Wild at Heart. . .
Wild. Reckless. Stubborn. That's Luke Malloy in a nutshell. The solitary life of a rancher and the untamed Montana wilderness make him feel alive-and nothing will ever change that. Not even being thrown from his horse and forced to accept a stranger's help. The fact that this stranger is a beautiful blonde with a passion for ranching that rivals his own doesn't hurt. But there's a secret she's hiding, and Luke won't rest until he uncovers it...
Ingrid Larsen doesn't need anyone's help. Not with managing her family's ranch. Not with raising her little sister. And certainly not with the mysterious incidents occurring on her property. When this too-sexy-for-his-own-good cowboy needs a place to recover, she hopes he'll be in and out in no time flat. But just as she's beginning to trust Luke's promise of protection, Ingrid's secret threatens to tear them apart.
Release date: November 29, 2016
Print pages: 369
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R. C. Ryan
Glacier Ridge, Montana—Thirteen Years Ago
Carter Prevost, owner-manager of the Glacier Ridge fairgrounds, stopped his pacing when rancher Frank Malloy and his foreman, Burke Cowley, walked into his office.
Though Frank was owner of one of the state’s largest ranches—several thousand acres and growing—he was still just a neighbor and friend to the folks in Glacier Ridge. A man still struggling to pay the bills required to maintain such an operation.
“Okay, Carter. Now why the frantic phone call, and why couldn’t you just tell me what you wanted over the phone?”
“It’s about Luke.”
The old man let out a slow breath. “It’s always about my middle grandson. What did he do this time?”
“Luke signed up to compete in the motorcycle challenge during rodeo weekend.”
“He did what?” Frank removed his wide-brimmed hat and slapped it against his leg, sending up a cloud of dust. “He’s only fifteen, Carter.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” The thickset man ran a hand through the rusty hair that was now more gray than red. “But he paid the entrance fee and signed all the forms. Since there’s no age limit, I didn’t want to be the one to face Luke’s temper, so I figured I’d call you and let you deal with it.”
“Oh, I’ll deal with it, all right.” Frank swore and turned away. “No grandson of mine is going to risk his life jumping his Harley over a line of trucks.”
“Everybody knows Luke’s capable of a trick like that. If jumping vehicles was all there was to it, I wouldn’t be so worried.”
At Carter’s words, Frank turned back. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Jumping a line of trucks is just the preliminary. This year we’re building a ramp higher than anything ever tried before. At the end of that ramp, the biker will see nothing but air. We’ve issued a challenge to all the professional bikers who want to enter the final. They’ll have to land in one piece—and to prove they’re still able to function, they’ll be expected to circle the stadium. If more than one succeeds, the finalists will have to do it again, until only one is left standing. The first prize is ten thousand dollars.”
“If it was a million dollars, it wouldn’t be enough.” Frank Malloy turned to the door and stalked toward his truck.
Burke Cowley followed more slowly.
As they started toward the ranch, Burke held his silence while Frank gave vent to every rich, ripe curse he knew.
“Damned hotheaded kid will be the death of me.”
Burke cleared his throat. “I know Luke’s a handful.”
“A handful?” Frank was fuming. “There’s a devil inside that boy. I think he sits up nights dreaming of ways to challenge his grandmother and me. I swear, he’s the most ornery, fearless boy I’ve ever known.”
“He is that.” Burke smiled. “But he has a way of getting under the skin. Despite all the trouble he causes, you know we can’t help but love him. He has the greatest heart in the world. And as Miss Gracie likes to say, he has an old soul. Like his daddy, God rest him, Luke’s a sucker for a sad story.”
The mention of Frank’s son, Patrick, who had been killed five years ago along with his wife, Bernadette, on a snowy stretch of Montana road, had Frank Malloy sucking in a painful breath. Their death had left a void that would never be filled. Not for the Malloy family, and especially not for Pat and Bernie’s three sons, Matt, Luke, and Reed, who were left to figure out a world rocked by the sudden, shocking loss of their parents.
