The rugged and wild Taggart brothers know how to tame a restless beast, but a restless heart is a different matter...
When tragedy struck, Jace Taggart stepped in to run the family business and care for his brothers, sacrificing his own happiness to ensure their well-being. But after the beautiful Bronte Cupacek moves to town, Jace realizes he can’t ignore the hunger inside him much longer.
However, the last thing Bronte needs is another man in her life. After the end of a painful marriage, she just wants to focus on her daughters. They need her now more than ever. Yet no matter how hard Bronte tries to stand on her own two feet, it’s hard to resist the handsome cowboy who keeps coming to her aid.
Soon secrets from the past threaten everything dear to them. Only through embracing their undeniable connection can Jace and Bronte build a future together that no one can tear apart...
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Berkley Sensation Titles by Lisa Bingham
Special Excerpt from Maverick
Bronte Cupacek tightened her fingers around the steering wheel and swore to heaven that when the government of the United States outlawed cruel and unusual punishment, there should have been special provisions made for mothers locked in minivans for the duration of a cross-country trip. Especially if said minivan contained two adolescent siblings who’d been at each other’s throats twenty minutes into the journey.
What had she been thinking?
But then, she hadn’t been thinking at all, had she? On that first, chilly April morning, she’d been so consumed with guilt, panic—and yes, a healthy dose of fear—that she hadn’t bothered to consider the ramifications of her actions. With the haste of a thief leaving the scene of a crime, Bronte had awakened her two daughters at the crack of dawn, helped them cram their belongings into all the suitcases they possessed, and then stuffed everything into the “Mom Mobile.” Less than forty minutes after their frantic preparations had begun, she maneuvered away from the brownstone she’d shared with her husband for sixteen years, and began the long drive west.
Bronte hadn’t even looked back as Boston was swallowed up in her rearview mirror. She drove in a daze, the black highway an endless ebony ribbon stitched down the middle with yellow thread. For the sake of her girls, she pretended that she’d been planning this spontaneous adventure for months. They visited Gettysburg, Mt. Rushmore, and highway markers commemorating countless historical sites—all much to Kari’s dismay. At fifteen-going-on-thirty, she considered history of any kind “lame” and Bronte’s choices in entertainment “lamer.” Lily was less inclined to complain, which worried Bronte even more. With each tick of the odometer, she retreated into mute, self-imposed exile—to the point where Bronte would have suffered any personal indignity for just a hint of a smile.
By the time they’d reached the Great Divide, Bronte had given up telling her girls they were “on vacation.” Clearly, she’d been no better at hiding the need to flee than she’d been at disguising the bruise on her cheekbone. Day by day, it faded from an alarming shade of plum to the sickly yellow of an overripe banana. She’d tried to conceal the injury with layers of foundation, but at bedtime when she rubbed the makeup away, she would catch her daughters surreptitiously studying the telltale mark. But they didn’t ask what had happened. Somehow, they must have known that to acknowledge something was wrong would pry the lid off Bronte’s tenuous emotional control.
She supposed it was that need—that obsession—to finally put this journey behind her that caused her to pull off the road and stare blankly at the sign proclaiming:
BLISS, UTAH—POPULATION 9672
(Sign donated by Bryson Willis—Eagle Scout Project 2014)
The world still had Boy Scouts?
“Why are you stopping?” Kari demanded. She glowered at Bronte from the passenger seat, radiating the pent-up vitriol of a teenager who’d been forced to leave her friends two months before the end of the school year. “Let’s just get to Grandma Great’s house. The sooner we get there, the sooner we can go home.”
Bronte had heard that same demand at least once an hour for the last bazillion miles, and it took every ounce of will she possessed to bite back her own caustic reply. Her daughter didn’t know it yet, but Bronte had serious doubts about ever returning to their “life” in Boston.
Phillip had seen to that.
There was a stirring from the rear of the van. Like a groundhog cautiously emerging from its burrow, Lily raised her head over the edge of the seat and blinked in confusion.
“Is this Great-Grammy’s?”
Kari rounded on her sister before Lily had the time to rub the sleep from her eyes.
“What do you think, genius? That Grandma Great lives on the side of the road?”
“Enough,” Bronte barked automatically. The fact that Kari rarely got along with her younger sister had only been exacerbated by hours of travel. The teenager was like a chicken, pick, pick, picking at her more sensitive sibling until both Lily and Bronte were raw.
“If you can’t be nice, keep your opinions to yourself, Kari.”
How many times had Bronte said that in the last hour . . . week . . . lifetime?
Kari rolled her eyes and huffed theatrically. She was barely fifteen and already filled with rage and defiance. Bronte had to get a grip on their relationship before Kari discovered the truth about her father or . . .
Don’t think about that now. Not yet. Later. Once you’re at Annie’s, you can take all the time you want to decide what to do. Away from Phillip’s influence.
She nearly laughed aloud. Yes, she was away from her husband’s influence—thousands of miles away. But he could have been sitting in the seat beside Bronte for her inability to forget him. His ghost had accompanied her every step of the way—and her phone was filled with unread messages, texts, and emails that she should have erased the instant they appeared.
Should have erased.
Because there’d been a time when she had loved him so much that a handful of kind words from him had felt as intimate as a caress.
But that had been a long time ago.
A million years and two thousand miles ago.
Ultimately, the state of her marriage had become a case of fight or flight. This time, she’d chosen flight. And after coming so far, she didn’t have the strength to confront her own actions, let alone those of her daughter. But soon. They were almost at her grandmother’s farmhouse. Once there, she could burrow into the peaceful solitude of this tiny western town and begin to piece together the torn remnants of her lifelong dreams.
“Are you going to drive anytime soon?” Kari inquired, her tone dripping with sarcasm. “Or are you waiting for a sign from God?”
Closing her eyes, Bronte counted to ten before responding.
“I haven’t been here since I was seventeen, Kari. I need a minute to get my bearings.”
Kari huffed again, fiddling with the button to the automatic window, making it go up, down, up, down. The noise of the motor approximated an impatient whine.
“I thought that’s why we bought a map at the last gas station,” she grumbled under her breath. “If you’d get a GPS like everyone else . . .”
Please let me get through the next few miles without resorting to violence, Bronte thought to herself as she put the car in gear, waited for a rattletrap farm truck laden with bags of seed to pass, then eased into the narrow lane.
As they drove through Bliss proper, Bronte grew uneasy. Over the years, she’d imagined the area would remain like a time capsule, unchanged and completely familiar. Either her memories were faulty, or urban sprawl had begun to encroach on this rural community. To her dismay, she could see that some of the mom-and-pop establishments had given way to newer, sleeker buildings bearing franchise names and automated signs.
