Exclusive Excerpt! Evan: Kiss Me Again, Cowboy
Sweet Grass Ranch, Book 2
Evan MacKay eased in a breath, crisp morning air filling his lungs. The aroma of sweet prairie grass, still damp with dew, tangled with the acrid smell of woodsmoke drifting up from the bunkhouse chimney. A hawk soared lazily overhead, riding a warm updraft, searching for prey.
The combined effects signaled both comfort and home.
Shifting in the saddle, his gaze rolled over the South Dakota hills dotted with cattle. Sweet Grass Ranch. Fences crisscrossed the landscape, sturdy barricades protecting the herds. So much had changed since his daddy had passed, but the ranch lands and the hills remained steadfast.
Evan felt that familiar ache in his chest, that hollow sense of loss that had settled into his bones. He wasn’t sure he would ever be rid of it.
“We will get this right, Dad,” he murmured. “I’m not giving up on this land or our family.”
His buckskin quarter horse flicked back his ears at his words. Evan stroked his neck, taking comfort in the solid warmth of his sturdy body.
He would hold this ranch together through sheer grit if he had to. Failure was not an option. The bank could threaten all they wanted, but he aimed to keep Sweet Grass Ranch in the family, as it had been for generations.
Evan set his jaw, his resolve blazing with determination as he turned the horse toward home. The sun had crested the hills now, spilling light into the day. He could see a spattering of color in the hills—autumn was landing early this year. They’d have to move cattle down from the hills before long.
No matter what storms raged around him—or inside him—the ranch work went on. And Evan aimed to see it continue for a long time to come.
The barn doors creaked open as he led the gelding inside. The familiar smells of hay and leather enveloped him, rich and earthy. He nodded to Aiden and Aaron, his brothers, as the youngest MacKay twins mucked out the stalls.
“Mornin’, boss,” Aiden said, leaning on his pitchfork.
Evan tipped his hat. “You boys sleep alright?”
“Well as can be,” Aaron said. “Back’s a mite sore though.”
“That’s what happens when you try riding Tornado bareback.” Aiden elbowed his brother with a grin.
Aaron shoved him good-naturedly. Evan hid a smile. The twins’ playful banter never failed to lift his spirits. He envied their youthful enthusiasm at times. Other times, he wanted them to man up and pull their weight.
“Well, you two need to pull yourselves off the circuit soon. The deal was no rodeo until the ranch was back on its feet. Seems you’ve slipped into some bad habits lately.” He eyed his younger brothers.
Aiden coughed and glanced at Aaron. “We were planning to leave out tonight for Denver. Are you saying we need to cancel?”
The younger brothers exchanged worried glances.
Evan sighed and shook his head. “No. Do this one, then no more. You got that? We need you here. A lot to do before the snow comes.”
Aaron saluted. “Yes, boss.”
Evan jerked back. “That’s enough of that boss shit. You got that? Now get to work.”
The younger twins snickered and went back to mucking.
After tending to the buckskin, Evan headed outside where several ranch hands had gathered. Connor tipped his hat in greeting. “What’s the plan today, boss?”
“Same as yesterday,” Evan said. “You boys know the drill. Connor, take your crew and start mending that stretch of fence in the east pasture. Jackson, you and your guys are feeding.” He turned away, then halted, looking back. “And don’t forget we’ve got vaccinations coming up. We need to get ready for all that.”
Conner nodded. “Yes, sir.”
The men headed to their tasks with quiet competence. Evan watched them work, pride swelling in his chest. He knew each hand by name, knew their families and troubles. These men had been with the ranch for years, loyal through the best and worst of times. Together they would weather this storm too.
He made his way to the pasture just south of the house, boots crunching on the gravel path. This was the pasture they kept pregnant cows and new babies in, to keep them close to the barns. The morning air whipping around the barn hinted at the coming winter chill.
He inspected the fence line, testing each post as he went. Rotten wood crumbled under his grip. Barbed wire sagged between posts, rusted and fraying. This stretch clearly needed mending.
“Dammit.” Didn’t we just repair this section a year ago?
Evan knelt and examined a broken post more closely. Dry rot had weakened the wood over seasons of sun and rain. He sighed, tallying the repairs in his head. Lumber, wire, staples—it would all add up fast.
They might have mended the wiring, but this wood had been in the ground for a long time. The entire section might need replaced.
The costs were mounting, but what choice did he have? Letting the fences fall into disrepair was unthinkable. If the livestock got loose, it’d be a disaster. Keeping the cows and new babies safe and secure this winter and spring was a priority.
