A little lost and very alone, Cassandra heads to British Columbia when she learns she’s half owner of the Double H. There she hopes to find a place to call home with a family she never knew existed.
Colton can’t believe half of his ranch was left to a woman who never wanted anything to do with her father. The Double H is his, and women don’t belong on the ranch – at least that’s what he was raised to believe.
But when Cassie arrives, sparks fly and love blooms. Will Cassie get her family, or will Colton cling to his long-held beliefs?
“Give me a break,” Cassandra Fairchild murmured.
She glared at the brown, sagebrush-studded hills through the bug guts splattered on the windshield. Where’d the trees go? The sparkling lakes and winding blue rivers? Beautiful British Columbia. That was what all the license plates said. How absurd.
For two hours, she’d been driving through scrubland. Rolling hills of gray-brown-red sand, heavily covered in sagebrush, surrounded the road. The taller hills were dotted with ponderosa pines but, all in all, the view was depressing. Especially since she was supposed to be looking for a cattle ranch.
My cattle ranch.
Worry gnawed a hole in her stomach lining. She’d not seen a living creature besides the pickup trucks that continually sped past her ancient little car.
Gripping the steering wheel until her knuckles whitened, she tried desperately to fight off the impending doom that engulfed her. This was her last hope. Her mother was gone, her job was gone, her apartment was gone, and creditors were knocking on her door...literally.
If the ranch was nothing more than a tumbleweed farm in the middle of a wasteland she never knew existed, she was completely sunk. She had nowhere to turn. She had no idea what she would do next, where she would go.
A big green sign declared: Cache Creek 3km.
A dog ran across the road right in front of the car. She slammed her foot on the brake, and the car screeched to a halt in the middle of the narrow, two-lane highway. The dusty gray animal stopped at the edge of the road and turned its head to glare at her with demonic yellow eyes.
“It’s a wolf, silly,” she murmured, but dread clung to her skin like a fine mist. The air was still and stifling, and she was alone out here. Alone in a wilderness she didn’t understand. The tires screeched again as she lay on the accelerator too hard and sped away from the eerie animal.
Cache Creek didn’t look any more promising than the rest of the area. A few motels, gas stations, some industrial looking buildings. As she pulled up in front of one of the gas stations, the town was engulfed in a small sandstorm. Wind buffeted the car when she shut off the engine, rocking it from side to side.
How much more miserable could this day become?
At the USA-Canadian border, her car had been thoroughly searched, and her identification had been run through computers. She’d been talked down to by surly customs officers, even though she’d done nothing wrong. Once released from her informal interrogation as to where, when and why, why, why she wanted into Canada, her poor little car had overheated three times—something it never did before.
It was time she stopped feeling sorry for herself. There was a Help Wanted poster in the window right in front of her. If the ranch didn’t pan out, if it was nothing but scrub grass and sage, she could always get a job.
A pitiful moan escaped her lips. No, she couldn’t. She was in another country. She wasn’t allowed to work here. She’d have to drive all the way back into Washington to get a job, and she didn’t have enough cash in her pockets to get there. She’d actually be forced to beg in order to get back into the good ole’ US of A.
The wind hadn’t lessened a fraction since she’d been sitting there, but she was in a hurry to get this over with. She needed to know how to find Hangman’s Way. Her map—a six-year-old, used Rand McNally atlas—didn’t show little side roads that led to nowhere but more side roads and sand.
Shielding her eyes with her hand against the blowing dust, she ran from the car into the gas station. The scenery inside wasn’t any less depressing than outside. A girl in red dreadlocks and a black outback hat leaned on the counter talking with a blonde girl behind the cash register. A guy with hair to his shoulders that needed a good washing stood up against the counter of a small deli pick-up window. He kept trying to involve himself in the girls’ conversation, but they ignored him. A man that looked older than the sandy hillsides sat on the other side of the small eating area sipping soup. Soup. When it was no less than ninety-five degrees outside. At least the little building was air-conditioned. Thank God for small mercies.
“Can I help you ma’am?” the girl behind the counter asked.
Cassandra cleared her throat and gripped her map to her chest. “I was wondering if you could tell me how to get to Hangman’s Way?”
The girl snapped her blue bubblegum and nodded. “Headed up to the Double H?” At Cassandra’s nod, the girl pointed back down the road. “Three kilometers south, right next to the road sign that says three kilometers to Cache Creek. Turn left.” Her gum snapped again. “Fourteen kilometers in or five big hills. Can’t miss it.”
Right where that dreadful, evil-eyed creature had run across her path. She gave a tiny shiver, but thanked the girl and moved off. As she pushed open the door to fight the wind back to her car, the girl called to her. “Say hi to Billy. He’s my brother.” Cassandra waved her acknowledgment.
