A WYOMING SKY NOVEL The Truth Can Be an Irresistible Temptation . . . As a young boy, Quinn Conway was shattered by his mother's mysterious disappearance. Today, as the oldest of the Conway brothers, his only concern is protecting his family and their ranch. One look at beautiful, strong-willed Cheyenne O'Brien tells him she's also no stranger to tragedy. A series of increasingly dangerous "accidents" are plaguing her and her land, and Quinn can't stand idly by while a woman is in danger. Fiercely independent, Cheyenne isn't one to lean on others, yet she can't deny her attraction to the rugged rancher offering help. Soon, the passion building between them proves as wild and untamed as the land she loves-and just as impossible to resist. But a relentless enemy is about to make one final devastating move. To survive, Quinn and Cheyenne must put their cherished freedom-and their hearts-at risk . . .
Release date: February 28, 2012
Print pages: 346
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
R. C. Ryan
—RT Book Reviews
“[The Montana trilogy] is a good series of hunky cowboys and nail-biting mystery. Zane and Riley have great chemistry and are a read that you can’t put down.”
—Parkersburg News and Sentinel (WV)
“These not-to-be-missed books are guaranteed to warm your heart!”
“Ms. Ryan did an amazing job keeping the story line at a perfect pace… A stand-alone novel, but I would definitely recommend you grab the other two… because I promise you will love them, too!… I, for one, definitely want to visit my friends at the McCord ranch again!”
“Wonderful romantic suspense tale starring a courageous heroine who is a lioness protecting her cub and a reluctant knight in shining armor… a terrific taut thriller.”
“I love romantic westerns, and this book fit the bill to a T. The characters were very well developed… The chemistry between Zane and Riley was electric. If you enjoy a great romance with a bit of suspense and mystery, then you are going to love this book… I do want to go back and read the first two, because this story was just that good!”
“The story line was magnificent, the characters were intriguing, and the climax kept me flipping the pages… I [loved] the flow of the story and plan to read more work by this author. Romance junkies will love this one.”
“Tender and sweet… Ms. Ryan did a great job of unfolding Riley’s story line at just the right pace… This book was definitely a balm for my ‘cowboy itch’… I actually went out and bought the first two books in the series because I wanted more of these delightful characters.”
“Wonderful, exciting… an explosive conclusion to the McCord family trilogy… I would highly recommend this book, especially if you enjoy love, ranch life, mystery, and sweet romance.
“A sweet story with a breathtaking setting!… The author made you feel like you were actually witnessing life on a working ranch… The characters were charming, and I enjoyed the quirky locals… The sexual tension between Riley and Zane was intense. Major chemistry alert!… Check this one out if you have a thing for sexy cowboys or want a romance story that will leave you smiling.”
“5 Stars! Watching this wild rebel and independent woman attempt to coexist was so much fun… The author, R. C. Ryan, delivers an ongoing, tantalizing mystery suspense with heartwarming romance. Sinfully yummy!”
“Ryan’s amazing genius at creating characters with heartfelt emotions, wit, and passion is awe inspiring. I can’t wait until Montana Glory comes out… so that I can revisit the McCord family!”
“The series continues to intrigue, and each page brings you closer to finding the treasure. Another terrific story from R. C. Ryan.”
“Sure to entertain. Enjoy.”
“[A] wonderful series… The characters are extremely well developed… I couldn’t put this book down. I can’t wait until Zane’s story comes out.”
“A captivating start to a new series.”
“Heart-melting sensuality… this engaging story skillfully refreshes a classic trilogy pattern and sets the stage for the stories to come.”
“Fabulous… a well-written story with fully developed characters that I easily came to care for.”
“Delightful… Jesse and Amy are a breath of fresh air, and R. C. Ryan beautifully translates the intense feelings they stir in one another. I look forward to the next in the series.”
“Enjoyable… solid secondary protagonists and a wonderful lead pair.”
—Midwest Book Review
“A fresh, entertaining tale that will keep you wanting to read more… We only get tantalizing hints of Wyatt and Zane, but I can’t wait to read their stories.”
Get in.” The rusted old Ford truck rolled to a stop beside the back door of the Conway ranch house, and Big Jim Conway, patriarch of the family, pointed to the passenger side as he barked commands. His voice had the rasp of a rusty nail. “Quinn, help your little brother.”
