Janet Dailey Award Winner & RITA Finalist
The Last Chance Ranch
A WOUNDED SOUL
For years Tanya had dreamed of the day she’d be free, and able to be with the young son for whom she’d sacrificed everything. Antonio was her baby, her entire reason for living…
A PASSIONATE HEART
Ramon had known that someday, some way, his adopted son’s mother would return. For Antonio, he’d tried to build a secure and loving home. But for Tanya, his deep brown eyes spoke of passion, not just security…life, not just existence. Only he could give her back her son…but could she find the courage to accept everything else he offered?
THE LAST CHANCE RANCH
Read an Excerpt
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
On her twenty-second birthday, Tanya Bishop took her three-year-old son Antonio to see a Disney movie. They returned home late, and Antonio was asleep on her shoulder when she unlocked the door.
She knew Victor had found her again the minute she stepped into the house. Something just didn’t feel right.
Halting on the threshold with Antonio asleep in her arms, Tanya listened to the darkness. Her instincts prickled. From the kitchen came the predictable plop of water from the leaky faucet, and the warm hum of the refrigerator. Though she waited a full minute, holding her breath, she heard nothing else.
Cautiously, she eased in far enough to flip on the lights in the living room. The lamp on the coffee table burst alive and illuminated a room that looked exactly as it had when she left. A little cluttered but basically clean.
Still she held the slack body of her son against her and waited, listening for another moment. Nothing.
Tanya walked to the kitchen, inky dark at the end of the hall. Her footsteps made the old floor creak. In her arms, Antonio stirred and lifted his head, then settled it again on her shoulder. She could feel his hot, moist breath on her neck.
In the kitchen, she lost her nerve to be still and quiet, and flipped on the light in a rush. The fluorescent tubing spluttered as it always did, the gases heating slowly, dimly, then flaring to abrupt life.
On the floor, in shattered, tiny pieces, was Tanya’s china. The exquisite saucers and one-of-a-kind dinner plates that she had collected for years were shattered all over the kitchen. He’d ground some below his boots, for the china was powdered in places, and the linoleum below it gouged with the ferocity of Victor’s rage.
Tanya stared at the leavings of his violence and fought back tears. She had a restraining order against him, but he ignored it. Seven times she’d called the police and signed complaints. In desperation, she had gone into hiding, moving every three months so he would never know for sure where she was. He tracked her each time, once all the way to Santa Fe.
A deep and painful ache of fear beat in her chest. This time, he would kill her. Two days ago, he’d accosted her at a supermarket, in front of witnesses, and the police had arrested him. Now he was out of jail, and he knew where to find her.
Very slowly, she backed out of the kitchen.
* * *
It all counted against her later.
Tanya settled Tonio on the couch and filled his day-care bag with extra clothes, his teddy bear and the blanket he could not sleep without, plenty of underwear and his favorite toys. Then she sat down in her kitchen, brushing shards of china from the table and chair, and wrote her son a letter that she tucked in among his things.
She took him to a day-care home she trusted, then drove back to her house. It was just past eleven.
In the ruins of her kitchen, she sat down to wait.
And as she waited, she remembered… Victor, winking at her across the crowded school auditorium the first time she’d seen him. The gentle trembling of his hands as he kissed her the first time. The passionate avowals of love he’d pressed upon her. The flowers he brought in apology when his temper had got the better of him. The jealous rages that had become more and more frequent….
At 2:37, she heard Victor at the back door, drunk and cursing as he jimmied the lock. She lifted the phone and dialed 911.
Victor kicked the door. “I’m gonna kill you, Annie!” He kicked it again and the windows rattled under the impact.
To the girl at the end of the emergency line, Tanya said, “I need the police at 132 Mariposa. A man is breaking into my house.” She knew if she said it was her ex-husband the police wouldn’t come as quickly.
Victor roared an obscenity and kicked the door. Tanya winced. “Please hurry,” she begged and dropped the phone. She ran for her bedroom, hearing the threshold splinter as Victor barreled into the back room. He roared his name for her. Tanya scrambled in her drawer for the loaded revolver she’d put there, and rushed into the bathroom.
