His loyalty is to his family.
But his heart belongs to her.
Eldest son Colt Garrett is the biggest, strongest and steadiest of the Garrett brothers. Colt accepts his responsibilities, knowing his future is tied to the land. Colt has stayed centered—but when he falls in love, he falls hard. He is mesmerized by Misty Dalton, the younger sister of one of his brother’s friends.
Misty Dalton has held together a family plagued with problems since her mother passed away. But when the threats to her family turn deadly, Misty turns to Colt. If anybody wants to hurt Misty, they’re going to have to go through the toughest of the Garrett boys first.
Colton Garrett was late.
He hated to be late for anything, but most especially anything having to do with his father. He could already see the disapproval in “Big Jim” Garrett’s eyes and hear his huff of impatience.
As the oldest of the Garrett sons, Colt was somehow expected to set a good example for the others. To be perfect, it seemed.
Colt heaved a sigh as he pulled his truck in at the auction barn and located a parking space. He knew his dad would already be there with his youngest brother, Beau.
Well, Colt’s tardiness couldn’t be helped. Just as he was preparing to leave the ranch and had barely climbed into his truck, his middle brother, Tyler, called, and he could hardly hang up on him.
Tyler, a rising country--western star, was on his first tour with his recently formed band. As a newlywed, Ty missed his bride, Leah, but since Leah’s eight--year--old daughter, Gracie, attended the local elementary school, Leah couldn’t exactly run off and join him on the road. Ty was lonesome and didn’t want to make Leah feel bad, but getting everything off his chest to his big brother had apparently done him a lot of good…or at least that’s what Ty had said.
Colt climbed out of his truck and stomped through the unpaved parking area, roiling up a layer of dust on his freshly polished boots. He frowned, realizing he would have to give them another shine if he planned to go to the weekly dance at the Eagles Hall in Langston that evening.
He had hoped to enjoy a few beers at the bar and a few dances with some of the local talent. Friday nights were meant for dancing and an end to the seemingly endless toil of keeping up with the sprawling Garrett ranch.
Colt entered the auction barn, looking around for his dad and his youngest brother.
The smell of fresh hay and animals mingled with Texas dust was a familiar aroma to a working cowboy.
“Hey, Colt!” Evan Burke greeted him. “Going to be at the Eagles tonight?”
“You betcha,” Colt responded. “Hey, have you seen my dad?”
Evan rolled his eyes. “Hard to miss Big Jim. He’s on the other side of the show barn, inspecting some stock. He was lookin’ for you earlier.”
“Yeah, I imagine he still is.” He gave Evan a clap on the shoulder and strode off to meet his fate. Not that Big Jim was anyone for his sons to fear, but he had a way of expressing his displeasure that left the unfortunate offender with no doubt as to their shortcomings. Colton didn’t like to be that person.
As the oldest of the three brothers, Colton was also the biggest. He was six foot four like his dad and had the shoulders of a linebacker. Making his way through the milling crowd was slow going, but at least he could see over most of them. He started when he heard a feminine yelp.
He had smacked into someone and turned just in time to grab her before she rebounded onto the ground. He was staring into the face of the most beautiful female he had ever laid eyes on, much less held in his arms. “Um, sorry,” he said.
She made a growl in the back of her throat. “Honestly! Colton Garrett, you need to watch where you’re going. You could kill a girl just by stomping all over her.”
Perplexed, he gazed into her dark eyes, seeking some recognition, but was unable to place this lovely young woman. “I didn’t mean to step on you… Uh, do I know you?”
She huffed again. “Oh, for Pete’s sake. Of course you do.” She pushed away and gave him a scowl before tossing her long, dark hair and striding off.
Colt gazed after her, trying to place her in the long line of girls he had known over the course of his lifetime there in Langston. He was certain the long--legged beauty hadn’t been in his graduating class in school. He would have surely remembered her.
