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Authors: Victoria James

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BOOK: Rescued by the Rancher
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Cole shrugged. “It’s a good piece of land. Far from here.”

“You know I can’t afford anything around here.”

“You could. You could afford to join this place.”

“I
can’t
afford to, that’s the point.”

“Gimme what you got and you’re in. You know Cori feels the same way I do. She’s hardly around now that she and Adam have their own place and she’s joined the veterinarian clinic. You’re the one who’s here with me day in and day out. My father would have wanted you alongside me. If they hadn’t died so suddenly, I’m sure he would have made that clear in the will. Come on, Gage. You know how hard it’s going to be starting your own ranch? How long, if ever, it’ll take you to earn a decent living? And then if you want to get USDA certification…that costs a hell of a lot of money.”

Hell yeah he knew that, and he knew Cole worked hard to turn the ranch into one of the best and most trusted organic beef producers. He knew all of it; he’d been side by side with him. But he didn’t need everything right away. He didn’t need much. He had a lot of money saved. The land was cheap and he could work like a mule until he made it. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“This has nothing to do with my confidence in your ability. I’m not going to pat you on the hand like Mrs. H and Mel and tell you you can do anything you set your mind to.”

He looked away from his friend and studied the old wooden clock on the wall. He hated that Cole wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know, but he had no choice. He had things to prove. To his stepfather. His real father. His mother. To himself. “I don’t need to live on much.”

“Well, what about Meredith?”

Gage sat up a little straighter. “What about her?”

“Don’t you think she’ll need more?”

“News flash, Cole. What happened between Meredith and me was a one-night thing. Never happening again. We both laid out all the rules. Neither of us wants anything more than that. I don’t know what she needs, and it doesn’t really matter because there’s nothing going on between us.” He was a big fat liar and his friend was going to call him out in…five…four…three…two

“You’re a damn liar, Gage. Or maybe you’re an idiot and you haven’t figured out that in your own obtuse way, you have feelings for the woman. Right from day one. And I see the way she looks at you, which could only mean that after spending the night with you, she wants more.”

“First of all, any woman who spends the night with me wants more.”

“Right.”

“Second? Since when are you analyzing the way people look at each other?”

“Hey, I’m not the one who watches
Downton
Freaking
Abbey
.”

Gage jabbed a finger in Cole’s direction. “That bit of information is in the vault. Told to you in confidence when you were shit-faced and about to ruin your life.”

“Whatever, Gage, all I know is that Meredith has feelings for you.”

“You don’t even know what you’re talking about. There were no words of undying love or promises, so again, it doesn’t matter what her needs are.”

Inevitably, talking about Meredith’s needs made him think of her. Not that he needed to be reminded. He hadn’t stopped thinking of her. He shifted in his seat and tried to get back on topic.

“Guilty as hell. You may think that was just one night, but I’m telling you, buddy, that woman started roping you in the day she arrived on this ranch.”

Gage scoffed. “No one ropes this boy in. Trust me. I don’t belong to anyone, never have and never will. I don’t need anything more than a night in bed with a beautiful woman. I don’t cater to women’s needs or fall all over myself trying to impress. I will always be alone, and that’s the way I like it.”

Cole smirked. “Your phone is vibrating, Lone Ranger.”

Gage shot his friend a dirty look and snatched his phone, reading the display. It was a text from Meredith.

Gage. I need you. Please help.

Gage bounded out of his chair without bothering to make eye contact with Cole. “Gotta go. We’ll talk about the land tomorrow.”

“Where you going so fast?”

“Nowhere.”

What if Meredith was hurt? Or in trouble? She never asked him for anything. He’d text her from his truck so he wouldn’t have to deal with Cole’s nosiness. It occurred to him that she’d called for him, not her brother-in-law or sister.

Shit. He almost tripped over his feet as all sorts of epiphanies railroaded him.

He
did
care what Meredith’s needs were. He cared a whole hell of a lot.

Chapter Seven

Meredith shoved a handful of salt and vinegar potato chips into her mouth and moaned out loud. She leaned her head back on the headrest and chomped away, without worrying anyone was watching and judging. She would worry about the fact that her new, used car just died on her without warning and left her stranded on the side of the road. But Gage was on his way.

It was almost impossible to put their one-night stand out of her head when the man lived on the ranch and worked on the ranch. All long, tall, lean lines on perfect display throughout the day. And on the days that he’d come riding in wearing no shirt…well…she crammed her hand in the bag for another scoop and tried to get the gorgeous image of a sweaty, ripped Gage from her head.

Meredith shoved another handful of chips into her mouth and stared straight ahead at nothing but darkness. She shivered and double-checked to make sure her car doors were still locked. Melanie was probably home by now, and she was stuck on the side of the road in some rural area of Colorado, and she was eating potato chips like they were her last meal. She licked her lips. Maybe she would wish these to be her last supper if she had the choice.

She stopped eating long enough to glance at her phone when it beeped, indicating a text message had come through.

You can’t run forever. Ignoring me will only make things worse for you. See you soon.

The only reason Meredith knew her hand was shaking was because it kept making a crinkling sound against the chip bag. Her hand tightened around her phone as she stared over and over again at that message.