Burke stared straight ahead, his tone thoughtful. “Luke’s the kind who will always stand and fight beside anybody who’s down and out. That boy would give you the shirt off his back.”
“I know what I’m about to give him.” Frank’s eyes narrowed with flinty determination. “God knows, I don’t like coming down too hard on the boy, after all he and his brothers have suffered. But this time he’s gone too far. If I have to, I’ll lock him in his room until rodeo days are over.”
“Pretty hard to keep a fifteen-year-old locked away.”
Frank’s head swiveled. “Are you on his side?”
Burke shrugged. “The boy’s wild and reckless. But he’s not stupid. If you forbid it, he’ll find a way around you. But if he knows he has your blessing, he might look at this challenge with a clear eye. He might even be willing to back down if he sees that it’s too dangerous.”
“And if he breaks his fool neck?”
Burke squinted into the sunlight. “It’s his neck. Like you said, there’s a devil inside him. Maybe in time he’ll learn to tame it. Or maybe, whenever he feels it taking over, he’ll just ride that devil into the eye of the storm and see where it takes him. Either way, he’s the sort who’s willing to play the hand dealt him.”
After a few more miles, Frank muttered, “I guess we’ll see.”
“You’re going to give him your blessing?”
Frank shrugged. “Like you said, it’s going to be impossible to keep him locked away during rodeo week.”
A week later, when Luke proudly handed his grandfather a check for ten thousand dollars, the old man’s eyes narrowed. “What’s this about, sonny boy? It’s your money. You’re the one who risked your neck for it.”
Luke shrugged. “I heard you telling Gram Gracie the bills were piling up, and you were going to have to hold off on buying that bull you’ve been itching to import from Calgary.”
“Are you telling me you risked your neck for a damned bull?”
“It’s my neck, Grandpop. And honestly, it wasn’t much of a risk.”
“You weren’t scared?”
The boy grinned. “Yeah. But it was really cool. I felt like I was flying.”
“Here.” Frank held out the check. “You earned this, boy. I won’t take it.”
“You know you need that bull.” Smiling, Luke ambled away, leaving Frank staring after him.
It was then that he recalled Burke’s words.
Despite all the worries and sleepless nights spent on his middle grandson, there was no denying that Luke Malloy had the biggest heart in the world. That breathtaking daredevil…that defiant rebel…had the heart of a champion. And the soul of a hero.
Glacier Ridge, Montana—Current Day
Luke Malloy sat easily in the saddle as his roan gelding, Turnip, moved leisurely up a hill. Luke had spent the last three weeks in the hills that surrounded his family ranch, tending the herds, sleeping under the stars. It was something he never tired of. Though some of the wranglers complained about the solitary lifestyle, it was the very thing that fed Luke’s soul. He planned to build a home up here someday, far enough from his family to listen to the whistle of the wind in the trees, yet near enough to visit when he craved their company.
The time spent alone was a soothing balm to his soul, though he had to admit that after weeks of solitude, he wouldn’t mind a night in town. A night of good whiskey, loud country music, and lusty women in the smoky atmosphere of Clay Olmstead’s Pig Sty. That wasn’t the name on the sign above the saloon. But Clay had been a pig farmer before opening his saloon in Glacier Ridge, and everyone there referred to it as Clay’s Pig Sty. Just the thought of it had Luke grinning.
Luke’s body was lean and muscled from hard, physical ranch work. He was heavily bearded, his long hair tied in a ponytail beneath his wide-brimmed hat. He was hot and sweaty, and now he was thinking about a swim in the welcoming waters of Glacier Creek.
As he and his mount crested a ridge, all thought disappeared at the sight of a herd of mustangs feasting on the rich vegetation of a meadow spread out below him, between two steep mountain peaks. Their leader, the elusive white mustang his grandmother had been trailing in vain for the past two years, stood a little apart from the herd, keeping an eye out for intruders. With five of the mares nursing foals, the herd was especially vulnerable to predators.
