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Chapter One — Long Road Home

CHAPTER ONE

 

Headlights from a car swept through the paddock as Megan Swearingen hurriedly tossed flakes of hay to her horses and kept an eye on the south pasture, hoping her grey mare, Lucy, was heading to the barn for dinner.

She tucked a wayward strand of hair that had come loose from her ponytail behind her ear and watched as a pick-up came down her long drive, horse trailer in tow.

She groaned. No way did she have time for company. She needed to search for Lucy, a very pregnant Lucy, who Megan worried might have gone into labor early and be down somewhere out in the pasture.

The pick-up stopped about five feet from her, and Brett Lawson stepped out, tipping his black Stetson at her.

She narrowed her gaze. “Lawsons aren’t welcome here and you know it.”

Brett shut the truck’s door and walked toward her, all broad shoulders and lean hips. His dark, unruly hair fell across his forehead while soft curls caressed his neck.

Ignoring her comment, he opened the paddock gate, walked through and closed it behind him before striding over to Megan. “A mountain lion attacked one of our horses. Thought you’d want to know.”

Megan gasped. “One of my mares is missing, and she’s due to foal in a few weeks.”

Brett scowled as he stared down at her, all but towering over her own five foot six inches.  “You need to find her. Now. Our mare is still alive, but she lost a lot of blood. The vet’s working on her. The lion got away even though he came within a hundred yards of the paddock.”

“Oh my God,” Megan whispered. She dropped the rest of the hay and hurried toward the paddock gate.

“I’ll help you search,” Brett offered.

“I can manage,” Megan snapped. She’d be damned if Brett Dawson was helping her do anything. His father had an affair with her mom for years, and then dumped her right after Megan’s dad committed suicide. Megan and her mom both suspected that Harry Dawson told her father about the affair and that’s why her dad killed himself.

Megan knew deep down that Brett wasn’t responsible for his father’s actions, but she’d learned years ago not to trust Brett, to keep her distance if she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life mooning over someone she couldn’t have.

“What you find might not be pretty,” Brett said, sympathy in his dark brown eyes.

Her stomach twisted at his words. This was so not what she needed. She also didn’t want Brett on her property, let alone helping her.

“Look, Megan. I’m not the one who did you wrong. Let me help. It’s not safe out there right now. You even have a gun?”

“A rifle and I don’t need your help,” she said, even though her insides were shaking.

“My offer still stands,” Brett responded as his worried gaze swept over the Tennessee mountain range that lay just beyond them.

Megan swallowed hard. The thought of what she might find made her stomach churn. She sucked in a deep breath, determined to handle this newest crisis by herself. “I can take care of this,” she said, praying she was right.

She hurried out of the paddock and toward her truck, then remembered she didn’t have her keys. She started for the back porch at a jog.

“While you’re dilly-dallying around, your horse might be in real trouble,” Brett called after her.

Megan cursed under her breath, knowing he was right. She spun around and jogged over to the pasture gate, opening it wide. Dawson climbed into his pick-up and drove through the open gate. Megan quickly re-fastened the gate, then climbed into Brett’s truck, praying she hadn’t lost one of her most promising three-year-olds, as well as her unborn foal, to a mountain lion.

 

****

 

Brett scanned the hillside, keeping his eyes low to the ground, because he was sure that’s where the mare would be—on the ground. “We haven’t had a mountain lion come down for food in years. Until he’s caught, you might want to keep your horses in the south pasture, closer to the house.”

“You said the lion came within a hundred yards of your barn, so I doubt that’ll stop him.”

“Maybe not, but it can’t hurt. A good watch dog wouldn’t hurt either. He’d at least alert you.”

“I’ll be sure and go scrounge one up. First thing tomorrow,” she responded dryly.

He glanced over at her. Rumor had it her dad’s gambling had left them deeply in debt. Megan had quit college to try and save the Thoroughbred farm that had, at one time, been one of the most reputable breeders of Thoroughbreds in the industry.

She was tough all right. Made of sterner stuff than either her old man or mom. She was also pretty. Her thick blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, emphasizing her high cheek bones and big green eyes. Then there was her mouth, full and lush even though it was set in a scowl.

He’d had a taste—a big taste—of that mouth once, but then he’d come to his senses and run like hell, because little Megan Swearingen was way too young for him to be messing with. Way too young. At sixteen, she’d been the prettiest thing he’d ever seen in his entire twenty-four years.

He shook himself back to reality. “A friend of mine has a rescue Doberman. About two years old. You could get her for practically nothing.”

