Wyatt Chandler straightened his Navy dress uniform collar and took a deep breath. He didn’t want to walk into that church, didn’t want to see the casket of his teammate with the American flag draped on top. Mostly, he didn’t want to see Danny’s wife and baby girl. He didn’t want Lisa to see the guilt in his eyes.
Guilt because he hadn’t been able to save Danny from the sniper’s bullet that had ended his life. Wyatt shoved a hand through his hair, cropped short in proper military style for a change, and sucked in another breath.
“Just get in there, dammit, and do your duty,” he muttered.
He shoved the door open and walked into the church. It was darker than he’d expected. It was overcast outside, and the meager light coming through the stained glass windows cast a muted glow on everything.
But of course it was gloomy. Candles flickered, but they couldn’t replace the light the world had lost when it lost Danny.
Wyatt stopped in the back of the church and took everything in. The gloom. The sobbing. The sadness. The utter despair of a life cut too short and the pain of those who had to go onward. The little girl playing down front who was too small to understand what was really happening and why her daddy was never coming home again.
A lump formed in his throat. His eyes stung. He’d sat through a funeral when he was not much older than Danny’s little girl. He didn’t remember much about it, but he remembered Gran sobbing while Gramps sat with his arm around her and tried to tell her it would be okay.
But it could never be okay. She’d lost her son and daughter-in-law. Wyatt and Gramps were all she’d had left.
Now it was only Wyatt because Gramps had died two years ago. The sobbing down front grew louder and Wyatt clamped his jaw tight at the anguish in it.
If he stayed in the Navy, would he go home in a casket too? Would Gran have to sit through another funeral, sobbing her heart out like Danny’s family was doing?
Soon he was going to have to make a decision about his future. But not today. Today was about honoring Danny, and about learning to live with this guilt that was eating him up inside.
He strode down the aisle toward the flag-draped casket. He was here to pay his respects. One last time.
Four months later…
Wyatt slid into the booth at No Man’s Land, the diner located on a portion of the Sentinel Bridge, and picked up the menu even though he didn’t really need it. The HALO pancakes topped with snow and drowned in rocket fuel were his favorite item on the breakfast menu. As a Navy SEAL, he’d done enough HALO jumps out of airplanes over enemy territory to get quite the kick out of pancakes named after what was essentially a very risky venture.
“Hi, Wyatt, how’s it going this morning?”
Mandy stood there with her order pad and a pen, smiling at him with that pretty smile of hers. He thought he should feel a hint of interest in her, but he didn’t. He should probably worry about that, especially since he’d been out of the SEALs for nearly two months now and had yet to kiss a woman—much less spend the night with one—but he couldn’t seem to care.
In truth, he had a hard time caring about much of anything right now. Except Gran, of course. Gran, who was at her doctor’s appointment and refused to let him join her. When he’d dropped her off, she’d told him to go get some breakfast and stop skulking around.
“Pretty good,” he said with a smile and a wink. “How about you?”
She said it shyly and he wondered if she was sweet on him or something. He hoped not, because he was so not the kind of man for a girl like her. Innocent. Nice. Probably naïve.
She cleared her throat. “Do you know what you want or should I just get you some coffee first and come back?”
He handed her the plastic menu. “I’ll take the pancakes and some coffee. And a side of scrambled eggs.”
“Sounds great. I’ll be back with your coffee. Food will be up soon.”
Wyatt knew from experience that he was about to get a lot of food. But he’d been doing manual labor off and on for Garrison Construction the past few weeks, so he didn’t worry about an expanding waistline. Construction wasn’t the same as humping through the jungle in full ruck, but it was still pretty hard work. It was also satisfying, like when he’d helped Adam Tucker turn the boathouse into a camp dorm over at A To Z Watersports.
The door opened and Zane Tucker, Adam’s twin, wandered in. He lifted his chin when he saw Wyatt and made his way over, flopping down in the chair opposite.
“How’s it hanging this morning, Wyatt?”
Wyatt raised an eyebrow. Ever since Zane had gotten cozy with the town librarian, Miss Harper Grace, he’d been smiling more. He was smiling now, matter of fact, and while it grated on Wyatt somewhere deep down, he was also happy for his friend. Zane was the jokester of their group—they didn’t call him Insane Zane for nothing—but Wyatt had always thought the joking hid deeper feelings of inadequacy. Maybe because Zane had been sickly as a child.
