Read an Excerpt
Brooks Smith rapped firmly on the ranch-house door, scanning the all-too-familiar property in the dusk.
His dad didn't answer right away, and Brooks thought about going around back to the veterinary clinic, but then he heard footsteps and waited, bracing himself for this conversation.
After his father opened the door, he looked Brooks over, from the beard stubble that seemed to be ever present since the flood to his mud-covered boots. Tending to large animals required trekking through fields sometimes.
"You don't usually come calling on a Tuesday night. Run into a problem you need me for?"
Barrett Smith was a barrel-chested man with gray hair and ruddy cheeks. At six-two, Brooks topped him by a couple of inches. The elder Smith had put on another ten pounds over the past year, and Brooks realized he should have been concerned about that before today.
There was challenge in his dad's tone as there had been since they'd parted ways. But as a doctor with four years of practice under his belt, Brooks didn't ask for his dad's advice on animal care or frankly anything else these days.
"Can I come in?"
Brooks entered the living room where he'd played as a child. The Navajo rugs were worn now, the floor scuffed.
"I only have a few minutes," his father warned him. "I haven't fed the horses yet."
"I'll get straight to the point, then." Brooks swiped off his Stetson and ran his hand through his hair, knowing this conversation was going to get sticky. "I ran into Charlie Hartzell at the General Store."
His father avoided his gaze. "So?"
"He told me that when he stopped by over the weekend, you weren't doing too well."
"I don't know what he's talking about," his dad muttered, not meeting Brooks's eyes.
"He said you carried a pail of oats to the barn and you were looking winded and pale. You dropped the bucket and almost passed out."
"Anybody can have an accident. After I drank a little water, I was fine."
Not so true according to Charlie, Brooks thought. His dad's longtime friend had stayed another hour to make sure Barrett wasn't going to keel over.
"You're working too hard," Brooks insisted. "If you'd let me take over the practice, you could retire, take care of the horses in the barn and help out as you want."
"Nothing has changed," Barrett said angrily. "You still show no sign of settling down."
This was an old argument, one that had started after Lynnette had broken their engagement right before Brooks had earned his degree in veterinary medicine from Colorado State. That long-ago night, his father had wanted to discuss it with him, but with Brooks's pride stinging, he'd asked his dad to drop it. Barrett hadn't. Frustrated, his father had blown his top, which wasn't unusual. What was unusual was his warning and threathe'd never retire and turn his practice over to Brooks until his son found a woman who would stick by him and build a house on the land his grandmother had left him.
"Your grandmama's land is still sitting there with no signs of a foundation," his dad went on. "She wanted you to have roots, too. That's why she left it to you. Until you get married and at least think about having kids, I can handle my own practice just fine. And you should butt out."
He could rise to the bait. He could argue with his father as he'd done before. But he didn't want his dad's blood pressure to go any higher so he stuck to being reasonable. "You can issue an ultimatum if you want, but this isn't about me. It's about you. You can't keep working the hours you've been working since the flood. You're probably not eating properly, grabbing donuts at Daisy's and potato chips at the General Store."
"Are you keeping track of what I buy where?"
"Of course not. I'm worried about you."
"Well, don't be. Worry about yourself. Worry about the life you don't have."
"I have a life, Dad. I'm living it my way."
"Yeah, well, twenty years from now you just tell me how that went. I'm going out back. You can see yourself out."
As his father turned to leave, Brooks knew this conversation had been useless. He knew he probably shouldn't even have come. He had to find a way to make his father wake up to the reality of his deteriorating health. He would one way or another.
Jasmine Cates"Jazzy" to her friends and familystood outside the Ace in the Hole, Rust Creek Falls' lone bar, staring up at the wood-burned sign. She glanced around at the almost deserted street, hoping she'd catch sight of her friend Cecilia, who was tied up at a community meeting. They were supposed to meet here.
On the north side of town, the Ace in the Hole hadn't been touched by the devastating July flood, but Jazzy didn't know if she felt comfortable walking into the place alone. It was a rough and rowdy cowboy hangout, a place single guys gathered to relax. But when they relaxed, all hell could break loose. She'd heard about occasional rumbles and bar fights here.
