Read the first chapter from A Rancher’s Bride here!
For the umpteenth time that day, the ground rose up and slapped Luke Stone silly.
The initial moment of contact knocked the wind from him, but the smack to the bruise already forming on his hip was the real kicker. He stayed in motion, rolling instinctively to his hands and knees. Lying on his back on the cold January snow and groaning in pain wasn’t an option unless he wanted a hoof print branded onto any vital parts.
The world was still spinning when he shoved a hand in the air to indicate he was breathing and somewhat alive.
The signal gave his brothers permission to jeer.
“I swear you bounced that time, bro.” Walker marched across the arena to offer a hand. He hauled Luke to his feet, not even attempting to hide his smirk.
Luke brushed the snow and dirt from his jeans, forcing a good-natured response, although it was tough with all the faces eyeing him with amusement. Even his kid brother, Dustin, wore a grin.
The three of them had shown up to watch him work the new mare he’d offered to train. It was the way they’d always done things at Silver Stone ranch—since the death of their parents they’d worked together, played together, fought together.
And yes, laughed together, occasionally at each other.
Caleb was the oldest by a couple years and had been in charge since that fateful day. Luke had no problem when his big brother winked over his shoulder then headed after the mare to bring her back for Luke to try again. And Walker, while a couple years younger than Luke, was a champion bull rider. He’d earned the right to laugh at anyone who came off the back of a beast unwillingly.
Dustin, though? Hell no.
Luke pointed a finger at the twenty-year-old. “Laugh it up. You wouldn’t last two seconds on her.”
The youth was smart enough not to argue. “Still entertaining to watch you land on your ass.”
His wide smile was taunting but one hundred percent family, and when Dustin swung over the railing to join Caleb as he walked Chili Pepper, Luke decided this time he’d let the kid off easy.
Walker laid a hand on his shoulder. “Ready to call it a day?”
Luke shrugged, eyeing the filly carefully as his brothers paced her around the arena. “I’m not going to get her trained if I give up the first time she throws me.”
“First time? Math never was your strong suit,” Walker teased gently before folding his arms and checking him over with an experienced eye. “You’re hurting, Luke. I can tell from the way you’re moving one of those landings scored a little too hard.”
“Maybe. Doesn’t matter—I can go for a bit longer.”
Walker seemed about to say something more but then shook his head, glancing at his watch. “You’ll be black and blue tomorrow, but the truth is, you need to stop because we all have other things to do. And you know the rules—you’re not working a wild ride without backup.”
Caleb and Dustin had reached them by that point, the mare standing like an angel at the end of the lead line. The cantankerous creature that had bucked him off a dozen times running was now all sweetness and light. She moved forward and crowded him with her head, batting at his belly to push him toward the barn.
Luke wrapped his arms around Pepper and patted her nose. “Bossy creature.”
“See? Even she knows it’s time to call it quits.” Caleb offered a satisfied grumble, his gaze fixed on something outside the arena.
Luke turned to discover Caleb’s children making their way across the snowy path from the ranch house. “It’s time for you to stop, at least,” Luke admitted.
“Ivy is expecting me, as well,” Walker added. “There’s some kind of ‘past New Year’s, but as close to it as we could get’ fundraiser meet-and-greet for the school board, so I have to go put on a suit and tie.”
All four of them groaned at the same moment, three of them in sympathy. Walker’s fiancée was the vice principal at the local elementary school, which meant she was pretty involved in all sorts of community activities.
Big brother Caleb was now happily married to Tamara, and while she was eating crackers and drinking ginger ale, they were thrilled to be adding another kid to go with the two mischievous girls approaching the arena.
Luke was glad his brothers had found partners who made them happy. Still kind of dug a knife into his gut considering his failed relationship had been over for only a few months.
Even Dustin chortled with glee as he shared his evening plans. “I have a date tonight.”
“Really?” Walker’s tone turned serious. “I heard you were going over to Ivy’s parents’ house. Are you seeing one of her sisters?”
Dustin’s eyes widened for a brief second before he turned all nonchalant. “None of your business if I were.”
Luke and Caleb glanced at each other, exchanging an oh shit, he didn’t go there look.
“Death wish?” Caleb asked Luke drily.
“Brain dead. It hasn’t registered yet that the body is soon to follow.”
Walker glanced at them, his lips twitching before he pulled his serious expression back in the line. “Spill the beans,” he ordered Dustin.
Their youngest brother rolled his eyes. “Number one, you guys have zero sense of humour. Just thought I should point that out in case you were under some misconception. Number two, it really is none of your business, but because you look as if you’re ready to draw and quarter me, no, I’m not dating one of the Fields sisters. Not because they aren’t awesome, but two of them are way too old for me and Rose is a good friend. But Rose’s best friend, Kandi with a K, is damn hot.”
