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3 Chapter Preview: A RANCHER'S SONG

Read the first three chapters of A RANCHER’S SONG!

A Rancher's Song by Vivian ArendCan love help a champion bull rider face his fears and find his future? Welcome to Heart Falls, a new series from New York Times bestselling author Vivian Arend.

Ivy Field’s heart nearly broke when she left Heart Falls, but her high school sweetheart insisted she follow-through on her dream of becoming a teacher. She thought that meant putting their relationship on hold briefly, but it’s taken eleven years to return. Now she’s back, no longer a painfully shy young girl but a confident woman who knows exactly what and who she wants—a home and a family—with too-sexy-for-his-boots Walker Stone. He was her first; she wants him to be her last.

Walker “Dynamite” Stone was still reeling from his parent’s unexpected death when Ivy left. He let her go, throwing himself into work on the Silver Stone ranch and dangerous living on the rodeo circuit. But lately Walker’s adrenaline junkie ways have crashed—he’s having panic attacks. Potentially devastating to his budding music career, they’re a deadly handicap when shooting for eight seconds aboard an angry bull. He needs to learn to face his fears to save the family fortunes. If he succeeds, this time Walker will be the one to leave Heart Falls, and Ivy, behind.

Will Ivy and Walker have to give up on forever, or can they turn this rancher’s song into a winning duet?

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Prologue

Walker jammed his glove more firmly under the rope, adjusting position on the back of the bull. Focusing down on what he was doing, letting everything around him fade away. The noise from the crowd in the stands and the bull under him were loud, but louder still were the rough gasps of his own breathing. Blood rushed past his ears like a drumbeat as his heart pounded.

A steady breath. Another one. Feeling the animal beneath him and trying to work with the wild energy of the beast. He needed great numbers, and that wouldn’t happen unless both of them were ready to put on a show.

His leg smashed against the metal rails as the bull shifted violently toward the right, all of the cowboys along the chute either backing up rapidly to stay out of striking range, or leaning in to control the animal.

It was time. Walker lifted his free hand and nodded.

The gate jerked open, and the next second he was flying into the arena, body whiplashing as the bull did his damnedest to remove the human annoyance from his back. Every time the animal’s hind legs came down, pain slammed up Walker’s spine like a sledgehammer. He made sure to keep his teeth tight together on the mouth guard, riding through the motions, as sharp and rapid as they were, as if he were on an ocean wave undulating through what had to be the most violent rollers ever.

But the ride had a rhythm, and a pace, and in spite of the pain, and the fear, and the adrenaline racing through him, Walker found himself falling into the zone. That perfect place where nothing existed except for the strange connection between him and the beast. He didn’t care that he was doing something incredibly dangerous, or that he needed it to last for a full eight seconds. The sensation was beautiful and glorious.

Until it wasn’t.

Fear should have reared upward like a raging beast, but no, it arrived slowly. Or so it seemed as the zone vanished, and in its place was the sensation he’d felt before.

Death.

Walker was going to die.

It wasn’t about the poetry of the motion now; it was about somehow figuring out how to survive. Pain was one thing, but the icy cold fingers of fear that had wrapped around him were invasive and unstoppable. Walker tried his best to ignore the sensation, but like a wagon that had been inched over the top of a steep hill, momentum built and tension increased.

Bony fingers wrapped around the back of his neck and clung tightly. Death was there with an unshakeable grip, and Walker really didn’t want to be thinking that way, but once the thought arrived, he couldn’t shake it. Like a low buzz that slowly built in speed and volume until he found himself no longer bounced by the violence of the bull but flying with deceptive smoothness through the air, headed for the ground.

Walker had enough presence of mind to roll as the earth came up to meet him, shoulder and forearm slapping down, his head meeting the ground briefly as he rolled and came to his knees, glancing quickly to see where the bull was.

Only in rodeo were you safer on the back of a wild animal than on the ground.

He lifted his eyes to find he was facing the crowd, audience leaning forward with fear and adrenaline on their faces. A woman turned her head, her long hair whirling, the silvery white strands like spun moonshine, and in that moment everything Walker should’ve been focused on fled.

Ivy?

He stared, waiting for her to turn back so he could see her face. It had been so long since he’d seen her, but he knew what she’d look like. Pale skin, but bright eyes. A grey so light they turned silver at times, flashing at him as he’d tease and steal a kiss…

“Move it.” The order came at the same moment a hand hit him on his already bruised arm, pushing him off balance.

Walker’s arms shot forward to stop his fall, his hands hitting the hard steel of the arena enclosure. A flash of bright colours rushed past the corner of his eye. A shadow of pitch black.

Oh God, the bull.

A loud shout escaped as the bullfighter waved his arms and got the animal’s attention, turning the beast away from where Walker was still trying to figure out what was going on. Another of the three bullfighters stood on the safety rails and grabbed Walker by the back of his vest, hauling him to the top of the fence before shoving them both over. A second later, the two of them were sprawled on the ground on the other side of the railing.

The furious bull was out in the arena tossing a safety barrel, the bullfighter inside safe even while he was being scrambled like an egg.