For the first time, Bronte felt a twinge of uneasiness. She’d tried to contact Annie, without success. What if they’d come for nothing? What if Annie couldn’t offer Bronte the haven she hoped to find?
Instantly, Bronte rejected that thought. Grandma was the one constant in the world. A beacon of love that made no demands. That’s why, when Bronte felt as if she’d drown in her own silent anguish, she’d gravitated instinctively to the spot where she’d been happiest. A place where she wouldn’t have to present a chipper façade to the world to hide the fact that everything she’d once held dear had long since crumbled to dust.
Bronte had stopped at a red light—probably the only one in town. In her efforts to orient herself, she’d missed the change to green. There wasn’t another soul in sight, but trust Kari to pound home her irritation at the minute delay.
“It’s this way,” she murmured—more to reassure herself than her children.
Turning right, she prayed that she’d chosen the correct side road. Victorian farmhouses and bungalows from the thirties were crowded by newer, turreted McMansions that looked alien in such a rural setting. But as she wound her way along the old highway, she began to pick out landmarks that were familiar to her: the train trestle that spanned the creek; the box-like outline of pine trees surrounding the pioneer cemetery; the old mill which had apparently been converted into a bed and breakfast.
“It’s not far now,” she reassured her children.
“I hope so,” Lily admitted, her eyes wide as she studied the passing scenery.
Ashamed, Bronte realized that she shouldn’t have let so much time elapse before coming to Utah. But Phillip had insisted that any place without a Starbucks or a subway wasn’t worth visiting. So, Bronte had kept the peace and arranged for Grandma Annie to visit them every year. But her children had been denied so much because of Bronte’s cowardice. They’d never ridden a horse or hiked up a mountainside to drink from an icy artesian spring. But this summer, they would have a chance.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Lily whispered. “Will Grandma Great let me use her bathroom?”
“No, she’ll make you pee in a bush, stupid.”
Raindrops splattered against the windshield. Leaning forward, Bronte eyed the flickers of lightning with concern. They were almost there. They should be able to outrun the storm.
Lily stirred restlessly in her seat. “How much farther?”
“Less than a mile.”
Intermittent drops continued to strike the glass, leaving perfect circles in the dust, but Bronte hesitated to turn on the wipers. The blades—much like her tires—should have been replaced months ago. If she turned them on now, the rain and dirt collected on her car would muddle together in a streaky mess, and she needed to see the towering willow tree that marked the end of the lane . . .
For the first time in years, Bronte felt a flutter of joy and hope. They were here. They were finally here!
Slowing the car, she turned into a narrow gravel road. The tires crunched over the weathered ruts, the noise bringing a sense of excitement that edged out the weariness and pain.
A strip of winter-matted grass grew up the middle of the track, and puddles gathered in the potholes. On either side of the lane, fence posts had been linked together with strands of barbed wire. The fields beyond were as she’d remembered, loamy carpets of brown sprigged with chartreuse shoots of sprouting grain. As they drew closer to the house, the fences gave way to dozens of lilac bushes, which had grown so closely together that they formed an impenetrable hedge. To Bronte’s delight, she saw that the first bud-like leaves were beginning to appear. Sometime in May, they would explode into a fragrant wall of purple and pink and the air would grow rich with the scent of the blossoms and the drone of bees.
“Look!” she exclaimed to her children. “It’s only the second week in April, but Annie’s lilacs are starting to get their leaves.” She cracked the window, allowing the heady fragrance of rain and soil to fill the car.
Lily eagerly pressed her face against the glass, but Kari remained stony and silent. Nevertheless, Bronte sensed an expectancy in her daughter’s posture that hadn’t been there before.
“Where’s the house?” Lily breathed.
“Past the next bend.”
As Bronte eased around the corner, a part of her was a child again. She expected to see Annie waiting on the stoop wearing a cotton dress cinched tight by an all-encompassing apron. Bronte could almost smell the yeastiness of freshly baked bread that clung to the house and taste the moist carrot cookies that were pulled from the oven as soon as she and her siblings arrived. As soon as Bronte ran up the front steps, she would be enveloped in her grandmother’s warm, bosomy embrace. She would breathe deeply of Annie’s unique scent—face powder, lilies of the valley, and Nilla Wafers, which Annie stowed in her apron pockets for when she needed a boost.
Bronte was so enveloped in the memories that it took Kari’s sharp inhalation and Lily’s plaintive “oh” to pierce the fantasy.
Easing to a stop, Bronte peered more closely through the rain-streaked windshield. As her eyes focused on the weathered farmhouse, a mewl of disappointment escaped her lips.
If not for the porch light and a dim glow emitted from the garret window, Bronte would have thought the house had been abandoned. Weeds choked the once beautiful flowerbeds and the lawn was burned and nearly nonexistent. The sagging wrap-around porch was missing half a dozen balusters and the front steps were rickety and threatening to collapse.
The outbuildings had suffered a similar fate. Bronte remembered the chicken coop, barn, and garden being painted a pristine white. When she’d seen them last, they’d been perched on an immaculate lawn edged by tufts of peonies and irises. But if any of those perennials had survived, they would have to fight their way through thigh-high weeds and thistles.
“I thought you said this place was nice.”
Kari’s tone made it clear that she thought Bronte teetered on the verge of senility.
Bronte didn’t bother to comment. What could she say? Her memories weren’t so gilded by age and distance that she could have mistaken this . . . this . . . mess for the idyll she’d enjoyed each summer.
Reluctantly, she eased the car closer to the main house. Rain began to fall in earnest now, but even the moisture collecting on her windshield couldn’t hide the utter neglect.
“Are you sure Great-Grandma lives here?” Lily whispered.
“Of course she lives here,” Kari snapped. “But Mom didn’t bother to tell us what a dump it is.”
Rain pattered against the roof of the car, the rhythm growing frantic as the downpour increased. Conceding to the inevitable, Bronte switched on the wipers, waiting vainly for the streaks of grime to be swept away—as if by cleaning the windshield, she might find the condition of Annie’s house had been a trick of light and shadow.
If anything, the view was more depressing.
A part of her wanted to throw the car in gear and leave. Bronte didn’t want to consider that her fondest memories could be tarnished by this current reality. But she honestly couldn’t go any farther. She’d pinned her hopes and her endurance on reaching Annie’s house. Now that she was here, she didn’t have energy left to alter her plans.
Needing to validate her decision, Bronte turned off the car. For several seconds, the drumming on the roof and the ticking of the cooling engine underscored the silence.
Then she said, “Stay here.”
There were no arguments as Bronte grasped the map from the dashboard. Holding it over her head, she threw open the driver’s door and darted into the rain. Avoiding the damaged step, she hurried to the relative shelter of the porch and pressed the doorbell.