In the bathroom, she locked the door and crouched in a corner, praying in the nonsensical words of the terrified, “Please, please, please.” The words meant please make him go away and please don’t let him find me and please don’t let him hurt me anymore. Last time, oh, last time—
“Annie!” In the living room, she heard things breaking, and chairs being overturned, and a low growling roar that struck a panting, mindless terror through her. He didn’t even know he did it. But that animal sound meant his temper was beyond all mortal limits, that drink and rage had turned him into a beast.
A beast that had mauled her in the past.
Not again. She clasped the gun between her violently trembling, sweaty hands. In the distance, she heard sirens.
Please, please, please.
“Annie!” Something else was turned over. He kicked or hit the bathroom door and Tanya couldn’t halt the sob of terror that escaped her lips. She closed her eyes as he began to batter the door, lifted the gun as he yelled her name again. Tears came. Tears for everything—so many good things and so many bad—ran in great washes down her cheeks. She had to use a wrist to wipe them away.
The sirens came closer. The door gave with a splintering sound. Victor, savage as a rabid bear, tumbled into the room.
Not again! her heart cried. Not again.
Sobbing, Tanya aimed the gun at his chest and pulled the trigger.
It was the last thing she remembered.
They called him a hanging judge. Everybody says it might have gone better if I’d had the money for a real good lawyer, but I didn’t, so I’m going to spend a long time behind bars.
Maybe it would be okay if I could see you sometimes, but your dad’s sisters want you protected. From me, I guess. And someone has to take care of you while I’m in here. If I do what they want, then I can pick who takes care of you. It won’t be one of them.
So I signed the papers they brought to me, giving custody to your dad’s cousin, Ramón Quezada. He’s a fine man, and very smart. He’ll take good care of you.
Eleven years later
As the bus pulled into the dun-colored adobe bus station at Manzanares, New Mexico, Tanya Bishop scanned the concrete apron for the man who was supposed to be meeting her. She remembered Ramón Quezada from a wedding reception fifteen years ago. She had danced with him. He’d been skinny then, an intense and bespectacled college student. His probing intelligence had intrigued and thrilled her even as it made her uncomfortably aware of all she wanted to understand and didn’t.
Her most vivid memory of Ramón, however, was the tape that had held his glasses together after Victor hit him for dancing with her.
Peering through the bus windows, Tanya saw no one who even remotely fit her memories. She clutched her purse more tightly in her fingers, feeling the leather grow slick against her palms. What if he’d forgotten he was supposed to meet her?
No. Ridiculous. She took a steadying breath. He would not forget. Ranión was responsible, trustworthy, honest and loyal—all the things his cousin Victor had not been.
All the things Antonio needed.
As the brakes on the lumbering bus whooshed to a stop, Tanya saw a man come through the glass doors that led to the inner terminal. He was dressed all in black—black jeans, black cotton cowboy shirt with pearlescent snaps, black jean jacket lined with sheepskin. Her stomach flipped. He sort of looked like Ramón. But that couldn’t be the skinny man-child she remembered.
He was the right height—Ramón had been rather tall. He was the right age—about middle thirties now. But that lean, dangerous creature could not possibly be the same man she’d danced with so long ago. She leaned forward, frowning in disbelief.
It was him. Ramón Quezada, her late husband’s cousin, the fearless leader of the Last Chance Ranch, and her son Antonio’s adoptive father.
He bore the distinctive Quezada family stamp, a long-limbed grace that spoke of centuries of working with horses; hair so black it seemed to gleam with internal light; even the arrogant nose, so beautifully formed, high-bridged and straight. A conquistador’s nose, Tanya thought. And the high cheekbones were Apache. A hard lot, the Quezadas. Fighting men.
Time had done good things to him. Tanya clutched her bag to the sudden ache in her chest. Ramón’s long wavy hair curled in an unruly way around his neck, inviting female fingers to smooth it. He moved with the calm ease of a man at home with himself and his world. Tanya saw a woman pause at the doors and take a second look over her shoulder at him.
