True Love at Silver Creek Ranch - By Emma Cane

Chapter One

Her chestnut quarter horse, Sugar, was the first to notice something wrong, startling Brooke Thalberg from her troubled thoughts. The November wind high in the Colorado Rockies, just outside Valentine Valley, was unseasonably brutal, whipping snow off the peaks of the Elk Mountains like lumbering giants exhaling icy puffs of breath. Sugar raised her head, sniffing that wind, ears twitching, leaving Brooke unsettled, uneasy, as she rode the pastures of the Silver Creek Ranch. She was checking the fence line so that the cattle didn’t find their way through and wander toward someone else’s land.

It was usually peaceful work, but today she was looking down the long road of her future and feeling that something was . . . wrong. And she hated to feel that way because she’d been blessed with so much.

Sugar lifted her head and shook her mane, neighing, her body tensing. Whatever she sensed wasn’t going away. Brooke lifted her own head—

And smelled smoke.

A shot of fear made her vault upright in the stirrups. She scanned her family’s land, focusing on the house first, framed between clusters of evergreens and aspens. But its two-story log walls seemed as sturdy as always, a faint haze of smoke rising from the stone chimney. The newer barn and sheds nearest the house seemed fine, and gradually she widened her search until she saw the old horse barn, farthest from the house—smoke billowing through the open double doors.

She kicked Sugar into a gallop, leaning forward over the horse’s twitching ears, the breath frozen in her throat. Oh, God, the horses. Frantically, she saw that several trotted nervously around the corral as if they, too, knew something was wrong. She tried to count them, but it was as if her brain had seized with the terror of what she was seeing.

Sugar’s hooves thundered beneath her, faster than even in her barrel-racing days, the ground a blur. The smoke pouring out of the open door grew darker and more menacing, twisting Brooke’s fear ever higher.

At last she reached the barn and threw herself off Sugar’s back, stumbling momentarily in the dirt before she found her balance. The smoke made her lungs spasm in a cough, but even that didn’t make her second-guess what she had to do. She pulled her neck scarf up over the lower half of her face and ran inside, keeping to a crouch. Immediately, the world became darker as the smoke swirled around her. Her shallow breathing was hot and stifled beneath the scarf. If she let herself panic, she could become disoriented, lost, so she kept a firm grip on her emotions. She’d yet to see flames, but she could hear several horses, their neighs more like screams that tore at her heart.

“I’m coming!” she cried, flailing toward the stalls.

She ran into something hard and was only saved from falling to the ground by hands that clasped the front of her coat.

A man pulled her toward him, a stranger, tall and broad-shouldered, his face beneath his cowboy hat obscured by a scarf just like hers was. She could only see a glimpse of his narrowed, glittering eyes, focused intently on her. Who was he? Had he set the fire? she wondered with outrage.

“Are you all right?” He shouted to be heard above the growing roar of the fire and the frightened cries of the horses. “How many horses are there?”

For a moment, her mouth moved, and nothing came out. She saw the tack-room door hanging ajar, its interior full of fire that crackled and writhed. The sight momentarily stunned and mesmerized her, then she suddenly snapped into a sharp awareness. She couldn’t worry about who this man was or what he was doing there. He’d offered to help, and that was all that mattered. Mentally, she counted the horses she’d seen out in the corral. “Should be two inside—no three!”

“I’ll take that side”—he pointed through the smoke toward the west side of the barn—“and you start here.”

She nodded and turned her back, beginning to fling open each stall door. At the fourth door, she was met by hooves pawing through the air. She cried out, diving sideways as they slammed into the wall right beside her. Before Dusty could rear again, she grabbed a blanket hung near the door, flung it over his head, and grabbed ahold of his halter. For a moment he fought her, but she wouldn’t give up.

“Please, Dusty, be a good boy. Come on!”

At last he seemed to dance toward her, and she