Five years ago, Shannon Astor left the beautiful high-mountain country of West Texas as a single mother. She was desperate for a fresh start and a way to keep the secrets of her past buried. It almost worked.
Until a chance to make a better life for her daughter leads her right back home. To the very place of the past betrayals.
But it also leads Shannon to horse-trainer Jack MacGowanher handsome high-school nemesis, now a widowed father. His daughter looks so startlingly like her own that Shannon can't help but question the circumstances surrounding her daughter's birth. Wary of each other's intentions, Shannon and Jack reluctantly join forces to untangle a deep mystery that swirls around Shannon's parents, a lost Spanish treasure, and a legendary black stallion.
If Shannon can learn to entrust her secrets to the man falling in love with her, the truth just might set her free.
- Full-length romantic suspense
- Includes discussion questions for book clubs
- Part of the Lonestar series, but can be read as a standalone
- Book One: Lonestar Sanctuary
- Book Two: Lonestar Secrets
- Book Three: Lonestar Homecoming
- Book Four: Lonestar Angel
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By Colleen Coble
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 Colleen Coble
All rights reserved.
Miles of empty road stretched ahead of her. Shannon Astor had babied the old Jeep along I-10 west from San Antonio until the traffic ran out. She watched a million stars in the sky through the windshield as the hill country gave way to desert and the sun began to peek above the dark horizon in her rearview mirror. The Big Bend area was only an hour away now. She smelled smoke from the wildfires in southwest Texas and hoped the flames didn't get any closer.
Shannon glanced in the rearview mirror, and her heart melted with tenderness. Her daughter Kylie slept peacefully in her booster seat, her head resting against the back of the seat. The glimmers of sunrise gilded her pale blonde hair. Shannon would do anything for her, even go back to the place she'd sworn never to set foot in again.
She was doing the right thing. She could never get ahead with the cost of living in San Antonio, and facing her demons back in Bluebird Crossing was worth getting her daughter out of the slum apartment. This job was her lifeline to something better for Kylie.
Her cell phone rang, and she grabbed it off the seat beside her before the chimes to "The Last Unicorn" could awaken Kylie. Who would be calling at six in the morning? Her friend Mary Beth's name flashed across the screen. Shannon flipped her phone open."Mary Beth, what are you doing up?" Only silence greeted her at first."Mary Beth?"
"I ... I shouldn't have called," Mary Beth gasped out. Music blared out of a radio in the background.
"What's wrong?" Shannon struggled to make sense of the sounds flooding into her ear: road noises, music, labored breathing.
"Listen, I don't have much time. I ... I'm going to be away for a while." Mary Beth ended the statement with a sob.
Shannon pulled to the side of the interstate and stopped the Jeep. "Mary Beth, have you been drinking?" Her friend had been known to tie one on every now and then.
The short bark of laughter on the other end of the line sounded all too sober. "I wish it were that simple."
Shannon heard the sound of screeching tires and the road noises. Mary Beth's gasps were louder. "Mary Beth? What's happening?"
"I was trying to help you. I had no idea it would come to this."
"Help me? What are you talking about?"
The phone went dead in Shannon's ear. Was Mary Beth in trouble? Or was Shannon reading too much into the strange call? She tried to call Mary Beth back but was dumped into her voice mail. Shannon punched in Horton's home number. He'd be up having his morning tea by now.
His proper British voice answered on the second ring. "Horton here. Shannon, have you broken down already?"
Hearing his voice made her long for the safety of her little apartment in San Antonio, even if it was a hole-in-the-wall. "Horton, have you heard from Mary Beth? I think she might be in some kind of trouble."
Shannon told him about Mary Beth's call. "Do you think something's wrong?"
He cleared his throat. "Maybe she had an argument with a boyfriend. Who is she dating right now?"
Shannon rubbed her arm. "I don't know. I think probably a married man. That seems to be her normal mode."
"What can I do to help?"
