Leading a reclusive life after the fire that subsequently scarred her face and robbed her of a promising rodeo career, Anna is on the verge of bankruptcy. When the man she once loved shows up on her doorstep, buried anger and betrayal surface for both she and Tyler.
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Grace Brannigan Author
Grace Brannigan Author
Anna has endured emotional and physical tragedy and is barely hanging on to the once successful Barlow horse ranch. Leading a reclusive life after the fire that subsequently scarred her face and robbed her of her livelihood as a champion barrel racer, she is on the verge of bankruptcy. In a bid to save her ranch she offers it for lease, but never expected to have Tyler, the man she once loved as a girl, show up on her doorstep. Buried anger and betrayal surface for both Anna and Tyler, but she's out of options and her back is against the wall.
Can they go back to the love they once knew....do they even want to go back?
Once and Alwaysby Grace Brannigan
Memory could be gentle. At other times it left scars.
Anna Barlow had read those words this morning and somehow they felt like a
reflection of her life. She stared out over her ranch’s fields now, trying to shake off the
cobwebs of old memories.
Newly warmed earth and northeast temperatures collided, creating ground vapor
as the sun fought its way through heavy clouds. Sheshivered, brushing at the cool
morning mist that settled in her hair. Her mare stood unmoving beneath her, her nostrils
blowing gently from their run. Anna patted Spirit’sneck, wishing she could forget she
was barely hanging onto the ranch. . . her home.
Every tree, stick and grain of dirt of the Double BRanch belonged to her. The
barns and dilapidated fences . . . the makeshift corral. She couldn’t walk away from her
only real home. Her grandfather Martin Barlow had brought her here at the age of
fourteen. Now, everyone she’d ever loved was gone. Martin. Tyler.
Restlessly, Anna nudged her gray mare toward a well-worn dirt path that led
down to the barns and house.
She’d survived worse. Somehow, she’d get through this too. Anna touched her
right cheek and curled her fingers against the scarred flesh, her fingers tracing the faint
ridges almost absentmindedly. Her face had once been her biggest asset. Now it brought
her only anger and at times self pity. She hated feeling sorry for herself, but God
Almighty she was only human.
Giving in to a reckless edge of emotion, Anna urgedher mare into a bone-jarring
trot down the hillside. When they reached level ground,the spring wind tore against her
as they loped across open pasture. She inhaled the clean air into her lungs, reveling in the
familiar thunder of hooves beneath her. Gradually, the sting of failure lessened. Self-absorbed and prideful these last two years, she’d allowed the fire that ruined her face to
take over her life.
She had to live with her mistakes, but somehow she’d find a way out of this mess.
Tyler Stanton jerked his collar up against the morning chill. The Barlow’s Double
B Ranch looked the same, yet subtle changes had dimmed its splendor in the six years
since he’d been gone. The grounds were unkempt, thebuildings in disrepair and the horse
barns, once full and so proudly outlined by the Catskill mountains around them, were
badly in need of work. He walked through the dusty paddock area and entered the empty
barn, memories unexpectedly twisting his guts into knots. Long rides and midnight
rendezvous’ swam through his mind, the images like a reel of film playing in his brain.
He thought of Annie, the intensity of their love and then the ultimate deterioration of
everything in his life, taking her love with it. Her big eyes were there, filled with fierce
determination before a barrel competition, softenedin love play, their conversations by
turn razor sharp and playfully innocent. He and Annie had been buddies, friends, and for
a few intense weeks,lovers. Then it had all gone sour. She’d chosen tostay with an ill-tempered old man and had done nothing when Tyler was run out of town. He had never
figured that one out; sweet, loving Annie, letting him take a fall. He looked up at the sky,
deliberately easing the tension in his shoulders. How had he thought her sweet?
He wondered how Annie would feel if he told her she’d be a rich woman if she’d
left with him that night long ago. Instead, the years had been tough on her and by all
accounts she was losing everything.
Tyler exited the barn, his boots scuffing up bits of old hay and gravel. Hearing the
sound of a fast approaching horse, he walked outside and around the side of the barn
toward the open pasture. Hooves beat the ground in a flat out run. A horse and rider
appeared, galloping hell-for-leather through the soft mist clinging to the grass.
Recognition slammed him. He’d never forget that intensity of control, Annie’s fit and
trim body, hair the deep color of dark chestnut outbehind her. Tyler couldn’t take his
eyes off Annie. He admired the pure symmetry between horse and rider as they skimmed
the ground. He was reminded of the skill that had made her a champion barrel racer.
Tyler’s heart hammered. How he loved the beauty of running horses. There was
nothing like it, especially on a dead quiet morning. He tried to tell himself it had nothing
at all to do with seeing Annie again after six longyears.
He’d thought he was prepared for this meeting with her. Instead, he resented that
he felt sucker-punched. Christ, it seemed like onlyyesterday he’d chased her across this
very field on horseback. When he’d caught her and pulled her from her horse, it was as if
they couldn’t get enough of each other. They’d madelove under the hot sun, the grass
cushioning their bodies. Six years ago time had been meaningless to them.
