New York Times bestselling author R.C. Ryan takes readers on a wild ride with a strong heroine who must trust the cowboy trying to save her life. A cowboy with a wild side Kirby Regan isn't opposed living on the edge. After all, she just quit her career in Washington, D.C., so she could move back to Wyoming and buy her family's ranch. But hiking the Tetons after dark during a snowstorm goes beyond being adventurous, especially when Kirby's boss warns her that an escaped convict is at large. Sheltering in a cave seems the safest option to ride out the blizzard-until Kirby realizes it's already occupied . . . by a ruggedly handsome cowboy. Like the mustangs he treats, veterinarian and rancher Casey Merrick prefers to live wild and free, which is why a relationship is not in the cards for him. He doesn't mind sharing his space with a gorgeous stranger, as long as they can both keep their distance-a task that begins to seem impossible as the attraction between them heats up. But before they can worry about the spark smoldering between them, Casey must find a way to protect Kirby from nature's most ruthless conditions . . . and a convicted killer on the loose. Includes the bonus novel Wildflower Ranch, a continuation of Daisies in the Canyon, by New York Times bestselling author Carolyn Brown!
Release date: December 15, 2020
Print pages: 432
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This Cowboy of Mine
R. C. Ryan
Merrick Ranch—Devil’s Door, Wyoming
Fifteen Years Ago
The Merrick family was running on pure energy. They’d spent days up in the hills during one of the busiest calving seasons ever, and extra wranglers had been hired to assist with their chores. And though it was early May, a fierce snowstorm had blown in across the Tetons, turning the already difficult time into chaos.
Now, as they gathered around a campfire outside one of their range shacks, Bo Merrick looked around. “Where’s Casey?”
The adults looked to eleven-year-old Brand. As the oldest of Bo’s three sons, he was expected to keep an eye on his brothers, ten-year-old Casey and eight-year-old Jonah.
Brand shrugged. “Last time I looked, he was helping Ham.”
Everyone turned to the patriarch of the family.
Hammond Merrick frowned. “I haven’t seen the boy in more’n an hour.”
Ham’s son Egan wrapped his hands around a steaming mug of coffee. “That’s about the time I saw him take off on Thunder.”
Bo looked at his father incredulously. “He took off on my horse? In this storm?” Bo swore. “What the hell am I going to do with that crazy kid? He breaks all the rules we set. Argues with his grandmother while she’s trying to teach him some schooling. Fights with his brothers. And now he’s off to who-knows-where in a damned snowstorm.” He tossed the last of his coffee on the fire, setting up a cloud of steam as he turned toward the corral. “When I find him this time, he won’t be able to sit a horse for a week.”
“Hold on.” Old Hammond caught his grandson’s arm. “You stay here with the others. I have an idea where he might be.”
Before Bo could argue, Hammond strode away and minutes later was swallowed up by a curtain of snow as he rode his horse up the mountain.
Ever since Bo lost his wife, Leigh, in a tragic house fire and had returned to the old family ranch, his middle son, Casey, had become a wild child, regularly flouting the rules set up by his elders. He resented his Gram Meg, who had appointed herself their homeschool teacher, since they lived too far from town to attend a regular school. To escape his brothers, Casey had taken to riding across the hills, spending hours in the wilderness. The only place he seemed to feel at home was high in the Tetons, surrounded by mustangs, wolves and coyotes.
Hammond urged his mount faster as the snow continued to pile up. He hoped and prayed he was right about where Casey might be. Otherwise, it could prove to be a long, cold night for the boy alone on the mountain.
Up ahead he spotted something on the ground in a stand of trees. He felt his heart give a quick jolt.
“Casey! You all right, boy?”
A head came up, and Hammond took in a quiet breath. Alive. At least the boy was alive.
“What do you think you’re doing, boy?” When he drew close enough, he was out of the saddle and racing toward the boy, who was down on his knees in the snow, cradling the head of a newborn foal.
Tears coursed down Casey’s cheeks. “I heard wolves. I think they got his mama.”
Hammond’s eyes narrowed. “It’s a wonder you heard them, boy, over the bawling of the herd.”
Casey swiped at his eyes, embarrassed to be caught crying. “Without his mama to feed him and keep him warm, he’ll die up here in the hills.”
