Chapter One

Roping the Rancher

Chapter One
 
“I don’t care how good the therapy is supposed to be. There is no way I’m letting you get on a horse,” Stacy Michaels said to her younger brother when they left his neurologist’s office.

“This isn’t about me. It’s about Dad, isn’t it?”

“Of course it is.” Stacy punched the elevator down button with so much force she chipped her fingernail.

“Dad died filming a movie stunt. This is a therapy program,” Ryan insisted.

Since he’d only been a few months old at the time he knew nothing about their father’s death other than what he’d been told. While an eleven-year-old Stacy had been in the movie as well and witnessed the entire event. Even now, almost sixteen years later, some nights she still woke drenched in sweat from the nightmares.

The months before her dad’s accident had been the best time in Stacy’s life. She smiled at the memories of working with him on the movie and how she soaked up every drop of attention he poured on her. The image of him beaming when he told everyone within ear shot how she was a chip off the old block and that one day she’d be a star flashed in her mind.

Her life had been perfect.

Then a week before filming ended, her father, playing a seventeenth-century knight, was shooting the big battle scene against her character’s kidnappers. When his mount became spooked by the special effects, her father fell and the horse trampled him to death, with Stacy a few feet away.

Now her brother wanted her to give the okay for him to become a patient of a therapeutic horse program. Not as long as she was his guardian.

“There has to be another option.”

“You heard what Dr. Chapman said. We’ve tried everything else. This is my best shot to walk without this damned walker,” Ryan said, as he struggled to maneuver onto the elevator.

A year ago Ryan had been driving when a man walked out onto the street from between two parked cars. Unable to avoid the man, Ryan hit him and then barreled head on into a telephone phone pole. The man nearly died. Both of Ryan’s legs were crushed and he’s sustained a brain injury that left him with control and balance issues. Two surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy and he still needed a walker. The investigation cleared Ryan of any wrong doing, but he’d still carried a fair share of guilt over what happened.

Stacy stared at her brother, his eyes filled with determination and more importantly hope. Her breath caught in her throat. She hadn’t seen hope in his gaze in months. He deserved every chance to get his life back to what it had been, but how could she let him get on a horse? “I don’t know.”

“Please, you’ve got to let me try this. Whatever the risk, for me it’s worth it.”

She told herself he wouldn’t be racing around hell for leather on a movie set with cannons booming around him like their father had been. From what Dr. Chapman said the horse Ryan rode for therapy would be walking or at most trotting around an arena with multiple volunteers to ensure nothing went wrong. She glanced at her brother. He was so young. How could she deny him this chance to get his life back? “You win.”

“You’re the best.”

“And don’t you forget it.”

Once in the car Ryan stuck his nose in the program brochures the doctor had given them, occasionally tossing out information. “Most of the programs have spring sessions starting this time of year. That means I can start right away. In ten weeks I could be ditching my walker.”

“Where’s the closest one?” Stacy asked, her mind starting to work on how she’d carve time out of her schedule to accommodate his therapy sessions.

Then a thought hit her. Her next movie, The Women of Spring Creek Ranch, was scheduled to start shooting next week in Estes Park, Colorado.

Unless she figured out a way to be in two places at once, she had a problem.

*

“MOM, RYAN HAD ANOTHER appointment with the neurologist this afternoon. You told me you’d be there.” Stacy fought to keep her voice level despite her growing irritation as she walked into the living room of her mother’s recently redecorated Malibu beach house.

“I went out to lunch with some friends and lost track of time.”

More likely she lost track of how many Cosmos she’d had, and based on her bleary-eyed gaze, smeared mascara and rumpled blouse and slacks, she had passed out the minute she got home.

Which was exactly why Ryan had asked Stacy to sue for guardianship. They’d both hoped Andrea losing custody of her son would be the wake up call she needed to pull herself together. So far that hadn’t been the case.

“I know I should’ve been there, but I’ve had so any doctor appointments of my own.” Andrea, a passenger in the car with Ryan, had broken her arm. She’d also received minor cuts to her face and neck, for which she’d insisted on plastic surgery to repair. She’d also attended bi-weekly sessions with her therapist to cope with the emotional trauma. “I couldn’t bear facing another doctor. Plus, you’re so much better dealing with Ryan’s problems than I am.”

Same old story. Her mom couldn’t cope so she bailed on her son.

