigo jeans. His simple brown belt with a plain silver buckle stood out compared to the ostentatious buckles of the other men. Brown wavy hair flopped over his creased forehead. He seemed annoyed by the couple’s announcement.

    Just then, his head lifted, and his gaze rested on her. Raina swallowed down her fear as his eyes caressed her hair, her cheeks, her nose. That she could almost physically feel his scrutiny unnerved her. It shouldn’t. There was something pure and reverent about it.

    When the cowboy pushed away from the wall, ambling toward her, Raina considered darting out the door. She was trespassing. Clearly, the smart-looking cowboy reasoned she did not belong. But she could really use a water and that BBQ smelled divine.

Squaring her shoulders, Raina swallowed down her fear like she had a thousand times growing up. Then she straightened her back. She flipped her curly hair over her shoulder and pasted a smile on her face, ready to fake her way through the next few minutes.


About the Series

Discover the Vargas Ranch Series

Love is in the air at the Vargas Guest Ranch & Resort near Wickenburg, Arizona. The Vargas family lives and breathes their family motto: We do not deviate from the Lord’s plan. Five brawny brothers keep the ranch and resort running while life lassos their hearts in this epic contemporary cowboy romance series.


Release Date: November 21, 2023


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Release Date: December 19, 2023


She’s a single mom with a disabled son. He’s been in love with her since high school. Will this shy cowboy finally win her heart?


Release Date: March 26, 2024


She’s famous and nearing the end of her career. He’s blunt, bossy, and downright annoying. Will these two find the perfect balance between truth and love?


Release Date: June 25, 2024


She’s an orphan on a mission to change children’s lives. He’s an overwhelmed overachiever and her boss. Will these two learn to work together and find love in the process?


Release Date: Fall 2024


She’s the happiest person he’s ever met. His world has turned upside and he is in no mood for the holidays. Will these coworkers find middle ground as they head into the holidays?


Release Date: 2025


They’ve secretly loved each other for years. He can’t get past their age gap. She can’t get him to see her as woman she’s become. Will they let go of their fear to find true love?


Release Date: 2025


She’s pregnant with someone else’s child. He’s falling for her when he shouldn’t. Can he learn to trust her with his heart?

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