Read an Excerpt
PRAISE FOR BRANDED
PRAISE FOR LAURA WRIGHT AND HER NOVELS
Also by Laura Wright
Diary of Cassandra Cavanaugh
May 12, 2002
Today it took five dollars to get the cowboys to look the other way when Mac and I saddled up one of Daddy’s prize cow horses. They’re so darn mean and greedy. And it’s my birthday too! Thirteen years old, people! So, you know, shouldn’t I at least get a discount from them boys or something? Jeez. Mac came through, though. She always does. She gave them a piece of her mind, and lots of curse words, too. But they wouldn’t budge, so she flipped them her middle finger, paid them off, and told me happy birthday.
She’s so funny and crazy.
Mac’s been wanting to give Mrs. Lincoln a spin forever. Well, ever since the gray mare came to the Triple C, anyway. Between you and me, I think Mrs. L’s a little too much horse for Mac to handle. But o’course Mac doesn’t think so. She’s as hardheaded as they come. She says what she wants and does what she wants, and she ain’t afraid of anything.
I wish I could be like that.
I wish I could be tough.
Mac and me rode out to the Hidey Hole o’course. We had lunch and swam a little bit; then we sunbathed. I’m a total sun worshipper. I wish it were sunshine all day and night and never dark. I don’t like the dark. Mac wanted to just wear our underwear and bras while we lay out, but I said no way. The Hidey Hole was always top secret, real hidden down in the gulch, but lately I’ve been getting the feeling someone might know about it. And I was right!
Not an hour and a half into our fun, my oldest brother, Deacon, found us. He was in a mood, too. He’s seventeen and pretty much has his own life. He hates having to come look for me. ’Course, so do James and Cole. But when Mama says move, we all move. Anyway, Deac barked at me to get home and get ready for my birthday party. I told him I’d come along soon. The thing wasn’t for another five hours, for goodness’ sake! But he wouldn’t have any of that. He was in a real snit. Bossy as hell. Which, o’course pissed Mac off to no end. She gave it to him good. She sounded like the cowboys when they’re working cattle. Definitely R rated! And Deacon hates it. He thinks Mac is a bad influence.
I don’t know if I’m right or wrong, but lately, I get the feeling that Mac might have a crush on Deac. Not that she doesn’t tell him to take a hike in her colorful way and all, but lately, when she does it, her cheeks go all red. And her blue eyes get all shiny like gemstones. She also plays with her hair, wraps it around her finger into a long brown snake. I don’t think she knows she’s doing it.
Maybe I should tell her?
Ugh, I dunno.
I don’t want her to be mad at me. She’s my best friend, but she’s also like my sister. And my family is like her family. All she’s got at home is her pops, and he ain’t nothing to sing songs about in the parenting department, if you know what I mean.
Maybe I can go roundabout with it? Talk about all the girls who call our house wanting to speak to Deacon during dinnertime and see how Mac reacts? Yeah, that sounds good. I’ll know if she’s jealous or not. But, Lord, what do I do if she is?
I’ll write again tomorrow and let you know what happens. Wish me luck!
The glass doors slid open and Deacon Cavanaugh walked out onto the roof of his thirty-story office building. Sunlight blazed down, comingling with the saunalike air to form a potent cocktail of sweat and irritation. The heat of a Texas summer seemed to hit the moment the sky faded from black to gray, and by seven a.m. it was a living thing.
“I’ve rescheduled your meetings for the rest of the week, sir.”
Falling into step beside him, his executive assistant, Sheridan O’Neil, handed off his briefcase, iPad, and business smartphone to the helicopter pilot.
“Good,” Deacon told her, heading for the black chopper, the platinum Cavanaugh Group painted on the side winking in the shocking light of the sun. “And Angus Breyer?”
“I have no confirmation at this time,” she said.
Which was code for there was a potential problem, Deacon mused. His assistant was nothing if not meticulously thorough.
Deacon stopped and turned to regard her. Petite, dressed impeccably, sleek auburn hair pulled back in a perfect bun to reveal a stunningly pretty face, Sheridan O’Neil made many of the men in his office forget their names when she walked by. But it was her brains, her guts, her instincts, and her refusal to take any shit that made Deacon respect her. In fact, it had made him hire her right out of business school. When he’d interviewed her, the ink on her diploma had barely dried. But despite her inexperience, her unabashed confidence in proclaiming that she wanted to be him in ten years hit his gut with a hell yes, this is the one I should hire. Forget ten years. Deacon was betting she’d achieve her goal in seven.
“What’s the problem, Sheridan?” he asked her.
