Her sister Phoebe’s marriage that afternoon had changed everything about Philippa Tyler’s world.
Phoebe had been the center of their family since they’d lost their mother almost two and a half years ago. She’d handled the day-to-day running of the Tyler ranch where they had all lived. Kept them all going through some of the darkest days of Pip’s lives.
And she’d taken over the raising of Pip’s youngest three brothers.
Pete, Parker, and Patton were going to be Pip’s responsibility for a while. Until the Tylers figured out what to do next. Phoebe’s marriage changed everything. For everyone.
Phoebe and her new husband, the sheriff of their county, hadn’t wanted to wait to marry after they’d nearly been killed. No one really blamed them. Pip didn’t.
Joel Masterson adored her sister. And had risked his life to keep her sister safe.
Phoebe being married to one of the county’s most prominent citizens meant the isolation Pip had always counted on for their family at the Tyler ranch was no more.
Tonight at the wedding reception she’d been forced to deal with far too many people for her sanity. She’d had to escape before she lost the ability to breathe completely.
For Pip, escape had always meant one place.
The horse barn.
Sky Dancer, the gelding she herself had delivered when she’d been only sixteen, whickered when she entered the stable that would be his new home. Pip greeted him quietly then rubbed against the soft nose. This was one of her babies, and she would miss seeing him every day.
She liked horses far better than she did people. There was no doubt about that in her head. Horses weren’t as mean, as malicious, as people. It was as simple as that.
The itch to ride was hard to resist. Pip slipped out of the small jacket that covered her only piece of formal wear, a pale pink dress that was a bit too tight, and far too short. She didn’t like dresses much, always feeling exposed and naked in them.
She was more comfortable in flannel and jeans. But for Phoebe, she’d made the effort.
They’d come so close to losing her older sister, just like they’d lost their mother so abruptly.
None of her family took that lightly. If Pip had to step up and fill Phoebe’s shoes with the rest of the Tylers, then she would.
She’d just do what she had to do; but tonight…tonight she just needed to get away. To ride. And that was what she did.
Dr. Matt Masterson, the only vet in Masterson County, knew pretty much every horse on the property jointly owned by him and his brothers. And he knew the big bay gelding shooting across the field just as the sun was setting.
He even knew the redhead riding like the wind.
First, the horse was distinctive, and belonged to his brand-new sister-in-law. Second, there were only a handful of redheads quite that small anywhere in Masterson County. Third, there were only four women he’d ever seen ride like that.
One redhead was inside, coordinating the party as his family’s housekeeper, the eldest redhead had just been carried away in his brother Joel’s arms, and the third had just left to work her shift at the Masterson General Hospital, along with his younger brother Nate.
That left little Pip as the only real possibility.
The quiet one. The one who looked at the world with fear. He had yet to figure her out. She was so afraid, especially of men, yet when faced with losing a loved one, she was the bravest woman he had ever seen.
He’d never forget seeing that bravery in action. He still dreamed about that day, about her, in the middle of the night.
Something about the quietest Tyler sister had stayed with him. From the moment he’d dragged her from a raging river and covered her body with his own while a madman tried to kill them all. He’d thought of that woman nightly, at least, ever since.
He stepped up to the fence and just watched as she flew across the field, the animal beneath her. He could almost sense her hurt, her confusion.
Her fear. It was that fear that kept him from acting on the attraction that burned in him—even months after that day.
A luxury sedan slowed on the highway that bordered their pasture, across the field, and Matt suspected he wasn’t the only one captivated by the sight of the fairy—every Tyler female looked like a damned fairy—flying across the field on the back of a red unicorn.
She slipped from the back of the horse and began walking him down. Matt made certain to stay in the shadows.
Matt didn’t want to frighten her. Pip was so easily frightened.
He had yet to figure out why.
Rowland Bowles was a self-taught man, and had made his first five million by his twenty-fifth birthday. He knew a good story—and he knew the people to play in those stories. When given the chance, Rowland preferred to use locals at each location. He loved discovering unknown talents. Of making careers. It gave him a sense of power, and his work a sense of authenticity that many in the film industry tried to emulate.
