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Authors: T. J. Kline

Change of Heart

BOOK: Change of Heart
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Dedication

For my boys, who constantly inspire me to create new heroes who remind me of the men you are growing up to become far too quickly for your mother’s liking. You’re my two favorite boys!

Contents

Chapter One

“J
ESSIE, COME ON
, you know I’m good for the money.” Gage leaned his elbow over the railing of the corral but moved it quickly when Jessie’s horse started lipping at his shirt sleeve.

Gage Granger couldn’t believe he’d been reduced to begging. But if Jessie, his sister-in-law by marriage, didn’t have room for him on the ranch, he was going to have head into San Francisco, which was exactly what his partners would expect of him. After all, he was officially here to oversee the opening of Iconics’ new office. However, at the moment, he wasn’t exactly ready to face them.

“You know that’s not the issue. I’d let you stay in one of the guest cabins for free. I just can’t spare the room. We’ve got camps lined up all summer, and the new therapist is finally arriving today.” The black horse Jessie had a hold of shook his head impatiently, and she ran a calming hand over his neck. “I would if I could.”

Gage ran a frustrated hand over his jaw and looked around the horse ranch, wondering where else he might stay while he was hiding out after his colossal screw up. He didn’t know of any open B&Bs in town, and his business partners would be expecting him at the ritzy hotels between Sacramento and San Francisco. At least here on Jessie’s ranch, he could lay low until he had an answer for them. Jessie’s place offered the best of everything—a place to hide away while still being close enough to the only family he had left—his brother, Dylan, and his wife, Julia, as well as Gage’s month-old niece, Emily. Then, once he’d made some sort of decision about his future at Iconics, he would contact his partners.

Gage ran his hand over his head, feeling the rasp of the short hair against his palm, and sighed. “Don’t worry about it, Jessie. I’ll figure something out.” Her horse shoved his nose into Gage’s stomach, and he reached forward, rubbing the center of the animal’s face. “Needy bugger, aren’t you?”

Jessie laughed. “Jet’s pretty demanding when he likes someone.” She looked back toward the barn where five cabins and a new modular home currently sat empty, waiting for the arrival of the at-risk youth she would finally be serving at her camp this summer. Biting her lip, she gave him a pensive look. “How long do you think you’ll need to stay?”

She was going to give in. He could hear it in her voice.

“A month, tops. Just until I get a few things shuffled around and can look into buying a place in town.”

She raised her brows in surprise. “You’re moving here permanently? I thought this was just a temporary thing.”

“Long-term temporary right now.”

She didn’t press for more information, and Gage was glad. He wasn’t sure he had it in him to rehash his mistake that might destroy the company he and George had built. It was his name on the dotted line approving the faulty computer security system. His name that was going to forever be linked with the hundreds of thousands of dollars lost by corporations who’d entrusted Iconics to protect their investments. Worst of all was that his system had been hacked by teenagers. They might have been genius teenagers, but still. He couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever live it down once the media was able to dig deep enough to see who was to blame. Some creative publicity and an amazing team of lawyers had convinced the companies affected that settling out of court was the best option, but the final damage count was still coming in, and it was possible the entire company might still crash and burn. All because of a backdoor coding error. An error he’d missed.

Hell, he had a distinct hunch at least one of the partners wanted to figure out a way to get rid of him without facing legal repercussions, which was part of the reason for his sudden departure. Gage knew how much trouble he’d gotten himself into, but he also didn’t need everyone else in his family to know it just yet. He just needed a little time to get everything straightened out. In the meantime, let them think he was just here for work.

“I’ve got a big camp coming in the middle of July. That’s almost eight weeks. Until then, I’ll double everyone up in the other cabins. But I can’t do more than that.”

Gage jerked her into his arms, giving her a bear hug. “Thanks, Jessie.”

“All right, all right.” She pushed him back as Jet jerked at the lead line. “For big, tough guys, you and your brother are sure touchy-feely.”

“We get it from Mom.”

Gage wanted to kick himself when he saw Jessie’s eyes mist over slightly. He’d had years to come to terms with his mother’s death. In fact, it had almost been a relief for both him and his older brother, Dylan, after watching cancer ravage her body, but it had been less than two years since Jessie had lost both her parents in a car wreck only to find they’d actually been murdered.