“You make a good target, Dynamite, but maybe you could get the hell out of the arena a little faster next time.” The cowboy grabbed him by the wrist and hauled him to his feet, a mixture of good-natured humour and annoyance as he patted Walker on the shoulder. “I know you’re supposed to be fearless and all, but I pretty much recommend being scared sometimes. It’ll keep you alive longer.”

The rodeo bullfighter picked his hat up off the ground before dipping his chin and climbing over the railing to rejoin the rest of his team.

Walker stared after the man. He wasn’t sure what the bullfighter was talking about.

He glanced down at the dust and dirt on his vest and chaps then up at the clock. 6.96. He must have been bucked off, but he couldn’t remember anything from after the moment the panic had begun to slide along his spine.

The last minutes of the event were missing from his memory, and if he wanted to stay alive, that wasn’t good.

He waited until his score of zero for the ride showed up on the scoreboard next to his time, good-naturedly taking the jeers from his fellow cowboys. Then he packed his bag and headed for his truck.

When things went wrong he had a place to go. It was a bit like admitting defeat. But at that moment, realizing he could’ve been seriously hurt or killed, or caused another man to be, acknowledging he was beat was the only choice.

 

Chapter One

“Holy cow, when did Bradley Ford lose all his hair?”

Ivy Fields slapped a hand over her sister’s mouth, glancing around to see if anyone was within earshot of the rude comment. “You want to borrow the microphone to ask him? Or maybe we should try using inside voices, instead.”

Tansy rolled her eyes, but she was smiling as Ivy inched her hand back. “Fine, I’ll be quiet as a mouse.” Tansy tossed her head, her blonde hair floating around her shoulders. “I swear the man had flowing Jesus-locks last week when he came into the coffee shop. He’s bald as a baby’s bottom.”

They both turned to examine the crowd who’d gathered in the Heart Falls Community Centre for the afternoon Canada Day events. Everywhere she looked, Ivy spotted familiar faces, although most had changed since the last time she’d seen them, a few dramatically like Brad who—

Okay, the shaved head was not a bad look on him at all, just shocking. “He wore a ponytail in high school, didn’t he?”

“Uh-huh.” Tansy tilted her head to one side. “Okay, it’s kind of sexy, I guess. Only there’s nothing to grab onto.”

Her younger sister had lost her. Ivy frowned. “Why would you want to grab his hair?”

Tansy raised a brow then waggled it.

God. How her sister managed to make things about sex ninety-nine percent of the time was incredible.

“Go away,” Ivy murmured.

Tansy eyed her with a smirk. “And in other news…you’re still an innocent. Anyway, the short style is probably safer. Brad’s a firefighter now. He doesn’t need flammables next to his face.”

“A firefighter. That’s good.”

“Yeah, new Fire Chief for the county, in fact. He’s a catch, according to local gossip. Maybe you should make a move on him.” Her sister screwed up her face then shook her head as she pulled out her phone and checked her messages. “Nah. I think the current plan is still the best.”

Ivy wasn’t so sure anymore, not as the room continued to fill with locals. Noisy, loud—it wasn’t too late to call it off.

Only when she opened her mouth to tell Tansy she’d changed her mind, her sister was already a half a dozen paces away. “Rose summoned me,” she tossed over her shoulder. “Enjoy the show.”

It had been a long time since Ivy had stood in the local community hall, but the calendar didn’t lie. It had been eleven years since she’d lived in Heart Falls, and while she was glad she’d had her time away, it was good to be home.

Returning at the start of July meant she had an entire summer to look forward to getting reacquainted and settled before diving into her new position at Heart Falls Elementary School.

A flash of warmth hit somewhere in her chest as her parents danced around each other in the aisle between tables, her mother juggling trays from the kitchen, her father heading toward the stage where he was acting as auctioneer for today’s final event. The two of them exchanged warm smiles. That too was something Ivy was looking forward to—more time with her family.

She’d missed them terribly. They weren’t related by blood, but they were family, nonetheless. She and her three sisters had been adopted by Sophie and Malachi Fields years ago.

Tansy had rejoined Rose on the far side of the room, standing behind a long table that an hour ago had held row after row of pie pieces. Ninety percent of them had been baked at Tansy’s coffee shop. Probably with Rose’s help, when she hadn’t been busy with the table centerpieces. She operated the flower and knickknack shop adjoining Tansy’s. Buns and Roses—Ivy needed to catch up on how things were going there as well.

Another thing to enjoy. Spending time with her younger sisters, including sitting down with the youngest, Fern, and finding out what the eighteen-year-old’s future plans were.

But today was about more than family. Ivy let her gaze drift over the room, putting names to faces, and trying to make guesses about the changes in relationships being acted out silently before her.

It was forgivable if the first place her curiosity led her was toward the Stone family. The oldest brother, Caleb, had his arm resting on the shoulders of a dark-haired woman, and two little girls were dancing around them.

And as a bell rang from the stage to get everyone’s attention, she spotted Luke Stone pulling out a chair for a blonde woman as they re-settled at spots beside Caleb. Obviously, they were a couple as well.

She’d been gone so long.

