Read an Excerpt
Alex Casali sat atop his stallion, Diablo, as he looked at the pasture below where three hundred head of prime Herefords grazed contently. In another few months the herd would be moved again at fall roundup, and the yearlings shipped to his feedlot outside Kerry Springs.
He shifted in the saddle and looked over the hill country. With each season came the familiar routine he needed to keep order in his life. He glanced around the hundreds of acres that made up his ranch. In Texas, his cattle operation was considered average, except the A Bar A Ranch purebred steers weren't average. Casali beef demanded top dollar, and got it.
It had taken years of hard work and struggle to get a piece of Texas land. He'd hired on to several cattle outfits and saved every dime for his own place. Little by little he'd restored this once rundown ranch he'd bought at auction until it suited his tastes. After ten years and some good investments, he'd built an empire.
He leaned his forearm against the saddle horn. Yet, the Casali Cattle Company wasn't enough to satisfy him. He'd begun breeding horses a few years back. Now, another new venture. He'd soon be opening a guest ranch. He looked past the grove of trees at the dozen new cabins that would soon be open to strangers.
He had to be crazy for letting Tilda talk him into this project. Yet, his one-time housekeeper, ranch bookkeeper—and now partner in the guest ranch—had come up with some good ideas over the years to stimulate revenue. It still didn't change the fact that what he liked the most about this life was the solitude, having no need to be around many people. Outside of his brother, Angelo, he preferred to be alone.
Diablo danced impatiently and Alex tugged on the reins to get him under control. That was when he caught sight of a vehicle coming down the main road toward his house.
He didn't recognize the car. That meant they had no business on his land.
Allison Cole glanced out of the window as she drove her small SUV through the large stone and wrought-iron archway announcing the A Bar A Ranch. Cedar and oak trees lined the narrow road from the hot sun. Rows of pristine white rail fences ran alongside the road as horses roamed contentedly in the grassy pastures. "This is really something, isn't it, Cherry?" She glanced into the rear-view mirror to see her daughter watching the countryside from her safety seat. Most four-year-olds were inquisitive and asked a lot of questions. Not Cherry. And Allison missed hearing her child's tiny voice. Outside of her cries in the night, Cherry hadn't talked since the accident. Nor had she walked.
When Tilda Emerson called her early this morning, Allison couldn't turn down her intriguing invitation. Coming here today was for her daughter, as much as for the new business she was trying to launch in town, her quilt shop, Blind Stitch. So she dropped everything, packed up Cherry and drove out here to meet Tilda.
It had been a long time since she'd taken a leisurely afternoon off. On impulse, Allison pulled the car to the side of the road where several horses and foals were grazing in the high grass.
"Cherry, you want to see a horse?"
Ignoring the silence, Allison got out and removed her daughter from her seat. Lifting the small child in her arms, she carried her to the fence.
She was encouraged as her daughter gripped the rail and looked over at the animals. There was awareness in the child's eyes that hadn't been there for a long time.
"See the baby horse?"
"What do you think you're doing?"
At the sound of a deep voice, Allison swung around. A large man was sitting atop a very large horse. The bright sunlight was behind him, making it impossible to see anything except the outline of his wide shoulders and cowboy hat.
It was hard not to be intimidated. "I'm sorry. What did you say?"
The black stallion danced sideways and blew out a breath. "You're on private property," he said. "That's called trespassing."
"No. I was invited to come here. I have a business meeting with Tilda Emerson."
Although she couldn't see his eyes, she felt his gaze locked on her.
"She's up at the house. I suggest you don't keep her waiting." With that he wheeled the horse around and took off.
"Not a friendly man," she murmured. After strapping Cherry back into her safety seat she headed back to the narrow road. Maybe coming here wasn't such a good idea.
Allison drove past several outbuildings, including a huge red barn and attached corral. Then she saw the large, two-story, brick and clapboard home. Black shutters stood out from the glossy white siding, and the wraparound porch was highlighted by hanging baskets of flowers.
"Really something," she murmured again, recalling the luxury home she'd left back in Phoenix. Per instructions from Mrs. Emerson, Allison passed up the circular drive in front of the house and parked by the back door.
