Cash, Jace, and Sawyer: Three cousins sharing an inheritance of five hundred acres of prime California ranch land—and a whole lot of surprises . . .
Cash Dalton is no rancher. He’s an FBI agent—or at least he was, until he left a haunting case behind him and a load of guilt in front of him. Now it turns out he’s also a father—to a twelve-year-old girl he didn’t know he had. Clearly, it’s no time for a new romance, especially not with Aubrey McAlister, who’s renting the cottage on Dry Creek Ranch. She doesn’t even seem to like him. Still, there’s nothing wrong with looking . . .
After calling off her wedding, Aubrey is trying to focus on her interior design career and avoid the fact that she’s the center of small-town gossip. Clearly, it’s no time for a new romance, especially not with brooding Cash. Though she does find him sexy as hell. And he has softened since his daughter arrived—enough for Aubrey to help decorate her room—and even try to get Cash to open up about the chip on his shoulder. Once he does, both their hearts might just follow—but will their futures sync up as well? . . .
PRAISE FOR STACY FINZ
“Sweet humor, well-defined and appealing characters, and just enough adventure sports and fashion detail make Finz’s print debut, and series launch, a delightful read.”
—Library Journal on Need You
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Cash Dalton put the target in his sights, braced his arm to steady his aim, and pulled the trigger. "Bull's-eye!"
He walked the seven yards to the fence post, built up a second pyramid, and squeezed off a few more rounds, killing a succession of Jim Beam bottles. Or at least maiming them. When he emptied his clip, he loaded a new one and racked up what was left of the bottles for another go at it.
The sun was still hiding behind the clouds, as it was wont to do during a Northern California summer. But Cash could still feel the promise of another hot day. Somewhere, a rooster crowed, and when the wind blew from the north, he got a strong musky whiff of wet hay, horse shit, and cattle. He liked the smell; it reminded him of home, even though he'd grown up in San Francisco. The mountains stood in silhouette against the smoky sky, reminding him what morning looked like in the Sierra foothills. The truth was, it had been a while since he'd seen a morning anywhere.
There would be plenty of time to see them now.
He went back to the line he'd drawn in the dirt with his boot, spread his feet as wide as his hips, leaned forward, and fired.
"Excuse me ... excuse me!"
Cash jumped, nearly dropping his Glock. How long had his neighbor been standing there? Damn, he was losing his sixth sense.
"Never sneak up on a man with a gun."
Aubrey McAllister glowered at him. She still had her pajamas on. Sleep shorts, a T-shirt, and a bad case of bed head. He guessed the cowboy boots were a last-minute addition.
"It's six o'clock in the morning," she huffed.
"Ah, hell, I didn't realize the time," he lied, scrubbing his hand down his chin through three days of stubble. What he hadn't remembered was her living next door. "Sorry."
She eyed his piece with distaste. "I thought you were supposed to use a rifle for that."
He shrugged. Honestly, he didn't own a .22, just his backup weapon, and because he was permanently off duty, he used the firearm for plinking. "I'll quit now."
"I'd appreciate it." She leaned in and sniffed him. "You don't smell drunk."
Cash reared back. He wouldn't be handling a firearm if he were drunk. "Where'd you get the idea I was?"
She made a point of staring at the shattered Jim Beam bottles. "Look, it's none of my business but you seem to spend a lot of time either shooting things or sitting on your front porch ... drinking."
Damn right it was none of her business. "If it's a problem for you, I suppose you could always move."
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "I'm just trying to be helpful."
"Last time I looked, accusing your landlord of being a drunk wasn't helpful." He squinted at her, a reminder that he had the upper hand here.
She squinted right back. "Jace is my landlord, not you."
"Jace is your boyfriend, which by default makes my cousin Sawyer and me your landlords."
"Oh, for God's sake." She crossed her arms over her chest. "If one more person ... Jace is not my boyfriend!"
