Book 1: Tempted By A Texan
Travis Callahan gained the crest of the grassy hill. No, he wasn’t seeing things.
Calico was down.
He slammed the gear in place, shut off the engine, and then jumped out of his ATV. He took two steps and nearly froze. “Me and a horse?” he muttered. His shoulder throbbed with recalled pain just thinking of getting near one again, never mind one flailing around.
The irony did not escape him. A rancher by trade, Travis, surrounded by animals, avoided the interaction; he’d always come out on the losing end.
Her loud, desperate whinnies hit him in the gut. He couldn’t turn away from her agony. Travis rushed to the sick, writhing mare with his heart clenched.
No, not that. Don’t feel. Just think!
“Is she dying?” He dropped to his knees and shucked off his work gloves. Lifting her head, he found wide, glassy eyes and her tongue hanging out, along with her labored breathing. He gently laid her head down on the cold March ground and let his hands travel over the rest of her. Hot, clammy body; distended belly. “Easy, girl!”
With a slight shake in his hands, he ran his palm over her sweaty coat. Hooves kicked from inside her. The mare thrashed. Travis dodged her legs at the same time he realized the foal was breech.
Alone, he cursed his bad luck. Animals were his brother Colt’s forte, not his. Travis had sent him over a hundred miles away on ranch business. And why in the world had he let Luke go on that ten-day vacation anyway?
Glancing around, Travis craned his neck to see the outbuildings, faded gray planks from years in the hot Texas sun, in the distance. Cattle grazed or lapped up water from the manmade pond in the valley.
“Not a person in sight.”
Where were all the ranch hands when he needed them? On a ranch a quarter of the size of a small state, couldn’t at least one or two hang back to lend a hand? Saturday night. What did Travis expect? They rode hard and worked even harder; this was their one night to cut loose.
“There’s got to be somebody? Anybody?” Panic gripped him in his throat. His mission in life was to run the Circle C, his family’s ranch, and bring it back even stronger than ever before. Raising the best award-winning cattle in the state proved a round-the-clock endeavor. They were the mainstay of the ranch.
Thanks to his brother, horses were becoming second. Travis made the deals, bought the top-of-the-line stock, hired the vendors and ranch hands and helpers, checked on the saddle shop business, tended to the finances, and ran a tight, well-run ship. It worked. Most of the time.
He did not, and had not, been a hands-on animal handler. He left that chore to his four brothers and sister, when she was in town. It’s not that he didn’t like the creatures. No, they didn’t like him; every time he’d mount a horse, he’d been thrown. A hundred and one times and you’re out.
Travis winced and rolled his left shoulder, recalling the near crippling tumble almost a year ago. Laid up for six weeks in a cast, he realized he’d tried taming his last one and centered all his attention on the running of the place. Now, that worked.
With a lot of trimming the fat, pushing into profitable ventures, and reworking everything from the help to the computer programs, Travis steered the bull by the horns. Only now did he see they reaped those rewards with the continual positive attention the ranch gained these last few years.
“Now this.” They couldn’t afford to lose their prized mare or her foal.
Recalling the radio in the ATV, Travis rushed to it. “Callahan One to the ranch house. Gran, you there?”
It took a few seconds, but her voice came over the line. “Travis? I thought you were in your office? Where are you, son?”
“On the north side. Look, Calico is birthing early and breech. Get someone out here. I don’t care who—just get me some help. I don’t have the first idea what to do.”
“Will do. Pronto! Be back in a flash.”
Smiling at Gran’s words, he headed back to the horse’s side with the portable radio. Gran was a piece of work, but the one person who he and his younger siblings could always count on. Hadn’t she and Gramps taken them in and raised them like their own when his folks died in that plane crash? Hadn’t she stuck by them every step of the way?
She had her schemes cooking most of the time, which he’d spent countless times trying to curb, but she’d been the glue to keep them together.
The horse bellowed and Travis winced at the obvious shafts of pain shooting through the animal.
“I’m here,” he soothed, patting her long neck.
It went on over and over again, and sweat popped out on his forehead. He swiped at it and kept checking on the progress. Knowing he wasn’t cut out for this; he wished he was back at the ranch house, holed up in his office and on the phone to the vendors they worked with.
