Once, rodeo star Rylan Duggan had called Crooked Valley Ranch home. But after an incredible, romantic night with neighboring rancherbeautiful, strong, smart Kailey Brandthe'd bolted. He didn't look back, telling himself he preferred life on the circuit with no commitments and no ties.
Until now. With Rylan back for a few short weeks, Kailey can't deny their attraction is as strong as ever. She thought she'd learned her lesson the first time he'd hurt herand the handsome cowboy is still adamant he will not be sticking around. While helping him build Crooked Valley's business, Kailey sees a different, more grounded side of him. Has Rylan finally found his home in Kailey's heart?
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Crooked Valley Ranch had changed since Rylan had last been here.
He drove slowly up the driveway, the Ford 4x4 and hybrid camper he towed behind moving easily over the gravel lane, not a pothole to be seen. Duke must have had it leveled this spring, he mused.
Ry touched the brakes and stared at the house. A fresh coat of white paint was on the front porch and flowers bloomed in a profusion of color in front of crisscross lattice skirting. The barns could use a new coat of paint as well, but there was an air of neatness and organization that had been missing before, too. It looked as if his sister hadn't been kidding. Crooked Valley Ranch was on its way up.
"I'll be damned," he breathed, a smile touching his lips. He never would have thought his dyed-in-the-wool military brother, Duke, would turn out to be a rancher. But if outward appearances meant anything, Duke was doing a damned good job revitalizing their granddad's spread.
Rylan scowled a little, chafing against the demand-presented-as-a-request he'd received from Lacey. Duke was staying on at Crooked Valley. Hell, he was married and had a baby on the waya family to support. Lacey had taken over the administration aspect of the operation, and she and the ranch manager, Quinn Solomon, were planning a June wedding. Joe Duggan's will required all three of his grandchildren to take their place at the ranch before the year was up or else the place would be sold. Lacey had totally guilted him into coming "home," as she'd put it.
"It's not forever," she'd assured him. "Just use this as your home base. That's all we ask. We've never asked anything else of you, Rylan. Please help us keep it in the family. Once everything's settled, Duke and I will find a way to buy out your third."
Roots. He tried to avoid them whenever he could. Still, it kind of stung that Lacey had just dismissed him as having no interest in the ranch. Not that he wanted his part of it, but that they hadn't expected it of him. No one ever expected anything of him, did they? He should have been used to it by now.
He pulled into a big vacant spot next to the horse barn and cut the engine, which also cut out the comforting sounds of the music he'd had blaring on the radio during the drive from Wyoming.
Truth was, he'd known since February that this day was coming.
His arrival must have made some noise, because a little girl came rushing out of the barn, brown curls bobbing. Amber, Quinn's daughter. Rylan grinned. Little-known secret: he liked kids. Kids were easy, and honest, and thought being a grown-up meant doing what you wanted to do and not what someone told you. At least with kids, he never had his choices judged. To them, he was "cool."
"Hey, short stuff!" He hopped out of the cab and slammed the door.
"Hi," she offered, but stopped short, tilted her head and stared at him. "Are you going to be my Uncle Ry now?"
Yep, blunt honesty. He grinned back at her. "Looks that way. I'm okay with it if you are."
She nodded. "I gots a dog. Her name is Molly."
With a happy giggle, Amber turned around to run back to the barn, but stopped when she saw Quinn coming around the corner. Rylan liked Quinn, and he was happy for his sister. They'd make this work out somehow He knew his brother and sister didn't realize it, but he actually did care about their happiness. That was the only reason he'd come back.
That and the heavy sense of inevitability that told him he probably should face his demons at some point.
And then a blond head appeared, the streaky strands of hair twisted back in a braid. His gut clenched. Maybe it wasn't her. Maybe he could be that lucky. He wasn't ready for the confrontation he knew would be coming.
The woman came around beside Quinn, both of them talking, and he recognized the long legs, curvy figure and slight sway to her walk. Kailey Brandt. He held back a groan. Why did she have to be here right at this particular moment? Why couldn't he have had time to prepare, to work out something to say?
He hadn't spoken to her since Valentine's Day, when she'd hopped into his truck and had gone back to the motel with him after the benefit dance at the Silver Dollar. He'd slipped out the morning after, before she woke. It had been a coward's move and one he wasn't proud of. He figured he deserved whatever she would sling his way. He'd just hoped to avoid it for a little while longer.
"Daddy, Uncle Ry's here!" Amber's sweet voice broke the silence and both Quinn and Kailey looked up. Quinn's face broke out into a smile while Kailey's
Damn. His gut twisted again. She looked ready to commit murder.