That's not what he'd heard in town. Dry Creek was small, but its residents had big mouths. And word was, Aubrey McAllister had ditched her fiancé for his cousin, Jace. Cash had a strict don't-ask, don't-tell policy when it came to his two cousins' love lives, so he hadn't delved. But he sincerely hoped Aubrey was a better choice than Jace's ex. Jace's sons didn't need any more upheaval in their lives.
"Whatever you say, Aubrey." In his experience, rumors always held a grain of truth. He went to collect the broken bottles off the ground, letting her know he was finished with this conversation. She could go home and go back to bed. But she followed him to the fence anyway.
"It's not whatever I say, it's the way it is. Read my lips: Jace and I aren't an item. Never were and never will be. But that has nothing to do with your drinking problem. Your best bet is to accept that it's an issue and get the help you need."
He scooped up the glass and chucked it in a paper bag, perturbed. "Good advice. I'll call someone today and get myself into rehab ASAP. You have a good morning, now."
Cash stuck his Glock in the back of his jeans and started for his cabin, getting only as far as his front porch before she said, "There's nothing to be embarrassed about. There's even a residential rehab center just up the road."
That was news to Cash but not altogether shocking. A few years ago, someone had bought up a chunk of land off Dry Creek Road and turned it into a goat yoga camp. Goats and yoga; who knew? Up Highway 49, closer to Nevada City, the old Jagger farm was now a mindfulness center. So a halfway house wasn't out of the realm of possibilities.
"Read my lips," he said, mimicking her earlier words. "I don't need rehab."
It was on the tip of his tongue to say what he needed was a good roll in the hay before his entire world changed forever. But Jace's truck came barreling up the driveway.
Fantastic, Aubrey had called the po-po.
Jace got out and slammed the door. "I see you're putting your time to good use." He waved his hand at Cash's target setup.
"Anything's better than drinking, right, Aubrey?" He winked, fully aware that it would piss her off, and he wasn't disappointed. Sparks flew in those pretty green eyes of hers.
She threw her hands up in the air. "I'm going now."
"Hey," he tipped the brim of his hat, "sorry for the disturbance." He hadn't meant to wake her; he really hadn't. "It won't happen again."
He watched her cross over the creek on the small footbridge that connected their two yards, letting his eyes wander to her backside and down those long, shapely legs of hers. She was nervy and presumptuous, but her boots were exceptional. Outstanding actually. One of the best pairs he'd seen in a long time.
Jace came up onto the porch, pulled up one of the faded lawn chairs, and straddled it, his eyes filled with concern. "When are you leaving?"
"Day after tomorrow." Cash sat on the top stair, hoping the rotted tread would hold him.
Jace let out a long sigh. For several minutes they sat, watching the sun move over the horizon. Neither spoke but both were cognizant of all the things that were going unsaid.
Jace finally broke the silence. "You ready for this?"
"Nope." Two weeks since the call, and he still hadn't wrapped his head around the situation. By Wednesday, though, he better be prepared. For the sake of Ellie and twelve years of lost time. But he didn't want to think about it right now.
Jace cleared his throat, and Cash eyed his cousin's uniform. Jace didn't usually wear one. It was freshly pressed, with a neat crease down the center of his pants. It reminded Cash of the suits he used to wear in the Bureau.
"You got a press conference or something?"
"Nah, just a meeting with the council." Jace gazed at the pile of plastic bags Cash had heaped on the side of the cabin. "What's in those?"
"Not funny." Jace got up, came around Cash, walked to the bags, and untied one. "Whoa, you've been busy."
Yes, he had. The inside of the cabin was a wreck. Cash had spent the better part of a week cleaning it, though you still couldn't tell. "See, I've been spending my time on more than target practice."
"You woke Aubrey up." Jace shielded his eyes and peered across the creek at Cash's new neighbor's place, then came back onto the porch and took his place on the lawn chair. "She was worried about you."
Cash let out a mirthless laugh. "She thinks I'm an alcoholic." To be fair, he'd been drinking nonstop since he'd lost his job. But it had never gotten to the point where he couldn't quit. "What's the deal with her anyway?"
"Aubrey? She needed a place to stay and the cabin was empty. I didn't think you or Sawyer would mind."
