Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: Riding Hard: Carter

Book 3: Riding Hard Series

Grace Malory opened the oven door, filling the large kitchen at the Campbells’ ranch with the warm aroma of chocolate cake.

She worked alone in the kitchen today, so she heard no applause, no cheers of appreciation. Her nose, though, told her that the cake had come out just fine.

Grabbing potholders, Grace lifted the cake from the oven and set it on waiting cooling racks on the counter. She turned off the heat, threw down the potholders, and breathed a sigh of relief.

This cake needed to be perfect. It was for Faith’s birthday tomorrow—Grace had volunteered to make all the goodies for her party, including a special cake that would hold nine candles.

Faith had requested a Texas sheet cake … “The kind with chocolate frosting,” Faith had said, wrinkling her fine-boned nose. “Not the frosting with all the nuts in it. Please?”

“Of course, sweetie,” Grace had said. “It’s your birthday. You can have what you want.”

Faith was in a no nuts in anything phase. No raisins either. Faith liked to eat both of those, but not mixed in with her cakes, cookies, pies, or brownies. “I like nuts in the shells, and raisins in the box,” Faith had declared.

“As God intended,” her father, Carter had rumbled in response. Faith had laughed in delight, and Grace had looked on, her heart flip-flopping.

Grace leaned down to inhale the cake’s fragrance, once more satisfied. It unnerved her that it was Carter’s praise she imagined when the finished, decorated masterpiece was laid before Faith and her friends tomorrow. Carter so rarely gave his approval to anyone but his daughter that winning some from him would be all the sweeter.

Grace knew full well that she wanted Carter to look at her for more reasons than the triumph of pleasing a hard-to-please man. She wanted his intense hazel-eyed gaze on her, while he gave her his slow nod.

To hell with it. She just wanted to be in the same room with the man, no matter what he said or did. Pathetic.

Grace slammed open her notebook, flipping to the sheet-cake frosting recipe she’d perfected for Faith. Her recipe notebook was thick with cakes, cookies, and pastries of all kinds, which she’d created and mastered when she’d planned to open a restaurant with another chef she’d been dating, who’d turned out to be a crook. All Grace’s hopes and dreams had flown when the man had disappeared in the night with all the funds, after Grace had made a down payment on the restaurant and co-signed for a startup loan.

She’d been shocked, betrayed, grieved, financially devastated, and just plain mad. Being all-around cook to a local ranching family wasn’t her end goal, but when Grant, the second oldest Campbell brother, had suggested it, Grace leapt at the chance.

Because I need the money, Grace had told herself. She was stuck paying back the loans the con man had left her with. And something to do to take my mind off things.

Bull. She’d jumped at the offer to work here so she’d have an excuse to be near Carter Sullivan, the Campbells’ adopted brother. She’d been gone on him since she’d first seen him years ago at school when he’d been the cool kid, untouchable and mysterious.

At first, Grace had thought her crush had stemmed from the fact that Carter was forbidden fruit, but over the years, she’d changed her mind. She simply liked him, everything about him—from his Houston drawl, to his long silences, to his hard face and the tatts that laced down his arms. And, all right, his hot body and great ass. 

But the man never noticed her.

A thump on the kitchen door broke Grace out of her contemplation. She’d been staring at the recipe while she daydreamed about Carter, not seeing a word of it.

No one was home at the Campbell house—the family was out and about doing various things that took them to the far corners of River County, and Faith was at school. It was a fine September day, with a blue arch of sky and floating white clouds, warm but not too hot.

The guys—and a few gals—who worked down in the stables rarely came to the house, calling on the phone when they needed something. But maybe they’d smelled baking and come looking for something to eat. They knew Grace liked feeding people.

Grace closed her notebook and moved across the kitchen floor to the little alcove that led to the back door.

“Grace’s Kitchen,” she sang as she flung the door open. “How can I help…?”

Her words died as she took in the woman on the doorstep. Grace had no idea who she was, and Grace knew everyone in Riverbend.

The woman was on the small side, about an inch shorter than Grace, and very slender. She wore stained jeans and a black, close-fitting tank top with wide shoulder straps, and carried a leather jacket slung over one arm.

Her hair was short and spiky, dyed a flat, soot black. She wore no makeup on her pale face, the lines about her eyes incongruous with her apparent youth. She had lines around her mouth too, and a pinched look that Grace thought came from certain types of addictive drugs.

“I’m sorry,” Grace said, the politeness she’d learned at her mother’s knee coming to her rescue. “Were you looking for someone?” 

The woman already made her uncomfortable, but Grace refused to let herself judge too quickly. She might simply have gotten lost on the back highways that crisscrossed Hill Country, and need directions.