“Great. That’s about what I’ve got right now.”

He winced. No one should have to go through what she was, but she didn’t have to take it out on him. Or maybe she did. After all, his dad had probably started this whole ugly mess.

“I’ll bring her over tomorrow. Let you check her out if you want.”

She shot him a look that would have made a lesser man cringe. “Just give me the number. I’ll go see her myself. Maybe.”

So much for trying to be helpful. Megan reminded him of his late fiancé, stubborn as they come and out to prove to the world she could take on anything that came her way. Brett’s stomach tightened remembering Emily. She’d taken on the world all right, and it had cost her her life.

Megan needed him right now, whether she would admit it or not, and he would help her get through this evening, because he seriously doubted she could handle this alone. And she shouldn’t have to.

He turned the truck to the right and skirted around a deep gully, keeping a watchful eye out for the mare. “Damn,” he muttered, pointing to the bottom of the hill toward a clump of trees.

“Oh God,” Megan whispered. “Hurry. She might still be alive.”

Brett pressed on the accelerator and guided the bouncing truck toward the mare. When he got the pick-up as close as he could, he slammed on the brakes, put the truck in park, and pulled his rifle from the gun rack. “Stay here. I’ll go look up close.”

Megan started to get out of the pick-up.

“For God sakes, stay put. You don’t want to see this.”

“And you do?” she shot back. “Besides, the foal she’s carrying is the last offspring of our best stallion, Jack of all Trades. I need that foal.”

Brett remembered Jack, fast as lightening and a great temperament. He’d save the foal if he could. “The mare’s not mine, so I can handle whatever I find down there better than you.” He saw her swallow hard and pressed his case. “I doubt you can help her, Megan. Just stay here.”

He shoved open his door, jumped out, and started down the embankment as fast as he could go without falling.

“Try and save the foal,” Megan hollered after him.

Brett gritted his teeth and hurried over to the still mare. The sight made him sick. It was the mountain lion all right. Only it hadn’t eaten her. Just killed her and left her to rot. Looks like they for sure had a renegade lion on the prowl.  Megan would have to get someone out here to haul off the carcass. Another expense for her. With a sigh, he bent down and felt the mare’s bloody neck. Still warm. Hope sprung from his knotted gut. There was a chance the foal might still be alive.

His heart went into triple time as he pulled out his hunting knife and flipped it open. He had to get that foal out. Fast. He took a deep breath and bent over the mare, slicing her belly wide open. The foal moved and he quickly made the cut longer, then pulled on the front legs. “Slick little bugger, aren’t you?” He ripped off his t-shirt and wrapped it around the foal’s front legs, pulled again, and it whooshed out. He cleared out her mouth, and she sucked in a rattling breath. He cut the umbilical cord, taking his time and hoping it was slow enough to keep the filly from bleeding out, then lifted the newborn. Holding her securely, he scrambled up the side of the gully. By the time he got to the rim, his arms ached so bad they burned and he was short of breath.

Megan met him, her eyes wide, her skin paler than chalk. “Go open the trailer,” he ordered. “I’ve got some rags in the back of the truck. Bring me an armload.”

Megan ran to the pick-up. By the time he’d laid the foal down, Megan was back at his side, her arms full of rags. She dropped them on the floor of the trailer and knelt down beside him.

“A filly. Oh please live little one,” she said, stroking the filly’s wet neck as Brett cleared more liquid out of her mouth.

The foal took a rasping breath. Then another. Brett grinned. “Stay here with her. Rub her down. I’ll drive us back to the ranch.”

She nodded and he jumped out of the trailer and into the truck. Driving carefully, he headed back to Megan’s ranch. Thank God he’d insisted on coming. He’d saved that filly’s life, and he’d do everything he could to help Megan keep her alive. She’d said she needed that foal to keep Jack’s bloodline going. He wondered why they hadn’t collected the stallion’s sperm and frozen it. He shoved the question aside and set his mind to the task at hand.

When he drove through the gate that separated the north and south pastures, he put the truck into park, hopped out and pulled the gate shut and locked it. No use letting any more horses get that far away. Seconds later he was heading toward the barn.

He pulled up to the paddock gate, and Megan ran in front of him and opened it. She shut the gate behind him as he pulled up to the barn door and stopped. He jumped out and strode back to the trailer for the foal. “You got an empty stall?” he asked, lifting the newborn.

