Chapter One

 

HIS PHONE rang somewhere around Leadville. Shit, Ford Nixel hadn’t even known you could get cell signal in Leadville. He sure as hell didn’t have any luck with the satellite radio, for Christ’s sake. Thank God for hands-free stuff.

“Hello?”

“Ford? It’s your Uncle Tyson.”

“Hey, old man. How are you?”

“Your secretary said you were on your way up to Aspen. You think you could come on out to the ranch?”

Ford swerved a little in surprise, then pulled off at the next wide spot before he hurt something. “Well, hey, I can meet you in Glenwood if you want to have lunch at Juicy Lucy’s.”

He hadn’t talked to Uncle Ty in person for… shit, three years? Maybe a little longer? He hadn’t been to the ranch in twelve years, and he had no intention of breaking that record anytime soon.

“No, son, I need you to come. Please?”

Okay, whoa. In all these years, Ty had never once asked, not after they’d had a blowout of epic proportions, at any rate. Some things you never recovered from all the way. “Are you sick?”

When he didn’t get an immediate response, he knew what the answer was, and he was glad he’d stopped the car.

“I’d rather talk to you in person, son. I haven’t seen you. Can you come?”

Ford wanted to just shout a negative, but Ty had never asked him for a thing in his adult life. How could he refuse now? “Of course I can. I’m just out of Leadville, so it will be suppertime. Should I get something on the way in?”

“No. No. Geoff is making potato soup and biscuits for the guests. There will be plenty.”

“Oh, you got a new cook?” Last time they’d sat down together, Ty’s old housekeeper slash cook had gone to Florida.

“Stoney hired him a few years ago. He’s a character and a half—a vegetarian that makes the best brisket on earth.”

“No shit?” He leaned his head back against his seat. “Sounds like a hoot.”

“He’s something else, but a good guy. I’ll have my guest room made up for you.”

“Thanks.” Oh, man, now he had to stay? Shit, this was bad. “I’ll be there late this afternoon.”

“I appreciate it, son. Genuinely.”

“You know you can always call, Ty. I’ll see you soon. Love you.” Ford hung up, marveling about how he hadn’t said those words to his uncle since he was at the ranch last, and that wasn’t really fair, was it? He did love Ty fiercely.

If only the man hadn’t taken in his jerk of an ex from college.

Ford shook his head, then keyed up his phone to call his assistant, Eileen, who worked at his office in Aspen.

“Good afternoon, sir. How’s it going?”

Eileen was so professional. So smooth. Nothing like his Santa Fe assistant, Patricia, who was half-Hispanic and half-Pueblo Indian. Lord, that woman was loud and bright.

“Not so great, lady. I’ll be stopping off at my uncle’s in Glenwood for the night. Can you push back my appointments tomorrow by an hour? I’ll need time to get into Aspen.”

“Absolutely. You’re not even booked until eleven, and I’ll get everyone rescheduled after lunch.”

“Thanks. Anything else while I’m stopped?” He might stop at the Golden Burro in Leadville for lunch if they were still open. Maybe Wild Bill’s for a burger.

“No, sir. Everything is good here.”

“Okay. Well, call me if anything pops up. We’ll do online signing if anything has to go tonight.”

“Yes, sir. I’m on it.”

He didn’t doubt that for a second. Eileen only needed him for his signature, and she was better at that than he was. He chuckled. “Thanks, lady. See you tomorrow.”

Ford hung up and chewed on his lower lip. He’d go get food, then head to the ranch. His frickin’ worst nightmare. The damn place had become his own personal boogeyman, the birthplace of pure cowboy evil.

The thought made him chuckle, shake his head, even as he caught himself grinding his teeth in rage.

There was nothing about his ex, Stoney River, that didn’t piss him off, full stop, 100 percent. The guy had made Ford believe they were a thing, hot and heavy, then left him for his ranch and his cousin, for fuck’s sake.

A man might be forgiven for never wanting to see that particular face again, right?

Still, if Uncle Ty needed him, he’d go. That was what family did. It had been twelve years, hadn’t it? Twelve years was a long time to hold a grudge against a broke-dick liar of a cowboy, and more importantly against the man that had hired said broke-dick liar and given him a place on the ranch that should rightfully have been his.

He’d do what he had to, because Uncle Ty was really the last of his family. At least that he’d ever met. Ford owed the man that much.

He sighed and started the car back up. Time to get a move on. Get this shit over with and move the fuck on.

Story of his whole damned life.

 

 


Chapter Two

 

“STONEY? STONEY, can you please grab those sheets out of the printer?”

Miranda sounded like she was fixin’ to tear out her hair, and he was standing right there, so he grabbed them and handed them over before he got his fourth cup of coffee for the day. “You okay, honey? Someone put a burr under your saddle?”

“The Chavez wedding canceled.” Miranda sniffled like she might burst into tears.

“The eighty- to ninety-seat guaranteed group?” Fuck a doodle doo. “Jesus. Why?”

“Too far out, weather is looking iffy, her dad, the restaurant owner, wants her to do it there. They’re not arguing on me keeping the deposit, but God.”

“Yeah.” Just what they needed, a huge cancellation in the middle of the summer. If they didn’t make their money in the summer and fall, they didn’t have another opportunity. They were too far out for either the Sunlight Mountain or Aspen skiers.

“There was a hunting party that wanted that same weekend. I’ll call and see if they’re still interested.”

“Sounds good, lady. Just remember, at this time of year, they can only hunt our private land, not the BLM.” God, he didn’t want to have to tell Ty. Maybe he just wouldn’t mention it. Hell, it wouldn’t change a thing one way or the other. Ty had other worries.

“Dad, can I take Lightning out for a ride?” Quartz had slipped in behind him without Stoney even hearing him.

