The Rancher’s Homecoming

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CHANCE BLACKWELL MISSED a lot about performing.

He missed the way the room went silent as he sang words he’d painstakingly chosen. He missed the oddly intoxicating smell of beer, perfume and rejection. He missed the way the lights were dim enough for him to pretend he was alone, that it was just him and his guitar.

What he didn’t miss was walking off stage to find his long-time, longsuffering agent ready to pounce. Given the sour expression on Felix Fuller’s face, there wasn’t an “atta boy” in Chance’s future.

“I thought you had new material.” Felix’s disappointment was clear and cut almost as deep as Chance expected. Only five years older than Chance, who’d just turned thirty, Felix was as short as Chance was tall, pudgy where Chance was toned and was determined while Chance was...

Well, Chance didn’t know exactly what he was anymore.

Chance sighed and gripped the guitar he’d received as a gift his first Christmas after leaving the Blackwell Family Ranch ten years before. His wife, Maura, had worked a second waitressing job on the sly to buy it from a local pawnshop that Christmas they spent in Nashville. He could still remember her sitting on the floor next to the scraggly tree he’d dragged out of the back of a tree lot, her freckled face alight with excitement as he unwrapped it. The instrument had been the greatest gift he’d ever received. Until Rosie was born, at least.

“The new songs aren’t ready,” Chance lied. “And the crowd seems happy enough.” Applause was applause, right?

“The crowd was being polite.” Felix followed Chance down the narrow hallway. “You can’t launch a comeback on old songs, Chance. Sentimentality will only get you so far. We need something new, something fresh. Something from the heart.”

From the heart? Chance swallowed against the wave of grief-tinged nausea. If that’s what was needed, no wonder his creative spark had been doused. “I need more time.”

“You don’t have more time.” Felix nipped at his heels like an overanxious puppy. “Unless you don’t have any interest in keeping a roof over Rosie’s head. Or yours, for that matter.”

Chance’s gut knotted. He could live in his car and be fine with it, but no way did he want anything less than complete stability for his daughter. “I can’t write from a dry well, Felix.” And that’s exactly what he had. A dry, dusty well of inspiration. Ashes to ashes...

“Okay, okay, so let’s look at the bright side.” Felix’s voice dropped as he gestured toward the frayed, dark green curtains. “They’ve missed you, Chance. Your fans, your audience, they want you back. Which means we’ve got to strike—”

“I told you before this gig, I’m only dipping my toe.” Chance accepted the congratulatory slaps on the back and positive comments from patrons as he made his way to the makeshift dressing room, which, over the years, had been occupied by far more talented and popular musicians than himself. Apparently they didn’t care that he was singing songs from five years ago. “I’m not diving in all the way again. I’m not ready.”

He knew what he should be drawing on, but the idea of writing about Maura, about her illness, her death, scraped his heart raw whenever he plucked the first notes. The paralyzing grief over losing his wife had faded— for the most part. He’d come to terms with her being gone, but only because he didn’t have a choice.

Rosie needed him. And when it came to his daughter, nothing else mattered.

Sadly, that meant going back to the only thing he’d ever been any good at: songwriting and performing.

“What do you mean you’re not ready?” Felix moved around the band as they dodged around him, instruments in hand, semipanicked expressions on their far too young faces. “All evidence to the contrary, man. You belong on that stage. Look, Chance, I get it. This is tough, and it’s a big change for you, but you and I agreed you weren’t done. You promised after enough time passed—”

“You don’t get to decide when I’ve had enough time.” Chance stopped with his hand on the tarnished doorknob and looked over his shoulder. “What’s this really about, Felix? You threatening to jump ship if I don’t get on board? Have another hot new act waiting in the wings for your full attention?”

Felix shook his head, a bit too enthusiastically for Chance’s taste, as a strand of slicked-black hair fell over one suddenly anxious eye. “Not full attention, exactly.”

“Felix?” Chance urged. “We’ve been together long enough for you to be honest with me.” Lord knew Chance had certainly been honest with him. “I know it’s been tight for you with me taking this much time off right when things were getting good for us. But you knew when you signed me Maura was my top priority.” And she had been, right up until the end. Only now that the haze around his heart had cleared did Chance have the slightest inclination to perform again. Writing was a different story. “You have somewhere else you need to be, just say the word.”

“I’ve come across a couple of acts I’d like to sign, sure.” Felix shrugged as if they didn’t matter much. “One’s singing in a club in New York, another group out of Orlando. There’re...possibilities.”

And Felix was all about possibilities. “I’m not going to begrudge you needing to move on,” Chance said. “I’d never want to stand in your way.”

