The new novel from the bestselling author of Wrangler’s Challenge.
No one can outrun the past forever . . .
As a combat photographer in Afghanistan, Tara Dalton saw things she won’t ever forget, as much as she would like to. And after returning Stateside, she can’t fight her way past the PTSD that’s haunted her ever since. Desperate to make a change, she joins her old friend Shay at the Bar C Ranch, where a group of ex-military vets are putting their lives back together one step at a time—including one strong, gentle bear of a man who makes her feel safer than she has in years.
Harper Sutton fell farther than he ever imagined after his tour of duty as a medic was up, and he’s not proud of it. But at the Bar C, he’s doing work that means something, and he’s training to be a professional paramedic. That’s enough to concentrate on, until Tara comes to share his place at the ranch. The shadows in her eyes are darker than simply memories of war, and every moment he spends with her opens up parts of himself he’d thought long dead. But as Tara’s troubled past threatens the present, it will take trust in each other to fight for a future together…
About the Author
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Lindsay McKenna is the pseudonym of award-winning author Eileen Nauman. With more than 185 titles to her credit and approximately 23 million books sold in 33 countries worldwide, Lindsay is one of the most distinguished authors in the women's fiction genre. She is the recipient of many awards, including six RT Book Reviews awards (including best military romance author) and an RT Book Reviews Career Achievement Award. In 1999, foreseeing the emergence of ebooks, she became the first bestselling women's fiction author to exclusively release a new title digitally. In recognition of her status as one of the originators of the military adventure/romance genre, Lindsay is affectionately known as “The Top Gun of Women's Military Fiction.” Lindsay comes by her military knowledge and interest honestly—by continuing a family tradition of serving in the U.S. Navy. Her father, who served on a destroyer in the Pacific theater during World War II, instilled a strong sense of patriotism and duty in his daughter. Visit Lindsay at www.lindsaymckenna.com.
Read an Excerpt
Tara Dalton wiped her hands down the sides of her jeans before pushing the doors open to Charlie Becker's Hay and Feed. She stomped her feet on a well- used bristly mat in front of the doors to knock off the slush from the last snowstorm. The wind was sharp, the temperature below freezing, the sky turgid with spots of blue here and there. Her blond hair lifted from her shoulders, flying around her face. Making a frustrated sound, she pulled the hair away with her gloved hands.
Would Charlie have a job for her? A position where she could get paid for something she loved to do and kept her in Wind River, her hometown in Wyoming? Her heart felt like it was contracting in her chest, anxiety threading through her as she entered the establishment. She saw Charlie sitting behind the long L-shaped register counter, slowly counting his receipts for the end of the day. He closed at five p.m. Tara didn't want to be seen by many people from Wind River going into the store. Everyone knew her. And she didn't want what she had to ask Charlie to be heard by anyone else.
The cold wind pushed her into the warm, empty feed store.
"Oh, hi, Tara," Charlie greeted, smiling. "I heard through the grapevine that you'd come home. How are you doing?"
Forcing a weak smile, Tara said, "Hi, Charlie. Yes, I got home a week ago." She loved the smell of fresh, new leather, row upon row of saddles sitting in one part of the large cowboy farming and ranching store. The wooden floor squeaked and creaked beneath her hiking boots as she moved toward Charlie. The red-brick building was a hundred years old and had been owned by generations of Beckers.
Charlie was tall, almost six foot, and skinny as the proverbial rail with thick, silver hair. His face was lined with sixty-five years of living, and he had always been a kind person to everyone he met. He was one of the fixtures of this small town. Tara had always loved coming here with her father to get hay and grain for her horse when she was in her teens. That was a while ago and happy times for the most part. Charlie always had colorful candy suckers in a bowl beneath the counter near the cash register. Every kid from four to ninety, when they left, was offered one. Plus, Pixie, his wife, a baker of great repute, was always dropping something off at the rear of the store on the coffee table there. Lots of people wandered in to have a cupcake or a cookie.
"Finished with the Marine Corps and done being a combat camerawoman?" he teased, setting aside his stack of receipts and giving her an intense, scrutinizing look.
"Yes, I'm done. I didn't re-up," she admitted.
