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Bringing his Chevy pickup to a halt in front of the locked cattle gate, Duncan McAllister set the brake and climbed down. Stones crunched under his boots as he walked down the trail that ran along the ridgeline to a small, flat plateau overlooking the valley below. He tipped his hat back, gazing up at the cloudless, late-February sky, its fierce blue punctuated by the backlit figure of a red-shouldered hawk riding the thermals over the valley.
Taking it easy before hunting the live oak stands, probably, Duncan thought as he propped one booted foot on the limestone outcropping that marked the outer edge of the plateau, below which the ridge fell away sharply toward the valley floor, the steep slopes rocky and dotted with cedar, prickly pear cactus, and tufted grasses.
Soon bluebonnets would cover the slopes beside the roads and the trails along the valley floor where buffalo herds once roamed, their blooms a sign he’d associated with spring calving season ever since he’d been old enough to help his Daddy with the tagging and branding.
His gaze traveled back along the fence line across the plateau and up to the cattle guard. Beyond the locked gate, the trail curved around and upward to a higher, wider plateau shaded by a canopy of old-growth cedar and live oaks. The highest vantage point in this part of the county, it had been the McAllister boys’ favorite place for camping and cookouts.
He smiled faintly, hearing in memory the voices of Grant and Brice as the three of them traded jokes, told tall tales, and shared ghost stories around the campfire. He would have driven up to the old fire circle . . . but for that locked gate.
A stark reminder that the live oak plateau, his favorite place on the ranch since he could remember, was no longer on McAllister land.
As he did every time he came here, he vowed that someday that spot and all the rest of the land they’d been forced to sell would belong to the Triple A again.
The sound of scrabbling stones and a flash of movement along the ridgeline caught his attention. Riding up onto the higher plateau from the opposite direction, he recognized the neighboring ranch’s current owner, Harrison Scott, mounted on his chestnut gelding. A woman on black mare followed him.
Spotting him, Scott waved and turned his horse to ride up to the cattle gate. Waving back, Duncan walked toward the gate to meet his neighbor and the companion who, Duncan realized as the riders approached, was Scott’s daughter.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” Scott said, dismounting by the fence to hold his reins loosely in his hand. “You remember my daughter, Harrison, don’t you?”
“Yes. Nice to see you, ma’am,” Duncan said, to which she replied with a cool nod.
“Honey, you’ll recall that Duncan’s the McAllister who runs the Triple A—I’d call him the handsomest of the McAllister brothers if he weren’t always trying to buy back my land.”
“Are you ready to sell yet?” Duncan asked.
Scott laughed. “You can’t afford it,” he replied, his stock answer whenever the two of them went through this ritual, which was pretty much every time they met.
Unfortunately, it also happened to be true.
Duncan had encountered the daughter a handful of times over the eleven years since Scott had bought part of the original Triple A. She’d been away at college when Scott first moved in, and after graduation, gone to work in the city. Some sort of accountant, he vaguely remembered. But she didn’t visit her father very often, which told Duncan all he needed to know about her.
She must be a city girl at heart. Like Julie Ann had turned out to be, he thought, that particular loss stabbing less painfully as time went on.
Though he had to admit, unlike Julie Ann on the times he’d seen his former fiancée visiting Whiskey River, dressed up in designer jeans and five-hundred-dollar greenhorn boots, Scott’s daughter looked the part of a country girl. Her boots and jeans were well-worn, her denim shirt faded beneath a canvas barn coat that was more practical than fashionable, and she wore a battered Stetson over dark hair pulled back in a simple ponytail.
Duncan told himself he shouldn’t notice how nicely those jeans fit over her trim behind. She had, he recalled, a live-in boyfriend.
She was also quiet, just sitting her horse in silence. Either she was reserved, or aloof. Duncan liked his women blonde, bubbly, vivacious, and preferably with a beer in hand, ready to rodeo or ride the range. Scott’s daughter probably preferred art gallery openings and wine tastings.
After Julie Ann, he’d deliberately chosen to keep his romantic relationships casual. The last few months, with the extra workload on the ranch, he hadn’t made time to contact any of his occasional dates. Which was probably why a woman who didn’t tick any of the boxes that normally stimulated his libido was having such an effect on him.
Pulling himself back to the present, he said, “Down for a visit?”
“Yes. Wanted to spend a little time with Daddy before calving season got into full swing. He won’t have any time for me then.”
