A veteran in need of a fresh start will get more than he bargained for…
Veteran Micah Holland’s scars go deeper than anyone knows. An inheritance from his mentor could be a new beginning—if he shares the inherited goat farm with fiercely independent Paige Watson. Now the only way they can keep the farm is to work together. But first Micah must prove he’s a changed man to keep his dream and the woman he’s falling for.
“You’re an inspiration, Micah.” She stared at him, as if the intensity of her gaze could convince him.
“No, not even close. I’m just a guy who was stuck in the mud and was handed a shovel to dig his way out. Someone reached out and gave me a hand up. I want to do the same for others. Because of Phil and Ian, I had the break I needed to change. That’s why it’s important to stay on track with meeting our goals. A Hand Up isn’t a handout, but a second chance. Everyone deserves that. Now I can be the one to hand out a shovel.”
“But your compassion helps change lives. That’s evident by what you’re doing here.” She shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe God allowed you to go through everything you did so you’d be in a place to help someone else. Maybe you had to become homeless to understand their pain and give them the security they needed.”
Micah laughed, the tone a bit raw and ragged.
“Seems ironic that I had to lose an arm to give a hand up to others.”
“I’m sorry for everything you’ve gone through.” Paige reached for Micah’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “God has a purpose for you. For this house. And for the men who will be living here.” She tapped his chest. “And it started here. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t have come home for Ian’s funeral. You wouldn’t be going through all this to get the transitional home set up. You wouldn’t be talking to men like Jerome, encouraging them to take the next step.”
And she wouldn’t need to guard her heart to keep from falling for Micah. Because he was right—they needed to stay on track to meet their goals. And she couldn’t lose sight of that, either, by doing something silly like falling for a man who had a hard time recognizing love in his own family.
Heart, home and faith have always been important to Lisa Jordan, so writing stories with those elements come naturally. Happily married for over 30 years to her real-life hero, she and her husband have two grown sons. Lisa enjoys family time, good books, and creative time with friends. To learn more about her writing, visit http://www.lisajordanbooks.com.
Healing his physical wounds is just the beginning…
Seeking a break from her nursing duties, Miriam Stoltzfus returns home to Lost Creek—and encounters her most difficult patient yet. Her childhood neighbor, Matthew King, is suffering after an accident left him injured and his younger brother dead. But he doesn’t want anyone’s help. Can Miriam guide him through his grief to prove he’s still the strong, confident man she remembers?
“It takes time to come back from lying in bed,” Miriam said, as if she knew his thoughts. “I’ve heard a therapist say a week of exercise for every day in bed.” She’d moved closer, and as he tried again, she put her hand on the middle of his back, pressing.
He could feel how much easier that made it to pull up. And he could also feel the shape of her palm and the warmth of her skin through the thin cotton of his nightshirt. He looked at her, feeling that awareness move between them.
“Here, let me help.” Betsy charged in, inserting herself between him and Miriam.
Jealous? He couldn’t be sure.
“That’s right.” Miriam, unruffled, moved Betsy’s hand slightly. “Good. Now don’t push. Just use your hand for a little extra support. We want his muscles to work but not strain.”
“Yah, I see. I can feel it.” Betsy sounded pleased, her antagonism slipping away.
With the two of them behind him, he couldn’t see either of their faces. But he didn’t like the idea of them ganging up on him.
“Betsy, do we have any lemonade?”
“I don’t think so. Do you want some? I can make it.” All her eagerness to please him rushed back.
“We could all use some after we finish here, ain’t so? Why don’t you make a pitcher?”
“Right away.” She hurried off.
“Don’t worry about it.” Miriam seemed amused. “She’s still your willing servant.”
“That wasn’t the idea,” he said stiffly, his temper flaring that she could read him so easily. “In case you haven’t noticed, it makes her happy to do things for me.”
“I noticed.” She looped the handles back up over the bar and pulled down a pair of stretchy bands. “As long as she’s helping you to get stronger, I don’t object.”
“Stronger.” He almost spat out the word. “Stronger for what? None of this is going to do any good. It’s useless. I can’t be the person I was.”
She seemed unaffected by his anger. “We’ll never know that if you don’t try, will we?”
He glared at her for a long moment as
He glared at her for a long moment as a thought formed in his mind. He turned it over, looking at it from all angles. Would it work?
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I’ll make a deal with you.”
“What kind of a deal?” Miriam’s expression was cautious.
“I promise to do everything you say…to try my hardest…for a month. If I’m not much better by then, you agree to quit.”
Miriam stood very still, considering before she spoke. “I can’t speak for Tim. Just for myself.”
“Yah. Just for yourself.”
“Who’s going to decide whether or not you’re much better?” she said. “You?”
His jaw hardened. She wasn’t going to make this easy.
“No,” he said abruptly. “How about… Betsy?”
Her lips twitched. “Don’t you think Betsy has her own reasons for wanting to be rid of me?”
He raised one eyebrow, a gesture that used to attract the girls. “If you’re really making progress, you’ll have won her over by then. What’s wrong? Don’t you have any confidence in your work?”
She seemed to wince at that. After a long moment, she nodded. “All right. It’s a deal.”
Marta Perry realized she wanted to be a writer at age eight, when she read her first Nancy Drew novel. A lifetime spent in rural Pennsylvania and her own Pennsylvania Dutch roots led Marta to the books she writes now about the Amish. When she’s not writing, Marta is active in the life of her church and enjoys traveling and spending time with her three children and six beautiful grandchildren. Visit her online at http://www.martaperry.com.
Scandal leads to wedding bells in this uplifting, emotional marriage-of-convenience romance by Louise Fuller!
The one thing not on her Christmas list? A convenient winter wedding!
Louis Albemarle has tried to bury the pain and guilt of his father’s death with his playboy antics. So when a photo of his stolen moment with figure skater Santina Somerville proves one scandal too many for his company’s shareholders, Louis must contemplate the unimaginable: marriage!