“Yes. Lucy’s. I only meant to let her out for about an hour to stretch her legs, but then . . .” Her voice caught and he saw her fight for control before turning and hurrying into the barn. He followed, thinking she should never have turned that pregnant mare out, but he figured Megan already knew that.

As soon as Megan had tossed some fresh straw into the corner stall, he stepped inside and lay the foal down. “There you go, little girl.” She lifted her still-wet head and looked at him. “It might take her a little longer to stand since she’s a few weeks early, but she still should be up on her feet within three to four hours. We’ve got to get some colostrum down her. You got any?”

“Colostrum?”

“Yeah, it comes before the milk.”

“I know what it is,” Megan snapped. “Why would I have any?”

“We keep it in stock. Buy it from one of the big breeding farms just outside Nashville. Sit here with her. I’ll go get some.” Megan started to say something, but he cut her short. “Now’s not the time to argue. The foal needs colostrum within five to six hours of birthing if you want to protect her from getting sick.”

Megan nodded and clamped her mouth shut.

“Keep rubbing her down while I’m gone.” He stepped outside the stall.

“You want your shirt?” she asked, her voice laced with exhaustion.

“Nah. It’s pretty much ruined. I’ll grab another one.”

“Fine by me,” Megan muttered to his backside—his very broad and very ripped backside. She might not want the man’s help but she sure couldn’t complain about the view. The minute the barn door shut behind him, she re-focused on the foal. “How am I ever going to take care of you?” she said as the foal nuzzled her hand. “I don’t even know how often to feed you. Dad didn’t teach me much about this kind of stuff.” She blew out a weary sigh. “I didn’t have time to get all the chores done before this,” she said, barely keeping her tears in check.

She heard someone coming down the barn aisle, and a minute later her sister, Lauren, peeked into the stall. A wide grin split her usually glum ten-year-old face. She stepped inside and plopped down on the straw, stroked the foal’s neck.

“Pretty cute, huh?” Megan said, smiling at her little sister, wishing she would talk. “We’ll have to feed her, though. Her mommy died.”

Megan watched Lauren’s face fall and knew she was thinking about their father dying. “You want to help me with the feedings?”

Lauren’s head bobbed up and down. “Good. I’m gonna need your help. I’ll have to get on the internet and research what to do.” She felt like a fish flopping on a bank, but somehow she’d figured it all out.

They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, giving the foal a good rub-down together. When they were done, Megan leaned her weary body back against the stall door. Fear skittered through. Fear and guilt. She should have known better than to turn Lucy out, even for a little while, no matter how much the mare had begged. She’d never dreamed anything like this might happen, though. Now she’d lost one of her prize broodmares and maybe her foal.

Megan couldn’t believe how much money it took to keep this place up and running. She’d been oblivious all her life about the financial end of running a Thoroughbred farm. Then her father had died.

Or rather killed himself.

To make matters worse, they’d discovered after his death that he’d invested a huge chunk of his savings into some bad deals. Not only that, he’d also sold all of Jack’s frozen sperm to finance those deals. Damn him anyway. How in the world was she supposed to keep this ranch afloat?

Lord knows her mother was no help. She was too busy throwing a pity party to even think of anyone but herself. If only her mother hadn’t gotten involved with Harry Dawson, her father would still be alive. Megan felt sure of that. The money would be gone, but she wouldn’t be stuck all by herself trying to save a drowning ranch. A fresh spurt of anger shot through her.

Damn Dawson. And her mother too. She glanced toward the house where her mother was, no doubt, lying in bed feeling sorry for herself. Her mother had been like this since her husband had died, and she showed no signs of stepping up to the plate on any of her responsibilities, not even being a mother to Lauren, who hadn’t muttered so much as one peep since finding their dad.

Selective mute is what the therapist called it. A living nightmare is what Megan called it.

The anger she usually managed to tamp down re-surfaced with a rush. In an odd sort of way, she welcomed her anger because it gave her the energy to keep going.

The sound of a vehicle outside drew Megan’s gaze away from the foal. She was too desperate to feel anything but relief that Brett had returned. She needed his help tonight if this foal was going to live. Needing Brett stuck in her craw, but there was no way around it, at least until she had time to talk to her vet and learn what to do.

“How’s she doing?” Brett stepped inside the stall carrying a shallow pan and a bucket of bottles full of what she assumed was colostrum.

“She’s alert.”

“Good. She needs two to three liters of this yummy stuff. We’ll divide it into three or four doses, but no use trying to feed it to her now. She needs to be hungry or she’ll never drink from a pan.”

“Why can’t we bottle feed her?”

