At Wolf Ranch (Montana Men #1) synopsis:
After years on the rodeo circuit, Gabe Bowden wants nothing more than land of his own and a woman who will claim his heart for more than one night. When he has the chance to buy the enormous Wolf Ranch spread, he snaps up the incredible deal. Everything is set, until Gabe rescues a woman on the deserted, snowy road leading to the property, and the half-frozen beauty changes everything.
Ella Wolf rushes to her family’s abandoned Montana ranch after her twin sister is murdered. She knows she’s next…unless she can uncover a secret hidden somewhere at Wolf Ranch. The last thing Ella expects is to be rescued by a rugged rancher with his own agenda. A man who almost makes her forget how dangerous love can be…
As an unlikely partnership sparks into something so much more, and a killer closes in, can Ella and Gabe learn to trust one another before it’s too late?
AT WOLF RANCH, Ch1 Excerpt:
Three long days without a word. No call. Not even a text. Ella stared at her phone, willing it to ring. She tapped her finger on the screen and stifled the urge to call Lela for the hundredth time that morning.
The coffee shop buzzed with activity. People headed off to work with their lattes and scones. She sipped at her caramel macchiato, reading over the newest projections for the cosmetics line debuting in March on her laptop. The numbers looked promising.
Ella jumped when her phone vibrated on the table. She snatched it up and read the caller ID.
“Finally.” She swiped the screen to accept the call. “Lela—”
“Where have you been?” Uncle Phillip’s demand surprised her.
Why did Uncle Phillip have Lela’s phone?
Ella opened her mouth to answer her uncle’s question, but he spoke first.
“I oversee the estate. You answer to me.”
“Twisting the truth again, Uncle. Ella and I sign off on everything,” Lela said, her tone unusually sharp. “You’re just a watchdog, there to ensure we adhere to the terms of the will. You have no real power, but you’ll do anything to steal it away, won’t you?”
What? Ella had never heard her sister talk to their uncle in such a disrespectful and spiteful way, or anyone for that matter. Why did her sister call and not say anything to her? Maybe she’d pocket dialed?
“Lela, it’s me. What is going on?” Ella got no response. Uncle Phillip continued to speak over her.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about, my dear.” Uncle Phillip’s soft voice belied the steel in his words. “Don’t make me ask again. Be a good girl and tell me where you’ve been?”
This time, her sister answered, but didn’t explain a damn thing. “Uncovering your dirty secret. I know what you did,” her sister accused.
Butterflies in Ella’s stomach fluttered like a flock of birds taking flight. The uneasy feeling she’d carried with her these last days intensified.
Ella gathered up her laptop and notebook, stuffing them into her oversized tote. She dumped the dregs of her coffee in the trash on her way out the door. The apartment was only a block up from her favorite café she had breakfast at every Tuesday when the house staff had the day off. She kept the phone to her ear and headed home to find out what the hell was going on.
“You won’t get away with this,” Lela’s voice raised in pitch. It took a lot to rile her sister. Whatever Uncle Phillip had done touched a nerve.
“Whatever you think you know doesn’t amount to anything without proof.” Her uncle used that chilling, yet utterly calm voice.
Ella picked up her pace, sensing the escalation of the situation into something more than just an argument about company business. She pulled her bag close to her side under her arm and ran for her building, knocking elbows and shoulders with other pedestrians. No time to apologize, she ignored their outraged remarks.
“Oh, I have the proof.”
Proof of what?
“You’re lying.” Uncle Phillip let out a nervous laugh.
Ella past her building’s doorman and ran for the elevator, pushing the button three times, frantic for the doors to open.
“Where is it? Show me.”
Come on. Come on. The elevator doors finally opened and she rushed inside and pressed the button for the penthouse. Ella prayed she didn’t lose the cell signal and drop the call. She only ever got one bar in the elevators.
“You think I’d be fool enough to bring it here. To you? I’ll see you in jail before this day is over.”
“I’ll see you in a grave first.”
The ice in her uncle’s tone frosted Ella’s heart. The evil laced there erased all trace of the man she knew. He meant those ominous words.
Lela gasped and let out a startled shriek. Ella didn’t want to believe her uncle actually struck Lela, but that’s what it sounded like.
“What. Did. You. Find?”
“Everything,” Lela sputtered.
What? What are you talking about?
“If you’re lying to me—”
“Let me go. It’s over. There’s nothing you can do. I can prove you did it.”
“Don’t look at him,” Uncle Phillip snapped.
Him? Who else is there?
“Please, do some—”
“He’s not here to help you, you stupid girl. He works for me. Everyone works for me. You should have left well enough alone.”
Lela shrieked again. Ella’s heart dropped into her stomach.
“This is your final chance. Tell me where it is and I’ll make this quick. Refuse and I’ll take my time. You’ll know the meaning of the word pain when I’m done with you.”
Touch her and I will make you pay.
“Go to hell.”
“Where is it, you little bitch?”
“You will pay for what you’ve done. I’ll never cave.”
“Tell me what I want to know, and maybe, I’ll show you mercy.”