“Not right this second, son. I have to deal with some stuff.” He reached over to tousle Quartz’s curly hair, but the kid ducked away. “Come on, now. Don’t be a pill.”

“I’m not! I’ll take Bingo with me.”

“The dog isn’t going to save your butt if you fall off and crack your skull,” Stoney said. “Lightning needs more work before he’s a pleasure horse, bud.”

“I’m bored, Dad. Please. Come on. Isn’t there someone who can go out with me?”

“Let me make a couple three phone calls, okay?” Quartz blew out a sigh, but that was the worst symptom of impatience he displayed, so Stoney let it slide. A man had to pick his battles. He grabbed his phone, hunting any cowboy who had an hour to spare his son.

“Sure. Gimme ten.” Doogie, who’d been their hunting guide for twenty years, told him. “I’ll meet him up to the house.”

“I owe you, man.” Stoney gave Quartz a grin. “Doogie is going to meet you up to the house and take you. Fair?”

“Yessir.” The smile he got in return lit up the whole afternoon. “Thanks, Daddy!”

“No barn until he gets to you, got it?”

“I promise. I do. You rock.”

“That’s me. Rocking dad.” He chuckled. He might have to change the name to the Rocking D someday. He knew better. The ranch was the Leaning N and always would be.

He got a wave, a smile, and then Quartz was gone, boots stamping on the ground.

“Spoiled brat,” Stoney said.

“Oh, he is not.” Miranda chuckled. “He’s such a good boy.”

“He is.” And God knew Stoney loved him more than life. “Okay, how can I help? What do you need?”

“I don’t know?” Her next laugh had an edge of hysteria. “Find more guests.”

“Easy. Easy, now. We’ll figure it.” He didn’t bother to bring up the fact that if they didn’t get the BLM lease renewed, it wouldn’t matter how many guests they had—there would be precious little for them to do.

They had acreage, but the woods, the hunting land…. It was all part of the lease.

“Okay. I—thanks. How’s Ty?”

“He’s had better days. He’s heading back out of town tomorrow.”

“Oh, that’s a shame.” She pulled a face. “I hate that he’s so sick.”

“We all do.” It broke his heart that Ty’s kidneys were failing, but shit happened.

“I know. Angie wanted to see you?” She handed him a sticky note. Angie was their stock wrangler.

“I’ll head over now. Call me.” He slammed back his coffee and jogged to the barn, going to see his favorite dyke.

“Hey!” Angie popped out of a stall, almost giving Stoney a heart attack. “Come see Bella. The new filly.”

“Hey, lady. How’s she doing?”

“Good! I want you to have a look, though, see what you think of how her conformation looks now.”

“Let’s do it.” He was all over it. He headed into the back where the colts were kept. Bella was their first offspring from a new brood mare, and he had high hopes for this little lady. Dark and fine boned, with a blaze on her forehead—just the sight of her made him grin.

“She’s amazing,” Angie said, hands on her hips.

“Stunning. And it was an easy delivery too.” That was half the battle right there.

“You know it.”

Bella lipped at him when he put his hand over the half gate. Gentler than he expected already.

“Hey, Angel Baby. Look at you. Are you gonna grow up to be amazing?” He could handle a couple of good years in the livestock department.

The filly nuzzled his wrist, and Angie laughed. “She’s so smart.”

“She is. Her momma whispered that I kept carrots hidden away.”

“Her momma knows. You spoil Ginblossom like mad.”

He shrugged. You had to do something to get the new guys to love you, right? They all responded to some basic love. Hell, that was his basic outlook on life. Don’t fuck up. Be nice. Offer carrots.

Stoney grinned. “Anything else? I need to scare up some guests for Miranda.”

He fed Bella a carrot, her lips like velvet against his palm. Sweet baby. This was his favorite thing, being out with the animals, doing ranch work.

Hell, sometimes he liked the guests. Well, periodically.

Most of the time, he left them to the employees, but a trail ride now and then was just fine.

“Speaking of guests,” Angie said, “do we have any tonight?”

“Not that I know of, honey. Why?”

“Big blue pickup just pulled in. Ty got Sophia coming for supper?”

“Maybe. Stranger things have happened.” No. No way. Ty was heading for Grand Junction tomorrow for at least a week, maybe more. “I’ll peek in.”

“Cool. I mean, I know he told that home health care lady to take a leap.” Angie clapped him on the back, damned near sending him stumbling.

“Jesus, woman, you beat your wife that way?” he teased.

“Nope. I’m gentle as a kitten with her. She’s tough as nails.”

“Remind me to never piss her off.”

“Will do, boss. Go check on your uncle.” She waved him off, Bella neighing at him when he left.

Stoney saw Quartz out on Lightning, Doogie riding Pink alongside. Doogie would keep the kid in line and make sure he was back in time for supper in about an hour.

God, that was a sight, wasn’t it? His cowboy kid. He was passing on a way of life he loved. What more could he ask for?

He didn’t know the truck with the New Mexico plates, so he headed into the main house they shared with Ty, curious as all get-out. Late model. Dark blue. A little muddy around the tires. Stoney peered into the windows of the truck. Car charger, leather-bound portfolio. Laptop bag. Locked.

City, then.

Must be a lost guest. He’d go help.

Stoney stomped the dust off his boots and opened the door. The foyer was empty, the door to Ty’s half wide open. Okay. Weird.

“Uncle Ty? You in here, man?”

“Come on in, Stoney!” Ty called from his study.

Oh. Good. He knew folks were, for the most part, decent, but Ty usually mentioned if company was coming. “Yes, sir. How’re you feeling today?”

“Well, I’ve had better days.” Ty smiled at him from behind the desk, looking so normal, which made it that much worse when Stoney turned to smile at Ty’s visitor.

Ford Nixel had come home.