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Excerpt

Free Chapter: Starfall Ranch

Hello readers & smut lovers! My first full-length novel, STARFALL RANCH, launched this week, and I am so excited to share this world and these characters with you. Over the course of writing this romance, I absolutely fell head over heels in love with Thisbe and Shy, and I hope you will, too. As a little preview that offers a bit more than Amazon’s Look Inside feature, here is the first chapter in its entirety. Enjoy! xx

The alert buzzed on Shiloh’s smartwatch as she drained the last dregs of her morning coffee. A harvest droid had suddenly gone offline in the northeast quadrant of the orchard and had been unresponsive for going on fifteen minutes. Grimacing, Shiloh set aside her empty mug, pulled her long, brown, unruly hair back beneath a grease-stained trucker’s cap and went out to investigate the latest in a string of breakdowns and mysterious technical problems that had plagued Starfall Ranch in recent months.

The weather was cooperative so far, at least. The sun rose over a crisp, gloriously golden early autumn morning and reflected brilliantly off the pink rings of the gas giant, Bel, hanging perpetually on the starry blue horizon to the west. The ranch was nestled in one of the most rich and fertile valleys of the temperate belt on the moon-world, Sirona, a moon roughly the size of Mars, and one of three inhabited colony worlds in Bel’s orbit.

The beautiful weather and scenic views were a fact that many citizens of the far-off home world Earth blessedly hadn’t caught on to yet, but Shiloh knew it was only a matter of time before images of these sunrises made their way back home on postcards and videos. Then the jump tech would improve, advertising budgets would get bigger, travel routes would get cheaper, and the frontier would fill up with tour buses and exclusive resorts. Shiloh spat out the window of her pickup truck at the cursed thought.

Shiloh Kerridan—Shy, she preferred to be called—was the sole owner and (human) resident of Starfall Ranch, which was exactly the way she liked it. Folks in town often called her a loner when they thought she couldn’t hear them, but she owned and even encouraged the description. There were less complications that way. Fewer broken promises and let-downs. Less interruptions on nice morning walks across thirty acres of gorgeous green farmland. Everything the sunrise touched was hers. What more could anyone want?

The only other employee of the ranch was a tall, amicable farmhand named Wallis Gage, who respected the fact that their boss was a straightforward woman with no interest in small talk or icebreakers. Shy got the sense that Wallis had had more than enough of their own troubles on Earth that they didn’t want to bring up, either, which made Wallis the one person on Sirona that Shy was comfortable being around for more than five minutes at a time.

It so happened that Wallis was off that day, so Shy was on her own hunting for the broken machine. When she finally found the malfunctioning droid, it was lying face-down beneath a walnut tree heavily laden with ripe nuts. A chicken clucked and pecked for grubs nearby, unconcerned by the torrent of swear words coming from Shy’s mouth. Not only was the droid the fourth one to fail in such a manner, this one wasn’t even in its assigned zone.

“How did a berry picking bot even get all the way out here to the orchard?” Shy fumed.

She knelt to inspect the machine and, like the three others that had malfunctioned previously, she found absolutely nothing wrong. No hits on the diagnostic panel. No error codes flashing. She manually rebooted it and the droid whirred back to life, blue lights flashing softly.

“Go on, get on home,” Shy said, hauling the droid back onto the trail and sending it on its way back to the late-harvest blackberry bushes.

She frowned to herself as she watched it trundle away. One mysterious machine failure could be a faulty part. Four failures, on four different droid models at four different times of day and in different areas of the farm… what did you call that? She shook her head.

“Goddamn rotten luck, I guess,” Shy said aloud to the chicken. It clucked noncommittally and went about the business of hunting breakfast.

Shy stared up at the walnut tree overhead and frowned at the ugly black splotches that covered a good portion of the leaves. The green outer fruits, too, bore the same marks, like black patches on a cow’s hide. Taki’s Blight, named for the first unfortunate Sironian farmer to encounter the terrible disease, was a frequent menace on colony farms.

In addition to unsightly leaf rot, it also tainted the flavor of a tree’s fruit. The walnuts on this tree would need to go straight into the incinerator, not even fit for compost, thanks to the blight. It was treatable with sprays and good pruning practices, but this strain seemed to particularly love Shy’s orchards. She and Wallis had tried everything, but it had hit her trees hard that spring and summer and now Starfall Ranch had only a third of its expected harvest available to sell.

Shy returned to the white two-story farmhouse that she lived in alone. It sometimes felt embarrassingly large for one person, but the house had come as part of the package: leave the elbow-to-elbow cramped one-room apartments of Earth’s crumbling, smoggy cities and enjoy the spaciousness of farm living on Sirona! All it cost you was your entire life on Earth.

Most people couldn’t abide the thought, but Shy wasn’t most people. She was the rare type who had no close family to speak of, no career arc, no pets. Not even a store membership card (“You’re just harvesting our purchasing decisions to sell us more shit we don’t need,” she would grouse when offered one). In other words, no ties to Earth.

