On an inherited ranch in Northern California, one family is discovering all the possibilities life can offer—and the kind of love that will outlast even the land . . .
When Angela Dalton comes home to Dry Creek Ranch after a long absence, she’s carrying weighty emotional baggage. Charmed by a handsome face, she inadvertently bank-rolled members of a violent militia group, all of whom now want her dead for working with the authorities. Leaving witness protection for the ranch is a risk until she can figure out where to take her life next—and the good-looking cowboy who lives across the creek from her cabin is an inconvenient distraction. She can’t trust her heart to anyone again, even a gruffly sweet man like Tuff Garrison . . .
Tuff doesn’t get involved—with anyone. It’s been his guiding principle since leaving home alone at fifteen to find his own way in the world. But the haunted look on Angela’s gorgeous face is impossible for him to ignore—and the heat of their attraction has become a blaze. When a set of dangerous men track her down, they’ll have to rely on each other to escape the threat—and take a chance that trusting each other will be worth a lifetime of love…
“Stacy Finz delivers a fantastic tale of cowboys, cattle rustling and the power of love and family in the California gold country.”
—Kate Pearce, New York Times bestselling author on Cowboy Up
Release date: November 23, 2021
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 320
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Dry Creek Ranch was even more beautiful than Angela remembered. Everything was so green. The pine and oak trees. The pastures. The surrounding Sierra foothills.
And the creek, which ran heavy, was crystal clear. Angie was sure that if she stared into the water, she could see her own reflection. She didn’t of course, afraid that she wouldn’t recognize the person she saw. The person she’d been stripped of and forced to reinvent like the Hollywood stars her parents represented.
This will be good, she sighed. Here, she could get her bearings, figure out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, and bury Katherine Moore, a woman she never much cared for, anyway.
That’s why she’d chosen the ranch over her native Los Angeles, a city that traded in role playing. On Dry Creek she could be herself again. But first, she had to find out who that was.
Even before she’d become Katherine, she’d been searching for so long. Traveling the world, joining up with any movement or group that caught her fancy, and falling for men who played her like a chess piece.
That’s what got me into trouble in the first place. She let out another sigh and continued to stare out over the mountains.
Her head jerked up to find a man leaning over the side of a horse, knocking on her car window. Angie reached for the can of pepper spray she kept in her glove box, then chided herself for being ridiculous. He was probably a ranch hand.
She unrolled her window a crack, letting in a rush of cold air.
“You lost?” He pulled down the brim of his cowboy hat to keep from squinting into the sun. “The shops and restaurant are that way.” He pointed in the direction of her late grandfather’s old barn.
“Actually, I’m looking for Sawyer Dalton’s house.” She hadn’t been here…well, it had to be at least six or seven years. Not since Christmas when Grandpa Dalton was still alive and everyone gathered at the ranch to celebrate holidays.
The cowboy straightened in his saddle. He was tall. Over six feet, judging by the size of his horse and the length his legs had to travel until his boots rested in a tooled set of stirrups. Broad, too, like he spent a lot of time lifting hay bales. His face was sun worn and there were crinkles around his eyes that made him look like he was smiling even when he wasn’t. But it was his eyes. A rich mahogany that reminded Angie of good leather.
“He expecting you?” His voice was a deep rumble with a hint of a drawl. Not Texas but definitely not California. Somewhere West, though.
She considered the question. There was no short way to answer it, so she lied. “He is.”
He leaned down again, giving Angie the impression that he was dubious. One look at her Dalton blue eyes—the unusual color of cobalt—and his expression changed. “About a mile past that copse of trees and the big ranch house on the right. Continue up the hill until you see what used to be a barn and now looks like something…architectural. That’s Sawyer and Gina’s place.”
Angie smiled to herself. Leave it to Sawyer to reinvent one of Grandpa Dalton’s livestock buildings.
“Thank you.” She started to close her window.
“I’m Ted…my friends call me Tuff.” He stuck out his hand and she opened the window wider to shake it.
“I’m Kath…Angela,” she said, letting her name—her real name—linger on her tongue, reveling in the taste of it. The taste of freedom. “My friends call me Angie. Angie Dalton.”
“Welcome to Dry Creek Ranch, Miz Dalton.” He tipped his hat.
She watched him ride away, then pulled off the shoulder, back onto the road. As she passed the ranch house, she considered stopping. There’d been so many happy times in the wonderful rambler when her grandparents were alive. Now, she knew her cousin Jace and his family lived there. Even from a distance, she’d kept tabs on the doings of the ranch and on the Daltons.
