North Central Texas
It was strange how a day could go south quicker than a steam locomotive on a downhill slope.
Cooper Thorne drew his black hat farther down on his forehead and reflected on that fact as he rode across his ranch land, trying to recapture the good mood he’d enjoyed before his morning turned into an unholy mess.
He kneed Rebel into a trot and navigated a small rise before reining the powerful buckskin to a halt to take in the breathtaking sunrise. This was his favorite vantage point from which to gaze out over the gently rolling hills that comprised the Long Odds Ranch.
Tall cliffs bordered the six hundred and forty acres on three sides. The only way to enter his spread was from the east. He felt safe here.
It had taken blood and sweat and dogged determination to get where he was. Fair to say he’d been through hell and come out the other side to claim this life for his own.
He rested his elbow on the saddle horn and took in the view.
This wild Texas land was his home. For the first time in his almost thirty years, he’d truly found a place to belong. It felt right, and his soul was at peace at last.
Or as much as it ever would be.
The rich black soil that could raise fine crops or prime cattle was now in his blood. It had put back together his broken dreams.
He’d chomped at the bit to get out and put his hands to work…until he got to breakfast. Mack Malone, the cook he’d hired a month ago, had burned the biscuits, charred the eggs, and mangled the flapjacks. Then his horse threw a shoe and Cooper had to round up the ranch blacksmith to put a new one on. And to make matters worse, one of his ranch hands up and quit with branding about to start. All before dawn. He needed this moment of peace before heading back to work.
Because heaven only knew what awaited him next…
His middle brother, Rand Sinclair, sat cooling his heels on the porch when Cooper finally made it back to the house sometime that afternoon.
Rand’s ever-present grin widened as he unwound his tall frame and got slowly to his feet. “Thought I’d have to send up smoke signals or get Brett to track you down or something. Figured you’d be coming in to get some vittles sooner or later, but I’d about decided maybe you’d packed up and moved on without telling anyone.”
Cooper dismounted. “I do run a ranch, you know. Out here we work from can to cain’t, unlike you. All you do is pour whiskey down drunks and watch their wives have a conniption.”
“There’s a lot more to it than that, and you darn well know it. I work hard to make a living.”
“Reckon so. You eaten?”
“This an invite?”
“All you’ll get.”
“In that case, I can always eat.”
“Don’t I know it.” Cooper led the way to the kitchen table.
Over a plateful of beans with chunks of ham and fried potatoes that were thankfully almost edible, Cooper turned to Rand. “What brings you all the way out here? Shouldn’t you be in town lubricating those drunks and taking their money?”
Rand owned the Lily of the West in the nearby town of Battle Creek. Their younger brother, Brett Liberty, had acquired the Wild Horse Ranch, five miles as the crow flies from the Long Odds Ranch, though it was more like seven or eight if you traveled by road.
“They don’t need me for that. It’ll happen whether I’m there or not.” A big grin stretched from ear to ear and devilment twinkled in Rand’s blue eyes. He leaned back as though very satisfied with himself.
“What’s got you in such a good mood?” Cooper sensed a shoe was about to drop. He didn’t like dropping shoes. Or grinning brothers who knew something he didn’t. “You look like a cat that just caught himself a big fat mouse.”
“A woman arrived on the stage today. A mail-order bride. Claims you agreed to marry her.”
Cooper’s fork clattered to the table. “Of all the…! Whose idea of a sick joke is this?”
“Can’t understand why you didn’t see fit to tell Brett and me that you’d changed your mind about taking a wife,” Rand teased. “You being head honcho of the Battle Creek Bachelors’ Club and all.”
“You know better than that. Wipe that grin off your face before I knock it off,” Cooper growled.
Rand shrugged but kept grinning anyway. “Fact is, she stepped off the stage and was mighty put out that you weren’t there waitin’ to welcome her. I did what I could to help.”
“I’ll just bet.”
His brother put his hand over his heart in mock horror. “You wound me.”
“Yeah, well, whoever is behind these rotten shenanigans had best take warning and find a rock to crawl under. When I catch him, there’ll be hell to pay. For all I know, this could be one of your harebrained stunts. You seem to think it’s so all-fired hilarious.”