Ray McCullen hated all the secrets and lies.
He despised his father, Joe McCullen, even more for making him keep them.
In spite of the fact that his brothers, Maddox and Brett, thought he didn’t care about them or the family, he had kept his mouth shut to protect them.
God knows the truth about their father had eaten him up inside.
Only now, here he was back at home on the Horseshoe Creek ranch waiting on his father to die, grief gnawed at him. Joe McCullen wasn’t the perfect man Maddox and Brett thought he was, but Ray still loved him.
He didn’t want to, but the love was just as strong as the hate.
Maddox stood ramrod straight in the hallway outside their father’s room, his expression unreadable while Brett visited their dad.
Ray moved from one foot to the other, sweating. He and Brett had both been summoned to the ranch at their father’s request—he wanted to talk to each of them before he passed.
Suddenly the door swung open. Brett stalked into the hallway, rubbing at his eyes, then his boots pounded as he jogged down the steps. Maddox arched a brow at him indicating it was Ray’s turn, and Ray gritted his teeth and stepped into the room.
The air smelled like sweat and sickness, yet the sight of the familiar oak furniture his father had made by hand tugged at this emotions. His mother had died when he was just a kid, but he could still see her in that bed when he’d been scared at night and his daddy wasn’t home, and he’d sneak in and crawl up beside her.
His father’s cough jerked him back to reality.
Ray braced himself for a lecture on how disappointed his father was in him—Maddox was the perfect son who’d stayed and run the ranch, and Brett was the big rodeo star who’d accumulated fame and money—while he was the bad seed. The rebel.
The surly one who’d fought with their father, left home and never come back.
The weak sound of his father’s voice forced his feet into motion, and he crossed the room to his father’s bedside. God, he didn’t want to do this.
“Yes, Dad, I’m here.”
Another cough, pained and wheezy. Then his father held out a shaky hand. Ray’s own shook as he touched his father’s cold fingers.
He tried to speak but seeing his father, a big brawny man, so thin and pale was choking him up. Joe McCullen had always been larger than life. And he’d been Ray’s hero.
Until that day…
“Thank you for coming, son,” his father said in a raw whisper.
“I’m sorry it’s like this,” he said and meant it.
His father nodded, but a tear slid down his cheek. “I’m sorry for a lot of things, Ray. For hurting you and your mama.”
Ray clenched his jaw to keep his anger at bay.
“I know I put a heavy burden on you a long time ago, and it drove a wedge between the two of us.” He hesitated, his breathing labored. “I want you to know that your mama forgave me before we lost her. I…loved her so much, Ray. I hated what I did to her and you.”
Grief and pain collected in Ray’s soul, burning his chest. “It was a long time ago.” Although the hurt still lingered.
“I wish I’d been a better man.”
Ray wished he had, too.
“When you find someone special, Ray, love her and don’t ever let her go.”
Yeah. As if he would ever tie himself down or fall in love. His heart couldn’t handle loving someone else to only lose them.
His father coughed, and Ray swallowed hard, the weak sound a reminder that this might be the last time he saw his dad. He wanted to tell him that nothing mattered, that he wasn’t ready to let him go yet, that they still had time.
But he’d been called home because they didn’t have time.
“The will…” his father murmured. “I tried to do right here, tried to take care of everyone.”
Ray tensed. “What do you mean—everyone?”
Joe squeezed his hand so tightly, Ray winced, but when he tried to pull away, his father had a lock on his fingers. “Ray, the ranch goes to you boys, but I need you to explain to Maddox and Ray. I owe…”
His voice cracked, his words fading off and he wheezed, gasping for air. A second later, his body convulsed, and his eyes widened as if he knew this was his last breath.
“Owe what?” Ray asked. Did he tell Maddox and Brett about his other woman?
“Dad, talk to me,” Ray said, panicked.
But his father’s eyes rolled back in his head and he convulsed again, his fingers going limp.
