Ten years ago, Trace Rafferty left Montana to serve his country. Now the wounded Navy flier is coming back to sell the only home he's ever known. But someone else is living on his hundred-year-old family rancha woman Trace hasn't seen since she was a teenager. How can he turn attractive, widowedand pregnantCassie Bannock out of her home?
Cassie knows her housekeeping days on the Rafferty spread are numbered. Yet she can't believe Trace would turn his back on his heritage. In or out of uniform, the former F-16 pilot is still the handsomest man she's ever seen. Without a true home, in addition to a real and looming threat to her and her unborn baby, can Cassie protect her legacy and help a homecoming cowboy claim his?
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Captain Trace Rafferty of the Thirty-First Fighter Wing out of Aviano Air Base was coming home for good, much sooner than he'd expected.
Since leaving Italy, where his squadron had flown F-16s critical to operations in NATO's southern region, he'd been in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for the past few days talking with the higher-ups. Having been forced to retire as a jet pilot from the Air Force at twenty-eight due to an eye injury, he'd decided to accept a flight instructor position at the Air Force Academy.
Trace had been asked to stay on with the Thirty-First as a flight navigator, but after being a pilot, he couldn't do it. The Academy was giving him time to get his affairs in order before he went to work for them. He would use this time to tell his father about his future plans plans his father wasn't going to be happy about.
Sam Rafferty, known as Doc, was a cowboy and rancher besides being the head veterinarian in White Lodge, Montana. A year ago he'd married Ellen Neerings, a pretty brunette widow from the same town, and they lived in a condo. His arthritic hips had made it impossible for him to live and take care of things on the ranch any longer.
Ellen's husband had died several years earlier. With the sale of their small family home, she'd been able to pay off mounting debts because of her husband's long illness, but she'd been left with little to live on.
Both she and Trace's father had sacrificed too much for their families. His dad should have the money from the sale of the ranch to buy him and Ellen a new house of their own in White Lodge with every convenience. She had two married children and needed more space for them and her grandchildren when they came to visit from other parts of the state.
Since Trace wasn't going to live in Montana, selling the ranch was the only sensible solution to make his father's life more comfortable, but he knew it was a subject that would bring his dad pain. The ranch, located in the south central part of the state bordering Wyoming, had been in the Rafferty family for close to a hundred years. Trace hated the fact that his father had done so much for him all his life, virtually supporting him and his mother, even after she'd remarried. It was Trace's turn to give back.
His parents had divorced when he was eight years old. His mother had settled in Billings, only forty minutes away, taking him with her. She didn't like the ranch's isolation and preferred the amenities of living in town.
His dad had moved heaven and earth to be with his son as much as possible during those years. After living with such a kind, laid-back father, it had been hard for Trace to adjust to being around the rigidtype man his mother married soon after the divorce. When Trace turned eighteen, he joined the air force. His mom now lived in Oregon with her husband.
Trace hadn't come back to the United States very often and traveled home to visit his parents on his infrequent leaves. Over the past year the ranch had stood empty. While no one lived there, his dad had hired a former ranch hand named Logan Dorney from the neighboring Bannock ranch to be the foreman on the place until Trace claimed it for his inheritance. But Trace learned the other man had been accidentally killed by a stray bullet from a hunter in February.
Except for Logan's widow, Cassie Dorney, formerly Cassie Bannock, who came in to do the housekeeping once in a while, the ranch no longer had a foreman. Trace would take over that job until the place was sold. Again, all this had to be discussed with his father who knew nothing yet about Trace's plans.
When the fasten-seat-belt sign flashed on, he'd been deep in thought. It surprised him that the flight from Denver to Montana had been so short. He looked out the window. As the plane made its descent to the Billings airport, he decided summer was the best time to see the patches of wheat and corn fields. Below him lay a different mosaic from the farms dotting the Italian countryside he'd so recently left.
Soon the Yellowstone River came into view under a June sun. The airport itself sat on top of Rimrock, a unique five-hundred-foot-tall sandstone feature rising from the valley floor. It all looked familiar, but Trace felt little sense of homecoming.
