The Secret Truth at Dare Ranch

The Secret Truth at Dare
Ranch

 

By Cheryl Gorman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cheryl Gorman

http://www.cherylgorman.com

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2012 Cheryl Gorman

 

Cover Art by Rae Monet Designs
http://www.raemonet.com

 

All rights reserved. This e-book is not
transferable. No part of this e-book may be reproduced or shared in any form
including but not limited to printing, faxing, e-mailing, photocopying or by
any manner of information retrieval through electronic means or through the
postal service without the express permission of the publisher. This e-book is
a work of fiction and a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to
any person or persons living or dead, places, incidents, locations or
businesses is purely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

"You
still take a man’s breath, Lexie."

Alexa
Dare froze with her hammer in mid air and her right foot planted in a pile of
horse manure. Seven years had passed since his husky baritone had rippled over
her nerve endings. Her heart jerked in her chest like a colt not used to the
feel of a saddle on his back.

What was he
doing here?

She inhaled
a breath, turned and faced Mitch Quinn.

He
stood in the alleyway of the barn with Colorado afternoon sunlight streaming in
behind him and dust motes dancing in the air. No stubble covered his stubborn,
arrogant jaw the way it used to. A thin, white crescent scar still showed on
his left cheekbone where years ago, her father had slugged him.

An
expensive suit and tie had replaced his jeans and T-shirt, but his six-foot
frame was still hard and lean enough to make a woman sigh. His blond-streaked
brown hair was no longer pulled back with a strip of leather, but cut short
exposing his smooth, toned neck. A neck she'd tasted with her lips and tongue,
a neck she'd nipped with her teeth.

His
gaze skimmed her face and he threw her the same, heart-stopping cocky grin she
remembered from their youth. "Mitch. What are you doing here?" Thank
goodness her voice was composed.

"Business."

Lexie’s
misgivings about Mitch showing up out of the blue increased by the second as
she looked past him toward the open doorway.

Dani
would be home soon.

She
leaned over and grabbed a couple of nails out of the toolbox. She closed her
fingers tight around them, the metal biting into her skin. "What kind of
business? You haven’t shown your face around here in years.” Not since that
awful night.

When
she straightened, Mitch's gaze still rested on her. "You understand why I haven’t
been back," he stated in a low, steady voice.

She
understood all too well. Through his haze of bitterness and grief, her father
had threatened anyone named Quinn with a snoot full of buckshot if he so much
as set one toe onto Dare land.   

"I’d
like to say I’m sorry the old man’s dead but...”

Lexie
thought of her father, Mason, buried on the ridge behind the house, and cursed
him even as love expanded in her heart. She'd been desperate to heal the gap
between them and ease the hurt from his disinterest that had plagued her all of
her life, but his unexpected death had put an end to her desperation forever. Lexie
hammered some nails into a loose board. "You haven’t answered my question."

"The
ranch is in bad shape."

She
looked at the worn walls where golden fingers of sunlight trickled through the
spaces in between the boards. "Dad fell apart after Parker died...drinking,
gambling. But you know that. After you left town, the ranch went down hill
fast, but I'm determined to bring it back up to speed. Parker would have wanted
me to try." And she was determined to succeed.

"He was
a wonderful son of a bitch, your brother," Mitch said with a ring of
sadness in his voice. "The best friend I ever had."

Lexie
glanced at Mitch over her shoulder. "Impossible not to love him, wasn't it?
He was such a scamp, but not a mean bone in his body. I wanted so badly to tag
along with the two of you, but all I got for my trouble was a yank on my pony
tail and a pat on the head.”

Despite
his treating her like a pesky little sister, Parker had always been there for
her when her father brushed her aside like an irritation. He would put his arm
around her, lift her chin, and throw her a crooked grin. Often, he berated
Mason on his insensitive treatment of her, but the old man's attitude toward
her never changed.

Tears
stung her eyes just thinking about the brother she’d loved and lost. "I
miss him every day. Each time I go riding, or look out over the land, I still
see him there. How could something he loved so much be the site of his horrible
death?" Her voice cracked. She shuffled into the tack room and slid the
toolbox onto a clear spot on the bottom shelf.

Parker's
saddle still sat on the rack in the corner. She knew she should sell his tack
or put his things into storage, but if she did she would close a door in her soul
she wasn't ready to close.

Lexie
bit her lip and choked back tears before crossing the alleyway to the feed room.
She gathered pails to prepare the horses' dinner.

Mitch's
voice drifted to her from outside the feed room. "Barn's full of horses. These
all yours?"

She
rejoiced over the occupied stalls, the bright faces of the horses that stared
eagerly out at her each morning and evening but they weren’t all hers no matter
how much she wished it. Training horses had kept her head above water.