Evan stood, rolling his shoulders against the familiar ache. He took in the sweeping vista of the ranch, the only home he’d ever known. From the main house where he and his brothers lived, to the weathered barns, and to the rolling hills fading into the distance, he loved every inch of this land. His gaze traveled up the hill to his mom’s cabin, the one his dad had built for her a few years before he died. He would fight to his last breath to protect all of it.
With that thought steeling his resolve, Evan headed back to start the day’s work in earnest. There were animals to feed, repairs to be made. This afternoon, he had to go over the financials with Ethan and Brandley. No time for doubt or second-guessing. Sweet Grass needed him.
Needed them all, actually, if it was going to survive. He couldn’t do it alone.
His twin brother, Ethan, turned away from the coffee maker as Evan entered the kitchen.
“Mornin’,” Ethan said. “You were up early. Coffee?” He tipped a mug his way.
“Yes. Thanks.” Evan took the full mug. “Fences need mending down south. Posts rotting out.”
Ethan poured a second mug of coffee for himself, his expression clouded with concern. “Again? Didn’t we replace that whole stretch last season?” He took a sip.
“That’s what I thought too. Looks like we mended wire but not posts. We need new posts.”
Ethan stood thinking, as if that explanation didn’t sit well. “What’s it going to run us?”
“Too much,” Evan grunted. “Lumber’s gone up and the hardware store just raised prices. We’ll be patching as we can.”
He left the rest unsaid between them—money was dwindling fast. While they thought they’d had a solid plan to dig their way out of the mess left when their father died, the ranch was sinking deeper into debt. But Evan wouldn’t speak of it, not yet. Ethan knew well enough without him spelling it out.
“We’ll manage somehow,” Ethan said firmly. “Always have. When’s Dylan coming back from Montana?”
Evan looked away, jaw tightening. Manage how? The numbers were clear, and they weren’t good. But voicing his doubts felt like admitting defeat.
“Oh. I think he’s gone another week.” Dylan, their middle brother, was a Deputy Sheriff for Meade County. “I believe he said his training lasted that long.”
“In Billings, right?”
“I believe so.”
“Hmmm. Not far from the Rankin’s.”
“I suppose so.” Evan wasn’t quite sure what his brother was getting at—their sister, Sarah, lived close the Rankin’s so maybe that was it—but at the moment, he wasn’t in the mood to try and figure it out. He had other things on his mind.
Like he was failing his father, failing the legacy entrusted to him—a legacy generations deep, rooted in this land. The thought hollowed him out inside.
Ethan clasped his shoulder. “Look. We’re in this together, remember? This burden is not solely on your shoulders. We’ll figure it out.”
Evan managed a terse nod. He knew Ethan meant well and he appreciated his brother’s steady presence. Evan had always been the rock to his brother’s rolling stone, especially when Ethan was in the Navy and off fighting in the middle east. He’d felt alone in running the ranch those years, and he still felt largely alone in the battle now—even though everyone kept telling him he was not.
He needed a rock now, and he had to let his brother shoulder some of this responsibility. A difficult thing for him to do.
Evan was a loner. He might have to face sooner or later, that this time, he needed help.
The sound of paper slapping against the oak pedestal table jerked him out of his musing. “We probably need to open that and read it.”
Evan’s gaze lingered on his brother for a couple of seconds, then he glanced at the envelope. “What is it?”
Ethan leaned back against the counter and sipped his coffee. “Not sure. Brandley brought it up from the mailbox last night.”
Brandley had worked late yesterday in Rapid City, having taken a side job to help see the ranch through. She had assumed the responsibility of buying groceries not long after she and Ethan married, saying it was her contribution to the family. An accountant, she occasionally took temporary jobs, besides running the books for Sweet Grass.
“It’s from the bank.”
Evan noticed the bank’s logo in the corner and his gut twisted. He stood motionless at the table, unsure whether to open the damn thing up, or not. He looked at his brother. “Does she have any idea what this could be?”
Ethan pushed away from the counter and took a couple of steps toward Evan. “She has an idea, but we just need to open the damn thing and read it.”
Part of him wanted to hurl it away unopened. Keep pretending things weren”t falling apart. But he snatched it up and slit it open with his pocketknife instead. He scanned the page.
“Damn it all to hell.” Evan growled, crumpling the letter in his fist. He thought of his grandfather breaking this land generations ago, his father instrumental in every building raised on the land, every animal fed and grown here, with MacKay sweat.
