For what would be the last time, Eli Merrick drove his pickup down the long dirt driveway to his family ranch outside Deadwood, South Dakota. His older brother, Lucas, was beside him, younger brothers Wyatt and Zane in the back seat of the crew cab.
They approached the fifty-year-old, single-story white farmhouse where they’d all grown up. The ranch itself had been in the Merrick family for generations. But eight years ago their father had mortgaged it to the hilt. After he died, they’d lost the land to their creditors and only the house and a few surrounding acres had remained.
That was until now. Now they’d sold off the final piece.
Eli regretted that he and his brothers hadn’t been able to dig themselves out of the financial hole and save the ranch. They’d all worked hard, him training racehorses for wealthy clients, Wyatt as a pilot, Zane on the bull-riding circuit, and Lucas in the finance industry in New York City.
It hadn’t been enough. And they’d all agreed the logical step was to sell and start over with a new piece of land. There was nothing left to do now but pack up the things that held sentimental value and set their sights on their new life. They bounced through the wheel ruts, past the deep ripples of late summer wheatgrass. Herefords had once grazed in these fields, but the new owners now kept their cattle further up the hillsides.
Eli hadn’t been back here in a couple of years, and it all looked smaller than he remembered. Maybe it was because he’d been poring over house plans for their new place in Montana. In partnership with their new brother-in-law, Chase Garrett, the four brothers had used their savings to purchase twenty-five hundred acres of land outside the picturesque town of Marietta. With so many people involved in the outfit, their new home was going to be big.
As they neared the white ranch house, Eli spotted Chase holding one end of a china cabinet, carrying it toward a rented moving truck.
“Who’s that with Chase?” Lucas asked.
A gangly teenage boy was visibly struggling with the opposite end of the china cabinet.
“Piper’s son,” Zane said from the back seat.
Eli felt his senses go on alert. Piper had a son? How had he not known their former high school classmate had a child?
“Is she married?” Lucas asked.
“Single,” Zane said. “She and the kid moved back to Deadwood last year. She bought Proctor’s print shop, renamed it…something. I can’t remember.”
“I remember when you dated Piper.” Wyatt made the matter-of-fact statement to Lucas.
“That was a long time ago,” Lucas said as they grew closer.
“I didn’t know you’d dated Piper,” Zane said.
“That’s because you were eight years old at the time,” Lucas responded. “It didn’t last long. Nothing much came of it.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Wyatt said.
“Wouldn’t say what?” Lucas asked.
Eli watched as Chase set the end of the china cabinet on the deck of the truck and moved quickly to help the struggling teenager.
“That nothing came of it,” Wyatt said.
Eli glanced at his brother in the rearview mirror.
“What are you talking about?” Lucas asked, twisting his head to look back.
Wyatt nodded through the windshield. “That kid is a Merrick if I ever saw one.”
“He’s right,” Zane said, leaning forward for a better look.
“He’s not mine,” Lucas said, sounding annoyed.
“Look at his chin,” Wyatt said.
Eli looked closer, and his heart all but stopped.
“Look at his hair,” Wyatt continued, oblivious to the pressure expanding in Eli’s chest. “Look at anything about his face. And his eyes—”
“He’s not mine,” Lucas shouted.
Eli went hot then cold. He felt a rush of guilt, then one of anger, followed by an overwhelming sense of disbelief. “He’s not Lucas’s.”
All three brothers swung their gazes to him.
There was three seconds of stunned silence.
“You slept with my girlfriend?” Lucas demanded.
“She wasn’t your girlfriend at the time.” Even as he said the words, Eli knew it was a technicality.
Piper had walked out on Lucas only hours before she’d fallen into Eli’s arms.
Lucas’s tone bordered on fury. “She left town the night we broke up.”
Eli brought the pickup truck to a stop. He couldn’t take his gaze off the teenager. He shoved the transmission into park. “She left town the next day.”
Eli turned on his brother, his tone a growl. “Lucas, I found out I was a father twenty seconds ago. Can your sixteen-year-old moral outrage possibly wait?”
Wyatt stepped in. “Lucas.”
“Shut up,” Lucas said to Wyatt.
Eli shouldered the driver’s door open.
