After a tour in Afghanistan and years as a trauma surgeon, Alonso Marquez needs to get out of Albuquerque and away from his past. A trip seems like the perfect solution, but he doesn't make it far. Sparks fly when Alonso stops to help a gorgeous rancher fix her car, and just like that his road trip is cut short by one very hot night with some very real consequences.
Hannah Buck didn't plan on starting a family that night. Her hands are already full managing the ranch and helping her troubled half brother. But Hannah sees the good in Alonso and knows he will be an incredible dad to their babyif only he could see it, too. Alonso has spent his life saving others. Now, with Hannah at his side, can he finally save himself?
About the Author
Award winning author Marin Thomas writes western romances for Harlequin and Tule Publishing Group as well as women's fiction for Berkley Books. She graduated from the University of Arizona and she and her husband live in Phoenix. When not writing she spends her free time junk hunting and researching ghost tours. Learn more about Marin's books at www.marinthomas.com or sign up for her newsletter at http://bit.ly/MarinThomasUpdates.
Read an Excerpt
"Quit lookin' at me like that."
Darn Luke's ornery hide. Hannah Buck squeezed the steering wheel, wishing it was her half brother's neck.
Yesterday after lunch Luke had left the ranch to attend a Halloween party with friends. He'd promised to be home by dark, but ten o'clock had come and gone and Hannah had paced the kitchen floor, imagining him lying dead in a ditch somewherejust as she'd found their father two years ago.
"You could have texted me that you were staying the night at Connor's."
"I left my cell phone at home."
On purpose. When their father died, the court had appointed Hannah Luke's legal guardiana job she'd gladly accepted. But she hadn't counted on her then fourteen-year-old brother embarking on a mission to make her life miserable.
The recent skipping school, drinking and smoking pot had to stop. She'd attributed Luke's rebellion to grief and in the beginning hadn't demanded too much of him. Even his teachers had gone easy on him. But two years had passed since their father's death and Luke's behavior was getting out of hand. If he didn't settle down and quit running wild, he'd end up in jail, and then she wouldn't be able to save his butt.
"I can't do this anymore, Luke."
That he had to ask showed how little he cared about the responsibility resting on her shoulders. "I can't take care of the ranch and chase after you. It's time for you to grow up."
"Jeez not another lecture." He sprawled across the backseat. "You didn't have to come get me. I could have driven home."
If Connor's mother hadn't informed Hannah that she and her husband were leaving town, Luke would have remained at his friend's the entire day and skipped out on doing his chores. She glanced in the rearview mirror. Her brother had turned sixteen five months ago, but his smooth skin and pudgy cheeks reminded her of the little boy who'd followed her everywhere on the ranch. Hannah had been the only one who'd paid attention to him when their father was lost in the bottle or Luke's mother, Ruth, left on one of her weekend getaways.
Hannah and Luke had grown even closer after Ruth died in a car accident right before Luke's tenth birthday. She recalled the afternoon her father broke the news to themLuke hadn't shed a tear. Instead, he'd asked Hannah to play a video game with him. She hadn't been surprised that her brother had turned to her, since Ruth had assigned all the mothering duties to ten-year-old Hannah when she'd brought Luke home from the hospital.
To be honest, she hadn't been distraught over Ruth's death, either. It was hard to shed a tear for the woman who'd caused her parents' divorce. Hannah hadn't heard from her mothernot even a birthday cardsince the day she'd walked out on her family. Hannah wished she could blame Ruth for her mother abandoning her but that wouldn't be fair. The sad truth was that all the adults in her and Luke's life had let them down.
After their father's funeral Hannah had discovered how badly he'd mismanaged the ranch. Instead of spending time with Luke, she'd spent days poring over financial records with an accountant at the bank. He'd set up a payment plan with her creditors and she'd been forced to let their ranch hand go. Keeping the business from going under had fallen on her shoulders, but she'd accepted the responsibility, hoping Luke would help out, but like a typical teenager all he cared about was hanging with his friends.
"How am I supposed to get my car?" he asked.
"We'll pick it up tomorrow." As far as Hannah was concerned, her old Civic could sit on the Henderson property a good long while. Without wheels Luke would be stuck at home and maybe out of sheer boredom he'd do his chores. "How much did you and Connor drink last night?"
She still hadn't broken the news to her brother that she'd been asked to keep him away from Connor. Mrs. Henderson believed Luke was a bad influence on her son. The apple didn't fall far from the tree.
She couldn't remember a time her father hadn't reached for a beer when he walked into the housemorning, noon or night. He'd kept his drinking under control until Ruth died. Hannah wasn't sure if her father's depression had been caused by Ruth's death or learning the girlfriend in the car with her at the time of the accident had been a man named Stan Smith.
