The Double H is the perfect place for Becca and her two little girls. Being embraced by a warm, loving family is exactly what she needs. But Slade, a sweet, gentle cowboy who makes her body tingle and her heart yearn, is the last thing she expected––or wanted––to find on the ranch.
As Becca and Slade battle their own private demons, they cannot deny or resist their attraction and growing love for one another. The problem? His secret has the power to destroy the family he’s come to love and crush the woman who has stolen his heart.
“Living on a ranch will be fun.” Becca Singer jabbed the pitchfork into the hay in the horse stall with a little too much force. ”Fun! That’s what I told my dear brother. I’d love to live on a ranch.”
She threw the smelly hay into the wheelbarrow and jabbed another batch of the grimy stuff.
“Yeah. Right. I’m just having a ball,” she mumbled to herself. ”And the weather. Desert climate, right? Yeah. I really believe that now.”
She stopped shoveling and turned toward the big Appaloosa in the stall next to her.
“You tell me,” she said, meeting the horse’s soulful eyes. “Does this look like a desert climate? Joe said there’s very little snow here. He said the temperature barely gets below freezing. He said it’d be a piece of cake.” She jabbed at another batch of hay. “Well, dear brother, you eat this damned cake.”
She scooped up the last of the dirty hay and eyed the dappled mare in the next stall. “He’s so full of...of—” She lifted the scoop of manure to show the mare.
“What?” Becca swung around. The stuff on the pitchfork slid off with a plop right onto a pair of boots. A man’s boots. ”Ah, crap!”
He had a low, husky laugh that made a tingle race up her spine. ”Yes, ma’am. That would be crap.”
Becca raised her eyes from the pile of horse poop on the man’s boots, up his long, long, denim-clad thighs to... ”Ohmigosh.”
She didn’t know this man. No man on the Double H had powerful legs like those. Wow. What a package. She let her gaze travel up past his narrow hips, his big silver belt buckle, to his wide, wide chest. Even beneath the shearling jacket, she could see he was built like a Greek statue.
Then she looked at his face. The man had to be made out of granite. He had a square jaw with a strong cleft in his chin, high, chiseled cheekbones, and eyes as green as any meadow in the summer sunshine.
If she were the type, she’d surely swoon. His height alone... Damn.
“Ma’am?” He arched one midnight black eyebrow, and a hint of humor tipped up one side of his unbelievably sensual lips.
His deep, gravelly voice made her tingle all over.
Who is this man? Can I keep him?
“I’m sorry about your boots,” she said, finally gathering her wits enough to speak without making a fool of herself.
He glanced down at his boots and let out another spine-tingling chuckle. “No problem, ma’am. I’ve stepped in enough of it to know it doesn’t hurt anything. Though I can’t say I’ve ever had it tossed on me by a pretty lady.”
He knocked his left boot on the wooden slat of the stall and then grabbed a handful of fresh hay from the open bale and swiped of the top of it.
He thinks I’m pretty.
Becca almost giggled. If she’d been the giggling kind, which she certainly was not. She was way too old to go gaga over a handsome man.
“May I help you with something?”
“You sure can.” He ripped off his tan leather work glove and held out his hand. “I’m Slade Martin. I heard the Double H is looking for a few hands.”
Becca pulled off her own glove and slipped her hand into his. His was big, warm, and rough, and it sent electrical current zinging up her arm, straight to her nipples. She jerked her hand away and rubbed her palm on her jeans in an attempt to rid her fingers of the feel of him. From the look on Slade Martin’s face, he’d felt it, too.
“Yeah, well.” Becca pulled herself back together. “Everyone who’d hire you has abandoned me.” She made a face. This stranger didn’t need to know how pissy she felt about being stuck here alone to clean the barn. ”My brother, Joe McIntyre, and his partner, Colton Harrison, own this place, and they do all the hiring. Joe’s on his honeymoon right now, and Colton and his wife went to the doctor in Kamloops. Colton broke his foot a few days ago.”
Slade lifted a brow. The woman’s jeans were well worn, but her boots looked fairly new. Her flannel shirt sleeves were rolled up to her elbows, and the enticing view allowed by the top three open buttons of her shirt was nice, to say the least. He tipped his lips into a grin.
