After serving eighteen months in prison for a crime he didn't commit, Dalton Cardwell is looking for a fresh start. What better place than Whitcomb Four Star Ranch? He doesn't regret the decisions of his pasthe'd choose the same roads again. But now all Dalton wants is to keep his head down and focus on the horsesand on Raney Whitcomb.
Raney is outraged when she learns her mother hired an ex-con. Raney has worked hard for the ranch, sacrificing her personal life for the dream of building on her family's legacy. But as Dalton breaks down every misconception and even wins the good opinion of her sisters, Raney is forced to rethink her stanceand finally free herself to explore the heart-pounding tension that simmers between them.
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With grim determination, Coralee Lennox Whitcomb sat at her dressing table and set to work transforming a sixty-year-old grandmother into a confident woman in her prime. Her later prime.
In truth, she was tired. Tired of trying so hard. Tired of pretending sixty was the new thirty-nine. Tired of being tired. It was that empty, unsettled kind of weariness that came to those fortunate enough to have once lived full, useful lives, but who now had nothing to do. She didn't like the feeling.
She tried to convince herself that the face staring back at her wasn't truly old, but even she could see it lacked the vitality it once had. The top lip was a little longer and the smile lines sagged a little more. Her hair was still thick and shiny, but there was more gray than brown now, and the hair coloring never seemed to cover it all. But if she looked hard enough into the slightly faded blue eyes, she could still see the dynamic, energetic young woman she had once been. There was still time to make a change and hopefully find that woman again. But what change?
"What are you frowning about?" a voice asked.
Coralee turned to see her second daughter, Raney, come up behind her. "Do I look older to you?"
"Older than what?"
"Don't equivocate. I'm serious." Coralee turned back to the mirror. "I think I look old."
"Some days I do, too."
"You're not yet thirty, dear."
"Near enough." A pause, then: "Is this about your birthday?"
"My sixtieth birthday," Coralee reminded her. "That's over half a century."
"But not yet two-thirds of one. I hear that's when the real aging starts."
"You're not helping."
"Then stop fishing for compliments. You know you're beautiful." Raney stood at Coralee's shoulder and studied her in the mirror. "I thought you'd be happy, Mama, with all your chicks flocking back home to toast yet another year in your amazingly long life. Plus, you still have all your teeth."
Coralee smiled into eyes the same bright, electric blue hers once were. "Still not helping."
Despite her tendency toward sarcasm and a disinterest in anything not having to do with the ranch, Raney was the daughter most like her. She got things done. And with as little fuss or drama as possible.
Coralee had always considered herself the driving force behind the ranch-and her husband, if truth be told-but Raney was its heart and soul. She was the one who had stepped into her father's boots after his death, and in the nine years since, had given up everything-college, marriage, a family of her own-to keep Charlie's legacy going. Other than one ghastly near-marriage, Raney had never even made an attempt to build a life apart from the ranch. Perhaps she was as stuck as Coralee was.
"I am happy," Coralee insisted now. "But I think I might need a change." And with those words, an idea formed. Why shouldn't she try something new?
Dating was out of the question. Not in a town as small as Rough Creek. Pickings were too slim and gossip too rampant. She'd learned that after her "date" with Walter Esterbrook, a man she'd known for two decades and who faithfully attended her church every Sunday. At least, she'd thought she knew him.
She could start a business, or manage something. If Rough Creek had a zoo or museum or even a hospital, she could do volunteer work, other than her weekly afternoon at the food bank. But the only thing around worth managing was the ranch, and Raney already did an excellent job of that.
Despite her sometimes-frivolous facade, Coralee considered herself an astute manager. She always had been, whether it was finding ways to double the size of the Lennox family farm or helping guide her husband through the backwaters of Texas politics toward a lucrative career in the oil and gas industry, or ensuring that she and her daughters were well protected and financially independent after his death. If she was relentless, she'd had to be. And it had paid off. By the time of Charlie's passing, the Lennox farm had doubled yet again, been renamed the Whitcomb Four Star Ranch in honor of their four lovely daughters, and was known for breeding prize-winning Angus cattle. But what had she done lately?
