Manager for Hart’s Horse Rescue, Lucy Lenoir, finally feels she has a handle on life after having worked hard to leave her old one behind. So hard, there are times she almost forgets what she escaped. Memories which suddenly come flooding back when she catches a glimpse of a familiar horseman in town.
What’s worse, he’s in the company of the unlikely cowboy she’s only just beginning to trust.
High Mountain Tracker, Bo Rivera, tries hard never to repeat his mistakes. A huge one changed the course of his life and made him particularly cautious, especially around women. So much so, he almost passed up on the best thing to ever walk into his life; the compact, blonde ballbuster in need of a gentle hand.
However, the more he learns about her, the more he realizes a soft touch alone won’t keep her demons at bay. Those will need a firmer hand…to keep the gun steady.
Read Chapter 1:
Look at those poor babies.
They can’t be more than a week old but won’t last much longer if I don’t intervene. Their mother isn’t looking any better.
I got the call earlier this afternoon and wish I’d been able to wait for a deputy to follow me, but potential cases of animal abuse aren’t very high on their list of priorities. The woman who called insisted the situation was dire, and she’s right.
A rough-looking, burly guy is coming around the corner of the dilapidated farmhouse, about fifty yards from where I’m crouched next to the pen. He has a shotgun in his hands and it’s aimed at me.
“You’ve got two seconds to get off my property,” he yells, looking pissed.
This kind of rescue work isn’t without its occasional challenges and dangers. It isn’t the first time I’ve looked down the barrel of a gun held by some disgruntled farmer or rancher when they didn’t appreciate my rescue of their abused animal. Still, it never fails to scare the crap out of me.
I don’t like guns. I’ve never been comfortable around them, although I will say I won’t hesitate to grab the shotgun we have by the front door at the rescue when facing anyone who threatens our safety or the safety of the animals. Too much has happened here over the past two years since we moved from Billings.
We, being Alexandra Hart and myself. I’ve worked for Alex for over eight years now. I joined her when Hart’s Horse Rescue was on a much, much smaller property, just outside Billings, Montana. Then, two years ago, she purchased the property near Libby and I happily followed her here. Of course, since then, she’s met and moved in with Jonas Harvey at the High Meadow Ranch, just down the road.
At the rescue we don’t only provide a safe haven for the animals, but also rehabilitate injured and traumatized animals. Alex is something of a horse whisperer and has a special affinity with the animals I lack. Don’t get me wrong, I’m good with the horses—all the animals—but they certainly don’t respond to me the way they do to Alex.
Anyway, these days it’s just me and the animals at the rescue, where I look after the day-to-day operations. Not a bad gig, not at all. I have a job I love; I have a roof over my head, and I live in what has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Not that I’ve traveled much. I’m about the farthest away from where I grew up right now, although staring down a barrel is familiar.
According to Lester Franklin’s neighbor, he leaves for work every day at the same time and doesn’t return home until late afternoon. I’d parked on the neighbor’s property and was supposed to wait for a sheriff’s deputy to show, when I saw him drive off and came to investigate. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity, so I went in without backup. Hindsight being twenty-twenty, that had not been my smartest move.
Today being the exception to the rule, he obviously returned early and isn’t happy finding me here.
I lift my hands up to show him I’m not armed.
“Your kid goats need to be supplement-fed or they’re gonna die,” I yell back.
“None ‘a your goddamn business what I do with my goats. Yer trespassing!”
He racks his shotgun and repositions it against his shoulder, lining me up in his sights. The sound of it is a bit unnerving, but I know that’s what he intends; to scare me off.
“Look, if you’re happy to let them die, why not just give them to me to look after?”
The shotgun blast is loud as the dirt in front of me sprays up. I’m down on my face the next second. Guess he wasn’t just trying to scare me. I vaguely notice a stinging burn on my shin but my eyes are locked on Lester Franklin, who appears to be cocking his gun, readying it for another shot.
“Hey! Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department. Put that damn shotgun down!”