She had her long blonde hair pulled back into a haphazard braid, and she was short. Maybe five-two or three. And she was stacked. That’s about the only word he could come up with to describe her. Curvy. Luscious. Somewhere in her late twenties, too, he’d venture. Old enough.
Damn, he needed to get his brain out of the gutter. He hadn’t come here looking for a woman. But her bright eyes captivated him. They were summer-sky blue and filled with approval, if he read the signs correctly after they’d taken that slow, sensual tour up his body. That careful perusal was enough to make any red-blooded man’s temperature rise.
“Singer. Becca Singer.”
“Ms. Singer. Can you tell me when one or both of the owners might return?”
Li’l Ms. Singer’s shoulders drooped considerably, and she rested her chin on the handle of the pitchfork. “I don’t know.” She sighed. “Joe and Jenny should be back in about a week. Who do you know that takes a month-long honeymoon?” She scowled. “My big brother, that’s who.”
She shook her head. “Then Colton falls off a horse and breaks his foot. Cassie, that’s his wife, took him into Kamloops three days ago, and they got snowed in. And they have all the kids with them. I told them it was stupid to take all those kids, but does Cassie ever listen? Nope. They piled them all into the new SUV and hauled the whole lot into town with them. Now they can’t make it back because even though they have four wheel drive, Colton doesn’t want Cassie to drive in the snow.”
Slade laughed. He couldn’t help himself. This woman was just too cute with her face scrunched up and her hand waving in agitation. He wondered what those pretty pink lips would taste like.
Just touching her hand had been like grabbing a live fence wire. He’d be an idiot to do anything else.
“Don’t you have any other hands to help you?” He glanced around the stable and spotted eight horses, a Shetland pony, and a...sheep? Just then, the black-faced sheep baaed at him. A sheep. He shook his head.
“Well, not exactly. A couple of other guys live on the ranch, but they’re in charge of the cows. Two others come in from Cache Creek every day help them.”
“With the cattle,” he automatically corrected.
“Whatever.” She waved her hand in dismissal. “They’re just dinner to me. I sure don’t want to have to chase them around. It’s bad enough I have to clean up after these guys.” She waved her hand at the surrounding stalls.
He lifted his eyebrows.
“I can’t wait until my darling brother returns,” she mumbled, as if she hadn’t noticed the cowboy’s reaction. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
She reached for the wheelbarrow, and what a great view that was. Her perfect, pert, round bottom squeezed into skin-tight blue jeans.
“Yes?” she said with a sigh in a tone usually reserved for a child who asks too many questions. Her exasperation made him smile. He hadn’t smiled in a very long time, and he’d forgotten how good it felt.
“Would you like me to help you with these stalls?” he asked. “I’d rather not head back out onto the highway right now. The snow’s coming down pretty hard.”
Becca set the wheelbarrow aside, turned toward Slade, and propped her hands on her hips to look him over again. That was a mistake. Forget the stalls, her mind screamed, just throw him down into the fresh hay and find out what it’s like to thoroughly ravish a cowboy. That giggle bubbled up again, but she squelched it.
“I have a list of references,” he offered. “I’ve spent the last year working on the Lonesome Coyote ranch near Okanagan Falls.”
“How do I know you’re not a cattle thief or...or a rustler or something?” How the hell would this guy steal cattle if he was mucking horse stalls? Of course, Colton and Joe wouldn’t be happy if he stole their horses, either... But darn it, she was tired. And sore. And she really wanted a nice long, hot bath. She also had to get dinner started for Billy and Rick. Though why she bothered, she wasn’t sure. They hated her cooking. Good thing she’d made a run to the mini-mart before the snow got bad this morning.
Slade reached into his front pocket, pulled out a set of keys, and tossed them to her. “There you go. Now I can’t steal your cattle. Or your horses.”
She caught his keys in mid-air and narrowed her eyes at him.
Gotcha now, cowboy!
Damned if she didn’t want to giggle again. ”All right. You clean the stalls, and I’ll cook you dinner.”
“Mind if I roll out my sleeping bag here tonight?”
“In the barn?”
He raised one eyebrow toward his black hat and grinned as if he were about to laugh at her again.
