Home » , , , , , , » Getting Wild: A Small-Town Montana Romance Sampler by Kat Latham

Getting Wild: A Small-Town Montana Romance Sampler by Kat Latham

Sometimes getting lucky had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with the right footwear and a willingness to get sweaty. Today, Molly Dekker was more than willing to get sweaty—and she had the right footwear.
Getting Wild: A Small-Town Montana Romance Sampler
Getting Wild: A Small-Town Montana Romance Sampler by Kat Latham
She tossed her hiking boots into the extended cab of her pickup and shouted across the lawn. “Josh! Get your tush in gear! We’re going to be late!” Her ten-year-old son was a flash of movement as he sprinted out the front door and jumped off the porch. It was only three feet high, a distance he could easily land, but he chose to hit the ground in a roll and jump to his feet without pausing. She laid her arm across the truck’s open window and tried not to let her eyes do the same roll his body had just done. “Just watching you makes me tired.” “I gotta know how to roll when the bull bucks me off. Otherwise I could break my neck.” “I know, and that’s why I won’t let you near a bull till you’re at least fifty-seven. You still got plenty of years to practice before you ever get near an arena, cowpoke.” He skidded to a halt in front of her. “Fifty-seven! I might as well be dead by then.” “You won’t be dead. You’ll be happily married with two sweet babies and a safe job in an office. Ooh! I know! You could be an accountant,” she teased. “I don’t know what that is, Mom, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be one.” “You don’t think so? It’s someone who does math all day.” He gagged, jabbing his finger toward the back of his throat before miming throttling himself. Then, just in case she hadn’t gotten the picture, he collapsed onto the driveway and his limbs twitched in a macabre death dance. Her face contorted as she watched his grotesque display. She knew he did it for a reaction, but she couldn’t help giving it to him. When his twitches died down to tiny flinches, she tapped his leg with her toe. “The scouts’ll leave without you if we don’t get going.” He shot back to his feet, and a strange vision flitted through her mind—Josh, tall and muscular, rolling in the dirt of some arena as a crowd screamed and a bloodthirsty bull pawed the ground behind him. She shivered and it disappeared. Sometimes she wondered whether he’d gotten a single one of her genes, but then she looked at him and saw her father’s shaggy brown hair and never-met-a-person-I-didn’t-like smile and realized he was a Dekker through and through. Except for all the frenetic energy. That belonged to her ex, Greg. He tried to skip past her, but her arm shot out and wrapped around his chest, dragging him close for a big, smothering hug. “Mom! Gross!” he cried as he pretended not to cuddle closer. Both arms around him, his back to her front, she held him tight and rocked back and forth. “You know you’ll always be my little boy, right?” “Nope. One day I’ll be a grown man with a job as a count-it and then I’ll quit because I’ll be fifty-seven and you promised I could join the rodeo circuit then.” “What about your two sweet kids?” she asked, pretending concern. “My grandbabies will miss their daddy if he’s traveling all the time.” This she knew from experience—her own growing up and as a single mom raising her son a thousand miles from his dad. “They won’t be sweet. They’ll be wild, and I’ll let them. They won’t have to go to school, and they can travel with me. I’ll need someone to muck out the stalls.” She laughed and pressed a quick kiss against his soft cheek. “Go shut the front door and get in the truck.” He swiped at the mama-cooties on his cheek and dashed off, leaping onto the porch instead of taking the three stairs and— “Gent—” —slamming the door shut. “—ly.” She sighed. She probably should’ve given up asking this kid to be gentle about anything by now, but something still drove her to do it. Some sort of perverse desire for a moment’s peace and stillness. She never got it at work—being the ringleader in a circus of kindergartners meant she left work every day smelling like Play-Doh and hearing the echo of laughing, crying, and whining for hours until she thought her head would burst open like a jack-in-the-box. But tonight Josh was going camping on Copper Mountain with his scout troop, one last gasp of summer before school started on Tuesday. And that meant it was Mama time. Not that she’d call it that when she got to Gabriel’s cabin. Hi, want some Mama time? Mama wants some time with you! Talk about a turnoff. At least, she hoped he didn’t have any mama fetishes. As Josh hoisted himself into the truck, slammed the passenger door and started chattering about spending the night in a tent, she turned the key in the ignition and let her mind find peace and stillness in her fantasies about the way things would go down—ahem—tonight. Gabriel had grown up on her street and been best friends with her brother, Scott. He was five years older than her, so they hadn’t overlapped in school, but he’d probably spent more time at her house than his own. And who could blame him? His family could’ve had their own reality TV show, while hers had been as boring as the Cleavers. She’d worshiped Gabriel throughout her childhood, but he’d barely noticed her. He and Scott had spent almost every second together. They’d graduated together, enlisted in the Air Force together, and joined the elite force of combat search-and-rescue specialists together. They’d even been together when Scott died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan last year. The only time they hadn’t been together was at Scott’s funeral, since Gabriel had also been wounded and was being treated in Germany. She had no idea when he’d come back home. He hadn’t visited her or made his presence known. People had simply started sharing snippets of gossip whenever they saw her, as if she had the same claim on him her brother had. Did you hear Gabriel’s back? He’s moved up to his grandpa’s cabin on Copper Mountain, just outside the National Forest land. I don’t even think that place has electricity! All summer she’d debated hiking out to his cabin to see how he was doing. He had to be grieving Scott’s loss as much as she was, and she wanted to see how he was recovering from his own injuries, whatever they were. According to Carol Bingley, Marietta’s most accomplished gossip, he walked a little stiffly but otherwise seemed fine. And if he needed prescriptions, he wasn’t getting them filled at Carol’s pharmacy, or the whole town would’ve known. But something had held her back, a gut feeling he would’ve spotted her motives from a mile off. Pity for all he had to be suffering. Desperation to see his gorgeous face, hear his deep voice, smell his scent. Gabriel wouldn’t welcome either her pity or her desperation, so she’d talked herself out of the trek time and again. Molly hadn’t caught a glimpse of him until last week at the grocery store. She’d only gone in for milk, so she hadn’t picked up a basket. But then she’d remembered she was out of Josh’s favorite cereal. And she didn’t have enough sugar for her coffee in the morning, which meant she was liable to kill someone by lunchtime. Oh, and eggs—she needed eggs. As she’d grabbed everything, she’d experienced an irritating twitch in her lower belly that signaled the start of God’s monthly revenge on her distant ancestor for eating that dang apple. Unsure whether she had any tampons at home, she’d grabbed a small box and got in line at the checkout, realizing with a start that Gabriel stood right in front of her. He hadn’t noticed her, a blessing for which she was grateful since she was wearing a T-shirt decorated with her former students’ handprints, and the tampon box was balanced precariously in her overloaded arms. He just stood there, looking fit, healthy, tall, and beautiful. But then the woman in front of him had frantically searched through her purse to find her wallet and pulled it out with such triumph that Gabriel had taken a hasty step back and bumped into her. She’d been so captivated by the broad sweep of his shoulders that her groceries had gone flying before she’d realized he’d moved. The eggs had taken a suicide plunge onto his boots. The milk carton had exploded at her feet, soaking into the hem of her long skirt and creeping upwards. The sugar bag had hit the edge of the counter and torn before tumbling over and dumping granules into the milk and eggs. And the tampons had fallen onto his bag of carrots on the conveyor belt. Her cheeks had burst into flames. She’d always wanted to be the kind of woman who could toss around tampons or condoms without giving a fig—a woman like her friend Lily, who came off as overflowing with confidence until you got to know her. But she wasn’t. Never had been. Bodies were private and bodily functions even more so. So she’d stood there frozen, wishing she could sink into the batter at her feet and die a thousand gloopy deaths. But he simply gave her a sympathetic twist of his lips before picking up one of those plastic divider thingies, laying it down behind his groceries, and plunking her tampons on her section of the belt without a word. Like a true gentleman. A worldly gentleman who knew women got periods but wasn’t fazed by it—unlike that nimrod Scooter Gibbons behind her, who’d said loudly, “Someone get paper towels—oh, wait. Molly has her super-absorbency tampons for extra-heavy flow here. They should soak all that up.” Gabriel’s clear green eyes had glared at Scooter, and he gave her another of his lip twitches that clearly said Ignore that idiot. You’re beautiful and sexy, and I’m not thinking of your flow at all. Or something along those lines. Anyway, they’d shared a moment. They totally had. As a member of staff mopped up and handed them a roll of paper towels to wipe off their shoes, they’d connected in a zap of heat that should’ve turned the batter into a fully cooked cake. Except it would’ve needed flour. Either way, he’d finally noticed her. “Mom, are you even listening to me?” “What?” She shook her head clear of Gabriel’s eyes and remembered where she was and who she was with. “Uh, yeah. Of course, sweetheart. I was just thinking about what you were saying about… Colton Thorpe being pretty darn good.” “Right. But not the best. I’m going to be the best.” Phew. Pretty easy guess, since the local-boy-turned-rodeo-champion was Josh’s hero. But still. She shouldn’t fade out on him like that. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t polite, even if it was sometimes necessary to preserve her sanity. She focused on her boy for the rest of the drive to his scout leader’s house, making sure to give him every bit of her attention. Sadly, she couldn’t shake her body clear of her residual longing. It pulsed through her with every heartbeat. If just the thought of Gabriel did that to her, what would the reality of him be like? Ten minutes later, she kissed Josh goodbye and gave him a final warning to mind the grown-ups before she jumped back into her truck for some camping of her own. She’d told everyone she was going to take advantage of a rare opportunity for solitude. She’d packed a sleeping bag and the two-person tent she and Josh usually shared, but hopefully she wouldn’t need either of them. She parked in a small lot at the trailhead that led through the woods toward Gabriel’s cabin. From what she heard around town, he lived about two miles hard trekking off the path, so she grabbed her hiking boots from behind her seat and put them on. She slid on her big backpack, which was crammed full of her camping gear, and locked her truck. Then she headed out into the wilderness to get herself some of that lucky everyone was always talking about. * Gabriel bent over and placed another log on the chopping block behind his cabin. Sweat trickled down his spine to the waist of his camo pants as the September sun beamed on him. Before picking up his ax, he drew his shirt over his head, wiped his grimy face with it, and tossed it onto his porch railing. He’d been working all morning, preparing the cabin for the long winter. He’d started at sunrise, sanding his wooden window frames and the porch. This afternoon he would paint them with a layer of sealant so they’d be protected from the wet winter weather. Today was all about the wood. As he grabbed the handle of his ax and swung the blade hard through the log, his body filled with the soreness that signaled a morning well spent. Bend down. Grab a log. Place it on the stump. Pick up the ax. Swing and split. Add firewood to the pile. The routine soothed him. The physicality focused him on the parts of his body that worked rather than the ones that didn’t. More than anything, physical labor left him little room to think. Thinking was never good. Thinking led to dreaming, which led to longing, which led to disappointment. Bend down. Grab a log. Place it on the stump. Pick up the ax— The bushes at the edge of the clearing rustled and he glanced up to make sure he wasn’t being visited by the mama bear and cub he’d surprised this morning as they’d rummaged through his composter. But a frisson of surprise rippled through him as he noticed the woman standing there, carrying a heavy-looking backpack with a tent bag secured to the bottom. No cub with her this time, but he certainly recognized this mama bear. Molly Dekker had stared at him all through his teenage years. No surprise there, since most people had stared at him and his twin sister, Camila. Maybe they waited for signs of the sinful nature he and Mila inherited from their parents’ betrayal to emerge. Mila had spent her teenage years living down to their expectations, until she’d messed up her life so badly she’d needed a complete do-over. Gabriel had spent his time more wisely, working hard to build the life he wanted, staying out of people’s way. With the exception of the Air Force and his friendship with Scott, he’d never joined in on things that looked like they involved bonding. Bonding was just a couple letters away from bondage, and—call him crazy—but Gabriel had never been a fan of slavery. His job meant he rushed head-first into chaos and did his best to save whomever he could. His personal life—what was left of it—meant he rushed head-first into solitude. But the morning’s solitude had been disrupted by pretty Molly, the sweet girl who’d surprised approximately no one by growing up to become a kindergarten teacher. She took a hesitant step forward, and then one more. Before he knew it, she was just a few steps away. “I—I was looking for a camping spot. I didn’t realize your cabin was here.” He bit down gently on the inside of his cheek and looked at her, not really sure what to say. He could point to the cabin and say Well, it is, but that was obvious. She shifted her weight, slipping her hands under the straps of her backpack to ease some of its heaviness from her shoulders. His silence seemed to unnerve her. He wasn’t an asshole. He knew how to behave. But that didn’t make him good with small talk, especially when he hadn’t been able to prepare himself for it. He cleared his throat. “Going camping?” Nice one, shit for brains. That was even more obvious than pointing out the cabin’s existence. But for some odd reason, it seemed to jumpstart her side of the conversation. “Yeah. Josh—my son—he’s ten years old, you see, and he’s a Boy Scout and they’re camping on Copper Mountain for the next two nights, so I thought I’d treat myself to some alone time.” He blinked, all the words hitting him at once in a wall of sound he wasn’t used to experiencing at his cabin. “Wouldn’t you be alone at home?” Her mouth softened a little, as if she hadn’t thought of that. “Oh. Um. Yeah. I guess I would be.” She shifted again, rolling her shoulders uncomfortably. “Gosh, I hadn’t expected to walk so far. It’s so beautiful up here I just kept going and going.” She laid her palm on her throat and her voice suddenly went as scratchy as his grandma’s old records. “Could I maybe get a glass of water?” That galvanized him. Finally—a task. He swung hard and buried the ax’s blade in the stump before heading toward the cabin. “You should carry water with you,” he called over his shoulder. She didn’t respond, and he glanced back to find her following him, which he hadn’t expected. But of course, most people would invite a guest in for a drink, not bring it out to them. It had been a long time since he’d had any guests. Actually, Mila was the only one who’d ever been here, and twin sisters didn’t count as guests. His manners were as rusty as the hinges on the door of his woodshed. He stepped onto the porch and held open his back door as she approached. She squeezed past him, her backpack nearly smacking him in the face as she tried to get it through the doorway. Odd. He would’ve expected her to drop it on the porch. Why bring it inside? It wasn’t like she was staying, though the bag did look like it was carrying more than he owned. “How long did you say you were camping for?” “Two