After the jet landed and he'd picked up his bags, he grabbed a taxi and asked the driver to take him to the Marlow Ford dealership where he'd arranged to have his new Ford Explorer waiting for him. He inspected the vehicle and liked its Kodiak-brown color.
Trace took off for White Lodge, anxious to spend a little quality time with his father. It had been six months since they'd last seen each other. But when he dropped by the vet clinic, the new vet, Clive Masters, who'd replaced Liz Henson since her marriage to Connor Bannock, said Trace's dad was out on an emergency.
The world he'd once known kept going through changes. You couldn't go back and find everything the same. He understood that, but the thought added to his depression.
"Doc Rafferty has been expecting you. He said if you came while he was gone, he wants you to drive out to the ranch and get settled. When he's through, he'll meet you there."
"Good enough. Nice to meet you, Clive."
"I guess you know your dad thinks the world of you."
"He's my hero," Trace replied, which was only the truth. "See you again soon."
Trace got back in the Explorer and headed for the ranch bordering the Bannock's huge spread outside White Lodge.
For the past few years his dad had opened up the Rafferty property to seasonal hunters with permits. Whenever Trace thought about the ranch, it filled him with remembered pain over his parents' divorce and the move to Billings, wrenching him away from his dad. At least when he started work in Colorado, he'd be able to see his dad a lot more often as Sam and Ellen could drive over to visit him.
The old ranch house with the deep porch was set back from the road in the forested area. Two streams running brook trout and cutthroats ran through it. A perimeter dirt road to the side of the property led past crop land that opened up into pasture where cattle could graze. At one time his father had done it all, and had grown alfalfa and barley besides, but that portion lay fallow now.
To reach the house, you took the right fork in the road. There was only one other road before you reached it. This one led to an abandoned logging site and trailed into national forest land. At least here nothing looked changed about the area until he came in sight of the house.
He put on his brakes. At first he thought he must have come to the wrong place. The old log cabin had been freshly stained. Its big picture window and the attic window were now framed by exterior wooden shutters exquisitely hand painted with wildflowers of every color.
The addition of white wicker porch furniture with pale yellow padding and several large baskets of multicolored flowers hanging beneath the eaves added bright spots of color. He found that the changes transformed the place, making it inviting in a way it had never been before.
His father must have hired a decorator from town to come out and get all this ready in order to welcome Trace home. The knowledge filled him with guilt over what he planned to do. Those years of working on the ranch with him on visitation were over. Sam Rafferty's cowboy son wasn't a cowboy anymore.
Curious to know who was responsible for the actual transformation of the house, he parked around the side next to an unfamiliar green pickup truck. He jumped down from the cab. The barn in back had been freshly stained, too. Everything looked in fabulous shape!
He walked around behind it where his dad had built a kennel for their dog, which stood empty now. Remembered pain propelled Trace back to the front door of the house. He knocked. Even though he had a key to get in, he'd seen the truck and didn't want to walk in unannounced on whoever was here. While he waited, he admired the professional quality of the artwork on the panels.
They reminded him of the shutters you saw on hundreds of alpine-style homes in the Alps. Trace never dreamed his father would go to this extent to make him excited about being home for good.
When no one answered the door, he left the porch and walked around the other side of the house where he was met with another surprise. The ground cover that had always grown next to the house had been cleared to accommodate a well-tended garden full of strawberry plants and raspberry bushes planted in rows. The strawberries looked ripe for the picking and smelled delicious on this hot Tuesday afternoon.
Trace caught a glimpse of someone working between the rows. Curious to know who was there, he walked down one of them. As he got closer he saw it was a woman with wavy blond hair to the shoulders, gilded by the sun.
"Hello?" he called to her.
She lifted her head and got to her feet, holding a basket under her arm partially filled with strawberries. The raspberries hadn't ripened completely yet. The last time Trace had seen Cassie Bannock she was in her early teens. It strained the imagination that anyone in the well-heeled Bannock clan would be working as a housekeeper.