“Fine. Sleep wherever you want.” She did not like being laughed at, and she was sure Joe was doing plenty of laughing right now, all happy and tanned and warm on the beaches of Waikiki. She muttered to herself, “I hope you get sunburned.”
“Excuse me?” Slade asked in the middle of peeling off his jacket.
His chest was way better than she’d expected. Like a brick wall. He had to be around six and a half feet tall and was all solid muscle. He tossed his jacket over the top railing of one of the stalls and headed toward her. He walked with the grace of a mountain lion. Smooth. Purposeful. And so…
He bent over to grab the wheelbarrow handles. “Did you say something?”
She didn’t answer, because he smelled like heaven. Leather, spice, and oh, everything nice. The giggle bubbled out this time. She couldn’t squelch it.
He arched both eyebrows at her this time. “Ma’am, I think you might want to go have a seat. You’re looking a bit...”
That was how she looked. She felt stupid, too. Rebecca Singer did not go gaga over broad chests and—oh, dear, the most perfect ass she had ever seen. She could watch that man walk away from her all day.
She cleared her throat, turned away, and grabbed her jacket off a nail stuck in the wall. “I only have four stalls left to clean. Billy and Rick, the cowboys who live here, will be in just before dark. I’ll have supper ready in the old house by then.”
“The old house?” Slade stopped and looked at her.
The old house, the new house, the cabin, and the bunkhouse—not really a bunkhouse at all, but a cozy little duplex where Billy and Rick lived—all sat on the property. Colton should just number the buildings.
“The smallest farmhouse,” she clarified for the stranger’s benefit. “On the other side of the paddock.”
“Gotcha,” he said as he headed out the back of the barn with the wheelbarrow.
“Gotcha,” she muttered as she pushed open the heavy door and ducked her head against the blowing snow. ”Promises, promises.”
* * * * *
So, this is the Double H, Slade thought as he spread fresh hay in the last of the stalls in the barn. He’d done research on the place and its owners, and had learned the few thousand acres of land that made up the Double H, and the cattle they raised, were some of the best in British Columbia. He’d also learned that Colton handled the cattle, while Joe ran a dude ranch in the summer and took in and trained abused equines. If the few pieces of horseflesh in the barn were any sign of his competence, then Joe knew his stuff. These horses, though not as pretty as some Slade had seen over the years, were well mannered and gentle. Except he wasn’t here to meet Joe; he was here to meet Colton.
After leading the black mare back into her newly cleaned stall, Slade made sure each horse had a scoop of grain and plenty of fresh water. He gave the sheep the same as the horses, hoping that was all right.
Why do they have a sheep?
He shook his head. What he hadn’t known about the Double H was that it had one hell of a pretty woman living on it. Little Becca Singer was as gorgeous a woman as he had ever seen.
Slade latched the gate to the sheep’s stall and turned toward the two cowboys striding into the barn.
“Hello,” he replied.
“Any particular reason you’re hanging out with Pepper?”
Slade raised a questioning brow. ”Pepper?”
“Oh.” He felt like Dorothy on the yellow brick road. This wasn’t at all how he had imagined his first day on the Double H would be. “Becca offered me supper if I cleaned the stalls for her.”
The taller of the two cowboys, a brown-haired young man in his mid-twenties, let out a shout of laughter. “She suckered you in, now didn’t she?”
The other man, a little shorter than the first, with black hair and dark blue eyes, gave his partner a punch in the shoulder. “Be nice.” Then he stepped forward and extended his hand. “I’m Rick Forester, and this is Billy Richter.”
“Slade Martin.” Slade gave the man’s hand a firm shake.
Billy stepped forward and shook his hand, too. “So, are you lookin’ for work?”
Slade nodded. He’d hoped to meet Colton right away. Colton was the only reason he’d left his job at the Lonesome Coyote. Colton and the letter Slade’s parents’ lawyer had given him on his thirty-fifth birthday, nearly six months ago. ”Heard you were short-handed, even for it being winter.”
“That’s a fact.” Billy nodded. “Three of our regulars up and quit on us to go down south. So there are just four of us right now, not counting the bosses.” Billy gave him a discerning look. “Do you know cattle?”
“I grew up on a ranch in Alberta,” Slade said with another nod. ”After my parents sold the place, I headed off to the rodeo circuit for a while and then settled into a few jobs. Spent the last year at the Lonesome Coyote outside Okanagan Falls as foreman.” A story which, for the most part, was true. No one needed to know what he’d done in his twenties.