Quinn, at ten the oldest of Big Jim’s three grandsons, grabbed hold of little Jake’s hand. “Come on.”
As always, five-year-old Jake jerked his hand free, resenting any hint that he couldn’t keep up with his two older brothers. “Don’t need any help.”
“Don’t sass, boyo, or you’ll answer to me.” As always, whenever his temper heated, the trace of Irish brogue in Big Jim’s voice deepened.
Jake climbed up beside his grandfather, followed by seven-year-old Josh. Quinn climbed in last and pulled the door shut.
Quinn, the practical one, reached around his brothers. “There aren’t enough seat belts.”
At the impatient command he stretched the seat belt as far as it would go. The truck was already speeding along the curving driveway of their ranch, leaving a trail of gravel in its wake.
“Where’re we going, Big Jim?” little Jake asked.
The three boys had never called their grandfather anything but Big Jim. No soft, cuddly nicknames like Gramps or Grandpa would suit this tough bear of an Irishman.
“We’re heading to town, boyo.” Big Jim couldn’t keep the frustration from creeping into his voice.
“Why?” Jake demanded.
“ ’Cause your pa needs some time alone.”
“He’s not alone.” The little boy’s tone was matter-of-fact. “The police chief is with him.”
Josh dug an elbow into Jake’s ribs to quiet him.
He turned on his brother. “Hey. That hurt.”
Big Jim shot a quelling look at his middle grandson, and Josh, always the rebel, hunched his shoulders in defiance. “Your pa and Chief Fletcher just need to talk.”
It had become a weekly ritual. Ever since their mother disappeared without a trace, Chief Everett Fletcher would stop by to fill in Cole and Big Jim on the latest details of the police investigation, which seemed to be going nowhere. No trail to follow. No witness to her disappearance. No strangers spotted in the vicinity. No rhyme or reason to the mystery. No solution. No closure. No end to the pain. Though they never spoke about it, Quinn could tell by their sad, mad faces that the news wasn’t good.
When he would leave, Big Jim would mutter and swear and take the boys away while Cole would go off to one of the barns and work off his frustration and grief in a frenzy of chores.
To discourage any further questions, Big Jim turned up the volume on the radio. They drove the rest of the way serenaded by Patsy Cline and Buck Owens until they reached the town of Paintbrush, more than an hour from their ranch. Along the main street they drove past Thibalt Baxter’s Paint and Hardware, the Odds N Ends shop with the slogan “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it” painted across the top of the building, and came to a halt outside Flora’s Diner, announced in gaudy pink and purple letters.
Big Jim handed Quinn some money. “While I’m picking up supplies at Homer’s Grain and Seed, you three can have some lunch at Flora’s.”
The three boys vibrated with excitement as they climbed down from the truck and walked inside.
“Why, look who’s here.” Flora, white hair looking like the cotton balls their mother used to remove her makeup, her angular face creased with a warm smile, came out from behind the kitchen as soon as she caught sight of them walking up to the shiny stools at the counter. Ordinarily she left the waitress duties to her daughter, Dora, a younger, wider version. But Dora was busy with the other tables. Besides, these customers were special in Flora’s eyes. The whole town was buzzing about the mysterious disappearance of their mama, Seraphine. “What’ll you boys have?”
“Burgers and fries.” Quinn spoke for the three of them.
“How about some milk shakes to go with that? On me, of course.”
Three heads bobbed up and down and she hurried away. When she returned, she passed around plates and tall soda-fountain glasses with thick chocolate shakes.
Flora’s burgers were the big, greasy kind that oozed mustard and ketchup. She always added extra fries and made their milk shakes so thick they had to use spoons. The whole time she served their food, she kept making soothing little noises about the poor, motherless boys.
They didn’t much care for the words or the fact that she sounded like she was cooing at a couple of babies, but they figured it was a small price to pay for the special food they never got to taste back at the ranch.
When she finally walked away to wait on a table, her voice lowered to a raspy whisper so she wouldn’t be overheard by the three boys at the counter. Unfortunately, Quinn could hear every word.
“Them’s the Conway boys. Their daddy and granddaddy are legends in this part of Wyoming.”
