Chapter One



GRANT JARREAU came bounding up the porch stairs of the largest house on the Blue River Ranch with Matthew on his arm. The child was laughing ecstatically at being tossed around rather roughly by the big cowboy and only complained when Grant put him on the kitchen floor. 

“More!” Matthew called out, but Grant ignored his pleas and simply tousled the boy’s hair before moving to the breakfast table and kissing his lover. 

“You know, if you keep tossing him around like that, he’s going to expect all of us to do it as well,” Hunter Krause remarked. “You spoil him.”

Grant squeezed Hunter’s shoulder. “That’s because I know how much you enjoy being spoiled; why should your son be any different?” He winked, and Hunter started laughing.

At that moment, the kitchen door opened again and a flood of children came bounding in, closely followed by Christy Marshall, the mother of most of them.

“Calm down already!” She raised her voice. “Be quiet and sit down to eat your breakfast.”

Hunter had put out bread, cheese, and lunchmeat and was making sandwiches for all the kids to take to school. Three years ago he and Grant had built their own house on the property, but they ate breakfast at the larger ranch house most of the time because they wanted to see Grant’s three kids before they went to school. Everyone had their fixed routine in the morning, which took some of the heat off Christy, who also cooked for the workers who lived at the ranch. 

Grant thought the kitchen resembled a daycare center more than a ranch house most mornings, between his kids with Christy and the two little girls playing with Matty, who belonged to Hunter’s sister Izzie and Hugh Conroy, the ranch foreman. Danny, Hugh’s son with his first wife, Lisa—also a sister of Hunter’s—completed the picture. He was old enough to sit with the adults and was pitching in to help Hunter make them sandwiches along with the ones for the school kids when the phone rang. 

Grant got up from the table to pick up the receiver. “Blue River Ranch.” The kids were making a racket, so he tried to cover his other ear, but he still couldn’t make out what the soft voice on the other end of the receiver was saying. By the time he’d rounded the door to the hallway, the caller had disconnected the call.

“Who was that?” Hunter asked as Grant sat down next to him. 

“No idea,” Grant answered. “Whoever it was didn’t wait for me to get to a quieter part of the house so I could hear.”

Hunter shrugged. “They’ll call back. They probably thought they got a wrong number and had inadvertently called the zoo, or something.”

“Well, it certainly sounds like a zoo in here. I feel sorry for the schoolteachers who get this bunch in morning classes,” Grant replied with a smile.

“Saddle up, kids. Get your lunch and your books out to the car. Time to leave for school,” Hugh announced while Izzie helped the kids find everything and everyone chipped in to get the four oldest children out the door. 

As Hugh and Izzie walked down the porch, Tim—one of the wranglers and Hugh’s baby brother—came running up to the house.

“Can I talk to you, Hugh?” Tim asked. He leaned in a little closer. “It’s not for everyone’s ears.”

Hugh knew his brother well enough to tell this couldn’t wait and exchanged a silent look with his wife, who held out her hand for the car keys.

“Sure, let’s go into the office.”

Tim followed Hugh to the ranch office, which was located downstairs next to the mud room. This was usually where Hunter did the books and recorded the orders that needed to leave the ranch, but since Hunter was still in the kitchen, Hugh knew they’d have some privacy there.

“Shoot,” Hugh said after closing the door behind Tim.

Tim hesitated, playing with the rim of his hat. “Remember Rory?”

Hugh narrowed his eyes and shook his head. “Rory?”

“Drifter who asked for a job a few years ago. Stayed for about three weeks and then disappeared after picking up his Friday night paycheck,” Tim explained.

“You expect me to remember every ranch hand who passes through here, Timmy?”

Tim shook his head. “You should remember this one. He’s the one who helped Delco steal all those foals that year.”

“Right. That Rory. What about him?”

Tim took a deep breath and looked at his brother. “I need a favor, Hugh.”

“Will you cut to the chase?” Hugh asked impatiently. “I have a ranch to run, and at this pace it’ll be dinnertime before I get around to it.”

“I need you to give him his old job back,” Tim said determinedly.

Hugh laughed. “You must be joking.”

“I’m not,” Tim replied calmly. “He needs a job and a place to stay or they won’t let him out on parole.”

