Read an Excerpt
West Falls, Texas
Holly Lynch quickly made her way to the mailbox, parking her wheelchair next to it so she could scoop the mail out and place it in her lap. Once she'd dumped the mail onto her skirt, she riffled through it, a smile lighting up her face as she saw the familiar handwriting. She ripped the envelope open with her finger, pulling the crisp stationery out and lifting it to her nose to inhale the aroma. She closed her eyes and breathed in the woodsy, spicy scent. She imagined Dylan Hart smelled just like this piece of stationery, as clean and fresh as a pine tree. A photo fell out of the letter, landing on her lap, faceup. She stared down at Dylanher gorgeous, green-eyed, smiling soldierher heart doing flip-flops at the sight of him. He was dressed in his uniform and grinning into the camera, showcasing his impressive dimples and unforgettable face.
She opened the letter, noticing it was dated almost three weeks ago. This was how long it took to get a letter to and from Afghanistan. She let out a deep sigh. Three long weeks! A lifetime, as far as she was concerned. Her hands trembled as she began reading the letter.
Dear Holly, I hope this letter finds you well. On this end, things couldn't be better.
My tour of duty came to an end a few weeks ago. I'm pleased to report that I've received an honorable discharge. Finally, at long last, I'm coming home for good. I arrive stateside on October 1. I'm spending some time with my mom and her new husband, Roy. She's been taking really good care of Leo for me while I've been in Afghanistan. Here's the really good part. I'm planning to come to West Falls on October 15. Sorry for not telling you sooner, but I wanted it to be a surprise.
I hope this is welcome news to you, Holly. We've been talking about our first meeting for so long now. I can hardly believe it's happening. By the time this letter reaches you, I'll almost be there, at your side.
There's so much more I want to say, words that can be said only face-to-face.
Until then, be safe.
Fondly, Dylan The letter slipped from Holly's fingers, floating down to the ground like a leaf falling from a tree. Its graceful descent belied the turmoil raging inside her. Dylan Hart, the pen pal she'd been corresponding with for a little over a year while he was stationed in Afghanistan, was coming to West Falls, all the way from Oklahoma to see her. And according to his letter, he'd be arriving sometime today. With mail scattered all over her lap, Holly adroitly maneuvered her wheelchair up the ramp leading to the front porch. She barreled her way inside the house and double locked the front door behind her. Once she was safely inside, she concentrated on breathing normally. She was taking in huge gulps of air, but she still felt as if she couldn't breathe. Her palms were sweaty, and beads of moisture had broken out on her forehead. The sound of her labored breathing thundered in her ears.
Dear Lord, help me. I don't know what to do. Please don't let Dylan come here!
Bingo, her chocolate Lab, padded his way to her side. Sensing her frantic mood, he cocked his head to the side, then began to gently lick her hand. Reaching out, she patted his head, looking deeply into his russet-colored eyes.
"Bingo, what am I going to do?" she asked as panic skittered through her.
She wanted to hide! She wanted to get in her van and drive as fast and far from Horseshoe Bend Ranch as possible. There was no way in the world she could face Dylan. Because as much as she adored him, as much as she ached to see those brilliant green eyes in person, she didn't have the courage to deal with this situation she'd created. She couldn't face the secret she'd kept from him. Somehow, in all the letters they'd exchanged, she'd failed to tell him the single most important fact about herself.
She was a paraplegic. She'd lost the use of her legs in an accident, and she'd never walk again. Not in this lifetime. Brave, handsome Dylan, who'd proudly served his country in Afghanistan, had no clue that the woman he'd been writing tothe woman he was traveling all this way to seewas not the woman he believed her to be.
Dylan Hart let out a low whistle as he pulled up in front of the Horseshoe Bend Ranch. In all his life he'd never seen anything finer. It made the Bar M back home seem like chopped liver. The massive entrance dwarfed him, making him feel insignificant in the scheme of things. As he drove past the gates, all he could see stretched out before him was lush green grassacres upon acres of the purest horse land in the entire state.
Although Holly had told him her family owned a ranch and it had been in her family for generations, he hadn't been expecting anything this impressive. For a man who'd been just getting by for most of his life, it left him a little unsettled. Here he was, fresh from a combat zone, with nothing to offer Holly but his sincerity and the special friendship they'd both nurtured. He swallowed past the huge lump in his throat, hoping it was enough to land him the woman of his dreams.
