Ty parked his SUV outside the gates of the Circle W Ranch and put his boots down on Marietta soil for the first time in eleven years. His gut, already in turmoil, only clenched tighter when he took stock of the ruin that lay before him. Set up against Copper Mountain, the small yet once prosperous ranch that held its own against the bigger ranches in the area, looked as worn out as he felt inside, coming back here.
Marietta wouldn’t welcome him and he sure as hell didn’t relish being here.
But his old man had died one month ago and, while people would look upon him and see him here only for the rodeo as the saddle bronc-busting champion coming back to rub their noses in it, he would’ve come back regardless. He had dealings to contend with…dealings that were as foreign to him as a three piece suit and tie.
His old man’s estate, for one, needed his attention.
And then there was the other matter.
He decided to walk his way in, needing the time to think, to stride the winding path that led to the house he’d grown up in as the only son of Owen Warren. Thoughts muddied his mind and he nearly turned back. But then, he caught a flash of something golden up ahead, honey-yellow hair catching light, flickering from sun to shade under the big, old oak facing the side yard.
She was on the wood swing, her head falling back, her legs dangling, and her arms loosely gripping the ropes in slow, carefree movements that brought him back to a time when they were together, madly in love. It had been the best time of his life.
Until things went sideways.
He stopped his stride to watch her take those leisurely moments and when she’d had enough, she jumped down, her feet landing firm on the ground. She marched toward the house, not seeing him standing behind, her long hair swishing in the breeze, her hips swaying side to side like some top-notch runway model.
“Shit.” He pushed his hand through his hair, his breath hitching.
She was still perfect, still beautiful, and even more female than he remembered.
Damn her, damn this town.
He sped his steps now, ready to get on with it. No more thinking of what was. All that mattered now was the present. That was how he’d always lived his life. When the porch door swung shut, he was only a few seconds behind. The scent of cattle, raw earth, and horse dung filled his nostrils. They weren’t unfamiliar smells, he’d lived the life of a rodeo rider for years now, but it was different somehow, because he was…home.
It galled him to knock on his own front door. He gave it two sharp raps.
“Coming,” Summer called out. The sweet lilt of her voice burdened his ears.
And when the door opened, he stared into the face of the only woman he’d ever loved.
She gasped when she saw him. “Tyler.” So formal now, the singsong in her tone disappearing.
“Summer.” He frowned. Eleven years only added to her beauty. She had creamy skin that tanned to golden brown under the sun’s light, big Montana sky, bluer than blue eyes, and a heart-shaped mouth he’d kissed a zillion times. “You know why I’m here.”
She nodded. “The rodeo.”
Of course, she’d think that. “Yep.”
“Would you like to come in?” she said finally, the reluctance in her voice egging him on.
“Being as it’s my house, I think surely I’ll come in.”
Her pretty mouth turned ugly for a moment and she stepped aside, allowing him entry. He took off his hat and held it at his side as he surveyed the hallway, the parlor to his right and the staircase that led to the bedrooms. Nothing much had changed, the place held onto its country charm even though the sofa was dingy now from years of wear, the curtains needed replacing, and the walls had lost the vibrancy of color.
“I’ve got cookies baking in the oven,” she said. “Excuse me for a second.”
Excuse her? Like hell. He followed her into the kitchen as the sweet, homey scents wafted to his nostrils. She placed her hands into oven mitts, opened the oven, and pulled out a tray. Chocolate chips and were those walnuts erupting from the cookies? She set the tray on the countertop and removed her gloves. Then she turned to face him head on. “You should’ve come sooner.”
“And ruin the surprise?”
She shook her head and her hair flowed around her face like a halo of gold. “I meant before your dad died.” She tucked those strands behind her ear. “He would’ve liked to have seen you, Tyler.”
“It’s Ty now.”
“Why didn’t you come?”
He chewed the inside of his mouth. “I had my reasons.”
She put her head down. She was judging him, the one thing she’d never done when they were together. She’d accepted him for who he was back then. And now she was like everyone else. Giving him a hard time. “I’m here now.”
“It’s a little late, don’t you think?”
He sighed, pulled out a kitchen chair, turned it around, and straddled it, his arms hanging over the top. “Maybe. But like I said, I had my reasons.”
“What kind of reason keeps a man away from his dying father?”
“Don’t lecture me, darlin’.”
She faced him with scorn. “Oh, yeah, that’s right. I forgot. No one can tell Tyler Warren what to do.”
When she turned to see to the cookies, he squeezed his eyes shut. “I see you’ve made yourself at home already. How long have you been living here?”
He already knew the answer, thanks to Buddy Mahoney, who’d been on the ranch since almost the beginning. The old guy never stopped nosing around in everybody’s business. Buddy was his only friend in Marietta, more like a father to him than his own dad.
