Carrie Collins has been trying to hold it together for three years, since her husband Sean was killed in the line of duty during an undercover drug operation gone bad. If that and the mountain of bills she was left with weren’t bad enough, her son becomes mixed up with the wrong crowd at school. Carrie feels like a failure as a mother, and does the only thing she can think of to fix things, she goes back to her parent’s ranch.
Her dead husband’s best friend, the man accused, but later exonerated of, Sean’s murder shows up at the ranch with his new wife and offers her a break from the kids and the craziness of her life. Carrie is reluctant to accept, but he won’t take no for an answer. She goes to the R & R Ranch, but doesn’t find relaxation there. What she finds is a tall, charismatic ex-rodeo cowboy who not only ties her emotions in more knots than his lasso, he wakes up her dormant libido.
Carrie fights the attraction, because the last thing she needs is a man like Dylan Thomas in her life, a tumbleweed kind of guy who tells her in no uncertain terms he isn’t looking for a relationship. She knows her kids deserve better and so does she. Her kids aren’t there though, and the temporary fantasy he represents becomes too much to resist.
Dylan Thomas wants nothing more than to return to competitive bull riding after an almost career-ending injury landed him at the R & R Ranch teaching rich greenhorns to ride bulls. A year and a half of catering to those wealthy snobs has him bored and restless, until a curvy brunette convinces him it might not be so bad to hang around for a little while longer.
Carrie Collins takes hard to get to an olympic-class level though, and it takes everything in Dylan’s bag of tricks to get close to her. When things finally heat up between them, he finds out there are a couple of things she hasn’t told him about. Like the two kids she has who show up at the ranch, and the job she has accepted there.
His temporary fling with the cute ranch guest suddenly gets a lot more complicated and permanent. Especially when former associates of her son turn up at the ranch demanding money she doesn’t have. Dylan knows then he’s borrowed a helluva lot of trouble he didn’t need in his life by getting involved with her, but when the opportunity to leave presents itself, how can he leave her in danger?
The throaty rumble of a powerful engine reached Carrie Collins inside the barn and her eyebrows knotted. She laid the saddle blanket back on the shelf, and dusted her hands on her jeans as she walked to the door. Shielding her eyes, she looked at the road to see who was paying them a visit. Maybe it was one of her mother’s friends from church, she thought, but then a slick, black motorcycle emerged from the trees onto the gravel drive leading up to the house and she realized she was very wrong. Neither rider wore a helmet, both wore bandanas instead. One rider was in black leather and the other in white.
Concern shot through her, and Carrie considered going back inside to get the shotgun her daddy kept in the office, just in case, but the kids and her daddy were in the house. He could see her from there and she knew he must hear the loud engine too. She walked out of the barn to stand under the tree and wait for them to make it to the barn.
The bike stopped, and the driver put down the kick stand. He leaned down to fiddle with something at the side of the bike and she noticed the pattern on his bandana said Groom of Doom interspersed with hearts over crossed bones. Cute, but definitely not bad ass, she thought, feeling a little better about her mysterious visitors. A man wouldn’t wear a bandana like that if he was a bad guy, would he?
From the curves the white leather suit hugged, it was obvious his passenger was a woman. She swung her long leg over the back of the bike and stood. Carrie squinted and made out that the wording on her white bandana that said Bitchin’ Bride. The man on the front of the bike looked back up, and his sunglasses were gone. Recognition hit her between the eyes and Carrie gasped. “Trace…”
His jaw tightened, accentuating the scar on his left cheek, which he had to have gotten in prison. Trace Rooks was still handsome as sin, but he looked rougher, tougher and much harder than he had when she saw him last in court. When they convicted him of killing her husband, Sean. Heat shot up her throat and gathered as pressure behind her eyes. Trace hadn’t killed Sean, she reminded herself, shoving the old bitterness she’d lived with for three years away. Sean’s other best friend, Seth Copeland, had not only killed Sean, he had set Trace up for the crime.
Seth was in jail now, and Trace was free. But it was obvious from the look in his haunted eyes that Trace wasn’t free at all. Not any freer than she was.
The woman with him glanced at Trace, before quickly walking over to Carrie to extend her hand. “I’m Ronnie Win—“ she started, then a fleeting smile curved her red lips. She glanced back at Trace again, then corrected, “Ronnie Rooks.”
