Coming home had never been so confusing for Case McCann. Her life was planned, college and career were waiting, and then she came face to face with the terrifying yet strangely attractive boy-next-door.
Halston Blackhill wanted for nothing, waited for no one, and had no passions except the success of his cattle ranch. When that little McCann brat from the neighboring ranch tried to sneak onto his land, though, his passions surfaced.
Sun.? Dust.? Sweat.?
And of course, the tears.
Why do cars always break down in the middle of nowhere?
Case McCann stalked around the rented white Dodge Charger, kicking the front tire a few times in anger, and finally leaning over the opened hood again.? And yes, the hood had a freaking racing stripe directly down the middle in midnight blue.? That wasn’t as bothersome as what was happening underneath that stripe, however.? She could stare and ponder all she wanted, biting her bottom lip, deep in thought.? The insides of a car remained totally mysterious to her.? Botany?? No problem.? Perennials and annuals?? Sure.
The black thingy spewing and smoking, connected to the other black tube stuff in the engine?? Yeah right.? Her hands were smudged with engine grease and God only knows what else, so she wiped her watery eyes with the back of her wrist.?
She sighed heavily and looked up the white clay road from where she’d come, a stark white ribbon in a sea of greens and yellows, then down to where she wanted to go.? Live oaks sprouted with their crooked, thin trunks right up to the road’s edge.? A few weeds chased each other through white chunks of clay on the roadside, while a light, cool breeze swept down the corridor.? Total isolation.
And if this road was anything like it was when she was younger, no one would just “happen” to drive by and lend assistance.? Only six farms and ranches used FM-650, with metal gates directing people to more dirt roads winding through pastures and forests and dead-ending at a main house that was inevitably miles away.?
Case knew everyone in the area.? The Reiner Ranch was owned by the most elderly couple she’d ever met, and that was years ago.? The probability that they could have died months ago and not been discovered yet was uncomfortably high.? They never drove anymore, and they’d never had children.? The Reiners wouldn’t be any help.?
The Smithy Turkey Farm had employees piled into truck beds at the start and finish of every day, headed to and from their homes in town, but it was well after five pm, and the daylight was dying.? No help there, either.?
The Colton’s place and the Hanover Ranch were strictly vacation getaways these days, so she wouldn’t run into any of them on a late spring Monday evening, either.
And the Blackhills?? They owned over 35,000 acres?by far the most in the area.? She and her three older brothers had only a handful of run-ins with Blackhill family members.? Their ranches backed up to each other and had a common property line, so while they both tried to avoid one another, encounters were naturally unavoidable.? Every single meeting ended up in a physical altercation.?
Blood, profanity, for some reason the McCanns and the Blackhills hated one another.? Damned if anyone remembered why.
So, if a Blackhill drove by she’d actually be better served if she hid in the trees or faked her own death.?
Not that anyone would ever drive down the desolate unpaved road, though.
Closing her eyes as the sun beat down on her round cheeks, she peeled off her navy cardigan, tossed it in the driver’s side window to the tan seat next to her black duffle bag, and started walking.? Crickets chirped an invariable drone all around her.? A buzzard circled far above her head.? The loneliness was so tangible she began to feel sick to her stomach.? This was not the life she liked.
The day really couldn’t have gotten any worse.? She’d flown in from her east coast school, a place that had made her so happy for the past seven years.? No one was waiting to pick her up from the barn shaped terminal at the airport, and since cabs were non-compliant when it came to Farm-to-Market roads, had been forced to rent the ratty old Dodge Charger from the town’s only car dealer.? And he wasn’t as honest as his sign had suggested.?
An hour later, there she was, in her white long sleeved shirt, with blackened cuffs from the crap car’s engine, her brother’s hand-me-down boot cut Levis that were slightly faded to a medium blue instead of the currently popular acid wash of the 1980s, and the 5:30 Texas sun on her back.? Her shoulder length light brown hair swung in an irritated sway as she stomped her dirty white Kaepa tennis shoes down the road, which would eventually dead end at her property.? The prospect of walking the squared off route around everyone’s property just to reach the gate on the McCann ranch daunted her.? Stupid county planners and their road grids.