"Rylan," Quinn greeted him, holding out a hand. "Glad you're finally here."
Rylan shook his hand. "Me, too, Quinn. Congratulations on your engagement. Glad my sister isn't marrying some pansy-ass."
Quinn laughed. "To the point. And a compliment, I think."
His gaze slid over to Kailey. Her lips were set in a thin, unrelenting line, her eyes as cold as January ice.
She looked down at Amber, who was within earshot, then pasted on the falsest smile he'd ever seen. "Why, hello, stranger."
Quinn frowned, looking from Rylan to Kailey and back to Rylan again. "Okay, I'm just a guy and even I can tell there's some friction here. What's going on?"
Kailey patted Quinn's arm. "Nothing. Nothing at all. I'd better get back home now. Chores to do and stuff."
Without so much as a nod goodbye, Kailey marched off in the direction of her truck. Rylan noticed it was a year or two newer than his, a V8 with a crew cab and lots of power to tow a trailer full of stock. He had no doubt she could do it, too. She was the prettiest girl he'd ever seen. And one of the toughest and most capable.
Quinn's voice was low. "That have something to do with Valentine's Day?"
No sense making excuses. Rylan met his gaze evenly. "Probably," he admitted.
Amber bounced away to play with Lacey's pup, Ranger, and Quinn blew out a breath. "You know, Lacey insisted that you guys were adults. That I needed to let things be. But let me tell you this. That girl is one of my best friends."
"Warning received," Rylan acknowledged. "I'll make things right. I don't have any intention of hurting her, Quinn."
"Intentions are funny things," Quinn replied. But he let the matter drop, thankfully. "Have you been inside to see your sister yet?"
"She's thrilled you're here. Just so you know."
Unease settled over Rylan again. He'd come to Crooked Valley as requested, but he fully intended to do his own thing and on his own schedule. That was the agreement. None of this convincing-him-to-stay crap. He'd be on the road most of the summer anyway, hitting as many rodeos as possible in his run for the National Finals title. He had a real chance this year and he wasn't about to blow it.
"I'll park the trailer and make my way up in a bit."
Quinn nodded. "I'll see you later then."
He gave Ry a clap on the shoulder before moving on toward the rambling farmhouse. Rylan looked after him, vague memories stirring in his brain. He'd been little but he still remembered. He remembered Grampa Joe and Grandma Eileen and learning to ride the horses and the sound of his dad's laughter. Grandma had made the best chocolate cake he'd ever had, and Grampa Joe had bought Ry a pony to ride since he was younger and smaller than Duke. The pony's name had been Daisy and he'd doted on her from the first moment, feeding her treats of apples and carrots, and brushing her every day.
His early childhood had been absolutely perfect.
There were other memories, too. He remembered how it had felt to hear the news that his father was never coming home. It had been incomprehensible to imagine a world where Dad wouldn't come thumping in, dropping his duffel and looking so tall and important in his uniform. Ry had spent hours in the barns, sitting with the horses, smelling their warm, pungent hides and trying to make sense of it all. He'd told Daisy all his feelings, burying his face in her coarse mane when things got to be too much for him to understand.
And then even that had been taken away when their mother had moved them to Helena and that small house on a postage-stamp lot. The city, for God's sake. No fields, no chocolate cake and no Daisy.
He would never invest that much of himself in a place again. No commitments meant no disappointments, and that was just how he liked it.
He got back in the truck and found a nice level spot to park his camper.
Kailey had thought a lot about what she'd say to Rylan Duggan the next time she saw him. She'd also known that Lacey and Duke had asked him to come to Crooked Valley. His presence here would ensure that the ranch stayed in the family, and with two of the three Duggan siblings invested in it now, his agreement was especially important. She understood that.
But to her knowledge he hadn't agreed, and he certainly hadn't advised anyone of his arrival. He'd just shown up, wearing those faded jeans and a cocky grin that had made her traitorous body stand up straight and pay attention.
She hated him for that. Almost as much as she hated that she was just that weak to fall for a sexy smile and fine ass. Well, falling for it and acting on it were two different things. He wouldn't get the chance to burn her again.
Dust puffed up in clouds behind her tires as she drove along a dirt road parallel to the Brandt ranch. Just beyond the next ridge was the bend in the Crooked Valley Creek, where the water slowed, creating the perfect summer swimming hole. She needed some peace and quiet, some tranquility, before she went home. The last thing she wanted to do was take this mood inside.
Sometimes it really sucked being in her late twenties and still living with her parents. Yet it made no sense to do otherwise, when she spent 90 percent of her time working the ranch. The ranch that was going to be hers someday. That had always been perfectly clear. She was an only child. Without her, the ranch would have to be sold.