Shutting off the engine, she turned to Cherry. "We're not going to stay long, sweetheart." She reached back and brushed the strawberry-blonde curls away from her daughter's face. Those big blue eyes looked back at her, but her child didn't respond, just turned her head and stared out of the window.
Allison looked past a large oak tree and saw a horse grazing just beyond the fence.
"Look, Cherry, another horse."
Allison climbed out of the car just as a woman stepped out of the house. About sixty, she was tall and slender, dressed in a pair of jeans and a colorful blouse.
The gray-haired woman smiled as she came down the porch steps. "It's Tilda. You must be Allison Cole. So glad you could make it."
They shook hands. "Well, you made me curious with your proposal. I'd like to hear more."
"Good. Did you have any trouble finding the place?"
Allison thought back to the cowboy. "I ran into one of the ranch hands and he gave me directions." She glanced back into the car. "I hope you don't mind that my daughter came along."
Tilda waved a hand. "There's no reason why you shouldn't bring her. Let's get her out of the hot car."
Allison hesitated, then she popped the SUV's hatch, revealing the small wheelchair. "Let me get Cherry settled, and then we can talk."
The older woman's smile wavered. "Here, let me help you."
Together they got out the chair and Allison lifted her daughter into the seat.
Tilda led them to a shaded patio area just down from the porch. "Cherry, that's a pretty name and you're a pretty little girl," she said. "Do you like animals?" Even without a response, the older woman continued on, "I hope so. We've got plenty of them around here."
As if her words were magic, a large dog wandered over, followed by another smaller one.
"This big guy is Rover." She stroked the black Labrador mix. "The little one is Pete." She also gave some attention to the Heinz 57 variety of a mutt. "They like to be petted by little girls and boys." On cue Rover wandered over and laid his head on the arm of the wheelchair.
Allison was shocked when her daughter placed her small hand on the animal. Pete soon wanted attention and rose up on his hind legs and danced around. Cherry petted him, too.
After getting her daughter some lemonade, Allison went inside to the big open kitchen.
"I should bring Cherry inside, too."
Tilda brought two glasses to the table. "I doubt she wants to leave her new friends. Relax, we can see her from the window. Rover and Pete will keep an eye on her."
With a nod, Allison sat at the table next to the picture window. With her daughter in full view, she turned to Tilda. "You have a beautiful place."
"Why, thank you, but it's not mine. Not any more, that is. When my husband died twelve years ago, I couldn't manage the ranch on my own, and I couldn't afford to hire anyone. It got pretty run-down. Finally the bank took it and sold it at auction to Alex Casali."
"I'm sorry, that had to be awful."
"It was for the best. Besides, Alex asked me to stay on. I took care of the house, helped with the bookkeeping. He's accomplished a lot in the past ten years. He's restored this house, built a new barn and outer buildings for his prime cattle operation. This ranch is a show-place again. I'd like to think I helped with that." She grinned. "Now, I'm a partner in this new project of the guest ranch."
"I have to be honest, Tilda. I might not be able to put the time needed into this project." Allison knew she was crazy to nix this chance. She could use the income. "I can't take the time away from my daughter."
The older woman nodded. "I expect we can work something out because I believe you're perfect for what I have in mind."
At the barn, Alex handed Diablo's reins off to Jake, one of the ranch hands, then headed toward the house. That was when he saw the woman's car at the back door. Great. Tilda's visitor was probably the decorator for the cabins. Who needed to decorate log cabins? He didn't want any part of picking wall colors or curtains. He'd just go inside, give a nod of greeting to the striking redheaded woman with the haunting green eyes, then go off to the office.
He'd been attracted to women before but walked away, especially when they had commitment written all over them. This one had a child.
He started up the porch steps when he spotted an empty wheelchair next to the slatted fence. When he got closer, he saw the dogs, along with Buckshot, just on the other side of the fence. Nothing strange about that, but they had company. The little girl he saw earlier.
"What the hell?" He went over and slipped through the railings to find the child sitting on the ground next to the fence. Old Buckshot's head was down so she could pet his muzzle. This was not a good idea.