A short time after Summer’s husband Lee died in a freakish tractor accident, Owen took sick and she’d quit her nursing job at the hospital to care for him exclusively. Ty always suspected his daddy’s heart troubles started the day Lee died. His father adored Lee Nichols, Ty’s best friend, and made no bones about comparing him to Lee every chance he got. And just this past year, Owen Warren had changed his will, the codicil giving Summer half ownership of the ranch. Nice man, his father.
“About a year, give or take,” she said.
“Didn’t take you long to worm your way into my daddy’s good graces.”
She put her hands on her hips. “I’ll ignore that, Ty. Because you have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Maybe not. Or just maybe his philandering father made a move on her after Ty’s one-time best friend, passed on. It wouldn’t be out of character for Owen to pursue a beautiful woman, a lovely, lonely widow. Hell, sounded like something straight out of a soap opera.
“You gonna frown at me all day, or offer me one of those cookies?”
Her lips quirked up. “Still have a sweet tooth?”
“Some things never change.”
She put some cooling cookies onto a dish and set it in front of him. “Who’re they for anyway?” he asked, plucking one up from the plate.
“My folks. I was going over for a visit today.”
He said nothing. The Simmons family didn’t have a spare sentiment for him.
She poured him a glass of milk and he looked up at her closed off expression. “Don’t let me keep you.”
“I’ll go… as soon as you finish up here.”
He sunk his teeth into the cookie. Sheer heaven, warm and soft and delicious. He had a taste for sweet things. Summer had been the sweetest girl he’d ever met and the irony of sitting here in the kitchen with her, tasting her baking, and breathing in the vanilla scent of her, wasn’t lost on him.
“There’s no need to wait on me. I’ll be moving my stuff in today.”
Summer’s mouth almost dropped to the ground. She had a hard time clamping her lips back together. “You’re …you’re not staying here.”
Tyler wiped his mouth on a napkin that had magically appeared by his plate and stood up. “Darlin’, this was my house, long before you took to living here. And yeah, I’m staying here.”
“But…you can’t. You…we can’t live under the same roof, Tyler. That’s not going to happen.”
“Sure, it’s gonna happen. Unless you’re willing to move out? Otherwise, while I’m here…we’re gonna be roommates.”
He rose then, and stood his ground two feet away from her. He got a closer look at her face, colored rosy now, her well-kept rage just under the surface, and those sky blue eyes going as dark as a Montana storm. “Unless, of course, you can’t handle it. Us, living here together?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Tyler.”
“You think it’s ridiculous for me to move back into my house while I’m here? That’s rich, Summer. You’ve horned your way into my daddy’s life and got half ownership, and now you think you can kick me to the curb? That ain’t happening, honey.”
“Tyler, why make this hard on everybody? There’s a great hotel in Marietta.”
“Maybe, because I’m not the only one moving in. Maybe I got someone and she’s not used to hotel living.”
Summer’s mouth curled into a big fat O. She thought she had the picture. Everyone always thought they knew what he was about.
But this time, she’d be dead wrong.
Summer stormed out of the house, mindless of the temper tantrum she was about to have. She didn’t give a fig about keeping up appearances in front of Tyler. Those days of being the good girl, the one that everyone put on a pedestal, were gone. She’d been through a decade of hurt and pain and she was ready to scream at the injustices in life.
Her husband was gone.
Her good friend, Owen, was gone.
And Tyler Warren was back in town, giving her grief already. She’d dreaded his return and yet she’d hoped for Owen’s sake, the man would have the decency to see his father before he died. To hold his hand in those last moments and make peace with him or maybe show up for his funeral?
Now it was too late.
Her stomach churned like a rusted, old box fan, thinking about him bringing a woman to live in the house with him.
“Ha!” She climbed into her car, gripped the steering wheel, gunned the engine, and drove off, the tires of her sensible Honda sedan kicking up a world of dust.
She reached her parent’s home on Collier Street and just sat there on the driveway, staring out the windshield her mind a million miles away. Tyler always knew how to provoke emotions out of her. He had been a master at that, but she couldn’t let him get to her. Her entire body shook and she deepened her breaths, letting them out slowly.
“Honey?” Her mama’s voice startled her. She turned and found her mother peeking into the driver’s side window. Summer hadn’t even noticed her walking up the drive. “Your dad and I saw you pull up and we’ve been waiting for you to come inside. Is everything okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine, Mom.”
Summer grabbed the cookie platter she had the mind to bring—not even shock could deter her from doing a good deed—and got out of the car. “Here, I brought these.”
“Thank you, dear. Mmm, chocolate chip this time. The children will love them.”