As she waited for her grandmother to appear, Bronte could feel her children’s gazes lock in her direction. Once again, she realized that she should have waited until she’d been able to reach her grandmother. If Grandma Annie had known they were coming . . .
What would she have done?
Weeded the flowerbeds? Thrown a coat of paint onto the house?
Why hadn’t it occurred to Bronte that she and Grandma Annie had aged at the same rate? In her mind’s eye, Annie had remained the same vivacious woman she’d been when Bronte had seen her last. She must have slowed down in the past few years. Obviously, the maintenance of the property had become too much for her.
What if she wasn’t up to an impromptu visit?
Bronte’s gut crawled with new worries. Damn, damn, damn. She’d been desperate to get her children away from the trouble brewing at home. Bronte had thought that if she had time alone with her girls, she could mend the brittleness that had invaded their relationships. Then, when the opportunity arose, she could explain that the move from Boston was permanent.
As well as the separation from their father.
“Ring it again!” Kari shouted from inside the car.
Forgoing the doorbell, Bronte opened the screen and pounded with the knocker. Annie could have grown hard of hearing. She had to be . . . what? Eighty-five? Eighty-six?
Why hadn’t Bronte kept in touch more? Why hadn’t she pushed aside Phillip’s overwhelming demands and reached out to her grandmother? Instead, Bronte had grown so ashamed of her situation and her inability to make it better, that she’d limited her contact to cheery phone calls and the “too, too perfect” letters tucked into family Christmas cards.
The grumble of a distant engine drew her attention. Allowing the screen to close with a resounding bang, she wiped the moisture from her face as a pair of headlights sliced through the gathering gloom.
For a moment, she was exposed in the beams as a pickup rolled from behind the barn and headed toward the lane. At the last minute, the driver must have seen her, because the path of the truck altered, veering toward Bronte and her children.
A growl of thunder vied with the sound of the engine as the vehicle jounced to a stop. It was a big truck, purely utilitarian, with a stretch cab and jacked-up wheels with shiny rims unlike anything Bronte had ever seen in Boston. The window to the passenger side slid down and a man leaned closer so that she could see his shape like an indigo cutout against the pouring rain. Much like the truck, he was built for hard work, with broad shoulders and powerful arms.
“Do you need some help?”
His voice was deep enough to carry over the drumming of the rain and something about its timber caused her to shiver.
Using the map as her makeshift umbrella, Bronte ran closer. “Yes, I’m looking for Annie Ellis. I can’t get an answer at the door. Do you know if she’s expected back anytime soon?”
The stranger in the truck removed a battered straw cowboy hat, revealing coffee-colored hair tousled by rain and sweat and eyes that were a pale blue-gray. A faint line dissected his forehead—whiter above, a deep bronzed tan below, conveying that he spent most of his time in the sun. He had features that could have been carved with an ax, too sharp and square to be considered handsome, but intriguing, nonetheless.
“Exactly who are you?” he asked bluntly.
Normally, she would have bristled at such a tone, but she was tired—emotionally and physically. All she wanted was a hot cup of tea and sleep. Deep, uninterrupted sleep.
“My name is Bronte Cupacek. Annie is my grandmother.”
The man’s gaze flicked to the van, the Massachusetts license plates, and the children who were pressed up against the windows watching them intently.
“Ah. The Boston contingent.”
Something about his flat tone rankled, but before Bronte could decipher his mood, he delivered the final blow to an otherwise devastating few months.
“Your grandmother fell down the stairs yesterday afternoon. She’s in a local hospital.”
JACE Taggart watched as the woman’s face fell in disappointment. Then her eyes widened and she blinked at him with a Bambi-in-the-headlights stare rimmed in ridiculously dark lashes. Even wet and bedraggled, she was pretty in that Bostony, high-maintenance sort of way.
But the look of horror that crossed her features couldn’t be feigned.
“Is she all right?”
Jace hesitated before responding. The woman’s posture had grown so brittle that he wondered if any more bad news would cause her to shatter.
“She’s . . . not doing too well,” he said reluctantly. “She’ll be in the hospital for a while.”
She grew even paler.
“Th-the hospital . . . it’s still . . . uh . . .” She pressed a finger between her brows and closed her eyes, as if doing so would help her retrieve the memory. “Is it still on the main road beyond the middle school?”
Jace shook his head. “No, a new one was built about ten years ago, but Annie was taken by Life Flight to the medical center in Logan.” He pointed to the lane that led back to the highway. “Go back where you came and turn left onto the old highway. You’ll head north about three miles, turn right, and then follow the road over the mountain. Once you’re in Logan, you’ll see signs showing the way.”
Inexplicably, Jace couldn’t tear himself away. There was something about her that begged for his help, but Jace pushed the sensation aside. All his life, his family had accused him of collecting strays—cats and dogs when he was young, then troubled friends, and finally lonely women. Lord help him, after his last relationship, he couldn’t handle another needy female. With spring planting to be done, wet weather making many fields inaccessible, Bodey raising hell, and Barry retreating socially . . .
Jace had too damned much to worry about. There were days when he felt like the weight of the world was crushing down on him to the point where he couldn’t breathe. The last thing he needed was one more “project” sucking up what scant emotional and physical energy he had left.
Nevertheless, he couldn’t ignore the twinge of guilt he felt at abandoning Annie’s granddaughter—especially when he sensed that this woman was closer to her breaking point than he was. But even as his gaze flicked to the dark bruise marring her cheek, she stepped away.
There was no escaping the “I don’t know who the hell you are, so keep your distance” tone or the wariness that stiffened her spine. Her gaze flicked to the minivan, then back to him again as she analyzed how quickly she could get to her children if Jace posed a threat.
Much as he would with a startled colt, Jace eased back, lifting his hands in a silent calming gesture. He kept his voice low and soothing as he said, “Glad I could help.”
Then, since her posture continued to radiate her unease, he replaced his hat, touched a finger to the brim, and forced himself to turn away, rolling up the window again. But it took more effort than he would have imagined putting the truck in gear.
He drove with unaccustomed slowness, watching Bronte Cupacek grow smaller in his rearview mirror. She was tall and slim—too slim if the sharp jut of her collarbones and wrists were any indication. The way she’d wrapped her arms around her waist seemed self-protective. In the sheeting rain she looked vulnerable and fragile. Defeated.
No, not quite defeated. Despite the haunted look in her eyes, there was still a defiant tilt to her chin.
One that might only be for show.
The minute she disappeared behind a hedge of lilac bushes, Jace swore, bringing the truck to a halt. For several long minutes he sat there with the rain pummeling the roof, thinking of all the things he should be doing. He had four hired men to orchestrate despite the rain and wet fields. Bodey had just bought a new mare at a recent auction, and Elam needed his signatures on a land lease. Barry, Jace’s youngest brother, would be arriving home from an outing with his Scout group in the next ten minutes.