Well, he wasn’t sickly now. If anything, he was radiating health and happiness.
“It’s hanging. Lower than yours.”
Zane snorted. “Asshole. I’m still not sure I’ve forgiven you for the Wonder Woman costume. You aren’t working very hard to get back on my good side either.”
“I’m still on your good side. Without me, you might never have admitted you loved Harper.”
“Oh, I definitely would have. Without the costume, though.”
Wyatt flicked a gaze at the Snake River flowing below them. Eagle’s Ridge was beautiful this time of year. The foliage was lush, the river rolled against the banks, bringing water sports and good fishing, and the Blue Mountains soared against a clear sky.
Danny would have loved it here. He was crazy for good fishing. He’d told Wyatt all about his family farm and the bass ponds there while they were high up in the Hindu Kush, searching for insurgents and tracking down a terrorist leader. They’d survived that mission, just like they’d survived so many others.
Until one day when it all went wrong.
“What’s the bug up your ass this morning?” Zane asked, frowning.
Wyatt didn’t answer because Mandy chose that moment to return with the coffee.
“Hey, Zane—you want some coffee?”
“Sure thing. And give me the Two NCOs with Train Tracks,” he added, ordering the scrambled eggs and bacon. “Add some hash browns, too.”
“Be right up,” Mandy said as she jotted on her order pad. A few seconds later she was back with a second coffee cup.
When she left this time, Zane took a sip and waited. He clearly hadn’t forgotten his question, or Wyatt’s silence.
“There’s no bug,” Wyatt said, knowing Zane wouldn’t give up. They were too close for lies, so Wyatt went with evasion instead. “How’s Harper?”
“Nice try. She’s fine, by the way. But you aren’t. We’ve all noticed it.”
Wyatt’s gut twisted. “Why would you say that? I’m exactly where I want to be, doing what I want to do. I’m the definition of fine.”
“You’ve been in town for almost two months, and all you do is the occasional construction project for the Garrisons, or odd jobs for whoever gives you something to do.”
“I spent a solid week pasting photos into Gran’s albums, don’t forget. Gave myself a paper cut.”
Zane wasn’t fooled by the attempt at humor. “What’s going on with you, Wyatt?”
Wyatt’s hand tightened on the mug. “I’m fine, Zane.”
“Yeah, but you left the SEALs—and you won’t tell any of us why.”
Wyatt kicked back as if he were the most relaxed guy in the world. “It was time, that’s all. Gran’s sick. She needs me—”
“That woman does not need you, bro. She hasn’t slowed down a bit since her diagnosis. About all I’ve noticed is she doesn’t stop at the bakery for donuts anymore. Type 2 diabetes isn’t a death sentence. It’s controllable with medication and diet, and she’s doing just that.” Zane leaned forward, elbows on the table. “So what really gives, huh?”
Wyatt hesitated for a long moment. But his pain was his alone. He wasn’t going to burden his friends with any of it. Ryder, Adam, and Zane were happier than he’d ever seen them. He didn’t know about Jack, couldn’t get him to commit to anything more than a few phone calls, but he suspected Jack was dealing with something serious of his own. Then there was Noah, who was dealing with some serious family shit, and Ford, who seemed determined to stay on the other side of the country even though his family wanted him home and had a construction company for him to run.
Nope, nobody needed to listen to his shit so he wasn’t going to talk about it.
“Nothing, man. I’m just tired. I saw a lot overseas, a lot of bad stuff…” He hesitated. “Gran is the only family I have left. I thought I should come home and be around for her.”
Zane’s gaze searched his. He could tell the moment his friend decided to quit digging. Knowing Zane, however, it was only a temporary reprieve.
“Fine. But what do you plan to do with yourself in the long run? You’re too young to retire, and you need more than odd jobs here and there to keep you alive.”
Wyatt shook his head and grinned. “I saved a lot of combat pay. I’m good for a long time to come.”
Zane didn’t seem convinced. “I’m glad you won’t be panhandling or anything, but I still think you need to find your calling. Whatever that is.”