Her father held an informal children’s Bible study after church on Sundays at the house. It was something he’d done since she was a child, and it usually ended up with the kids playing ball in the backyard, having fun and laughing—her dad knew how to sway his congregation. Not with a firm hand, but with a loving one. She’d brought Tyler once and he’d sat there, listening, watching the kids partake in the verses and discussion, and afterward he’d been the first one to engage the kids in a game of tag football. He’d been at ease then, happy even. He’d called her father, “Sir”, and shook his hand when he’d left. Hope had filled her heart that day and she’d been the happiest she’d ever been.
“We’ve saved you some lunch, honey.”
“No, thanks, Mom. I’m not hungry.”
And ten minutes later, after chugging a glass of lemonade in the kitchen, Summer had relayed the information about Tyler’s return to both of her parents. “I won’t let Tyler stop me from keeping my promise to Owen,” she said. “That man lost all hope of having his son run the ranch and continue the Warren legacy.”
“Oh, honey, it’s a tall promise to keep. Owen’s place was let go when he had his first heart attack. He’d tried to hang on, but as you know, he just couldn’t do it, with being sick and all.”
“I know, Mom. But Owen gifted me half of the ranch, and I’m going to see this through. I’ve got Buddy, he’s working part-time, and the other boys listen to him.”
“No offense to him, honey, but what is he now, seventy-three?” her father asked.
“Yes, but he knows ranching and he’s still pretty good on a horse.”
“Won’t you miss nursing, honey? You’re a natural at it, and I know the hospital will take you back in a Montana minute.”
She smiled. Her mother was a proud Montanan. “I’ll be nursing the ranch back to health, Mama. I want this, for Owen and for myself. After Lee died, I sort of lost my heart, and now I have something to hold onto of my own. I think Owen knew that. He was my friend.”
Her mother reached for her hand across the table. “You took excellent care of him in his last months, honey. I’m sure he thought highly of you.”
“You should do what makes you happy, Summer,” her father said. “We want that for you, your mother and I.”
“I know, Dad.”
“What about Tyler? Are you up to having him underfoot?” her mother asked.
No, but what choice did she have? “I can manage it for a week. He’ll be gone after the rodeo.”
“You’re welcome to move in here,” her father said. “We’d love to have you. It’d be like old times.”
She smiled, but shook her head at the offer. “I can’t, Daddy. I refuse to let Tyler alter my life. I’m settled in at the Circle W now. I’ll be fine.”
Even though she’d have to put up with Tyler’s flavor of the month, she was willing to do it. She’d stand her ground. She wouldn’t allow him to push her out. Not again.
After all, what could possibly happen in a week?
It was dark by the time Summer entered the ranch house. She’d parked her car in the attached garage beside a black SUV with a license plate that read: 8 Sec Hell. And there went any hope she had of Tyler rethinking his plan to move in. She made her way through the door that led to the kitchen and immediately took to cleaning the bowls and cookie sheets she’d abandoned in the sink. She didn’t bother turning on the overhead light. There was enough moonlight streaming into the window for her to see to her task. It was sort of peaceful that way and she so loved a shining full moon.
Deep in thought, and scrubbing her pans, she didn’t hear Tyler walk into the room until he was behind her.
“Can I get you anything?” she asked, none too politely without turning around.
“Now, that’s a loaded question,” he said softly, his voice an uncanny mix of raw rasp and smooth velvet.
Hearing him speak had always done things to her and tonight was no exception. She stiffened her shoulders. As far as she could tell, he had no use for her. And she certainly had no use for him.
The refrigerator door opened and she caught him pulling out a beer. He must’ve stocked the fridge himself. She didn’t usually keep alcohol here. Owen couldn’t have it and she wouldn’t indulge in front of him.
She shook her head. “No thanks.”
He sauntered over and leaned back against the counter, two feet away from her, taking a swig, all leisurely like.
She should let him be, but her curiosity got the better of her. “I guess your houseguest didn’t show?”
He finished off the beer in one huge gulp. Moonlight played over his sharp, incredibly manly features. The beginnings of a beard was growing, meeting with a well-groomed goatee and all that dark hair curling at his collar now, was enough to make a girl swoon. A swashbuckling pirate had nothing on him. Bells and whistles went off in her head. Warnings rang out, screaming for her to stay smart.
“You’d be wrong about that.”
“So where is she then?”
“Up in my bedroom.”
She swallowed and scrubbed at the pan with furious speed. He had no qualms about what he was doing.
That’d keep her smart if nothing else would. “Okay, then. It’s late. I should be heading to bed. Soon as I’m done here.”
“I’d like to introduce you to her. She’s really something.” His lips curled up at the corners. He pointed to the washed bowls and pans. “And it seems to me, you’d be scrubbing the shine right off those pans if they got any cleaner.”