"Have a seat. Coffee? I'd like to catch up with you, Tara. Usually, when your dad comes in here, he'll tell me you're in Afghanistan, and because you worked in black ops, he didn't have much he could share."
Tara took one of the two wooden stools that sat in front of the counter toward her and sat down. "I'd love some coffee, Charlie. Thanks." She pulled her gloves off and removed her bright blue knit cap from her head. Quickly, she smoothed the flyaway strands of hair with her fingers and opened her blue nylon down jacket. "I need some help," she admitted, watching him pour coffee from a nearby coffee station.
"Figured as much," and he handed her a cup. "Cream? Sugar?"
"No, black. Thanks." Taking a sip, Tara watched him sit down.
"So? How can I help you?"
"Well," Tara said in a low tone, "I need a job, Charlie."
His gray brows rose. "But I thought you'd work at your parents' hardware store in town?"
Mouth flexing, Tara avoided his concerned gaze. "No ... That's not going to happen." She saw the sudden sadness come to his eyes. "I mean ... I've got PTSD from my years in combat, Charlie. When I came home, all I did was keep my mom and dad up at night, waking them with my flashbacks and nightmares. They want to help me, but right now? I need to try to get my act together alone."
"But you're still seeing them? Keeping in touch?"
"Oh, for sure, Charlie. We love one another. There are no issues between us. They know I'm looking for another job. Something, I hope, that will get me outside, give me a lot of physical work. I — I have a lot of anxiety. I'm super restless and the only thing that helps tone it down is exercise and staying active. Then, I feel better." She gave him a pleading look. "I don't want this getting around to anyone here in Wind River."
He reached forward, patting her hand near her cup. "I'm not the town gossip, Tara. Our conversations are strictly between us. So? You're looking for an outdoor kind of job?"
"Well," she said, "I was hoping you would have an opening?" and she held her breath, praying Charlie did need help.
"No, I'm sorry. I have two men I employ and they've been here for years, Tara. And I don't need another one." He brightened. "But I may have a lead on a ranch that's looking for a wrangler. And I know you grew up with horses at your ranch. Even though your dad started out as an attorney here in the county and then became a judge, your family always had a small ranch to run. You're used to mending fences, changing out bad posts, riding and doing all the things a wrangler does."
Nodding, Tara tried not to look devastated by the news. Her heart had been set on working with Charlie. "That's all true. My dad has two wranglers who run the ranch while he works as a judge."
"Couldn't you stay at their ranch and work?"
Shaking her head, she said, "Dad's wranglers have been there since I left for the Marine Corps at eighteen. He can't fire one of them and replace him with me. That wouldn't be right. Everyone needs a job. And both those wranglers have families and mouths to feed. No, I wouldn't do that to them."
Giving her a twinkling look, Charlie said, "Your parents raised you to be a good person, Tara. There's hope here. You know Shaylene Crawford? You two grew up in Wind River and went through school together, right?"
"Sure, I know Shay. Why?"
"Well, you've been gone a long time and maybe your parents haven't filled you in yet on all the goings on in Wind River. Shay's dad, Ray, suffered a stroke at forty-five. Shay had to get a hardship discharge from the Marine Corps and come home and take over the reins of the Bar C. Ray, as I'm sure you remember, is an alcoholic. That, in part, caused his stroke at such a young age. It left him incapacitated and in a nursing home afterward. Shay had to step up and become the ranch owner. She had the right to do so because her mother's side of the family has always owned the Bar C and her mom left it to her, not her dad. So now? Shay is the rightful owner of her family's ranch."
"Oh, wow," Tara said, stunned. "I didn't know any of this!"
"Yes," Charlie said, gravely. "Shay's been home for nearly two years and she's taken a broken-down ranch and is slowly pushing it from the red to the black column, financially speaking. It was hemorrhaging money while you were gone. Due to his alcoholism, Ray lost all his grass pasture leases, which gave him a lot of working capital. Shay walked into a disaster and was two months away from foreclosure with Marston, the local banker, when she took over for her father." Disgust filled Charlie's voice. "Marston was waiting for the Bar C to fail. He had a multimillion-dollar condo deal with a New York Realtor who was gonna turn the ranch into nothing but condo rentals for tourists."
