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Three River Ranch
A Three River Ranch Novel
By Roxane Snopek
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Roxanne Snopek
All rights reserved.
The door slipped off its hinges when she turned the knob, probably a hint that she should have asked a few more questions before signing the lease.
"Stand back, Mistral," she said to the mop-faced dog at her feet. "This is gonna make some noise."
Aurora McAllister took a deep breath, placed one hand protectively over her belly, and applied her shoulder to the stubborn door. With a crash, it toppled open.
The dog, her dark eyes peeking out from a mass of shaggy dark-chocolate fur, whined. Rory understood the sentiment. The anxiety building in her ever since leaving Billings for rural Blaine County, Montana, escalated.
"Don't worry, sweetie," she said, reaching down to stroke the dog's ears. Rory had to be strong. She'd wanted to change her life, but she hadn't bargained on this. "Our Realtor, now she should worry. These are not appropriate living accommodations."
That's what leaping without looking got you: the Bates Motel.
"I'm going in," she told the dog. "Cover me, okay?"
Rory pushed back her sleeves, goose-stepped over the door, and promptly tripped on a plank lying across the threshold. Although she grabbed the doorjamb in time to stay upright, she wasn't fast enough to protect her sleeve from a stray nail.
Rory examined the tear in her favorite thigh-length peasant blouse: hopeless. And it was one of the few things that still fit. Clearly, this adventure called for more than cotton. Chain mail, perhaps.
Or at least denim. She pulled the sleeve away from her arm, wincing at the smudge of blood that marred the soft fabric. She pulled a tissue from her pocket and blotted the stain, feeling a wave of self-pity wash over her.
No way! Rory gave her head a savage shake, and then remembered that her long hair had been replaced by short, stylish layers. This was her new image, her fresh start. Her new life.
"A flesh wound," she muttered. "That all you got, house?"
Carefully, she stepped over the plank, felt along the wall until she found the light switch, and flicked it. Nothing. She flicked it on and off, just to be certain.
Rory sighed. "Des told me this was a mistake. I should have known."
Her best friend, Desiree, had begged Rory to think things over longer, or at least to take a look at the place. But Rory couldn't get away fast enough, and this was the only town near the birthing center she intended to use. Plus, she needed to be spontaneous, to try something different, to risk change.
Mission accomplished. Granger Lodge looked about as risky as they came.
Panic fluttered in her chest as Rory proceeded gingerly through the hall toward the main room. Enough late-afternoon light filtered through the dusty windows to illuminate the interior, and Rory took a good hard look at the location of her new home. It was private, spacious, and the rent was unusually cheap — of course, now she knew why.
Again, her hand pressed against her body, and she willed herself to stay calm. Surely there was some kind of mistake.
Cobwebs hung from the ceiling, dust and debris lay thick on the floor, and on one wall, two-by-fours and laths showed through the plaster. From the center of the ceiling, an ancient wrought-iron light fixture dangled crookedly at the end of a half-unraveled wire. A threadbare couch and two wooden chairs remained in the room, as well as a scarred coffee table and bits of broken crockery that lay scattered on the floor. It felt to Rory as if the occupants had gone to get milk and forgotten to return.
Thirty years ago.
It certainly explained why her Realtor wasn't here to greet her. "It's perfect for you," Mrs. Fulston had gushed over the phone. "Lots of wide open space, fresh air, exactly what you're looking for." A year-round creek full of trout, a clear mountain view, deer and antelope — oh, the woman knew her job.
Apparently, she also knew a mark when she saw one.
Claiming a sudden family emergency, the woman had all but thrown the keys at her, dived into her car, and sped off in a spit of gravel.
"Family emergency my eye," Rory said.
The dog, unconcerned with the mess, scrambled past her, eager to explore new territory.
"Oh, sure." Rory gave the dog a black look. "What do you care? You're not scared of mice."
Mistral ignored her and forged ahead, snuffling into dusty corners, her black tail collecting bits of debris that followed in her wake.