The woman looked Grace up and down with hard, light brown eyes. Grace did not know her, yet there was something familiar about those eyes, in the shape of them and the way they narrowed.

“Who are you?” the woman snapped. Her voice was gravelly, too deep for such a young throat.

“I’m the cook,” Grace said. “I work here.” Normally, Grace was far friendlier, offering her name and her life story to anyone she met, but her instincts were telling her to be reticent.

“Carter still live here?”

“Yes,” Grace said slowly. Lying would do no good—the woman could ask anyone in town that question and get the same answer. “But he’s not home. Can I tell him who stopped by?”

“You his wife?” The woman gave her a surly stare.

“No.” Grace’s wariness grew, straining her politeness. “As I said, I cook for the family. They’re out today, but if you want to leave a message, I’ll see that they get it.”

“Where’s the girl?”

Grace blinked. “Girl?”

“He named her Faith. Dumb-ass named her that to get back at me.”

Grace blinked a few more times, then she remembered where she’d seen eyes that shape, a mirror of the expression in them.

Holy shit, she was Lizzie Fredrickson. Faith’s mother. 

“Um,” Grace said, finding her voice. “She’s not here.”

“Where the hell is she then?” The voice was harsh, filled with volumes of rage.

Nine years ago, this woman had come to the house, shoved a bundle into Carter’s arms, and taken off down the road. The bundle had contained a newborn baby, screaming with fear at the enormity of the world.

Carter had been in complete shock, but once he’d realized the baby was indeed his, he’d devoted himself fiercely to taking care of her.

And now Lizzie had come back, asking for Faith.

Grace’s own anger grew. She’d watched how Carter had struggled, still a kid himself at eighteen, to be a father, and a good one. He’d given up a lot to make sure Faith was taken care of, kept safe, loved. He’d been a damn good dad, while this woman had utterly abandoned Faith.

“You gone deaf?” the woman barked. “Where is my daughter? I want her.”

Grace remained silent, her fury mounting. Damned if she would send this woman to a school full of kids to pull Faith out and take her God knew where. Carter needed to know Lizzie was back in town, needed to know now. 

“How about if I get Carter on the phone?” Grace asked, striving to maintain an even tone. “You can talk to him about this.”

“Like hell.” The woman dropped the leather jacket, pulling a black pistol from its folds.

Grace found herself looking into the round barrel of a gun as flat black as the woman’s hair. Her mouth went paper dry, her voice dying into a tiny squeak. Fear she’d never known wedged in her throat, all from a hunk of metal with a hole in it pointed at her heart.

“Where is my daughter? Tell me now, bitch.”

Nothing came from Grace’s mouth. If she’d been hesitant about sending this woman to Faith’s school before, she certainly wasn’t going to let her go down there with a gun.

“I said now.”

Lizzie didn’t raise her voice—no chance of the guys down the hill in the stables hearing—but the words were final. 

“Let me call Carter,” Grace said quickly. She needed to hear his voice—not only that, Carter would call Ross, his deputy brother. “You two need to work this out.”

The gun didn’t waver, but Lizzie sneered. “Figures he’d go for a snotty little soft girl like you.”

“You need to leave.” Grace firmed her voice, like she did when her two older brothers got too bossy and obnoxious. What she wouldn’t give for a chance visit from Kyle or Ray now.

“Not until you tell me where Faith is. I want my kid.”

Grace would never reveal where Faith was—and anyway, what kind of woman wouldn’t understand that on a school day, during the school year, her daughter would be in a classroom? But Lizzie wasn’t from Riverbend, wouldn’t know that kids around here went to the elementary school in White Fork, the next town down the highway. Lizzie knew Carter from his gang days in Houston.

The silence went on too long. Grace saw the tightening of Lizzie’s eyes, of her finger on the trigger. 

In that split second, Grace dove behind the kitchen door, but not fast enough.

The roar of the shot exploded in Grace’s ears, blotting out all other sound. Then came the bright smell of blood to overpower the warm, chocolate-cake scent of the kitchen. Grace fell to the floor, her legs no longer working.

The last thing she saw of Lizzie was the woman turning and running, a black flash in the bright sunshine. Grace heard shouting from the men at the stables, the neighing of startled horses.

Grace’s limp fingers closed around the cell phone in her apron pocket. Her hand was bloody, the red obscuring her contact list, so annoying. She managed to touch her thumb to the name Carter. Her ears still ringing from the shot, she could barely hear him answer in his rumbling, beloved voice.

“Carter,” she whispered. “Faith …”

Whatever happened after that was a blank.

Return to Carter

Buy the Book