There wasn’t anything Flora didn’t know about anybody within a couple hundred miles of Paintbrush. The only thing she liked better than cooking was sharing what she knew with anybody willing to listen. If anybody wanted the latest news, they didn’t have to wait for the weekly newspaper. They just dropped by Flora’s Diner.
Quinn saw some people turn to stare and was grateful that Josh and Jake didn’t notice. They were too busy slurping their milk shakes.
At one table was Thibalt Baxter, who owned the paint and hardware store. He was the skinniest man Quinn had ever seen. So skinny, he had to wear both a belt and suspenders to hold up his pants.
Across from him was Dr. April Walton, whose father had been a doctor when Big Jim first came to Wyoming. Dr. April always boasted that she had a granddaughter just about Quinn’s age. At another table was Reverend Cornell, pastor of the Paintbrush Church, sitting with Judge Kirby Bolton and Randall Morton, who ran the fairgrounds where the annual rodeo was held.
Flora was having herself a good time relaying all she knew about the boys to a couple of customers, who were obviously new to town. “Their grandfather, Big Jim, carved their ranch out of pure wilderness, with a hundred head of cattle he herded from Saskatchewan, Canada, clear across Montana to the plot of land he’d inherited from an unknown uncle on his mother’s side. That herd has grown into more than a hundred thousand head of some of the finest beef cattle in the world, and he’s continued to add to his land. Now his ranch is the biggest in the state.”
“You don’t say.” The young cowboy shot another glance at the three boys. “Lucky kids.”
“Ranching’s just the beginning,” Thibalt Baxter added. “Big Jim’s land is rich in coal and oil.”
Flora nodded, eager to take back control of the conversation. “Which he leases to oil companies and mining companies for a whole lot of money. I’ve heard they produce enough gas and oil to fuel the entire state.”
“Big Jim’s a generous man,” Reverend Cornell put in quickly. “There isn’t a man or woman in this town who hasn’t benefited from his generosity at one time or another.”
“Including me,” Flora insisted. “When I couldn’t keep up the payments on this place, Big Jim loaned me the money and told me to pay it back whenever I could. You don’t find ’em any better’n that.” Her voice lowered. “But Big Jim paid a high price for all that success. He lost the great love of his life, Clementine, at an early age. A pretty little thing. I knew her when we were girls. She gave him five sons, and not one survived past his first birthday. But then Colby, their sixth boy, was born, and he was the strongest, healthiest child you’d ever see. Big Jim figured his string of bad luck was broken, until that winter when Clementine was found dead in a snowdrift after one of the worst snowstorms trapped her between the barn and the house, while Big Jim was up in high country with the herd.”
The strangers, spellbound by all they were hearing, shook their heads.
“Now that’s tough,” the cowboy muttered. “That kind of thing would break most men.”
Flora was enjoying herself, relaying a tale that had become bigger than a legend in these parts. “Big Jim Conway isn’t most men. He did what he had to. With a ranch to run and a baby to tend, he strapped the baby to his back and took him everywhere. Even after Big Jim hired a full-blooded Arapaho woman named Ela to tend to the kitchen and household chores, he kept that boy with him. By the time Cole Conway, their daddy”—Flora nodded toward the three boys slurping their milk shakes—“was old enough to walk, he could handle the reins of a horse. By the age of eight he could drive a tractor loaded with feed for a stranded herd while his father tended far-off ranch chores. I’ve heard it said that Cole Conway can chart a trail by studying the stars, survive a blizzard with nothing but a few evergreen branches for cover, and can bag a deer or a rabbit for his dinner with a single toss of his knife.”
“Now you’re making him sound like some kind of superhero,” Thibalt Baxter protested.
Flora laughed like a girl as she turned to the others for confirmation. “I guess that’s how most of us around here see Cole Conway. I still remember him coming to town with his daddy. By the time he was sixteen or so, women of all ages found him irresistible. Of course, that can be both a blessing and a curse. I bet there isn’t a female in this town who hasn’t fallen under the spell of Cole Conway at one time or another.”
“Lucky guy.” The cowboy shook his head from side to side.
“Or cursed.” Flora lowered her voice as though revealing a state secret. “His wife Seraphine’s gone missing without a trace. The police and the private investigators that Cole and Big Jim hired have all come up empty.”