The food arrived then and Wyatt’s mouth started to water at the sight of all those pancakes. Nobody made pancakes like these. Not only that, but Sam Tucker’s homemade maple syrup was the taste of Wyatt’s childhood in a bite.
Zane tore into his eggs and bacon, and Wyatt forked up a bite of fluffy pancakes before meeting his friend’s eyes again.
“It’s cool, Zane. I have some ideas, but I’m not ready to jump on any of them yet.” It was a lie, but Zane didn’t need to know that.
Zane nodded. “Let me know if I can help. When you’re ready.”
“I definitely will. You owe me a few.”
“Pretty sure you owe me after the Wonder Woman incident.”
After breakfast, they parted ways. Zane returned to A To Z, and Wyatt shoved his hands in his pockets and walked back to his truck. It was still a good half hour before he had to pick up Gran. He leaned against the truck, one leg crossed over the other, and studied the picture the mountains and river made.
Eagle’s Ridge was beautiful. The scenery was practically the only thing that gave him any measure of comfort these days. When you stood beneath mountains so glorious, your troubles didn’t seem nearly as big as you thought they were.
His cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He slid it out and glanced at the screen. It was a Maryland number, but not one he recognized. He thought about letting it go to voicemail, in case it was a telemarketer or something, but since he had time to kill he decided to answer.
“Hey, Wyatt. This is Hawk,” a voice said in response to his clipped greeting.
Wyatt blinked. Hawk, whose real name was Jack Hunter, had been a legendary sniper in the Hostile Operations Team, the special terrorist hunting unit Wyatt had been a member of for the past three years. Hawk had left HOT to start his own security firm protecting high-end clients like his wife, pop superstar Gina Domenico. Wyatt had met the man a couple of times, but didn’t really know him.
“Hey, Hawk. What can I do for you?”
“I understand you’ve left the unit,” the other man said. “And I was wondering if you’d like to put your special skills to use.”
Special skills was code for the ability—and willingness—to use lethal force in a variety of ways. Wyatt frowned as he gazed at the mountains. There was a peak up there where the eagles nested that gave the town its name. He hadn’t been up there in years. He really needed to go see it again…
“I don’t think so,” he said. “But I appreciate the offer.”
“You haven’t even heard the offer yet,” Hawk replied. He sounded amused rather than annoyed.
“Yeah, well, I gotta tell you the truth—I think I’d be tempted. And I don’t want to be.”
Because yeah, he did miss the high octane thrill of operations. He missed the adrenaline rush, the highs of a job done well. He missed being a SEAL, and he missed HOT, a place where only the best of the best gained entrance.
Still, he’d made his decision. He was done.
“Look, it’s pretty simple really,” Hawk continued. “I have a client who needs guarding in Eagle’s Ridge. Nothing more complicated than that. You interested?”
He didn’t want to be. He really didn’t. But he could listen, right?
Y’all, I just can’t believe that Colonel Mendez’s story is almost here! Which means, of course, that I’ve finished writing it. But I’ll tell you a secret – I wish I’d written it twice as long.
I did NOT want to give Mendez up. I can’t believe that it’s over. I’m SAD. How crazy is that? But I love this character. When he first appeared in HOT PURSUIT, I had no idea he’d gain a following. He was just some old crusty full-bird colonel with gray hair who oversaw the Hostile Operations Team and ran it with an iron fist.
Little did I know how SEXY he was. How that gray hair was salt-and-pepper gray, and how he was really in his 40s rather than his 50s. That’s right, I DID NOT KNOW THOSE THINGS WHEN HE FIRST APPEARED. He was a minor character to me, but with a lot of mystery. Matt didn’t really know him. Nobody did.
And then he appeared in other books, always so cool and in control, always with more knowledge than his guys had. More experience. If that’s not sexy, I don’t know what is! And y’all started asking for his story. That amazed me, but then I started thinking about it. WHY couldn’t the sexy, 49-year-old colonel have a story? WHY NOT?
For years, New York publishers told us what we could do. I wrote for Harlequin Presents (and loved those books!), and it’s possible they would have let me write a 49-year-old. But most publishers wouldn’t. Too old, they’d say.
