Rancher Grey Wilson has fought hard to rebuild his life in the ten years since that horrible night she left, the night their love, their families, their whole town was torn apart by tragedy. And he's almost succeeded. But now that Shadow Moran is back in Barren, everything seems to be going wrong. The family ranch his father entrusted to him is struggling. Worse, Shadow still blames him for what happened that night, and Grey's starting to have his own doubts about his innocence. Then Shadow reveals a secret that shakes him to his core
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Grey Wilson was a mistake she wouldn't make again.
On what should have been a peaceful late morning in June, Shadow Moran peered out her office windows onto Main Street and felt another prickle of unease slide across her shoulder blades. She'd been having the same feelings for the past hour — no, since the night before — and for good reason. She had no doubts. As if she'd conjured him up after her midnight ruminations, Grey must be somewhere nearby.
In the past year, since her return to Barren and the Kansas plains where they'd grown up, she'd had an almost daily sense of him, even when he couldn't be seen. She'd been avoiding him, but she couldn't avoid him any longer. She'd made her decision just before dawn, and it was more than time. Ten years, in fact.
Now she just needed the courage to implement this first part of her plan at last.
After another quick scan of the area, Shadow spied him on the other side of the street. Sure enough, he'd just come out of the Cattlemen's Bank, the door swinging shut behind him. In spite of her decision and eternal misgivings, something deep inside her turned over. She should mind her own business. Literally. Her Mother Comfort Home Health Care Agency was still like a baby that had to be nurtured and fed and cared for 24/7.
Still, she turned from the window, then right back again.
Shadow watched Grey walk along the street then enter Annabelle's Diner before she scooted her desk chair back. Her stomach clenched with nerves, she flipped the Closed sign around on the door, locked it, then went across the street and down two blocks to the fifties-style diner at the corner of Main and Cottonwood.
At noon the place was already jumping.
Shadow halted just inside the door, taking in the swathes of chrome and Formica at the front counter and on the tables. They were all filled. Several people glanced at her before their curious gazes flicked away.
Frowning, Grey sat alone in the only four-person booth that might otherwise be empty, his long legs stretched out into the aisle as he studied his shined-up boots. His ever-present black Stetson was slung on a hook at the end of the booth. Ever the cowboy gentleman, he'd probably removed the hat as soon as he'd stepped inside.
As if he could sense her presence, too, he looked up and their gazes locked. In those ten years apart he'd only gotten more attractive, turned from a boy into a man in his prime. His glossy, light-brown hair still had sun streaks from the long hours he spent outdoors. His eyes were the same blue-green with dark lashes that she remembered. His broad shoulders strained the fabric of his coming-to-town, Western-style suit, but denim and leather were more his style, and Shadow detected a grim set to his mouth. Like his defeated posture, the suit looked all wrong.
Despite their differences, Shadow knew him well. She didn't bother to say hello or wait for an invitation to sit down. She slid into the seat opposite him. Along with the old gossip she'd stirred up as soon as she hit town, she'd been hearing fresh rumors for weeks about his financial troubles with Wilson Cattle, which must explain his visit to the bank. "What happened?"
Grey didn't pretend to misunderstand. "Nothing."
"Barney denied you a loan?"
His frown deepened. "What makes you think I need one?"
"People talk." And, in fact, it seemed everyone in the diner kept looking at them as if they wanted to say something now.
Grey fiddled with his fork. "Barney practically warned me not to darken his door again. You want to gloat, go ahead."
"No, I'd rather watch you eat a good hamburger. You look like you need one."
He groaned. "Don't make me think of beef right now."
She bit her lip so she wouldn't ask, What will you do without that loan?
As she knew all too well, farming — ranching, in his case — could be a tightrope walk over a huge, deep chasm. Yet for a long time, and until recently, Wilson Cattle had been a moneymaking operation, its thousands of acres and rich grassland studded with purebred Black Angus cows and prize-winning bulls. Shadow understood how important it was to Grey, but she had no love for his ranch or even the much smaller farm where she'd grown up.
As a girl, escaping her family's home had been a big part of her plans for her future. Now, Shadow would make a success of Mother Comfort and secure her independence — financial as well as emotional — from anyone else. She would never be poor again, and this was to be part one of the newer plan she'd formulated in the night. She should tell him what she'd come to say, then leave, let him digest the news on his own. But then, Grey had just had news of a different sort.
"Guess I'll have to tighten my belt another notch," Grey said at last, as if reading her mind. "I'll be downright skinny soon."
Shadow tried not to care. She stared at her shoes and lost her nerve, yet something drew her to stay. She hated to admit it was that look on his face and the hard line of his mouth.
She and Grey weren't together anymore, never would be again, but she had loved him once and her stubborn heart kept revisiting better times. Being home had only made that worse. More importantly, they shared a lifetime bond, one Grey didn't know about. This wasn't the right time to tell him after all.
