Harlequin.com FREE Online Read: The Rancher’s Proposal by Carol Ross

On Friday, we celebrated some amazing cowboy heroes and today we’re giving you one for free! Head on over to Harlequin.com to check out The Rancher’s Proposal by Carol Ross, one of our latest Online Reads!

Sofie Blake has had the best idea of her life! To get the crucial research data she needs to complete an important grad school sociology project, she’ll immerse herself in all things western—so as to observe—the culture, the cows…and even the cowboys. When an accident meets with a twist of fate and Sofie winds up on an actual working ranch, owned by one Zach Carnes—handsome and honest to a T—she’s the fishiest fish out of water ever. Although Zach’s patience and direction, coupled with Sofie’s determination to make things right, start her toward not only loving the land and its livestock, but also the rancher himself. With deception and loyalty such hot-button issues for Zach, Sofie might have to rethink her future a third time if the honorable rancher finds out what she’s really doing there…

***

“I tell you what, Jon, this bull is the polar opposite of his name. He’s a pain in the neck to load. Thanks for helping me out.”

Zach Carnes backed his pickup and livestock trailer into position adjacent to the small corral where the bull, Lay-Zee as the Day is Long, stood nibbling on a pile of hay.

Zach got out. Jonathon Blackwell, his best friend, neighbor and fellow rancher, followed and opened the back door. Trout, his black -and -white border collie, bounded out. They all walked to the corral. Zach placed a booted foot on the bottom rail. Jon leaned ropy forearms along the top. Trout sat between them. They all eyed the bull.

Jon said, “I don’t mind a bit, Zach, you know that. Besides, Trout’s the one who’s going to do the dirty work, right buddy?”

Trout responded with a quick yap like he understood every word.

Zach did know. He’d do the same for Jon. There was always work to be done on a ranch, but early summer when most of the herd was grazing in the hills and getting fat on green grass was a good time to sneak away for a livestock auction.

“Besides, I can’t wait to meet your sweetheart.”

Zach grinned. “It’s Sweet Bird. And she is the woman of my dreams.” Sweet Bird was a mare and he’d been negotiating a sale with her owner, Bethany Jones, for months. Bethany kept balking. But she’d agreed to meet with Zach in person at the livestock auction today, boosting his confidence that they could reach an agreement. Zach couldn’t blame her; he knew how difficult it was to part with an exceptional horse.

Sweet Bird would be spoiled here on the Carnes Ranch. Feeling confident that he could convey that to Bethany, he looked forward to selling Zee at the auction and bringing Sweet Bird home.

By silent mutual consent, they set about tackling the unpleasant task of loading the rambunctious bull. Zach opened the trailer, and Jon laid down the ramp. They all headed inside the corral. Trout circled around Zee, who made a show of stomping the dirt and shaking his head. Jon and Zach flanked the bull. Trout crouched, stared and glided gracefully in that border collie way toward the bull…

Who trotted right up the ramp without incident.

The two friends exchanged surprised chuckles while Trout ran a wide victory circle.

“Atta boy, Trout,” Jon said, patting his head when the dog came up beside him.

“That dog,” Zach said with a shake of his head.

Already it was shaping up to be a good day.

-#-
“Five-hundred-money, wouldyougivefivehundred? Would ya go five? Would ya bid five? Wouldyoupayfivehundred for it? Five! Do I have a thousand?”

Spellbound, Sofie Blake took a spot in the second to last row of the small stadium. She’d never been to a livestock auction before, or an auction of any kind for that matter. Scribbling furiously in the small spiral-bound notebook that would be her constant companion the next ten weeks, she attempted to take it all in.

Sofie looked down at her auction card bearing the number 183. So exciting! She wasn’t bidding, of course, but she’d wanted the whole experience, so she’d registered at the booth and taken a number. It had been a stroke of genius on her part to attend the auction at all.

Now all she had to do was find a rancher who’d agree to the study. With her newly earned master’s degree in sociology, Sofie had come to Montana to participate in a special research project headed by the esteemed Dr. Franco Gialetti, an expert in modern American rural studies.

Sofie didn’t know much about ranching, but she needed to nail it. Experience had shown that whoever submitted the freshest, most detailed data would earn the coveted position as Dr. Gialetti’s research assistant. But even more than that, a student of Dr. Gialetti’s was pretty much guaranteed a spot in the doctoral program of his or her choice.