Travis wasn’t a hands-on kinda guy, not when it came to four-legged creatures. The business end of things, yes: not the business end of animals.
The radio crackled. “Travis, I got the vet’s new assistant patched through.”
New assistant? When did Doc Ferguson hire someone for anything?
“Mr. Callahan, I’ll walk you through the birth.” The warm, feminine voice jolted him. That and her words.
He keyed the mic. “Aren’t you coming?”
Her chuckle, light and brief, surprised him. “No can do. I’m up to my armpits in mud and other brown stuff at the moment. Mrs. Wheeler’s pig has a twisted colon. I love my job.” The hint of sarcasm brought a smile to his lips. He suppressed his own bubbling chuckle.
Who was she and why hadn’t he heard there was a new assistant in their small town? Like his brothers and sister teased him, he needed to get out and about more. Paperwork was fine, but humans weren’t half bad once you got to know them. Or so they claimed.
“You’re on your own until I can get some of the ranch hands over to you. If they haven’t all left, that is,” Gran said. “Go on, dear. Do your thing.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Callahan. Now, Travis—I can call you Travis, can’t I? After all, you’re going to be blushing by the time I get through with you.”
Heat bathed his cheeks already. Was she flirting? He definitely wasn’t used to a woman speaking like this to him. He mostly dealt with men, and the few women he did talk to were females he either grew up with or were all business like he was.
His affairs, usually an extension of business relationships, were mutually convenient and brief, the way he liked it. They’d agreed until they got too close, or wanted more, and then he shut it down.
The horse writhed again. “Call me whatever you want. Just tell me what I can do for the mare and her foal.” He shrugged off his coat, rolled it up, and placed it under Calico’s head.
“You know where to find her vagina, don’t you?” the assistant asked a little too sweetly.
“Why don’t you tell me where it is and what it’s used for?” Sarcasm went both ways.
It was nearly two hours later, and after much dirty talk from the vet’s assistant, Travis, shoulder deep in the horse’s birthing canal, was able to coax the foal to the proper position and tug on two spindly legs and the body soon followed. Slimy and skinny, it slipped in his hands. He held it to his chest, getting soaked through with a mixture of watery blood and slime. At least it was still warm.
“Travis? You got our baby out?”
Exhausted and exhilarated at the same time, he laughed. Gingerly, he reached over and grabbed the mic. “Baby is good. Alive.”
“Boy or girl?”
“Look then. You know the difference, right?”
“I’ve seen my share before.”
“Stick or no stick?”
He groaned. Travis shifted the animal and took a peek. “It’s a girl.”
“Yeah! We had a little girl!” She cheered, choking up in the middle of it.
Gulping hard, he frowned. Sniffles came over the line. “Nah, she couldn’t be,” he muttered. “Are you crying?”
“Of course, I am. We saved her.”
They did share that. But did she have to get all weepy about it? Travis didn’t do emotions, either.
“What are we going to name our beautiful baby girl?”
“Ours?” A sinking sensation shot through his gut. Not because she asked, but because he wanted to name this shivering little filly with her.
His iron-clad policy of getting personal with anything outside of family shifted.
“Ah, hell no…”
Skye Walker eased the old truck through the huge stone pillars guarding the Callahan property. With her jaw hanging open, she pressed her body forward and gazed up to see the long, intricate entwined pieces of arched wood proclaiming it the Circle C Ranch and lights, now off, were wrapped throughout. “Must be a sight when it’s lit up,” she murmured.
She swallowed hard. “You can’t hide money.” Skye should know; her granddaddy had flaunted it to no end. His Caddie, classic and shiny red, blared wealth and power. The diamond on his pinkie sparkled whenever it hit the light. That and the custom suits and alligator boots he’d favored were crystal-clear memories she wished she’d forget. Oh yeah, and his criminal ways, too.
Pressing her foot slightly down on the accelerator, Skye aimed the vehicle to get through the entrance and away from her troubling thoughts of what she’d recently run from when he resurfaced in her life. The creaky truck bumped along down the long gravel drive. Her heart hammered the closer she got to the huge stone and wood ranch house with the wrap-around porch with several white rockers on it.