That thought caused a frown. Although Barry had suffered brain damage from an automobile accident years ago, he was generally very social. Jace usually had to threaten to hogtie him to a chair to keep him from running down the lane to wait for his Scoutmaster. But lately, Jace couldn’t get him to go with the other boys his own age—and Jace was damned if he knew why.
But even as he moved to put the truck back into gear, something tugged at his conscience, urging him to check on Annie’s family. One more time.
Growling at his unaccustomed indecisiveness, Jace slipped his cell phone from his pocket and quickly dialed his elder brother, Elam.
The phone was answered on the first ring. “Hey, Jace.”
“Are you still on the ranch?”
“I’m finishing up. I left the leases on your desk.”
“Thanks. I’ll sign them as soon as I get in.” Jace paused, then asked, “Are you in a hurry to get home?”
Since Elam and Prairie Dawn Raines had become a couple the previous summer, Jace had seen a real change in his brother. Where once he’d been stony and wracked with grief after the death of his first wife, now he was more relaxed and easygoing, quick to smile and even quicker to lend a hand at the ranch. Often as not, when he was finished with his work breaking colts, he would join P.D. at her restaurant in town or head to his newly built cabin on the hillside.
“Nah,” Elam said. He must have been on his way into the Big House because Jace heard the squeak of the front screen. “P.D.’s meeting with a supplier until seven or eight, so I’ll probably hang around here and use the weights or something. What do you need?”
“Could you pick up Barry and hang on to him for a while?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
Jace sighed. “I don’t know. I was driving past Annie’s and some of her relatives were there.”
“They must have heard about the accident.”
“Not exactly. It came as a shock.”
Elam sighed. “That’s a hell of a welcome.”
“Yeah. I think I’ll make sure they get to the hospital. Annie’s granddaughter wasn’t real clear on how to find it.” As if the words gave Jace the permission he’d been seeking, he began turning the ranch truck around.
“Don’t worry about Barry. After her meeting, P.D. is taking the rest of the night off, so she’ll enjoy spoiling him. She was bringing flatbread pizza from Vern’s, so I’ll go with Barry and get some sodas at the Corner. Then, since it’s the weekend, we’ll keep him Friday and Saturday night. He was asking when he could have another sleepover at the cabin. I’ll have to bring him with me to the ranch tomorrow morning. I’ve got buyer appointments throughout the day, but as soon as I’ve finished, I’ll take him with me to Vern’s. The band will be playing, and he loves that.”
“We’d enjoy having him even more. Maybe you should take some time off.”
And wasn’t that the truth. Sometimes Jace felt like crawling out of his skin with the need for a few hours of blissful solitude. Although Elam didn’t know it yet, Jace had already begun thinking that once the harvest was in and the winter wheat planted, he might go somewhere. Alone. Somewhere other than Taggart Hollow.
But it was too soon to mention it to his brothers—it wasn’t even something that he allowed himself to think of all that often. It was a half-formed idea that had begun to take root in his brain, growing stronger with each day, until he would find himself toying with the idea of seeing Austria in winter this time, or a tour of Italy. Or England. It’d be cold as hell in January—
Realizing that his brain had wandered down a trail that might never come to fruition, Jace quickly yanked his thoughts back to the matters at hand.
Now he could make sure Annie’s granddaughter had everything she needed.
Jace ended the call and carefully drove back down the rutted access lane toward Annie’s house, wondering why his pulse had begun to beat faster.
* * *
THE prospect of another journey—even one of only a few miles—proved to be too much for Bronte’s twelve-year-old van. After she had received directions from the unknown neighbor on how to find the medical facility, she’d returned to her car. Ignoring Kari’s complaints and Lily’s questions, she’d turned the key.
Then . . . nothing.
She couldn’t even get the radio or the windshield wipers to turn on.
That final defection—even one directed at her by an inanimate object—was more than she could bear. Dropping her head to the steering wheel, she fiercely bit the inside of her cheek and held her breath to control the sobs that battered at her heart.
I will not cry. I will not cry. Not in front of my children.
A knock on the glass brought her upright. Unable to roll down the automatic windows, she cracked the door open.
It was the man from the truck. He hunched protectively over the door, shielding her from the rain with his body—and that instinctive kindness was nearly her undoing. Too late, she felt a drop of moisture plunge down her cheek. Praying he would think it was from the rain, she savagely swiped it away.
“I-I don’t know what’s wrong. Sometimes it takes a minute or two to get the motor to turn over, but it’s never gone dead before.”
He seemed to consider things, and then gestured to his truck. “Climb in. I’ll take you to see Annie.”
His offer merely heightened her mortification. From birth, independence had been drummed into her so strongly that she felt uncomfortable accepting favors from anyone—even family. Accepting such a gesture of kindness from a stranger . . . this was too much.
But when she tried to protest, he rolled open the side door and smiled at Lily. “Hey, there. Would you like to see your great-grandma?”
Lily’s eyes grew huge, and she perched on the edge of her seat as if ready to bolt.
“My name’s Jace,” the man said. “I’m an EMT, so I was the one to ride with your great-grandma in the ambulance to our local hospital, then help her get onto the helicopter. I know where to find her. And since I’m an EMT, I have to promise to never, ever hurt anyone.” He gave her a wink. “You’ll be safe with me, especially with your mom along.”
Lily continued to hesitate, but Jace seemed more than willing to give her time to make up her own mind. Finally, she nodded.
“Climb into the truck, then. We’ll be there in no time.”
Lily looked to Bronte for permission.
Bronte knew that she would have to swallow her pride and accept his offer of help. There would be no rest for any of them until they’d seen Annie. To enter her grandmother’s house and climb into her beds would be unthinkable without assuring that her needs were being seen to first. So she nodded to Lily in the rearview mirror. The girl scampered through the rain, clambering into the back of the stretch cab.
Kari, on the other hand, shot Bronte a WTF glare, but before she could openly complain, Bronte warned, “Not a word.” Huffing, Kari opened her own door and stomped through the puddles.
Bronte followed more slowly, gathering her purse and phone before joining her children. By that time, their unsuspecting Samaritan had revved the engine and turned the defroster to high so that the lukewarm air blew against her hot cheeks.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Mr. . . .”
He held out a hand—the hand of a workingman, with long fingers, scuffed nails, and calluses that rasped against her palm. Here in the land of Boy Scouts, there were men who worked hard for a living—and the sensation of his rough skin against hers caused a strange frisson to race up her arm.
She wanted to snatch her hand back, to sever a connection that was more charged than it should have been. But somehow, she managed to keep her cool—even as her heart hammered against her chest. In that seemingly innocent gesture, someone other than her husband or children had touched her. Until now, she hadn’t known how much she’d hungered for such simple human contact.
