First Chapter of A Rancher's Heart
A Rancher’s Heart is coming soon! Get the first sneak peak of Chapter One today.
October, Silver Stone ranch
Caleb Stone ran like hell.
He wasn’t prone to moving at high speeds, and he sure didn’t think jogging was a thing any red-blooded man did for entertainment, but at that moment, running wasn’t about anything except survival. Caleb tucked in his chin, pumped his arms and drove his feet into the ground, sprinting full-out toward the nearest fence.
Two feet away he dove, thrusting his hands forward to propel himself through the metal railings.
He went down hard, body slamming into the dust and mud outside the pen.
The furious bull on his heels jerked to a stop inches from the fence, snorting a final warning. The beast glared between the rails as if daring Caleb to step back into his territory.
Check out the new bull, will you? Caleb could hear his brother Luke’s request. Fine. The beast was checked, and it appeared he was wildly cranky and not too pleased with his new owners.
“Impressive bit of flying.”
Caleb rolled to stare at the sky, ignoring the pain in his body. If he lay there for long enough, his annoying baby brother might find something better to do.
Unfortunately, good sense didn’t come in large packages amongst his five younger siblings. Neither did the concept of showing a man mercy when he was down.
Dark brown eyes in a familiar, yet younger version of his own face stared back as Dustin leaned over, his amused smirk far too broad considering the kid was only nineteen, a full sixteen years Caleb’s junior.
Caleb raised a brow, deliberately offering as little emotion as possible. As if he were lying on his backside because that was exactly where he meant to be. “Need something?”
Dustin shook his head before changing his mind and nodding. “Luke’s looking for you. He’s in the main barn.”
Caleb got to his feet, clenching his teeth to keep from moaning as a sharp pain shot through his ribs. Nothing was broken—that sensation was familiar to him as well. He’d only banged and bumped himself this go-around, but no way he was going to give any of the young punks he worked with the satisfaction of knowing how much taking a tumble had begun to hurt.
He wasn’t old. Thirty-five wasn’t old, damn it.
“I’ll be there in a minute.” He checked his watch then eyed Dustin. “How come you’re not working?”
Dustin grinned. “I am working. Luke’s got me doing fence checks for the rest of the afternoon. You were kinda on the way to where I left the quad.”
His little brother—the kid was as tall as Caleb but still had a few years of filling out to do—adjusted his hat then sauntered off, whistling. Moving slowly, but at least in the right direction.
Caleb recovered his own hat before heading the opposite way, picking up the reins from where he’d ground-tethered his horse. He swung a leg over her back and turned toward the barn.
Dustin wasn’t a bad kid. For all Caleb’s concerns about having to raise his siblings after his parents had died suddenly in a car crash, they’d all turned out pretty good. A little more reckless than Caleb appreciated. Like Walker, brother number three, who was currently on the circuit risking his fool neck.
Though, they were all fools. Ranching was a potshot—success subject to the whims of weather and the ever-changing price of livestock. There were no guarantees at the end of the day.
The only certain things were chores and bills.
Luke joined him as he entered the barn, his far too astute brother giving him a close once-over before grinning. “What’d you think of the new bull?”
Caleb held his expression in check. “Seemed sound enough.”
Luke nodded. “I thought he was moving a little uneasy. Slightly lame on the foreside.”
Not that Caleb had noticed, but then it was hard to judge a beast’s gait while fleeing for your life in front of the working end of the horns rather than admiring from a safe distance.
“Keep an eye on it,” he ordered. “What’s up?”
Luke’s easygoing smile faded. “I’ve been double-checking our feed supply, and depending on how hard a winter we get, things might get tight. We’re running more head this year, and with the floods two springs ago, we lost a lot of ground.”
Caleb let his brother talk him through what they had stockpiled, but he couldn’t remember enough details from the previous year to give a firm answer off the top of his head. “All the records are in the office. I’ll check them, but at this point there’s not much we can do except hope for the best.”
Luke nodded. “Just thought I should mention it.”
The two of them paced through the main barn in companionable silence. The familiar posts and beams that formed their playground growing up was now a base that provided their adult living.
“The new nanny gets here today, right?”
The topic Caleb’d been trying hard not to obsess over—the upheaval in the household about to take place. While he was desperately happy there would be someone to help take care of Sasha and Emma, Caleb was damn sure this was the worst-great idea he’d ever agreed to.
Those little girls were his sunshine and light. Now nine and seven, it had been four years since he and their mother had divorced. Sasha had accepted the change with stoic resignation, but Emma had gone quieter than before. She’d never been a huge chatterbox, but now she rarely spoke, and never to strangers.