Whatever Lucas had to say—and Eli would admit most of it was deserved—it would have to wait. Right now, Eli had to find Piper.
As Eli strode forward, Chase’s smile was broad and friendly. Chase removed his leather gloves and wiped his brow in the morning sun. The sky was crisp blue behind the granite peaks of the mountaintops.
“You guys are a day early,” Chase said.
“Is Piper here?” Eli asked. His attention was pulled to the teenager, but the kid was partially blocked by the china cabinet. Eli couldn’t get a good look.
“She’s in the house,” Chase answered, looking puzzled at Eli’s clipped tone.
Eli ignored Chase and kept walking.
“Hi, Chase.” Wyatt’s voice carried behind Eli.
Eli took the front steps two at a time, and yanked open the door.
“I’m going to miss you so much,” Piper Beauregard said to Maddy Garrett, a wave of loneliness enveloping her as she covered the heirloom dinner plates in bubble wrap and placed them carefully in a moving box.
Since Piper had brought her teenage son, Tristen, back to Deadwood from Chicago, she and Maddy had become close friends. The two women had been many grades apart in school, but the age difference had evaporated over the years.
The clock was now ticking down to Maddy’s move. The kitchen counters and the dining table were covered in china and glassware, while the kitchen floor was littered with cardboard moving boxes.
“You can always come and visit,” Maddy said. Then she gave a light laugh. “Though you might want to wait until the house is finished. We’ll be pretty cramped in those trailers for the first few weeks.”
“I’d love to visit sometime.” Piper knew it would never happen.
She was barely on speaking terms with Maddy’s brother Lucas after their humiliating blowup on high school prom night. They’d run into each other a couple of times over the past summer, and they’d tried to be cordial. But the tension between them was awkward and embarrassing.
Even worse than the tension with Lucas had been running into Maddy’s other brother Eli. He’d unexpectedly showed up when she was with Maddy at a bull-riding event in Missoula. It had been a brief meeting, the one and only time Piper had seen him since that fateful night. She’d been completely blindsided by guilt.
Keeping Tristen a secret might have been the best decision she could make back then. But it was still a bad decision. There simply hadn’t been a good decision available to her.
“The house is going to be huge,” Maddy said while she stretched to pull wineglasses out of the high cupboards.
“I bet Riley will love living on a real ranch.” Piper tried not to be envious of Maddy’s new life, her marriage to Chase, the brothers who supported her through thick and thin.
She knew no family was perfect, and that the Merricks had their own troubles. But at least they had each other. That was something. That was huge. She and Tristen, on the other hand, were all alone.
“He will,” Maddy said. “Riley loves anything horse or cow or dog right now. Oh, hi, Eli.”
Piper froze. A part of her couldn’t believe Maddy had just said what she said. Another part of her, a bigger part of her, was petrified by its meaning.
“I thought you guys weren’t going to be here until tomorrow,” Maddy continued cheerfully, oblivious to Piper’s internal reaction.
“We changed our plans.” Eli’s gravelly voice seemed to surround Piper, binding her chest, cutting off her air supply.
“Great,” Maddy said. “Chase can use the help. He was going to make a run to the storage warehouse this afternoon, but if you could—”
“Maddy,” Eli interrupted her sharply.
Piper kept her head down, forcing her numb fingers to wrap the next plate. She couldn’t turn. She couldn’t face Eli again. She had to get out of here right now.
“What?” Maddy asked her brother in obvious bafflement.
“I need to talk to Piper.” An undercurrent of anger vibrated in Eli’s tone.
“Why?” Maddy asked, sounding confused.
“Alone,” Eli said.
Piper felt faint. Her knees lost their strength, and she clutched the edge of the table.
Maddy looked at her, brow furrowing. “Piper?”
“Maddy, leave,” Eli said.
“Maddy, sweetheart.” It was Chase’s voice coming from the living room behind Eli. “These two need to talk.”
“About what?” Maddy asked. She still hadn’t moved.
Piper willed Maddy to stay put. She didn’t want to be alone with Eli. She didn’t know how much he knew, and she truly didn’t want to find out.
She took a step toward the back door, the obvious escape route since Eli was blocking the entry to the living room.
“Don’t move,” Eli barked at her.
