All’s Fair with Love and Cowboys


Kristine Lynn

Hard work can’t buy love…

Bennett Marshall used the heartbreak over losing his first love to catapult his family’s ranching operation into Texas fame. Fifteen years later, the only property left to claim in his valley is the canyon owned by the same woman who broke his heart all those years ago. Then she rides back into town, and taking over her ranch takes a back seat. Claiming her heart is so much more appealing.

Maggie Newman’s late father left her the ranch he kicked her off of when she graduated high school. He wanted more for her, and she made good on that demand. She’s the owner of one of the premier ranching equipment companies in Texas, which means she doesn’t have time to fix the mess he left behind. What’s more, the love from her past is standing on her front porch, upending everything she thought she wanted out of life.

Hearts are on the line this go-round—will Maggie and Bennett discover their passion and drive are the perfect match before they sign away their happiness?

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Chapter One

How many fruit baskets did one girl need? If the answer was seven, well then, Maggie Newman was doing just fine. Ooh. She’d missed the bag of apricots from Elliot and his wife. So, that made eight? She fingered the cellophane-wrapped edge of one that boasted three ways to enjoy a golden delicious. As it fell from the tree, obviously, but what condolence gift would be complete without apple butter and, of course, a Dutch apple pie?

One basket even had an apple wearing a bandana and straw hat.

Maggie shook her head.

You could take the cowboy off the ranch, but…

It seemed folks in San Antonio expressed sorrow the same way they did up north—with food. Not that Maggie wasn’t grateful, just exhausted.

She snatched a peach from an open gift box and bit into it, letting the sweetness wash away the bitter taste in her mouth.

The neighborly assault-by-produce wasn’t as alarming as the letter next to the baskets on her granite counter. As Maggie hovered over it, juice fell from the just-ripe peach, staining its corner. Brushing it off, Maggie read it for the umpteenth time, even though she knew it by heart—a heart that struggled to catch up to what it all meant.

I hereby declare that this is my last will and testament…

Heat burned against the back of her eyes, but she wouldn’t cry. Not for this, she’d save her tears for the man himself. A man who’d died much too soon.

I appoint my daughter, Margaret Newman, as sole executor…

Maggie took another bite of the fruit and looked down to find a green June beetle sitting on the pit as if she’d disrupted his sleep. Nausea rolled through her chest and stomach even though the peach was the first thing she’d had since her vanilla bean espresso that morning. She tossed the fruit in the compost bin under her sink and fell into the overstuffed love seat looking out over the city.

Spread in front of her like a bounty was the city she’d come to call home. San Antonio was bright, loud, and an odd mix of thousand-dollar suits and ten-gallon hats, but she’d made it hers. Now, under the startling afternoon Texas sun, it almost looked fake, like a cartoon drawing of too much glass, too much light. Too much stuff.

San Antonio was the dream she and her father had shared—a life away from the struggles of a ranch and all the trappings that came with it. At one point in her early teens, she’d disagreed with him almost to the point of severing their relationship. But that was a long time ago. She was a different woman now, and her biggest supporter was gone.

Because he worked himself to death. For you.

She shoved the guilt down, hid it behind heartfelt memories.

Her dad showing up in San Antonio with a framed print of the logo she’d designed for Steel Born as a housewarming gift.

Playing chess with him on her patio, him shaking his hips for the upscale neighborhood to see when he’d whooped her two games in a row.

Hanging lights on her apartment door every Christmas, even though she argued that no one but her cranky neighbor could see them.

He’d wanted this for her as much as she needed it for herself.

She glanced away from the future—her future—taunting her behind the sixteen-foot glass windows like an exotic bird in a zoo, just out of reach and just as likely to fly away. Her gaze fell on the small rectangle of white that had changed everything.

The last line of the will reverberated in her head on a loop.

I bequeath to her all rights and ownership of Newman Ranch and Estates.

Like a salmon swimming against the current of the stream, Maggie was heading back to where she was raised. To where she learned to ride a horse, where she’d broken her first bone, and where her heart had shattered for the first—and she decided the last—time.

Why did you work so hard to help me leave? she asked of the man who’d raised her alone and left her behind the same way. Why did you guide me out into the world if you were only ever going to force me back to the ranch in the end?

To test the fire-suppression system you two designed? her subconscious offered.

No. They’d created the suppression system for her company, Steel Born, along with other ranching machinery that made SB an up-and-coming ranching supply company according to Ranching Magazine. Going home wasn’t ever part of its design.

Hell. Going home wasn’t part of any design.

She tapped into her contacts list on her phone, dialing her assistant, Jill. The woman had become a dear friend, blurring the line of professionalism, but no matter what, Jill always addressed Maggie as her boss when Maggie called during work hours.

“Yes, Ms. Newman?”

“I’m going to need a driver to take me to Austin.” Then she could at least get work done on the way.

“Yes, ma’am. One way or round-trip?”

