THE COWBOY’S HOMECOMING: LAST CHANCE
ABOUT THIS BOOK
Chance Mooreland left home at eighteen to join the army. Somewhere out there—away from the 50-acre patch of land in nowhere Colorado—was the life he was meant to live and he intended to find it. Eight years later, he returned. A lot of things had changed in his absence—except for his feelings for the beautiful but untouchable girl next door.
Katherine Fordham, daughter of wealthy rancher Hubert Fordham, had a life that many envied. But what they didn’t know was that Katie had dreams of her own. She wanted to be more than the pampered only child of the richest family in the county. And she had a plan. But first, she’d have to convince the sexy cowboy next door to take one last chance.
CHANCE MOORELAND TOOK a swig from the beer he’d been holding, draining the bottle and setting it next to the three others he’d downed since coming home.
He scoffed at the word and looked around the shabby porch, the rotting boards and the peeling paint. The inside was even worse. His parents would be so disappointed.
Had been disappointed, he corrected silently, remembering the day he’d told his mom and dad that he’d joined the army and would be leaving within the month. It had been exactly one month after his high school graduation and only three days after his eighteenth birthday. His father, always a somber man, had aged before Chance’s eyes as he wondered how he’d manage the ranch without his only son. His mother had cried, her tear-stained face following him through two tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Although he knew he’d done the right thing in joining up—he’d been hell-bent on seeing the world and defending his country—guilt ate at him every day. Especially when his father passed away during his first tour of duty. His mother had held on until the end of his first deployment. When he’d learned of her passing only a few weeks before he’d been due to muster out, he’d re-upped and stayed another four years. There’d been nothing to come back for.
Honestly, he hadn’t expected to make it home. At least not in any way other than a pine box covered with an American flag. Every time he’d led his unit on patrol or engaged the enemy, he’d known it could be his last. He didn’t even have to close his eyes to hear the whizzing sound of flying bullets or the explosion of mortar fire. Not that closing his eyes worked either. He hadn’t slept a full night since his return six months ago. At least not without drowning out the noise of his men’s screams as three of them were ripped apart by enemy fire, dying mere feet from him. He hadn’t kept up with the others in his unit. He’d even lost touch with his best friends, Kellon Granger and Trayor Paxton, who, like him, had mustered out after their second tour. He wondered what had become of them and if they were having any better luck re-acclimating to the “real” world.
Taking another beer from the swiftly dwindling six-pack, he sat back in the rickety wooden chair and propped his booted feet on worn railing that ran the length of the porch, wondering once again why he’d been spared when so many of his friends and fellow soldiers had lost their lives. He’d returned home unscathed, without a scratch, except for the scars on his soul that would be with him for the rest of his life. He’d thought coming home to his family ranch would help. It hadn’t.
Gazing out across the empty pastures into the waning evening sun, Chance knew there was a lot that he needed to be doing—should already have done. He had the money since he’d never squandered his military pay like other soldiers in his unit. Over there, he’d had no need for the monthly paycheck provided by the army. Hell, it wasn’t as if they could just go into the nearest town on a weekend pass. The accommodations had been less than inviting, but Chance hadn’t minded. Even the sand and heat hadn’t gotten to him the way it had a lot of the others. It hadn’t matter whether he’d slept in a tent or in a trench in the desert sand just miles outside an enemy-held town. Hell, he hadn’t slept in so long, he’d forgotten what a full night’s sleep felt like.
He’d thought coming home would change that. He’d been wrong. Again.
The small town of Conifer, situated in north central Colorado at the base of the beautiful Rocky Mountain Front Range, was home. He’d been born and raised here and, growing up, had known every neighboring ranch family and the owners of each quaint shop in town. Now that he’d come back after being gone for eight years, a lot of unfamiliar faces greeted him each morning as he strolled down the street, past storefronts that had also changed drastically, he wondered at the old adage, you can’t go home again Maybe there was something to that.