“That’ll take some getting used to,” Trace said with a laugh as he got off the bike and walked over to drape an arm around Ronnie’s shoulders. “Ronnie and I got married in Vegas.”
Married? Trace Rooks? The man her husband said was a world-class player who would probably never get married was married to none other than the Shark Lady. The woman who had represented him during his trial, and recommended a plea deal that sent him to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. At the time, Carrie thought the slick attorney was brilliant, that she would get him off scot free. To Carrie, even the three year sentence the judge handed down was pretty damned close to getting him off scot free. But Trace evidently thought otherwise, because on his way out of the courtroom he had threatened to strangle this woman. And now they were married. Unbelievable.
Her eyes locked with the woman beside Trace and Ronnie Rooks full red lips curved to spotlight her perfect white teeth. Carrie ran her hand over her own hair, which she’d done nothing to except pull back in a haphazard ponytail that morning. She hadn’t worn makeup since Sean died three years ago, so she knew she must look a mess in comparison to the striking woman.
“Wow,” was all Carrie could push past her frozen vocal chords.
Trace hugged Ronnie to his side. “The honeymoon is over and Ronnie has an election to win,” Trace informed with a surprising smile for the beautiful redhead. “But I wanted to stop by to check on you and the kids. I’ve uh, been meaning to do that for a while.”
What Carrie wanted was to get Trace out of there. His stopping by, or worrying about her at all was astonishing to her. She was embarrassed at the nasty things she’d said to him at the courthouse as they led him off to jail. Those words should have assured she would never see him again. But here he was. Typical Trace. He never knew when to leave well enough alone. Even though he’d been a player, he was a good man. It was the reason he had been Sean’s best friend. When someone needed help, Trace was always there. He was the one who should be wearing the white leather suit.
Well, Carrie didn’t want his chivalry or his concern. She’d been doing just fine on her own for three years now. Seeing him just reminded her of Sean, dredged up old memories she had been trying to bury since her husband died. The kids would feel the same. Chris and Izzy had enough problems right now, and so did she.
Carrie sucked in a breath and forced a smile. “Oh, that’s sweet, Trace, but I’m fine—”
His eyes narrowed. “It’s obvious that you’re not fine, Carrie,” he grated. “Seth might be an asshole, but he didn’t lie about what was going on with you. You moved out here because the kids were out of control, and you lost your house. I want to help you, if you’ll let me.” Trace’s eyes fell to her left hand, and Carrie hid it behind her back. “It’s been three years since Sean died, and you’re still wearing your wedding ring?” he asked incredulously.
Because in her mind she was still married to him. The man she had dated in high school then married when she was eighteen had been the love of her life. Yeah, they’d had their problems, but Carrie knew Sean would always be there for her. Unless he was working, which he did most of their married life. Or he did something stupid. Like get himself killed.
Anger and grief warred inside of her and Carrie spun the ring around her finger with her thumb. Trace Rooks of all people knew how much she loved Sean, how much he had meant to her. He had been Sean’s best friend and the best man at their wedding. Him questioning her about still wearing her ring, like she didn’t have a right to do that, pissed her off. She didn’t owe him or anyone else any explanations about how she handled her grief. “I don’t want any help,” Carrie said firmly.
His arm fell from around Ronnie’s shoulder, and his hands clenched into fists at his side. “Well that’s too damned bad, you’re getting it,” he said taking a step toward her. It’s the summer, so the kids are out of school right?”
Carrie’s neck rocked back on her shoulders to meet his eyes. What the hell did that matter? “Yeah, they’re out of school. Why?”
“You ever hear of the R & R Ranch?” Trace asked.
Ranch? That place was a spa for rich people who were looking for adventure. Not somewhere she would ever visit in this lifetime. “Yeah, I’ve heard of it.”
“The owner is a friend of Ronnie’s and we’ve made arrangements for you to go there for a week. You need a damned break. Ronnie and I will keep Chris and Izzy for the week,” he said. The woman beside him gasped, and Trace glared down at her, before looking back at Carrie. “I want to see them anyway.”
