Back in the Rancher's Arms by Elsie Davis
Back in the Rancher's Arms
by Elsie Davis
Dylan Hunter has always loved the girl next door. Part of loving her meant making sure she left their small town to study to become a veterinarian. He just never expected it to take this long for her to come home. His hands are full raising his younger brother and bringing his ranch through the drought, but one look at Kayla and his feelings are back full force.
Kayla Anderson’s not prepared to see the guy who broke her heart in high school again, but she can’t get out of returning home to be maid of honor at her cousin’s wedding. She’s determined to have fun and celebrate the special day, despite the fact Dylan is her family’s closest neighbor and the best man, and get the heck out of Dodge.
But Dylan already lost the woman he loved once. This time, he’s determined to win her back...
Back in the Rancher's Arms
By Elsie Davis
Kayla stepped out of her SUV and barely missed a steamy pile of horse manure. Too bad she couldn’t avoid the crap she would step into coming home. She couldn’t not come to her cousin’s wedding, even if it meant facing Dylan for the first time in years, and it was time to break the news of the partnership she’d been offered to her parents.
She popped open the rear door and picked up her bags, careful not to lean against the dusty frame. The wheels of the heavy suitcase kept catching on small pebbles as she dragged it down the driveway to the front porch, balancing the garment bag across her shoulder. She entered the old house, the screen door slamming behind her.
“Mom, I’m home,” she called out loud enough to wake the neighbors, even if they were a good half mile away. It was the only way to be heard above the noise of the oversize fan that sounded more like a John Deere tractor barreling through the living room.
Nothing in the room had changed since her last visit home at Christmas, but then, it never changed. Old furniture with faded fabric. Throw rugs covered scuffed and cracked wood floors. The baby cradle and wooden rocker handcrafted by her great-grandfather.
Three generations of Anderson family portraits lined up in a row, hung on the wall. Their calm faces judging. Always judging. Just like her parents.
And then there was her picture. The one who dared to leave.
“Mom. Dad. Anyone here?” she called again, this time from the base of the stairs leading up to the second floor.
“Kayla?” Her mother came through the kitchen door with a large bouquet of fresh-cut daylilies in one hand, the other arm wide and waiting.
Kayla inwardly chuckled when she saw her mother’s outfit. White stars the size of Texas duplicated themselves all over the bright-red pantsuit; the homemade eyesore one of Kayla’s least favorites.
“I can’t believe you’re here. And for a whole week. It’s been a long time since you’ve been home.” Her mother pulled her into a tight hug, but not before Kayla saw the mist in her eyes.
“It’s good to see you, too. You know how it is, school and work keep me crazy busy. And being the new assistant at the vet clinic means low man on the totem pole when it comes to time off.” Not to mention Riverbend, Texas, wasn’t on her list of favorite places.
“I’m looking forward to when you graduate and move back home. The distance issue will be a thing of the past when you open a clinic in town. I thought when you got into vet school I’d see you more often since it’s only a few hours away, but I understand.”
Her understanding wouldn’t last to the end of the weeklong visit. “Hmmm. Thanks.”
“Let me put these daylilies in water and get the Elephant Ears out of the oven. I made them just for you.” Her mother paused at the door and glanced down the hall before entering the kitchen.
Puzzled, Kayla followed. “Yummm. I can’t wait.”
“I wasn’t expecting you this early.”
The familiar smell of vanilla and maple filled the room. Her stomach rumbled in anticipation of her favorite pastry. It was a popular treat, especially at state fairs, but no one could make them as good as her mother.
“I told you I’d be home around one. I’m only thirty minutes early.”
“Perfect timing for a fresh, hot batch right out of the oven.” Her mother moved the baked flat dough from the oven to the baker’s rack. “Big and puffy, just the way you like them.”
“Great. They smell amazing. Where’s Dad?” Kayla asked, happy to have sidestepped the moving home comment.
