First Three Chapters of A Rancher's Heart
I am so excited for everyone to read A Rancher’s Heart next week! Get a special sneak peak at the first three chapters now!
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.
It seemed some things—like acting far too impulsively and putting her foot in it—would never change.
Still didn’t think she was in the wrong, but there was no use fighting a battle she had no way of winning. She needed this job, and if that meant groveling, she would swallow her damn pride and do it.
Tamara released a harsh puff of air and prepared to cut out her spleen.
“I wasn’t drowning.”
His words were a lot softer than she’d expected, and a totally different direction than the “don’t bother to unpack your bags because I wouldn’t trust you with my children if you were the last woman on earth” retort that she’d have understood.
She stood in shocked silence.
“There’s a cave near the base of those rocks,” he said, his voice still rumbly but no longer gravel-pit harsh. “Sometimes an air pocket forms in there, and I was checking it out. I had my head above water and was breathing the whole time. Sorry I scared you.”
“Okay.” She curled her fingers around the skeleton of her broken glasses, and fought to keep a shiver from taking her apart. The physical reminder gave the needed distraction to head the conversation into solid, manageable topics. “You need to get dressed and warmed up. It’s far too cold to be out here half-naked.”
“Agreed. We’d better both get home as quick as we can.” He caught her by the wrist and took the broken glasses from her fingers. “But I don’t think you can drive without these. Can you?”
Tamara shook her head. “I have spares in my luggage, so don’t wor—”
“You’re not hiking the trail blind.” Caleb folded his arms over his chest.
“I’ll be fine,” Tamara insisted.
He grunted, then turned and walked away so quickly Tamara was left once again in a foggy blur. She peered around until she found her runners, soft curses escaping as she alternated between stubbing her toes and stepping on sharp-edged rocks.
Once her feet were protected, Tamara put her head down to pick a path best she could, but every third step another stone tilted, threatening to leave her with a sprained ankle, or worse.
Suddenly he was back, solid legs forming a wall in front of her.
“Maybe there’s something to that hypothermia thing.” He’d pulled on his shirt. “Fortunately, my ride can take an extra, and she doesn’t care if you can see or not. Come on, I’ll give you a hand.”
She expected him to offer a literal hand to hang on to as they crossed to where he had his horse tethered.
Caleb had other ideas. A gasp escaped her as he scooped her up in a firm hold.
“I can walk,” she insisted even as her arms flew instinctively to curl around his neck.
“Too slow. It’s cold.”
Which effectively shut her up. She spent the next few minutes cuddled against an increasingly warm torso, heat rising between them as she tried to find an angle to hold her head that didn’t leave her staring straight into his face.
It was better in some ways when he lifted her into the saddle, and in one smooth motion, mounted behind her because then she couldn’t see him.
But she could feel him. Rock-solid thighs and all the rest, with her body nestled right up against his. Impossible to ignore exactly how much contact was made while riding double.
He wrapped an arm around her waist, holding the reins confidently in the other hand. Landscape passed as nothing more than fuzzy masses of shades of green. She squinted to try to make out landmarks, but it was nothing but a collection of ranch-shaped blurred objects.
His fingers were spread across her belly, body moving in an easy rhythm as his horse carried them along.
With nothing much to see, it was either stay silent or come up with something to discuss. For a few moments she managed to keep her mouth shut. Only the silence made it too easy for her to focus on the rub of their bodies. They were both wet, and yet they could have been straight out of a sauna with the heat generating between them. The horse’s gait created a seductive rhythm that made her feel every moment of her past months of chastity.
Tamara attempted to change position to open space between them, but all it did was rub her hips against his, and a low growl escaped him.
He seemed to do a lot of that. The growling business. She didn’t want to think too hard about what it did to her insides.
She’d opened her mouth to ask some inane question when he beat her to it. “Your truck and trailer. Are they at the lookout?”
“Truck’s at the top of the hill. Trailer’s at the weigh station.”
“My sister told you about the falls, did she?”