"Oh, no," Tara whispered, her eyes widening. "That's horrible!"
"Really. We like our little, tight community. No one wants to see condos built and Realtors running around. But we're a valley that is sliding into economic oblivion, too. So, from Marston's perspective, condos would bring fresh money into our valley, which we desperately need."
"I know everyone drives through here to get to the Grand Teton National Park near Jackson Hole," Tara grumbled. "Or drives fifty miles farther north to reach Yellowstone National Park."
"Well, Maud and Steve Whitcomb, who own the largest ranch in the valley, are working to turn our economy around here in Lincoln County. They've got a lot of new projects under way to invite the tourists driving through to stay and play with us on their way to the Tetons or Yellowstone."
"That's good to hear, because we need jobs."
"Yep, and I'd like to make a call to Shay on your behalf. She's married now, to an hombre who's a retired Marine Corps captain by the name of Reese Lockhart. Stand-up man. Together, they're working hard to bring the Bar C back to life and out of mortgage jeopardy, but it's in a fragile state. Shay, when she took over the Bar C, wanted to hire military vets like herself. She saw firsthand how vets with PTSD and wounds, either seen or unseen, need a hand up. All her wranglers, some men, some women, are vets. And they're all doing well."
"That's wonderful," Tara said softly. "I lost touch with Shay when we went into the Corps. It's nice to hear she's married and happy."
"Well, her father is a huge burr under everyone's saddle over at the Bar C. He's trying right now to get well enough to take her to court to get the ranch back." Charlie frowned. "It's a real bad scene and something that's ongoing. They just put out a restraining order on Ray to stop him from ever setting foot back on the Bar C again."
Tara knew a lot about the law because of her father. "That's pretty serious, a restraining order."
"Yes," Charlie sighed, "it is. Terrible ongoing stress for Shay, especially. That's her father. But that aside? I know they're looking for another military vet to fill an opening they have at the Bar C. Might you be interested in working over there?"
"Sure," she said quickly, hope suddenly filling her. "What do I need to do?"
"Well, Shay and Reese are coming into town tomorrow at noon to pick up a big order of grain for their horses." He picked up his cell phone. "How about I call and tell them you're back and looking for work? Maybe have lunch with them at Kassie's Café in town? It would be a good way for you to catch up with Shay, talk with her and see if you're a fit for her ranch. Does that sound good?"
Did it ever! Tara tried to tamp down her wild hope that this was the perfect job for her. "It sure does, Charlie."
"Just give me your phone number, okay? I'll call Shay right after I get done putting my receipts in my accounting book here. I'll let you know if it's a go or not. You're staying with your parents at their ranch? Yes?"
"Yes," she said, barely able to breathe. "That would be wonderful, Charlie. Thanks so much," and she reached out, gripping his long, work-worn hand, squeezing it warmly. "I appreciate your help."
Giving her a wink, he said, "the people of our valley are tighter than thieves and we always try to support one another where we can. I'll give you a call in about an hour. I'm pretty sure Shay will be more than open to having you apply for that wrangler job at the Bar C, so keep up your hopes."
* * *
Tara hugged Shay hello when they met just inside the door of Kassie's Café. The place was filling up fast with lunch patrons.
"It's so good to see you again!" Shay said, parting and grinning happily. "I'd just heard from Garret, who works for us, that you were back in town. I've been meaning to call you, but I didn't have your cell number." She gave her a happy look, releasing her hands. "And stupid me? I should have thought and called your mom and dad at their ranch. I knew you'd be there."
Tara smiled and gestured to a table in the back, near the kitchen. "Don't worry, you are just a little busy out at the Bar C from what Charlie said. Come on, let's sit down in a quieter corner."
Shay pulled off her bright red wool jacket, tucking it over her arm. Everyone knew everyone else. Kassie's was the town's center where everyone congregated. Shay said hello to many of the patrons as she passed near their tables, smiling.
Tara tried to appear relaxed, but she was anything but. Sitting with her back to the wall, she pulled out the other chair that was nearest the wall. She assumed Shay had probably seen combat, too; neither of them would be comfortable with their backs toward doors or windows. Shay gave her a grateful look.