Feeling as if she'd scrubbed herself raw from her shower at Strickland's Boarding House, attempting to wash off the mud from a disastrous date, she passed the old-fashioned hitching post out front and stared up at the oversize playing cardan ace of heartsthat blinked in red neon over the door. After she climbed two rough-hewn wooden steps, Jazzy opened the old screen door with its rusty hinges and let it slap behind her. A country tune poured from a jukebox. Booths lined the outer walls while wooden tables with ladder-back chairs were scattered across the plank flooring around a small dance floor. Jazzy glimpsed pool tables in the far back. Old West photos as well as those from local ranches hung on the walls. A wooden bar was situated on the right side of the establishment crowded with about a dozen bar stools, and a mirrored wall reflected the rows of glass bottles.
Cowboys and ranch hands filled the tables, and a few gave her glances that said they might be interested in talking or more. Jazzy quickly glanced toward the bar. There was one bar stool open and it was next to
Wasn't that Dr. Brooks Smith? She hadn't officially met him, but in her volunteer work, helping ranch owners clean up, paint and repair, she'd caught sight of him now and then as he tended to their animals. She'd liked the way he'd handled a horse that'd been injured. He'd been respectful of the animal and downright kind.
Decision made, she crossed to the bar and settled on the stool beside him. Brooks had that sexy, scruffy look tonight. He was tall and lean and broad-shouldered. Usually he wore a smile for anyone he came in contact with, but now his expression was granitelike, and his hands were balled into fists. It didn't even look like he'd touched his beer.
As if sensing her regard, and maybe her curiosity, he turned toward her. Their gazes met and there was intensity in his brown eyes that told her he'd been thinking about something very serious. His gaze swept over her blond hair, snap-button blouse and jeans, and that intensity shifted into male appreciation.
"You might need a bodyguard tonight," he drawled. "You're the only woman in the place."
He could be her bodyguard anytime. She quickly banished that thought. Hadn't she heard somewhere that he didn't date much? Love gone wrong in his romantic history?
"I'm meeting a friend." She stuck out her hand. "You're Brooks Smith. I'm Jazzy Cates. I've seen you around the ranches."
He studied her again. "You're one of the volunteers from Thunder Canyon."
"I am," she said with a smile, glad he'd recognized her.
When he took her hand to shake it, she felt tingles up her arm. That couldn't be, could it? She'd almost been engaged to a man and hadn't felt tingles like that. Brooks's grip was strong and firm, his hand warm, and when he took it away, she felt odd.
"Everyone in town appreciates the help," he said.
"Rust Creek Falls is a tight-knit community. I heard stories about what happened after the flood. Everyone shared what was in their freezers so no one would go hungry."
Brooks nodded. "The community spirit was stoked by Collin Traub and the way he pulled everyone together."
"I heard about his proposal to Willa Christensen on Main Street but I didn't see it myself."
Brooks's eyes darkened at her mention of a proposal, and she wondered why.
"He and Willa seem happy" was all Brooks said.
So the man didn't gossip. She liked that. She liked a lot about him. Compared to the cowboy she'd been out with earlier tonight
A highenergy country tune played on the jukebox and snagged their attention for a moment. Jazzy asked, "Do you come here often?"
"Living and mostly working in Kalispell, I don't usually have the time. But I'll meet a friend here now and then."
Kalispell was about twenty miles away, the go-to town for everything anyone in Rust Creek Falls needed and couldn't find in their small town. "So you have a practice in Kalispell?"
"I work with a group practice there. We were called in to help here because my dad couldn't handle it all."
She'd heard Brooks's father had a practice in Rust Creek Falls and had assumed father and son worked together. Her curiosity was aroused. She certainly knew about family complications. "I guess you're not needed here as much now since the town's getting back on its feet."
"Not as much. But there are still animals recovering from injuries during the flood and afterward. How about you? Are you still cleaning out mud from homes that had water damage?"
"Yep, but I'm working at the elementary school, too."
"That's right, I remember now. You came with Dean Pritchett's group."
"Dean's been a friend of our family for years. He was one of the first to volunteer to help."
"How long can you be away from Thunder Canyon?"
"I'm not sure." Because Brooks was a stranger, she found herself saying what she couldn't to those closest to her. "My job was static. I need a business degree to get a promotion and I've been saving for that. I came here to help, but I also came to escape my family. And.I needed a change."
"I can understand that," Brooks said with a nod. "But surely they miss you back home, and a woman like you"
"A woman like me?"
"I'd think you'd have someone special back there."
