Montana has provided the setting for some of my favorite stories. In the late 1980s I wrote Tender Trap and Aftermath featuring Denver and Colton McLean—two brothers returning to their family ranch after years away, confronting the secrets left behind. I’m thrilled that they’re now available in one volume, with a striking new cover and title, Backlash . . .
The ranch country of Montana is beautiful, unforgiving, and for Colton and Denver McLean, filled with a whole lot of bad memories. It’s been seven years since a fire claimed their parents’ lives and drove both brothers away. Now their uncle’s death has brought them back to a place where loyalty and love runs deep—but so do grudges.
Suspicion still swirls about what caused that tragic fire. It created a rift between Denver and the foreman’s daughter, Tessa Kramer. Now Tessa hopes to buy the ranch, if Denver and Colton will agree to sell, but the property is beset by problems. A prized stallion disappears. Other horses start falling sick. Someone seems determined to disrupt—or destroy—the McLean family’s legacy by any means necessary. And finding answers will turn this homecoming into a time of reckoning with enemies past and present . . .
I hope you enjoy coming back to Montana with me!
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Helena, Montana Seven Years Later
"I don't want it!" Denver McLean declared as he dropped into a tufted leather chair close to Ross Anderson's desk.
"We're talking about the entire ranch," the young attorney reminded him. Ross was serious, his watery blue eyes steady behind thick lenses, his narrow features pulling together. He smoked a twisted black cigar.
The old-fashioned Western cheroot smelled foul and seemed completely out of place in this modern chrome-and-glass office building, Denver thought. He rubbed the scar on the back of his left hand. "I guess you didn't hear me. I don't want it. Sell the whole damned thing!"
"We can't do that without your brother's consent," Ross said in that soothing lawyer tone that irritated the hell out of Denver.
"No one knows where Colton is. I haven't heard from him in years."
"Nonetheless, half the ranch is his — half yours. Split fifty-fifty. That's the way your father wanted it, and your uncle saw fit to carry out his wishes."
"I wish John had talked to me first," Denver said flatly. If his uncle weren't already dead, he gladly would have wrung the old meddler's neck.
"Too late now," Ross said succinctly.
Denver's lips twisted at the irony. Though he'd been away from the McLean Ranch for seven years and had ignored his uncle's repeated pleas to visit, the old man had gotten him in the end. "Okay," he decided, flopping back in his chair. "Just sell my half."
"Can't do it. Back taxes."
"Son of a —"
The door opened and Ross's secretary, a willowy woman with pale blond hair, eyes heavy with mascara and a glossy smile, carried in a tray of coffee, cream and sugar.
"Just set it on the desk, Nancy," Ross instructed as he puffed on his cigar, gradually filling the room with bluish smoke.
Nancy did as she was bid, casting Denver an interested glance that made him shift uncomfortably in his chair. Even after three successful operations, he felt as if his burns were as red and harsh as when he was dragged barely alive from the fire.
The fire — always the fire. He had never escaped it. Not really. And he never would.
His guts churned at the memory, and he tried to concentrate on the plastic cup of black coffee Ross handed him.
"So, you think your uncle was getting back at you by leaving you the ranch?"
"It's over a thousand acres of Montana ranch land," Ross said dryly. "Doesn't seem like such a curse."
"No?" Denver sipped the coffee. It was scalding and bitter. He didn't really much care. "Why weren't the back taxes paid?"
"The ranch has been in the red for the past few years."
"I thought there were supposed to be huge silver deposits on the land," Denver said, thinking back to those years of speculation, before the fire, when both his parents and his uncle had been excited at the prospect of mining silver from the ridge overlooking the ranch — the ridge where he'd lain with Tessa while a smoldering cigarette butt ignited dry straw in the stables far below.
"I guess the silver didn't exist," Ross said.
"Too bad," Denver muttered. "What about the stock?"
"It's holding its own, I think. Your uncle seemed to think that he was on the brink of turning things around."