“Jace Taggart.” After a brief, firm shake, he released her to throw the truck into gear, then gestured to the fields on either side of the lane. “My brothers and I lease most of your grandmother’s ground. We’ve been neighbors for years.” He pointed to a distant sparkle of lights. “That’s our place over there.”
Bronte remembered the ranch in the distance, although she’d never met the Taggarts herself. She and her siblings used to sneak close to the pasture fences to catch a glimpse of the horses and their foals. Occasionally, they would see one of the boys who lived there, but not nearly enough to satisfy their curiosity. For some reason, to be sitting next to one of the kids she and her sister Carroll had once ogled—a boy all grown up into an even more powerful male—was disconcerting.
They lapsed into silence—and she was grateful. Manufacturing small talk would have taxed what few brain cells were still functioning at this point. Her sister, Carroll, a graduate of West Point, would have called this whole experience a “clusterfuck of gigantic proportions.” Instead of fleeing to a familiar sanctuary where she could lick her wounds, Bronte had compounded them.
God had a horrible sense of irony.
She wasn’t aware that she’d spoken the words aloud until they broke through the muffled drumbeat of the rain and the faint country-western song playing on the radio.
Jace glanced at her, the light from the dashboard painting the angles of his face in blue. He had sharp features—a prominent brow, deep-set eyes, a narrow nose, and a square jaw with a slight cleft. The striking angles reminded Bronte of the rough-hewn, half-finished statues by Michelangelo that she’d once seen in Italy. As if the artist had walked away in mid-sculpt before he could soften the edges.
“Annie fell down the stairs of her house. She broke three ribs, her leg, and her wrist.” He frowned, turning onto a larger highway before continuing. “Unfortunately, it was nearly twenty-four hours before she was found. The wrist and leg needed surgery to repair and she had a reaction to the anesthesia, so she’s in ICU.”
Good heavens. Her grandmother had undergone surgery and no one in the family had known?
“Will she be all right?”
Jace glanced at her again, obviously not wanting to paint a rosy picture when there was still cause for concern. So he answered instead, “Annie is tough. If she has her way, she’ll pull through.”
Yes, despite her grandmother’s affectionate nature, she’d always had a will of iron. She wouldn’t let a fall keep her down for long.
That thought resurfaced when they arrived at the hospital and dodged out of the rain into the lobby. The facility was one she’d never been to before, and when they stepped inside to the smell of new carpet and paint, she realized it must be a recent addition to the older section.
Shepherding her children ahead of her, she followed Jace to the bank of elevators at the end of the lobby.
Lily’s hand stole into hers. “Mommy?”
“When are we going back to Gramma Great’s?”
She squeezed her fingers. “I don’t know. Not for a while, I guess. We need to make sure that Gramma Great is okay.”
As they stepped into the waiting elevator, Lily seemed about to say something more, but as soon as the doors closed, she cast a nervous glance at Jace, and shrank into the corner.
Her daughter had always been shy around strangers, especially men, and Jace Taggart was no exception. He cut an imposing figure in his cowboy hat, bulky Carhartt jacket, and faded jeans. A tall woman herself, he towered over her by several inches—enough so that if he drew her toward him, she would fit under the jut of his chin. Phillip, on the other hand, was a scant inch shorter than Bronte.
Inwardly, she slammed on the brakes. Where had that thought come from? She had enough problems without mooning over the first local male who crossed her path.
Thankfully, the doors slid open before she had time to examine her own thought processes. They hurried down the hall, Lily lagging behind Bronte, so she had to tug on her daughter’s hand to help her keep up.
Once at the nurses’ station, Bronte released her, leaning forward. “Is it possible to see Annie Ellis?” she asked the nurse who stood behind the counter making a note in a three-ring binder. “I’m her granddaughter.”
“Mommy?” Lily tugged at her shirttails.
She touched the top of Lily’s head, smoothing the hair that had escaped from her braids. “One minute, sweetheart.”
The nurse checked a bank of monitors, then smiled. “She’s in ICU, which means only one visitor at a time, fifteen minutes every hour.”
She touched Lily’s shoulder in reassurance. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right back.” She pointed to the corner where the hospital had planned for such situations. “Why don’t you go wait over there? They’ve got books, toys, and a television set. I bet you could find some cartoons.” She smiled, then gestured to Kari.
For once, Kari didn’t argue—thank God. Maybe it was the promise of a television set or the FREE WI-FI ZONE placard on the wall. In any event, she took Lily’s hand, pulling her toward a plastic table and chairs in colors that seemed too garish for the subdued waiting room.
At the last minute, Bronte remembered Jace. Her brain scrambled to remember if she had enough money in her wallet to hire a car or a taxi so he wouldn’t be inconvenienced any more. But he’d already folded his lanky frame into one of the chairs and picked up a copy of People. She had a brief flash of the absurdity of this thoroughly western male holding up a periodical with a picture of Lady Gaga on its cover before the nurse held her badge up to a security lock, then waved her into the ICU.
* * *
JACE waited until the door bounced shut, then tossed the magazine back on the table. Under the brim of his hat, he watched Bronte’s daughters. The older girl was all gangly limbs and braces, a combination of child and adolescent. He could see some of Bronte’s features reflected in her, but where her mother was calm and collected, Kari was quicker to anger and emotional outbursts—which he supposed was typical of most teenagers her age.
Lily, on the other hand, was small and quiet with dark Little House on the Prairie braids. Even now, she huddled next to the window, one finger idly tracing raindrops that streaked down the glass. She seemed intent on disappearing into the corner unnoticed.
Jace wasn’t sure why, but the sight tugged at his heart.
Pushing himself to his feet, he spoke to the older girl. “I’m going to make a few calls, then I’ll be back.”
She barely glanced at him, her thumbs moving wildly over the tiny keyboard of her iPod. “Sure. Whatever.”
Jace had a feeling that as soon as he left the room, the teenager would forget he’d ever spoken to her, so he’d better be quick.
As soon as he’d punched the button for the elevator, he dialed his phone. Bodey, who was three years his junior, was slower to answer than Elam, his voice husky. “Yo.”
“Where are you?” Jace asked bluntly.
“I’m . . . occupied.”
Jace fought the urge to roll his eyes. Knowing Bodey, he was probably with a lady. Bodey went through women like a soap star through Kleenex. The hell of the matter was that he usually came out of the brief flings as the woman’s best friend.
“How close to the ranch are you?”
“ ’Bout ten minutes. Why?”
“I need you to head to Annie’s,” Jace said as he stepped into the empty car and punched the button for the lobby. “Turn up the heat, then get your tools and repair the front stoop. You’ve got about an hour, maybe an hour and a half.”
Jace heard a female murmur something in the background. Bodey must have covered the phone because his response was muffled. Then, “Why the hell am I going to Annie’s? I thought she was going to be in the hospital for at least a week?”
