Second Chance at Sunflower Ranch (The Ryan Family #1) - Carolyn Brown

Chapter One

Honey Grove billed itself as “The Sweetest Town in Texas.” Jesse Ryan certainly hadn’t agreed with that when growing up there, but as he drove back into town, he hoped things had changed in the past twenty years. The morning he had left—a lifetime ago—the sun had been low in the eastern sky. He’d hoped his best friend, Addy, would have at least shown up to wave goodbye, but she hadn’t. Jesse remembered all too well the lump in his throat that morning and the same feeling returned as he drove past the familiar sights in the small town.

He remembered how his mother, Pearl, had managed to hold back her tears until she had hugged him in front of the Air Force recruiter’s office in Paris, Texas. She had clung to him and wept on his shoulder.

“Mama, this is no different than if I was going to college,” he had said.

“It seems different to me.” She’d stepped back and looked at him like it was the last time she’d ever see him. “I love you, son.”

His father, Sonny, had kept a stiff upper lip, but had shaken his hand firmly. “This has always been your dream. Go make us proud.”

“Call and write when you can,” Pearl had whispered.

“I promise I will,” he had managed to get past the baseball-sized lump still in his throat. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

“We’ll look forward to that.” Sonny had grabbed him in a fierce hug.

Jesse had kept his promise and come home when he could, sometimes twice a year, but most of the time just around Thanksgiving so his team members with wives and kids could be with them at Christmas.

The sun peeked up over the horizon beyond the rolling hills of North Texas. That he had left at sunrise and was now coming home twenty years later at dawn seemed fitting. With the sun rising ahead of him, he was beginning a new chapter in his life—right back on Sunflower Ranch, where he’d grown up.

Not much had changed. The OPEN sign in the window of the same old doughnut shop that had been there forever flashed on just as he passed, and he was tempted to stop and buy a dozen to take home. But he forgot all about that when he saw a banner strung up across Main Street, announcing the Honey Grove Rodeo in a few weeks.

The banner wasn’t the same one that he’d seen in the rearview mirror when he left all those years ago, but it reminded him that not much ever changed in a small town. He made a left-hand turn at the first of two traffic lights, drove down the familiar road about three miles, and braked before he entered the ranch property. He rolled down the window of his pickup truck and inhaled the fresh country air. A south wind kicked up and caused the Sunflower Ranch sign above the cattle guard to squeak as it swung slowly back and forth on rusty hinges.

“First order of business after breakfast is to grease that sign,” Jesse said as he drove under the sign and down the long lane to the house. When he’d left, his two foster brothers, Lucas and Cody, had waved goodbye from the porch, but they weren’t there to greet him that morning. Cody was working for a program similar to Doctors Without Borders, and Lucas traveled all over the world training cutting horses.

A light from the kitchen window sent a long, yellow shaft out across the yard. He glanced down at the clock on the dashboard. “Mama will be making breakfast, and Dad will be sitting in his recliner reading the newspaper,” he muttered as he parked the truck beside two others just outside the yard gate. “I hope I can get used to rural life again.”

Truth be told, he was a little leery about getting out of his vehicle. Every time he called home—which was at least twice a week when he could get service—his mom and dad talked about what a good job Addison Hall was doing since she had moved to the ranch several years ago to help take care of Jesse’s father.

Addy would be in the house, and Jesse hadn’t spoken to her in nearly twenty years. Up until he went to the Air Force, she had been his best friend. His first memory of her was the two of them mutton bustin’ at the Honey Grove Rodeo and tying with her for first prize. They had