Denver doubted it. Ross was just giving him the sales pitch that good old Uncle John had peddled him time and time again over the past few years. Denver hadn't bought it then and he wasn't buying it now. "The stables were never rebuilt after the fire, right?"
"The insurance company paid reluctantly — claimed the fire was arson. The fire chief concurred. Unfortunately the building was grossly underinsured. The money only covered cleaning up the mess and adding a few stalls to the barn." Ross squinted through his glasses. "John was hell-bent on suing the insurance company — claimed he'd been misrepresented, that he'd paid higher premiums than he should have for the amount of coverage. But he finally gave it up."
"On your advice?"
Ross nodded and drew on his cigar. "What's your point?"
"The point is that the McLean Ranch is little more than a few decrepit buildings, some rangy cattle, a few horses and acres of sagebrush."
"Some people would see it differently."
Denver leaned back in his chair. "Maybe. I call 'em as I see 'em. The place isn't worth much. Let's get what we can out of it and call it good."
Ross sighed. "This is a mistake."
"Not my first." Tugging at his collar with two fingers, Denver wished this whole mess were over and done with. He didn't need any reminders of the past.
Shoving a copy of the will across the desk, Ross said flatly, "There's nothing you can do until the taxes are paid."
"I'll pay them."
"Okay, that's the first hurdle. Now, what about Colton?"
"That won't be easy."
"There has to be a way," Denver said wearily. "Last I heard he was still a United States citizen. Start with the State Department, a private investigator, the IRS and the CIA."
"It'll take time."
Denver narrowed his eyes. "Maybe you'll get lucky."
"I tried writing him through that magazine he free-lanced for a couple of years back," Ross explained. "Never received a reply."
"Keep trying." Denver glared angrily at the will. "I can wait." He felt his jaw clench at his next thought. "Is old man Kramer still running the place?"
Shrugging slim shoulders beneath his jacket, Ross said, "Far as I know. But I heard John say once that Kramer's daughter is really in charge. I can't remember her name." He crushed out his cigar.
"Tessa," Denver bit out, her name stinging his tongue. After seven years, he still felt needlelike jabs of regret that had turned bitter with age. If he tried, he could still recall the taste of her skin that hot day. But he wouldn't. No need to dredge up a past based on lies.
"Yeah, that's it. John confided in me that she covers for her old man." Ross leaned back in his chair and regarded Denver carefully. "Apparently Curtis Kramer has a drinking problem."
"Some things haven't changed," Denver observed.
"You can do what you want, of course. But since you're in Montana already, you may as well drive over and check out the place, make sure you really want to sell."
"So you've said. I just thought you might want to find out why a ranch that was owned free and clear was losing money hand over fist — at least until recently."
Denver considered. He knew why: poor management. Curtis Kramer knew horses but couldn't handle a ranch. Denver's father had seen it and had been ready to let Curtis go just before the fire ... the damned fire. Unfortunately Uncle John had kept Tessa's old man on. No one could prove Curtis had started the blaze, and John had been convinced of the man's innocence. Denver wasn't so sure. He drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. "Isn't finding out how much the ranch is worth and how much it earns a job for the bank that's probating the estate?"
Ross smiled crookedly. "Are you willing to trust someone from Second Western Bank to understand the ins and outs of ranching?"
"Right." Ross tugged on his tie. "Of course it's up to you. It's yours now."
"Great. Just great." Denver shoved his chair back and strode angrily out the door, past the blond receptionist and through the labyrinthine corridors of the law firm — the largest in Helena, Montana. Although small compared to most in Los Angeles, where Denver had lived for the past seven years, the firm of O'Brien, Simmons and Taft was top-notch even by California's high standards, and Ross Anderson, a junior partner, knew his stuff.
Shouldering open the glass door, Denver stalked onto the street. The pace in Helena was much slower than that in Los Angeles and Denver was restless. Ross's advice followed him into the parking lot where his rented car was baking in the late-afternoon sun. Clouds gathered above, but there wasn't a breath of wind, and the humidity was unusually high, the air sticky.