“Annie’s granddaughter and her kids have shown up in town. They’re at the hospital now, but they’ll be staying in Bliss. Near as I can tell, they came cross-country without knowing she’d been injured.”
“Shit. That’s got to be a shock.”
“Looks like they’re dead on their feet, especially the granddaughter. I’d hate to have them sleep in a chilly house or trip on those loose boards.”
“I’ve got about an hour before I have to meet with one of my cow-cutting sponsors, so I’ll do what I can. We’d be better off tearing the whole stoop down and building her a new one before she gets back. But I’ll see it holds together for a day or two.”
As soon as he’d terminated the call, Jace punched in the number of one of his hired hands. The door to the elevator opened and he stepped into the hall just as the boy answered.
“Jace! What’s up?”
“Hey, Tyson. I know you worked with a mechanic for a couple of years. Do you have any experience with minivans? It’s a Buick or a Chrysler, I think.”
“Before you hit the fields tomorrow, drop by Annie’s and have a look at the van parked out front. Annie has visitors and their vehicle died at the door.”
“I’m in the area. I’ll take a look at it right now and call you back.”
“I appreciate it.”
Now that the most important details had been seen to, Jace strode in the direction of the cafeteria. He wasn’t sure when Bronte and her kids had last eaten, but he could grab them something to drink and a snack. Sodas and coffee. No, tea. Bronte Cupacek looked like the sort who would drink tea. An herbal tea. Especially this late at night. Maybe after a visit with her grandmother and a sip or two of something warm and soothing, some of the tension would ease from her frame.
Jace didn’t bother to examine why it was so important to him to provide that tiny gesture of comfort—or why he found himself so affected by the shadows in her eyes.
He was being neighborly, that was all.
BRONTE had never liked hospitals—probably due to an emergency appendectomy when she was six. The scents of antiseptic and misery seemed to hang over her like the thunderclouds outside, but she pushed the sensation away. This wasn’t about her. It was about Grandma Annie being hurt and alone without any of her family even knowing what had occurred.
Why hadn’t Annie arranged to call one of them after her fall?
But then, Bronte realized Annie had probably been frightened and in pain, unable to notify anyone. Even if she’d been coherent enough, that wasn’t Grandma Annie’s style. She was fiercely independent; any show of weakness was a cardinal sin. Only once had Bronte’s father suggested to Annie that she should move to a retirement home. Drawing herself up to full height, she’d demanded that James Ellis stay out of her affairs. She could take care of the farm herself, and if she couldn’t . . . well, she could always “hire a boy to do it.”
Bronte couldn’t help smiling as Grandma’s familiar motto rang in her ear. But the smile faded when Bronte realized that Annie had found a “boy” to help her. Jace Taggart. And there was nothing “boyish” about him.
The nurse stopped in front of a striped curtain. Perhaps the designer had believed the muted shades of orange, gray, and beige would be soothing. To Bronte, they were simply a reflection of the storm outside and her own muddy fears.
“Remember, fifteen minutes at the most. She’s being kept sedated, so she might not even realize that you’re here.”
Bronte nodded. Gripping her shoulder bag more tightly, she ducked through the curtain.
Once on the other side, she stutter-stepped to a halt, her eyes clinging to the tiny figure that barely managed to fill out the blankets.
Her grandmother was thin, so thin. It had been a good five years since Bronte had seen her last, and in that time, Annie seemed to have shrunk to a miniature version of the robust woman she’d once been. Her hair had turned white and wispy, so baby fine that the pink of her scalp showed through. An arm wrapped heavily in bandages was propped up on a pillow. The other lay across her chest, and fingers twisted with arthritis gripped the blankets with bird-like digits draped in wrinkled skin. An IV ran from that hand to the stand beside her bed, and Bronte winced at the pain it must have caused for a needle to be plunged into such fragile flesh.
Rounding the bed, Bronte reached for Annie’s free hand, mindful of the tubes and lead wires that ran from her body. Stroking her grandmother’s knuckles with her thumb, Bronte leaned forward, kissing Annie’s forehead as if her grandmother were a child.
In that instant, emotions thick and strong rolled over her, and she was nearly overcome with the need to protect her grandmother, to lessen her pain, to let her know that she loved her and she’d been so wrong to wall herself off from Annie’s obvious need.
“Grandma Annie? I’m here. You’re not alone anymore.”
If Annie heard, she gave no sign. Her breathing continued in soft puffs around the cannula, the rhythm irregular and shallow, as if the pain gripped her even through the medication. She’d turned her cheek slightly into the pillow, and the position had caused her ear to fold over on itself—and for some reason, that sight, more than the leads and the bandages and the garish bruises clutched at Bronte’s heart.
Gently, Bronte smoothed Annie’s ear back into place. As she did so, she was struck by the delicate softness of Annie’s skin—like a newborn’s, but stretched, lined, and spotted, as if each blemish bore testament to the fears, joys, and sorrows she’d endured.
Bronte thought Annie’s eyes flickered. In that second she felt the same fierce surge of emotion that she’d experienced when her children were placed in her arms for the first time. This woman, who had done nothing but love Bronte unconditionally, needed her care in return. For the first time in weeks, months . . . years, Bronte felt as if she were being thrown an anchor in the midst of a stormy sea.
This was what she had instinctively longed to find when she’d fled Boston. This sense of rightness, of homecoming, of safety. Not that anything had been solved by coming to Bliss. But this sense of being needed—not simply to run errands, cook, and clean, or wrap her arms around her swiftly imploding marriage—eased the heartache that sat in her chest like a lump of lead.
“I love you, Grandma,” she said, leaning close to brush her lips against her cheek. “We’ll get through this somehow.”
The rustle of the curtain was her cue to leave. Bronte waited until the nurse and she were well away from the other cubicles to whisper, “How is she?”
“As I said, she’s stable right now. The doctor will give you more details when he makes his rounds in the morning, but her vitals are strong. She’s a fighter.” The nurse tipped her head, eyeing her with concern. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Bronte shook her head. “No, I live in—”
She stumbled. How could she finish the sentence? Like a petulant child, she’d run away from home, and she really couldn’t envision going back anytime soon. She didn’t belong anywhere.
No. That wasn’t right. She belonged here. In Bliss.
Since the nurse still waited for an answer, she said, “I just arrived. From Boston.”
The woman nodded. “If you don’t mind my saying so, you look exhausted.”
Which Bronte supposed was a nice way of telling her that she looked like hell. For the life of her, she didn’t know the best way to respond to the nurse’s comment. Her hand twitched with the need to shield the bruise from her gaze, even as her brain warned her that doing so would only call more attention to it.
