Just a really quick update. I want to wish everyone who celebrates a Merry Christmas or a Happy Holidays! We’re knee-deep in prep for Christmas, and trying to stay warm. We’re all snug and toasty inside. I’m busy making next year’s release schedule and writing schedule. I do all my planning in pencil now, though. With my mobility issues, I’m never quite sure ahead of time what my work days will look like. I am happy with the plans I have so far, though! So far, there will definitely be more Mastersons, Zoey’s book (a Small-Town Sheriff title), and the start of Enemies Within (Finley Creeks).
Sage and Gil’s book (Masterson #9) releases on 12/27. It’s available for preorder now!
A woman’s arm was what he saw first. Pale white skin, almost in the damned road. Then the rest of her. Clinging to the side of the embankment. Above the drop-off that had claimed more lives in the county than any other.
The sheriff’s department SUV was almost obscured in the storm, teetering on the edge of the worst curve in the county. Wreck Curve Road—he’d lost an aunt to Wreck Curve Road not long enough ago to forget how it had hurt.
Then again, he’d never forget how much that had hurt.
Gilbert Tyler swore and jerked his truck to the side of the road as carefully as he could.
Floods were coming. The rain was getting worse. It was damned dangerous out here now. Had he not gotten caught up at the airport sending one of his ranch hands back to California to be with the kid’s dying father, he wouldn’t have been out there himself.
There had been signs of mudslides a quarter of a mile back. It could happen here at any moment. He’d been trying to get home before it got much worse out.
Tylers respected the weather and how capricious a bitch Mother Nature could be. For damned good reason.
He’d lost another aunt and uncle in a freak flood not far from where he was now more than ten years ago next summer. It had taken too damned long to find their bodies. He’d been one of the searchers.
He’d found his aunt.
He would never forget.
Gil grabbed his phone and the first aid kit he kept in the truck and scrambled over the loose gravel toward the drop-off. From the long dark hair matted in the mud and the smaller body, he knew exactly which deputy he was about to find. There was only one female deputy with the Masterson County Sheriff’s Department.
“Deputy Lowell? Sage, honey, can you hear me? Come on, honey. Time to wake up. Please wake up. I’m not too keen on the idea of you not.”
He slipped in the loose rocks, tripped on some roots. The rain made it damned hard to see her. Hell, he had almost missed her. He’d just seen her damned arm.
If he hadn’t seen her, she probably wouldn’t have been found at all.
Not in time anyway. Darcey Talley had been warning people over the radio that road closures were imminent and to watch for signs of slides for hours now.
No one would have been on this road after him. Gil was sure of it.
He was her last chance.
She’d crawled up the damned drop-off. The SUV had gone over the side. She’d gotten out. And she’d crawled.
He could just imagine the terror this woman had felt.
She’d gotten as far up the embankment as she could. It was a hell of a climb behind them, especially for a woman—even one in top physical shape like a sheriff’s deputy would be.
He could probably make it, but too many others wouldn’t be able to.
That she had…
She’d gotten lucky to make it this far. Luckier still to have been seen at all.
But here she was, in the mud. So damned alone.
With the floods and the storm—with only him to help. He was a former volunteer first responder. He’d had the training to help. Gil leaned over her. Checked her pulse.
It was there. Not as strong as he would have liked, but it was there.
When he touched her, she rolled to her back. Her green Masterson County Sheriff’s Department polo was drenched and muddy and clung to her body.
It obscured any hint of blood. He used his phone’s flashlight app to get a better look as lightning struck too damned close for his peace of mind. The storm was getting far worse.
He had to get her out of there before the whole damned mountain crumbled above them.
There wasn’t much blood on her. Just at the back of her head. She must have fallen, struck her head on something, then rolled and crawled a bit before passing out.
He couldn’t leave her where she was. He knew better than to move someone with a possible head, back, or neck trauma, but there was no way she’d be safe where she was while he called for help.
With the rising waters and the almost inevitable flooding—worse than he’d seen in years—the only real option he had was to keep going and take her on to his place.
Call the sheriff when he got there, report the mudslides blocking the highway behind him, report the deputy’s injuries. Call the head of the local hospital, his cousin’s husband. Find out what he needed to do.
He’d get her to safety, then do what he had to do next.
Gil was a taller-than-average, bigger-than-average, stronger-than-average man who’d earned his way when he was younger by doing the tough, physical jobs no one else would or could. He was strong enough, and he knew it. Lifting a woman, even a long-legged one like the deputy, was no problem.
