Childhood friends and lost loves.
A former horse trainer turned stockbroker, Ryder Christensen planned to spend the rest of his life with Sal—the man he had grown up and fallen in love with. But nowadays, Ryder only has two things in that make him happy: his daughter, and his poker-playing. One night, he comes home to find his daughter dead. Then the loan sharks come knocking.
Back to square one…
Salvatore Lewis has spent the last six years running his late parents’ ranch in Tryon, North Carolina. Between work on the ranch and helping his brother recover from an accident, Sal has almost gotten his old boyfriend out of his head. So, the last thing he needs is Ryder strolling back into his life. Sal tries to stay away, he really does. But the magnetism between the two men is undeniable.
Danger closes in…
Within a month, Ryder’s taking care of Sal’s horses, and the ranch-owner can’t believe they’re getting a second shot at happiness together. But there’s more to Ryder’s sudden return than he’s letting on. As Ryder and Sal’s relationship blossoms, Ryder’s past in New York comes back to demand more than he has to give. Will Ryder be able to protect his new life from the threat that destroyed his old one?
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|Publisher:||NineStar Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.61(d)|
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SALVATORE LEWIS SWEPT his palm over the cropped chestnut mane of the warmblood stallion being offered to him. "Strong muscles."
"Of course," Jack, the farmer from Vermont, said. "Patches here comes from the finest lineage. Both his parents are world-class dressage champions."
Patches. That's a name for a damn guinea pig or maybe a house cat, but it's an insult for a nearly six-foot horse. Sal stopped himself from rolling his eyes. It's not the horse's fault his breeder gave him a stupid name. "But he hasn't been in any competitions?"
"Too young. He has been training along with his parents since he was one."
A year. Great. Stallion-in-need-of-a-new-name would require extensive work and breaking in before Sal could do much with him. Sal reached into the food bucket and extracted a carrot, which the horse took gently. "Good boy." Sal stroked the stallion's snout as he munched the vegetable. In the horse's gaze, Sal found more humanity than resided in most people he knew. He sensed a willingness to improve, adapt, despite the stallion's relative youth. "I'll give you $10,000 for him."
"Are you out of your mind? His parents are champions! He's gorgeous! Anything below $15,000 is absurd."
Sal schooled his features to appear bored. "He has little training. He's young enough to be unpredictable. So, the time, money, and resources required to make him useful is worth at least $5,000." He adjusted his glasses in the hot North Carolina sun. The transition lenses were struggling to keep up with the changing cloud cover. He leaned forward. "But let's be honest, you know all of that or you wouldn't be selling this champion-bred warmblood stallion as he's approaching the prime of his trainability. Since I see nothing in his medical file to signal health issues, I suspect you'd rather not spend those resources. So, would you rather take my $10,000 offer or bring him round to three more farms, where you'll get less?" Sal was grateful for the clarity in vision the shade brought. It allowed him to watch every emotion play out over the farmer's face.
An hour later, Sal had signed the papers and was settling Bishop into his new stall. "Okay, Bishop, after the vet checks you out, we'll introduce you to King."
"Bishop?" Jason asked. "You are such a fucking chess nerd."
Sal turned to find his younger brother sitting in his wheelchair and his face fell. "Bad pain day?"
"Only when I'm walking. Or talking about it." Jason tucked his hair behind his ear. His pit bull, Petey, a trained seizure dog, followed dutifully at his side.
"You can —"
"Rag on you for the chess obsession you never let go of? I was trying to." Jason rolled in closer, but stopped a few feet short of the stallion. "He seems really calm for his age." Jason grabbed the binder with all Bishop's information and flipped through it. "When's the vet coming?"
"Tomorrow morning." Sal studied his brother's movements, but decided asking him for health details would be an exercise in futility.
Jason bobbed his head and returned Bishop's binder to the table. "Speaking of high school ..."
"Wait. What? When were we talking about high school?" Sal gave the stallion a pat and motioned for Jason to follow him out of the stall to give Bishop time to warm up to his surroundings.