Very few succeeded. At thirty, he was confident in his skills, and just cocky enough to expect everyone to give him what he wanted. Because he was Rowland Bowles.
Masterson County, Wyoming, was the perfect place for the script he’d written himself. It was a genre mashup of fantasy and American Western. He had a particular type of world and characters in mind. He had most of the principals already cast, but he’d lost his Gretta and still needed to find his Keith among the local yokels. The actress slated to play Gretta had unfortunately found herself on the wrong end of the law. It hadn’t been pretty. And he’d struggled to find the right Keith in Hollywood.
Masterson County shouted authentic Western. How could it not? Everywhere he turned was another cowboy or cowgirl. Beautiful cowgirls, like the trio of redheads he was attempting to follow into the quaint little country diner. They were quite young—early to midtwenties, at most—and very small. The largest was probably just a bit over five four or so, and a whopping one hundred thirty pounds. Maybe. The other two were even smaller, and looked enough alike to be twins. One wore full Western wear and looked like the real deal. Bowles barely looked at her. It was her twin who had caught his attention. The pale pink hospital scrubs were nearly the same shade of pink as the dress worn by the woman he’d seen just two nights before.
The small town—hell, the entire county—was perfect for what he’d wanted. And the night he’d taken the car and driven around the country roads himself had just shown him one thing.
His Gretta. Soft, feminine, sweet. Sexy. The girl he’d watched ride the other night would be perfect for Gretta, sister of the hero. Gretta was soft and wounded, and the hell she’d gone through triggered a rush of powerful magic that damned near destroyed her. Rowland wanted that redhead. He’d get her.
No matter what he had to do. But first he had to deal with Dr. Matt Masterson, his new personal nemesis.
Matt wasn’t pleased with his latest duties, but the town had banded together and nominated him and his brothers as hosts for the last group Matt ever wanted to see in his town.
The knowledge that Rowland Bowles, the legendary hotshot film director, wanted to use several ranches in Masterson County to film his latest so-called masterpiece had thrilled the locals—and the town board. Tourism wasn’t exactly a big money maker in Masterson.
As Mastersons and prominent citizens, he, Nate, Joel, and Levi had been nominated to see that the film crew had everything they wanted and needed. None of the brothers had been too happy about it, but since Matt had been the only one not at the meeting due to a sick-horse call, his loving brothers had pawned the director and his half dozen assistants off on Matt.
He’d be getting back at Joel, Nate, and Levi first chance he got.
Bowles wanted to use the Masterson homestead as one of their sets. Matt was not the least bit thrilled about that.
Worse. Bowles himself had been in that damned sedan, watching Pip the evening of the wedding. And the man wanted her.
There was no way that was going to happen. Matt wasn’t about to let it. A guy like Rowland Bowles would terrify her.
“What exactly are you going to be needing from the people in this county?” Matt asked as he and Bowles watched the trio of beautiful redheads cross the street. Matt had seen Pip and her two sisters when they’d pulled in. Pip’s truck was a distinctive orange and white. He’d watched them for a while as he’d half listened to Bowles chatter on. “We are busy people with busy lives around here. And we like our privacy.”
“Of course. I’m very respectful of location characteristics, Dr. Masterson. Tell me, those women there, do you know them?”
“You might say that. One’s my housekeeper. Their oldest sister is currently on her honeymoon with my brother. They’ll be back in a few days.”
“So you know them. Tell me about them?” Bowles sounded too damned eager, didn’t he? Matt fought the instinctive urge to tell the man to just back off.
“They’re busy people who really like their privacy.” Matt watched Perci turn to her sisters and walk backward a few steps. He heard their laughter from where he and Bowles stood. Light, beautiful, perfect. “Why?”
“That redhead in the pink. I want her. For my Gretta, I mean. Although, she certainly is beautiful, and if she wanted more—well, I’d make an exception to my business-only rules.”
“Yes, the twins are gorgeous women.”
“Twins?” Bowles puzzlement was clear. “Oh. I didn’t realize the other one actually was her twin.”