Marrying Louis is the only way to save Santa’s pristine image. But after a past betrayal, it’s not the gossip she really fears. It’s the burning attraction between her and Louis that might just make resisting her convenient husband impossible…
Santa stared at him, groping for some way for his words to make sense.
But of course he was being stupid again—mocking her, trying to punish her for what he saw as a problem of her making.
‘Good idea,’ she snapped. ‘Why don’t we fly to Vegas? We could get married with Elvis as the celebrant and afterwards we could invite all our new paparazzi friends to the reception.’
His face hardened. ‘If you like—although I thought the whole point of getting married was to get them off our backs.’
She felt her face dissolve, her mouth forming an O of shock. He was being serious. ‘Are you out of your mind?’
Marry Louis? The idea was absurd, and wrong on so many levels, and yet she couldn’t stop a hectic pulse from leapfrogging across her skin, or deflect a sudden vivid memory of the moment when his mouth had fused with hers.
‘No!’ Shaking her head to clear the image from her head, she took a step backwards. ‘I wouldn’t marry you if my life depended on it.’
‘What about your reputation?’
His voice was cold—but, looking into his eyes, she saw the heat of wounded male pride.
Louis’s pride was the last of her worries right now.
‘We can’t get married,’ she said firmly.
‘Why not?’ he shot back. ‘It would solve our immediate problems. Unless, of course, you’re already married.’
His eyes locked with hers and she stiffened. ‘I’m not married.’
‘And you don’t have a boyfriend right now, do you?’
Her cheeks were flaming with a shame she hated feeling. ‘I would hardly have kissed you if I did.’
Something shifted in his face—something she hadn’t got a name for.
‘It’s not always an obstacle,’ he said silkily.
‘Only for someone like you.’
‘If you say so.’
He tilted his head back, the coldness in his eyes making her shake inside.
‘Okay then, as there appears to be no legal impediment as to why I, Louis, may not be joined in matrimony to you, Santa Somerville, let’s get married.’
She stared at him, trying and failing to read his expression. No legal impediment maybe, but what about a moral one?
‘You can’t just use marriage as some kind of sticking plaster to fix this mess.’
He shrugged. ‘That’s exactly what I want to use it for.’
Her head was starting to spin. Why was he being so contrary?
‘Well, I don’t. It would be dishonest, wrong—’
‘It would also be expedient and mutually beneficial. And it’s not as if it’s going to be till-death-us-do-part. We’ll be lucky if we last a month without killing each other.’
And what about kissing each other?
Louise Fuller was a tomboy who hated pink and always wanted to be the prince. Not the princess! Now she enjoys creating heroines who aren’t pretty pushovers but strong, believable women. Before writing for Mills and Boon, she studied literature and philosophy at university and then worked as a reporter on her local newspaper. She lives in Tunbridge Wells with her impossibly handsome husband, Patrick and their six children.
When show business leads to secret pleasures, how can they resist in this Devereaux Inc. novel by LaQuette.
Their daytime partnership sets the night on fire. Who said they can’t have it all?
Lyric Smith didn’t become the nation’s most successful lifestyle guru by losing focus. Yet Josiah Manning, daytime television’s hottest—and sexiest—young Black producer makes her do just that. Publicly, Josiah wants Lyric to star in a new talk show. Privately, he’s headlining her sexiest fantasies. But when their explosive chemistry leads to complications instead of contracts, will Lyric find the ultimate partner to help her crush her rivals…or exit stage left alone?
She seemed slightly dazed, and he couldn’t tell if it was because his hand was still lingering on her arm. He was a perfect stranger, and just because he was boys with her play cousin Jeremiah didn’t mean he had a right to touch her or barge his way all up in her mix.
He dragged his hand away. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to overstep.”
Josiah let his hungry gaze slide down her body, then brought it back up to meet hers. “If this is a hot mess,
then I don’t think the world is ready for when you get glammed up. You’re breathtaking.”
She nodded, smiling playfully as her laughter filled the cozy space between them. “You are a charmer, aren’t you? I bet all the Hollywood starlets fall at your feet when you pay them those kinds of compliments.”
He lifted a brow and pursed his lips. “You’d be wrong. I don’t pay compliments easily. And trust me, there’s no one in Hollywood that looks like you, so no, I’m not usually this charming.”
He could see the brown of her cheeks burn into a deep mauve as she blushed. “Then thank you,” she responded. “And on that flattering note, I’m gonna call a car and head home.”
“Call a car?” His question stopped her mid-turn. “You didn’t come in your own?”
“No, my cousin Amara and I had business earlier, and I hitched a ride with her. But as the family lawyer, there’s no way she can leave now.”
“Then let me take you home.”
Her cute smile as she dipped her gaze and blushed again tore down all his defenses. As a producer, he was around beautiful women all the time. But none of them disarmed him the way Lyric did.
“Is ‘take me home’ just an offer of transportation or a euphemism for sleeping with me?”
Pump your brakes, man.
He wasn’t thinking with his head at the moment, so he simply said, “Whichever you want it to be.”
He braced himself for the slap he knew he deserved. But it never came. Instead, she stepped closer to him, filling his senses with the light fragrance of citrus and coconut she wore.
“Take me home, and I’ll use the duration of the trip to decide.”
Well, I’ll be damned.
An activist for DEIA in the romance industry, LaQuette writes bold stories featuring multicultural characters. Her writing style brings intellect to the drama. She crafts emotionally epic tales that are deeply pigmented by reality’s paintbrush. This Brooklyn native’s novels are a unique mix of savvy, sarcastic, brazen, & unapologetically sexy characters who are confident in their right to appear on the page. Find her at LaQuette.com & at LaQuette@LaQuette.com.
The halls are decked for holiday romance in nationally bestselling author Rochelle Alers’s latest book in the Bainbridge House series!
Christmas dinner’s on the table, and it’s being served with a side of romance!
Executive chef Viola Williamson has to have the kitchen up and running by the time the Bainbridge House restoration is complete. Working closely with Dom Shaw, Viola is struck by her hotter-than-mulled-cider attraction to her family estate’s handsome caretaker. It’s obvious that he feels it, too—yet Dom keeps his distance. Can Viola convince him that with all this cooking going on, he’s the only one stirring her heart?
