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Gambling On A Secret by Sara Walter Ellwood

Gambling On A Secret

Colton Gamblers, Book 1
by Sara Walter Ellwood

Lyrical Press

eBook ISBN: 9781616504434

When runaway-turned-heiress Charli Monroe asks Dylan Quinn, the town drunk and former Special Forces commander, to help her rebuild her Texas ranch, she finds her life and her heart in danger. Commitment-phobic, Dylan is attracted to Charli, but can he protect her long enough to ask her to build a future with him?

Note: Prologue omitted.

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Chapter One

“You’re twenty minutes late, Mr. Quinn. It wouldn’t hurt to show a little punctuality if you wanted a job.” Charli Monroe stopped at the gate in the broken picket fence of her newly purchased, broken-down ranch.
The man behind the wheel of the beat up pickup truck peered out the open window. A brown cowboy hat shadowed a face hard enough to be chiseled out of stone. “This old place needs a lot of work. It’s been empty for five years.”
He spoke with a deep velvet timbre that settled somewhere in her chest and reverberated.
She swallowed and fought the urge to hug herself. He didn’t seem too concerned about being late. Was he going to get out of the truck? When he made no move to do so, she wasn’t sure if she was relieved or disappointed. He obviously didn’t want the job that badly. “Do you know why the place was in probate for so long?”
Dylan Quinn slid the cowboy hat back over his dark hair. A corner of his lips twitched upward. It couldn’t be called a smile, but it momentarily softened his mouth. The warmth of the phantom grin never reached his cloudy-day eyes. “Jock Blackwell died without a will, and his sons hate each other and despised their father and this ranch.”
That was pretty much what the landlady of the student boarding house where she currently lived had told her. Jock Blackwell had gotten three of his girlfriends pregnant and refused to marry them in a time such behavior was socially unacceptable. Each of his three sons blamed his misfortunes in life on their label of illegitimacy. She knew all about being a bastard. Her dear old dad hadn’t stuck around either.
“It was a shame to watch this place go to hell.” He looked beyond her at the ramshackle Victorian house. “There was a time when it was one of the best cattle ranches in all of Central Texas.”
“You’re from around here?” He didn’t exactly sound like a born and bred Texan. His accent suggested he was from the Mid-Atlantic area.
He nodded and rubbed over the dark stubble along his angular jaw. “You could say that. My mother grew up on Oak Springs Ranch–your neighbor to the east. I lived there as a teenager. So, are you still looking for a manager, or not?”
Not. But the way he looked at her made the lie stick in her throat. She took a few steps toward the side of the truck.
As she wrapped her arms around herself, a shiver tickled down her spine. She had to be cold, despite the warm early-March sun beating down on her. What else could it be? She wasn’t afraid, but something about him put her senses on edge. Was it his rugged handsomeness or the slate gray of his tortured eyes?
“Yes, I am. I’m Charlotte Monroe. I go by Charli. I have to get the place ready for the cattle coming in a few weeks. I’m also buying four horses from Sheriff Zack Cartwright.”
Another half-smile tugged on his lips. “You’ve been busy. Can’t get better horses from anywhere else. How many cattle?”
“A hundred Salers calves.”
“The French breed?”
Most people had no clue what they were. If her grandfather hadn’t been something of a cattle collector, she wouldn’t have known them either. “Yes. Do you know about them?”
“I’ve heard they’re good for beef and easy calving.” Dylan looked across the gravel driveway. “The barn needs a new roof and the right side looks like it’s about ready to collapse. Are all the other buildings in as bad shape?”
Why didn’t he want to look for himself? “Unfortunately, yes. The barbed wire fencing also needs fixing. The bunkhouse is worse than the barn.” She pointed behind her at the native limestone and clapboard house. “The house needs work, as you can see. At least, the extra stables and storage barn next to it aren’t quite as broken down.”
“Probably because they’re not as old.” He looked around again as if confirming her appraisal. “Sounds like you need a carpenter, not a ranch manager.”