Finally, something distracting. Tamara linked her fingers over the saddle horn and held on with a death grip, trying once again to ease their bodies apart the slightest bit. “Dare told me it was pretty, and I figured I had time to check it out before joining you. Is there a reason it’s called Heart Falls? Or is it just named after the town?”
Caleb hesitated before answering. “If you stand on the rocks where I broke your glasses, the waterfall is the center and the lagoon curves apart into two rounds of a heart.”
Tamara resisted making a comment about the anatomical incorrectness of calling anything heart-shaped. That kind of humour was usually lost on the nonmedical community. “Sounds a lot more romantic than what most of old-timers would have picked to name a gathering place.”
The horse sidestepped, and Caleb tightened his grip, pushing a touch too hard where he’d kicked her.
A gasp of pain escaped before she could stop it.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded.
“Just a bit of a bruise.”
He didn’t say anything more at the time, which was fine by her, and she took the opportunity to change the subject. “Since I’m here early, I don’t mind getting started right away.”
“I don’t think you’ll be doing much of anything until we find you some glasses,” he pointed out. “We’ll get your truck. I can grab your horse trailer while I’m at it, if you’d like.”
“Would you? I hate to leave Stormy longer than necessary.” Guilt hit Tamara hard. “I didn’t mean to make extra work for you.”
“It’s not a big deal. I’m the one who broke your glasses.”
She sighed. “I’m the one who tried to save you when you didn’t need rescuing. Par for the course, I’m afraid to say.”
An unexpected chuckle escaped him. “Oh? You go jumping into swimming holes all the time?”
“More like jumping to conclusions, and yeah, I do a fair bit of that.” She didn’t mention how she’d vowed to change, because her tiger stripes were still firmly in place. “I’m sorry I messed up your quiet relaxation.”
“You meant well,” he returned easily.
Which made it worse, since that was exactly what she needed to change.
He kept talking, his voice stroking her as they rocked together far too smoothly. “We’ll get you home and I’ll show you your room. There’s a shower in there, and you can get warmed up. Before you’re done, I’ll be back with your stuff. You can meet the girls during supper, but I don’t expect you to officially start until tomorrow. We’ll take it as it comes.”
They were closing in on civilization, the broad shapes of barns and outbuildings becoming visible even with her terrible eyesight. “Thank you.”
He grumbled for a moment. “You heard Emma doesn’t like to talk, right? She’s not mute, just quiet.”
“Dare told me. I can handle that.”
“I don’t want her fixed, or anything. So we’re clear—”
God. “Who the hell did you have for a nanny before?” Tamara demanded. “Or did one of her teachers spout this bullshit?”
Caleb sounded relieved and annoyed at the same time as he answered, “One of the babysitters wouldn’t let her eat until she asked for every item out loud. Sasha came to the barns to get me, pissed off as a wet cat.”
Tamara liked Sasha already. “Good for her. Fixed.” She turned the word into a curse. “Don’t worry about me. I want to help, and I’m not into torturing children.”
He made a low sound that didn’t say much while saying a whole lot. “I didn’t think you were. My sister thinks the world of you, and that carries a lot of weight. But the girls have gone through a ton of changes in the last couple of months. I don’t expect them to be thrilled you’re here at first. Let’s give it time. Hopefully it’ll work out.”
He eased back. The horse responded instantly and came to a stop.
Tamara swung her leg over and prepared to jump.
Somehow Caleb dismounted first, his strong hands wrapping around her waist as he lifted her from the saddle and placed her on the ground as if she were a child.
She wasn’t sure why his casual touch was so disappointing. Him ignoring the awkwardness between them was what she needed. This was a job position she was starting, and the last thing she wanted was for him to treat her like a potential date.
He caught her by the hand to guide her forward. “Three steps up to a landing, then the door.”
“I’m not that blind,” she said, but she didn’t drag her hand away because she couldn’t see that well, and the last thing she wanted was to fall flat on her face before even making it through the door.
Tamara didn’t say a word about the fact they were both still wet—it was his house and if he didn’t mind her dripping on the floor that was okay by her.
