After an IED ends his military career, Major John Rathborne struggles to re-adjust to civilian life. Haunted by the death of his brother-in-arms, John’s determined to find his canine partner, Koda, now retired and re-homed. The last place he expects to find her is on a ranch in Absarokee, Montana, where he lands a foreman job and a chance at a new start.
Unfortunately, ranch manager Katie Locke just wants the new guy gone. She can’t shake the trauma from the night she was attacked, and God knows she doesn’t need some stranger invading her safe haven. She can’t ignore John’s brooding presence, and even her dog shares an uncanny bond with him. But when her father suffers a heart attack, Katie has no option but to put her differences with John aside to save the future of Three Keys Ranch.
As they slowly find a common bond and their attraction heats up, both realize they must heal from their past wounds if they want to explore a relationship. But John hasn’t told Katie about certain parts of his past—including that he and Koda had been partners in Afghanistan. Then he learns someone is out to destroy the ranch, and Katie is in their crosshairs. Has John opened his heart too late?
by Paris Wynters
Sensuality Level: Sensual
An excerpt from Hearts Unleashed:
Katie’s dad reached the barn first, but paused, waiting for her to join him before stepping inside. A rush of fondness swept over her. Healing slower was worth it if it meant being home, working with him on the ranch.
They stepped inside the shade of the barn; the smell of sweet sun-cured hay and horse manure wafted toward them. Katie took a deep, appreciative breath. She’d tried to describe the smell to people before, telling them she’d actually missed it while attending college, but the word “manure” always made them balk. Only people who knew ranch life understood when she said that smell was comforting.
Today, it did little to calm her frayed nerves. Or melt the icy daggers surging through her veins, straight toward her rapidly beating heart. Down at the far end of the barn a car door slammed. A man walked into view and ambled toward them.
Aware of the crackling in the air the moment he stepped through the entrance, she snapped her spine straight and emitted a tiny gasp. This was not the dead weight she’d imagined. He moved slowly. Purposefully. As if he calculated every footstep. His eyes remained obscured by the shadowy light of the barn, making them impossible to read even as he stood right in front of her. She swallowed, her suddenly dry tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth. Whoever this man was, he was anything but innocuous.
Dad shook hands with the stranger, and then stepped back and turned to her. “This is John Rathborne. John, I’d like you to meet my daughter, Katie.”
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Locke.” His voice was rough but warm, setting off a wave of heat within her belly. He sized her up, his dark gaze lingering curiously on her face.
She lifted her jaw and adjusted her sunglasses, making sure they continued to hide her left eye. The man was broad-shouldered and tall. His close-cropped hair was speckled with gray, but he had the body of a man in his prime. Her cheeks heated, and she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
“Katie’s been working on the ranch her whole life,” Dad continued. “Even during college and nursing school. She even got the head nurse to adjust rounds so she could help during the cattle drive. But things didn’t—work out. Now she’s back here full time.”
“I’m sure I’ll be able to learn a lot from her,” John said. A faint beeping sound cut him off before he could say more.
Dad craned his neck toward the house. “What’s that?”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, my gosh. The banana bread! It’s burning!”
“Oh, I should’ve known.” Dad simpered. “Happens every time. I’ll take care of it. Why don’t you two take a moment to get to know each other?” He looked at her and quirked his left brow, warning her to be nice. “I’ll be right back.”
She shoved her hands into her jacket pockets and looked around the barn—at anything except the man in front of her. But her eyes fell back to his muscled arms. An electrical zing coursed through her body. Her teeth sank into the plump skin of her bottom lip, attempting to fight off the faint tingling sensation occurring between her legs.
“Katie, is it?” He extended his hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
She reluctantly accepted it. His skin was rough and calloused, yet at the same time his grip was gentle. She fought the urge to relax into the touch. He looked down at her with a polite smile that didn’t reach his eyes—blue eyes, looking out from a face creased with concern.
Her breath caught, and every muscle in her body tightened. She’d seen this man before. His face, his voice—somewhere—I know him—
The beeping stopped and she pulled her hand away. “Looks like the banana bread crisis has been averted.”
“Your father mentioned we’d be working together quite a bit.”
“That’s right. I keep the books, so the foreman goes through me for purchasing and payroll and stuff,” she said, crossing her arms.
“So, you just do all the financial ‘stuff’?”
She took a step back and dug her thumbnails into the pads of her index fingers. “I do a hell of a lot more than just the financials. I keep track of the vaccinations, the inventory, the calving records. But my preference, for your information, is being in the saddle out on the range. Alone.”