nights.” Jesus. “What do you need other than a tent and hardtack?” “Water.” She winked at him over her shoulder, and he was surprised by his own burst of laughter. “What else is in your bag?” “Camping stove and fuel, food, metal container to hide that food from bears, extra layers of clothes in case it gets too cold, first aid kit, sleeping bag, travel pillow—” He coughed. “Did you just say travel pillow? You brought a pillow camping? Why don’t you just bunch up a sweater or something?” “I fell on some ice last winter and jarred my neck. It’s usually fine, but I have to sleep with a firm pillow or I can hardly move in the morning.” He grunted. Acceptable answer. The stove and fuel were ridiculous, though. “You know it’s easy to find kindling and wood around here, right? I mean, that’s why they call it the woods.” She dropped her backpack next to his kitchen table and grinned. Just like that, heat rushed through him from head to toe, centering on certain sensitive areas and making them tight, tingly. “I said I wanted alone time, not manual labor time. Believe me, I get plenty of that at home. And at work, come to think of it.” She glanced around his humble kitchen, and he followed her gaze, trying to see it the way she did. A fridge and freezer—both powered by his wind turbine and generator—so he didn’t have to go into town much during the winter, a tiny counter just big enough to gut fish on or dress whatever bird he’d managed to bag, a sink fed by his rainwater harvester, curtains he’d sewn using fabric from a few tattered dresses he’d bought at the Good Will, a table and a wobbly chair he’d made himself. One chair. Damn. When had his life become this pathetic? “Would you like to sit down?” He gestured toward the chair, as if she had a lot of other options. “Thanks,” she said and slid onto it before he could tell her there was a trick to mastering the chair. With two legs slightly shorter than the others, it tumbled over easily. One second, Molly was lowering herself and the next her legs were flying up as her torso fell back. Gabriel lunged forward and caught her head before it hit the floor, but his bad leg gave way. He lost his balance and braced his arm on the other side of her. The move made his body hunch over her head with his crotch in her face like the world’s clumsiest lap-dancer. They both went completely still, except for their increasingly erratic breathing, which seemed to echo even in the tiny room. He pushed himself back, hiding his grimace and surreptitiously adjusting his body so she wouldn’t see how the movement had wrecked him. “You okay?” Her face was flushed, her breathing heavy, and his brain started to slip into professional rescuer mode despite the fact his body recognized the signs as something other than distress. “Molly, where does it hurt?” Still looking dazed, she let her hand hover over her ribs. His gaze followed as her hand traveled downward until it fluttered over her crotch. “Here.” He blinked. “Um…What…” “Throbbing.” Now his face flushed, along with the rest of him as heat rushed all through his confused body, until it reached one hardening destination. He hadn’t used any nails in the chair, since he’d been trying to teach himself old-fashioned carpentry techniques. But occasionally he could feel the uneven edge poking uncomfortably into his ass. Maybe she’d rubbed against it the wrong way. “Did you hit something sharp?” She shook her head, still cradled protectively in his palm. The tip of her tongue wet her lips nervously, and he enjoyed the sight far, far more than he should’ve. “No. But I’d like to.” All of a sudden, her meaning became so blindingly clear that even his brain could no longer deny it. “Molly Dekker, are you trying to seduce me?” Her face turned beet red, and he wished he could reel the words back in as fast as a fishing line. She grimaced, and the column of her throat flexed as she swallowed. Hard. And damn but didn’t that sight make him harder? “That depends on whether it’s working.” Adrenaline shot through him, making his fingers and toes ache. All day, he’d craved a physical distraction… He owed Molly more than that, though. This was probably the most he’d ever talked to her, but Scott had been close to her and Gabriel had tagged along on some of his outings with Josh, so he knew she was a nice woman with a son who buzzed with energy. He knew she’d married young and divorced several years ago. And he knew she taught kindergarten. All those things added up to a woman who deserved more than to provide momentary physical relief from his agonizing memories. Apparently his answer had taken too long because she rolled away, knocking her knee against the table leg and sucking in a pained breath. He winced and reached for her, but she was already on her feet and backing toward the door. “I’m sorry. I just… I thought… this would be easier.” He stood slowly, not wanting to spook her. “What’s this?” She waved her hand between them. “I thought, after the way we connected the other day…” He racked his brain. “The other—?” Horror hit her face and her hand flew up to cover her wide-open mouth. “Oh, my God. You don’t even remember. You don’t even… oh my God. Sorry. I’m going. Forget I was here. Please. You’re having a dream. I’m having a nightmare.” She grabbed her backpack and tried to swing it over her shoulder, but he managed to block the door before she could escape. Holding out his hand to calm her, he said, “Take a breath. This isn’t a nightmare. You’re talking about the store. The milk and eggs.” She nodded, her jaw clamped so tight he worried it might break in half. “And they looked so sexy on my shoes that you decided to come up here and seduce me.” The tight lines of her face softened bit by bit as his teasing sank in. “Was it all that rubbing I did to get the egg off my boots? Back and forth, back and forth, getting a nice polish on the tip… of my boot? That kind of turned me on too.” The corners of her lips twitched. “Be honest—did the milk spraying onto the eggs make you as hot as it made me?” She squeezed her eyes closed and shook her head, but her whole face smiled. When she finally looked at him again, she was less tense than he’d seen her since she’d arrived. “That’s gross.” He reached over, lifted the strap of her backpack off her shoulder and lowered the heavy thing onto the floor. Growing more serious but keeping his voice gentle, he asked, “What are you looking for, Molly?” She swallowed again, but at least she didn’t look away. “Orgasms. At least three.” Chapter Two ‡ Gabriel wielded silence the way he’d wielded his ax—with a mesmerizing, methodical upswing before slicing through the air with a perfectly aimed sentence. The way he stared at her now, one hand still holding her backpack and the other relaxed at his side, made nerves do the hokey-pokey in her belly, waiting for that sentence to fall. She’d just been blunter than she ever had in her life. She’d never even said such a thing to Greg, and he’d been her husband for six years. Yet Gabriel met her bravery with silence. And then, “Just three?” Wham! Her belly turned to liquid heat, and she swallowed every misgiving that told her he might be mocking her. “If you’re handing out more, I’ll take them.” His jaw tightened, and his eyes narrowed in a way that made her feel as though he were peering at her through a microscope, seeing every single doubt and insecurity magnified by a million. “Molly, you’re a very n—” She slapped her palm against his mouth, muffling the well-meant insult he was about to pay her. “Don’t say the n-word. Don’t.” She’d been called nice her entire life, and she was really stinkin’ sick of it. His lips and stubble tickled her palm as he kissed it before gently clasping her wrist and moving her hand away so he could speak. “What’s wrong with the n-word?” “It’s the worst four-letter word in the English language.” An amused glint danced in his eyes. “You spend too much time around kindergartners if you think nice is the worst word there is.” “That’s my problem, Gabriel. I spend so much time around kids that everyone associates me with them. They think of me as untouchable. Simple and sweet and pure. Yes, I’m the n-word, but people use it to mean something other than kind. They use it to mean asexual, and I’m not.” At least, she didn’t feel as if she should be. She was twenty-nine, active, fun, and good with people. But she loved her son and had devoted herself to him since she was nineteen. And, for the past five years, she’d had to do it all on her own. Being Josh’s mom was exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure. Some nights she laughed herself to sleep. Others, she fell face-first into her pillow, too wrung out to dream. Even her subconscious passed out cold. But one thing stayed the same—the pillow next to hers was always empty. She really enjoyed men’s company, but it had been a heck of a long time since she’d enjoyed that company in bed. His forehead creased, and he dug his fingers into the corners of his eyes. “Why me?” “I already told you—” He dropped his hand long enough to give her a confused look before his face cleared. “Oh, right. The egg thing.” Crumb. What an idiot she was. That moment at the store, the one she’d thought they’d shared, clearly hadn’t been anything more than a messy, but otherwise forgettable, errand for him. Her cheeks heated, but she stood her ground. “I might’ve misinterpreted what happened at the store, but I have other reasons. I’ve known you a long time. I know you won’t blab about this around town. I just hiked out to the middle of the forest and propositioned a man in a cabin with no electricity. But because that man’s you, I don’t have to worry about being shoved into a wood chipper.” He cringed. “Jesus, Molly.” “Fargo. Good movie but not one to watch when you’re home alone.” “Okay, so you know I’m not a murderer. Or maybe you’re saying my lack of electricity makes a wood chipper out of the question—it doesn’t, by the way. They have their own engines. Either way, it’s not really a selling point, is it? Why me? There must be dozens of men in town who’d eagerly take you out, show you a good time.” “Actually, the single men in town are dropping like swatted flies. You’d be surprised. Something’s gotta be in the water, so you should check your water source if you don’t want to end up married and living happily ever after. But that’s beside the point. I’m too tired and too busy to have room for a relationship. And the kind of men I’m interested in think I’m too nice for anything but a relationship. It doesn’t leave me many options, Gabriel. All I know is one thing. If I don’t exercise my perfectly healthy hormones soon, I will explode.” She knew one other thing, too. She desperately wanted to exercise those hormones with him. Partly, she was here for the reasons she’d given him, but also partly because he’d been the fuel for her fantasies since she was fifteen. Now she wanted a night of turning those fantasies into reality. Just one that was all she asked for. And maybe one more in a few weeks, when the itch came back. But that was it. Anything more would be a commitment. He sighed. “Let me get you some water. Sit down—carefully.” She righted the chair and lowered herself gently until she was sure she was stable. He lifted the lid of a pot next to a wood-burning stove and poured water from it into a glass, giving her a chance to rake her gaze over the beauty of his half-naked body. His sun-kissed skin showed evidence of hard living, with white scars marring his back and shoulders. One looked especially heinous. Was it from the helicopter crash? Or another rescue gone wrong? Other than the puckered scars, his skin was smooth and his body lithe, running in masculine curves from his neck, to his broad shoulders and strong biceps, to his trim waist. Every movement seemed perfectly calibrated to waste no energy. He was a man who made his living rescuing people from desperation, and the more she watched him the more desperate she became. Before he could turn around, she rose from the chair and covered the space between them in two steps. Her fingertips found the slope where neck turned into shoulder. He froze as she traced the lines of his body between his shoulder blades, down the bumps of his spine to the waistband of his camouflage pants. Her lips followed the same path. She was too short to reach his neck, but she pressed soft kisses all over his back as her hands moved forward to tease his front. He sucked in a breath, his whole body rigid under her explorations. She swirled the sensitive pads of her fingers around his nipples, then let them slide down the hard ridges of his abs. The thin trail of hair leading from his belly button down to heaven abraded her skin. “Molly.” His voice was choked. All her fears that he would politely turn her down, making it clear he wasn’t attracted to her, disappeared in his hoarse moan. “Just one night,” she whispered. “Back to reality tomorrow.” Surely it wasn’t too much to ask. She let her fingers flutter downward and brush against the erection straining the front of his camo pants. At the first intimate contact, he sucked in a harsh breath and spun around. “Look. I’m trying to be a decent man here. You’re my best friend’s little sister. He would’ve killed me.” They were both silent as the words brought reality back to them. Her brother couldn’t kill him. Her brother was dead. She took a step back, her gaze dropping from his eyes to his strong chest and then away. Humiliation swirled with loneliness inside her. All she’d wanted was to spend time with him, giving in to a connection she’d thought they both felt. She’d wanted to touch him, reassure herself he was here and alive and okay. And, selfishly, she’d wanted a chance to have the kind of fun other women got, the kind that came with no strings attached and no emotional entanglements. The kind she’d given up when she’d gotten engaged at seventeen and then pregnant on her wedding night. Instead, she would be heading home alone to spend her weekend tidying up the Transformers that littered her house, with nothing but her fiercely blushing cheeks to warm her bed tonight. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come here and put you in this position. It wasn’t fair of me. I’ll go now, and I’d appreciate it if you forgot I was ever here.” She hoisted her backpack over her shoulders and maneuvered herself out of the cabin as quickly as she could. Her own footsteps echoed in her ears as she rushed across the porch and down the stairs. She’d only gotten a few steps farther, though, when he blocked her path. She slid to a halt on the loose dirt and tried to look at anything but him. “Molly.” He steadied her with a hand on her arm. “Don’t go like this.” She scoffed. “How should I go? With my chin held high, proud that at least I took a chance? Or maybe I should be cursing you for exercising your right to say no? Please, Gabriel. I’ve never done anything like this before, and it’s really embarrassing.” Gabriel’s body went taut. Tension snapped in the pine-scented air between them. The only thing worse than being rejected was her body’s continued response to the closeness of his dirt-streaked, half-bare body. She pulsed in places that hadn’t pulsed in a long time. “I need to varnish my porch and window frames.” She blinked up at him. “Is…is that a euphemism?” One corner of his lips quirked up. “If I want to talk about sex, I talk about sex. I don’t make shit up to pretend I’m talking about something else. And if I did, I’d be much more creative than that.” Her brows drew together as her confusion grew worse. “So…you’re turning me down because you have a busy afternoon and can’t fit me in?” The other corner quirked up and he was full-on smiling. “Hell no. And I’m not turning you down. Not yet, anyway. You shocked me, that’s all. I’ve never really thought of you that way, so I need time to figure out what I want to happen.” He leaned a bit closer, as if he were confiding in her. “I don’t want to humiliate myself, either. If we started going at each other and I got flashbacks of you as a five-year-old in pigtails, I’d end up as limp as overcooked spaghetti. I don’t think either of us wants that.” She pressed her lips together to keep her smile at bay. “No. Definitely not. I want you, um…” He cocked an eyebrow and waited. “Hard as an axe handle?” she ventured, her blush deepening. “Mmm, not bad but too thin. Hard as a pine tree. That works better.” She rolled her eyes. “If you’re that big, it wouldn’t work at all.” “Oh, it’d work. Trust me.” He gave her a wink that made longing sweep through her again. “Why don’t you stay and help me varnish my porch? Who knows—maybe we’ll start with the varnish and move on to the polishing later.” She laughed and pushed at his shoulder. “For someone who doesn’t like euphemisms, you’re really good at them.” “I’m good at lots of things, Molly. Stick around and I might show you.” * Molly’s painfully awkward seduction technique was one of the most erotic things Gabriel had ever seen. The other was the sight of her ass swaying as she kneeled on all fours