As if her mouth wasn't connected to her brain, she said instead, "Maybe a bigger bank in Kansas City would grant you a loan."
"Been there, done that. No deal." He toyed with the fork again. "I think I'm a pretty good manager — better than that — or I was, until a few months ago. Then things started happening and keep on happening, and now this bank loan, and I can't help wondering if my dad was right to leave Wilson Cattle in my hands, even on a trial basis ..."
"All is not lost," she said and tilted her head to look into his troubled eyes. Grey cracked a faint smile, as if he couldn't help himself. She'd always been able to talk him out of a bad mood after one of their many disagreements in the past. They'd been able to make each other laugh even at the worst times — until tragedy struck and they couldn't laugh, or love, any more.
"Now see what you've done." He waggled his eyebrows. "We always did make a good pair, Shadow."
"We did not." He gazed back at her, and her pulse skipped a beat. "Grey. If we were going to hitch ourselves together like a couple of oxen, we'd have done so long ago. You know why we didn't."
Shifting her gaze, she stared at a point just over his shoulder. Maybe she shouldn't have come back to Barren, or stayed, or even walked across the street today. Ten years hadn't been long enough to quell her memories, including the good ones, and every time she saw him she also thought of what might have been. That is, before the other, worse memories flooded her mind.
As if he'd thought the same thing, Grey stopped smiling. His eyes were the color of dark jade now. "We live in the same town, Shadow. We see each other now and then ... when you aren't trying to keep away from me like you did at my nephew's birthday party a few weeks ago. Or when you're not answering your phone. You knew I was going to call." He glanced toward the street. "Why give people something more to talk about?"
"I'm not the one who caused that — after what you did —"
"What your brother did."
She lowered her voice. "Because of you, my brother will never have a ranch or anything else to lose." She blinked back a sudden rush of tears. She hadn't cried since she was seventeen — ten years ago. She wouldn't cry now, but her voice trembled. "Jared doesn't have a life. There's nothing you could say, nothing you could do, to fix that. To bring him back," she added.
People were openly staring now. In one way, she and Grey were alike, the stars of Barren's own reality show. Their waitress came to take their orders, but Grey waved her off. "Give us a minute. Thanks." His voice stayed quiet, too, but his eyes were intense. He waited until they were alone again. "I didn't ... kill him, Shadow. You either believe me or you don't, which you obviously still don't."
"Neither does anyone else in this town."
Grey said, "If I had any way to prove myself to them, to you, I would." He paused, watching her with those sharp blue-green eyes. "Come on," he said. "You and I were a couple once. We even picked out baby names. I still remember your favorite."
Shadow felt herself turn pale.
"Why did you come in here today, anyway?" Grey asked. "I doubt it was to have lunch with me."
"I —" She couldn't find the words. Shadow caught the pointed gaze of a woman in the booth across the aisle who'd been trying to control her two young children, then had given up to focus on Shadow and Grey. "I have something to tell you. It's — important." Life-changing, really, she wanted to say, but the words wouldn't come.
"Fine. Let's take this outside."
Yet, how would she phrase what she had to tell him after all these years? She hadn't thought this through carefully enough, and Grey was already hurting, worried about the fate of his ranch. In a show of compassion she wouldn't have considered last night, Shadow decided she couldn't blindside him after he'd already suffered such a blow today.
"I really can't stay. I have appointments this afternoon, and if I don't start now I'll be late. I'll be in my office all day tomorrow." By then, she'd know exactly what to say. "Come see me anytime."
She was already sliding toward the end of the booth when Grey said, "You're ... okay, aren't you? Not sick or anything?"
"No, not sick," she said, standing to block the woman's view from the opposite booth.
"I'll be there. Tomorrow." Grey held up a hand. "Before you run off, I heard from Logan the other day. Did you get a call from Blossom?"
At the mention of their mutual friends, who'd recently become engaged, she turned back. "No, why? Is something wrong?"
Grey's gaze held hers. "She's going to ask you to be her maid of honor."
Shadow blinked. The change of topic had taken her by surprise and was almost welcome. "Really. I've never been in a wedding before."
He eyed her through those dark lashes, taking his time before he said, "You'd look real nice in a long white gown."
She swallowed. This hadn't gone as she'd hoped, and neither would trying to talk about something else. "White is for the bride. More likely, I'd have to wear a dress I wouldn't wear to my own funeral."
The last word hung in the air like a fresh reminder of everything that stood between them — a fresh reminder of Jared.
"Blossom has better taste than that," Grey said, and Shadow winced. She'd only heard secondhand about bridesmaids' dresses.
"I shouldn't have said that. Blossom has every right to be happy without my mood spoiling things. She should pick somebody else."
"I'll leave you two to settle that," Grey said. "Fair warning, though — Logan's already asked me to be his best man." He held her gaze for another long moment, then added, "Which I am."
