"HIGH MOUNTAIN ROMANCE"

"HIGH MOUNTAIN RANGERS"

AUTHOR: KRISTILYNN

Author's Note: Don't own them, they belong to the actors (and actress) that portrayed them. I promise that I mean them no harm.

Chapter Twenty-One:

On Sunday, December ninth, Kris awakens from a relatively peaceful sleep about seven. She lies still for a moment, listening to the sounds of Robin's deep breathing, and to the sound of footsteps in the hall outside the bedroom door (she's almost sure it's Matt). She reluctantly climbs out of the warm bed and heads for the shower. While shampooing her hair with a mountain-scented shampoo, then lightly conditioning it, she thinks about yesterday.

It was so nice—how everyone treated her like part of their large family. But she can't help but wonder if Matt's told them that she's Senator Morrell's daughter. Will that affect how they see her when they find out? She hopes it won't, but is afraid it will.

And Matt, he's such a sweetheart. He's so kind, gentle, and caring. In some ways, he reminds her of an overgrown teddy bear. And she has to fight the temptation to just give in and allow him to hold her like he did in the hospital.

Getting out of the shower, Kris submits to letting Robin put a clean bandage on the wound in her chest before she dresses. They idly talk as they prepare for the day—with a high of about thirty, with a chance of snow later in the week.

Matt looks up from the Reno Sunday paper with an approving smile as Kris bounds down the stairs. Her still damp hair has been pulled into a high ponytail that makes her look like a teenager. Her dark blue eyes have a merry twinkle and her color's good. She decided on black Mountain Horse Thermo breeches, the black Ariat Iceberg Tall Boot (made for riding in cold weather), a royal blue sweater, and has a silver-belly Stetson (with an obviously handmade sterling silver and lapis band) in her hand, with a pair of fleece-lined deerskin gloves. He sets his coffee cup down to greet her with a warm kiss as she leans down to hug him, catching her by surprise, "I wasn't expecting you up so early this morning. How are you feeling?"

"Pretty good, actually. But I can't help it—I'm an early riser. Let me feed the guys, then I'll eat breakfast."

"Let me give you a hand." Matt goes over to the coat rack just inside the front door and removes a heavy white goose-down parka, which he hands to her, "Here ya go. It's my spare."

Kris snuggles into the heavy white coat, loving the way it smells just like Matt—that clean woodsy scent that she can pick out any where, "Thanks."

Matt slips into his own and follows Kris outside. Leery of the huge Thoroughbred, he allows her to lead him into the assigned stall while he fetches Golden Prince from the pasture. It takes her a couple of minutes to mix their supplements with their sweet feed. While they eat their breakfasts, they idly watch them and talk about first one thing then another. And she finds herself perfectly content in his easy, undemanding company.

Once the horses have eaten, Golden Prince is turned back out with the Ranger horses. Silver is simply turned out until it's time to saddle him up

While Robin prepares pancakes, with Jim fixing the bacon, Kris feeds Frost and Lassie their Foster and Smith Canned Hearty Beef Stew, mixed with a scoop of the Adult Dry food and their supplements (from Smart Pac): Cosequin DS for their joints, Salmon Oil for their coats, and Source as a multi-vitamin.

After breakfast, while Kris packs up what she's taking to Jesse and Cody (left over turkey, dressing, beans, and bread pudding) in a large wicker basket that she can tie to her saddle, Matt vanishes upstairs to change out of his sweats. He returns in fifteen minutes. She blinks as he picks up the basket for her: faded blue jeans (that hug his butt to perfection), a white mock turtleneck sweater, and black Mountain Horse Ice Rider tall boots. His white blond hair has been neatly combed into place. "You look terrific," she tells him warmly.

"Thanks—so do you," he gives her another warm kiss, "You ready?"

"I am. I put me a couple of Diet Cokes, and snacks for the dogs in the basket as well."

