Cowboy Brett Colton has reformed his bad-boy ways. And he has ambitious plans to transform the Lucky C ranch. Then he discovers that his one passion-filled night with gorgeous accountant Hannah Grayson resulted in pregnancyan unexpected hiccup.
Though excited by the prospect of fatherhood, Brett puts the brakes on romance. He is determined to bring Hannah and his unborn child into the family. But he doesn't anticipate the strong feelings he has for Hannah or that he is putting her in danger. Because a vengeful phantom is targeting the Coltons. All that matters is keeping his new family safe and perhaps fighting for love in the end.
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In Brett Colton's ears, in his mind, the shrill keening of tornado sirens eclipsed all other sound, despite that he and Outlaw were too far into the backcountry for the sirens to be more than a figment of his imaginationhis intuition warning him that this mission was a really stupid plan because there were a hundred ways to die in a storm this angry.
There was no fury in hell or on earth that compared to an Oklahoma thunderstorm when it decided to unleash a twister. The clouds above Tulsa churned, glowing gray green. Golf-ball-sized hail pelted Brett's Stetson and the back of his oiled leather duster. He folded forward, shielding Outlaw's neck and mane from the brunt of the hail's force as best he could, though neither man nor steed were strangers to the elements.
One of these days, Brett's guardian angels would give him up as a lost cause, but, God willing, it wasn't going to be today. Not with so much on the line. Not after everything his family had been through in the past month or the sharp edge of disappointment in his father's and brother's eyes when Brett had broken it to them about the downed fence and the missing cattle. As if Brett had let the herd loose on purpose. As if he was still the same reckless punk he'd been four months ago.
Then again, maybe Brett hadn't completely vanquished the recklessness from his blood, because here he was, racing across the rolling plains of the Lucky C ranch's backcountry, straight toward the deadly funnel forming in the distance. Any minute, a flash flood might come rocketing through, if lightning or a twister didn't hit down first, but he refused to return to the Lucky C homestead without the half dozen pregnant cows that had escaped.
The downed fence was a mystery that Brett would have to contemplate later. He'd checked that line himself the week before. All he knew was that the ranch that he'd once thought of as a fortress was no longer an impenetrable haven for his family, and the decades of peace and prosperity that the Coltons had enjoyed had been shattered beyond repair.
Brett had followed the tracks of the six stampeding cows southwest, keeping them in sight through the rain and the darkening sky, right up until the clouds had let loose with hail. With zero visibility and the cows' hoof-prints lost in the churned-up ground and melting balls of ice, he was riding with nothing to guide him but the hunch that the cows had headed toward Vulture Ridge, as the stock on the ranch had done so many times over the years. As long as they'd had enough sense to stop at the ridge instead of going over the edgeLord, please don't let them have gone over the edgeBrett would find a way to get them back to the Lucky C before the twister touched down.
Outlaw expertly cut around scrub trees and boulders without losing speed until Vulture Ridge came into view.
"Gotcha," Brett said, though his words were lost in a crash of thunder.
Four of the cows crowded at the edge of the infamous gully, their hind hooves pawing at the muddy, disintegrating ledge and baying, clearly terrified. Brett slowed Outlaw to a trot and instead of closing in on the cows head-on, guided the horse in a wide arc. Then he rode along the ridge and came up on the cows from the side. Outlaw knew the drill, imposing his authority to the cattle, crowding and nudging them away from the edge.
Once they complied, Brett craned his neck to scan the expanse of prairie land for the remaining two cows. One, he spotted immediately, huddled against a boulder, but the other was nowhere to be seen. Fearing what he'd find, Brett turned his focus to the gully below Vulture Ridge that had been carved out by centuries of flash floods. The missing cow's ear came into view first, tagged with a green tag that meant she was a heifera young first-time mom who was probably beyond freaked out at the moment.
He dismounted and got closer to the edge. The heifer was perched on a narrow outcrop of dirt and rock ten feet below the lip of the ridge, lying on her side, propped against the ridge wall, her massive round belly undulating. She was in labor, and the way she was angled, when the calf was born, it would fall the additional ten feet or so into the gully's basin. That is, if the ledge didn't crumble and the heifer didn't fall herself, first.
This time, Brett's curse was loud enough to be heard over the storm. An older, seasoned cow might have been amenable to Brett's efforts to get her standing and help her pick her way out of the gully, but he already knew this heifer wasn't going to make his life easy like that. He was standing next to Outlaw, debating his options, when a thunderclap sounded so loudly that Brett's teeth rattled. The four cows they'd gathered immediately spooked and took off along the gully ridge.