and painted his porch. He couldn’t remember seeing her in jeans before. Hell, he’d probably never seen her in pants of any description. For as long as he could remember, she’d worn dresses and skirts that made her look like every day was Sunday, and she was off to worship with the god-fearing folks who’d scorned him, Camila, and their mother. Her jeans weren’t skintight. They didn’t cling to every curve. In fact, they looked a little baggy, like she’d borrowed them or lost weight since the last time she’d worn them. But when she crawled around in front of him—her body swaying rhythmically as she applied varnish to wood in long, seductive strokes—her ass pressed against the denim in a way that made his dick do the same to his pants. Little Molly Dekker all grown up and looking for action. His day had gone from routine to confusing to promising in the space of twenty minutes. Not that he could follow through on his flirtations. Scott had been the first convenient excuse his brain had settled on so he wouldn’t have to admit the truth. No way would he be getting naked today—or any day in the near future. But that still left a lot of possibilities. They worked alongside each other for a couple of hours. At one point Molly asked if he could turn on some music, and he shook his head. “I have a little electricity from my wind turbine, but I reserve it for essentials. I’m afraid I don’t have a sound system.” She looked shocked. “What about a battery-operated radio?” “Yeah, I have one of those. Hold on.” He went inside and fetched his radio from his workshop at the back of the house. When he turned it on for her, she stared at it in confusion. “Is that talk radio?” He laughed. “What kind of reception do you think I get out here? Right now we’re eavesdropping on the forest rangers talking over their radios.” He could hear his half brother Austin signing on for duty. “I mostly have it so I can listen to weather reports.” And because the voices kept him company without him having to actually speak to anyone. Win-win. She scrunched up her face, looking so cute he had to fight the urge to kiss her. “I could play music through my phone.” “You won’t get reception here. You left civilization behind a couple miles back.” Her jaw softened. “What happens if you get hurt or need help with something?” He fought a grin. “I’m trained to deal with trauma. I have emergency supplies, rescue equipment, and medicines I’m probably not supposed to have. I take care of myself.” “And if you’re hurt too badly to help yourself?” “I guess I just hope a hiker finds me before the wolves do.” What could he say? Losing his safety net was the trade-off for living off-grid. She grimaced. “Don’t you ever feel scared?” “Nope.” “Lonely?” All the damn time. “Sometimes, but I don’t mind it.” He’d grown up having no one but Camila and Scott to lean on. Scott was gone and Camila had mostly lived in California since they were sixteen. His work had dropped him behind enemy lines and had taught him to work as part of a team, but he’d never learned to crave other people’s company—not the way he heard some people talk about their friends and coworkers. She shook her head as if she couldn’t imagine what his life must be like. Didn’t surprise him. Not many people could. “What do you do for entertainment?” “Come here. I’ll show you.” She laid her wet brush on a tray, stood, and wiped her hands against her jeans. He grabbed the radio and carried it in, since he kept it in his workshop anyway. The rangers’ voices kept him company as he did his projects. The workshop had originally been built as a spare bedroom, but no one ever visited so he’d filled it with tools instead of friends. A massive workbench and a wall full of neatly organized tools dominated the space. Piles of wood lay in the corners of the room, waiting for winter to hit so he could devote himself to tasks indoors instead of outdoors. A few of his completed projects stood on a shelf. They’d been just for practice—or so he’d told himself when they’d turned out misshapen. Fortunately Molly probably couldn’t tell at a glance how deformed they were. “Wow. Did you make all of these?” “Yep.” She walked over to his workbench and reached for the cuckoo clock he was making Mila for Christmas. “May I?” “Sure.” She picked it up and carefully turned it over in her hands. The clock was shaped like a house—well, a lopsided house—and he’d carved the front to look like the forest she lived in in Southern California. There was supposed to be a lake in the middle, since she lived on a lake, but his rudimentary skills made it look more like a puddle. He’d taught himself how to work with wood, but it was difficult without being able to rely on the internet for help or inspiration. All he had were a pile of his grandfather’s books—which assumed a lot of knowledge probably common among men of the 1940s but not so much among his generation—and the kits he ordered when he went to town. He reached around Molly and fiddled with the door. “There’s a cuckoo in here, but I haven’t been able to get the mechanism right.” He also couldn’t get the clock to work, but his sister collected bizarre clocks and had at least a dozen so he doubted she’d have to rely on this one to tell the time. Molly’s breathing had gone shallow, and Gabriel noticed how close she was, close enough that her shoulder brushed against his chest as he tried to open the cuckoo’s door. She’d pulled her dark, curly hair back into a loose ponytail, leaving her neck exposed. Standing here next to her, he could look down and appreciate the curve of her breasts. How had he never noticed those curves before? His fingers twitched to explore her the way she’d explored him earlier. He let go of the clock, leaving it in her hands, and let his palm slide over her shoulder, down her back until he cupped her waist. He wanted to cup her ass through those ill-fitting jeans, but one step at a time. She was soft and sweet and so very still. He had to be sure he could do this without hurting her and without revealing too much of himself. “Molly. Put the clock down.” She slid it onto the workbench unsteadily, her lashes blinking and the tip of her tongue darting out to wet her lips. She was nervous. Good. He was nervous as hell. “I’m thinking we should kiss and see what happens,” he said, his voice quiet. None of this felt real, and he didn’t want to wake himself up if he was dreaming. “Just a kiss to see if we connect. If there’s nothing there, that’s okay. We forget this ever happened.” Her throat flexed as she swallowed hard. She turned to face him, and he slid his arms around her. So far so good. She was the perfect height, needing him to lean down a little but not so far he wrenched his back. Her arms went around his neck, and she leaned closer, her breasts flattening against his chest. He drew in an unsteady breath at the contact. Her eyes fluttered shut, her head tipped back, and he lowered his lips to hers. They both stilled at the first touch. Instinct took over, and their lips parted on a simultaneous sigh of relief. Desire swept through him as her tongue hesitantly touched his. He ran his hands up her back and down again as he tried to get closer and closer. She squirmed against him as if she couldn’t get close enough either. Their clothes stood in the way, but with so much heat between them he worried he’d catch fire if he took off her shirt. He needed more, though. More kissing and more touching. More looking. He swept his hands down to her ass and lifted her off her feet. He moved so quickly she gasped as he hoisted her onto his workbench. Gently pressing her knees wide open, he stepped against her and tugged her hips to the edge of the bench until the seam of her jeans pressed against his erection. Her hips jerked, and they moaned against each other’s mouths. “Gabriel,” she whispered. “Mmm.” He couldn’t speak. He’d thought they would connect, but he hadn’t expected the connection to feel like he’d touched a live wire. She ran her fingers over his chest, each touch leaving a wake of lusty shivers running through his body. She scraped her fingernails into his temples and kissed him so hard, so deep, so long he forgot to breathe. Who needed breath anyway? He could share hers and die a happy man. When she finally pulled back, she hit him with a look he’d never seen on her before. Intent and bold, it was the sexiest damn look he’d ever received. “I knew it,” she said. “I knew it would be good.” She was a smart woman. He’d never even speculated about it. How had he spent all that time around Scott and never once noticed his little sister for anything other than the unnerving way she’d stared at him? How could he have failed to notice the way her body had developed or the fact she was actually pretty cute? Maybe it was the age difference between them. Five years felt like a lifetime when he was younger. It felt like a blink now. She traced his face with her fingertip, and he shivered. “What do we do now?” “What do you want to do?” he asked. He had suggestions. Plenty. But this was her plan, her idea. She got to call the shots right now, unless she wanted him to. Please ask me to. Now that he’d had a taste of what it would be like, he wanted to get to the really good stuff. Her lips curled into a sultry smile. “Kiss me again.” “Your wish…” He slid his hands into her hair as his mouth slanted over hers. Her arms looped around his shoulders, her breasts pressing against his chest. How long had it been since he’d been this close to someone? The last woman who’d touched him had been a hospital nurse removing the bandages from his leg for the last time. Molly’s sweet touch erased all the fear and fury he’d felt that other time. She jerked her face away, her nails digging into his shoulders like talons. Her face blanched, and she stared at the radio. “What—” “Shh!” She slapped her hand over his mouth and leaned closer to the radio. “They just said Josh’s name, I’m sure of it.” “…Both males are ten years old and camping with their scout troop at the Westridge campground. Last seen heading northwest on the Paradise Valley trail about an hour ago.” Her whole body went as rigid as death. “Are you sure you heard—” She scrambled off his workbench, nearly knocking him over as she sprinted from the room. His balance wasn’t as good as it used to be—one more thing he was still getting used to. But he grabbed hold of the radio and took off after her. Buy One Night with Her Bachelor now! Two Nights with His Bride Wedding fever has hit the little town of Marietta… Soap opera star Nancy Parsons is madly in love with Hollywood’s favorite leading man, and they’re getting married on her parents’ stunning horse ranch just outside Marietta, Montana. Actors, athletes, and politicians will be there to watch Hollywood’s most extravagant couple say I do. There’s just one problem. The bride’s childhood friend Wyatt Wilder knows Nancy’s making the biggest mistake of her life. Sure, Jared’s got looks, money, fame, and—it seems—Nancy’s heart. But when her bridesmaids hire him to lead them on a girls’-only adventure, Wyatt has two nights in the wilderness along the Yellowstone River to show her what a real man looks and acts like. A rugged, tough, loving man. But will he be able to do it before she says “I do” to the wrong man? Publication date: June 8, 2015 Publisher: Tule Publishing/Montana Born Books ISBN: 9781942240723 48,000 words Chapter One ‡ “They say marriages are made in Heaven. But so is thunder and lightning.” —Clint Eastwood Nancy tried to grab her bra before it fell to the floor, but wearing a blindfold shot her hand-eye coordination all to hell. “What are you doing?” she yelled as cold air hit her breasts. “Getting you ready for your bachelorette surprise,” Polly answered with a smile in her voice. Annoyance percolated inside Nancy’s naked chest. When she’d let her two bridesmaids tie the satin blindfold on her, she’d thought they were taking her somewhere nice to surprise her—a luxurious spa, an exclusive restaurant, or something like that. God knew she’d dropped enough hints in that direction. But then they’d made short work of her shirt and jeans, telling her she had to wear something special for the occasion. Normally Nancy had no qualms about stripping in front of people. On set, she did it all the time in the rush to get ready for the next scene. Camera operators, production assistants, other actors—they’d all seen her goods, and no one cared. And since she, Polly and Ruby had shared a tiny one-bedroom apartment in North Hollywood before getting their big breaks, they were practically as familiar with each other’s bodies as with their own. But this was different. No one had ever blindfolded and stripped her before. Not without her permission, anyway. “You guys, I’m really not—” “Hold your arms out.” She grimaced and did as Ruby said. Something fuzzy tickled its way up her arms, and a thick band of fabric wrapped around her rib cage. One of the girls pulled the band tight and hooked it together behind her. When a couple of straps bit into her shoulders, Nancy ran her fingertips over the top. Shaped like a bra, it covered her breasts but not much else. It also felt like no bra she’d ever worn. She was pretty sure it was made out of fur. “This isn’t real, is it?” Polly gasped. “We’re not monsters.” “Yeah, plus Polly bought it, so it’s cheaper than shit.” Tension snapped through the room. Nancy tried to roll her eyes, but the blindfold thwarted her. “Can’t you two get along for one. Damn. Second?” “I’m sure we could, if she stopped being such a cheap bitch.” “At least I’m not a mean bitch,” Polly snapped. Fingers slid under the waistband of her panties, but Nancy grabbed them. “Take my underwear off, and I’ll break your fingers.” “But—” “But nothing. I don’t know what the hell you’re putting me in, but I’m keeping my own underwear on.” “Fine,” Ruby said, “but it’ll probably bunch up and go places no man has gone before.” “And it’s not like this is a rented costume or anything,” Polly added. “I bought it new. I’m sure everyone who tried it on kept their panties on. And there’s a sanitary sticker in the gusset, just in case they didn’t.” “Oh, we should probably take that out.” God. If Nancy didn’t feel so grossed out, she might actually be grateful the frenemies had found something to agree on. “Just hand me whatever you want me to put on.” A little slip of furry fabric was shoved into her hand, and she fumbled with it a second before stepping into it. It was tight and barely covered her ass. “Seriously? This is your guys’ idea of pampering? A fur bikini?” One of them snickered and looped something that felt like a sash over her. “Oh, we’re just getting started.” “If you drop me off in the middle of town, you’re both fired as bridesmaids.” Lips pressed against her cheek in a loud, overly dramatic kiss. Probably Ruby. Melodrama was her specialty. “You know we love you. We’ve organized something you’ve wanted for a long, long time, and you’re going to love it. We promise.” “I better. If I don’t, you owe me big time.” So far they’d made wedding planning a living nightmare. A decade ago they’d been as close as friends could be, but Polly had a bad habit of bouncing rent checks, and Ruby had a worse habit of telling everyone about it. By the time they’d all earned enough money to move into their own places, Nancy had been wedged between them, loving each individually but hating them together. When they were nineteen and had nothing but each other and big dreams, they’d made a solemn vow to be each other’s bridesmaids. The vow had meant something to her, and she was determined to keep it, even though she knew the two of them would completely cut each other out of their weddings. “Ready to go?” “Let’s see,” she said. “I’m basically naked and have no place to put my cards or my phone. Sure, let’s get going!” “No need for the sarcasm,” Ruby drawled. “Your wallet and phone are in my bag.” “Fine. Let’s get this over with.” She held her hands palm-out as one of them led her out of the guest bedroom at her parents’ ranch. If she scrunched up her nose, a bit of light leaked through the bottom of the blindfold, just enough for her not to trip as she followed them down the stairs and out to the pickup Polly had rented. One of them helped her into the cab before climbing in after her, so she was wedged between them on the bench seat. Something uncomfortable poked at her tailbone, and she lifted her butt to try to push away whatever she’d sat on, but Ruby stopped her. “Don’t move. Just sit.” “But I’m sitting on something.” “Just some of Polly’s stuff. You know what a slob she is.” “Hey! I’m creatively disorganized, not a slob.” Nancy sighed and gave up. She tried to gauge where they were going by mentally picturing all the turns they made. A right turn out of the drive and down the long, narrow track leading to the main road, where they turned left. They weren’t heading to town, then. Nor, judging by how hard her ass hit the seat as the road grew bumpier, were they heading to any sort of civilization. Nancy couldn’t judge how long they drove. As her friends’ bickering