Ray jerked his hand free, then rushed toward the door shouting for help. Maddox barreled inside the room and hurried to the bed.
Grief seized Ray as his father’s body grew still.
He bolted and ran down the steps, anguish clawing at him.
Damn his father. He’d done it to him again.
Left him holding the secret that could destroy his family forever.
Two weeks later
Scarlet Lovett parked in front of the sign for Horseshoe Creek, a mixture of grief and envy coiling inside her.
This was Joe McCullen’s land. His pride and joy. The place where he’d raised his family.
His real family. The one with his three beloved sons. Maddox. Brett. Ray.
Maddox was the oldest, the responsible one who was most like Joe in his devotion to Horseshoe Creek. He was also the sheriff of Pistol Whip, Wyoming.
Brett was the handsome, charming bull rider who was most like Joe in his flirtatious smile, his love for women and chasing dreams.
Ray was the youngest, the angry one who looked most like Joe, but he resented his father because he’d walked in on Joe with Barbara and knew about his indiscretion.
Scarlet watched a palomino at the top of a hill in the pasture as it stood alone, seemingly looking down at three horses galloping along together. Just like that lone horse, she had stood on the periphery of the funeral a few days ago, her heart aching, her anguish nearly overwhelming her.
Yet she’d felt like an outsider. She hadn’t spoken to the brothers. Had sensed they wouldn’t want her to share their grief.
She wasn’t part of that family. No, she’d lived with Barbara and Bobby, the other family Joe had kept secret.
The one the McCullen boys knew nothing about.
Well…except for Ray. And he didn’t know about her or Bobby…just Barbara.
Still, Joe had been the closest thing she’d ever had to a father.
She swiped at a tear, her hands trembling as she unfolded the letter he’d left for her before he’d passed.
My dearest Scarlet,
I was blessed to have sons. But I never had a daughter—until I met you.
My sweet girl, the moment I saw you in that orphanage and looked into those big, sad, blue eyes, you stole my heart. I admired your strength, your spunk and your determination to make it in this world, no matter what hard knocks life doled out for you.
You taught me how to be a better man, that family is not all about blood.
I’m sorry I didn’t have the courage to tell my sons about you and Barbara and Bobby when I was alive. In my own way, I thought I was protecting them, and protecting the three of you by keeping the two parts of my life separate.
Truthfully, Barbara and I…we were over a long time ago. She knew that and so did I. But I’m trying to do right by all of you now.
If you’re reading this, you must have received the envelope I left for you. I have willed you a sum of money to help you make a fresh start, and a piece of ranch land with a small cabin on it for your own home.
Bobby will also receive a share, although you know that he resents me, and he’s had his troubles, so I have placed stipulations on his inheritance.
But you…my dear, I know you will use your inheritance to further our work at The Family Farm and help the children, and that you will treasure everything Horseshoe Creek has to offer.
Ranching and living off the land has always been in the McCullen blood, and in our hearts.
Know that you are in my heart, as well.
Scarlet folded the letter again and slipped it inside the envelope, then shifted her Wrangler into Drive and wove down the path to the farmhouse Joe called home.
She wiped at a tear as she parked, and for a moment, she sat and admired the sprawling house with the big porch. It looked so homey and inviting that she could easily picture Joe here with his sons, enjoying family time riding on the land, big dinners over a table piled with homemade food and fishing in Horseshoe Creek.
But she had a bad feeling those sons wouldn’t welcome her.
Her stomach twisted at the idea of rejection, and she considered turning around and fleeing. Never contacting the McCullens and claiming what Joe had left her. Disappearing from Pistol Whip and starting over somewhere else.
Barbara and Bobby didn’t care about her. No one did.
Except Joe. He’d seen something in her that had inspired her to be a better person.
He’d made her feel loved, as if she was important, when she’d never felt loved or part of a family before.
She looked down at Joe’s handwriting again and remembered his words, and opened the door of her vehicle.