“I need both. I said as much in the newspaper ad. I’m looking for someone who will help me oversee repairs, hire on hands as needed and make this place a working ranch again.”
He regarded her for a long moment and cocked a brow. Damn, was he making fun of her? He looked her up and down. “Wouldn’t a woman like you be more comfortable getting manicures and massages in a Dallas spa, not worrying about cattle breeds and barn roofs? It’s no secret around town you’re the heiress to the Monroe Farm Equipment fortune, and you sold a huge ranch in Oklahoma your grandfather left you. Why on Earth did you buy a dump like this?”
Now he’d pissed her off. She might have more money than she’d ever dreamed of having. She might like to dress in designer clothes, but it was none of this jerk’s business which ranch she bought. Or why she wanted it. She had a business plan and a vision for the ranch; what else mattered? “I happen to like this place. It suits me better than the ranch I sold.”
“Is that so? Did you bring any equipment with you? A tractor, a planter, hay mower, baler, anything?”
He would bring up one of the stupidest things she’d done. Sighing, she admitted, “I sold the equipment with the ranch when I decided to leave Oklahoma. One more reason I need a manager.” Her cheeks burned. “When I sold the ranch after inheriting it, I didn’t intend to buy another.”
“Why did you buy another ranch?” He slid his gaze back to hers and peered at her as if he could read her every thought–but what had her swallowing hard was the spark of something hot in his eyes.
She tightened her arms in the hug she gave herself–a self-protecting, insecure gesture she’d acquired while she lived with her abusive lover in Las Vegas as a teenage runaway.
“Buying a ranch the size of this one isn’t something most folks just wake up and decide to do, Miss Monroe. A ten-thousand-acre spread takes commitment and dedication and is damned hard work.”
Yeah, she knew that.
He looked down at her multicolored Manolo Blahnik five-inch heeled slides. The ghost of a smile touched his lips again, but this time little crinkles formed at the corners of his eyes, which held a spark of interest she didn’t want.
Damn, he was good-looking. She squelched that notion like the roach she’d killed earlier in the house. Hadn’t her life with Ricardo taught her a handsome face meant nothing but trouble?
“I can’t imagine you stuffing those pampered and polished feet into rubber boots to muck around in the barn.”
Me, either. But she would if she had to.
She drew in a breath and dropped her arms to her sides. “I think we should get back to asking questions about you. When your sister called about my newspaper ad, she said you were exactly what I’m looking for.”
He shrugged again in a not-a-care-in-the-world way again. What was this guy’s problem? If she weren’t running out of time, she would tell him to leave. She couldn’t waste this year, which meant she had to get someone hired. And her prospects were limited.
“Can you do the job?”
She waited for him to elaborate, but when he didn’t, she frowned. “Do you have any references?”
“I expected you to ask. Everything you need to know should be in here.”
She moved closer and took the folded sheet of paper he held out the window. After glancing at it, she wasn’t surprised it was a resume, but his listed experience had her heart beating a little faster. She looked up at him. “You have a degree in agricultural business from Texas A & M, started up your own ranch and served in the Army?”
He looked off in the distance. “I was in the service for thirteen years, three years in the Corps of Engineers, four in Airborne and the last six in Special Forces.” His jaw clenched, making his face the chiseled block of cold stone again. “And I know something about building. When I wasn’t deployed, I built the house and barn on my two-hundred acre ranch.”
“You don’t own the ranch now?”
“No. My ex-wife got it in our divorce settlement. I planned to get out of the Army after my last tour in Afghanistan and raise cattle. But things never happen the way we want them to.”
The bitterness of his tone had her stepping away. She shivered again and busied herself with looking at the resume. Whatever his ex-wife had done to him, it wasn’t good. “Your reference list is pretty skimpy.”
“The first name is my old commander, but I just got word he’s shipped out on a secret mission.”
Something wasn’t adding up. Either he was hiding something or his sister had lied about his experience. “Your sister said you worked on Oak Springs Ranch while in high school, but it’s not listed on your resume. Are you related to the owner, Leon Ferguson? You said your mother grew up there.”