Billy narrowed his eyes, and his hackles went up. “Double H already has a foreman. Me.”
“Just lookin’ for a place to hang my hat for a while.” Slade gave the man a little smile. ”Don’t want to take anyone’s job.”
“Good.” Billy gave him a curt nod. “Colton does the hiring, but you can stay on until he returns in a couple of days. We can use every hand we can get. Some of the cows are throwing calves already, and with this nasty weather, we’ve had some problems with wolves.” Billy’s face split into a grin. “I’m sure Bec wouldn’t mind the help with the horses, either. Can’t say she’s too fond of them.”
“I got that impression.” Slade chuckled. “And thank you. I can use the work.” He didn’t need the money, but he didn’t want to leave the Double H until he met Colton.
Damn it anyway, how could my parents have done this to me?
And why did he have to be who he was and have to leave a good job on a ranch he loved in order to fulfill his mother’s wishes?
“Well, good luck with supper. She gets a little touchy about it, so don’t offend her.”
Slade frowned at Billy.
“I said be nice.” Rick slugged Billy in the arm again then turned back to Slade. “She tries, she really does, but...” He trailed off with a shrug.
“She can’t cook,” Slade guessed.
“Not very well,” Rick said with an apologetic smile. “But she’s as sweet as can be.”
Yeah, and cute as a button. Hell, cute didn’t even begin to describe Becca Singer. She was beautiful. Gorgeous. Stunning.
* * * * *
Becca slid the baking sheet into the oven, then opened the half-gallon container of potato salad and dumped it into a serving bowl.
“The boys don’t think I can cook,” she mumbled as she put plastic wrap over the bowl of potato salad and stuck it into the fridge. Truth be known, she couldn’t. On her trip into Cache Creek earlier in the day, she’d bought fried chicken and potato salad from the tiny town’s little diner.
She was an educated woman with a master’s degree in elementary education, but cooking had always been beyond her grasp. Just the night before, she’d nearly choked Billy and Rick to death with her so-called beef stew. She’d followed the recipe, but it had still tasted about as good as mud. She had to hand it to the boys, though. They’d eaten it without complaining.
Smiling, she pulled lemons from the fridge to make lemonade, Rick’s favorite beverage. That she could do without too many complications. The boys were sweet. Well, Rick was. Billy tended to make a little too much fun of her lack of cooking skills. He had made it quite clear he couldn’t wait for Cassandra and Jenny to return so they could have palatable suppers. Good thing the boys were on their own for breakfast and lunch, or she might have a mutiny on her hands.
She sliced the lemons and squeezed them with the small, hand-held juicer. Living on the ranch wasn’t so bad. When everyone was home. She missed her brother with all her heart. Joe and Jenny had been gone for three weeks so far. After being separated from Joe for nearly twenty-five years, Becca hated his being gone for even a little while. Jenny was so sweet she could give a person a toothache. Becca was happy her brother had found such a wonderful woman. Everyone loved Jenny. And then there were Colton, Cassie, their two sets of twins, and her own two daughters, who were only an hour away in Kamloops. They’d been gone for three days now, and she missed all of them, but mostly she missed her girls.
Six-year-old Michelle and five-year-old Christine—Missy and Chrissy—were Becca’s life. Missy wasn’t fond of living on the ranch, but she loved having Joe and Colton look after her after not having a good male figure in her life for a while. In the few months they’d lived on the ranch, she also had become fast, inseparable friends with Wolf and Willow, who were her age.
Then there was Chrissy. Becca set the lemon rinds to the side and closed her eyes for just a moment. Sweet little Chrissy. God, how Becca missed her. She had never been away from her children for a full twenty-four hours before this week, and their absence was slowly tearing her apart. She’d always thought Chrissy needed her to take care of her, but her baby had proven her wrong. She was growing up, despite all of the obstacles in her way.
The phone rang, startling Becca out of her thoughts.
She hurried over to the device on the wall and caught it on the second ring, hoping against hope Cassie was calling to say they were coming home.
“I’m going to file for custody of Michelle if you don’t let me see her,” the male caller said without preamble after Becca said hello.