The old man’s mouth tightened into a grim line. It was natural for a boy who’d lost his mother at such a young age to identify with the foal’s loss. Still, this was a ranch, and someone had to teach him the cold, hard facts of life. “That’s nature’s way, boy. Only the strong can survive.”
The boy struggled to his feet, holding the wriggling foal to his chest. “He can grow strong enough to run free with the herd.”
“Where do you think you’re going with him?”
“To the barn.”
“In the dark?”
“He can’t stay here. The wolves will be back.”
“And then what? You going to go without sleep to bottle-feed a scrawny critter that probably won’t survive more’n a day or two at most?”
“If I have to.” Without waiting for an argument, Casey turned away and grabbed the reins of Bo’s big roan gelding. The horse began walking beside the boy and his burden.
The old man watched as he mulled how to handle this. Then, in a moment of inspiration, he began walking beside Casey.
“Why don’t you let me carry the foal on my horse? That way, we can both ride back to the barn.”
Casey turned with a look of surprise. “You’ll help me? Even though you’re needed with the herd?”
“I will. But I’ll want something from you in return, boy.”
“What?” With a look of suspicion, Casey paused.
“You had your pa worried sick. You had all of us worried. I want your word that from now on, when you get the urge to disappear, you’ll tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back.”
Casey thought about his great-grandfather’s words before giving a nod. “Okay. Promise.”
Hammond released a long breath before pulling himself into the saddle. “Hand him over, boy.”
Casey did as he asked before mounting Thunder.
As the two began their descent, Hammond nodded toward the campfire in the distance. “On the way down, we’ll stop and assure the others that you’re safe. Your pa’s suffered enough. I won’t have him worrying a minute more than necessary.”
“Do we have to?”
“We do. And you’ll apologize for leaving without telling anybody where you were headed.”
Casey lowered his head, avoiding the old man’s eyes. “Yes, sir.”
Hammond’s stern voice turned as frigid as the weather. “Say it like you mean it, boy. And mean it when you say it.”
Casey’s head came up. He met Hammond’s direct stare with one of his own. “Yes, sir.”
Hammond Merrick was bone weary. His clothes were caked with mud and ice as he trudged into the barn and unsaddled his horse, rubbing it down before leading it into a stall with fresh feed and water. He’d been in the hills for more than a week, and all he wanted was a hot meal, the longest shower in history, and his own bed.
He was just about to leave when he heard a soft voice cooing in the adjacent stall. Looking over the rail he saw his great-grandson kneeling in the straw, stroking the head of the mustang foal.
“You’ve been here all week, boy?”
Casey looked over. “Pa said it was all right if I slept out here and looked after little Storm until he was stronger.”
“You gave him a name? I suppose next you’ll want him to be a pet.”
“No, sir.” Casey stroked the foal’s head. “As soon as he’s strong enough I want him to join his herd. But I thought I’d stick around and make sure the cow Pa brought me would take to him.”
That was when the old man noticed the cow dozing contentedly in a corner of the stall.
At his arched brow Casey smiled. “Pa brought her down from the herd this morning. He said she’d just lost her calf, and he figured she might be willing to accept this little orphan, just until he was big enough to eat on his own.”
Hammond removed his wide-brimmed hat and slapped it against his leg to hide his surprise. “What was your father thinking? A cow’s not the same as a wild horse, boy. How’s he supposed to learn how to run and jump and live free with a slowpoke cow for a mama?”
“When he’s strong enough, he’ll figure it out. Isn’t that what those ducklings did when you put those duck eggs under one of our laying hens?” Casey’s eyes lit up with the memory. “That poor old hen nearly went crazy racing along the edge of the river when her babies jumped in and started swimming away.”
Hammond threw back his head and roared. “You’re right, boy. I guess I forgot about that.” He scratched his head. “This poor old cow. I’d hate to see what she’ll do when her calf starts jumping over her back and racing around like those mustangs do.”
Casey stood and the little foal scrambled up to stand beneath the cow. In no time the foal was feeding, while the cow reached around to lick its soft hide.
The boy stepped out of the stall before leaning his arms along the rail to watch. “Maybe next year she can have herself another calf. Then she won’t have time to worry about this little guy.”