Changes were inevitable, not only here, but in her as well. She’d been waiting for a long time to take this next step, but it seemed her nerves were going to give her hell the entire time she waited for Tansy’s bright plan to fall into place.

Oh, well. Nerves wouldn’t kill her.

“Thank you, everyone, for joining us for this fine Canada Day celebration.” Her father smiled over the crowd with that easy way of his. “I’m pretty sure you all had enough to eat earlier, although I imagine a few gentlemen up here on the stage were nervous enough to skip dessert. Don’t worry, though. I instructed my daughters to hold back a couple of pies.” He turned to the row of a dozen or so plus men standing in an awkward line to his right.

“You should auction off the pies,” someone heckled from the floor.

“Charlie Miller, you already ate an entire pie by yourself.” It was Tansy, of course, shouting across the room as people turned toward her with grins. “If you want another pie to yourself, you go right ahead and put in your bid. I’ll make your favourite.”

“Do I get the pie maker as well?” Charlie teased.

Tansy raised a brow then gestured to the stage. “Considering this is a bachelor auction, you probably should take that up with my dad.”

Heads twirled back to where Malachi Fields no longer looked quite so jovial as he glared at Charlie. “Maybe we should get on with the main event.”

Charlie settled in his chair and zipped his mouth damn fast, much to the amusement of the people around him.

“All proceeds from today’s auction go toward the Community Health Center. I believe they’ve got some funds earmarked for a playground update and some for after-school care. Very worthwhile, so I hope you all contribute however you can.”

He turned to the row of local young men and called one forward.

While her dad introduced the first victim, whose ears had flushed bright red, Ivy found her attention wandering. She wasn’t interested in a kid barely out of his teens.

No, it was the tallest man in the lineup who had everything in her twisting. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest, the firm bulge of his biceps pressing against the crisp white denim of his shirt. He wore black jeans, the thick fabric barely restraining his muscular thighs, and with a black cowboy hat on his head, Walker Stone was every inch the cowboy Ivy remembered.

He needed a haircut. The bottom edge was curling up in an unruly manner that made Ivy’s fingers itch. She wasn’t quite the innocent her sister thought. She’d take off that hat of his and lay it aside so she could thread her fingers through the thick strands and watch his pupils go dark.

Or at least that’s what memory said would happen. She adjusted position uncomfortably and wondered why she was tormenting herself like this. It had been eleven years. Showing up at the bachelor auction and throwing herself at him the first time they met again was a terrible idea.

Of course, it had sounded brilliant when Tansy and Rose proposed the plan the night before while the three of them were curled up in Ivy’s temporary lodging, back at home in the same room she’d occupied during high school.

The maple tree outside the window was taller than before, but that same branch reached conveniently toward her window—

Memories made heat flush Ivy’s face, and she forced her attention back to the stage where, with a round of applause, her father finished reading the envelope that held the details of the offered date, handing it to the winner of the second eligible bachelor.

Malachi wiggled the next envelope in the air. “We are delighted to welcome home a man who was born and bred in Heart Falls. Although he seems determined to bring himself back in more than one piece. Walker Dynamite Stone. Come on up here.”

Ivy found herself leaning forward as Walker stepped out from the crowd of young men and joined her father.

They shook hands briefly before Walker turned to the room and offered a dazzling smile, no doubt playing it up a little for his adoring women fans, a group of whom were gathered at a long table in the front right corner. They weren’t locals Ivy recognized, but it was possible they were from the surrounding counties.

The auction was a chance to find single men, and someone like Walker was worth the drive. One woman looked as if she were trying to convince her friends to spot her a little extra change.

Ivy was suddenly very happy to have her sisters as back up, because the only thing more embarrassing than bidding for a date with Walker would be bidding for a date and not winning.

“You plan on sticking around long enough to take one of these ladies for a night on the town?” her father asked Walker, leaning the microphone toward him.

“A date with one of these fine ladies? Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.” Walker offered a wink to the woman waving at him from the near side of the room.

Ivy put a hand over her mouth to stop from snickering. That was such a Walker thing to say.

Her father turned to the room and opened the bidding. He didn’t babble fast and furious like some true auctioneer. He took the time to name the bidders when he recognized them and add to the excitement of the event with a little teasing. But it was all in fun and for good cause, and it was exactly what Ivy needed to make her summer plans start with a bang.

If things went well.

The first minute passed, and the bids came slowly at first. Ivy watched with interest as two women in the same group bid at the same time then burst out laughing.

Her father got into it. “Now, ladies. You’re going to have to do better than that. Two hundred dollars is barely enough to build a new sandbox. This fine bull rider deserves a few higher numbers than that. Do I hear two fifty?”

“Two fifty,” came a call from behind the pie table, Tansy waving her hand in the air.

Both of the men on the stage jerked in shock.

Concern crossed Walker’s face before he schooled his features into a smile, but Malachi kept frowning even as he acknowledged the bid. “Two fifty from the young lady behind the pies, who might’ve consumed a little too many of her own wares and be on a sugar high at the moment.”

“Two seventy-five,” came another shout, this time from the woman at the front table.

“There we go. There’s a good solid bid.” Malachi twisted his body toward the nearby group, as if cutting Tansy out of all future bidding options.