Across the room Quinn couldn’t hear what was being said, but the sudden silence in the diner had his food sticking in his throat like a boulder and he sensed the keen interest of the other diners.
Everyone, it seemed, had something to say about his family. Everyone except the people directly involved.
He and his brothers had learned to avoid all mention of their mother or risk their father’s stony silence or, worse, his embarrassing, unexpected, heart-wrenching grief. Given a choice, they would prefer silence to grief. It went completely against the grain to see their strong, stoic father crushed by the weight of his loss, his eyes red rimmed, his spirit broken for days and weeks at a time.
And so they had adopted a code of silence.
Quinn had a sudden itch to breathe fresh air.
“Come on.” He shoved away from the counter, and his younger brothers looked up in surprise.
“I’m not done,” Jake said.
“Bring it with you.”
The little boy shoved the last of his fries into his mouth and began sucking down the dregs of his shake before sliding off the stool to follow his brother.
Josh, determined to flaunt his independence, took his time, dipping his fries in ketchup and eating every last one before following the other two.
“Bye, now, you sweet things,” Flora called. “You be sure and bring your daddy and granddaddy with you next time you come calling.”
“Yes, ma’am.” As usual, Quinn spoke for all of them.
Once outside, Quinn spotted his grandfather’s truck at the end of the street. Without a word he started toward it, with the other two trailing slowly behind, stopping to peer in the windows of the Odds N Ends shop, the barbershop, and even the doctor’s office.
Quinn kept his head down. The last thing he needed was to run into any more busybodies wanting to cluck over the poor, motherless boys.
His mother’s absence had left a terrible hole in their family. A hole none of them knew how to fill.
The ride back to the ranch was even more subdued than the ride to town had been. Big Jim pulled up next to the barn and spotted Cole inside, mucking stalls like a man possessed.
“You boys might want to take the horses out for a while,” Big Jim said. “Give your daddy more time.”
Quinn didn’t need any coaxing.
As he saddled the big brown gelding, Quinn’s grandfather said, “You keep an eye on your brothers, you hear, boyo?”
A short time later, after Quinn and Josh helped Jake saddle the spotted mare, the three boys headed into the hills.
“I’m tired. Why are we riding way out here?” Jake’s high-pitched voice broke through the stillness.
Quinn reined in his mount and looked over his shoulder. “ ’Cause Pa’s not ready for company.”
“We’re not company.”
Quinn rolled his eyes and urged his horse into a run, with the others following.
Behind them, the rusted gate leading to their ranch was swinging back and forth, creaking and moaning in the wind. Burned into the wooden arch above it was the letter C for Conway, though Big Jim often joked that the ranch should really be called Devil’s Wasteland. That’s what he thought he’d entered when he’d first come upon this wild, primitive place.
Their horses moved single file along the sage-covered meadow. Though it was mid-May, here in the Wyoming wilderness there were still patches of snow beneath some of the bushes in the higher elevations.
“Come on, Jake. Keep up.” Quinn kept looking back at Jake, riding between him and Josh. Not that Jake needed tending. Despite his young age, their little brother was absolutely fearless. A fact that caused Quinn endless trouble.
As Quinn’s horse came up over a rise he caught a slight movement out of the corner of his eye. Curious, he slid from the saddle and led his horse toward a fallen log. Even before Quinn reached it, a tiny black and tan wolf pup gave a welcoming yip and bounded toward him.
Jake and Josh, following Quinn’s lead, dropped to their knees beside the pup. At once three more wolf pups emerged and began climbing playfully among the children.
“Oh, look. Aren’t they cute?” Jake was clearly enchanted by their antics.
“I wonder where their mama is?” Josh couldn’t resist picking up one of the pups, which began licking his face.
“Maybe she’s gone, like Ma.”
At Jake’s words Quinn felt the hair at the back of his neck rise. Eager to deny it, he shook his head and gathered a wriggling pup into his arms. “She’s probably off hunting food while these little guys are supposed to be sleeping.”
The three children were soon laughing out loud as the pups tumbled over one another vying for their attention.
Jake looked over at his big brother. “Maybe that’s where Ma went. To hunt some food for us.”