The rain was, though. The wind. And there were branches breaking around them left and right.
The worst of the storm was getting closer.
Gil shifted his stance, braced his body against the wind. He lifted her as carefully as he could. She made a mewling sound that tore right through him. He’d always hated it when someone was hurting.
It took some curses and some doing, but he got her to his truck. He always carried a blanket there. It came in handy. He covered her quickly and jacked up the heat in his truck.
It took him forty minutes to go the twenty-minute drive, but he pulled in to the ranch that still stumped him every time he got his first look at it.
The Preston Ranch. Biggest, wealthiest ranch in southwestern Wyoming. And it was his. He hadn’t ever expected to own it. He’d not done a damned thing to earn it.
Vince Preston had explained why he’d chosen Gil in a codicil to his will.
Vince had worked his entire life to build what he had—he’d wanted to die knowing it would be taken care of.
By someone who loved it as much as he had. Gil had been left a ranch worth more than most others in the entire state. Combined. Gil would love it most. And he did. But it sure as hell didn’t feel like home.
He’d spent the last year and a half living in the big house. He’d spent two years before that in the foreman’s house. Before that, he’d spent eight years in the bunkhouse.
He’d been at home there in the three-bedroom foreman’s place. Not here.
He felt like the old farm dog being brought inside to lay by the fire sometimes. Now he was just grateful to be there. To get Sage where he could make sure she was ok and safe before deciding what to do next.
Gil carried the woman up the porch steps, almost getting blown over by the wind. Then he had her on his living room couch. He grabbed the phone.
Gil called the hospital, demanding to speak to his cousin Perci; her husband, Nate; or the deputy’s doctor brother. He got put on hold.
Just as she opened her eyes. Fear went across her face. Her eyes widened.
He shifted the phone and knelt next to her. “Hey, you’re safe here, honey.”
“Why am I here? You are…a Tyler, aren’t you?” she asked in a broken voice, just blinking those gorgeous brown eyes at him.
“You’re at the Preston Ranch. I’m Gil.” He helped her sit up a bit. “I’m one of Nikki’s brothers. Do you remember me? I was three or four years behind your brother in school.” And if he remembered correctly, three or four years ahead of this woman. He had a vague impression of a tall, skinny, dark-haired girl always with a basketball in her hand.
“One of Nikki’s boneheads, you mean?” She blinked up at him. Her face was pale. Far too pale. But that terrified look wasn’t on her face now. He could only imagine how she’d just felt, waking with a man she barely knew leaning over her.
“Yeah, I’ve heard she calls us that occasionally. Like daily.” He checked the phone. Still on hold. “Can you tell me what happened out there?”
“Something jumped in the road. I swerved, I think…” She closed her eyes and leaned back. She had long eyelashes that contrasted against her skin. There were red marks on her cheeks. Scrapes. “I think it was a man. But I didn’t get a good look at him. I hydroplaned, and the Tahoe went over the rail. I need to call the sheriff. We need to get out there. See if someone was hurt.”
“Someone was. You were.” He dropped the phone to the table and slipped his hands under her arms. He lowered her back to the cushions. She tried to resist—he had a feeling this woman was on the stubborn side—but it was obvious she was still very weak. “I found you. I don’t know how long you were lying there. And you were in and out for forty minutes on the ride.”
“Why didn’t you take me to the hospital?” She shot him a suspicious look. Nature of the job or natural personality? He wondered.
“Floods and mudslides blocking the road back into town. Entire bridge was out on Masterson Valley Road. I had to detour down the service road that connects here to the old Beise place. I had already spoken to some of my family. Tyler Road is out, and so is the one between here and Levi Masterson’s place. No other way into town now. Unless we kept going north to Jackson, but word on the radio is they were getting hit harder than we were. And air ambulances can’t get out now. The storm is too rough.”
She nodded a small bit. Winced. Her hand went to the back of her head, but she wasn’t showing signs of more serious injury, thankfully. She was already trying to move around, like the woman just couldn’t sit still. “They were saying this one’s the storm of the century. On the radio. Weather stations. We were all hands on deck. I was finishing a call and checking road conditions when…”
“Well, you’re safe here. I barely saw you at all. If I hadn’t…” They wouldn’t have found her in time. She could have rolled right down the side of the damned mountain and drown in the river at the bottom. Or been lost beneath the mud.
But he had found her.
Now he got a good look at her.