She glanced at her sleeping daughter. It would do no good to overreact. "Nothing. I'm sure I'll hear from her soon. If she calls you, let me know."
"Will do, my dear. Are you sure you don't want to come back? Your position hasn't been filled."
"I can't let this opportunity slip through my fingers. The clinic will be my own, the pay is good, and Kylie will get a chance to grow up in wide-open spaces."
"Be careful, my dear. I'll let you know if I hear anything about Mary Beth."
"I'm sure everything will be fine," Shannon said, more to reassure herself. She was beginning to regret she'd called Horton over something so silly. Driving through the night must have set her nerves on edge. "I'll call when I get to town and see if you've heard anything more." She disconnected the call and drove on into the dawn.
Tall and imposing, the old house dominated the Texas landscape and loomed over the weathered barn and outbuildings. Chickens still scratched in the thin dirt, and the buildings were even more ram-shackled than she remembered. The Chihuahuan Desert wind moaned through the eaves of the old house, and the familiar sound made Shannon realize she was really home. Even though it wasn't much, it was theirs.
Her work here was cut out for her. At least it was better than the trailer she'd lived in for so many years, and she'd hoped to show the town right off that she was a landowner now, not the quiet kid they'd been only too happy to ridicule. There was nothing to be gained by sitting here looking at it. She dropped her Jeep back into drive and accelerated toward the ranch.
"This isn't it, is it, Mommy?" Kylie looked up from her coloring book and peered over the edge of the door out the window. A dilapidated windmill creaked painfully around its axis. "It's scary."
With her uncle gone, it wouldn't echo with his disapproval any longer. "It just needs some work, sweetie. Uncle Earl lived here fifty years, and I don't think he painted a board. We'll get it shipshape in no time." Well, it would maybe take awhile. It would be several weeks before she had any money coming in.
She pointed to the side yard. "Look, we have a barn. We'll get a pony, and you can have a dog. In fact, Moses might still be here." She whistled for the old stock dog. "Here, Moses. Here, boy." Only the wind answered her. If Moses was still around, maybe he was roaming the desert.
Every bone in her body ached from driving all night, and her nerves were shot after Mary Beth's mysterious call. She parked the vehicle in front of the hitching post by the porch, then sat listening to the groaning windmill. The sounds had echoed her own pain when her parents died.
"Are we going to get out?" Kylie asked, fidgeting.
"Sure, baby." Shannon opened her door and moved around to unbuckle her daughter's car seat.
Kylie hopped out and took her hand. "Do we have to go in? Maybe there's ghosts."
"No ghosts. It's just a little dirty and run-down, but I'll give it a good cleaning," Shannon promised. "Our old apartment was way worse. Here you'll have your own room and a playroom too." She took Kylie's hand and they stepped past straggly creosote bushes that scented the air. The porch steps sagged as though to swallow them whole. She and her daughter mounted the porch and approached the door. The key in her hand needed to be jiggled in the lock before the door would open.
Stale air that stank of mouse droppings rushed to meet them. Kylie wrinkled her nose and pulled back on her mother's hand. "I don't want to go in. It smells nasty."
"I'll soon have it smelling like Pine-Sol and lemon," Shannon promised. But after letting her gaze sweep the foyer lit with dim morning light, her courage faltered. She was too exhausted to face the monumental task. They should have stopped for the night so it didn't seem so overwhelming.
Kylie tugged on Shannon's hand. "Can I sit out here until it's better?"
Shannon hesitated. Her gaze swept the barren landscape. There was nothing to see but the unbroken panorama of yucca and prickly pear cactus, and the crags and peaks of the hills until the desert met the Chisos Mountains in the distance. She'd once loved this devil's playground even when it was as hot as his home, but today it felt lonely and dangerous.
She rested her hand on the top of her daughter's hair, and the contact filled her with determination. "I need your help, honey." She took her daughter's hand again and led her into the foyer.
