As president of the Lone Star Cowboy League, rancher Carson Thorn is committed to serving his community of Little Horn. But when high school sweetheart Ruby Donovan returns, his steadfast pledge is tested. Ruby left town twelve years agostealing money from his father and breaking Carson's heart in her wake. Now she's asking for his trustjust as her brother becomes Carson's prime suspect in the rash of recent ranch thefts. Carson is torn. His town is depending on him for justice, but one look in Ruby's eyes has him questioning everything he thought he knewabout truth, about love and about the wisdom of second chances
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Carson Thorn parked his truck in front of the rock-sided building that housed offices of the Little Horn, Texas, chapter of the Lone Star Cowboy League. As distracted as he was, he couldn't help but think about the history of the century-old group. It had started as a service organization, serving communities and ranchers across the state. Today it felt more like the last line of defense for ranchers who were being hit hard by thieves. The cattle rustling had started a month ago and showed no signs of letting up.
At today's meeting the other members were expecting answers. They wanted him to come up with solutions. He wished he had some. And he wished he was anywhere else on a Thursday in October than in town at this meeting.
He grabbed his briefcase and locked his truck. As he did, he noticed a white sedan pull into another parking space. He didn't stop to see who it might be. He had paperwork to hand over to the league secretary, and Byron McKay, one of the biggest ranchers in the state, was waiting to talk to him. That wasn't a conversation Carson looked forward to. He never looked forward to talking to Byron. Knowing that Byron's ranch had recently been hit by the thieves, Carson knew the conversation wouldn't be pleasant. This was one of those days when he wished he could live in a community and not be involved.
Someone must have been looking out for him, giving him one thing to be thankful for. Ingrid Edwards, the league secretary, wasn't at her desk. He sighed with relief. One bullet dodged. Now he just had to face Byron. The older man was already seated in the boardroom, a stack of papers in front of him.
"Byron." Carson pulled off the sport coat he'd worn and tossed it on the back of his chair. He rolled up his sleeves and then poured himself a glass of water.
"This has to be stopped, Carson." Byron pushed himself out of his chair and shed his own jacket. The rancher, a little paunchy and with thinning, strawberry blond hair, managed to knock over his own water glass.
Carson tossed him a roll of paper towels. He wasn't playing maid to anyone, not even a McKay. He cringed, thinking of Byron's offspring, twin teenaged boys who were sure to be chips off the old block someday.
He gave the other man a careful look, not wanting to wade too far in.
"I'm aware that it has to stop, Byron. I'm not sure what you want me personally to do about it. Do you want me on patrol? Do you want me to guard your livestock?"
"We need a plan. And maybe some of us do need to patrol. Lucy Benson is a great sheriff, but I'm not sure she's up to snuff on this case."
"Lucy is just fine." Carson sat down in his chair at the end of the table. Times like this he'd like it if someone else was the local chapter president.
"Well, I for one think that Derek Donovan should be questioned."
"Why do you think that?" Carson asked the question, but he knew the answer.
"Because he got out of prison and that's when all of this started." McKay slammed his meaty fist on the top of the table.
"Stop blaming my grandson," a shaky voice said from the open door.
Carson rubbed a hand over his face and groaned.
"Yes, Iva." The older woman pushed her walker into the room. "I'm still a member, Carson Thorn, and don't you forget that."
"No one is forgetting." Carson stood and went to her side to pull out a chair for her. She was nearing eighty, and in the past few months, Parkinson's had started to take a toll on her health. But Iva wasn't letting it stop her, not until she didn't have a say in the matter.
She waved him away, not taking the offered chair. "I'm not feeling the best, so I'm not staying for the meeting. I just wanted to confront you all and tell you this neighbor-blaming-neighbor business has to stop."
Byron McKay faced the woman, his tone only slightly more gentle. "I've lost more cattle and equipment, Iva. My boys lost a couple of dirt bikes. This thief knows us and knows our ranches."
Iva shook her head and raised a frail hand that jerked as she pointed an unsteady finger at the rancher. Her arm trembled as she tried to steady the gesture, adding a fierce glare that had Carson smiling. No one could beat down Iva Donovan. Even with her failing health she was a force to be reckoned with.
"Watch how you talk about my family, you bully in a Stetson."
"I'm not running you down, Iva. You've had it tough and none of us blames you."
