Roped Tight (Ryker Ranch #4) - Kim Loraine
My brothers and I hauled the ten-foot-tall Christmas tree in from the back of Clint’s truck, the smell of spruce and sap sharp in my nose. It was already the first of December. A month past when Mama usually had the house decked out for the holiday. But with my family’s ranch being the subject of a hit reality TV show and Mama’s serious heart attack not long ago, everything had been delayed. I wanted them to cancel the show, kick all these people off our property, and forget about the money they were making. I was a champion bull rider, well, I had been. Now I was retired, home for good, and ready to do my part to keep the family business going. But they wouldn’t hear it. Apparently, since I’ve been gone the last ten years, they figured out how to exist without me around.
My sisters-in-law, Penny and Ever, were helping my baby sister Sera hang a lighted wreath over the big front room window while Mama and my brother’s new wife Hazel used a needle and thread to make popcorn and cranberry garland for the tree. I couldn’t help but smile. I hadn’t been home for longer than a few days at a time until this year. I usually missed all this. The preparing, the traditions, the nights spent by the fire watching movies, sharing stories, playing cards at the old kitchen table.
Fuck, this tree was heavy. The spiky needles poked into my arm even through the thick fabric of my flannel shirt. “All right, boys, let’s get this beast set up.”
Clint chuckled. “Goin’ soft in your old age, Sammy.”
“You’re older than me.”
“Come on, guys, I’m the one trapped at the ass end of this thi—”
“Tristan Nicholas, I know I didn’t just hear you curse in my house,” Mama interrupted Tristan, and the rest of us snickered.
We settled the giant tree in front of the window and let the girls dictate whether it was straight or not. After a few tries, we had it locked in, and Mama gave her seal of approval.
“I think this is the biggest tree we’ve ever had,” Tristan said, sauntering over to his new bride.
Hazel’s smile had been wide and bright as she watched my brother carry the admittedly heaviest part of the tree, but now that he was sitting beside her, she looked radiant. Her palm rested on her swollen belly, wedding band glinting in the light. I couldn’t believe my baby brother was the second of us to get hitched. He was so damn happy with Hazel. They all were happy. I fought the wave of jealousy that tried to take me under. I gave up my one chance at love a long time ago.
“Sam, would you bring in some more firewood? And let the ranch hands know I’ve got hot cider ready in the kitchen. They’re all welcome to come get some.”
My chest tightened. I hadn’t talked to most of them for more than a few minutes at a time since I came home. I liked working on my own. It was why bull riding was so right for me. It was just me and the bull, no one else to tell me what to do. “Sure, Mama.”
I strode through the living room and down the hall until I reached the kitchen. The back door opened, and Tucker Weston stepped inside, snow on his shoulders, his hat hiding his eyes. He took off the dark felt Stetson and hung it on the hook, locking gazes with me as he began shrugging out of the heavy coat he wore.
“Sammy,” he said, brow furrowed.
“Don’t call me that.”
I might as well have clocked him. He flinched, the hurt in his eyes making my stomach twist. “Sorry. I just… Mama mentioned the tree was going up today. I brought her something to add.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out an ornament, a beautiful hand-carved stallion that looked like it was running in the wind.
“She’ll love it.”
He shrugged. “Had a bit of extra time while I was recovering.” My chest grew tight at the memory of me finding him thrown from his horse, unconscious and bleeding, only a few weeks ago. That had been the first time we’d spoken since my return home.
Holding out my hand, I waited for him to give the ornament to me, but he looked at my palm like it might hurt him. Then his fingers brushed mine, and the present was there.
“Tucker!” Mama called, pure joy in her