The Rancher's Unexpected Love, by Ava Winters

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"The Rancher's Unexpected Love"

a Western Historical Romance Novel,
by Ava Winters


When he found her hidden in his ranch he didn't know that his life would change forever. ​How will Samantha and Jensen's forbidden love survive?

Samantha Loche is a strong and brave woman. She managed to escape the fire that killed her parents and now she is trying to start a new life. Motivated by revenge, she wants the man responsible for this to pay.

Jensen Reaves has always been a straight-laced, follow-the-rules kind of guy. Being the first-born son to a wealthy ranching family, he is facing an arranged marriage but he longs for freedom.

Their seemingly unrelated paths will suddenly cross and change both their lives forever when one night Jensen finds scared Samantha hiding out in his barn.

As the two are closing in on the people responsible for Samantha's tragedy, they will reveal an unimaginable scheme that may tear them apart or unite them forever.

Caught between love and duty, can a romance so pure resist to burst in flames?

Chapter One

Chapter Divider

Coughing furiously, Samantha stumbled forward until she fell. 

Her knees hit the ground hard. Writhing, she turned to find the flames shooting up into the sky, bright against the sunset. Horror clung to her bones as she tried to breathe, and her eyes watered so badly she could hardly see. But she could see the fire, and she watched, terrified, as the roof caved in.

Samantha’s throat was too hoarse to scream. Clutching one hand to her neck, she tried to scoot farther away. She could still feel the heat licking at her boots as she struggled to collect herself. The stench of everything burning flooded her senses.

She had to keep crawling. Trying to not think about what had just happened, she shakily forced herself to move. That’s what her parents had wanted. They had pushed her out the window and had told her to keep moving. To not give up.

“Don’t give up,” she reminded herself. It ended in a painful cough. 

Her lungs hurt. The burn on her leg hurt. Crawling through the dirt hurt her hands and knees. Everything hurt and ached and throbbed. 

But she couldn’t stop. She wouldn’t stop. Samantha blinked the sweat away as her vision began to clear. 

When a tree appeared in her path, she shakily used the low branches to pull herself up. It took a moment of wavering and clutching the bark for her to feel steady enough to take a step without falling over. She tested her strength. When she didn’t fall over after two steps, Samantha knew she would be fine.

So she started to run. Though she stumbled in the dark, she knew it wasn’t far. And the fear kept her moving. Down the street she hurried, out of the town square and around the shops to the streets lined with houses. She went to the outskirts of town and finally came upon her family’s cabin.

It was dark and lonely, waiting for them.

Adrenaline rushed through her body, though her throat was parched from the fire. There weren’t any more tears to shed, not yet. Breathlessly, Samantha stumbled into the house with one goal in mind. She had to run out of town. She had to escape. There was no time to waste. Go far away, they had told her, and don’t give up. 

With a shaky breath, Samantha stumbled across the small house into her parents’ room. She was suddenly glad for the smoke still choking her, leaving her unable to smell the familiar scent of her mother and father. There were no more tears to cry. She had to keep moving.

Trying to stay focused, she fell once more down on her knees and inched herself under the bed. Her eyes squeezed tight for a minute as she remembered how she’d climbed out of a narrow window only an hour ago. She was tall, she was thin – it used to annoy her. But now, it had saved her life.

“Focus.” She gritted her teeth. Breathing shakily, Samantha stretched and began rapping her knuckles against the floorboards. One by one, she made her way across the floor until she heard it. A hollow thud. She grunted in satisfaction and reached with both bands to claw the board out of the way.

Reaching into the hole below, she found a jar. Samantha grabbed it and slid out from under the bed. She didn’t like being trapped in small spaces. Shuddering, she turned towards the moonlight streaming through the open window and glanced at the jar. It was filled with an old pocketbook and money. Just like her parents had told her.

She’d rather have her parents back than the money.

Gritting her teeth, Samantha tried to concentrate. She grabbed the lid and, after fumbling with it for a minute, managed to pull it off. The money was counted in a hurry. Every couple of seconds, she glanced towards the doorway, worried she had been followed.

They didn’t know she was still alive. They couldn’t. But she couldn’t convince herself that she was safe. Not yet. A lump formed in her throat as she counted seventy-two dollars. 

Samantha licked her lips as she glanced over the pocketbook. Her father’s handwriting was terrible; she had been joking with him about it just hours earlier. Closing her eyes, she tucked it against her chest and held it for a second.

But she had been there too long. Inhaling sharply, she buried the book amongst the dollars and put them in the bag. This was her chance at securing justice for her parents. But she could only put it to use if she escaped to safety. 

As she pulled herself up to her feet, she momentarily staggered. Something had stabbed her shin. Glancing down, she found a splinter right where the burn was. Speechless from the pain, Samantha weakly forced herself to pull it out. It was large enough that it wasn’t hard. She wiped away the blood with a sniff.