"You can't keep this up, Luke." When he remained silent, she said, "You know Dad was an alcoholic. You carry the gene." If worrying about her brother's drinking wasn't enough stress, yesterday afternoon she'd discovered an acre of fence had been torn down and several of their bison had wandered onto the neighbor's property. Roger Markham hadn't been pleased when he'd had to send his ranch hands to round up her livestock.
She'd reported the vandalism to Sheriff Miller, who'd attributed it to a Halloween prank by local kids. He'd promised to notify his deputies to be on the lookout for any troublemakers in the Paradise area. Then he'd suggested that until they caught the culprits, Hannah should take Luke with her when she checked the herdas if that was going to happen.
"Not that you care, but some jerk trampled a section of fence and the bison wandered onto the Los Pinos Ranch." Hannah had insurance to cover the cost of repairing the fence, but the deductible was a thousand dollars. There went her Christmas fund.
"Who gives a crap about those stupid animals?" The truck hit a bump and he groaned. "Watch your driving."
She was tempted to slam on the brakes, put the truck into Reverse and drive back and forth over the pothole until Luke puked. "When we get home, I need you to load the hay bales onto the flatbed."
"I'm too tired."
If she gripped the wheel any tighter, she'd rip it from the steering column. Hannah had planned to go to college after she'd graduated from high school, but then Ruth had died and her father had sunk into a deep depression and she'd ended up staying put. Even so, she'd never regret spending those last few years with her father. Helping him run the ranch had given her a deeper appreciation for rural life, and now she couldn't imagine doing anything else. Eventually she was confident Luke's view of the ranch would change, too, and he'd see the value of his inheritance. Right now, she had to worry about weathering this latest storm with him.
"You know that Dad probably wouldn't have died that night if he hadn't been"
"Drinking. I know."
Hannah didn't like bringing up their father's death, but she never wanted Luke to forget. He needed the reminder, especially now when he was experimenting with alcohol and drugs. She didn't want him to make stupid decisions that would put his life in dangerlike going for a horseback ride after drinking a twelve-pack of beer.
Joe Buck hadn't ridden far when he'd lost his balance and had fallen off Buster, cracking his head open. By the time Hannah had noticed the horse wandering aimlessly in the ranch yard, it had been too late. She'd found her father's lifeless body in a ravine behind the house, his hand clutching a beer can.
"You can take a nap after you load the hay," she said. The herd should have been fed this morning, but she'd wasted the past two hours fetching Luke.
"You're not my mom. You can't tell me what to do."
The jab hurt. She'd been more of a mother to Luke than Ruth ever had. Hannah had been the one to make her brother's breakfast before school. Not Ruth. Hannah had done the family's laundry and made sure Luke's Little League uniform had been ready to wear on Saturday morning. Not Ruth. And when Luke had taken Melissa Walter to the school dance this past spring, Hannah had been the one to purchase a box of condoms and give Luke a safe sex lecture. Not Ruth.
"You've been running wild since Dad died and it's got to stop. If you'd help out more, we could expand the herd." And I could keep an eye on you. The thought of something terrible happening to Luke terrified Hannah. They might be at odds right now but he was all the family she had left, and she loved her brother.
"They're keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table."
"Connor said his father thinks Dad was stupid to buy bison instead of cattle."
Hannah was well aware that their neighbors believed raising bison for specialty meat markets was a waste of good land. "I don't care what Mr. Henderson thinks."
"School's dumb. I wanna drop out."
It took a moment for Hannah's mind to switch gears. "What do you mean you want to quit school?" At least from six-thirty in the morning until three-thirty in the afternoon, Monday through Friday she knew where her brother was.
"I'm not learning anything."
"You're staying in school, Luke."
"Just 'cause you're my legal guardian doesn't mean I have to listen to you."
Hannah laughed. "Oh, yes, it does. You're not dropping out. End of discussion."
"You can't stop me." Luke was three inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than Hannah. If he didn't want to go to school, there wouldn't be much she could do to make him go.
She opened her mouth to challenge him, then decided no good could come from arguing her point when he was hungover. Hannah had taken care of others most of her life and at times like this she dreamed of only being responsible for herself.
"I bet Connor's mother would let me live with them."
Not on your life. "Mrs. Henderson doesn't even want you hanging out with Connor anymore."
"You can ask her yourself."
"Why would she say that?"
"Maybe because she caught you two drinking and she thinks you're a bad influence on her son."
Luke laughed, then moaned and pressed his hands to his head. "Connor drank before we started doing stuff together."