But this woman didn’t wait for her to defend her appearance. Instead, she offered her a small smile, her gaze flicking from her eyes to the bruise, then back again. “The meds are going to keep Annie out of things for a while. I know you want be here, but it might be better if you got some rest tonight. Then you could come back in the morning when you’re feeling more like yourself.”
More like herself? How could that be possible if she didn’t know what that meant anymore?
Bronte wanted to argue, to insist that Annie had already been alone too long and that Bronte was more than willing to stay. But deep down, she knew this woman—Steff! according to her name tag—was right. She had more than herself to think of tonight. Kari and Lily had been pushed to their limits as well. They needed food and beds and freedom—more than a hotel room could offer. Tomorrow, they could sort out the rest: settling in, fixing her car, seeing to Annie. Maybe she was taking for granted the fact that Annie would open her home to them, but she didn’t think so. Grandma Annie had always welcomed them with open arms, and Bronte doubted her modus operandi had changed. Besides, Annie would need someone to take care of her once she returned home.
Bronte didn’t even allow herself to consider the prospect that Annie might not return at all. Bronte refused to acknowledge the fragility of the figure she’d left in that bed in the ICU. Instead, she focused on her grandmother’s iron will. Annie would be coming home. Soon.
* * *
BRONTE stepped back into the waiting area and stopped short, her mother’s instinct warning her even before she’d completely crossed the threshold that something was wrong. In an instant, she noted that Jace was gone. Lily sat hunched in the corner, her face averted, her shoulders shaking in silent sobs. Kari, her hormone-laden, oblivious, teenage daughter, was plugged into her iPod, completely unaware of her sister’s distress.
“What happened?” she asked, then swore beneath her breath and snatched one of the headphones out of her ear. “Kari, what happened to your sister?”
“How should I know?” Kari demanded, rife with the self-righteous indignation of puberty.
“I told you to keep an eye on her.”
“No. You didn’t,” Kari said with the dreaded eye roll. Dear God in Heaven, every time she did that, Bronte’s fingers twitched—and she’d been one of those anti-spanking proponents.
She shrugged. “He told me he was headed somewhere, but I forget.”
Great. So Bronte had no idea if he was planning to take them home or if she should make her own arrangements.
But even as the thought flashed through Bronte’s mind, a snuffling sob from the corner pushed her toward her younger daughter. She was a good yard away when the ammonia-like sting of urine assaulted her nostrils.
Oh, hell. Forget Mother of the Year. Bronte would be lucky if her children survived through adolescence.
“Come on, sweetie,” she said, crouching down next to Lily. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
When Lily lifted her chin, her eyes were big and wet, like cornflowers dappled with rain. But rather than the recrimination Bronte had expected to find, there was only misery and humiliation. “I tried to . . . to tell you . . .”
“I know, honey,” Bronte said with a sigh, sweeping strands of wet hair from Lily’s cheeks. “It’s my fault. All my fault.”
Taking Lily’s hand, Bronte managed a whispered explanation to Steff! who directed them to a large handicapped restroom in the hall. Once there, Bronte helped her daughter strip off her wet clothes. Within seconds, there was a tap on the door, and Steff! handed Bronte a small bar of soap, a clean towel and washcloth, a bag for Lily’s soiled clothes, and a child-sized hospital gown.
As Bronte soaped and rinsed her daughter’s lithe form, memories of Lily as a toddler came crashing back—bubble baths and afternoons at the pool, bedtime and potty training. How many times had she run a washcloth over her daughter’s body, wiping her clean of the day’s adventures so that she could climb into bed smelling of soap and baby shampoo?
While Lily shivered in the cold hospital bathroom, mortified and miserable, Bronte felt a fleeting instant of peace in the familiar routine. For an instant, she remembered that what was truly important was the well-being of her children. As long as they were safe and warm and fed, she could withstand almost anything.
Bronte helped Lily slip into the hospital gown, wrapping it as tightly as she could around her. Then she drew her daughter close, hugging her, hoping that her trembling would ease as she absorbed the warmth of her body.
“No harm done,” she whispered.
“Shh.” She stroked her hair, rocking her ever so slightly. “It was my fault. All my fault.”
She should have remembered that Lily had said she needed to use the bathroom. She should have listened when Lily had tried to talk to her. Lily’s shyness had grown almost paralyzing over the past year—to the point where she would rather die than talk to a stranger. And Kari . . .
Well, she couldn’t blame Kari for inattentiveness when Bronte had cavalierly displayed it herself.
“Don’t you worry about a thing, pumpkin. As soon as we get back home, we’ll climb into bed. Come morning, everything will be better. It always is.”
But the words sounded empty, even to Bronte.
“Is Gramma Great’s our home now?” Lily asked, her voice barely a whisper—and Bronte instinctively knew that there were layers of meaning beneath Lily’s question. As much as Bronte might have tried to shield her children and obscure the true motives for their flight beneath the guise of fun, her dear, sweet, darling Lily had sensed the undercurrents of tension like a dowser finding water. With Kari, she might have prevaricated. But she sensed that Lily wanted—needed—the gift of truth.
“I don’t know, sweetie. I think, at least for now, we’ll stay here. Gramma Great will need our help once she gets out of the hospital—and I think you’ll like it here.”
She couldn’t be sure, but she thought that the tense line of Lily’s shoulders eased.
“Would that be okay?” Again, Bronte offered her daughter a choice, knowing that, like Bronte, Lily needed at least the illusion of control.
She was rewarded with an eager nod and a quick, gamin smile, and Bronte’s heart flip-flopped in her chest like a grounded fish. If her children only knew how completely they held her heart in their palms, merely by being happy.
She gathered Lily’s things, stuffing clothes and shoes into the bag. She was taking Lily’s hand when there was another soft tap on the door.
“Is everything okay?”
Steff! was beginning to grow on Bronte. Especially when Bronte opened the door to find the nurse bearing a soft fleecy blanket. “Look what one of my friends found for you in pediatrics,” the woman said, patting the furry fabric. “The minute she saw it, she knew it was meant to go to you.”
“Why?” Lily asked in a barely audible whisper.
“Well, she heard your name was Lily. Is that right?”
“Then this is definitely yours.” Steff! shook it open.
It was a simple blanket, probably one of hundreds made by a ladies’ civics group or a local 4-H club. A single layer of fleece had been fringed at the edges and tied into decorative knots. But the bright blue fabric was covered with dozens of fat cartoon frogs basking on flowering lily pads.
“I think that a blanket covered in lily pads should belong to a girl named Lily, don’t you?”
This time, there was nothing shy about her daughter’s grin. She accepted the gift with a sigh of delight, rubbing the soft fabric against her cheek.
“You’re welcome, honey. But you know what this means, don’t you?”
