Her Desert Treasure ONLY
The land is her only chance to hold onto the last bit of family she had. But Jake Matthews has other plans. He says her grandfather wanted a horse refuge on the land, and despite the heat blazing between them, Jake will do whatever it takes to get what he wants.
What Jake realizes he wants is Meg, but someone’s threatening her and seems willing to kill her for her land. Meg doesn’t know who she can trust. When she’s kidnapped, it’s up to Jake to help rescue her before he loses the chance to tell her that he cares more for her than the land that stands between them…
Title: Her Desert Treasure
Author: Larie Brannick
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Length: 178 pages
Release Date: April 2014
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An Excerpt from:
Her Desert Treasure
by Larie Brannick
Copyright © 2014 by Larie Brannick. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Okay, now would be a good time for someone to pinch her.
“In addition, your Aunt Marge left you a sizeable amount when she died.”
“Aunt Marge?” Was it possible for a person’s brain to explode from confusion?
“Your father’s older sister, Marge Montgomery. She died a year or so after your parents. Very tragic, a fire if I remember correctly.” He scratched his wrinkled cheek. “She actually fought your grandparents for custody in the beginning. You were so young, you probably don’t remember.”
Meg searched her brain for some recognition. A vague memory of frilly dresses and miniature tea sets flickered briefly, but there was already too much information to process. God, she wanted this day to be over. She rubbed her temples. “It’s a lot to take in.”
“I know you’ve had a trying week, but we’re almost finished.” He flipped another page. “On to the last item. One thousand acres near the town of Big Rock. The homestead property—”
Meg’s heart pounded, and blood rushed in her ears so loudly it drowned out his words. Fresh tears stung her eyes. Her fondest childhood memories had been made roaming those hills with her Grandpa, hunting rocks to add to their collection, soaking up his knowledge and enthusiasm like a sponge.
“—and here’s where things get a little muddy.”
“Muddy?” Crap. Concentrate, Meg. Now is not the time for an ADD moment. “I’m sorry, Bernie. I’m afraid my attention span is a little short these days.”
“Perfectly understandable. Would you like to take a break? I know you’re probably not used to all the chaos of the last week.”
“No thank you, Bernie. I’m fine.” Meg smiled at his reference. Even with all she’d had to do, the pace here in Western Colorado was a far cry from the rat race her life had become in San Diego. She’d only been back a week, but the relaxed atmosphere had comforted her, and she embraced it. Even before returning to make arrangements for her grandfather’s funeral, Meg had been considering making a change. Now that she was here, she knew she’d made the right decision. She was moving back to Colorado. For good.
“As I was saying, this is highly unusual. A petition has been filed with the court to contest the Will.”
“I don’t understand. Who…why would someone do that?”
The older man shook his head. “Whoever it is, is trying very hard to hide their identity. The name on the suit is Goldstone Holdings, and the only contact information is a law office in Denver. I had Francine search the name. There isn’t even a website. The suit is based on the assertion that your grandfather was in negotiations to sell the land, but I don’t believe there is any evidence to support the claim. We had already received the order for informal probate, and it was pretty much a done deal until this was filed.”
Meg didn’t know whether to be impressed by her grandfather’s old friend being savvy enough to search the Internet or to be plain confused about why someone would want to contest the Will. One thing she did know was that there was no way her grandfather would ever sell the property.
Bernie patted her hand. “This is merely a bump in the road. I have every confidence there is no proof of a pending sale, and I will do my damndest to defend your grandpa’s wishes. Your name has always been on the deed, Megan. However, since the property is part of the estate, you won’t be able to access the bank accounts until this is resolved.” He hesitated. “I don’t want to assume anything, but if you need—”
“No.” She shook her head determinedly. “Absolutely not.” Squeezing his burly hand, her voice softened. “It’s so nice of you to offer, Bernie, but I’m fine. I have some savings and…well, I’m fine.” Moving expenses and the fact that she’d already quit her job might make things interesting, but nothing would keep her from her goal.
“Okay, honey. If you’re sure. I’ve already filed the necessary papers at the courthouse to request a dismissal. I’ll do everything I can to get this mess sorted out as quickly as possible.”
Another wave of grief hit her hard and her throat constricted. She needed some fresh air, time to herself to try to wrap her head around the information overload. There was only one place where Meg could find that kind of peace. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she lifted her head. “I was planning to stay at the cabin in Big Rock, Bernie. Will this petition prevent me from entering the property?”
“Hmm? Oh, no. I don’t think that should be a problem. This nuisance should blow over without any trouble.”
“Not that I would ever sell, Bernie, but what if I wanted to start construction on some outbuildings?”
“You’re planning to go forward with your living classroom idea?”
It was a dream she and her grandfather had shared. She wanted to come back home to start a living, outdoor classroom that would bring in students from neighboring schools for field trips, lectures, and hands-on experience collecting rocks and identifying them in a small lab. The property had been in the family for four generations, and Meg knew the landscape like the back of her hand. She’d always wanted to use her teaching certificate in some unique way and ached to put her knowledge of the area to good use. “Yes. Grandpa wanted it as much as I do. I just wish he were still here to see it become reality.”
