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Coming home to say goodbye.
Joelle Winslow halted inside the big red barn that housed her late father’s prized thoroughbred horses and let her eyes adjust to the dim interior. High wood beams stretched the length of a football field. Bridles hung from hooks at each metal stall door where thousands of dollars of horseflesh munched away oblivious to the turmoil about to be thrust into their lives. Her life.
A frosty breeze coming in from the pasture brought the hint of winter. In a few short weeks, the crisp, dry fall Montana air would give way to piles of snow and drive the inhabitants of Marietta inside. But not today.
On this late September morning, Joelle intended to spend a few moments alone with her horse and her memories one last time before returning to the life she’d made for herself in New York City. If the day went as she planned, she’d be heading back to her apartment on the Upper Westside by nightfall.
Awareness shimmied up her spine. She wasn’t alone. She spun around, her gaze landing on the man emerging from the shadows. Matthew Locke.
Her heart hiccupped. She hadn’t seen him since the funeral last spring. Even through her fog of grief, she’d noticed how handsome he’d become over the years, from cute teenager to grown man. That day he’d worn a tailored navy suit that had emphasized the width of his shoulders. She’d been surprised by his attire since she’d never seen him wear anything but ranch clothes, like he had on today.
His jeans fit snuggly on his long, lean legs and his wide shoulders filled out the navy flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up to reveal muscled forearms, liberally covered with dark hair. Her gaze lifted, bypassing his eyes, not ready to see his disapproval, to the well-worn cowboy hat on his head and the tuffs of dark hair peeking out from beneath. She’d always thought he had great hair.
The corner of his mouth twitched, drawing her attention to the hard set of his jaw, emphasizing the unyielding angles and planes of his face. Her heart thumped in her chest, but she ignored the jolt of attraction. This was not the time or the place. Never would be. Not with him.
Her father’s pet project.
Her childhood nemesis.
Okay, that probably wasn’t a fair moniker. Matt had never done anything overtly mean to her.
Only crushed her tender heart with what he’d said in confidence to his friend, RJ, that summer day long ago. Matt hadn’t known she was hiding in the hayloft.
His words had cut her deeply, to the marrow of her being. Even now, in the very place where her world had shifted, the echo of his words rubbed at the raw wound, threatening to reduce her to a quivering mass of hurt.
But none of that mattered now. Or wouldn’t soon.
Once she accomplished the task that had brought her back to Montana, she’d be done with the past. She had a promise to fulfill. A nervous flutter hit her tummy. Matt would not like what she’d come here to do, but she couldn’t let him derail her plans. Her father had rarely asked anything of her. He hadn’t needed to. He’d had Matt.
But she’d given her father her word, made him a promise and to honor her father’s last request hinged on accomplishing today’s goal, despite the turmoil she knew it would cause.
Self-consciously, she dragged a stray lock of hair behind her ear. She hadn’t taken the time this morning to do more than dress in jeans, a long sleeve t-shirt, her old barn coat and worn boots. She’d barely brushed her hair before throwing the tangled mass into a rubber band at her nape after brushing her teeth. At least her breath would smell minty.
She smiled. “Hello, Matt.”
“We weren’t expecting you.” Matt’s smooth voice rubbed at the edges of her frayed nerves.
And just like that the old hurt surfaced, making her back teeth grind together with irritation. “What? I’m not welcome? I do own half the estate.”
Her father, bless his soul, left equal shares of the ranch to his only child—Joelle, and to Matt. Even in death her father had made it clear he thought of Matt as the son he had always wanted. Her father hadn’t known what to do with a girl.
She scuffed the toe of her riding boot into the dirt, wishing she could scrape away the hurt flooding through her as easily.
“Of course you’re welcome here. This is your home.” Matt’s placating tone inched her annoyance up a notch. “I only meant that I would have driven to Bozeman and picked you up at the airport.”
She bit the inside of her lip. When would she learn to control her response, not to mention her tongue? Matt always brought out her claws. Contrite at her jab, she softened her voice. “It was late. I didn’t want to bother anyone. I rented a car.”