"You're scheming again, aren't you?" With a sigh, Raney sank down onto the edge of Coralee's bed. "What is it this time? A parade of acceptable marriage prospects for your unweddable daughter?"
"If you're unmarried, dear, it's by your own choice."
"Exactly. So, stay out of it. Please."
Ignoring that, Coralee picked up her tray of shadows and went to work on her eyes. Her slightly wrinkled, aging eyes. "I'm not scheming. I'm planning. With KD starting Officer Training School soon, it might be months-years, even-before the five of us can be at the ranch at the same time." She paused to dab a spot of turquoise to the outside corners of her upper lids to bring out the blue of her eyes. "I thought we might make a festive occasion of it."
"Such as?" Raney gave her a wary look.
"We could start with a nice chat to catch up on all the news, then dinner, followed by wine on the back veranda. What do you think?" She checked her eyes, thought they looked trashy, and wiped the color off.
"I think it'll be cold out there," Raney said.
"We can light a fire." Coralee tried basic, unimaginative taupe. Boring, but better. "And drop the shades if it's windy." Which it invariably was in spring in northwest Texas. And when they were all comfy and mellowed by wine, she would make her announcement. Hopefully, by then, she would know what that announcement would be. At this point, all that was certain was she needed to do something different. Refocus. Make herself her next project. If she explained whatever it was clearly and calmly, maybe they could avoid the drama that characterized most of their family gatherings.
"You said 'change.' What kind of change? Nothing involving me, I hope."
Where had her daughter gotten such a suspicious nature?
"I haven't decided." A faint ding from her watch saved Coralee from further explanation. "Mercy! KD's plane has landed and you haven't even left yet."
"That's what I came in to tell you." Raney rose from the bed. "Len and Joss are picking her up on their way from Dallas."
"Wonderful!" A last fluff of her hair and Coralee rose from the dressing table. "I'd best help Maria get the hors d'oeuvres ready." She paused to scan Raney's outfit-her usual baseball cap and ponytail, jeans, boots, and plaid shirt over a tank top. Why did she insist on downplaying her fine figure and beauty by dressing like a lumberjack? She would never attract a man dressed like that, unless he was as horse-crazy as she was. "You are planning to change your clothes, aren't you?"
"They're my sisters. What do they care?"
"I care. Please, dear. It's my birthday. And hurry along. They'll be here soon."
Later that afternoon, Dalton Cardwell stepped off the bus at the crossroads in Rough Creek. It was as if nothing had changed in his eighteen-month absence. Same dusty storefronts, same beat-up trucks in front of the Roughneck Bar, same galvanized water troughs and cattle feeders stacked outside the feed store. The only things different were the weather and the plants in the baskets hanging outside MellieÕs Diner. It had been September when he'd left. Now it was early spring and MellieÕs flowers were just starting to bud. That sense of sameness was both comforting and disturbing. He liked the constancy of things that had been part of his life for all of his thirty-two years. But he was surprised that nothing had changed in a year and a half. He certainly had.
His stomach rumbled, reminding him that other than a vending machine snack when he'd changed buses in Dallas, his last meal had been almost fourteen hours earlier. Since he hadn't told his parents when he would arrive and it didn't seem right to show up and expect to be fed right off, he crossed to the diner. He figured he'd earned a last unhurried meal before facing his old life and reassessing the burdens it represented. If he'd learned anything while he was in prison, it was that he was done taking orders and having every move dictated by the schedules of others. He'd been doing that for most of his life, from working beside his father on their small cattle ranch, to his stint in the army, to the regimented directives of his time in prison. He was ready for a change.
Other than a waitress refilling ketchup bottles, and a couple of Hispanic ranch hands at the counter talking to the cook through the serving window into the kitchen, the diner was empty. He recognized the waitress, not the workers. Crossing to a booth next to the back window, he slid into the bench against the wall when the waitress walked toward him armed with a coffeepot and mug.
"Dalton? That you?"
Warily, Dalton looked up, not sure what to expect.
Like most small towns, there were few secrets in Rough Creek. His arrest had been big news, and he wasn't sure how many friends he had left. He had known Suze Anderson for most of his life and had even taken her out a couple of times back in high school. But he was an ex-con now, and that had a way of killing friendships.