He knew he was getting ahead of himself, but he couldn't help it. He had such a good feeling about Hollyshe aroused emotions in him that he hadn't felt in a long time. It wasn't lovehe wasn't that deep inbut something in his gut told him she could be the one.
While he'd been over in Afghanistan, there had been endless amounts of time to think about his future. When the bottom fell out of his world, everything had become crystal clear. A place to call home, a good woman by his side and a strong sense of community. More than anything else in the world, that was what he wanted.
And here he was in West Falls, Texas, taking a huge leap of faith. It wasn't like him, not even remotely, but here he stood, ready to embrace his future. Even though he didn't have a job lined up and this could all blow up in his face, he was willing to reach for the brass ring. He was prepared to put his painful past firmly in his rearview mirror. He was giving it his best shot.
Holly could be the one to make him forget about roadside bombs and friends who would never make it back home. She could be the one to make him believe that there were true, honest women out there in the world. And today he would be seeing her for the first time, since he didn't own a single picture of her. How he wanted to see those baby-blue eyes she'd described in person! He'd dreamed about meeting Holly for months now. Although excitement was building inside him, there was also a slight feeling of doubt. Was he doing the right thing?
Lord, please let this rash decision to come all the way to West Falls be right! Let Holly be the woman You've picked for me to fall in love with, something lasting and real. I'm so tired of doing this alone. I'm so afraid of ending up by myself.
After driving for about a half mile, he reached a fork in the road. He saw a grand home looming in the distance. As someone who loved architecture, he appreciated its beauty. It was the type of house that made a person sit up and take notice. It was an impressive two-story white structure with a long wraparound porch and shiny black shutters. It looked like the type of house he would have loved to have grown up in. This place, Dylan thought with amazement, was a far cry from the small trailer where he'd spent the first eighteen years of his life.
He parked his truck and got out, then made his way to the porch steps in a few easy strides. To the left of the stairs was a wheelchair-accessible ramp leading to the front porch. The sight of the bright red door had him grinning. It made the grand house look warm and invitingthe same way Holly had seemed in all her letters. Blue and red rocking chairs sat facing each other, just waiting, he imagined, for someone to plop down and sit for a spell.
He looked down at himself, hoping his favorite blue shirt and well-worn jeans made him look presentable. With a hint of impatience, he rang the doorbell, itching to meet his pen pal after all these days, weeks and months. Seconds later he rang it again, then knocked on the door for good measure. When no one answered after a few tense minutes, he rapped again on the door, this time with a little more force.
He heard somethingor someoneinside the house. A rattling noise sounded by the door, and he heard a whirring sound. Every instinct he possessed told him that someone was in there. "Afternoon. I'm looking for Holly Lynch," he called out.
The heavy click of a lock being turned echoed in the stillness of the fall afternoon. With a slow creak, the door opened. A woman was there, sitting in a wheelchair, her blue eyes as wide as saucers. She had dirty-blond hair and a pretty face that gave her a girl-next-door look. A smattering of freckles crisscrossed her nose. Even though the blue eyes held a look of fear, they were beautiful. They reminded him of his mama's favorite flowerscornflowers. A necklace with a diamond pendant hung around her neck. She was wearing a T-shirt that read I Do My Own Stunts. The shirt made him want to laugh out loud at her spunk and sense of humor.
The young lady was just sitting there, staring at him without saying a single word. Had he scared her that badly with his knocking and ringing the bell? She was looking at him as if he were the Big Bad Wolf ready to pounce on Little Red Riding Hood.
"Sorry to bother you, miss, but I'm looking for Holly." He extended a hand and grinned at her, wanting to take away some of her nervousness. "I'm Dylan Hart. A friend of Holly's."
Tentatively, she reached out and shook his hand, giving him a slight smile. The blue eyes still looked wary, and the half smile never quite made its way to her eyes. She folded her arms across her chest as if she was guarding herself against him. He wasn't sure if he was imagining things, but her posture looked downright uninviting.
"And you are?" he asked, leading her to introduce herself.
"C-Cassidy. I'm Cassidy Blake," she answered in a quiet voice.
Cassidy! Holly had written to him about her best friend, Cassidy, who was engaged to Holly's brother, Tate. Holly had never once mentioned that Cassidy was in a wheelchair. Or had she? No, he wouldn't have forgotten something like that. Maybe Holly was so used to Cassidy's condition that she hadn't thought to mention it. It was a little bit shocking to see such a young woman confined to a wheelchair. He wondered what had happened to put her there.