It was a cattle, sheep and horse auction and things moved at a blistering pace. There was a corral on ground level shaped like a narrow halfcircle. A door opened on one side where the animals would enter. The auctioneer gave a brief description and then the bidding would proceed. After the final call, a door would open on the other side, and the critter or critters would exit, often without any encouragement whatsoever. Satisfyingly efficient.

“Sold! Fourthousandthreehundred dollars.”

Sofie startled, and then looked around to see who’d purchased the pretty red-brown heifer. She couldn’t tell. And the next cow was already jogging into the arena. She wished there was a way to keep track of it all. That’s when she noticed a woman a few rows ahead recording the action with a cell phone. Why hadn’t she thought of that?

Sofie took out her phone and hit the play button. She scooted closer to the aisle, where she had an unobstructed sightline. She was focused on the screen’s display, trying to get a close-up of the cow whose black -and -white markings reminded her of a chocolate -and -vanilla sandwich cookie, when a deep voice sounded above her.

“Excuse me, ma’am.” Sofie looked up and into a pair of gorgeous glacier -blue eyes. She did the prairie dog freeze because the rest of him was just as striking. A flash of black -and -white fur beside him snapped her out of it, and she realized two cowboys stood before her, as well as a dog. Beautiful cowboys. Tall and lean with worn jeans and boots, and check shirts, these were exactly the type of men that Dr. Gialetti blamed for exaggerating modern perceptions of pastoral life.

They’d removed their hats, and she saw that the one who’d spoken had thick, dark blond hair curling loosely around his ears. He was a few inches shorter than his friend, but broader in the shoulders.

Sparkling blue eyes latched onto hers again and his mouth twitched like he was holding on to a laugh. After a beat, his lips slid firmly into a grin, and Sofie found herself returning it.

A few more seconds passed before he finally quirked a brow, tilted his head and gestured beyond her. “Are those seats taken?”

She followed his gaze. “What? Um, no.” Duh, Sofie. He thinks it’s funny because you’re staring at him while he’s trying to get to the seats beside you.

The other guy blew out an impatient sigh. Frown in place, his gray-blue gaze skimmed over her like she was an auction item that he wasn’t the least bit interested in bidding on.

“Sorry,” Sofie muttered, standing and then shuffling to the side.

Without another glance, he stepped past her and took a seat. The dog ignored her, too, and followed him.

But the blue-eyed friendly one moved much slower, and instead of turning and brushing past her, he paused when they were toetotoe. He gave her a slow, deliberate smile, and Sofie’s breath froze inside her chest. Starting in the vicinity of her sensible ballet flats, his gaze traveled upward over her skirt, button-down blouse, and grazed her neck before finally settling on her face. Her throat went dry as heat doused her cheeks. Scents of horse and hay and the woods floated pleasantly around her.

Not bothering to hide his amusement now, he said, “Much obliged, ma’am.”

Oh. Wow. Sofie managed to wheeze out a breathy, “Uh, yeah, no problem.”

He moved past her then and settled in next to his friend. Suddenly, the men were all business. Every time a new cow would enter the ring, the men would exchange a few quiet words before watching the action unfold. Subtle glances were exchanged. Sometimes Blue Eyes would nod with satisfaction or chuckle softly. The broody one’s expression didn’t change much, but a headtip here and chinbob there suggested to Sofie that they were wagering over the sale prices.

A collective excitement filled the air as the auctioneer announced the next cow. Which was actually a bull, she realized when it jogged into the arena. The animal stopped in its tracks and sniffed the air. The cowboys’ conversation intensified. She was dying to hear what they were saying. What was so special about this one? Oh, to know what they knew! Maybe if she sat behind them, she could pick up snippets.

Standing, she stood and moved up a row, then scooted on the bench until she was almost directly behind them. Then she realized she was missing the action in the arena. And everywhere else for that matter. Focus, Sofie. You’re here to learn.

Raising her hands, she held up her phone for a nice panoramic shot…

And that’s when the auctioneer’s voice rang out, “Sold! Number 183. Six thousand dollars!”

Wait…183?

Sofie felt her blood go cold. Lowering her phone, she realized she still held her auction card in hand. Oh no… She turned it over, where the number 183 glowed in all its black sharpie neon-like glory. Staring up at the board only confirmed it; number 183 was the new owner of a bull named Lay-Zee as the Day is Long. Sofie focused on the arena again, where her new bull snorted and shook his massive head like he was disgusted with the turn of events, and quite possibly with her. Then the door opened and out he trotted.

 

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