Urging his mount forward, Luke kept to the cover of the trees, hoping to get close enough for a clear photograph. With Gram Gracie’s birthday approaching, he couldn’t think of anything that would please her more than a framed picture of the mustang stallion she’d named Blizzard, since she’d first spotted the animal years ago during one of Montana’s worst winters.
Luke lifted the expensive camera he carried with him. It was a gift from his grandmother, who was widely acclaimed for her photographs of the herds of mustangs that roamed their ranchland. He focused the viewfinder and started clicking off shots, all the while urging his mount into a run. The mustang stallion’s head came up sharply, scenting danger. But instead of facing Luke, the mustang turned and reared, just as a shot rang out, missing the animal by mere inches. At the sound of the gunshot, the entire herd scattered.
Luke’s mount, caught in the midst of it, reacted instinctively, rearing up before bucking furiously, tossing its rider from the saddle.
In a single instant Luke felt himself flying through the air. His last conscious thought before he landed on his head and saw the most amazing display of fireworks going off in his brain was that once again Blizzard had managed to slip away without a trace. Damned if he hadn’t just missed his best chance ever for Gram Gracie’s precious birthday gift.
Ingrid Larsen came up over a rise and heard the gunshot, followed by the herd of mustangs dissolving like ghosts into the surrounding forest. One minute they were grazing; the next there was only flattened bear grass left to suggest they’d been there at all.
As she looked around, she was surprised to see one horse remaining. As she drew near, she could see the reins dangling. Not a mustang. A saddle horse. But where was its rider?
When she got close enough to see the wide eyes and hear the labored breathing, she dismounted and approached the animal cautiously.
“Here, now. Steady.” She took hold of the reins and spoke soothingly as she ran a hand over its muzzle.
Within minutes the big red gelding began to settle down.
“I know you didn’t come all this way alone. So let’s find out where your owner is.”
Leading the horse, she peered over the edge of a steep cliff and caught her breath when she saw the still form of a cowboy on a narrow shelf of rock below.
“Hello.” She cupped her hands to her mouth. “Are you okay?”
There was no response. The body didn’t move.
With a sigh of resignation, she whistled her own horse over and removed the lariat. Tying it securely to the saddle horn, she stepped over the ravine and began inching her way to the rocks below.
Once there, she touched a hand to the man’s throat. Finding a pulse, she breathed a sigh of relief. Not dead.
She lifted a canteen from her pocket and held it to the man’s lips. He moaned and choked before instinctively swallowing. After a few sips, he pushed her hand away and opened his eyes.
“Think you can sit up?” With her hands around him, she eased him to a sitting position.
He swayed slightly, before fixing her with a look of fury. “What the hell…shooting at…herd? You damn near killed me.”
“Save your energy, cowboy.” She didn’t bother saying more. Seeing the blood oozing from his head, she realized he was much more injured than he realized. From the spasms shuddering through him, he was going into shock. “I’m going to try to get you out of here. I’ll need your help.”
She looped the lariat under his arms, around his chest, and gave a hard, quick tug on the rope.
The rope went taut, signaling that her horse had taken a step back from the edge, jerking the barely conscious man to his feet. Satisfied, Ingrid wrapped her arms around his limp body and gave a whistle.
Both figures were lifted from the narrow rock shelf and eased, inch by painful inch, up the ravine until they were on solid ground. At once Ingrid scrambled to remove the rope. That done, she wrapped her blanket around the still form of the man and began cutting and lashing tree branches together, covering them with the blanket she found tied behind his saddle. Within the hour she’d managed to roll the heavily muscled body onto the makeshift travois, which she’d secured behind her horse. From the amount of blood he’d lost and the swelling on the back of his head, there was a good chance this cowboy was suffering a very serious head injury. And then there were the bones he might have broken in that fall.