Going outside, Matt goes to catch his cream Mustang gelding—Spirit--to saddle him with a dark brown Tex Tan saddle, matching breastplate, and matching bridle with a low-port grazing bit. After a good grooming, he tosses light blue saddle blanket over the gelding's short back. Once the horse is saddled, he secures a sheepskin pad to the seat, then checks that his emergency equipment is ready to go, with his radio hooked to his belt.

He looks up as Kris returns with Silver, his nose resting lightly on her shoulder. The eighteen hand stallion has on a black Tucker Cheyenne Western saddle, with a matching breastplate. But instead of a regular bridle, he wears a black with silver trim bosal hanger, white bosal, and black cotton reins. There's an obviously old rawhide lariat hooked just in front of the right stirrup. A large pair of black leather saddlebags are tied just behind the cantle, with a large bedroll secured on top. An American flag saddle blanket is beneath, with a sheepskin to cushion the horse's back. Another sheepskin will cushion her when she mounts. Boa Bots (boots that slip on over the hoof) will keep snow from balling up in the feet. "You any good with that," he asks, nodding at the lariat.

"Good enough to do some competitive roping," Kris smiles, "I bought it from the King Ranch, for emergencies."

"Where did you get the saddle?"

"Smith Brothers. They and State Line Tack are where I get my Western gear. Dover and Bit of Britain provide most of my English." Kris sets her Stetson on her head and looks at Matt, "You ready?"

"Let me get my own hat," Matt grins as he drops Spirit's reins, then vanishes back inside, returning with a white Stetson of his own. He quickly gives Kris a leg up, watching as she settles lightly into the saddle and catching her reins—noticing that her seat is flawless: head up, shoulders back, left hand light on the reins (the right catches the extra and rests on her thigh), shoulders, hips, and ankles in perfect alignment. The result of her training in Dressage, he guesses as he turns to mount his gelding.

Silver paws the ground impatiently as Kris watches Matt mount with the ease of someone who has spent a life-time in the saddle. His seat, while not as classical as her own (since she began riding Dressage at eight), is instead comfortable for long hours of riding at speed over difficult terrain. Frost and Lassie, eager to explore their new home, range ahead as the two horses walk quietly through the snow-covered Sierras. The stallion, though alert and paying attention to his surroundings, never hesitates—even when in knee-deep snow. Taking in the scenery, she breathes deeply of the icy mountain air—loving the serenity of the thick Alpine woods. She can already see why Matt loves it here.

Silver tenses as his sensitive ears and nose alert him to the presence of an unfamiliar animal. He stops in mid-stride—raising his head and testing the frigid air with quivering nostrils. His ears move as he tries to pinpoint the source of whatever could endanger his beloved owner. Kris remains still, letting him work.

Matt reins up beside them, staring at the stallion, "What's wrong?"

"I'm not sure," Kris leans forward to lightly stroke Silver's long neck. His ears flicker back at her, then he refocuses his attention to the left. Frost and Lassie, having also picked up on the same thing, stand protectively in front of them. "He's not spooked though." A high-pitched howl echoes through the wilderness—causing Kris to shiver in spite of herself.

"Gray wolves," Matt explains, "DNR released a pair a couple of years ago and they've raised off a litter. Probably out hunting."

After a minute—when the next howl comes from further away, Silver relaxes and drops his head back into it's natural, relaxed position, resuming his easy walk. The two dogs run ahead, loving the cold and snow (with Frost—being a Malamute/Husky mix—it figures he'd love it). Kris relaxes and resumes her idle study of their surroundings.

"What were you thinking, before Silver went on the alert," Matt asks as Spirit moves up along side.

"How beautiful and peaceful it is up here. I can see why you love it so much," Kris shifts in the saddle to look at Matt, "How come you never married?"

Matt shrugs, "A combination of things. Like the fact that I'm a Ranger. One girl I dated, very briefly, wanted me to move to L. A. with her."

"She couldn't have loved you very much then if she wanted you to give up something you obviously love and enjoy," Kris observes quietly.

