Melissa Cutler is a bright new voice in contemporary romance. New York Times bestselling author Lori Wilde
Transforming their parents' rundown ranch in Catcher Creek, New Mexico, into a tourist destination is the toughest challenge the three Sorentino sisters ever faced. But now one of them has another fight on her handsto keep from falling for the sexy town sheriffagain. . .
Rachel Sorentino has spent her whole life protecting her siblings from troubleonly to run headlong into it herself. Her first regret about shooting at the vandals targeting her family ranch is that her aim wasn't better. Her second is that when bullets started flying, it was Sheriff Vaughn Cooper's number she dialed. Vaughn is the mistake she keeps on making, a cowboy lawman who cuts through Rachel's surface bravado to the vulnerability no one else sees. And no matter how inconvenient their attractionfor his career, her tangled case, and his already battered heartthere's no denying what feels so irresistibly right. . .
Praise for Melissa Cutler's The Trouble With Cowboys
"One hot romance from start to finish." Carolyn Brown
"Cutler grabs readers from the first page. . .one fun, passionate romp." RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
"Sexy, savvy stuff!" –Susan Andersen
About the Author
Melissa Cutler is a Southern California native living in beautiful San Diego with her husband, two children, and a nervous Siamese cat. She spent her teenage years on the floor of her local bookstore's romance aisle, making tough choices about which novels to buy with the measly paycheck from her filing clerk job. Her love for happily-ever-after stories continued into adulthood, and in 2008, she decided to take her romance novel devotion to the next level by penning one herself. She now divides her time between her dual passions for writing sexy cowboy contemporaries and edge-of-your-seat romantic suspense.
Read an Excerpt
By Melissa Cutler
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Melissa Cutler
All rights reserved.
The vandals brought beer. A bold move for trespassers. Then again, it was one in the afternoon, so either these punks carried the delusion they were above the law, or they set a new standard of stupidity from the other idiots who'd felt the call of duty to send a message to Rachel Sorentino.
Rachel watched through the zoom lens of her camera from the narrow canyon floor, hidden from view by a smoke tree, as one of four young men shook a can of spray paint. Not too difficult to imagine what he'd write on the boulder he and his buddies were grouped around. Catcher Creek's small, but zealous, group protesting her family's new business weren't all that creative, she'd discovered. Probably involved the word bitch and maybe the classic LEAVE TOWN OR ELSE. She wondered if these guys were better spellers than the rest.
Lincoln, her horse, sidestepped restlessly. She understood his discomfort. Even in the shade as she and Lincoln were, there was no escape from the weather. The surrounding walls of soil radiated the kind of dry, baking heat that pricked at the skin like needles and dried noses to the point of bleeding. Didn't help that this particular May was setting heat records all across New Mexico.
Not for the first time, she considered calling the sheriff's department, but that presented its own mess of trouble. Besides, this far off the beaten path there was no way a deputy would arrive in time to do any good. And she refused to consider the ramifications of Vaughn answering the dispatch call. Heaven help her if it came to that.
Like always, Rachel had no one to rely on but herself. Well, not exactly. She had Lincoln, her closest companion for over a decade. And she could always rely on the interminability of the ranch's problems, which hadn't given her a day of peace in all her thirty-two years of life. Yeah, she could definitely count on the presence of problems pulling at her—livestock problems, sister problems, money problems. The list went on forever.
She wiggled her hand into her jeans pocket and grabbed an antacid from the roll. As it dissolved on her tongue, she lifted the camera from where it hung around her neck and snapped a string of photographs, zooming in on the face of the vandal holding the paint. He'd written the B and the I in straight block letters on the boulder's flat face. She swung the camera right and snapped pictures of the truck. It was angled so she didn't have a clear visual of the license plate, but she could wait to capture that image while they were fleeing the sound of her gunshot.
The revolver in her saddlebag took .38s. She flipped the cylinder open and loaded ammo into two chambers.
Lincoln's restless sidestep grew anxious. He wasn't a fan of the gun, not the noise or the recoil or the bitter odor of gunpowder. But he was getting more accustomed to it since the grand opening of Heritage Farm, with its influx of tourists and media attention, had unleashed Catcher Creek residents' underlying hostility toward her family and turned the farm into a vandal magnet.
Rachel's first tip-off about the controversy was a low-key grumbling and grousing overheard in the shops and churches on Main Street, as reported by her youngest sister, Jenna, whose number-one hobby in life was keeping her finger on the pulse of the town's rampant gossip. The low grumblings evolved into a petition to add "anti dude-ranch legislation," as the petition authors dubbed it, to the next county ballot. It wasn't long after the petition took to circulating that the first graffiti appeared on the ranch, scrawled on the side of one of Heritage Farm's brand-new oil derricks.
Four months later, the protestors were still at it, and Rachel and her sisters were as determined as ever to make Heritage Farm a success.
She snapped the cylinder of her revolver in place, then spent a few minutes stroking Lincoln's neck and whispering words of reassurance into his ear. She offered him a Fig Newton, his favorite treat. He snatched it from her hand, his tension easing as he chewed.
