Seeking redemption from his troubled past, cowboy Lee Bannister returns to his Montana hometown. He's not looking for lovejust to prove he's not the same reckless guy who broke Abby Newton's heart and destroyed her family. But when Abby, a magazine photographer, is assigned to cover the story of his family ranch's 150th anniversary, old feelings start to resurface. He knows Abby will never forgive him. But as they spend more time together, they begin to discover the lies that kept them apart and that some reunions are meant to last forever.
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All he needed was a few more minutes. A slice of time to make the shift from Lee Bannister, ex-con, to Lee Bannisterwayward son coming home.
And he knew exactly where to get it.
Lee feathered the brakes of his pickup as his eyes scanned the ditch to his right. It had been years since he was in this part of Montana, but when he rounded another curve, he saw the grass-covered approach he'd been looking for. Coming to a full stop, he could just make out the twin tracks of a road heading through a break in the trees. He parked his truck, two wheels well into the ditch so that any motorist cresting the hill could easily pass it.
Once he stepped out, he took a moment to appreciate the warm summer sun beating down on his head, the melody of the blackbirds twittering in the aspen trees.
The air held the tang of pine and warm grass and he let it seep through him as he walked the overgrown trail. Every muffled fall of his boots on the grass eased away the clang and clamor of rig work that surrounded him every waking hour.
He ducked, brushing aside a branch that almost slapped him in the face, looking forward to the solitude and the view at the end of the trail. Few people knew about the lookout point he was headed to. Only his sisters and his parents and a couple of the guys Lee had partied with in high school.
Lee pushed the thought back. Though he knew other bits of history would crowd in on his consciousness during this trip back to the ranch, he intended not to jog too many memories of the past while he was here. He had come to help his sister celebrate her wedding and his parents commemorate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the ranch. And that was it. He had no desire to reminisce about the good old days with any of his friends.
He stepped over a fallen tree and skirted another tangle of small brush. A few more steps and he stopped, breathing deeply.
It was as if the world had fallen away below his feet.
Granite mountains, solid and stately, their jagged peaks still etched with winter snow, cradled the basin below him, simultaneously creating a majesty and a sense of security.
The Saddle River unspooled below him, a winding ribbon of silver meandering through the valley as poplar and spruce trees crowded its banks. To his left lay the town of Saddlebank, its streets dotted with trees and paralleling the railroad that followed the river. From here he could make out Main Street with its brick buildings and, in the dead center of town, Mercy Park with its requisite memorial and gazebo. Past the park and above the trees, he could see the steeple of Saddle Community Church to one side, the cross and bell of the Catholic church on the other. Beyond Saddlebank and to his right, the rest of the valley was taken up with ranchesone of which, Refuge Ranch, was his final destination. But not yet.
Lee drew another long, slow breath, letting the utter peace and splendor of the view feed his wounded and weary soul.
"Then sings my soul," he whispered, lowering himself to a large rock worn smooth by the winds that could bluster through the valley.
The words of an old hymn that his father would sing when they were outside, working on the ranch, returned. He let his mind sift back, let the recollections he struggled so hard to keep at bay wash over him.
In prison, the memories had hurt too much. The contrast between the confines of a drab cell and the mind-numbing routine, to this space and emptiness and peace hurt too much, so he kept the disparate parts of his life compartmentalized in order to survive.
Now he'd been out for five years and he still never took for granted the ability to go to bed when he wanted. Get up when he wanted. Eat what he wanted and do what he wanted when work was over.
Lee sighed. He knew coming back here would be bittersweet. It would be both a reminder of what he'd lost because of his irresponsibility, but also a reminder of what had always been available to him. Family, community and the unconditional love of his parents and, most important, his sustaining relationship with God.
He let his eyes drift over a view that he had, for so many years, considered home. His soul grew still as the view filled an emptiness that had haunted him for so long.
Then a rustle in the branches of the large pine tree behind him caught his attention. He cocked his head, listening as he slowly turned. Something large was hiding in the branches above him. Black bear, or worse, a cougar?
Heart pounding, he thumbed his cowboy hat back on his head, scanning the tree, planning what to do. Run? Stay and stand down whatever wild animal was perched in the tree?
Then he heard a cough just as a backpack fell with a thump to the ground in front of him, followed by an angry exclamation.
"Who's there?" he called out, still feeling that intense jolt of adrenaline surging through his veins.
"Just me," a female voice returned.
The branches rustled again and Lee caught sight of a pair of feet in sandals searching for a branch. Then he saw legs scrabbling for purchase, hands flailing.
A cry of dismay pierced the air and Lee ran closer just as a woman plummeted out of the tree.