“You won’t…get…away…with this,” Lela stammered, something choking off her words. “The truth will…roll out. Come out.”
Something about the way she said it the first time struck Ella, but her mind couldn’t process anything right now. She slammed her palm against the elevator doors, wishing the damn thing would hurry up.
Please, Lela, get out of there.
“Last chance. Where did you hide it?”
The intensity in his voice sent a shiver up Ella’s spine.
The elevator doors finally opened. She ran down the hall to her door, shoved it open, and nearly tripped over Lela’s suitcase. Where had she been?
“If you won’t help me, I’ll find someone who will.”
Who is she talking to?
“Uncle Phillip, please. Put the gun down.”
“Where. Is. It?”
“I’ll never tell you where I hid it.”
Ella ran across the living room. Her gaze locked on her uncle’s outstretched arm, the gun in his hand level with her sister’s chest. Her father’s blood red ruby pinky ring winked in the morning light streaming through the windows.
“Tell me,” her uncle yelled.
“Then you’re of no use to me anymore.”
The crack of the gunshot stopped Ella in her tracks. Her sister’s eyes went wide when the bullet plowed into her chest. Blood blossomed over her cream colored sheath dress, like some gruesome poppy. Lela wilted in slow motion into a heap on the floor. Her legs kicked in a quick jerk, and she never moved again.
Ella stood frozen, rooted to the spot just outside the library doors, her gaze fastened on her sister’s lifeless green eyes.
“Damnit, we needed her alive.” A man she couldn’t see said from inside the room. It took her a second to place the voice. Detective Robbins.
What is he doing here? Why didn’t he help?
Self preservation kicked in and she scurried to the side of the door. Hands shaking, her stomach in knots, a whirlwind of thoughts circled her mind, but nothing explained why her uncle killed her beautiful sister. It couldn’t be, she denied the stark reality. She leaned over and spied through the crack in the open door.
Uncle Phillip kneeled next to Lela and touched his finger to her bloody neck. “If I’d had more time, I could have gotten her to talk.”
“You mean if you hadn’t lost your temper.”
Ella’s heart broke into a billion sharp pieces that slashed her soul to shreds. Her other half — gone. The emptiness engulfed her. She covered her mouth with both hands to hold back the scream of pain rising up her aching throat. Her eyes filled with tears and Lela’s face, the same one Ella saw in the mirror each morning, swam in front of her.
Uncle Phillip stood, tugged at one shirt cuff and then the other to straighten his crisp white shirt. Her father’s ruby cuff links sparked with a glint of light from the overhead chandelier. He ran a hand over his more gray than dark brown hair, smoothing it back. Composed again, he turned to the door. Her breath hitched and stopped. She thought he saw her. His next words startled her even more.
“The stupid girl doesn’t know when to quit.” He pulled a handkerchief from his gray slack’s pocket and wiped his sweaty face, devoid of wrinkles thanks to his many trips to the dermatologist for Botox injections.
“You’re lucky she called me.”
“Did she tell you what she found?”
“No. She asked me to meet her here. Her confidence in whatever she had on you convinced me to take her seriously. If she actually had something and shared it with anyone, you’ll go down for everything.”
“Don’t think you won’t fall with me,” her uncle threatened.
The detective moved forward, blocking her view of her uncle, and stared down at Lela. “What do you want to do with the body?”
Lela was a body. Bile rose in Ella’s throat.
Her uncle clinked open a crystal decanter at the bar across the room, pouring himself a drink of the expensive bourbon he preferred. She prayed he choked on it.
“Give me a minute to think.” The ice in his voice melted and turned less definitive and more hesitant.
“We need to find that evidence. If it falls into the wrong hands—”
“Shut up.” Her uncle sounded as out of control as she felt. Her insides in chaos, not a single thought of what to do taking shape in her mind.
“We need to retrace her steps over the last few days. Find out where she went. Who she saw. We’d have the state attorney and FBI banging down the door if she gave the evidence to anyone. She hid it somewhere. We need to find out where and get it.”
“Easier said than done. She was smart.”
“Not smart enough to pull this off. She contacted you without ever considering your association with me. She was naive.” He toed Lela’s still body with his Italian leather shoe.
“Our business arrangement has been mutually beneficial, but if you think I’ll be your patsy, you’re wrong. So, think, damnit, where would she hide the evidence?”
“I don’t fucking know.” Her uncle slammed the empty glass down on the desk. “But Ella might.”
“Do you think Lela told her what she uncovered?” Detective Robbins asked.
“No. Ella asked me and the staff several times if Lela came home or called. I’m almost certain Lela worked this out on her own and left her recalcitrant sister out of it.”
“Almost certain isn’t good enough. Why the hell didn’t you cover your tracks better?”
“If you did, we wouldn’t be here right now.”
Ella needed to call the police and have them arrest these two for killing her sweet, gentle sister. But the police were standing right there, helping destroy her life.
The room was silent for a moment, and Ella was certain they’d hear her ragged breathing. She jumped when her uncle spoke again.