Draining the bottle, he set it next to the other empties and resisted the urge to open another. Turning into a drunk wasn’t on his agenda. And it sure wouldn’t look good to the fine citizens of Conifer if their interim sheriff of only two weeks showed up for work three sheets to the wind. Frank Jessup, the only sheriff he’d ever known in Conifer, had up and had a heart attack just four months after Chance’s return. Word had it that he’d been the one to suggest to the town council that Chance would be a good man to fill in until the election in November. After weeks of turning it down, why he’d taken the job was still a mystery to him. Maybe he’d done it simply because it would be an excuse to put off actually making the ranch into a home—and a working operation—again.
He had to admit, the daunting task scared him almost as much as night raids in Kuwait had.
Squeezing his eyes shut, he concentrated on the sound of the wind in the trees and the distant howl of a wolf as it called to its mate. A mosquito buzzed his ear and he lifted a hand to swipe it away. It was late June and daytime temperatures were edging upwards of eighty degrees. The evenings, though, cooled down nicely and he found himself close to nodding off in deepening evening shadows. He took his rest when he could get it.
Chance bolted upright, his booted feet thudded loudly on the wooden planks, raising a small cloud of dust. He swallowed, his throat dry even after four beers. He would know the woman sitting astride the beautiful white Andalusian anywhere. Dressed in jeans, a blue vest over a white t-shirt that amplified her ample curves and handmade leather boots, she sat the horse with an ease born of years in the saddle. The same evening breeze that Chance had been enjoying blew her shoulder-length ash blonde hair around her face. Even in the shadows, he recognized her cerulean blue eyes and the twin dimples that appeared each time she smiled.
Even though she was younger than him by a couple of years, he’d had a huge crush on her in high school. He hadn’t asked her out, though. Her father owned the biggest ranch this side of Denver. There was no way Hubert Fordham the Third was going to allow his baby girl to date a nobody like Chance. His family had barely been able to maintain their paltry fifty acres and keep their heads above water. Not that he’d been dirt poor. No, they’d lived a comfortable life compared to some. He’d even had his own pickup, an older model Chevy that he and his dad had restored together. It was a big thing for a seventeen year old boy to have his own ride—not to mention that he’d been reasonably good looking and pretty popular. Still, his family, though good people, just hadn’t moved in the same social circle as the Fordham’s. He went to barn dances. She went to the country club.
As all teenaged boys were prone to do, he hadn’t put a lot of thought into the fact that he couldn’t ask her out. Instead, he’d continued to play football, date his way through the cheerleading squad and work alongside his father on the ranch after school. Even so, he’d maintained a formal sort of friendship with her throughout school and, in all of his time away, he’d never quite forgotten the untouchable yet beautiful Katherine Fordham.
Since he was now twenty-eight, she had to be about twenty-six or twenty-seven. She didn’t look much different than she had back then. She still had that deliciously curvaceous body that he’d spent many nights dreaming about.
Rising to his feet, he leaned against the porch railing, squinting at her through the dim evening light. “Well, well, Katherine Fordham. What in the hell are you doing on this side of the tractor tracks?”
Katie’s heart thrummed in her chest as she took in the cowboy standing so confidently before her. She’d known the moment Chance had set foot in town all those months ago. Had deliberately kept away, knowing there was nothing in store for her but heartache. Again.
Katie had loved Chance since she was eleven years old and she’d caught sight of the pre-teen helping his daddy bust broncos in the pasture that lay just behind the ranch house he was living in now. The Silver Peak now boosted five thousand acres. Katie’s father had bought the original thousand acre spread just outside of Conifer as an investment. Her mother had taken one look at the beautiful scenery and fallen in love. Katie’s father, never one to turn down any request made by his two girls, had moved them lock, stock and barrel from New York to Colorado.
Fortunately, Katie had been young enough to adjust to the move without too much angst. Well, with as little angst as a chubby kid could. She sat up straighter in the saddle. Supposedly, it made ‘curvy’ women seem less, well, fat, when they exhibited good posture.
“I heard you were home and thought I’d come by and say hello.”
“I got back six months ago, Katie.”
