MAX is coming on November 29th! Today I have an exclusive excerpt for you. Here's Chapter One, which is unedited and may not be in quite its final form yet. Enjoy!
“What the hell?” Max muttered. He’d just turned into the driveway at Applegate Farm and it wasn’t quite what he’d expected. He kept his foot on the brake of his truck and let his gaze sweep the green grass and white rail fences. It was pretty, if a bit tattered at the edges, but where was the racetrack? And why was there an arena and a horse that was… what? High-stepping like something in a parade, that’s what.
The horse was big and flashy, a chestnut with a red mane and tail that were lighter than his coat. There was a rider on his back, a woman with dark brown hair set in a ponytail that bounced as she posted up and down while the horse trotted around the arena.
Max had expected a racetrack with jockeys perched high on horses’ backs, exercising them in the morning coolness. The paperwork he’d gotten hadn’t said what kind of horse farm, but since this was Kentucky, he’d just assumed.
This woman was not a jockey. Her legs were on the horse’s sides, not folded up beneath her. The horse’s head was high and proud—and there was that prancing thing going on.
He didn’t know a whole lot about horses, but he knew this wasn’t a thoroughbred racehorse. Which didn’t make a lot of sense. Why had his father bought a horse farm that clearly wasn’t a racing establishment? Where was the profit in that? Max would have said that his father was always looking for the best way to make money at anything, so this made little sense.
“Dammit, Dad, what have you done?”
It had been seven months since his father had died. Colin Brannigan hadn’t told a soul that he’d gotten a diagnosis of a rare and aggressive cancer. No, he’d moved himself to the Bahamas and died surrounded by paid caretakers rather than his family. And then he’d left a bunch of envelopes with his handwriting on them, each addressed to one of his seven sons, and asked Aunt Claire to distribute them.
Max’s had arrived a couple of months ago now, when he’d finally been Stateside again, but he hadn’t opened it right away. He’d stared at it and then propped it on his bedside table with a plan to open it the next day. Enough time had passed that he knew it wasn’t money. The estate was in trust and wouldn’t be distributed for five years. Typical Dad in many ways.
His brothers had gotten odd bequests—a motorcycle, a lodge, a map, the family house—so he’d expected his would be odd too. He hadn’t known how odd until he’d opened the envelope, which hadn’t happened the next day since Ian Black had called him with another overseas mission. Max had grabbed his gear and headed out, glad to avoid the contents of the envelope for another few weeks.
When he’d returned a few days ago, he’d had to stop putting off the inevitable. The envelope had contained a deed to a horse farm in Kentucky, along with a contract that explained the terms. There was a catch, of course. There was always a catch.
He eased the truck down the driveway and parked beside the barn. It was a big barn, long and painted white. He got out of the truck and surveyed the area. There was a house tucked under some trees a few yards away. It was an older house, brick with white columns, and had that look of genteel Southern decay that you often saw while driving through the old towns of the South.
The farmland was rolling, with tall grass that would probably be harvested for hay, and other fields were dotted with horses. He counted ten horses in the pasture, and three babies.
The woman on the horse had stopped trotting. He thought she was finished, but then she did something with the reins and the horse started doing something that looked… well, odd. It was almost like a trot, except it wasn’t, and the horse looked regal and elegant while doing it.
Still, Max wasn’t here to watch horses. He was here to find Elinor Applegate and talk to her about selling this farm. Another woman walked out of the barn just then and stood beside the arena to watch. When she spotted Max, she started walking toward him. He moved in her direction and when they were close enough, she smiled. She was a pretty blonde, petite, but he suspected she was stronger than she looked if she was out here handling horses.
“Hi, welcome to Applegate Farm. I’m Lacey Hamilton. What can I help you with today?”
Max took her proffered hand. “Max Brannigan. I’m looking for Elinor Applegate.”
Lacey’s eyes crinkled as her smile widened. “That’s Ellie,” she said, indicating the woman on the horse. “She’ll be a few more minutes if you care to wait.”
“Yeah, I’ll wait.” It wasn’t like he had anywhere else to be right now. He’d told Ian that he wasn’t taking any jobs for the next month or so while he disposed of his inheritance. He thought of the day when Knox had opened the storage facility and found out what Dad left him. They’d been on the phone when Knox made the decision to put the key in the lock and then Knox had emailed him after. Now Max was wondering why he couldn’t have gotten the motorcycle. At least he’d know what to do with that.
“So I’m guessing these aren’t racehorses,” he said as he watched the horse in the arena fly around it, still doing that high-stepping gait.
Lacey laughed. “Definitely not. Ellie raises and trains American Saddlebreds.” She nodded toward the arena. “That’s a rack, if you’re wondering.”