She released a breath. “I attempted to move Mr. Breyer to next week, but he’s refused. As you requested, I told no one where you’re going or why.” Her steely gray gaze grew thoughtful. “Sir, if you would just let me explain to the clients—”
Deacon’s voice turned to ice. “I’ll be back on Friday by five, Sheridan.”
She nodded. “Of course, sir.”
She followed him toward the waiting chopper. “Should I ask Ms. Monroe if she’s free to accompany you on Friday?”
Only the mildest strain of interest moved through him at the mention of Pamela Monroe. Dallas’s hottest fashion designer had been his go-to for functions lately. She was beautiful, cultured, and uncomplicated. But in the past few months, he’d been starting to question her loyalty as certain members of the press had begun showing up whenever they went out.
“Not yet,” he said.
“Mr. Breyer is bringing his . . . date—” Sheridan stumbled. “And he’s more comfortable when you bring one as well.”
A slash of a grin hit Deacon’s mouth. “What did you wish to call the woman, Sheridan?”
She lifted her chin, her gaze steady. “His daughter, sir.”
Deacon chuckled. His assistant could always be counted on for the truth. “I’ll let you know in the next few days if I require Pamela.”
He stepped into the chopper and nodded at the company’s pilot. “I’m taking her, Ty. Bell’s been instructed to deliver another if you need it.”
The pilot gave him a quick salute. “Very good, sir.”
Deacon turned and lifted an eyebrow at his assistant, who was now just outside the chopper’s door. “What is it, Sheridan?”
Her normally severe gaze softened imperceptibly. “I’m sorry about your father.”
Deacon waited for a whisper of grief to move through him, but there was nothing. “Thank you, Sheridan.”
After a quick nod, she turned and headed for the glass doors. Deacon placed his headphones on, stabbed at the starter button, and checked his gauges. Overhead, the rotor blades began to turn.
He’d been to River Black nearly once a month over the past six years. In the first two, he’d attempted to buy the Triple C from his father. When that hadn’t worked, he’d tried blackmailing the man. But still Everett Cavanaugh wouldn’t sell to him. The idea of buying up land in and around the ranch soon followed. Deacon thought that if he couldn’t take down the Triple C through ownership and subsequent neglect and/or bulldozing the property to the ground, then he’d do it the old-fashioned way.
His ranch would offer lower prices to the cattle buyers, better wages and benefits to the hands, and the best soil, grass, and grain for the healthiest cattle around. Only problem was, the place wasn’t near being done. Even with all the overtime he was paying, his ranch still wasn’t going to be up and running for at least a year.
Revenge would have to wait.
Or so he’d thought.
“Tower, this is Deacon Cavanaugh. The Long Horn is cleared for departure. Confirm, over.”
“Roger that, Long Horn. You are clear. Have a good flight, sir.”
As the engine hummed beneath him, Deacon pulled up on the collective and rose swiftly into the air. For ten years, he’d dreamed of seeing the Triple C Ranch destroyed. And now, with his father’s death, he would finally have his goal realized.
Gripping the stick, he sent the chopper forward, leaving the glass and metal world of Cavanaugh Towers for the unpredictable, rural beauty of the childhood home he planned to destroy.
• • •
Mac thundered across the earth on Gypsy, the black overo gelding who didn’t much enjoy working cows but lived for speed. Especially when a mare was snorting at his heels.
“Is the tractor already there?” Mac called over her shoulder to Blue.
Her second in command, best friend, and the one cowboy on the ranch who seemed to share her brain in how things should be run brought his red roan, Barbarella, up beside her.
“Should be,” he said, his dusty white Stetson casting a shadow over half his Hollywood-handsome face.
“Any idea how long she’s been stuck?” Mac called as the hot wind lashed over her skin.
“Overnight, most like.”
“With the amount of rain we got last night, I can’t imagine it’s more than a couple feet.”
In all the years she’d been doing this ride and rescue, she’d prayed the cow would still be breathing by the time she got there. Never had she prayed for a speedy excavation. Slow and steady was the way to keep an animal calm and intact, but there wasn’t a shitload of time.
“Of all the days for this to happen,” she called over the wind.
Blue turned and flashed her a broad grin, his striking eyes matching the perfect, summer-blue sky. “Ranch life don’t stop for a funeral, Mac. Not even for Everett’s.”
Just the mention of Everett Cavanaugh, her mentor, friend, savior, and damn, Cass’s father, made Mac’s gut twist painfully. He was gone. From the ranch and from her life. Shoot, they were all without a patriarch now, the Triple C’s future in the hands of lawyers. God only knew what that would mean for her and for Blue. For everyone in River Black who loved the Triple C, who called it home, and all those who counted on it for their livelihood.
“Giddyap, Gyps!” she called, giving her horse a kick as she spotted the watering hole in the distance.