"I just got into town a little while ago. Is Holly here?" He didn't want to be rude, but cutting to the chase was his style. He'd come all this way for Holly. Just one look in her eyes, and he knew all would feel right in his world.
Cassidy seemed to think for a moment before she answered him. "Um, no, she's not. She went into town to run a few errands. I don't think she was expecting you until later. She just received your letter today."
Dylan glanced at his watch. It was two o'clock. Something told him Cassidy wouldn't want him hanging around the house, waiting for Holly's return. She had a strange look on her facesomewhere between anxiety and horror.
"I guess I'll head back into town and unpack my things to kill some time," he said, wanting to fill the silence with a little conversation. He couldn't shake the sense that she was nervous about his being here. Hopefully she wasn't worried about her safety. As far as he knew, he looked fairly trustworthy, although anyone could be a stalker nowadays.
Her mouth swung open. "You're staying in town?"
"Yeah," he said with a smile. "I rented a small cottage right near Main Street. My landlord is Doc Sampson. He runs a restaurant in town."
"Yes, the Falls Diner. He's a wonderful man." She seemed to gulp. "Are you staying on awhile in West Falls?"
He was feeling somewhat giddy about his impulsive decision. Although he'd wanted Holly to be the first one to hear about his plans, he couldn't resist the impulse to share the news with her closest friend.
"I made plans to stay in West Falls indefinitely. I signed a four-month lease with Doc, and I'm hoping to find some ranch work in the area. I've had a lot of experience breaking in wild horses and doctoring cattle back in Oklahoma."
Her eyes widened. "That can be dangerous."
"I served time in Afghanistan. There's nothing more life threatening than a combat zone."
He couldn't help but smile at her wide-eyed concern. Working with wild horses was something he'd been doing since his teen years, ever since his father had hired him on as a ranch hand at the Bar M Ranch. Every year during summer vacation he'd lived and worked at the Bar M, devoting himself to the business of cattle ranching. The whole reason he'd signed on at first was to repair his fractured relationship with his father. It had hurt his mother terribly to see him working side by side with the man who never publicly claimed him. Crumbs, she'd called it. "He's giving you nothing but crumbs," she'd said with tears misting in her eyes. "You deserve so much better." In the end, he'd learned the hard way that some fences could never be mended. It was the best lesson his father had ever taught him.
Yes indeed, working with wild horses could be dicey, but ranching had been in his blood for generations, even though for many years he'd resisted its strong pull. For years he'd asked himself why it appealed to him, and despite his many attempts to figure it all out, all he knew was that it called to him like an irresistible force. It wasn't a choice, he'd come to realize. It was his calling. And someday, he hoped to own his own spread, a little stretch of land he could call his own.
Dragging himself out of his thoughts, Dylan nodded, acknowledging her question. "Yeah, it can be dangerous. When horses are out of control, it can be an unstable situation. That's why training is so important."
She leaned forward in her chair. "And you've had lots of training, right?" She furrowed her brow, concern etched on her face.
He smiled, tickled by her earnestness. "Yeah, lots and lots. But I'm also very careful, and I respect the horses."
It was funny. She seemed to heave a huge sigh of relief. Cassidy was a sweetheart, that was for sure. Her caring so much about a perfect stranger showed she was a loving and giving woman. Again, he found himself wondering what had happened to devastate this young woman's life.
He quickly glanced at his watch. "Well, I should be heading back into town, since it looks like she won't be here for a while. It was nice meeting you, Cassidy."
She mumbled a goodbye. He heard the door close behind him and the turn of the lock as soon as he'd stepped out onto the porch. He stopped in his tracks as a feeling of unease came over him. He didn't know if he was being paranoid, but her actions had been a little strange. Although she seemed to radiate a good vibe, she'd been jumpy and nervous the entire time, even locking the door upon his departure. As he made his way to his car, he looked across the huge expanse of land that stretched out before him for miles and miles. Horseshoe Bend Ranch. He couldn't imagine a more tranquil place to live. It didn't seem the type of place where one had to bolt the door against intruders. What did he know about it anyway? Joy pulsed inside him as the realization hit him full force. He and Holly were now in the same zip code, and it wouldn't be much longer until they could see each other.