The old man put an arm around the boy, and the two of them stood, savoring the moment.
Hammond’s voice was gruff. “That foal looks healthy. You did good, boy.”
“Thanks, Ham.” The boy looked up at him with a smile of pure delight. “When I grow up I’m going to know all there is about animals, just like old Doc Mercer.”
“So.” Hammond cleared the unexpected lump from his throat. A tough old bird, he insisted on being called Ham rather than any of the warm and fuzzy names usually associated with elderly relatives. He’d been ranching all his life, and he rarely got emotional about something as simple as the spectacle of a newborn animal. But this was so much more than that. This was an opportunity of a lifetime.
“It takes a heap of schooling to become a veterinarian, boy.”
“I don’t care. It’s what I want.”
“That means you’ll have to stop fighting your grandmother about your schooling. And you need to stop fighting your brothers while you’re at it. You’ll have to take your lessons seriously and pour all your energy into learning all you can.”
“I will, Ham. I’ll do whatever I have to.”
His great-grandfather turned away. “You coming inside, boy?”
Casey shook his head. “Gram Meg said she’d bring me some supper later. I think I’ll sleep out here for another night or two. You know, just in case I’m needed.”
“Well then, good night, boy.”
Hammond Merrick turned away, his eyes narrowed in thought. It was plain to see that Casey had a deep and abiding love for all animals. But only time would tell if the boy had the brains and the discipline, not to mention the determination, to reach such a lofty goal as becoming a doctor of veterinary science.
Merrick Ranch—Present Time
’Morning, Billy.” Casey Merrick helped himself to a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice before joining his family, seated around the big fireplace.
At the stove, Billy Caldwell, the ranch cook for more than twenty years, nodded a greeting before flipping pancakes onto a platter. Despite his love of good food, he was rail-thin.
“Storm coming in.” Hammond pointed toward the peaks of the Tetons, layered in thick clouds.
He turned to his great-grandson. “Billy says he’s packing food for your trek into the hills.”
Casey nodded. “With the ranch buttoned up for the winter, I thought I’d get away. Maybe in my travels I’ll get a glimpse of Storm’s herd.”
The elders in the family shared knowing looks. Through the years Casey had made it his business to keep track of the orphaned foal he’d rescued while pursuing a course of studies that was daunting. He’d chronicled Storm’s passage from being assimilated by its mother’s herd to reaching an age of independence. Now, all these years later, the stallion had a herd of mares and their young totaling more than two dozen.
Along the way, Casey had become something of an expert on the local wildlife, and was often consulted by ranchers and conservationists seeking his advice.
Meg caught Egan’s hand and squeezed, as she studied their grandson. “Maybe you should wait a few days, to see whether this storm fizzles or grows.”
Casey gave her a gentle smile. “Gram Meg, I don’t want you worrying. I’ve been traveling these hills long enough to know how fickle Mother Nature can be.”
“Fickle? Are we talking about you and your love life again, bro?” Brand and his wife, Avery, strolled into the kitchen, wearing matching smiles.
“It’s a burden, but I’ve learned to carry it.” Casey fist-bumped his older brother and bent to brush a kiss on his sister-in-law’s cheek. “All the lovely ladies at Nonie’s Wild Horses Saloon and Cafe will still be there, pining away, when I return.”
That brought groans from the others.
Casey’s aunt Liz, his father’s younger sister, helped herself to a mug of coffee. “I spotted your bedroll and supplies out in the barn. You sure you want to head into that storm?”
“Now you’re sounding like your mom.” At Casey’s remark, the others shared a laugh.
Liz winked at her mother. “You’ve always been the sensible one, Mom. But Casey, not so much.”
Brand joined in the laughter before turning to his younger brother. “One of these days you’ll return from one of your wilderness adventures to find that all your friends have married and your own personal herd reduced to a couple of toothless hags.”
“And pigs will fly, bro. Look at Chet.”
When his family members glanced at the ranch foreman, Casey added, “Closing in on fifty, and still one of the area’s most eligible bachelors.” Casey gave Chet a thumbs-up. “You’re one of my heroes, man.”
Bo glanced over as his youngest son, Jonah, strolled in. “I thought you were up at your cabin, knee-deep in work.”