He liked what he saw—minus the mud, of course. He didn’t think he’d ever been that close to her before as adults. Just on the periphery of wherever their paths had crossed. He’d seen her from a distance a few times—when some of his family had gotten into trouble.
She had always been like a quiet shadow. Just flickering in the background, working as Joel Masterson’s faithful sidekick. He’d always gotten the impression of quiet competence, and a slightly plain, utilitarian woman with brown hair scraped back into a serviceable hair style, and bulky department-issue polos and khakis.
He had been wrong on that front. Extremely so.
Sage Lowell was a very pretty woman. She had big medium-brown eyes, with long lashes—eyes that held the secrets of the world. And smooth, perfect fair skin.
She had a beautiful mouth, one that Gil bet would smile even more beautifully when she wasn’t hurting. The hair was dark, but not black, he didn’t think. But it needed washed.
She was around five eight or so and average built. Fit, toned. The sheriff’s department polo and khakis were ruined.
And clung to feminine curves he really hadn’t expected.
Then again, he hadn’t exactly looked closer before—he’d had too much going on in his life over the last eighteen months to even think about beautiful women. Or to notice when one got too close. Until his sister and her best friend ran them off, anyway. They had taken it upon themselves to protect him from gold diggers apparently.
A sound from his phone had him grabbing it quickly. He explained the situation, reassured by what he was told by the head of the hospital.
Her brother Shane was there and asked to speak with her. She answered a bunch of questions, growing a bit more exasperated with Shane.
Gil smiled a bit at that. She sounded like his own sister when he or his brothers would hover.
Finally, her brother was satisfied she was going to be as good as she could be. Then the man gave Gil a list of things to watch out for.
Plus, a warning to behave himself with Shane’s baby sister.
By the time Gil disconnected, the pretty deputy was sound asleep on his couch—covered in mud and he didn’t know what else. Gil called the sheriff next. Explained to him exactly what had happened and reassured him that Sage was going to be just fine right where she was. That Gil would make sure of it.
The sheriff and his dispatcher had been getting worried when she hadn’t responded to their calls.
Joel confirmed what Gil already knew. There was no way off Tyler Mountain tonight. Except by air. With the two already-confirmed, severe storms within forty miles of the county on two sides, despite most of the tornado activity each year being on the opposite side of the state from Masterson County, that wasn’t going to happen unless the worst occurred and there was no other choice.
Gil couldn’t leave her there on his couch, covered in mud. He leaned over her, placed one hand on her cheek. He wouldn’t deny it—he felt a bit protective of her now, seeing how pitiful and defenseless she looked. “Sage, honey, open your eyes. Come on. I know you’re tired, but I’ve heated the guest bath. I found some clothes that will fit you. Come on, that’s it.”
Those brown eyes of hers just blinked at him for a moment. Then she gave a rueful smile. “I’m sorry. Thank you, by the way. For finding me. Getting me here.”
Their voices weren’t above a whisper. “Anytime.”
Tylers were the most beautiful men. Sage had always thought so—the ones she knew, anyway. Josh, the paramedic she crossed paths with most often, resembled the man who had rescued her. She’d been a year behind his brother Fletcher in school, she thought. She’d been in school with several of the Tyler cousins, too. At least a dozen, though they hadn’t run around in the same circles. Tyler boys—well, men—were a force to be reckoned with—and were trouble in every way imaginable. One had climbed out the biology room window to play hooky right in front of her once, motioning for Sage to be quiet while he did so.
They were all a bit unforgettable, those wild Tylers of Tyler Township. In more ways than one.
Only Gil seemed a few inches taller than the ones she remembered, and far more muscled. More rugged in that way some men had that melted a woman’s toes. He wore only an undershirt and battered jeans—they did nothing to hide how physically fit this man was.
And brilliant white socks. The socks made her want to smile for some strange reason.
His hair was rich dark red, and it stuck up everywhere, untamed. It curled, she realized.
His sister had naturally curly red hair, too. On him, it was almost boyish. He probably hadn’t had to fight the tangles natural curls could bring—like his sister Nikki and Sage had commiserated on before. Her own hair curled everywhere—unless she pulled it back in a serviceable braid while it was still wet every single day.
Gil was still watching her. He wasn’t the most handsome of the Tylers she knew, but there was something about him that made it difficult to look away.
He helped her stand. She was wobbly, but Sage was used to standing on her own two feet. She was determined. She could do this. “Thank you.”
“Just don’t overdo it. Call out if you need me.”
