A woman on the run must trust her family's sworn enemy in this thrilling tale by one of the best in cowboy romance. The cowboy she can’t have . . . is the one she can’t resist. Annie Dempsey has two rules for her new life in Devil’s Door, Wyoming: no romance and no drama. Fresh off a bad breakup, she’s already avoiding love. And as long as she steers clear of the Merrick clan—her family’s sworn enemies—avoiding drama won’t be a problem. But when a charming stranger steps in to protect Annie from a sudden threat, both her rules fly out the door. Because Annie’s mystery hero . . . is a Merrick. Jonah Merrick won’t allow anyone—even a Dempsey—to be harmed on his watch. It doesn’t hurt that sweet, gorgeous Annie makes his heart beat like never before. Against his family’s objections, Jonah insists Annie hide out with him at his ranch while they try to outwit a dangerous pursuer. But as the days turn into weeks, Jonah realizes he’ll stop anyone who tries to harm Annie . . . or the loving future they’re building together.
Release date: August 24, 2021
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 464
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Meant to Be My Cowboy
R. C. Ryan
Merrick Ranch, Wyoming—Twenty years previous
Six-year-old Jonah Merrick sat astride his spotted pony, eating the dust from his brothers’ mounts as the three boys followed the lead of their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather across a high meadow. It wasn’t unusual for the four generations of Merricks, who lived together on their sprawling ranch, to ride across their Wyoming ranchland on a pretty summer day. What was unusual was the absence of the Merrick women. After the death of their mother, Leigh, the three brothers were almost always accompanied by either their aunt Liz (their father’s younger sister) or their gram Meg, who had assumed the mantle of both teacher and surrogate mother. But today was different, and Jonah’s older brothers, nine-year-old Brand and eight-year-old Casey, had hinted that something monumental would be happening.
As they drew near the sprawling herd, Jonah’s father, Bo, circled back to his sons to point up ahead.
“Now that the branding is over and the cattle are settling into the summer rangeland, the wranglers have earned a weekend in town. We’ll be spending the next two days and nights up here keeping an eye on the herd.”
“Oh boy.” Brand gave a whoop of delight and waved his wide-brimmed hat in the air, before digging his heels into the side of his horse and racing toward his grandfather up ahead.
Casey followed suit.
Bo wheeled his mount and started after them, but then he paused, pulled back on the reins, and turned to his youngest son, who was often caught daydreaming. “You coming, Jonah?”
“Yes, sir.” The little boy nudged his pony forward. “Where will we sleep, Pa?”
“Under the stars, son.” Bo looked up at the sky. “Unless it rains. There’s a range shack nearby, but I’m hoping the weather cooperates so you boys can get a taste of what it’s like to live the way your gramps Egan and great-grandfather Ham did when they were your age.”
“They didn’t have a house?”
Bo grinned. “They did. But they didn’t have a team of wranglers to help them. Most nights they ate and slept with the herd from sunup to sundown, with hardly a break until they brought the herd back down for the winter.”
Jonah watched as his father moved among the rough, bearded wranglers, handing out their pay.
Within the hour, the cowboys were gone, headed to town for baths, haircuts, and a chance to spend their money at Nonie’s Wild Horses Saloon.
The Merrick men unsaddled their mounts and turned them into a corral. And though Jonah had to stand on an overturned bucket, no one offered to help him as he did the same.
That night, the three boys stayed awake listening to Ham’s stories of his early adventures of him and his father taming this wilderness. And when at last his brothers fell asleep in their bedrolls, Jonah strained to hear as his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather spoke of more sinister things. Things that were never discussed in front of the boys.
“Give it up, Bo. Too many years have passed. The inspector couldn’t prove the fire was deliberately started, and neither can you, son.”
“I have all the proof I need right here in my heart, Pop.” Bo Merrick’s voice hardened. “I saw Des Dempsey’s face when he found out the bank in Stockwell loaned me the money to buy the Butcher ranch. It was bad enough when Leigh gave him back the ring and told him she was marrying me. With the birth of each of our sons, his jealousy grew. But that day, when he heard about the loan, he was consumed with hatred. If looks could kill, I’d have been the one dead. Instead, his need for revenge killed the woman we both loved and left my boys without their mother. Believe me. One day he’ll pay for what he did.”
As the men fell asleep in their bedrolls, with the sound of cattle lowing and the fragrance of woodsmoke curling overhead, Jonah lay awake, wide-eyed, pondering all that he’d heard. It was almost more than his young mind could comprehend. The fire that killed their mother had been deliberately set? By Des Dempsey, the owner of the bank in town?