Stacy sank onto the couch beside her mother, took a deep breath and recounted the details from Ryan’s doctor appointment.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea considering what happened to your father.” Andrea’s voice broke. “I still miss him so much. How could God have taken him from me when he always took care of me?”

The accident that killed Stacy’s father was the first blow that sent Andrea’s world spinning. Her mother took to her bed. If it hadn’t been for their nanny, Stacy didn’t know what would’ve happened to her and Ryan. Molly had been the one she clung to when she woke from nightmares. When she skinned her knee, she ran to Molly who hugged her and dried her tears.

Stacy’s life changed even more when the movie she filmed with her father opened a year later. Critics raved not only about Jason Michaels’ performance, but Stacy’s as well. Talk shows wanted to interview her. Directors sent scripts to her father’s agent for consideration. The next thing Stacy knew she had a full time job.

Her focus changed from studying for her weekly spelling test to preparing for her next audition. Six months later she landed a role on what turned out to be an Emmy Award winning series, The Kids Rule the Place, that ran for ten years. Looking back now, she realized being on that show saved her life. The cast became more of a family than her own had ever been. She’d often pretended her TV parents were her real parents. One day she even begged Sophia Granger, her TV mom, to take her home with her.

Don’t think about that now. Concentrate on Ryan’s problem, and getting Mom to see he needs her.

“The doctor thinks the therapeutic sports riding will improve Ryan’s muscle control and balance.” Stacy summarized the information she’d read on the Internet. The horse’s rhythmic movement was what helped people. To control and direct the horse the patient had to master his own body. The skills learned on horseback then carried over into the patient’s everyday life. “The risk of something going wrong is miniscule.” Maybe if she said the words enough she’d believe them, too. “Ryan wants this chance at a normal life.”

“I trust you to decide what’s best. I don’t know what I’d do without you to take care of things.”

Maybe you’d have to face reality for a change and be the parent.

Resisting the urge to massage her aching temples, Stacy counted to ten, trying to dredge up more patience, because all she wanted to do was shake her mother and scream for her to snap out of it. Not that doing so would do any good. Her mother would only burst into tears and ask how her daughter could say that to her when she was still dealing with the pain caused by her injuries and her recent separation from husband number three.

Grant had turned out to be prime marriage material. Three months ago he claimed his wife’s physical and emotional problems from the car accident were draining him creatively, and the negative energy was affecting his auditions, costing him roles. Then he moved out.

“I start filming next week. I was hoping you could go with Ryan to therapy.”

Stacy reached into her purse, pulled out the list of programs and held the paper out to her mother. “The doctor highlighted the ones he thought were the best.”

Her mother scanned the information. “These are all out of town. I can’t go anywhere. Grant and I are meeting tomorrow to talk about reconciling.” Her mother’s blue eyes sparkled, as she toyed with a strand of golden hair, highlighted perfectly and often to cover the gray. “He says he misses me. That his life is so empty without me.”

Stacy wanted to laugh at her mother’s naïveté. More likely Grant missed his bills being paid and the lifestyle he’d become accustomed to living with Andrea. Life had to be less pleasant for him when he had to actually earn a living.

“That’s wonderful that he’s willing to talk about reconciliation, but Ryan needs—”

“I still can’t believe Grant moved out.” Tears pooled in Andrea’s eyes. “I thought we’d be together forever. That he’d take care of me.”

Maybe you should learn to take care of yourself. That way you wouldn’t end up devastated when a man let you down.

The biting words sat perched on Stacy’s tongue. While it would feel cathartic to confront her mom, dealing with the emotional meltdown afterwards wasn’t worth it.

Andrea glanced at the therapy information again. “It says here therapy is once a week. Couldn’t you hop on a quick flight, go to therapy with Ryan, and then fly right back to the set?”

Stacy swallowed hard. She wouldn’t be here banging her head against the wall trying to get Andrea to help out if the problem were that easily fixed. “I can’t be gone for an entire day every week.”

Her mom frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. “I certainly can’t be locked into weekly appointments. I have to be here to work on my marriage. That and healing physically from the accident have to be my top priorities.”

“This is exactly why Ryan doesn’t think you care about him.”

“That’s not fair. I love my son. I just need to concentrate on myself right now. That’s what my therapist says. Until I do that I don’t have anything to give to anyone else.”