“We could. It’s a little risky, though. The bottle has to be held at a specific height or milk can run down her trachea into her lungs.”

“But can she can drink from a pan?” Megan watched him set his supplies down.

“We’ll teach her.”

She groaned. “I don’t know how.” God she hated to admit that.

“I do,” he said with a grin.

She must have looked as overwhelmed as she felt because he patted her shoulder. She should have pulled away from his touch but found it comforting, which irritated her to no end.

She’d always liked Brett’s touch. She remembered only too vividly that long-ago barn dance and hot summer night when Brett had dragged her out behind the barn and pulled her into his arms. His lips had not only stolen her breath but her heart. She’d had a crush on him most of her life and that night, when she’d just turned sixteen, he’d treated her like a woman. And then never touched her again.

The sound of Brett’s voice dragged her mind away from the memory.

“In about three hours, when she’s up on her feet and good and hungry, we’ll pour her first liter into this pan. After she sucks it off my fingers, she’ll start sucking it out of the pan,” Brett explained. “I’ll demonstrate, then you should be able to do it yourself. She’ll need the rest of the colostrum about every hour. And she’ll need her immunoglobulin levels checked in about twelve to fourteen hours, so we know if we’ve gotten enough colostrum in her for her to get passive immunity from it.”

Megan’s mind jammed with all the information. Thank God someone around here knew what he was doing, even if it was Brett. She stroked the foal’s head with a shaky hand.

“Your vet knows all this, but I’ll go ahead and fill you in,” he said. She nodded, still in a daze. “Once her colostrum’s good to go, you’ll start on milk. Every two hours. I brought powdered milk to get you through a couple of days. Figured that’ll give you time to get to the vet’s office and get some of your own.”

“That was very generous of you,” she managed to say.

“Don’t want you to lose this little filly. This is going to be a lot of hard work for the first few weeks especially, but it can be done.”

Her throat tightened. Every two hours. How would she possibly manage? “I can do it,” she squeezed out of her constricted throat, praying she was right.

“Not by yourself you can’t. No one could.” He shook his head. “Just can’t be done. Every two hours for five days is not a one-man job.” He knelt down beside the foal and gave her a brisk rub-down, his big hands strong and sure.

Megan’s mind flicked back to those hands on her, rubbing up and down her back and cupping her bottom. She felt her face flush and prayed he didn’t notice.

“She’s a beauty,” Brett said, stroking her neck.

Megan forced herself to quit thinking about what his hands had felt like on her and focus on the task she was up against. Panic threatened to overwhelm her. He was right. She couldn’t do it alone. If she had nothing else to do, she couldn’t manage to feed Gracie, but add on her responsibilities around here, and it was all she could do not to put her head in her hands and cry.

Brett stroked the filly’s shoulder, ran a finger down the blaze on her forehead. “Pretty markings. You’ve got a good one.”

Lauren patted the foal’s nose and Brett smiled. “You want to help?” Lauren nodded with enthusiasm. “Good. Keep rubbing her. She needs the stimulation. Got any names picked out?”

Lauren shook her head.

Brett furrowed his brows, and Megan could tell he was wondering about Lauren’s lack of speech.

Megan stood. “I’ve got a refrigerator in the office. Let me go stick these bottles in it.” She picked up the bucket full of bottles and headed to the office, bracing herself before going in where they’d found her father. She put the supplies in the refrigerator as quickly as she could, eager to get out of there.

When she stepped back into the stall, the filly was up on her chest. “I think I’ll call her Gracie. Saving Grace will be her registered name.”

“You thinking she’ll be your saving grace?” Brett asked, standing and straddling the foal as he supported her in her efforts to stand. “She’ll more than likely be the straw that broke the camel’s back, ‘specially if you won’t let me help you.”

Megan glared at him. “I’m letting you help me now, aren’t I?”

“Yeah, but it’s about to kill you.”

“You got that right.” Megan put her hands on her hips and watched the foal. She was beautiful. “I have high hopes for this filly. Her sire held every racing record in the region. I’ve got to keep this little girl alive.”

“Jack was a great one, that’s for sure,” Brett responded. “I figured you’d have his frozen sperm.”

Megan cleared her throat. “We did,” she said, embarrassment washing over her. “Dad sold it.”

“Damn and double damn.”

Megan shrugged. What was there to say? This was such a nightmare, she had no choice but to agree to Brett’s help, at least for tonight. “I have friends who can take feeding shifts. And Lauren will help, too. After tonight you’ll be off the hook.”