After a few more words of praise and affection into Lincoln's ear, she straightened in the saddle and winced. The ulcer was bad today. She could actually feel it blazing a hole through her gut. She took the time to land another antacid on her tongue before raising the gun toward the sky, careful to aim to the left of the mesa so there'd be no chance of the vandals being hit by a stray bullet. She was a good shot, and the men probably stood at too great a distance for her to hit, but she respected the firearm enough to understand its inherent unpredictability.
The word BITCH had been neatly scrawled on the boulder, spelled right and everything. Impressive. She squeezed the trigger and braced for the deafening echo through the canyon.
Her ears throbbed. The world went mute. All she could hear was the thud of her pulse in her ears and a high-pitched ringing. One of these times, she'd have to remember ear plugs. She kept her gaze on the vandals, who'd stopped painting and joking to scan the valley, searching for the source. They were too far away for her to gauge their facial expressions, but they weren't running scared, that was for sure.
She fired again.
This time, she kept her eyes closed for a beat as the recoil swept through her system. The violence in the sound and energy of the gun hurt her whole body, from her teeth to her toes. Lincoln reared. She tugged the reins, asserting her control, and lowered the revolver. The vandals were running to the truck now. Excellent.
Setting the gun in her lap, she lifted the camera. Time for the money shot.
But as fast as they leapt into the truck cab and bed, they were out again, their hands filled with rifles.
"Oh, shit." Damaged as her hearing was, her words were muffled and far away.
She dropped the camera to swing around her neck and took up the revolver again. The sweat on her palms interfered with her grip. She held it tight against her thigh as she dug for more rounds.
The turn of events had her reeling. Why was she loading rounds instead of watching the criminals' truck haul ass off her property in a cloud of smoke, like the other trespassers she'd caught had done? Who the hell were these guys?
She had no idea, but whoever they were, they weren't scared of her. Shooing them away with two wide shots hadn't worked. Grazing one in the leg might, but she'd have to inch closer to stand a chance of making a hit. The revolver wasn't designed for distance shots, nor did she have much practice with target shooting. Anyhow, inching closer would leave Lincoln vulnerable and alone. He might get scared and hurt himself trying to flee, even if she tied him up.
So she stayed put as the men lined up along the edge of the mesa, scanning the valley below. Bits of red earth crumbled at their feet, rolling down the steep slope like a mini-avalanche.
Rachel held her breath.
With a whoop, the lanky man with the short, dark hair fired in her general direction.
The sound rattled her to the bone. Lincoln tried to spin around. He wanted to run away. That made two of them. But if they turned and made a break for it, she'd give the shooters a clear shot once they'd climbed out of the canyon. Shrouded by shade and the smoke tree, her best bet was to stay still and convince Lincoln to do the same.
She tucked the revolver under her arm and offered him another Fig Newton. He refused to be pacified. She tossed the treat on the ground, grabbed her camera, and took a quick series of photographs of the men. She watched through the lens as one of them shouted something she couldn't hear over the ringing in her ears. Whatever he said, all four rifles swung toward the canyon she hid in.
She dropped the camera and grabbed the revolver, for all the good that would do. If she fired a round now, they'd know exactly where she was.
All she could think was that this couldn't be happening. She was on her own property, for shit's sake. Right now, though, she wondered if she'd make it out of the valley alive.
One of the men let out a whooping cry.
Gunfire rained over her. Shot after shot. Puffs of dirt exploded off the canyon walls. She ducked, holding her torso flush against Lincoln's mane. Time to take the chance and run. The idea scared her out of her mind, but she had to get Lincoln out of the line of fire. She had to save them both.
She stuffed the revolver in her waistband and gripped the reins with both hands. A bullet whizzed into the smoke tree, cracking a limb and sending splinters flying at Lincoln and Rachel.
Lincoln reared all the way up, his hooves clawing the air. Even over her muffled hearing, she registered his shriek of pain. Another shot sounded, too fast for Rachel to react, and Lincoln fell sideways. She vaulted from the saddle and face-planted in the sand.
The gunfire stopped.
A searing pain spread from her upper arm into her shoulder, but she didn't have time to wonder about it. She scrambled to her knees, spitting sand, and scanned the mesa for the shooters. They'd left the edge and were standing at their truck, leaning against the side of the bed, cool as could be. Two of them were laughing. Another was reloading his rifle's clip. The lanky, dark-haired man took a match to the glass pipe hanging from his lips. He took a couple puffs and passed it on.
Assured that she wasn't in immediate danger, she dropped to her knees. Lincoln lay on his side, his front legs pawing the ground. His breath came in shallow gasps. A bullet had pierced his chest. His hair was stained a slick, shiny red.
"No, no, no," she breathed, smoothing her hands over his neck and cheek. Her mind whirred so loud it felt like a silent scream on the inside of her skull. "Oh, Lincoln, what have they done to you?"
His saucer eyes watched her check his limbs for other injuries. His left hind leg jutted from under his body at an odd angle. Broken. The moment was too unreal to process. Her horse, her best friend, lay before her, dying.
A dry, angry sob broke free from her throat.