“I was.” Jonah helped himself to coffee. “But then I woke up this morning and realized all I had to eat was an apple and half a candy bar.”
“And,” Casey finished for him, “you figured why not grab a Billy special before tackling another chapter of your latest book.”
“Exactly.” Jonah turned to the cook. “What’s on the menu this morning, Billy?”
“Steak and eggs, with a side of pancakes.”
Jonah gave a sigh. “Did you do all that just for me?”
Billy grinned. “For all of you. But especially since the good doctor is about to go off on one of his mountain walkabouts. I figured I’d send him off with something memorable. Except for the few meals I’m sending along, he’ll have to live with his own cooking for the next couple of weeks.”
Brand dropped an arm around Avery’s shoulders. “So we have Dr. Casey to thank for this fine meal.”
Casey was grinning as they all gathered around the table. “You’re welcome.”
Bo looked over at his middle son. “Who’s taking over your practice while you’re in the hills?”
“I added Dr. Mercer’s number to my service. He said he’d be happy to call on any ranchers who need a vet for the next week or so.”
“Old Doc Mercer?” Jonah shared a grin with Brand. “Isn’t he as old as dirt?”
Ham’s head came up sharply and he fixed his great-grandsons with a piercing look. “Something wrong with being old?”
“No, sir.” Jonah struggled to hold back a grin.
“That’s right, boy. And don’t you forget it.” Ham turned to Casey. “I’m glad Will Mercer is still able to lend a hand.”
“So am I. Otherwise, I’d never be able to enjoy some time away.” Casey glanced at the sky outside the window. “Great send-off breakfast, Billy. But now I’m out of here.”
Bo entered the barn just as Casey was loading his final supplies into his saddlebags. “I wish you’d consider taking one of the trucks, son.”
“That was my plan.” Casey nodded toward the snowflakes drifting past the open barn door. “But if it’s snowing down here, it’ll be waist-deep up in the hills.”
Bo wrapped a muscled arm around his son’s shoulders. “I know you’re capable of taking care of yourself, no matter what the weather throws at you. But please check in from time to time, so my mother doesn’t have to lose sleep.”
“I will.” Casey bit down on the grin that tugged at his lips. His father had been saying the same thing for years. And always, Bo Merrick pinned Gram Meg as the worrier. But in truth, the loss of Bo’s wife, Leigh, had marked him for life. He was only truly happy when all his chicks were safe in the nest.
Bo hugged his son, who stood several inches taller. “Stay safe.”
“You, too, Pa.” Casey pulled himself into the saddle and turned his mount, Solitaire, toward the door. “I’ll check in as often as I can get service. But if you don’t hear from me for a few days, you just have to believe I’ve taken shelter somewhere and can’t get word to you.”
“I understand, son.”
As horse and rider started past the house, Casey spotted the entire family on the back porch, huddled in parkas, waving and calling their goodbyes.
With a nod to all, he turned Solitaire across a pasture and started up toward the distant mountains high above, which were wreathed in dark, ominous clouds.
Kirby Regan drove her truck to a lookout in the foothills of the Tetons and texted her boss with her location before stepping out. The crisp air had a bite to it, but that was to be expected in late October. It was perfect hiking weather. Warm enough by day to make good time into the hills, and cool enough at night to be comfortable in her insulated sleeping bag.
She had a rifle for protection and enough provisions to last a week, and if the weather held and luck was on her side, she’d be home in half that time.
Hearing the ding of a text, she dug her phone out from her pocket to check it.
Bring an approximate count of the mustang herds, and that promotion is in the bag.
With a smile, she slid her arms through the straps of her backpack, shouldered her rifle, and started out at a brisk pace.
When she’d left Wyoming after college, she’d headed straight to Washington, DC, hoping to make her career in the big city. The minute she’d set foot in the nation’s capital, she could feel the power in the air. The atmosphere there, so different from the small towns of Wyoming where she’d been raised, was like a drug. A by-the-books overachiever, she’d worked her way up the ladder in the Association of Land Management, and she probably would have continued the climb if she hadn’t come home for her uncle’s funeral. That brief visit had changed everything, bringing back a flood of happy memories that made her hectic life in the city suddenly unbearable.