Pausing, she glanced to her right and absent-mindedly pulled her hair back into a loose ponytail.? The Blackhills owned the land on either side of FM-650, and technically, while she had to travel six miles down the road to reach her front gate, her actual property was only a few acres away on the other side of a thin strip of Blackhill land.? She only knew this because her brothers had once suggested the Blackhills allow them an easement as a shortcut for the construction workers who were building the new barn.? The Blackhills had laughed in their faces, and no such road was forged through the thick brush.? They just weren’t meant to be on each other’s land.
For some reason, she remembered that day very well.? Someone smashed the kitchen phone into the drywall and she learned a few new words to take back to the girls in the dorms at boarding school.? She came to the realization for the first time that only two Blackhills were living on the estate, and only one was truly the heir, while the other just a distant cousin.? Originally, she had imagined a whole compound of freaks, judging from what her brothers had said.? Obtuse, unreasonable, violent freaks, if she recalled correctly.
But how obtuse, unreasonable, and violent?? And how freaky?
Crunching through the yellow and green patched grass, she carefully placed her hands on the barbed wire fence on the side of the road.? She pulled it apart, stuck her leg through, and then her body, only snagging a small piece of her shirt, and then continued through the dense oak, mesquite, and cedar trees.? She was well hidden and there was no way anyone would ever figure out she was taking a shortcut through the Blackhill’s place.? And even if they did, she’d left her ID in the car so there was absolutely no way to prove she was a McCann? unless she ran into the one and only living Blackhill heir.? She knew her way around, though, and had a great sense of direction.? She’d be on her ranch in no time.
Ranching had been in her family’s blood since before Texas had joined the Union.? Her dad, his dad, his dad, his two uncles, their dad, on and on? there was a detailed family tree tracing her heritage in her father’s study, and an exact replica in the Lyndon B Johnson Library in Austin.? Family was everything to McCanns, and so was cattle ranching.? All of her brothers had taken quickly to riding horses, herding cattle, watching fence lines, and irrigating pastures.
Her dad had done it, his dad had done it, and so on with every generation.? No oil, it was all about cattle? and an exclusivity clause her great-great grandfather had forged in contracts with several stockyards across the state.
? When her parents died in the plane collision that took the lives of many family members in their small town of Oakwood, her brothers jumped right in with both feet to run the family cattle business.? Years of grooming had led up to that very moment.
Joel, the oldest, left his own ranch to come and make sure the books were clear.? He ran his wife’s family ranch in Kansas, but had bought in his own shares, so he had more experience than the other McCann children.? He had to return home for most of the year, though, to be with his wife and children, so he left his two younger brothers in charge of the McCann place for the majority of the seasons.
Townes, only a year younger than Joel, and his wife tried to care for the 10,000 square foot plantation style home, 8000 head of cattle, 50 quarter horses, and drought problems, but they were already pregnant, and both had jobs in Amarillo.? Like Joel, they could only come and help out a few times a year.
Jackson, God bless him, was left to make sure everything ran smoothly, the employees were happy, and the ranch stayed in the black.? He wasn’t the smartest or most ambitious McCann, but he figured things out eventually and was able to keep the place afloat.? After his seventh year of college at UT, he welcomed the opportunity to go back home and run his own ranch.? He and Case were the closest.
Case, for whatever reason, lacked any and all ranch style coordination and zeal.? She’d been thrown from three different horses, had broken her arm twice, and had her shoulder dislocated after being smashed between a cow and a fence post.? She’d never taken any interest in the cattle business, and didn’t care an ounce about the hunting that people would pay thousands of dollars for on the McCann property.
She liked plants, flowers, and any Jane Austen book.? She preferred her bike over a horse, and had raised feral cats secretly in one of their hay barns after her dad had told her and her brothers to shoot them.? She adored all animals and human contact, so when she turned eleven, she told her parents that she was going to a boarding school in Virginia that she’d applied for and had already been accepted into.? Since her grades and achievements had led the local teaching staff to make similar suggestions to her parents, they obliged.? She only had to return home on holidays and summers.?
