By R.C. Ryan
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 28, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Brand Merrick is a take-charge cowboy who considers relax a four-letter word. So when an injury lands him six weeks of physical therapy, he intends to keep right on working-until his grandmother hires a therapist to stay at their family ranch. He’s not used to following orders, or slowing down, but Avery Grant has a way of getting him to do things he’d never thought he’d do . . .
Avery hates to admit it, but this super sexy rancher is testing her patience…and her professionalism. She’s a born-and-bred city girl, yet she finds herself drawn to the rugged wilderness and the equally rugged cowboy she’s here to help. But when a threat from her past follows Avery to Montana, it’s Brand who rides to the rescue-if only she’ll put her trust in him, and the growing feelings in her heart.Includes the bonus novel Cowboy Rebelby New York Times bestselling author Carolyn Brown!
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The Old Butcher Ranch—Wyoming
Twenty years previous
You’ll make a fine life for yourself here, Bo.” Egan Merrick clapped a hand on his son’s shoulder while looking around at the old-fashioned furnishings left behind by the previous owner. “Leigh and the boys seem happy here.”
Bo Merrick glanced across the room at his beautiful wife laughing with his mother, Meg, and his sister, Liz. It warmed his heart to see their close bond. Family mattered to Bo. He and Liz had grown up in their grandfather’s home. It was where his father had brought his bride and where Bo had brought his. Even after the birth of their three sons, they’d continued living on the family ranch. And now, finally, they were enjoying their first taste of their own place.
“We’re loving it, Pops. When old Wayne Butcher decided to pull up stakes and move in with his daughter in Montana, I figured it was fate. With our range lands adjoining, we’re close enough to share ranch chores.”
Egan pointed to where Bo’s three sons, Brand, Casey, and Jonah, were playing with a set of ancient wooden trucks left behind by the previous owner. “I can see it’s already starting to feel like home to all of you.”
“Yes, sir.” Bo nodded.
Bo and Leigh had hosted a family supper, followed by endless rounds of stories about the early days when Hammond Merrick, patriarch of the family, had become something of a legend in these parts. These were stories none of them ever tired of hearing. The three little boys considered their great-grandfather a superhero. Despite his cantankerous ways, it was plain to see the love between all of them. They were easy in one another’s company.
The older man stifled a yawn, and Meg stepped closer. “Ready to go, Hammond?” Meg was the only family member who called him by his given name. To everyone else he was Ham. No sweet, cuddly nicknames for him.
Ham nodded. “Ranch chores start early.” He hugged his grandson’s wife. “A grand supper, as always, Leigh. I thank you.”
The three little boys gathered around their great-grandfather to share his famous bear hugs before he trailed behind Egan, Meg, and Liz as they made their way to their truck for the drive back to the family ranch.
As they drove away, Bo drew his wife close. “Life doesn’t get much better, babe.”
“I was just thinking the same thing.” Leigh brushed a quick kiss over his mouth before calling to her boys, “Time for bed. Let’s head upstairs and I’ll hear your prayers.”
Six-year-old Brand was asleep, tucked up beside his two younger brothers. Their room was in the attic of the ancient ranch house they now called home.
Something had disturbed Brand’s sleep, and he now lay listening to the creaking of rotted timbers above his head. His father had said that this house may be more than a hundred years old, but it was sturdy enough to give them shelter until he could finish the new house he was building on the other side of the rickety barn. His pa said they were lucky to be able to buy this ranch, located right next door to his family ranch. By merging the two, the Merrick family would own one of the biggest spreads in Wyoming.
Just thinking about his ma and pa asleep in the big bedroom downstairs had Brand smiling as he began to slip back into sleep.
The creaking of the timbers grew louder, and Brand sat up, wondering at the other sound. The wind? If so, it was howling loud enough to blow the house down.
Through the closed curtains, he saw a strange orange glow, and he rubbed his eyes before slipping out of bed and crossing to the window.
Flames were licking along the outer wall, and bits of burning wood and shingles were flying through the air, landing like gunshots above his head. He could hear the crackling sound that told him the roof was already on fire.