Passengers filed down the aisle beside her, but Tanya found herself frozen in her seat, her gaze riveted to the spot where he waited, his intense gaze fixed on the disembarking passengers. She had briefed herself on everything from the right clothes to bring to a ranch for troubled boys, to brushing up on her colloquial Spanish, to the enormous task of girding herself to see her son again after eleven years. She had even braced herself to hide her identity from that son, in order to allow a relationship to develop naturally between them.
She had not prepared herself to deal with a man who wore an aura of sex appeal like a second skin.
Had he always looked like this and she’d just been too much in love with Victor to notice? A pair of glasses might have hidden the stoked passion in his eyes, or covered the clean beauty of his bone structure, but nothing could have concealed a mouth so richly formed, so dangerously seductive.
Staring at him from the greatly mature age of thirty-three, Tanya thought—not for the first time—that she had been one of the most foolish young girls ever to inhabit the planet.
Another woman might have sighed in pleasure at the prospect of living in close quarters with such a man for the next few months. Another woman might have allowed the dark wash of desire to flow through her in anticipation of kindling the banked passion in that face. Another woman might have let her gaze wander over that lean, long-limbed body and wondered how it would feel against her own.
Tanya did not have the luxury.
For one long moment of panic, she considered just staying on the bus, letting it carry her to the next stop. From there, she’d call the ranch and tell Ramón she’d changed her mind.
On the platform, he glanced around with a frown, and Tanya knew she couldn’t walk away. He’d done a lot for her, even more for her son Antonio.
And if she didn’t get off the bus now, her chances of ever seeing her son again were next to nothing.
Clutching her bag to her chest, Tanya stood up. Around her, the last passengers murmured in a musical mingling of Spanish and English. She took in a long breath and squared her shoulders, then marched down the aisle.
Outside on the platform, Tanya lost sight of Ramón. People surged around her—grandmothers gathering children, sweethearts hugging each other—and Tanya was struck unexpectedly with a sharp arrow of joy. She was free! Not as she had been at the halfway house, but truly and honestly free. Free to smell diesel fuel and hear ordinary swearing, free to touch people and be bumped. Through the garage door, she caught a glimpse of dark clouds rolling in from the west, and it occurred to her that she was free to stand in the rain if she chose. For as long as she wanted to…
A male voice sounded at her elbow, “Annie?”
The pet name was uttered in a voice almost too familiar—slightly accented and beautifully sonorous. A bolt of terror replaced her joy, and she squeezed her eyes tight. It was just a nightmare, she told herself, a nightmare like all the others she had suffered the past eleven years, dreams of Victor coming after her again. Cold sweat broke out on her body.
The man at her side touched her arm, as if to steady her, and Tanya yanked away violently, nearly stumbling in her haste to get away.
Reason belatedly waded into her terror. It wasn’t Victor, because Victor was dead. Tanya halted, then turned very slowly.
Ramón stood there, even more overwhelmingly attractive at close range. He kept his distance a little warily; his hands lifted, palms out, to show her he wouldn’t hurt her. She was sure he was wondering what kind of basket case he’d saddled himself with.
“Please don’t call me Annie,” she said in a tone as even as she could muster. “It was Victor’s name for me. No one else ever called me that.”
“I’m sorry.” There was genuine regret in his voice. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” Ramón reached for the duffel bag that contained all her earthly goods. “Let’s put this in the truck, all right?”
Mutely, Tanya followed him into the dark autumn day. A sharp wind blew from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, slicing viciously through her thin cloth coat. With a small shiver, she clutched it closer to her body, bending her head into the burst of bitter wind.
Ramón caught the movement. “Not much of a coat for this kind of weather.” Reaching into the cab, he brought forth a down parka and held it out to her. “It’s a nasty day, but Indian summer will be back tomorrow.”
Tanya was unaccustomed to simple kindness, and for a minute, she hesitated. A gust of wind blasted them, tossing hair over Ramón’s solemn face. With a dark, long-fingered hand, he brushed it away.
“Thank you,” she said. Shyly, she traded coats, giving him the old one, which he tossed into the truck.
Buttoning his own jacket, he asked, “What would you like for lunch—American or Mexican? The Blue Swan has great green chili, and Yolanda’s has good fried chicken.”
Tanya shrugged. “I don’t care.”
“Me, either,” he said. “You choose.”