Joe had loved her and wanted her to have a piece of his land to remember him by.
She wanted it, too.
Like Joe said, she’d had hard knocks. She was a survivor and a fighter. But she also deserved love and a home.
She took a deep breath, strode up the porch steps to the front door, raised her fist and knocked.
Ray stared at the suitcase he’d brought with him when he’d come home, glad he hadn’t unpacked.
The itch to leave Horseshoe Creek burned in his belly. The burden of his father’s secret was just too damn much.
But the lawyer handling their father’s will had been out of town, so they still hadn’t dealt with that. And it would be something to deal with.
Maddox had also shocked him by asking him and Brett to stand up for him at Maddox’s wedding to Rose.
Dammit, seeing his oldest brother happy and in love had done something to him. Not that the brothers had repaired their relationship completely, but two weeks back together on the ranch had mellowed their fighting.
While Maddox and Rose were on their honeymoon, Ray had agreed to oversee the daily running of the ranch. He’d forgotten how much he liked riding and driving cattle.
Brett was busy drawing up plans for the house he and Willow were building for them and their son. They had married in a private ceremony, then moved in to one of the cabins on the property until their dream house was ready. Meanwhile, watching Brett with his little boy, Sam, had stirred up feelings Ray didn’t even know he had.
He shifted, uncomfortable with his thoughts. It wasn’t as if he wanted to get married or have a family. Not after the way his own had gotten screwed up.
He liked being alone. Liked hanging out in bars, meeting women who demanded nothing from him but a good night of sex. Liked owning his own private investigations business. He could take whatever case he wanted, travel to another state without answering to anyone and come home when he damn well pleased.
It’ll all be over soon, he reminded himself. Maddox and Rose would be back in a couple of days.
And so would Darren Bush, the lawyer handling the will.
Of course, if his father had made provisions for that woman in his will as he’d implied in his private conversation with Ray, the storm would hit.
Maddox and Brett would both be pissed as hell.
Maybe they could pay off the woman and she’d be out of their lives forever.
Then Ray could go back to his own life. Sink himself into a case and forget about family and being the outcast.
The front doorbell dinged, and Ray waited for Mama Mary, the family housekeeper and the woman who’d raised him and his brothers after their mother died, to answer it. But it dinged again, and he remembered she’d made a trip into town for groceries, so he jogged down the stairs.
When he opened the door, he was surprised to see a woman standing on the porch. Instinctively heat stirred in his belly. He didn’t know they made women like her in Pistol Whip.
She reminded him so much of those porcelain dolls his mother liked to collect that, for a moment, he couldn’t breathe.
She was petite with long wavy blond hair, huge oval-shaped baby blue eyes and milky white skin. A faint sprinkle of freckles dotted her dainty nose, making her look young and sweet. But that body told a different story. Her curves had been designed for a man’s hands.
The wind kicked up, swirling her hair around her heart-shaped face, and she shivered and hunched inside her coat.
He nodded. “Yeah. I’m one of them. Who are you looking for? Maddox? He lives here.”
She shrugged. “Actually I’d like to talk to Ray.”
Her whisper-soft voice sent his heart into fast motion. “That’s me.” Did she need a PI?
She shivered again, then glanced in the entryway. “May I come in?”
He realized she was cold, and that he’d been staring, and he stepped aside and waved her in. Good grief. Women didn’t normally cause him to stutter or act like a fool.
But the combination of her beauty and vulnerable expression mesmerized him.
A wary look crossed her face, but she squared her small shoulders and followed him inside to the den. A fire roared in the ancient brick fireplace, the rustic furnishings the same as they had been when Ray lived here years ago.
The manners Mama Mary had instilled in him surfaced. “Would you like some coffee?”
“That would be nice.” She clutched a patchwork homemade shoulder bag to her and sank onto the leather sofa in front of the fire.
He walked over to the sideboard in the adjoining dining area where Mama Mary always kept a carafe of hot coffee, then poured two cups.