"If you blame my kin, you blame me." She shook her head at the chair Carson offered. "My grandson made mistakes and paid for those crimes. I'll not have you pointing fingers at him."
"Iva, you know we have to look at everyone in a situation like this," Carson said, hoping he sounded diplomatic and not as suspicious as he really felt.
"We don't have to start accusing our neighbors or searching their homes and farms," Iva argued. She rested heavily on the walker as she looked from Carson to the other members who were trickling in. "Don't come to my place again unless you have real evidence."
Carson shot Byron McKay a warning look that silenced him. "Iva, unless they have a reason, they won't search your place."
"They don't have a reason," Iva insisted with a growl. "And you aren't going to harass my family."
"No, Iva, we won't do that." Carson took charge because he could see Iva weakening as her anger took over. She'd always been a spitfire and having Parkinson's hadn't taken any of her orneriness away, just her energy. "We've got the police on this and our own investigation team. We're putting up surveillance cameras. We'll figure out who's responsible."
"I hope you do," she said a little more calmly. "Now I have to go, so you all continue on without me."
"Let me walk you out to your car," he offered.
"Hey, we still have things to discuss. You're the chapter president and you can't just walk out, Carson," Byron McKay bellowed.
"Byron, relax. I'm walking Iva to her car and I'll be back." Carson reached for the door, and Iva smiled up at him. Her blue eyes were faded and rimmed with red, but she winked and he saw that spunk that had gotten her through some tough times.
"Byron McKay has more bluster than sense," Iva snipped as they walked out of the meeting room.
"He does tend to go on." He helped Iva through the main room and headed her toward the doors.
He nodded at Ingrid Edwards, once again behind her desk. She was shuffling through a drawer but she smiled up at him, her glasses sliding down her nose and red hair coming loose from a clip that held it to the top of her head. She winked and he wasn't quite sure what to do.
Last week she'd brought him fried chicken. The week before that, brownies. Ingrid was on the prowl, looking for a husband before she turned twenty-six. Or so the rumor went. He didn't want to hurt her feelings, but she'd have to look elsewhere. He was thirty-one and had no intention of settling down.
"It isn't my Derek," Iva muttered as they headed for the front door. "I know you think you know him, Carson Thorn, but you don't. He's a changed boy."
"He's almost twenty, Iva. That's not really a boy."
"He's still my boy and I won't let you or anyone else run him down. I appreciate what you've done over the years, but when it comes to family, I draw the line."
"As you should."
She stopped just feet short of the door, leaning heavily on the walker. She studied him with those blue eyes of hers. "I've always appreciated your help."
"The lawyer, for Derek."
He cleared his throat and glanced out the door, hoping to avoid a conversation he didn't want to have. But she wouldn't let it go.
"Johnny Mac fixing my truck," Iva continued. "And that beef in my fridge."
"We should go. I need to get in there before Byron and the others really do form a posse like they've been discussing. We can't have them riding off on horses, guns blazing."
She laughed a gravely sounding laugh. "Your daddy was made of the same cloth as that Byron McKay. You're a different breed. Don't be like them."
"I try not to be."
"You ain't been to church in a good long while."
He should have known it would come back to that. "I've been busy."
"Oh, land's sakes, don't give me that. I'm not sure what burr got under your saddle, but it isn't so big that God can't fix it."
He smiled and shook his head. "I know He's capable. But there's no burr, just a busy life."
"Help me to my car, then."
They were on the sidewalk heading for the old Buick Iva drove. And that's when he saw Ruby Donovan. She stood in front of the white car dressed in shorts, canvas sneakers and a T-shirt. Her auburn hair lifted slightly in the breeze and she pushed it back and held it with her hand as she watched him approach. Seeing her like that took him back to the first time he'd seen her. She'd been fifteen. He'd been seventeen. She'd just gotten off some crazy ride at the county fair. She'd been laughing at something her friend had said and walking toward the Ferris wheel.
Today felt a lot like that moment when they'd met. And nothing like that moment. Today when she looked at him her hazel eyes didn't sparkle. Her mouth didn't form that generous smile. No, she glared. He felt more than a little edgy seeing her up close and in person for the first time in twelve years.
One of these days he'd like to get an answer from her. He'd like to know what he'd done to deserve her walking away without even saying goodbye. He'd like to know how she'd gone from wanting to spend a life together to wanting nothing more than a free ride to college, compliments of his father.
But maybe it was better if he didn't know.