"I was sort of referencing high school when I was mocking you for your chess obsession."
"It's not —"
"Important! God, can't you recognize a leading phrase when you hear one?" Jason huffed as he rolled along the sidewalk they had built around the property after his accident. "Have you seen the paper?"
Sal stopped walking and narrowed his eyes. "Do we still get a newspaper? On second thought, never mind. No, I haven't. What's in the paper?" If he didn't move the conversation along, Jason could spend all day finding his point, and neither of them had time for that.
"Did you hear about Ryder Christensen coming to town?"
He sucked in a breath. "Well, I hope he, his wife, and kid enjoy their visit with his parents." Sal picked up his pace, but even his longest strides were no match for the motor on Jason's chair.
"Sal, do you really think I'd tell you that if Felicia and Gabriella were here?" Jason barely paused before he answered his own question. "I know better than to torture you with him."
"He doesn't torture me."
"Bullshit. Tell that to the last five guys who didn't measure up."
"You don't know what you're talking about."
"Yeah, right. Look who you're talking to. I'm the guy who shared a bunk bed with you, remember? I do. The fall fucked up my legs, not my memory."
Sal cursed his shaking hands as much as he cursed his curiosity. He glanced around the vegetable farm where workers were tending to plants. Around dusk, he would check their progress, but he saw no reason to micromanage them. "What about Ryder? And why is whatever it is in the damn paper?"
"Local papers usually report on murders of former residents."
Sal's jaw dropped along with his stomach. Ryder's ... dead? How? Why? What? Try as he might, he couldn't make his mouth work to expel his racing, heart-stopping thoughts.
Jason's eyes widened at Sal's reaction. "No, no, I'm sorry. Not Ryder. Gabriella, his daughter, died when she was alone with a babysitter."
"Oh, Jesus Christ, Jay!" Sal pressed his hand to his chest and lowered himself to a squat, willing his heart to slow. "The fuck is wrong with you?" Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew he should be sad for Ryder, but all Sal could conjure right then was relief. He didn't bother analyzing why he cared as much as he did, considering Sal had cut contact with Ryder when Ryder had chosen the baby's mother, but ... Sal didn't finish the thought, instead petting Pete, who came to check on him. "I'm okay, buddy."
"Sorry." Jason placed his hand on Sal's arm. "I didn't mean for it to come out like that."
Sal sighed and climbed to his feet. "Bang-up job of showing I didn't care, huh?"
Jason shrugged. "Wasn't gonna comment."
"Appreciate that." He inhaled deeply. "I'm going for a ride." Perhaps not the most responsible thing with the constant flow of work to be done on the ranch, but Sal and Jason both knew Sal wouldn't be able to focus until he cleared his head.
Jason gazed at the stalls. "Take Nelly. She can use the exercise." He flipped his chair around and headed toward the house.
Sal crossed the path between the stalls until he reached the farthest and largest, where the coat of a sleek black mare shone in the sun. "Hey, girl," he said with a pat. "Sorry Jason couldn't visit with you today. He's not feeling great." He attached the mare's saddle as he spoke. "I know you miss him when he can't see you, but we all love you. How's about you and I go for a jaunt?" He paused to gauge her reaction to wearing her saddle. She seemed restless, but not distressed. Had she shown signs of being unhappy, he would have taken more time before mounting her. Once on the saddle with his boots securely in the stirrups, Sal clicked his tongue and let her lead him out of the stall.CHAPTER 2
AFTER TWO WEEKS of staring at the wall and playing with the puppies on his parents' farm and dog-breeding facility, Ryder had to get off the property. Since the story of Gabriella's death had been reported in the local paper, he feared the town gossip mill would be in full swing. Though all the stories that he read were short and only mentioned him in passing. Despite his hesitancy, one more puppy yip would push him over the edge — into what, Ryder wasn't sure, but the fall would be long. In exchange for picking up groceries, his mom gave him permission to take the truck into town.