Her body went cold at her ex-husband’s harsh tone, and her stomach twisted itself into a knot. She swallowed back a surge of fear. “I’d like to see you try,” she said with as much strength as she could muster.
“You know I’ll get it,” James Singer III said.
Becca pictured him sitting in his swanky office, in his richly decorated home, situated in one of Edmonton’s most exclusive neighborhoods. His blond hair would be slicked back from his high forehead, his icy gray eyes glaring at the phone. She shivered as a chill passed through her.
“No,” she said. “You won’t.”
He’d threatened to sue for custody at least once a month since she’d first moved to the ranch five months ago. So far, his words had only been idle threats. He refused to come to the ranch to see the girls—not that he wanted to see both girls. Only Missy. As far as he was concerned, Chrissy had never been born. Not to him, anyway.
“I’ve had my lawyer draw up the petition, and I’ll file it within the month if you don’t bring her here for a visit.”
Bile rose in Becca’s throat, and the base of her skull throbbed. He’d never taken his threats this far before. The thought of losing even one of her girls...
“What about Chrissy?”
No answer. Dead silence reigned on the other end of the phone.
“Where’s my child support?” Becca pressed on. “You haven’t sent a single check since we got here.”
She did a quick calculation and realized he now owed her several thousand dollars. As a rich lawyer with political ambition who came from a family filled with high-priced lawyers, he had been ordered to pay an astronomical amount of child support. But because he belonged to one of Edmonton’s elite families, getting the courts to actually enforce the order had proven to be nearly impossible.
“Bring her to see me, and I’ll give you your money.”
Becca feared that if she took Missy to Edmonton, James wouldn’t allow her to bring the girl back to the ranch. As it was, Becca hadn’t told him about the move until she and the girls were already settled. By then it had been too late for him to stop her.
“I don’t need your money.” A true statement, to some extent. Becca received a salary from Colton and Cassie for home-schooling Wolf and Willow. But she worried about her future if something happened, and Colton couldn’t pay. She wondered how she’d ever save money for her children’s futures on the little bit she did get for teaching the kids.
“You have nothing without me, little girl,” James snarled. “Why are you being so pig-headed about this? I want to see my daughter.”
“Daughters. You have two of them.” She clenched her jaw. He had always called Becca little girl when she didn’t give him his way. Her stomach roiled and a headache built behind her eyes.
Again, silence reigned.
“Chrissy is doing very well,” Becca went on to say, twisting the knife the only way she knew how. She should be better at playing his mind games after all the years she’d dealt with him. “She’s riding the pony Joe gave her every day, and I believe she’s—”
The phone went dead.
Her heart thudding in her throat, Becca hung up. She feared she might be sick. Sucking in a few deep breaths, she squeezed her eyes shut and concentrated on pushing back the blinding headache that had invaded her skull.
She couldn’t lose Missy to that creep. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t. She went upstairs and into her bedroom. Pulling a notebook from the nightstand, she scribbled down details from their conversation. She didn’t have any tangible evidence to use against James if they did enter into a court battle over custody, because he was smart enough to not issue any true threats against her over the phone, but she knew he was thinking them. He’d said them to her enough before she’d left Edmonton.
So far, the only way she’d been able to shut him up was to talk about Chrissy. The child he denied was even his. The child whose birth had ultimately ended their marriage. Not that Becca had any remorse over ending that horrible cage of so-called wedded bliss. She’d been thankful when James had finally agreed to the divorce, but that had only come after she’d threatened to go to the newspaper with pictures she’d taken of herself after one of his temper tantrums—pictures that didn’t really exist, although he never needed to know that. He’s signed the divorce agreement and sent it to her the next afternoon.
Closing her journal, she stuffed it back into the nightstand. Her head throbbed. She shut her eyes for a moment, knowing the headache wouldn’t go away anytime soon. Ever since Chrissy’s birth, she had suffered from migraines. But after she moved to the ranch, they only came on whenever she had to deal with James.
Cache Creek, British Columbia would never be far enough away from James Singer, but Becca had nowhere else to go. Colton and Joe had promised to help her in any way they could, should a custody battle ensue. She only hoped and prayed that their support, both emotional and monetary, would help her get James to finally give up and leave them alone.