She would see Jace later. First, Sawyer. Angie had missed her family with an ache so painful, there were times she thought she would die from it. Most of all, she had missed her brother. Sawyer had never stopped searching for her. He’d never stopped believing in her. And because of that, she’d never stopped believing in herself.
The cowboy…Tuff …had been right. She parked alongside a Range Rover, killed the engine, and stared up at what used to be a hay loft. She, Sawyer, and their cousins had spent many a summer up there, playing hide-and-seek.
Architectural glass now covered the once weathered wooden windows, and two large industrial-style barn lamps flanked each side of the building. The old hay elevator was still there, but other than the cows that dotted the distant fields, no livestock was in sight. The barn had been transformed into a cross between a trendy farmhouse and an upscale artist’s loft.
She got out of her ancient Mercedes—a find off Craig’s List—and stretched her legs. After the ten-hour drive from Portland, she felt like a pretzel. She left her suitcase, a Costco closeout holding all her worldly possessions, in the trunk. After a few steps, she stopped, suddenly overwhelmed.
It had been six years. Six whole years since she’d seen her brother in person.
She took a fortifying breath and walked the rest of the way to the front door. Poised to knock, she silently prayed for strength. But before she could act, the door opened. And there stood Sawyer, looking as if he hadn’t aged a day. Still her too-handsome-for-his-own-good big brother.
She watched his expression slowly turn from mild annoyance to shock.
She self-consciously touched her hair. “I went red.”
“Oh my God, it’s you! It’s really you.” His eyes filled and he swiped at them with his hand before swooping her up in the air. “Holy shit, Ange, there’s nothing to you. What…are you out…are you even supposed to be here?”
She clung to him, the lump in her throat making it impossible to respond. All she could do was cry.
“Ah, jeez, Angie, come inside. Come inside.”
He pulled her over the threshold and practically carried her up a set of stairs that landed in a huge great room. “Let me look at you.” He stepped back and assessed her. “You look great, Angie.”
She didn’t, but she gave him points for sounding genuine.
“Mom and Dad…Did you call them? Do they know you’re here?”
Still choked up, she shook her head. To buy time while she gathered her emotions, she turned in place, surveying the loft. It was an open floor plan with a large kitchen and soaring cathedral ceilings. The old barn’s big wooden trusses were still exposed, and again she had a memory of them playing in the loft. “Wow, Sawyer, this is some home.”
“Never mind the house. What’s going on, Angie? Talk to me.”
“It’s over.” She choked on a sob. “I get to come home.”
Sawyer guided her to one of the couches and wrapped her in a throw blanket. That’s when she realized she was shaking.
“Let me get you something warm to drink and you can start at the beginning.”
“Some tea would be good.” She hadn’t had anything to eat or drink all day. Her only concern had been getting to Dry Creek Ranch.
Sawyer turned up the thermostat and made his way to the kitchen where he made her a cup of tea. He watched her take a sip, then settled down next to her. “Better?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“I’ve got a lot of questions, Ange.”
She knew he would. He was a successful investigative journalist after all.
“You want a little time? Or should I call Jace and Cash?”
She sucked in a breath. Her cousins were both cops. They too would have a lot of questions. “Call them.” She just wanted to get this over with.
Sawyer returned to the kitchen and brought her a slice of banana bread. It was still warm as if it had recently come out of the oven. She took a bite and then devoured it.
“I’ll make you a sandwich in a few minutes.” He swiped his phone off the center island and disappeared behind a closed door.
She could hear his voice but couldn’t make out the conversation. He was probably preparing Jace and Cash.
While he talked on the phone, she went in search of a bathroom. She’d only stopped twice during the drive. Each time, looking over her shoulder as if her life depended on it. When would it stop? Her handlers warned maybe never.
What a way to live? But it sure beat the alternative.
Thirty minutes later, Cash and Jace rushed in while Angie finished her sandwich. They hugged her so hard she was afraid her bones would snap. Even after they let go, they took turns squeezing her shoulder, her knee, her arm. It was as if they wanted to ensure she was real—and not an apparition.
“The US Marshals know you’re here, right?” A year ago, Cash, a former FBI agent, had found out through his network of law enforcement friends that Angie had been hidden away in the federal Witness Security Program. Because he’d pulled strings, authorities had allowed her to have a brief conversation with her family remotely.