"We're the same when it comes to wanting to see everything around us," Shay said, gesturing toward the plate-glass window. She sat down after hanging her jacket over the back of her chair.
Placing her jacket on her chair back, Tara said, "Are we that obvious?" and she laughed a little as she sat down.
A waitress came over, offering glasses of water and the menu. Tara thanked her.
Shay gripped her hand. "It's so good to see you again, Tara! We lost touch with each other. I gave a yelp of happiness when Garret told me you'd come home. He's ex-black ops, so he's always got his ear to the ground when he's in town. I couldn't believe it! You were in for twenty in the Corps. What happened?"
"Let's just say, because I was black ops, too, that I couldn't take it anymore." Tara wasn't going to lie to Shay because if she got the job, she wanted to earn it fair and square. Setting the menu down, she said, "Where's your husband? Charlie said you were happily married."
"Oh, I am! Reese is just wonderful! He's over at Charlie's, helping to load our truck with about fifteen hundred pounds of grain sacks. He and Harper, one of our wranglers, will then drive it back to our ranch."
"But I thought he'd be here for lunch," Tara said. Or did Shay make decisions such as hiring? She saw the gleam in Shay's eyes.
"I packed him and Harper a lunch this morning. They'll have beef sandwiches and chips on the way home. No worries."
"I was hoping to meet him."
Shay pulled out her cell phone and showed off a photo of Reese to her. "He's a real hero and I know you'll like him, too."
"What a good-looking guy," Tara said sincerely, handing her back the cell phone. "Remember when we were in the fifth grade? We'd go ride horses together at one of our ranches? And we'd wonder what kind of boy we'd fall in love with?"
"Oh, that! Gosh, yes, I remember those fun times. But we were so young, so starry-eyed, and we didn't really know anything of the world. I remember I wanted a Sir Galahad kind of boy and you wanted a King Arthur."
Giggling, Tara nodded. "We were way too young and knew nothing!"
The waitress came over, they ordered and she poured coffee into thick white ceramic mugs. Picking up the menus, she hurriedly left. The place was packed with lunchtime patrons.
"You said you had PTSD?" Shay asked quietly.
"Yes. When I became a combat camerawoman in that MOS for the Corps, the captain of my unit asked if I wanted to work with special ops. I jumped at it because the Corps is still trying to figure out if women can handle combat or not."
Snorting, Shay said, "Yeah, I know. They are so Neanderthal. Women handle it as well as any male Marine does. No more, no less."
"Yes, that's true. But I couldn't re-up after going black ops. I'd had enough, emotionally speaking."
"I can't even begin to imagine what you saw through your lens," Shay said, giving her an understanding look. "But let's talk about something good."
"I'm more than ready for that."
"Great, because when Charlie called me, I was at my wit's end. I'd lain awake half the night, anxious and needing another wrangler. Reese told me not to worry, that the right person would show up." Her eyes sparkled with humor. "And then Charlie calls to tell us about you."
Relief trickled through Tara. She gripped the coffee mug a little less frantically between her hands. "He said he thought you needed another wrangler."
"Yes. And we have two women vet wranglers we've already hired, Kira and Dair. They're doing a great job. They're just as good as any of the male vets. Let me tell you what we need, Tara, and then you can decide if it's a fit or not."
"Sure," she murmured.
"We need a full-time wrangler. But our vets have to have an outside source of income. For example, Kira is an Arabic translator and earns money doing translations between English and Arabic. Garret is a heavy equipment operator. Harper is presently going to college to become a paramedic and he takes care of our horse barn. We rent horses and stable other people's horses as well as selling to the public. He's especially good with our broodmares. Reese, when he first came here, had a CPA and he became the ranch's accountant. He also took on jobs as an accountant for several businesses here in Wind River. Noah was training horses before he went into the Army. Now, he has a huge training program here, and Dair Wilson helps him by being his assistant trainer. Everyone contributes through their other skill sets. And you put twenty percent of those earnings into the ranch kitty because we don't charge you rent to stay at one of our homes on the property. We pay the utilities, you don't. All you supply is food to eat."
Excerpted from "Lone Rider"
Copyright © 2018 Nauman Living Trust.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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