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He'd been to hell and back, but he'd finally made it… home.
Jeff Gentry stood on the porch of the foreman's cottage at the Rocking R Ranch. The sun was just coming up, but he was already feeling the Texas summer heat. He drew a long breath of the familiar country air, loving the earthy smells of cattle and horses. This place was where he'd grown up, where he'd been part of a family. As a kid, it was the first place he'd ever felt safe.
This had been the meaning of home to him, once. Could it be again?
For the past decade, the U.S. Army had been his home. Ten years was a long time. During his military service, he'd traveled the world and seen far too much destruction and death to resemble the kid who'd left the ranch at twenty. Now he had his own personal nightmares he needed to forget. And he lived with a particular one that had changed his life for good. He rubbed his thigh, still feeling pain. But, like the doctor had told him, he'd been one of the lucky ones.
He didn't feel so lucky. The last mission had robbed him of his life as he'd known it, and of his future. And now he'd been sent home to figure out his next move. Could he come back to San Angelo and rejoin the Randell family?
Jeff turned to see his father approach the porch. He put on a smile. "Hey, Dad."
At fifty-five years old, Wyatt Gentry-Randell was still a formidable man. He walked tall, his spine straight. His muscular frame resulted from years of physical labor handling rodeo stock. He smiled easily, and he was a soft touch when it came to his wife and children.
Years ago, he'd married Maura Wells and taken on her two small children, Jeff and Kelly. The day Wyatt had adopted them had been the best day of Jeff's life. Wyatt had erased a lot of years of painful memories for their mother, for all of them. And two more siblings, Andrew and Rachel, had been added into the mix.
Oh, yeah, he loved this man.
"What brings you out here?" Jeff asked, knowing that most of the family had given him what he'd asked for: space. "Do you need my help with anything?"
Wyatt handed him a mug filled with steaming coffee. "No. I just wanted to spend some time with my son. It's nice to have you home."
Jeff took a sip. "It's good to be back." It wasn't a lie exactly. He enjoyed being here with his parents.
He leaned against the porch railing and looked around the impressive ranch. Every well-cared-for outbuilding had recently been painted glossy white. For over twenty years, twin brothers Wyatt and Dylan had run their rough-stock business here. Not only did Uncle Dylan raise Brahmas, he had a bull-riding school, too. Both were very profitable enterprises, and also came under the umbrella of the Randell Corporation, of which every family member was a paid shareholder.
The corporation had been formed about a dozen years ago by Wyatt and Dylan along with the other four Randell brothers, Chance, Cade, Travis and Jarred, plus two cousins, Luke and Brady. All their properties were involved, including a nature retreat and an authentic working cattle ranch. They'd also built horse-property homes in a gated community that overlooked the famous Mustang Valley where wild ponies roamed freely. That was a big tourist draw.
Even though Jeff and his sister weren't blood, they'd always been considered Randells. And he had no doubt that the family would find a place even for a beat-up old soldier like him in the organization. But that was what he didn't want—pity.
His father's voice broke into his reverie. "We know the last several months have been rough, son. So take all the time you need. Just get used to being home again."
It was hard to hang on to anger when you had that kind of support. Jeff was touched, but he wasn't ready to talk about his time overseas, maybe not for a long time. If ever. He'd done enough of that after his rescue, during his months of rehab, and it hadn't done a bit of good.
"I appreciate that, but I'm fine." He forced that smile again. "Of course, I should take advantage of this to get out of work. I've never been fond of mucking out stalls."
His father grinned. "It's safe to say we have enough ranch hands to do that task. But maybe you're up to going for a ride with Hank and I this morning?"
Jeff tensed. He wasn't ready to meet up with all the Randell clan. "Where to?"
Wyatt sighed. "A ranch auction." He studied his son. "The Guthrie place."
Jeff couldn't hide his shock at the mention of his childhood friend. "Trevor was having financial trouble?" he managed to ask, knowing it was a crazy question. After his friend's death Lacey would have trouble handling things by herself.