He caught her, but they were a tangle of legs and arms as they tumbled to the ground, breaking her fall. A camera, hanging around her neck, swung around and cracked him on the head.
They lay like that a moment as Lee's ears rang and his head throbbed from the impact of the camera.
Finally the woman pushed herself away from him and scrambled to her feet.
Lee blinked as he tried to orient himself. He slowly stood frowning at the woman in front of him, who seemed more concerned about her camera than herself, or him, for that matter.
Her hair was tucked up in a ball cap, and a large pair of sunglasses was perched on a nose sprinkled with freckles. She wore khaki shorts, a white tank top now smeared with dirt and a brown vest with numerous zipped and buttoned pockets. She pulled a cloth out of one of them and was wiping down the body of her camera.
The woman looked familiar, but he couldn't immediately place her.
"Everything okay?" he asked, gingerly touching his forehead. His hand came away tinged with blood, so he pulled a handkerchief out of the back pocket of his blue jeans and dabbed at it.
"I think so," she murmured, tucking the cloth in her chest pocket. "The body looks good, but I'll have to check the inside later."
"I meant with you."
She finally looked up at him and lifted her chin in a defensive move. "Yeah. Sorry about that. I'm fine." She cleared her throat. "You didn't need to catch me, you know. I would have been okay. Are you okay?"
"You might have broken a leg," he returned, the sharp pain in his head settling in to a dull ache as he ignored her question. He gestured toward a long red scrape on the inside of her wrist. "You might want to get that looked at, as well. You don't want it to get infected."
She lifted her arm and gave it a cursory glance. "It's fine." She looked back at him. "Looks like you got a nasty cut on your head, though."
"It's fine too."
"Awesome. Blood's streaming down your face, I've got a scrape that is just starting to hurt but we're both okay." She waggled her fingers as if to make sure they were still functioning, and then she gave him a selfdeprecating smile. "Again, sorry about that. I should have been more carefuland I wasn't very grateful for your help."
"Apology accepted." Lee returned her look for look, his own brain trying to place her familiarly beautiful features, or what he could see of her face, half-hidden by the sunglasses. "And at least you're not the bear or cougar I thought you were."
She angled him a mischievous smile as she bent over to pick up the knapsack that had been the first victim. "Didn't think I was old enough to be a cougar."
Too late Lee caught the implied insult he had given her. "No. Sorry, I meant the cat. Mountain lion might have been a better designation."
She smiled again and Lee couldn't stop a twinge of attraction. She was an intriguing combination of pretty and striking.
"Do we know each other?" he asked, trying to tweak out a memory that seemed to elude him.
"I can't believe a good-looking guy like you doesn't have better lines," she quipped as she slipped her camera in her bag.
"Chalk it up to being out of practice," he returned.
"So you decided to practice on me?"
He laughed, surprised at how easy she was to be around for someone he just met. "Sorry. My dad always said clichés are the tool of the lazy mind."
Her answering chuckle as she put her camera back in the knapsack created a tremor of awareness and behind that a flutter of familiarity. Not too many people knew about this place.
Why was she up in the tree and how had she gotten here? No vehicle was parked at the end of the trail.
She stood, slinging the bag over her shoulder, and it seemed she was looking at him, as if she was trying to figure out who he was.
Which was precisely what he was doing.
Then, as she pulled her sunglasses off, she knocked her hat off her head and her auburn hair tumbled to her shoulders, her amber eyes fringed with thick lashes were revealed, and reality followed like a Montana snowstorm as things clicked into place.
He knew exactly who she was.
Abby Newton. Daughter of Cornell Newton, the man Lee had run down with his truck after a party that had gotten out of hand. The accident had put Cornell in the hospital and Lee in jail. The shame of what he had done had kept Lee away from home for almost nine years.
He knew the precise moment her own recognition of him clicked. She took a step back, her eyes narrowed and her impudent grin morphed into a scowl.
"Well, well," she said, the ice in her voice making him shiver. "Lee Bannister, back from exile. I'm going to blame my slow recollection to the fall out of the tree. Didn't think I'd ever forget your face, but then, you've changed since I last saw you."
"Hey, Abby." He tried to sound casual. Tried to ignore the mockery in her voice.
Lee hadn't seen her since her father was awarded damages of two hundred thousand dollars and he'd been sentenced to three and a half years in prison for reckless driving under the influence. The accident he'd caused had put her father in the hospital and had created injuries that, as far as he knew, Cornell was still dealing with.
That had been over nine years ago. Lee had paid his debt to society and was still working on repaying his parents for the money they had to dole out for the settlement. His father had to downsize his cattle herd as a consequence. When Lee was released from prison, he took on a job working offshore rigs. And he sent his folks every penny he could. He hadn't been home since.