Excerpted from "Renegade"
Copyright © 2016 Lisa Bingham.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Renegade by Lisa Bingham is the 2nd book in her wonderful Taggart Brothers series. I enjoyed the first book in this series, and couldn’t wait for the next book. I am happy to say that Renegade is even better than the first book. I loved everything about Renegade from start to finish. Renegade belongs to Jace Taggart, one of our hero Taggart Brothers, and newcomer Bronte Cupacek, our heroine. We learn early that Bronte is running away with her two young daughters to stay with her aunt in Bliss, Utah. When she arrives, she discovers her aunt has had an accident and is in the hospital. Jace comes to her rescue, and takes Bronte to see her aunt, and at the same time, makes arrangements to fix up the dilapidated house, so that Bronte can live there. Jace is not only a hottie, but he was simply great. He found himself attracted to the beautiful Bronte, but could tell she was running away from something. We usually know that cases like this involve an abusive husband, in Bronte’s case, she was already divorced, but her ex-husband was still around to haunt her, so she ran. Bronte, despite her determination not to become involved with another man, immediately feels strong feelings for the hot and caring Jace. However, with two young girls that were resentful for moving so quickly, Bronte tried to curb her desires; which got difficult with each passing day. What follows is a wonderful sweet story, with a great couple that had us rooting for them from the start. This wasn’t just a romance, but a very good story, as Bronte must resolve her issues, which also affect her daughters. I loved Jace, who was sweet, caring , romantic, with his own issues from the past revolving around his deceased father. Lisa Bingham does such a wonderful job writing this wonderful story, that had us happy, smiling, worried, and even sad; but with each page we turned we kept on going to see how this would all end. Afterall, we had a vested interest in everyone from Jace, Bronte, Lily, Barry, Kari, P.D. I am loving this series, loving the characters and loving the writing of Lisa Bingham. If you enjoy a perfect romance and storyline, I suggest you read this series. Start with the first book. I for one, can’t wait for whatever Lisa Bingham will be giving us next.
After my first encounter with the Taggart family of brothers in Desperado, I was eager to return to Utah ranching country for Jace's story. The contemporary western small town setting, the engaging characters, and the gently character driven plot made it easy to settle in and appreciate. The Taggarts brothers are all so different, but I love them as a whole and love seeing each find romance. This is book two in the Taggart Brothers series. I think a person could get by reading it as a standalone or out of order, but there are several references and an ongoing side storyline back to Elam and PD's earlier romance. So best if read in order. The story opens with Bronte and her girls limping into Bliss, tired and heartsore, hoping for a new start. Bronte spent many a pleasant summer at her Grandma Annie's spread and then lost the connection when her controlling ex-husband cut her off. Now she has left that life in Boston behind and her grandmother and her grandmother's home is the place that pulls her most. Her old van limps into Annie's drive and expires on the spot, she has little money and must find a job, Annie's home looks worn out like Bronte feels, and now a handsome stranger tells her that Annie took a bad fall and is in critical condition at the hospital. The cowboy calmly takes charge and helps her and the girls out and then continues to help them get on their feet. Bronte doesn't want to feel beholding to anyone, but realizes that she really does need the help and realizes that Jace and the rest of Bliss have made their new home a welcome, friendly place. Jace Taggart is far and beyond what she ever had with her ex, but she has to focus on her girls and getting her mess of a life back in order. If his tender and patient care of his younger brother, his responsible nature, and his smoldering eyes affect her, well maybe she should give this thing between them a chance. Jace is the responsible brother. While Elam went off to fight in the war and came back a little broken from the war and death of his wife and while Bodie goes off to work the rodeos and sow his wild oats, Jace was the middle son who came back to shoulder the reins of the ranch and care for their younger brother with disabilities. His dreams were left in his past and he knows no woman would ever take him and a boy-man who will never leave home. Life presses in and he feels the need to get away or snap, until Bronte and her girls arrive. Part of him shies back from yet one more responsibility, but from the moment he decides to help out the beleaguered family, he knows this is different. With her girls looking at him like he has horns and knowing that his own youngest brother is a huge responsibility, he doesn't see how it could possibly work out. Jace wants to try. This one was a delightful surprise. The first one was exciting and passionate between Elam and PD and their Wild West Contest whereas this one changed pace and tone for Jace and Bronte's story. It was tender and heartwarming as these two lonely souls connected and worked at a blended family romance. All the complications of divorce and an ex with a drug addiction along with Jace's responsibilities are the barriers. I liked how the author chose to go with these alone and didn't whip up unnecessary stuff. It was the perfect amount of conflict. And when that final secret came out, it nearly broke my heart. As a result of Bronte's recovery from her divorce, they attempt to take th
I absolutely LOVED this book! I cannot tell you how incredible this book is, but I’m sure going to try! I connected deeply with the story and the characters. Bronte was amazing in her strength, not too prideful and totally and completely likeable. I respected and admired her character very much. When I read books, I usually have a connection to the heroine but this time it’s with the hero, Jace. I saw a lot of myself and my past/present circumstances in him and his story. The struggles he had with being true to himself battling with responsibilities and expectations placed upon his shoulders. I totally “got” where he was coming from and was so excited when he found some well-deserved happiness with Bronte and her daughters. The most powerful part of the book for me (other than the romance) was Jace’s relationship with his younger brother Barry. Barry is a mentally disabled teenager who Jace has been guardian of ever since their parents died. Having a special needs child myself, I deeply empathized with Jace and the struggles he faced with Barry. And I completely LOVED Barry. He reminded me so much of my own son that it literally felt like I was reliving memories. That relationship between Jace and Barry as well as with their brothers Elam and Bodey was just so special. I could never seem to hold back my emotions when Barry was sharing page time with his brothers and, well, with anyone else. Jace and Bronte are perfect for each other. I loved how they recognized their feelings for each other but they were very cognizant and respectful of Bronte’s daughters’ and Barry’s feelings on the subject. If they were hurt or confused, the couple backed off, even though it hurt to do it. Bronte and Jace both understood and were sensitive to the kids’ feelings which were important and vital to the success, or failure, of their relationship. The secondary characters were amazing and made the story even greater. I loved Elam and Bodey and everyone else in the small Utah town of Bliss. I love the town “grapevine” where everyone is gossiping and always in each other’s business. I loved that volunteers came out to get Bronte’s grandmother’s house ready before she came home from the hospital. And I loved how Jace and Bronte were able to blossom—individually and as a couple—under the watchful eye of friends, family and the town of Bliss. This is my first read from Lisa Bingham and I am completely enamored, enraptured and entranced! This is the book I’ll be using to measure all others against. Ms. Bingham has set the bar high and I just can’t wait to visit the people of Bliss, Utah again! 10 Stars for RENEGADE! ***I was gifted an eBook copy from the publisher via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. All conclusions reached are my own***