She squeezed her eyes shut, but the image of Ron saying those words aloud, to her face, only increased her tension.
See you soon.
The threat. The arrogance.

No more.

But even as she said that in the quiet car, another image of Ron, snarling, controlling, cold, burned inside her. It was on the night she’d left them. She had naively given them all one last chance when she informed them that she was going to invite Melanie to her wedding. It was Friday night at the country club, the same people, the same table, the same lies. Everything had been the same, except her. Her recent conversation with Melanie propelled her to really look at herself and the life she was living—and the life she wanted to live. So that night she put her family to the test to see how genuine their love was.

She had been seated at the loveliest table, drinking the finest wine, sandwiched between her father and her fiancé when she’d made her declaration. It was after her visit to Melanie in Passion Creek. The visit started out so wonderful, but her sister’s obvious hurt and disappointment set Meredith on edge. She’d been forced to choose between them, and when she’d walked away from her sister that night, she had never felt so low or so alone. Shame kept her awake all that night, and the next day she made a decision.

She rehearsed it at least a dozen times in front of the mirror to make sure it didn’t come out sounding like a question. They had just had their first course cleared from the table and Meredith knew she had to make a strong opening.


Mother, Father, I’ve decided that since it’s my wedding, too, that I need to add another person to the guest list.”

Her mother’s thin brows had darted together. “I’m fairly certain we’ve thought of everyone, dear.”

“No, we haven’t. I can’t get married without Melanie.”

Silence. Her hands had been clenched in her lap, her heart throbbing painfully in her chest, her mouth dry as she waited for a reply.

Her father’s face had turned red as he leaned in. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Now is not the time to be rebellious, dear,” her mother had whispered, her expression taking on that squirrel-like jitteriness as she looked between Meredith and her father. Normally, just the sight of her father’s enraged face would make her back down, but not that night.

“She’s my sister. Your daughter…”

“Melanie is dead to us. She’s an ungrateful, deceitful woman. She will never be welcome, even if she groveled.”

“Then the wedding’s off.”

Ron had leaned forward then, grabbing her upper arm. “Meredith, listen to your father. You’re being childish and irrational.”

“Grow some balls, Ron.”

“Meredith.”

“Nope. This is where I walk out. So you’ve lost one daughter and you’re about to lose another.”

Her father clasped her wrist painfully and leaned forward, his voice a dangerous, dark whisper. “Sit back down and stop…”

Melanie snatched her wrist from his and stood, knowing none of them would make a scene in front of their peers. It had been the perfect venue. She was prepared to walk away from all of them. “Good-bye.”

But Ron had followed her out and pulled her into a dark corner before she could call for a taxi. “This isn’t done. You go, have your little rebellion, but know that you can’t walk away. I haven’t put up with your pathetic, whining bullshit to be cast aside. I would have thought after the last time you decided to rebel against your father you would have learned your lesson. You’re lucky I still want anything to do with you after that.”

“Fuck you, Ron,” she’d whispered and pushed against his chest, needing to get away from him, despising him even more for bringing up the worst day of her life.

But he slammed her back against the brick, her head banging painfully against the hard surface. “No. Fuck you, sweetheart. You don’t get to decide when this is over. I do.”

Bright headlights appeared from around the corner and Melanie held her breath as the ranch truck slowed to a stop on the side of the road. She held her breath and then sighed with relief as Gage emerged looking pissed and a little worried. She shook her head, trying to erase the thoughts of that night, of what had happened after, and when she’d arrived at Tall Pines. The first man she’d seen when she came to the ranch, the only man to ever hold her like she was something precious.

Gage, walking toward her right now. She unlocked the doors. Was he mad that she’d bothered him? Maybe he’d been out on a date…she probably shouldn’t have texted him. She should have walked home. Or called Melanie. But for some reason she called Gage. This past year she’d come to rely on him. She rarely asked anyone for help around here, already feeling like the idiot older sister compared to everything Melanie had accomplished, but tonight she’d texted Gage without a second thought.

Maybe she’d wanted to see him, up close, again. Maybe their one night replayed in her mind over and over until she couldn’t breathe because she was overwhelmed by the memory of the best night in her entire life. Perhaps she wanted to be close to the man who’d done that, and it’s not like it would ever happen again because they’d made a deal. And simply because it was the best night of her life didn’t mean it was the best of his.

Meredith quickly crumpled the large bag of chips and tried her best to brush off any crumbs. It wasn’t the best night to give in to one of her forbidden indulgences. Then again, her other forbidden indulgence was making his way over to her, already causing her to salivate more than the chips had. He moved with the ease of a man who knew how to defend himself, who wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone. One day she’d walk like that. Or, well, her version of that.

The passenger door whipped open and there stood Gage, leaning into the car. “You all right?”

She nodded, speechless when he sat down beside her, filling up her small car and every square inch of her personal space.

“Darlin’, you do realize you have potato chips all over your dress?”

She didn’t dare look down at her dress. Instead, she just brushed at it, trying not to visibly wince as she felt crumbs against her hands. “Yes, thank you for pointing that out.”