“I know he did, and I think it’s a wonderful way to keep his memory with us. But just to be safe, I want you to hold off on any changes to the property. In fact, I think it’s a good idea to keep your plans between us for now. We don’t know who might be watching, possibly waiting for any reason to drag out this suit.” He pushed a few more documents across the desk. “All right, then. Unless you have any other questions, Meg, we can wrap this up.”
A few pen strokes later, he was walking her to the door. He wrapped her in a tight hug. “You call me if you need anything. Your grandpa asked me to look after you, and I intend to do just that.”
She hugged him back. “Thanks for everything, Bernie.
Jake Matthews stood and stretched after checking his patient. She was a pretty little thing, the spitting image of her mother. The prize winning Palomino mare turned her big, brown eyes from him to her new foal as she nursed. He took a few sugar cubes from the bucket nailed to the stall and held out his hand. The mare’s velvety nose tickled his palm as she nibbled the treats. “You’re doing fine, Nikki. See, you’re getting the hang of this.”
After patting her and her new daughter on the neck one final time, he secured the latch on their stall before leaving the stable.
Jesus, what a long night. And even longer day. The mare had been in labor when Jake checked on her after dinner last night, and she’d seemed fine. When he went back out to the stables after checking the other animals at his veterinary hospital, he could see she was having trouble and couldn’t just let nature takes its course. The foal had been breech, and though Jake had delivered breeches before, this one was particularly difficult. He’d left them at dawn for a quick shower before he started seeing patients.
Outside, he breathed in the fresh, afternoon air. His gaze wandered to the brick house, the animal clinic, and the kennels where he heard the dogs stirring. Sunlight brushed the red mesas and rainbow-hued sandstone formations surrounding him. He held his breath as he took in the beauty. No wonder he’d fallen in love with this place. After only two years in his practice here in Big Rock, Colorado, he was happier than he’d ever thought he could be again. He slowly released his breath. Happy? Okay, content. This place was a completely different world compared to the pressure-filled days at Wyndham Animal Hospital in Chicago. He hadn’t planned on leaving, but hey, sometimes shit happened, and Jake wanted to believe it happened for a reason.
The familiar sound of hooves turned him back to the corral. His future, in the form of a magnificent Appaloosa stallion, trotted over to him. “Hey, buddy. I just saw your daughter. She’s sure to be a champ, just like her old man.” The Quarter Horse tossed his head as if in agreement. Jake stroked the stallion’s muscled neck. He’d gambled everything he had on this horse, Destiny’s Heart, and so far, the stallion was living up to Jake’s expectations. The little filly in the stable was the first of what Jake hoped would be many in the new bloodline. He smoothed the sleek mane one last time. “See you in a few hours, Desi. I’m going to try to catch a glimpse of that elusive cousin of yours.”
Jake never tired of the view on the drive to the secluded canyon. He’d been coming here ever since meeting the property’s owner, John Clark, a couple years ago. The old man had enthusiastically introduced Jake to the wild horse herd that made the canyon their home, and he’d been hooked on sight. The herd of about two hundred mustangs fascinated Jake, and John had encouraged him to come out to observe them as often as possible. His old friend had moved into a retirement community in Gunnison about six months ago, and while they spoke on the phone often, Jake had only been able to visit a few times. The news of John’s death had hit him hard, especially since he hadn’t heard about it until after the funeral. He hadn’t even been able to pay his final respects.
Memories of his old friend brought a smile to his face. What a character. John had been one of the first people Jake met when he came to town, and the two men had become fast friends, bonding over their interest in the horses. Jake couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to the herd now. He’d promised himself he’d do everything in his power to make sure they stayed in the canyon.
After parking and locking the gate, he threw his tripod over one shoulder, his backpack over the other, and walked the half mile to the mouth of the canyon. Once his camera was set up, he settled into his camp chair to wait. The horses had become accustomed to his visits and weren’t as skittish as they’d been in the beginning. He could move about freely without spooking them, and Jake could get within fifty feet of some of the younger, more curious animals.
One horse in particular held Jake’s interest, though. The newcomer, a beautiful Bay stallion, didn’t have the shorter, stocky build of typical wild mustangs. No, this horse came from different stock. The short, refined head, the strong, well-muscled body, broad chest, and powerful, rounded hindquarters were all characteristics of a Quarter Horse. And Jake had seen this guy run. He had the great sprinting speed over short distances common to the breed. Jake wondered how the stallion had ended up with the herd.