Darn him, he was right. Calmly, she set the baking items to drying on a rack and wiped her hands across the dishtowel until they were more than dry. “I think I’ll wait until morning, if that’s okay with you?” To meet your latest hook-up.
“Probably not a good idea. She’s not a good sleeper,” he said. “She might wake up and make a bunch of noise. Wouldn’t want you bumping into our houseguest in the dead of night.”
The hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention. “I’m sure you’ll keep her entertained, Tyler.”
He laughed, a full-out, eyes gleaming, face spreading laugh that filled the silence of the house. That well-hidden dimple popped out and her breath caught.
“I thought I could, too, but that doesn’t always happen. She’s a handful sometimes. Come on, let’s get this over with.”
Summer sighed, her good manners giving her a swift kick in the behind. If it was inevitable that she meet the woman, it might as well be now. She’d exchange a few pleasantries, the way her folks taught her, and then go to bed. She could pretend she wasn’t a tiny bit jealous of Tyler bringing a woman into the house. It had been eleven years.
She and Tyler had nothing between them any longer. “Okay, why not?”
He nodded, a satisfied look in his eye. “Follow me.”
He climbed the stairs with meaningful strides, almost gleefully, and she hung back, watching the way his Wranglers hugged his waist and long legs. Lord, the man filled his jeans well.
There were four bedrooms upstairs and, lucky for her, she’d taken the one furthest from the staircase, set apart from the other rooms. She liked to wake up in the morning as the glow of a tangerine sunrise warmed the land. Owen had told her this room would bring her peace.
Tyler stopped by the door of his old room and waited for her. The light was dim inside and before she could question him about that, he said, “After you.”
She pulled a breath into her lungs and walked inside, aware Tyler was right behind her. Her gaze went to the empty queen-size bed and surroundings, not understanding any of it until she darted a glance to the far side of the room where a portable crib was set up. She took a few steps and halted, gasping when she found a pajama-clad little girl sleeping there. She couldn’t be more than a year old, her cherub face angelic and peaceful in slumber, her dark curls touching the base of her shoulders.
She slid a glance at Tyler, who was busy watching the child sleep, a glow of pride in his eyes she’d never witnessed before.
“Her name is Becca.”
It was obvious it was his daughter by the look on his face, but she had to ask. “Is she yours?”
He nodded. “I didn’t know about her, until last month. She’s fourteen months old.”
“Where’s her mother?”
“She hung around just long enough for the DNA tests to prove Becca was mine. And then she took off.”
Summer refrained from setting her hand on her stomach, thinking of the two, sweet babies she and Lee lost in those early years of their marriage. She’d wanted children so badly, but it seemed she couldn’t carry them to full term. Every time she heard a story like this, a mother abandoning her child, she cried inside for the loss and the unfairness. She was a nurturer by nature, she pined to be a mother, and she would’ve done anything to give Lee a child, for them to be a family. He would’ve been a great dad. And though he said over and over again, how much he loved her and she was his family, their lives were never the same. Miscarrying two babies had been heartbreaking, cutting out a major part of her soul.
“Took off? How does a mother just take off?”
“She met a guy who didn’t want a kid around. He’s some hot shot European entrepreneur.” Tyler’s teeth gnashed together. Sudden harshness strained in his eyes. “I met Lola after a rodeo in Wyoming, we had one night together. That was it. Took her over a year to tell me I fathered a child.”
A buckle bunny without a conscience? Not new news. Yet Summer couldn’t understand it. “You said you’ve only had her a month?”
“Yeah.” He rubbed his forehead, squeezing the skin tight above his eyebrows. “It’s late, Summer. We should get some sleep. Becca sometimes cries out in the night. I wanted you to know she’s here, in case she wakes up and makes a racket.”
“I, uh, wouldn’t mind. Just call if you need anything…for her, I mean.”
He gave her a long, intense look. “Thanks. We’ll talk more in the morning.”
She nodded, took a peek at the sleeping angel once more, and walked out of the room.
Tyler Warren was back in Marietta, even if temporarily, with his beautiful daughter. He’d missed over a year of his baby’s life and he appeared to be a little lost at the moment. Man, oh man, this was the last thing she’d expected. Immediate nurturing thoughts wormed their way into her head. That sweet child had been abandoned by her mother. All she had now was a daddy who’d had no warning he’d fathered a child and was trying his best at winging it.
She gave herself a mental slap and reminded herself to stand firm. Tyler was only here for the rodeo. Then he’d take off, just like he had eleven years ago. She couldn’t soften to him, regardless of his situation. Entering her bedroom, she lowered down on the lavender and white floral quilt that cheered up the room and wondered if sleep would ever come tonight.
With Tyler sleeping only two rooms away, she had a sneaking suspicion she wouldn’t catch a wink.
End of Excerpt