After a moment of surprise, he decided that Lacey wasn’t discussing Ellie’s chest. “It’s different, that’s for sure.”
“It is. But it’s beautiful, right?” Lacey whooped then, surprising him, but she was yelling at Ellie and the horse as they flew by. “Yeah boy!”
Max couldn’t deny that it was beautiful. There was something fluid and graceful about the way the horse moved—and the way the rider sat up straight and tall. “Yep, it’s amazing. I’ve never seen that before.”
Lacey smiled. “You came on a good day then.”
Ellie brought the horse to a stop and then bent over and hugged his neck. The horse stood there blowing and sweating, his mouth working the bit while she petted him. Then she sat up and gathered the reins loosely. The horse started walking toward the exit.
“Come on into the barn,” Lacey said.
Max followed her inside. He’d ridden horses a couple of times growing up. There’d been that summer when his parents had taken them all to the Algoma Resort and he and his brothers took a lesson from the trainer there. The biggest surprise had been Mom. She hadn’t needed a lesson at all. She’d gotten on that horse and took off like she’d been born to it.
Max could still remember the smell of the stables, that sweet hay and horse smell that had filled his days. They’d been happy days with his family—before his mother died and everything changed.
Walking into the stables now, he was hit with that same smell. It was a happy smell—and a sad one because it reminded him, forcefully, that both his parents were gone and he’d never be that carefree little boy he’d once been. Hell, as if that was the only reason he’d never be carefree again.
He shook off his dark thoughts as Lacey chatted beside him. Now was not the time.
“Hey, Ellie, got a visitor for you,” Lacey said as Ellie strode down the aisle, leading the horse. Max did a bit of a double take at the size of the beast—and the diminutive form of the woman standing beside him. “I’ll take Champ.”
“Thanks,” Ellie said, handing the reins to Lacey and patting the horse on the neck. “You were a good boy, today,” she said. “Extra carrots for you.”
Max moved out of the aisle as Lacey led the horse past him, then turned and faced Elinor Applegate. She was small, about five-four or so, and when she smiled his heart did a little skip thing that was completely unexpected.
“Hi there,” she said. “I’m Ellie—what can I help you with today?”
“I’m Max.” He expected her to react to his name, but she didn’t. She just kept looking at him with a smile on her face in spite of the fact her eyebrows drew together for a second.
She didn’t know him. Dammit, Dad, what are you playing at?
“It’s nice to meet you, Max. Are you here about the HVAC? I called for service yesterday, but I thought Roger wasn’t sending anyone out until tomorrow.”
“No,” he said, and she frowned slightly. “I’m Max Brannigan. Colin Brannigan’s son.”
* * *
Ellie’s mouth went dry and her heart beat a little faster. She’d known this day was coming, but she’d kept hoping as the months went by since Colin’s death that it wouldn’t come until later this year. She only needed a few more months and then Champ might just save her bacon—and the farm’s bacon.
But if a Brannigan was here now, then time was running out. She tried to keep the smile on her face as she gazed at him. Holy cow he was tall. And seriously beautiful. Dark hair, silver eyes, and the kind of muscles that said he could haul hay and not even feel worn out at the end of the day. Not that she imagined the son of a media tycoon had ever hauled hay. Or gotten dirty for that matter.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said, bringing her mind back to the topic at hand. “Your father was a good man.”
He looked momentarily surprised. “Thank you.”
“Can I offer you something to drink? Sweet tea? Lemonade? Water?”
She didn’t know what else to do with him. Plus she wanted to stall for time since she was pretty sure she didn’t want to hear whatever he’d come here for. His brows drew down for a second as his gaze raked over her. She knew her face was red from exertion and she could feel the sweat dripping between her breasts. She looked like hell while he looked like something that had walked off one of his father’s movie sets.
“I’m fine, but you look like you could use something,” he said.
Yep, she looked like hell.
“Come up to the house.” Not that she wanted him inside her home, but she wanted him in her barn even less. He could take this all away from her—or so she assumed. She didn’t know the terms of Colin’s will or who got what—she only knew she hadn’t gotten her farm back. Not that she’d expected a man she’d only met once would leave it to her, of course. The Brannigans owned it and could do what they wanted.
She tried not to imagine the worst as she trudged up to the house with Max at her side. He didn’t say anything as they walked and she didn’t either. How could she speak when her throat was tight and her mind conjured the worst?
She’d beg him. That’s what she’d do. Just a few more months. Just until Louisville and the World’s Championship Horse Show at the end of August. That was all she needed. She had no pride when it came to her horses and her farm. She’d do whatever it took to keep them.
Stop it, Ellie. You don’t know why he’s here. He could just be checking on a Brannigan investment.