She didn’t. Sage was used to handling things for herself, being the one who just got things done. She knew herself very well—she was more on the independent side than anything else.
It was a matter of pride, after all.
It took her a bit longer than she wanted to think about, but she was able to take a shower in the ridiculously opulent bathroom. She took a good look around—the guest suite, anyway. It was pale lavender, with what she suspected was expensive silk wallpaper and exquisite, hand-carved furniture. Complete with Kaece Tyler’s distinctive touch.
This was Viv Preston’s former room; she’d bet her next paycheck on it. This was the Preston Ranch.
Everyone knew of it. Everyone knew how Gil had inherited it as well.
The hardworking cowboy inheriting millions. Multiple ranches and farms and properties. Even a few small grain distilleries throughout Wyoming and Colorado. Gil Tyler had inherited it all.
He was a state legend.
And one of the most eligible bachelors in the region apparently.
Women practically threw themselves at him now—his sister Nikki had told her and Dusty that at the diner one day—just to get to the money. Dusty had said Gil was such a nice guy he often didn’t see what they wanted from him. Nikki and Dusty were acting as Gil-guards, protecting him from the wild gold diggers out there after him now. Nikki had told her a hilarious story about Dusty practically draping herself sexily over Gil in the middle of the diner one day to run off a particularly mercenary woman just two months ago. They’d all laughed about that—except this man, apparently.
Nikki said he had just been embarrassed that day.
Maybe she didn’t know him, but she knew his family.
She could do this. It wasn’t going to be that awkward. Just something to get through before she returned to her real life—cop by day, nanny to her brother’s heathen children by night. She’d look at a stay at the Preston Ranch as a minivacation, or something.
Then she’d get back to her real life. And figure out if she had seen a man who had looked just like Gil Tyler out there alongside the road or not.
She didn’t think she had been hallucinating. But it had been dark, and with the storm, maybe she had seen a moose calf? Moose weren’t superprevalent around Masterson County, but an occasional sighting happened. And they weren’t that far away from black-bear and grizzly-bear range—Masterson County was a bit too far south for bears, but it happened sometimes.
Memories of the man who’d been alongside the highway had her breath catching. She’d explained over the phone to Joel exactly what she had seen. Sage was ninety percent convinced it had been a man out there, in dark clothing, with a hat on his head. Not an animal.
Then again, man could be far more dangerous than any animal.
Joel had promised they’d have someone out there as soon as they could. That was going to be a long while, though. He was now officially a deputy down, after all.
Joel couldn’t make any promises. Theoretically, she understood that, but she wanted to be out there doing her job—and helping.
That wasn’t about to happen. Unless she wanted to ride a horse out of here, she wasn’t going anywhere until the floods subsided. And at least one of the six possible routes into the county was open again.
That could take days. Days.
Alone. With Gil Tyler.
That was the goal of half the single women in Masterson.
Too bad it was totally wasted on her.
Desmond Preston clung to the door handle of the big old truck and fought panic. He prayed they would live through this, that they wouldn’t go over the side of the mountain, or die in mudslides, or…
This…was a sin. He had no doubt of that. He had his inhaler in his pocket, but he refused to use it in front of the men he was with.
The men would just look at him derisively and cut Desmond down right where he was. None of them liked each other very much. But as long as Desmond’s father was footing the bill for everything that they did, Desmond would have to play the game with Brian Tanner and Larry Kellman.
His father had sent him out here with Brian as punishment. Desmond and his father had both known that. Just who Morris Preston was punishing hadn’t exactly been clear.
Lightning flashed overhead, and thunder rumbled. They needed to get off the mountain as fast as they could.
The sheriff’s deputy, she could be a problem. She had seen Brian getting back in the truck. They both knew that. Brian and Larry had gotten out of the truck to take care of her.
Desmond just sat there and waited.
He was certain he would hear a bullet at any minute, as Brian took care of the deputy once and for all.
Desmond heard nothing. Nothing but the storm.
The truck shook as Brian, a man almost twenty years older than Desmond, climbed back in. He was covered in mud from the waist down. Desmond recoiled in disgust. “You’re filthy.”
“I…slipped…in the damned mud looking for that f’ing woman.”
Brian took his battered ball cap and threw it toward the back seat of the truck. It landed on a kid’s booster seat. Brian Tanner had five or six kids. All girls, every last one of them. Desmond pitied those little girls every time he thought about them. No innocent young life deserved Brian Tanner for a father. But Desmond didn’t quite know how to help them—even though he wanted to.
