Not everybody gets a second chance...
Back in Sparrow Lake after fifteen years away and Sam Larson's already messing with Priscilla Ryan's life. Saying yes when they were kids and he asked her to be his girl was her biggest mistake. The bad boy rode out of town the next day. She isn't about to make a second mistake by falling for him again.
Getting his dude ranch off the ground is the ex-rodeo star's first priority. That, and reconnecting with the quiet girl he took to the prom — the best night of Sam's life. He has a lot to make up for. And yet he's keeping his secrets. But when sabotage threatens his business — and one of Priscilla's nieces — it's his chance to prove he isn't the boy he once was.
|File size:||501 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Entering the one-room Sparrow Lake Library to collect her mother who'd given an early morning workshop for new readers, Priscilla Ryan paused just inside the door when a stack of brochures on a counter caught her eye: Larson Dude Ranch, Trail Rides and Riding Lessons.
Priscilla didn't know of any dude ranches in this part of Wisconsin and wondered if Dwayne Larson had really turned his dairy farm into a ranch. Didn't make sense. She picked up the brochure but didn't see anything about the owner. And then another thought occurred to her, but no, surely Sam hadn't come home after fifteen years.
Sam Larson, one of her big mistakes.
The day after the prom, the town's bad boy had simply gotten on his motorcycle and had left Sparrow Lake without saying goodbye. Her heart had been broken but she'd gotten over it.
Why would Sam return now?
An ironic question considering she'd been elsewhere for years herself. First, college in Madison, then a lucrative job in Milwaukee. A year ago, she'd given up that life and had returned to Sparrow Lake to start her own small business, The Main Street Cheese Shoppe. Not long after, her latest boyfriend had decided he didn't really want to take the next step. Yep, that was her lot in lifealways the bridesmaid, seven weddings so far. She'd figured if she was going to live single, she wanted to be closer to her aging parents.
Could Sam have the same idea?
"Oh, darling, I meant to be outside, really." Appearing frazzled as she'd been for months, her graying red hair frizzing around her plump face, Helen Ryan stopped in front of her daughter and punched her glasses back up her short nose. "I just got caught up with Maddie Hawkins, but I'm ready now."
"No problem, Mom." Her mother was always running on borrowed time lately. Priscilla shoved the brochure in her pocket. She didn't have the energy to think about the past. "Let's get going."
Her mother hurried along, looking even more petite in her oversize brown jacket that didn't quite match her brown pants. It was probably another purchase from a local church's resale shop. Mom didn't think clothes were all that important.
"When are they arriving?" her mother asked.
"Their plane is scheduled to land in an hour."
And while it would only take a half hour or so to get to Milwaukee, they had to navigate the airport, park and get to the gate.
They left the library, her mother practically singing with happiness. "Just think, we'll have the girls for half the summer!"
Her nieces, sixteen-year-old Alyssa and twelve-year-old Mia, would be staying with Priscilla in her apartment above the cheese store. Aside from her office, she had a second bedroom that was used for guests on occasion. Her older brother Paul, a lawyer for an international firm in New York, was headed to the Middle East for six weeks, and he'd asked her to take his girls. He and his wife felt their daughters would be safer in Wisconsin. Priscilla had gladly agreed and was as excited as her parents. The last time they'd seen the girls had been more than three years ago, when Paul had brought his family in for Christmas. Her parents had wanted to visit her brother and family in New York once, but Paul had begged off, insisting he was too busy and that it wasn't a good time.
They got into Priscilla's SUV, her mother grunting a little as she lifted her oversize purse into her lap. Priscilla bit her lip. That purse was like a magician's hat. Mom could find anything you needed in there. Priscilla had once suggested a smaller purse might be a good idea, but her mother's eyes had grown wide, her eyebrows had arched over her glasses and her mouth had gaped a little. Mom hadn't said a thing, just looked away, purse-lipped, obviously insulted, and Priscilla had never brought up the subject again.
As they headed out of town, Mom brought up her latest favorite subject.
"I told your father he'd better go buy that bathtub today. I want to be able to have the girls at least part of the time they're here."
Though Priscilla knew that even if her father bought a new tub, it would probably take him the whole summer to replace the one he'd torn out months ago, the reason the girls would be staying with her. There was a gaping hole in the bathroom, and her mother didn't want her granddaughters having to take a jury-rigged shower in the unfinished basement.
"You would think that now that Roger is retired from the post office" Mom hesitated and sniffed "he would look forward to finishing all those home improvement projects he promised to take on."
What else could she say? She didn't want to spur on more complaints. Her mother was doing a good enough job on her own.
"You know he spends most of his time asleep in front of the television."