“Ah, man, I’m sorry, Jessie.”

She waved a hand at him. “It’s fine. I just really miss them sometimes.” She looked at the cabins again. “Makes me wonder what they would have thought about what I’ve done with the place.”

According to her brother, Justin, Heart Fire Ranch had been a premier dude ranch until their parents were killed and Jessie fought to turn it into an abused horse rescue and camp for at-risk youth. “You know they’d have been proud of you. From what Justin said, your parents were always proud of you, especially your dad.”

A sad smile tipped the corner of her mouth up on one side and she sniffed. “Go, get your things while I put this guy back in his stall. Take the cabin just before you get to the modular. I can’t promise it will be quiet or peaceful, though.”

“Honestly, I couldn’t care less. I’m just looking for a place that’s off the grid.”

When you were running away, being picky was the last thing to worry about.

L
EAH
M
C
C
ARRAN COULDN

T
believe her luck as she popped the hood of her classic GTO and glanced behind her, down the deserted stretch of highway in the Northern California foothills. Steam poured from her radiator, and there wasn’t a single car in sight.

She blew back a strand of her caramel-colored hair as the curl fell into her eye and caught on her mascaraed eyelashes. Even those felt like they were melting into solid clumps on her eyes. It was sweltering for mid-May, and, of course, her car decided to take a dump on the side of the highway today. She fanned herself with one hand as she looked down at the overheated engine. It probably wouldn’t have been nearly this big a deal if her cell phone hadn’t just taken a crap, too. To top off her miserable day, she’d spilled her iced coffee all over the damn thing getting out of the car and likely destroyed it once and for all.

This wasn’t the way she’d hoped to start her new job or her new life at Heart Fire Ranch.

Walking back to the driver’s side of the car, Leah had no clue what to do now. Luckily, her boss wasn’t expecting her until this evening, and she’d had the foresight, knowing her penchant for bad luck, to leave early. But until some Good Samaritan decided to drive by
and
stop for her, she was S.O.L. She kicked the tire as she walked by. As if trying to deny her even that small measure of satisfaction, the sole of her worn combat boot caught in the tread, nearly making her fall over.

“Son of a—”

Leah caught herself against the side of the car, willing the tears of frustration to subside, back into the vault where they belonged. That was one thing she’d learned as a child: tears meant weakness.

And showing weakness was asking for more pain.

She bent over into the car, looking for something to mop up the sticky mess the coffee was making on the restored leather interior of her car. She reached for the denim shirt she’d been wearing over her tank top before she’d left Chowchilla this morning, before the air had turned from chilled to hell-on-earth-hot.

“Shit,” she muttered. Trying to sop up coffee with denim was like trying to mop a floor with a broom: it did absolutely no good.

“Hot damn! That is the most incredible thing I’ve seen all day.”

The crunch of tires pulling off the asphalt of the highway was a welcome sound, but the awe she heard in the husky voice was enough to send a chill down her spine. Leah threw the shirt down onto the coffee-soaked floorboard. Standing up, she spun on the heel of her boot, her fists clenching at her sides as she tried to control the instinct to punch a man in the mouth.

“Excuse me? Do you really have so little class?”

“Oh, shit! No, that’s not . . . ” She watched as the man unfolded himself from a late model Challenger and shut the door, jogging across the empty two-lane highway to her side. “I’m sorry, I meant the car.”

Leah crossed her arms under her breasts and arched a single, disbelieving brow. “Sure, you did.”

A blush flooded his dark caramel skin. “I swear I meant the car. Not that you’re not . . . I mean . . . crap.” He cursed again. “Let me try this again. Do you need some help?”

Leah nearly laughed as he tried to backpedal, embarrassed by his hastily spoken comment. Instead, she just lifted the brow higher on her forehead, leaning her hip against the driver’s side of her broken-down vehicle as she looked him over. The man looked like he’d just stepped out of a magazine ad with his designer jeans and T-shirt.

Who the hell wore designer T-shirts, for crying out loud?