There was an unspoken message between them that she should have come sooner. While, they had never been close in high school, they had been tentative friends. She remembered tutoring him in math his senior year, along with half the football team in order for them to play in the state finals. That was the year Bobby Joe Lockhart had broken her heart when he’d cancelled their date to the prom at the last minute in order to take Sue Ellen Montgomery. Sue Ellen was tall and willowy. And a cheerleader. Chance had found Katie out in her daddy’s stables, still wearing her prom dress and crying.
He’d taken the heartbroken teen into his arms and held her until her tears dried, telling her what a fool Bobby Joe had been for not taking her to the prom and that Sue Ellen was a real snob. He’d kissed her lightly, watched to make sure she got inside, and never mentioned the incident to anyone.
Chance and his father had helped out on more than one occasion during the summers at her family’s ranch, Silver Peaks, earning extra money to help keep their own small operation afloat. A brilliant horseman himself, her father had left banking to go into the business of training horses. He retained trainers that got quick results by mechanical means, making his ranch one of the most profitable in the state. Katie had begged him for most of her life to stop using fear and intimidation to train the animals. She advocated the Natural Horsemanship approach, meaning that a trainer should teach and interact with the horse based on trust, respect and communication in a language the horse could understand. Her father had laughed and called her a silly, soft-hearted female.
Her horse shifted beneath her and she straightened her spine. She’d trained Shadow herself using the technique. She knew it worked. All she needed was a chance to prove herself. And she’d come up with an idea on just how to do it, too.
“Why don’t you climb down off that horse and have a beer?” Chance walked back to the chair on the porch without giving her an opportunity to answer. As if he didn’t care whether she joined him or not.
Katie bit her lip and debated the wisdom of joining him in what appeared to be a pity party. She knew that feeling. Despite having a rich father and a loving home, Katie had experienced her share of heartbreak and heartache.
Nothing nearly as difficult as Chance, though. Knowing she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend some time with him—and maybe see which way the wind was blowing on her idea—she dismounted, throwing Shadow’s reigns over the rickety railing before walking up the steps to Chance’s family home.
The third step from the top almost gave way under her weight and she had to clutch the bannister to keep from falling. He watched her with narrowed eyes and she felt a heated blush color her cheeks. Of course, the fat girl would have to step on the one board that couldn’t support her weight. Although, looking around, she realized there was more than one place on the aging porch that needed repair.
She took the bottle he offered as she neared and sat down gingerly on the straight-backed chair he must have pulled from the kitchen. Taking a drink, she looked out over the land, never tiring of its beauty. Conifer boasted everything from rocky terrain to smooth pastureland. Even though the Mooreland spread wasn’t as big as her father’s, it was still beautiful.
“I’m glad you’re home, Chance.”
Again, other words hung in the air between them. I’m glad you’re alive, Chance. I’m glad you came home in one piece. I’m… still in love with you.
Those were definitely thoughts she’d be better off not sharing. Katie took a deep drink of her beer, barely managing to keep it down without coughing.
Chance looked at her and smiled. He took a drink from his own bottle, reminding her of a male model shooting a commercial, he looked so self-assured, so at peace with his surroundings.
“You never did like to drink, did you?”
“No.” She remembered some of the drinking parties that had been held in Conifer during her teen years. Parties she had rarely been invited to, despite, or because of her family’s standing. She started peeling away the paper label on the bottle just for something to keep her hands busy. What she really wanted to do was look at him—look her fill—just to make sure he really was okay. They sat in silence for a few moments longer, each lost in their own thoughts. It was a companionable quiet, one Katie didn’t feel very often with other people. Now give her a horse and she was in her element.
“I want to thank your dad for paying the taxes on the place while I was gone these last few years.” Chance hadn’t really thought about things like taxes when he’d been overseas fighting, not even after both his parents had passed away. Hubert Fordham had paid the back taxes to keep the place from being sold at auction. In the past, it wouldn’t have mattered if Chance paid the taxes or not. Most of the locals would have simply left well enough alone, knowing Chance was away at war. But Conifer had grown considerably during his absence with outsiders paying up property taxes left and right in a bid to claim the land to build rental cabins.