“Casey. Jonah.” Brand was shaking his brothers roughly, pulling aside the covers and forcing them both to a sitting position. Though they weren’t yet awake, he started dragging them toward the door. When little Jonah whined and dropped to the floor, Brand picked him up. Staggering beneath the load, he half carried, half dragged his two little brothers down the stairs until they reached the closed front door.
Leaving them there, he raced to his parents’ room, shouting for them to wake up.
“Ma! Pa!” He started tugging on his father’s arm until Bo sat up in a daze.
After a punishing dawn-to-dark workday, it was no wonder Bo had to struggle to focus. There were never enough hours in the day. Sleep was a luxury he often did without. “What’s wrong? Are you crazy, son?”
“Fire, Pa. It’s up on the roof.”
Bo was out of bed and stumbling toward the door, all the while shouting to his wife, “Leigh, wake up. There’s a fire.”
She sat up, struggling to get her bearings. Suddenly she bolted out of bed. “The boys.”
“They’re okay, Ma.” Relieved that his parents were awake and ready to take charge, Brand raced out of their bedroom and hurried to where he’d left his little brothers.
Jonah had fallen asleep.
Casey was sitting beside his little brother, looking completely bewildered by the smoke swirling about the room.
“Come on.” Brand threw open the big front door and was buffeted by a rush of wind.
He grabbed Jonah by one hand and Casey by the other, dragging them outside. Despite their protests, he continued dragging them clear across the yard before shoving them into their pa’s truck for safekeeping.
Unsure whether or not to leave his little brothers alone, he stood shivering outside the vehicle, watching for his parents.
To a boy of six, the next few minutes seemed like an hour. Finally, after shouting to Casey to stay inside the truck with Jonah, he ran toward the house, shouting, “Pa! Ma! Where are you?”
At first as he stepped inside, all he could hear was the roar of the fire, sounding like a train bearing down on him. Cowering in the doorway, he cupped his hands to his mouth and continued shouting.
A flash of lights had him turning as a truck came barreling across a flat stretch of meadow and came to a screeching halt alongside his father’s truck.
The doors opened and Brand’s grandparents came rushing toward him, followed by his great-grandfather and his aunt Liz.
Gram Meg wrapped her arms around Brand, gathering him close. “Your brothers?”
“In Pa’s truck.”
She gave a cry to Liz and the two turned away, racing toward the terrified little boys who could be seen peering through the windows of the truck.
Hammond caught Brand by the shoulders. “Your folks?”
“Inside. I woke them. Then I brought Casey and Jonah out here.”
Egan started inside, followed by Hammond. The flames were now everywhere, and thick smoke billowed, leaving the entire house in darkness.
Hammond turned around, pointing a finger-of-God order at Brand. “Go to the truck, boy.”
“But Ma and Pa—”
Stern old Hammond hollered, “You heard me, boy. Get out of here. Now.”
The old man disappeared inside the inferno, and though the need to find his parents was all consuming, it never occurred to Brand to disobey his elders.
He hurried toward his grandmother and aunt, who were each holding one of his brothers, murmuring words meant to soothe.
Barefoot and shivering, Brand focused all his attention on the front door.
A short time later he saw three figures emerge.
Though Gram Meg tried to hold him back, he wrenched free and raced toward the house to find his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather lying on the ground, coughing and retching.
“Pa.” Brand knelt beside his father. “Where’s Ma?”
Bo’s head came up. “She’s not out here with you?”
“She told me she was heading up to fetch you boys.”
“I said they were okay. I had Casey and Jonah with me.”
“My God. She must not have heard you and went upstairs…” Before Bo could race back into the house, there was a great rush of flames and the roof collapsed inward, sending streams of flaming timbers and glowing embers raining down on everyone.
Hammond gave his great-grandson a shove. “Run, boy. Get in the truck.”
Looking over his shoulder, Brand saw his grandfather and great-grandfather dragging Bo toward the shelter of the truck. Twice Bo broke free and darted back toward the fire, and twice he was caught and held until the three men were forced to leap back and watch as the walls caved inward and the house dissolved into a pile of fiery rubble.
“Leigh!” Bo’s hoarse voice echoed and re-echoed in the night sky as he dropped to his knees and buried his face in his hands, while the others stood by helplessly.