“With the drought, nothing much makes him happy anymore. But finding out you were coming home for a week, well, that’s made him happier than I’ve seen him in a good long time. He’s probably still in the barn. I’ll send…” Her mother’s gaze darted over Kayla’s shoulder, toward the kitchen door. A flicker of guilt flashed across her face.
“Send who?” Kayla asked.
“Ummm, nothing. I forgot something is all.”
She picked up a warm pastry and blew on it. One bite, and her mouth exploded with the delicious taste of maple. Warm, sweet, and wonderful.
“Hmmm. These are as delicious as I remembered.”
“I’ve got your favorite toppings. Chocolate and bananas.”
“Then I’d have to wait until they cool.” She laughed. “Maybe on the second one.”
She often wondered about the secret ingredient her mother used, but every time she asked, the answer was always the same. Love.
“I’m glad you like them. There’s something I need to tell you since you’re here.” Tight lines formed across her mother’s forehead.
“Is everything okay?” Her mother sounded nervous, and it was unsettling.
“The thing is I didn’t know he, I mean he—” Her mother’s gaze shifted to the right, past Kayla.
“She’s trying to tell you I’m here.”
A wave of heat coursed through her veins. Her stomach pitched like it was falling from the top of the Grand Canyon into the deepest part of the ravine.
Dylan. Damn it. Dylan.
She swung around to face her first love. The man she’d given her virginity to. The man she’d been all too willing to give up her dreams to be with forever. The man who’d ripped her heart to pieces when he walked away and then betrayed her in the worst way possible.
He was the man who’d managed to get both her and her ex-best friend, Becky, pregnant.
“What are you doing here?” Contempt dripped from her voice, but the words fell flat. Five years to prepare a scathing remark and none of them surfaced to rip his heart out, to give him a small taste of the pain she’d felt when he walked away.
The urge to hurt overrode years of determined effort to forget him and move on. One small setback. She took a deep breath and tried to refocus her energy, to return to the hard-won inner peace she’d carved out for herself.
“Hello to you, too, Kayla.” His familiar grin mocked her. “But to answer your question, I’m fixing the roof.”
Tall, dark, and better than an Elephant Ear. Nothing puffy about him. Bulging pecs filled his T-shirt and made it look like it came from the boys’ department. Rock-hard triceps stretched the cotton short sleeves to the limit. Jeans that dipped low in the front, weighed down by a large silver buckle with the letter H emblazoned across it.
Hunter. A few other H words came to mind. Handsome. Hunk. Hot. The list went on. History. Hurt. Hell.
And heartache. Don’t forget the heartache.
It wasn’t fair. She wanted him to be out of shape or balding, anything other than I-still-want-you sexy.
“Does it have to be done now? Maybe you can come back in a week?” Anything, as long as he didn’t stay here. It was bad enough she’d have to deal with him at her cousin’s wedding, anything else was beyond the realm of acceptable torture.
She was over Dylan, but it didn’t mean she was ready to play nice. And it didn’t mean her body had gotten the over him message.
“I asked him to fix the roof, honey,” her mother chimed in.
She shot her mother a pleading look. After all these years, surely her mother wasn’t still holding out hope for her and Dylan to make peace with one another. But then again, she’d always liked Dylan, even when he’d broken Kayla’s heart and walked away, her mother had defended him. But then again, her mother didn’t have all the facts. No one did.
Resentment burned like bile. This wasn’t the time or place to unload on the man she’d once thought of as her knight in shining armor but who had turned out to be nothing more than a self-serving rat. But it didn’t have to stop her from taking back some of the dignity he’d stolen.
She plastered a smile across her face and looked squarely at her mother, fighting the urge to look at Dylan. A quick escape upstairs was her best bet to avoid the current situation. She picked up the garment bag, slung it over her shoulder, and reached for the large suitcase. “Right. I’ll just take these up to my room.” She was hoping Dylan would take the hint and leave.