Hugh leaned over the desk. “Let me get this straight. He worked here for three weeks to get inside information on the workings of this ranch, then disappeared like a thief in the night, only to come back with Delco to steal seven foals from us. And you want me to give him a job?” He pushed himself off the desk with some force to straighten his back and then folded his arms in an attempt to look taller, which was easy since he was well over six feet and Tim was at least two inches shorter. “Even you have to realize I’m not that gullible, Timmy.” 

“He’s no criminal mastermind, Hugh,” Tim answered. “He’s just a guy who’s been dealt a rough hand. The horse thieving wasn’t his idea, it was Delco’s. Rory simply had no money for more than a pro-bono lawyer, and that’s why he got four years and Delco was out after eleven months.”

“Don’t you think the fact he had a rap sheet an arm long could have had something to do with the judge’s decision?” Hugh shook his head. “The guy’s a career criminal. He got off lightly as far as I’m concerned. Other states have a three-strikes law, and he would have been behind bars for life just about anywhere other than Idaho.” Hugh leaned closer to his brother again. “Timmy, I know you’re the one who always brings home strays, but Hunter will skin me alive if I hire this guy.”

“I thought maybe you could talk to Hunter,” Tim pleaded. “Rory’s been an exemplary prisoner. He’s getting out early for good behavior, and he’s determined to walk the line from now on. Hugh, please?”

“How do you know all this?” Hugh asked, mellowing somewhat. “Have you been visiting this guy in prison?”

Tim shook his head. “One of the wardens is an old classmate of mine. He’s been keeping me up to date.” 

Hugh nodded. “Fine. I’ll talk to Hunter at a moment when he won’t bite my head off. Don’t expect him to say yes, but if he does, I’m going to suggest that you be responsible for this guy’s behavior on the ranch. If anything is stolen or, heaven forbid, we start losing horses again, there’s only going to be one guy to blame, and that’s Rory. You do understand that, don’t you? You’re going to be his babysitter, and we’re going to shoot first and ask questions later.” Hugh sighed dramatically. “We’ve always run a safe ranch. Nobody locks their doors around here, and I don’t want that to change. This guy would have a much easier go of it in a place where they don’t know him, Tim. Our old-timers are all nice guys, but I can’t vouch for them when it comes to working with a convicted felon. They might not even want to work with him at all, and then what?”

“I’ll work with Rory,” Tim said with clear conviction.

“You’re a wrangler, and as I recall, he doesn’t even know how to ride a horse. How are you going to work together? We can’t spare you on the range, Tim. Especially not when the foals are born and the mares need to be serviced again.”

A smile formed around Tim’s mouth. “I always thought we had stallions for that, Hugh.”

Hugh rolled his eyes and slapped Tim’s head. “You’re my brother, Tim. We’ve lived and worked on this ranch all our lives, and I don’t want anything to compromise that.”

“It won’t,” Tim assured his brother. “I just want to give this guy a break.”

Hugh sighed. “I know.” He put his arm around Tim’s shoulders and eased him out of the office and into the light of the bright autumn sky. “Let’s get some work done, okay?”



HUGH pondered his brother’s request all day. Tim had a big heart; everyone knew that. In fact both dogs that guarded the stables were mutts Tim had found by the side of the road abandoned as puppies. He’d always taken care of them, and although they were both kind-hearted dogs, they only really listened to Tim, who could summon them with a whistle and a click of his tongue. 

The not-so-small favor Tim had asked of him definitely fell into the Tim-has-a-big-heart category as far as Hugh was concerned. He tried to recall everything about the horse theft case and remembered that Delco’s prison record had been squeaky clean, yet this Rory fellow had had a few things to his name. Nothing major, Hugh remembered—some petty theft and a “borrowed” car came to mind—but he’d been to prison twice before, and so the judge had given him the harshest sentence he could give under the circumstances. This guy sounded like a lost cause, a career criminal who’d have a hard time finding an honest job anywhere he went, and so of course Tim was drawn to him like a moth to a flame. Part of Hugh wanted to protect his baby brother, but Tim wasn’t a teenager anymore. Tim carried a lot of responsibility around the ranch, especially around foaling time, when he was the one in charge of keeping vigil over the mares in labor. He had saved numerous foals with his calm demeanor and swift action. Hugh trusted Tim blindly with everything but his big heart. Even after all these years, he still wanted to protect Tim from the evils of the world. And Hugh felt like a coward when he realized he was turning to Hunter to play the boogieman by letting him have the final word.