His eyes narrowed and his lips thinned into a tight line. “Leon is my mother’s stepbrother. While my grandfather was still alive and ran the ranch, I worked there until I joined the Army after he died. I chose not to mention it.”
But why? She didn’t press the matter. She wasn’t seriously considering him for the job anyway, was she?
“My landlady said Mr. Ferguson might be willing to contract me the men and equipment I need to get the mesquite cleaned out of my pastures and the fields ready for planting.” She shifted her feet. She had no idea what his gripe with the richest man in the county was, and maybe for that reason, she needed his opinion. Dylan Quinn was the first person she’d met who seemed to dislike the tycoon. “I’d like to get some alfalfa and grasses in for hay. It’s getting late in the season. Do you think he’d help me out?”
He rubbed his stubble-shadowed jaw. What kind of man went to a job interview and didn’t even bother shaving off the scruff? “This might not be any of my business, but since you asked my opinion, let me warn you. The last thing you want to do is to get tangled up with Leon Ferguson. You’ll be sorry. He’s wanted this land for a long time, and he’ll do anything to get it.”
“You’re right. It isn’t any of your business.” Why would he think such a thing? After all, someone as rich as Ferguson could have bought the place before she put her bid in. Dylan obviously had a personal problem with Ferguson. Everyone else had nothing but good to say about Leon Ferguson. He was on the board of directors for the college she was attending, the hospital, and had donated a large sum of money to the county schools and other local charities. At least according to her landlady, Aida Mae Pratt.
“Suit yourself. But you did ask for my opinion.”
Which had been a big mistake.
She studied the resume again. “Brenda Dailey. Is this person off-limits, too? Or can I speak with her?”
“My ex-wife. I’d appreciate it if you don’t involve her. I put her on there because of the ranch.”
She looked up at him. “The divorce that bad, huh?”
Dylan shrugged and looked away. He gripped the top of the steering wheel hard enough to whiten his knuckles. “Suppose it’s no secret. Our divorce has only been final four months, and she married her baby-daddy the day after it became official. You figure it out.”
“Ouch. Okay, I won’t call your ex. Nevertheless, I’d like to see your house. Your sister mentioned you were a carpenter.” She glanced at the address of his former ranch. “Killeen’s south of here?”
He nodded. “It’s your two hours and tank of gas.”
“Thank you for stopping by. Your number’s on here. I’ll call you.”
“Thanks for your time, Miss Monroe. Good luck with this place.” He looked around at the buildings and over her before he turned the key in the ignition. The rusted bucket of bolts sputtered and the starter groaned before the engine turned over.
As he pulled away, she looked at the piece of paper in her shaky hand and studied his name at the top.
Damn, she’d hoped he was the one.
She crumpled the paper, and the memory of his weathered eyes, as dull and gray as her ranch buildings, came to her. What ghosts did he see when he closed them?
She opened her palm and stared at the wad of paper. Feeling haunted by the past was something she understood very well.
* * * *
Dylan pulled into the space between the Dumpster and his sister’s Taurus and cut the engine. He lifted a half-empty flask of Jim Beam to his lips and swallowed a swig. The bourbon warmed him while he looked out at the back of the small redbrick house.
He lived with Tracy and her son in the shoebox-sized apartment above her beauty salon. Where would he go if Tracy followed through with her threat and tossed his ass out like yesterday’s trash? He didn’t want a job. He didn’t know what he wanted, but everything that mattered had died with his wife’s Dear John letter and his men in Kandahar a year ago.
He’d long ago stopped feeling the burn of bourbon he poured down his throat. What had possessed him to show up at this interview and not blow it off like all the others Tracy set up?
An image of Miss Charlotte Monroe popped into his mind as he lowered the bottle from his lips. Damn, what was a woman like her doing owning the Blackwell place? He lifted his flask in a toast. “Whatever your reasons, I’m impressed. Not many people get away with taking something that bastard Ferguson wants out from under his nose.”