“Nonsense!” Scott said, giving her a fond glance. “Always have time for my baby girl. Have any calves drop yet, Duncan?”
“We’ve had two.”
Scott nodded. “Season’s just beginning. Wish I could convince Harrison to stick around a while longer. I’d put her to work.”
“Daddy, you know I wouldn’t be much help! You were the one who worked ranches every summer growing up. Can’t expect a Navy brat you dragged from pillar to post to know much about cattle.”
“Might have learned if you hadn’t been all fired up to go to college.”
“Don’t have a retiree’s salary like you do, Daddy. I had to learn to do something so I could earn a living.”
“Which is hard to do, just ranching,” her father admitted.
“Got that right,” Duncan said with feeling. But there was no point lamenting the calamities that had forced his stepmother to sell off so much land.
In the meantime, he should continue to be polite to the interlopers. “Your friend didn’t come with you, Harrison? Parker, isn’t it?” he asked.
Harrison’s smile faded, the warmth of her expression abruptly cooling. “No,” she said shortly. “He’s . . . too busy at work to spare the time.”
Scott laughed drily, in a way that made Duncan think he didn’t care much for his daughter’s boyfriend. “Parker doesn’t have much use for ranching. Nothing but empty land, bawling cows, and hardly a decent restaurant in town, he says. Harrison’s lucky to drag him here for a weekend over the holidays.”
“Now, Daddy, be nice. Not everyone loves the country like you do.”
“Anyone with sense would. Can’t think of any place on earth more beautiful than the Hill Country. Can you, Duncan?”
“You know I agree, but I’m hardly an objective observer.”
“No, your family’s roots go about as deep into Hill Country caliche as anyone around. Among the first Anglo settlers to the area, weren’t they?”
“Yes. Migrated from Scotland to Georgia, then settled here right after the Civil War.” Which made the fact that Scott now owned almost half of the original McAllister claim even harder for Duncan to swallow.
Someday, he silently promised himself. Scott had already been retired for more than ten years. He wouldn’t have the stamina to continue ranching forever. And when he couldn’t keep at it any longer, Duncan didn’t think City Girl daughter and the boyfriend who couldn’t be bothered to visit would be interested in hanging on to a working ranch.
By then, maybe he would have saved enough to buy them out.
If the price of beef didn’t plummet too many times, and he kept the herd free of trichomoniasis and other pernicious maladies.
“Daddy, we’d better be riding back,” Harrison said, dragging him out of his reflections. “I have to head home today, and I want to get back to Dallas before dark.”
“I thought you were going to stay the week,” Scott said, his tone surprised.
“I . . . I had intended to. But . . . there is an awful lot of work now, with the end of tax year coming up. I just think I need to get back.”
“Nothing wrong, is there?”
“No, of course not. Just work. You know me—can’t relax when I know there are so many details still undone.”
“Thought Parker was tending to those,” her father said sharply.
“He’s better with the meeting-clients-and-schmoozing part—something I’m awful at. I’m much more comfortable—and much better—at working with numbers,” she explained to Duncan. “We . . . complement each other.”
“If you say so. Looks to me like you do the work and he just schmoozes,” Scott said.
“Daddy . . .” she said in a warning tone.
Scott held up a hand. “Okay, okay. No more Parker-bashing, honey. Promise. I ’spose we’ll be off then. Good to see you, Duncan.”
“You too, Mr. Scott. Have a safe trip back to Dallas, Harrison.”
“Thank you, Duncan. Enjoy this gorgeous day.” She turned her head, scanning the horizon over the vast landscape from east to west, a wistful admiration on her face. “Wish I could stay longer and enjoy it too. But duty calls.”
“Don’t some of your generation work remotely? Consult via computers, or something? You should do more of that,” Scott said.
“Sometimes I do, Daddy. But for most things, I need to be in the office. Bye, Duncan.” She kicked her mare into motion and signaled the horse to walk back down the trail.
“See you around, Duncan,” Scott said, climbing back into the saddle and following his daughter.
“See you,” Duncan called after him.
Someday, he’d see himself riding that trail—with the cattle guard down and the whole of Triple A land back under McAllister control.
Glad that the narrow trail meant her father wouldn’t be able to ride beside her, requiring her to make light conversation on the way back to the stables, Harrison gazed into the distance as the mare picked her way down the rocky path.