She had just two hours to get the cow freed and get herself to the church. And somewhere in there, a shower needed to be had. She wasn’t showing up to Everett’s funeral stinking to high heaven; that was certain.
With Blue just a fox length behind her, Mac raced toward the hole and the groaning cow. When she got there and reined in her horse next to the promised tractor, she tipped her hat back and eyed the situation. The freshly dug trench was deep and lined with a wood ramp. Frank had done a damn fine job, she thought. And he’d done it fast. Maybe the cowboy had been looking at his watch, too.
She nodded her approval to the muddy eighteen- year-old hand as Blue’s horse snorted and jerked her head from the abrupt change of pace. “Leaving us the best part, eh, Frank,” she said, slipping from the saddle with a grin.
The cowboy lifted his head and flashed her some straight, white teeth. “I know you appreciate working the hind end, foreman.”
“Better than actually being the hind end, Frank,” Mac shot back before slipping on her gloves and walking into the thick, black muck.
“She got you there, cowboy.” Blue chuckled as he grabbed the strap from the cab of the tractor and tossed it to Mac.
“Get up on the Kioti, Frank,” Mac called to the cowboy. “This poor girl’s looking panicky, and we got a funeral to go to. I’d at least like to change my boots before I head to the church.”
As Frank climbed up onto the tractor, Blue and Mac worked with the cargo strap, sliding it down the cow’s back to her rump. While Mac held it in place, whispering encouragement to the cow, Blue attached both sides of the strap to the tractor.
“All right,” Mac called. “Go slow and gentle, Frank. She’s not all that deep, but even so, the suction’s going to put a lot of pressure on her legs.”
As Blue moved around the cow’s rear, Mac joined him. When Frank started the tractor forward, the two of them pushed. A deep wail sounded from the cow, followed by a sucking sound as she tried to pull her feet out of the muck.
“Come on, girl,” Mac uttered, leaning in, digging her boots in further, using her shoulder to push the cow’s hind end.
Blue grunted beside her. “Give it a little more gas, Frank!” he called out. His eyes connected with Mac’s. “On three, Mac, okay?”
She nodded. “Let’s do it.”
“One. Two. Push fucking hard.”
With every ounce of strength she had in her, Mac pushed against heavily muscled cow flesh. Her skin tightened around her muscles, and her breath rushed out of her lungs. She clamped her eyes shut and gritted her teeth, hoping that would give her just a little extra power. It seemed like hours, but truly it was only seconds before the sucking sounds of hooves pulling from mud rent the air. Hot damn! The cow found her purchase, and groaning, she clambered onto the wood boards. Maybe the old gal darted away too fast and Mac wasn’t expecting it. Or maybe Mac’s boots were just too deeply embedded in the mud. Or, shit, maybe she was thinking about how she’d never do this with Everett again, this life and death moment that both of them loved so damn much it had bonded them forever.
Whatever the reason, when the cow lurched forward, so did Mac. Knees and palms hitting the wet black earth in a resounding splat.
“She’s out!” Frank called from the cab.
“No shit!” Mac called back, laughing in spite of herself, in spite of the thoughts about Everett.
Eyes bright with amusement, Blue extended a muddy hand, and Mac took it and pulled herself up.
“Good thing you have time for a shower,” he said, chuckling.
Mac lifted an eyebrow at his clothes caked in mud and sticking to his tall, lean-muscled frame. “Not you. You’re all set. Say, why don’t you head over to the church right now?”
“Come on, Mac,” he drawled, wiping his hands on his jeans as he started out of the mud hole. “I can’t go like this.”
Mac followed him. “What do you mean? You look downright perfect to me.”
“Shit, woman.” Standing on high, dry ground now, Blue took off his Stetson, revealing his short black hair. “You know I need a different hat. This one’s way too dirty for church.”
Mac broke out into another bout of laughter. It felt good to be joking after some hard-won labor. It felt right in this setting, on this day in particular. Everett would approve. Nothing he liked better than the sound of laughter riding on the wind.
Overhead, another sound broke through their laughter and stole their attention. And it wasn’t one Everett would think kindly on.
Frank glanced up from tending to the exhausted cow and shaded his eyes. “What the hell’s that?”
Mac tilted her face to the sky and the gleaming black helicopter with a name she recognized painted on the side in fancy silver lettering. Instantly, her pulse sped up and her damned heart sank into her shit-caked boots.
“That’d be trouble,” she said in a quiet voice.
“With a capital C,” Blue agreed, his eyes following the movement of the chopper, too. “Looks like the eldest Cavanaugh has come home to bury his daddy.”
“And bury us right along with it,” Mac added dryly.