* * * * *
“Where the hell is she?”
Colton Harrison paced the long aisle between the barn stalls. Chigger and Blaze were already saddled and ready to go. All he needed now was for the damned nanny to show up.
“You can take off,” Joe said from the tack room where he was rearranging bridles on the wall pegs. “I can watch the twins until she gets here. I know you’re anxious to get out there, and I don’t blame you. We’re up to eighteen missing head.”
Colton turned toward Joe and stopped pacing. “It’s not your job to watch my kids.”
“Yeah, it’s a real hardship,” Joe said.
“She was supposed to have been here three hours ago. That agency swore she’d be here.”
Colton scrubbed his hands down his face. This was going to be the fourth nanny he’d hired in as many months. The girls had all been young—too damn young—and wanting to bag the owner of the Double H more than they wanted to watch his four-and-a-half-year-old twins. So he’d asked for at least a middle-aged woman, preferably older than that. But getting a woman—any woman—to stay on the Double H was impossible. Women never stayed on the Double H. His father had taught him that lesson well over the years. The ranch was only ten miles outside of Cache Creek, but light years from any real civilization.
There’d been plenty of offers from women at church. They’d be more than willing to take over the kids’ care. But that meant—he swallowed hard—they were all single, too. And Colton Harrison, bachelor-owner of the biggest cattle spread in interior British Columbia, was the man to catch. Apparently.
Colton glanced at his watch. With his luck, the damn woman probably got lost, but she had to be close by now. Where the hell is she?
* * * * *
It wasn’t a dirt road; it wasn’t even a gravel road. It was a rock road. Cassandra screwed up her face and apologized to her poor little car as another piece of the road tried to take out her oil pan.
Fourteen kilometers, the girl at the gas station had said. Struggling with the math, because converting miles to metric was beyond her, Cassandra guessed somewhere around ten miles.
Glancing down at the odometer, she couldn’t even remember what mile she’d been at when she turned onto Hangman’s Way. As she crested the next hill, she realized it didn’t matter. She’d found the Double H.
Her foot landed hard on the brake, and the car skidded to a dusty halt. The harsh desert landscape suddenly gave way to lush green fields dotted with what looked to be hundreds of head of cattle. The valley below was covered from one side to the other with green. Irrigation systems like dozens of sprinklers drew water from the lake and the wide creek bed that ran like a sparkling blue ribbon through the green. Another irrigation system, three hundred feet long on a pivot and wheels, was working on a half-circle field that appeared freshly mowed.
In the middle of it all, at the end of the road she followed, was the biggest, prettiest log house she’d ever laid eyes on, surrounded by lush trees and a half dozen other buildings. Behind a smaller house was a series of fences that held horses of every color and shade, from startling white to inky black. “I don’t believe this,” she said between clenched teeth. Wyatt Harrison had been living here, enjoying this piece of beautiful land, living in that house, while his daughter had to quit school halfway through tenth grade to get a job to pay her mother’s medical bills. Why the hell had he decided she needed anything from him now that he was dead?
As she let her foot off the brake and drove over the cattle guard and through the gate, she looked up at a cross bar that said Double H. The logo of two H’s and a horseshoe intertwined glittered down at her. Her anger multiplied.
Ironic, really, that she’d lost both parents within two weeks of each other. A father who’d abandoned her pregnant mother, and a mother who had never bid her a kind word. Still, one of them had given her life, while the other was giving her…this?
Wyatt had willed her half of the Double H. Who owned the other half? Did she have a half-sister or brother? An aunt or uncle? Someone in the world that shared her blood? Did she have someone left who just might give a damn if she existed? Someone who might give her a bit of the love she’d never had?
Yeah, right! Get a grip, girl. You’re on your own, and you know it. Chin up, tears wiped off your silly little freckled cheeks, and go see what you’ve gotten yourself into now.
* * * * *
The phone in the tack room rang at the same instant a beat up Pacer drove into the yard.
“Get that, would you, Joe?” Colton strode out of the barn toward the little car. Jeez, he didn’t even know any of these things were still on the road.
A woman—ah hell!—a young woman stepped from the rattletrap. Couldn’t that damn nanny service ever get it right?
With a whoop and a screech, Wolf and Willow came tearing around the side of the big house. They ran right up to the woman, skidding to a stop on the heels of their worn sneakers. She smiled at them and ruffled Wolf’s hair.
“Is your mom or dad here?” he heard her say in a husky, sexier-than-sin voice that was meant for the bedroom, not caring for his kids.
Great. They hadn’t even bothered telling her she was working for a man. Only a man. No woman around, definitely no mother for the twins. That was why she was needed.