As he watched, Annie wheeled the wiry gray horse around a lone barrel in the
pasture, then urged the animal into a ground-eatinglope in his direction. Tyler stood still
as a gust of wind lifted his hat from his head, tossing it like a challenge onto the grass.
Annie drew closer. Three yards away her horse’s hindquarters dipped and rear
hooves slid, digging up clods of grass and dirt. The gray’s front legs were almost straight
as she came to a stop, narrowly missing Tyler’s hat. Tyler ran an expert glance over the
animal’s flexing muscles. Annie maintained only light contact with the horse’s mouth. He
Dust swirled around them. Bending, Tyler retrieved his hat and slapped it against
his leg, then stared at the new crease along the hat brim. "Still the same old Annie.
Bouncing your horse around to get attention."
"Same old Tyler, too," she came back. "Smart remarks and all." She sat stiffly,
staring away from him. Her rigid shoulders told him he wasn’t the only one being poked
by memory shards. "You’re the last person I expected to see."
She didn’t look at him, but kept her upper body half-turned in the saddle. Dark
shoulder length hair swung past her cheek, hiding part of her face. The back of his legs
stiffened and Tyler stifled an urge to move closer.She was thin, almost too thin.
"Nice horse. Pretty magnificent riding across the flat like that."
"Didn’t know I had an audience."
Annie’s horse tossed its head, the jangle of the bit the lone sound as she brushed
long elegant fingers over the animal’s withers. Tyler found he could breathe again, hadn’t
even realized he’d been holding his breath.
"Can’t you look at me, Annie?" It grated on him that it bothered him so much. He
smiled grimly. He could wait, he had plenty of time.
The sun suddenly shot out from behind a cloud. Annie turned to shield her eyes
from the glare. The light, bright and unforgiving, shockingly outlined the scars marring
the entire right side of her face. Her skin, once flawless, was now mottled and discolored,
the flesh a mix of uneven red and white patches that ran like licking flames right to the
corner of her mouth.
"Annie!" Tyler knew shock laced his voice. Pain split him in half, shooting to his
toes and jetting back up to his brain. His legs trembled where they’d been stiff a moment
She jerked her head back and if possible, her face turned even whiter except for
the scars, and her eyes. . . her eyes were a deep, wounded green.
"I prefer Anna," she said tersely, now looking at him. "I didn’t expect to see
anyone or I’d have put on my concealing makeup and spared you seeing this. People
don’t usually come around unless calling first."
Tyler pressed a fist against his hip. It wasn’t thefirst time he’d seen such terrible
scarring. But it was the first time he’d seen it marring Annie’s face. She’d always taken
pride in her looks, her skin and makeup. She’d hated being teased about her facials and
"Now that we have that out of the way --" hostilitycracked in Annie’s voice.
"How did it happen?" His voice sounded grating, even to himself. Inside, he was
gasping for air.
She seemed to move back, even by the slightest fraction.
"Why are you here?" she asked.
Tyler shoved back the sympathy for what she must have suffered. It was obvious
she didn’t want it. He’d figure that part out when he was alone, the ache in his gut. "I
guess you never expected to see me again."
She turned just enough to conceal the scarring, buthe saw the tremble of her
fingers on the reins.
"I’m sorry that Martin died," he said gruffly. "No matter what had happened
between us, I know how much you cared about him." He stepped back and cleared his
throat. "I saw your ad in the horse quarterly." He was used to dealing with people, but
now he felt momentarily at a loss, too aware of herwatchful eye. He felt a curious
empathy, but he didn’t want to feel even that slight connection to her.
She pulled at the frayed material of her jeans while a light breeze played at the
edge of her faded shirt. "If you saw the ad then you know the ranch is up for lease."
"There’s no sense in beating around the bush. I want to buy it."
Her glare was hostile. "It’s not for sale."
"I’ve been checking around. You might not have a choice."
Her fingers twisted into the frayed holes at her knee. "You’ve been talking to
"My lawyer made a few discreet inquiries. Sell it to me now and I’ll make it a
"Go to hell."
"The old man tried to hand deliver me and my fatherthere, or did you forget?"
"I remember everything." Her eyes, now greenish hazel, held a haunting sadness.
He looked away, hating that he felt off balance. Heneeded to retain the anger that
had driven him back here where his life had so drastically changed. Seeing her pain
shouldn’t matter after all this time, not after what her family had done to his.
"Good," he said. "Then we’re all on the same page as far as the past goes. I’ll
make you a fair offer on the property. You owe me first shot at it."
Her eyes widened in outrage. "I don’t owe you or anyone else a thing! Everything
I have I paid for a long time ago."
"Is that how you sleep at night?" He asked grimly. "We have a different recall of
"All the charges against you and Grant were dropped."
"My father never got over it. Lack of evidence doesn’t clear a man’s name.
Sometimes a man’s good name is all he has. Martin was an unscrupulous bastard you
know it had to be him who falsified those breeding records. He turned on my father when
he got caught. Listen to your conscience, Annie . .. I know you have one."
"You don’t know anything about me."
"I can't believe you've changed that much."