“You think?” Blue asked.
“Hell, yes.” As the chopper moved on, heading toward the sizable ranch land Deacon Cavanaugh had bought a few years back, Mac’s gaze slid back to Blue. “He’s been trying to get his hands on the Triple C since he walked out its gate ten years ago. I’m guessing he thinks this is his big chance.”
“But he’s got all that property now,” Blue observed. “More land than we got here. A house being framed up, the whole thing fenced in for cattle.” He shrugged. “Maybe he’s over wanting to run the Triple C.”
Mac smiled grimly. “I don’t think he ever wanted to run this place, Blue.”
That had the cowboy looking confused and curious. “Then what? Why would he work so hard and offer so much money for something he didn’t want?”
Mac shook her head, dug the tip of her boot into the dirt, into the land she loved. “I don’t know. I’m not sure about his reasons. I just know they ain’t pure. I tried talking to Everett about it a few times, ’bout why Deacon was pushing him so hard, being such a slick-ass bastard—trying to take over the very home he and James and Cole had all run from as soon as they were able. But he brushed me off, said all his boys had been changed in the head after Cass was taken, and they weren’t thinking right.” Mac chewed her lip, shook her head. That explanation had never made sense to her, but she didn’t push it. Everett had gone through hell, and if he didn’t want to talk about it, that had to be respected.
’Course, that didn’t mean she hadn’t tried to work it out in her head a few times.
“I always wondered if it was just Deacon’s way of doing business,” she continued. “How he makes his money. Buying and selling off pieces of other people’s dreams and sweat.” Her eyes lifted to meet Blue’s. “But he could do that anywhere. Why the Triple C?”
Blue was silent for a moment. Granted, the cowboy knew some of the history with Deacon, his father, and the ranch, because Mac had filled him in when the former had started his war with Everett six years ago. But Blue didn’t know the particulars of the loss the Cavanaugh boys had endured before they’d left home. He didn’t know about the day Cass had been taken or the night Sheriff Hunter had come to their door with the news that her body had been found. He didn’t know that her killer was never caught, or about the morning they all sat in the very same church Everett Cavanaugh would be eulogized in today, over a beautiful white casket, their lives changed forever.
But Mac knew. And hells bells, she’d shared that unending grief along with them. Her best friend gone before she’d seen her fourteenth birthday. It wasn’t right. For none of them. But neither was taking that grief out on people. Especially family. Especially a man as goodhearted as Everett.
“So you think this is Deacon’s big chance?” Blue asked her, his face a mask of seriousness now. “You think he’s gonna get his hands on the Triple C?”
“Not if I can help it,” Mac uttered tightly.
She watched the helicopter shrink to the size of a dime and then finally disappear behind the mountain. She didn’t know what Everett’s will was going to say, who he’d left the Triple C to. But she did know that whoever it was, they’d have her standing over them, watching every move they made. Making sure that this land she’d come to love so damn much was taken care of properly.
“Let’s drive this cow home to her friends, boys,” she called out. Determination coursing through her, she walked over to Gypsy and shoved her boot in the stirrup. “Let’s do the job we’ve been hired on to do, then go pay our last respects to our boss, our friend, and hand-to-God, one of the best men I’ve ever known, Everett Cavanaugh.”
Deacon exited the Long Horn and strode across the lawn to the long, metal garage that housed his cars. He was pleased to see that in the six weeks since he’d last been on the property, much had been done to the house and barns. All three were framed in, and as he was flying over, he’d seen fencing around the entire property. Next he’d have his guys get on a foreman’s house, working pens, guest cottages, a pool area, and maybe a landing strip. If they kept up this pace, in nine months he’d be spending his weekends in River Black.
He tossed his bags into the back of the custom charcoal Dodge Ram Laramie he’d instructed his staff to have readied and waiting outside. It had been a few months since he’d been behind the wheel of the diesel engine and those stellar three hundred and fifty horses, and damn, he was looking forward to it. No matter how citified he’d become in the past ten years, in his heart and guts, he was one hundred percent country boy.
He slipped the key into the ignition, felt and heard the engine roar to life all around him, then hit the gas. Dust and gravel kicked up behind him as he peeled away, leaving his new, uncomplicated property for the lush, spiteful ranch he’d once called home. The ranch he’d loved, then feared, then despised, then ran from, then tried to take control of. Shit, could this be it? Could the place of death and pain and cruelty finally be leveled to the ground?