Until then, they’d believed she’d disappeared off the face of the earth. One day she was living in a commune in New Mexico, and the next day she was gone.
“They know.” Three pairs of eyes bored into her from across the coffee table. “Last week, the FBI and ATF arrested the last of the ring. They said I was safe.”
“Safe to resume your real identity?” Sawyer watched her closely.
“Yes,” though they thought she’d be safer to continue assuming her fake one. But she’d had enough. Enough of living a lie, enough of hiding, and enough of being separated from her family.
“What happened, Angie? How did you get caught up in all this?” Sawyer wanted to know.
She looked at Cash. “How much did your friends in the Bureau tell you?”
He rubbed his hand down his face. “Not a lot. Just that you somehow wound up involved with arms dealers and helped the feds.” Cash held her gaze and waited for her to fill in the blanks.
She was so tired. The drive had been a bear. But more than that, the last couple of days had come crashing down around her. After Zane’s arrest and the aftermath, she’d taken close stock of her life, including all the mistakes she’d made.
All she’d ever wanted to do was make a difference and change the world for the better. She’d spent most of her adult life drifting from cause to cause, ultimately founding a commune in Taos dedicated to feeding the hungry. Little did she know that it would attract a criminal organization, and that a radical conman would take it over.
“It’s a long story.” She pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to keep her eyes open. She’d be sharper after a good nap. But judging by their penetrating stares, they didn’t want to wait. That’s what she got for being related to trained interrogators.
She let out a sigh. “Where do I start?”
“At the beginning,” Jace said. The other two nodded in agreement.
The beginning. That would start with the idealist, who left the privileged confines of her parents’ Beverly Hills manse right after graduation to do good. But they already knew that story and had watched with wry amusement—and sometimes disapproval—as she traveled the globe, joining up with activist groups, living out of a suitcase.
“I met Zane Johnson six years ago in Kenya,” she started. “We were both volunteering for the Water Project. He was the most principled man I’d ever met. Smart, hardworking, a true believer. Or so I thought.” Angie swallowed hard. To this day she couldn’t decide whether she was a terrible judge of character or if Zane, in his zeal, had metamorphized into a ruthless zealot. “He and a few others from the project decided they wanted to buy land in the US, plant it in crops, and distribute food to the poor. With time, we hoped to branch out, planting everything from deserted fields to urban parks. A giant victory garden to feed the country.”
“But it was a scam, right?” Sawyer propped his feet up on the coffee table in a relaxed pose. But Angie knew the studied gesture was anything but relaxed. That’s what made him such a good reporter. He was able to put his subjects at ease with casual body language, thereby encouraging people to spill their guts.
“I don’t think he started out that way. But I don’t know for sure.” The fact was she didn’t know up from down or right from left anymore. Living in the Witness Protection Program would do that to a person.
“So he bought the land in Taos.” Cash got up, grabbed a few water bottles from the fridge and tossed one to Sawyer and one to Jace. She was still nursing her tea, which had gone cold.
Angie nodded. “We all did.”
“Who’s all?” Jace asked.
“Zane, Rich, Kari and me. The four of us had been in Kenya together and had…money.” Well, she had had money. “So we founded The Farm. That’s what we called it—The Farm.” Looking back on it, the desert hadn’t been a particularly smart place to grow food crops. They’d trucked in the water, though, and had made a real go of it.
“But The Farm was a front for an arms dealing operation,” Cash said.
Angie slowly nodded her head. “Not at first, though.” In the beginning, Zane had been happy farming. But that quickly changed.
“Is Kari the woman I talked to in Santa Fe while I was trying to track you down?” Sawyer watched her over the rim of his water bottle.
“I can’t talk about that.” Kari had changed her name and had cut all ties with anything having to do with The Farm. And while she hadn’t helped the feds in the same way as Angie, Kari continued to be freaked out about her safety. Angie wouldn’t do anything to betray her friend, not even to her brother.
“Let’s stick to the chronological order of events,” Cash said. “We’ll circle back to Kari afterward.”
Angie let out a breath, girding herself. Even after six years, talking about it made her chest squeeze so tight it cut off her air supply.