“I’ll tell him.”
Something in Katie’s voice made him look at her again. Her cheeks were rosy and she looked anywhere but at him. A niggling thought surfaced.
“You paid the taxes, didn’t you?”
A small shrug of her rounded shoulder had his gaze falling to the rise and fall of her chest, which had him…
He dropped his feet to the floor, the jarring motion derailing his train of thought. “I’ll get your money to you tomorrow.”
Without thinking of her actions, Katie laid a hand on his arm. “There’s no hurry. Whenever you have time.”
At her warm touch, every fantasy he’d ever had about the woman came flooding back, filling his mind. He pulled his arm away as quickly as possible, hoping he imagined the look of hurt that flashed across her face. Katie Fordham couldn’t possible consider him a suitable candidate for her affections. They’d been worlds apart before he’d left to join the army. And now? Now Chance wasn’t anybody’s idea of a good match. He carried too many scars, too much… just too much inside him for any woman to love.
“So what are you going to do with the place now that you’re back?”
Chance waited a moment to answer the question simply because he didn’t know the answer. He’d joined the army not only to serve his country, but because he hadn’t wanted to end up the somber, worried man he’d seen his father become over the years as he’d struggled to make a go of the ranch. Backbreaking work from sunup to sundown. His years in the army had purged him of the notion that other jobs were easier and that a man could be happy taking the easy road. Easy didn’t necessarily mean happy. Chance had learned that it didn’t matter what you did as long as you put in an honest day’s work and could face yourself in the mirror at the end of it.
Right now, he didn’t plan on doing anything with the ranch. That’s why again, he’d decided to take over the sheriff’s job. To put his years of training in the military to good use while he figured out his future.
“Sell it maybe.” That was the first time he’d actually spoken the words and they surprised him as much as he could see they did her. Was he ready to cut all ties with his past? Put it to rest? He didn’t know.
“I guess your job as sheriff does take up a lot of your time.”
Chance snorted, ignoring the way her white teeth worried her plump bottom lip. “Yeah,” he nodded, taking another draft of his beer, “Conifer is the crime capital of the world.” The worse thing he’d been called upon to do so far was arrest a man for beating up on his wife. The woman was now in a shelter but Chance didn’t look for her bid for independence to go anywhere. Like many woman, she didn’t have the resources to survive on her own, much less provide for her children. And even as they were taking him away, she was telling the creep that she loved him.
That was something he’d never understood. How could you continue to love someone who hurt you? Who proclaimed love one minute and smashed your face in the next simply because you forgot to put a clean towel in the bathroom? His parents hadn’t shown him or each other a lot of affection, but he’d bet his last dollar that they’d loved one another. It had been there in the daily struggles they managed together, in the way his mom rubbed his dad’s back after a long day in the saddle or the way his dad picked up a new book when he went into town for feed or supplies or a length of fabric just because it matched his mother’s eyes.
“Think your dad might be interested in adding to his acreage?” Chance felt like shit for even asking the question. On one hand, he felt embarrassed that his fifty acres wouldn’t amount to a drop in the bucket for a man that owned over five thousand. Plus, he felt guilty for even thinking about selling the land that his father and mother had sacrificed their lives for.
“I… don’t know. Maybe.”
Chance took in Katie’s upturned face, a look of something akin to sadness in her expressive blue eyes. “Forget I asked.” He scuffed a booted foot against the porch, displacing several loose paint chips. “It was a stupid suggestion.”
“No,” Katie took a deep breath. “It wasn’t. But I think I have a better one.” She blushed again, thankful that the sun had sunk below the mountaintop, leaving them in dusky shadows. “I mean, if you’re interested.”
Intrigued, Chance scooted his chair around until he was facing her. “I’m listening.”
Katie cleared her throat, disconcerted now that she had his full attention. Chance Mooreland the teenager had been cute, but Chance Mooreland the man was downright devastating. It was hard to concentrate on what she wanted to say when all six-foot plus of his solidly muscled frame was sitting so close that even in the gathering dusk she could see the richness of his brown eyes and the curve of his sensual lower lip. Lips that she’d always wanted to kiss.