“Will she be a problem?” Desmond asked.
Larry heard him as he climbed in the back next to that car seat. “Not anymore. She was pretty dazed. I took care of her after the crash, one quick hit the back of the head. Mother Nature will do the rest—no signs we were even out here. Look at her SUV. Hell, she’s probably already dead, covered in mud. I couldn’t even find her. Unless some damned hero came swooping in and carried her away while we were up the road, she’s already dead. They’ll find her body in a few days most likely. If the coyotes don’t get to her first. I did get this little beauty out of the car, though.”
He waved an actual gun around like it was a prize from a carnival game. Desmond bit back the bile.
If anyone was filled with demons, it was Larry Kellman. Desmond despised him.
Desmond looked. Mud had already surrounded the white Tahoe, not a hundred feet from where they were parked. Chances were good it would be crushed beneath even more mud by morning. They’d been long gone after that crash—but Brian and Larry had doubled back when they were finished unloading Brian’s truck.
Just to see. Brian had wanted to see. To loot the deputy’s SUV. Desmond shivered as he thought about what it meant.
She. There was only one female deputy in Masterson County. Desmond knew exactly who she was.
Desmond had known Sage Lowell half of his life. From the moment her family had moved into town and she had been enrolled in the Masterson County school system. They had sat beside each other a few times. Worked together occasionally.
He knew her. He liked her.
She had never made him feel like less of a man because of his asthma and lack of stature and lack of athletic ability—even though she had been the star of the girls’ basketball and volleyball teams. She’d always been nice to him. Listening to him whenever he’d had an opinion.
He’d almost asked her to the prom their junior year but had gotten too nervous. She’d gone with Logen Hauffman instead.
The idea that he had any small part in what would inevitably be her death sickened him. She didn’t deserve to die this way.
Murder was a sin, after all.
But she was out there somewhere. In the storm. Dying. And Desmond had a small part in it.
Desmond couldn’t do anything about it. He felt so helpless sometimes. It was going to destroy him some day.
And he would deserve it.
He’d found her a bag of clothes Nikki’s best friend, Dusty, had left the last time they had had a girl party in his theater room. That had been several months back.
Before Hunter, his new brother-in-law, had entered the picture. Before his sister and Dusty had almost died out there on Tyler Road in a snowstorm. Gil still fought the fury that brought. He probably always would. Dusty and the deputy were about the same size.
Sage had left her long hair down over her shoulders. He didn’t think he had ever seen her with it down. It was long, dark, and curled invitingly. Wildly. Hair like that made a man want to touch.
She shot a look at him. “I’m sorry for this inconvenience. I know an unexpected house guest isn’t exactly what you want to be dealing with tonight.”
“I don’t mind, Sage. I’m just glad I saw you. The alternative is not something I want to think about.” Gil had pulled sodas from the fridge and heated up some leftovers. He had grabbed some pain pills his sister’s fiancé had left behind in the guest room. He’d called and cleared giving them to her with her brother while she’d been in the shower. He wanted Sage to feel comfortable in his home.
Dusty’s clothes were a bit loose on her. The blonde who went everywhere with his sister was a bit curvier than the athletically built woman in front of him. The pink of the Flo’s Diner T-shirt was definitely her color, though. He didn’t think he’d ever seen her in anything other than sheriff’s department green.
She looked young and sweet and gorgeous, even with the contusions on her forehead and the half-dozen scrapes on her pretty cheeks.
Why had he never noticed her before?
Then again, when he’d been a simple ranch hand, he hadn’t exactly been looking for a special woman right away. He’d been waiting until he had enough money saved to buy his own place someday. To combine it with the small place he’d inherited from his parents—next to the one they’d left his youngest brother. They’d left a small place behind their original homestead to Gil. Another next to it had gone to Fletcher. Then the main place had been left to all four of their children. Fletcher and Gil had bought out Nikki and Ben fully when Gil had inherited from Vince. Fletcher was paying him back for his share of the purchase price each month now.
Fletcher was still there now. Gil had loaned him some of Vince Preston’s money a year ago to keep Fletcher’s places going. In exchange—his brother ran Gil’s own inheritance from their parents. Gil helped his brother with the work whenever he could.
Why not? He had plenty of money to pay people to run this place while he worked with his own hands and back on the homestead where he’d grown up. Gil needed to work his parents’ place sometimes. It helped him remember who he was and from where he had come. To remember them.