This was a big summer.? She’d graduated, had an internship lined up at a national laboratory, and was heading to an advanced science program at SMU, where she’d get her BA and MA in Botany in only three years.? It was an honor to have the staff even consider your application, let alone accept you into the school, she’d been told.? She didn’t care.? She was so ready to move on with her life and so ready to forget her old life out in the sticks of south central Texas, where the plains met the hill country.
Her bags were packed, she’d been given the old blue Chevy pick-up truck that all of her brothers had driven before her, her apartment was leased and furnished in University Park, in Dallas, just waiting for its modern, chic tenant, and her internship would start in mid-June, setting her up with contacts at the Center for Disease Control.? She’d always wanted to research there, discovering cures and remedies through horticulture.? Her new life was ready and waiting.
Then she’d gotten a call from Tizzy Smithy, her old friend from her public school days in Oakwood.? Now an administrative assistant at Commerce Bank, Tizzy had noticed that the McCann bills were not only being returned, but were all past due by two months.? She told her that the bank was going to have to send someone out to her ranch and take drastic actions if the bills weren’t settled.? Case quickly paid everything, which added up to over $15,000, through a wire transfer from the bank account her father and brothers had set up for her, but didn’t really start to worry until after her third day of calling her ranch house and hearing nothing from Jackson.?
Jackson always answered, always half drunk at the end of the day, making her laugh as she leaned against the musty smelling wood paneled walls of her hallway with the one phone in her dormitory.? He’d tell her about something dumb that one of the employees had done, the usual suspects being Zeke and Paco, and then tell her who he’d had over to the house for a “sleepover,” the usual suspects being one of the sorority girls visiting the Colton or Hanover ranches.? She’d tell him about her greenhouse she’d built by the back wall of the campus and everything she’d planted until he yawned excessively.? Then they’d hang up.?
And now, when she needed him to give her an explanation about the bills, and to pick her up from the airport, he was nowhere to be found.
“He’s in Mexico on another drinking binge.? Give him a week and he’ll be back, taking care of everything,” Joel had said after she’d called him in Kansas, worried.? Joel had three kids screaming in the background so she decided not to bother him any further.? She went out with her friends that night and tried to forget about it, but had to call Townes the next day to see what he thought.
“Don’t worry about that ass wagon.? You go to Dallas and study hard.? You’ve earned it, Casey, you hear me?” Townes had said, sounding so serious as usual.? She didn’t want him to know how worried she was about her favorite brother, so she just agreed and hung up.? For the first time in her life, she didn’t like being so far from her family.
She didn’t listen to them, anyway.? They’d been twelve and eleven years older than her, respectively, and may as well have been total strangers.? Jackson was only seven years older and they’d been buddies growing up, playing the role of the immature children while Joel and Townes took all of the responsibility.? When their parents died on the chartered plane to the UT game, they started singing a different tune, though.? The whole town of Oakwood had taken a major hit.? The 30-passenger plane had collided with the private jet of Mr. and Mrs. Blackhill on the runway.? It was the biggest tragedy in the history of the county.? All of their friends at school had to either leave to go live with relatives in distant cities or states, and the rest had to deal with aunts, uncles, and annoying cousins coming to live with them.?
Fifteen couples died when the planes had crashed, and Jackson and Case were the only minors with brothers old enough to care for them.? Jackson graduated from high school and went on to his seven-year stint at UT, while Case returned to her coveted boarding school and tried to be normal.? She gladly returned home during holidays but secretly wished that she could be as old as her brothers, and just get on with her life.? They were getting married and having kids and not living on the ranch.? She hadn’t even hit puberty yet.
Her brothers had always teased her and called her The Great Mistake.? Her parents told her she was their favorite Christmas surprise.? They’d found out they were pregnant over the holiday.? Mistake or not, she’d loved her parents.? She missed them whenever she was back in Oakwood.