She'd heard it all before, and sadly, it was true. Priscilla only wished her dad would find something to bring him out of his slump. He'd changed since retiring, and not for the better. He used to be a vital man with tons of energy. Now he had a personal relationship with his old worn-in recliner.
"I fear the plumbing problems are never going to be fixed!"
Her normally positive, always busy mother was only working part time at the library now, and spending so much time with her altered-state husband was driving her crazy.
And if Priscilla didn't change the subject, her mother would drive her crazy.
"Hey, did you see this brochure?" She pulled it out of her pocket and held it out. "I found it when I came into the library. Larson Dude Ranch?"
Mom took it. "Hmm. Dwayne Larson retired from farming."
"To start a new business?"
"Doesn't seem likely. He planned to sell the dairy farm acres to surrounding neighbors. Last I heard, Dwayne got himself hurt in a roofing accident. I don't think he'd be up to running a new business, certainly not one with horses, even if he thought it was a good idea. Which I doubt anyway, knowing that old sourpuss."
A thrill shot through Priscilla's stomach. If not Dwayne, then
"So you haven't heard anything about this dude ranch?" she asked, knowing they would pass it once they were on the highway.
"Nope. Why the interest?"
Priscilla heard the suspicion in that tone. She quickly said, "I thought Alyssa and Mia might like to go riding." Right, she'd come up with it just that second. An excuse for her interest.
"Maybe the girls would, Priscilla. I think I remember they like animals. At least I hope Mia loves those Hello Kitty pajamas I sent her."
Priscilla tightened her jaw. Her mother thought, didn't know for sure, because she never got to spend any time with her grandkids. Her brother might be a successful lawyer working for an international company, but the least he could do was visit his own parents and let them see their grandchildren a couple of times a year. Mom rarely heard from them unless she called.
"Lots of young girls go through a horse-crazy period," Priscilla said. "If that's the case, then we have something fun for them to do." On the highway now, she added, "The property is right ahead."
At first there was nothing to see except a new dude ranch sign, a freshly painted barn and fences, plus a small herd of horses chomping on grass in a nearby pasture. Then a tanned, lithe rider appeared, heading toward the horses.
"Is that Sam?" Priscilla murmured.
"Not sure. Haven't seen him for a decade."
"More like fifteen years."
Mom was craning, but Priscilla had to keep her eyes on the road.
"Huh. Looks like it could be him."
Priscilla didn't say anything, but her heart beat faster and she gripped the steering wheel. Hard.
It didn't matter, she told herself. She was over him. Sam Larson didn't deserve another thought.
Sam hardly slept all night. He'd been up at least once an hour, checking on the horses. Thankfully, they'd settled down and the gate had stayed locked. Even so, by morning, he wasn't any less disturbed by what had happened. His gut was knotted and would probably stay that way until he figured out what was what.
So when Logan Keller showed up for work, the twenty-year-old got the brunt of Sam's worry. He'd barely stepped out of his truck before Sam asked, "Hey, Logan, you locked the pasture gate before you left yesterday, right?"
The kid looked away from him over to the pasture. "The gate was open?"
"Wide. And the horses were scattered, all riled up."
"They look all right." Logan turned back to Sam. "What happened?"
"If I hadn't come out of the cabin in time, Tomcat would have made it onto the highway. You ought to see what happens when an animal that size is hit by a vehicle. Especially a truck." The highway was a main route for eighteen wheelers. "We would have been picking up pieces of horseflesh this morning." He scowled at the thought.
"So you're blaming me?"
Sam realized the lanky kid looked real uncomfortable. "I didn't say that."
"Sounded like it."
"I just want to make sure we're both careful. And I want you to keep an eye open for anything that doesn't look right."
"Yeah, sure." Logan started to move off, then stopped. "You know, if you had a cattle guard on the entrance, Tomcat wouldn't have been able to get to the highway."
A cattle guard being a depression in the road covered by a grid of metal bars and fixed to cement footings on either side. Ranches all over the west had them. Sam had seen some local farms using them, too. The gaps between the bars were wide enough to be an effective barrier to animals reluctant to walk on the grates. But it didn't stop vehicles or people from crossing over.
"I plan on installing a cattle guard in the near future," he said. "Just haven't gotten around to it yet."
He wanted to wait until the business got a good start. He'd spent most of his savings. Not only had he turned the old dairy barn into a horse barn and spiffed it up, he'd renovated an old shed near the barn into a firstrate tack room. Not to mention what it cost to buy horses and tack. So far, he'd given a couple of lessons, and Logan had taken a few groups out on trail rides. There was a trail ride going out that afternoon, too. It was a start, but he couldn't afford to put out a couple thousand more dollars until he was sure his business was viable and would bring in a decent amount of income. But if someone was messing with his business.
"Go ahead, get to work," he told Logan.
The kid didn't wait to get away from him.