Well, hell, really? Because y’all ladies certainly have wanted Mendez’s story. What amazes me about that is at least half of you have told me he’s old enough to be your dad, but you don’t care. 😉 You wanted him anyway.
He’ll be here on Tuesday, July 18, 2017. And I’m so thrilled! But I miss him. I just can’t tell you how exciting his story was for me. The scenes – oh, the scenes! The things I got to write. Some of those scenes unfolded and I could barely keep up. I had the playlist on a loop (see below) and I could not write fast enough! It happened too quickly. I want to take it all back and keep spending my days and nights with the colonel.
Mr. Harris began to wonder, I’m certain, if I’d ever finish. Or if I’d keep telling him night after night that I was too busy to watch television with him. I wasn’t sure I’d finish either. I kept pushing my editors off, kept on working. I hated to let go.
But I finally did. I’m happy with the result — though don’t be surprised if Mendez gets more adventures in the future. For the first time ever, I understood wanting to write a character who gets multiple books. And he might — who knows! With Kat, of course, because they deserve their happily ever after.
I hope you love him as much as I do! I’m bereft it’s over. But proud of the result. Not everyone will agree — but I hope most of you will. Hugs and love. 🙂
HOT ADDICTION is out TODAY! I’m so excited that I wanted to give some shiz away. Check this out, and be sure to tell your friends about this HOT, sexy military man and the lady who broke his heart. This book is a wild ride, I swear!
From New York Times bestselling author Lynn Raye Harris comes the next explosive story in the Hostile Operations Team series!
Tell Dex I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let it go this far. I’ve thought for a while that marrying him wasn’t right, that I’m not the woman for him—I should have been brave enough to say so. He deserves more.
When Dex “Double Dee” Davidson was abandoned at the altar by the woman he loved, he threw himself into his military career, training hard enough to get accepted into the elite Black Ops unit known as HOT. The love he felt for Annabelle Quinn burned to ash in the face of her betrayal—so when she crashes back into his life and begs him to save her, he has no problem laughing in her face.
Blackmailed into jilting Dex and forced into an abusive marriage, Annabelle never thought she’d escape the hell of the last five years. But her husband died a month ago and she’s finally free. Except she isn’t. Someone claims that Eric stole a fortune—and they want it back. If she doesn’t return it within twenty-four hours, she’ll be dead—and so will her young daughter. With time running out, Annabelle has no one to turn to. No one except Dex.
When Dex learns that Annabelle’s husband committed treason against the US by selling a top secret military project to the Russians, he has no choice but to get involved. He’ll protect Annabelle and her child, and he’ll find out who’s threatening her. But he won’t fall for her intoxicating sensuality ever again. And if he discovers the secret she’s been hiding from him? It’ll be game over for good…
Another explosive, high-octane thrill-ride from New York Times bestselling author Lynn Raye Harris!
As a member of the elite Hostile Operations Team, Jake “Harley” Ryan expected that deadly assignments were a part of the deal. What he didn’t expect was to be sent on a suicide mission.
There were three men in the room besides him. Colonel John Mendez, the bad ass HOT Commander; Lieutenant Colonel Alex Bishop, the quieter but no less lethal Deputy Commander; and Declan MacKenzie, the legendary founder and leader of MacKenzie Security, a firm with government contracts and operatives around the world. That a private contractor was here in the HOT command center didn’t surprise him. That a private contractor was here to request his help did.
“You want me to go back to Georgia and pretend the last seven years didn’t happen? Just waltz up to the clubhouse and act like nothing’s changed?” He cocked his head as he stared at the three men. “What makes you think the Brothers will take me back? It’s more likely they’ll kill me on sight.”
Declan MacKenzie exchanged a look with Mendez. Then he shoved himself off the table he’d been leaning against and reached for a folder. He took out a sheet of paper and handed it to Jake.
“They might kill you, sure,” Declan said. “But I think you’re smart enough not to let that happen. And the colonel here is smart enough to make sure you get sent home under less than honorable circumstances so everything looks legit. Play your cards right and they’ll take you back.”
Jake glanced at the paper in his hand—and his gut twisted. Judge Harold Mason, aged sixty-four, widely believed to be on the short list for a Supreme Court seat, lay in a coma in an Atlanta hospital after a single car crash. His wife had died. There was a picture of the accident scene. It wasn’t pretty.