Yes, he could—but that wasn’t any better, was it? As an investment, Applegate Farm sucked. She pulled in a deep breath as she stepped up onto the stone porch and reached for the door. Max beat her to it, pulling the screen door wide so she had only to open the big wooden door to the house.
She tried not to focus on his presence behind her, on the heat and size of him as he stood so close. The door swung open and she stepped into blessed coolness. The house was old, dating from around the turn of the century, but at least Momma had invested in air conditioning when she’d had the money.
“Come in and have a seat. I’ll just be a second.” She showed Max to the settee in the living room and then tried not to think about how he dwarfed it as he sat down. His legs were long, and his arms were packed with muscle. Not the kind of muscle that came from a gym, though she imagined some of it did, but the kind that came from hard work.
She hadn’t realized it when she’d been looking at him in the barn, but it was definitely a shock now. She’d have said a Brannigan didn’t need to work a day in his life to be comfortable and fed. It made her wonder what kind of hard labor he must have done to get that way. Probably something like rock climbing or an extreme sport. Hadn’t she read that one of his brothers was an extreme athlete?
Yes. Luke Brannigan.
Max lifted one eyebrow and Ellie dragged her gaze away, mortified that she’d been staring. “Sure you don’t want anything?”
Boy was he. “Make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right back.”
She marched into the kitchen and tugged open the ancient refrigerator. After she grabbed a bottle of water, she rolled it over her forehead and cheeks before twisting off the cap and taking a drink. She stood at the sink, staring out at the rolling fields and the horses grazing peacefully, tails swishing, before she drew herself up and headed back to the living room.
Max looked up as she entered and she forced herself not to react to his pretty face. Not this time. She sank onto a chair opposite and set her water on the side table. Then she pasted on a smile.
“I don’t suppose you’re here for a social call, so if you’d like to tell me what this is about, we can get on with it.”
Take the bull by the horns, Ellie. That’s what Momma always used to say whenever Ellie had hesitated over something. Typically, Momma was talking about a training a horse. Hesitation was defeat when dealing with horses. And maybe it was with this man too.
Max Brannigan stretched his arm along the back of the settee, muscles bunching and smoothing as he did so. Ellie’s mouth went dry.
“No, not really. My father left me this farm and I came out here to see what kind of operation you have. I have to admit that I’m disappointed.”
Ellie felt his comment like a blow. It also raised her hackles. “I’m sorry we’re not up to your standards, Mr. Brannigan.”
A flush of anger and embarrassment rolled through her as she thought of what he must think sitting in her rundown living room. The house was old and historic, but in desperate need of repair work. Except work took money, and that was something she didn’t have. She should have never invited him inside. Now he was here and she had to endure knowing that he was looking down his nose at her and her home.
He frowned. “I’m sorry, that came out wrong. I meant that I don’t understand why my father bought this farm. You’re raising Saddlebreds, according to Miss Hamilton, and I fail to see why he would have been interested in something so, well, decorative. I expected racehorses. Something that could earn money.”
Ellie’s pulse was a wild thing. As if she hadn’t heard it all before. Saddlebreds were useless. Flighty. Silly. What could anyone possibly see in these horses? They got so little respect outside of the Saddlebred community. They weren’t Olympic horses, weren’t racehorses, weren’t work horses—she’d heard it all, and it just wasn’t true. Saddlebreds were versatile, intelligent. Hell, they used to be Calvary horses during the Civil War—how was that decorative?
Still, if she looked at it objectively, she could understand his confusion. He wasn’t a horseman, and racehorses made more sense for a tycoon like Colin Brannigan to have invested in.
Ellie cleared her throat, uncertain how much to say. “My mother and yours were good friends. When my mother needed an investor, your dad was there. She offered the farm as collateral and we’ve been paying the loan back faithfully ever since.”
It was much more complicated than that, but Ellie wasn’t telling him any more than he needed to know. Some things were too private, and too heartbreaking, to discuss with strangers. Even a stranger who was the son of the man who’d helped out at a very bad time.
“I didn’t know that. He didn’t explain it in the paperwork he left me.”
Ellie twisted her hands together in her lap. “I will pay you back, Mr. Brannigan. I send in the money every month, or as much of it as I can—and I hope to buy the loan outright in the near future.”
He was frowning. “How soon?”
She hesitated. It was nothing more than hope and speculation at this point. “I-I don’t know. A few months. Maybe a year.”
If she was lucky. If Champ kept working the way he was going and she won the five-gaited stake at Louisville in August. If someone offered to buy him once he did, though the prospect of losing such a talented colt hurt on many levels. So many ifs to get where she needed to go.
Max’s frown grew deeper. “I’m not interested in running a horse farm, Miss Applegate. You can buy the loan back now—or we can discuss liquidating the property and settling the debt.”
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