"Hadn't thought about that," Matt admits as they duck under an over-hanging tree branch, "Being a Ranger is in my blood, I guess. Dad founded them before I was born. I was a Ranger brat. Jim Cutler, his Dad is the vet who looks after the horses. Frank, his Dad Ben, was the first chopper pilot Dad hired. The three of us went to school together."

Kris can't help but laugh, "I'll have to see what kind of stories they can tell me about your wild childhood." Then she makes one of her sharp observations, "So—any woman you marry has to accept being a Ranger's wife, which I assume is a lot like being a cop's wife. What else?"

"Living up here. Summers are great, except for the idiot flatlanders who get into trouble."

"Watch it bud," Kris mock growls, "I'm one of those idiotic flatlanders."

"Yeah right," Matt chuckles, "I have the feeling you're pretty far from that. Anyway, winters—blizzards dumping snow that causes avalanches. Power going out for days at a time—having to rely on generators. Driving in snow. Helping injured animals. Being far from anything. Mom hated it and still does. That's why she left Dad and moved into South Tahoe, closer to everything."

"It's like where I'm establishing Dogwood Farm, three miles from the nearest little town—Ideal--which doesn't even have a stop light and the largest employer is a nursing home. It's fifteen from the County Seat of Oglethorpe—which is still fairly small. Montezuma is a couple of miles from there and isn't much larger. Perry and Warner Robins are about forty-five minutes away and about the size of South Tahoe. Macon, about the size of Reno is sixty miles. And Atlanta, about a hundred."

"So why there," Matt asks, curious.

"Preserving the old family farm, rather than seeing it destroyed. Land is also cheaper. And keeping more chicken farms from being built. Don't you know that Georgia's the 'chicken state'," Kris cracks, causing Matt to grin in return. "Keep going."

"Then there's my family. My mother is from a wealthy family out in Arizona—Evers, made their money in oil and cattle."

Kris nods, "I know the name."

"She married 'beneath' her. Later on, my grandfather wanted me to go to law school and join him. Then he got mad when I didn't. Haven't seen or talked to him in years. She and Dad split when I was ten and Cody was three."

"It's just the opposite in my family. Dad's from Old Money Old South. His parents considered my mother 'white trash'. Then, when I got grown—they wanted me to marry either a European or Southern blue blood. I've even been courted by a Duke."

"But you didn't," Matt grins.

"Nope," Kris grins in return as she leans forward to stroke Silver's neck again, "I thought it would be a fairy-tale, but then realized what I'd have been giving up."

"He's doing great," Matt comments as they cross a wide, but shallow, stream, pausing to let the horses and dogs take a drink. To his surprise, Silver doesn't hesitate—picking his way cautiously over the rocky bottom on a loose rein. They pause at the sight of a red-tail hawk swooping down out of nowhere to grab an unwary rabbit who ventured out from some undergrowth.

"Told ya," Kris smiles as she follows the bird's flight path up to a towering tree.

Chapter Twenty-Two:
After a two hour ride, they reach Jesse's large cabin. Cody comes from around back when Dingy, his rangy-looking brown dog, barks at Frost and Lassie. He calls back towards the cabin, "Dad—Matt and Kris are here!"

Jesse, in faded jeans and a blue plaid flannel shirt (while Cody is in equally faded jeans and a navy blue flannel shirt), steps out onto the porch to greet his son and his friend, "Hey you two—get down and come on in."

Kris slides out of the saddle as Jesse comes down the steps, "I hope ya'll don't mind—but I wanted to get out and do some exploring."

"And she brought you two some leftovers," Matt grins as he dismounts.

Jesse grins as he gives Kris a warm hug. He smells like Matt, she thinks as he greets them, "I certainly don't mind a visit from two of my favorite people."

"Gee, I'm honored to be among your favorite people," Kris smiles as Matt comes over to untie the basket.

"It's worth it—turkey, dressing, green beans, and bread pudding. And believe me—it's all great."