The familiar roads were nearly deserted in the middle of the day. Because most adults have jobs. The thought brought out a sigh. It wasn't that Ryder didn't want to work. He did, but his experience as an insurance actuary didn't position him for many opportunities here. And given that he couldn't currently afford to pay rent, here was the place to be. Ryder hated asking his parents for money even more than he had in high school, since that was the last time he'd had to. I'm lucky, he reminded himself. Other people in my situation would be homeless or dead, if the sharks had their way.
Ryder shook his head as he parked the truck. Pity parties didn't suit him. He vowed to ask around town to see if anyone was hiring. Any job would be better than the nothing he had now.
"Ryder?" a familiar, tentative voice asked.
"Cat?" He lifted his gaze, and the sight of his old friend tugged the corners of his mouth upward.
"You just gonna stand there?" Cat extended her arms and pulled him into a hug that took his breath away. Though petite, she was far stronger than she appeared. "How are you? Never mind. That's a stupid question. Do you have anywhere to be?" she asked when she released him.
"No ... not really."
"Good! You must try the new donut place then." Cat grabbed his hand and pulled him down the cobblestone-lined street. She stopped so suddenly he almost ran into her. "You're skinny. You aren't on a ridiculous low-carb diet, are you?"
"No, I —"
"Thank God! I worried New York may have killed your spirit. I know how those Yankee types can be."
Considering Cat's only exposure to people outside of their small North Carolina town was through dog shows, where she competed with her German shepherds and Afghan hounds, she did not have as firm a grasp on Northern personality types as she'd like to believe. But Ryder saw no reason to point that out.
Cat led him inside a bubblegum-pink bakery that had fake lollipops hanging from the ceilings, giant rainbow-sprinkled cookies on the walls, and a dizzying array of baked goods displayed behind glass. Holy shit! Ow! It's like ... a child's princess party threw up in here. Ryder blinked hard in attempt to adjust his vision.
"Did you say something?" Cat asked.
Did I? God, I hope not.
Before Ryder could reply, a woman wearing a uniform that matched the decor stepped out through the curtain separating the back from the front. "Good morning, darlings! Welcome to Sweets on Main! What can I do for you?" Her deeply cheerful Southern accent echoed off the walls.
Ryder opened his mouth to answer around his plastered smile, but Cat cut him off.
"Ryder is back in town after spending too much time up North. I thought I'd bring him here to remind him of why he should never leave again."
"Well, you've come to the right place. What's your pleasure, sugars?"
"We'll have two Heavenly Berry donuts."
"You're in luck! They just came out of the oven. Take a seat anywhere, and I'll bring them right over."
Ryder followed Cat to the corner booth. "This place is ... nice."
Cat rolled her eyes. "The decorations threw me at first, too, but the donuts are to die for. Trust me."
Long as the pink doesn't kill me first. The decor reminded him of Gabriella — but not because she enjoyed the typical girl colors. She hated them, much to her father's relief. The memory caused a wave of sadness to wash over Ryder.
"What did I say? Die for ... oh, my goodness, Ryder, I'm so sorry. How could I be so insensitive?" Cat's features flooded with such profound remorse that Ryder couldn't help reaching out and squeezing her hand.
"It wasn't that. I just get sad sometimes ... a lot of the time."
"Well, of course you do." Cat clamped her mouth shut when Belinda brought their food. They both thanked her, and once she was out of earshot, Cat asked, "How are you handling everything?"
Ryder picked up the pink, flaky donut and took a bite — partly to buy himself time and partly because the aroma was making his stomach growl. Since Cat still looked at him, waiting for an answer, he offered a one-shoulder shrug. "I don't know, honestly. Some days are better than others. It's especially difficult because I don't have much to occupy my time."
Cat quieted for a moment as they ate their pastries. "You used to work with money, right? Is that the kind of thing you could do online?"
"Not easily. One of these days, I'll take a trip to Asheville to see if they have openings available."
"Well, I'm sure in a city that size, you'll find something, but perhaps Sal would need help at the farm."
Ryder jerked his head up. "Sal Lewis?"
"Is there another in our friend group?"