She’d clean up when she figured out where the mop was.
Caleb led her down a hallway—yellow walls reflecting the bright light pouring in the windows—and opened the last door. “This is yours. Bathroom’s the door on the right, and you’ve got lots of closet space. The girls are in the two rooms to our left. I’ll show you the rest of the house later.” He backed up, those dark eyes moving out of her line of vision. “I’ll let you figure it out from here.”
He was gone before she could say another word, leaving her to find her way through a blur of walls and furniture into the spacious master bath.
The shower felt amazing. Tamara stood directly under the pressure with it running as hot as she could for as long as she could bear.
That had gone well…
So much for her good intentions. But maybe this was a better thing—if Caleb’s expectations were rock-bottom, the only direction she could go was up.
It took some time, but once she’d finished and wrapped herself in an enormous towel, she was feeling mostly human. She leaned close to the mirror, wiping away the fog to peer at her face and drag her fingers through her hair. Until her stuff arrived there wasn’t much more she could do.
She pushed open the door and glanced into her new home.
A dark-haired little girl sat on her bed.
Tamara slid forward, trying not to look too creepy as she moved into close enough proximity to check out the kid’s face. “Hi.”
Okay. No talking, which according to Tamara’s sources meant this should be Emma. Daughter number two.
“Do you know if your daddy brought my truck to the house yet?”
Her lopsided ponytail swung as she shook her head. Then she stared at Tamara intently, her lips turned down, a distressed look in her eyes.
Tamara took the chair across from Emma. “Is your sister around as well?”
The little girl’s mouth opened for a second before she nodded.
“Okay, that’s good. Your daddy said I’m not starting work as your nanny until tomorrow but I did want to meet you, and, here you are.” She held out a hand to Emma. “I’m Tamara. I’m very glad to make your acquaintance.”
Emma stared at her fingers suspiciously before catching them and giving them a quick shake.
“Your Auntie Dare told me you weren’t fond of talking, especially to strangers. Your choice, but since I’m new here, I’ll probably need to ask a bunch of questions. I hope even if you don’t feel like answering with words, you can help me in other ways.”
The little girl’s mouth opened in surprise before she slammed it shut again.
Hmmm. Something was up. This did not appear to be a little girl who for whatever reason did not use verbal communication. More like a little girl who was trying to pretend she didn’t talk.
Tamara hid her smile. “Hey, I think I hear noise outside.” She got up and peered out the window. “Look at that. They brought my truck and there’s my horse. Can I ask a favour, Sasha? I’d appreciate if you could grab the bags I left on the passenger seat.”
Sasha sat motionless for a moment before demanding, “How’d you know I wasn’t Emma?”
“I think the more important question is, why were you pretending to be her?”
Brown eyes narrowed evilly before Sasha turned all sweetness and light, bestowing a chilling smile on Tamara. “She’s my sister, and I don’t like people being mean to her.”
“So you were checking out the new nanny to see if I was a meanie?”
Tamara dipped her chin in approval. “Good for you.”
Sasha gave her an unreadable look.
“We can discuss this more later, but I do need you to get me those bags. I can’t walk out there in nothing but a towel. One of those girl things, right? You know about that.”
Sasha’s feet hit the floor. She marched forward, opened the door without another word and slipped out, all the while keeping an intense watch on Tamara.
Oh, yeah, this was going to be interesting.
By the time Caleb got back from grabbing Tamara’s truck, he was chilled to the bone.
Strangely, he didn’t mind. The wet jeans clinging to his thighs had been enough to counteract the images he had to keep under control. The ride back to the ranch with Tamara nestled in his arms had been a unique form of hell. Why had he listened to his sister Dare in the first place and hired the dangerous creature?
Right. Because the girls needed a woman around.
For some reason Dustin was hanging out in the yard instead of by the bunkhouse where he’d moved after graduation last June. Caleb got his attention, tossing him the keys to Tamara’s truck. “Park the trailer by the barn then get her horse settled, will you?”
Dustin looked over Caleb’s wet clothes with amusement but for once made the right choice and didn’t ask any questions.