When had everything gone so wrong? It wasn't supposed to be like this. And what was she supposed to do now?
"Way to go, Rory," she whispered, not trusting her voice. Darn those hormones.
She bent over, hands on her knees. Focus. She'd go back to the bed-and- breakfast in Chinook. Call the agency. Get this sorted out.
Breathe. She straightened up, swallowing hard. There must be an explanation. By tomorrow, she'd probably be laughing about the misunderstanding.
But what if there wasn't? What if this mess was it? Really, she had only herself to blame.
Who rents a house without seeing it first?
* * *
Carson Granger took a deep breath, flexed his fingers on the steering wheel, and hit the dial button for his attorney's number again. He couldn't blame the lawyer for Derek Granger's will. Carson had expected complications from his father; he should have anticipated a nightmare.
"Okay, Jonah," he said, calmer this time. "Tell me the rest of it. But hurry up. I'm almost at the ranch and I've got to unload these mares as soon as I get there."
"You're not going to like it."
"Big surprise. Everything so far has been such a treat."
"Just so you know," Jonah prefaced carefully, "I tried to talk him out of this. These kinds of things are tricky. But Derek was ... insistent."
"Yeah. That's one way of putting it. Just tell me."
"As it stands now," Jonah explained, "once the dust settles, you and Mitchell will share equally in the estate, the boundaries of which you are already familiar with and which have remained unchanged."
"Your father insisted on providing motivation for you to accept the ... remainder of his terms."
"Jonah." Carson lowered his voice. "If there's something you haven't told me yet, spit it out."
The lawyer spoke quickly, as if reading from a script. When he finally finished, Carson had nothing to say. It was unbelievable. Until they found wives, neither he nor his brother could inherit. If his father had pushed his crabbed hand right through the cell phone and grabbed his son by the throat to deliver the news personally, Carson could not have been any more shocked.
"The Granger name must live on, huh? Well, I'm not playing his game," Carson said finally, then punched the button to end the call. "I'll get my mustang sanctuary. And I'll do it without him."
Thanks a lot, Dad, he thought as he maneuvered the battered pickup down the bumpy lane toward the corrals. As he rounded the corner, he saw a mini 4x4 parked sideways in the driveway of Granger Lodge, his childhood home, long since abandoned. Who the hell was here? Everyone knew his father had lived in the guesthouse, in the clearing behind the lodge. The old man had never gotten around to demolishing the original structure, and for once, Carson was grateful. It would be a perfect headquarters for his rescue foundation.
But it needed some serious work. He'd barely begun cleaning up; he didn't have time for interruptions. If it was that damn real estate agent again, he'd throw her out bodily.
He stomped viciously on the brake, remembering, too late, the occupants of his horse trailer. As the truck lurched to a standstill, a series of squeals and metallic crashes erupted behind him.
He scrambled out of the truck.
"Whoa, girls, take it easy."
The horses were near hysteria. He looked in cautiously at the closest one, the one he called Stormy. Her eyes rolled wildly in her dun-colored face and flecks of foam dotted her lip. The trip had been too much for her. He needed to get her quieted. She'd had enough stress.
He looked toward the house with a scowl. More kids, maybe, looking for something new to wreck? Good luck to them; they'd vandalized everything long ago. He couldn't wait until his assistant arrived next week. He hoped the guy was big enough to intimidate trespassers.
He strode up to the front porch, where he found the door hanging off one hinge.
Gritting his teeth, he stepped around it and walked inside. "Who's in here?" he shouted.
A number of things happened in succession: A dark, hairy blur pelted toward him, barking madly. Carson dodged, and then crashed into someone, a woman from the shriek she let out. The stranger stumbled backward, her fall broken by a large, black plastic bag full of the debris Carson had swept up the previous week. The bag burst open and a cloud of plaster dust billowed up around her, coating her skin. The dog was going nuts.