"Let me toss a blanket over Silver, since he's going to be relaxing." Kris unties a large royal blue and silver blanket from behind the cantle after removing the saddle and setting it on the porch railing. She tosses it over the stallion, buckling the straps, then removes the bosal.

Cody cautiously approaches the big snow-white stallion. To her surprise, he nickers softly as he nuzzles his hand. "He's gorgeous," he tells her.

"I agree," Jesse comments as he also extends a hand, which the stallion readily accepts, "But I can't believe you use him as a trail horse?"

"Why not? The Performance Horse Registry, which traces non-racing Thoroughbreds, has a program for those used as Trail and Pleasure horses. He's incredibly bold and courageous. He's already earned over two hundred hours. Tonight, I'll log onto the site and enter today's hours." She gently strokes Silver's long neck again.

Once inside, the turkey, dressing, and bread pudding are put in the stove to warm. The beans are set on the stove. Frost and Lassie, having quickly made friends with Dingy, are content to doze in front of the massive stone fireplace. After helping Cody to set the table, Jesse invites Kris to relax. "How are you feeling," he asks as she sits on the comfortable old couch, next to Matt, "You look better."

"Better, believe it or not," Kris smiles as she snuggles into Matt's broad shoulder, "I think I'm in love with this place."

"She's staying through Christmas," Matt tells him.

"That's great. That means you'll be up here Christmas Eve and Day," Jesse smiles warmly.

"My first white Christmas," Kris grins in return.

"Your parents or family won't miss you," Jesse asks, knowing how

"Mom and Dad are on a Christmas Cruise, of the South Pacific Islands. Both sets of grandparents died years ago. So my plan was to fly back to Brunswick, Georgia, then trailer Silver and Golden Prince over to Sea Island. Dad's parents left me their beach-front cottage. There's a nice stable where the guys stay, with lots of riding on the beach, through the coastal forest, and alongside the marshes," Kris explains, "It's pretty, and I've always loved it. But this place has a special beauty of its own."

Cody returns from the kitchen, "I put your Diet Cokes in the fridge."

"Thanks. I don't drink coffee, or hot tea, and I didn't figure ya'll had iced tea—at least this time of the year."

"She had me stop at the convenience store as she could stock up on Diet Coke and iced tea," Matt chuckles warmly.

"Tell me about your horses," Jesse asks as he sits in his easy chair, "I'm a big Quarter Horse fan myself."

"Me too. You're looking at a life-time member of the AQHA, as well as the Jockey Club. I'm establishing a farm, back at the farm my mother's from, to raise both breeds."

"I'm thinking about getting a small herd of Foundation mares, raise up some foals as mountain-bred replacements."

"I'll be glad to help you get the mares. I know plenty of people. And you're more than welcome to use Golden Prince, once the Olympics are over with. His foals have a good resale value—since he's such a terrific sire of intelligent, athletic foals with great dispositions. Plus, that'll make the Rangers eligible for the AQHA Remuda program. Probably be a good idea to join it once you get established."

"Would you mind helping me out?"

"Not at all," Kris smiles, "I'd love too. Plus, if you'd like—you can breed a couple to Silver. You'll get taller, faster horses. They'll be eligible for registration as Appendix and would be pretty valuable in the breed circles. He recently had a three year old, out of a Foundation mare, that sold for a quarter million at a select breed auction."

"Wow," Cody whistles.

"That's nothing. Last year, a yearling colt he sired, out of an Irish mare, set the all-time record at Saratoga."

"Can I ask," Jesse smiles.

"Sure. Try fifty million, by a Middle Eastern millionaire. He tried his best to buy Silver--'name your own price', he said. Then he wanted to clone him, but I refused on ethical grounds. So he bought the colt and promptly shipped him to the Middle East. Last I knew, he was racing successfully in Europe."

"What's your farm called," Cody asks, curious.