Brett swung up into the saddle again. Shaking away the water and ice from his face, he set his teeth on his lower lip and whistled in the same tone he used on the livestock around the ranch, the one that often workedin normal conditions, anywayas a command for them to stop. These particular cows weren't interested in commands. If anything, they picked up their pace.
He gave another, different toned whistle command to Outlaw and the horse surged toward the cattle as Brett reached for his lasso. Throwing it in this weather would be a crapshoot at best, but he had to try. He secured the rope in his hands, then drove Outlaw faster, getting in front of the cows and cutting them off.
He waited until they were right up on the beasts to throw the lasso. It caught the neck of the farthest cow, just as it was supposed to, so he cinched it nice and tight and brought all four cows crowded between the lassoed cow and Outlaw's body.
"Thataway, Outlaw," he called over the wind and hail, stroking the gelding's neck. "Thataway."
They maneuvered the cattle to a cluster of shrubs not too far away from where the fifth cow was still huddled by the boulder. Brett swung off the saddle, then looped the other end of the rope around the neck of a second cow. He tied another rope around the necks of the third and fourth cows and hooked all the ropes into the branches of the sturdiest scrub tree. It wasn't all that secure, should another thunderclap spook them again, but it was the best he could do for now.
He left Outlaw standing near them, but refused to tie him to the tree, even if it meant Brett getting stranded should the gelding take off. Because what if the horse needed to flee with good reason? What if Brett didn't make it out of the gully alive? Brett would rather chance getting stranded than put his horse in any unnecessary danger, which was a vital part of the cowboy code he lived by.
Brett threaded his head and an arm through his last bundle of rope from his saddle bag, then stroked Outlaw's neck and got close to his ear. "You stay with the stock. Keep 'em calm for me until I get back." For all he knew, Outlaw understood every word. He liked to imagine that bit of magic, anyway.
It wasn't until he was slogging to the edge of Vulture Ridge that he realized how soaked-to-the-bones he was.
The muddy ground sucked at his boots, and his jeans felt as if they weighed twenty pounds. He flapped the tails of his duster around his body, then checked the collar to make sure it was standing on end, but still, bits of hail wormed their way between his collar and his hat to melt against his neck. Sniffing, his eyes downturned and marking each labored step, he put his shoulder to the wind and pressed on.
The heifer was lying on her side still, but didn't seem to have given birth yet. Her hooves hovered in midair over the gully that was rapidly filling with water. The path she'd slid down was steep, but wouldn't be impossible for her to traverse back up over the ridgeif he could get her standing again.
He was debating the merits of risking his life for a single livestock, when the heifer brayed, a pained, fearful cry. Then one of her hind legs and her tail lifted. The water sac was visible already.
"Holy day " Brett muttered.
The calf was coming.
He slid down the mud wall following the same path the heifer had. There wasn't enough room on the ledge for both of them to fit comfortably. His boot heels cut into the dirt wall as he skirted her body to reach her tail. The calf's tail was crowning first.
"Damn it. This baby's not making it easy on you, is it, girl?" Brett wiped his muddy hands on his coat, then pushed the calf's rump back in. Working by feel, he located the hind legs and positioned them one at a time in the birthing canal.
The heifer brayed and kicked out. If they were at the ranch, Brett would've secured her in a head gate and called for help. All he had now was luck, a single rope and his wits, and he was going to need all three to birth the calf before it died.
He took off his coat and draped it over the heifer's face, hoping the reduction of stimulus from the rain and storm would calm her down. No luck. She kicked harder, and before Brett had gotten back in position near her tail, she tipped over the edge of the outcropping and slid into the rapidly-filling gully.
Brett followed, his rope in his hand. The water was three feet deep and rising. The rain and hail beat down relentlessly as the wind whipped up. Time to get this calf birthed and get the hell out of there before they all lost their lives. The cow, on her side in the gully, strained to keep her head above water. Brett slogged to her backside again, the water and mud caking his legs and seeping into his boots. He wrapped the rope around the calf's legs once, twice, three times.
He wiggled his boots into the riverbed, bracing himself, then got a firm hold of the rope and pulled, growling with the effort. The calf slid another four or five inches out. Panting, Brett adjusted his grip on the rope, then pulled again. This time, the calf came. Brett fell backward in the water, the calf on his chest.
With a laugh of triumph, Brett cleaned the calf's nose out with his finger, then tickled its ear to get it breathing. Then a golf-ball-sized piece of hail smacked Brett hard on his cheek, killing his awe over the miracle of helping birth a new life and reminding him of the danger all around them.