But she couldn’t fault the way he filled those clothes out. He had definitely been gifted in the looks department. After what she’d just heard, she couldn’t help but assume that his physical gifts were the only ones he had, since brains didn’t appear to be high on his list of attributes.

“No offense, but you don’t look like you get your hands dirty too often. Although, if you don’t mind letting me borrow your cell to call for a tow, I’d really appreciate it.”

He shot her a playboy smile that she was sure had charmed plenty of women out of their panties. “Just because you say ‘no offense’ doesn’t mean it’s not offensive, you know.”

His voice was deep and rich with a slight rasp that was sexy as hell. Too bad he acted like he knew it.

“Says the man who just commented on my ass.”

The smile instantly disappeared. “I meant the car. I wasn’t even looking at you.”

So much for my ego,
she thought.

Leah wasn’t about to admit any sort of disappointment, not even to herself. Narrowing her gaze, she watched as he slid one hand over the curves along the frame of her car, making his way to the front and peering down at the engine.

“Radiator?” He leaned to the side and looked around the top of the open hood at her.

“Yeah.” She knew it was the radiator; it had been giving her trouble before she left, but she’d been hoping it might last until her first paycheck. But he didn’t look like the kind of guy who’d have any clue about the inner workings of a car engine. “So, can I use your cell?”

Looking back under the hood, he slipped his hand into the front pocket of his jeans, pulled out the cell phone, and held it to the side. Leah reached out to take it when he pulled it back.

“Do you even know who to call?”

She realized she didn’t have a clue, since she’d turned down the roadside coverage on her car insurance to save a few bucks. She supposed she could call Heart Fire Ranch and ask her new boss. If she did that, she could also let them know the situation and kill two birds with one stone.

She plucked the phone from his fingers. “Yes, I have someone I can call.”

Leah pulled the folded paper with the address and phone number for the ranch from her back pocket where she’d shoved it the last time she’d looked up directions nearly an hour ago. She ignored the man watching her from the front of her car and wandered toward the trunk for some privacy as the call went through.

“Hey, Gage, what’s up? Did you forget something?”

“Hi . . . um, this is Leah McCarran, I’m your—”

“Leah?” The woman on the end of the phone sounded confused. “Are you with Gage?”

So that’s his name?

“I’m actually just a few minutes away, but my car broke down, and this guy stopped to let me use his phone. Is there a local tow company I could call?”

“Where are you?”

“On one ninety-three, almost to your place.”

“I’ll call Dave and send him to find you. I trust him. Is Gage going to wait with you?”

Leah glanced at the man standing at the front of her car, watching her like she was some sort of oddity from outer space. She was fine with waiting by herself; she’d been taking care of herself for a long time, too long. “I’ll be fine.”

“Have him bring you back to Heart Fire. He’s staying here for a few weeks. The two of you are neighbors.”

Leah’s gaze shot back to the wannabe fitness model, reclining against the side of her car, now staring down the highway as he pretended not to be listening. Leah shook her head, wondering what in the world she had done that deserved this kind of bad luck.

G
AGE FOUND HIMSELF
watching the woman as she talked on the phone. He’d already put his foot into it when he pulled up, so he could understand her being a bit prickly, but she made a cactus look cuddly. Which was surprising because, looking at her, she was hotter than the sweat-inducing sun beating down on them and the muscle car she drove put together. She might be a tiny thing, but she was sharp dips and rounded curves in all the right places. With her shorts showing off plenty of leg, and her rock band tank top showing off toned arms, he didn’t have to look too hard to see those curves. Now if only those golden brown, whiskey-colored eyes would stop glaring at him, he could appreciate the rest of her.

He couldn’t hear much of the conversation but, judging from her stiff posture and the frown causing a wrinkle between her brows, he could tell she didn’t like the news. She pressed the button to disconnect the call and handed his phone back to him.

“I take it you’re Gage?”

His brows shot up in surprise. “Yeah, how—”

“I’m your new neighbor, apparently.”

She didn’t sound overly thrilled about it. Gage crossed his arms over his chest, waiting for her to elaborate.

“I’m the new therapist at Heart Fire Ranch. Jessie is calling a tow truck out but wanted me to ask you if you’d mind driving me back out to the ranch after Dave leaves with my car.”

BOOK: Change of Heart
9.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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