Matt looked at the man like he was an idiot. Even clear across the street, it was hard to miss the fact that Perci and Pip looked exactly alike. “They’re identical. Only difference is a scar. And clothes, of course.”
“Is there? Interesting. I don’t think it was the other one I saw. Is she actually hiding between the other two?” Bowles winced. “I’m sorry. You said they were family. I don’t mean to be insulting. I just know who I need when I see them.”
“Pip is just as beautiful as her sister. Brave. Loyal. Talented. Don’t discount her simply because she’s shy.”
“Oh, I’m not, of course. Will you introduce me?”
“Not at the moment. But I do have a two o’clock meeting with Pip Tyler about a horse. You can watch, but I won’t lie; you’ll intimidate the hell out of her. That’ll make me cranky, understand?” He didn’t know why he said it, but Bowles put his back up for some reason. Maybe it was the way he was so dismissive of a woman Matt admired more than so many others. Maybe it was the way he was eyeing the Tyler sisters like they existed only to give him what he wanted. To please him. “You can stand back and watch, but that’s it. What the hell do you even think you saw out there that night, anyway?”
He had his suspicions. That pricey sedan Bowles had driven up in had been rather distinctive. And familiar.
“A beautiful red horse, with a small fairy on its back. She wore a thin pale dress, and her hair flew out behind her. It was nearly as red as the setting sun. She flew on that horse. Stunning. She’d be beautiful as my Gretta. I want her. I’m willing to pay her, too. A great deal. Those who star in my movies go on to great things, Dr. Masterson. Great things. I can offer her a way out of this little town if she wants it.”
Matt threw his head back and laughed. If Bowles ever figured it out—well, there was no way little Pip would ever give Bowles what he wanted. “Let me know how that works out for you.”
Rowland studied the cowboy next to him. They were of the same size, though he thought Masterson might have an inch on him or so. Thirty pounds heavier, possibly. Maybe more. Rowland worked to keep himself in shape, but this cowboy was the real deal.
Guy had the kind of good looks women flocked to the theaters to see, he had to admit. If he was filming a romance, this guy would look beautiful next to Gretta. Strong, rugged, dark-haired, blue-eyed. Quiet, but confident.
Dr. Matt Masterson didn’t like Rowland’s interest in those redheads. That was abundantly clear. Did the guy have one staked out for himself? Rowland understood. What man wanted someone like him coming in and taking away some guy’s woman? “I won’t touch her, if you have a prior claim, Doctor.”
Masterson’s countenance darkened. “You won’t touch any of them, unless one of those girls asks you to. We’re mighty protective of the Tyler sisters around here. They’ve been through enough recently. All of them. The eldest is my brother’s wife. My brother, the sheriff…he takes protecting his wife’s family pretty damned seriously.”
Rowland had misjudged, hadn’t he? Something more was going on with the Mastersons and the Tylers. That had just become perfectly clear. Always a student of people, Rowland wanted to probe deeper, find out more. “I’ll watch your appointment with this Pippy, and I’ll even behave myself while I do.”
“It’s not her I want, anyway. It’s her sister. And I’ll have her, too.”
Masterson laughed outright. Like Rowland was an idiot or something. “You go anywhere near Perci Tyler with that attitude, and she’ll use a scalpel to teach you some manners. Girl’s got teeth—and she’s not afraid to use them.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Rowland wasn’t too worried. A small-town woman would cave in to the idea of what he could offer her. He had no doubt about that. He’d done it time and time again. He’d have Perci Tyler as his Gretta before the week was out.
With or without Matt Masterson’s help.
As two more Mastersons—they truly did look perfect as cowboys—hailed his reluctant host, Rowland watched the trio of women enter the diner.
He was hungry.
Rowland just hoped the place had something gluten-free.
He started across the diner.
Masterson called his name. Rowland looked at the other guy. He wasn’t about to let some small-town hick keep him from getting to his Gretta. Period.
“Might keep in mind what I said,” Masterson warned.
“I’ll do that.” It didn’t mean he had to listen, though.