Quinn’s smile was wiped away at another sudden, wrenching reminder of their loss. Would it never end?
“Why?” Jake stared at him with all the innocence of a five-year-old.
“ ’Cause there’s enough beef in the freezer to feed us for years.”
“Maybe she wanted to ride into town and buy us something special.”
“Like what?” Josh picked up two yipping pups and tucked them inside his vest to warm them.
“I don’t know. Cookies, maybe. Or a birthday cake. Ma knew I was turning five.”
“You don’t know anything.” Josh’s voice trembled, and he tried to cover the quick flash of pain by burying his face in the pup’s fur.
“Do, too.” Jake stuck out his chin in an eerie imitation of their grandfather. “Ela says Ma was taken by evil spirits, but we’re not ’posed to say so in front of Pa, ’cause it makes him sad.”
“Why would evil spirits want to take away our ma?” Josh demanded.
The little boy gave an expressive shrug. “I don’t know.”
“There are no evil spirits.” Quinn’s eyes flashed.
“How would you know?” Jake challenged. “Ela says—”
“Come on.” With a snarl, Quinn deposited the pup on the ground and got to his feet, wiping his hands down his pant legs.
Whenever they started talking about their mother he got this terrible empty feeling inside, as though nothing in the world would ever be enough to fill the hole. Maybe this was how their dad felt when he went off to the barn and worked like a devil was after him.
“Time for us to head home.”
Despite their reluctance, the other two set down the pups they’d been petting and pulled themselves into their saddles. It never occurred to them to question Quinn’s authority.
As they turned away, Quinn pointed to a blur of shadow in the woods. “Just in time. There’s their ma now, heading home with their dinner. Let’s not spook her.” He wheeled his mount and the others did the same.
As they rode away they kept looking back, relieved that the mother wolf had returned to her pups.
For Quinn, it was a sign of hope. Maybe, by the time they got home, their own ma would be back, too.
Just as they topped a ridge they heard a single gunshot and the high, sharp cry of something wild, followed by a volley of gunshots that echoed and reechoed like thunder through the still air.
With the hairs at the back of his neck bristling, Quinn tugged on the reins, wheeling his mount, and the other two followed, urging their horses into a run as they raced back to the wolf den.
A neighboring rancher, Porter Stanford, was standing over the bodies of the female and her pups sprawled around her.
It was a grisly scene, the ground already stained with blood, the bodies twisted and still where only moments earlier they’d been filled with life.
The children stared in stunned silence as Porter spit a wad of tobacco. “Lucky I got here when I did. I just saved my herd and yours from these filthy predators.”
“But they didn’t—” At Jake’s protest Quinn reached over and covered his mouth, stifling anything more.
He saw the flash of fury in their neighbor’s eyes as he looked up at them, still seated on their horses.
“You got anything to say?” he demanded of Quinn.
“Good. Glad your daddy taught you to respect your elders.” He looked back at the wolves. “Murdering bastards got no right to live.”
With a muttered oath the man swung away and pulled himself heavily into the saddle. He dug in his heels and his horse took off with a flurry of hooves.
Without a word Quinn slid from the saddle and bent to cradle one of the dead pups. Despite its eerie stillness, the tiny body was still warm.
He knelt and set it gently inside the den.
Seeing what he intended, Jake and Josh did the same, placing the pups side by side in the hollowed-out earth.
It took all three of the children, sighing and straining, to lift the female’s body, which they placed on top of her pups. By the time they were finished, their clothes were stained with blood and dirt.
“Should we say a prayer?” Jake asked.
Though his brothers looked uncomfortable, they nodded, and Quinn murmured the words from one of the familiar nighttime prayers their mother had always insisted on, while the other two echoed his words.
They remained there for long, silent moments, bound together by their shared pain.
As they mounted their horses and started away, Quinn could no longer hold back his tears. Of rage. Of frustration. Of a deep, unexplained pain at the loss of beautiful creatures that had been so alive, so vibrant, just a short time ago. They didn’t deserve this cruel fate. They deserved to live, to grow, to play, and to howl at the moon. To mate, and have pups of their own.
Instead, their lives had been cut short by the whims of one man.
This cruel act was so final. So wrong and unfair.
As wrong and unfair as the twist of fate that. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...