Authors: Lorraine Nelson
VERNIGHT PUBLISHING ®
Copyright© 2016 Lorraine Nelson
Cover Artist: Sour Cherry Designs
Editor: Amanda Jean
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
I dedicate this novel to my new editor, Amanda Jean, who has helped me make this story read so much better. And to cowboys and fans everywhere. Know that I love and appreciate you all.
Thunder Creek Ranch, 8
Copyright © 2016
Jack Grayson was feeling mighty proud of himself as he packed his things, ready to say goodbye to university life and head for the ranch. The dorm room he had shared with Jeremy Hutchins had been home for him these past six years while he studied agriculture in the hopes of making his family’s spread more profitable. He could barely wait to be home so he could start putting his ideas into practice.
Yesterday, the entire Manning/Grayson clan, except for Roy, had shown up at his graduation, taking up a large portion of the outdoor seating. They’d hollered, cheered, whistled, and taken dozens of photos as he’d received his diploma. Quite the contrast to the absolute silence while he’d given the valedictorian speech. He’d finished top in his class, and he enjoyed representing the other students, most of them friends. Jack’s speech had given all his fellow graduates praise and direction as they moved forward in life. Yes, he was proud, and rightly so, as his mother would say.
“Well, that’s it, Jeremy. If I’ve forgotten anything and you want it, keep it. If not, trash it. Of course, you’re still welcome to come home with me for the summer.”
Jeremy had no family and worked his way through college. He would be starting his second year in the fall, and Jack thought it would be good practice for him to spend time on a working ranch.
He glanced up from the book he was reading. “If I did, I’d probably lose my job, and I need it to pay for my studies. Student loans don’t cover enough.”
“I hear ya, but if you
get away for a few days, give me a call and I’ll come pick you up. It might do you good to get away for a while.”
“I’d love to visit Thunder Creek if I can get more than two days off in a row. You speak so longingly of your ranch and the people there, I just know I’d love it. Need any help?”
“No, I’m good. I hope to get your call soon. Bye, Jeremy.”
“Bye, Jack. I hope I get another roommate as nice and as neat as you.”
“Don’t worry about that, just enjoy having the space to yourself for the summer.”
Jeremy grinned. “Yeah, hadn’t thought of that. Drive careful.”
“Always do.” Jack hefted a box under his arm, then grabbed both suitcases and headed out the door. He took the stairs two at a time, feeling as if he needed to rush, only to get outside and see Loreena standing beside his truck.
She was a beautiful woman, but she’d proved to be too high-maintenance for him. Today she’d poured herself into a skintight, short yellow sundress. How she walked in those six-inch heels was beyond him.
He’d dated Loreena Wright during the fall of his senior year, until she’d become so possessive and needy that he’d found himself spending more time with her and less on his studies. So, he’d broken it off, and she wasn’t happy about it.
“Hi, Loreena,” he said as he stored his belongings in the cab. “I’m just leaving.”
“I’ve missed you, Jackie. My roommate’s already gone. Can we get together once more for old times’ sake?”
He gritted his teeth at her pet name for him. She knew it annoyed him. There was no sense correcting her on it now. With a little luck, their paths would never cross again. “Sorry, Loreena. I’m looking forward to being home.” He walked around to the driver’s side and opened the door. Loreena followed and sidled up to him, preventing him from being able to get in and close the door.
She raised her arms to rest her hands against his chest, moving slowly over his nipples in the process. “But Jackie, darling, you know you want to.”
He removed her hands. “No, Loreena, I
want to. It’s over. There’s nothing between us anymore, and I’m going home.”
“But I love you,” she whined.
Jack was fast losing patience. “Listen carefully. I. Don’t. Love. You. I can’t make it any plainer than that.”
“We were so good together. We can be like that again.”
“No, we can’t. Goodbye, Loreena.”