She’d also wanted a way to quickly and easily escape back to New York without having to rely on anyone else. Once she told Matt why she’d returned and what she wanted, he’d probably chase her off the ranch with a pitchfork.
“Ava will be happy to see you.”
Affection for her father’s housekeeper and cook filled Joelle. Ava had stepped in to be a surrogate grandmother to both Joelle and Matt. She’d been devastated when daddy passed. They all had been. “She stayed on after Daddy’s death?”
“Of course she stayed on. As well as Chuck, Randy and Mick.”
The hands who had been with the Winslow Estate before she was born.
Guilt for not keeping in contact with those at the ranch pricked her. Her gaze slid away from Matt to stare out the weathered barn doors. The grassy meadow layered in shades of gold glistened with dew in the morning sun. Her decision would affect not only her and Matt, but also everyone who worked on the ranch.
But what choice did she have? She had a promise to keep.
In the horizon, Copper Mountain stood sentinel in all its majestic glory over Paradise Valley.
From the stall to her right Star snickered. The pungent odor of hay crunching beneath his impatient hooves assaulted her senses. The horse could sense her mood. They’d always been in tune to each other. She missed him so much. She wished she could take him with her but the city was no place for a horse. Besides, Star was one of the ranch’s best studs. He’d fathered numerous prizewinners. No, Star was an asset of the ranch and needed to remain here. But he was hers for now.
She pulled his tack off the hook next to his stall. Matt reached to help her. She leveled him with a quick look. “I remember how.”
“Just trying to help.” He stepped back with his palms up and heaved a sigh.
A familiar sound. One that grated on her like sandpaper.
When she was six her mother had divorced her father and taken her away. For two long years, she begged and pleaded to return home to the Montana ranch. Finally her wish was granted. She’d been ecstatic until she’d come home to find her father had taken in an orphaned boy, four years older than her. She’d been resentful and yet fascinated by the silent kid. He’d had her father’s attention so of course she followed him around, hoping and needing to be included. But Matt had been unwilling to let her into his world. He’d tolerated her but kept her at arm’s length. Just like her father. Neither man had had much use for her. At least in the end, her father had expressed an interest in her happiness.
After saddling Star, she led him out of the barn with Matt following close behind. She hitched her foot into the stirrup and lifted herself onto Star’s strong back.
Matt stroked Star’s neck and gazed up at her from beneath the brim of his hat, his expression hid in the shadows. “Be careful. Don’t stray beyond the river. There’s a cougar roaming the area.”
“We’ll be fine.” It wasn’t like she didn’t know the lay of the land. The ranch had been her playground as a child. The meadows, the pastures, the river and the mountains beyond. While her dad had been grooming Matt to take over, she’d been allowed to roam unfettered.
She spurred Star into a lope leaving Matt behind. The cool mountain air touched Joelle’s face like a caress. Her dark hair escaped from the band holding the strands back. The exhilarating feel of the wind blowing through her hair made her smile. An unexpected sense of nostalgia hit her, twisting her insides up.
The memory of the first time she’d ever sat a horse and rode by herself begged for her attention. She’d been four and Dad had sat her on a big mare named Kitty. The feeling of power, of pride that her daddy was teaching her how to be like him had expanded within her little girl’s chest; she’d thought she might burst.
From that moment on, she’d loved riding. It was the one thing she and her dad had in common. A bittersweet melancholy washed over her. She wished her dad were here now. She wished he could see how successful she was and that she was doing as he’d asked and following her dream.
She spurred Star on. There was a sense of freedom on the back of a horse, feeling the beast’s powerful body beneath her, knowing she controlled the animal, yet the unpredictability of the horse sent excitement revving through her veins. She left the main part of the ranch for the north pasture. She stopped to open the gate and heard the thunder of hooves on the ground. Shielding her eyes against the sun, she watched Matt approach on an unfamiliar, beautiful quarter horse with a red coat and white socks.
He pulled up on the reins and slowly walked his horse through the gate. Star blew out a loud huffy sounding noise much like the one Joelle stifled as she re-latched the gate.