She turned to Sawyer. “We bought the land, the yurts, and enough farm equipment to till the fields and plant our first crop. We were less than three months into it when something started to bother me. Suddenly Zane and some of the other men who’d joined our rag-tag group were spending a lot of time behind closed doors. When Kari or I asked about it, they sloughed it off. Just guys talking about sports and women. That sort of thing. For a while, I convinced myself that it was nothing. But something didn’t feel right about it. Some of the men made me uncomfortable. Two of them had moved into the commune with girlfriends. The women were meek, too meek. Kari and I began to suspect they were being abused. We went to Zane about it, and he, in so many words, told us to mind our own business, that it wasn’t our place to get involved, which was counter to everything we believed in. When we got loud about it, he agreed to talk to the two men. After that, if we still weren’t satisfied, he promised to ask them to leave.
“Things got better for a while and the women started to come out of their shells. The four of us formed a nice little group. We worked the fields by day, and in the evenings planned our strategy for distributing the food we grew.” She shifted on the couch, feeling wearier than she had before she left Portland.
“And?” Sawyer folded one leg over his knee and signaled for her to continue.
“And…a few weeks later, Diana disappeared.”
“One of the women?” Jace asked and Angie nodded. “What do you mean she disappeared?”
“We went to bed one night, and the next morning she was missing. Her and her boyfriend Jacob’s VW bus was parked exactly where it was the day before. We searched for her, fearing that she might’ve gotten up in the middle of the night to use the outhouse and had an accident. But there was no trace of her. Nothing.”
Jace straightened up in his chair. “Did you call the cops?”
“Jacob didn’t want us to. He said she’d likely hooked up with her ex-boyfriend. He had some crazy story about how Diana had been cheating on him with the ex and that the ex had come to Taos and had probably picked her up from The Farm in the middle of the night. None of it made any sense to me. Or to Kari. There’d been no sign of an ex-boyfriend coming into the picture as far as we could tell. And we were with Diana every day.”
“What about the other woman?” Cash asked.
“Leda? After Diana disappeared, Leda went back to being reserved. She stopped hanging out with us and spent her days working in the fields alongside her boyfriend, Ian. In the evenings, she made herself scarce in her yurt, while the men congregated in an old barn on the property.”
“After a few days, Kari and I drove into town and reported Diana missing to the Taos Police Department. They took down our information and a photo I’d taken on my phone of the four of us women together. But we got the sense they believed Jacob’s version of the story about her running off with her ex. Zane said he’d seen Jacob and her fighting over the other man a couple of days before she went missing. Still, I had a funny feeling about it, and to this day wished I would’ve pushed harder with the police.” There were a lot of things, in hindsight, she wished she would’ve done differently, like not getting involved with Zane in the first place.
“There probably wasn’t much more you could do. She was an adult, and as long as there wasn’t anything to suggest she was abducted or the victim of foul play, the police didn’t have a case.” Jace was the Mill County Sheriff, so he knew how these things worked. Still, Angie had been angry at the time, wishing the police had done more.
She went to the kitchen and turned a flame on under the kettle. Her throat was dry, and she couldn’t seem to shake the chill that spread through her like a winter’s day.
“Did they ever find her?” Sawyer asked.
“No. The feds think she knew what was going on, was afraid of getting caught up in it, and took off in the middle of the night.” It would’ve been nice if she’d warned the rest of them, but Angie tried not to judge. For all she knew, Diana had been in eminent danger at the time. “She’d been estranged from her family, so there’s no telling where she is now.” Wherever it was, Angie hoped she found peace.
“After her disappearance, more people came to join our co-op. Not a day went by without one or two people showing up with bedrolls and backpacks, claiming they wanted to be involved in our farm.” She let out a mirthless laugh. “These people didn’t look anything like farmers. They didn’t look anything like the volunteers we’d worked with at the Water Project or Green Peace, or any of the assorted other causes I’d been involved with. No, they were rough and brittle and angry. And truthfully scary. Some of them talked about the government in a way that made me uneasy.
“Once again Kari and I went to Zane and Rich to complain, to say this isn’t what we signed up for. They promised to keep the men in line, and in so many words told us we were being snobby. Elitists, who expected everyone to look exactly like us. I tried to see it from their point of view, but my gut told me they were troublemakers. And soon it became apparent that these men intended to take over. First, it was their antiquated belief in gender roles. The women were expected to do all the cooking and cleaning, while the men went into town on mysterious excursions. Kari and I couldn’t tell what they were doing. They never returned with provisions, and there were a lot of meetings and secret discussions.”
“One day, Kari started to go into town to buy necessities and one of the men stopped her. He said that, from then on, only one of the men would be allowed to do the shopping. When she pushed back, he became belligerent and physically prevented her from taking one of the cars.”