“Sit down, honey. I have some food. It’s not much, just leftovers. But it’s hot.” The endearment had just slipped out again. It seemed to fit her, too.
She nodded, her cheeks still sweetly red. There was a look in those brown eyes that made him feel important. Like she was seeing him—and not just that Tyler guy who’d inherited the Preston Ranch.
Hells, Gil wanted to touch her. His fingers almost itched to do just that. She gave him a smile, revealing the smallest dimple in her right cheek, but not one in the left. Sudden, intense attraction shot right through him. He coughed lightly. “Please, sit.”
She lowered herself gingerly to the chair.
“How’s the head? Your brother said you could take some of the pain pills Hunter left here after he was shot. He prescribed them to him to begin with, but Hunter was too stubborn to take them.”
“Shane said it was probably a mild concussion. It hurts, but not enough for pain pills.” She shot him a look. “How long was I out?”
“Depends on how long you were out there. I turned off your vehicle and grabbed your bag. It was next to the Tahoe, and some of your things had spilled out. The door was wide open, but the seats weren’t too wet. So I don’t think you were out too long.” She’d be in a lot worse shape if she had. Her brother had made that clear—and told Gil to call him if things changed immediately. Gil had the impression Shane Lowell would do whatever it took to get up the mountain after his sister if it did.
Or just to get her out of Gil’s evil clutches.
Gil understood that just fine. He and Shane Lowell had a not-so-great history of their own that had ended with Gil’s fist in the man’s gut too many years ago to count—not to mention, he’d broken the guy’s nose on another occasion. Over a different girl that time. He’d long forgotten the girls involved, but he suspected the good Dr. Lowell might not have. Hell, that had to have been a good dozen years or so ago.
“I think I hit the back of my head when I fell on the hill.” She touched her scalp lightly. “I’m not sure how. Hitting the back of my head doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s where the lump is.”
Gil had found the lump himself. “I’m going to keep an eye on you—until your brother or the sheriff comes to get you. But I’ll level with you—”
“It’s going to be a while.”
She slept in one of Gil’s shirts and a pair of baggy gym shorts he’d found in one of the guest rooms. He’d said one of his sister’s friends had left them behind—when Nikki still bothered to visit him out there now that she had that movie star husband of hers. Gil had been teasing, but she suspected he did miss his sister, who had married the Hollywood actor Hunter Louis Clark in the last year.
It was natural Nikki spent less time at her brother’s.
The shirt dwarfed her. Gil was a bigger-than-average man. His shoulders were broader than any man’s she had ever dated. His arms were muscled and strong. Brawny, her mom would call him if she were ever to see him. Strong and fit, and hot enough to make even the most reticent woman willing to do something she probably should not.
Sage was going to have to be careful here. She’d made mistakes with a man a lot like Gil before. It had ended badly—with her brother and cousin having to rescue her and threatening to kill the guy for hitting her.
She’d been reluctant with men ever since.
The storm had ended partway through the night, but Sage wasn’t going anywhere. In the meantime, she was stuck there on the Preston Ranch. With Gil. Alone. Hard to get past that.
There were ranch hands around—she’d seen them through the window—but it was almost like she and Gil were in their own little world right now.
He was an amicable host, of course. Helpful, attentive, attractive. No denying that. After he’d fed her dinner the night before he had lured her down to the basement level of the massive home that was far too big for just one man.
It was so big he said it had two separate basements. That was just crazy.
There had been a theater room down there that anyone would envy. It was decorated in 1940s vintage movie decor and had a giant popcorn machine that could not be the least bit practical.
“This room was the one massive change I made to the property when it became mine. Vince was using the space to store family mementos. The last thing I wanted around was Viv’s baby photos. This room and the pool are mostly bait. I used them to lure Nikki and her friends out here occasionally so that I can still see my sister. Until Hunter gets his studio in their house completely built, he’s been ‘borrowing’ it. And”—he shot her a far-too-gorgeous grin that had her laughing—“I use it myself every chance I can get it. Movies are a hobby of mine—but don’t tell Hunter. I’ve seen every movie he’s ever made, except the children’s movies.”
“Don’t worry. I think my brother’s kids have all of those if you ever want to borrow.” She had watched Hunter as Prince Rufus so many times she could recite that entire movie in her sleep. Backward.
“I also have it set up with streaming. The world…is my oyster here.” He had looked so boyish and wicked Sage laughed and relaxed. She’d settled in an overly large reclining seat next to his, feeling more comfortable with a man than she ever had before. He’d popped the popcorn and pulled soda out of the fridge.