The sound of his father’s sobs had young Brand frozen in place. It was, he knew, a sound that would remain in his memory forever.
The endless days that followed were spent at the ranch, where the family did their best to ease Bo and his sons through the pain of loss.
Though everyone, including the volunteer fire department inspector, said the fire had been fueled by sparks from the wood-burning fireplace, the Merrick family wasn’t fully convinced. When Bo met Leigh Johnson, the great love of his life, she’d been engaged to Des Dempsey, whose father owned the bank in Devil’s Door. When she broke her engagement to Des to marry Bo, the entire Dempsey family turned their backs on the Merrick family, refusing them any of the financing necessary to a rancher’s existence. Since their bank was now closed to the Merricks, Bo had been forced to go far beyond the town to borrow the money he’d needed to buy the old Butcher ranch.
Bo, Egan, and Hammond were seated at the kitchen table, talking in low tones.
Bo’s voice was raw with fury. “I haven’t a doubt who did this. This was Des Dempsey’s final revenge.”
“Now you don’t know—” Hammond’s words broke off.
Bo turned to see what caused the interruption and caught sight of young Brand standing hesitantly in the doorway. He shoved away from the table and crossed to the boy. “You should be in bed, son.”
“I can’t sleep, Pa. I want to stay down here with you.”
Bo knelt and gathered his son close. “I understand, but you need your rest.” He picked up Brand and turned toward the stairs. “Come on. I’ll sit with you until you fall asleep.”
When he was tucked in his bed, Brand looked up at his father. “Why did Mr. Dempsey cause the fire?”
“I don’t know. I have my suspicions but…”
Brand’s voice trembled. “Is Ma never coming back to us?”
“No, son.” Bo’s voice was tight with grief.
“Will we ever go home again?”
Bo sighed. “This will be our home now.”
“But what about having our own place?”
“I’ll need my mother and your aunt Liz to help with you and your brothers.”
“I can help you. We’ll all help.”
“I know you will. You’re a good boy, Brand. We’ll merge the two pieces of land, and we’ll stay on here. It’ll be fine. You’ll see.” Bo pressed a kiss to his son’s cheek. “We’ll still be a family, only bigger. Sleep now. Good night, Brand.”
After his father went downstairs, Brand lay awake, trying to sort out all that had happened. His big, strong father had always been the one to crack jokes and tease. Now he looked sad and broken.
Brand came to a decision. He would help with Casey and Jonah. He would learn all he could about being a rancher, while keeping an eye out for bad old Mr. Dempsey. And someday he would be big like his pa, and he would do whatever it took to ease his father’s sorrow.
At last he fell asleep to the rumble of masculine voices below. Despite the ache in his heart, he felt a sense of safety here in the home where his father had grown to manhood.
Merrick Ranch—Wyoming. Spring, present day
Hold on, Brand.” Ranch foreman Chet Doyle pulled his mount beside Brand’s and said in a whisper, “Look over there.”
A band of mustangs melted into the woods and became invisible as two horses and riders crested the hill.
“I see them.” Lifting his hat to wipe at the sweat that beaded his forehead, Brand nudged his horse forward.
Ordinarily Brand’s vision would have sharpened at the slight movement of fresh green foliage, and he would have paused to watch the herd disappear. Everyone on the Merrick ranch shared his love of the herds of wild horses that roamed these hills. They were the favorite subject of his aunt’s photographs, featured in glossy wildlife magazines. The love of mustangs had been the motivating force behind Casey’s decision to become a veterinarian, and they were featured prominently in Jonah’s first bestselling novel. But it had been a particularly long day with the cattle in the high meadow, now lush with grass, and Brand was distracted by the pain pulsing down his leg. Even the beauty of the countryside, always such a thrill in springtime, failed to lift his spirits.
Usually the sight of the Grand Tetons towering in the distance and the Merrick family ranch spread out below, spanning thousands of acres of spectacular hills and valleys, meadows and highlands, would be enough to have him grinning from ear to ear. Today, his handsome face was etched with pain.
Seeing it, Chet fell silent. The rugged foreman, best friend to Bo and Liz since childhood, had been with the Merrick family long enough to read their various moods. And he’d watched Brand fighting this lingering pain ever since that fall from his mount.