She still didn’t move, so he picked her up and set her down away from the door, then he got in his truck and started the engine. As he backed out of his assigned parking spot, she vaulted over the tailgate and sat in the back of his pick-up. Jack was so furious, he ground the gears and stalled the truck as he shifted into park.
What is with this woman?
He released his white- knuckled grip on the steering wheel and counted to ten to curb his anger. Then he slowly opened his door and stepped down from the cab to confront her again.
“Get out of my truck or I’m calling campus security.”
She rose on her hands and knees and crawled over close to where he stood. He couldn’t help but notice her ample breasts all but falling out of her dress. A Loreena special. She seemed to think sex cured all.
“Take me with you, Jackie. Please.”
“No.” He saw the security vehicle in the parking lot for the adjacent dorm and flagged him over.
“What’s the problem here?” the guard asked.
Loreena started crying and crumpled into a heap of yellow in the box of his truck.
“Has this man hurt you?”
“No, but he … he’s leaving and he wants to leave me and his unborn child behind,” she sobbed.
The security guard shot a disgusted look in his direction. “Is this true, young man?”
“What? No! We haven’t been together in months,” Jack exclaimed.
She cried louder. “I know you drank a lot that night, but you really don’t remember our Valentine’s date?”
“Not a chance, Loreena. Pick another fool. We broke up long before Christmas. Now, for the last time, get out of my truck.”
“Can I at least have your address so I can send you a picture of the baby?” she sobbed.
“No, because if you are with child, and I highly doubt it, it isn’t mine.” He glanced at the security guard. “Either you get her out of my truck or I’m calling the police.”
“Now, now, there’s no reason to be nasty.” He lowered the tailgate and held out his arms to Loreena.
She crawled over, and he picked her up. Loreena wrapped her arms around his neck. “Thank you for being so nice to me.”
“No problem. Where do you want to go, sweetheart?”
The guard carried her toward his vehicle, and Jack couldn’t hear her answer, but he could readily imagine. Not his problem. He closed the tailgate and then hopped into his truck, not wasting any time in case she changed her mind and tried to jump in the back again. He didn’t allow himself a relieved breath until he drove up the highway ramp headed for home.
Allison Wakefield thought her customer was rather excited for having a sick horse. Winnie Grayson-Manning had been chatting happily non-stop ever since Allison had arrived to check on one of the Grayson’s cutting horses. She could always tell which owners truly loved their animals, as the stalls were almost as clean as most peoples’ houses.
“Did I tell you Jack graduated and is coming home today?” Winnie asked.
Allison grinned. “Ahhh, so that’s what has you all smiling and happy. That’s not usually the case when farmers and ranchers call me in for a visit.”
“Oh, no, Allison. You know I love my animals, it’s just that Jack has worked so hard for that diploma and I’m glad he’s willing to take over the ranch. I know it sounds selfish, but as much as I love my ranch and my boys, Lucas and I must come first. What I’m really looking forward to is a second honeymoon.”
“Really? Where are you going?” Allison asked.
“We haven’t decided yet. Jack needs time to settle in and get reacquainted with ranch life, and we’re in no hurry. It’s the luxury of having no responsibilities for the first time in our lives that truly appeals.”
“Yes, I can see where that would be enticing. You’ve both lived busy, productive lives. You deserve a little freedom now and then.”
“Thank you, Allison. I just hope our boys feel the same way.”
“I’m sure Michael will, but I’ve never met Jack or Roy.” She wondered about the shadow that raced across Winnie’s features, but it was gone just as fast.
“Jack could arrive any time, but Roy, well, we haven’t had contact with him in months and he’ll be gone a while yet.”
“Oh? Is he studying as well?”
Winnie laughed aloud. It was good to see a smile back on the woman’s face. “Allison, Roy isn’t a good student for anything but trouble. He’s in jail. In order for him to reevaluate the meaning of family and respect, the judge ordered a no-contact ruling. For the first time in his life, he’s on his own, and I do hope he learns from it.”
Allison stood, her little black bag in hand. “Winnie, I’m so sorry. I hadn’t heard.”