He pushed to his feet, bringing the calf up in his arms. He worked to untie the rope from the calf's hind legs with one eye on the steep side of the gully. The water was above Brett's knees, sloshing at his groin. He couldn't get the rope around the mama cow and keep his hold on the wiggling calf, so he'd have to come back down for her.
He'd pulled himself and the calf a good five feet up the gully wall when he heard it, a roar like no other he'd heard before. Not thunder, not a twister. Something otherworldly that got louder, closer. The gully walls vibrated with the force. A flash flood. Had to be.
In full panic mode, Brett hauled himself to the ledge that the cow had originally slid onto. He grabbed his duster from where the cow had tossed it away from her face. He threw it up to the top of the ridge, then hauled himself and the calf the rest of the way up, his fingers and boot toes digging into the muddy wall, pushing the calf up in front of him with his chest. He heaved the calf over the top of the ridge as a wall of water appeared in the gully, bearing down on their location.
Brett scrambled to safety and got on his knees. As fast as he could, he wound the rope back and set the lasso loop down to the mama cow. Maybe he could anchor her there so she wouldn't get swept away. Maybe the floodwaters weren't as high and fast as they looked.
The flash flood hit her hard, rolling her under. The rope pulled on him as though he was playing tug-of-war with a whole football team. There was nothing to do but let go. He'd heard too many accounts of ranchers getting swept into floodwater and drowning because they were too stubborn to lose their livestock.
Brett's legs were shaky and weak with an adrenaline crash as he stood, following with his gaze the glimpse of the cow's head in the water until she disappeared. The floodwaters gurgled and spit at the edge of the gully wall. He stared at the water, trying not to think of the loss as a failure. After all, he'd saved the calf, five pregnant cows and his own life.
He swung his attention to the boulder where he'd left the other cows and Outlaw. Outlaw was still there, but none of the cows. Damn it.
He pulled his drenched, muddy coat on, then lifted the calf into his arms again and trudged to his horse, his eyes on the storm front that looked to be moving away from them. At least one thing had gone his way today.
Outlaw nuzzled his cheek.
"Thanks for waiting for me," Brett said. "Happen to see which direction those cows went?"
Could've been his imagination, but Outlaw snorted in reply.
He scratched the horse's neck. "Good. How about you lead me to them so we can call it a day?"
He lifted the calf onto the saddle first, then hoisted himself up, the weight of the water and mud making him feel a good fifty pounds heavier than he had when he'd left the stable. The orphaned calf looked up at him, helpless and trusting. Brett usually didn't think of the livestock as cute, but this one surely was, with long lashes, a soft buttercream-colored coat and a pink nose. He wrapped his coat around it and held it close.
"We'll get you home soon and make you up a bottle as soon as we find your mama's friends. I do believe we're gonna name you Twister. How does that sound?"
The calf's tongue came out to lick a pebble of hail from its nose, the cutest thing Brett might've ever seen besides his nephew, Seth.
Jack, Brett's oldest brother, was going to be furious about the loss of the cow. Already, he didn't trust Brett, and this wasn't going to help. But Brett was tired of working under his brother like some hired hand, getting his butt chewed for every perceived misstep. He was ready to redeem his reputation and earn his slice of the Colton legacyand he had just the plan to make it work. All he needed now was to hire a financial whiz to help him crunch the numbers and profit projections he'd need to help Jack see his point of view.
With a whistle and a nudge of Brett's boots, Outlaw burst into motion back through the storm toward home while Brett's mind churned, plotting and planning his next move to seize a hold of his bright future once and for all.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Hannah finds herself pregnant after a one night fling with Brett Colton. Her family turns their back on her and she is determined to make it on her own. By a weird chance she ends up reunited with Brett who vows to take care of her and her baby. I had put off reading this because I didn't want to go down the path of the typical pregnant girl finds her baby's daddy and they figure out how to work it out. This was far from that. The story line was well developed and believable. It has everything, humor, suspense and developing love. I really enjoyed the story and look forward to reading more from Melissa Cutler.
Melissa Cutler is a artist with romance and romantic suspense and Colton's Cowboy Code is a prime example of how she builds her characters and relationships to create a believable world filled with warmth, stresses, and danger. When Hannah sets up a interview, she never imagines that it would be with her baby daddy or that he would envelop her in the warmth of his family. Or that her life would be endangered. One night celebrating her college graduation changes so much in the life of this young woman who has been pretty much bound by her too strict parents her whole life. Now it appears, she has the world at her feet. Ms. Cutler does not write cookie cutter stories, she creates world worth visiting. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Those are the only kinds of review I do, but it is a pleasure to be able to share my excitement in this book. I know she did not write all of the books in the series but will have to check out some of the others because she has made me care about he people.