Sam ran a hand through his hair. Someone messing with his business? He didn't want to believe it. Returning to Sparrow Lakecoming back to his home and his fatherhad been difficult enough.
Kids. It had to be kids. A prank that could have turned serious but hadn't. That was all it had been, what he had to believe.
He'd just lived a six-month nightmare not of his own doing.
This was a do-over for him in more than one way.
He had to make this work.
"Here's the dude ranch we were telling you about," Mom gushed as they passed the Larson farm while driving back from the airport. "Look at those horses!"
"Wow, nice!" Mia leaned closer to her grandmother in the backseat to glance at a pinto and a sorrel near the fence. "I've been riding English so I won't have any problem. Western is easier."
At twelve, Mia was small, though Priscilla wondered if she'd grow much more in the next few years. She seemed to have the same petite frame as her grandmother, along with the thick red hair that seemed to have a life of its own. Though it was pulled back in a po-nytail, tendrils kept escaping to curl around Mia's small freckled face.
"What do you think, Alyssa?" Mom asked.
Deeply involved with her cell phone, which had just beeped, the teenager didn't answer as she texted furiously.
"Alyssa?" Priscilla prodded, earning only a grunt in reply. "Would you like to visit a dude ranch?"
Still texting, Alyssa muttered, "Umm, maybe."
"Can we do it this afternoon?" asked Mia, sounding enthusiastic. Priscilla smiled. "We'll see. First we need lunch."
As Mia went on, explaining tack and boots and other horsey details to her grandmother, Priscilla felt grateful that they'd at least hit a homerun with one of her nieces. She gave the older one another irritable glance from the corner of her eye. In the past two years, a time in which the Wisconsin Ryans had not seen hide nor hair of the New York branch of the family, Alyssa had become a very pretty and stylish young woman. At least Priscilla assumed the girl was stylish with her asymmetrical ombre hairdobrunette roots lightening outward to blonde. Her makeup looked carefully applied and her black jeggings hugged her slim body. Too bad Alyssa didn't think a smile would look nice with her ensemble. The teenager seemed rather sullen.
"About that lunch," Mom chirped as they neared Sparrow Lake. "We could go to The Corner or there's a new pizza place that just opened up across town."
"Pizza sounds good to me," said Mia.
When no comment came from her older granddaughter, Mom tapped her shoulder.
Still no reply. The teenager seemed to be in her own world, one that contained only her and her smartphone, the fancy type with a screen like a small computer tablet.
Before her mother asked the question again, Priscilla raised her voice. "Alyssa! Excuse me, could you stop texting for a moment?"
The teenager looked up, brows raised.
"We're deciding on what you'd like for lunch," Priscilla explained.
Obviously having tuned out the conversation, Alyssa said, "Lunch? I don't know Thai or sushi is okay."
She should have guessed. "Sparrow Lake doesn't have a Thai restaurant." Though they did have a Chinese take-out place downtown. Priscilla didn't think that would appeal to her niece, though. Too common. "Sorry, no sushi place either. How about an artisan cheese board with crackers and gourmet salad at a swanky establishment?" She could whip up something with escarole and nuts and dried cherries.
"The Main Street Cheese Shoppe?" said Mom. "I didn't want to put you out, but that would be nice."
"I like cheese," Mia agreed with a grin.
"Alyssa?" said Priscilla loudly.
"Cheese is fine," Alyssa replied.
Though the girl didn't look up from her phone, which had beeped again.
In the rearview mirror, Priscilla saw Mom frown at Alyssa before turning to her younger sister. "Is something important going on? I mean, with your sister's phone messages?"
"Nah, just the usual stupid gossip with her friends." Mia gave a heavy, put-out sigh. "Alyssa's addicted to her phone. She can't even turn it off when she sleeps."
"Oh, my," Mom murmured.
Mia slipped a similar phone out of her pocket and showed it to her grandmother. "I have one, too, but I don't have my face glued to it all the time."
"That's because you have no friends," Alyssa told her sister with a withering glance.
She did listen sometimes, Priscilla guessed. "Hey, take that back!" Mia leaned forward. "I have friends!"
"Just a few nerdy losers."
"They aren't losers!"
Mia looked as if she wanted to punch her sister, so Priscilla was happy that Mom grabbed the younger girl's shoulder and drew her back. "Now, now. I'm sure your friends are quite nice."
"I just don't want to text all the time," grumbled Mia as they pulled up in front of the cheese store. "I like to play games. Have you seen Furious Falcons Nightmare?"
"I have to admit I haven't even seen Furious Falcons," Mom told her.
As they entered the cheese store, Mia was happily explaining the ups and downs of the game to her grandmother.
Now if they could only get Alyssa halfway interested in something other than texting her friends.