Caleb grabbed the couple of bags off Tamara’s passenger seat and carried them into the house, bumping into Sasha in the hallway.
“I can take those to the nanny, Daddy,” she offered sweetly.
She wrinkled her nose when he stooped to give her a kiss, then he escaped to his bathroom.
He turned on the taps, and hot water gushed out instantly. Tamara must have finished her shower—
And dammit if those forbidden images didn’t come crashing back. It had been bad enough having her rub against him the entire ride home. He didn’t need to add thoughts of naked skin under hot, steamy water. It was hard to stop them, though, all things considered.
After his wife left, Caleb had pretty much given up on love. He didn’t need a woman in his life for romantic reasons. Luke could be the dreamer, and Dustin could sweet-talk and romance every young woman in town and the next three counties over if he wanted. Walker could use that cowboy charm of his while out on the rodeo circuit.
When it came down to it, what Caleb wished for most was someone to warm his bed at night. Blunt, but true. Screw the romantic bullshit, he’d like some sex. It was the one thing he hadn’t enjoyed in a long time, and he damn well missed it.
But that was not a safe path to wander down when the woman entering his home was so hands-off he needed to consider her his personal kryptonite.
Moments later he was dressed and hurrying to join his family.
He took two steps into the room then pulled to a stop.
Luke sat with Emma beside him at the kitchen island. As usual, the sight of his youngest daughter hit Caleb with the impact of a kick in the gut. A miniature cameo of his ex-wife, except Emma was sweetness and joy. Also, currently frustrated—her blonde curls wiggled as she squirmed on the spot, homework book open in front of her as Luke pointed to something on the page.
Emma glanced up. Her blue eyes shone and her face brightened with a smile like only she could give, and love melted his heart.
She eagerly abandoned her task, slipping off her stool and hurrying to envelop him in a hug.
He took a moment to enjoy being squeezed by teeny arms before pressing a kiss to her forehead. He rose to his feet to deal with the other unexpected person in the room. “Neat trick, Walker. Last we heard you were miles away. You grow wings overnight?”
Walker marched forward from the side counter where he’d been making a salad, hand outstretched to grasp Caleb’s. “Got in my truck when the last event was done, and the wheels just carried me home.”
He shook Caleb’s hand, the smile on his square-jawed face not quite as wide as Luke’s. A shadow lingered in his dark eyes Caleb didn’t remember seeing before, but before he could ask more questions, Walker turned back to his task, speaking over his shoulder. “Luke says he has no problem with me being a slacker for the next couple of months, so I figure this is as good a place as any to hang my hat.”
“Fine by me. You can slack all that Luke lets you,” Caleb said evenly in return.
They both knew that meant never. Luke might be the fun brother, but he still demanded people get the job done.
Caleb glanced at the table then back at his daughter who was making faces at her homework. “Emma, I was going to tell you to put an extra plate out for the new nanny—she’ll be joining us for supper, but it looks as if you already set the table for one more than we need.”
She pushed away her homework, holding up fingers and counting off without naming names out loud. It was clear she was listing people, and Caleb silently joined in.
Emma, Sasha, him. Luke, Walker, Tamara…and one more.
Ahh. “Dustin is going to be here tonight, is he?”
Emma nodded exaggeratedly, her chin dipping all the way up and down, pleasure returning a smile to her expression.
Of course Dustin was going to join them, because if there was anything the younger Stone boys liked more than tormenting their biggest brother, it was satisfying their curiosity.
No wonder the kid been hanging out close to the house. “I’m going to send him a bill if he keeps this up.”
Luke ruffled Emma’s curls as he stood, heading to the counter to drain the enormous pot of pasta that had been boiling on the stove. “It’s great he still loves doing things with us. Got to appreciate that—some kids his age can’t wait to get as far away from home as possible. That he only moved into the bunkhouse because he wanted to be more grown up is a good thing.”
“He gets meals with the bunkhouse. Living completely on his own would require he cook for himself at least part time.” Still, Caleb was smiling as he joined them at the island, slipping an arm around Emma’s shoulders. “You like to spoil your Uncle Dustin, don’t you, little girl?”