“See you soon, Kayla,” Dylan said before turning back to her mother. “Mary, the roof’s mostly done, and I’ll finish it up tomorrow morning. Thanks for the Elephant Ears. Derek and I always appreciate them.”
Kayla paused at the doorway.
Since when had her mother started cooking for the Hunter brothers? And how dare Dylan ignore her request to stay away? He knew why she didn’t want him here. At least half the reason anyway. What is he up to?
“If the roof is mostly fixed, there’s no urgency. The forecast isn’t calling for rain, so I’m sure you can leave it until after the wedding. It’s going to be hectic around here, and having a repairman underfoot will only add to the stress.” Kayla looked Dylan straight in the eye, challenging him to contradict her.
“Kayla,” her mother choked out.
“It’s okay, Mary,” Dylan said. His intense gaze fixed on Kayla. “I’m not a repairman. I’m a friend of the family, and I’m fixing the roof to help my neighbors. And even though it hasn’t rained in a long time, a storm can pop up without warning. You won’t be able to get rid of me easily until after Saturday. No matter how much you want me gone,” he added, his voice flat and final.
Kayla glanced uneasily at the stairs, eying her escape before she turned back to Dylan. Her curiosity slid into overdrive.
If Dylan was going to be blatant, then so was she. She wasn’t a naive schoolgirl anymore—her days of agreeing with him simply to earn his approval were over long ago.
“Haven’t you heard?” The first hint of a smile tugged at his lips. Whatever he was going to say wouldn’t be good. Kayla kept quiet, waiting for the proverbial cowboy boot to drop.
“I’m the best man at the wedding. I guess it’s lucky for you I live next door, or I’d be sleeping in the guest room next to you.”
Kayla closed her eyes and drew in a deep and ragged breath, trying to stop the rollercoaster of emotion rushing through her veins. Her heart galloped wildly out of control. No way. This couldn’t be happening.
Best Man. Maid of Honor.
What the hell were her cousin and Ethan thinking? Ethan, Casey, Dylan, Randy, and Tommy, otherwise known as the Fearless Five, always stuck together, but Ethan and his cousin, Casey, were like brothers. She’d mistakenly assumed he’d be the best man when she’d agreed to be maid of honor.
“Why is Ethan settling for second best? Is Casey unavailable?” She saw no reason to hide her disdain.
A pained look crossed Dylan’s face. “Casey died in Afghanistan over a year ago. Guess you’re stuck with me.”
A sick feeling landed with a thud in the middle of her chest.
“What?” she gasped. “Casey?” She rubbed her arms, seeking warmth and comfort, anything to shield her from the truth of Dylan’s callously delivered news. She looked to her mom for confirmation.
“I’m sorry, honey. It’s true.”
Fun loving, happy-go-lucky Casey is gone.
She didn’t come around much, but someone should have told her.
She’d followed the Fearless Five around for years, mostly because of Dylan, but the others had tolerated her presence, and she’d grown fond of them all. It had been like having five big brothers, at least until her feelings for Dylan had changed.
Remorse stuck in her throat, making it almost impossible to speak. The depth of pain in Dylan’s voice had been real. Her heart ached for all the guys. Dylan included.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” She reached out to touch his arm. She didn’t have the heart to be mean after hearing the news. The guys must have been devastated, along with the entire town. Casey had been a down-home country boy, a lot like apple pie. He was sweet and could entice anyone who dared to resist his appeal.
It couldn’t be any clearer she was no longer a part of the town. She was an outsider and couldn’t remember feeling as alone as she did right now.
Strike that. There were two other times in her life she felt this alone, both Dylan’s fault. Experience didn’t make the pain any less to bear.
Dylan glanced down at her hand on his arm before leveling her with a hard glare.
“There’s a lot you don’t know. Maybe finally coming home you’ll learn some of it.” Dylan tipped his hat low, turned, and left.
There’s a lot you don’t know, either, you two-timing jerk.
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