Luke was going to develop an eye twitch trying to keep a straight face while enjoying a side-eye exchange with Caleb and Walker. “Kandi?”
“…with a k. Awww, that’s sweet—” Walker began, only to be interrupted as their nieces climbed on the fence, shouting for Caleb.
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.”
Caleb smacked a hand on Luke’s shoulder. “The summonses have been pronounced. I’ll see you all tomorrow.”
Walker took off in one direction, and Dustin and Caleb in another, and suddenly Luke stood alone in the arena with Chili Pepper nudging his pockets, looking for treats.
“Looks as if all the Stone boys have hot dates tonight,” Luke teased at his own expense. He slid a hand along Pepper’s neck and gave her a pat as he led her toward her stall. “You and me, we’re doing fine. Only we need to talk about this habit you have of wanting control. I don’t mind sharing the reins now and then, but when a guy says he wants to be in charge, he means it.”
He twisted on the spot as he opened the gate, and the creaking floorboards beneath his boots fell silent for a brief moment. Long enough to let a light snicker reach his ears.
He sighed mightily, shaking his head in exasperation as he looked up into the hayloft. “Your eavesdropping is going to get you in trouble someday, Kelli James.”
“Maybe, but in the meanwhile, it sure is damn educational.” She swung into view, slipping past the railing to drop to her jean-covered butt on the outer edge of the loft. Her well-worn cowboy boots hung toward the floor, kicking lazily as she smiled down. Her dark-brown hair twisted in two braids over her shoulders, brown eyes snapping with mischief.
Luke leaned a shoulder against the pen. “Since you’re here, make yourself useful. Grab a couple of brushes and you can help give Pepper a rubdown.”
What the woman should’ve done was get to her feet and head to the side wall where the ladder was. Not Kelli. She gave him a quick nod then flung herself headlong, falling from a height that was enough to break her fool neck considering she was nearly a foot shorter than his six-foot-two.
Luke lurched forward involuntarily to catch her. No matter that he’d seen her do this dozens of times over the years, it still caught him by surprise. At the last second, she caught hold of the pipe attached to one wall and used it to guide her to the floor.
She smacked down with one heck of an impact, but at least her feet were the first to land and not her head.
He bit his tongue and refused to give her the pleasure of cursing or scolding her. She already knew he thought it was a reckless move.
Kelli was light on her feet—he had to give her that. And she didn’t dawdle as she grabbed what she needed.
Luke headed in the other direction to scoop up feed for the mare, tossing some oats in a nosebag before joining Kelli at Pepper’s side.
She handed him a brush. “Any orders, boss?”
He deliberately loosened his jaw to keep from grinding his teeth. “You’re exceptionally annoying tonight,” he said calmly. “I’m not your boss, and you know it. Ashton is.”
“You’re still in charge more than I am, so technically I can call you boss. Boss.” She glanced at him judgmentally before giving his butt a firm smack with the stiff brush bristles. “And my good day just got even better because you have shit on your ass, and I don’t.”
Luke sighed. He hadn’t gone unscathed during his time bouncing off the ground thanks to Pepper’s lack of enthusiasm for him as a rider. “Comes with the territory,” he muttered before getting to work. “Glad you had a good day, though. What were you doing?”
Kelli went on to tell him what she’d been busy with, helping their foreman Ashton deal with some of the rowdier stock. As she spoke, her hands kept moving, the bristles sliding smoothly again and again. Confident and sure, just like always.
She’d been a part of Silver Stone ranch for nearly as long as they’d been running the place without their parents. And it didn’t surprise him to hear that Ashton was using her for some more delicate tasks, although it did worry him at times that she was out the middle of the herd with animals big enough to crush her with a thoughtless move.
But even now as Pepper adjusted her stance, Kelli slid forward, almost as if she was dancing with the horse. She slid an arm around her neck and used Pepper’s momentum to reach up her withers.
“I think tomorrow you should let me help,” Kelli said firmly.
Luke blinked, not sure where the conversation had gone. “Help? With what?”
Kelli slid the rest of the way around to stand beside him, smirking as if she knew a secret. “Is it past your bedtime?” she teased. “Awfully late for somebody old like you to be up.”
He folded his arms over his chest and glared. “Don’t be rude. What’re you talking about?”
Pepper chose that moment to complain. While he and Kelli were still standing in the pen with her, neither of them was giving her any attention. Like horses the world over who wanted to criticize, she made her point by shifting her balance and pressing her considerable weight toward them.
Luke twisted out of the way before he could be trapped against the stall boards. Kelli ducked under the horse’s belly, popping up on the other side and climbing until she sat on the top divider.