She was tall, with legs up to her neck. Her butt was round, and Colt couldn’t stop staring as her rear moved with each step in her faded Wranglers. She wore a sleeveless Western shirt that snapped up the front and showed off her slim but well--toned arms to advantage. And her breasts…oh, yeah. She had ’em. Dang! Now he was standing in the milling throng of mostly male farmers and ranchers with a hard--on like a horny teenager.
Colt swept off his Stetson and held it waist high to cover his state while he raked his fingers through his hair.
But he couldn’t tear his gaze from the unknown female.
Her long, straight hair had been topped with a white--straw cowboy hat, and she wore an attitude as though she had a permanent case of get--the--hell--away--from--me.
Colt sighed. Casting back in his memory, he couldn’t think of any particular girl who had disliked him so openly. In fact, having been an all--star athlete in the local high school had made him pretty popular. Most of the local girls he knew had fallen all over themselves to make sure he was aware they found him attractive and totally desirable as a boyfriend. Of course, a lot of that had to do with the size of his father’s ranch. Girls who grew up in farm and ranch territory knew that God wasn’t making any more prime Texas real estate, and being a future heir to a considerable chunk of that land would have made him popular with the local female population even if he wore thick glasses and had buck teeth and a face full of zits.
Being a Garrett in this part of the world was generally thought to be a good thing. Why this particular girl didn’t think so was a puzzle to Colt. But he had no time to find out.
He followed along in the direction the mystery girl had taken, all the while keeping an eye out for Big Jim or Beau.
The latter individual hailed him with the wave of a hand. “Hey, Bubba.”
Colt cringed at the nickname. “Don’t call me that,” he admonished.
His youngest brother gazed up at him, his intense blue eyes, a Garrett characteristic, twinkling with mischief. “How about Mud? That’s what I’m thinking your name is. You better go make nice with Dad. He sent me to find you.” He grinned. “Or, I should say, to ‘see if you had gotten your lazy ass out of bed yet.’”
Colt drew in a deep breath and let it out, shaking his head as he did so. “I’m in trouble?”
“Not so much. Dad’s got his eye on some horses. He wants you to take a look at the lot of ’em and give your opinion.”
Colt gazed at Beau with an exaggerated look of surprise. “Me? He wants my opinion?” He placed his hand on his broad chest.
Beau gave him a shove. “Don’t be an ass. Of course he does. The opinion of the lowly little brother counts for nothin’…but you…” He gave Colt another nudge. “You da big expert.”
Colt grinned, emitting a wry chuckle. “And you da lil’ bro who gets off easy.”
Beau raised his brows. “You think it’s been easy growing up in your shadow?”
Colt grunted. “You think it’s been easy breaking ground and paving the way for you two losers?”
The brothers kept up their good--natured teasing as they strolled toward the show barn.
Colt put his Stetson back on his head and looked around. “Hey, do you know who that girl is up ahead? The one with the long, dark hair?”
“And that bodacious backside?”
They both stared at the aforementioned rear with due reverence and fascination.
“Yup, that’s the one.”
“That, big bro, is Joe Dalton’s little sister. None other than the lovely Misty Dalton. What do you think? Pretty hot, huh?”
Colt felt as though he’d been sucker--punched. Joe’s little sister… She couldn’t be more than nineteen or twenty to his twenty--eight. Too young. Way too young. “Why haven’t I seen her around before?”
“Roll your tongue back in your head, Colt. You’re gonna trip on it.”
Colt took a long look. “She knew who I was, but I couldn’t place her.”
“You graduated and were off at college before she hit high school. No reason you would have noticed her… Hell, she’s a couple of years younger than me. For you, she would practically be jailbait.”
“Shut up.” Colt continued to fill his eyes with the rare beauty.
She walked with a certain graceful bearing that he found appealing, like a queen among her subjects. Head high, back straight. Her wide--set dark eyes flicked around the crowd as though she too searched for someone.
Colt felt a tug of something he was surprised to recognize as jealousy. He hoped she wasn’t looking for her boyfriend…or, worse still, her husband. He cleared his throat. “Do you know if she’s married or going with someone?”