Whenever she read to him, Gram Meg always said Jonah had an overactive imagination. That night, as he drifted to sleep, his dreams became so real he awoke with his heart pounding, his pulse racing.
Jonah always knew he was destined to follow the lead of all the other Merrick men into ranching. But this night, with his father’s ominous words playing in his head, he stumbled onto a new path. The germ of a story was already growing, with heroes and villains all living together in a small town, and all of them threatening revenge and disaster.
He couldn’t wait to someday write the story and see how it would end.
Devil’s Door, Wyoming—present day
Hey.” Brand Merrick pushed his way through the crowd around the bar at Nonie’s Wild Horses Saloon to slap his brother Jonah on the back. “Figured I’d find you here.”
“It’s Friday night, and this is the place to be, since the wranglers’ pockets are stuffed with pay.”
Their middle brother, Casey, walked up behind him. “And the ladies in town are eager to help them spend it, I see.”
“Speaking of ladies…” Jonah looked from Brand to Casey. “Where are your wives?”
“Over at Julie Franklyn’s place. Getting haircuts and color and whatever else women do there.” Casey glanced around and nodded and smiled at Nonie’s twin nieces, who were loading their trays at the waitress station. They waved back cheerfully, then turned away to begin serving another crowded table.
Jonah signaled Nonie behind the bar, and within a minute three longnecks appeared at his elbow. He passed them out to his brothers. “Are your wives meeting you here?”
Brand nodded. “They’re in the mood for Nonie’s chili. They told us to get a booth in the back if one empties.”
“Good luck with that.” Jonah took a long pull on his beer. “With the weekend just beginning, nobody’s leaving until Nonie turns out the lights.”
“That’s what I told…”
Before Brand could finish, his wife, Avery, walked in, trailed by Casey’s bride, Kirby. Heads swiveled as the two women made their way to the bar.
“Hello, beautiful.” Brand wrapped Avery in a warm embrace. “Mmm. You smell good.”
“Hello to you, too, babe.” She accepted his offer of a sip of beer before glancing around. “No booth?”
“I warned you about Friday nights at Nonie’s. You know how it is.”
Avery shot a knowing look at her sister-in-law. “Come on, Kirby. Let’s take a turn around the room and see if somebody’s ready to leave.”
Brand dug into his pocket and held out a bill. “Ten dollars says you’ll never get a table tonight.”
Avery shot a glance at Kirby before turning to her husband. “Make it twenty, babe.”
“You may as well make it a hundred…”
“Wait a minute. But…” Brand’s protest died on his lips.
The two women were already walking away, leaving only the sound of their sultry laughter mingling with Patsy’s wail about being crazy coming over the sound system.
“Women,” Brand said to his brothers.
Except for rolling their eyes, neither of them bothered to answer.
Brand’s eyes crinkled with laughter. “I know I’ve been conned. But with a wife as pretty as Avery, I can’t bring myself to care.”
Jonah was about to tip up his bottle again when he caught sight of a beautiful stranger standing in the doorway. Instead of the usual jeans and sweater, a Friday-night uniform in these parts, this woman was dressed in business attire: a pencil-slim black dress and a red, hip-length jacket with jet buttons. On her feet were fancy high heels. Dark hair fell soft and loose around a face that movie stars would die for, with big eyes, a tiny, upturned nose, and full lips pursed in a mixture of puzzlement and concentration.
Brand and Casey turned to see what had caught his attention.
“You know her?” Brand shot a look at his brother, who was still staring at the figure in the doorway.
His smile came slow and easy. “Not yet. But I intend to.”
He’d barely finished his sentence when he saw several cowboys hurrying toward the woman. Seeing them, Casey chuckled. “Better get in line, bro. Looks like a lot of other guys have the same idea.”
Jonah shrugged casually. “I’ve got all the time in the world.”
Just then, Kirby ambled over to say, “We have a booth in the back.” She turned to smirk at Brand. “And Avery said to get out that hundred.”
Casey’s brows shot up. “I didn’t see anybody leave.”
Kirby merely smiled. “Avery and I persuaded a table of cowboys to…relocate to the bar so we could have their booth.”
Casey and Brand shook their heads in disbelief as Kirby headed back toward their table.
“You realize you could have stopped at twenty,” Casey muttered to Brand as they both turned to follow his wife.
“Twenty or a hundred. What were the odds?”
“When a pretty woman is involved, all bets are off, bro.”
The two burst into chuckles and were slapping each other on the back when they noticed that Jonah wasn’t getting up to join them.
Brand turned. “You coming?”
Jonah grinned and tipped up his beer. “I’d rather watch the action from here.”