They grinned at each other.
Then Kelli got that look in her eyes. The one that said she was getting ready to ask for a favour—also known as tormenting him until he gave in.
“I want to help with Pepper. You know I can do it. I bet she’d love for me to train her.”
Luke examined Kelli closer. The petite woman was perched on the wooden barrier like some kind of barn pixie. After eight years of working at Silver Stone she was as much a part of the place as the rest of the crew, and as familiar as his brothers. She was good with the horses. Damn good.
Considering the goal of training Pepper was to make her a good mount for the owner’s daughter, who probably weighed about what Kelli did—
Only he was still responsible. “Yes, you can help, but not yet.”
The excitement on her face flashed and faded quickly as he spoke. “What does that mean?”
“It means you have work to do for Ashton, so you’re not going to be available all the time, anyway. Plus, as much as you insist Pepper likes you, she’s not ready for different people to be getting on her back.”
Kelli nodded, thoughtful agreement in her expression. “But you’ll let me help when she hits the next stage?”
“I’d love your help,” he told her honestly.
“Super.” She flipped backward into the empty stall behind them and once again his heart did this strange stop-start jolt.
“Dammit, woman,” he muttered, patting Pepper farewell before rejoining Kelli in the main walkway.
“I promise I’ll do good job,” Kelli assured him.
“Just don’t go skipping out on your other tasks trying get to helping me sooner,” he warned.
The eye rolling commenced again.
“As if,” she snarked. “You really think Ashton would let me get away with that? Even if you think I’m dumb enough to try it in the first place, which I’m not.”
He wouldn’t have been surprised to see her stick out her tongue at him like his niece Sasha.
But, no, even though at times she seemed younger than the twenty-six years he’d seen on their payroll record, Kelli wasn’t given to high drama. Probably part of why he liked her so much.
Of all the hands who had been around Silver Stone over the years, Kelli was rock-solid. Good sense of humour, good work ethic—
Damn good with horses. Even now she was blowing kisses at all the stock as she walked ahead of him, pausing to say hello and offer pats and treats to every beast she passed.
Then she was gone, headed off to her rooms on the west side of the bunkhouse. Luke glanced around, but it was pretty much him and the ranch dogs that were waiting to see if he did anything exciting.
He offered them a pat on the head and a scratch behind the ears but kept walking, headed away from the main ranch house and toward the place he’d been building for the last couple of years. The house that had taken so long because his fiancée Penny had been shit at making decisions and sticking to them.
Their relationship had finally fallen apart back in late August, to his unconfessed relief. He still didn’t know what Penny really thought about him calling their engagement off, but he doubted she was pining for him or anything. They hadn’t had that type of relationship.
Still, it felt weird to think he nearly had a finished house of his own. Over the past four months, since he hadn’t needed to spend time with his fiancée, or get everything approved by her, or change things because she’d changed her mind, he’d been able to get tons done on the place.
Funny how that worked. Time on his hands, no one else to have to run decisions by. It made the work go a heck of a lot faster.
That was about the only positive thing he could think of—
And this wasn’t where he wanted his brain to go. He didn’t want to dwell on the fact he’d spent a lot of time and energy on a relationship that had failed.
Didn’t want to think too hard about building a house on land that, unless things turned around, might not belong to the Stone family by the end of the year.
Luke stomped through the door of his almost finished mudroom. He was starving. Plus, Walker had been right. His body ached from head to toe after getting bucked far too many times.
He was also filthy, which Kelli had been so eager to point out. But the roar emerging from his belly said it was food first, then a shower. Then he’d have to figure out something to pass the rest of the evening.
It was just not right that the rest of his brothers had people to spend the evening with and he didn’t—he was the charming one in the family, dammit.
Luke walked through the kitchen, plugging in his phone and turning on his laptop. He grabbed leftover pizza from the fridge, pulling a stool over with a foot and dropping onto it to check his emails. He ate one piece of pizza cold while the rest reheated in the microwave.
It was incredible how much crap email a person got daily. There were a couple of messages from his sisters that he marked to read once he had cleared out the mess when his eye fell on a far more interesting subject title.
Triple Crown Gala.
A laugh burst free, and he nearly choked on the piece of pizza in his mouth. “Yeah, me and a gala. Good one.”
Except something twigged in his brain. Why did this sound familiar?
The message was from a trusted friend. Bertram Cooper was a go-between. He found horses for buyers, or suggested stud placements or training opportunities. Silver Stone had been lucky to count Bert as a friend, and some of their top deals over the years had been brokered by him, so Luke opened the message, curiosity, suspicion and that echo of importance he just couldn’t remember vying for top billing.