Now, in a strange twist of fate, she was the one being counted on, while her brothers’ lives had stagnated and hers was moving on.? Just one quick stop in Oakwood, yell at Jackson to get his act together so they wouldn’t lose their ranch, then back to getting settled before her internship began in Dallas.? With Joel and Townes so far away, and her with a summer break, she really was the only one able to check on things.? And Jackson had pretty much made a name for himself as the picture of irresponsibility.
She’d called for the thousandth time and had left a message on one of those new answering machines with a recordable cassette tape, telling him to sober up and grab her from the airport on Monday at noon in the nearby town of Gomez.? The airport in Oakwood had shut down after the accident, so visitors either flew into Dallas and took a prop plane to Gomez, or flew into Austin and drove.?
Jackson, of course, hadn’t been there and she’d been forced to deal with Honest Bill Gomez himself, the great-grandson of the town’s founder, who owned the car dealership.? He gave her a terrible deal on a Dodge Charger that had to be more than ten years old.
And there she was, broken down on the side of the road, miles from her family’s beautiful home that had probably gone to crap in the past year, shuffling through leaves and yellow dirt in the late afternoon.? She knew the land very well, having been caught a few times playing with her brothers and the other kids on the right and wrong side of the fence line.? It was mostly a terrifying experience, usually resulting in a Blackhill shooting a shotgun straight up into the air to get everyone back over the fence, but Henry Hanover swore one time that Mr. Blackhill grabbed him by the hair and shoved his head into a full water tank a few times, nearly drowning him.
Sure, it was a little ridiculous, but enough to make Case tread very carefully through the trees, checking over her shoulder every now and then.? She’d been smart enough to rarely get caught if any mischief was afoot, and even when she and the other children were caught, she’d been spry enough to make a clean getaway.? Sure, she felt bad for the other kids, but they also didn’t live as far out of town as she did.? It was a good ten-mile jaunt to get from the city limits to her front gate, so that had turned out to be punishment enough.
She shoved a leafy branch out of her way as she wondered what had become of all of those kids after the accident.? She’d already started at her new boarding school when it happened.? They’d been shipped to grandparents in New York, cousins in Seattle, a creepy uncle in Utah, a slightly famous member of a rock band in Chicago.? Case could hardly imagine what they lived like.? Tizzy was the only friend her age that remained in Oakwood, her turkey farm having been taken over by her Aunt Evelyn.? The bank must have been great for Tizzy, even though she was a secretary, because Evelyn made her hose out the turkey hatches every day.? It was the single most disgusting thing Case had ever seen or smelled.
Case’s black digital watch beeped.? She looked down and noticed that it was already six.? By eight it would be dark, and she wasn’t sure she’d be back home by then.? Luckily, again, she could make her way blindfolded, but she still worried about things like snakes and stray bullets from an angry Blackhill.? She finally hit a familiar fence and turned north in an opening, feeling a cool evening breeze swoosh through the lane as she walked on the light colored dirt and grass.
A twig snapped.?
She paused and lifted her head, frowning as she stood very still.? Her property couldn’t have been more than a hundred yards ahead.? Wait? was that right?? She couldn’t be entirely certain of her location.? Another twig snapped.? She was in a clearing in the lane between the trees and the fence.? No twigs.
She frantically looked right and left.? Oh no.? If a Blackhill spotted her on his land, he’d shoot her for sure.? She wasn’t ready to die.? She had important things to do in her life!? Fight or flight? or hide?? Hand to hand combat seemed futile since Blackhills were notoriously tall and she was as vertically challenged as they come.? Flight was out because, although she was fast, she could not outrun a speeding bullet.? The live oak trees around her had trunks like the legs of a giraffe.? No low brush.? There was absolutely no possible way she could effectively hide.?
Why didn’t she just stick to the public county road??
After more sounds came from the distance she decided to just give it a whirl and dove behind the straightest tree trunk she could find, slapping her hands at her sides, and sucking in as she stood sideways.? Be the tree.? You are the tree.???