Her friendly smile said otherwise. "When'd you get out?" she asked.
"Well, welcome home, stranger." She set the mug down in front of him and filled it with coffee. There was an awkward silence, then she said, "I never thought you did it, you know."
He looked up at her.
She made an offhand movement with her free hand. "Yeah, I know. You confessed. But I always figured there was more to it than what the papers said." She leaned closer and dropped her voice. "Heard the commissioner's nephew had been drinking. If you hadn't waived a trial, that might have gotten you off."
He poured a packet of sugar into his cup. "Water under the bridge." To change the subject, he added, "You look good, Suze." And she did. Hair the color of ripe wheat, skin like clover honey, and eyes as brown as dark, rich coffee. Hell. He must be hungry if he looked at a pretty face and thought of food.
She grinned and patted her flat stomach. "Not bad for two kids. Buddy wants to try for two more. Girls, this time. But I don't know. That's a lot of kids."
Buddy was Suze's husband, and through school, had been Dalton's closest friend. A country boy in the best sense of the words, and a good match for Suze. Solid farm folks and hard workers, totally content to stay in Rough Creek forever. At one time, Dalton had thought that would be enough for him, too.
She gave him an assessing look, her gaze flicking from his scuffed prison shoes to his overlong dark brown hair and the too-tight shirt he'd been issued on discharge. "Gotten even bigger than when you got home from Iraq, I see. Bet nobody calls you Beanpole now."
"Not lately." Not after months of daily two-hour workouts. Another thing he'd learned in prison. If you don't want to fight, look like you can.
"I like it. Even with that god-awful haircut, you're still handsome enough to turn a girl's head." She winked. "Even one that's happily married."
He waved the comment aside, embarrassed, yet gratified that after being locked away with nothing but men for eighteen months, he still had enough polish left that a pretty woman would give him a second look. "Watch out, Suze. I don't want Buddy gunning for me."
The door opened and a couple came in. Tourists, by the look of them. Suze told them to sit anywhere they liked, then took Dalton's order-bacon cheeseburger with extra onions, fries, iced tea, and a piece of Mellie's lemon meringue pie for desert. She started toward the kitchen, hesitated, then turned back, a flush rising up her cheeks. "Look, I'm not sure if you heard, but Karla left. Moved to Fort Worth just after Christmas."
"I know. She wrote to me."
Suze looked relieved. "She talked about leaving Rough Creek all her life. The only reason she stayed so long was because of you."
Dalton had no response to that. He hadn't been surprised that Karla had cut and run after he was sent to Huntsville. Not many women as smart as she was would want to pin their futures on an ex-con. Still, he missed her. She'd been fun to hang with, even though he'd known from the beginning that she'd eventually move on.
His meal came in record time and was every bit as good as he remembered.
By the time he finished, the place was filling up with late diners, probably heading home after a local high school sports event. Spring football practice, or maybe soccer or baseball, judging by the uniforms. He recognized a few of the customers, but despite some curious looks pointed his way, no one approached him.
"How was it?" Suze asked when he went to the register to pay his tab.
"Best meal I've had in a long time. Especially that pie." Seeing how busy the place was, he didn't linger, told Suze to tell Buddy "hi," then stepped outside.
A sense of hope spread through him. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad. Maybe he really could put it all behind him and make a fresh start.
"Heard those idiots on the parole board let you out early," a familiar taunting voice said behind him.
Or maybe not.
Dalton turned to see Deputy Langers coming from the direction of the sheriff's office down the street. He and Toby Langers hadn't gotten along since high school, when Dalton, a fourteen-year-old freshman, had taken over the older, smaller boy's position on the football team. After Dalton's arrest and while he'd been in county lockup awaiting sentencing, the taunting had only gotten worse. Not surprising, since Toby was the county commissioner's local toady, and it was Commissioner Adkins's nephew that Dalton was supposed to have killed. He had hoped the animosity between him and Toby might have cooled during his absence, but Dalton could see it hadn't.
"Thought you'd have sense enough not to come back to Rough Creek."