They’d watched two movies together until she had drifted off right there next to him. She hadn’t wakened until the credits were rolling on the second movie—one of Hunter Louis Clark’s adventure films.
Gil had lightly shaken her awake. She had smiled at him and thanked him. Sage hadn’t missed the look of masculine appreciation—and almost hunger—in his blue eyes.
That had had her scurrying to the guest room so fast she’d probably made tread marks on his hardwood floors from Dusty Talley’s borrowed tennis shoes.
The next day, fortunately, was mostly sunny and warmer when she woke. And there were more clean clothes in Dusty’s bag, just like oil in the biblical lamp. Sage intended to take them with her when she left, launder them, and return them to Dusty herself.
He was already up doing whatever it was the heir to the Preston fortune did on a warm Tuesday morning in September. He left her a note to make herself comfortable and that he would be back in around eleven for lunch. Sage couldn’t help herself—she poked around the library that every bookworm on the planet would envy.
He’d spent a lot of time there, she suspected. It felt more lived in than some of the other rooms in the main house. There were family photos everywhere. Sage studied one of what had to be all the Tylers, outdoors, somewhere.
She had no trouble seeing the flame-red hair of a twenty-something-year-old Gil.
His younger cousin’s hair was just as red as Gil’s. Junie wasn’t more than eleven or so in the photo. Em—eight or nine in the photo—was absolutely tiny, being held aloft by the man who had to be her father. Sage studied him for a moment. In the photo, he was about the same age Gil was now. He looked a great deal like Gil, and like Gil’s uncle Nick, and his cousins Martin and Mason. But Gil’s hair was so red it was distinctive. None of the other Tyler men had hair quite that red.
She curled up in the big stuffed chair that she just knew he favored for a long while. It smelled like him. Warm and masculine and slightly woodsy.
She was seriously on the edge of losing her sanity here.
Sage didn’t go around noticing how attractive men smelled. Far from it. That was just crazy.
Right at eleven, there he was. He slipped mud-caked boots off at the back door, revealing bright-white socks again and huge man feet. He grinned at her, his dark red hair sticking up all over his head. It made him seem so normal.
Then again, this was just Gil, her friend Nikki’s older brother. What would be so abnormal about that?
She’d had lunch ready—Sage wasn’t used to sitting ideal, and he’d said to make herself at home. The least she could do was make lunch for the man after all he’d done for her.
It felt remarkably like a first or second date to Sage. As the day wore on, it felt like a third and fourth and fifth, for that matter.
But she was going to tell herself not to think that way.
Then the man lured her outside into the sunshine.
It was the absolutely perfect day. She had always loved being outdoors, for one thing. In the sunshine. With a beautiful man next to her.
Sage…was putty. She had no resistance. No resistance to the man whatsoever. She was going to have to remind herself that this wasn’t a good idea.
Sage looked at him, asking the question that had been on her mind since just after lunch. “What’s it like to own something like this?”
He had been very open with every question she had asked—she knew she was pushing, but Sage had always been very curious.
“Hell, I don’t know the answer to that yet. I’m still trying to figure that out.” And she heard the uncertainty in his words now. She tried to imagine it. She’d probably be adrift for a while, too.
They walked up the gravel path for a moment. There was an older home right there around the bend in the drive. Like everything else on the property, it was in good repair. “That’s the foreman’s house. I lived there for two years before I moved in with Vince Preston to take care of him in his last few months, after Viv was arrested for hiring Rutherford to kill my cousin. It was home. And a good one—I intended to move back into it when the time came, and just keep working for whoever inherited this place. I thought it would be Vince’s great-nephews or -nieces, honestly. I was making a good living as his foreman—he paid a reasonably fair wage. I figured I’d meet someone eventually and we’d settle down there first. Have a few kids, that kind of thing. And I’d save up until I had enough money to move back to the place that had been my parents’. I’d use the money to get it running for myself. They’d left me their ranch and left Fletcher my mother’s parents’ place next door. They’d left Ben his building in town, and left Nikki mom’s little bookstore. Both their places have apartments on the upper floors. Then Fletcher inherited our uncle Ben Fletcher’s place when he passed. My parents didn’t have much, but they had more than quite a few, and I was determined to make what they left me something my own kids would be proud of. I never imagined…this. Still don’t feel like it was ever meant to be mine. I think I might have just been Vince’s consolation prize.”