"What the hell? Are you all right?" Carson reached out with one hand and covered his nose and mouth with the other. He had to shout over the barking. "Is that your dog?"
She nodded and the movement set off a storm of fresh coughing and choking.
"Here." His proffered hand was suddenly blocked by a mass of curly fur that quivered between him and the woman.
"Um," he gestured at the dog, eyeing its teeth.
The woman waved her hand wordlessly and the dog ceased the racket and the jumping. It held its ground, though, unhappy but obedient, while Carson pulled the intruder to her feet. As she coughed, she held her belly ... Oh, God. She was pregnant. Considerably, definitely pregnant. And she'd wiped out on his property. Just watch, he thought with a sinking heart. She'll sue for injury.
Finally, the woman regained her breath. "Thank you," she croaked, then glanced at the dog. "Mistral, back off."
Instantly, the dog stopped hovering and contented itself with throwing filthy looks and the occasional guttural growl in Carson's direction. It was a guard dog crossed with a dust mop.
He looked at the woman and bit back a laugh. White powder clung to everything. Her hair looked like tufts of meringue. Her eyes and nose were watering freely, tears streaking through the white and mixing with makeup to form muddy drops that puddled on her chin. She blinked at him through eyelashes that looked as if they'd been dipped in flour.
"Sorry." He couldn't help smiling as he wiped plaster dust off her back. "That's what you get for trespassing."
She glared at him, and a chunk of plaster fell off her forehead. "I'm not trespassing."
He gestured vaguely toward her torso.
"You might want to ..." He stopped.
But the woman looked down at herself and gasped, a hot flush of red staining her cheeks. A crucial button had blown off when she'd landed and her neckline gaped open, exposing her blue-and-white gingham-checked bra, from which a scrap of newsprint fluttered, proclaiming her to be New and Improv.
She pulled the edges together over her chest and turned away in a vain attempt to hide the rest. She squeezed her eyes shut and the muscles in her jaw flexed as she gritted her teeth.
Carson cleared his throat and returned to business, forcing the image of her breasts out of his mind. "How many times do I have to tell you people? This place is not for sale."
The woman opened her eyes and pulled her head back a fraction, but when she drew breath to speak, dust choked her again. He watched helplessly as she rummaged through an enormous bag while hacking her lungs out. By the time she'd found a bottle of water and drunk enough to stop coughing, her eyes and nose were streaming again, and her voice had all but disappeared.
She opened a different section of the bag and withdrew a sheet of paper. With a plaster-streaked hand, she slapped it against his chest.
Carson looked at it and immediately felt the blood drain from his face. A rental agreement. Signed, sealed, and delivered.
He had a renter. A pregnant tenant, with a dog. On his ranch! The ranch that his father should have handed over years ago, long before that last stroke.
He opened his mouth but no words came out.
"So," she wheezed, "who's trespassing now?"CHAPTER 2
"This can't be right." The man blinked, then looked around as if trying to muster support for his argument. He ran a blunt-fingered hand through hair that curled against the collar of his flannel shirt. Deep frown lines etched his forehead and the dark blond stubble on his cheeks. An unhappy Marlboro man.
"As unfortunate as it appears for both of us," Rory said, refolding the letter and cramming it into her bag, "it is. I am indeed Aurora McAllister. And I am here now. Unfortunately. This place should be condemned."
His eyes narrowed. "This was my mother's house —"
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"— but no one's lived here for years. The guesthouse, farther up the drive, was my father's home."
"Oh." Realization dawned, and with it, relief.
"Look." Carson took a deep breath and held his hands in front of him, palms up. "Obviously there's been a misunderstanding. I think we need to start over. My name is Carson Granger."
"Rory McAllister. My dog, Mistral."
Keeping her distance, Rory reached warily for his extended hand. His grip was warm and firm, she noticed. And clean.
"Well," he said, wiping his palm on his jeans, "my assistant and I will be using the guesthouse. I'm sorry you got your wires crossed, but there's nothing for rent here."