New to town, she’d yet to meet the Travis Callahan, oldest brother of the much-talked about rambunctious clan. However, she’d certainly heard many a story of the founding family of the quaint town and especially the son who’d lost his parents, kept the family intact, and brought the ranch back from near ruin, all before the ripe old age of twenty-nine.
Worth a pretty penny, the rancher seldom socialized, focusing on business and his family. Like a champion bull rider, his laser-sharp grit and determination earned him legendary status. The wagons full of gold and respect followed.
A jab of longing shot through her as she drove past well-tended acres of fields, cows in the far-off pastures, well-worn barns and sheds, metal shoots for roundups and branding, and the horse corral with a half dozen prancing beauties in it. “You done good, Mr. Callahan.”
Warm sensations tugged to life as flashes of when she was growing up on her great-aunt’s farm and the sight before her merged into a familiar ache. Surprise bumped on its heels; in all the years she’d been gone and all the places she’d been, Skye had never had this sweet feeling of home wrap around her like this land had.
The brakes on Doc Ferguson’s truck squealed as she came to a halt near the front door and yards away from three trucks of various ages and wear and color.
A few minutes later, Skye looked at the big oak door in front of her. The lump in her throat grew. Her knuckles stung from knocking. “This is a house? Cripes, it looks like a fortress.”
Her nerves jumped at the increasing noise on the other side of the door. Would the Callahan clan, the most respected ranchers in Texas, be able to tell right away what a fake she was? Would Travis? He didn’t get to where he was without a lot of hard work and a whole lot more smarts.
His voice and his laughter haunted her through the night. Why? The foal? Their sharing the tense moments? His disbelief at her tears made her smile. They were real, the only real thing about her now.
Skye wasn’t even certain if Doc believed her story…
The huge door swung open and three incredibly handsome young men, in their twenties, crowded in the wide opening, pushing and shoving each other. “Hey, hey, hey, I got it,” one of them said, and then shot her a big, easy grin. His blue eyes twinkled. And with his light brown hair rumpled as if he’d just woken up, he was quite endearing.
“It’s a girl,” another chimed in. This one seemed like a slightly younger version of the first.
“Haven’t seen many of those?” Skye asked with a chuckle. Really, you’d think they’d been riding the trail and hadn’t seen another human being in days.
“Whoa, guys! Back down.” This advice came from a deep male voice behind the trio. His tall frame came into view. Close-cropped sandy brown hair and penetrating blue-gray eyes captured her full attention.
She swallowed hard; she’d recognize that voice anywhere. Travis. Her baby daddy. But to see him for the first time was a sight to behold. At least six inches taller than the others, wide shoulders, and a commanding air, Skye felt her knees wobble.
He’d finally gotten the guys to move aside and there he stood. His eyes, more gray than blue up close, scanned her, somehow taking her all in with one fell swoop. Heat warmed her where he gazed.
“Mind if I return the favor?” She didn’t wait for his answer. She looked her fill. Nice, long body, trim—she’d bet good money there was a pack under that denim shirt—and a take charge kinda guy with his hands on his hips and his legs slightly apart. “You’ll do.”
He frowned. “For what?”
“Our baby’s daddy.”
The sharp intake of breath sliced through the air. “The radio. Yesterday.”
“What’s going on, Travis? You know her?” The third onlooker scowled, but it didn’t mar his good looks. This must be Colt, the brother people talked about in hushed tones.
Sticking out a hand, she introduced herself to Travis. “Skye Walker. Do you like hyphenated names? You know, after we name the baby. Mine and your last names.”
His lips twitched as he took her hand. His was big and strong and engulfed hers. Skye felt off-kilter. “No hyphens.” He arched an eyebrow. “Not in my world. She’s a Callahan.”
“Okay.” She gulped at the strange sensation of having tunnel vision with him; everything in the background faded—the three other guys, their chattering, even the huge homey foyer of the ranch house, and whatever that delicious scent wafting from the back of the house happened to be. “But I get final say on her first name. Deal?”
“Huh?” She tugged her hand back and curled her fingers into her tingling palm. “I mean, yes.”
He folded his arms over his chest. “Wanna bet?”
“Sure, if you like losing.”