Dom turned his head, successfully hiding the smile struggling to emerge. He didn’t know why, but he hadn’t expected to overhear the ribald curse that had flowed so effortlessly from Viola. “That’s good to know because that would definitely negate us becoming friends.”
Viola narrowed her eyes, reminding him of a cat ready to attack. “Do you always test your friends?”
“Most times I do.”
“Because I have trust issues.” The admission had come out unbidden. But if he were completely forthcoming with Viola, then he would’ve said his distrust was with women. It didn’t matter whether they were platonic or intimate, he’d made it a practice to keep their relationships at a distance.
“Bad breakup with a girlfriend?”
“No,” he said truthfully. “It was a marriage that ended with irreconcilable differences.”
She blinked slowly. “Well, you’re not the only one with trust issues. And mine are not with an ex-husband but with the men I’ve dated. They say one thing and do something entirely different.”
This time Dom did smile. She’d just given him the opening he’d needed to discover more about her. “Are you saying you’re not currently involved with anyone?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m not involved and don’t want to become involved. Right now, my sole focus is getting these kitchens renovated so that I can be ready once the hotel opens for business.”
It appeared as if they were on the same page when it came to relationships. Neither wanted one. And for him, it would make her presence on the property a win-win. Although he’d found Viola attractive, just knowing she didn’t want anything more than friendship would make it easy for Dom to relate to her as a friend.
“Do you have an idea as to what you want to offer your guests?” he asked, deftly changing the topic of conversation.
“That all depends on the clientele. If it’s a wedding, then that would be at the discretion of the bride and groom. However, for guests coming for a business conference, the food would be different from what would be served at a wedding reception. Then there are folks that may just want to stop by to hang out at the lounge for drinks and to watch sports. For them, I would have a special bar menu.”
“It sounds as if you have everything planned out in advance.”
Viola flashed a dreamy smile. “I would have to. I can’t afford to wait until we’re ready to open for business to begin creating menus without taste testing every item beforehand.”
Dom grinned from ear to ear. “I wouldn’t mind becoming one of your taste testers.”
She laughed. “I’ll definitely keep that in mind.”
Dom sobered. “When do you intend to come back here again?”
Viola also sobered. “Why?”
Hailed by readers and booksellers alike as one of today’s most popular African-American authors of women’s fiction, Ms. Alers is a regular on bestsellers list, and has been a recipient of numerous awards, including the Vivian Stephens Award for Excellence in Romance Writing and a Zora Neale Hurston Literary Award. Visit her Web site www.rochellealers.com
Is she a mistaken target…or next on an enemy’s hit list?
Sandy Lynn Forrester’s Christmas holiday takes a terrifying turn when someone breaks into her home and attacks her roommate…thinking it’s her. But no one believes that an imprisoned man from Sandy Lynn’s past is behind the attacks—except for her high school heartbreak, ex-cop Clay Danforth. Can she trust Clay to keep her safe in the Ozark wilderness long enough to stop a ruthless criminal’s vengeance?
The lack of explanation from Clay caused her to glance over at him. Instead of paying attention to her, he was frowning and looking in the car mirrors.
Sandy Lynn whipped around as far as her seat belt would allow. Since the snow had stopped, more people had ventured outside, evidently to take advantage of the respite. The street was crowded. “What? What do you see?”
“Okay,” she drawled, “then why are you making scary faces?”
“I’m not.” Clay flashed her a lopsided smile. “This is my normal face.”
“Maybe it’s the black-and-blue eye socket that makes you look odd,” she said, not believing that excuse for an instant.
Again he stayed silent. She felt the car begin to accelerate. The tires slipped in the slushy street, and they fishtailed several times before Clay got it under control.
“Okay. That does it. What is going on?”
“We’re being followed,” Clay said as he sped up, sliding again and again. “I’m heading for the police station.”
“Finally, something that makes sense.” Bracing with her left hand on the dash, her right gripping the over-the-door assist handle, Sandy Lynn did her best to anchor herself on the seat.
Clay turned corner after corner until she was unsure of their position. “I thought you said—”
A hard smack jolted her car and snapped her head back against the support at the top of the seat. She wanted to shout orders at him, to tell him how to get them out of this situation, but truth to tell, she didn’t have a clue.
Prayer would be good, she reasoned, if she had the words to pray or knew what to ask for.
Survival leaped into her thoughts as she called out wordlessly to her heavenly Father.
The car was hit again. Clay righted it.
A harder smash followed quickly.
Clay hollered, “Hang on!”
They went airborne, diving nose-first into a drainage ditch.
Sandy Lynn saw his head snap forward just as the airbag engulfed him. The passenger side of the dated vehicle was not equipped with crash protection, so the seat belt was the only thing keeping her from flying through the shattering windshield.
Breathless and shocked, she just sat there, wondering if this was as bad as it was going to get or if their pursuers were going to stop to finish them off.
Valerie Hansen resides in the rural Ozarks where she writes the books of her heart, primarily for Love Inspired Romance and Suspense. She is married to her childhood sweetheart and has worked as a teacher’s-aide, EMT, fire dept. dispatcher, dog breeder, commercial artist, dulcimer builder, Veterinarian’s asst., 4-H leader, Sunday School teacher, antique restorer and certified Storm Spotter, etc. See ValerieHansen.com for more!
Mountain resort owner Angelina Cunningham has her hands full with a massive winter storm. Which is exactly when her ex-husband arrives, injured and suffering temporary amnesia. Ben King has always been her weakness. Though he doesn’t remember her, he’s still as charming and sweet as ever, and Angelina is falling for him all over again. But can their rekindled love outlast the storm and the return of their past mistakes?
“Angelina,” he said. “I sense there are some hard feelings between us. I mean, I don’t remember it, but you seem…uncomfortable with me.”
“It’s fine,” she said with a shake of her head.
“What did I do?” he asked. “Because I’m looking at you, and I see a beautiful, successful woman I’d be proud to be with. So…what happened with us?”