Not that she’d shown herself to be very good at conversing. It really was pathetic that a twenty-eight-year-old woman could be rendered so tongue-tied just because Duncan McAlister was one of the handsomest men of her acquaintance. Even if he did have a disarming smile, a come-kiss-me twinkle in those Irish-blue eyes, and a muscled physique, toughened by wrangling thousand-pound cattle, that a gym rat would envy.
But then, she’d always been wary of handsome men—even Parker, at first. Then she’d fallen hard and completely for his good looks and easy charm. Been shocked and delighted when he confessed he’d fallen for her—a tall, introverted math geek of no particular beauty.
Except that lately, she wasn’t so sure he was still that taken with her. Unease and a vague feeling of foreboding stirred in her gut.
Every time she asked him if something was wrong, he’d tap her nose with a finger and assure her everything was fine. She was just overtired, working the long hours necessary to finishing up details for their accounts. He was tired too, working long hours delivering the reports she prepared and going over them with their clients.
They would have time for themselves again after the April 15 primary tax filing date, he promised her. Maybe they’d take a vacation, go to Hawaii or some other tropical place with sandy beaches and umbrella-garnished drinks.
She’d just as soon save the airfare and go to the ranch. The rambling house Daddy had built after buying the land northwest of Whiskey River had plenty of room for them to have their privacy, and she agreed with her father. She’d lived in a handful of different places all over the world, she and her mother following as her father pursued his naval officer’s career, and she’d never found a place more beautiful than the Hill Country.
But Parker preferred vacationing where there were plenty of five-star restaurants, lavish bars with exotic drinks, and casinos to gamble in. She’d lost count of how many dark caves she’d stood in—the gaming establishments didn’t want a gambler to be able to tell whether it was day or night, lest he realize how much time—and money—he’d spent. Long, dull hours hovering at Parker’s elbow “to bring him luck” as he played baccarat or blackjack.
She found it as boring as he found the Texas rangeland.
He’d probably be out wooing prospective clients when she got back to Dallas. Though she’d protested, with tax season already begun, that they really should concentrate on serving the clients they already had rather than trolling for more, he’d countered that a small business like theirs could never have too many clients.
And even as she tried to reassure herself, she couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that something more serious was wrong than fatigue and a lack of time to spend together during the busiest part of the tax year.
They hardly ever met for dinner anymore, she working late in the office, he out with clients. And their formerly active love life had dwindled to practically nothing. Though she missed intimacy, she’d always been too shy to boldly initiate lovemaking, always waited for Parker to make the first move.
Lately, he hadn’t made many.
But in just a few more weeks, she’d have all the preliminary filing documents completed. She’d take the unprecedented step of speaking her mind and insist they take some time off for themselves.
They’d make everything right between them again.
As she reached the flatter ground leading to the house and stables complex, the trail widened out, and her father rode his gelding up beside her.
“You’ve been awful quiet today, honey. Are you sure there’s nothing wrong?”
“No, Daddy,” she said, her bright tone as much to convince herself as her father. “Like I said, just work. As a rancher heading into spring calving season, you know about work.”
Her father chuckled. “That I do, baby girl. Well, I don’t like letting you go, but I guess I’m going to have to send you back to Dallas. Can you at least stay for dinner with your lonely old Daddy before you go?”
“Better make that coffee. And I’ll be surprised if my ‘lonely old Daddy’ doesn’t find himself a poker game for tonight.”
“Guess it’ll just be coffee then. But you have to promise to come for a longer visit right after April 15.”
She smiled up at her father, a wash of love for him warming her. As long as she could remember, he’d surrounded her with an uncritical, boundless affection. Moving so often for his career, always the new girl in a new school, she’d had few good friends growing up. Shy, smart, academically gifted, and socially inept, she’d often been teased, ignored, or isolated. Naturally introverted, she’d not minded—too much. There was always a good book to be read or a new puzzle to master.
As she’d gotten older, she’d gained more confidence and found some friends, especially during her time at the University of Texas. But deep within, she was still the shy, awkward, introverted girl only her Daddy really made feel special.
“I’ll come for longer then, Daddy, I promise. You know I love it here when the bluebonnets are blooming.”
“Be almost done by mid-April. But I’ll try to convince a few flowers to hang around for you. Anything for my princess.”
She chuckled. “You do that, Daddy.”