“No hook for me. I live for this sort of thing. Pumps me up. I shoulda been a vet I guess.”

“Why aren’t you?” she asked.

He scowled. “Good question. One I’ve thought about, too, but I know you don’t really care so I’ll spare you.”

Surprisingly enough she did care, in a detached sort of way. She sat on the stall floor. “Suit yourself.”

“Be right back.” He stepped out of the stall and went outside the barn. She heard his truck door open and shut and hoped he wasn’t going too far. She felt totally inadequate to care for this foal. And the foal was what was important now, not her feelings toward the Lawsons.

Brett stepped back inside. He handed her a piece of paper with a couple of names and numbers written on it. “First name is the lady with the Doberman. Second name is a guy who’ll come haul off the mare.”

Megan flinched, wondering how much that would cost. It had to be done, no matter, but it made her sick and it was one more expense she couldn’t pay.

“I’ll get a bunch of ranchers together tomorrow to try and ferret out the lion. It’s a renegade. Not looking for food. Bad news for us all. I’ll let you know when we kill it.”

“I hope it’s soon.” She watched as Gracie tried once again to stand and wanted to applaud when the struggling filly made it to her feet on wobbly legs. “Should I go heat up the colostrum?”

“In a bit. Let her get up and down a few more times. Then she should be good and hungry.”

“I need to get some of the horses in their stalls and finish feeding them,” Megan said, shoving to her feet and stepping out into the barn aisle. She was more than ready to get away from Brett. Being around him made it difficult to stay angry with him. The man seemed to truly care, at least about the foal.

She went outside to the corral and petted each of her horses. “I know you’re hungry, guys. Your feed’s coming in a minute.” She leaned against her big bay, Dancer, and willed herself to gather enough strength to get through this evening.

 

****

 

Brett watched from the side barn door as Megan patted and crooned to each horse, then wrapped her arms around a big bay and leaned into him. She was tough all right, but no one could do what needed to be done for this foal without help. And he aimed to help. It was the least he could do.

Without saying anything, he went back into the barn, scooped some grain into a couple of buckets and went outside to dump it in the feeding trough. After several trips, he started grabbing flakes of hay, surprised as hell Megan hadn’t stopped him. Arms full, he stepped outside and tossed the hay on the ground.

He threw several more flakes of hay before she spoke. “I was going to finish doing that.”

“Don’t want you keeling over on me,” he stated as way of explanation.

“I won’t keel over.” She turned her back on him and continued to love on the horses. He knew this was her way of calming her frayed nerves. Her horses were what sustained her. He understood because his horses and land are what sustained him. That’s why he’d moved back out here after Emily died. He’d needed to in order to make some sort of sense out of life again.

He took a step toward her. “Sorry I didn’t get here sooner to warn you. We had our hands full.”

She gave him a startled look, almost as if she’d forgotten he was here. “I’m surprised you came at all, knowing how I feel about your family.”

He nodded. He had kinda surprised himself, too. “Sorry about your mare, Megan.”

She nodded and turned back to the horses, who were eating the grain he’d put in the feeding bins. Brett went back inside the barn, a sick feeling in his gut. Any more strokes of bad luck for this woman, and he doubted she’d be able to stay afloat. Looked like the rumor about her old man leaving them drowning in debt was true.

Deep embarrassment speared him for the part his father had played in this family’s troubles. There was no excuse for it and right now he hated being the son of Harry Dawson, the son of a man who had cheated on his mother more times than Brett even wanted to think about and had left her wounded and lonely and without any pride. His mother would hate that he was over here, but he couldn’t stay away. He owed at least this to the family his father had all but destroyed.

He glanced out the barn door and saw Megan wrap her arms again around the dark bay.

“Lucky horse,” he muttered, not able to keep from thinking about Megan wrapping her arms around him. Like that would ever happen again. He’d hurt her too badly five years ago. After that night behind the barn, he’d become almost cold toward her. She’d scared the hell out of him, and she was way too young to be messing with. He hadn’t blamed her for ignoring him whenever their paths crossed. In fact, he’d been glad. It had helped him keep his distance from the underage bombshell.

Yet despite how she felt about him now, Brett was glad he’d come by. No one should have to face something like this all by themself. Trouble was, she was totally by herself if rumors about her mom were right. Thanks to both their dads, Megan Swearingen had to face not only this alone, but anything else the universe threw her way. And the helluvit was, she might let him help right now because she was desperate, but the bottom line was, the lady hated his guts.

And he didn’t blame her one bit.