With Bert’s twisted sense of humour, the man was probably setting Luke up for an all-you-can-eat chicken-wing night and pulling his leg.
Yet when the microwave beeped another reminder the time was up, Luke continued to ignore it because the email was not a tease or a joke or bullshit.
Bertram had gotten wind of a spectacular event happening in the area and had wrangled Luke an invite. It was a gala. A buyers-and-sellers, by-invitation-only gathering of the elite in horse breeders of North America.
Not a time with actual horses and cash exchanging hands, but a meet-and-greet with spouses and families, and—
Luke’s mind raced at the possibilities. For the past while, Silver Stone ranch had been going through some rough weather. They were nowhere near out of the woods yet, even though Walker had topped up the family coffers last fall after some amazing rodeo payouts. The ranch had to take the next step, which should involve the horses Luke had been working on diligently over the years. It was their best shot, and this invitation was a golden ticket falling into his lap.
He glanced through the information more thoroughly, shuddering at the price tag attached to the event. Thank God it was being held just hours away in Kananaskis Country, which meant they’d be able to drive and not have to fly to Texas or Kentucky.
A few quick calculations and it was clear that even one new sale would cancel out the oversized price tag, and this gala wasn’t likely to trigger a one-off transaction. These events were king makers.
That’s why this sounded familiar. His ex-fiancée, Penny, and her family had been in a similar situation years ago. The right place at the right time at a gathering very similar to this—and they’d never looked back.
The gala was exactly what Silver Stone needed.
The message from Bert was clear and concise.
Got word of this shindig. Organizers asked me for a couple of recommendations of up-and-coming breeders, and I thought of you. I don’t have to tell you this is a Big Deal event. If I had an operation like yours, I’d be drooling at the opportunity. Feel free to send me a bottle of the good stuff down the road.
Heads up on a couple of things: the group is a bit old school, which doesn’t mean they expect you to bring a wife, but a fiancée is better than a girlfriend. And while they’re up-to-date enough they won’t make you sleep in separate rooms, they do want to deal with family operations. So for fuck’s sake, be sure you bring your fiancée. Don’t let her give you grief on this one.
Best of luck, and I’ll see you soon. I’ve got a couple of requests I’ll send your way come the spring. Touch base if you need anything sooner.
Part of his brain was analyzing and considering, but Luke’s hands were already moving because this wasn’t something he needed to think about too hard. The gala could save the ranch, so he absolutely had to be there. It wasn’t his fault Bert wasn’t up-to-date on the fact he and Penny had called off their engagement.
The tip about family operations, though—that was a good piece of intel.
Luke clicked through the invitation to a Google doc to fill in the required information. The name of the ranch, their top horses and studs to date.
He got a lot of pleasure out of being able to list animals he’d been instrumental in raising. He wasn’t just blowing smoke out his ass. Silver Stone was one of the top ranches at their size of operation. They just needed a break to move to the next level.
He filled in his personal history without blinking. It was only when he got to the section that asked for the name of his spouse/significant other that Luke paused.
Bert’s message had been received. Luke was not going to this gig as a single male even though that’s how everything had been until recently at Silver Stone. Just because they hadn’t been a family with spouses didn’t mean that they weren’t family, but he wasn’t about to argue with already-set prejudices.
Caleb and Tamara were out. Caleb didn’t like the schmoozing, and Tamara was so sick due to her pregnancy that she’d spend the entire time in the bathroom. Walker and Ivy were out…
He could contact his ex and ask her to do him a favour, but that was risky. Part of the reason their engagement hadn’t worked was Penny was unpredictable, and he didn’t trust her. A family event meant they would have to at least pretend to like each other.
They didn’t hate each other. It’s just that they were kind of indifferent, which had always been the problem in their relationship. At least outside the bedroom.
Nope. There was a far simpler solution, especially when he started thinking about the whole concept of family. Maybe it wasn’t what the organizers were thinking, but as far as he was concerned she was as good as family. He filled in the blank space without a qualm, tapping the computer keys happily.
Luke hit send then got up to add another minute to the pizza in the microwave.
Hell, Kelli would love to come with him. The honest truth was she’d done a lot over the years to help create what Silver Stone had going, and it would be a great opportunity for her to get to know some key people.
Plus, it was a holiday. Who wouldn’t want to go hang out at a fancy hotel in the middle of the Rocky Mountains for a few days with no chores?
Energy surged through him. Getting a new lease on the future did that to a man, it seemed. After he got cleaned up, heck, he might have to head out dancing for the night.
Luke sent off a quick message to a friend, then settled in front of the TV, clicking through channels until he found something borderline interesting to watch while he ate his pizza.
Funny how fate could step in and change your entire world when you least expected it.