“Cream or sugar?” he asked.
“Black,” she said, surprising him. Half the women he met wanted that froufrou fancy flavored coffee and creamer.
He handed her the cup and noticed her hand trembling. She wasn’t simply cold. Something was wrong.
“Now, you wanna tell me what this is about? Did my receptionist at McCullen Investigations tell you where I was?”
Again, she looked confused. “No, I didn’t realize you were a PI.”
Ray claimed the wing chair facing her and sipped his coffee. So, she wasn’t here for a case. “I don’t understand. If you don’t need my services, then what?”
She fidgeted. “I don’t know how to tell you this, except just to be up front.”
That sounded serious.
“My name is Scarlet Lovett. I knew your father, Ray. In fact, I knew him pretty well.”
Anger instantly shot through Ray. He’d been thinking how attractive she was, but he’d never considered that she might have been involved with his old man.
Well, hell, even from the grave, Joe McCullen kept surprising him. And disappointing…
He hardened his look. “Damn, I knew he had other women, but he was robbing the cradle with you.”
Those big eyes widened. “Oh, no, it wasn’t like that.”
“He was a two-timing, cheating liar.” Ray stood and paced to the fireplace as an image of his father in bed with Scarlet flashed behind his eyes. “How long was it going on?” And what did she want?
“Listen to me,” Scarlet said, her voice rising in pitch. “Your father and I were not involved in that way. He was nothing but honorable and kind to me.”
Yeah, I bet he was. He turned to her, not bothering to hide his disdain. “So what do you want?”
She set her coffee down and folded her arms. “He told me you were stubborn and resented him, but he didn’t say you were a jerk.”
Ray angled his head toward her. “You’re calling me names. Lady, you don’t even know me.”
“And you don’t know me.” Scarlet lifted her chin in defiance. “But if you’d be quiet and listen, I’d like to explain.”
Ray’s gaze locked with hers, rage and grief and other emotions he couldn’t define rolling through him.
The same emotions were mirrored in her own eyes.
Needing something stronger than coffee, he set the mug down, then strode to the bar and poured himself a finger full of scotch.
“I’ll have one of those, too,” she said.
He bit back a retort and poured her a shot then carried the glasses back to the fireplace. He handed her the tumbler, then sank into the wing chair and tossed his back in one gulp. “All right. You want me to listen. Say what you have to say, then get the hell out.”
* * *
Scarlet shuddered at Ray’s harsh tone. She’d seen pictures of him and his brothers, and knew Ray was the formidable one.
He was also the most handsome. Sure Brett was the charmer and Maddox was tough, but something about that dark, mysterious, haunted look in Ray’s eyes had drawn her.
Maybe because she understood how anger changed a person. She’d dealt with her own share over the years in the children’s home.
But Ray had been lucky enough to have a father who’d wanted him. Even if Joe McCullen hadn’t been perfect.
“So, spill it,” Ray said. “Why are you here?”
“This was a mistake.” She stood, fingers closing over the edge of her bag. “I’ll leave.”
She started past him, but Ray shot up and grabbed her arm. “No way you’re leaving until you tell me what the hell is going on.”
Her gaze met his, tension vibrating between them. She gave a pointed look at her arm where his fingers held her.
“Take your hands off me.”
For a brief second, something akin to regret glimmered in his expression. But he released her and stepped back. “I’m sorry. I don’t usually manhandle women.”
She wanted to believe him, but she’d met too many men who did. So she refused to let him off the hook.
His loud exhale punctuated the air. “Please sit down. I’ll behave.”
He looked so contrite that a tingle of something like respect danced through her. But she refrained from commenting as another image taunted her. One of Ray’s hands on her, tenderly stroking her, making her feel safe. No, not safe. Alive.
Ray McCullen was anything but safe.
And judging from his brusque attitude, he was going to hate her when he learned the reason for her visit.