That, combined with the necessary practical skills to keep an entire homestead running successfully, had earned her a one-way free ticket to Sirona, a farmhouse, and thirty acres of good land to work. Shy took to the long hours and hard work as though she had been born to be a Sironese settler. Five years on her own at the ranch and her apples, walnuts, and chèvre cheeses were already blue-ribbon winners at the annual country fair.

As Shy walked back up the tidy gravel path to her wrap-around front porch, a chiseled, unwelcome shadow loomed over the front steps. Shy clenched her teeth when she caught sight of her unexpected visitor: Gransel Haver.

Gransel Haver was the square-jawed, shark-eyed, cocky eldest son of Georgina Haver and he was the heir to the Haver family’s mining dynasty. While a large portion of their corporate property remained back on Earth, the Havers had jumped onto the first colonist ships headed for Sirona decades ago and had been steadily spreading their influence over the surface of the new world ever since. Like bacteria on a doorknob.

More personally, Gransel was also a significant pain in Shy’s ass. Somehow, every time she needed to go into town for something, he happened to turn up in the same place with that weaselly smile of his and his fake-as-cheap-plastic charm turned up to eleven. He had been attempting to cozy up to her for nearly a year, oblivious to Shy’s increasingly icy demeanor. It wasn’t often he drove all the way out to her ranch to make house calls, though.

What the fuck does he want this time? What could possibly be so important he’d have to show up with no notice on my damn porch at seven in the morning? Shy’s eyebrows beetled together as she put on her most forbidding hermit frown. This is what I get for forgetting to lock the front gate last night.

“Ah, Ms. Kerridan, just the delightful little moon daisy I was looking for! It’s lucky for me that you’re already up and about! I was worried you might still be asleep, but I suppose a master rancher like yourself has been up for hours at this point.”

He waved a beefy hand in cordial greeting and mopped the sweat from his brow with an actual linen handkerchief, which weirded Shy out on multiple levels. It was not hot by any stretch; the sun was still barely over the horizon after a chilly evening, and it promised to be a moderately cool day. But then again, Gran had been a greasy pig in spirit for as long as Shy had known him, so she supposed she shouldn’t be surprised at the sight of him dripping his salty douche juice all over her clean porch.

She stopped just short of the front steps, standing in front of the sun so that her unwelcome visitor would have to squint to look directly at her. She stuck her thumbs through the belt loops on her jeans and cocked her head to one side.

“Something I can do for you, Gransel?”

“Always so direct and to the point!” Gransel laughed in his big, fake, salesman laugh. Shy felt proud of herself for not openly cringing at the sound. “I do have some important business to discuss with you. But maybe we could step inside first? I sure could go for a cup of your damn fine—”

“I’m fresh out.”

Not technically a lie. While she’d never dream of running out of her home-roasted coffee for herself, there certainly wasn’t one bean Shy would be willing to waste on Gransel. And she resented the obvious ploy to get her to invite him into her home. Shy wasn’t in the business of indulging men of privilege. If he wanted to sit at her kitchen table and drink her coffee, he damn well should have called in advance. Not that she would have let him in to her home either way.

Shy suspected that the old stories of vampires had been loosely based on men like Gransel Haver: they could be polite and charming, sure, but once you let them in there was no getting rid of them until they’d sucked you dry for all you were worth.

Faced with Shiloh’s cold stare and her single raised eyebrow, Gransel awkwardly gestured towards the porch swing behind him.

“Err, well then maybe you’d like to just come up—”

Shy shook her head firmly.

“Nope, I’m good. Look, I’ve got a lot of work that needs attending to, Gransel. Why don’t you just go ahead and say what it is you came here to say to me so you can get on your way back to town?”

She basked in the stunned silence that followed, then Gran collected himself and chuckled patronizingly.

“Alright, Shy, message received. I do always appreciate a straight-shooter.”

“Great for you.”

Gransel straightened the lapel of his grey suit jacket and wiped his brow with his handkerchief one more time. Shy rolled her eyes at the obvious stalling and crossed her arms over her chest, shifting her weight to her other hip. Eventually, Gransel casually made his way down the steps to where she stood on the walkway.

“You know, I often think about what a shame it is that you don’t come into town more, Shiloh.”

“Is that so?”

Shy had to work at not rolling her eyes again and silently promised herself a cookie later for showing such restraint. Even though he was only six years older than Shy’s thirty years, Gran liked to affect the attitude and accent of an elderly southern gentleman in his fifties. She was fairly certain that he thought made him seem more sophisticated, attractive, and worldly, but to her it came off as weak cosplay. He was deploying his old-fashioned Man of the People southern drawl at maximum effort that morning, and it was really beginning to annoy the piss out of her.

“Ab-so-lutely! Why, our little town of Banidavale is growing with each passing day, and you could be a part of that growth, Shy! Hell, you should be a part of it! Did you know we just got a new cocktail bar? Opens at the end of this week, actually. Galactica, it’s called. Very stylish. They serve all them fancy sorts of drinks using fresh local produce.”

“Wow.”

“The kind of produce an enterprising rancher like yourself might want to provide.”

“Selling the fruits of my labor for a profit? Gee, why didn’t I think of that?”