Emma leaned against him, her hair tickling his nose as she held up two fingers, her expression going sad.
He squeezed her, knowing there was no way she’d speak in the crowded room. Thankfully, he was able to figure out what she was referring to. “I know we’re two less than before. I miss the girls as well. But Auntie Dare will come and visit when she can, and she’ll bring your new cousin Joey with her. And we’re supposed to Skype with Auntie Ginny next weekend. That’ll be fun, right?”
Emma nodded before sighing heavily and adding another word to her homework page.
It wasn’t math that got his little girl’s goat, it was language. They had to coax the words from her, whether it was her fingers or her mouth doing the talking.
Daughter number one rushed into the room like a whirlwind. Ignoring everyone else, Sasha climbed up Emma’s stool and stuck her lips next to her sister’s ear to speak rapidly, soft enough no one else could hear.
“Hello to you too, Sasha,” Walker said with a chuckle.
She waved at him without interrupting her secret sharing. The longer she muttered, the wider Emma’s eyes grew.
Footsteps sounded again, and Caleb braced himself before turning, only to discover Dustin marching into the room. “That was quick.”
Dustin tossed a set of keys in the air and caught them with one hand, grinning widely as he glanced around the room at his brothers. “She’s got a nice truck.”
That’s what he said.
Caleb mentally kicked himself for turning every damn comment about Tamara into something sexual. “You settled her horse already?”
“Yep.” The next second Dustin shifted on his feet uneasily, looking just as uncomfortable as the girls did when Caleb caught them in a lie. “Okay, I didn’t settle him. Ashton was there, and he said he didn’t mind, so I parked her trailer and brought the truck up to the house. I didn’t want to be late for dinner.”
Luke pushed past Caleb to place a huge pot of spaghetti on the table, speaking softly as he went. “Because he wants to check out the nanny. Told you so.”
Lord Almighty, wasn’t that exactly what Caleb needed.
He chose to focus on the fact that Dustin had been somewhat useful. “Don’t pass off your chores to our foreman, but thanks for parking the trailer.”
“No prob.” Dustin gave Walker a friendly shove on the shoulder in greeting before dropping into a chair and tipping back to balance it on two legs as he watched everyone else in the kitchen work.
Walker leaned past him to place a basket of garlic bread on the table, and Dustin snatched a piece as it went by.
The girls left the island and headed to their seats. Dustin fell into teasing them, his speech garbled as he spoke around the bread he was inhaling.
“I’m curious too,” Walker admitted, speaking in Caleb’s ear soft enough the girls couldn’t overhear. “About the nanny. Colour me shocked to find you’ll be hosting a woman in the house.”
His expression was hard to read, somewhere between concerned and teasing.
“Behave,” Caleb warned. The last thing he needed was for the girls to think there was anything to this nanny business except someone coming to help on a strictly work-type basis.
A squeal escaped Emma as Dustin poked her. Sasha retaliated, and while they were just playing, the volume rose louder than anyone was supposed to be in the house. “Girls. Dustin—do I have to remind you to use your inside voices?”
Dustin shoved a huge chunk of bread into his mouth before answering, obviously amused as his words came out muffled. “We got man’ers.”
His family. Rambunctious and borderline wild, but he loved them—when he didn’t want to kill them.
Tamara rounded the corner just as Dustin made a rude face, cheeks puffed out like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter.
It was childish, but Caleb couldn’t help but feel for the first time that day something had gone his direction.
It hadn’t been difficult to find the kitchen. Tamara let her ears lead her toward the noise even as she straightened her spine and mentally prepared herself.
Didn’t matter that she’d spent years dealing with life-and-death situations, and had even given presentations in front of large groups on various topics during her nursing career. This was different. She was meeting the people she would be living with twenty-four/seven, and they were family. She was the newcomer. She had to fit in, which meant being on her best behaviour.
If she knew how to pull that off.