Denver climbed in and switched on the ignition, unwillingly remembering the inferno.
* * *
It had all happened so fast. One minute he'd been lying on Tessa, her dew-covered skin fusing with his own, her lips soft and sensuous, her hazel eyes glazed in passion — the next he'd witnessed the horror of the blaze, horses screaming in death throes, hooves crashing in the billowing, lung-burning smoke. He'd felt the explosion, been thrown to the floor.
When he finally awakened, his skin burning, his face and hands unrecognizable, it had been three days later. He'd learned the devastating news: both his parents had been killed.
Colton, eyes red and shadowed, coffee-colored hair falling over his eyes, had been waiting for Denver to wake up.
"It's old man Kramer's fault," Colton insisted as he huddled near Denver's bed, avoiding his eyes and watching the steady drip of an IV tube that ran directly into the back of Denver's right hand.
"How — how could it be?" God, he hurt all over.
"He's been stealing from the ranch. He was up in the office altering the books when the fire started. If you ask me, he did it to destroy the evidence."
"You can't prove it."
"Can't I?" Colton thundered, his gray eyes sizzling like lightning. "Weren't you supposed to go over the books that day? Didn't Tessa insist that you go riding with her instead?" He stood then, the back of his neck dark in anger, his boots muffled on the carpeting.
Denver's dry throat worked in defense.
"What did she do? Seduce you?" Colton must have seen some betraying spark in Denver's eyes. "Of course she did," he muttered in disgust.
"Don't you see? It was all part of the plan — Curtis's plan to rip off the ranch! Dad was on to him, and he had to cover his tracks."
"No way!" Denver rasped.
"Whose idea was it to go riding?"
Denver didn't answer.
"Right. And I'll bet Tessa was more than willing."
"Get out of here."
Colton didn't move. "You're a blind man, brother! She and that drunk of an old man of hers have been bleeding us dry. I'd even bet Mitch is in on it with them."
Denver tried to sit up, pushing aside the pain that scorched the length of his body. "I won't believe —"
"Then don't. But think about this. Mom and Dad are dead, Denver. Dead! Dad thought Curtis was embezzling, and he was out to prove it. Doesn't it seem a little too convenient that all the records were destroyed on the day Dad asked you to go over the books?"
"He didn't say a word about Curtis."
"He couldn't, could he?" Colton pointed out. "He wanted an impartial opinion!" Colton's furious gaze skated across the wrinkled sheets and gauze bandages to land on Denver's scarred face. "I know that you and I have never seen eye to eye, but I thought you'd agree with me on this one." His jaw worked for a minute. "They're gone, Denver. And you — look at you." Colton's eyes clouded with pity. "Look at what they did, for Christ's sake."
"Get out!" Denver didn't want to think about the damage to himself. He'd always been proud, and the look on Colton's face twisted his guts. He couldn't think about the pity in Tessa's eyes should she ever see him again.
Colton's gray eyes flashed furiously. "Any way you cut it, Denver, Curtis Kramer is to blame." He strode out of the room then, leaving Denver alone with his scars and his memories.
* * *
Now, shaking his head to clear it of the unpleasant past, Denver rammed the car into gear and backed out of the law firm's parking lot. The car rolled easily onto the street and Denver turned north, toward the airport. Not once since the fire had he returned to the ranch. He'd never seen Tessa again.
At first pride had kept him from her, and eventually Colton had convinced him that she had, intentionally or not, conspired against him. He'd told himself he was doing her one big favor by leaving, and he'd been right. He had been badly scarred, physically and emotionally. Plastic surgery had fixed the exterior, he thought cynically as he glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the same blue eyes he'd been born with. One lid was a mere fraction lower than the other, but his skin was smooth, the result of more skin grafts than he wanted to count. But no surgeon or psychiatrist had been able to remove the bitterness he felt whenever he thought about that day.