Lacey Haynes Guthrie. Just hearing her name sent a rush through him. Damn, he hated that she still had that effect on him. In school, she was the girl everyone loved, but she'd only had eyes for one man and that was his best friend. Never him—until that one day.
"Why didn't anyone say something sooner?"
His father looked at him. "First, you and your recovery were our main concern. And secondly, we didn't know there were problems until I heard about the auction this morning." He blew out a long breath. "With this economy, so many ranches are in trouble. And Trevor's illness was costly…" His father raised an eyebrow. "Maybe you can talk with Lacey today."
For years Jeff had tried never to think about her. It seemed like a lifetime ago when they'd all been friends. Best friends. Now Trevor was gone. "I don't know what to say." He released a breath. "How can I explain why I wasn't around?"
"You tell her the truth, son. You were defending our country, and there was your extended stay in the hospital. All those surgeries on your leg. You've gone through a lot. There's no shame in what happened to you."
Jeff closed his eyes, trying to push aside the pain of the past year. "Dad, Lacey doesn't need to hear my problems. She's had enough to deal with." He glanced at his father. "And it's not something I'm ready to talk about yet."
Wyatt nodded. "Okay, we'll honor your decision. But I still think you should get out today." A truck pulled up to the house. "Come on, your granddad's here. And knowing your mom, she's cooked up a storm. If you don't show up, she gives your food to me." He rubbed his flat stomach. "I've already had to loosen my belt a notch."
He hated to worry his parents. "Okay, I'll save you from blueberry-pancake overload."
Jeff smiled and it felt good. His dad kept his pace slow as they walked up toward the house. Breakfast with his parents and Hank would be the easy part. The hard part would be later, seeing Lacey again, knowing he couldn't say or do anything that would ease her loss. Or the fact he hadn't been there for his friend.
Jeff could never forgive himself for that.
Later that morning, Lacey Guthrie walked away when handlers led out her deceased husband's best pair of quarter horses. The coal-black stallion, Rebel Run, and the pretty liver-chestnut filly, Doc's Fancy Girl, were supposed to have been Trevor's best breeding stock. If they were sold off, there was no way she could keep the business going. But today's auction was about survival first.
"Next up for bidding are numbers 107 and 108 in your programs," the auctioneer began. "Anyone from this area knows the bloodlines of these two fine animals. We'll start the bidding on Rebel…"
Fighting tears, Lacey stepped into her kitchen, shut the back door, and leaned her head against the glass pane. She couldn't watch them go. They represented the last of her dreams with Trevor. Their quarter horse ranch. What they'd worked so hard on for the past ten years was never going to come true. What about Colin and Emily?
"Oh, Trevor," she sobbed. "You should be here for us."
Lacey quickly wiped away the tears and put a smile on her face as she turned around to her eight-year-old son. "What is it, Colin?"
"You can't sell Rebel and Fancy," he said, his fists clenched. "They're Dad's horses."
"We've talked about this, son. I don't have a choice." She went to him and reached out to brush his shaggy blond hair from his forehead. He jerked away.
"Yes, you do," he insisted. "Go out there and stop it. Dad doesn't want you to sell 'em."
"Dad isn't here, honey. And I'm doing what I have to do to keep our ranch," she told him, knowing her words weren't going to make any difference.
Anger flashed in the boy's eyes, eyes a deep blue so much like his father's. "You didn't love Dad. If you did you wouldn't do this." He turned and ran out, the screen door banging against the porch wall before slamming shut.
Lacey started after him and got to the porch just in time to hear the auctioneer's gavel hit the table as he shouted, "Sold, to the gentleman in the back row."
Lacey looked out into the crowd at the person holding the numbered paddle. Squinting against the sunlight, she glanced over the man's square jaw and the deep-set dark eyes. The cowboy hat shaded most of his face, but there was no mistaking who he was. Her heart raced as she followed his movement through the crowd, closely examining the man she'd remembered from so many years ago. Her gaze moved over his long torso to those broad shoulders.
He might have looked military, but there was a lot of Texas cowboy mixed in. Tall and muscular, he filled out a shirt like no other man she'd seen in a long time.
