A Family for the Rancher

By: Allison B. Collins

CHAPTER ONE

Nash Sullivan leaned his head on Thunder’s solid shoulder, the muscles flexing beneath his cheek. The scent of hay, sun and saddle soap brought back a tidal wave of memories. Their first rodeo together, long days of riding the fences, riding bareback out to his sanctuary at the pond. He ached to get back in the saddle again after his long stint in the Army riding in nothing but military trucks and tanks the last ten years.

Now he couldn’t even climb into the saddle. He stepped away, but Thunder shifted, nudged Nash back against his shoulder.

His gut clenched, and while he wouldn’t, couldn’t, admit it to anyone, he loved this damn horse, and for the first time, it felt right being home again.

“Need a mounting block, son?”

The words stung, but he couldn’t let his dad know. Thunder shifted and snorted, stomping the hard-packed Montana dirt in front of him.

He pulled the reins tighter and whispered to the brown gelding. Once Thunder had quieted, he lifted his left leg and guided his foot into the stirrup. Thunder shifted, and Nash tightened his thigh muscles, or what was left of them, to get up. Instead he had to haul his foot out as the horse snorted again and stepped away.

“I told you it was too soon. You’ve only been out of the hospital a few months.” His dad walked up to Thunder and patted his neck. “I want you to take charge of the horses.”

“Now? Why?” He squinted in the sunlight, noticing just how gray his dad’s hair had gotten over the years. Even his beard was gray. But the old man was still fit, with ramrod straight posture and a swagger that showed one and all he owned their guest ranch and was proud of it.

“Curly’s making retirement noises again, and this time I think he’s serious. You still want the job, right?”

“You know I do.”

“Just checking. Last time you said you wanted it, you left for ten years.”

“I was doing my duty.”

“And I’m proud of you for it. But you were seriously injured and aren’t back to normal yet.”

Nash held very still, anger and fear forming a cannonball in his gut.

“Curly and his wife want to move to Arizona by autumn, and I want you ready to step in as soon as he leaves. I’ve hired a physical therapist to come out here and get you in shape.”

“I don’t need a therapist. I’ll be fine,” he said over his shoulder, and handed the reins to a ranch hand. Limping, every step agony, he headed to his truck, yanked the door open and clumsily climbed in. Shoving the key in the ignition, he cranked the engine and stomped on the gas pedal, leaving a spray of dirt and grass in his wake.

Angus Sullivan hadn’t been such an SOB when their mother had been alive. Dammit. Why’d he go and hire a therapist? Images of the last old biddy he’d had to go through physical therapy with at the hospital in Germany popped into his mind. She was another drill sergeant, humorless, cantankerous, dry—same age as his dad.

Slamming to a halt in front of his cabin, he climbed out of the truck and hobbled inside. He locked the door and yanked the curtains closed, covering the wall of glass that overlooked the sparkling blue lake.

The bar on the other side of the big open living room yielded a bottle of whiskey—glass not needed. He’d picked this cabin to settle into because of the bar, and he’d made sure it was fully stocked his second day home.

Turning to head toward the couch, a knife-sharp pain stabbed through his thigh. Gritting his teeth, he stopped and breathed through the throbbing like the old bat had taught him. Once it was under control, he grabbed an ice pack out of the freezer and sat down, hoisting his leg onto the beat-up trunk he used as a coffee table.

He set the ice pack over his thigh, then drank deeply from the whiskey bottle, relishing the heat as it went down.

Tipping the bottle again, his eye caught the sports trophies and silver buckles gleaming on the shelves, mocking him.

Grabbing the remote, he turned the TV on. Bombs exploded as the screen lit up, and he flinched, hitting the mute button as fast as he could. He jabbed at the channel button, but it seemed as if every other station was showing either an old war movie or a sappy chick flick.

“Where the hell are the baseball games?”

A knock sounded at the door. He gulped another swallow of whiskey, decided to ignore it. Probably one of his brothers come to tell him to apologize to their dad. Well, screw that. I ain’t in the mood.

Another knock and he swigged more whiskey.

This time someone pounded on the door. He stood and had to catch his balance on the arm of the couch, then limped to the front door, every step burning his thigh. He yanked the door open, saw his youngest brother standing on the stoop.

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