I turn my head slightly to where a fresh-faced sheriff’s deputy is standing, legs spread wide and her hand on the butt of her service weapon. Sloane Eckhart. She’s the niece of my friend Pippa’s husband, Sully, and brand-new to the department. So new, I can still see the creases on her uniform shirt.
“I have every right to defend my property! She’s an intruder.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Mr. Franklin,” Sloane fires back right away. “She’s at worst a trespasser and if you shoot at her you’re the one who’s gonna be going to jail! Now, I’m gonna ask you one more time; put the shotgun down!”
Despite my rather precarious position, I grin at the girl’s attitude. Hell, she’s probably early twenties, looks more like a child playing dress-up than an actual sheriff’s deputy, but she’s sure not easily intimidated.
“What are you gonna do about it?” Franklin challenges her.
Slow and easy, she slips her weapon in her hand, widens her stance, and aims straight at him.
“I outshot the entire department in an accuracy test two weeks ago,” she says calmly. “Want to test me?”
For a few seconds, it looks like we might have a shootout when the guy pans his aim toward Sloane, but at the last moment lowers the barrel.
I get to my feet and notice my lower leg still burning. The front of my jeans on the left side is wet and stained dark. Wonderful.
“Were you hit?”
Sloane walks over, her eyes zoomed in on my leg.
“Just some rock spray hitting me, I think. Just a scratch.”
I don’t want her distracted, I want her to control Lester while I collect these poor goats.
“Right,” she says, giving me a hard look before she walks to her cruiser, the driver’s side door still open. “Gonna call some backup. Looks like we need Animal Control out here too.”
While Sloane puts in her calls, I pull up the leg of my jeans as I try to keep an eye on Franklin, who continues to hover in front of his house. My leg is a mess. It’s difficult to see anything, but I look to be bleeding from more than one source.
“Yikes,” Sloane comments, walking up. “Maybe I should’ve called the EMTs as well. That doesn’t look good.”
“Can you hand me the wrench?”
I dig through the toolbox and give James the requested tool.
We’re out behind the ranch house, in the shed where the pump running the automated watering system is housed. The system provides water to the horses out in the fields closest to the house. There are only a few of the back meadows left to cart water to, but if we can’t get this damn pump to work, we’re gonna be back to hauling it everywhere.
It’s a time suck and a general pain-in-the-ass job no one wants to do, which is why we’re back here trying to fix it, even though neither James nor I are particularly talented in mechanics.
“Why don’t I go ask Pippa to come have a look?” I suggest when James releases a few juicy curse words.
Pippa is married to Sully, another member of our team, and she’s a mechanic. They live in one of the cabins on the other side of the ranch house and just welcomed a new baby two weeks ago, so she’s home.
“I’m sure she’s got other things going on,” James mutters.
“Are you kidding? If it was up to her, she would’ve strapped that baby to her body and already be back at the garage working.”
It’s true, I walked in on an argument about exactly that topic between her and Sully just yesterday. Pippa is itching to do something with her hands, while her husband feels she needs more time to recover.
He’s just worried about her, being protective, and she’s afraid to lose autonomy over her life with the new baby and relatively new husband. The fear-driven dynamics are clear to see from an observer’s point of view, but I guess even a couple of weeks of sleepless nights, constant feedings, and endless diapers can make you lose perspective.
Pippa is a rock and I have no doubt she’ll jump at the opportunity to get out of the house for a bit. Sully’s back to work and manning the breeding barn with Fletch today, but there are many at the ranch who’d drop anything to keep an eye on that baby girl for a few minutes.
Poor kid was born into one of the strangest families I’ve ever known, with a whole bunch of uncles, aunts, an honorary grandfather, and a handful of cousins, of which only one aunt and one cousin are actually blood related. The ranch, High Meadow, is at the center of this haphazard family. Its owner, Jonas Harvey, was my commander in the armed forces. Jonas, Sully, Fletch, James, and I were part of a special ops tracking unit. Like me, Jonas came from a ranching background. When he aged out of the unit, he bought this place, pulling us in one by one as we each aged out.