The air rushing into the Ram’s cabin was sweet and always so achingly familiar. It filled Deacon’s nostrils, entered his lungs, and wrapped around his guts, squeezing the hell out of him. That was the thing about River Black—no, about the Triple C. Beauty was plentiful and endearing, but it masked the secret evil that lay beneath all too well and all too easily. Surrounded by spring-fed lakes, rugged mountain crags, and lush, expansive rolling grasslands, the Triple C Ranch sighed with contentment and prospered—even under the weight of a twelve-year-old unsolved abduction and murder and its terrible aftermath.
The dense memory of his little sister, Cass, assaulted him as he passed through the wrought-iron front gates of the Cavanaugh Cattle Company. Granted, the forever-thirteen-year-old girl was always near to his cold heart, her free and gentle spirit propelling him forward, reminding him of the vengeance he sought and the salvation he would soon find. The grand property spread out before him on both sides of the drive. Time had been kind to the Triple C. Fresh paint glistened on the well-kept fencing, the miles of grassland looked thick and fertile, and every structure he passed, or spied in the distance, appeared well appointed and well kept.
His lip lifted in a sneer. How the hell could something that had seen a devastation like Cass’s death, then witnessed the subsequent cruelty by two grieving parents who believed their three remaining children to be responsible, blossom over the years? Shouldn’t it be rotting out like a Halloween pumpkin come spring? Maybe his mother had been right. Maybe her words to him in the months following Cass’s death all those years ago were true. Maybe he and James and Cole had been the true blight on this landscape, and now that they were gone, it could flourish.
Well, he’d see soon enough if that were the case.
About a mile in, Deacon passed the barns, both painted cherry red, both expanded to accommodate big equipment and at least two dozen horses. Farther down, over the grand stretch of fertile pastureland, near the creek, he could just make out the bunkhouse and a decent-sized guest cottage. The hundred-thousand-acre property and forty thousand heads of cattle had to be worth upward of thirteen million, and over the years, Deacon had made one offer after another to his father, near to doubling that sum. But the old man had refused. No doubt, Everett Cavanaugh had known in his sour gut what his eldest child had planned.
Another mile in, Deacon spotted a few cows on the north ridge. They looked peaceful, mouths full of green, no idea their lives were about to change in just a few hours with the reading of a will. It was going to be interesting to see if Everett had left even a blade of grass to Deacon. Not that it mattered, of course. Even if the entire ranch were given to James and Cole, Deacon knew his brothers wanted nothing to do with the place. Both of them were so far removed from River Black now, and from the home that had become a living hell after their sister was taken, Deacon hadn’t been certain either one of them was coming. Not until he’d gotten a call from James a few days ago.
As he headed over the rise, the sprawling family ranch house burst into view. Even though Deacon had been to River Black nearly every month for the past six years, he was never welcome on the property, and he looked on it now with fresh eyes. The exterior had been changed to dark gray stone, and the porch had been redone, but everything else looked exactly the same. Even down to the hanging baskets of red geraniums his mother had always had strung across the beams and those two ancient handmade rocking chairs sitting side by side out front. It was like stepping back in time, and Deacon felt his gut clench with pain, then expand with a strange adolescent warmth. That house called to him like a lover. A hateful, spiteful lover with her arms outstretched. He knew her body well and was more attracted to it than any of the chrome and glass dwellings he worked and lived in now. It was a damn shame.
He hit the brakes, stopping the truck a few hundred yards from the front door. His gaze traveled the landscape, catching on a pair of horses and their riders coming up over the hill toward the barn. He wondered momentarily if he knew either rider. If maybe the cowboy on the left was James or Cole. But as the pair drew nearer, then pulled up sharp near the hitching post on the far side of the barn, Deacon’s body stilled. He didn’t know the man in the white Stetson, but he sure as hell knew the woman. He hadn’t seen her for a year or so, and even then it had been just a quick pass by in town. But forgetting Mackenzie Byrd, the foreman of the Triple C, his sister’s best friend, and one of the biggest pains in his teenage ass, wasn’t possible.
Deacon’s eyes moved over her. Dressed in a green tank top, blue jeans, and chaps, she was a far cry from the scrawny kid with mud in her hair and the devil in her large blue eyes. The kid who used to give him a verbal beating every time he tried to steer Cass away from that too-tight friendship.
She slid down from her horse and granted Deacon a perfect view of her very fine ass. No, this wasn’t a girl. This was a full-grown woman. Tall, tanned, and tight, her lean muscles earned working on the land. Movement to her right drew Deacon’s eye, and he observed the broad-shouldered cowboy she was with. Grinning, the man leaned in, his hand finding Mac’s shoulder, his fingers dipping dangerously close to the curve of her right breast, and said something near her ear. Whatever it was, it made Mackenzie laugh, her pink, always-wicked mouth kicking up at the corners. Deacon continued to watch the pair, wondering who the man was. No. Wondering who the man was to Mackenzie.