With his worn Stetson tipped to shade his eyes, Jake leaned back in the canvas chair. The occasional buzz of a bee was the only reminder he wasn’t alone in this valley. The utter silence had taken some getting used to. Jake’s life in Chicago had been a blur of noise and activity. Between the residency program in equine medicine and volunteering at the local shelter, he hadn’t had a moment of quiet. But even the constant action wasn’t enough to distract him from the memory—
A sharp whinny broke the silence. Jake jumped out of his chair and focused the camera on the approaching horses. It didn’t matter how many times he saw it, the sight of the herd was always exciting. He and John had shared many early mornings and late afternoons watching the animals and planning for the wild horse refuge they wanted to develop.
Worry nagged the fringes of his thoughts. With John gone, what if the new owner wouldn’t follow through with his wishes? It was possible that John hadn’t discussed their plans with anyone else. Jake would keep his promise to John and fight for the horses. He would deal with any opposition if and when it came up. Right now, the equine object of his curiosity loped into view.
Tired but excited, Meg drove into the Southwest Colorado town of Big Rock. The clock outside the bank she passed read 5:20 p.m., and the oversized thermometer said 101 degrees. “Yeah, but it’s a dry heat.” Amused at herself, she smiled.
Memories came at her in a rush at the sight of the mountains in the distance. She’d grown up in Gunnison, a couple hundred miles northeast of Big Rock, but weekends and any other vacation time her grandparents had were spent on the thousand acres of desert just outside of town. Any time her grandfather wasn’t working, he was roaming the hills, scouring the rock formations looking for specimens for his rock collection. Meg had been his shadow. He’d taught her everything he knew about this land, and that had sparked her love of geology. They’d been close, but the bond between them always grew stronger when they were here in Big Rock.
The fist around her heart tightened. “Oh, Grandpa. It’s going to be so different without you here.”
She slowed her grandfather’s old station wagon as she turned down Main Street. The 1964 Ford Falcon wagon handled like a tank compared to her little Miata, but that had been totaled in a hit and run accident in San Diego. Since she hadn’t received the settlement from her car insurance yet, she’d commandeered the ‘Cherry Bomb’ until she could buy something else. It still felt strange knowing she could afford to write a check for a new car—well, if the estate ever got settled, but for now, the old wagon would be fine.
“Holy crap.” The sleepy little town from her memory was gone. Bumper to bumper traffic clogged the streets. The principal road into town was still only two lanes, barely wide enough to accommodate the huge RV’s, campers, and trucks pulling trailers. Meg managed to wind her way through town and was soon on her way to her grandfather’s property, amazed at how much the area had grown. Instead of the scrub brush and cactus she remembered, several newer, large homes dotted the landscape.
Other changes caught her attention, too. A large Keep Out sign had been posted on the side of the gravel road leading to the property. Surely her grandfather hadn’t posted the sign. He’d always welcomed anyone who came to visit. The once rough road was now fairly smooth, and it was wider than she remembered. It appeared to have been graded recently. Grandpa hadn’t spent any time here in the past six months, and she couldn’t help a niggling worry that something wasn’t right.
Soon their old cabin came into view. A beautifully carved, wooden sign hung on the gate ahead. Meg’s lips quivered, and her eyes grew misty. ‘Dolly’s Draw’. That was something else Grandpa must have added. She stopped and got out to open the gate.
Stretching, she breathed in deeply, turning in a slow circle to take in the view around her. Home. “This is exactly what I needed.” She made quick work of the combination and swung the gate wide. Butterflies of anticipation fluttered in her stomach, and tears stung the backs of her eyes as she got closer to the cabin. She parked beneath one of the big cottonwood trees that shaded their picnic area and got out to look around. Not much had changed. It was still beautiful and peaceful and Meg’s heart lifted.
Unloading her things could wait, but her need to reacquaint herself with this place couldn’t. After grabbing her water bottle and locking the car, she set off for the trail leading to the canyon. Seeing the beauty of the land through the eyes of ownership, Meg didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so she did both. She’d been away too long, and guilt nudged its way into the mix of happy memories, grief over the loss of her family, and awe of the magnificent views. Thankfully, no one else was around to witness her emotional roller coaster ride.
Lost in her own head, Meg rounded a bend around a rock outcropping and…What? The shock at seeing a stranger—a man—standing in this remote area stopped her in her tracks. An involuntary shiver of fear chased down her spine, and her heart raced. Panic threatened. Without conscious thought, her hand settled over her abdomen. Though hidden by her clothing, the thin line of slightly puckered skin reminded her to be brave. She inhaled slowly as she studied the countryside. Exhaling just as slowly, she assessed the situation. He appeared to be alone, oblivious to her as he leaned over a tripod. Was he taking pictures of something in the canyon? One thing was certain. He was trespassing on her grandfather’s property. No, her property.
A sense of protectiveness pushed away the fear, and she straightened her spine. Quit being a weenie, Meg. Not all men are bullies. She patted her front pocket for her ever-present Mace can keychain and picked up her pace toward the man, waved her hand, and called out, “Excuse me! This is private property.”
The man whirled around, ire flashing in his brown eyes. “Goddammit!” He slapped his hat against his denim covered thigh. “They’re gone.”