Her poor father. He was going to kill his daughters before this day was over.

“Three hundred,” Tansy returned. “And I’ll throw in a cherry pie.”

Walker’s lips twitched, but he still looked as if he’d swallowed a bug.

“The bid stands at three hundred and one cherry pie.” Her father turned back to the table at the front and held his arms open. “Back in your corner, ladies. May I remind you we’re talking about Heart Falls’ finest. A bona fide rodeo champion.”

“That means he’s good in the saddle,” one of the women teased.

“Let’s keep it family friendly,” Malachi reminded them over the laughter. “Do I have another bid? I have it on good authority he also has the voice of an angel.”

“Sing for us,” went up the cry.

Walker held up a hand in protest, shaking his head. “Now’s not the time.”

“Three fifty for a date, and the table next to me says if you’ll sing something this minute, they’ll donate one hundred to the fundraiser.” The woman at the front gestured over her shoulder where a group of older men grinned at Walker with amusement.

Walker shrugged, glancing over his shoulder at the bachelors still waiting. “Sorry, guys, but you have to suffer a little longer. Easy money is easy money.”

He accepted the microphone from Malachi, staring at the old timers for a moment as he patted a hand on his leg, heel tapping to get a rhythm started. Then he opened his mouth and let the words roll, strong and inviting, bringing smiles to the faces around them as he sang about the end of a long day on the ranch, finishing work, and heading out to have a good time.

A verse and the chorus, not much more than a half-dozen lines, rang out a cappella—and it sounded great. Walker’s voice was rich and strong, and Ivy found herself moving in time to the simple words.

He held the final note before cutting off with a bow, hat in hand. Walker pointed a finger at the old-timers, motioning them forward. Laughter and applause rose as he hammed it up for their benefit.

One of the men came to the front and handed over a pile of twenties. Walker shook his hand enthusiastically before offering the money to Malachi.

The room was still filled with noise when Tansy’s voice cut through the chaos. “One thousand dollars, and you have to promise to sing at the date.”

That was the way to get a bunch of wild, enthusiastic people to calm down—not.

The volume tripled, and once again Walker looked slightly sick to his stomach, his smile barely clinging in place.

Malachi looked as if he was either going to join Walker or shoot his daughter. Especially when no amount of encouragement could get anyone else to up their bid.

“Going once. Going twice… This is Walker Stone we’re talking about, ladies.”

“Say it, Papa. You can do it. Going three times,” Tansy encouraged.

Another ripple of laughter.

“Going three times…” Malachi looked around the room in vain. He brought his hand against his leg a little less enthusiastically than he had with previous auction winners, but still, he carried on determinedly. “Sold. To Tansy Fields, for one thousand dollars.”

 

**

 

This whole thing had been a bad idea from the start. But now, watching as Tansy Fields made her way out from behind the pie table and skipped toward the front of the room, Walker wasn’t sure he could keep his smile in place for much longer.

His younger brother Dustin, who was still waiting in line to be bought and paid for, slipped to his side, leaning against him to murmur quietly, “That’s awkward.”

It was more than awkward; it was wrong on so many levels. Tansy Fields was like a little sister to him, and watching her bounce forward like a female Tigger wasn’t doing anything to change his opinion.

It might be for a good cause, the bachelor auction, and he might be home in Heart Falls, which meant he had to take part or come up with a damn good excuse why he couldn’t, but no way he was going to do anything with Tansy Fields.

It wasn’t going to be a date by any stretch of the imagination. No way. Nothing date-like, especially not a good-night kiss. It was bad enough he’d had to sing—though, thank God, he’d gotten through without something terrible happening.

Something terrible had happened. He was supposed to go on a date with Tansy.

She stood at the front of the stage, grinning at him briefly before turning her smile on her father. “Boy, do you look grumpy.”

Malachi shut off the microphone and folded his arms over his chest. He lowered his voice as he bent to speak to his daughter. “I’m sure you’ve got a reasonable explanation for your behaviour, yes?”

She handed over a folded piece of paper. “I have a beautiful explanation. It’s all in there.”

Walker wasn’t sure how any explanation was going to make this better. Heck, if came down to it, he’d refund her money, and they could eat a pizza with her whole family or something for their “date.”

Only as he read the page she handed him, the tension drained out of Malachi like a plug had been pulled. The man flashed Walker a wide smile then held the paper aloft as if it were a winning lottery ticket.

“I think in the interest of keeping things aboveboard and transparent, I’ll read this to you.”

Walker tried not to tense, but something strange was afoot.

Bidding done by Tansy Fields with the purpose of winning one date with Walker Dynamite Stone, at a time, etc., of their reckoning, purchased by—wait, there’s been a small note added that says payment includes one cherry pie.”

Laughter again, but people were leaning in, listening intently.

“Purchased by—” Malachi hesitated, and Walker wondered if anyone had ever wanted to strangle an auctioneer as much as he did at this particular moment.

Malachi lifted his eyes and looked across the room, a great deal of amusement in his voice. “—Ivy Fields.”