Brand glanced toward the doorway, where more than a dozen cowboys had gathered. “If you’re hoping to meet that gorgeous stranger, I don’t like your odds.”
“Says the guy who just lost a hundred to his pretty little wife.” Jonah’s laughter followed them as they pushed their way through the crowd toward the back booth.
Annie stared at the sea of faces, feeling a little overwhelmed. None of this was what she’d been expecting. When she’d finished work and asked her uncle about a quick supper before heading home, he’d told her about Nonie’s. He’d raved about the chili and the burgers. What he hadn’t mentioned was the wave of sound that pulsed so loudly it throbbed in her temples. And he’d neglected to mention the mob of cowboys from the nearby ranches, who apparently congregated here by the hundreds to celebrate the weekend.
Pointedly ignoring their offers of a drink, she managed to push herself through the crowd and, seeing no empty tables, made her way to the grill, which was being worked by a pretty woman with soft curls around a sweet, sweaty face.
The woman looked up. “You want to eat here or order carryout?”
“Carryout, please. How about a burger with everything, and a bowl of chili?”
“You got it.” Meat was slapped on the grill, sizzling over a bed of caramelized onions.
While it cooked, the woman managed to take more orders, all the while sliding bottles of beer along the counter and filling trays at the service bar.
At the sound of the deep voice, Annie turned toward the cowboy seated next to her at the bar. Now, there was a heartbreaker. Dark shaggy hair curling over the collar of a denim jacket. Long, long legs encased in faded jeans. Western boots polished to a high shine. And a lazy smile guaranteed to make a girl’s heart flutter.
Too handsome for his own good. Or hers.
She turned back to the woman, just in time to be handed a bag and given a bill.
“Thanks.” She dug out her money. “That was really fast.”
“That’s the only way I know how to do it. I’m Nonie.”
“Welcome, Annie. I hope you enjoy your supper. Come back anytime, you hear?”
Before Annie could respond, Nonie had turned away, filling yet another tray of drinks.
As she made her way to the door, Annie could feel the cowboy at the bar staring holes in her back. When she pushed open the door, she chanced a quick glance over her shoulder. Her eyes widened as she met his smoldering gaze.
He tipped his bottle in a salute and she gave a barely perceptible nod before stepping outside.
The door gave a loud creak of complaint before slamming shut. The silence after that wall of sound was deafening.
As she walked away, the thought of the cowboy’s smile had her own smile blooming in the darkness.
Nothing could lift a girl’s spirits like the admiring glance of a stranger. Especially one as good-looking as that one.
Too bad nothing could come of it. She was here for one reason. After one of the stormiest times of her life, she intended to keep her head down, work hard, and avoid any entanglements. That meant allowing no strangers into her life. It was the only way she could feel safe. And right now, safety was her only concern.
You’re up early, bro.” Casey chose a pitchfork from a series of hooks along the wall of the barn and began mucking the stall next to where Jonah was already working.
“Got to bed early.” He shot a sideways glance at his brother. “For a change.”
Brand sauntered over to join them. “I guess that means you didn’t score with the gorgeous stranger.”
Casey paused to look over. “Annie? You met her?”
“Barely. She ordered carryout. Introduced herself to Nonie.”
“But not to you.” Brand chuckled. “Not that I blame her. With all those cowboys drooling over her, why would she bother with you?”
“You mean like old Bear Heller, who smells like one? Or maybe she’d be attracted to J. P. Hicks, who’s missing his front teeth?”
“That’s right. Toss out the names of the geezers.” Brand shared a grin with Casey. “How about all the young stallions who were practically knocking over their chairs to get to her first?”
“I guess they stumbled.” Jonah dumped a load of straw and dung into the honeywagon and moved to the next stall. “All I know is she left alone.”
Brand paused in his work. “You think she’s staying in Devil’s Door, or just passing through?”
Jonah shrugged. “It was pretty late to be passing through town. I had the sense that she would have stayed if there’d been a table, but it was packed, so she decided to just take her supper home.”
Casey nodded his agreement. “You could always ask Nonie. If the mysterious Annie is staying in town, I’m betting that Nonie has already learned everything there is to learn about her by now.”
“I could ask. Or I could just wait. Good things come to those who—”
“Yeah. We know.” Brand rolled his eyes, getting a laugh from Casey. “You’ve got a saying for everything, Mr. New York Times Best-Selling Author.”
“Comes with the territory.” Jonah set aside the pitchfork and grabbed the handles of the wagon, pushing it out the side door of the barn.
Minutes later, he returned and set it alongside the wall while Casey and Brand finished spreading fresh straw in the empty stalls.