Before Sean’s death, Trace had been a fixture in her kid’s life. She had tried to shield them from the ugliness of the murder trial, because they considered him an uncle, but Chris knew. She couldn’t keep him away from the television when the trial was going on. The more he watched behind her back, the angrier and more withdrawn he became. Carrie hadn’t had a chance to talk to her son since Trace had been cleared. “Um, that’s probably not a good idea.”
“Why the hell not? I want to talk to him.”
Carrie didn’t miss the hurt in Trace’s tone. He loved her kids as much as Sean had, but they didn’t feel the same now. Because Carrie hadn’t had time to talk to them. “Chris doesn’t know you’ve been cleared,” she admitted looking away.
“Why haven’t you told him?” he demanded.
Carrie heard the unmistakable sound of a pump shotgun being racked and spun toward the barn door. Her tall, lanky thirteen-year-old son stood there with her father’s shotgun to his shoulder, eyeing down the sight at Trace.
“Get out of here murderer,” he growled trying to sound fierce, but his voice trembled.
Fear shot to her throat. Carrie swallowed it down and tried to force calm into her tone, “Chris, put the shotgun down.”
It was true. Chris was out of control, but she had no idea how to help him. Counselors hadn’t worked, suspension from school for smoking pot hadn’t worked, grounding for the summer hadn’t worked. Moving away from the nasty group of friends he’d been hanging out with at the old house hadn’t worked. Carrie was afraid he was going to end up dead or in jail if she didn’t do something. She just didn’t know what to do. He needed a man in his life, a good man other than her father who was just too old to deal with teenagers any more.
Trace stepped forward and spread his arms. “Shoot me,” he invited and Ronnie and Carrie gasped at the same time. “If it will make you feel better and you think it will bring your daddy back, just do it, kid. I loved him too, and I love you.”
Carrie thought Trace must’ve lost his mind. The gun shook in Chris’s hand, and she thought he might do accidentally shoot him. Trace was even bolder though, he showed no fear as he took a step around her, then another toward Chris. Carrie saw Chris’s eyes fill, but his grip on the gun got tighter. His finger moved into the well of the trigger.
“I love you, Chris. I want to help you,” Trace said taking another step toward him. “I didn’t kill your daddy.”
“They sent you to jail. You killed him!” Chris said in a higher voice.
“Seth Copeland killed him,” Trace countered taking another step toward him. “Ask your mother,” he said gruffly shooting a glare over his shoulder at Carrie.
“It’s true, honey,” Carrie said with a waver in her voice. “He’s in jail, and Uncle Trace has been cleared. It was all a mistake.”
Chris swung his eyes toward her, then back to Trace. The barrel of the gun lowered a few inches, and his shoulders relaxed a little. Carrie’s did too, but Izzy picked that moment to run around the side of the barn yelling her brother’s name. Chris tensed again and swung the gun in Izzy’s direction. Carrie screamed, Ronnie gasped, and as if in slow motion, Trace shot forward to tackle him around the waist. The gun exploded and Carrie squeezed her eyes shut, because she just couldn’t look. Her ears rang as the sound reverberated through the trees, and she prayed that she hadn’t just lost her daughter too.
About Becky McGraw
Becky McGraw is a married mother of three adult children, and a Southern girl by birth and the grace of God, ya’ll. She resides in South Texas with her husband and dog Abby.
A jack of many trades in her life, Becky has been an optician, a beautician, a legal secretary, a senior project manager for an aviation management consulting firm, which took her all over the United States, a real estate broker, and now a graphic artist, web designer and writer. She knows just enough about a variety of topics to make her dangerous, and her romance novels interesting and varied. Being a graphic artist is a good thing for her too, because she creates her own cover art, along with writing the novels.
Becky has been an avid reader of romance novels since she was a teenager, and has been known to read up to four novels of that genre a week, much to the dismay of her husband, and the delight of e-book sellers.
She has been writing fictional short stories and novels for fun, as well as technical copy for her jobs for many years. She was a member of the Writer’s Guild on AOL, as well as a founding member and treasurer of the first online chapter of the Romance Writers of America, From the Heart Romance Writers. Currently, she is a PAN member of RWA and a general member of FTHRW.
You can find Amazon Bestselling Author Becky McGraw at:
Texas Trouble Series by Becky McGraw: