Layla Evans traded in her heels and her briefcase for jeans and cowboy boots after inheriting a Virginia ranch from her estranged father. She hopes the quiet life of a rural rancher will ease painful memories from what should have been the biggest case of her law career. The careful balance she finally strikes is threatened when vandals destroy her property. Meeting the reclusive Ben Callahan, a man obviously tormented by demons of his own, tips that delicate balance toward insanity.
With a broken heart, tortured soul, and scars that run far more than skin deep, Ben has settled into a life of solitude. He spends his days working his small ranch and his nights trying to forget the days he spent as a POW and the lost love of a fiancé unable deal with the broken man he had become. Layla disturbs the solitary existence he’s carved out for himself. When someone with a vendetta shows up and threatens her very existence, can they rescue each other and let love heal them both?
Ebook only on Amazon at the moment due to being listed in Kindle Unlimited (free)
Chapter One Excerpt:
“The next time I decide to quit my job, leave the city, and try to run a cattle ranch, just shoot me.” Layla let out a string of curses as the big beast she was attempting to milk kicked the bucket over and spilled what little milk she had gotten all over her jeans. “Forget it. Just shoot me now and be done with it!”
Warm, chocolate brown eyes watched her with pity as Chloe, one of the two dairy cows she had inherited snorted softly. Even the cow knew how pathetic she was. Layla righted the bucket and gave one of the udders a good squeeze like she had seen on the internet. Milk hit the side of the bucket, sprayed in her face and ran down the front of her shirt. “That’s it, I’m done.” She rose from the stool she was perched on and backed out of the stall.
“Come on, Chloe, let’s get you out in the pasture with Zoe. You two gals can soak up a little sunshine while I figure out how the hell I ended up here.”
Chloe let out another grunt as she let Layla slowly lead her toward the barn door. Three months ago leaving her job as a criminal defense attorney with a prominent law firm in Virginia Beach had seemed like a good idea. She was exhausted, burnt out really, from the evils of human kind. Spending her days with cattle and horses seemed like a great idea at the time. Excellent therapy. Except she didn’t know a damned thing about raising cattle, milking a cow, or riding a damned ranch horse. Ten years of riding lessons, prancing around an arena and dressing in fancy riding gear hadn’t prepared her in the least for the wild nature of the horses at her new home.
“Let’s move it, girl. We’re burning daylight here!” At least she had the lingo down. Hours of watching online videos on how to care for ranch animals had taught her that. Layla laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. Once she managed to get the huge animal out into the pasture with her calf, she had to saddle up the one horse she could pretty much handle and ride the fence line. One of the videos said if she didn’t want her cattle to escape she had to check for breaks in the fencing. He called it riding the fence.
Chloe finally sauntered out into the sunlight and immediately started grazing the fresh spring grasses that were finally poking through the old hay Layla spread during the winter months. It took longer than it should have to saddle up Domino, the largest of the horses in the stable. Country Cattle Man, her favorite video host, made riding the fence look like a walk in the park so Layla figured it would be like one of those mud runs that were all the rage now. Sloppy, sweaty, and dirty but done by the end of the day.
The ranch was large, two hundred and fifty acres of grazing lands for her income source, a mid-sized herd of Angus beef cattle. A simple fence of wood posts and barbed wire snaked its way around, through brush and fields, even crossing the small stream she had discovered running through one back corner of the property. She didn’t have a clue about handling cattle so she had a couple of hired hands that tended to most of that business. They came three or four times a week and did what needed doing. Her property’s perimeter fence she had saved for herself.
Scrambling astride her huge mount, Layla urged the beast forward with a gentle nudge from her heels and a click of her tongue. Domino just stood where he was.
“Come on, Dom, let’s go!” She yanked the reins, muttered a curse and kicked harder. Domino strode toward the barn door. Apparently the animal liked to be cursed at. Ugh. Once they stepped outside, Domino took off. Layla gripped the reins and held on as tight as she could. Domino always ran like his tail was on fire when they first left the barn so she just held on and waited. As was his fashion, Domino slowed to a decent trot as they crossed the field and headed toward the fence. She got the feeling that the horse had ridden a few fences in his day.
Layla was feeling pretty confident when the stream came into view. They were more than halfway through the day and the fence had proven sturdy so far. She urged Domino toward the water. The animal had to be in need of something to drink. As Domino did his thing, Layla downed half a bottle of water and pulled her cell phone out to check the time. Movement on the other side of the barbed wire caught her eye. Bright red shone through the green of the trees and brush. She felt for the shotgun she had gotten used to taking with her on rides. It was still slung down by the saddle. The brush moved, a branch snapped. Layla tried to turn Domino away from the water but the stubborn beast refused to move. She tried to set the shotgun free but her shaking hands fumbled with the sling.
“Let’s move, Domino!” She tried to get the horse going but he ignored her. Panicked she yanked at the shotgun, finally setting it free and raised it to her shoulder.
“Who’s there?” She demanded, hoping the shake in her voice was only audible to her. Something shot of the brush, running between Domino’s legs. The horse startled, rearing up on his hind legs. Layla’s body flew through the air, landing on the grassy embankment.
“Son of a bitch!” Ben Callahan dropped the rabbit he was holding by the legs and sprinted to where the woman lay in a crumpled mess.
A tiny stream of blood flowed from a gash on her forehead. Ben grabbed the first aid kit from his back pack and tore open a pack of gauze that he pressed gently to the wound to her face. She stirred slightly but didn’t wake up. He looked around for her horse. Where did that evil animal get off to?
“Miss? Miss, can you hear me?” He jostled her ever so slightly.
“Mmm…” She moaned and tried to roll over.
“No! Don’t move,” Ben commanded.
“What happened?” Her words came in short little gasps. “Who—who are you?”
“Name’s Ben Callahan and I’m the guy who’s gonna get you outta here.”
Fear seized her expression. “I don’t need help. I just need to get out of here.” She pulled herself up, ignoring his command to stay where she was.
“You really should get checked out. You hit your head on the fall.” Ben reached for her but the woman scooted out of his reach.
“I’m fine. I just need to get home.” She looked around for her horse. The movement forced the trickle of blood on her forehead into her eye. “I’m bleeding.”
Give the girl a gold star for the obvious. Be nice, Ben. She just flew off a damned horse.
A horse she had no business riding. That animal was huge. Not at all the right fit for her. None of your business. Help her out and move on.
Ben reached out again, holding the gauze. “Here. Use this to put pressure on it.”
Their fingers grazed as she accepted his offering. The contact was brief but electrified. Ben bit down on the gasp that accompanied her touch. Did she feel it too?
You’ve been alone way too long.
That had to be it. Two years living in isolation would make any man hungry for a little close physical contact of the female kind. He watched as she applied the gauze to her wound with tentative fingers. She was pretty with shoulder length brown curls, green hazel eyes and eyelashes that never needed to see a drop of mascara they were so long and full.
Ben moved toward the woman slowly, like he would approach a spooked horse. She had that same wide eyed look of fear. He knew she would take off through the trees if she weren’t still reeling from her spill.
“You really should get to a hospital. You could have a concussion.”
“I’m fine. Just a little sore,” she snapped, backing further away from him.
“I’m not going to hurt you. You know that, right?”
People were always afraid of him. He couldn’t blame them, his disfigured body was nothing to look at—and nothing compared to the emotional scars he carried with him.
She nodded but didn’t look convinced, although he gave her props for trying to appear confident. “I—I know. I just don’t know what happened to my horse.” She glanced around as if to make her point.
“Your horse took off. Probably back at the barn by now, grazing the fresh grass and wondering what’s taking you so long to catch up. He’ll expect a full brushing when you return.” Ben offered her a smile, a lot more crooked and uneven than it used to be thanks to one very sharp blade and a pissed off Taliban soldier.
Surprisingly, she smiled back. Sort of. “I guess I have quite a long walk back.”
“You the lady who took over the Evans ranch?”
“Why?” She stiffened and her eyes narrowed with instant distrust as she studied him.
“Just making neighborly conversation. My momma taught me to be polite under every circumstance. Of course she also taught me to offer a glass of sweet tea and a cookie to every person that shows up at my place but since you caught me unprepared all I have is a bottle of water and a protein bar.”
The woman relaxed a little as she eyed the bottle and bar he removed from his pack. He could practically see the hunger and thirst in her green eyes so he held them out to her. “Are you thirsty?”
She nodded. “Domino took off with my pack. I was planning lunch here by the stream before—before you showed up and…”
“And spooked your horse out from under you?”
“Something like that.” This smile was bigger but didn’t quite reach her eyes. She accepted the bottle of water and polished off half of it in one gulp. “Thank you, that tastes good.”
Her lips were damp and glossy from the water. Something deep in his gut churned. He ignored the long forgotten sensations and nodded at her. “You’re welcome. We really need to get you out of here. I’ve got my horse just over the stream. I’ll grab him and give you a ride back.”
“Hey? What happened to the fencing that went over the stream?” she asked, ignoring everything he just said.
“I removed it.”
“Why? That’s my property. You can’t do that.” She motioned toward the stream.
“It was catching storm debris and backing up the flow.”
“You still shouldn’t have touched it. It’s on my property.”
“I don’t know who you think you are but you’re sure no farm girl or cattle rancher. Just look at you. Are you wearing designer cowboy boots?”
“I like these boots!” she snapped.
“Impractical. And proof that you know absolutely nothing about running a ranch. Whoever put that fence up was an idiot. You defending it makes you a bigger idiot.” He tossed his first aid kit back in his pack and zipped it up. Let her find her own way home. He didn’t need this sort of aggravation in his life.