He’d never hear from Miss Charlotte Monroe again. He turned the flask up again to his lips. Through the Colton Grapevine down at the Longhorn Saloon, he’d heard she was something to see, but they hadn’t done her justice.
She’d been one hot number standing there with orange-painted toenails shoved into the craziest sky-high heels he’d ever seen. With the way the brown miniskirt showed off legs going on forever and the fantastic view of her full breasts the tight blue-green sweater gave him, she should have been on a magazine cover, not standing in knee-high weeds.
She was a freaking college kid. What the hell was she doing owning a ranch? She wanted to raise beef? He snorted and took another pull on the flask. Hell, she was more likely to end up making pets out of the calves, and whine when she broke a fingernail.
Shaking his head to dispel all thought of the aquamarine-eyed redhead, he leaned back against the worn leather seat.
Was he really this much of a coward to face his baby sister? He’d faced Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents. What happened to the guy who’d killed a drug lord with his bare hands in the jungles of South America?
He cursed under his breath, drained the flask dry and prayed Tracy would be too busy to notice him sneaking in the back door of the salon. He needed another drink.
When he opened the back door, a whiff of perm solution and hair dye burned his eyes, and the whiskey in his belly churned. Holding his breath against the stink and the urge to puke, he attempted to sneak by Tracy’s office door to the stairs.
“How’d it go?” his sister called out.
Damn his fucked-up luck.
He stopped, drew in a deep breath, and wished he hadn’t when his gut spasmed. He peeked around the doorframe into the small office. As usual, everything in the room was organized and neatly arranged. He shrugged and mumbled, “Don’t know. Okay, I guess. Her hands are full with that dump.”
Tracy pulled off her reading glasses and looked up at him. “So, what’s she like?”
Prickly as a cactus. Why was Charli Monroe getting under his skin? She seemed insecure in the way she’d hugged herself and kept her distance. Although she’d tried hard not to show her fear of him, he’d seen a similar reaction before in the abused young women he and his team had liberated in a mountainous camp in Afghanistan.
He shoved those observations to the back of his mind as he raked his fingers through his hair. “Charlotte Monroe is young. The place cost a small fortune, so she obviously has more money than brains. No one in their right mind would have paid the asking price.”
Tracy leaned back in her office chair. “I heard today she’d only lived with her grandfather for the last couple of years before he died. Supposedly, she was in Las Vegas before moving to Oklahoma.” She shook her head. “Can’t imagine that, though. Mrs. Cartwright says she’s only twenty-four, but I guess living in Vegas would explain her expensive city-slicker duds.”
“Who cares?” He sure as hell didn’t, so he turned away. “I’m going upstairs.”
“Did you get the job?” Tracy asked just as coolly, before he could limp to the stairs.
“Monroe said she’ll call if she’s interested.” He wouldn’t lose any sleep waiting up for the phone call.
“You showed up, didn’t you? I know you ditched the last three interviews I set up for you.”
He mumbled a vile curse he’d learned as a teen living in Germany and climbed the stairs to the apartment.
Tracy followed him into the galley kitchen. “Dylan, I can’t take this anymore. You need to get a job and your own place.”
He pulled a beer from the refrigerator. “I’m trying, sis.”
“It’s been a year since you were injured,” Tracy said from the doorway. “You need to do something.”
“I help with the bills.” It wasn’t his fault his disability payments were a pittance, or that Brenda had blown all of his savings before dumping him.
“I don’t care about the money. I hate seeing you like this, and I don’t like Bobby being around you when you’re drunk. You need help. Zack Cartwright told me today about a group meeting–you know like Alcoholics Anonymous but for vets with posttraumatic stress disorder–over at the VA hospital in Waco. Zack said meetings like those helped him after he got back.”
He peered at Tracy. The wateriness of her gray eyes should have bothered him, but it didn’t. “Good for Sheriff Cartwright. But I’m not going to any damned meetings where everyone cries on each other’s shoulder.”