Maggie closed her eyes tight and attempted to will away the headache brewing in the back of her head.

“One way. I’ll call when I get a sense of things and have you book the return.”

“Very good. When do you want to leave?”


“As soon as possible.” She hung up and settled deeper into the crevice of the couch, her thoughts racing. If she’d changed as much as she had in a decade and a half, what else would she find altered by time and heat and land when she got home?

A shudder rolled through her. She really wasn’t looking forward to finding out.

Bennett Marshall shoved his hands in his pockets and gazed over the east end of his property. He whistled low and long, his breath frozen and suspended in front of him. The early spring air still had a chill wrapped around it in the morning, but like any good swath of Texas land, it heated up just fine as the day wore on. This was gonna be a warm one according to Bob Warner, the newscaster on the truck radio, who also happened to double as Deer Creek’s weatherman.

It was only a ten-minute drive from the north end of BTM Ranch to the east border, but thanks to Bob, Bennett caught up on the weather, Lorna’s escaped racoon stealing trash out of the neighbor’s yards, and a fire sale down at Harvey’s Feed.

Ah, small-town living. He’d thought he’d want more than the simple, quiet life when he’d been growing up and making trouble where he couldn’t find it, but now? Heck. Ranching the way he did, it wasn’t quiet or simple. Take the barbed wire blocking his view, for example.

The fence line delineated what was his and what wasn’t … yet. He squinted until the border between his and Newman’s property blurred in his vision. He imagined the light flickering on the canyon stream, the sun peeking over the rolling hills, and the shadowed peaks that rose behind them all nestled under his archway.

A smile—rare as a Deer Creek vegetarian—wrinkled the corners of his eyes.

It’d been fifteen years in the making, but the culmination of his hard work was close enough to touch for the first time since his dad had lost their property to the bank.

You might’ve gotten here sooner if—his brain drummed up.

Uh-uh. He was where he was and that’s all that mattered. The people who’d left him behind—Maggie, Matt, and his father to name a few—didn’t matter as much as the dream within his reach.

Bennett whistled again, this time sharp enough to call back Gander, the mutt that found him the day he’d purchased his second-to-last property in Deer Creek six years ago. The faithful boy was laying at his door like a well-fed welcome mat and hadn’t left since. He might have lost some pep, but his eyes were filled with the same mischief he’d carried with him as a young pup.

Gander ambled back, chewing on some foraged something or other Bennett could only guess at. The dog looked like he didn’t have a care in the world.

“Me neither, boy. Me neither,” Bennett said, scratching Gander’s soft but dusty scruff. “We’re gonna make it happen this time. I can feel it in my bones. We’re gonna tear down that fence and finally take that dip in the creek.”

Like I did when I first kissed Margaret. Before her father’s rifle and hateful stare had guided Bennett back to his side of the fence. It didn’t keep—those two found ways in and out of each other’s arms and land all summer that year. It should’ve been the start of something wonderful, but it had gone full scale the other way pretty quick.

“It didn’t matter, though, did it?” he said to Gander. The mutt gazed up at him with a lazy, contented look that Bennett could’ve sworn was a smile. Bennett’s gaze settled on the first rays of light splintering the pale blue sky above. “Something spooked Margaret. But I wish you could’ve met her. She was something else. Like the land and air swirled together to make a dervish with eyes you could get lost in.”

He shook the mirage from his thoughts. The memory wasn’t unpleasant, just one that brought up nostalgia he’d put to bed. No use waking it up now. Out here, in ranchland Texas, loss was as much a part of life as birth.

Bennett knew that truth firsthand, but there was too much to do before the sun finished cresting those hills, and thinking about his past wasn’t gonna get them done. He’d come back tomorrow and start adding Newman’s repairs to the list.

“I wouldn’t worry too much about it, son. That canyon’ll be yours someday; I can see it.”

Carl Newman had meant a lot to him, despite the cavernous ache his daughter left in her wake. Even though the promise of a canyon stream sounded good to Bennett—it might well be the only way he could fight the drought plaguing the other ranches—it didn’t take the hurt away. Bennett missed the guy.

He sighed and whistled for Gander to follow him back to the truck. The creek, the fence line, and Carl Newman faded with every step Bennett took.

Only a hazy image of a girl with wild oak-brown curls remained as the truck bounced down the unmaintained dirt roads connecting the web of BTM properties.

Only a few more days and he’d be able to tear down the last of her hold on him along with the fencing keeping his dreams at bay. Carl Newman might not have offered the property outright, but his words reverberated in Bennett’s head.

That canyon will be yours one day…

With Carl gone, who was going to get in Bennett’s way?

Maggie shivered. She’d forgotten how cold the Texas desert could get with no concrete and steel to hold the warmth in.

“Can you turn up the heat?” she asked the driver.

He gave a curt nod and flicked a switch. Apparently, not only the air was cooler up here.