“Who’s there?” a deep voice demanded to know in a loud, annoyed tone.
She held her breath.? I’m just a tree.
“I can see your pony tail and white tennis shoes,” the voice announced, leaning more towards annoyed and less towards anger.? She’d take irritated over fury any day? especially with her historically adversarial neighbors.
“I don’t like waiting.”
Damn it.? There was no avoiding it any longer.? She took the tree trunk in her hands and slowly poked her head around, her lungs deflating and threatening to never refill again.? She forced a short breath and slowly took in the person who’d caught her.? A large, shiny black horse stood in the lane, stomping its front hoof every now and then, and causing the packed yellow dirt to fly up in little dust clouds.
Its rider sat perfectly still with perfect posture.? His well-worn brown boots, crisp dark Levis patched with dust, starched tan shirt, and a matching tan straw hat, curled at the edges from years of wear and tear, made him an impressive vision.? Pulled low over his eyes, the shadow from the Stetson only allowed her to see the faint hint of whiskers and a strong jaw line.? In his left hand, he held the reins very firmly.? In his right hand, he held a long rifle quite ominously.
“Get out here,” he commanded harshly.
Maybe if she stood still he would go away.? She could pretend that English was her second language? or that she was deaf.? She couldn’t just give herself up and walk out into the open on Blackhill property.? She’d heard they killed trespassers all the time and buried them under the barn.? Adam Thorne had said so and he’d been on the property before on his paper route.
“Come on out, you’re caught.”? She heard him sigh heavily and load a round into the rifle’s chamber.? The metal click churned her insides.
Swallowing so hard she was certain she’d bruised her esophagus, she stepped around the tree and paused next to it, head down.? She slowly eyed three possible escape routes through the woods if he decided to actually aim his weapon in her general direction.
“Look at me.? What’s your name?”
She scratched her head where loose wisps fluttered around her face.? Oh God.? If she looked at him, he’d know exactly who she was.? McCanns had light brown hair and bright green eyes lined with long, dark lashes, a widely known family trait.? It actually looked fairly average on her, but had given her brothers quite an advantage in the dating department.? They’d made a name for themselves with the unique look, but that unique look would unfortunately totally give her away to a Blackhill.
“I told you to look at me and tell me your name.? This is private property.? You have five seconds to comply.”
Good God, would he really shoot her?? There was no one around to witness? anything.? She was at his mercy and she hated feeling that way.? The clicking of his rifle echoed in her head.? Digging her hands into the worn pockets of her brother’s old jeans, she kicked around at the dead leaves and finally turned her eyes up to meet his.? They both furrowed their brows at the instant recognition of one another.
“You’re the McCann girl,” he loudly stated, sounding surprised and tipping his hat up to get a better look.
“You’re Halston Blackhill,” she choked, saying something for the first time and wishing that her voice hadn’t cracked.? She’d been certain it was just a chance run-in with one of the distant Blackhill cousins who worked the land.
But it was Halston Blackhill.? He’d been somewhere between Jackson’s grade and Townes’ grade, and his story had been quite opposite.? As an only child, when his parents had died in the plane crash, he had to return home right at the beginning of his junior year at Harvard.? He never got to graduate, had to leave behind his dreams of becoming a doctor, and was forced to care for all 35,000 acres of Blackhill land, as well as his ailing grandparents in a nursing home.
And he was bitter.? No one in town liked Halston Blackhill.? They cowered in fear if he ever ran into the grocery store or barbershop.? Tizzy hid and cried in the vault every time he made a transaction at the bank.? No one knew exactly how many people he’d killed on his land, but the rumor was that it was in the double digits.?
His perpetual bad mood seemed to hover around him like a black aura.? Case swallowed again.
“What are you, spying on us?” he suddenly asked, swinging his leg over the horse and jumping to the ground, marching forward and reaching her in five steps.
She stood frozen with fear.? He was at least two heads taller than her, looked more than angry, and he had a gun.? Oh God, she wanted to be buried in 60 years in her family’s plot, not that night under his tractor in the barn.