Losing his agent certainly didn’t hold much appeal, especially without another one showing any interest. And no one would as long as he didn’t have anything new to offer. Felix had been his only agent, and traversing this crazy music business had never been on the top of Chance’s to-do list. Then again, anything was better than being stuck back on the family ranch, saddling horses, baling hay and mucking out stalls while his dreams died a silent death. Maura had always been the one to believe in him, encourage him. Understand him.

Other than his grandmother Dorothy, Big E’s first wife, who had bought him his first guitar—a guitar his grandfather had ripped out of Chance’s hands after Dorothy left and Chance declared his intention of leaving ranch life behind. How Big E thought taking away the one thing that brought Chance any happiness would punish anyone other than Chance was beyond him. Then again, Big E had considered Chance’s dreams a phase he’d outgrow. Without his brothers’ support, the wedge between Chance and his family had grown too big to overcome. Which was why ten years away didn’t feel nearly long enough.

“Maybe we should talk about this inside,” Felix said with a bit of a cringe on his face as he gestured to the dressing-room door.

“Oh, hey, Chance! Great show!” Greg Kennedy, owner of Tuned Up, one of the lesser known but better respected dive bars in downtown Los Angeles, darted down the stage stairs and headed for him. His compliment sounded forced, even to Chance’s tone-deaf ears. “Did your brother find you? I told him he could wait backstage for you.”

Chance froze. “My brother?” Every teenage insecurity slammed back at him like a slingshot. “Which brother?” Please don’t let it be Ty. Please don’t let it be...

“Which one?” Greg chuckled. “That’s right, I forgot you have four. I think his name was—”

Chance jumped back as the door swung open. “Ty.”

“What’s going on, baby brother?” That twinkle-eyed grin was always the first thing anyone noticed about Chance’s twin. That and the way he could charm the stickers off a cactus with a wink and a smile. That his brother appeared to have traded in his tailored executive suit for more cowboy friendly attire set every warning bell in Chance’s head to clanging. Nothing good ever came of a Blackwell brother showing up. “Been a while.” Ty aimed that smile of his at the almost five-year-old in his arms.

“Daddy! It’s Uncle Ty! See?” Rosie, all bouncy red curls, freckled nose and skinny arms, patted her hands against Tyler’s cheeks as she blew a raspberry. “He’s funny, Daddy! Just like you!”

“Just like me, huh?” As disappointed as Chance was in Felix’s reaction, and as irritated as he was by his brother’s unexpected arrival, everything about his beautiful Rosie made him smile. “Where’s Claudia?” Chance handed his guitar to Felix before he reached for his little girl. The instant she settled in his arms, his pulse calmed. His world righted itself. He could breathe again.

“I’m here!” The graduate student from UCLA who had been Rosie’s nanny for the last year leaned over to peek and wave from behind Tyler. “Tyler was just telling us all about your ranch in Montana. It sounds amazing.”

“A ranch with horsies and cows, Daddy,” Rosie told him with a firm nod. “And Uncle Ty says there are kitties and a dog and a goat named Billy. And when I come visit I get to learn to ride and maybe even rope! But I will need boots. I would like pink boots, please. When can we go visit the kitties and dog, Daddy?”

Chance patted his daughter on the back of her purple shirt and stifled the familiar urge to strangle his brother. “Why don’t you let me talk to Uncle Ty about that? Claudia? Would you mind taking Rosie out for a bit? Maybe you can listen to the next band. Felix will go with you.” The last thing he needed, or wanted, was for his two worlds—however detached he was from one of them—to collide. “Just hang on for a sec.”

Chance pushed past his brother and ducked into the room. He rummaged through one of Rosie’s bags and pulled out her pink headphones. Like a seasoned pro, Rosie snatched them and plunked them over her ears.

“Okay, Daddy?” she yelled.

Chance laughed and nodded. “Go with Claudia, okay?” He set her on her feet, tugged up her jeans, which were too short in the legs and too big in the butt, and exchanged his daughter for the guitar. “I’ll just be a few minutes.”

“Okay.” Felix didn’t look convinced as Rosie grabbed his hand. Claudia followed with an expression of uncertainty on her round face. “But we still have to talk about this.”

“Looking forward to it.” Chance set down his guitar, watched as Rosie skipped her way between his agent and nanny and quietly, slowly, closed the door. “What are you doing here, Ty?”

“If you answered your phone once in a while this might not be such a surprise.” Ty dropped down into the ripped, green faux-leather sofa that was wedged tightly between the walls. “Man, this place is a hole. I thought showbiz was supposed to be glamorous.”

“It can be.” But starting over meant starting at the bottom and it didn’t get more bottom than where Chance was standing at the moment. “Out with it already. What’s Big E done now?” He busied himself gathering up the books and games strewn about that Claudia and Rosie had occupied themselves with during his show. Right now all he wanted was the safe, quiet surroundings of the small two-bedroom bungalow he called home.