Life had dealt her mother some tough hits, but that didn’t give her the right to crawl in her shell and forget about her son.

“I need to do this movie. Finances are tight.”

Andrea waived a delicate manicured hand through the air. “You’re just like your father, always worrying about money. He was always a sky is falling type, too.”

Stacy sighed, and clasped her hands on her lap. Andrea received a generous settlement when Stacy’s father died, but she lived like the money would never run out. How many times would they have to go over budget basics before her mother understood? Apparently at least once more. “Your expenses have to be less than your income. Since your divorce from Allan, that hasn’t been the case. We had to liquidate a lot of your investments in the divorce settlement.”

Her mother bit her lip. For a second she looked older than her years, and Stacy’s heart tightened. “I wish I’d listened to you about asking him to sign a prenup. I was just so scared that if I did he’d say I didn’t trust him, and he’d leave me.”

Which he did anyway. While a broken engagement would’ve been tough on her mother, it would have been less financially painful than a messy divorce. Why couldn’t her mother see that?

Because she’s so desperate for love.

“Mom, you have to stick to the budget we made out. You can’t just disregard—”

“Don’t start lecturing me about how I spent too much money redecorating the house before Grant and I got married.” Andrea folded her still young-looking hands, thanks to weekly deep moisturizing treatments, on her lap. “I don’t regret spending a penny of that money. I wanted him to feel like this was his house. Part of the reason my marriage with Allan failed was he felt like he was living in your father’s shadow.”

“I’m trying to explain why you need to make some changes. If insurance pays for Ryan’s therapy at all, it’ll reimburse us. I can’t afford to lose out on work right now.”

Especially when I’m the only working member of the family, and it had been a while since she’d had a hit movie or series.

Her mother frowned. Tears filled her eyes again. “I’m sorry we’ve been such a burden to you.”

No. Andrea’s poor me routine wouldn’t work today. She refused to feel guilty. This was all about Ryan and what he needed. “We’re a family, and family helps each other out.”

But shouldn’t the flow go both ways?

“Grant and I might still be able to make our marriage work.” Her mother’s lips trembled, and her voice broke. “I don’t know if I can survive another divorce. Stacy, you have to help me. You’ve got to give me this chance. Can’t you see if they can work the shooting schedule around Ryan’s therapy?”

“I was lucky to get this role. Half of the actresses in Hollywood wanted it.”

“Nonsense. That woman owes you,” her mother sneered, referring to Maggie Sullivan McAlister, the creator and director of The Women of Spring Creek Ranch.

“No one gave me the part. I earned it.”

“After what she did on that dreadful reality dating show, she’s lucky you didn’t sue her for every penny she had. I still can’t believe that cowboy chose the plain Jane director over you.”

Stacy only agreed to be a bachelorette on Finding Mrs. Right because she’d been between jobs. Never once had she considered letting her heart get involved with the bachelor. She hadn’t been foolish enough to believe a reality show relationship would last longer than the latest fashion fad. For her, the show had been a job like any other TV show. A vehicle to getting a series of her own.

“I got over that ages ago.” Now if only other people would quit bringing the subject up, she could forget about it, too. “If I ask Maggie to shoot around Ryan’s therapy I risk her giving the role to someone else. Mom, please go with Ryan so I can do this movie.”

There, she’d put it all on the line. She told her mother exactly what she needed. Stacy held her breath, and prayed this once her mother would pull up her mom panties and be the parent.

“I need time for Grant and I to work out our problems. Then I can go with Ryan for therapy. Surely waiting a month or two won’t make that much difference.”

So much for Andrea stepping up and doing the right thing by putting her children first.

“He shouldn’t have to wait until it’s convenient for us.” Ryan deserved this chance, and apparently she was the only one willing to make it happen.

As a child whenever she asked her mom to play a game or read a book to her, the response had always been in a minute. Or, not now. Or ask the nanny. That taught Stacy a valuable lesson. Asking for something led to disappointment. When she learned to quit asking, she avoided that pain.

Harnessing her anger, Stacy mumbled something about how she’d take care of Ryan’s therapy, said goodbye to Andrea and stumbled out of the house. Once inside her car, she dropped her head to the steering wheel and cried.

A minute later Stacy dried away her tears and told herself to snap out of it. A pity party never helped. All it did was wreck a girl’s makeup, and leave her with red, puffy eyes. There had to be a solution. All she had to do was find it.