“Say something, damn it!” he ordered, taking another step.? The anger had reached his eyes.? Steam might have been shooting out of his ears.? It was hard to be certain since every organ in her body numbed with trepidation at his overpowering presence.
“W-what?” she choked, flinching and closing her eyes for a second, trying to regain her senses.
“You’re suddenly interested in our Wagyu beef now, is that it?” he asked, shoving his rifle stock against her and pushing her back into a tree, pinning her as he held both ends of the gun.? His shirt was tight around his broad shoulders.? If she remembered correctly, he was kind of a soft kid who didn’t play any sports. ?When did the muscles come into play?
She grunted as she grabbed the rifle and fruitlessly pushed back as the long barrel pinned her against the rough bark of the tree.? After assessing his physique, his strength did not surprise her.? At least the dangerous end of the gun wasn’t pressing against her.
Time to answer him.? “No, I just?”
“Restaurants will pay double for this beef at the stockyards and we’re the first to breed them in Texas.? So, what, you think the McCanns can get in on the action?? You think you have the know-how and the resources to not only find this particular breed of cow in Japan, but ship them over and keep them healthy, too?? Huh?? Is a McCann suddenly speechless?? Forgive my astonishment but listen to this.? You’re living in a fantasy, Kiddo.”
Of all the arrogant?
“Okay!” she rumbled through clenched teeth, ducking down and letting the rifle push against the tree trunk as she shuffled aside and glared up at him.? She rubbed her hand across her collar. “First of all, Halston, my name is Case, and I am not a kid.”
At first, he gave a surprised look at her agility, and then leaned back as she suddenly got an attitude.? He towered over her as he threw the rifle over his shoulder and let it rest there as he waited for the rest, intrigued. ?People rarely spoke to him, let alone argued with him.
“Second, you are so arrogant to think that I want or need to spy on you!? I don’t give a crap about your Japanese beef or whatever!? And if you knew me at all, you’d know that I don’t give a crap about anything down here!? I’m here to check on my brother, and then I’m back to my science internship, okay?”
He squinted in the sinking sun and considered what she’d just said.? All he’d ever done was fight McCanns about property lines and right of ways and easements.? He was prepared to go all the way to fight them on his new venture.? It was costing him too much to not fight.? He knew the McCanns, though.? They were likable and used to getting their way.? Was she lying?? How could she not care about any of it with a family like that?
He cleared his throat as she stared up at him with outraged fists on her hips.
“So then what the hell are you doing in the middle of my property?” he asked, turning and shoving the gun back into his saddle straps.? He glanced at her over his shoulder as he waited for an answer.? She visibly shrank inside herself as she rubbed her hands and looked at the ground.
“My car broke down so I thought I’d? take a shortcut.”? It sounded bad as she heard it come out of her mouth.
“Through Blackhill land?” he smirked, an incredulous look on his face.
Yes, it was dumb, but he didn’t have to ridicule her.? Not him.? She defensively pulled her shoulders back and chin up.
“It’s over six miles to the gate from back there!” she protested, pointing her thumb over her shoulder.
Now the arrogant shoe was on the other foot.? It didn’t matter if she was just a kid, she needed to hear what he had to say.
“Do you have any idea what your family has done to mine?? Do you even know why we hate each other?? Are you aware of why I am seething with anger just looking at you standing on my property right now?”
Case licked her lips as she looked up at his dark gray eyes, glaring down at her.? The Blackhills hated everyone but they especially had a deep-rooted rivalry that was extremely unfriendly with the McCanns.? She had no clue as to why.? The only thing she’d ever heard during her childhood included phrases like, “We don’t talk to Blackhills,” or “That Blackhill boy will be there,” or a variation of a scathing remark towards their neighbor.
Furious couldn’t even begin to describe the look on his face.? And so, cue the sarcasm, a mechanism she’d successfully used to defuse situations at school.? “Did my dad try and steal your foreign cow idea?” she asked, a subtle hint of mockery in her voice as she kept the look on her face very even.? She raised a defiant eyebrow at him as