“That’s the judge who offered you a choice, right?” Declan asked. “Prison or the military?”
“Yeah.” It was more complicated than that, though. Judge Mason was responsible for who Jake had become—and who he hadn’t become. Jake had been young and angry when he’d faced the judge. Hell, he’d even been stupid—but his court-appointed attorney had not. Jake had barely been eighteen, and he’d figured going down with the Brothers of Sin was simply a rite of passage. He was still a recruit at that point, but he’d have done anything to belong to that group of badasses and earn the right to be a full-fledged Brother.
His attorney, along with the judge, had convinced him otherwise—Jake still didn’t quite know how—and here he was. An elite soldier. The best of the best. A man who could face overwhelming odds and win every time. Who stared death in the face and fucking laughed at it.
“He’s still in danger,” Declan said. “Unless we can get Brandon Cox and the Brothers on murder charges for Mrs. Mason and attempted charges for the judge.”
Jake set the paper down. “Look, I’d do anything for Judge Mason. He saved my life—but I wasn’t a witness to the crime. How can I possibly do anything to prove the Brothers had a hand in it?”
“You can’t. But there’s a woman who can.”
Another piece of paper was thrust into Jake’s hand. A woman’s face stared back at him. She wasn’t smiling. She had a faraway look that spoke of sadness and determination. She was climbing from a car, her long legs bared as her skirt rode up. She had long dark hair and blue eyes. She also had a wealth of tattoos, all in shades of black and gray—on her arms and legs, across her collarbone, over her belly where the cropped top she wore exposed the skin. There were words on her thighs.
It wasn’t ugly, though. On her, it was beautiful. As if she were made to wear ink.
He shook himself. “Then why aren’t you talking to her? Why ask me to get involved?”
It wasn’t that he wouldn’t throw himself on a grenade for the judge, but he wasn’t quite seeing how this worked yet. Why they needed him.
“We’d love to talk to her—but she won’t talk to us. Her name is Eva Gray. She’s twenty-four, a tattoo artist. She does work for the Brothers. Hell, she may even be involved with one of them, though we don’t know that for sure. But I can’t get any of my guys close enough without putting her in danger. You, however, could walk in as a Brother and get what we need.” Declan paused, his gray eyes growing troubled. “She’s in danger too, Jake. If my FBI sources are right, she’s the only witness willing to finger them. We have to get in there and get her out—and we have to convince her to talk or she’ll never be safe again.”
Jake glanced down at the photo. “She doesn’t look worried. She’s probably someone’s old lady. Maybe even Brandon’s. How do you know she’ll talk at all?”
“She called in an anonymous tip to the FBI. She’s willing but she needs some persuasion. Time is running out.”
Jake stood and handed the photo back to Declan. This woman had dared to break the code and call in a tip. It might have been anonymous, but clearly the FBI knew who’d done it. And the Brothers had ways of finding out things they shouldn’t know. When they did, they’d eliminate her.
“When do I go in?”
* * *
Eva Gray shook her hair from her face and bent back to the arm of the biker she was currently tattooing. It was a colorful tattoo, one with skulls and roses and twining vines. The dude gritted his teeth as she set her needle to his skin again. The inside of the arm was one of the worst possible places to get a tattoo. The skin was thin, the nerve endings were abundant, and it hurt like a motherfucker.
“You gonna make it, Duke?”
The old bastard snorted. “Yeah, little girl, I’ll make it.”
Eva laughed as she continued her line work. “I think you will. Tough man.”
She kind of liked Duke, as much as it was possible to like any of the Brothers. Which, for her, wasn’t much. But he was nice enough and never tried to cop a feel the way the others did.
The door to the studio opened and a chill breeze rolled in. It was October, so the days were getting cooler, but that wasn’t the source of the coolness in the room. At least not for her. Without looking up, she knew that Brandon Cox had walked in.
Yeah, she had to take it easy. Because she’d gone through a lot to get this close to the Brothers—to Brandon—and it wasn’t over yet. Years of work. No sense rushing when she was on the verge of victory. Patience was a virtue. It had served her well for seven long years of preparation, and it would continue to serve her well until she achieved her goal.
“Hey, baby, how you doing today?”