Relief shot through Walker so hard his legs shook, and as applause burst from the crowd, heads pivoted from side to side. Suddenly, hands rose to point as Ivy stepped forward.

It’d been a setup, and for one moment Walker was absolutely overjoyed. But then reality kicked in, and he realized that it wasn’t eleven years earlier, and nothing was going to be simple. Still, he couldn’t stop himself from drinking her in as she made her way forward through the crowd.

Her cheeks were rosy, probably flushed with embarrassment at the hoots and hollers. Her silver white hair hung in a braid pulled forward over her right shoulder, the delicate skin of her forearms and hands a sharp contrast with the powder blue blouse she wore.

Her eyes sparkled at him, though, and she wore a smile brighter than he remembered seeing for a long time. Confident, and yet not. Bold, and yet with that core of vulnerability she’d had so many years ago.

She’d changed. Hell, so had he, but one thing was the same. That same draw hovered between them even from half a room away.

Walker stepped to the front of the stage and flipped himself off, landing solidly in the empty space at the front of the aisle that would bring them together.

Another round of cheers went up, and then the shouting changed to words.

Kiss her. Kiss her. Kiss her

The locals knew their history—knew they’d been sweethearts back in the day. It made sense they’d be riled up and willing to tease. The crowd was helping to pull Ivy forward, and hands were at Walker’s back guiding him as well.

As if he needed any encouragement.

They met in the middle of the room, and the noise level hit a deafening volume as the chant continued.

Kiss her. Kiss her.

Walker held out a hand, and she placed her fingers in his with no hesitation. It wasn’t the crowd’s encouragement that made him do it. It was the need in his gut telling him to go ahead and take a bite.

He pulled her against him, sliding a hand behind her back as he brought their bodies into contact, twisting and dipping her, bending forward until she had to arch back and rely on him to hold her safely.

She didn’t fight him, not one bit. She just moved in unison as if it’d been yesterday and not years ago they’d been in each other’s arms. And when he leaned over and pressed his lips to hers, it was like coming home.

Sweet heat. Hovering passion. They’d been children before, playing at love and testing their physical boundaries. He wasn’t a child anymore, and neither was she. And it was clear as he took her lips that if he let it, the fire between them would flare a whole hell of a lot hotter and wilder than it ever had before.

The wolf whistles in the room were deafening, but the loudest thing was the hum of approval from Ivy’s lips as he brought her to vertical, swirling her in a circle as if they were finishing a turn on the dance floor.

Yeah, kissing Ivy was like coming home—which was a whole hell of a lot of trouble considering his return to Heart Falls was only temporary.

 

Chapter Two

Walker stared into her face as they separated enough for polite company. “You’re back,” he said stupidly.

“I’m back,” Ivy agreed, peeking over his shoulder to the stage. “Are you okay with this?”

He wasn’t sure what he felt at the moment other than sheer relief he didn’t have to deal with Tansy. “Of course.”

Ivy nodded firmly then glanced at the people watching them with interest as Malachi opened the bidding on the next man. “I think you’re supposed to go back and cheer on your fellow bachelors so they don’t feel awkward.”

God. Heading back on stage was the last thing Walker wanted, but she was right. “I remember. You got a number for me to call? To set up our date?”

She handed over a business card then backed away, answering her sisters’ calls from the side of the room. “I’ll talk to you later, then.”

“Later.”

Ivy sashayed smoothly down the open aisle. Her hips swayed from side to side, and it was impossible to tear his gaze away or to refrain from imagining her naked, her long limbs…

He shook himself, checking to see if anyone had caught him leering. No one close by—their attention had turned toward the stage. Unfortunately, when he glanced toward the pie table, Tansy and Rose were grinning at him like fools.

He shook a finger at them.

Rose stuck out her tongue. Tansy batted her lashes then turned to face the stage where Dustin was being hauled forward to be auctioned off.

The good-natured teasing continued as Walker rejoined his crew at the front.

Even his brother Caleb wore a satisfied expression when they bumped into each other on the way out of the hall.

“I don’t understand why they’ve got the auction happening in the middle of the damn afternoon,” Walker muttered quietly as Caleb smacked a hand on his shoulder, pushing him aside to let his wife and girls walk ahead of them to the truck. “Doesn’t seem right, letting kids see guys get sold off like they’re breeding stock.”

“Oh, worried about your reputation? That’s why you and—Ivy is it?—were in a killer lip-lock in the middle of a G-rated gathering?” his sister-in-law Tamara deadpanned.

Walker didn’t think he blushed, but…

He glanced at Tamara. “It was all in good fun.”

“Exactly. That’s why the auction is part of the family event, so it doesn’t get dragged off into territory the town council wants to avoid.” Tamara opened the crew-cab door then helped her youngest daughter, Emma, climb onto the running board and into the back seat.

Tamara examined Walker with great curiosity while Emma got settled. “Still, I have lots and lots of questions for you.”

“Ivy and Walker were sweethearts in high school.” This matter-of-fact bit of data came from his second niece who had crawled in from the other side of the truck and was doing up her seatbelt. Sasha leaned forward and smartly informed Tamara, “Kelli says high school sweeties who stick together forever are movie fodder and not real.”