"Did Connor talk you into drinking?"
"No. Ben Nichols and I got slammed last year."
"Is Ben the one who gave you the pot?"
She'd found Luke smoking in the hayloft over Christmas break and had flipped out. He'd been so stoned he was lucky he hadn't started a fire in the barn.
"Maybe you should smoke pot, then guys might like you better." Luke could be downright ugly toward her when he wanted to be. "I bet if you weren't such a nag, Seth wouldn't have dumped you."
Hannah gaped at her brother in the rearview mirror. "For your information, I broke up with him."
Seth Markham had caught Hannah at a weak moment when he'd proposed to her following her father's funeral. She'd been in a state of panic after learning about the financial mess the ranch was in. When Seth had promised he and his father would pay off the Blue Bison's debts, she'd decided that marrying him was the only sensible thing to do if she didn't want to lose her and Luke's inheritance.
Seth had pressed her to wed right away but Hannah had needed time to grieve. Three months passed, and when she still hadn't set a date, Seth became angry and they'd argued. He'd almost convinced her to go to the courthouse that day before he'd let it slip that he and his father had planned to sell her bison and expand their cattle herd. Hannah had promptly returned his ring.
Startled out of her trance, Hannah realized the truck had drifted onto the shoulder and was headed straight toward a hitchhiker. She slammed on the brakes, then swerved back into her laneright into the path of a shiny metal object lying on the asphalt. The rear tire blew and the truck fishtailed off the road and down an embankment, where it stopped inches from a barbed wire fence.
"Luke, are you all right?" She craned her neck over the backseat.
Her brother crawled up from the floor. "Shit, Hannah. You could have killed us. Didn't you see that guy?"
She looked out the passenger window. The hitchhiker had dropped his duffel bag on the ground and was jogging toward them. He wore military fatigues and a white T-shirt that showed off his powerful arms and an impressive chest. He had short, dark hair, thick beard stubble covered his face and aviator sunglasses hid his eyes. No wonder he hadn't jumped out of the wayhe'd been wearing earbuds.
Luke opened the back door and got out of the truck.
"Everyone okay?" the man asked when he reached them. He took off his shades and ran his gaze over Luke.
"We're good," Luke said.
Hannah joined Luke and said, "I'm so sorry. I wasn't paying attention to my driving. I didn't hit you, did I?"
"Not by a long shot. How about you?"
His eyes were a hypnotizing shade of caramel brown. "How about me what?"
"Did you get hurt?" His sexy mouth spread into a grin.
She shook her head. "I'm fine."
He examined the rear wheel. "You've got a flat tire."
Hannah peered over his shoulder. She'd been driving on bald tires for months. It had only been a matter of time before one of them blew.
"If you have a spare, I'll put it on."
Where were her manners? When he stood, she held out her hand. "Hannah Buck." His warm grasp was the nicest thing she'd touched all morning.
"This is my brother, Luke," she said.
The males shook hands and Hannah noticed Alonso was only an inch or two taller than Luke's five-ten.
"I have a spare," she said. "Luke, grab the wrench and jack from the toolbox."
Her brother climbed into the truck bed and rummaged through the steel storage compartment, then handed the tools to Alonso.
Hannah closed her eyes and rubbed her brow, where a dull throb beat against her skull. The headache had begun right after she'd picked up Luke from Connor's.
"Hey," a deep voice whispered near her ear, and she jumped. "It's okay." Alonso smiled. "No one got hurt."
Tears stung her eyes at the note of concern in the stranger's voice. When was the last time anyone had been worried about her?
True to his word, Alonso put the spare tire on in record time.
"Thank you," she said. "And I'm really sorry I almost ran over you."
"Be careful." He saluted her before walking back to retrieve his bag.
"Aren't you going to give him a ride?" Luke asked.
"We don't know anything about him," she said.
"Who cares? He helped us, didn't he?"
True, but what if Alonso turned out to be a serial killer or robbed them at gunpoint after she dropped him off farther down the road? Still this was a lonely stretch of Highway 8 and the town of Paradise was fifteen miles away.
"Hey, mister, you want a ride?" Luke shouted.
Alonso waved Luke off, then put in his earbuds, threw his bag over his shoulder and started walking.
Luke jogged toward Alonsofunny how his hangover prevented him from doing chores but not racing after strangers. Alonso listened to Luke for a minute, then the two walked back to the truck.
"I told him that you were worried he might kill us." Luke nudged Alonso's arm. "Tell her what you said."
Alonso flashed his white teeth. "I don't kill. I save lives."
"He's a doctor, Hannah."
"Trauma surgeon," Alonso said.