As the three brothers headed toward the house, Casey tried for one more bit of information.
“So. What did the beautiful Annie order for supper?”
“Burgers and chili.”
“So she not only looks good, but she has good taste in food as well.”
“That would be a yes. And when I learn more, I’ll be happy to share it with the two of you.”
“What makes you think she’ll be back?”
Jonah gave one of his famous lazy smiles. “Because I figure she’s having this same conversation about me, bro.”
The three were roaring with laughter as they washed up in the mudroom and made their way to the kitchen for breakfast.
The rest of the family was already there, sipping either coffee or Billy’s freshly squeezed orange juice while they gathered around the fireplace, discussing the weather, always uppermost in the minds of ranchers.
Bo looked over at his sons. “They’re saying it will be a long, hot summer.”
Brand brushed a kiss on Avery’s cheek before picking up a mug of steaming coffee. “After that last spring blizzard, I’m ready for all the heat I can get.”
“Amen to that.” Gramps Egan smiled at his wife. “Meggie and I were just saying the summers keep growing shorter while the winters get longer every year.”
“Bull burps.” Ham, who would soon turn ninety-one, had learned to edit his cuss words when the women were around. “Winters today aren’t anything like the ones in the old days. Why, when I was—”
“…just ten years old,” his three great-grandsons said in one voice, causing everyone to burst into laughter.
Ham shot them the hairy eyeball before turning to Avery and Kirby, who were new enough to the family to still hang on his every word. “When I was no bigger’n a pup, I was already hiking the Tetons alone, in search of game, while my pa was tending the herd. It was nothing for me to be gone for a week or more. But I never came home empty-handed, or we’d have starved.”
“You could’ve always killed one of the cows,” Casey said reasonably.
“We needed every one of those cows for money. It wasn’t like now, with a thousand head of cattle. We were lucky to make enough at the end of a season just to—”
“…keep body and soul together,” his three great-grandsons finished in unison, bringing another round of laughter.
Gram Meg put an arm around her father-in-law’s shoulders and kissed his cheek. “You know they love you, Hammond. This is their way of having fun at your expense.”
He gave her a piercing look. “Don’t defend them, Margaret Mary Finnegan. They’re being smart alecks, and you know it.”
“Breakfast is ready,” Billy called.
Gram Meg winked at Brand, Casey, and Jonah as she led the way to the table, hoping to steer the conversation in a new direction.
“Great breakfast, Billy,” Casey said as he caught Kirby’s hand. “Ready to head into town, babe?”
“While you’re there…” Gram Meg jotted down several items and handed the list to Kirby.
The young woman paused. “Want to come with us?”
At the invitation, Gramps Egan spoke for both of them. “We promised Buster and Trudy we’d stop by today.”
As Jonah started toward the door, Brand called, “Want anything in town?”
Jonah shook his head.
“You headed to your cabin?”
“That’s the plan.”
Outside, he followed the path to the barn, then veered off and crossed a meadow before starting into the woods.
The air was cooler here, the sunlight filtered through the canopy of fresh spring leaves overhead.
Jonah loved this stretch of woods. As a boy, he’d claimed it for his own private retreat, where he’d fashioned a tree house that could only be entered by hauling himself up by a series of ropes and pulleys. Though Brand and Casey had often teased him by hiding the rope or even cutting it, they’d finally given up, leaving him to his own devices.
Even when he’d outgrown the tree house, he’d continued feeling a need to come here, simply to restore his soul. It was far enough from the ranch to afford the privacy he craved, yet near enough that he could hike home in time for supper. After the publication of his first novel, he’d built a rough cabin and equipped it with a bed and bathroom, a desk, and a tiny kitchen. That first novel had broken records, hitting the best-seller list and remaining at the top for more than six months.
Since then, he’d added more comforts to the cabin, building a stone fireplace and hewing a mantel from a fallen log. He’d discovered that he loved working with his hands, especially while mulling plot twists. He’d fashioned a glass-topped coffee table over a base made from a petrified tree trunk. A glacial boulder with bits of copper and silver veins served as a pedestal for one of his many awards.
Lately, caught up in his current work in progress, he often remained locked away in his woods overnight, emerging only when he felt the need to join his loud, raucous family and lend a hand with the ranch chores. Though his brothers teased him endlessly, he knew they understood his need for solitude and took as much pride in his success as he did.
He opened the door and walked around, cranking open the windows until the entire inside of the cabin was as fresh as a spring breeze and smelled of pine forest.
Turning on his laptop, he settled at his desk and felt a wave of annoyance when his cell phone rang.
He looked at the caller ID and brightened. “Hey, Max.”
His a. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...