“When do you find all this time to talk to Kelli?” Tamara asked, obviously puzzled. “She works in the barns, and you’re at school all day.”

“Not anymore,” Sasha pointed out, ignoring the question. “Summer holidays started. Kelli says—”

“We’ll just wait on what Kelli says until we’re on the way home, okay, pumpkin?” Caleb offered Tamara a head shake before turning to Walker. “Come for supper.”

“Can’t. Things to do.”

Caleb raised a brow, and Walker gave in. He’d only gotten back to the ranch a day earlier, and he hadn’t spent much time with anyone. “Fine. I’ll wash up then join you.”

“I’ll invite Dustin,” Tamara offered. “If that’s okay with you.”

“Who you asking, me or Walker?” Caleb gave Tamara a pointed look. “Because it seems Dustin is at our table more often than not these days.”

She raised a brow back. “I’m not about to tell him to go away, Caleb. He’s family.”

Walker wondered what the hell was up, but before he could ask for details, they were on the road and headed back to Silver Stone.

He followed his brother’s truck at a distance, his gaze lingering on the familiar rolling hills that slowly opened up to reveal the long, low ranch house perched between the barns and the shining surface of Big Sky Lake.

Home. He’d been born here and had grown up roaming these hills, working chores after school then full-time once he’d graduated. This was where he’d learned to ride and rope.

Where he’d stolen his first kiss—from Ivy Fields, no less. The Snow Princess she’d been back then, and memories swirled around him, hard and fast.

He shoved them away and focused on the here and now, turning into the ranch and parking by the bunkhouse.

He changed out of his dress-up stuff into clean work clothes then made his way to the ranch house, letting himself in the back door. Tasty scents filled the air, and as he hung his hat on one of the hooks in the mudroom, it was clear the place was the same, yet subtly changed since he’d left earlier that year.

New curtains hung at the windows, and he noticed new shelves in the mudroom. Tamara’s touch, no doubt. Over the shelves were hand-drawn name tags for Emma and Sasha, pink and purple with glitter. Tamara’s feminine touch and his nieces’ presence were noticeable everywhere around the house, more so than ever before.

Laughter rang from the main room, and Walker stepped toward it eagerly. This was why he’d come back. A touch of home—maybe it would cure what was ailing him.

Sasha spotted him, jumping up and down. “Uncle Walker sits by me,” she shouted.

But Emma had snuck up to his side and slid her hand into his, tugging lightly to get his attention. “I saved you a seat,” she told him softly.

His throat thickened. His littlest niece had never been a big talker, so it was good to have her sharing so much more smoothly than he remembered. “How about I sit between you two? Or will you steal things from my plate? I hope not, ’cause I’m hungry.”

“Mama cooked lots,” Emma assured him, tugging him to the table, the words so much more important because they came easily to her lips.

Tamara certainly had cooked enough, and the food went down just fine. Dustin had showed up as well, ruffling Sasha’s hair before hurrying to help carry a platter to the table. Then he’d taken his dose of teasing over the woman who’d bought him at the bachelor auction.

“I’m taking her out next Friday,” he said, a flush on his cheeks, but he was happy.

“It’s not the same one as last year, is it?” Walker asked. “Because didn’t she get a little stalkerish on you?”

“Dustin’s previous admirer was not around for this year’s auction,” Tamara informed him as she helped Emma deal with her plate.

Dustin grinned. “I don’t know how you managed that, but thank you.”

“No problem. I’m sure she’s having a good time purchasing stock in Calgary this weekend.” Tamara looked thoughtful, glancing up at Walker. “Calgary Stampede starts this weekend. I thought you’d qualified.”

He’d qualified, but competing was out of the question. “I’m taking a little time off,” he told her. “I need to do some training before I go back in the arena.”

Thankfully, no one asked any more questions, so he sat back and enjoyed the family time and the food.

Dinner finished, Dustin and the girls headed to the sink to do clean up. Emma snuck back and turned on the Wizard of Oz, music and singing filling the room.

Dustin groaned in mock pain. “Emma, no. We’ve heard this a million times over the past month.”

“The girls are in a play at the end of the summer. Get used to it, Uncle Dustin, because if you hang around, you’ll hear a lot more of it.” Tamara patted him on the shoulder then moved to put away the leftovers.

Caleb tipped his head toward the door, and Walker nodded, stopping to grab his coat.

“We’ll be back,” Caleb told Tamara.

You’ll be back,” Walker said. “I’ll be turning in after chores. Thanks again for supper,” he offered to his sister-in-law.

“Anytime,” she returned. “Stop by for coffee some morning if you’d like. You know where to find me. Only, use the porch, Dynamite. We need to get the roof re-shingled before anyone goes stomping around up there.”

He grinned. “Rooftop approach reserved for Santa. Got it.”

Marching across the well-worn path toward the barns, Caleb at his side, was a feeling as familiar as breathing to Walker, yet…strange. Something felt different. Caleb seemed more centered. More whole.

And he…

He was different, but damn if Walker could figure out what was bugging him, other than his feet were restless and his roots felt disturbed. He felt like a tumbleweed that was wishing it was time to dig in deep, but the winds weren’t finished with it yet.