The splinter reminded her of a bad one she’d received when she was a child helping with her parents’ first store. Both of them had wiped away her tears and sang a little song to make her feel better. They had told her how brave she was. Just like they had told her how brave she had to be for them a short while ago, when they’d helped her out the window.

A tear trickled down her cheek and she hiccupped. Perhaps she wasn’t out of tears like she had thought. Samantha inhaled unsteadily and wiped the fresh tears away with her sleeve.

She couldn’t think about that. Not about the fire, not about the fear she had seen in her parents’ eyes. Samantha tried to wipe the terrible images out of her mind. There wasn’t time to dwell on the horror. Time for grieving would come, she attempted to convince herself, but it wasn’t now.

Now, she had to keep herself alive. 

Only by Samantha’s staying alive could her parents have justice. Only by staying alive could she learn the truth of what had happened to her parents and tell everyone what had happened. The world had to know the truth. Someday.

Taking her mother’s drawstring bag off the wall, Samantha dumped her things inside. She grabbed a bonnet and tucked that in, as well. Her eyes scanned the room before she rushed into her own room to look it over one more time. For a minute, she considered taking more clothes or boots or something. Anything that might bring her comfort.

But anything else might slow her down. The lump returned to her throat.

Gritting her teeth, she knew what she had to do. And she knew if she wanted to keep moving, she couldn’t be slowed down by unnecessary items. She looked through the cabin one last time but decided against taking anything else.

She had to make it to Baker’s Creek. That would be a safe place away from the town. It was the nearest town, where her parents had told her to go. Get out, take the money, and leave town. Go north. Or was it south? Samantha could still hear them shouting in her ear, struggling to be heard over the flames.

A light sweat broke out over her face as she remembered the heat and horror, and for a minute, she couldn’t breathe. Stepping back, she ran into a wall, and the shock reminded her to focus. There was no more time to waste. It was time to go.

Stumbling out of the house, Samantha glanced around. Her breath was still shaky, and she gulped several times as she searched for any movement. Glancing back, she carefully locked the door and stepped off the porch. The sun had finished setting and it was dark now. Very dark. There was no moon in the sky and the clouds covered most of the stars, including the north star. 

She blinked several times and licked her lips. They still tasted like ash. But she didn’t choke this time.

Her eyes searched for anything recognizable. When they adjusted, she could see the landscape before her. There were the houses nearby, and the dying flames in the distance. No one had stopped it from burning. The lump in her throat itched, but she knew there was nothing she could do. Not now, anyway, and not yet.

Not too far away, she noticed the livery stables. She considered finding a horse, or at least borrowing one. Samantha took a step forward but hesitated. After all, she didn’t know how to ride.

A horse would help her move much faster – but only if she could stay on top. How hard could it be to figure it out? Her grip tightened on the bag, but she forced herself to take a step back.

He would know. If she showed herself in town, if anyone knew she had taken a horse, he would know that she wasn’t dead. Her heartbeat grew so loud that it deafened her. 

They had to think she was dead. That was the only way. If he suspected that she hadn’t died, that she had somehow escaped, then he would be looking for her. And he would be waiting. He would expect her to try to escape town, and of course, she would need a horse.

A sob escaped her lips before she could help it. Hurriedly, Samantha clamped her hand over her mouth. And she didn’t make another sound. Choking down the fear, she forced herself to take a step back. Then another step, and another.

The smell of burnt timber hung heavily in the air. Her gaze drifted across the town she had called home for the last three years. It wasn’t the best home, but it had been home, nonetheless. Especially with her mama and her papa. They had made a life for themselves out there.

“I’m so sorry,” she whimpered. She wanted to collapse in a heap again and cry. She wanted her parents to see the bloody burn on her shin and sing her a silly song to make her feel better. She wanted the sun to rise, and she wanted to wake up from this nightmare. “It’s all my fault. I’m so sorry, Mama. Papa…”

She should have been able to do something. Anything. They shouldn’t have died. She should have been able to do something. To go find help, to cut the wall down, to do anything necessary to save her parents. They were the only family she had, the only people in her life. But now, they were gone. Even if the flames hadn’t swallowed them whole, the ceiling had caved in. She wasn’t so foolish to believe they could have survived.

Wiping away the last of her tears, Samantha inhaled a quavering breath and forced herself to turn away. It was time to leave town. She had to find Baker’s Creek. Though she wasn’t quite certain what she would do when she arrived, she would sort it out then.

Somehow, she would bring her parents the justice they deserved. They would not have died in vain. And the man who did this to her family would not walk free. He wouldn’t escape the terrible crime he had committed. She couldn’t let such a thing happen.

But first, she had to reach safety.

Clutching the bag tightly to her chest, Samantha forced herself to start walking. She moved quickly, stumbling in the night. 