Evan’s stubborn pride flared hot. Like hell he’d hand over their legacy without a fight. There had to be something he could do, some way to buy more time. Anything but throw in the towel.
He’d thought all the issues resolved. “We need to talk to Brandley. See where we went wrong.” He passed the crumpled letter to his brother.
Ethan took longer to read it than Evan had. “It just says they want a meeting. No big deal. Let’s not get worked up over it.”
“Who is this J. Chase? We’ve never dealt with a loan officer with that name before.”
Stepping closer, Evan peered down at the letter. “No clue. If there is a new bastard at the bank who thinks he’s going to rip in here and rob of us our ranch, our livelihood, call in the loans, well then—”
“Whoa,” Ethan interrupted, setting the letter on the counter. “Slow the hell down and lower the temperature here. No one said anything about calling in any loans. You need to get a grip.”
Raking a hand through his short hair, Evan shook his head. “I’ve been worked up since I saw that envelope.”
“Hate to tell you, but you’ve been worked up over this for months. It’s starting to wear on you.”
Evan blew out a sharp breath. “Well, yeah, this kind of shit does that to you.”
“We’ll figure something out. The bank is only asking for a meeting. That doesn’t mean anything other than this new guy is reviewing accounts.”
Evan cut him off harshly. “Not sure about that.” He paced, frustration boiling over. “I won’t lose this place, you understand me? I won’t.”
“We won’t.” Ethan stayed calm. “And we will come up with a plan. You’re not in this alone.”
Evan paced and whirled back. “We had a plan. What the hell happened?”
“I know exactly what happened.” Both brothers turned as Brandley pushed into the room. “The plan was solid, Evan. It was a good plan.”
“You heard all that?”
She stared. “Everyone in the house heard you, Evan. You woke up the baby.”
“Hell. I’m sorry.” He lowered his voice. “Then what went wrong?”
With a sigh, Brandley continued. “We all know how Aaron and Aiden have struggled with the rodeo stock business. It just didn’t take off like they expected. We lost money there.”
Evan stared at Ethan. “You knew this?”
His brother eased out a slow breath. “Only because I sleep with the accountant.”
“Dammit.” Evan turned away. “Where are our little brothers? They have some explaining to do.” He turned back and pointed at Ethan. “And no more rodeo. One of them is going to break their damn back riding those bulls and broncs, and then where would we be? One hand short?”
Ethan stared at him, giving him a long, cool stare—that Navy SEAL stare that Evan never really knew for sure what it meant.
“You don’t mean that,” Ethan said. “It’s time to calm down. I’ll talk to the boys.”
Brandley pulled down another coffee mug and lifted the carafe from the coffeemaker. “I can meet with the bank. I’ll take that off your hands.” She glanced down at the letter.
“No. I’ll go,” Evan said.
Ethan took another step. “No. We go together, and we face the fact that we can’t handle this situation on our own. We may need help from somewhere.”
Evan bristled. Asking for help stuck in his craw almost as much as bending knee to the bank. But the steely look in Ethan’s eye held no argument. “We’re not telling Mom. Not yet. Because you know what she will say.”
“I do.” Ethan stared. “Luckily, she’s in Montana visiting Sarah and the new baby.”
To be honest, Evan was glad his mother wasn’t under foot right now and was off visiting their little sister. Maybe she’d stay in Montana for a while. “Right. I’m sure she’s happy cuddling that new grandbaby.”
Brandley snorted. “And cuddling her new husband.”
“Yeah, well there is that.” It wasn’t that Evan didn’t like Noah Parker, he did. And the older cowboy was good for their mother. It was just hard to see her with anyone but their dad, even after he’d been gone a few years.
“Noah’s a good man,” Ethan said. “We don’t have to worry about Mom, or Sarah for that matter. They both are pretty much settled in Montana now.”
“Well, Let’s just see what this loan officer has to say.”
“I think this letter is pretty clear,” Brandley interjected. “They mean business. And while I know you two want to handle this on your own, you have to remember that this ranch and everything on it, is owned by your mother. You’re going to have to bring Connie into this discussion sooner or later.”
Much as it galled him, they were out of options. Brandley was right.
If it came to swallowing his pride or losing the ranch, the choice was clear. “Alright,” he said finally. “We will tell Mom after this meeting. Let’s meet with this Chase guy and see What’s what, but I’m damn well not giving up without a fight.”
Ethan clasped his shoulder. “Expect nothing less from all of us, brother.”
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