He minded; he missed his privacy. Until she moved in two weeks ago, he'd had this corner of Dry Creek Ranch to himself. "Was she living with the ex-fiancé?" It was logical to assume that's why she suddenly needed a place, because one day the cabin was empty and the next she appeared with a U-Haul.
"Yeah, which left her homeless after the breakup."
"A little heads-up would've been nice," Cash said.
"Sorry about that."
Cash hitched his shoulders because it was too late now. Besides, he had bigger fish to fry than being stuck with a neighbor who thought he was a lush and complained about his early morning target shooting.
"Are you two seeing each other?" Despite the rumors, Aubrey had been convincing in her denial. Still, old habits die hard. The former FBI agent in Cash couldn't help seeking corroboration.
"She's like a sister," Jace said. "And Mitch is ... was ... my best friend. You should know better than to believe what you hear in town. Folks around here are less reliable than a supermarket tabloid."
Cash suspected that was true and wondered why he was acting like a meddling old woman. Jace's romantic entanglements were his and his alone.
A couple of birds squawked overhead, and Sawyer came hiking down the trail that cut across the ranch from his home to Cash's cabin. He had on his dude ranch attire today. Boots that were blindingly shiny and a straw cowboy hat that reminded Cash of something you'd buy from a concession stand at the county fair. The only thing missing was a bandanna tied around his neck.
"No one told me we were having a meeting." Sawyer came up the cabin stairs, squeezed past Cash, turned over a barrel that had been serving as a garbage can, and sat on it, taking a thorough inventory of the porch. "I love what you've done with the place." He turned his eye on Cash, giving him the same raw assessment. "Are you going to the funeral? Because if you are, you should clean up, shave. I've got a black suit you can borrow."
"I'm planning to wear the one I wore to Grandpa's. That work for you?"
"It's better than what you've got on." Torn jeans and a holey Tshirt.
"No one to see me but the deer." And Cash's intrusive neighbor.
Sawyer went back to examining the cabin, lingering on the BarcaLounger no one had chosen to sit on. For good reason; the recliner was infested with vermin and smelled like skunk. It had been on the porch since before Cash moved in.
"All that's missing is the soundtrack to Deliverance." Sawyer hummed the opening bars of "Dueling Banjos" in case Cash missed the reference. "For fuck's sake, Cash, you'll scare the shit out of the kid."
"I'm working on it." In its current state, the cabin wasn't fit for him, let alone a young girl. Its best feature was the view of Dry Creek. He could practically drop a line in the water off his front porch.
"Yeah, I can tell," Sawyer said with his usual flippancy, gazing at the old tractor and truck parts strewn across the property, the unstable lean-to Cash used as a carport, and the oil stains on the driveway. The prior occupants, Grandpa Dalton's ranch hands, had used the yard to fix farm equipment.
Cash knew he should've done more to pull his weight. Dry Creek Ranch was beyond rundown. In the last years of his life, Grandpa Dalton had gone through his funds for upkeep and Jace had had his hands full being sheriff and raising two boys on his own. Sawyer had been busy traveling the world for National Geographic and all the other publications he wrote for. And Cash, too consumed with his job and life in San Francisco, hadn't noticed that he and his cousins' birthright was slowly deteriorating ... until four months ago. That's when their grandfather died and left them the land, the houses, and an outstanding property tax bill as large as the national debt.
"I'll send over a couple of guys to haul this stuff to the dump." Jace zeroed in on the heap of rotting fence rails and broken furniture Cash had piled near an old structure that had once served as a small barn. Slowly but surely, he'd been trying to clear away the debris.
Sawyer chipped at the cabin's peeling trim with his finger. "Some paint would be good too."
Cash wouldn't have time for that before he went to Boston, but when he got back he'd fix the leaky roof, the running toilet, and replace some of the failed windows. In the meantime, he'd scrub the cabin clean and make it as livable as possible, because for now it was all he had, and he needed to make it feel like a home.
"Did you explain about Ellie to the boys?" he asked Jace.
"They know they're getting a new cousin, but I left some of the circumstances fuzzy."