Beau gave him a sharp glance. “Man, you’re not kidding, are you? Is this a case of that ‘love at first sight’ thing I’ve heard about?”
Colt chuckled. “Well, it seems to have worked out for Ty.”
Beau cocked his head to one side and stroked his chin. “Sure did,” he muttered.
Misty Dalton scanned the churning crowd for either one of her brothers. Joe was dead set on selling off the Dalton stock, no matter what she or her little brother, Mark, thought about it. With their dad so very ill, she supposed they didn’t have much choice, but it killed her to see the pain in Mark’s eyes over losing his beloved Appaloosa stallion. He was only twelve years old and had raised the horse from a colt.
This was just too much misery for one so young to bear. At least she had gotten to enjoy a childhood with both parents.
When their mother was alive, things had been different. Her mom had been a cheerful, churchgoing woman, a “treasure above rubies,” according to her dad.
But when her mom was killed, riding on the church bus to a women’s retreat, everything changed. The remaining family members seemed to have stopped functioning when they buried their matriarch. They slogged through their days with no particular plan or ambition. Misty was only fifteen at the time, and somehow it had fallen to her, as the surviving female in the household, to shop for groceries and produce simple meals, to wash dishes and do laundry. At first, Joe shouldered a lot of the responsibility for the ranch, while their father had fallen into the bottle, deadening his pain with liquor to make it through the sleepless nights. Now, he was dying of liver disease and stomach cancer. Not fair. The whole thing is just not fair.
Misty pressed her lips together and swept the hall with her gaze again, searching for Mark or Joe. She blew out an exasperated breath when she spied the Garrett brothers. Big assholes. She compared the two, walking side by side.
Beau, the younger one, had gone to school with Joe. She guessed he was okay. Not bad to look at. Despite being tall and broad-shouldered, he almost appeared downright puny standing next to the other one. Colton. Mr. Everything at Langston High.
She could see his eyes from where she stood. Bright blue, almost turquoise, set in his tanned face. Ringed with black lashes all around to match his dark, dark hair. He wore an expensive Western shirt and Wranglers that fit just right, showing off his muscular thighs. Sitting on his head was a soft gray Stetson. Absolutely freakin’ perfect, Mr. Check Me Out, I’m a Hot Cowboy.
She knew her brother Joe had looked up to his friend Beau’s big brother. Idolized him, in fact. Colton Garrett went out for all sports and seemed to do well in all of them, and like in all small towns, Langston citizens were very supportive of their athletes. She recalled all the games where her entire family had sat together on the sidelines, cheering on the local boys.
She pressed her lips together. Those had been good days, but then her family had fallen apart.
Yes, Colton Garrett had been everything Joe Dalton aspired to be. An athlete. A scholar. And rich.
Too bad Joe had never been any of those things, and if Fred Hamilton, the president of the bank, had anything to say about it, the Daltons would be penniless and tossed off their land soon enough.
Poor Dad. He hadn’t been able to work much the past couple of years. Joe was doing his best, but it seemed to be too big of a task for him to take on all the responsibility for the ranch by himself. Joe just wasn’t cut out for ranching, much to the disappointment of their father.
Paco and Rosa Hernandez, the older couple who had lived on the ranch for as long as she could remember, helped out a lot. Paco would till the fields and tend the stock, but he was getting old too. She huffed out a sigh. The Hernandezes were drawing no salary for all their hard work, just food and a place to live… This was the situation since the Daltons had fallen on such hard times. They were indeed like family, and Misty loved them dearly.
Sadly, the one who loved the ranch the most was way too young to take over.
Mark had a deep and abiding kinship with the ranch and the stock. He seemed to have a natural affinity for all the animals and some kind of sixth sense about the crops. Too bad it would all be gone before long.
Misty spotted Mark leaning against the metal wall and motioned for him to join her.
He pushed away from the wall and approached, his gaze cast down and his lips tight with anger and sorrow.
She looped an arm around his neck, giving him an awkward hug. “Let’s gut up and get this over with.”
“I hate him. He didn’t have to put my horse in with the others. He knows how much I love Sam.”