"I thought he was in Durham. Did he come back after college?"
Cat scrunched up her face. "He only got to work in the city a few years before Jason's accident ..." She shook her head. "It's not my story to tell. You'll have to ask him."
Ryder scoffed. "I highly doubt Sal wants the first thing to do with me."
This time, it was Cat's turn to reach across the table to touch him. "Then you don't know the first thing about him, or the rest of us, for that matter." She patted his arm, then ran her fingers through her dark brown hair. "Listen, I have to get going. A group of us gets together at the pub on Friday nights. You should join us. Might take your mind off your grief for a while. Let you make some connections?"
He rose and hugged her. "Thanks, Cat. I'll try."
"Do better than try. If I don't see you this week, I'll be dragging you out next week."
Ryder laughed. "With incentive like that, how could I resist?"
"You can't." She beamed her radiant smile. "I'll see you at eight sharp tomorrow night."
RYDER'S MIND CHURNED over the new information all the way home. It hadn't even occurred to him that Sal would be in town, much less that he would want to see him ... No. He doesn't, regardless of what Cat believes. She doesn't know the whole story. At least, I hope not. Of course, she doesn't know what happened. If she did, she wouldn't have invited me out tomorrow. I shouldn't go. As sure as Ryder was that it would be wrong, and maybe even selfish, to join them at the pub, he couldn't help wanting to see his old friends again. Even if Sal told him to fuck off, Ryder would know he was okay. Healthy. Happy ... Taken?
That possibility should not have roiled Ryder's gut the way it did. His breakup with Sal had been ... messy, if he wanted to use a vast understatement. The phone ringing in his headset interrupted his thoughts. "Hello?"
"You're driving," his mother said, disappointment coloring her voice. "Are you almost home?"
"'Bout ten minutes away. What do you need?"
"I forgot to include yeast on my grocery list, and I can't make the bread without it."
Ryder chuckled. "I am certainly not going to stand in the way of fresh bread. Is the mart down the road still open?"
"That mart has been here almost since the town's founding. I'm convinced it'll be there until the second coming."
"All right, Ma. I'll stop by there and be home soon."
"Thank you, dear."
Ryder ended the call after saying goodbye and turned off at the next exit. Charlie's Mart was a convenience store passed down through four generations of Charlies. The patriarch of the family had damn near had a heart attack when his son had only had a girl. But they kept with tradition and named her Charlotte — just so they could call her Charlie.
Ryder parked the truck, climbed out, and locked the door.
"You aren't in New York anymore, Cowboy," Phineas Killman, a friend of his dad's, drawled on his way to his car.
"Old habits." Ryder forced a smile. No matter where you went in this town, you were bound to run into someone you knew. Tired, sick, happy, or sad, you had to make small talk everywhere. "How ya been?"
"Hanging in there." A shadow crossed over Phineas's features. "I'm real sorry to hear about your little girl."
"Thanks. It's tough, but —"
Phineas clamped his hand on Ryder's shoulder. "But she's with God now, and that's a heck of a lot better than the hell this country is turning into." Ryder bit the inside of his cheek to keep from disrespecting the older man, but thankfully, he didn't seem to notice the sudden tension. "I have to head back. Those eggs aren't collecting themselves. You come on down if you need anything, hear?"
"Yes, sir. Thank you," Ryder managed around the metallic taste of blood. He willed his legs to move toward the door.
Someone up there was looking out for him because he was able to collect and pay for the yeast while only exchanging a few words with the cashier. After filling up the truck's tank, he completed the journey home.
"Ryder, is that you?" Ma called from the kitchen.
"Yes. Sorry it took so long. I ran into Phineas Killman and —"
"You were lucky to get out of there alive?" She smiled when he handed her the yeast.
"I wouldn't go that far," Ryder said as he put the remaining groceries away.
Ma rolled her eyes and motioned for him to sit at the kitchen table. "That man would drive the saints to alcoholism."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lucky Cowboy"
Copyright © 2018 Liz Borino.
Excerpted by permission of NineStar Press, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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