grew more heated, she flipped on a local country station and Jake Kohl’s smooth voice filled the cab. “I still can’t believe you got him to sing at the wedding,” Ruby said. “I didn’t. Jared did. He can’t stand country, but he said it was one of his wedding gifts to me.” “Aww, that’s so sweet!” It was. She’d literally jumped up and down with joy when he’d told her. “I’ve been trying to figure out what I can do for him to make the day even more special.” Ruby snorted. “I thought he already told you what you can do.” Yeah, he had. In very explicit terms. “That’s not going to happen. Ever.” “You might actually like it.” “Not interested in finding out if I do. At all.” Her butt bounced again on the seat, and she winced as whatever she was sitting on rammed into her tailbone. “Where are we going?” “Not telling. Just smile.” “What? I swear to God, if there are cameras—” “No cameras. Just a smokin’ hot mountain man.” “A…what?” The truck slowed to a stop and one of the girls unsnapped Nancy’s seat belt. “Smile. Seriously. You’re creasing your forehead.” Wrinkles were no joke—especially in her line of work. She pasted a smile on her face and let Ruby take her hand and ease her from the truck. The slam of the truck’s doors reverberated in eerie silence. No, not silence. Gentle sounds crept in, so easy to overlook because they weren’t the hustle-bustle she was used to hearing. Birds chirping instead of humans shouting into their cell phones. Water flowing instead of traffic screeching to a halt. “Holy shit!” A man swearing—okay, that was familiar. And so, she realized with a sickening shiver, was his voice. “Nancylynn Pruitt. What the hell are you wearing?” Her blood turned sludgy and cold, and she fumbled for the blindfold’s knot. It stayed stubbornly in place, probably because her fingers had turned to jelly, and jelly was notoriously bad at untying knots. More curses were swallowed up by laughter from her soon-to-be-dead friends, who were even less help than her wobbly fingers. “Get this thing off me!” Big, masculine fingers pushed hers out of the way, and within a second her blindfold dropped to the ground. She spun around and faced the one man she’d carefully avoided every time she’d come back home. “Wyatt.” “Nancylynn.” His mouth quirked as if to say This must be my unlucky day. “It’s Nancy now,” she corrected without thinking. The tightening of his jaw was the only sign he heard. He looked her up and down, probably cataloging the changes just as she was doing with him. Time had shrunk her memory of him, relegating him to a dark, distant corner of her mind she could choose to visit or ignore, depending on her mood and how much wine she’d drunk. Flesh-and-blood Wyatt exploded that memory out of her brain—and probably more than a few eggs from her ovaries. He was a big, tough-looking guy. Always had been, even as a kid. Six years older than her, he’d loomed large in her life for as long as she could remember. She’d grown up on his family’s ranch—the very ranch she’d ended up buying and giving to her parents when his dad lost it in a foreclosure. He’d been a tough kid to like. When he’d been little more than a toddler, his family had fallen apart in ways that would’ve seemed like a plot line on Sultry Suburbs. By the time Nancy had been born, he’d been angry. Sullen. Uncontrollable. But for some reason, Nancy had adopted him the way a bird might adopt a crocodile. She’d flitted around him, always taking care to avoid his jaws in case he decided he’d had enough of her chirping. He’d even occasionally deigned to give her rides on his shoulders. Maybe she’d been attracted to danger or maybe to his strength. Either way, he’d suffered her presence until the summer she was fifteen and she’d dared to get too close. Then he’d snapped. His jaw was hard and his gaze even harder as he stared down at the pageant sash the girls had draped across her breasts. “Bunny?” She glanced down at herself. The pink sash had Jared’s nickname for her written in gold script. As if that weren’t bad enough, she wore a furry white crop-top bra and hot pants. Dread settled low in her gut as she reached behind herself and felt her butt. A tail. That’s what she’d been sitting on. A freaking fluffy bunny tail. She spun around and focused on her friends. “What is going on?” “Surprise!” they shouted. “You said you wanted to get away from everything for a weekend.” Polly thrust her arms out wide and spun around as if she were auditioning for The Sound of Music. “You can’t get any more away than this!” She glanced around. They stood on the edge of a parking lot that held probably a billion cars. Right next to them was the entrance to a massive store that looked like a log cabin on steroids. A manicured creek ran between it and the parking lot, which explained the burble of water she’d heard when they arrived. The glass doors had Wilder Montana Adventures painted on them. A car slowed and tooted as it passed her, and a guy leaned out of the window so he could snap a photo with his phone. Her mouth gaped open in disbelief. “This is your idea of away? I sent you links to spas, resorts and hot springs. Did I really need to spell it out?” The girls blinked, as if they couldn’t believe she was upset. “But,” Ruby said, “you used to talk about this all the time. It was the thing you missed most about home, you said.” Her stomach twisted painfully, the way it always did when she thought of home. “What are you talking about?” Polly stepped up next to her and put her arm around her waist. “All this wedding planning’s been stressful, and we know we haven’t exactly made it easy on you. So we wanted to do something really special.” “And then it came to us,” Ruby said. “The first few months we lived together, you used to talk a lot about growing up on the ranch and riding horses and sleeping under the stars. Fishing. Camping. Rafting. All the things you can’t do in L.A.” “Not without finding a body—or ending up one yourself.” “You missed Montana so much, and we knew you probably wouldn’t have time to enjoy it now unless we made time. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re going rafting and camping and making sure you have time to escape everything for two days.” Ruby grinned at Wyatt. “And two nights.” Her eyes stung, and her throat swelled. “You guys. That’s…that’s so sweet.” She meant it. Mostly. But Wyatt’s unamused gaze bored through the back of her head and invaded her thoughts. Keeping her hand in front of her chest, where he hopefully couldn’t see it, she jerked her thumb in his direction. “And, um…?” “Isn’t he hot?” Polly gushed. A noise of disbelief split the air behind her. “Standing right here.” “I know.” Polly twirled her finger in a lock of her hair and gave him a suggestive grin. “Believe me, I’m looking at you.” Ruby winked at Nancy. “He’s our guide. We saw his picture on the website and made a special request. Why? Do you guys know each other?” “Sort of.” She tried to keep the cringe from her voice but failed. Polly’s brows shot up, and she leaned closer. “Do you, like, know each other?” “Not in the biblical sense.” Although they would’ve, if she’d had her way. Thank God Wyatt had been humiliatingly uninterested in her, or this little reunion would be torture instead of merely excruciating. “Good. Then there’s no problem with him being our guide, right?” Just the minor inconvenience that Jared would flip if he found out. Not that he had any reason to distrust her loyalty, since she would never even consider cheating on him. But…well, he could be a little possessive at times. She swallowed hard and avoided the question, knowing her friends wouldn’t be sympathetic if she tried to explain it to them. “Why the bunny outfit?” Ruby shrugged. “It’s still a bachelorette weekend. Had to do something to make it feel like one.” “Right. Well, thanks for that.” Heat burned up her nearly naked back all the way up to the fine hairs on her neck. She cleared her throat. “I’m assuming you guys brought me some real clothes.” “She did,” they said simultaneously, then gasped and pointed accusing fingers at each other. “No, you did. No, you did.” “You’re freaking kidding me.” Footsteps crunched behind her, and she peeked over her shoulder to see Wyatt striding toward the store. He yanked open the door and disappeared inside for a couple of minutes. When he came back, his hands were full of clothes that still had the tags on. He thrust them at her. “Consider these a wedding gift, on the condition you put them on right this damn second.” “Why? Worried about my dignity?” “Nope. Worried you’ll land me on the local news for all the wrong reasons.” Of course he was worried about himself. Habit took over, and she started to push the bunny panties down, but Wyatt cursed and grabbed her arm. “Changing rooms are inside. Use them. Please.” “Sorry, I forgot what an upstanding citizen you are.” She held her hand out to Ruby. “My phone?” Ruby dug in her bag and was about to give it to her but pulled it back out of Nancy’s reach at the last second. “Who are you going to call?” “Bridesmaid Busters if you don’t hand it over.” Ruby reluctantly gave it to her. “Not you-know-who.” “Obviously. This is our weekend, and I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. It’s going to be awesome.” She shot a glance at Wyatt, who stared at her as if he’d been carved from stone. Unable to resist getting in a parting shot, she told her friends, “It’s just too bad you couldn’t hire his brother Austin. Then we’d have real man-candy on the trip.” With that, she strode away, trying to hold onto as much pride as she could, even as the bunny tail bounced with every step she took. For weeks, the thought of coming face-to-face with Wyatt Wilder had left her stomach so upset she’d barely been able to touch food. Her soon-to-be mother-in-law had dismissed her lack of appetite as pre-wedding jitters, but Nancy knew the truth. From the moment Jared had agreed to get married in her small hometown, she’d realized she would have to face some haunting memories. And Wyatt featured in most of them. She yanked open the door of Wilder Montana Adventures and stepped into the store but came to a halt when she saw the size of it. It was huge—even bigger than it looked from the outside, and that was saying something. The ceiling was two-stories high and partly made of glass, so rays of sunlight made her feel as if she were still outside. A stream cut through the middle of the store, and a pathway wound around it with rustic, hand-painted signs pointing the way to different sections. Camping. Fishing. Hunting. Shoes. Hiking. Water sports. Tour sign-ups. Kids’ play area. At the back of the store, stretching all the way up to the ceiling, stood a circular fish tank filled with vibrantly colored tropical fish. Near the front of the store, honest-to-God trees grew in a thicket, and the gentle sound of birds chirping welcomed her. She couldn’t tell if the chirping came from real birds or a recording. Holy cow. His obvious success went some way in easing her guilt over buying his family’s ranch. “Can I help you find anything, ma’am?” Nancy instinctively pasted a grin on her face and turned to face the splotchy-faced teenager wearing a red plaid shirt with the store’s logo on it. “Hi. Yes, I hope you can. I’m looking for the dressing rooms.” The teen blinked. “You’re—um… I mean, uh, sure. I’ll take you to them.” Nancy pressed her lips together to keep from smiling. After ten years of living in L.A., she still felt thrilled at being recognized. Growing up, she’d been recognized for her clothes more than for who she was. She regularly heard shouts of, “Why’s that girl wearing my old dress, Mama?” as she walked through town. Being noticed for her work rather than for being a charity case would never get old—especially in Marietta. When she got to the dressing room, she stripped off the bunny costume without sparing herself a glance in the mirror. She really, really didn’t want to know how she looked in it. Wyatt had given her a one-piece bathing suit, shorts, hiking pants, jeans, a few shirts, a fleece and a floppy cap with his company’s logo on it. Judging by the prices on the tags, the collection might be one of the most expensive wedding gifts she got. “Must be doing well for himself,” she muttered. When she had the bathing suit and some clothes on, she sat on the dressing room bench, pulled her phone from her bag, and texted her assistant, Faye. Help! Need a bra and underwear. Her phone buzzed almost immediately. Let me guess…Bridesmaidzillas struck again? She tapped furiously. They mean well. But they’re idiots, Faye replied. Okay, I’ve got your coordinates. Stay there. I’ll be with you in ten. Great, she texted. Bring my sunglasses—and a couple days of clothes for yourself, too. You’re coming rafting with us. Hell to the no. You don’t pay me enough to spend two days with Dee and Dum. Nancy let her phone rest on her lap as she contemplated bribes. When we’re on our honeymoon, you can stay at our house and pretend it’s yours. Her phone stayed silent for a while, and Nancy worried her bribe hadn’t been enough. But then Faye wrote, Can I have women over? All the women you can handle, Nancy replied. That’s a lot of women. Done deal. See you soon. Good, challenge numbers one and two accomplished. She sent a quick message to Jared. You might not be able to get hold of me the next two days. Apparently my bachelorette weekend is camping and rafting, and I doubt there will be cell coverage. Good luck with the shoot today! Love you. She dropped her phone back onto her lap. Now to face Wyatt again. Drawing in an unsteady breath, she closed her eyes, slowly exhaled, and went through her routine for getting into character. Like Verity, the character she’d played on Sultry Suburbs for the past five years, this one had become second nature to her—except this was the character she played in real life. You are Nancy Parsons. Confident. Accomplished. Loved by millions. You are not Nancylynn Pruitt. Struggling. Hungry. Friendless. She opened her eyes and straightened her shoulders. She could do this. She had to do this. The security of her future depended on it. * Wyatt stared at the door Nancylynn had disappeared through several minutes earlier, his brain exploding with images he didn’t want to see. Bunny costume. I’m a dead man. It wasn’t that Wyatt had a weird bunny fetish. He didn’t even have a Nancylynn fetish—not one that he’d ever realized, anyway. Hell, she’d been fifteen to his twenty-one the last time he’d seen her in the flesh. But now…shit. When he closed his eyes, her flesh was about all he could see. And she sure as hell wasn’t fifteen anymore. She was still inside changing into clothes that would save his sanity, but the sight of her was so vivid she might as well have been standing in front of him. When she had angled away from him to mediate an argument between the two women who’d hired him for the weekend—using fake names, apparently, since he recognized them now—his stupid gaze had instinctively dropped to check out her ass. She had a tail. A tail. He would never pry that image out of his mind. Two nights in the woods with Nancylynn? Engaged Nancylynn? Engaged Nancylynn in a sexy bunny costume? Yep. He was a dead man. “So, Mister Mountain Man,” Polly Parker purred as she leaned into his side and stroked his biceps, “do you have a license for those muscles?” Seriously? She was a client, so he didn’t want to be rude, but damn it was a struggle not to roll his eyes. He forced himself to give her a polite grin. “I do, but it’s back in the office.” “Maybe you could show it to me sometime.” The thought of TV starlet Polly Parker hitting on him would’ve once fueled his fantasies. Her doing it in person? Not so much. Before he could think of a way to discourage her, Nancylynn walked out of his store looking even cuter than she had as a bunny. The shorts were modest, and she was probably a little less than average height for a woman, but they still seemed to leave miles of leg bare. She wore the fleece jacket zipped nearly to her neck. It swallowed up her not-very-curvy body, but thanks to the damn bunny costume he knew the curves she had were far too tempting for his mental health. Her dyed blond hair shifted in the breeze as she made her way through a group of customers heading for the store, and he wondered why she’d changed its color. Naturally, it was a deep, dark red that had always made her stand out in a crowd. He could still remember spotting her hair as she hid in a hayloft as he made out with a girlfriend in one of the empty stalls below. These days her hair would blend in with that straw. For some reason, that struck him as a shame. She joined them and drew in a deep breath as she clasped her hands in front of her. “We just need to wait for one more person, and then we’ll be ready to go.” Polly’s eyes narrowed. “Who?” “Faye. I invited her to come, and she can’t wait.” Ruby let out a sigh of relief. “Oh, good. I thought you were going to say Jared was coming, and I was about to put my foot down.” Wyatt screwed up one side of his face. “Why would Jared come?” “Because