Crossed arms suddenly dropped onto the ledge of his open window, and a gravelly voice he knew all too well broke through the soft sound of the breeze. “Well, well, look what the Forbes list dragged in.”
Deacon turned and gave the grizzled old cowboy and barn manager a once-over. Same black Stetson, same deep, wide grin, and skin the color and texture of leather. “Good to see you, Sam.”
The shit-eating grin curved upward even further, making the man’s brown eyes flash. “Didn’t know if you’d be showing up for the funeral, Deac.”
A whisper of something dangerously close to grief moved through Deacon, but he shoved it away. “Come on, now. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Hope we’re talking about paying respects here.”
“No one expects respect out of me, Sam. You know that.”
The old man’s bright eyes dimmed and he clucked his tongue. “Don’t like that kinda talk, boy. Don’t like it at all.”
Deacon laughed, but the sound was hollow as hell. “How you doing, Sam? Gettin’ on all right?”
The question seemed to pull the aging cowboy out of his momentary irritation and into a subject he appreciated discussing. “Everything on this old body aches like a sonofabitch.”
“Maybe it’s time to pack it in and move to the coast, sit on the beach and watch the waves?” Deacon said, then waited a moment, knowing what was coming next.
“Beach and waves?” Sam’s disgruntled snort echoed inside the truck. “Shoot.” He unfolded himself from the window. “Don’t be talking nonsense to me, boy. I’ll die in the saddle and you know it.”
Deacon nodded, his smile genuine. “Yup. I know it.”
“Just like your daddy,” he added.
That whisper of grief was back, and this time it threatened to settle inside of him. “That where he died? His butt in the saddle?”
Tired brown eyes flared with heat. “Don’t be a shit, Deac.”
“Too late for that, Sam,” he tossed back.
“You and Everett had your issues, but he’s gone now. Show some respect for the dead or I swear I’ll tan your hide. I don’t care how old you are.”
Deacon released a weighty breath. Wasn’t the time or the place to tell one of his father’s oldest friends that he hadn’t had respect for Everett when he was alive, and he sure as hell wasn’t having it for him now, no matter what was whispering through him or what tricks his gut was playing. His attention drifted back to the barn down the way and to the couple who were tying up their horses.
“You ignoring me now, boy?” Sam piped in.
“No. Just observin’ things.”
He could practically feel Sam’s gaze shift toward the barn.
“Things?” the old man drawled. “Or Mac?”
Mac. The name ran across his skin like a feather. “Mac?” he asked, deadpan. “You don’t mean Mackenzie Byrd?”
“’Course I do.”
Deacon made like he was squinting. “You sure?”
Sam paused, confused. “What you mean?”
“You sure that’s a girl in them jeans and tank top?”
“What the Sam Hill you talking about?” Sam cried. “’Course that’s a girl!”
Deacon shook his head, fighting a grin. It had always been so damn easy to mess with Sam. “Can’t tell from here.”
“Shit, boy,” the old man spluttered. “I’m fixin’ to give you a smack upside the head. I can tell that’s a girl, and I got cataracts. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could tell that was Mac from space. She’s got a figure a man don’t forget or look past, if you know what I mean.”
He did. He glanced back at Sam and felt the pull of familiarity and home course through him once again. It was a strangely comfortable feeling. One he’d have to watch and keep in check in the days ahead. “You’re talking like a dirty old man—you know that?”
“Naw,” Sam returned. “Just a man. A man who can still notice a pretty gal.”
Deacon turned back to the barn. Pretty didn’t come close to describing how Mackenzie Byrd had turned out. She was more along the lines of “stunning” or “fucking drop-dead gorgeous” if you asked him. But no one had, and he wasn’t about to state that fact out loud. Hell, he really shouldn’t be thinking it at all.
“She a good foreman?” Deacon asked.
“Best I ever seen,” Sam replied. “And you know I seen a few.” He sighed. “The girl is tough, smart, and she loves this land. Almost more than Everett did. Takes care of it like it’s her lifeblood.”
Well, that was damn unfortunate. Despite her wild, pain-in-the-neck ways before Cass’s death, Mackenzie had been the one calm in the storm—shit, more like Noah’s second coming—afterward. She’d offered herself up as sister and friend to each of them. Trying to get them to talk, to rely on her for comfort. Cole had wanted to, but both James and Deacon thought it was best not to bring her into the secret and shameful hell they were in.
“Where’s she livin’?” Deacon asked the cowboy. “Up at the foreman’s quarters?”
“Was,” Sam answered. “Until a few hours ago, anyway.”
That brought Deacon’s head around. “What do you mean?”