Still, they knew he loved them—he made sure of that each and every day. Hiring a full-time nanny was supposed to fill in the missing gaps and help keep everything in their worlds spinning right.
That made the coming awkwardness bearable, because Tamara—
Yeah, it was going to be awkward.
“Said she’d be here by evening.”
Luke nodded. “You must be looking forward to having a woman around the place again.”
Caleb held his tongue as he headed to the nearest horse and bent to check its hooves so he didn’t have to look his brother in the face. Tamara Coleman, the soon-to-arrive nanny, was most definitely a woman to look forward to. Bold yet feminine, just the way he liked. Soft edges and bright spark, luscious and…and he adjusted position uncomfortably.
Didn’t that just figure? The first woman to tempt him since his wife had left, and she had to be the most hands-off prospect around.
He stuck to the facts. “It’ll be good to have her here. The girls need a woman’s touch in their lives. God knows I’m not the one to give it to them.”
Luke snorted but he didn’t move, waiting until Caleb had to put the hoof down or look like a fool.
The instant their eyes met Luke shook a finger at him. “You might not have a woman’s touch, whatever the hell that means, but those girls love you. You’re a damn good daddy to them, so don’t go putting yourself down. It’s not your fault you’ve had to be both mom and dad.”
“I appreciate the good word, but the truth is a guy can only go so far raising a couple of little girls. And now that Ginny and Dare are gone—”
His sister and foster sister had done more than they ever should’ve since his wife left, but they’d both moved out earlier that fall. One to travel, one to set up her own home.
“You’re doing the right thing getting a nanny in full time.” Amusement danced in Luke’s eyes. “I’m just saying your girls aren’t the only ones who’d appreciate a woman’s touch right about now.”
Luke’s comments were cutting him to the core. Caleb and Tamara’s first meeting had been brief, but memorable. Mostly because he spent the nights after their encounter tangled up in lustful dreams. Long, dark brown hair, flashing eyes, curves that didn’t quit. Curves that made him daydream about learning her so thoroughly he could move over her with his eyes closed.
Would Caleb appreciate the woman’s touch right about now?
Caleb ignored the answer he wasn’t about to give. “This is not about having a woman in the house for anything other than being a nanny. Make that clear to anyone who says otherwise.” Although he was bull-shitting himself pretending the thought of Tamara being around wasn’t enough to make his libido kick into overdrive. “I don’t want her spooked off before we even give this a chance.”
“You won’t spook her—you’re solid and predictable.” Luke smacked him on the shoulder. “I’ll make sure I remind the hands again, and I’m taken, so you’ll just have to warn off Walker when he gets home. Oh, and Dusty.”
“She’s nearly thirty,” Caleb drawled. “You really think she’d be interested in Dustin?”
“He may be young, but he’s a Stone.” Luke waggled his brows. “The ladies like us.”
Caleb resisted rolling his eyes. “You’re so full of shit.”
Luke just grinned harder.
A quick check of his watch poked Caleb into action. “I need to get moving to finish before the girls are home from school.”
His brother considered. “You know what? I’ll take a break and meet the bus. I haven’t seen the girls in a few days, and I’ll be gone next week. Let me take care of them. Once you’re done working, go grab a little freedom before you have to get your new employee all trained up.”
New employee. God.
Caleb wasn’t sure if it was a blessing or curse, but he nodded. “Spaghetti sauce is in the crockpot, so you don’t need anything—”
Luke waved a hand. “I can figure it out,” he said easily. “Ginny and Dare aren’t the only ones who’ve spent time taking care of your kids.”
An arrow of guilt shot straight through Caleb, the barbs on the shaft slicing hard.
Luke must’ve seen him cringe. “Hey, that wasn’t a complaint. I’m damn glad to spend time as Uncle Luke. But you should go before I change my mind and make you do my chores in exchange.”
Caleb slapped him on the shoulder in thanks.
He finished a couple tasks in the barn over the next hour before using that free time. He let his horse take her head as they wandered toward wherever, thoughts drifting until he realized they were headed to what had to be his favourite spot on the whole Silver Stone ranch.
Obviously, his horse felt the same way as she glided down to the pool at the base of Heart Falls.
The land in this small section was accessible from a road off the public highway, and it had been willed over to the community. The family had placed a bench far above the water for people to sit and enjoy the view. On warm summer nights teenagers used the trail to get to the rocks so they could jump into the cool depths, and they’d occasionally ask permission to float down the river that started there and passed through Silver Stone.