She thought about Griff Wellington and the proposal he'd wanted to make and the proposal she'd avoided by breaking off their relationship. Her family had tried to convince her she should marry him, but something inside her had told her she'd known better. Griff had been hurt and she hated that. But she couldn't tie them both to a relationship she'd known wasn't right.
Maybe it was Brooks's easy way; maybe it was the interest in his eyes; maybe it was the way he listened, but she admitted, "No one special. In fact, I had a date tonight before I ended up here."
"Something about that doesn't sound right. If you had a date, why isn't he here with you?"
"He's a calf roper."
Brooks leaned a little closer to hear her above the music. His shoulder brushed hers and she felt heat other places besides there. "What does that have to do with your date?"
"That was the date."
Brooks pushed his Stetson higher on his head with his forefinger. "What?"
"Calf-roping. He thought it would be fun if he showed me how he did it. That would have been fine, but then he wanted me to do it. Yes, I ride. Yes, I love horses. But I'd never calf-roped before and so I tried it.
There was mud all over the place and I slipped and fell and I was covered with mud from head to toe."
Brooks was laughing by then, a deep, hearty laugh that seemed to echo through her. She liked the fact she could make him laugh. Genially, she bumped his arm. "It wasn't so funny when it was happening."
He gave her a crooked smile that said he was a little bit sorry he laughed, but not much. "Whatever gave him the impression you'd like to try that out?"
"I have no clue, except I did tell him I like horses. I did try to be interested in what he did, and I asked him questions about it."
"This was a first date?" Brooks guessed.
"It was the last date," Jazzy responded.
"Not the last date ever!"
She sighed. "Probably not."
Was he thinking of asking her out? Or were they just flirting? With that twinkle in his eyes, she imagined he could flirt with the best of them if he really wanted to.
"So you came here to meet a friend and hash out everything that's happened," he concluded.
"My gosh, a guy who understands women!"
He laughed again. "No, not so well."
She wondered what that meant. "When I'm at home, sometimes I talk it all out with my sisters."
"How many do you have?"
"I have four sisters, a brother and parents who think they know what's best for me."
"You're lucky," Brooks said.
"Yep. I'm the only one. And I lost my mom a long time ago."
He shrugged. "Water under the bridge." But something in his tone said that it wasn't, so she asked, "Are you close to your dad?"
"He's the reason I stopped in here tonight."
"To meet him?"
"Nope." He hesitated, then added, "We had another argument."
Brooks paused again before saying, "My dad's not taking care of himself, and I can't give him what he wants most."
In her family, Jazzy usually said what she thought, and most of the time, no one heard her. But now she asked, "And what's that?"
"He wants me to marry, and I'll never do that."
Whoa! She wanted to ask that all-important questionwhy?but they'd just officially met and she knew better than to probe too much. She hated when her family did that.
Her questions must have led Brooks to think he could ask some of his own because he leaned toward her again. This time his face was very close to hers as he inquired, "So what was the job you left?"
After a heavy sigh, she admitted, "I was a glorified secretary."
"A secretary," he murmured, studying her. "How long are you staying in Rust Creek Falls?"
"I've already been in town for a while, so I guess I'll have to go back soon. I work for Thunder Canyon Resort. I'm in the pool of assistants who handle everything to do about skiing. I had a lot of vacation time built up but that's gone now. I don't want to use all my savings because I want to earn my degree. Someday I'm going to own a ranch and run a non-profit organization to rescue horses."
Brooks leaned away again and really assessed her as if he was trying to read every thought in her head, as if he was trying to decide if what she'd told him was really true. Of course it was true. A rescue ranch had been a burning goal for a while.
"How did you get involved in rescuing horses?"
"I help out a friend who does it."
Finally, Brooks took a few long swigs of his beer and then set down his glass. He looked at it and then grimaced. "I didn't even offer to buy you a drink. What would you like?"
"A beer would be fine."
Brooks waved down the bartender and soon Jazzy was rolling her finger around the foam on the rim of her glass. This felt like a date, though it wasn't. This felt nice.
The music on the jukebox had stopped for the moment, and she listened to the chatter of voices, the clink of glasses and bang of a dish as a waitress set a burger in front of a cowboy.
Finally, as if Brooks had come to some conclusion, he swiveled on his stool and faced her. "If you had a job in Rust Creek Falls, would you stay longer?"