She'd put animals down before-it came with the job-but never her own steed. Never a friend. But she couldn't let him suffer, and no matter how the next few minutes unfolded, Lincoln had no hope for survival. Not here, tucked into a deep canyon, miles away from anything, bleeding from the chest, and with a broken leg.
She pressed her forehead to Lincoln's cheek and cried. Wails of longing and pain. Sounds so tortured, they shocked even her. Then Lincoln made a noise that reminded her that whatever misery she felt, his pain was worse by far.
Sniffing, she rose to her knees. Her spine was weak, barely able to hold her body upright. A glance at the mesa told her the men hadn't left. They were all taking hits of the pipe now. Even so, they kept their rifles close at hand, either slung across their shoulders or tucked under their arms.
Her focus returned to Lincoln. At the sight of his prone body and pained expression, her face crumpled into another silent sob as she prepared to do the unthinkable. The men on the mesa would hear her shot. Odds were they'd open fire at her again, but it was a risk she'd willingly assume. Lincoln had suffered too much already.
With her hands shaking so hard the cylinder rattled against the gun frame, she brought the revolver to Lincoln's ear. Bile rose in her throat. She pushed her tongue to the back of her mouth like a cork and locked her jaw closed. Then she pulled the trigger and let the recoil push her. The gun fell away as she heaved the contents of her stomach into the sand.
Another explosion of gunfire sounded from the mesa, but the only sound in Rachel's head was a howl of unconditional rage. It burned in her chest worse than the ulcer, worse than grief. How dare some group of young punks trespass on her property, defile her land, and shoot her horse? How dare they laugh and smoke dope like they weren't the cause of one of the worst moments of Rachel's life? Standing on a mesa in plain view like they were above retribution. They didn't care that somewhere in the valley, someone with a gun was seeing red. Maybe they planned to kill her too. Maybe they'd go after her sisters next.
The edges of her vision dimmed as a spike of adrenaline sent her up to her knees.
She pushed against the ground with her hands. A slice of pain rocketed from her left arm, straight to her spine, but she was hard-pressed to care. Whatever the damage, her arm was still functional, which was all that mattered.
With her gaze averted from Lincoln's face, she reached for her saddlebag. Into her pocket, she stuffed a handful of rounds. Next out of the bag was her cell phone. She got service in this valley, but it was sketchy at best. Nevertheless, she got a dial tone this time, and punched Vaughn's number from memory, having deleted it from the phone's address book more than a year ago. He picked up on the second ring.
She flinched at the sound of her name on his lips. That was a whole other kind of pain she didn't have time for now.
"I'm about to kill some men, Vaughn. You better get to Parillas Valley fast, and bring an ambulance."
Vaughn's heart had dropped to his knees when he saw the number of the incoming call. Rachel. This marked the first time he'd seen her number on his phone in sixteen months and twelve days. They'd crashed into each other's worlds since then, but it was never planned, and never involved much talking.
He answered with his eyes closed, his mind racing to come up with a possible reason for her call, but he couldn't think of a single one.
The sound of her voice stripped him raw. Hell, everything about Rachel stripped him raw, but this was different. Something was seriously wrong, and it wasn't only her gravely spoken words that told the story. He heard the agony and fury in her tone, but despite all that, he refused to believe she'd kill anyone. She wasn't made like that.
Still, he radioed for an ambulance and called Wesley Stratis off his patrol to follow him over the twisted dirt road that dipped near the now-dry Catcher Creek before disappearing into the rolling hills and canyons of Sorentino Farm.
He knew these roads better than he'd ever admit aloud. Parillas Valley in particular was scarred into his consciousness. So much so that the land came to him in dreams, the canyons sculpted by flash floods in the spring, the sheer vertical face of the mesa exploding from the valley, the single shade tree at the base of the mesa.
His eyes flashed to his glove compartment, but instead of reaching for the cigarettes he craved, he wrung the steering wheel and shoved the gas pedal to the floor. Behind him, Stratis's patrol car and the ambulance worked to stay close, kicking up enough dust to block the sky from sight in his rearview mirror.
Rachel hadn't ended the call, so Vaughn set his phone on speaker and tossed it on the passenger seat, but he heard nothing except faint rumbles that could've been anything from a car starting to a low-flying airplane. Then, for the last twenty minutes it took to make the drive deep into the heart of the desert, miles from any vestiges of civilization, the phone was completely silent.
The first thing he saw when he made a left turn around a foothill that opened into Parillas Valley was the body of a man laying facedown in the dirt. He muttered a curse and scanned the desolate countryside for Rachel. He didn't see her, but identified a second man sitting against the mesa, using the wall of dirt as a backrest.
"Where are you, Rachel?" He ducked his head, squinting into the glare of the sun on his windshield.
At last he spotted her under the shade tree, approximately ten yards from the body in the dirt. She was upright, which most likely meant she was alive, but he couldn't tell if she was injured. All he knew was, she didn't rise or move in any obvious way, despite his convoy's dusty, noisy approach. That alone would've been enough to scare him shitless if he hadn't been at that breaking point already.
Excerpted from COWBOY JUSTICE by Melissa Cutler. Copyright © 2013 Melissa Cutler. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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