“I know how you must feel, but I’m pretty sure Joe is trying to sell off everything we can while we still own it.” She gave him a surreptitious kiss on his temple and pulled him along with her. “Be brave, honey. Let’s go say goodbye and hope we get top dollar. We sure do need it.”
Mark made a scoffing sound deep in his throat. “I wish I was dead.”
“No, you don’t. I need you. Be strong now.”
He fell into step beside her as they made their way into the big show barn where the auction would take place and then out the side door where the various lots of horses were grouped for the prospective bidders to inspect.
Although Colton’s attention had been captured by the lovely Misty Dalton, the minute he entered the show barn, he was forced to pay homage to his father.
Big Jim stood by the railing with one eyebrow raised as his sons approached. “Well, good afternoon, Colt. Glad to see you could make it.”
“It’s barely 10 a.m., Dad. Gimme a break.”
“Give me a break,” Big Jim insisted. “I wanted you to take a look at the horses out back. I’m particularly interested in two different lots. Go check them out, and then tell me what you think.”
“Sure.” Colt thought he was getting off easy and wondered what it was about the horses that had his father so excited.
“Check out lots 236 and 211. Looks like some good stock there.” Big Jim pounded him on the shoulder and moved away from the railing. “Beau and I are going to the cattle barn. I’m lookin’ to add a little breeding stock to the herd.” He put his hand on Beau’s shoulder but kept his gaze fastened on Colton. “You might want to think about investing in some stock too, Son.”
Beau laughed. “Yeah, you can afford it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Colt watched his father and brother head out behind the show barn to the area where cattle were being offered in lots for inspection before the auction. He blew out a breath, headed for the area marked Horses, and stepped outside where portable fences cordoned off the different lots of horses grouped for sale.
He found lot 236 and gave his approval. There were six beautiful Arabs being offered. Just the kind of horse to catch his dad’s eye. One stallion and five fillies. The stallion was antsy, dancing a little on his fine hooves, his neck arched as he looked over the crowd. Yes, perfect for Big Jim Garrett.
Colt moved down the line to locate the other horses Big Jim had deemed worthy. At the very end of the line, he found lot 211. This was a mixed lot with a big Appaloosa stallion, a roan gelding, a couple of Appaloosa fillies, and two sorrel fillies. Not a bad lot at all.
A young boy was leaning against the fence, stroking the stallion’s neck. Silent tears were running unchecked down his face.
Cute kid. He had dark hair in need of a trim and a few freckles scattered across his nose. His clothes were worn, and his boots were scuffed.
“Hey, son,” Colt said. “This looks like a good horse. What can you tell me about him?” He reached to give the horse’s nose a stroke.
The boy sniffed. “He is a great horse. His name is Sam. I raised him from the time he was a foal.”
“Good job. And now you’re selling him?”
“No,” the boy moaned. “My big brother is. He says we need the money and we can’t afford the feed anymore.”
Colt felt a tightness invade his chest. “That’s too bad. What’s your name, boy?”
“Mark,” he answered. “Mark Dalton. I’m only twelve. If I was older I could get a job and pay for his feed.”
At the name Dalton, Colt sucked in a breath. Mark had the same coloring as Misty. Maybe a younger sibling? “My name is Colton Garrett. You can call me Colt. Maybe we could work something out.” He chatted with the boy for a bit and then returned to the auction barn.
From the entrance, he glanced back and saw Misty approaching the boy. She handed him a canned soft drink and gave him a hug.
Colt could see the pain on her face as well. He recalled the boy’s words that they couldn’t afford to buy feed for their stock. Sad state for a family.
“Well, hell,” Big Jim exploded. “When I suggested you might want to buy some stock, I didn’t mean for you to buy the lot I was interested in.”
Colt grinned at him. “My mistake, Dad. I thought you would be satisfied with those fine Arabs and leave the other lot for me.”
“Mistake, my ass!” Big Jim was grumbling, but he finally admitted he was glad Colton had invested in some horses on his own. Why this particular lot, Colt couldn’t explain.