Though Abby was a Saddlebank native as well, he had heard she was working overseas. Seeing her now was a shock and an unwelcome surprise. She reminded him of a past he'd spent years trying to atone for.
"I'm guessing you're back for Keira's wedding," she said, her voice matter-of-fact, settling her hat back on her head and pulling the bill down as if to hide the anger in her gaze.
"And the anniversary celebration," he added gruffly.
The anniversary was a big deal. Refuge Ranch was one of the few family-owned ranches that could trace their ownership back to when settlers first started in the basin. A reporter was even coming to spend time at the ranch and planned to cover the celebrations and do a feature story on it for Near and Far.
His father had warned him that he would be the one to help the guy out.
More penance, he thought. Babysitting a reporter and showing him around the ranch.
"Right," she said, tucking her sunglasses in the pocket of her vest. "I heard about that. One hundred and fifty years of Bannisters at Refuge Ranch. Quite the heritage."
Was she mocking him? Though he couldn't blame her if she did. He knew he wasn't her favorite person.
He looked back over his shoulder at the view he had hoped would give him some peace and ease him into a difficult homecoming. He didn't think the past would be dredged up quite so quickly, however.
Help me through this, Lord, he prayed, clinging to the faith he'd returned to during those years in prison. Help me to accept what I can't change.
He turned back to Abby, knowing he had to face reality. Trouble was, he wasn't sure what to say or how to say it.
"I know it's too late and I know that words are easy, but I want to tell you that I'm so sorry for what I did to your father," he said. "I wish I wish I could turn back time. Do it over again."
"You're not the only one who wishes that by any stretch."
The bitterness in her voice made him wait a beat to give the moment some weight.
"My father spent a lot of time struggling with pain," she continued. "He was a broken man after that accident. My parents' marriage couldn't hold together. What you did to my family me and my brother" She stopped there, holding up her hand as if trying to halt the memories. "Never mind. Neither of us can change anything. It's done. I shouldn't have said anything."
Lee knew he deserved every bit of her derision, but he would be lying if he said he wasn't hurt by it. At one time Abby had been important to him. Her poor opinion of him had been almost as agonizing as the loss of his freedom.
"I better go," she said quietly. "I need to get back to town."
"How?" he asked, shifting to another topic. "I didn't see a car."
"My friend Louisa has it. Remember her?"
"Of course. You two were joined at the hip in high school."
"Still are, apparently. We live together in Seattle. She's back in Saddlebank visiting her parents and she'll be back soon." Her words were terse and Lee guessed this conversation was over.
"Well, I hope you have a good visit with your mom," he said. "And if I don't see you again, take care."
Her only reply was a curt nod. She gave him a humorless smile, then turned and walked away.
Lee dragged his hand over his face. Well, that awkward meeting was done with.
If he played his cards right, he might not have to see her again, which was fine with him.
She was a reminder of the past he had spent a lot of years trying to atone for.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Cowboy's Homecoming is a quick read and a sweet romance. The book is the third Refuge Ranch story that Carolyne Aarsen has written and I have enjoyed them all. The Cowboy's Homecoming takes place in Montana so if you like the country life and handsome cowboys, you will like this book! God has forgiven us so we can do no less than to forgive others as Lee and Abby learn. Sometimes what we consider the "bad" events in life may actually be God protecting us from worse fates. I highly recommend The Cowboy's Homecoming! I won this autographed copy in a drawing on Soul Inspirationz website.
4 STARS The Cowboy's Reunion is the third book in the Refuge Ranch. It deals with Lee Bannister and his past. It also deals a lot with the concept of forgiveness. How God forgives us and asks us to forgive. If you don't forgive it hurts you and makes you bitter and angry. Abby Newton has come home to spend time with her mother and deal with burnout. While she is there she is asked by her boss to go to Refuge Ranch and do a story on the 150th anniversary. Abby figures that she might be able to forgive Lee and deal with her angry feelings. Lots of drama, romance, familiar characters and new ones. Not afraid to mention God. Does not preach but gives realistic examples of people forgiving and those who don't forgive. It is also a clean read. I liked the scenes especially of Lee and Abby on the ranch dealing with the calf. They were charming and fun. Saddlebank, Montana is the setting. I have read two books of the Refuge Ranch and would like to read the one book that I have not read yet. I enjoyed Carolyne Aarsen writing style and would look forward to reading more books from her in the future. I was given this ebook to read by Net galley and Harlequin. In return I agreed to give a honest review of the Cowboy's Homecoming.