Gran flashed a quick smile at her sarcasm and pressed on towards his point.

“Yeah, and so I was thinking maybe for their grand opening night, both of us having a vested interest in the success of the bar and all, not to mention both of us being two attractive single folks who enjoy a good time, perhaps you and I could—”

Shy held up a hand.

“I’m going to stop you right there, Gran. First of all, I am not interested in men. A fact that I do believe was widely and publicly established when I first settled on this rock five years ago. Secondly, you are not the man to fuck me straight, alright? No matter what you think, it’s not going to happen. Not with you, not with any dude who comes swaggering onto my property. Now that that’s out of the way, what the fuck did you come here to tell me that you couldn’t have sent in a friendly e-mail? Because I know damn well you didn’t get up at this hour of the day to deliver an ill-advised booty call request in person.”

Gransel opened and closed his mouth a few times, looking like the Nordic god of gaping fish. His face turned a vivid crimson—something Shy would have taken pleasure in if she hadn’t been so impatient to have him gone off of her property as soon as possible. She really did have a lot of work to get on with and whatever Gransel had to say, she was certain it would be an utter waste of her time.

“Fine,” he said at last through clenched teeth. “Straight to business. Can’t blame a man for wanting to mix in a little pleasure.”

“Actually, I can.”

Gran pressed on: “I came by to offer you one last chance to strike a deal with Haver Mining.”

This again. Shy allowed herself one more satisfying eye-roll.

“When you say, ‘one last chance,’ does that mean that when I tell you ‘no’ this time, you promise you’ll stop asking?”

“Shiloh, goddamnit! Listen to reason, I’m begging you! You are sitting on top of a fortune beneath this here patch of grass. But you can’t get at it, because you don’t have the right equipment. Haver Mining has not only the right equipment, but the right engineers and the right project managers and resources and so on, all available to make sure it everything gets handled properly and with as little damage to the surrounding land as possible.”

He gestured towards the nearby barn and pasture, where Shy’s herd of goats grazed peacefully.

“All we’re asking to buy is the one-third of your land directly over where the platinum vein sits. That still leaves a good twenty acres for goats and apples and whatever else you got growing at this ranch. And in exchange, you would be fairly compensated at a sum that would have you set for life!”

“Wow. You would really do all that for me, out of the goodness of your sweet little heart?”

“Of course I would! Hell, I’d oversee the deal myself.” Gransel’s eyes lit up, not yet realizing the trap Shy was laying out for him. “It just makes sense, right? You don’t have the resources to mine it yourself. We do.”

“Well, if it’s such a concern to you, you could always loan me the tools and I could mine the claim myself. Since you care so much about me and my interests and all.”

Gransel nearly tripped over himself in his haste to walk back his wheedling.

“Ah, now Shiloh, you’ve got to understand. There’s a lot to mining that the average layperson doesn’t know right out the gate. It can take years of work!”

“So it will take years. I’m young, I’ve got time! I’ve got bots. And most importantly,” she stepped close and looked Gransel dead in the eyes, relishing the way the taller, older, considerably buffer man quavered like a jackrabbit caught in her jaws. “I’m. The. Boss.”

The sound of wheels crunching on the road that lead through the iron front gates of the ranch distracted Shy’s attention away from Gransel momentarily. It was the local mail courier, early with the day’s parcels. Shit. Shy had wanted to prep a stack of promotional correspondence to send out, but thanks to Gransel’s unwanted proposals, her promos would have to wait until next week’s courier pickup.

Just one more reason to add to her long list of Why One Should Never Entertain Unexpected Guests. She spun back around to face Gransel and jabbed her index finger sharply in the direction of the road.

“I’m sure an important man like yourself has a lot of work to get back to, Gransel. I’m a bit busy at the moment myself, tending to this patch of grass, as you put it. You’ll understand if I don’t walk you out to your car.”

Shy pushed past him and stomped up to the house to wash the mechanical grease off her hands before the courier arrived at the door. She didn’t look back to see if Gransel was still there.

One last chance to strike a deal, he’d said. Shy wondered what exactly that meant. She was pretty certain it did not mean that the Havers were going to quit pestering her. She was no mining expert, as Gransel had repeatedly reminded her, but she had had the platinum seam independently assessed after the Haver family had first detected it and approached her to buy it. Gransel was right: the claim was worth enough to set her up for life. Multiple lifetimes, even. But she couldn’t stomach the idea of selling off a third of her land after five hard years building it into her own little pastoral paradise.

Worse, the idea of miners and other workers tearing through her tranquility. Shy imagined them stomping through her trees, cutting back hedges, pissing in the trout ponds, disturbing the goats, yelling to each other over the sound of heavy machinery day in, day out, and there would be nothing she could do or say to stop it.

No. Starfall Ranch was hers and Shy had crossed a galaxy to claim it. To build it. To make a home where she felt safe, for once in her life. If she couldn’t find a way to set up a mining operation on her own terms, then the platinum would just have to sit there and wait for a time when she could. The Havers could fuck right off to a hell of their choosing in the meantime

***

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