When the ranch buildings came into view, Brand’s horse, sensing food, lengthened its strides, adding to Brand’s torment.
“I know you want this to end, Domino. So do I. But slow it, boy.” He pulled on the reins, and the horse fell back to a plodding walk.
Back at the barn, Brand and Chet unsaddled their mounts and toweled the overheated animals before filling troughs with food and water.
At the house, they paused in the mudroom to roll their sleeves and scrub away the dust of the trail before stepping into the kitchen, where they were greeted by the chorus of voices that had resounded through this house for a lifetime.
“Took you long enough, boy.” Across the room, Hammond Merrick looked up from the tray of longnecks being passed by his granddaughter Liz. “We were getting ready to eat without you.”
Liz shot a soothing smile at Chet and her nephew. “Don’t you believe a word of it. We knew you were on your way.”
“Thanks.” Brand managed a smile before helping himself to a beer and tipping it up to take a long pull. “You know you can always get started without us. After a day in the hills, even leftovers would be a feast.”
Beside him, Chet nodded his agreement before quenching his thirst.
Brand’s grandmother, Meg, touched a hand to her grandson’s arm. “Speaking of feasts, Billy made something special.” Her smile was radiant. “Your favorite. Pot roast with all the trimmings.”
Brand arched a brow. “You usually ask Billy to make that when you’re about to hand me some bad news.” He gave her a steady look. “What’s wrong?”
“Wrong?” Meg glanced at her husband, who was frowning.
“Supper’s ready.” Billy Caldwell, cook for the Merrick family for twenty years, waited until the family had taken their places around the table before passing platters of roast beef, mashed potatoes, carrots and snap peas, and a salad of greens and tomatoes grown right in the little greenhouse alongside one of the barns. A basket of flaky rolls was placed in the center of the big table, along with cruets of balsamic vinegar and oil.
With a chorus of praise for Billy’s hard work, the family spent the next few minutes holding the platters for one another until all their plates were filled.
Hammond’s deep baritone intoned the words of the familiar blessing. “Bless all of us gathered here, and those no longer with us.”
Brand noted the narrowing of his father’s eyes, the only sign of the pain he still suffered at the loss of his beloved Leigh. To this day, Bo was compulsive about checking the many fireplaces in their sprawling ranch house and seeing to it that every fire was banked before going to his bed.
Seeing how his father poured himself into his work in order to overcome his feelings of helplessness, Brand grew up doing the same. And when age began to slow down the oldest members of their family, Brand smoothly took up the slack. Whether a sudden spring snowstorm or a late-summer range fire, Brand was always in the thick of the action.
It was just such a storm that had Brand taking a nasty fall from his horse, crashing into a rock, splintering several bones in his right leg. Old Dr. Peterson, at the Devil’s Door Clinic, had sent Brand to a specialist in Casper, who used titanium rods and pins to repair the damage, before recommending six weeks of physical therapy. That had added precious time Brand was forced to spend away from the ranch, and after just four weeks, he’d come home.
Over their meal, the men talked of the crops and the weather.
Casey, freshly showered after a long day, buttered a roll. “With a wet spring like the one we’re having, I’m figuring we’ll have a long, hot summer.”
Twenty-three-year-old Jonah, the youngest, was grinning. “I hope you’re right. The hotter the better.”
Hammond’s stern face relaxed into a smile. “I can’t remember the last time the range grass was knee-high before June. This promises a good summer and a healthy herd.”
“And a lot of smelly, sweaty laundry,” Billy muttered, bringing a round of laughter from the others.
During a lull in the conversation, Brand turned to his grandmother. “I take it you’re saving whatever bad news you have until dessert, hoping to soften the blow.”
Instead of the usual laughter, she took a sip of her tea before saying, “I can’t help noticing how, since your accident, you’ve been favoring your leg.”
Under cover of the table, he slid his hand along his right leg, from his thigh to his knee. He frowned. “It’s fine.”
“It isn’t fine.”
“Give it time, Gram Meg.”
She shook her head. “Time’s up, Brand. Dr. Peterson warned you about this when you cut short your therapy in Casper. There was no one in Devil’s Door trained to follow up. Now you’re limping and gritting your teeth when you think nobody is looking. There’s no sense pretending that it will go away all by itself.”