Now she was back in Wyoming, and the silence and beauty of the countryside seemed all the more spectacular after her long absence. Oh, how she’d missed all this.
A cut in pay and a much lower rank in the Wyoming branch of the company made her more than willing to take on whatever tasks were assigned to her, just to prove to her supervisors that she had what it took to work in the field.
When this assignment had presented itself, she was thrilled to accept. As an expert hiker, she welcomed the task of heading into the hills to catalog the numbers of mustang herds she encountered. Since she was the rookie in the field office, her boss had told her this would go a long way toward cementing her position as someone who could deliver. As a carrot, he’d dangled the offer of a promotion in front of her. Not that she’d needed it. The thought of hiking alone in the Tetons was, to her, the assignment of a lifetime.
As she climbed, she adjusted her backpack, looking forward to a good workout. After spending the last few years exercising in a crowded, sweaty gym, she was back where she’d started, and loving every minute of it.
“You can do this,” she muttered aloud. “Piece of cake.”
By noon the misty rain-snow mix that had begun earlier had turned to snow in the higher elevations.
Kirby adjusted the hood of her parka and shouldered her backpack before following a trail that led into a heavily forested area. She knew by the fresh droppings that the herd wasn’t too far ahead.
As she crested a hill and stepped out of the woods, she caught sight of the mustangs just disappearing over a rise. Kirby counted six or seven, and wondered how many more had already slipped away. The stallion, all black except for one white foreleg, stood watch as the last of the mares moved out of sight.
Quickening her pace, Kirby crossed the distance, noting idly that the snow had picked up and was beginning to form drifts. But she wasn’t about to let a little snow keep her from cataloging this herd.
When she reached the top of the rise she looked down at the mustangs, which were moving more slowly now as they pawed the snow to graze on the range grass underneath.
She stopped dead in her tracks at the soul-stirring sight. From the time she was a little girl and caught her first glimpse of wild horses, it had always been this way. Though the Association considered them little more than numbers to be managed, she couldn’t deny her love for these wild creatures. To see them living free, as their ancestors had, touched her deeply.
She counted the mares, logged the number into her phone, then took a photo. At the muted click, the skittish stallion, sensing something unknown, began herding his mares toward a line of trees in the distance. Within minutes they blended into the woods like ghosts and were no longer visible.
Kirby sat on a fallen log and allowed her backpack to drop to the ground.
By the time she’d finished eating her sandwich, she looked around and realized the snow had picked up considerably.
If this storm continued, she would have to readjust her thinking. Instead of getting home ahead of schedule, this little trip was liable to drag on for a week or more.
Not a problem, she assured herself. If her pace was slowed she could easily ration her supplies to stretch beyond her self-imposed deadline.
She drained her protein drink, stashed the empty bottle in her backpack, and set out at a hurried pace, keeping an eye out for shelter in the event the snow became impossible to traverse.
Casey was in his element. As he rode across a high meadow, the fresh tracks of deer, mustangs, and even a big cat were proof that the animals in the higher elevations were healthy and active.
Rather than being a problem, the snow just added to his sense of freedom. This wild stretch of land, inhabited by all kinds of animals, was his own private paradise, since no sane human would risk traveling it in such weather.
From his youngest years he’d always loved the solitude of the wilderness. Maybe it was because he’d spent all his time with so many family members. Not that he minded. Years ago he’d stopped resenting the elders and all of their rules and regulations. Like his brothers, he’d actually begun looking forward to his great-grandfather’s musings about his early life in Wyoming, when Hammond Merrick had carved out a place for himself while successfully building one of the most prosperous ranches in the territory.
And he loved, as well, the romantic tale of how his grandfather, Egan, had first locked eyes with Margaret Mary Finnegan, the love of his life, whom he affectionately called his Meggie. Those two were still as much in love today as when they’d met.
He loved the sprawling ranch and sharing the chores with his brothers and foreman Chet Doyle. He loved watching his aunt Liz, a couple years younger than his father, and still single, as she pursued the great love of her life, photography. Like all his family, she was an inspiration. His father, Bo, nearing fifty, was his hero. Though he would carry his grief at the loss of his Leigh to the grave, he bravely carried on, teaching his three sons by words and actions how to be a man.