Two steps into the room she paused. This section of the house held an open-design room, with the dining room to the right and the kitchen laid out to the left in an L along two walls. A large island sat conveniently in front of the cooking workspace, a row of tall stools tucked under the overhang.
She noticed all that in an instant, kind of as a backdrop to the main event which were the faces turning her way. She ignored the male bodies and focused on the two little girls sitting next to each other at the table, motionless as they eyed her.
Sasha’s expression was guarded as she leaned protectively toward a curly-haired blonde angel of a girl who had to be her little sister. Emma looked confused and worried, teeth digging into her lower lip as she chewed on it, her clear blue eyes examining Tamara intently.
Something inside Tamara settled with an abrupt click. This was why she was here—for these girls. And no matter that she would never admit how scared she was at having left her comfort zone and being a bit of a fish out of water, putting the job in perspective made it a lot simpler.
Taking care of the people who couldn’t defend themselves was right up Tamara’s alley. Making sure these kids were safe and happy she could do.
Which is why after offering them a smile, she glanced toward the four men in the room with more confidence. “I hope that delicious smell means I can convince someone to feed me.”
The teenager sitting beside the girls jerked his chair to vertical so fast he nearly tipped over. A younger mirror image to Caleb, he chewed around an enormous chunk of food, cheeks flushing red as he raised a hand to cover his mouth.
Tamara took pity on him and looked the opposite direction.
She met Caleb’s gaze just in time to see him wiping away a bit of a smirk. His balanced stoic expression returned, and his amusement vanished as if it had never been there.
He dipped his chin politely.
Before he could speak, another tall man with unruly red-tinged hair stepped forward, hand outstretched in greeting. “Food and water, if you can imagine. Hi, I’m Luke. Nice to meet you.”
His smile was full-out welcoming, a twinkle of mischief in his brown eyes as she gave his hand a firm shake. “Nice to meet you too. Tamara Coleman.”
Luke jerked a thumb over his shoulder toward the tallest of the lot who was leaning against the counter, arms folded over his chest. “That one is Walker. He’s just back from time on the circuit, so I don’t know how civilized he is at the moment.”
“I don’t know why you think you’re funny,” Walker muttered. “I really don’t.” His pitch-black hair and brows with his decidedly less friendly expression combined to make him look a lot more dangerous than the exuberant Luke.
Butterflies flipped for a moment in Tamara’s stomach before she stepped forward and offered her hand in spite of Walker’s non-welcoming body language.
He shook her hand briefly before moving to the sink to fill a pitcher with water.
“You know Caleb,” Luke continued in his self-appointed role of Master of Ceremonies. “And that one over there is Dusty. Don’t worry, contrary to appearances you won’t need to nanny him as well.”
Poor Dusty’s face was flaming red, and while Tamara understood teasing was part of being a family, she felt sorry for the kid.
She walked over and extended her hand same as she had to Walker. “While I don’t have any big brothers, I have a bunch of older cousins, so trust me. I understand what a royal pain they are at times.”
His lips twitched and a little of the tension slipped from him. “Three older brothers and two older sisters—pain and me are well acquainted. And it’s Dustin, if you don’t mind.”
“Dustin it is.”
Tamara turned to greet the final member of the family, dropping to her knees to put her head on level with Emma’s. “I met your sister, which means you are Emma. I’m looking forward to getting to know you better.”
She waited to see what kind of a response she got. She wasn’t about to put the little girl on the spot by offering a handshake and potentially having it shut down.
Emma tipped her head and looked Tamara over, a little frown creasing her forehead before she lifted her hand and ran a finger along the edge of Tamara’s glasses.
“Like them? Back when I worked in the hospital I had to wear certain clothes because of a dress code, and sometimes that felt pretty boring. I started collecting all sorts of glasses that were not boring. These are one of my favourite. Wearing them makes me feel like I’m having a summer day, even in the middle of winter.”
They were sheer fun. Bright yellow frames with a row of miniature blue birds perched along the top.
Emma pulled her hand back but she was smiling a little.