he can’t let Nancy out of his sight.” Nancy’s face flushed. “Of course he can. Do you see him here now?” Ruby held up her hands. “All I’m saying is he tried to find out what we were doing this weekend, and he was pissed that I wouldn’t tell him.” “Isn’t this a bachelorette party?” Wyatt asked. “Yeah.” Why the hell would any man crash his fiancée’s bachelorette party? That time was sacred, just as a man’s last time going out with his buddies as a single man was. Wyatt kept the question to himself, but the conversation made his uneasiness grow. “Well, I’ve got a six-person raft tied to the trailer, so one more is no problem. You could even invite someone else, too.” “No, just Faye,” Nancylynn said decisively. They only had to wait a few more minutes for Nancylynn’s assistant, a dark-haired pixie wearing retro glasses and purple eye makeup that would do interesting things once they hit the water. As soon as she arrived, Wyatt hustled the women into his van. Most of them climbed into the back, and Nancylynn hopped up into the front passenger’s seat. He’d already hooked up the trailer with the boat, and soon they were on their way. “Where are we going?” Nancylynn asked. “Gardiner.” “Where’s that?” Ruby asked. “Just north of Yellowstone,” Nancy replied. “Wait,” Ruby said, “I thought we were rafting in Yellowstone.” “There’s no rafting in the park itself,” Wyatt explained, “but we’ll be on the Yellowstone River going through Paradise Valley. And it’s as spectacular as the name suggests. I’ll go over a full briefing when we get there, so for now feel free to enjoy the scenery and keep an eye out for bald eagles. We grow ’em big around here.” Polly gasped and pressed her face to the glass. They drove nearly an hour before arriving at the spot where they would put the raft into the river, and they all clambered out of the van. “I’m going to unload the boat. You guys should load up on sunscreen and put on these wetsuits. Water’s colder than it looks this time of year.” He handed them each a Farmer Jane and got busy. Laughter bounced off the rock walls either side of the river, and he couldn’t help but smile. Women always seemed to take the Farmer Janes in stride, laughing at how they looked in the sleeveless wetsuits, while men usually grumbled about their Farmer Bills. Of course, men’s bodies looked pretty ridiculous in them, while women’s bodies had one great advantage. “Holy cow! My boobs look amazing in this!” Polly shouted. Yep, that was it. With their front zipper, the tight suits held in all those areas women seemed to think of as problems—and Wyatt thought of as assets—while pushing their breasts up and out. Even women with modest cleavage ended up with great racks. He tried not to look at Nancylynn as he unloaded the gear. It annoyed the hell out of him that he’d been set up like this. So far, he’d managed to avoid the endless hassle her wedding had caused various businesses in town. Everywhere he went he heard offhand remarks about her changing her mind about music or flowers or whatever the hell else. As much as he admired her for wanting to promote local businesses, she hadn’t seemed to grasp how much a big wedding could throw a little town into a tizzy. He’d thought he was safe, since his business had nothing to do with weddings—well, except for that one with the bride and groom who’d met while fly-fishing and wanted him to outfit all their guests with rods and reels. Now that was his kind of wedding, not the frou-frou Hollywood affair that hemorrhaged money as a way to avoid focusing on the detail that mattered most—preparing for a lifelong marriage, not an hour-long ceremony. But whatever. Nancylynn wasn’t his responsibility and hadn’t been for a long time. When he had the boat and gear out and had parked the van where one of his staff would pick it up later, he called the women over to the edge of the water, where he held onto the raft. “First order of business is our safety briefing. We’re going to have a lot of fun and see some incredible wildlife, but my most important job is keeping you guys safe. At all times, you need to listen to me. If I tell you to paddle hard, you paddle hard. If I tell you to sit down or lean a certain way, you do it. I want us all to have a great time this weekend, and it would really suck if someone drowned.” Nancylynn pressed her lips together as if trying to suppress a smile. “There’s very little chance of the boat flipping, but if it does and you end up in the water, hold onto your paddle and float on your back with your feet facing downriver. I’ll climb onto the raft and flip it over, and then you can swim toward me and I’ll help you onto the raft.” “What if we lose our paddles? Will we drown?” Polly asked. “Your life vests will keep you afloat—” “So will your boobs,” Faye muttered. Nancy elbowed her ribs, and she shut up. “But you need to hang onto your paddles because if we lose them, we’ll be up a shit creek without a…” He looked at them expectantly. “Paddle.” “Good. So don’t lose them.” An uncomfortable heat generated around his crotch, the same kind of prickly, hair-raising sensation of being watched without his knowledge, and his gaze shifted across the four women. Sure enough, Ruby’s stare was locked on his groin like a starving rottweiler eying a kielbasa. He fought the urge to cover his junk. This was going to be the longest two nights of his life. Chapter Two ‡ “I love being married. It’s so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life.” – Rita Rudner Several groups of rafters and kayakers wandered past on their way to the river, and Nancy adjusted the floppy brim of her new sun hat so it shielded whatever parts of her face her sunglasses didn’t. There were times she wanted to be recognized—like when she wanted to eat at an overbooked restaurant or get upgraded to first class—and there were times she didn’t. Standing a few feet from Wyatt when he wore only the bottom half of a skintight neoprene wetsuit, leaving his tanned chest and arms bare, was one of the latter. “I think we’re all set,” Wyatt said. “We just need to put on our life vests and get in the boat.” “Wait!” Polly threw her hand up. “We need to document this moment. Here, Faye.” She thrust her phone into Nancy’s assistant’s hands. “Take a picture of us.” “Faye should be in the picture, too,” Nancy said. Faye shook her head. “I’m totally fine skipping this one. Let me get one of you all in the raft, and then I’ll climb in.” Nancy narrowed her eyes. “You’re not going to push us off and run for the van are you?” Guilt swept across Faye’s face. “Uh…” “Take the picture of us standing on the shore. That way we can tackle you if you try to escape.” “Crap,” Faye muttered. But she lifted the phone and looked at the screen. “Okay, get close to each other.” Polly nearly knocked Nancy over in her eagerness to cuddle up next to Wyatt, and annoyance snapped through Nancy. Then Ruby plastered herself to the other side of him, and suddenly the scene looked like a promo shot of a sexy, shirtless wilderness guide with a couple of Playboy bunnies. She shared a look of exasperation with Faye. “It might be good if Nancy was in the picture, too,” Faye said, her voice dry. “Y’know, since it’s her weekend. Just a suggestion. Feel free to do whatever the hell you two want. You have since she got engaged. Why stop now?” Wyatt dislodged Polly and stretched out his hand toward Nancy. “Come stand next to me.” Please, his gaze silently added. Interesting. Most heterosexual men would be soaking up the attention. She felt weirdly glad he was so uncomfortable with it that he’d practically beg her to rescue him. Polly pouted but gave up her space to let Nancy in. Wyatt looped one arm around Ruby’s shoulders and his other around Nancy’s. His hand rested on her shoulder in a purely innocent, friendly way, but heat spread from his fingers down to her heart. She suppressed a shiver and made sure her body was angled toward the camera, not him. “Make sure you get my boobs in the picture.” Polly pulled the front zipper down a bit more and adjusted her cleavage. Faye rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry, they’re pushed up so high I can hardly see your face. Everyone ready? On the count of three, say antidisestablishmentarianism. One, two—” “Cheese!” The phone clicked, and Faye handed it back to Polly, who showed the picture to Nancy. “Okay if I tweet this?” She looked closely at it. At one time in her life, she would’ve checked that her eyes were open, her facial expression wasn’t stupid, and her nipples were fully covered. At some point in the past eight months, her questions had funneled down to just one: Will Jared be okay with this picture? He didn’t like seeing her with other men, something she understood because ugly creatures twisted inside her when she saw pictures of him cuddling up with other women—a hard thing to avoid in their line of work. She thought this picture would be okay. Sure, Wyatt was shirtless and had the tanned, sculpted-from-stone torso that men in L.A. spent eight-hour days in the gym to achieve. And his hand was on her shoulder. But there were a couple inches of fresh air between their bodies, and Ruby’s seductive pose on his other side seemed to emphasize that space even more. Then again, sometimes he reacted to things she never would’ve expected him to, and she really didn’t need the frustration right now. They’d found plenty to argue about throughout the wedding planning process, and they still hadn’t agreed on the musical selection. Why poke a pissed-off bear? “You know what? Let’s keep this one just for us. Don’t tweet it.” Polly’s lips thinned in an Are you kidding me? expression, and Nancy gave her an apologetic shrug. “Can’t we just keep some things private?” “I’m annoyed because I know why you want to keep this private.” “All right,” Wyatt said. “Life jackets and helmets on, and let’s get going.” Maybe seeing Wyatt again so unexpectedly—being confronted with a past she thought she’d left behind—sparked a few realizations, but she didn’t like the thoughts tumbling through her head as Wyatt helped her into the raft. Jared would be so pissed if he saw Wyatt holding my hand like this as I climb into the raft. Should I have let Polly tweet that picture? It’s totally innocent, but sometimes he sees things I don’t. Her rational brain argued with the self-doubt. He sees things that aren’t there. He gets jealous for no reason. It’s because he loves me so much. But sometimes I don’t like the ways he shows it. She clasped her paddle as Wyatt pushed the raft into the current and hoisted himself into it. Water streamed off his legs, and heat radiated off him as he settled next to her. She could look at him and see he was an attractive man, just like she could look at Ruby, Polly and Faye and see they were attractive women. It didn’t mean she was attracted to them. Sometimes Jared didn’t see that distinction. That was why he’d told her he didn’t want her spending time alone with other men. She’d argued that he should trust her, and he argued back that he did; he just didn’t trust other men. That wasn’t how it felt, though. Still, his many wonderful qualities outweighed these fights they had. He could be so sweet, so devoted. He called or texted her between takes to see what she was up to—ten or fifteen times a day, telling her he was thinking of her and he loved her, worrying about her if she didn’t text right back. She’d never had a man so passionate about her, so willing and able to take care of any little problem she had. It was a heady feeling for a woman who’d taken care of herself and her family for as long as she could remember. But that jealousy of his… The prospect of a weekend break from it seemed like the best gift her bridesmaids could give her. * The river rambled gently for a few miles, offering the newbies a safe way to practice their paddling before the rapids started. Contrary to Wyatt’s first impression, Polly and Ruby didn’t jump him as soon as he got in the raft. Nor did Faye leap out of the boat and make a break for freedom. In fact, they all seemed to relax and enjoy themselves as the current pulled them through some of the most beautiful scenery on earth. Throughout his twenties, Wyatt had backpacked around the world in search of adventures. He’d rafted down the Amazon, hiked in Patagonia and done manual labor in Antarctica. As breathtaking as all those places were, he’d never found a place he loved as much as home. “Look!” Polly pointed near the shore. “Is that a seal?” “River otter,” Wyatt said. “And if you look on shore, through the trees, you’ll see a few animals that look like antelope. They’re pronghorns.” Nancy let out a deep sigh, tipped her head back and closed her eyes against the sun. “This is amazing. I really needed this.” “This must’ve been so cool when you were a kid,” Ruby said. “I mean, it’s stunning now, but imagine growing up with all this in your back yard. I can picture you being a female Huck Finn.” Wyatt didn’t think anyone else noticed the way the corners of Nancy’s eyes tightened. He had been lucky to grow up in countryside this wild, but his family had had the resources for him to enjoy it. Nancy’s childhood had been significantly less idyllic. Living in a leaky trailer with little insulation, her family had constantly struggled to keep the wilderness out, rather than reveling in all it offered. “Yeah, it was great.” “So, did you guys, like, live next door to each other?” Wyatt stayed silent, not wanting to contradict anything Nancy had told her friends. He got the feeling they didn’t know everything about her childhood, and he wouldn’t be the one to spell it out for them. “In a way,” Nancy said. “Wyatt’s grandparents owned the ranch. He and his brother Austin and their dad lived in the big house with his grandparents. My dad was one of their ranch hands, so we lived on the property, but not right next door. We couldn’t see each other’s homes from our windows or anything.” No, his grandparents hadn’t wanted a view of the trailer from their window. They’d basically let the Pruitts squat on some unused land and had even talked occasionally about building a small cabin for them but had decided it wouldn’t be fair to give so much to one of their employees when they couldn’t offer the same to others. Wyatt had never understood what fairness had to do with it. It hadn’t been fair that Nancy’s mom kept getting sick. It hadn’t been fair that they’d had to pay extortionate medical bills to keep her alive. No, fairness had little to do with capitalism—a lesson his family had learned the hard way after his grandparents passed on and his dad refinanced the ranch at the worst possible time in financial history. The stock market crash had wiped him out, and the bank had called in his loans. Wyatt had just opened his own business and had loans of his own, but he’d been in the process of negotiating with the bank to keep the ranch in the family when Nancy came along with her Hollywood money and offered the bank every penny they’d asked for. The legacy Wyatt had always considered his own had disappeared. Nancy’s parents had been kind enough to keep Wyatt’s dad on as the ranch’s general manager, but it had been a tough blow, one his dad still struggled with. From what he heard, her parents weren’t doing any better at turning a profit than his dad had. Nancy’s money kept them afloat. He’d half hoped she would get bored or decide it wasn’t a good investment, and then he could buy it back. But now that she was marrying a billionaire, she probably considered the money she paid for the ranch a pittance. The current started picking up, the raft rocking from front to back as it rolled over submerged rocks, and Wyatt was grateful for the break in the conversation. Thinking about losing the ranch made his chest hurt—and that wasn’t even the memory that upset him most. “All right, ladies. Get ready to paddle hard.” Water sprayed over the sides of the raft as they picked up speed. They laughed and worked hard to avoid rocks, and Wyatt grinned to see how much fun they were having. This was why he’d started his company in the first place, introducing people to the landscape he loved and the sports he thrived on. A few hours and several rapids later, he spotted a familiar landmark. “Lunch Island, dead ahead. Who’s ready to eat?” “Me!” they shouted in unison. “Good.” He pointed at the small island splitting the river. “Aim for that and paddle.” They all clambered out when the water was shallow enough to stand in, and they shocked him by grabbing the rope around the edge of the raft and applying a little elbow grease to drag the thing onto the sandy shore. He would’ve expected soap stars to worry about breaking a nail or complain about not having a nubile pool boy fanning them with a palm frond. He must not have hidden his surprise too well because he caught Nancylynn smirking. “We work sixteen-hour days, He-Man. In high heels and microminis. We can carry an inflatable raft.” “I never doubted you’re as hard as nails, She-Ra.” She glanced away and let go of the raft. He took sandwiches, fruit and bags of chips out of