Reaching the barn, they both dismounted. “Go on up to the house and get packed,” her father said. “I’ll put Starlight up for you. And set the coffee brewing! Won’t take me long here.”
“I will.” Leaning up, she kissed her father on the cheek. “Love you, Daddy.”
“Love you, Princess.”
After lingering over coffee with her father and the long drive back, six hours later Harrison parked her car in the driveway of the upscale Dallas condo she shared with Parker. Gathering her overnight bag and briefcase of papers that went everywhere with her, she walked up the sidewalk.
Although night was falling, there were no lights on in the house. Not that she’d expected any. Parker would probably be either meeting with a prospective client or having dinner with a friend at one of his favorite bars and restaurants. Not a throw-a-steak-on-the-grill kind of guy, he preferred eating out, one of the reasons he enjoyed entertaining clients.
Wondering how late he would be, she juggled her purse and her bags as she picked her house key from the several on the key ring, inserted it in the lock, and tried to turn it. The lock didn’t budge.
Drat, in the dim light, she must have selected the wrong key. Setting her bags down with a huff of frustration, she lifted the key ring into the band of illumination provided by the streetlight and used both hands to pick out the correct one. She inserted it into the lock—which again refused to turn.
Sure she had the right key, she jiggled and wiggled, but the lock remained stubbornly closed.
Shivering against the sharp bite of the February wind, she checked the key again. It was definitely the correct one. After trying for a few more minutes with no luck, she pulled the key back with a muffled curse. She’d never been good with locks, but this was ridiculous!
She’d try the back door.
But a few minutes of wrestling with that door didn’t get her in the house either.
Frustration turning to puzzlement—and anger—she fished out her phone and texted Parker. After waiting, fuming, for a few minutes with no response, she stomped back to the car.
If Parker were with a client—or even out with friends—he might not text her back for an hour or more. She couldn’t imagine what had happened with the locks, but until Parker sent her back some instructions for dealing with them, she might as well drive to the office and do some work.
Switching on the lights in the outer office suite—mercifully, her office key worked just fine—Harrison walked through the reception area and into her office. Outside the window, the nighttime skyline of Dallas sparkled with light.
She paused a moment, admiring the view, before turning on her desk lamp.
A sealed envelope with her name on it in Parker’s sloping script sat propped against the base of her desktop computer.
That sick feeling in her stomach intensifying, she tore it open and unfolded the single sheet.
“I’m sorry, Harrison. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to tell you, but there never seemed to be a good time. I’ve known for months that I was falling for Madison, and I just couldn’t fight it anymore.
I’ve put the condo up for sale, changed the locks, and turned the keys over to a Realtor. I had a lawyer draw up documents dissolving our partnership; I left them on your desk for signature.
I’ve also had an unusually long run of bad luck at the tables lately. I was sure I’d make it back, but this weekend, things got sort of desperate, so I had to borrow some funds from the firm’s account. I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.
Again, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to end like this. Parker.”
Nausea and a numb sense of disbelief slammed her in the gut. Madison, the recent college grad Parker had insisted they hire last fall as a part-time intern, even though Harrison didn’t think they needed extra help. Curvaceous, sultry, blonde Madison had always been perfectly polite to her. Had never seemed to be making a play for Parker—at least, not when Harrison could see her.
The pressure in her chest made it hard to breathe. She pressed her hands down over her lungs, forcing herself to drag in air.
Hadn’t this been what she’d secretly feared ever since she let Parker talk her into living together? That someday he’d get bored with a nerdy number-puncher and fall for someone more lively, more flirtatious, prettier?
Through scouring waves of hurt and pain, the last part of his note suddenly registered. Borrowed some money from the firm’s account . . .
With shaking fingers, Harrison turned on her computer, punched in her passwords, and swiped through several screens until she could access the firm’s bank account.
The figures she saw there poured the acid of indignation over the raw wounds of hurt, heartache, and humiliation.
She’d invested all the money her mother had left her into this business. Of those several hundred thousand dollars, the cash sum in the account was barely a thousand.
Sitting in the semi-darkness of the office, she stared at the unbelievable figures while the cursor blinked at her like a mocking accusation.
When the implications of all the horrifying words in Parker’s note finally sank in, she uttered a hysterical laugh.
It appeared that she now had no home, no partner—and less than a thousand dollars cash to her name.
What was she going to do?
End of Excerpt