Her green gaze flicked over to meet his. “Your family happened.”
What had his father said? And perhaps expect some jealousy toward our family.
“What did they do?” he asked.
“They hated me.” She said it so matter-of-factly, with no emotion behind it.
“I find that hard to believe…” He smiled, hoping that she’d soften her stance there. “For what?”
“For being beneath the quality standard they set for you,” she said. “They wanted you to marry someone who came from a family equally well situated. I’m just a regular woman.”
“Not so regular…”
She’d achieved an awful lot to consider herself ordinary. And look at her! She drew every eye in a room.
“You’d be surprised.” She didn’t return his smile, and her gaze didn’t waver. This wasn’t a joke. He was inclined to believe her.
“So my family hated you, and we broke up?” he asked hesitantly.
“I got tired of trying to prove myself,” she said. “And I think you got tired of fighting for us. A man’s family is a part of him, Ben. Remember them or not, they formed you. They raised you. Their DNA flows through you. And I wasn’t acceptable.”
Ben felt her words spinning through his mind like that blinding snow outside. His family had been the cause of their divorce? Was that why his father had given him that warning—he saw Angelina as a threat?
“Why did I come here?” he asked.
Angelina shook her head. “I have no idea.”
“We didn’t have plans to…talk?” he asked. “Because I don’t know why else I’d be driving this way. Do I know anyone else here or have any business to take care of?”
Angelina shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I’m not a part of your life.”
“But you said we talked sometimes,” he said.
“We did,” she said.
“Maybe I wanted to talk again. You said we broke up? Maybe that was weighing on me.”
“Maybe.” She met his gaze. “I wouldn’t know, would I?” She was silent for a moment. “We always have held on to some feelings for each other. I won’t deny that. I think you regretted how things ended with us. But we aren’t friends. You can’t feel the way we did for each other, go through that kind of heartbreak and be friends afterward. It doesn’t work.”
No, he could see that. Knowing next to nothing about her, he’d felt drawn to this woman. And even now, knowing that nothing had worked between them, he still found himself wanting to keep her close.
“But I came here,” he said. “With a storm
at my back, no less. That has to mean something. I feel absolutely certain that I was trying to reach…this place.”
As she looked at him, he could see that her resistance was up. She didn’t have his answers, and maybe he was asking too much of her to expect her to know why he’d come out here.
“Do you want me to have your clothes laundered tonight, or do you want to have them dry-cleaned?” she asked.
Right. She was backing away from the personal.
“I—” He shook his head. “I have no idea. Let’s try and wash them, I guess.”
She smiled faintly. “You were particular about your shirts. I should warn you.”
He thought about it for a moment. “I’m not right now. I wouldn’t mind having my own clothes back. Let’s see how it goes.”
“All right.” She turned toward the door.
He wanted to stop her, ask her more questions, convince her to stay awhile, but he could sense that wouldn’t be appropriate. Whatever they’d been, it was well in the past.
“Good night,” he called after her.
“Good night, Ben.” Her voice was soft, cutting off when the door shut behind her.
***** Author Info:
Patricia Johns writes from Alberta, Canada where she lives with her husband and son. She has her Honors BA in English Literature and writes for both Harlequin and Kensington books. She loves prairie skies and time with her family.
With a little boy’s help, can he let go of painful memories?
Casey Evans wants no part in the holidays, which is a major problem for Mayor Sutton Wentworth. Sutton has her heart set on their town winning a national Christmas contest, and Casey’s refusal to decorate his coffee shop could ruin everything. Thankfully, her precious son has worked his charms on Casey. But can one little boy—and his mother—change the mind of the local grinch?
“You didn’t have to offer to help Toby. I would have figured something out. Somehow, I would have–”
“I know, Sutton. You always figure something out. It’s what you do.” The words sounded more like a criticism than a compliment.
She tried not to flinch. “Still,” she persisted, “I’m grateful and I owe you.”
They were nearly the same words she’d said to her father barely an hour ago. By the look on Casey’s face, they didn’t sit any better with him than they had with Beau Fowler.
In fact, Casey just stood there, his face going blank. “You don’t owe me anything, Sutton. Got it?” He leaned in a little closer, held her stare a beat too long. “Not one single solitary thing.”
She’d insulted him. She heard it in his voice. Saw it in the way his shoulders tensed up. “I didn’t mean to imply—”
“Sure you did. Although, I’m not surprised.” He set his jaw and pulled back from her. “You aren’t exactly gifted at accepting help from others.”
Now he’d insulted her. “Look, Casey. If you want to back out, do it now, while I have time to find someone else—”
He let out a stab of laughter. “Oh no. Uh-uh. Don’t throw your doubts back on me.”
“I wasn’t. I was simply saying there’s still time to change your mind.”
“Let’s get a few things straight, shall we? First, I never offer to do anything I don’t want to do. Second, I made a promise to a little boy and I never back out on a promise. Not. Ever. My word is solid. Golden. Unaffected by time, distance or a change in circumstances.”
Sutton sensed they weren’t talking about Toby or the Soap Box Derby anymore. Casey’s tone was too fierce, his expression too intense, his words too pointed. She thought about asking him to clarify, but he was still talking.
“And finally, I like Toby. He’s a great kid. I also like building cars. I’m good at it. Your son and I are going to have a lot of fun. It’s really that simple, Sutton. Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be.”
He was right. About all of it. She was overthinking the situation. A character trait that had served her well as an attorney. But in this instance, she’d gone too far and now she felt ridiculous and defensive. Should she apologize? Maybe lighten the mood?
Definitely the latter. “Well, I guess you told me.”
“I guess I did.” He cracked a smile, the boyish one that included the infamous head tilt, and just like that the tension between them was replaced by something far more potent. “So?” he asked, eyebrows lifted. “Are we heading inside now?”
He opened the door. She followed him into a gorgeous foyer, unable to keep the awe off her face.