She prayed for guidance on her path, hardly able to remember where to go. There was no moon, and she could hardly see the road. But she wouldn’t let that stop her. She had to keep moving. Don’t give up, she could hear her parents telling her, over and over again, don’t give up. Be brave. Don’t give up.

Chapter Two

Chapter Divider

Jensen glanced at himself in the mirror with distaste. 

His hands dropped away from the fine jacket and he shook his head. After a turn in the mirror, he decided to take the jacket off. It was new and made to fit him perfectly. But now, it felt too hot and all wrong. 

The evening was warm. Warmer than it should have been – a frost was supposed to be reaching their valley that night. But he wasn’t sure the sensation he was feeling was caused by the weather. Jensen wasn’t sure he knew what was going on, at all. Only that the night was not meant to be his. He ran the back of his hand across his forehead. Maybe he was falling ill. That could explain it. Maybe it was just him. He should lie down.

Before he could take any action, however, there was a knock at the door.

“Jensen?”

Gritting his teeth, he considered not answering. But it wouldn’t matter. They knew he was home. It was his bedroom; there was nowhere else for him to be.

“Come in, Mother,” he called out reluctantly. 

From the mirror, he watched as she peeked her head in, first. Finding him across the room, she smiled and stepped through. The door was left open only a crack as she made her way in. The woman was in her forties, but her beauty was still clear through the crow’s feet by her eyes. She was always smiling, always hopeful. Her dark hair was neatly tied back, and her gray eyes were clear as ever.

“There’s my handsome Jensen,” she crowed, beaming as she reached up to straighten his jacket. Though she was a good head or two shorter than his tall, lanky frame, nothing seemed to deter her in making sure her son looked his best. She ran her hands down from his shoulders to his hands. “You’ve turned into quite the gentleman.”

It was supposed to be a compliment. He knew that. Only he didn’t feel like one. There were knots inside his stomach, and all he wanted to do was jump out the window and run in the opposite direction. 

But he didn’t. Raised as the firstborn on his father’s ranch, Jensen knew he had responsibilities and a duty to his family and their land. He had always known this, been raised on the principle of accountability for as long as he could remember. Doing the right thing had always been important to him. And what’s more, he liked being of service. He liked being able to help people and improve anything he could.

Except this felt different. Holding back a groan, Jensen struggled to smile. At least for his mother, he could do that much. She only wanted the best for her family, after all. As their gazes met, Jensen forced the corners of his lips to turn up.

“It’s going to be lovely,” she tried to reassure him. But there was hesitation in her voice and they both knew it. Neither of them knew how everything was going to happen. She patted his arm, anyway. “Shall we? Your father will be wondering where we are.”

Jensen had tried to ignore it for as long as he could. Yet he felt the dread climbing up his spine, tickling him in the most dreadful way. He forced a tight smile onto his lips and nodded. “Let’s get this over with.”

She didn’t say anything to that as he guided her out of the room and into the hall. It was a large home, built by his grandfather as a young man. Raised in the largest home in Kansas, Jensen knew he had lived a fortunate life.

After all, he was the son of a wealthy rancher. His grandfather had claimed a stake of land and grown it into quite the business. The Reaves family ranch was known for their strong cattle, clean business practices, and hard work ethic. He’d been raised with the understanding that all of this would be his someday, and it was his responsibility to treat it with respect and pride. It was hard work, but he had learned to enjoy it. The responsibilities set upon him had always been manageable.

Until now. Now, it felt like it was too much.

As they reached the end of the hall, Jensen tugged at his collar. It felt much too tight, all of a sudden. His steps slowed as he considered turning around to see if his shirt had begun to shrink. His mother’s grip tightened on him, however, keeping him from doing any such thing. 

“There you are,” his father tutted. “I’ve been looking for you for ages.”

“Did you check my bedroom?” Jensen asked mildly.

His mother patted his arm as she let go. “Jensen, there’s no need for such cheek. He wouldn’t miss supper for the world,” she added, turning to her husband. “He’s the one member in this family who wouldn’t dream of skipping out on supper.”

The older man’s brow furrowed even as he forced a short laugh. 

He had a head full of gray hair, sprinkled with white. Though he was only in his fifties, Mr. Reaves claimed it was the hard work that had done him in like that. But he was proud of his hair, his ranch, and his hard work. No one would dare tease him about any of it. He was fairly tall, though Jensen still towered over the man by a few inches. Even so, the man’s straight shoulders and permanent scowl demanded the respect of everyone who met him.

“I suppose,” he said gruffly, “you have a point, my dear. I just want to be certain about tonight’s intentions. There’s a lot to discuss and I don’t want any trouble.”

Jensen bit his tongue before offering a short nod. He wasn’t sure about any words that might come out of his mouth. Feeling his father’s gaze staring a hole through him, he turned toward the window. It faced their ranch, with the barn and stables far in the distance. That was his favorite view, being able to see their hard work create results. 