The flowered wallpaper was peeling and faded. A layer of grime dimmed the olive green paint on the woodwork. Shannon sneezed at the odor of decay. She could see their footprints in the dust on the scarred wooden floors. It seemed the moment her uncle died three months ago, the desert stepped through the doors and windows to reclaim the house.
She heard a squeak when they entered the kitchen, and a mouse ran for cover along the counter before disappearing from view.
"Ew, a mouse," Kylie said. "We're not staying here, are we, Mommy?"
Shannon grabbed a broom from the corner and shook the cobwebs from it, but the rodent didn't reappear. "You'll love it after I get it fixed up. I've got some mousetraps in the car." She stepped to the utility room on the other side of the kitchen and lit the propane gas water heater. It began to rumble and chatter. "We'll leave our stuff in the car until we get it clean."
The last thing she wanted to do was clean, but she had to have this place in better shape before she'd allow Kylie to sleep here. Nightfall wouldn't make its appearance for another twelve hours. Plenty of time to at least get the main rooms clean and the beds ready. Everything would have to be washed, every stitch of bedding, every towel, every kitchen utensil.
A monumental task when she was tired to the bone. But it was nothing new. Many nights she'd had to rush to the vet hospital and work all the next day on little or no sleep.
She looked under the sink and found cleaning supplies. She wiped off the table and the counter, then dived back under the sink for cleansing powder. While she was on her hands and knees, she thought she heard tires crunching on gravel outside. She sprang to her feet to peer out the window. Nothing there. She sure was skittish.
"Are there any horses in the barn?" Kylie asked. "I can go pet them with my sister."
Kylie's invisible playmate. Shannon never had the heart to tell Kylie of the real sister who died at birth, but somehow the little girl had never let go of her unknown sibling. "I don't think so." But now that she thought about it, Shannon realized Felipe Mendoza, her uncle's old ranch hand, hadn't come to greet them. He was always around the house. And where was Moses, the ranch dog?
"Tell you what, Kylie, you can play on the porch for a little while with your toys. I've got to get some things out of the car." And make a quick stop in the barn. Shannon took her daughter's hand and led her to the porch. After digging out a tub of toys and depositing them on the porch with Kylie, she made the little girl promise not to leave the porch.
Shannon went to the side yard where the big old barn stood. She glanced behind her to make sure she could see Kylie, then walked toward the building. The door yawned open, an unusual state. The hair on the back of her neck stirred. She told herself it was her exhaustion, but her senses tried to sample everything around her as she walked across the flat sand toward the outbuildings.
The barn needed a coat of paint and boards replaced. The desert claimed everything left uninhabited. She hurried to the barn and peered inside. "Hello? Felipe?"
She heard a dog whine, then begin to bark, an agitated sound that made alarm bells go off in Shannon's head. Her cell phone was inside the house in her purse. She could call the sheriff, but it would take him awhile to get here. What if Felipe had fallen and was lying injured? Moses would never leave him.
She ducked into the barn. The aroma of dust, hay, and manure struck her. Funny how after five years in the city, the normal smells of a ranch overpowered her when she didn't used to even notice them. She glanced through the open tack room door. Only bridles and saddles there.
Dust motes danced in the air, and she sneezed. "Felipe?" she called again.
Moses broke into another frenzied round of barks, and she followed the sound. She passed several stalls, unused now. No livestock lowed or rustled in its hay. "Moses, where are you, boy?"
The dog whined and barked again. Shannon climbed over a gate when she couldn't open it and then over the railing at the back of the stall. There she saw Moses, a border collie, standing over what she took to be a pile of clothing. A second later she registered that it was Felipe lying in a mound of hay.
"Felipe!" She dropped to his side and rolled him over. He was quite dead. She scrabbled back on her haunches and fought the shriek building in her throat. Kylie would be frightened if she heard her mother scream.
"Stay calm, stay calm," she muttered. She called the dog to her, and Moses came reluctantly with his tail between his legs. "Good dog," she crooned, burying her face in his fur. The dog's musky scent and rough coat soothed her nerves. He whined and licked her face.
