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RETURN TO HIGHTOWER
A Hightower Mountain Novel
BY JUDITH LUKE
Steve Tower’s curiosity grows when he learns a beautiful woman is the new owner of Diamond Ranch. But his interest intensifies when he discovers that some employees are former ranch hands of his family’s Hightower Ranch, the relatives of Desiree Lorde—the woman who shattered his heart and dreams, a woman he never forgot.
When soap-opera star Desiree Diamond acquires the ranch of a distant relative, she has one goal—revenge on family and ex-friends who abandoned her when she needed them most. First, she sets her sights on Hightower Ranch. Steve Tower jilted her when she was pregnant and destitute. But she’s not destitute any longer. She is building a premier horse farm to challenge their prominence in the horse industry and will soon move there.
But before she can make the move, Desiree is pressured by her producer to bring attention the lagging soap-opera by doing a cross-country tour and attending her high school reunion. And there he is, handsome as ever. Even after fifteen years, Desiree and Steve cannot deny the smoldering flames of the past, but the heart-breaking events of their youth arouse old fears and uncertainties.
Steve realizes he cannot bear to lose her again. As lies of the past peel away, they delve into what happened so many years ago and uncover a conspiracy to keep them apart. After a suspicious accident threatens Desiree’s life, Steve knows someone will do anything to keep those dark, evil secrets hidden and separate them this time forever.
STEVE TOWER slowed his pickup as he entered the old town of Bantry, Wyoming. The wide roads were a legacy from the days of horses, wagons, and stagecoaches. Basic needs were met with a bank, a pharmacy, and a full-service grocery. Clothing, antiques, and beauty salons filled the small shops along the main street. A veterinary hospital was just outside of town. For human needs, Doc’s clinic was part of his large house. And the farm store sold what every rancher needed, a cup of coffee and homemade foods, clothing, nuts and bolts, fuel, and animal feed.
The comfort of knowing everyone was a bonus—unless you were the object of the gossips. Over the years, Steve knew he and his older brother Adam often gave fuel to those wagging tongues.
He drove by the old depot. The town was once a railroad spur to supply water for the steam engines from abundant Bantry Lake, and to bring supplies or drop off passengers. Now, the train tracks to this spur were long gone. The depot was now a restaurant.
Steve pulled up to the diesel pump at the farm store. After filling the tank, he wiped any residue from his new, black Ford crew cab, the front doors embellished with the gold Hightower Ranch brand. Inside the store he was greeted by a handful of old timers, sitting around their special table, drinking coffee, eating cinnamon rolls, and jawing about women, cows, horses, and taxes. A few off-color jokes were expected.
He found Sam at the back counter. He was the general manager and an old friend. Slight in build, he had a clean-shaven face and trimmed brown hair. His dress shirt was pressed, his jeans comfortably seasoned, and his boots polished. Something on the counter held his attention. “Hello, Sam. It’s a beautiful day today. Too bad you’re stuck in here. We could do some target practice.” Steve leaned a hip into the counter.
“Yes, it is. I’ll take you up on that soon.” Sam sent a smile Steve’s way. He pointed at the paper in front of him. “Gosh, have you seen this notice? Another young college girl has gone missing. This time from Cheyenne. A waitress at a pancake house. No one has seen her. Her purse and books were still in her car.” Sam growled. “This is three now, one a month. If she just took off, she would have taken her purse. Wouldn’t she?”
Steve studied the notice. He remembered when he was a teen that young women disappeared from the university in Laramie. They’d never been found. Neither had his mother.
“Apparently, this kidnapper studies the security cameras, knows their limits. They say the car was out of range. Well, we will have to keep our women close and keep an eye out for anything unusual.” Sam changed the subject. “What can I help you with?”
“I need propane delivered. The tanks are down to twenty-five percent.”
Sam checked the schedule. “I can get a driver out there tomorrow. Oh, those pretty black halters with Hightower Ranch embroidered in gold on the cheek, well, they arrived this morning.” He smiled and made his eyebrows wiggle. “I had to look at them. Very flashy.”
Steve chuckled. “We lose a few halters each year at horse shows. Doesn’t seem to matter if our name is on them or not. Having a name on them helps some.”
Sam brought the box out and placed it on the counter. “Maybe they take them as souvenirs, secret admirers.” He gave an exaggerated wink. “Can I get you anything else?”
“Yes, this little pink bear.” The bear was about a foot long, soft pink with a white tutu. “Put it all on the ranch account.”
“You are going to spoil her.” Sam sang the words as he printed off the invoice.
“I’m her uncle. I get to spoil her.” He grinned, thinking of the little tyke. What a doll. Someday he hoped for his own little ones, dragging on his pant legs, crawling into bed with him, loving life. He hadn’t found the right woman, and his plans for a family stayed on hold.