"Well, damn," he said under his breath. The little sprite heard and turned to him. Her sky-blue eyes were wide with excitement as she smiled at him, her head a crown of strawberry-colored ringlets.
"Horsey," she whispered.
His chest tightened. "Yeah, he sure is." Not wanting to frighten the kid, he made slow, easy movements. "How 'bout I lift you up so you can pet the old gray better."
He was taken by surprise when the girl raised her arms toward him. A strange feeling went through him as he picked up the small child as if she didn't weigh anything. With her secure in his arms, he took her to the animal's side so she could touch him.
"His name is Buckshot. He likes to be petted here." He took her tiny hand and placed it on the horse's head.
Alex was rewarded with a tiny giggle. Another sensation stirred in his chest.
Suddenly he heard a woman's cry. "Cherry!"
Alex turned in time to see the kid's mother running from the house. Her long auburn hair was flying around her face as she hurried toward the fence. She ducked through the slats. Suddenly her shapely bottom became his focal point with her efforts to get into the pasture. She finally got untangled and stood in front of him. The top of her head only reached the middle of his chest.
"Cherry." She took her child from him. "Are you all right?"
He didn't like the look she gave him. "Thanks to me she is."
The woman turned her attention to him, pinning him with a jade-green stare. "I don't appreciate you taking my child in here without my permission."
"Lady, I didn't take her anywhere," he said, pointing toward the ground. "I found her right in this spot with Buckshot."
The mother glared back. "That's impossible. Cherry can't walk."
Alex glanced at the child, wondering what had happened. "Well, however she got here, I didn't bring her."
Alex shrugged. "Ask her."
Suddenly tears filled her eyes. "I would love to, but my daughter hasn't spoken in a year."
"She spoke to me," he told her. But as if to call him a liar, the girl refused to say anything.
They both stared at the child. "Cherry? Do you like the horsey?" her mother asked. The child looked back to the horse, but didn't say a word.
Finally Tilda appeared, causing Alex to wonder where she'd been all this time. "Sorry, I had to take that call. Is everything okay?"
Allison continued to glare. "Seems I'm having a disagreement with your ranch hand. Something he knows nothing about."
Alex refused to be baited by this woman. "Maybe you don't know your child as well as you think."
"How dare you?"
Tilda stepped in. "Stop! This was my fault. I'm the one who said she'd be fine on the patio." She looked concerned. "I'm sorry, Allison, I had no idea she would wander off."
Alex looked at the woman, unable to ignore her appeal. "And I'd appreciate it if you stayed with your daughter from now on. A ranch isn't the best place to leave kids unsupervised."
Allison turned to Tilda. "How do you put up with this?"
"It's hard sometimes," Tilda said as her mouth quirked as if hiding a smile. She shot him a glare. "Allison Cole, this is Alex Casali, the owner of the A Bar A."
Allison hated that the man was so smug. She also hated that she noticed he was so handsome. That was, if you liked the tall, muscular, rough type of guy with piercing gray eyes.
"At a loss for words, Mrs. Cole?"
She'd forgotten arrogant. "My concern is for my daughter, Mr. Casali." She shifted Cherry higher on her hip. "She's usually shy around strangers."
He pushed back his black cowboy hat, revealing light brown hair. "That's understandable." He glanced at Cherry and his expression softened. "She's sure not afraid of animals."
Cherry made a grunting sound and pointed toward Buckshot, then reached out toward Alex Casali.
Allison tried to hold her back, but the uneven weight threw her off balance. Alex had no choice but to take the determined child.
He easily lifted her daughter into his arms. "Do you mind?" he asked.
She shook her head. This had been the most response she'd seen from Cherry since before the accident. "Please be careful with her."
He gave her a stony look. "I'd never be anything else."
Alison watched closely as he carried Cherry over toward the horse.
Tilda came up to her. "You don't have to worry about old Buckshot," she said. "He was my husband's horse, and a darn good cutter, too. As they say, he's been put out to pasture to live out his days. And besides, Cherry's got some pretty strong arms holding her."
"Horses are so big."
"You're right. Even though Buckshot is gentle, he's still a large animal. But Alex will make sure she's safe." Tilda nodded toward the two dogs following after her. "Your daughter has made many friends today."