Eva glanced up at Brandon and gave him a sugary sweet smile even though he made her stomach turn. “Just great, Brandon. How about you?”
He swaggered over and leered at her. He wouldn’t touch her. Not yet, though she suspected his patience was beginning to wear thin on that score.
“I’m great, baby. Be even greater if you’d let me taste those sweet lips of yours.”
Revulsion slid down her spine like rancid grease. But she smiled anyway. “Can’t do that, man. You know I don’t mix business and pleasure.”
When she’d started tattooing the Brothers six months ago, she’d made it clear that if they wanted her art, they had to respect her rules—which had become doubly important when she moved to the compound a little over two months ago. Since she was damn good at what she did, they went along with it—other than the various attempts at copping a feel, which she always stamped down hard.
“Honey, there are other tattoo artists.”
“But none as good as me.”
Duke snorted. “She’s got you there, boss.”
“Yeah, yeah, all right. Shame to waste that body though.”
“Is there something you wanted, Brandon?” she asked. “I’ve got another hour on Duke before I can get to you.”
“Not me, baby.” He turned and made a motion and another man walked inside. “Need you to do something for my man Jake.”
Eva’s heart skipped as her eyes met cool amber ones. Her jaw felt as if it had dropped to the floor. She swallowed.
Jake Ryan. Dear God. He’d been a Brother all those years ago when Heather was still alive. She knew it because, before he’d joined a motorcycle gang, he’d been in her high school. She’d spent hours staring at Jake from behind her glasses. Hours imagining pressing her mouth to his and tasting him. He’d been a bad boy, moody and just this side of delinquent, and she’d been oh so fascinated. Her and every other girl.
He hadn’t made it through their senior year, however. At a certain point, he’d left school. She’d seen him around town in his cut, the jacket that proclaimed him a Brother. How he’d gotten a motorcycle she’d never known, but just seeing him rumble through town on his Harley had been enough to set her heart racing.
Her heart was hammering now, and not because he was gorgeous. She told herself that he wasn’t going to recognize her. No one had. No one. Not the people she’d known in school, not her aunt who still lived in town, not a single person. She’d changed that much. Deliberately.
Who she’d been before was dead, and there was only Eva Gray in her place. It had to be that way.
But she still dropped her gaze from Jake’s and focused on Duke’s arm. She’d bobbled the line she was working, but she could fix it.
“All right, sure. What’s he want?” she asked.
Brandon clapped Jake on the back. “He’s going to need the Brothers of Sin freshened up. It’s faded a bit since he left us for the military.”
Military? She’d wondered where he was when she’d returned to town and he hadn’t been in the club anymore. Thought maybe he’d gone to prison or something. So many of the Brothers rotated through the system like it was a revolving door that she didn’t think he’d be any different.
And she certainly hadn’t cared that she’d be taking him down along with the rest of them when the time came.
“Sure thing. Just have to finish Duke first.”
“Take your time,” Jake said. His voice was so unexpected that it hit her like a splash in an icy pool. Deep, resonant, filled with all that sexy promise she’d worshipped back in the day.
After Heather had gone inside the club, she was only allowed out with an escort. She’d visited Eva and their mother as often as she could, and sometimes Jake was the one tasked with accompanying her when she did. He wouldn’t come inside the house, but when Eva took him a drink on the porch, he was nice to her.
“I intend to,” she said. Because she couldn’t afford softness with these men. They were predators. One whiff of weakness and they’d rip her throat out.
He snorted. “I see why you hired her,” he said to Brandon. “Sexy and bitchy. She’d make a great old lady.”
“Don’t go gettin’ any ideas,” Brandon said gruffly. “Eva treats her body like it’s a sacred temple or something. She won’t fuck a Brother. Will you, baby?”
She didn’t glance up. “Nope. I gotta stay true to my art.”
“See? Crazy bitch, but she’s good with the ink.”
“Love you too, Brandon,” she deadpanned.
One of these days she’d go too far, but for now the leader of the Brothers of Sin only laughed. Evil, murdering bastard.
“You let me know when you’re ready for some real lovin’, baby, and I’ll give it to you good and hard.”
Not if she gave it to him good and hard first. And she wasn’t talking about sex.
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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