The cowboy was leaning on the truck now. “She gave it over to your brother. Thought James would want to be near the horses with his work an’ all.”
Deacon’s brow lifted. “James is here?”
The old man nodded. “Got in this mornin’. So all we need is Cole, and the family’s back together.”
Deacon snorted. “So, where’s Mac staying, then? The river cottage?”
“Why you so interested in her?”
“Just curious, is all.”
It was Sam’s turn to snort. “Yeah, I believe that.”
“She with that cowboy?”
“Blue Perez? Nope. Just good friends.”
Sam narrowed his eyes, shook his head, even wagged a finger. “Don’t be settin’ your sights there, Deac. She may’ve had a crush on you back when she was a girl, but she’s a woman now. A ranch foreman. She ain’t interested in slicked-back hair, silk ties, French restaurants, or men who run from the very thing she holds most dear.”
Heat coiled inside of Deacon, and he asked through tightly gritted teeth, “And what is that?”
“The Triple C Ranch,” Sam said without a second’s hesitation.
Eyes narrowed, Deacon turned back to watch Mac and the cowboy lead their horses into the barn. He wasn’t interested in her. Not in the way Sam was implying. Sure, he thought she was a beautiful woman. But hell, there were a million of those running around. He had one reason for being here, and it had nothing to do with romancing the Triple C’s foreman.
“So, where you staying then, boy?” Sam asked him. “That house on your land finished yet?”
“Nope. I’ll be bunking up at the main house, I think. Maybe my old room. If it hasn’t been turned into a smoker or a sewin’ circle or something.”
“There’s a decent hotel in town,” Sam suggested quickly. “That might be a better idea—”
“Don’t think so,” Deacon cut him off. “Want to be around the family, like you said.”
Sam’s voice went dangerously soft. “Don’t make no trouble here, Deac. I know what you do in the city. How you earn your billions, breakin’ up companies and sellin’ ’em to the highest bidder. And I know how you play around with all those beautiful, plastic fillies. Don’t bring that ’round here. Don’t take what doesn’t belong to you. Pigs get fat, boy, but hogs get slaughtered.”
Deacon turned and lifted one dark eyebrow. “Is that last bit going on Everett’s tombstone?”
“Watch yourself,” Sam nearly growled. “Goddammit, Deacon. What happened is in the past. Times change. People move on. Everyone’s forgotten—”
“No.” The humor in Deacon’s tone turned to ice. “Not everyone.”
Sam’s lips thinned. “Well, they should.” He let out a heavy breath. “Cass ain’t coming back. Everett’s gone now, too. I say we all start up fresh and clean.”
Deacon didn’t answer. What burned inside him, what had burned inside of him for ten long years, wasn’t something Sam could ever understand or respect. And truly, it didn’t matter. “Service in an hour?” he said.
Sam nodded, his expression grim. “In town. You driving this rig in, or do you want one of the mares saddled for you?” He grinned halfheartedly. “Maybe you’ve forgotten how to ride, living in the city.”
“Like I said, Sam, I haven’t forgotten anything.” Deacon’s gaze returned to the house as his hand palmed the gearshift. “I’ll see you at the church.”
He didn’t wait for a reply. Just thrust the truck into gear and took off.
• • •
Mac stood over Everett’s casket in the stiflingly hot church on Main and Fifth wearing the charcoal-gray linen dress and black heels she’d bought on the Internet the night her mentor and friend had passed away. Droplets of sweat snaked down her shoulders to her back, making her shift uncomfortably. Behind her, pretty much all two hundred and twenty inhabitants of the small ranching community were assembled, fans at the ready, expressions appropriately grim as they paid their respects to the man who was both their friend and the one who had given many of them a livelihood.
Mac put her hand on the closed casket and released the air she was holding in her lungs—the air she’d seemed to have been holding for three days now. God knew, Everett wasn’t a saint, but he’d been so good to her. Hired her on when she barely knew shit about cattle. Promoted her when she learned. And gave her the home and family she’d always coveted when her father passed on.
She eased her hand from the wood. Despite the heat, her palm felt ice-cold and prickly, like she’d lost circulation, and she fisted it at her side as she turned around. Seated in the first pew, Blue and his mom, Elena, who’d been the Triple C’s housekeeper for more than ten years, gave Mac a gentle, encouraging smile. She was about to head for the spot between them when her attention was diverted by a tall, good-looking man who had just entered the church. He was glancing around, no doubt searching for his kin in the crowd. Standing somewhere between the casket and the congregation, Mac just stared at him, her heart squeezing painfully in her chest. He’d changed in the ten years since he’d been gone. He’d grown taller certainly, and his body was thick with muscle, but his white blond hair was now cut close to the skull, and he had tattoos peeking out from both the collar and the cuffs of his white shirt. He barely resembled the ragtag cowboy he’d once been. But one thing about Cole Cavanaugh hadn’t changed. Those black eyes. Those deep, soulful, penetrating black eyes were still a perfect match to his twin sister’s, and just looking at them made Mac’s breath catch in her throat and her eyes well with tears.
