The Rancher's Secret Heir

The Rancher's Secret Heir
~ Chapter 1 ~

“They’re all going to be talking about building a rodeo arena and you don’t want to be there?”

JT Harrah frowned, pulled the saddle and blanket off the mare he’d just rode back across the ranch and set it aside to stroke the flat of his hand over the horse’s neck. It was tempting to go into town and have some input into this mythical arena. Mythical because, he told himself, it probably wouldn’t get built.

“A big problem with people is, they talk more than they do. A meeting doesn’t mean anything more than a bunch of people gathered together to argue.”

Matt sighed, picked up a brush and edged JT out of his way so he could give the horse a good brushing. “If you’re there, the arena stands a better chance of happening.”

JT had done the rodeo circuit for ten years and he’d loved it. Hell, anything to do with horses would make him a happy man. So, sure, he’d be pleased to see a world-class arena built near Royal, Texas. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll go in. Talk about it. Happy now?”

Matt grinned. “I’m not unhappy.”

JT laughed a little. Matt did some rodeo, so JT knew he loved the idea of being able to compete so close to home. Couldn’t blame him, but JT had a feeling that talk of an arena, bringing in more tourist dollars, was just a reaction to the tornado that had swept through the town more than two years ago. Royal had been hit hard and it had taken a lot of money and time to bring it back to normal. So, naturally, the business leaders in town would be coming up with ways to bring more dollars into the local economy.

But Royal and the possible arena weren’t the biggest issues for JT at the moment. “How’s Angel doing?”

Matt threw him a glance. “I think that mare’s really enjoying all the extra attention she’s getting. She may decide to never have that foal she’s carrying.”

JT grinned. Angel Flight had been bred to produce the next great barrel-racing horse. And she was due sometime in the next couple weeks. “ She deserves some pampering.”

He’d just go in and check on her himself. JT tugged the sheepskin collar of his jacket up higher on his neck, then shoved both hands into the pockets.

Winter in Texas could get damned cold. And early January was proving that out. The sky was a brilliant blue, and an icy wind plucked at the edges of his jacket, trying to slip underneath. He took a long look around the ranch he loved as the winter wind slapped him.

The corral fence, freshly painted a gleaming white, the rich, red dirt. The oak trees surrounding the edges of the home yard and the sweep of open land beyond that was dotted with stock ponds and grain fields, fallow now for winter. In the distance he saw the black splotches that were his grazing cattle and a small herd of horses wandering through a pasture.

The outbuildings, barracks, foreman’s cottage, barn and stable were all painted bright white with sharp red trim. The main house had been started by his great-great-grandfather and the logs he’d fitted by hand still were tightly notched. The house had expanded around that core, sprawling into long wings on either side and stretching out in the back.

The place had been built around the established oaks, so there was shade over the living areas, and the pool behind the house looked like an oasis. JT loved the place, always had. The history of it, the Harrah family legacy that hadn’t touched his father at all. Which was why his grandfather had left the ranch to JT.

His parents preferred the city life. Mick Harrah was living in London, currently on his third marriage, while JT’s mother lived in Florida now with her second husband and three children.

His parents’ troubled marriage had rocked him as a kid, but now he could look at it objectively, he told himself. See that everyone in the family had gotten exactly what they wanted once the dust had settled.

He’d made a lot of money in the rodeo, then invested it wisely enough to build a fortune that now outpaced his father’s. But the horses—bred, raised and trained for rodeo—were where his focus lay.

He walked through the stable and stopped at the last door on the left. Angel lifted her head, spotted him and slowly moved forward. A pale, golden color with dark brown mane and tail, Angel was a beauty, but even better, she was smart and fast.

Best barrel racer he’d ever seen. The first champion he’d bred.

“And now,” he said quietly, as he reached out to stroke his hand down her slender, nearly elegant nose, “you’re giving birth to champions.”

This foal would be the third from Angel, and if it was anything like the last two, JT knew he’d have another winner. The big animal gently nudged him with her nose, then blinked huge brown eyes in a way that was almost coy. JT laughed.

“Yeah, you know flirting works.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out an apple and held it out for her.

She took the offering daintily, making JT smile again, and he told himself that his life was damn near perfect.

He had a ranch he loved, horses to work with, enough money to indulge himself—and, a voice in the back of his mind whispered, too much solitude.

He scowled at the thought, but it was too late, as memories raced through his mind. JT had been fighting those memories for almost a year and a half and still they came back. She came back.

He’d known her for only a week, yet she had carved herself so deeply into his mind that sometimes he could swear he heard her laughter in his quiet house, breathed in her scent during the long nights.

“Like some damn school boy,” he muttered, and Angel’s ears flicked at the anger in his tone. JT sighed, gave her another pat, then turned to leave. “When you start upsetting pregnant horses, it’s time to go.”

He didn’t like that he still thought of Emily. Didn’t appreciate his dreams being invaded almost nightly. Hated that his body still craved hers, but there didn’t seem to be a damn thing he could do about it.

Hell, he’d walked away from her for a reason.

And that reason hadn’t changed. Emily was the only woman he’d ever known who’d made him think about more than the night at hand. That had worried him enough to cut all ties with her after the week they’d shared. He’d had a front row seat to the implosion of his parents’ marriage and damned if he’d ever put himself in a position to live through that again.

Shaking his head at the wayward thoughts, he headed for the slash of sunlight lying at the open doors of the stable.

“Hey, boss. Got company!”

JT scowled to himself. He had a lot to do today and he wasn’t in the mood for company. Snatching his hat off, he scraped one hand through his hair, then settled the hat back into place. “Yeah. Coming.”

He walked to the corral fence and watched as a dark blue compact came up the long, winding drive from the road. He didn’t recognize the car, so he asked, “Somebody visiting you?”

“Not me,” Matt assured him as they both watched the little car come to a stop by the front door of the ranch house.

The driver got out and JT’s heart gave a hard jolt.

“Wow,” Matt muttered in appreciation.

“Yeah.” JT could only stare at her. She was tall and curvy and had a fall of long, blond, curly hair that hung down between her shoulder blades. She took off her sunglasses and perched them on top of her head as if to see the ranch more clearly. He knew her eyes were lake blue and deep enough to drown a man.

Just like he knew her laugh came low and sexy and that she liked to be kissed on the back of her neck. And with that memory, every cell in JT’s body went on red alert. Images flooded his mind. Long nights, slow mornings, heated flesh, soft whispers and bodies sliding together. He swiped one hand across his face and forced himself to breathe. It had been about a year and a half since he’d seen her, but one glance at Emily Franklin and he was hard, ready and too damn eager to have her again.

“That’s a good-looking woman,” Matt mused, “and if you tell my wife I said that, I’ll deny it.”

“Yeah.” JT was hardly listening. Instead, he watched Emily walk around the car, open the back passenger door and lean inside. What was she doing? Hell, what was she doing here?

Then she straightened up and JT felt like he’d taken a hard punch to the gut. All the air left his body and his brain fogged over.

“Uh, boss?” Matt spoke up from beside him. “Guess you won’t be going to that meeting tonight, huh?”

JT wasn’t listening. He took a step, then another, headed for the woman from his past. As he got closer, she turned to face him and her smile was wide, but hesitant. JT didn’t remember ever seeing anything less than confidence radiating from the woman.

But the baby on her hip changed everything, didn’t it?