She swung back into the saddle. “What are you doing?”
“What I do every morning,” he replied. “This is Amber. She’s rehabilitating from an injury and needs to be exercised.”
So he decides to follow her? “Isn’t that why Daddy built the arena?” She nudged Star with her knees to get her walking again.
Matt and Amber fell into step on the left. “We use the arena during the winter months.”
Of course she knew that but having him tag along on her ride galled her. She’d wanted to enjoy the peace and quiet of big sky country before heading back to the tall, concrete jungle of skyscrapers that made up New York City.
They rode in companionable, if not comfortable, silence through tall grass damp with the night’s dewy kiss. The river running through the valley glistened in the autumn sun, the water glinting like specks of glass floated on the surface. Overhead a hawk circled, the bird’s massive wingspan dark against the cloudless baby blue sky.
She leaned back, turning her face upward, watching the bird for a moment before closing her eyes and absorbing the feel, the taste of being in Montana. She breathed in deep the scents of pine and fir trees, enjoying the fresh, crisp air filling her lungs. Imprinting the sensory impressions on her heart. An ache formed in her chest. She’d missed this. And would miss it once she returned to the life she had built in the city.
“Beats the smells of subways in New York, huh?” Matt asked, amusement dancing in his tone.
Her eyes snapped open and her cheeks heated. Sitting upright in the saddle, she slanted him a glance. As far as she knew he’d never left the state of Montana. “What would you know of New York subways?”
“I’ve been there a time or two. Good way to get around town but I’d take a horse over a subway train any day of the week.”
The air left her lungs in a rush. “Recently?”
“I go east at least once a year on ranch business. I take in a Broadway play or a Yankee’s game.”
She twisted in her seat so she could fully see him. “You’ve come to the city and not visited me?” Why did that sting? It shouldn’t bother her. They weren’t family. They weren’t even friends. They were…she didn’t know what to call them. Him.
He shrugged. “I’ve thought about it. But I figured you wouldn’t welcome the intrusion.”
A protest formed but the truth of his words hit her in the middle like a fist, making her swallow her denial. If he’d shown up on her doorstep, she’d have thought he were there to check up on her like she was an errant kid. Daddy hadn’t been happy when she’d gone away to school in the Big Apple. And even less happy when she didn’t return home after graduation. Though she didn’t understand why he was upset, it wasn’t like he wanted her underfoot either.
A sneaking suspicion flared deep inside. “What kind of ranch business?”
He looked away but not before she caught the flash of panic in his eyes. He never was a good liar. “You were checking up on me, weren’t you?”
“Clark was worried. He wanted to make sure you had everything you needed and lived in a safe place.”
She rolled the admission around her mind. Matt had spied on her at her dad’s request. She should be angry, yet she couldn’t work up any steam. She felt strangely cared for.
At least Dad had died knowing she had a good job.
And now she had a chance to be a partner in a business. If things went according to her plans, that was. So much hung in the balance and she had very little time to make her move. A move that would fulfill her promise to her dad. But she would need Matt’s cooperation.
She licked her lips. The bite of guilt made her overly warm in the thick wool jacket. She owed him an apology. For so many things. The frog in his bed the second night after she’d returned home. The orange juice in his cereal—that one never got old. Telling one of the Wright sisters—for the life of her she couldn’t remember which sister—he had a fungus right before he asked her to prom.
Joelle wasn’t sure if Matt ever knew why the girl had turned him down. Not one of Joelle’s finer moments. At the time she’d been so mad at Daddy for giving Matt a new saddle and telling her she hadn’t earned one. Her fourteen-year-old self hadn’t understood why he’d received a gift and she hadn’t. But the saddle hadn’t been a gift but recompense for taking on so much of the everyday labor of the ranch.
While she’d been a pampered child with no work ethic. A sad fact of reality that had been a hard lesson to learn those first few months out of college. Not that Daddy had given her a chance to develop a work ethic. Around the ranch, her job was to stay out of the way.
Go do your homework had been Daddy’s mantra.