He was peering between the seats, his dark head almost bumping her arm. “Did you save any for me?”

It was a good thing it was so dark and he couldn’t see her blush. “No, I, uh, was really hungry.” She’d eaten the entire large bag of chips and she wasn’t about to admit there were more bags in the trunk. “It’s been years since I’ve eaten chips. Sometimes Melanie and I would sneak them after school. And of course our father didn’t like—”

She stopped speaking the moment it registered that Gage had stopped searching and was staring at her. “Do I want to know this?”

She shook her head. He and Cole would get rather animated whenever one of their childhood stories would accidentally come out, and then there’d be hushed conversations involving inflicting bodily harm on their father, and Ron.

“You really need to get a new car.”

“This
is
my new car.”

“Cole lets you drive around in this thing?”

She poked him in the shoulder. “No one lets me do things, remember? I do things.”

“Well, darlin’, then maybe you need to reconsider your decisions. This is a pile of crap.”

“Yes, but it’s
my
pile of…crap and I love it. It’s the first anything I’ve bought with my own money. I know Cole offered me a car, but I needed to do this for myself. I picked it out at Ben’s Honest Auto Body.”

“Ben sold this to you?”

She nodded. “And he’s very—”

“Dishonest. I’m going there tomorrow to talk to him.”

“No. No. No. My car. It’s old, but it’ll do.”

“Look around. Obviously it won’t ‘do’ or you wouldn’t be on the side of the road eating chips in the dark.”

“The chips were merely an impulsive purchase. Melanie had to go the drugstore and I went along with her not wanting her to be out late by herself. I bought chips, and I’m not really sure what she bought,” she said, her voice trailing off. By the time she’d rung in her purchase Melanie had tucked her shopping bag into her purse. They’d taken separate cars because they needed the extra space for the last-minute wedding day supplies they were bringing with them.

“Get your stuff and hop into my truck,” he said.

“Abandon ship?”

He smiled and she melted. “This is no ship.”

“I can’t leave it here. You know how to fix things. Can’t you open up the hood and have a look?”

“It’s dark. I have nothing with me that could possibly fix whatever the hell is going on inside this tin can. And trust me when I say I’d bet you a thousand bucks this piece of…car will be here tomorrow morning.”

Meredith’s “I Will Survive” ringtone interrupted the silence and a head shot of her sister lit up her phone screen. “One second. Mel is probably checking on me wondering why I’m not back yet.”

Gage shifted in his seat and settled in, like he was planning on staying a while.

“I’ll only be a second. Promise.”

He gave a lazy, “Mm-hmmm.” He leaned his head back on the headrest and shut his eyes.

Ten minutes later she was shoving at his shoulder trying to wake him up. He was as solid as she remembered, his flesh not moving an inch beneath her hands. “Gage, I’m all done. We have to go. Mel said she has some big announcement.”

He yawned and stretched. “I would have thought by the length of that phone call that she had enough time to make at least ten announcements.”

She knew he was teasing; Gage always teased. His lips would twitch slightly and she knew, even though she couldn’t see well enough, that his eyes were twinkling. During this past year, she’d learned all about real men. The men at Tall Pines weren’t like any she’d ever been in close contact with. The kindness, the respect that they’d shown her this last year, was overwhelming. There were nights she’d sit at the window seat in her beautiful room on the ranch, unable to sleep, just wanting to enjoy the pure, unadulterated serenity. There were no loud voices. No anger. No slamming of doors. Sure, Gage and Cole were loud and their cursing and animated conversations filled the house, but it was always amicable. Her sister was always getting into some sort of trouble around the ranch, and Cole seemed to handle every situation with her with complete calm and tenderness.

She’d been shocked to the bone the first time she’d seen her sister riding a horse. Meredith stood there wondering what had happened to the little girl who was filled with such terror she couldn’t even go near a horse. Melly had grown up, she’d gotten a backbone, and she’d found a man who made her stronger instead of weaker. She had come to realize how much Cole loved Mel, and it reaffirmed what an idiot Meredith had been. Well, no more. This year had been filled with firsts. She looked at Gage from the corner of her eye. Including the man beside her, her one-night stand.

“Okay, I have a few things to take with me from the trunk,” she said, gathering her purse.

“Don’t forget your phone.”

Gage was holding her phone in his hand and Meredith snatched it. She couldn’t have Gage finding out about Ron’s text. None of them needed to know. She knew if either Gage or Cole ever saw Ron, he’d be toast, not that she would object to either of them pulverizing Ron, which they most certainly could do, since Ron wouldn’t stand a chance against Cole or Gage. She didn’t want them to worry, and she was embarrassed. Ron and her parents and the old Meredith were part of her other life, the life she preferred not to think about. She knew they pitied her. Who wouldn’t? She had arrived at the ranch a year ago, the night of Cole’s little sister’s wedding, a complete and pathetic wreck. She even fainted in Gage’s arms. How utterly humiliating. The man had carried her into the house. He was polite enough not to mention it, but she knew since then that Cole and Gage thought of her as fragile. Well, she wasn’t anymore. She could handle all the bastards in her previous life herself.

BOOK: Rescued by the Rancher
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