the waterproof pack he’d strapped inside the raft. “I’m afraid it’s not gourmet, but there’s lots of it. I’ve got goat’s cheese with red grapes, plain old cheddar, or hummus with sundried tomato. Who wants what?” The women stared at him. “No bagels with cream cheese?” Nancy asked. “Well, damn. I tried to think of what you L.A. ladies might like. I guess I should’ve guessed bagels.” They nearly took his arms off, grabbing sandwiches and shoving them into their mouths with greedy bites. He chuckled. “So I chose well?” “Oh my God,” Polly said, her eyes rolling back in her head and her mouth full of hummus. “This is so much better than craft services.” Whatever that was. Nancy covered her mouth as she chewed and swallowed. “On set, they barely feed us. Bagels and cream cheese in the morning, and then they put out a plate of cookies in the afternoon. Those disappear in about three seconds.” “We’re the second-class citizens of TV.” Ruby wiped her mouth. “I did a guest appearance on a prime-time drama, and their food was amazing.” “Well,” Wyatt said, “I brought plenty, so eat all you want.” Nancy finished her sandwich in record time, yanked the life jacket off and threw it onto the ground before tugging at the zipper of her wetsuit. The one-piece bathing suit he’d given her clung in all the right places, and he silently cursed himself. As a girl, she’d had a haunting beauty, as if she were never completely present. She’d probably been so damn hungry that she’d struggled to focus, but she’d come off as being distant and otherworldly. People always commented on it, calling her ethereal instead of starving. She’d filled out a little during her years in Hollywood, but she would probably always carry the lean, malnourished-in-childhood look. Fortunately for her, that look seemed to be in for TV actresses. It wasn’t a look he usually went for—he’d always had a thing for curves and dimples, women who looked like they baked the world’s best apple pie and enjoyed eating it smothered with vanilla ice cream. She’s getting married, you idiot. Not that he wanted something with her. He was simply fighting the temptation of the forbidden. She was engaged to someone else—and Wyatt never, ever flirted with women in relationships—and the history between them was too complex for anything casual. He knew things about her he doubted she’d told anyone. Plus, she essentially paid his dad’s salary. None of that mattered, anyway, he thought as the massive rock on her finger caught a ray of sun and blinded him. Taken. She laid her wetsuit on a flat rock and lowered herself onto it, letting out a deep sigh. Seeing her in the bunny costume had made him half hard. Seeing her spread out in the sun finished that job. He pretended to be busy checking the raft as the others ate, but the pull of her was too hard to ignore. He should probably see how she was doing. After all, she was the bride, and his company had been hired to make her happy. As the others chatted and ate, he sat down next to her on the rock. “You’re blocking my sun.” “I thought you bride types avoided the sun so you didn’t get weird tan lines.” She gave him a squinty smile under the shade of her hand. “Shows what you know. I have a skin colorist who can help me even out the tone. Plus I’m wearing SPF eight million.” “A skin what?” “You probably don’t want to know.” “Definitely not.” Nearly fifteen years of awkward silence piled up between them. He cleared his throat. “So the big day’s in just a couple of weeks, huh?” “Yeah.” “I hear wedding planning can be stressful.” She snorted. “If I survive this, it’ll be a miracle.” Crunching up, she glanced at Polly and Ruby as if to make sure they were out of earshot. “Those two have been like the twin spawns of Satan. Seriously, planning this rafting trip is the only good thing they’ve done.” “I thought bridesmaids are supposed to help the bride.” “Yeah, me too. But they can’t agree on anything. If we don’t find a bridesmaid dress they agree on, I swear I’m going to make them wear these Farmer Jane things. Actually, no, Polly would probably love that. And I can’t make them go naked because Ruby would love that.” “Burlap sacks?” “Not a bad idea. I’ll see if my parents have any extras.” She sat up and crossed her legs. “Okay, you helped me solve that problem. Now what about when the bride and groom have completely different taste in music?” “Easy. Whoever likes country western wins.” She grinned. “Good. That’s me.” “I heard Jake Kohl’s singing at your wedding.” “Yep. Want his autograph?” He laughed and shook his head. “I’m not really an autograph collector. I just think it’s pretty amazing how you’ve managed to make this life for yourself.” She blinked. “Was that a compliment?” “Yeah, it shocked me, too.” His mouth twisted in a wry smile. “Weirdly, I don’t want to take it back. I guess I must mean it.” “Well, obviously. I’ve never known you to say things you don’t mean. I’m just confused because I’ve also never known you to say anything complimentary to me.” His neck warmed. “That can’t be true.” Surely it couldn’t. He thought nice things about her. He just…shit. He just wasn’t good at getting them from his brain to his mouth. “Anyway, I don’t know that I made my life this way. It just sort of happened.” “Please don’t feed me that false modesty bullshit. I’m not some women’s magazine that wants to see a humble version of you. I know where you came from, sweetheart. You didn’t grow up in Hollywood, hobnobbing with agents and producers. You worked hard, and it’s paying off. It’s…admirable.” She clutched her chest. “Two compliments? You’ve changed, Mr. Wilder.” He wasn’t the only one, a fact his traitorous body reminded him of as she loosened her mocking grip on her chest. He wanted to rub away any pain she’d inflicted on her smooth skin, maybe move from rubbing to kissing to licking— “What about you?” she asked, interrupting his fantasy. “I saw that store of yours—and what you charge for this bathing suit. You must be doing okay.” “Not everything in my store is that expensive. I gave you my top-of-the-line stuff.” She cocked one of her brows. “Wyatt, I’ve walked down the red carpet in dresses that cost less than this suit.” “I forgot what a bullshitter you are.” She grinned and lay back on her towel. Her body stayed tense, though, as if she couldn’t fully relax. They sat in a silence that grew more awkward the longer it stretched. He tried to keep his gaze on her face, but it strayed—subtly, he thought, so subtly she wouldn’t notice. “Never gonna happen, Wyatt. Not in a million years.” Shit. She’d noticed. He forced himself to stand up. “I’ll go see how the others are doing.” She nodded, her face tense. “Good idea.” Buy Two Nights with His Bride now! Three Nights Before Christmas Have yourself a steamy little Christmas… After three years in prison, freight train engineer Lacey Gallagher doesn’t expect this Christmas to be very merry and bright. At least chopping down trees for her brother’s Christmas tree farm will help her save money to get her life back on track. All her plans derail, though, when her new job puts her in territory patrolled by the man who haunts her dreams—the forest ranger who sent her to prison. Austin Wilder isn’t thrilled about Lacey working in his forest—but he soon realizes he needs her help. His family is depending on him to restore an old steam train for a spectacular Christmas event, and train expert Lacey is his only hope of finishing in time. Working together challenges every assumption Lacey and Austin have about each other, and they discover a desire hot enough to melt even the deepest Montana snow. But will the season of second chances be enough to mend the most hardened broken heart? Publication date: October 26, 2015 Publisher: Tule Publishing/Montana Born Books ISBN: 978-1-943963-56-0 55,000 words Chapter One ‡ The lights in the unit went on at 5:45 a.m., but Lacey had lain awake on her hard prison cot for hours. In fact, she couldn’t be sure whether she’d even fallen asleep. She’d shut her eyes a few times and noticed that Charlene—who slept on the lower bunk of the bed next to hers—had flopped from her belly onto her back, but exhaustion made Lacey doubt she’d actually slept in those brief moments her eyes had been closed. Just as she had every morning for the past 1,016 days, she rolled out of her bunk and rubbed the bleariness from her eyes. She rotated her shoulders and eased her neck from side to side, trying to work out the kinks, but, after nearly three years, they’d knotted themselves so tightly into her muscle memory she doubted anything could unravel them. Grumbles and groans filled the air as the other fifteen women in the dorm-style cell reacted to the coming of another miserable day, a day of no surprises—at least, that was the best one could hope for in prison. Surprises here were never good. But for Lacey, everything that came after breakfast would be a surprise. Oh, she knew the outline of her day’s schedule—it had been flashing in her brain like a beacon ever since her lawyer had given her the good news three weeks ago—but understanding a timetable of events was not the same as knowing how she would react to those events. Right now, trepidation warred with her exhaustion, but she had to get through two more hours in purgatory before the rest of her life could start. “What do you think it’ll be today—rehydrated eggs and cardboard potatoes, or cardboard potatoes and rehydrated eggs?” Charlene asked, pushing herself out of her bunk. “Forget today,” Monique called across the cell as she dropped trou and plunked herself onto the open-air toilet they all shared. “What about tomorrow? Turkey patty, obviously, but do you think we’ll get a Twinkie?” “My cousin said they don’t sell Twinkies anymore,” Charlene shouted back. “Hostess went belly-up.” “Yeah, the original company did,” Lacey said, “but some billionaire bought them out and started making them again.” Charlene put her hand on her hip, her eyes narrowing. “How d’you know that?” “Newspaper.” Her brother, Sawyer, had bought her subscriptions to the Copper Mountain Courier—their local paper—and the Washington Post. She’d really only wanted the Post, but it didn’t pay to look too uppity around here, so she’d claimed she did it for the funnies. Whenever she read the more serious sections, she hid them behind the Courier. “But they never give us the real-brand stuff, anyway. Just knock-offs. I’m guessing we’ll get—” The words jammed in her throat. Not we. You. “Lace?” Charlene’s dark brows pulled together. Lacey gave her a brief smile. “My money’s on a donut—not chocolate or jelly filled. Something beige and so dry it makes you choke.” “Happy Thanksgiving to us,” Charlene said, her voice dripping with irony. The cell door slid open, and several women filed out on their way to the chow hall. Charlene took a step to follow them, but Lacey laid her hand on her friend’s arm and Charlene stopped, giving her a curious look. “I need to tell you something,” Lacey whispered. Charlene threw her hands in the air. “Oh, shit. No, you don’t. I don’t want to know anything.” “Yeah, you do.” “No, no, no, no, no. No. I really don’t. Knowing something was how I ended up here. Nothing good comes from knowing something.” Lacey snorted. “Nothing good comes from not knowing something, either. Believe me.” Ignorance was how she’d ended up here. The unforgiving voice of the forest ranger who’d arrested her vibrated through her memory, telling the jury, “She’s either guilty of transportation of a controlled substance or of criminal stupidity.” She’d certainly been guilty of one of those. The jury had convicted her of the other. “This isn’t something that’ll get you in trouble.” Lacey reached for the well-worn books and box of third-hand art supplies she kept on the shelves next to her bunk. “Here. These are for you.” “Oh, no.” Charlene blinked. “You’re kidding.” Lacey shook her head, her throat suddenly swelling to the point it made words impossible. “When did you find out?” She cleared her throat once. Twice. “Um…” And again. “Three weeks ago.” She didn’t need to make excuses to her old friend. Charlene had already been here for two years when Lacey had arrived and had taken Lacey under her wing, explaining how things worked inside. If you get paroled, don’t tell anyone you’re going till the last possible minute. Some people in here will be so jealous they’ll want to mess things up for you. Mess you up. And especially don’t tell me. After all my years working in a beauty parlor, I gossip better than I cut hair. “So you’ll be home for Thanksgiving.” Lacey nodded. “And Christmas,” Charlene said, her voice tinged with wistfulness. “Yeah.” Lacey struggled to work up enthusiasm for the holidays. It would just be her and Sawyer, since their parents had moved to Florida a few years ago in search of warmer weather to relieve Dad’s arthritis. They’d booked a Caribbean cruise before she’d found out about her parole, so they wouldn’t even be contactable until almost Christmas. Considering Sawyer spent this time of year running their family’s Christmas tree farm, and since one of her parole conditions was that she be teetotal, she doubted the holidays would be very festive. But she would at least be free. “Shit, you’re gonna have a real turkey,” Charlene said. “God, I hope so. I never even used to like turkey, but I’m craving it now.” So badly her mouth started watering. “Even Brussels sprouts sound good.” “But no potatoes.” Lacey pretended to gag. “When do you go?” “After breakfast.” “I’m gonna miss you.” Her old friend threw her arms around Lacey’s shoulders, and they held each other close. Lacey buried her stinging eyes in Charlene’s shoulders. This woman had not only explained the unspoken rules of prison life to her but had saved her life when another inmate had targeted her. In their life outside, they never would’ve met. Charlene had been a hairdresser in Billings, and Lacey had been a freight train engineer based in Whitefish but spent most of her time chugging between there and Spokane. But in here, social hierarchies crumbled and rebuilt themselves in weird ways. Charlene sniffed and pulled away, straightening her shoulders. “Let’s go eat and celebrate.” A couple hours later, with the chemical taste of powered eggs still making her tastebuds tingle, Lacey followed a burly female prison guard into a barren room she knew too well. “Clothes off,” the guard said. Lacey’s brows shot up. “Seriously? I’m going out, not coming in.” The guard shrugged. “Got to make sure you’re not carrying any messages or contraband out.” Lacey sighed and pulled her burgundy top off, then pushed her khaki pants and underwear down to her ankles, kicking free of them. She spread her legs and pressed her palms to the back of her head, waiting patiently as the guard examined her. This process had stopped being humiliating and started being routine about five hundred strip searches ago, but the fact she had no choice but to get naked at any female guard’s command still made her gut burn with indignation. The next time I get naked in front of someone, it’ll be my choice. Mine. Of all the aspects of life outside she’d taken for granted, control over who got to see her naked was one of the greatest. When the guard was satisfied Lacey hadn’t squirreled anything away, she handed her a package with the distinctive logo of the catalog the inmates and their families were allowed to order from. It had been opened. “Congratulations. Someone really likes you. Got you the good stuff.” Blood rushed to Lacey’s cheeks as she pulled a heap of new clothes from the package. Her old clothes were probably a size or two too small, so she’d needed release-day clothes. In here, it never paid to have the best of anything. She’d had to tell Sawyer long ago to cut down on the number of care packages he sent, since other women were becoming jealous—or even despondent from the fact their own husbands hadn’t visited, much less ordered them luxuries like candy and comfortable clothes. But Sawyer hadn’t bought her these clothes. Jenna, her lawyer, had. And Jenna had awesome taste. Black jeans, faded and distressed in places that would draw attention away from the fifteen pounds Lacey had packed on through years of carb overload and little activity. A hunter-green Henley that would match Lacey’s eyes. And an oatmeal-colored winter sweater that felt snuggly warm without being bulky. None of it matched Jenna’s impeccable style; these clothes could’ve belonged to the old Lacey, the one who repaired faulty freight train engines instead of clogged prison toilets. The outdoorsy young woman who barreled through the northern states at a hundred miles an hour, not the pallid woman whose every step seemed to take tortoise-like determination. Lacey had just bent over to step into the plain cotton underwear when the shriek of an alarm split the air and a red light strobed across the room. Surprise flashed on the guard’s face as she laid her hand on her gun and rushed to the door. “Don’t move,” she shouted at Lacey on her way. “Not a single muscle, understand?” Jaw practically unhinged, Lacey watched