Lexie
filled the buckets with sweet feed and oats then placed a piece of raw carrot
on top. She wiped her sweaty palms over her thighs as she stepped back into the
alley way. "No, they’re not all mine. Why don’t you stop stalling and tell
me why you’re here?"

"Why
do you love the land so much?” Mitch asked ignoring her question. He leaned
against the wall of the alleyway, crossed his arms over his chest and cocked
his head to one side. "Why is the ranch so important to you?"

Her
heart swelled with pride. "Because when you give to the land, the land
gives back. I tried to give to my father, but he only took and never gave
anything back. I give love and attention to the land and it flourishes.”

She
gave love to her daughter and she flourished too. The land was in her blood. The
ranch was a part of her like Dani was a part of her. She wanted a legacy to
leave her daughter and she wanted Dani to know that no matter what happened in
her life she always had a home.

What
if the ranch were snatched away one day? What if she couldn't turn things
around? What then? The thought of losing the land opened a cold, dark place
inside her. As long as she kept the land, Parker's memory would remain alive.

"I
know I can save this place if I put my mind to it.” She sighed and voiced the
longings she held close in her heart. "I want to build back the herd and
train championship horses and be totally self-sufficient. I want to make Dare
Ranch one of the best working ranches in the state."

When
she walked out of the feed room, Mitch was examining the barn. His gaze slid
over the loose boards in the walls and scrutinized the cracked concrete of the
alleyway, the worn and ragged condition of the stalls. After a moment, Mitch
tilted his head and stared at the hayloft. A kind of stillness came over him; a
slight smile played over his mouth. Quickly, his gaze shifted and fixed on her
eyes.

He
remembered.

Anxiety
rose into her throat. She didn’t need to be reminded. Every time she came into
the barn or looked into her daughter’s face, she remembered.   

To
hide her reaction, she moved on to the next stall. The black mare called
Morning Star nibbled at the latch on her stall, rattling the metal clasp
against the wood until the door swung open. Aspen, next door, pushed his muzzle
in her direction and blew softly in her face. Morning Star bobbed her head then
nipped Aspen lightly on the nose.

Lexie
skirted around Mitch standing by the door and stepped inside the stall. His woodsy
male scent wafted past her and blended with the scents of the barn. Awareness curled
in her stomach. She shook her head slightly and smiled to herself. You're not a
teenager anymore, Lexie. Stop acting like one.

When
she exited, Mitch closed the stall door. With practiced ease, he stroked his
large hand over Morning Star's ebony coat.

"You're
a pretty girl, aren't you?” His softly spoken words stirred Lexie’s memory. Mitch
had said almost the exact same words to her that long ago night. He'd made her
feel pretty, desirable and most of all, wanted.  

She
moved to Aspen's stall. The big palomino gelding crowded the door and shoved
his nose into the feed. With a gentle nudge, she pushed him out of her way and
poured the grain into his feeding trough. She patted him on the withers and
smiled.

Mitch
shrugged out of his jacket and hung it on an eye hook used to attach a lead
line when Lexie brought the horses out of their stalls for grooming. He grabbed
some buckets and helped her finish feeding the rest of the horses.

Muscles
knotted between her shoulder blades and a ball of panic tightened in her
stomach. He had to leave before Dani got home. Lexie closed the door on the
last stall then strolled to the doorway of the barn. She glanced nervously at her
watch. Two-forty. Dani would arrive in a few minutes. She had to get Mitch out
of here.   

To
calm her nerves, Lexie skimmed her gaze over the verdant land. Clouds, fat and
gray with rain, floated across the azure sky painting fleeting shadows over the
pastures. "I love this patch of earth. I'm sure there must be some of the
dirt from this place swirling through my blood.” In the distance, her two
remaining ranch hands cruised the fence line and moved a stray calf into the
herd. They were down to one hundred head on the eighteen hundred acre ranch.

Mitch
moved up beside her. His scent reached out and caressed her skin but she
refused to allow him to get to her. At least now, his nearness was no longer
the searing burn of a young girl's inexperienced emotions.

He'd
been irresponsible, headstrong and careless in his youth. She supposed those qualities
were what attracted her to him when she was an impressionable teenager, who
longed to be a bit careless and irresponsible herself. She’d been so desperate
for her father's love and attention she didn't dare be anything other than
responsible.

Until
he’d given her no other choice.

On
that night seven years ago she'd thrown caution and sensibility into the
brilliant night sky but she had no regrets. She'd grown a woman’s heart since
Mitch left town.

Some
mornings when she pulled on her jeans and boots as the sun struggled over the
horizon, the burden of responsibility weighted down her twenty-three year old
shoulders almost to the breaking point. She was glad for the years she’d had to
grow and change since Dani was born. The grief and anger between the Dares and
the Quinns had built a wall between the two families that even the tender feelings
of two love struck kids couldn’t tear down.

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