"You okay with all this?" Sawyer asked.
Hell no he wasn't okay. He was nearly forty and still hadn't fully figured out women, let alone a grief-stricken twelve-year-old girl. "She hates my guts."
"She hasn't met you yet, but when she does ... yeah, she'll probably hate your guts." Jace grinned. "Look, none of this is your fault. If you'd known, you would've cowboyed up. That's how we Daltons roll."
Maybe, but Cash was ashamed to admit he wasn't so sure of that.
"Go easy on yourself and get to know her," Jace continued. "For now, all you've got to do is make her feel safe and cared for. The rest will come naturally with time."
"And a shower would be good," Sawyer said. "And, dude, deodorant."
Jace laughed — apparently, Cash's hygiene was comical — and got to his feet. "I've got to get going." He bobbed his head at Aubrey's cabin. "Try not to disturb your neighbor again. She's the only one around here paying rent."
Sawyer waited until Jace's truck pulled away and said, "What happened?"
"I was making too much noise shooting bottles." It was a good way of working off steam and getting his head right. These days he had so much swimming around in there that sometimes he wanted to tune it all out.
"You give any more thought to hiring that lawyer I told you about and getting your job back?"
"I don't want my job back." There was a time when Cash had been a true believer in the Bureau, and a stellar agent. Not anymore.
Sawyer got off the barrel and took Jace's chair. "You did all you could do, Cash. They're the ones who screwed it up."
Cash held his hands up. "This isn't up for discussion."
"Fine." Sawyer let out a long breath and motioned his head in the direction of Aubrey's cabin. "What's up with her?"
Cash followed Sawyer's gaze. "According to Jace, she needed a place to live after dumping the fiancé. Two weeks ago, she showed up here with a trailer and a houseful of furniture."
There was now a swing on her porch and flowers in the window boxes. Unlike his cabin, hers didn't have a porch fan dangling from a loose wire or a shredded screen door hanging lopsided from its hinges, or weeds that came up to Cash's knees. He'd heard somewhere that she was an interior decorator or some kind of designer.
"Her and Jace, huh?" Sawyer had obviously heard the rumors too.
"Nope, not according to Jace or Aubrey." Cash chastised himself for not having more faith in Jace. He should've known from the get-go that his cousin wasn't the type to poach another man's woman — not even one as hot as Aubrey McAllister — especially his best friend's fiancée. "I don't know Mitchell well, but he seems like a good guy."
Sawyer lifted his shoulders. "Just know him from when we were kids."
"You remember Aubrey?" Like Jace, she'd grown up here, while Cash and Sawyer had only visited in the summers and holidays.
"Nope, can't say I do. And if she looked anything then like she does now, I would've remembered."
Cash had a vague recollection of a skinny girl with dark hair and sparkly pink cowboy boots following Jace around but couldn't remember if her name was Aubrey. Only that she was a pain in the ass, and Grandpa said they had to let her tag along. The woman across the creek didn't hold any resemblance to that girl. Then again, Cash didn't look anything like his pre-pubescent self, gangly and awkward. Sometime around his junior year in high school, the rest of his body caught up with his six-two frame, and he lost the self-consciousness that had marked him as a nerd during his freshman and sophomore years.
"Looks like she's fixing the cabin up," Cash said, and stole another glance at her window boxes, then at his own porch. He had less than two days to make this place presentable to a twelve-year-old. He had no idea what kind of place she lived in in Boston or what kind of creature comforts she was used to. Hell, he didn't know anything about her, except they shared the same DNA. "You want to help me get the BarcaLounger down?"
"Let's do it." Sawyer waited for Cash to lock up his gun, then they threw the tattered chair onto the dump pile. "Where you planning to sleep Ellie?"
"I'll give her my room and sleep on the couch until I can get the spare room ready." Currently, it held boxes of his case files. Lord knew why he'd bothered to copy all that stuff. Law enforcement was behind him.
"You want me to go with you to Boston? I'm between assignments and have some time on my hands."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cowboy Up"
Copyright © 2019 Stacy Finz.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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