As if to hold off the approaching storm, Billy began circling the table, serving slices of carrot cake topped with mounds of vanilla ice cream.
Brand picked up his fork and dug into his dessert. “We’re through with this discussion, Gram Meg. My leg will heal.”
“Yes, it will. Because I’ve asked Dr. Peterson to send someone trained in physical therapy to come here to the ranch and work with you.”
He lowered his fork. “A physical therapist? Here? And when do you suppose I’ll have time for such nonsense? Before I muck stalls at dawn? While I’m repairing the wheel on that tractor after breakfast? After I ride herd on a bunch of ornery cattle until dark?”
“Yes.” She folded her hands in her lap, a sure sign that she intended to dig in and not back down. “Before, during, or after. I don’t care how you make it work. I know only that you will have to make time in your busy day for regular therapy sessions until your leg is one hundred percent healed.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m no longer that little eight-year-old you and Pops used to hold down while forcing nasty cough syrup down my throat.”
“Really? You’re acting just like him.”
Brand lifted his chin, biting back the curses that couldn’t be uttered in front of his grandmother. “I won’t be pestered by some physical therapist asking me to walk on a treadmill or do a series of squats.”
“He’s already on his way. Dr. Peterson told me that Avery Grant will be here tomorrow. Billy and Liz gave me a hand cleaning out Hammond’s old suite of rooms on the third floor. I’m sure our visitor will be comfortable up there for the next six weeks.”
“Six weeks?” Brand’s voice frosted over. “You’re wasting his time and mine. Not to mention a whole lot of money for nothing.”
“No matter. It’s done.”
He tossed aside his napkin and shoved away from the table. His eyes narrowed on his grandmother. “I can’t believe you’d do this behind my back.”
“You left me no choice, Brand. Once you started avoiding the issue, I realized I’d have to take a stand.”
Without a backward glance, he stalked out of the room, his limp so pronounced the entire family could see him fighting to hide his pain.
After hearing his footsteps on the stairs and the slam of his door on the upper level, Bo turned to his mother. “We can all see that his leg’s giving him plenty of trouble. But the decision should have been his.”
The older woman gave a nod of her head. “I know. I hate hurting him like this. But my years of nursing training told me he’ll never heal properly without help.”
Old Hammond pointed with his fork. “I agree with Bo. You crossed a line, Margaret Mary.”
Bo laid a hand on his mother’s arm, hoping to soften his grandfather’s words. “I realize you’re the medical expert in the family, and I know you consulted with Dr. Peterson before doing this. If it’s any comfort, I agree that Brand needs help. But I also feel it should have been Brand’s choice.”
Egan rushed to his wife’s defense. “Meg’s just doing what she knows is right.”
At the sudden silence in the room, Meg gave a long, deep sigh. “Being right doesn’t make it any easier.”
From the head of the table, Hammond declared firmly, “The deed’s done, thanks to your meddling, Margaret Mary. Now, either our Brand will learn to work with this therapist or decide to fight him tooth and nail. And I wouldn’t blame him one bit if he refused to be bullied into this. In my day, pain was a part of life, especially life on a ranch.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to remind her father-in-law that times had changed, but Meg held back, having learned after almost fifty years in the family that her response would fall on deaf ears.
To defuse the situation, Casey turned to his great-grandfather with a grin. “My money’s on a knock-down dirty fight between the two. And nobody comes away from a fight with Brand without being bloodied.”
Jonah nodded. “I’m with you, bro. I pity this poor stranger who thinks he’ll be able to give orders to our grumpy big brother.”
The two fist-bumped, while beside them Liz gave a shudder. “As if life around here isn’t crazy enough in spring. I can’t imagine how having a stranger getting in the way can be anything except trouble. But I have to admit, with Brand in such a rotten mood, it should prove to be an interesting few weeks.”
“Easy enough for you to avoid whenever it gets ugly.” Meg turned to her daughter. “You can drive off into the hills and snap all those lovely photographs. But I’ll be stuck here, mediating between your headstrong nephew and this poor young man sent here to help him.”
- On Sale
- Apr 28, 2020
- Page Count
- 656 pages