And she had, earning herself a 4.0 and a wallop of a scholarship to one of the best art schools in the country. Even that hadn’t impressed her father.
But pride kept the words of apology from spilling out. Instead, she settled for a mediocre olive branch. “Next time you come to New York, please stop by. I’ll take you to one of the best Italian restaurants this side of the Atlantic.”
He tilted his Stetson back. “Do they have Carbonara?”
She laughed. “Yes, they do. Though that seems a little fancy for you. I remember when I made Zuccati for you and Dad. It didn’t go over well.” Few of her attempts to cook and impress had gone over well.
He wrinkled his nose. “Squash isn’t a favorite, but who can resist anything with bacon in it?”
The gesture took her back to their childhood. She could always tell when he didn’t like something. But he was always too polite to come out and say so. Unfamiliar affection spread through her chest. “True that.”
His answering grin nearly knocked her out of her saddle. She liked the way his eyes crinkled at the corners. He had really nice eyes when he wasn’t mad at her. Dark and mysterious, yet open and inviting. Why hadn’t she ever noticed that before? Probably because she usually only brought out his anger. And he hers.
This moment of camaraderie was strange and comfortable all at the same time.
“Joe? Why did you come home unannounced? That’s not like you.”
Her heart squeezed tight at the nickname. Her dad was the only one she ever let get away with shortening her name. A reminder of his unrequited desire for a son.
Not ready to answer his question, she tugged the rein to the right, turning Star back toward the ranch. Matt followed suit. “I’ll race you back.”
“No.” Matt’s stern tone brought her up short.
She halted Star but kept her gaze on the sprawling estate in the distance. The world-class horse barn and indoor arena stood off to the left of the main house and to the right a bunkhouse for the year-round hands and an old pole barn, now used for storage.
The two-story farmhouse, built circa 1906, evoked memories. Some good. Some not-so-good.
After Mom had left, ripping Joelle away from her dad and settling them in California, Dad had remodeled the farmhouse. He’d gotten rid of the white siding and had the outside redone in tones of brown to blend in with the sweeping landscape. Inside was up to date and modern. Ironically, Dad had put in all the things Mom had wanted to do—state-of-the-art kitchen, a peek-a-boo fireplace in the master, all new bathroom fixtures.
To this day Mom complained, even though she’d started a new life in San Francisco and didn’t regret leaving Montana. But Joelle hadn’t like the city and had made Mom’s life miserable until she finally relented two years later and allowed Joelle to return to the ranch. To find her dad had found himself a son. And then to realize a few years later how her being there hadn’t been wanted by anyone.
“Hey, talk to me,” Matt said, concern lacing his tone.
A flicker of surprise prompted her to look his way.
“Are you okay?” His brows pulled together. “You’re not sick or something, are you?”
Empathy formed a lump in her throat. He’d lost so many people in his life. She hadn’t meant to make him worry. Hadn’t even realized he would worry over her. She swallowed hard. “No. Nothing like that.”
She needed to tell him now. Stop hesitating. Get it over with like ripping a bandage off. “I came home because—” Spit it out already. “I have this wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy into a jewelry design company.”
His face cleared. He stared at her with no visible emotion. “How nice for you.”
“It will be.” She wanted to make him understand how much this meant to her. Make him understand that she would be fulfilling the promise she made to her dad. “We have a space in SoHo, which is a part of the city south of Houston Street. It’s very trendy, but one of my partners had a connection through a friend, and we can have the place for a steal. Then there’s the equipment we’ll need and the supplies and such.” She was rambling but couldn’t seem to stop herself. And the more she talked the more distant his expression became. “So there’s some risk involved, but I firmly believe our business will do well. We have a business plan and vendors as well as wholesalers lined up and orders already coming in for some of our test designs.”
“I see.” He took off his hat and swiped a hand through his thick, dark hair. Her gaze followed the tracks left by his fingers. “What does this have to do with you coming home?”
She met his gaze. The wariness there made her tongue stick to the roof of her mouth. She forced out the words that she knew would change things forever. “I want to sell the ranch.”
End of Excerpt