She’d felt it over the years, the aching loss of her best friend, but it had always seemed removed from her heart somehow. Maybe because the Cavanaugh brothers were no longer around—especially this Cavanaugh brother. But now, seeing Cass’s eyes in his, Mac felt the pain afresh. She tore her gaze from Cole and made a beeline to her seat in between Blue and his mother. The instant she sat down, the Triple C’s housekeeper placed a hand over hers and squeezed. Mac turned and gave the woman a tearful smile.
Elena Perez was a beautiful woman, somewhere around her midfifties, with short jet-black hair and brown eyes that flashed with mischief when she was happy. But it was her warm and caring nature that drew Mac to her, made her feel she could strip off her hard-ass ranch foreman armor and allow herself to be vulnerable once in a while.
Elena may’ve been hired as a housekeeper and cook, but she was truly a master of all things. She could do anything she set her mind to: cooking and cleaning, sewing, fixing fences, fixing squabbles, doctoring. And all the while, leaving the comforting scent of lemons and barbecue sauce in her wake.
Mac had once thought that Elena would’ve been the perfect wife for her father—or maybe it was more that Mac had wanted Elena for a mother. But Travis Byrd had been too blind or too chickenshit or too consumed with getting drunk to ask the beautiful housekeeper out on a date.
“You all right, Mac, honey?” Elena asked, leaning in, her expression rife with concern. “You look torn up.”
“Just sad,” Mac whispered back. “And funerals are the one place cryin’s not frowned upon.”
Once again, Elena squeezed her hand. It was such a warm, capable hand. “It’s just you never cry.”
That almost made Mac smile. It was how all of River Black saw her. Impassive, tough. But, boy, she’d cried plenty in her twenty-five years, especially when she found out Cass had died. But a female ranch foreman didn’t give in to tears or a soft heart outside her bedroom if she wanted the respect of her cowboys.
“I saw Cole,” she whispered. “That’s all.”
There was a quick, sharp intake of breath from Elena. “Aww, baby girl. I know that must be hard.”
Hard didn’t even begin to cover it. “He looks so much like her.”
“’Spect so. They being twins and all.” She lowered her voice even further. “I’ve seen all them photo albums. That family has powerful genes. Hell, when I saw James a few minutes ago, I thought he was the spittin’ image of Everett at that age.”
Once again, Mac’s heart squeezed. “Where’s he sitting?” She’d seen James that morning, offered up her place near the barn, expecting he would probably feel more comfortable being so near the horses with what he did for a living.
“He’s in the back, by himself,” Elena whispered as several people moved past the casket. “You should’ve heard some of the hens going on about him when we first got here. You’d think they’d never seen him on television.”
That made Mac smile a little. “James was always the flower who attracted all the honeybees. And now that he’s a famous horse whisperer, it’s probably gotten worse.”
“Never seen eyes that color in my life,” Elena remarked. “Like them pictures of the ocean on postcards from far off places like Bali or Tahiti.”
“Those were his mom’s eyes,” Mac said, with another lurch of her heart. Seemed it was truly the day of mourning.
Elena continued on as if Mac hadn’t said a word. “Only one I haven’t seen is Deacon.”
A droplet of sweat serpentined down Mac’s temple to her cheekbone and jaw.
“Maybe he’s not coming,” Elena whispered. “Wouldn’t miss him after all the crap he’s pulled these past few years . . .” Her voice trailed off for a second, then, “Going after the ranch any darn way he could.”
The scent of too many floral arraignments pushed into Mac’s nostrils. “He’s coming. I saw his million-dollar helicopter fly overhead when Blue and I were rescuing the cow earlier.”
Elena’s eyes widened. “Well, let’s hope he behaves himself.”
“If he doesn’t, he’ll have me to deal with,” Mac said.
“Don’t I know it.” Elena smiled warmly at her. “Ranch foreman.”
Mac smiled back.
“I wonder if he’s got that fancy model girlfriend with him. I always enjoy seeing city folk taking in the country. Complaining about all the meat we eat and manure on their Manolo Blahniks.”
Mac gave her a strange look. “How do you know about that? The shoes, I mean.”
“Sex and the City,” Elena whispered with a shrug. “It’s on at night, and I watch it when I can’t sleep. From what I’ve seen in the papers, Deacon’s girlfriend looks just like that Samantha.”