She didn’t want to choose. She’d used up all her reserves of emotional energy, and there was still Antonio to think about. For herself, she’d like the green chili, but maybe Ramón would like hamburgers. She said nothing.
Nor did he. The silence between them stretched to a strained, awkward length. Tanya stuffed her hands in her pockets and waited.
At last he prodded her. “What would you like—Tanya? Can I call you Tanya?”
“Tanya is fine.” She took a breath and chose, watching his face carefully for subtle signs of disapproval. “I guess green chili sounds good.”
He smiled. The expression transformed his face, giving a twinkle to the depthless eyes, adding emphasis to the high slant of cheekbones. Tanya’s chest, tight with anxiety, eased with an abruptness that made her almost dizzy. She’d made the right choice.
* * *
Ramón stirred sugar into his coffee and watched Tanya carefully tear the wrapping from a straw. From the speakers in the ceiling came a soft Spanish ballad, mournful with strummed guitars and flutes. For a moment, he was transported to another day, another time, when he’d danced with this woman, when she had been a sweet, pretty young girl…and he’d fallen in love.
In those days, he’d often fallen in love. More often than not, his passion had gone unrequited. Upon meeting Tanya for the first time, so many years ago, he’d thought his infatuation was like all the others.
But in Tanya’s beautiful dark blue eyes there had been an almost painful yearning for things unnamable and unattainable. It had struck him deeply. As he’d held her loosely, her blond hair spilling over her shoulders, her youthful eighteen-year-old body swelling just slightly with the baby in her tummy, she’d told him about a book she was reading, Tortilla Flat. She’d said the name as if it were new, as if no one had ever discovered it before, and there had been magic and wonder in her tone, in her sweet innocence.
That she had reached the age of eighteen without knowing such a work existed, that she could find it on her own and love it with such passion, had touched Ramón in some quiet place. Until that day, he’d been too enmeshed in his anger to see what was plain if only he looked around him—a person didn’t have to be brown or black or red to suffer the indignities of ignorance and poverty. The realization that social class, not race, was the great deciding factor in American society had changed his life.
They had talked all afternoon, while Victor—Tanya’s husband and Ramón’s cousin—drank in the bar with the wedding party. They talked about books and movies, about ideas and hopes and plans. As he listened to her sweet, soft voice, and watched her eyes shine with excitement, Ramón had fallen in love.
And when Victor, drunk and evil-tempered, broke Ramón’s cheekbone, Ramón had almost felt it was deserved. Tanya was Victor’s wife, after all.
Ramón had gone back to Albuquerque, to his Latin American studies, and had tried to wipe the beautiful young girl from his mind. He hadn’t known until almost a year later that Tanya, too, had paid for that golden afternoon. Victor had beaten her senseless and she’d landed in the hospital with seven broken bones, including ribs and wrist. By some miracle, the baby had survived. Tanya briefly left her husband after the hospital had released her, but Victor promised to give up drinking. Tanya had returned to him, and Victor kept his promise.
For a little while, anyway.
Looking now at the woman the girl had become, Ramón felt a little dizzy with lost chances and lost hopes and ruined dreams. She was not the softly round girl he’d been smitten with that day so long ago. Her hair was not curled and wispy, but cut straight across so it hung like a gleaming golden brown curtain at her shoulders. Her face and body were thinner and harder, lean as a coyote’s. She had a long, ropy kind of muscle in her upper arms, the kind that came from sustained hard work.
Her exotically beautiful blue eyes were wary as they met his. “Do I have something on my chin?” she asked.
He shook his head, smiling. “Sorry. I was just remembering the last time I saw you.”
The faintest hint of a smile curved her pretty mouth. “Boy, that was forever ago. Another lifetime.”
“It was.” He took a breath, trying to think of a way to pick his way through the minefield of memories. He opted for flattery. “You were so pretty I couldn’t believe you danced with me.”
A small wash of rose touched her cheeks. She glanced out the window, then back to him. “What I remember is how smart you were. You talked to me like I was smart, too. It meant a lot to me.”
Ramón smiled at her, feeling a warmth he’d thought far beyond his reach. “Me, too.”