He glanced over his shoulder. Their eyes met for a second, and Lacey felt that odd feeling, a mixture of longing, sadness and a little anger. Before she could move or even acknowledge him, he turned and walked away.
So, Master Sergeant Jeff Gentry had finally come home.
Jeff couldn't believe it. He didn't even know about his own future, but he owned two horses. He'd only planned to bid to help Lacey get top dollar for them. He couldn't let her lose everything. This ranch had been Trevor's dream for his family. He knew his friend had worked hard to build a reputation.
His father caught up to him. "Do you mind my asking what you plan to do with your quarter horses?"
Jeff shrugged. "Sorry, I guess I didn't think about where I could board them."
Wyatt smiled. "Of course you can bring them to the ranch or maybe take them over to Uncle Chance's place. He's better equipped for training anyway."
Hank walked over to them. Jeff's eighty-five-year-old grandfather was grinning. Still healthy and active, Hank Barrett was the head of the Randell family.
"I'd say you got yourself a fine pair of horses, Jeff." He glanced around. "I'm surprised Chance didn't show up this morning. He's always been impressed with Trevor's stock."
Jeff looked toward the house again. Lacey Guthrie was still on the porch. His breath caught as his hungry gaze moved over her. Tall and slender, she was nearly five foot nine. Her long legs were encased in faded jeans. She'd filled out since high school, and the weight looked good on her. Really good. Her honey-blond hair was thick and silky, hanging to her shoulders in soft waves. Her eyes were grass-green. He remembered her as always smiling, but she was not today. Definitely not the last time he'd seen her, either.
"Do you want to go talk with Lacey?" his dad asked.
Jeff shook his head. "She's busy right now." He pulled his attention away from her. "I'd better go pay for the horses and make arrangement for pick-up." Before his dad or granddad could say anything more, he walked off, unable to hide the limp. He fought the discomfort and pulled out his checkbook as he headed to the cashier. The cost was high, but not nearly what he owed his friend.
Later, Jeff shifted his dad's pickup into four-wheel drive and turned off the gravel road. The oversized tires made the journey easily over the rough terrain along the pathway to the clearing. His spirits began to soar when the familiar lineman's shack came into view. He stopped the truck and climbed out, but didn't go any further as his gaze took in the landscape, the grove of trees and the stream that ran through the Guthrie property.
Hundreds of happy memories of summer days he'd spent here with his friend came rushing back. As kids, he and Trevor would ride their horses up here, wade through the stream, even pretend to fight off villains, rustlers and any bad guy on the most-wanted list. They ran races through the field to see who would win the title that summer as the fastest kid.
Jeff had always won. He was the athletic one. Trevor was the outgoing one, the charmer with animals and people. When it came to girls, Trev had led the way, too. That was how his friend had won Lacey's heart.
He turned his attention to the shack. Their hangout. It was different now. What once was nearly falling down had been rebuilt. Trevor had written saying what he'd planned to do.
Jeff walked across the new porch floor. The door had new hinges, too. Trying the knob, he discovered it was unlocked. Although the inside was dim, there was light coming through the windows.
"Looks like you did it, Trev," he whispered into the single-room cabin. "You fixed the place up."
Suddenly the emotions were overwhelming. He drew a few breaths and released them slowly as a doctor had once instructed him. Once he'd pulled himself together again, he began to look around.
A small table and a pair of chairs were placed against one wall, on the other were built-in bunk beds. In the corner was a pot-bellied stove. He walked to the kitchen area to find the same old brass water pump arching over the oversized sink.
He touched the aged counter, tracing the familiar initials scratched in the wood. Their names, Trevor Guthrie, Jeff Gentry, and then, later, another person had been invited into their sanctum, Lacey Haynes.
When they'd gone to high school, a new declaration had been carved out: Trevor loves Lacey. Jeff's finger outlined the heart around their names. The threesome turned into a twosome. Trevor and Lacey never intentionally left him out, but he'd become the third wheel. And he'd found it harder and harder to be around the happy couple. Even dating his own steady girl hadn't changed his feelings for Lacey. But she'd loved Trevor.