* * *
Most people said he had too much pride, and it was never easy for Grey to lose at anything. Especially with Shadow. Seeing her hadn't helped. That spill of jet-black hair, her dark brown eyes and chiseled cheekbones ... He'd felt like the love-struck boy he'd been before everything fell apart. After her brother died, he'd come close to begging her to believe in him. But then, Grey had hesitated when he said, I didn't ... kill him. He had his doubts about Jared's death. About himself.
And today his luck wasn't running very high. If he'd tried for more of their conversation in town, they might well have ended up in a nasty argument. Still wondering what she might say tomorrow, he drove home and down to the barn to find his new cowhand waiting for him, shifting his weight from one boot to the other in obvious impatience. Which came as no surprise.
"Glad I caught you. I was just headin' into town myself." Somewhere in his mid-twenties, Cody Jones had a shock of wheat-colored hair, close cut on the sides but longer on top. He still looked like a kid to Grey, who'd turned thirty this year, but Cody stood inches taller than Grey did, even at six feet. He had to look up into Cody's merry dark eyes, which never set well with Grey, who was now the sole person of authority at Wilson Cattle. "Thought I'd get my pay first."
"Sorry, you'll have to wait." After his morning appointment at the bank, he was sure about that. "We sold off those cattle last week, but the check hasn't cleared." He wouldn't mention the loan.
"Man, I thought trying to make a living on the circuit was tough. Five seasons as a bronc rider before I quit to hire on here, but winnin' prize money was way easier than this."
"And how much did you win?"
Cody flashed a grin. "Not enough."
"You know any riders who are earning good money?"
"Just the top guys, and they really rake it in. Private planes and all."
"There you go. Most don't ever reach that level. Being a top rodeo cowboy's not that easy, either — it's like winning the lottery."
Grey had tried rodeo, too, for a couple of years after college, so he could empathize with Cody. Still, Grey viewed him almost as the younger brother he'd never had. He'd given him advice before, taught him quite a bit already and wanted to believe that Cody would, sooner or later, be of real value to Wilson Cattle. Which reminded him to ask, "You feed the horses this morning?"
Cody had "forgotten" twice last week. He had a tendency to focus on himself instead of his work. Grey toyed with the idea of docking his pay for the double oversight, then discarded it. He lived up to his obligations.
Too bad he couldn't take that to the bank.
Before seeing Shadow, he'd made a quick stop at the local tack store to order a new saddle and buy some lesser supplies, but he'd come out empty-handed. His credit had been declined. Grey had been having a hard time paying the bills lately, which only compounded his growing sense of failure. A best man. Was he, really? If only he could find some way to prove to her, to everyone else — maybe most of all, to himself — that he was innocent in the death of Jared Moran. But what if he discovered just the opposite?
Cody's grin had stuck to his face. "Guess I can wait to go into town. Maybe on Saturday night I'll find a nice little buckle bunny to dance with. To be honest, that's what I miss most about the rodeo circuit."
"Good luck finding one in Barren." Grey noticed that halfway down the barn aisle, Cody had left a wheelbarrow full of steaming manure. The pungent aroma threatened to spread through the entire barn. Grey pointed. "Right now you'd better stop daydreaming and clean up that mess."
Cody's expression fell. "Thought you wanted me to mend fence today near the boundary with Logan's property. By the way, he's got a hole there, too."
Grey frowned. Two sections of fence breached at the same time? He wondered if that could be a coincidence.
"Can't be in both places at once," Cody added.
"First things first. The manure won't take long. Then get out there before those cows wander off the ranch."
Cody grumbled to himself but Grey had other things on his mind. He left Cody to the wheelbarrow and went on up to the house.
He wouldn't tell his dad about the loan just yet. A few years ago, after a long time spent as a single father, Everett Wilson had remarried, turned the operation over to Grey and moved to Dallas with his bride, as he still called Grey's stepmom, Liza. Grey was fully responsible here. He had to protect their mutual heritage or they'd end up with nothing. Yet those new holes in the fence nagged at him.
Maybe the loan he'd been denied, his cash flow issue and Shadow's blame weren't his only problems. He hoped tomorrow would be better.
* * *
As the sun began to set, Shadow pulled into her driveway. The house she'd recently purchased in Barren was her pride and joy. For the first time in her life, she had something all her own. At least, in thirty years it would be, considering her new mortgage. The house was another, necessary part of her plans for the future. But Shadow was still angry with herself for chickening out on telling Grey what she'd decided to tell him. And just when she needed to be alone, to rehearse what to say tomorrow, her mother was waiting for her on her front steps.
Shadow opened the garage door with her remote control, rolled inside then shut the door behind her. She went in through the kitchen and down the short hall to the entryway.
"Mama. What are you doing out there?"
Her mother blinked. "I came to see you. Didn't know I needed an excuse."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Last Chance Cowboy"
Copyright © 2017 Leigh Riker.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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