They worked in silence for a while, Walker because he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to say and Caleb because the man had the patience of a rock. Walker wasn’t sure it was possible to outlast his brother.

When it came to waiting it out, Caleb always had been the best of them.

But apparently, Tamara’s presence had brought about another change, because before Walker could find a way to introduce the topic, Caleb did.

“Tamara touched on it, but I guess I should straight-up tell you that we didn’t expect you to show up. Not until after the Stampede.”

Walker stroked a hand over Hannibal’s nose. “Needed a break.”

“Not a problem on our end.” Caleb looked thoughtful before adding, “Problems on your end?”

Caleb had to have seen or heard about Walker’s near-disastrous final run. “I didn’t get hurt, if that’s what you’re asking. Shook me up a bit, though. I guess I need some time to figure out if this is really what I want to do for a while longer or if it’s time to get out of the chute.”

His brother stopped working, turning his full attention on Walker. Yeah, the near admission he was close to quitting rodeo had to be a bit of a shocker.

Yet if he couldn’t find a way to deal with his problem that was exactly what was going to have to happen. And if he found a way to deal with this problem, there was the whole other possibility he hadn’t even yet mentioned to his family.

The secrets were building, fast and thick.

Caleb’s gaze grew as solid and firm as his response. “Find your feet. We’re here for you. Whatever you need.”

Even as relief rushed over him, Walker felt as if he were all of the companions on Emma’s Yellow Brick Road. He wasn’t smart enough to figure this out. He’d had a heart once, but it had been taken from him. His courage was in the shitter. And coming home was the only thing he had—yet something felt off.

But he’d spend more time pondering it when he wasn’t tying up his brother’s night. “I know you’ve got my back, and I’m glad. Thanks.” He eyed Caleb with suspicion. “What’s up with Dustin?”

A huge sigh escaped Caleb. “Other than he seems obsessed with my wife?”

Walker attempted to hold back a laugh and failed miserably. “Oh my God, are you jealous our kid brother is getting attention from Tamara?”

“Not jealous, not really. It’s just…it’s not right.” Caleb looked as grumpy and gloomy as he had a year ago, before Tamara had come into his life. “She’s…I mean, there’s nothing wrong. And she would never…and Dustin would never. But…she’s mine, dammit.”

Oh brother. In the category of things Walker had never expected to have to deal with…

He schooled his expression to stay as straight and serious as possible. “I didn’t see anything wrong with what the kid was doing tonight during dinner, so unless he’s been stepping over the line at other times…?”

Caleb looked sheepish. “No. I’m just grumpy, I guess.”

“You said it, not me,” Walker teased softly. “It looks as if Dustin is admiring your taste in choosing a lifetime partner this go-round. Tamara can handle some hero-worship without it going to her head.”

“Of course she can. And the kid isn’t doing anything wrong—you’re right about that. He’s always underfoot, though. I swear Dustin moved back in when I wasn’t looking.”

“It’s not just Tamara, bro. He wants to be around you. That’s not a bad thing. You’ve been a dad to him for longer than our father was in his life.”

Caleb stilled. “You’re right. God, I hadn’t even thought of it that way.”

And most of the time Walker wouldn’t have either, but the truth was the years since his parents’ accident had been weighing heavily on his mind.

Seeing Ivy had brought back more than just the good memories from their high school days.

One snowy February day, the lives of the Stone family had been irrevocably changed. The stabbing pain of guilt crashed against him, and Walker had to turn away in case it showed on his face.

Luckily, Caleb had moved on to problem-solving. “Maybe it’s time I do like Dad did to me when I was first starting out. Get Dustin put on a few more long-range cattle drives. Give him some more responsibility.”

“Things that send him away from home a little more?”

“Still with Ashton or some of the hands he knows best.” Caleb nodded slowly. “That could work.”

“It doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me.” Walker leaned back against the nearest support post. “If there’s any new stock that needs to be picked up in Montana or the Dakotas, he’s old enough to do the drive.”

“We’re not doing any buying for a while, Walker. Budget has been tightened down and watched closely.” Caleb’s body posture stiffened with the admission.

The confession had all the signs of a big problem. “How much trouble is Silver Stone in?”

Caleb’s hesitation was too clear. “Not sure yet. The floods a couple years back did more damage than we realized. And I didn’t want to bother you when you’d just left, but we ended up having to cull part of the herd in late February. Even though supply demands were down, we had to buy feed—I should let you talk to Tamara because she’s been doing the books, but, yeah. It’s not good. We’ve got that oil exploration thing started, but so far there’s little progress. We have to buckle down for now.”

It wasn’t at all what Walker had expected to hear. Silver Stone Ranch had done well. Maybe not outrageously successful over the years, but they’d always earned more than enough to get by. Or at least that’s what he’d thought, although it had been Caleb and Luke making the decisions.

“Well, I’m sure you can turn it around,” Walker assured his brother.

“We’ll do our damnedest.”

They worked together until it was time for Caleb to head back to the house where his family was waiting for him—to his little girls and the woman who’d joined them and filled the place with love.