Caleb sat on Lacey’s back and stared over the water, watching the sun glitter off the water’s surface, like sunshine on morning dew. He took a deep breath of the fresh air, and the sound of the falls rolled through him and soothed the tension that had built up.
As head of Silver Stone ranch, he had to make the right decisions. If he screwed up, they could lose it all, but in that a moment right there and then, it was if the land itself said everything is going to be okay.
God, he hoped it was true.
He closed his eyes and took another deep breath, soaking it in. Feeling calm settle into his soul, and it felt good.
Until it didn’t.
An unwelcome sensation stole over him. He slid off his horse, dropping the reins to let her graze as he fought with himself.
How had Luke described him? Solid and predictable? Fah. Code words for old and boring. As if the only reason a woman would be willing to come and stay in his house was because he was safe.
Which wasn’t all bad. Hell if he wanted Tamara, or anyone else to be scared of him, but—
He found himself grasping the bottom of his shirt, lifting it over his head as he toed off his boots and stripped. A full-out grin rose to his cheeks. The water would be icy cold. It was probably the last week of the year before snow fell in earnest, but to hell with logic.
Not known for his impulsive moves? Try this one on for size.
He stepped to the edge of the rocks and stared into the deep blue depths.
I bet Tamara would be daring enough to jump.
The mental tease sent another shot of lust through him along with the naked image of his soon-to-be but very-much-hands-off nanny…
Jeez, now he needed the ice water to cool the fire in his veins.
Considering voyeurism wasn’t one of Tamara’s kinks, she’d had more run-ins with nudity than the average woman. Even now as she sat minding her own business, she had to admit the surprise show was proving spectacular.
Shadows cast by the towering pines to the west were playing peekaboo with his face, and he was mostly in profile, but even if the man had been in full sun she was far enough away she wouldn’t have been able to spot details like facial features. She had no idea who he was, which meant she didn’t know if she should feel guilty for ogling him.
He could be a married man, or the Heart Falls Community Church pastor communing with nature—although if that was the local man of the cloth, she was about to have a religious experience.
Ignorance was one benefit of being new to town.
It was also a downfall as she’d have all sorts of new to contend with over the next days and weeks. She was mostly looking forward to it. After twenty-nine years in one spot, the idea of a fresh start appealed to her. She was going to miss her family, most of them, but a change had been needed.
Her mystery man was now naked from the waist up, his face hidden in shadows. Solid muscles flexed in his biceps and chest as he shoved his jeans and the rest to the ground. She wished her observation spot on the trail was a little closer to the pool, because while the view was lovely, it was too far away to offer details beyond generalities. Trim hips, strong thighs. Not an inch of fat on him.
She pushed her glasses into place and sighed happily.
Yes, this new beginning was going to work just fine if this was how they did things in Heart Falls.
The star of her floor show stepped to the edge of the rocks and paused long enough for Tamara to take a final, sweet mental snapshot. In appreciation of the human form, like anyone in the medical field would have—
As the man threw himself silently into the water, a bitter taste hit her tongue. She wasn’t part of the medical community anymore.
Fired. Out of a job, and what’s worse, her nursing certification had been revoked. One well-meant but slightly illegal decision years ago, and it was all over. Illegal, not immoral, she reminded herself. Even knowing the consequences, she’d do it again in a flash.
She watched her current mood-booster take strong strokes across the pool, headed toward the waterfall, as she considered what had really gotten her into the mess. Her impulsive nature, yes. And being too interested in other people’s business. She didn’t think she was a busybody, and she always meant well.
Only when meaning well went bad, it soured over everyone. Bottom-line, she needed to change her habits. And this was as good a time as any, considering Heart Falls was a clean slate, and all.
Tamara leaned against the rock behind her, hands resting on her knees. She’d been told about the lookout by her cousin’s fiancée, Dare, who used to live in the area. The same friend who’d gotten her the job she was about to start.
The trip to Heart Falls passed quicker than expected, and it was too early to show up at the ranch. From what her friend had told her about the lookout, it had sounded like the perfect place to pause for a final get her head on straight opportunity.
I will change, she swore. No matter how tempted she was to act impulsively in the future, she needed to—
Down in the pool, the swimming man had lasted longer than Tamara expected. Hypothermia wasn’t something to fool around with, and the water had to be bitterly cold.
He was headed for the rocks, and she breathed a sigh of relief as he placed a hand on an outcropping and pulled himself up.
Her sigh turned into a gasp, and she shot to her feet as the man fell backwards and disappeared beneath the surface. She hesitated for a couple of seconds before heading farther down the path, one eye on her footing and the other on the water surface.