“You have more than one pair of glasses?” Sasha sounded amazed. “Auntie Ginny wears glasses, but she only has one pair. Oh, and sometimes she has sunglasses, and sometimes she doesn’t wear them at all.”
“I have to wear my glasses,” Tamara told her seriously. “Otherwise everything is just a big blur.”
“Emma and I don’t need to wear glasses—”
“How about we get everybody seated,” Caleb interrupted. “That way we can see food on our plates a little quicker.”
Instead of the typical rectangular farm-style table, the dining area of the open floor plan held an enormous circular one laid with cutlery and glasses. Enough seats for a dozen people were arranged around it, the wooden chairs mismatched yet sturdy, and the result was surprisingly homey.
After a bit of shuffling, Tamara found herself seated in the chair Dustin had abandoned, only half of the big table being utilized. Caleb sat three spots down on the other side of Emma, and Tamara watched with interest as he set to scooping pasta, sauce and salad on the plates stacked in front of him.
As he finished the first plate he passed it to Emma, who carefully passed it to Sasha.
When Sasha laid the plate in front of herself and picked up her fork Caleb coughed sternly. “You have someone sitting beside you tonight,” he reminded her.
It was on the tip of Tamara’s tongue to pipe up that she didn’t mind waiting, but this was his house and she wanted to know what she was getting into. How did they do things in the Stone family, and was she going to fit in…
No. If she was honest that wasn’t the question. The question was—would she approve?
She accepted the plate from Sasha. “Thank you. It looks good.”
“That’s Auntie Ginny’s chair.” A sullen, childish reprimand.
“Sasha.” A warning sounded in Caleb’s tone. “Auntie Ginny’s in France. I don’t think we need to leave the chair empty for her. Be nice.”
Sasha looked back at her plate, but she was quiet for only seconds before turning back to Tamara speaking politely, but pointedly.
“It will be a good supper because Uncle Luke makes the best garlic bread. Daddy makes the best spaghetti sauce. Uncle Walker makes the best salad. Uncle Dusty…” She glanced across the table at where Dustin was waiting patiently for his plate to arrive. “Uncle Dusty…”
“Uncle Dusty is the best supper-eater ever,” Luke drawled, catching hold of Dustin’s elbow as it jerked toward him.
Dustin grinned at his niece. “How about Uncle Dustin serves up the best bowls of ice cream for dessert?”
Sasha looked up at Tamara with a bit of attitude. “Do you know how to cook?”
“I can make toast,” Tamara said.
The little girl’s eyes widened. “Is that all?”
“Maybe a few more things. But toast is my specialty.”
Sasha looked back at her plate. So quietly there was no way Caleb could hear she muttered, “We’re going to starve.”
Tamara fought to keep from laughing.
Caleb was efficient as he served dinner, and they all had full plates in quick order. No one touched their food, though, until Caleb put the serving spoon down, the final plate resting in front of himself.
Tamara waited in case the Stones had some other family tradition. But the instant Caleb picked up his fork, it was obvious that was the ready-to-go signal.
Tamara had no objection. Between the drive and the unexpected dip in cold water, she was hungry enough to do justice to the steaming hot food.
“Any idea how long you’ll be sticking around?” Dustin asked Walker.
“Until the new year. I need a bit of a break, so I may as well spend my time with you.”
Caleb eyed his brother. “Did you take a tumble you need to recover from we don’t know about?”
Walker paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. “Do I look as if I took a beating? Don’t worry about me. You’re the one I saw limping as you walked into the room.”
Shoulders lifting in a gentle shrug, Caleb focused back on his plate. “Wouldn’t be the first time you were black and blue and didn’t say a word.”
“On a different note, did you girls figure out what you’re wearing for Halloween, yet?” Luke asked. “It’s just over a week away.”
“I want to be an astronaut, and Emma wants to be a cat. We get to wear our costumes to school all day, and my teacher, Ms. Miller, says she’s going to dress up like Mrs. McGonagall. I think all of the teachers should dress up, but Kelli says some of them take themselves far too seriously to let their hair down and have fun.”