For that reason, it took Hugh almost a full week to approach Hunter about Rory. He knew Tim was getting antsy and wanted an answer to his request.

“Hunter, can we talk in private tonight? After dinner maybe?” Hugh asked his brother-in-law as they were helping set the table for Sunday dinner.

“Sure. Business or pleasure?” Hunter asked in a laid-back sort of way. 

“Business, I’m afraid.”

“Can’t it wait until tomorrow then?” Hunter asked.

Hugh sighed. “I should have asked you earlier in the week.”

Hunter’s face grew serious, and he moved a little closer to Hugh. “You’re not leaving us again, are you? Who did you snare this time? Bernie?”

Hugh laughed. He could take the joke because he knew Hunter wasn’t serious. Hunter loved to tease him because Hugh had left Hunter’s oldest sister, Lisa, for Izzie, his middle one. Bernie was Hunter’s baby sister and a force to be reckoned with on the three-day-eventing circuit. In fact, she was probably going to go to the Olympics with a horse that Hunter had bought her. 

“Izzie’s the girl for me, Hunter, always was and always will be,” Hugh answered good-naturedly. “Bernie’ll find herself a good show-jumping champion one day.”

“So what’s troubling you then?” Hunter asked.

Hugh shrugged.

“Dinner’s in about twenty minutes, I heard Mom say, so if you want to go down to the office now, we can discuss it.”

After telling Christy and his mother where they were going to be, Hunter and Hugh went downstairs. 

Hugh had a pretty good idea how Tim must have felt on Monday when he had to come down to the office to argue his case. “I’ll cut right to the chase,” Hugh told Hunter. “Tim asked me whether we’d consider hiring Rory McCown as a ranch hand.”

Hunter’s mouth fell open. “Rory McCown? Who stole our horses?”

“The one and only. Well, actually one of the two.”

“And why would Tim want us to hire him?”

“Because he was a good worker when he was here, and because he’s eligible for parole as long as he has a place to live and gainful employment.” Hugh could see Hunter shaking his head in disbelief, so he continued before Hunter could say anything. “Besides, Rory wasn’t the brains behind the whole operation. You and I both know that Delco was the one with the contacts to sell the horses and the cunning to devise a way to trick us into thinking we were looking for a cougar instead of a horse thief.”

“Yeah, but Delco wasn’t the one with the rap sheet all the way to Canada,” Hunter intervened.

“That’s just because he never got caught. How many people do you know who are interested in buying stolen foals? I for one don’t know anyone like that. And I bet you don’t either. Delco made the shady contacts. Rory was just stupid enough to get caught.”

“So you’re telling me we should hire a ranch hand because he’s stupid?”

“Don’t twist my words, Hunter,” Hugh replied.

 “So is this guy going to stay longer than three weeks this time?”

“Suppose it’s a stipulation of his parole. He probably can’t travel outside state lines and needs to stay employed. Not like he’s going to find work easily with the jail time he’s done.” 

“Don’t suppose he will.” Hunter pondered. “So how do I know he’s not going to steal more of my horses?”

“You don’t. But I told Tim that if you say yes, he’s going to be the one keeping an eye on Rory.”

“Do it,” Hunter said.

Hugh couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. “But you don’t have any guarantees.”

Hunter shrugged. “We employ just about anyone who asks for a job around here. I know that makes us seem desperate, but in a sense we are. We don’t pay badly, yet it’s nearly impossible to find people to work, especially for the low level jobs. Nobody over the age of sixteen wants to muck out stables anymore, so who am I to say no? Besides, we won’t need to explain too many things to him. I’m sure he remembers. And we can trust Tim to keep an eye on him, right?”

Hugh nodded his agreement. Hunter was right, of course. At least with Rory they knew what to expect, which was more than they knew about the other drifters walking onto the ranch. Although he certainly had his apprehensions, Hugh almost couldn’t wait to tell Tim, just so he’d see his baby brother’s face light up.