“Dunno, Dad. That big Appaloosa looked like he could sire a few good foals, and the Appaloosa fillies are fine too.”
“I’m glad you broke loose with some of that money you’ve been sitting on forever.” Big Jim shook his silvered head, piercing his son with the intensity of his blue eyes. “I’ve paid you for working on the ranch since you were in grade school. I’ve never seen a kid hoard cash the way you do. I’m just glad you finally found something to invest in.”
“I have other horses,” Colt said, a defensive note in his voice.
“Gifts. Every one of your horses has been a gift.”
Colt grinned. “You can give me those Arabs anytime you want.”
Big Jim snorted. “Not a chance. I’m going to the cattle auction now, unless you want to buy the lot I’m planning to bid on.”
Colt slapped Big Jim on the shoulder. “No, you go ahead. Maybe Beau will bid on them.” He watched as Big Jim shook his head and made his way to the cattle area.
He turned to find Mark Dalton gazing up at him. “Hey, son.”
“Did you mean what you said?” the boy asked.
Colt regarded him seriously. “Sure did. Are you agreeable?”
A grin split Mark’s face. “Are you kidding? Yes.” He stuck out his hand.
Colt shook it, somberly. “So, we’re partners, right?”
The boy nodded.
“And you’ll ride the bus out to the Garrett ranch after school to give Sam some exercise and do other jobs for me?”
Another gleeful nod.
“I’ll drive you home after your work is done. I’m going to pay you, and you can buy Sam back from me anytime you see fit.”
“Yes!” Mark shook hands enthusiastically.
“Deal,” Colt said. “See you Monday afternoon.” He turned to watch Mark race out of the show barn, a grin plastered across his face.
“I don’t know what you’re planning, but you better not break my brother’s heart.”
Colton whirled around to find Misty Dalton gazing up at him. Not an ounce of trust in those dark eyes. “I assure you I had no such intentions.”
“He’s had enough pain and disappointment to last a lifetime. I won’t let you hurt him again.” Her lower lip trembled, and Colt had to stop himself from reaching out to stroke her cheek. Her skin was alabaster white, setting off the large, dark eyes to perfection.
He reached for her hand instead. “I understand how you feel about your little brother. I have two of them, and I feel the same way.” Her hand felt small tucked inside his large one.
She lifted her chin slightly, still skewering him with her dark gaze. “But you’re big enough to stop anyone who tried to hurt them.” She wrested her hand from his grasp.
He nodded. “I am, but I respect your feelings, and I would never do anything to cause Mark any pain. I grew up on a ranch, and my dad paid me for my chores. I’ll do the same for Mark. It will be good for him and good for me too.”
“But why are you doing this?” she persisted.
He heaved a sigh. “Why not? Can’t I just take an interest in Mark? He was so heartbroken at losing the horse. I wanted to help him.”
Her expression softened. “Okay,” she said reluctantly.
He was curious as to why this family was in financial trouble. Not being able to afford to feed one’s stock was indeed a problem. “I’m sorry you had to sell your horses, but be secure in the knowledge that they will be well cared for at the Garrett ranch.”
She nodded, pressed her lips together, and suppressed a shiver. “Good to know… My father is ill, and it pained him to agree to sell, but my brother Joe convinced him it was for the best.”
Colton considered the young woman in front of him. He had to admire her courage as well as her beauty. “I’m sorry your father is ill,” he said. “I wish him a speedy recovery.”
Her lips twitched. “He’s on hospice.”
The full weight of her pronouncement settled heavily on him. “Tough break. Will you and your brothers be okay?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so.” She turned away, grimacing.
“Well, I hope to see you again sometime.” Colton raised a hand, but she walked away from him so, he thought, he wouldn’t see her tears.
June Faver loves Texas, from the Gulf coast to the panhandle, from the Mexican border to the Piney Woods. Her novels embrace the heart and soul of the state and the larger-than-life Texans who romp across her pages. A former teacher and healthcare professional, she lives and writes in the Texas Hill Country.