Renee Ryan grew up in a Florida beach town outside Jacksonville, FL. Armed with a degree in Economics and Religion from Florida State University, she explored various career opportunities, including stints at a Florida theme park and a modeling agency. She currently lives in Savannah, Georgia with her husband and a large, fluffy cat many have mistaken for a small bear. Renee can be contacted through her website at http://www.reneeryan.com
Gold Valley’s rodeo champion is facing the toughest challenge of his life – a Christmas wedding!
Legendary bull-rider Jake Daniels has only one plan this holiday season – to ignore the pain it always brings. Until his best friend Callie Carson shows up on his ranch with a marriage proposal! Jake has lived so close to the edge it’s a miracle he’s still alive – he knows all about risk. But marrying the woman he craves more than anything feels like the biggest risk of all.
Callie Carson might be rodeo royalty, but to fulfil her dreams of riding saddle bronc, she needs her inheritance. And to access that, she needs a husband. But Jake the husband is deliciously different from Jake the friend, especially after the wild heat of their wedding night! He was only supposed to be her cowboy for Christmas, but Jake’s every heart-stopping touch has Callie questioning how she’ll ever be able to walk away…
JAKE DANIELS HAD grown up knowing that life was short. When he was in high school, he’d lost his parents, and along with them, the sense that anything in this world was guaranteed.
That kind of thing changed a man.
It could make him afraid of his own shadow, worried about taking risks and filled with a sense of self-preservation.
It was either that, or he realized since there were no guarantees, he might as well go all in. Push those chips out to the center of the table and see if the gamble paid off.
He’d done some admittedly dumb stuff as a kid. Not gambling so much as acting out. But the rodeo had changed him. It had saved him.
He’d spent the last eighteen years gambling and doing pretty damn well for himself, it had to be said. Years spent in the rodeo, flinging himself around on the back of enraged bulls, had netted him a decent amount of money, and now that he was more or less ready to get out of the game, those winnings, and the amount of money his parents’ life insurance had left behind, had gotten him a big spread in Gold Valley.
He was going to be a rancher.
Not cattle, like his cousin Ryder. No. He was getting into horses. High-value breeds. Another gamble. It would either pay off, or ruin him.
That was the kind of life he liked. That was the kind of thing that made him feel alive.
And if this was retirement, hell, he was pretty damn into it. Thirty-two years old, and wealthy enough to figure out a way to live his dream. Not bad at all.
Of course, there were things he would miss about the rodeo. The people on the circuit were practically family now. So many years traveling around the same venues, getting busted up together, competing fiercely and going out for a beer after.
But it had been time to leave, and all it had taken was one fierce accident to teach him that.
And Gold Valley was his home, so this had been the place to go to when his time in the rodeo was done.
The day his parents had died, his aunt and uncle had also died, along with the mother of one of his closest friends. That had left a passel of orphaned children, a big old ranch that had once been run by their parents and a whole lot of chaos.
But it had been a good life. Other than all the crushingly sad parts.
His cousin Ryder had taken care of all of them, since he was the only one who’d been eighteen when the tragedy had happened.
He often wondered how they’d made it through without Ryder punching them all in the damn face.
He was sure that Ryder had wanted to from time to time.
Hell. Jake and Colt had been absolute assholes. Neither of them had handled losing their parents well. Well, was there a good way to handle that? He didn’t know. But at seventeen and fifteen, he and his brother had been mad at the world, and kicking against the one person who had been doing his best to help them.
They’d both left home and joined the rodeo, the Western take on running away and joining the circus.
It had taken some years and some maturity for him to fully appreciate what he’d had.
Because what Ryder had given to them had been bound up in his loss, and until he’d been in his midtwenties probably, he hadn’t fully been able to separate those two things and think of home, and his cousin, without a measure of pain and anger.
Even now, when he pulled into Hope Springs Ranch, a strange sensation took hold of him.
Nostalgia, grief and home, all rolled into one.
He’d been contending with it a lot lately, because his—for lack of a better word—retirement was still fairly new, and being in one place and not on the road was unusual for him.
But that was a choice he’d made, and one that was taking a bit of time for him to settle into. It had been just over three months, and it still felt…wrong in some ways.
It was easier to pretend that all your demons were dealt with when you just spent a good portion of the time running from them. Made things simple. At least as simple as they could be.
The problem was his demons had done a decent job of catching up to him on the circuit, and that was when he’d decided it was time to move on.
When Cal had fallen…
How could he live with something happening to his mentee? Cal was his best friend and with his guidance had gotten hurt.
No, that had brought him back to a dark, raw place. One he didn’t want to visit again.
That calm before the storm. That bright ray of sunshine revealed to be the headlights of a Mack truck bearing down on him.
He’d read that poem that said nothing gold could stay.
In his experience, it turned out gold was fleeting. And revealed to be fool’s gold on top of it.
Good never lasted.
And it was rarely real, anyway.
He’d been… Well, he hadn’t been thrilled about Cal wanting to come for Thanksgiving, but he felt responsible for the accident so in the end he hadn’t been able to say no.
He pulled his truck up to the front of the farmhouse, and the door opened, three dogs spilling out the front and down the front steps.
“Back, mutts,” he muttered when he got out of the truck, smiling affectionately at the creatures as he bent down and scratched them behind the ears.
He looked up and saw Sammy standing on the top step of the porch, her baby on her hip. Sammy was married to his cousin Ryder now, but she was another member of their ragtag family. She hadn’t lost her parents, but her situation at home, as he understood it, had been unacceptable, and when she was sixteen she’d come to live with them. She’d never left, and she and Ryder had gotten married a year earlier.
Finally, in his opinion.
The two of them had spent way too long dancing around the truth. Not that he could blame them. Nothing in his life had ever made marriage look particularly appealing. His parents…
His parents had been unhappy, slaves to a ranch and their children, to marriage vows they’d said to each other and had always seemed like they might regret.
For just a moment it had seemed like it might all be fixed. For just a moment it had seemed like they’d be okay.
Then it had all been destroyed.
That bright spot of hope swallowed by reality.
After years of unhappiness, his parents had just died.