But what gave Casey the most pleasure was the knowledge that he could slip away by himself from time to time to savor the solitude he always found in high country.
When he encountered a herd of mustangs his heart filled with quiet joy. He loved the fact that they could live wild and free.
Wild and free. The thought had him smiling. It was what he’d wanted always for them. And for himself.
His smile faded as he caught sight of something out of place on the far side of the meadow. He urged his mount forward and noticed the snow up here had begun drifting.
“Hold on, Solitaire.” He drew back on the reins, slowing his mount when he realized that the drifts were already as high as his horse’s belly.
As they reached the other side, Casey recognized that what he had seen was a mustang on its knees. The closer the horse and rider got, the more the poor animal struggled to escape. But though it thrashed about in the snow, it was unable to stand and run.
“Easy now.” Casey kept his tone low and his movements slow, knowing this wild horse had probably never seen a human.
He easily dropped a lasso over its head and coiled the rope around the saddle horn, to keep the frightened animal from charging. Solitaire, trained for just such things, stood his ground, holding the rope taut as Casey dismounted and moved slowly and easily toward the injured horse.
“Let’s see what’s wrong, little filly.” A quick exam revealed a deep, festering gash on its left foreleg. From the size of the wound and the amount of infection, this poor animal, which appeared to be not quite a yearling, was thoroughly drained of strength. No wonder she had given up and lay, panting and in pain, waiting to die.
Grateful that he never went anywhere without the tools of his trade, Casey retrieved a syringe from his black bag and injected an antibiotic into the filly’s hide. The animal’s ears flattened, and its sides were heaving, but it was clear she was too exhausted to do more than endure the touch of this human.
“We’ve got to get you to shelter.” Casey removed the lasso, knowing the mustang was too weak to move.
He pulled himself into the saddle. Urging Solitaire through the snow, he rode a good distance in each direction until he found a cave big enough to shelter two horses. Satisfied that it wasn’t inhabited by any predatory animals, he turned Solitaire back toward the place where the mustang lay, its breathing strained, eyes wide with panic.
Casey cut branches from the nearby trees and tied them in a crisscross pattern before covering them with his bedroll. It took all his strength to slide the helpless mustang onto the poor imitation of a travois. Then, walking alongside Solitaire, he guided him inside the cave before unfastening the straps he’d used to secure the conveyance to the stirrups.
He unsaddled his mount and led him toward the rear of the cave, where he set out food. After starting a fire, he placed a pan of snow over the flame and soon had water for both horses. While Solitaire noisily ate, Casey hand-fed the wounded mustang. When both animals were fed and watered, Casey opened a packet stashed in his saddlebag and silently thanked Billy for the container of beef stew. As the meal heated, Casey fashioned a bed for himself of evergreen branches to cushion his bedroll, which he slid out from under the mustang. Using his saddle for a pillow he leaned back, stretched out his long legs, and enjoyed his dinner, grateful to be snug and dry.
After administering a second injection of antibiotic into the mustang, Casey covered the animal with a blanket, pulled his hat over his head, and closed his eyes.
He was asleep almost at once.
Kirby trekked past the place where she’d seen her first herd of mustangs and climbed to the higher elevations. As daylight began to fade, she paused in a stand of evergreens. Assured that their branches provided enough cover from the snow to form a rough campsite, she dropped the heavy backpack and began to unload her supplies. With a campfire, a hot meal, and her insulated sleeping bag, she figured she would be more than comfortable for the night.
As she circled the area collecting tree branches for a fire, she reveled in the extreme silence. It was as though the snowfall had covered the whole world in a thick blanket, and all creatures in the universe had gone to sleep. She was alone in her own private winter wonderland.
She realized that this unexpected snowfall wasn’t so much a hardship as a gift to be savored. After all, this was what she’d dreamed of after leaving the frantic pace of life in the city.
Hearing the ping of a text, she set the branches in a neat pile before retrieving her phone from an inner pocket.
Seeing that it came from her supervisor, Dan Morgan, she was smiling as she began to read. Her smile faded quickly at the words.
Authorities hunting an escaped convict in area. Be advised to cancel all plans and return to civili. . .
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