High Meadow is a stud farm, but in recent years we’ve been developing our own breeding program as well. In addition to that, the ranch is also the base for High Mountain Trackers. We may all have been too old for Uncle Sam, but we’re still able to put our skills to good use with HMT, which is a search and rescue—or recovery—unit on horseback. We get a variety of calls, anywhere from missing children to hunting down criminals, and often work together with local and state law enforcement.
The ranch is our home, even though I’ve never lived here like most of my brothers. I have my reasons for choosing an old apartment in town over one of the staff cabins on the ranch, although there’ve been many times I wished things were different. That’s life though, you’ve just got to roll with it. I’m sure there’ll come a day I can wake up to beautiful views and sweet mountain air instead of the parking lot at the rear of the restaurant next door, but that day isn’t here yet.
There’s no one at the cabin, but I find Pippa and the baby in the kitchen at the main house. Carmi is being burped by Alex, Jonas’s woman, with his old man, Thomas, looking on. I bend down and give that little downy blond head a kiss.
“How’s my little girl?”
“She sure don’t look like yours,” Thomas pipes up, unable to resist a tease.
There were too many years I would’ve taken that the wrong way, especially coming from an old, white, Southern boy, but I know he would’ve said the same thing to Fletch, who is white but dark-haired. This isn’t about the color of my skin but the blond hair the baby inherited from her father.
“Hush, after her daddy, Bo gets dibs. He delivered her,” Pippa reminds the old man with a grin.
I did. Two weeks ago, at the horse rescue.
It wasn’t my first baby—before I joined the military I worked as a nurse in different departments—but it had been a few years, maybe even decades, since the last one. Luckily, the basic mechanics of childbirth stay the same and, other than the baby was coming fast, there were no complications.
“Hey, you got a minute?” I ask Pippa. “We can’t get the motor on the water pump to—”
I don’t even get a chance to finish my sentence before she jumps in.
“Yes. You don’t mind, do you, Alex?”
Alex makes a face as she snuggles the baby closer. “Like you need to ask.”
Pippa follows me outside where we almost bump into Sloane, Sully’s niece, who moved here over the summer. She’s a sheriff’s deputy.
“I was looking for you” she addresses Pippa. “Where’s the baby?”
“Kitchen.” Pippa cocks her thumb over her shoulder. “I swear,” she continues when Sloane rushes up the porch steps. “I’ve ceased to exist since she was born. Don’t get me wrong, I love my baby beyond measure, but it’s a little unsettling when I’m being treated like an extension of that little human instead of my own person.”
I hear her. Fuck, I’m guilty of it too, heading straight for Carmi without even a hello for her mother.
Throwing my arm around her shoulder, I give her a little squeeze.
“Good thing we have a busted water pump to remind us you’re not just good at making babies,” I tease.
“Haha,” she grumbles, elbowing me in the gut.
“Oh, Bo?” I hear Sloane call.
“Yeah, what’s up?” I ask, turning around.
She’s hanging over the porch railing.
“You may wanna swing by Lucy’s, when you have a minute.”
As always when I hear her name, my attention is piqued.
“She had a run-in with a rancher north of town. She didn’t want me calling EMTs, but I think she got hit with some buckshot.”
I don’t realize I’m already moving until I hear Pippa yell out behind me.
USA Today bestselling author Freya Barker loves writing about ordinary people with extraordinary stories.
With forty-plus books already published, she continues to create characters who are perhaps less than perfect, each struggling to find their own slice of happy.
Recipient of the ReadFREE.ly 2019 Best Book We’ve Read All Year Award for “Covering Ollie, the 2015 RomCon “Reader’s Choice” Award for Best First Book, “Slim To None”, Finalist for the 2017 Kindle Book Award with “From Dust”, and Finalist for the 2020 Kindle Book Award with “When Hope Ends”, Freya spins story after story with an endless supply of bruised and dented characters, vying for attention!
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