"Dogwood, after the wild ones growing in the woods. Our racing colors are royal blue with a silver diamond. The old barn, which used to house the farm and riding horses, is being converted to a stallion barn. Most of the mares will be allowed to foal out naturally, but there'll be a foaling barn. Also constructing a one mile exercise track, a ring for flat work, another for hunter/jumper, and two dressage arenas—a twenty by forty, for lower level, and a twenty by sixty, for upper level. And we'll be raising cattle as well, so that'll give the Quarters experience in a more relaxed setting. The young horses will be kept in a pasture except when being worked."

"Sounds like a good plan."

"I think so. My mother's family wanted to sell it for development, so I paid them twice fair market value on it. The old farmhouse, family chapel, and two private cemeteries are all being restored."

"Two cemeteries," Cody asks.

"My mother's family were never slave holders, but they had share-croppers on the place. Naturally, there were two cemeteries—one for the blacks, one for the whites. Her parents are buried there, as are generations of both. In exploring the attic, I found a detailed record of everyone buried, and the locations of their graves. So I'm having markers made to replace, or add to, the old ones. The family's private chapel is just a little white frame building, built about 1870. Eventually, I'd like for the place to rival those in Kentucky and Florida." There's no mistaking the excitement in Kris' brilliant blue eyes.

"Sounds like you've got it planned out," Jesse comments thoughtfully.

"Since Golden Prince won his first Super Horse," Kris answers.

"Where does that leave us," Matt asks.

"Actually, I've made up my mind to see if I can find a place nearby, with room for the guys when they're not back in Georgia. Maybe another riding horse or two, and maybe even raise a couple of their foals. Since summers back in Georgia are so awful."

"What about your consulting practice," Cody wants to know.

"With today's technology—I can do that pretty much anywhere. I already do a good bit of it via the Internet anyway." Kris looks at Cody, "Matt tells me you're quite a rider—would you like to ride Silver a bit after lunch?"

"I—I'd love to," Cody stammers, endearing himself to her.

"I think he sort of surprised your brother," Kris grins over at Matt.

"He sure did. We heard a wolf and he didn't even spook," he admits with a wry smile.

"Told ya," Kris laughs warmly.

Jesse changes the subject again, "What do you think of the Sierras?"

"They're absolutely beautiful! You know, I've been all over the world—seen the Andes, the Alps, Pyrenees, Kilamanjaro, you name it—but I've never felt the sense of peace and contentment that I have here," Kris' soft voice is thoughtful as she stares out the nearby window.

Jesse nods, realizing the mountains have started working their magic on her, "Would you be happy living up here?"

"I think so. Cold and snow just don't bother me. I usually just wear a barn jacket back in Georgia. My birth parents were from New England, so I guess that's where I get it. I'm not a beach person, though I love to skin and scuba dive."

"What sort of education do you have?"

"Not a law degree, like Dad's family wanted," Kris admits, "I have my Master's in Criminal Justice, with a minor in Psychology. I'm trained and certified as a Hostage Negoiator, at the Law Enforcement Academy back in Forsyth, Georgia—part of my degree. And since I travel so much, I'm a Level One EMT. Helps that I have a photographic memory and an IQ considered genius."

"You don't think you'll be bored though," Matt asks softly.

"I don't think so. I love winters, and during the summers—I'll be able to spend more time out riding and walking." Kris yawns widely and snuggles deeper into Matt's shoulder, drifting off into a contented doze.

Chapter Twenty-Three:

"What do you think," Matt asks as he and Jesse step out onto the porch of the cabin. He'd eased Kris down into the couch's deep cushions and covered her with an old blanket.

"She's extremely intelligent and well-educated, without being a snob. She's also polite and well-mannered. Not to mention cute," Jesse remarks thoughtfully.

"I ran a check on her—she's exactly what she said she is. Everyone had stories either about her, the horses and dogs, or something they'd done."

"You're thinking of asking her to be a Ranger?"

"What do you think," Matt counters, genuinely wanting to know what Jesse thinks.

"She's got a lot of the qualities you'd want."

"On top of which, she's an expert outdoorsman. She's got an uncle living in Eastern Africa, and has gotten four of the big five—all but rhino."

"You've got to be kidding?!"