“Thanks,” she muttered.

Turning her gaze back to the landscape whirring by, she let the terrain roll over her along with the memories they brought up.

The dry, cracked earth spotted with dilapidated homes on failed ranches were the same. So were the white-painted churches dappling every corner of what local folks called Tornado Alley since it looked like it’d been leveled by an F5 twister. But not even God saw fit to intervene and bring this place some life.

“This place is so sad,” she commented.

The driver didn’t even offer her a nod. And why would he? It wasn’t a question.

“One week,” she whispered to herself this time. “I’ll turn the property around in one week and then I’m out of here for good.”

Only when they neared Deer Creek did plants seem to thrive along with the homes and people in them. Inside the town limits, one might be able to forget about the poverty beyond its borders, but Maggie couldn’t. It was why she’d finally given in and left.

There was always a thin line between making it until next season and selling your birthright back to the bank when you were a rancher. And out here everyone was a rancher.

Which meant failures were visible, displayed for the town to see—and judge. If she dropped the ball in San Antonio, there wouldn’t be sideways glances at the supermarket or the hardware store. Just her own guilt.

How did you do it, Dad?

“If you make a right on Birch, there’s a shortcut through town. It’ll save you six or seven minutes.” She didn’t like still knowing so much about a place she’d tried to forget, but it was in her bones, her DNA. She was, and always would be, a daughter of Deer Creek.

The driver took Maggie’s suggestion, and in minutes she was at the gate of her father’s ranch. Well, what used to be a gate to what used to be her father’s place. The wood was broken in half, not by force it seemed but over years of neglect, leaving it open for anyone to stroll on through. Her heart lurched.

She should have let the driver take his time through town so she could postpone the ache that opened up in her chest. This wasn’t what she expected.

The drive up the path leading to the ranch house used to be her favorite part of Deer Creek. Bougainvillea and cottonwoods had lined the road, giving it the feel of a Georgian paradise, not the entrance to a Texas ranch. Now, the bougainvillea was strangled by other endemic plants and the cottonwoods were choking under half-dead vines.

“Dad,” she whispered, “what happened here?”

He’d been gone for barely a week. Not near enough time to let the property fall into such disrepair, but then, she couldn’t argue with the evidence in front of her, especially as the driver pulled up beside her home. The whole place, from the gate to the driveway to the house, was in ruins.

The heat that had threatened behind her eyes built quickly, giving her no time to stop a few tears from falling. If she’d only come back sooner…

Out of the corner of her sight, a figure appeared, but through blurred vision, she couldn’t make out much detail. Who the—

She shot out of the SUV before the driver could open the door for her, drying her cheeks as she went.

“Excuse me, but this is Newman property. May I ask what you’re doing—”

The man turned to face her, and her breath stalled and the chill that had been nagging her all morning evaporated. Heat and familiarity raced over her skin.

Chiseled jawline bathed in scruff.

An interested frown tugged at the corners of his mouth.

Jade-green eyes belied strength and wit.

She’d spent one too many hours drowning in those eyes to forget them or the man they belonged to. The way he stood there, hands on his hips like he owned the place was familiar and yet not. One thing was for certain—he looked like he belonged there, if only there wasn’t her father’s land and he wasn’t fifteen years too late.

She rubbed her finger where the ring had once sat.

The last time she’d seen him was talking to a buckle bunny at the county fair the night before he left for college, the night she’d asked for time to consider his proposal. After all, she’d only been seventeen. What did she know about making a life with someone else?

Still, she’d loved him fiercely with everything she had. And it wasn’t enough. He’d gotten frustrated that she wouldn’t stand up to her father, whom he assumed was behind her asking for time, and that night—well, she didn’t get the time she asked for that was for sure.

Who knew when Maggie would’ve figured out his betrayal if her dad hadn’t seen Bennett and the woman walking off together that night. What, exactly, had occurred between them was confirmed early the next morning when Maggie showed up to confront him, only to find him in another’s arms.

Maggie’s chest still ached when she pictured the way he’d kissed the woman.

Her heart might’ve been a pit stop for him, but Bennett had been the end of the road for her. After he shattered her trust, it didn’t take more than a gentle nudge from her dad to send her on her own way. She hadn’t looked back, either.

Maybe if you had, you’d have noticed that while you were rising like a star in the Austin sky, your dad was burning out.

She shook her head. He’d supported her dreams every step of the way. He’d—he’d never said anything. The guilt scratched from behind the memories. Another thing about the city? It didn’t let you wallow in your heartache; working to forget was status quo.

Not here, though. She might have a hay-ton of work in front of her, but she wasn’t gonna be able to forget, was she?

She mustered up enough courage to throw her shoulders back and force the ache from her heart.

“Bennett Tucker Shultz,” she spat. “What the heck are you doing on my property?”

End of Excerpt

All’s Fair with Love and Cowboys is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-961544-84-0

April 2, 2024

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