Panic fluttered deep inside, but she recovered quickly. Reaching into her bag again, she pulled out a larger file of papers.
"I beg to differ." She ran her fingers down an ad, reading off the pertinent details. "Small house on former cattle ranch ... available immediately ... private, secure, utilities included ... small pets and children okay."
He grabbed the paper out of her hands. As he read, a flush rose along the collar of his shirt. He straightened, his jaw tight.
"I don't believe this," he muttered. "I'm going to kill them."
"What?" Rory's eyes widened as she took a step backward and motioned the dog closer to her side. "Who?"
"My lawyer. And my brother. Kids were wrecking the place, so I told them we needed to have someone on-site. I asked them to find me a live-in assistant." Carson shook his head in amazement. "From that, they got this ad."
"All I know is, I've come all the way from Billings and I'm moving in tomorrow. I dealt with Fulston Realty. She said that the owner passed away." Rory paused and bit the corner of her lip. "I didn't realize there was family."
Carson closed his eyes briefly. "Yeah. Well, there is."
He walked to the window, back to the table, then to the wall, where he placed a clenched fist lightly against the cracked drywall. He flexed his fingers and took a deep breath.
"Blythe's Bed and Breakfast should have a room available for the night. I'll pay your travel expenses as well as compensation for your time. I apologize for the inconvenience."
Rory turned away from Carson and squatted down beside the dog, thinking furiously. This was a disaster, but she couldn't afford to be picky. Going back to Billings wasn't an option. Raising a child alone was one thing, but giving birth alone? Not happening. Her nurse-midwife friend, Sabrina Becker, was the only person she trusted to get her through it. And Sabrina's birthing center was in Chinook, so Rory was staying right here.
She braced her hand against the wall, buying some time to think. It seemed like just yesterday that her future was secure. She and David, in love. Happy. The knot in her stomach tightened again.
Mistral pressed against her and Rory could feel the animal trembling. Focus. Breathe.
All she wanted now was to start over, a clean slate. She stood up slowly, tightening the fingers holding her neckline closed. This was as messy as it got. She certainly hadn't bargained on Carson Granger.
"Let's not be hasty. I'll call the agency tomorrow," she said, keeping her voice calm. "It's probably a simple mix-up."
An explosion of crashing and screaming sounded from outside and Rory jumped.
"What's that?" She looked anxiously around Carson, toward the source of the noise.
The anger on Carson's face evaporated, replaced by haunted worry lines. Cursing under his breath, he turned on his heel. "I've got to get them out of there."
The sound registered and a flood of wordless emotion washed over Rory. "You've got horses with you right now. Scared horses."
She pushed past him, adrenaline bubbling in her veins, overcoming her own fear. Instantly, the dog scrambled up, too, hurrying toward the unfamiliar sound.
Carson ran after the animal. "Keep that dog away from the trailer!"
"Mistral," Rory shouted, but it was no use. She couldn't focus on the dog, not when she felt the pull of terror so strongly, the desperate need to get out, get out, get free. And something else she couldn't put a name to, a rising, swelling fear that felt like a ticking time bomb. A countdown.
She would have run up to the trailer, but Carson grabbed her arm.
"What do you think you're doing?"
She shook him off, focused solely on the animals thrashing in the trailer.
"What's her name?" She spoke softly, without looking at him, her feet gliding over the weathered earth.
"Stormy. But —"
"Don't worry," she breathed. Reaching a hand toward the trailer, she closed her eyes. "Don't worry, Stormy. It's going to be okay."
* * *
Was the woman out of her mind?
A stranger — pregnant, covered in dust and dirt — approaching a trailer full of exhausted, panic-stricken horses. If she opened the back, she'd be trampled. He had to stop her. He'd tackle her if he had to. Great idea, he told himself. Tackle a pregnant chick.
Excerpted from Three River Ranch by Roxane Snopek. Copyright © 2012 Roxanne Snopek. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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