"No, he's not," Kris smiles, stepping out onto the porch and handing them cups of coffee. She looks and feels better.

"How'd you manage that," Jesse asks as she sits down in the rocker next to Matt.

"I was visiting Uncle John when I was eighteen. He's a game warden in Tanzania and manages one of the large reserves in the country. He asked if I wanted to help him go after a leopard that attacked two tourists. I nailed him with a shot from from my twenty-gage double-barreled shotgun. Largest one by a woman at one hundred fifty pounds. Turned out he'd been injured by poachers."

"Good grief," Matt whistles.

"Stupid if you asks me," Jesse growls.

"In hindsight, yeah it was. The Cape Buffalo was a rogue that nearly destroyed two tour buses. I got him with my rifle with a heart/lung shot. Horn spread of seventy inches. The lion started killing cattle after a run-in with a poacher. Weighed about four hundred pounds. Both are the largest killed by a woman since 1950."

"And the elephant," Cody asks, having come out in time to hear the story.

"Tusks weight one twenty-five and one thirty. Same old story—turned rogue after a run-in with poachers, except he killed two of Uncle John's rangers."

"What did you do with them," Matt wants to know.

"I had the lion, leopard, and buff done as full body mounts and donated to the museum back in Macon. The ivory was also donated."

"Pretty good," Cody smirks as he collapses in a chair.

"I've also gone diving off South Africa with Great Whites—talking about scary! I'll have to bring my laptop up and show ya'll the pictures."

"Do you speak any foreign languages," Matt wants to know.

"Spanish fluently. I took it in school and college. Then used Rosetta Stone to become more fluent. I'm currently learning Arabic, and then will do Russian. I've got a fairly sharp ear for languages."

Matt and Jesse exchange glances. This is another plus in her favor. That soft spoken Southern charm hides a razor-sharp mind. She comes across as so quiet, but there's much more to her.

"So you like being outside," Jesse asks.

"Yes Sir. Having the horses to look after gives me the perfect excuse. And when studying a crime scene, I can find things that others miss. And with Frost, I can follow a scent trail."

Jesse nods—she's tough and courageous. "Ever done any climbing?"

For once, Kris shakes her head as Frost lies down at her side, and Lassie lies down on the top step, "No Sir. Not really."

Chapter Twenty-Four:

Lunch is a leisurely affair with the three men.

Kris has to admit to herself that she really likes Jesse. He raised Cody from the time he was three, while Matt lived in South Lake Tahoe with their mother. But he's very devoted to, and proud of, both boys. He's also very much involved in their lives.

She can also see a great deal of Jesse in Matt. They seem to share a deep love of the mountains they call home, as well as extensive knowledge of them. With a pang of regret, she realizes that while she loves where the farm is, she doesn't have that deep passion for it that the Hawkes men do. But at the same time, she can feel the Sierras starting to work their magic on her. For the first time in her life, she feels a sense of peace and contentment. A feeling she's never had before.

After lunch, Kris makes good on her promise to let Cody ride Silver. She gives him a quick lesson in how to handle the high-spirited stallion, then turns them loose. She retreats back to the porch to sit with Jesse and Matt, huddling into the parka. "He's good," she smiles at their father.

"He was riding before he could walk," Jesse grins.

"I can tell," Kris smiles in return as she sits next to Matt, "I'd love to see him in the show ring. Maybe in a few years, he can show some of your colts and fillies. By then, I'll be able to help some as well." She watches Cody as he walks and jogs Silver in a large circle, then turns back to Jesse and Matt, "Can I make a suggestion or two?"

"Of course. Go ahead."

"In addition to raising the horses, why don't you raise a few cattle for the organic/heritage market?"

Jesse looks at her curiously his pale blue eyes so much like Matt's, "Not a bad idea."

"There's a growing market for the heritage breeds, which are generally much hardier and tougher. And as a member of the American Rare Breed Conservancy, I can help with that as well."

"You wouldn't mind?"

"Not at all," Kris smiles.