When Trace could sit down with his father, he'd find out the whole story behind it, but first things first. She was of medium height, her wellendowed body filled out an aqua-colored cotton top she wore over a pair of jeans. On her feet she wore cowboy boots. He found himself staring at her. She was blooming with health. He'd heard the term before, but she personified it.
"Call me Trace."
She laughed gently. "I couldn't resist. I've never met a jet pilot before." Her light green eyes smiled as she moved toward him. "You probably don't remember me."
Her coloring was different from that of her brunette cousin, Avery Lawson, another Bannock who was now married. But they both had the natural beauty of the Bannock genes in the classic shape of their faces and more voluptuous figures. Both were the same age, twenty-six or twenty-seven by now as he recalled.
"Of course I do. The last time I saw you I think you were about twelve to my thirteen. You'd come with your grandfather Tyson to the vet clinic because your pet colt was sick and there was no consoling you. I was helping my dad and went to work with him that day."
"I'm surprised you remembered that. Sam got him all better. He's the best!"
"I agree," he murmured. "I'm very sorry to hear of your husband's unexpected passing."
A shadow crossed over her lovely face for a moment. She studied his features. "Thank you. I'm sorry to learn of your eye injury. Are you in pain?"
"Thank goodness for that at least." She had a sweetness about her. "Life throws all of us a curve once in a while, one we weren't expecting."
"You're right about that." Their losses were different. Though his career was over, he could still see with a corrective lens. Her loss had to be excruciating. According to Trace's father, they'd been a happily married couple while they'd worked for him.
"Your dad was afraid you might have to stay in the hospital longer for more tests."
"I received excellent care and was discharged the moment the doctor felt I could travel."
"That's wonderful and he's so excited! He said you'd be here today, but I expected the two of you to arrive this evening with you still wearing a uniform."
"The military doesn't usually travel in uniform these days. It's safer." She nodded. "My father said he'd meet up with me here later."
"Then welcome home, soldier. Go on in. Your old bedroom is waiting for you. There's food and drinks in the fridge in case you're hungry or thirsty. Sam said you're a big tuna fish sandwich man, so there's plenty on hand. In case you need anything else, I'll be in as soon as I've filled this basket."
Berry-picking looked fun and Trace considered helping her, then thought the better of it. His gaze fell to her left hand. She still wore her wedding ring.
"Thank you, Cassie. See you shortly."
He retraced his steps to get his bags out of the Explorer. When he walked inside, the delicious aroma of strawberries filled the house. He moved through the foyer and dining room to the kitchen. She'd been making jam. Trace didn't realize her housekeeping duties extended to actually putting up fruit in a house where no one lived.
There were several dozen jars on the counter already filled and labeled. The sweet smell reminded him of times he'd played with the Bannock brothers as a boy before his parents' divorce. The last summer he'd lived here while he was still happy, he remembered going over to their grandmother's house where she was putting up jam and jelly. She'd let them pile butter and fresh jam on homemade bread and feast their heads off.
The wonderful memory pierced him. Soon after that time he'd learned his parents were divorcing and he'd have to move away from friends like Connor and Jarod Bannock, who lived next door. That turned out to be the darkest day of his young life. He'd been searching for happiness ever since. Being a pilot had given him thrills and purpose, but life had a habit of getting in the way.
He left the kitchen and walked across the hall to his bedroom to get rid of his bags. The same framed photographs of family that had always hung there lined the walls. It hurt to look at them. On the way he passed the other two bedrooms. One was his father's. The other was a spare bedroom, but when he looked inside, he received a shock rather than a surprise.
Cassie lived here?
Trace had assumed she'd moved back to the Bannock ranch with her family after her husband's death. Their wealth meant she wouldn't have financial worries. Maybe his kindhearted father had allowed her to stay on for a time while she worked through her grief. That was something he would do. If that were the case, then Trace's plan to sell the ranch would come as a blow to her while she was attempting to get through the worst of her pain. Hell
That was another subject to talk over with his father when he arrived. But right now Trace was starving. The thought of a tuna fish sandwich on American soft white bread sounded so good, he headed straight back to the kitchen.