Jake couldn’t imagine that kind of life.
“How you doing?” he asked.
Sammy shifted the baby from one hip to the other, the little girl reaching out and grabbing her mom’s blond hair. Sammy laughed and unwrapped the chubby fist from her curls. She looked happier than he’d ever seen her before.
He supposed for some people there was something to be said for this life.
God knew Ryder seemed happier.
But then, it was impossible for Ryder to seem more grim. Jake felt pretty guilty about that with the benefit of age and wisdom.
“Great,” Sammy said. “We’ve been seeing so much of you lately. I feel spoiled.”
“Well, that’s good, because it won’t take long for you to just feel sick of me.”
“Never,” Sammy said, coming down the steps and offering him a hug.
Sammy was like that. Effortless, easy affection with people around her.
He admired it, but he’d never much understood it. There was only one kind of touch he was free with. Sex was simple. And being a champion in the world of rodeo meant there was no shortage of buckle bunnies lining up to see if the rumors were true. His bull rides lasted eight seconds, and a ride in his bed lasted the whole night.
He took a lot of pride in the fact that he had staying power. That he gave a damn for the pleasure of the women who passed through his hotel rooms.
But that was as deep as he got.
“Come on in,” Sammy said. “Logan and Rose are already here. Iris and Griffin are on their way.”
It was strange to him that everybody had paired off now. Everybody except for himself, and his brother, Colt, who would rather take a stick between the eyes than settle down.
Jake was confident that would be his brother’s stance.
His brother was still going out hard in the rodeo. As far as Jake knew he wasn’t even interested in coming back to town and settling down the way Jake was, let alone getting married.
He walked into the living room, and noticed all the little changes.
Since Ryder and Sammy had gotten married, the place, which had actually been basically the same in all the years since their parents had died, had gotten a bit of a facelift.
Sammy had added a whole lot of real grown-up touches to it. Pretty things.
It was weird. Weirder that he cared.
Ryder came through from the kitchen and offered a greeting. “Good to see you.”
“You, too. Hey, Sammy,” Jake said. “Would it be all right if my buddy Cal came for Thanksgiving?”
“Sure,” Sammy said. “The more, the merrier.”
He was glad Sammy was thrilled. He was less thrilled. But there were a spare few things on God’s earth he saw as sacred. His friendship with Cal was one of them.
The accident might have been a catalyst for Jake deciding to leave the rodeo, but it was just damned cowardly to then deny his friend’s request to come visit. Why? Because he felt guilty about the fall?
Hell, yeah, he did.
But that didn’t mean he had to be happy about the visit. Though even just being away and out of the game, knowing he was just out of it now for good… There were things he missed. He was looking forward to having a few beers and talking about old times.
“Good,” Jake said.
Eventually, Iris and her new husband arrived, followed by Pansy and her husband, West, and West’s teenage brother, Emmett. West and Pansy had taken over the raising of the kid, since West’s mother wasn’t hugely into the maternal thing. Putting it mildly.
And while everything with his family was good—it always was—there was an indefinable feeling of…change.
Right. Well, you haven’t been here very much, so you don’t have the right to have an opinion about how things have changed.
That thought galled him a little bit.
And it was true enough. He’d been gone, seen to his own affairs all this time, and something that had given him a small measure of comfort was the fact that he could come home at any time and things would be roughly the way that he left them. But not so much anymore.
There were new people. New plates. The house was fuller than it had ever been, but that made it a little bit unrecognizable, too.
It was a whole damn thing.
He finished eating, and hung out for a while.
Then he bid everybody farewell, got in his truck and started on the road back to his ranch.
Settling in Gold Valley.
There was a time when he’d been sure he’d never do that. And as he drove down the familiar highway he had a strange sense of…dread.
He hated that.
He chased dread. The kind of fear that held other people down, he pursued it. He’d spent years riding bulls because he’d figured why not give fate the biggest middle finger of all.
It was the quiet moments that seemed to bring the fear. The still moments. The golden hour, when the sun lit up the world around him and everything looked new. And there would be a moment. A breath. Where peace rested in his soul.
And right on its heels came the hounds of hell.
The arena had stopped it. The pounding of hooves, the danger.
It was just that it had followed him to the arena now so he’d figured he’d take his chances here.
Maybe that had been a mistake.
Too late now.
He drove through town, trying to get a look at how it might seem if he were an outsider. If he was someone who hadn’t grown up here. The brick facades were the kind of thing tourists lost their shit over. But he lost the ability to see them a long time ago.
For him… For him, Gold Valley had just represented everything he lost.
He’d been running when he’d left.
He’d run for a long time. And he’d achieved a hell of a lot.
But whatever he thought he’d feel when he got here… He didn’t.
And so he was trying to see everything with new eyes, like he was a new man, because he felt just so damned much like the old one. And he wasn’t the biggest fan.
Hope Springs always put him in this kind of mood.
So he shrugged it off and started mentally going over the timeline that he had in place for getting his ranch going. His first five horses were coming at the new year.
It was a new challenge. And it reinvigorated him. That was the problem. The rodeo had gotten stale. He’d won everything twice. You didn’t get better than that. He’d done it twice in a row, and he didn’t want to get to the point where he wasn’t winning anymore.
He’d peaked. Basically.
So now he had to go find somewhere else to do that.
That was something, anyway.
It was one reason he’d backed his cousin Iris when she had decided to open her bakery.
He knew all about needing a change.
Maybe that meant he actually was still running.
None of it mattered now, though.
He hadn’t had enough to drink tonight because he’d needed to get his ass home, but he was going to open some whiskey the minute he got in the door.
The place was out about ten miles from town, a nice flat parcel of property with the mountains behind it. The house itself was a big, white farmhouse with a green metal roof. Different to the rustic place at Hope Springs, but he liked it. The driveway was gravel, long and winding, with tall, dense trees on either side of the road.
But when he came through the trees into the clearing where the house was, there was a surprise waiting for him in front of the house.
An old, beat-up pickup was parked there, and he could see a lone figure leaning up against the hood. He parked the truck and got out, making his way over to the figure.
