Chapter One

“Bo Ramsey’s back.”

The shock of her father’s words riveted Abby Houston to the spot where she stood at the kitchen sink, up to her elbows in dishwater. It took a minute for the words to sink in. When they did, she gripped the counter with soapy hands and waited for her heart rate to return to normal before she spoke.

“What did you say, Pop?” Surely she’d heard him wrong. That name had been censored from their conversation for almost two years. Hearing it now sent her stomach spiraling in a swirl of unwanted sensations. She hated experiencing symptoms that smacked of weakness, prided herself on being strong enough to close the door on her past. Now, it seemed her strength was about to be tested again.

She held her breath as Buck Houston crossed the room to stand next to her, sympathy written all over his aged face.

“Just thought you should know, kitten. I ran into Shorty Packer down at the feed mill earlier this morning. Said Bo’s staying with him out at his ranch. Been there more’n a week already.”

“I...I suppose he has a right to come back. He always did as he pleased.” Abby grabbed for a towel and busied her hands, angry because she couldn’t stop them from trembling. She was determined to keep that bit of emotion hidden from Pop’s scrutiny.

Buck snorted. “If you ask me, he’d be a heap smarter if he stayed away. Nobody in these parts will be too happy to see him again.” His arm went around his daughter’s shoulder in a comforting embrace.

“Have you seen him?” She couldn’t keep her voice steady. Where was the nonchalance she’d been practicing for so long? She blinked against angry tears.

Buck shook his head. “Nope, and I don’t want to, either. Got no use for the likes of him. You stop fretting, Abby-girl. Chances are that cowboy won’t be around long enough for your paths to cross. I just didn’t want you to be surprised when you heard it in town. You know how Sweet River folks love a good gossip. I’m surprised Shorty’s managed to keep the news a secret this long.” 

Abby leaned against Buck’s chest and let him hold her the way he’d done so many times during her growing-up years. There’d been just the two of them ever since she was twelve. Lord knows, he’d done his best to be both mother and father to her. She knew the real reason he fought to hang on to the often unproductive ranch was because of her. She’d watched him struggle to provide for her, often at great expense to himself. She understood his sacrifice and loved him dearly for always being her champion.

Somehow, they’d survived those lean years. How ironic that now, she was the one trying to keep the wolf from the door. There were a dozen students in the equine therapy program she directed, as well as inquiries from interested out-of-town parents. Her determination to ease the load on Pop’s shoulders was the motivation behind her drive to succeed. Bo Ramsey and her past were no longer important.

“Don’t worry about me, Pop. I’ll be fine. I’m sure Bo won’t try to see me. Why should he?” Her voice was soft and husky, its quiver hinting at the panic hovering just beneath the surface of her self-control.

“Abby, I wish...”

“Don’t, Pop. Don’t even start, okay? That was a long time ago and best forgotten.” She pulled away and started for the back door, grabbing her hat from the wall hook on her way out. “Let’s get the chores done before I go to town. I don’t have any students today, but I promised IdaJoy I would help during the lunch rush. Saturdays are the cafe’s busiest days.”

Abby was halfway to the barn before Buck caught up with her.