Matt wanted Pip to meet him at his vet clinic at two. She had almost two hours until then. Masterson wasn’t exactly a big city—the town itself only had about eight hundred people in it—but it was big enough at times to freak Pip out.
Crowds of any kind were too much for her. But she dealt. Silently.
She wasn’t about to lose out on this time with Perci and Pandora because she had panic attacks whenever more than three tables in the diner were occupied.
Perci squeezed her elbow. Always there. Just like Pan, the youngest sister, used to be. Until she’d left them to be the Mastersons’ housekeeper. When Phoebe returned from her honeymoon in a few hours, she’d effectively become Pan’s boss. No real change there. Phoebe had been bossing from the moment Perci and Pip had been born. Some things would never change.
They took the last booth on the left. Macy, the owner’s granddaughter, a woman a year or so older than Pip, nodded when they walked by—she had her hands full. The place was crowded.
With people Pip didn’t recognize. She bit back the panic. She was safe.
Her sisters were right there. Two men near the back were first cousins. And there, right in the corner booth on the right was the sheriff of Masterson County and his brand-new bride.
Phoebe was back. And Pip was safe. She’d just have to keep reminding herself that.
She changed direction, aware of Pan and Perci following. They all took turns hugging Phoebe. The eldest sister smiled and told them all about her three-day honeymoon, beaming as she spoke. Joel hadn’t been able to take any longer than that, so they’d made the best of the time they had had.
And Phoebe hadn’t wanted to leave the boys for too long. They’d had a family meeting—Joel included—right before the wedding to discuss how things at the ranch were going to have to change.
It would take some adjusting for all of them, but Phoebe was moving in with Joel at the Masterson ranch a few miles away. She’d still be around during the day—Joel would drop her off on his way in to town each day. Either her husband or one of his brothers would pick her up each evening after the chores on the family place were done. After the boys’ homeschool and Phoebe’s drove of Angora goats were tended each day. It wasn’t ideal, but it would work.
It meant Pip would have to step up with the boys of the evenings, too. Perci could help on her nights off, but her sister often put in five twelve-hour days at the hospital. On her nights off, she needed to rest. And handle other chores that built up around the place while she was gone.
Perci helped where she could—probably too much.
Change. It was never easy for Pip.
They were halfway through their meal when three tall, gorgeous men approached. Pip’s hands immediately slicked with nerves as Matt and Nate moved an empty table up to the edge of their booth.
“Family reunion?” Levi asked, smiling at Pip and Perci as he settled into the chair nearest Pan. “Ok, the scrubs tell me which is which today.”
Nate glowered at them both. “Persephone’s scar is on the left. Pip’s is on the right. Not that hard to remember.”
He was right. Perci had a scar just above her left eyebrow from the accident that had killed their mother. Pip had one near her right eyebrow that she’d received when Tom Rutherford had nearly killed her older sister and Joel.
Pip shivered when the men turned to look at her and the scar.
“It’s because you dropped him on his head,” the brother beside her said. “He’s been difficult to teach ever since.”
Matt. Matt was the calm quiet one. The one who’d pulled her from the river when she’d swam in to rescue Phoebe that day. The one who’d covered her and her sister with his own body when bullets had been flying around. Matt had been the one to protect.
She trusted Matt. He was the one brother who didn’t scare her all the time, the one she could sit next to and not have a panic attack. The one who she liked talking to.
Pip forced herself to relax. Even though she could smell the woodsy scent of his aftershave, could feel the warmth of his big body next to her.
Pip shivered. For a strange moment she wanted to almost snuggle up against that warmth and forget the crowd around her. That was crazy, wasn’t it?
She trusted these men. She was safe. She had to learn to stop freaking out every time one of them got close to her, didn’t she? Pip concentrated on eating her lunch and following the conversation around her. She’d spent four years pretending not to panic every time something scared her—she’d gotten good at making her family believe she was fine. Today would be no exception.
Fake it until you make it, after all.
Pip looked up at Perci and Phoebe—who shared the bench seat with Joel—a few minutes later. Looked up in time to see her sisters both pale. To hear Perci’s low curse and Phoebe’s surprised gasp.
Pip turned to look for herself…