Catching up his mount’s reins, she pulled herself onto her horse’s back and began the slow journey toward the ranch in the distance.
Black clouds scudded across the sky. Thunder rumbled, and lightning sparked jagged flashes overhead. The wind picked up, sending trees dipping and swaying. Minutes later the sky opened up, and a summer storm began lashing the hills. By the time Ingrid’s mount crested the last peak and caught the scent of home, they were drenched.
It took all of her strength to hold her horse to a walk, when the animal’s instinct to run to food and shelter was so strong.
When they reached the barn, an old man was standing in the doorway, watching her. “What you got there, girl?”
“Not what, Mick. Who.” She slid gratefully from her mount and looked down at the still figure. “Some cowboy shot at a herd of mustangs and got himself tossed from his horse. Landed halfway down the mountain on a pile of rock. He’s out cold.”
She nodded. “Pretty bad head wound. Lost a lot of blood. Wasn’t making any sense.”
“Going to call for a medevac?”
“In this storm?” She bent down and felt the pulse. “I guess, at least for tonight, we’ll just get him inside, keep him quiet, and hope for the best.”
The old man unsaddled the stranger’s horse and settled it into a stall with fresh feed and water. Then he moved along beside her as she led her horse to the back door. The two of them struggled under the man’s weight as they removed him from the makeshift travois and half dragged, half carried him up the back steps and into the house.
“This cowboy’s all muscle.” Mick pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his face, damp from the workout. “We’ll never get him upstairs to a bed.”
“You’re right.” Breathing heavily, Ingrid shed her parka before once more taking hold of her burden. “Let’s get him to the parlor.”
They dragged him past the kitchen and managed to roll him onto a lumpy sofa in the big room.
Mick glanced around the cold, dark parlor. “I’ll get Strawberry back to the barn and bring in an armload of logs. You’ll want to get this guy out of those wet clothes and wrap him in dry blankets.”
She shot him a sharp look. “I’m no good at playing nurse. I’ll take care of my own horse, thank you. And I can handle the logs. You can get him out of his clothes.”
The old cowboy was already halfway across the room. With a chuckle, he called over his shoulder, “Your stranger, your problem.”
His laughter grew as her curses followed him out the door.
Left alone, Ingrid gathered whatever supplies she could. Several thick bath towels. A basin of warm water and soap. Then she set to work washing the blood from the back of his head. That done, she folded a dry towel and placed it under his head before moving on to his clothes. Her attempt at unbuttoning his flannel shirt, which was completely soaked, was a huge effort. Next, she turned to his boots, but because they were so wet, she could barely budge them. It took long minutes of pulling and tugging, while muttering curses through gritted teeth, before she got them off. Then, with much tugging, she finally managed to get him out of the last of his clothes.
By the time old Mick returned with an armload of firewood, the stranger was wrapped in a blanket, and his clothes lay in a heap on the floor.
Once the fire was blazing, Mick walked to the sofa to stand beside Ingrid. “I brought his saddlebags inside.” He hooked a thumb toward the doorway. “Tossed ’em over a chair in the kitchen. They might give you a clue to just what kind of cowboy you dragged in from the storm.”
“Good idea.” She huffed out a breath. “I just hope the idiot who was shooting at mustangs isn’t also an ax murderer.”
“I doubt he’d carry that kind of information in his saddlebags.”
She turned away and headed toward the kitchen. “You never know.”
“He wasn’t your shooter.”
She paused. Turned. “And you know that because…?”
“His rifle was still in its boot. If he was trying to take down a mustang, the rifle would have been in his hands.” Mick poked and prodded the flames, adding another log to the fire before ambling back to the other room, where Ingrid had spread out the contents of the saddlebags across the kitchen table.
“Find anything interesting?”
She looked up. “Where’d you get this?” She held up the camera.