the door slam and heard the click of the deadbolt as she was left alone—doubled over with only her ankle decently covered by the underwear. “God,” she muttered, “if you’re up there, this isn’t funny.” By the time the guard returned, Lacey’s back had seized up. She’d given up on staying completely still, but she hadn’t wanted to risk ticking the guard off so she’d sat down naked on the metal bench bolted to the wall, using her new clothes as padding because she didn’t want to think about how many other nekkid butts had sat on this bench. When the guard came back in, she made an exasperated noise that sounded like it cleared a hell of a lot of gunk from the back of her smoker’s throat. “Gone two hours and you couldn’t even bother to get dressed? Get your lazy ass moving. I don’t have all day.” Lacey nearly choked, holding back her response. Freedom. So close. Don’t screw it up. Once Lacey was dressed, the procedure for securing her freedom whizzed past in a blur of paperwork. She was given a check for $327.32, told to call her parole officer within twenty-four hours, escorted through a series of gates, and wished the best of luck. “Someone coming to pick you up or you need a ride to the bus station?” the guard asked. “My lawyer’s coming.” The guard nodded and slammed the final gate closed behind Lacey with a threatening clang that made her jump. Don’t ever come back, its echo across the snowy parking lot seemed to say. I won’t. “Lacey!” Her head jerked around at the sound of her lawyer’s voice coming from a distant end of the parking lot. Jenna Macintosh waved as she slammed the door of her SUV closed and strode toward her, looking savvy and oh-so-cute in her pointy glasses and feminine suit with her breath frosting the air. It took Lacey a second to remember she was actually allowed to cross the lot herself, but then her feet were moving, taking her first steps in the journey toward home. Before she knew it, she was engulfed in her second hug of the day. The unexpected contact froze her for a second until she could coax her arms to return it. “Hope you haven’t been waiting too long,” she said. “There was a situation in one of the pods and it slowed everything down.” “I got some work done, no problems.” Jenna’s tremendous smile lit up the grayness of the sky, the asphalt, the prison walls. Lacey hadn’t seen anyone smile like that—so genuinely, so openly—in a hell of a long time. Not unless they were planning something violent. Weird strands of discomfort slithered through her. “You want to grab something to eat? Maybe some real coffee? There’s a Starbucks nearby.” Oh, my God, I can go to Starbucks. Starfreakingbucks! Lacey slowly let her own smile break free. “Is it too early for a pumpkin spice latte?” “Are you kidding? I’ve been mainlining those puppies for weeks. Come on.” Jenna led her to the car, where Lacey tossed her bag of old clothes on the back seat. “Thanks for the new clothes. I really appreciate you ordering them for me.” “You’ve got clothes and things at your brother’s place, right?” Jenna reversed out of the parking space. Lacey’s attention snagged on the prison walls, growing more distant as they pulled out of the lot. How strange that they looked the same on both sides but filled her with entirely different emotions. “Yeah. I think so. I didn’t think to ask.” Sawyer had packed up her apartment after she’d been convicted, so she figured her stuff was probably in his attic. She glanced down at herself. “I hope my winter coats still fit. I porked up a bit. Then again, maybe the extra layer of fat will keep me warm.” “Are there places you can pick up gear locally in Marietta, or should we try to find you a coat before we head down there?” Jenna asked, neatly avoiding commenting on Lacey’s weight. “Marietta’s not exactly a one-horse town,” Lacey replied, relaxing a little as the conversation slipped toward inconsequential things. “We have electricity and running water and all the mod cons.” “I didn’t mean it like that. I’ve just never been there. It could be one of those places with nothing but feed stores and flannel shirts and men who chew tobacco and whittle.” Lacey’s smile grew. “Careful, city girl. That hole you’re digging just keeps getting bigger and bigger.” They hit a Starbucks not far from the prison, and Jenna bought Lacey a venti pumpkin spice latte, since they hadn’t passed a bank where Lacey could cash her megabucks prison earnings. Lacey cradled the to-go cup in both hands, letting its warmth seep through her cold fingers. How in the world would she rebuild her life on just over $300? A hundred of that was a parting gift from the state so she wouldn’t be utterly destitute—only partly destitute. The rest was the sum total of her earnings working as a mechanic for the janitorial office for nearly three years. She’d earned sixty cents an hour; the prison had taken most of that back to recoup what they spent on her “room and board.” They’d put some in an account for her to spend through the prison catalog. The last few cents an hour went into this release-day check. Good thing Jenna had taken on her case pro bono. When they made it to the outskirts of Billings, Jenna grabbed her phone from the center console and handed it over. “Feel free to call your brother or anyone else if you like.” Lacey stared at the phone. She’d faced Sawyer and his silent disappointment in the visitors’ room plenty of times. Today would be different. She didn’t want to forge their new relationship over the phone. She wanted to be able to judge his facial ticks, to get and give a hug. To meet him on equal footing. She slid the phone back into the console. “Thanks, but we’ll be there soon enough.” The drive to Marietta lasted a few hours, and Lacey pressed her face against the window for every second of it, drinking in the passing trees and snowdrifts. Feeling the brush of warm air from the Volvo SUV’s heater against her cheek. Sinking in to the luxurious seats, so much more comfortable than the hard plastic chairs at the prison. Listening to the familiar chants of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” over the radio. Once upon a time, it would’ve ticked her off to hear Christmas music before Thanksgiving. Now it lightened her spirit. No more frozen meat patties. No more instant potatoes. No more taking on the worst jobs because someone else is too lazy to. No more guards on power trips. If that wasn’t enough to make someone ding-dong merrily on high, she didn’t know what was. “So, did they give you the contact details for your parole officer?” Damn. There went her nascent holiday high. “Yeah, and they told me to get in touch with him in the next twenty-four hours.” “I’d do it as soon as you get home, since tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. You don’t want to risk your freedom just because he’s out of the office and forgot to turn on his voicemail.” Lacey’s heart leapt to her throat. “They can be that petty?” “Depends who you get.” Lacey fished the business card out of her jeans pocket. “Uh…Chester Robinson.” “Ah, he’s ace. Ex-Marine so he doesn’t take any shit, but he’s also pretty good at figuring out what’s important and what’s not. Still, call him when you get home and see if he needs anything from you. He’ll probably just go over the rules with you. You know them already?” “No alcohol. No firearms. Check in on whatever schedule he gives me. Call him immediately if I ever have a run-in with anyone in law enforcement. And no associating with other ex-cons.” Ex-con. I’m an ex-con. She’d never said the word out loud before. No matter how many times she rolled it around in her head, it didn’t feel real, as if it belonged to someone on TV instead of a label she could own. She hoped it never felt real. By the time they drove through Marietta and made it to the farm a few miles past the town’s outskirts, Lacey’s stomach had knotted so hard it could’ve been tied by a sailor. Every piece of familiarity seemed to underlie how very different she was than the teenager who’d left home with the prospect of a big career and a chance to make her own way in the world. They passed the weathered sign she’d helped her dad make about two decades ago, Gallagher’s Christmas Tree Farm freshly painted in red with an arrow pointing left down the side road. Jenna slowed as the paved road turned into gravel, and even the sound of it hitting the SUV’s undercarriage took Lacey back to the nights she’d broken curfew to hang out with Dave, inching her mom’s car carefully over the drive in the hopes she wouldn’t wake her parents. If she had, they’d never confronted her about her tardiness. Sawyer, on the other hand, always seemed to know where she’d been, and after a couple of years he hadn’t even needed to voice his thoughts; she’d heard the criticism of her boyfriend enough to know how Sawyer rated him. Loser. Waste of time. Not good enough. Damn it, but she still hated how right he’d been. The gravel ended at a parking lot next to the log cabin she’d grown up in, the one her grandparents had built and her parents had extended. The outside was decorated for Christmas, something she knew Sawyer did only because it added to the farm’s festive feel and made customers more excited about buying the perfect tree. He’d strung bunting and flashing white fairy lights around the barn near the house, and he’d lit fires in a couple of forty-gallon drums flanking the barn’s door, brightening the ever-shortening winter day and providing some heat. “Why don’t you go ahead and find your brother, and I’ll park the car,” Jenna suggested. “Thanks.” Lacey couldn’t keep the gruffness from her voice, no matter how hard she swallowed. She slid out of the SUV, closing the door behind her and making her way across the lot. The chilly air bit through her sweater and shirt. She crossed her arms, pretending to warm herself up instead of giving herself a hug. She wandered through the cut firs and pines and spruces, displayed like a fragrant forest in their stands. She found Sawyer on the other side of the lot, feeding tree after tree through the baler, slimming them down with plastic wrap so families could get them in their cars and trucks. When he glanced up, his face ticked through several emotions so quickly she couldn’t catalog them. Her feet stopped moving. She’d been given two hugs today, one by Charlene and one by Jenna. Now she realized she wanted only one, a bear hug from her big brother that would make words unnecessary. An embrace that would sweep away all the disappointment she knew he felt even though he refused to come out and say it. One that would let her know they could start over, as fresh as seeds that hadn’t yet grown roots, much less fungus. He straightened away from the baler, his gaze shifting over her just as hers did to him. How strange to stand and look at him after years of sitting uncomfortably across from him at a table and chairs too small for her, much less his carrying-sycamores-is-easy body. His face was hard, inscrutable and chiseled into sharp planes, but in the two months since she’d seen him his beard had grown unruly and hid most of his lower face. She was tempted to tell him he looked more like an ex-con than she did. He probably wouldn’t find the humor in that, though. “Was beginning to think they hadn’t let you out.” Well, shit. So much for that hug. “There was some stuff going down at the prison.” She glanced at the ground, disappointment just about crushing her. She’d been stupid to expect anything effusive from him. Hell, he’d seemed more comfortable visiting her in prison, where strict rules regulated their interactions. Deciding it was better to keep things on the surface than to hope for something more, she asked about the scout groups that had come for their trees. “How did the big pick-ups go?” “They went. Sorry I couldn’t reschedule them.” Lacey shrugged. “It’s nearly Christmas. I get it.” It wasn’t as if he could spread the sale of Christmas trees across the year. Plus, her parole date had moved a few times. Until the gate had slammed closed behind her, she hadn’t fully believed it would happen today. “Your room’s all ready and there’s plenty of food in the fridge if you’re hungry. I won’t be able to stop for long, not today.” “I’ve had lunch. I’ll just get a coffee for Jenna, then I can pitch in and help out.” “You don’t have to jump right in,” he said. The hell she didn’t. He needed her help, and she’d needed a job offer to increase her chances of parole. Not for the first time in her life, Sawyer had pulled through for her. This time, she was determined to return the favor. “I want to get back into things. I want to work.” But she also needed a buffer. She scanned the lot till she found Jenna warming her hands over one of the fire barrels. “Jenna,” she called. “Come meet my brother.” After an introduction made painfully awkward by Sawyer becoming even less chatty than usual, Lacey suggested they go inside for some coffee. She needed a bit of warmth. Sawyer had lived alone in the house for a few years, since her parents had moved to Florida, but he hadn’t made any changes. The interior looked just as it had when they were children, all country comfort and hearty welcome, with its cozy nooks, dormer windows and a stone fireplace mantle filled with pictures. Not the biggest or most luxurious house around, but not steel beds and open toilets either. If she closed her eyes she could imagine Grammy Gallagher cooking up a Thanksgiving feast. The memory was so strong she could even smell Grammy’s molasses cookies, a sure sign Christmas was just around the corner. Needing to feel at home again, she led them into the kitchen and offered Jenna some food, which she turned down. So Lacey did what came naturally and raided the ceramic cookie jar. “What about some cookies? We’ve got chocolate chip and—” She spun to stare at her brother as he measured coffee grounds. “Oh, my God, Sawyer. Did you make molasses cookies?” He shrugged, the blush spreading across his face the only sign he’d intentionally baked her favorite cookies. “Thank you,” Lacey whispered, but all she got was another shrug. Keep trying to change the men in your life, Lace. Good plan. It’s never failed you before. Talk about criminally stupid. Her shoulders sinking, she put a handful of cookies on a plate. “You have to have one of these cookies, Jenna. They’re Grammy Gallagher’s secret recipe. Not that there’s much secret to the ingredients—sugar, sugar, and more sugar. Oh, and don’t forget the butter.” Babble, babble, and more babble. And don’t forget the awkward. Damn, but she needed some fresh air. She drew in a deep breath. “Sawyer, have you thought about offering some of these to the customers?” His brows crinkled. “Uh, no.” “We should. Y’know, a special treat just before Thanksgiving. Half of them are probably just scoping out the trees at different farms before deciding where to buy from in December. Why don’t I go sweeten them up?” She emptied the cookie jar onto another plate and tried not to look like she was fleeing the kitchen. The burble of percolating coffee was the only sound that followed her. The air outside was so fresh, so crisp, it slapped her cheeks and pulled her attention to the sun dipping below the white-capped mountains to the west of the farm. Okay, so she’d had some expectations about what coming home would be like, and so far reality hadn’t lived up to the fantasy. But when did it ever? Pasting a smile on her stinging face, she approached a man and woman warming their hands over one of the barrels. Time to start making herself useful. “Hey, there. Anyone want a molasses—” The man turned, his grin slowly turning to confusion before freezing as her soul did the same. Her breath caught painfully in her chest, and the plate tumbled from her numb fingers. Officer Austin Wilder, the man who’d sent her to prison and, as if that weren’t punishment enough, haunted her dirtiest dreams. And just like three years ago, he was wearing his forest service uniform and leveling her with a hard look full of his intent to make her pay for her crimes. Panic hit her hard. No. I can’t go back yet. I just got out. Chapter Two ‡ Austin had no doubt the woman standing a few feet away recognized him. The sudden widening of her eyes followed by the softening of her mouth into a horrified “O” triggered a vague memory, but it still took him a few heartbeats to recognize her. He’d grown up in Marietta and worked for the forest service for fifteen years, so he’d met a lot of people, issued a lot of tickets, and rescued a fair number of campers from their own stupidity. But had he terrified any of them enough to make them drop a plate at his feet? His brain failed to draw a connection between the shocked-looking brunette and anyone he knew…until her lips pressed into a long, stubborn line, the same mulish look she’d given him as she’d refused to accept any of the evidence he’d spread in front of her. Shit. Lacey Gallagher. His mouth hardened as his teeth gritted together. So the drug trafficker had gotten out. And no wonder he hadn’t recognized her. When he’d arrested her, she’d been