“Why didn’t you call me, Angie?” Sawyer rocked forward. There was so much anguish in the question that it made her shudder.
She squeezed her eyes shut. “I didn’t want to tell you at first because…”
“Because you’re the one who put up all the money for this venture, weren’t you?”
She wasn’t surprised that Cash had guessed the crux of the matter. Her family always thought she was a flake, a young woman who used her wealth and privilege to hook up with fringe groups and join every do-gooder movement she could find. But this time she’d gone too far, ultimately bankrolling what would turn out to be a radical group called the Liberty Fighters.
Angie gave an imperceptible nod. “I didn’t want any of you to know about it until we’d gotten the fields planted, until we were established.” She wanted her family to be proud of her endeavor, and not appalled that she’d spent every dime of her trust fund on the project. “And then…it was too late.”
“How?” Sawyer asked.
“After the incident with Kari and Burt we held a meeting with Rich and Zane. Just the four of us. Kari told them what had happened. Zane said she was overreacting. ‘Tell Burt to fuck off,’ was Zane’s answer. But Rich was pissed. He had witnessed Burt being aggressive with a few of the other women and wanted him to leave. And if Burt refused, Rich said he was going to go to the police. Kari and I told him we would go with him. But by the next day, Rich, just like Diana, was gone. And so was his Jeep Cherokee. Zane’s theory was that Rich and Burt got into it and Rich decided to quit and leave the commune.”
“Do you believe that?” Jace stood, his hands shoved in his pockets. His anger was palpable.
Angie shook her head. “No. He was a good man. He would’ve gone to the police, like he’d promised.”
“What do you think happened to him?” Cash asked.
“I don’t know. The authorities don’t know. But whatever it was, it wasn’t good.” She tried to keep the tremor out of her voice. “We called him repeatedly, but he never answered his cell. So Kari and I decided to go to the police ourselves. When we got to my car, Burt was there, holding an AR-15. He told us we weren’t going anywhere and forced us to hand over our phones.”
Angie stopped to catch her breath. All three men waited, staring at her raptly.
“That’s when we knew we were in trouble.”
Tuff Garrison spent a good part of the morning riding fences. It wasn’t his job, but he frequently performed the task. The Daltons had given him a good deal on rent for his living quarters on the ranch, as well as an enviable lease on his work studio and storefront. It was important to him to return their kindness. And he’d been riding fences so long that it didn’t make sense to stop now, even if he was making a good living selling custom saddles.
Besides, he enjoyed the solitude. Just him, his gelding Muchacho and 1,500 acres of lush land, majestic mountains, tall pines, and Dry Creek, which wended through the property like a fat snake. The rides spurred his creative juices. And by the time he walked into his workshop, he was raring to go.
Today, there was no sign of the redhead he’d passed on the road a few days ago. But he’d seen her old Mercedes parked at Sawyer’s place on his way to the stable. He wondered what the story was with her. Tuff had been living on the ranch for close to a year now and hadn’t crossed paths with her before. No question she was a Dalton, though. All of them had those piercing blue eyes. Hers were prettier than her male counterparts. Then again, he’d always been a sucker for a redhead.
He turned Muchacho toward the stable and gave him his head. It was getting late and he had a Zoom meeting with a finicky client on the East Coast. He had two saddles that needed to be packaged and shipped to members of the United States Olympic Equestrian Team and some last-minute alterations to a bridle for a Texas rodeo queen. A full plate.
But setting up shop here on Dry Creek Ranch was the best decision he’d ever made. He was getting too old to be a full-time wrangler. And though he’d never cared much about money, it turned out being a saddler was quite profitable.
Leatherwork had started as a hobby, something to do in a bunkhouse before bedtime. Wranglers, impressed with Tuff’s handmade belts, bridles, hackamores, and his eye to detail, began asking him to mend their weathered tack or make them new pieces.
It had been his bunkmates who’d encouraged him to rent a stall at the annual National Finals Rodeo in Vegas and sell the leather boot bags and rope cases he made. That business slowly grew to pro cowboys and wealthy ranchers commissioning him to make tack and luggage with their trademark brands and monograms. The extra income went a long way to holding Tuff over during the lean times.
Soon, word spread, and he was selling four to five custom saddles a year. When the opportunity to have a brick-and-mortar shop fell into Tuff’s lap, he took the plunge.
This year, he was looking at a six-figure profit. It was more than he’d ever made in his lif. . .
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