Steve signed the invoice, and with a smile, placed the pink bear on top of the cardboard box and left the store. At the Bantry Hotel, he parked next to his brother’s white truck. Montgomery Ranch was printed in black on the doors. As he gathered the pink bear and his hat, his mind wandered.
Five years ago, his older brother Adam sold his share of Hightower Ranches to him and his father, Josh, and bought out neighboring rancher, Joe Montgomery. He also married the
Montgomery princess, Brooke, at least that’s what Adam always called her. Now there was a new, demanding princess on the block, one-year-old Annie, named after Brooke’s late mother. He, too, had loved deeply. Desiree Lorde. Where had she gone? Whenever he thought about her, his heart ached like an old wound on a stormy day. Now he was thirty-four, no woman on his arm, no children. But the scar on his heart was still there. Steve breathed out the sad memories and did a quick finger comb through his dark hair and put on his hat.
Stepping into the Bantry Hotel, he was always reminded of old western movie scenes. Instead of girls of the night living upstairs, Max had part of the second floor made into his apartment. The rest was divided into bedroom suites. The cherry-stained horseshoe shaped bar was surrounded with booths and tables. A banquet room in the back of the restaurant was used as a nightly dance hall or rented for special occasions.
He sauntered over to the booth where Adam and Brooke, along with Annie, waited for him. He sat across from them and hung his hat on the available wall peg.
Annie sat in a highchair at the end of the table. From behind his back, he brought out the teddy bear. With a squeal of delight, she took the bear and hugged it. She was an angel with soft blonde hair and sapphire eyes like her mother.
Adam grimaced. “If you don’t stop buying her stuff, I’m going to have to build a special storage shed.”
“What do you think, Brooke? Do I spoil her?” Steve ran a finger down the arm of his
niece, enjoying the baby softness of her skin.
“Yes, and she loves you.” Brooke grinned. “We ordered a smothered burrito for you.
We’re having the same. They should be coming out soon. So, what’s new?”
“Well, I picked up the new truck this morning. I parked next to Adam’s three-year-old rattle box.” He smiled at Adam with the tease. Then he grew serious. “You heard about the missing woman?”
Adam frowned. “Yes, it’s all over town. Hope she’s found—alive.”
“And they find her kidnapper.” Steve’s mind travelled to the heartache when his own mother disappeared so many years ago. Had she been kidnapped, or did she run away? He would never believe that she deserted her family. The emptiness was still there in his heart.
While he waited for Max, he tickled and made faces at Annie. His thoughts turned serious. “Do you know who bought Kitty’s old place? I noticed as I passed by this morning there are major changes. The massive new house and indoor arena appear to be finished. The entrance arch says Diamond Ranch. I hope it’s not some dude with money, wanting everybody to change their way of doing things.”
Adam sat up and sipped from his coffee. He put his cup on the napkin and looked over at his brother. “The estate attorneys wouldn’t talk about selling until they tried to find Kit’s relatives. Apparently, her father had an extensive family. I don’t know who the owner is. I do know those living in Kit’s old house and working there are Ed and Nancy McKay. You remember them, don’t you? They used to work for dad, lived in that little farmhouse he supplied.
Desiree’s aunt and uncle, I believe.”
Steve didn’t answer. The shock at the mention of their names sent wave after wave of memories crashing over him. From junior high on, he and Desiree Lorde were inseparable. She was his first love, his first French kiss, his first sex. He was the high school quarterback, and she was a fiery cheerleader, her blonde hair billowing over her as her willowy body moved with the chants. Steve planned to marry her when the time was right, spend every night with her wrapped in his arms. He saw her the day he left for Annapolis. Desiree never contacted him again.
Nancy McKay, her aunt, told him she had moved to New York and was living with the owner of a modeling studio. His heart tore with the news. Not long after that, his father said the McKays moved away with their daughter, Raven. He hadn’t heard from any of them since.
What had happened to her? What had happened to them?
Judith lives in northeastern Florida with her husband and canine administrator, Toby. In between golf and MahJongg, she writes. She called Colorado home for most of her adult life. When she bought two horses for her children to ride, she didn’t realize it would grow to a herd of registered Paint horses, lessons for herself, training for her horses, and lots of travel to shows.
Driving to Wyoming to visit family and enjoying the wide-open land was the creative inspiration for the fictional farm community called Bantry and the mountain formations for this Hightower Mountain Series.
In book two, RETURN TO HIGHTOWER focuses on Adam’s younger brother Steve Tower and his lost love, Desiree Lorde. A high school reunion brings them together after seventeen years. But they soon discover that someone wants to keep them apart, and Desiree is the target.
Both SECRETS OF THE HEART and RETURN TO HIGHTOWER are stand-alone reads.
Links to Judith’s website, blog, books, #ad, etc.
Thank you for purchasing RETURN TO HIGHTOWER. If you enjoyed the story, please let others know by leaving a review on https://www.amazon.com/judithluke. You can contact Judith at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks, Judith, for sharing your book with us!
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