“Eli, what are you doing?” An obviously shocked Maddy started toward her brother.
Chase stepped in. “Come on, Maddy.”
“Chase, what’s going on? Why is Eli mad?”
“Something from the past,” Chase said.
Piper closed her eyes. This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening.
Maddy’s voice was fading into the distance. “I thought the problem was with Lucas.”
“It’s not our business,” Chase said as they crossed the living room.
“He’s my brother. She’s my friend.”
The front door closed behind them, silencing their voices.
Eli’s footsteps were measured and hollow as he moved across the kitchen, around and in front of her. There, he stopped.
Piper’s heart pumped fast and deep. She forced herself to open her eyes.
He was tall, taller even than he’d been in high school. And he’d filled out since then as well. His shoulders were impossibly broad, his chest deep. His chin was square and strong, his blue eyes penetrating.
He was incredibly rugged, rock solid, tough as nails. He was every woman’s riskiest dream.
It was impossible to tell right now, but he was also compassionate. He could be empathetic, intuitive and gentle. That was why she’d done what she’d done that night, even though she’d known in her heart it was wrong.
He captured her gaze and held it, anger roiling like the ocean in the depths of his blue eyes. His voice shook with an obvious effort to control his temper. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?” At the risk of making him angrier, she had to find out exactly what he knew.
He took a step closer still. “You’re going to play games with me? He’s right outside.” Eli’s voice rose. “Why in the hell didn’t you tell me?”
She gave up any pretense. “You know why I didn’t tell you.”
“Yes, Lucas. Do you know what it would have done to him? To you? To your relationship with your brother?”
“That’s no excuse.”
“It’s not an excuse. It’s a reason.”
“It’s not a reason. There is no reason. He’s my son, Piper. My flesh and blood. And you…you…” Eli clenched his jaw and tipped his head back, balling his fists by his sides. He took two deep breaths then glared at her again. “You kept him from me for sixteen years.”
She had no response. Eli was right. That’s exactly what she’d done.
“You’re going to tell him,” Eli said. “Right now. Today.”
Her stomach cramped. “Eli, no.” She couldn’t blindside her son like that. None of this was Tristen’s fault.
“If you don’t, I will.”
“Yes, I can.”
“It’s not fair to him.”
Eli raised his chin and squared his shoulders. “What’s not fair is letting him think I’m what? Dead? A loser? A jerk who walked out on my own kid?”
“Mom?” Tristen’s tentative voice interrupted.
Piper turned to see Tristen in the living room doorway. His face was pale, his blue eyes wide.
She instinctively moved toward him. “Tristen, honey, what are you doing in here?”
He looked nervously to Eli and then back to her. “Who’s he? What’s going on?”
“Nothing for you to worry about—”
“Don’t coddle him,” Eli said.
“Eli, no,” she pleaded. She had to stop him. “Please, no.”
Eli didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t know anything about Tristen, the struggles her son was having, the impact this news would have on his young psyche.
“I’m your father,” Eli said.
Tristen’s gaze beseeched her. “Mom?”
Eli took a step toward Tristen, and Piper sprang between them, defending her son.
Eli stared at her in disbelief. “Are you kidding me?”
“None of this is his fault.”
“What do you think I’m going to do?”
“I don’t know.” She didn’t think Eli would harm Tristen.
Of course she didn’t think that. It was preposterous.
“Get out of the way, Piper.”
She had to move. She had to get out from between them. She had to tell Tristen the truth—that she’d lied to him. His father wasn’t dead.
She pivoted to face her son, giving in to the inevitable.
She swallowed in an effort to make her vocal cords work. “Tristen. This is Eli Merrick. He’s Maddy’s brother, and he’s your father.”
Tristen looked dumbfounded. “You said he was dead.”
“That’s what you told him?” Eli asked.
Piper waved her hand rapidly behind her to signal Eli to shut up. “He’s not,” she said to Tristen. “It’s complicated. But he’s not dead.”
“Is he an asshole?” Tristen asked.
“Watch your mouth,” Eli barked.
“Why?” Tristen asked. “What are you gonna do?”
Piper heard Eli take a step behind her. “Stop!” she shouted at them both.
End of Excerpt