She had managed to get to her feet, her hands resting on her hips, full lips were pursed with anger and she looked about to shoot daggers at him from her beautiful eyes.
What the hell? Kiss her? Where did that come from?
“I am not an idiot! How dare you! No wonder you wander out here in the woods alone. No one could put up with your nasty attitude! Just where do you get off anyway, telling me who and what I am?”
His nasty attitude? That was it? That was the reason she thought he hid out on his own ranch?
“The name’s Layla! Stop calling me lady.” She actually stomped her foot for emphasis and it took all of his composure to not dissolve in laughter.
“Okay Layla, I’m sorry you’re angry about the fence but it had to be done. If that backed up it could cause a flood on your property and cut off water to mine. I didn’t know you were living here now. I figured Evans would have wanted me to fix the problem.”
He had just apologized, spoken more words in one breath than he had muttered in months and one syllable was all she could manage?
He let out a low whistle and waited until his horse appeared through the brush. “I’m sorry about the fence. Make sure you get someone to look at that cut on your head.” He felt her eyes on him as he splashed through the water and climbed in the saddle Sam wore.
“You’re just going to leave?” she called after him as he turned Sam around and started making their way back toward home.
“It was nice to meet you, Layla!” he called over his shoulder. It was not nice at all. She had him all confused with her hot and cold behavior. And the way he had been in a perpetually semi-hard state since that first contact with just her fingers. He didn’t need that in his life. Nope. What he needed was a cold shower and a beer. Maybe a thick steak on the grill and one of those potatoes he had managed to produce in his garden. Yup, that’s all he needed— steak, potatoes, and beer. And to forget he had ever met the feisty Layla. Nothing good could come of it. Even if they one day learned to get along, maybe she wasn’t so bothered by the scar on his face but there was no way she could look past the rest of what those monsters had done to him.
He was about a hundred feet into the woods when he started to feel guilty. He was the monster if he made a woman find her way back in the dark—and it would be dark long before she made it home.
“What the hell,” he muttered as he pulled up on the reins. “Come on, Sam. Let’s go get her.”
Sam snorted agreement and turned back toward where Layla had last been. As they broke through the brush by the stream, he caught sight of her making her way slowly and tediously along the embankment. Her obviously expensive jeans fit her curves perfectly—as though they were made just for her. Perhaps there was something to be said for designer fashion after all.
He pushed Sam to pick up the pace until they were right beside her. The little trail was barely wide enough to accommodate them both so he let her get a couple of steps ahead. She refused to look up at him.
“Come on, Layla, let Sam and I give you a ride home.”
“I’m fine, thanks,” she replied without making eye contact.
“It’s a long way back and you are in no condition—” Good Lord he had just made it sound like she was pregnant or something. Smooth, Callahan. Very smooth.
“Why do you go on back to your cave or rock or wherever it is you live. I’ve got a long way to go and I don’t have time to deal with you.”
He pulled Sam to a stop and jumped down. Leading the horse by its reins, he fell in to step beside her. “I’m sorry. I can come across as a real ass sometimes.”
“Hmpf. Sometimes? I bet you are a real riot at parties and weddings.”
She had spunk. And a sense of humor. Two pluses in his book.
Why do you even care? You’ll take her home and then get to back to doing what you do best—avoiding the world.
“I said I was sorry. I’m not what you would call a social guy. I’m a little rusty on how to interact with the general public.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not a fan of the general public either. Or guys who act like asses.”
Try as he might not to, Ben was starting to like Layla.
“My name’s Ben. Ben Callahan. I live on the next ranch over.”
“So you said. I’m Layla. Layla Evans.”
“Evans? You related to…”
“He was my father,” she said shortly.
“Wow, I had no idea Evans had a family.”
“He didn’t. Just a daughter. Me.”
“So, you inherited his place?”
She nodded but didn’t reply or offer any other information. Her foot hit a loose stone, turning her ankle. “Ouch!”
“Okay, Layla Evans, no more arguing. Sam insists.” Without another word he grabbed her at the waist with both hands and lifted her towards the saddle. Ben climbed up and settled behind her, his arms wrapping around her.
Touching her turned up the heat in his blood almost instantly. His cargo pants couldn’t hide his body’s response this time and he half-expected her to throw herself from the horse to get away from him. But she didn’t. In fact, he kind of felt her relax against his chest and that cranked up the volume of the pulse sounding in his ears.
For the first time in over a year, Ben actually felt a little bit happy.
Carolyn LaRoche grew up in snow country but fled the cold and ice several years ago. She now lives near the beach with her husband, their two boys, two finicky cats and one old dog. When she is not at the baseball field cheering on big hits and home runs, she is busy teaching science to unwilling teenagers.