She had to get hold of herself. Her legs trembled when she released the dog and stood. Moses made a move as if to go back to his watch at Felipe's side, but she grabbed his collar and dragged him from the barn with her. The barn door screeched when she shut it.
Even though Felipe had likely died of natural causes, the fact there was a dead man in her barn made her race to the house to get to her daughter. Kylie was still on the porch with her stuffed unicorn, and the tightness in Shannon's chest eased.
Her daughter saw her and jumped up with her gaze on Moses. "We have a dog?"
"His name is Moses. We'll take him inside with us to the living room, and you can pet him."
Moses looked up at the sound of his name, and Shannon called him to her. She ran her hands over him. No broken bones or abrasions, though his coat was rough and dull. She made a mental note to get him on better food.
A vehicle rumbled up the drive, and she squinted at the vaguely familiar male figure in a shiny black pickup. Rick Bailey, from the adjacent Bluebird Ranch, climbed out of the truck. A pretty woman with black curls was with him, and a little girl hopped out of the backseat. A border collie leaped from the truck bed. Shannon struggled to remember the dog's name—Jem.
She broke into a run. Rick would know what to do.
Two cups of tea later, Shannon still hadn't stopped shaking. The sheriff and his deputies were still in the barn investigating, but the sheriff said the cause of death was likely a heart attack. Felipe had suffered one three months ago.
Rick's wife, Allie, though hugely pregnant, had washed some utensils, then made Shannon sit down and drink some tea. The girls squealed and giggled in the living room, unaware of the drama playing out in the barn. Betsy was about Kylie's age, and the two had hit it off immediately.
"You should come home with us," Allie said. About thirty, she was short with dark curls and a ready smile. "This place isn't going to be ready to live in for a while."
Shannon glanced around the kitchen. "I know it looks bad, but cleaning will make it livable." Grit irritated her eyes, and she rubbed at them. It was only ten in the morning, but she longed to crawl into a bed with clean sheets and sleep for a week. Or at least two hours.
Allie watched her. "I've got cleaning stuff in the Jeep and came prepared with rubber gloves. What do you think, Rick?"
"I'd feel better if you both came home with us," he said. "There might be scorpions and spiders."
Shannon shuddered, then shook her head. "I want to get settled in before my job starts. I'll be too busy once things start happening there. I can't wait to get started. Me—a vet. It's about time."
The Bureau of Land Management and a West Texas mustang rescue organization were sponsoring the Mustang Makeover, a demonstration to the public of what great horses were up for adoption through the agency. She'd been hired to replace Big Bend's departing vet, Grady O'Sullivan, and her first task would be to make sure the mustangs stayed in good shape through the makeover training. The BLM tried to preserve as many wild mustangs roaming the western ranges as possible, and the herds needed thinning—by being either adopted or, in the case of the older horses, put down. Shannon meant to save as many of the mustangs as she could.
"The Mustang Makeover starts this afternoon at one. You're the vet in charge, right?"
"Sure am." Her smile widened at the thought. "I thought I wasn't supposed to be there until tomorrow."
"You're not. But if you want to take a look at what's waiting for you, we'll be glad to run you over."
"Have you seen Jewel around?" Shannon asked in a too-casual voice. Her pulse sped up as she waited for his answer.
Rick's smile extended to his kind blue eyes. "Not in about a week. He's still roaming the hills though."
"Who's Jewel?" Allie asked.
"He's a horse my dad bought before he died. I named him and pretended he was a unicorn in disguise." Shannon never forgot her first glimpse of the stallion. As he stood silhouetted against the sunrise, she was sure she'd seen a horn on his head. For as long as she lived here, she'd tried to surprise the horse to see the horn again. Even now, as an adult, she wasn't sure it had been an illusion.
Excerpted from Lonestar Secrets by Colleen Coble. Copyright © 2008 Colleen Coble. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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