Ruby sucked in a breath and tried to pretend her heart wasn't tripping all over itself the way it had always tripped when she saw Carson Thorn. She'd managed to avoid him for a dozen years. That hadn't been easy considering he lived just down the road from her grandmother. But somehow on her odd trips home she'd managed.
But seeing him, the tall rancher with the dark brown hair and brown eyes that a girl could get lost in, was like going back. It was like being in love again. And she wasn't in love. He was no longer that boy, and she was no longer an impressionable teenage girl who believed in happy-ever-after.
It was this man who had taken those dreams from her. This man and his family. Until she'd met the Thorns she had always been good enough.
To see him helping her Gran to the car, that sizzled down deep where the red in her hair lived waiting to be unleashed.
She stepped forward, ignoring the confused look on his face. She ignored expensive cologne that smelled like the mountains and the ocean and everything good in between. She tried, desperately, to ignore the fact that the air seemed too thick to breathe when he was in her space. The need for oxygen meant she had to get him gone as quickly as possible.
"Thank you, Carson. I'll help her to the car."
"Be nice, Ruby Jo," Iva warned.
"I'm being nice." Ruby stepped close to help her grandmother off the sidewalk.
Iva leaned in. "No, you're showing your claws. You have no idea, Ruby."
"I have ideas." She looked back. Carson was still there, watching them.
Her younger brother, Derek, was nowhere to be found. He'd said something about errands to run and he'd get a ride home. She didn't like when he disappeared. She trusted him, but since cattle had started disappearing just a little too close to the time Derek had been released from prison, she knew he was going to continue to be a suspect until someone was caught.
These days everyone was a suspect.
She was surprised no one had tried to blame her since she'd arrived back in town only a few weeks ago.
Carson interrupted her thoughts, and that was too bad because she'd been trying to block him from her mind and her memories. He stepped past her and opened the car door.
Once Iva was situated, Ruby took her purse out of the walker and folded the contraption up to store it in the trunk of the car. She turned, and Carson Thorn was there. Without a word, he took the walker from her hands. If she'd trusted herself to speak, she would have told him that she could take care of things herself.
Funny that his name was Thorn, because he was a real thorn in her side. A thorn she'd prayed like the apostle Paul that God would remove from her. She'd tried to pray away his memory. And now? She didn't need him lurking, being kind, respectful. She needed him to go away and not be a reminder of everything she'd lost and why she'd left Little Horn.
If it hadn't been for Iva and Derek, she would have stayed in Oklahoma, and then she wouldn't have had this issue to deal with. But she was home. And they did need her here. Her grandmother needed her.
"Is that frown for me?"
What should she say to that? She could say, of course it wasn't. Or she could admit that it was. "I didn't realize I was frowning."
He leaned against the back of the car, long legs in new jeans and those expensive boots of his. The walker was still in his hands.
"You were definitely frowning."
"I should have sold the ranch and convinced Gran and Derek to move to Oklahoma with me," she admitted without intending to.
"What would have been the fun in that? You're not a city girl, Ruby. You were born and raised in Hill Country, and you can't outrun it."
"I've been living in the city a long time, and I'm adaptable."
His smile faded. "Yes, I guess you are."
She wondered about that smile, why he acted as if it was all about him. She wondered if he had any clue how much his dad and sister had hurt her. How much he'd hurt her? It wasn't as if she'd wanted to stay gone from her home. She'd stayed gone because she hadn't been able to imagine seeing him with someone else. She was only back because Gran's health had deteriorated and someone had to look out for Derek.
"Listen, we don't have to do this. When we see each other, we don't have to get tugged back into the past. It was a long time ago and I'm over it. I'm sure you're over it since " She shook her head. She wasn't going there. "I have work to do."
He stepped away from the back of the car and pointed, indicating she should open the trunk. When she did, he lifted the walker and stowed it inside. "There you go. Is there anything else you need help with?"
She stared up at the tall, overpowering rancher, surprised by the offer. She tried to see the boy she'd known in the face of this ruggedly handsome stranger. The features were stronger, more defined, more everything. His eyes were shuttered against emotion. But she saw a flicker, maybe a hint of warmth.
"I don't need help. We've always gotten along just fine."
"Did you put up the surveillance cameras the league handed out?"
"I have them in a box. I haven't had a chance to take them out, and I don't know if I can do it myself."
"I can help you put them up."