*

LATER THAT AFTERNOON as Stacy sat in her cozy Hollywood condo she faced the truth. She could either do the movie or she could give her brother a chance to recover.

There would always be another movie. Maybe not as wonderful a role as the lead in The Women of Spring Creek Ranch, but losing the job wouldn’t kill her career. Of course she’d have to solve her cash flow problem. She’d call her agent and ask him to get her any work he could find to bring in some quick money without requiring a long commitment. Commercials. Voice over work, whatever, as long as the job paid. Her career would be fine.

Provided Maggie understood. Otherwise Stacy could find herself blacklisted with every director in town. Her hand shook as she picked up her cell phone. “Maggie, I hate to do this, but I’ve got to drop out of the movie. My brother needs physical therapy. It’s a ten week program, and right now I need to be with him. I can’t be on location for a movie and get him to his therapy sessions.”

“While I’m disappointed we won’t get to work together, I understand. Family has to come first.”

Such a simple concept. How come her mother couldn’t grasp it? “The doctor says his best chance to walk again is a therapeutic horse program.”

“That’s the therapy where patients ride horses, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“One of the things about a small town is anything happens and everyone knows about it,” Maggie said. “You’re not going to believe this, but Colt Montgomery, a war vet, opened a program like that on his ranch a while ago. It’s a couple miles down the road from where we’ll be filming at Twin Creeks.”

The image of the stereotypical crotchety rancher in the old westerns popped into Stacy’s mind. The one who preferred his horse’s company to people. Who cared if it was Rooster Cogburn running the program if he helped Ryan?

“The program’s new, and I don’t know anything about it,” Maggie continued, “but if it’s an option for your brother, you might be able to arrange his therapy around our shooting schedule.”

Who would’ve thought she and Stacy would work together after how things had gone between them on the reality show Finding Mrs. Right? Stacy bit her lip, trying to control her emotions at Maggie’s unexpected kindness. Her mother wouldn’t help, but here was someone, barely an acquaintance who was willing to do what she could to alleviate her problem. Tears blurred her vision. “You’d do that?”

“You could pop over to the Rocking M Ranch for a therapy session during your down time. If your brother’s doctor thinks the program will work, I’m willing to give it a try. The name of Colt’s program is Healing Horses.”

“Maggie, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this, especially considering what I said to you and Griffin during the finale.”

Stacy had been one of the bachelorettes on the show competing for the heart of a Colorado cowboy, Griffin McAlister. Because of that opportunity she’d received a deal for her own reality show. However things had been contingent on her getting a marriage proposal and the free publicity that went along with the ring as the “winner” of Finding Mrs. Right. Never one to leave situations to chance and sensing Griffin was as enthusiastic about marital bliss as she was, Stacy approached him with a deal. He’d propose. They’d play the happy couple during the post show appearances, and then quietly break up. She’d say they parted amicably, and he’d do likewise. They’d fulfill their contracts, get the free publicity to help their careers, and come out without a scratch to their images. A win-win situation all around.

But things hadn’t gone as planned. Instead, Griffin and Maggie fell in love and he proposed to the director instead during the live finale. At the time all Stacy saw was her latest career opportunity flying out the window and she’d been brutal in her anger.

“I owe you an apology, too,” Maggie said. “I couldn’t talk to you at the audition with everyone else around, but I want to tell you that now. I know people say ‘we didn’t plan this, it just happened’ all the time, but that really was the case with me and Griffin. The more we worked together, the more we got to know each other, and we fell in love.”

“I think you were the only one who got to see the real man,” Stacy said. When she was with Griffin on a date she’d sensed he was holding back, that he was treating the show like a job, too. Looking back now she saw that fact even more. He hadn’t been shocked by her business proposition. His only concern had been whether he could trust her to keep quiet about their deal. Once she’d answered that question, he’d agreed. In fact he’d appeared almost relieved, but then he’d pulled the rug out from under her at the finale.

“I’m hoping Healing Horses will work for Ryan because I’d love to work with you. I think this project is going to be amazing.”

As she told Maggie she’d talk to Ryan’s doctor and call her no later than tomorrow with an answer, hope and determination blossomed inside of Stacy.

With a little luck Ryan would get his therapy and she could make the movie. Another win-win situation. Hopefully this one would work out better than the last one.

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