She loved Brandt Ranch. She truly did. But having the weight of it on her shoulders had come with a price.
Finally, she slowed and pulled off the dirt road, driving carefully down a path that was no more than two tire tracks through the grass. It opened up into a wide, grassy knoll that led to the water. As she climbed out of the truck, she could hear the comforting warble of the creek and the sound of the birds in the nearby trees and bushes.
She picked her way down the bank to the edge of the water and dipped her fingers in. "Brrr." She shivered and pulled her hand back out. It was only May and the creek was higher than usual, fed by the runoff from the mountains. There'd be no swimming today.
But the sun was warm and there wasn't a soul around for miles. She closed her eyes and rolled her shoulders, trying to ease the tension out of the tight muscles, but she could only see Rylan in her mind, his weight resting on one hip, looking calm and sexy and as if he didn't have a care in the world.
It was her own stupid fault. She'd anticipated a no-strings night of fun when they'd hooked up a few months ago. She'd needed it after putting on an "I'm so over it" show for Colt Black. No one had known how serious their relationship had been, or how hurt she'd been when he'd rebounded so quickly and found another girl. Newly single and at the benefit for Quinn and Amber, Colt had danced with her and asked if they could be friends again.
And to demonstrate how very over him she was, she'd flirted with Rylan, danced with him, fallen under his spell despite herself. By the time she'd awakened in an empty bed the next morning, she'd fallen for him. Hard. And she'd seen Rylan Duggan for who he really was.
A heartless bastard.
Worse than that, she hated herself for her moment of weakness. Maybe Rylan had left her high and dry, but she'd put herself in that position all on her own. She'd rather just forget that whole night had ever happened.
Letting out a huge sigh, Kailey sank into the warm grass and lay back against the ground, letting it cushion her body as she turned her face up to the sun. The water was cold, but the sun's rays were gloriously hot. She unbuttoned her plaid shirt, letting the fabric fall away from her chest and abdomen, exposing her skin to the sun. She let the rays soak in, restoring her calm and her confidence. It made her feel feminine, when so often she felt like one of the guys, smelling like the barn and sweat. She loved every second of it, but once in a while a woman liked to feel like a woman.
She'd definitely felt like a woman in Rylan Duggan's arms. After he'd left her at the motel, she'd come to the conclusion that she not only didn't need Rylan, but she didn't need anyone at all. Maybe someday the right man would come along and sweep her off her feet, treat her the way she should be treated. Like an equal. With respect. Someone who wouldn't mind that she already was tied downto her ranch.
Kailey sighed heavily, a deep, cleansing breath. And if her Prince Charming never showed up, well, that was all right, too. She was fine just the way she was.
Except she sometimes wondered if that were true. First it had been Carrie, now Lacey. Both deliriously happy. And somehow Kailey felt as if she was missing out on something important.
One thing she knew for sure, she thought, as she stretched out in the sun. Rylan Duggan was not the thing she was missing out on. She'd learned her lesson there.
If she had her way, he'd be hitting the road for his next rodeo before any of them had time to catch their breath. In and out of her life as quickly as he had been the last time.
On Rylan's first night home, Lacey pulled out all the stops, just as Ry had known she would. Duke and Carrie came for dinner, and Quinn and Amber practically lived at the ranch, though the official move-in wasn't until after the wedding in June. Lacey had made potato salad and Caesar salad, and Quinn was grilling rib-eyes for the prodigal celebration. It was nice but unnecessary. He didn't want any fuss made. Good luck with that.
They had asked all sorts of questions about Rylan's latest rodeo conquests and were well into the meal when Duke brought up the subject of Rylan's camper.
"I noticed you set up your RV," Duke said as he cut into his steak. "That's a great little rig. You must like it when you're traveling."
Rylan nodded. "It's smaller than some, but there's only one of me. Doesn't take long to set up and suits me just fine." Truthfully, he'd had something bigger but it had been a pain in the ass, heavier to haul, more space than he'd needed. He'd sold it in February and had bought the smaller set-up. On the heels of his latest win, he'd been flush with cash for a few weeks.
Including over Valentine's Day.
"I made up the spare room with fresh sheets," Lacey broke in, handing a basket of buns to Quinn. "Same one you slept in at Christmas."
Rylan put down his fork. "Not necessary, sis." He smiled. "I'm happy in the camper."
"Rylan Joseph Duggan. You are not sleeping in a camper!"
He raised one eyebrow as all eyes turned to look at her. "Wow," Quinn said. "You've got the mother voice down cold."
"Can I sleep in your camper, Uncle Ry?" Amber speared a piece of steak that her father had cut for her. "I's never been camping."