“Why don’t you make an appointment–”
“I’m not going back to the fucking shrink. I’m not crazy.”
Tracy thrust out an exasperated breath. “Okay. But sitting here all day drinking yourself senseless won’t help you get your life back.”
“I told you I’ll find work and a place of my own.” Someday.
Setting her jaw, she lifted her chin a notch. “I’m worried about you. You’re so different now.” She paused and shook her head. “Okay, you don’t want to go to the VA. Maybe you should see if Dad could get you a job with Homeland Security. You’d be good there with all of your experience with the Army. If nothing else, it would get you away from here and memories of Brenda.”
“No.” He turned away and drained most of the Budweiser.
“You’d have veteran’s preference. Mom told me so. Why won’t you even try?”
Shit, now she had their mother involved. “Because I refuse to be under a microscope.” He pinned her with a glare over his shoulder. After the botched mess he’d made of his last mission, it was a miracle he hadn’t been court-martialed, and a goddamned shame Congress pinned a Purple Heart on him. It made him sick to think he got it because he was General Bob Quinn’s son. The last thing he wanted was his father pulling strings with his buddies in the higher echelon of government to get him a cushy job.
“I don’t want to work for the government.”
Tracy bit her bottom lip as he passed her to go into the living room.
“By the way, I’d appreciate it if the next time you set up a job interview for me, you don’t mention Oak Springs Ranch again.” His feet felt heavy as he turned to face her, tripping him up. He grabbed the back of the couch to keep his balance.
Tracy averted her eyes and folded her arms over her chest. “I know you don’t like Leon, but your experience working on the ranch was information Miss Monroe needed to know. When I was over at Oak Springs for dinner last night, Leon asked me to tell you to stop by.”
“Hell will freeze over before I set foot on that ranch.” He took a draw on the Budweiser. “So, did you see our step-grandmother off on her next great adventure? Greece this time, right?”
Tracy narrowed her eyes at him and pulled herself to her full height, which put her eye-to-eye and nose-to-nose with his six feet. “Have some respect. Maddie was married to our grandfather longer than our real grandmother was. She really cares about us.”
He snorted and finished the beer. “Yeah, sure she does, as long as Mom was cut out of everything when Granddad died, and her son got it all.”
“Uncle Leon would give you a job and a place to stay.”
“That thief is not our uncle any more than that gold digger is our grandmother.” He bit the words out between clenched teeth and took an unsteady step toward her.
Tracy moved back.
He didn’t care she was afraid of him when he was drunk. “Leon stole our mother’s land and took away our birthright. Oak Springs Ranch should be ours!”
Tracy shook her head, tossed her hands in the air, and walked away. “I have a customer in a few minutes.” She glanced over the living room. “Clean up this pigpen before Bobby comes home from school.”
Every thump of her steps hurrying down the stairs echoed through his head like a drum in a rock band. He tossed the empty beer can toward the trashcan by the computer desk. The can missed its mark by more than five feet, and the momentum of tossing it knocked him off balance.
He fell hard against the corner of the couch on the hip that metal and plastic had replaced after a piece of shrapnel had blown it apart. Cursing, he flipped over onto the seat and laid his head back. He squeezed his eyes shut. The white-hot pain searing through him reminded him of the flaming shards of metal and glass that tore through his men. Why the hell had he trusted the damned Afghani woman and her lies? He’d never be the man he was before he’d gotten his men killed.
He wasn’t drunk enough to kill the pain or drown the memories or the dreams. But neither Brenda nor his last mission drifted through the fog of booze when he passed out. Charli Monroe’s sexy orange toenails and the ghosts he’d seen swimming in her ocean-like eyes shimmered to life.

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3 Responses to Gambling On A Secret by Sara Walter Ellwood

  1. Awesome – love the sexy orange toenails and especially the — ocean-like eyes

  2. SUPER congrats on your releases!!! Such a talented author!!

  3. Thanks, ladies, for reading!!! You’re awesome….

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