“I’d fill you in on the details.” Ty sighed. “But you told your boy Felix you would only be a few minutes. You need to come back, Chance. You need to come home.”

His stomach pitched. “I don’t think I do.” And the ranch had never felt like home. Not since their parents died.

“Do you really think I’d have flown all the way out here, left my beautiful bride-to-be with those brothers of ours, if I didn’t think this was important?”

“I don’t really know what to think about any of you.” Ty engaged? The idea still had the power to render him speechless. “I’m the black sheep, remember?” He jammed Clyde, Rosie’s worn, crazy-eyed stuffed monster into her rainbow backpack. “The last place I belong is on the Blackwell Family Ranch.”

“Whether you think you belong there or not, it’s your home, Chance. And like it or not, we’re your family. We need you.”

The Blackwell brothers needed him? Chance got to his feet and faced his brother. “What’s wrong? Is Big E dying? Do you need me to sing at the funeral? Oh.” Chance snapped his fingers. “No, wait. I forgot. Last thing our grandfather would want is to ever hear me sing. You were never one for barrel racing, Ty. Out with it.”

“Jon and Ben want to sell the ranch.”

“Good. Great.” One less thing to have to ever think about. “Fabulous. Enjoy whatever cash you get out of it.” He’d relinquished any hope of seeing Blackwell money long ago. As far as he knew, Big E had disinherited him the second Chance eloped with Maura Montgomery.

“Ethan and I don’t want to sell,” Ty added.

Had stubbornness not kept Chance on his feet, he might have passed out. “I’m sorry, what? You don’t want to sell. You. The Blackwell brother who had one foot over the property line the second he could walk?” Had Chance stepped off stage and into an alternate reality? He sat in the only other chair in the claustrophobic space. “This ought to be good. Why don’t you want to sell?”

Ty shrugged, stretched out his legs. “It’s our legacy. It’s Big E’s legacy. And we’ve made some really good progress with the guest-ranch aspect of the business. It’s picking up with all of us working together. Plus Hadley’s nuts about the place. FYI, we couldn’t have done much without Katie. She’s been amazing to work with. Girl knows just about everything there is about ranching, especially our ranch.”

“Katie’s still there?” Chance shouldn’t have been surprised to hear his sister-in-law hadn’t moved away. She and Maura had been raised on that ranch. It was as much the Montgomerys’ home as the Blackwells’. “Guess Maura was right. She always said Katie would never leave that place.” Thinking of his late wife’s kid sister brought up memories Chance honestly wasn’t ready to deal with.

“Yeah, well, Lochlan’s getting up in years. He’s still our foreman, but it’s pretty much in name only. Katie’s picked up his slack to cover for her dad.”Ty ducked his head, but not before Chance caught the flash of concern on his brother’s face. “Lochlan’s sick, Chance. Katie’s tried to keep it quiet, telling us he’d gone to visit friends, but we all just found out. He’s fading. And, well, I know it’s none of my business, but he wants to see his granddaughter before he dies.”

“You’re right,” Chance snapped. “It’s not your business.” Dormant anger he’d long buried threatened to boil over. “That old man refused to see his own daughter when she was dying. Wouldn’t make the trip. Not even to say goodbye. He didn’t even take her calls.” It was the one thing that still kept Chance up at night. That he’d been unable to grant his dying wife’s final wish. Not that he’d been able to accomplish much over the phone, but between Maura and Rosie, he couldn’t leave. Stubborn son of a... “Would you like me to tell you what her father’s rejection did to her? Would you like me to tell you in excruciating detail how she cried for her father at the end?”

“I’m not even going to try to understand that one, Chance.” Ty shook his head and Chance was relieved to see a flash of sympathy come across his brother’s face. “And I’m certainly not going to excuse it. Not even Katie can.”

“Ah.” Chance nodded. “So that’s what this is about. Katie sent you to plead Lochlan’s case. You know I wouldn’t put it past the old man to have put her up to it.”

“Clearly you haven’t seen Katie in a while. She doesn’t do anything she doesn’t want to. And for the record, no, she didn’t put me up to this. I can tell you I’ve caught her on more than one occasion looking at those pictures you send her of Rosie. Might be smart of you to remember that while you lost your wife, she lost her sister. Pictures and videos aren’t any substitute for holding that little girl in her arms.”

“She lost her sister when Lochlan disowned Maura for marrying me. Because she walked away from everything Lochlan planned for her.” Chance held up his hands. “If that’s the reason you came all the way here—”

“It’s not that. It’s not only that,” Ty corrected. “We need your vote.”

Tyler wasn’t making any sense. “My vote for what, exactly?”

“For what happens to the ranch. We’re tied, which means it’s up to you. So let’s set aside the opportunity you have to be the bigger person and let an old man go to his death in peace. How about you come back long enough to help me keep this ranch where it belongs? In the Blackwell family.”