In the darkness, he couldn’t quite make it out, but he had a feeling he knew who it was. Early and unannounced.
Entirely in keeping with what he knew of his friend.
And two wide, brown eyes looked up at him from beneath the brim of a white cowboy hat, long, glossy brown hair shifting with the motion. “Jake. I’m really glad to see you. Because… I don’t just need a job. I need a husband.”
Maisey Yates is a New York Times bestselling author of over one hundred romance novels. Whether she’s writing strong, hard working cowboys, dissolute princes or multigenerational family stories, she loves getting lost in fictional worlds. An avid knitter with a dangerous yarn addiction and an aversion to housework, Maisey lives with her husband and three kids in rural Oregon.
None of the Sheridan family members has visited the gorgeous Angel’s View Ranch in the entire thirty months Annie McCade has been the caretaker of the property, and she has no reason to believe this holiday season will be any different. After all, why would they visit? Annie knows Wallace Sheridan, the family patriarch who hired her, loved it here but no one else in the family did. They couldn’t face their dark memories of the place. Annie certainly understands their pain–when, as a child, she lived on the ranch, she saw a young and frantic Tate Sheridan come galloping out of the mountains,, looking for help for his severely injured father, who would later die from massive injuries. Since then,with the exception of Wallace, the whole remaining family couldn’t get away fast enough.
And actually, Annie is grateful to have the place to herself–her ne’er-do-well brother got himself thrown in jail over the holidays, and she took temporary custody of her little niece and nephew for Christmas. Until Tate shows up and she unexpectedly hits him square in the face with a snowball! She worries that she is about to get fired, but Tate, after confronting the ghosts of his past, realizes he wants Annie to stay. His big family and their entourage are arriving the next day, and he can’t manage them–and the big, echoing ranch house–without her.
So Tate has a brilliant idea. He tells her she and the kids can stay, through the holidays at least–if she agrees to pretend to be his long-lost love, to keep his busybody matchmaking grandmother off his back.
Annie is at first outraged by the suggestions and then intrigued. How hard could it be to pretend she and Tate have fallen for each other? He’s gorgeous, after all–and some part of her heart had never forgotten their long-ago friendship. The trick, she realizes, will be convincing her heart during the magical holiday season that it’s only make believe.
THIS WAS WAR. A RELENTLESS, MERCILESS BATTLE for survival.
Backed into a corner and taking fire from multiple fronts, Annelise McCade launched missiles as fast as she could manage against her enemies. She was outnumbered. They had teamed up to attack her with agile cunning and skill.
At least it was a nice day for battle. The snow the night before hadn’t been particularly substantial but it had still left everything white and sparkly and the massive ranch house behind her was solid and comforting in the December afternoon sunlight.
A projectile hit her square in the face, an icy splat against her skin that had her gasping.
At her instinctive reaction, giggles rang out across the snowy expanse. She barely took time to wipe the cold muck off her cheek. “No fair, aiming for the face,” she called back. “That’s against the rules.”
“It was an accident,” her six-year-old nephew, Henry, admitted. “I didn’t mean to hit your face.”
“You’ll pay for that one.” She scooped up several more balls as fast as she could manage and hurled them across the battlefield at Henry and his twin sister, Alice.
“Do you give up?” she called.
Henry followed up his defiance by throwing a snowball back at her. His aim wasn’t exactly accurate—hence her still-dripping face—but it still hit her shoulder and made her wince.
“Never!” his twin sister, Alice, cried out. She had some difficulty pronouncing her Rs, so her declaration sounded like “Nevoh.”
Alice threw with such force the effort almost made her spin around like a discus thrower in the Olympics.
It was so good to hear them laughing. In the week since they had come to live with her temporarily, Annie had witnessed very little of this childish glee.
Not for the first time, she cursed her brother and the temper he had inherited from their father and grandfather. If not for that temper, compounded by the heavy drinking that had taken over his life since his wife’s death a year ago, Wes would be here with the twins right now, throwing snowballs in the cold sunshine.
Grief for all that these children had lost was like a tiny shard of ice permanently lodged against her heart. But at least they could put their pain aside for a few moments to have fun outside on a snowy December day.
She might not be the perfect temporary guardian but it had been a good idea to make them come outside after homework for a little exercise and fresh air.
She was doing her best, though she was wholly aware that she was only treading water.
For now, this moment, she decided she would focus on gratitude. The children were healthy, they all had a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs and their father should be back home with them in less than a month.
Things could be much, much worse.
“Time out,” Henry gasped out during a lull in the pitched battle. “We gotta make more snowballs.”
“Deal. Five-minute break, starting now.”
Annie pulled her glove off long enough to set the timer on her smartwatch, then ducked behind the large landscape boulder she was using as cover and scooped up several snowballs to add to her stash.
The sun would be going down in another hour and already the temperature had cooled several degrees. The air smelled like impending snow, though she knew only a dusting was forecast, at least until the following weekend.
She didn’t worry. Holly Creek, Wyoming, about an hour south of Jackson Hole in the beautiful Star Valley, almost always had a white Christmas.
Annie’s phone timer went off just as she finished a perfectly formed snowball. “Okay. Time’s up,” she called. Without standing up, she launched a snowball to where she knew the twins would be.
An instant later, she heard a deep grunt that definitely did not sound like Henry or Alice.
Annie winced. Levi Moran, the ranch manager, or his grizzled old ranch hand, Bill Shaw, must have wandered across the battlefield in the middle of a ceasefire without knowing he was about to get blasted.
“Sorry,” she called, rising to her feet. “I didn’t mean to do that.”
She saw a male figure approach, wearing sunglasses. The sun reflecting off the new snow was hitting his face and she couldn’t instantly identify him.
“No doubt,” he said, wiping snow off his face with his sleeve. She frowned. This was definitely not Levi or Bill.
He stepped closer and Annie felt as if an entire avalanche of snow had just crumbled away from the mountain and buried her.
She knew this man, though it had been nearly two decades since Annie had seen him in person.