“Kelli said that?” Luke asked, a smirk twisting his lips as he glanced across the table at Tamara to explain. “Kelli’s one of the ranch hands.”
Sasha rolled on. “Kelli said she’s going to dress up as a cowgirl, but I don’t think that’s a very good costume because that’s how she dresses all the time.”
“Ahh. Cowgirl. Now that makes sense.” Tamara made eye contact with Emma. “You know, that’s pretty much what my sister has been for every Halloween as far back as I can remember.”
Emma leaned across her plate, wonder in her eyes as she checked out Tamara closer. She bumped her shoulder against Sasha.
“Emma wants to know if you have a Halloween costume,” Sasha claimed before staring pleadingly across the table at Caleb. “Can you take us trick-or-treating this year, Daddy? Can you, please?”
In the split second before everyone’s attention turned to Caleb, Tamara swore she saw frustration on Emma’s face. She wondered how often Sasha spoke for her little sister and got it wrong.
Caleb lifted a brow. “Don’t I always take you?”
“Yes, but I just thought maybe…” Sasha glanced at Tamara suspiciously.
“Ahh.” Caleb refilled his water glass thoughtfully before he answered Sasha’s unspoken question. “Some of the things you used to do with me, or Ginny, or Dare, you might do with Tamara. That’s what she’s here for—so you don’t miss out on fun stuff if I get too busy. But I’ll always be there for the most important events.”
Conversation twisted to new topics after that, like Dustin asking Walker for advice on his truck, and Sasha telling her Uncle Luke a long story about one of the ranch dogs who went by the auspicious name of Demon.
Tamara joined in at moments, but for the most part she listened and watched, trying to learn the rhythm of this new family. They had a kinship and a deep sense of love amongst them, but there was a missing piece as well.
Growing up on the Whiskey Creek ranch, it had been her and her two sisters with her dad for as long as she could remember. She loved her sisters, and she and her dad tolerated each other, but that same sense of something missing had sent Tamara from working the land to get her nursing degree. Working with her hands to help heal people had been a way to be accepted and appreciated for her skills, and the longer she sat at the table, the more certain she was that this was where she needed to be.
Settling in at Silver Stone ranch wasn’t going to be completely comfortable. She was pretty sure she and Caleb were going to butt heads more than a few times, but there was something that felt right about being here.
When the meal was over and they’d finished clearing the dishes, Tamara didn’t fight when Caleb all but dismissed her.
“The girls and Dustin can do the dishes tonight,” he insisted, ignoring their groans. He looked Dustin in the eye. “Part of being a family—cook or wash, right?”
His youngest brother sighed heavily, but he hauled a stool into place in front of the sink and plopped Emma up on it with the ease of a well-known routine. “Come on, kiddo. You wash, I’ll dry, and Sasha can put things away. Then you can show me what you got planned for your costume.”
Moments later, Tamara took a second look around the room it was to discover she was alone. Caleb, Walker and Luke had all vanished.
She wandered back through the house examining the homey touches here and there, some older than others. Gingham fabric curtains framed the tall living room windows that faced to the east, the same frilly material topping the glass window of an exit door to the side of the kitchen, but the fabric was faded by the sun. In contrast, there were bright new cushions on the couches and easy chairs.
The pictures on the walls were the same, some old, some new, along with the knickknacks displayed on shelves and bookcases. Each shot and item a bit of memory on display, all pointing to events and details she knew nothing about.
It was strange to be so…ignorant. Uninformed. Tamara wasn’t sure she liked not knowing things.
She ran a finger over the edge of a gilded frame. Two families next to each other, a family of four and a family of seven. They stood under a tree, with a lake shining in the background. Caleb was clearly recognizable even though he was years younger. The smile on his face far more innocent and lighthearted than she’d seen so far.
Everything around Tamara held secrets—clues to this family she’d dropped into the midst of. There was so much she didn’t know. Not just about them, but herself. Would Heart Falls be a long stop on the new journey she’d begun, or a short one?
All she knew for certain was she couldn’t go back, which meant the future was wide open and very, very unclear.