“Detective, let me tell you a story.” Uncle Phillip’s voice was eerily calm. “Our studious, prim, Lela earned her master’s degree and worked as an executive at the company to satisfy the terms of the will and earn her place at Wolf Enterprises. Sadly, her Princess Party Girl twin sister barely made an effort, working in the mailroom and every other odd job at the company. While it satisfies the general terms of the will, Lela’s carried the weight and shouldered all the responsibility for the business.
“Lela finally had enough and confronted her sister right here in this room. Ella, party girl that she is, had been out all night and was high, not at all in her right mind. The fight escalated. Ella knows I keep a gun in my desk drawer. She grabbed it and shot Lela. She panicked, but somehow had the wherewithal to try to cover it up, making it look like a robbery gone wrong. With Lela gone, she will inherit the company and other Wolf assets.
“It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? Such a pity. Lela had such a promising future. I couldn’t be more heartbroken.
“Set the scene, Detective, and then find Ella. Take her to a hotel. Not a dump, but not extravagant either. She’s hiding out. Make the place look like she’s been on a bender, drinking, doing drugs. The pain and grief send Ella over the edge and she ODs. No one will question it. Use your contacts in the police department and morgue to prove what happened…make the evidence show Ella murdered Lela.
“This is more than I signed on for,” Detective Robbins said.
“Don’t think you’re so indispensable. There are plenty of others on my payroll in this town, higher up the food chain than you, that would do my bidding without blinking.”
“I’ll get it done. I’ll need to use some of those contacts to pull this shit off.”
“You know who to use to make this clean. I want all the evidence, reports, and public perception to corroborate the scenario I’ve outlined.”
Uncle Phillip kneeled by Lela and used his handkerchief to remove her diamond stud earrings. The ones their mother always wore. He unclasped Lela’s bloody necklace with the pendant of a heart made out of roses that matched hers. Ella reached up and wrapped her trembling fingers around the one against her chest and sighed. Lela’s ring came next. Ella gave her the emerald encircled with diamonds for their twenty-first birthday. The night they shared a quiet dinner in an exclusive uptown restaurant and planned their future and fulfilling their parents’ wishes and dreams for them.
She took a step forward to snatch the ring and everything else her uncle took from them back. She wanted to claw his eyes out and see him in a grave. Not her sister. Not Lela.
“What are you going to do with that?” The detective indicated the handful of gold and gems.
“Don’t worry about it. Do your job. The one I pay you extremely well to do.”
Her uncle went to the bar, grabbed a towel, and wiped down the gun. He wrapped it in the towel and handed it to the detective. “The household staff knows I keep this gun in the top drawer of my desk. Unlocked. Easy enough for Ella to take it and use it on her sister. Plant it, along with the drugs and alcohol at the hotel room. Make sure the report shows Ella’s prints are on the gun and it is a ballistic match to the bullet in her. Tomorrow morning the staff will arrive for work and discover the body. You’ve got until then to find Ella and kill her.”
Ella had wasted enough time. She needed to get away. Fast.
Her gaze fell on her dead sister. Her soul pleaded with Lela to wake up and make this all just a bad dream. But Lela remained motionless on the floor.
Ella backed away from the door, turned, rushed back to the foyer, and grabbed her sister’s suitcase, coat, purse, her own tote, and walked out the door, closing it with a quiet snick of the latch. Maybe she’d find a clue in her sister’s things.
She took the elevator down and walked through the lobby and out the door in a daze. The doorman took the coat draped over her arm. “Let me help you with that, Miss Wolf.”
She mechanically stuffed her arms in the sleeves of Lela’s favorite cobalt blue coat. Her sister’s scent brought tears to her eyes. She blinked to keep them at bay. The doorman hailed her a cab and she tossed her stuff in the backseat and slid in.
Ella couldn’t think past the fear and grief eating away at her insides. She didn’t know where to go or who to turn to that she could definitely say wasn’t in her uncle’s pocket. Detective Robbins would check with all her friends. She couldn’t risk going to one of them and putting them in danger.
Her gaze fell on her sister’s suitcase and the baggage tag still on the handle. She didn’t know the BZN airport code. The purse lay on her lap, her fingers clutching it in a death grip. She made herself relax and unzip the bag. She found the airline ticket voucher inside. Bozeman.
Why did you go to Montana?
They hadn’t been back to the family ranch since her father died in a plane crash when they were fourteen.
“Where are we off to?” The driver asked again, pulling her out of her dark thoughts. A plan started to form.
“Airport.” She barely choked out the word.
She’d retrace her sister’s steps, find out what she’d been doing the last three days, where she went and who she saw. She’d find the evidence Lela died for, and God help her uncle when she did.
About the Author:
Jennifer Ryan is the New York Times & USA Today bestselling author of The Hunted Series and The McBrides Series. She writes romantic suspense and contemporary small-town romances featuring strong men and equally resilient women. Her stories are filled with love, family, friendship, and the happily-ever-after we all hope to find.
Jennifer lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three children. When she isn’t writing a book, she’s reading one. Her obsession with both is often revealed in the state of her home and in how late dinner is to the table. When she finally leaves those fictional worlds, you’ll find her in the garden, playing in the dirt and daydreaming about people who live only in her head, until she puts them on paper.
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