It couldn’t be anyone else.
Dark hair, lean, gorgeous features. Beneath those sunglasses, she knew she would find blue eyes the color of Bear Lake in summertime.
The unsuspecting man she had just pummeled with a completely unprovoked snowball attack had to be Tate Sheridan.
Her de facto boss.
The twins had fallen uncharacteristically silent, wary of a tall, unsmiling stranger. Henry, she saw, had moved closer to his twin sister and slipped his hand in hers.
Annie’s mind whirled trying to make sense of what she was seeing.
Tate Sheridan. Here. After all this time.
She shouldn’t be completely shocked, she supposed. It was his family’s house, after all. For many years when her father was the ranch manager, the Sheridans had trekked here annually from the Bay Area several times a year for the Christmas season, as well as most summers.
His younger sister had been her very best friend in the world, until tragedy and pain and life circumstances had separated them.
She had wondered when she agreed to take the job if she would see Tate again. She hadn’t truly expected to. She had worked here for nearly a year and he hadn’t once come to his grandfather’s Wyoming vacation ranch.
How humiliating, that he would show up when she was in the middle of a snowball fight with her niece and nephew— who had no business being there in the first place!
“What are you doing here?” she burst out, then winced. She wanted to drag the words back. It was his family’s property. He had every right to be there.
“I might ask the same of you. Along with a few more obvious questions, I suppose. Who are you and why are you having a snowball fight in the middle of my property?”
“You don’t know who I am?”
Of course he wouldn’t, she realized. And while she thought of him often, especially over the past year while living at Angel’s View once more, he probably had not given her a moment’s thought.
It was stupid to feel a little hurt. “
Annelise McCade. My dad was Scott McCade.”
He lifted his sunglasses, giving her an intense look. A moment later, she saw recognition flood his features.
“Little Annie McCade. Wow. You’re still here, after all this time?”
She frowned. He didn’t have to make it sound like she was a lump of mold growing in the back of the refrigerator. She had lived a full life in the nearly two decades since she had seen Tate in person.
She had moved away to California with her mother, struggling through the painful transition of being a new girl in a new school. She had graduated from college and found success in her chosen field. She had even been planning marriage a year ago, to a man she hardly even thought about anymore.
“Not really still here as much as here again. I’ve been away for a long time but returned a year ago. Wallace…your grandfather hired me to be the caretaker of Angel’s View.”
She saw pain darken his expression momentarily, a pain she certainly shared. Even after two months, she still expected her phone to ring and Wallace Sheridan to be on the other end of the line, calling for an update on the ranch he loved.
The rest of the world had lost a compelling business figure with a brilliant mind and a keen insight into human nature.
Annie had lost a friend.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said softly.
“Thank you.” His voice was gruff and he looked away, his gaze landing on the twins, who were watching their interaction with unusual solemnity.
“Are these yours?” He gestured to the children and Annie was aware of a complex mix of emotions, both protectiveness and guilt.
The children shouldn’t be here. She had never asked permission from anyone in the Sheridan family to have the twins move into the caretaker’s apartment with her.
She deeply regretted the omission now. While it was a feeble defense, she hadn’t really known whom to ask. No one in the Sheridan organization seemed to be paying the slightest attention to any of the goings-on at a horse ranch in western Wyoming that represented only a small portion of the vast family empire.
Annie knew she was in the wrong here. No matter what uproar might have been happening during Wallace’s illness and subsequent death, she should have applied to someone for permission to bring the twins to live with her here.
Instead, she had simply assumed it shouldn’t be a problem since it was only a temporary situation and the children would be back with their father after the first of the year with no one in the family knowing they had been here at all.
“Not mine. They are my niece and nephew. Wes’s children.”
Tate and Wes were similar in age, she remembered, and had been friends once upon a time, just as Annelise had been close to Tate’s younger sister Brianna. The McCades lived on the ranch year-round while the Sheridan children only visited a few times a year, but somehow they had all managed to have a warm, close bond and could always pick up where they left off when the Sheridans came back to the ranch.
She could only hope Tate would remember that bond and forgive her for overstepping and bringing the children here.
“Henry and Alice are staying with me for a few weeks because of a…family situation.”
“Our mommy died last year and our daddy is in the slammer,” Henry announced.
Annie winced, not quite sure where he had picked up that particular term. Not from her, certainly. She wouldn’t have used those words so bluntly but couldn’t deny they were accurate.
Tate looked nonplussed at the information. “Is that right?”
“It’s only temporary,” she told him quickly. “Wes had a little run-in with the law and was sentenced to serve thirty days in the county jail. The children are staying with me in the caretaker’s apartment through the holidays. I hope that’s okay.”
Tate didn’t seem to know how to respond. She had the impression it was very much not okay with him.
“We can talk about it later.”
Annie frowned, anxiety and nerves sending icy fingers down her spine. She didn’t like the sound of that.
What would she do if he told her she had to find somewhere else for the children to spend Christmas? She would have to quit. She didn’t want do that as she enjoyed working here. But what other choice would she have?
“Why don’t we, um, go inside,” she suggested. “We can talk more there.”
“We won, right?” Alice pressed. “We hit you like six times and you only hit us twice each.”
Her priority right now wasn’t really deciding who won a snowball fight. But then, she was not six years old. “You absolutely won.”
“Yay! That means we each get two cookies instead of only one!”
Annie had always planned to give them two cookies each, anyway. She was a sucker for these two. The twins knew this and took full advantage.
“Kids, why don’t you go change out of your snow stuff and hang out in your room for a few moments,” she said when they were inside the mudroom. “I’ll be there soon to get your cookies.”
The twins looked reluctant but they went straight to her apartment through her own private entrance, leaving her alone with Tate.
RaeAnneThayne is the #1 Publishers Weekly, New York Times, and USA TODAYbestselling author of more than sixty books. Her books have been described as “poignant and sweet,” with “beautiful, honest storytelling that goes straight to the heart.” She finds inspiration from the beautiful northern Utah mountains, where she lives with her family.