He didn’t come up.
By the time she got to the bottom of the trail, Tamara was full-out sprinting, racing around the perimeter of the pool to the rocks he’d originally jumped off. She peered into the water, but couldn’t see anything.
Swear words echoed in her head as panic tried to take control.
There. Oh my God, there—the hazy shape of an arm.
Tamara shouted for help as loudly as she could as she stepped out of her runners. She dropped her glasses on top of them then took a deep breath, moving to the edge of the rocks.
No hesitation. She threw herself off.
Icy-cold water compressed her chest in a vise. Her face went numb, bare skin tingling as if she were being chewed on by millions of tiny fish with razor-sharp teeth. Panic hovered.
Had she been worried about hypothermia? Forget that—someone would cut their bodies from the ice years from now like preserved wooly mammoths.
She peered around quickly, grateful she’d landed close enough to her target to see him. She snatched at the nearby limb, wrapping her fingers around a thick, solid calf, ready to pull him to safety.
The foot shot out of her grasp straight toward her, connecting with her gut and hip hard enough all the air she’d been holding escaped in a sudden rush. An instant later, stars formed in front of her eyes.
Her only goal was to get to the surface as quickly as possible, but her arms wouldn’t move. The only thing keeping her from dragging in a lungful of water was she’d been winded hard enough nothing seemed to work.
The stars were fading from bright white points to dark black holes before she summoned every remaining bit of strength, kicking frantically toward the shimmering surface of the water.
Her head broke free. She hauled in a breath through the pain. Gasping sounds echoed in her ears even as other noises registered. Someone else was coughing and sputtering.
Tamara twisted to the right to discover her missing man had made it to the surface. Thank God. She was grateful and cautious. Panicky stranger close by in the water? Not what she wanted to deal with when she could barely breathe herself.
She lay back and floated, keeping a watchful eye on the dark-haired blur. He was far enough away she could fend him off if he headed her way and tried to take her down.
It hurt to take a deep enough breath to speak. “You okay?” she forced out shakily.
A string of growled curses mixed with spitting and sputtering floated back to her.
Maybe he was embarrassed at having to be saved, but it was too cold to stay in the pool and deal with the jackass. She headed toward the shore where it would be an easy walk out of the water instead of a climb. No way was she attempting that rock face without her glasses.
“What the hell were you doing?” His question came from a few feet away as she stumbled to vertical, the water up to her waist.
Tamara turned to face him, hands rising to her hips. “Saving your ass? By the way, you’re welcome.”
“Hauling me under water when I don’t expect it is saving my ass?” He took a step closer, his voice going even softer.
Screw this. Tamara retreated farther up the shore. “You’re hypothermic enough to be delusional. You fell and didn’t come up. You were stuck in the rocks, and I pulled you out.”
She slowed her pace, squinting toward the ground to follow the smoothest path to keep from stumbling. Dammit, why didn’t she wear contacts instead of glasses?
The grumpy bastard didn’t respond, just stepped past her. That wasn’t as much fun as it might’ve been considering she was nearsighted enough that once he’d moved more than a few paces ahead of her, his naked butt was nothing but a spectacular blur.
By the time she made it to the top of the rock, he had his jeans on and was jamming his feet into his boots. They still hadn’t exchanged more than a dozen angry words.
Fine. She’d put on her glasses and take a good look at the guy so she’d know which ungrateful jerk to avoid in the future.
“Your shoes are over here,” he grumbled, stepping toward the edge of the rocks.
“Be careful. My—”
She couldn’t see it happen, but there was nothing wrong with her ears. Breaking glass had a distinctive sound.
He swore again. “Why the hell did you leave your glasses on the ground?”
That was the last straw. Tamara saw red.
All her resolutions to watch her temper, and all her great intentions to keep a new slate shiny clean here in Heart Falls, burned away under the weight of instant pissed-off.
“You ever say thank you for anything? Also, you ever consider that when things go wrong, maybe it’s not someone else’s fault?” As she spoke she stepped toward him, anger shoving away the cold. She snatched the tangled remains of her glasses from his fingers, and took one final step so she was close enough to look him in the face as she delivered her closing retort. “Maybe it’s you.”
His dark eyes burned as he stared back, square jaw set in stone. A trickle of water ran from his hair down his cheek, catching on the rough stubble on his chin. Straight nose, far too sensual lips for a man. It was a familiar face, and not one she could possibly avoid in the future.
Because it was him. Caleb Stone, him.
AKA, her new boss.
Fuck my life.