Where their little brother was probably hanging out, being both a pain in Caleb’s ass and a reminder of everything he’d accomplished and worked toward after being tossed into a position of responsibility so many years ago.

Walker turned, feeling very alone and useless.

It seemed inevitable he’d end up on the hillside where his parents’ graves were, overlooking the two lakes. He slid off Hannibal’s back and let the reins fall to the ground as he stepped toward the simple stone markers.

A lingering gust of wind swept in, icy cold from passing over still-snowclad mountains to the west. That’s all it was, but what it felt like was death brushing past, carrying a memory of the hurt and the pain of those early days. The sorrow and the guilt.

Walker stared down at the two gravestones, side by side. “I hate that we never had time to change things, Dad,” he admitted. “Of all the shitty days for me to pick a fight.”

Although, it had been less about Walker being an ass and more about his father pointing the fact out to him…

 

 

Walker had known he was going to be late for chores again, but this time it wasn’t deliberate. He’d been fooling around at Heart Falls, tossing rocks against the frozen surface and daydreaming about Ivy when his horse had up and taken off on him.

He’d been halfway home on foot when his dad rode up and held out a hand.

Walker took it, swinging up behind his father. They’d rode in silence for the time it took to get back to the barns.

He’d tried to bolt the minute they got within range, but his dad called him back. “Your horse is in his stall. Give him a brush down before you get to your chores.”

“Yes, sir.”

Walter Stone looked him over. “That’s all you got to say?”

“I tethered him, I don’t know why he decided to take off on me. It’s not my fault.”

His dad raised a brow. “Accidents happen, but maybe you shouldn’t have gone out for a ride when you knew chores were due to start.”

“I would’ve only been a little bit late, even if I had to walk the whole way,” Walker had grumbled. “It’s not a big deal.”

“Come on. I might’ve accepted that when you were fourteen, but you’ve got a month to go before you’re considered an adult by most of the world. Eighteen is old enough to be able to tell time and get your ass in here to do your job.”

“I’ll work late,” Walker snapped.

“Some of the time that works, but not when you’re supposed to go out with the crew. And I don’t know why I’m having to explain this to you, because this isn’t the first time. You need to buck up and do your part. You’re not a kid. You can’t expect your older brothers to pick up the slack for you anymore. They’ve got enough on their shoulders. They don’t need to be responsible for you as well.”

Walter Stone had folded his arms over his chest, disappointment written all over his face, and damn if that wasn’t the worst possible thing.

Walker had hated that his dad was upset. Worse, he’d known that he was in the wrong, but spitting the words out seemed impossible.

Which had only pushed him to be even more stupid, because that’s what seventeen-year-olds did. “If I’m so damn terrible, fire me. I’ll find myself another place and get out of your sight and off your land as soon as I can.”

“Now you’re just being stupid to try and rile me up. You know we don’t want you to leave. This is your home—”

“Doesn’t have to be,” Walker muttered.

His dad had shut up then, the two of them eyeing each other as a kind of power surged through the air around them. Finally, his dad had straightened, folded his arms and nodded once. “Make up your mind what’s important to you. Your mom and I are going with the Hayes family to Calgary this weekend. You want to laze around on your ass, so be it, but remember it’s Caleb and Luke you’re letting down. It’s the rest of the people relying on you, and in the end, it’s yourself. We’ll talk more when I get back.”

 

He’d never come back.

Not the caring man who’d tried to teach Walker about responsibility; just his body, cut from the car along with Walker’s mom, and their family friends.

Walter and Deb Stone had been laid to rest overlooking the ranch they’d built with their own hands. Built with sweat and hard labour, and now Caleb was saying it was possible the ranch might be lost.

Walker had a lot of experience with the sensation of feeling out of control, but it never got any easier to face.

He lowered himself to the cold bench beside the graves, the wooden slats worn from the harsh winters and rough with age.

It finally struck him—this was why he felt so strange, so rootless and lost. Because up until now he’d been coasting along and not doing anything worthwhile. He had nothing of value to offer anyone.

It was time to change that. While he still wasn’t sure he was capable, at least now he knew what he needed to strive for.

“You were right, Dad. Caleb and Luke have more than enough responsibilities, and it’s my turn to do my part and step up to the plate. I’m sorry it’s taken me eleven years to really learn the lesson, but I think I’ve got it now.”

He’d come home because home was where a person came when everything else fell apart. What he needed to do was deal with his fears so he could help.

The ranch needed money? Well, he couldn’t do much being a ranch hand other than day-to-day tasks. Out there on the rodeo, though, there was real money to be made. And the other possibility, the one he hardly dared think about because it seemed so outrageous—there was money to be made there too. Lots of it.

Talk about singing for your supper.

But he couldn’t make money riding bulls, and he couldn’t make money from singing if he was going to be shut down and catatonic with fear when he least expected it. He needed to find a way to deal with these damn panic attacks, and maybe that was something he could do here at home.

But as soon as he got a handle on them—as soon as he found some way to cope—he’d have to leave. If it was his turn to make a sacrifice, so be it.

There was the irony. In order to save his home, he had to leave it.

 

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