At that moment, the waitress brought their food. Ramón leaned back and let go of a breath as the waitress put his plate down. Things would be all right. He hadn’t been sure.
* * *
Once she got some hot food inside her hollow stomach, Tanya felt stronger. The stamina and common strength she’d worked to build for eleven years seeped back, and with it, a sense of normalcy.
With a sigh, she leaned back in the turquoise vinyl booth. “Much better.”
The waitress came by with a steel coffeepot, topped their cups, and whisked away Tanya’s empty bowl. “I’m sorry I seemed so strange back at the station,” Tanya said. “It’s just a little overwhelming.”
“Don’t apologize. I’m sorry I startled you.” He finished the last bites of an enormous smothered burrito and pushed the plate to one side. “Let’s start fresh.”
“Okay.” She attempted a smile, and felt the unused muscles in her face creak only a little. “Didn’t you wear glasses?”
“Yeah.” His grin was wry. “I’m blind as a bat, but glasses aren’t real practical on a ranch.” He touched his lips with his napkin. “Weren’t you blonde?”
“Sort of,” she said with a shrug. “Victor liked my hair light, so I dyed it for him. This is the natural color.”
“I like it.” His gaze lingered, and Tanya saw a shimmer of sexual approval in those unrelentingly black irises.
An answering spark lit somewhere deep and cold within her, and Tanya found herself noticing again his mouth—full-lipped and sensual. On another man, it would have seemed too lush, but amid the savagely beautiful planes and angles of his face, it seemed only to promise pleasure beyond all imagining.
The cinders of burned-out feelings within her flared a little brighter, stirring a soft, tiny flame of awareness she’d not known in a long, long time.
Abruptly she quenched it, stamping hard at the spark to kill it. She tore her gaze away and poked her soda with the straw. “Why don’t you tell me about my job?”
As if he understood the reason for the abrupt change of subject, Ramón replied in an impersonal tone. “You’ll be cooking. Desmary has needed someone for quite some time, but it’s hard to find someone with institutional experience in such an underpopulated area.”
Tanya couldn’t resist a small, wry dig at her own background. “If it’s institutional food you want, I’m a master.”
He chuckled. “Good. Desmary, the head cook, can’t move around as well as she used to, but there’s no place else for her to go. You’re going to be her feet and her helper.” He paused to dip a chip in salsa. “She’s pretty independent, so if you can be discreet about helping her, I’d appreciate it.”
“We’ve got a full house at the moment, twenty-five boys. They all have KP, so basically you’re in charge of just getting them fed, and they clean up. Anybody who wants to cook can sign up to help, and you’ll usually have a couple of boys every day.”
“How old are the kids?”
“The youngest right now is eight. They don’t often get into serious trouble much earlier than that. The oldest is seventeen. Most of them are twelve to fifteen.”
Tanya half smiled. “It’s going to be quite a switch for me to go from an almost completely female environment to one dominated by males.”
“And teenage boys are more male than they’ll ever be again.” Ramón shook his head. “There are few women out there. I’m trying to change that, so the boys can learn to treat women with respect.” He lifted one shoulder. “You may not always get it.”
“I can handle that.”
“You’ll have to.”
That sounded a little intimidating. Tanya lifted her eyebrows in question.
“There are rules to create discipline and order, to teach the boys how to behave themselves. If one of them is disrespectful, you’ll be expected to manage the situation.”
Tanya frowned. “What constitutes disrespectful?”
He grinned. “If it wouldn’t have gone over in 1920, it won’t go over now.”
“Not at all.” His face was sober, but the dark eyes shone with intense passion. “Some of these boys are like animals when they come to me. They don’t know how to eat at the table, or how to dress for regular society. They treat women and girls like sluts or possessions, like a pair of shoes.”
Like a possession. Tanya felt the tightness in her chest again. That was the way Victor had treated her. And she’d allowed it for a long time. She looked away to the calm scene beyond the windows.
“I’m trying to give them dignity, Tanya,” he said. “I think you can help me.”
Dignity. What dignity had she had all these years? Had she ever known it? “I’ll do my best.”
“That’s all I ask of anyone,” he said, and picked up the check. “Are you ready?”
A swift wave of nerves and anticipation washed through her. “Yes.”