“It was hooked to the saddle horn.”
“German. Expensive. Not what I’d expect from a wandering cowboy.”
The old man shrugged. “Maybe he’s a professional photographer.”
She opened a worn leather wallet and began sorting through the cards stored inside. She picked up one. “Lucas Malloy. Twenty-eight. Height six feet two inches. Weight one hundred eighty-five pounds. Hair black. Eyes blue. Doesn’t need glasses.” She looked over. “Ring a bell?”
Mick shook his head. “The only Malloy I know is Frank. Owns one of the biggest spreads in Montana. Frank Malloy’s my age. Got a famous wife. Some kind of photographer.”
“Now this makes sense.” She pointed to the camera. “Maybe he’s their son?”
“What makes sense is he’s probably a grandson. Unless she made medical history.”
They grinned at each other.
“Okay. He’s a long way from home. With a head injury, you never know what might happen. If I could find his cell phone, I’d notify his family.”
“It could be back there on the mountain.”
She nodded. “And trampled by a herd of mustangs.”
“I’m sure you can find a number for the Malloy Ranch.” Mick filled two mugs with steaming coffee. Handing one to her, he said, “Lily and Nadine have been asleep for hours. You going up to your room, or are you planning on keeping an eye on your guest?”
“He’s not my guest, Mick.” She picked up her mug and headed toward the parlor. “But since I was the one who brought him here, I guess it’s my job to see him through the night.”
“You got that right, girl.” With a grin the old man shuffled off to his room next to the kitchen. “If you need me—”
“Yeah.” She didn’t wait for him to finish.
It took her several minutes to move an overstuffed chair beside the sofa. She draped an afghan over her lap and cradled the mug in both hands as she watched the steady rise and fall of the stranger’s chest.
Her head nodded, and she felt the hot sting of coffee on her skin before setting aside the mug and snuggling deeper into the warmth of the cover.
After the day she’d put in, she was asleep before she could form a single thought.
Now that’s what I call a hunk of burning love.” The female voice was rough, fog shrouded, like someone who had consumed an entire pack of cigarettes in an hour while downing half a dozen whiskeys.
“Why am I not surprised?” A softer voice. One Luke had heard before, though he couldn’t recall where or when. “He’s more dead than alive, but all you can see is your next conquest.”
“I’m seeing a killer body and the face of a devil. Honey, he can park his boots under my bed anytime. But for now, I’ll wait ’til he has more fire in his chimney. I’m off to Wayside. Don’t wait up.”
“I never do.”
As the door closed, a strobe light shot bursts of color across Luke’s closed eyelids. A strange bell rang nearby. And his head ached with the worst hangover ever.
Had he been in Clay’s Pig Sty in Glacier Ridge? He couldn’t recall. But since it was on his mind, he must have made it there. But where was he now?
He’d been in enough saloon brawls to know how the next day felt. He touched his face. No tender eye, no swollen cheek.
There was something sharp poking him in his back. He reached a hand around and located a metal coil of some sort, covered in cloth. He opened his eyes, as gritty as sandpaper, and saw the odd-colored lights flickering across the ceiling of a room, coming from a fire on the grate. And there was a terrible ringing in his ears. When he moved his head, he became aware of the pain throbbing in his temples.
He sucked in a breath and tried to remember what had happened. The herd of mustangs, the shot…
He’d been shot?
He felt around his body for fresh dressings. None. He touched a hand to the back of his head and felt the swollen mass. Not a bullet, he realized. He must have taken quite a fall. He could almost recall flying through the air and landing hard. Rocks. Yes, a solid rock ledge. Had he actually fallen off the edge of the cliff? But he wasn’t there now. He was in a room, naked under a soft blanket.
How did he get here?
He struggled to sit up and felt the room spin at the same instant that a shaft of pain sliced through his head. Strong hands pressed him back against a springy cushion. The woman with the rusty voice? Or. . .
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