It helped distract him from his parents talking quietly from across the room. Though he at first considered eavesdropping, he decided that he didn’t want to know, one way or another. It wasn’t like they were turning to him for any decision-making. Because even if he had responsibilities and worked hard, no one wanted his opinion. Just his hands and his position as a first-born son. 

“I hear them.” His mother’s gasp cut through his thoughts. “The wagon. Come now, we should greet them, dear. Jensen, are you coming?”

His father answered for him before he could speak up. “Of course he is. All of us, at the door. Wait, we’re missing one. Where’s Mitchell?”

Jensen tasted something sour on his tongue. “You said he didn’t need to come tonight, so he’s probably in town walking with Miss Leisel.”

Both of his parents turned to each other before shrugging. While Jensen was the golden boy meant to do everything right, Mitchell was the younger son, free to do as he wished. They couldn’t be any closer, but Jensen found himself envying his brother’s freedom. He continued to wonder what the kid was up to as he trailed after his parents to the front of the house. Most likely, he was wrapping his arms around the pretty blonde he had adored since they were kids, teasing her as they made their way through the town.

The door opened and he found himself looking at the woman he was supposed to be doing the same activity with. Except he’d only met her twice before, and still wasn’t sure what to think about her. A tightness spread in his guts. He didn’t like it. 

Mr. and Mrs. Corley offered huge smiles as they stepped inside the moment the door was opened. Jensen heard his mother inhale sharply, not having had a chance yet to say a word.

“Vance Corley.” Mr. Reaves chuckled. “About time you arrived.”

The large figure took off his hat. “Always here in the nick of time. What can I say? I have important things on my plate. The food’s not cold, is it?” He lit a cigar and Jensen forced himself not to react.

Instead, he kept his gaze focused on Caroline Corley. She was only a few years younger than himself, with dark hair and red cheeks. Her teeth were a little big and her nose a little long, but she was quite nice-looking. Especially when she smiled. Her long hair framed her face and made her wide shoulders look a little narrower. And as she walked, she kept her chin up high, to the point where he wasn’t certain she could see the floor.

He could do worse. Jensen understood that. He dropped his gaze when she looked up at him. There were few girls as pretty as Caroline in town. And having this marriage arranged for them meant he didn’t have to worry about courting someone only to have them turn him down. A situation like this was prone to many benefits. Each of them had been recounted to him for the last couple of months, so much that he could probably echo them word for word from his father’s claims.

And yet, though he could recite them like a mantra, Jensen knew in his heart that he didn’t believe them.

“What a quaint little place.” Mrs. Corley burst through everyone and their thoughts. “How lovely. You really must give us a tour, Mrs. Reaves. Why, it’s just precious. And what is that lovely smell? No need to treat us like guests, seeing as we’re practically family. To the supper table, my dears.”

Mr. Reaves nodded. “Of course. Yes, we are quite family, aren’t we? Right this way, folks, follow me.”

Jensen trailed behind them, awkwardly trying not to stare at Caroline. He remembered his manners just in time to move her seat out for her. As everyone else sat down, he realized they’d left him to sit beside Caroline. It made sense. But as he took his seat, he couldn’t help but squirm.

He was still fidgeting with his collar as Mr. Vance Corley looked around the room. “Quite the place. I thought it was a little drab on the outside, but it’s cozy. My business connections in Chicago would find this quite charming.”

The man continued to boast of his mighty business work and connections, reminding Jensen of the conversation he’d had with his father six months ago, when they had sat down to discuss this opportunity. 

By bringing the two families together, there was unlimited potential. Since Jensen had a duty to his family and to the ranch, that meant doing what was right for them. If he could bring the Corleys close to the Reaves, then that’s what he needed to do. Even if he thought Mr. Corley was boastful and Mrs. Corley was annoying and Caroline was proud. 

Though his parents had told him several times he should try to get to know her, he knew that himself because a man should know his wife. But they’d hardly met. The young lady was pretty and even if they didn’t feel a connection yet, perhaps they would with time. Jensen’s gaze wandered around the room as he tried to think of something to say.

He’d learned to milk the cows, brand the cattle, and run the ranch. Now, he was going to be married to create a stronger arrangement and make sure the operation continued to grow stronger. It was only the next inevitable step for him. He was already twenty-four, so it was about time he settled. It would be quite the arrangement.

There would be benefits to the deal. But Jensen just wasn’t sure how they were going to benefit him, personally.

Cheating a glance at Caroline again, he shifted uneasily in his seat and glanced away when she turned towards him. If he was lucky, supper would fly by quickly. Dread reached out for him again. He’d lived a fortunate life. But something told him things weren’t going to go in his favor for the evening.

Chapter Three

Chapter Divider

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The Rancher's Unexpected Love, by Ava Winters

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