"So don't think about it," he muttered aloud, scowling at himself. It was many miles north to the ranch, and the airport was only across town. He could drive to the airport and return to Los Angeles as he'd planned, or he could phone his partner and take time off — the vacation he hadn't allowed himself in years. Jim would understand, and business was unseasonably slow. But if he stayed in Montana, he'd have to face Tessa again.
His lips curved into a crooked, almost wicked smile. Maybe it was time. He saw the flashing neon sign of a local tavern and pulled into the pothole-pocked parking lot. One beer, he decided, then he'd make up his mind.
* * *
With one quick stroke of her jackknife, Tessa cut the twine. The bale split open easily. Snapping the knife closed, she shoved it into her pocket, then forked loose hay into the manger. Dust swirled in the air, and the interior of the old barn smelled musty and dry.
Though it was evening, no breeze whispered through the open doors and only faint rays from a cloud-covered sun filtered past the grime and cobwebs of the few circular windows cut high in the hayloft.
The air was still, heavy with the threat of rain. She hoped the summer shower would break quickly and give relief to the parched ranch land. The ground was cracked and hard. And it was only the middle of August.
She was already feeding the horses and cattle hay she'd cut barely a month before.
Frowning, she heard the familiar sound of thudding hooves. Tails up and unfurling like silky flags, several of the younger horses raced into the barn. Behind the colts, the brood mares plodded at a slower pace.
"Hungry?" Tessa asked as several dark heads poked through the far side of the manger. A gray colt bared his teeth and nipped at a rival as the horses shoved for position. "Hey, slow down, there's enough for everybody." She chuckled as she forked more hay, shaking it along the long trough that served all the McLean horses.
Once the McLean horses were fed, she tossed hay into a manger on the other side of the barn and grinned widely as three more horses plunged their heads into the manger. Their warm breath stirred the hay as they nuzzled deep, searching for oats. "In a minute," Tessa said, admiring the stallion and two mares. These were her horses, and her heart swelled with pride at the sight of them. She owned several — six in all — but these three were her pride and joy, the mainstay of her small herd. "Hasn't anyone told you patience is a virtue?" She petted the velvet-soft nose of Brigadier, the stallion. A deep chestnut with a crooked white blaze and liquid eyes, he was spirited and feisty — and one of the best quarter horses in the state. At least in Tessa's opinion.
The two mares were gentler and shorter, one a blood bay, the other black. Both were with foal, and their bellies had started to protrude roundly. These three horses were the center of Tessa's dreams. She'd worked long hours, saved her money and even delayed finishing college to pay for them, one at a time. But the herd was growing, she thought fondly, eyeing Ebony's rounded sides, and finally Tessa was through school. She reached across the manger and patted Brigadier's sleek neck.
His red ears pricked forward then back, and he tossed his head, his mane flying and his dark eyes glinting.
"Okay, okay, I get the message." Grinning, Tessa poured oats for her horses and heard contented nickers and heavy grinding of back teeth.
Rain began to pepper the tin roof, echoing through the barn in a quickening tempo. "At last," Tessa murmured. She jabbed a pitchfork into a nearby bale, tugged off her gloves and tossed them onto the lid of the oat barrel. Stretching, she turned for the house. But she stopped dead in her tracks.
In the doorway, the shoulders of his denim jacket soaked, his wet dark hair plastered to his head, stood a man she barely recognized as Denver McLean. She hadn't seen him for so long — not since that awful day. Though his face was familiar, it had changed, the harsh angles and planes of his features more rugged than ever. His hair was the same coal black, shorter than she remembered, but still thick and wavy as he pushed a wet lock off his forehead.
"Denver?" she whispered, almost disbelieving. Her heart began to slam against her ribs. Her father and Milly, the cook, had both speculated that Denver might return to the ranch after his uncle's death, but Tessa hadn't dared think he would show up.
He crossed his arms and leaned one shoulder in the doorway. Behind him rain spilled from the gutters and showered the ground in sheets. The smell of fresh water meeting dusty earth filled the air. "It's been a long time, Tessa," he finally said.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Backlash"
Copyright © 2019 Kensington Publishing Corporation.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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