“That’s all right. Have you found an apartment yet? Living out of a suitcase is never a good choice for the long term.”
“Says the woman eager to take a vacation.” Allison couldn’t help but grin. “And yes, the bank approved the addition of a two-bedroom suite attached to the clinic. I move in this weekend.”
“Terrific! If you need help, don’t hesitate to ask. There’s always plenty of testosterone on a working ranch.”
Allison snorted a laugh. “Oh, Winnie. You’re a hoot and I love you.”
“Good. Then if you’re finished here, come in for a cup of tea.”
“I am finished, and you’ll be happy to know Devlin only has a slight cold. He’ll be fine. Sometimes, like us, a change in the weather can bring on the sniffles.”
“I’m so glad that’s all it is.” Winnie took her arm and guided Allison out of the stable and up to the house.
Lucas, her husband, sat in his favorite rocker on the porch. “How’s ol’ Devlin?” he asked.
“He has a bad case of the sniffles, but he’ll be fine,” Allison answered.
“We’re going inside for a cup of tea. You want one, Lucas?”
“Any snacks bein’ offered with that tea?” he asked, one eyebrow cocked in question.
Winnie shook her head exasperatedly. “Yes, Lucas. Come feed that sweet tooth of yours, but that means no dessert after supper.”
“That’s all right, darlin’. I’ve got me a cravin’ now.” He rose and held the door open for them.
“Where can I wash up, Winnie?” asked Allison.
“There’s a washroom right off the front hall. That door to your right,” she said as she pointed to it. “Lucas, put the kettle on while I set out a plate of treats.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, smiling like a kid on Christmas because he had treats coming.
Allison loved this older couple. They seemed so suited to each other, and she could easily see the love they shared. Someday, she hoped to find a love like that. Oh well, it wouldn’t be today. She went into the washroom, cleaned the smell of the barn away, and brushed her hair. She usually kept her long, curly hair in a ponytail or bun when she was working, but today she’d left it loose and the wind had played havoc with it. When she was at least a little more presentable, she opened the door and went out, promptly colliding with a wall of firm muscle.
“Whoa, there. What’s the rush?” asked a sexy male voice as firm hands reached out to steady her.
“I’m sorry to have barged into you like that, but I didn’t know you were there.”
“Yeah, closed doors can easily block a view,” he said with a smirk that in no way detracted from his oh-so handsome features. “Hi, I’m Jack.”
“Allison Wakefield, neighborhood vet.” She held out her hand. “Your mother told me you were expected home today, but I hadn’t heard you come in.”
He took her hand in his, and she felt a tingle from the tips of her fingers and down her spine. She quickly removed her hand and reached to close the bathroom door behind her.
“I was upstairs unpacking. I guess Mom didn’t notice my truck parked out back.”
“No, and Lucas never said a word.”
“Lucas loves surprises, so he agreed to keep quiet.”
Jack’s grin was almost her undoing. She felt an answering smile all the way to the roots of her hair.
“Duty calls.” He turned in time to embrace his mother as she rushed to his side.
“I didn’t know you’d arrived. How dare you sneak by me,” she said in a loving voice. “You knew I’d be waiting.”
“Hardly sneaking, but it’s nice to be home. I took my things upstairs and unpacked my clothes. The rest I’ll take care of later.”
“Plenty of time for that. I see you’ve met Allison.”
“Yes. She’s a lot prettier to look at than old Hank. Did he finally retire?”
“Yes, I bought the business from him a few months ago,” Allison replied, feeling the heat of a blush stain her cheeks at the offhand compliment.
“Come into the kitchen so we can chat while we have our tea,” Winnie urged, looping her arm through her son’s and almost dragging him to a chair. “Sit. Both of you.”
Allison smiled and Jack chuckled at his mother’s take-charge demeanor. It wasn’t long before they were all sitting around the table and having their tea. Winnie had also made sandwiches and set out a tempting array of cookies, brownies, and lemon squares.