Suddenly her mind was filled with the picture of the two of them, her body trapped against his wide chest, his lips covering hers…
“Are you okay?”
“What?” Katie blinked, pulling her mind away from such thoughts. “Yeah, I’m fine.” She took a swig of her now warm beer and grimaced. “It’s a little hot out here, don’t you think?”
Chance grinned, his white teeth flashing in the dwindling light. “Must just be you, honey. The breeze feels pretty good.”
Darn it, he was making fun of her. Katie clenched her hands around the bottle, willing herself to sit still when all she wanted to do was get up and run as far away from the tempting man as she could possibly get. But she couldn’t. He was her only hope to have a chance at something she’d dreamed about forever. Even if she could work up the nerve to tell him, her father would simply laugh at her dream.
“I’ve been doing some volunteer work for the last few years with PATH International in Denver.”
At first, all Chance heard was the word volunteer and he was quickly reminded again of the disparity in their social status. She didn’t have to work. He did if he wanted to eat. Then the rest of her sentence sank in. PATH International equated to some of the best equine therapy in the world. If he wasn’t mistaken, it was even helping wounded warriors as they returned stateside. If someone had time to do volunteer work, she couldn’t have chosen a better one.
“That’s really good of you,” he said sincerely. “Their services benefit a lot of people. Especially war vets.”
Katie nodded. “Thanks. I really enjoy it.”
Chance wondered where this was headed and what it could possibly have to do with him.
“That’s good, Katie. I’m glad.”
“It’s a step toward what I really want to do.”
Now Chance was intrigued. “Which is?”
“I want to train horses…”
“Isn’t that what your dad does?” Silver Peaks turned out some of the best horse flesh around.
“Yes, but he doesn’t believe in natural training.”
He saw the look in her eyes and wanted to say anything she needed, he’d get it for her. Damn, but she could still get to him without doing anything.
“I lot of trainers use mechanical means, Katie. If they’re any good, it doesn’t hurt the horse. I doubt your father would tolerate that with his trainers either. And don’t you help train some, too?”
Katie pushed her blonde hair behind her ears and sat forward. He could see the determination build inside her. “My father thinks the only thing I can do is dressage training. Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” she added hurriedly. “I mean, it’s beautiful but I want to do more than just train horses for competition.”
“Surely your father…”
She put a hand on his knee and immediately the softness of her hand had parts of his body hardening beneath her touch. He shifted awkwardly and her hand fell off. Another look of hurt crossed her beautiful features.
“You don’t understand. I want to train horses with behavioral problems. Those that others think are untrainable. Outcasts. My father thinks such work is beyond my capabilities and beneath my station. He won’t help.”
“But you think that I can?”
“I know you can.” She sat forward again, her face shining with excitement. “You have the land, the facilities—with a little work—and I have money for a few horses, a couple of hands and buying grain and hay. Well,” she shrugged, “at least enough to get us started.”
Chance shook his head, hating to dash her hopes. “This place is falling apart, Katie. Plus, I don’t have any connections in the horse world. Your father, however does,” he pointed out again. “Lots of them.”
He stood, rubbing one hand along the back of his neck. “It’s not a bad idea. It’s actually pretty damned good. But I’m not the man to go into business with.”
“You’re the perfect man,” Katie jumped to her feet, ignoring the fact that her inner voice was seconding that opinion. “It doesn’t matter that you don’t have connections as you say,” she tugged on his arm, stopping his pacing across the small space, “because I do.”
“Unlike what my father thanks, I haven’t been sitting around idle the last few years. I’ve made connections. Plus,” Katie shrugged, “I do have my father’s last name which holds a world of weight all on its own.” Her grip tightened perceptibly. “It’ll work, Chance. I know it will. But I can’t do it without you.”
Chance looked down at Katie. A woman stood in the place of the girl he’d once known and damned if he wasn’t just as drawn to her as he had been in high school. Besides, he might feel hopeless and lost, but he couldn’t bring himself to dash her dreams.
“Let me think about it, okay?” It was the best he could do.