There were emotions on his face that she couldn’t quite identify. Emotions that told her he was struggling, but Sage didn’t say a word. Her fingers tightened on his. She hadn’t realized she was still holding his hand—but she was.
She must have been on most of the walk. But it had felt natural.
He was an old-school kind of man, she suspected. A bit of a throwback. Not really willing to let people—especially a woman—know if he was struggling. He looked at her. “Today, the truth, just between us. I’m not even sure what it was Vince expected me to do with this place at all.”
She knew what they said about him in town. Nikki had freely shared with all of her friends why Vincent Preston had left his ranch to Gil—and not one of his great-nephews or -nieces. “You do love it.”
It wasn’t a question. It had been obvious in the way he had spoken of his future plans for the place that Gil got something from the land. From ranching. Like it recharged him.
It was the way she felt doing her job when she knew she helped people.
“Yeah, I do love this place. I’m going to see it is taken care of, that it won’t go to waste with me. Future generations will know that I did my best to make this place the best that I could. I don’t feel like I earned it, Sage. But I’m going to take care of it so that future generations will know I did deserve it. That I cherished the gifts I’ve been given.”
That, right there, showed her exactly the kind of man Gilbert Tyler was on the inside. Sage left her hand in his. Because…it felt like it was exactly what she was supposed to do.
Even though every rational part of her was telling her to pull back. Before she did something stupid.
“How do you know she’s with Gil?” Desmond asked his father over dinner after his father had sent Desmond’s younger brother out of the room the day after the storm. “I haven’t heard anything around town, other than she had been in an accident.”
And survived. Somehow. The grace of God. Guardian angels, perhaps?
He didn’t know whether he should be happy that Sage had survived whatever it was that Brian and Larry had attempted to do to her.
The biggest part of Desmond was. He had prayed for forgiveness for his actions for the past day and a half, weeping over Sage. He had even lit a candle in her memory. Begged God for forgiveness for what he’d not done to save her.
When he had heard she had lived, he had known his prayers had been answered. Then…concern for himself and his father had set in. If she had seen Brian and Larry out there, and could identify them…
To find out she had been rescued by Gilbert Tyler, though, that stung. Gil had inherited everything that Desmond’s father’s uncle had been building for a lifetime. It wasn’t fair, or right, that the fruits of his great-uncle’s labors had gone to basically a stranger.
That money, that ranch, really should have gone to Desmond or his brothers. Even one—or all—of his three sisters, though women certainly had no place ranching.
His father had made that clear time and time again when he had dragged Desmond and Brenden around the ranch, making them work for their keep—while their sisters had been made to stay inside with the housekeeper, studying.
Brian sat in the chair across from Desmond’s father. Dwarfing it, in a way that Desmond just couldn’t. Desmond’s father was a big man, too. Far bigger than Desmond. Morris Preston was strong and burly from years of working the ranches his own father had inherited. Morris’s wealth had just grown in the last thirty years.
His father was proud of that, and he should be. But greed was his father’s cardinal sin.
Morris wanted more. Lots more. He had always wanted more. And he’d instilled it in Desmond and his brother. He was starting the same with their young half brother, as well.
Desmond had always thought his sisters had gotten lucky—their father hadn’t paid much attention to training them at all. No, but he knew his father had plans to someday trade the girls to some of his business associates when the time was right. When they were older, and if the girls would just do what they were told.
Desmond thought that would prove harder than his father expected, though. His three sisters had minds of their own. His father’s avarice was behind this association with Brian Tanner and Larry Kellman.
The three older men in the room made Desmond feel like a puny child again. They enjoyed mocking him for that very reason.
His father level look at Brian. One filled with disgust. “Have you gone soft? You should have helped Larry finish her off out there.”
“Hell, even if she saw me face-to-face, she wouldn’t recognize me. I’m not too worried,” Brian said, arrogant and cocksure like he always was. Brian didn’t like Desmond’s father much. “Besides, I’m not a damned killer, remember? I’ve told you years ago that that is a line I will not cross. Ever. A man has to have standards, after all.”
Desmond’s father just leveled a look at the three younger men. “You’ll do whatever it takes to preserve your own hides. I’m not stupid. None of us wants to go to prison for this. And we’re all in it up to our balls. Don’t forget that.”
“What about Sage?” Desmond asked.
“I will handle Sage Lowell if she becomes a problem,” Desmond’s father said, a cold and terrifying look in his eyes Desmond had seen before. “You can count on that.”