lithe and youthful. Mid-twenties and full of easy smiles, easy tears. Prison was never kind to anyone, but it especially didn’t look like it had been kind to Lacey. She’d certainly gained weight, and not in an I spent all my time in the prison yard pumping iron sort of way. Fine lines bracketed her wide mouth, and strands of premature gray hair glittered among the dark brown ones. Her eyebrows were thick and rough, and her gaze grew harder as he stared her down. She’d lost the deer-in-the-headlights look he’d come to associate with her throughout her arrest and trial. Now that the shock of seeing him was wearing off, she looked ready to stand her ground. If her hands hadn’t trembled as she clenched them into fists, he would’ve thought she was preparing to hit him rather than hiding her fear. “When did you get home?” he asked. No sense in beating around the bush. Normally, he was an affable man, known for being the most easygoing of his family. Someone had to be, in a family full of smart-mouthed hard-asses. But Lacey had been at the heart of the biggest grow-op ever to desecrate the land he’d sworn to protect. She’d taken the cowardly route and denied involvement, even though the Whitefish police department had CCTV footage of her boarding her train with a suitcase full of pot, and she’d been holding a box full of dirty money when he’d arrested her. She didn’t deserve a big hug and a Welcome home, sunshine. “Today.” That explained a few things, at least. His office usually got word of offenders who’d been released into the local community, but with the holidays coming up the juggernaut of justice was probably slowing down. “Hi, Lacey.” His mom’s soft voice resonated with compassion as she leaned around Austin, laying a gentle hand on his forearm as if warning him to call off the dogs. Of course she would feel something for Lacey. She’d gone to high school with Lacey’s mom—and she’d been stuck in her own kind of prison for most of her adult life. “Hi, ma’am. I, uh, I was just bringing some cookies out.” Lacey gestured helplessly toward the jagged pieces of broken plate scattered around her feet. Returning her focus to Austin, she said in a tone bordering on belligerent, “That’s all I’ve done, so unless you’re planning to arrest me for crimes against crockery, you’re shit out of luck.” “Damn,” he said. “Guess I won’t meet my quota of drug traffickers today, then.” Lacey’s nostrils twitched but she stayed otherwise completely still. His mom hissed his name, and a twinge of regret fizzed through him. His mom’s censure always had that effect. Swallowing the questions he wanted to ask, he forced himself to back down. “Look, we’re here to pick out a tree. That’s all.” Her gaze flicked down his body, he assumed taking in his uniform, not admiring how he filled it out. He didn’t owe her an explan— “Austin came straight from work to pick me up,” his mom said. Damn it, Mom. He managed to keep from rolling his eyes, but he couldn’t contain a defeated sigh. Lacey’s shoulders seemed to relax incrementally, some of the defensiveness easing from her face. She cleared her throat and seemed to force words out. “In that case, feel free to let Sawyer know if you need anything. ’Scuze me.” Her legs carried her swiftly toward the barn, pausing only long enough for her to say something to a man in a Gallagher’s Christmas Tree Farm jacket, and a minute later the guy was sweeping up the broken plate. “That poor girl,” his mom murmured, and his indignation sparked into a full-fledged wildfire. “You’re kidding, right? Mom, she committed a pretty damn big crime.” His mom shrugged. “It was pot. Who hasn’t toked a doobie or two in their lives?” He raised his hand. “Me, hippie.” Her eyes bugged out. “Really? Not even in high school?” “I knew I wanted to go into law enforcement. They ask questions about stuff like that, and you know what a bad liar I am. Why are you surprised? I thought mothers knew everything their kids did.” “We say that to scare you. Truth is, most of us assume you’re experimenting with drugs and sex, and we just pray you won’t get hurt.” She shook her head in confusion. “Never? Really?” “I hope you’re not asking about sex because I’m not answering that question. But drugs, no. Never. Sorry if that makes me uncool.” “Huh.” Her gaze went all unfocused, as though she were close to solving a puzzle. She didn’t rush to reassure him that he was cool, he noticed. “What about the others?” He assumed she meant his brothers and sister. “You can’t pay me enough to get me to narc on them.” Her eyes sharpening with humor, she said, “I thought part of your job was encouraging people to narc on each other.” He snorted. “Doesn’t mean I’m going to do it. You know what they would do to me? I have to live in this family, you know.” She smiled a little but still looked troubled as she watched the barn Lacey had disappeared into. “Mom, this is more than smoking a joint.” In fact, Lacey had tested negative for everything, but he didn’t feel the need to share that. “She was transporting thousands of dollars’ worth of drugs. She was a critical part of the operation. Even her own boyfriend testified that it was her idea to use her train as a cover for smuggling weed that had been grown on public land—land you and I and everyone else in this community own.” “I understand that. Really, I do. But I know Lacey—” “No, you know the Lacey her mom told you about, the good girl who would never do something like this. But that Lacey doesn’t exist. Mrs. Gallagher wasn’t like you, assuming we all had a little of the devil in us. Just the opposite. She assumed her daughter was a saint, and she turned a blind eye to what she was really capable of.” “Don’t interrupt me, kiddo,” she said, and suddenly he was no longer a grown-ass, thirty-five-year-old man in an NFS law enforcement uniform but a ten-year-old decked out in Boy Scout badges. His mom had that talent. “I was going to say that I know Lacey was in a bad relationship with that Dave Dugger boy, and she wouldn’t be the first woman whose heart led her to make terrible mistakes.” Shit. It didn’t matter that over three decades had passed since his parents’ marriage had broken down; his mom still traveled down this road every holiday season. He and his brothers—and their sister, Camila, whenever she was back from California—did everything they could to make the holidays sweet for her. She’d been laughing and teasing him when Lacey had approached. Now sadness and memories had leeched some of the color from her face, and Austin wanted to kick the nearest Gallagher-owned tree that what should’ve been a fun day out had ended up hurting her. Lacey Gallagher had done time, and he wouldn’t question the parole board’s decision to let her out early instead of forcing her to serve her full eight-to-ten-year sentence. People went to prison, then they got out, then they usually went back in—that was the way life worked. He didn’t exactly enjoy running into people he’d arrested, but it happened. Awkward, but kind of unavoidable. As long as she didn’t make trouble on NFS land, she wasn’t his problem anymore. He assumed she would be living and working on the tree farm, since other employers wouldn’t exactly jump at the chance to hire a convicted felon straight out of prison. If she stayed busy here, there was little chance of her having time to restart her criminal activities in the forest. Slinging his arm around his mom’s shoulders, he gave her a squeeze. “Let’s find you the perfect tree, huh?” She pasted on an obviously fake smile and nodded. Damn Lacey Gallagher for blighting his mom’s happy day. * Lacey had spent three years fantasizing about what she would do after being released from prison. First on the list was eating a dessert that didn’t come wrapped in cellophane stamped with yesterday’s date under “Use by”. Getting a facial to treat her rapidly aging skin, a manicure to hide her well-bitten fingernails, and a haircut that looked like something out of this century also made the list—followed by hopping on the closest Amtrak and getting the hell out of Montana. Oddly enough, clomping through the snowy terrain of Copper Mountain National Forest with her brooding brother was nowhere on the list, particularly since they were less than two miles from the spot where she’d last tasted freedom. It was Thanksgiving morning, and she’d woken up early out of habit. Sawyer had gotten up soon after and started preparing a big turkey-day lunch—roasted turkey thighs, colcannon from Grammy Gallagher’s family recipe, grilled corn, their mom’s cranberry and orange sauce, and a store-bought pumpkin pie. But as the afternoon had stretched on with them both avoiding every topic of conversation that mattered, the house had grown thick with tension. Finally Sawyer had said, “Want to get to work?” and Lacey had leaped from the chair and tugged on her old steel-toed boots, the only item of clothing that still fit her. He’d brought her out here to the land he leased from the National Forest Service to explain the help he needed from her over the next month. She was grateful to be away from the farm, where she was equally likely to run in to judgmental busybodies or old friends who’d never contacted her once she’d gone away. This land was peaceful, remote. But it brought hidden dangers with it, too—dangers in the shape of an NFS law-enforcement officer she never wanted to see again. She shoved her hands in her pockets as they trekked through the snow-tufted trees. “So you mostly just want me to tag the trees that can be cut?” He jerked his head in what passed for a nod in Sawyer’s world. “Pretty much. And deal with the customers who come up to cut their own, but this part of the forest’s remote so the ones who do that will be pretty intrepid and able to fend for themselves. I’ll have a couple of guys up here with you to do the cutting and hauling for anything we sell down on the lot. Don’t worry, though—I’ve known Joel and Tony for years. They’re good guys. Won’t hassle you.” She fought against her instinctive eye roll. Once a big brother… “I promise not to hassle them either.” He shot her a glance, that one look managing to communicate thirty-one years of thinking he knew her better than she knew herself. Once upon a time, that was probably true. After all, he’d warned her… But no, she’d spent too long with nothing to do but recriminate herself for her stupidity. Today, she was outside, and that was all that mattered. His long strides ate up the ground and crunched through the snow. She didn’t have to struggle to keep up. She’d spent most of her career going a hundred miles an hour, and for the past three years the only time she’d felt a breeze in her face was when a fellow prisoner or a guard got right up in her grill, shouting about something or other so hard their breath chapped her cheeks. Forward motion felt good. It felt like progress. Like she had a goal and a purpose—even if that feeling was a sham. Oh, she did have a goal all right. To keep her head down and her nose clean so she could spend the next seven years on parole instead of back inside, serving out the rest of her sentence. Was that the same as having a purpose? Right now, she couldn’t give less of a shit. The only things blocking her view of the horizon were mountains—not bars and high walls topped with barbed wire. Last night, she slept in her own bed, her own room, instead of the lumpy, squeaky bottom bunk of a sixteen-bed dorm. There were walls and a door protecting her privacy when she went to the bathroom. And her tummy was full of turkey that came from a local farm and potatoes that had never seen the inside of a box. And coffee—three cups of it—made from freshly ground beans and real cream. A woman could sacrifice a hell of a lot more than purpose for such a paradise. “That lawyer of yours…she must be what? Twenty-five?” Lacey blinked at the change of mental direction. “Jenna? I don’t know. I haven’t asked her.” She cast her mind back to her earliest conversations with Jenna, who’d been visiting one of Lacey’s friends in the prison. “I know she’s been practicing for a few years, so I’d guess more like late twenties. Why? Are you worried about her lack of experience? I mean, she can’t be any worse than my crappy public defender.” Sawyer stiffened. “I offered to hire you a better lawyer.” “Yeah, and it would’ve required remortgaging the house at a time when half the country was having their homes foreclosed on.” She didn’t want to dent his pride by pointing out he would’ve struggled to repay the loan, but the implication sat heavily between them. “I would’ve made it work, Lacey. I would’ve happily made it work. Please don’t blame me now for your crappy public defender.” Her hand flew to her chest, as if she could snatch back the air that burst from her lungs. “Blame you? Who’s blaming you? I’m blaming Arnold Jones, Esquire. And if anyone else is to blame, it’s me. I made the decision to keep him.” His jaw tightened, trapping whatever response she knew he was dying to make. That was a first, at least. He never used to hold back. “So what do you know about her?” Head pounding, Lacey rubbed her temple. “About who?” “Your lawyer. Jenna Whatshername.” “Macintosh. I know she has an amazing record of defending women charged with drug offenses. I know she works her ass off. I know she believes in me. I know she’s pointed out several things she would’ve done differently than my first lawyer. And I know she’s taken on my case pro-bono because she thinks I should’ve been better defended.” “I offered—” “I know.” Annoyance stopped her dead in her tracks and she grabbed his elbow. She took several deep breaths, tipping her head back to stare at the gray sky until her heart rate finally slowed to something approaching normal. I am outside. Everything else in life is manageable. Trying to sound calmer than she felt, she said, “I know, Sawyer. Maybe I’ve never told you how much I appreciate that. If I could go back in time, maybe I would’ve made a different decision, but the fact is that I am an adult, and I was an adult when I went on trial. I had a good career, my own apartment, lots of friends, and a life I loved. But I made stupid decisions, and I was the one who had to pay the price. Me. Not you. Not Mom and Dad. Not the kids you end up having with whatever poor woman finds your special brand of brooding sexy.” His brows drew together. “What do my nonexistent kids have to do with this?” “I assume they’ll inherit the house and land one day. How could I mortgage their future legacy?” He shook his head in obvious bafflement. “As long as I live, I’ll never understand women. How can you plan that far in advance?” “I’ve had a lot of time on my hands lately. Anyway, my decisions and my mistakes are mine. Mine alone. I don’t blame you. How could I? You sat behind me every day in court. You visited me every month, sent me care packages… And now you’re helping me have a fresh start. I can’t—” Suddenly, she was smothered in flannel, her face buried against her brother’s sweaty chest and his arms hugging her. “I hated every single second you were in there. Fucking hated it. You should’ve been at home, munchkin.” She groaned, the uncharacteristic display of mushiness trying to take root among the weeds that had grown inside her, the ones that had just grown weedier after the painful awkwardness of the past twenty-four hours. The hug that would’ve been so welcome yesterday felt intrusive today. She needed distance, so she injected some levity into her voice. “I’m so glad you never called me that in front of other inmates. I would’ve been shanked for sure.” His arms dropped. “You’re a sick puppy, joking like that.” “What? I thought it was funny.” He shook his head and walked away, muttering, “Demented.” He led her around the perimeter, pointing out the trees that were ready to cut and the ones that would bring him an income next year and beyond. Some of the information was familiar, but she’d needed this refresher course. She hadn’t helped on the tree farm since she’d graduated from high school; work had kept her too busy. Having the opportunity to do it again made her feel lighter than she had in ages, as if the snow-and-spruce scented air magically dissolved years of grime. That feeling stayed with her until they finally got back to Sawyer’s truck…but it skittered away as soon as she caught sight of the green-and-white SUV parked behind Sawyer’s, a terribly familiar vehicle with the words Copper Mountain National Forest Law Enforcement emblazoned on the side. A vehicle she’d once sat in the back of, her wrists cuffed tightly behind her. The driver’s door opened and out stepped Officer Wilder, unsmiling and staring at her from behind dark sunglasses. Slamming the door shut, he crossed the parking lot toward her. Buy Three Nights Before Christmas now! If you fall in love with these three heroes, you’ll also love their sister Camila’s story—Taming the Legend. Would you like a chance to get free books, gift certificates and information about Kat’s upcoming books? Sign up for Kat’s newsletter!

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