The woman looked up at the sound of his boot heels on the gravel. Her eyes were a startling, mossy green. Her smile would knock a lesser man to his knees. It was a damn good thing he was immune to pretty smiles.
“Hi,” she said softly. “I’m—”
“Over three hours late.” Colton gave her his best scowl. Better she run off in fear now than have to throw her off the ranch later.
Her eyes widened, and she glanced around as if searching for something.
“I’m Colton Harrison. This is Wolf and Willow,” he said, placing a hand on each of the children’s heads. “They eat dinner at six. Bedtime at nine. Not one minute later. No junk food. No candy. No—”
“Colton! You about ready? We’re going to lose the light in the canyon if we don’t get a move on.”
Colton ground his molars. “I have to go. Make yourself at home. I should be back by midnight.” He leaned down and kissed each of the children on the cheek.
He turned on his heel and started back toward the barn to retrieve his horse. Billy stood outside, holding Chigger’s reins.
Just what he needed. Another gorgeous woman who thought she had what it took to look after two very rambunctious children. She’d be gone within the week, he’d bet the entire ranch on that. He grabbed Chigger’s reins and mounted.
She came running up to him, her breasts bouncing against the front of her T-shirt. He groaned. She was definitely the hottest one the nanny service had sent. She was about five-nine, all legs and curves, and her long, auburn hair fell in waves over her shoulders.
“Wait... Colton...” She sucked in her breath. It hadn’t been that long of a jog across the yard. Great. That meant she was out of shape on top of being too damn young. Couldn’t be over twenty-five. He did not need this right now. A nanny was supposed to take pressure off, not layer it on.
“I need to introduce myself, I don’t think—”
“Good. Start with that. Don’t think. Just take care of the kids. I’m paying you a small mint to do it.” He reined Chigger around. “If you need anything, talk to Joe McIntyre. He’s in the barn.” With that, he spurred Chigger and headed for the north hills. He was going to catch those damn cattle thieves if it was the last thing he did.
“Cole!” Joe shouted after him. “Phone from the nanny service!”
“Tell them to send someone older next time!” he called over his shoulder.
Cassandra tried to catch her breath. Colton Harrison. Her brother? He was dark-skinned and dark-eyed. At least half Native. Her heart thudded in her throat. Her mother had never told her she had a half-brother. He was a few years older than her, maybe around thirty or so. And so handsome. Tears prickled her eyes as she turned to look at his children. Two dark-skinned cherubs. One boy, one girl, staring up at her expectantly. The only difference between them was the color of their clothing and the length of their hair.
I’m an aunt.
But why was he so angry? She glanced around the yard again at the huge barns, the horses, the houses—at least three of them including the big, beautiful log home.
A nanny service...? Oh, crap. He thought she was a nanny.
The man who’d called after Colton came toward her. He was only an inch or two taller than her, much shorter than Colton’s six-three or -four.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” the man said as he approached. “I’m afraid Colton thought you were someone else.” He took off his tan cowboy hat and swept his fingers through his shaggy blond hair, then resettled the hat on his head. “I’m Joe McIntyre.”
Cassandra held out her hand. “Cassandra Fair—”
“Holy shit.” The words were soft, no more than a whisper. He grabbed her hand in his hard, callused one. “Holy shit. Cassie.” His startling blue eyes glistened as if with tears, and he pulled her against him in a hard hug.
“Do I know you?” she squeaked as she gently pushed at his shoulder, trying to get away. He didn’t seem dangerous, though, and he knew her name. Everyone who knew her called her Cassie...
“Sorry.” He let her go so fast she nearly fell. “Sorry,” he said again as he grabbed for her as she stumbled. “I can’t believe you’re here. That you came.”
What was she supposed to have done? Finding out she’d been willed half a cattle ranch, and then losing her job on the same day, she’d had nowhere else to go. She’d been almost two months behind in rent...
At least this Joe guy seemed to be glad to see her.
He wasn’t just staring at her. It was more of letting his gaze flow over her. Nothing sexual in it at all. He looked at her the way he might look at the twins, who were now standing on either side of him like little sentinels.
“Did you work for my father?” she finally asked.
He nodded. “God, it’s good to see you, sweetheart.”
Wolf and Willow giggled and whispered to each other behind Joe’s back.
Cassandra turned at the sound of voices as an older man and woman rode into the yard on the backs of two dark chestnut horses.
“I gotta help Mr. and Mrs. Brubaucher with the horses. Come down for supper tonight, would you?” His smile was warm and gentle, full of affection she didn’t understand. “I serve dinner at six.”
Cassandra glanced at the big log house.
“No, not there. At the old house. The kids’ll show you.” He touched her shoulder. “Welcome home, Cassie,” he said softly before he turned and walked away.