Read an Excerpt
Second Chance Ranch
A Hope Springs Novel
By Cindi Madsen, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLC Copyright © 2014 Cindi Madsen
All rights reserved.
Time travel had always been on Sadie's list of impossible things that could never happen, but here she was, warped back six years, everything the exact same except for her. Time travel was both easier and harder than she'd imagined. It involved a flight from Nashville, Tennessee, to Gillette, Wyoming — during the last leg of which she'd prayed for her soul with every bump the tiny plane hit — and an hour drive in a truck several years older than she was. Hope Springs, Wyoming, looked exactly the same, practically untouched by time. Same houses. Same stores. Same oh-my-gosh-I'm-in-the-middle-of-nowhere feeling. The rest of the world could implode, and here in the Town That Time Forgot, people would simply go about their daily lives.
Grandpa slowed as they came to Main Street, resting his wrist on top of the steering wheel in that casual manner with which the entire town ran. As the truck idled in front of the Dairy Freeze that held a thousand memories in and of itself, Sadie remembered a warm night in August when she was nineteen and riding in a truck about this old, with a guy not nearly as old as her current riding companion.
A handsome face flashed through her mind — eyes lit up, a smile curving the lips she had memorized, both by sight and feel. Just the memory was enough to tug on her heartstrings, waking them up from years of enforced dormancy. That night all those years ago, she'd turned down one dream for another, and she'd wondered at least a hundred times since if she'd chosen wrong.
All she'd ever wanted to be was a country music star. But the music industry had chewed her up and spit her out, and the only thing she had to show for her last six years of hard work was a bank account so low on funds that buying a pack of gum might send her into the red.
So here she was, in the place she'd avoided as much as possible since high school, a heavy side of defeat pressing down on her.
"They redid the theater," Grandpa said, gesturing to the building with multicolored flashing lights. Apparently, one thing had actually changed. "It's got six screens now, can you imagine? Who's got time to go to that many movies? And the tickets are up to eight fifty." He shook his head. "I tell you. Don't know what this world's coming to."
Sadie smiled at Grandpa, a surge of affection for him rising up. She doubted he'd even been to a movie in the new building. He always said that he didn't see the sense in going to the theater when you could just wait a few months and watch it a lot cheaper, without having to sit next to a bunch of strangers. Which always struck her as funny since, in this tiny town, you'd be hard-pressed to find a stranger.
Part of her was glad things hadn't drastically changed, and the other part felt the cold stab of truth piercing her chest. She'd failed. And all of these people she'd thought she was going to pass by — as in she'd have a real life while they stayed here and never lived up to their potential — had passed her by. Mom's phone calls were filled with news of marriages and babies and promotions at places like one of the two banks or the few hotels. Or, for instance, when the Smiths got the highest price in the county for their corn and their cows.
This is just a minor setback, though. Okay, so maybe more like a major setback, but still, totally temporary. I'll brush myself off, take a little time to recover, and bounce right back, stronger than ever.
The springs in the seat of Grandpa's truck squeaked and rocked as he pulled into the shopping center. "I've gotta go drop off your grandma's prescription. While I wait for the medicine, maybe you can take care of this shopping list for your mom?"
He gave her a handwritten list along with a hundred-dollar bill. She glanced from the pharmacy to Homeland Foods, a couple of shops separating them. Of course there wasn't a pharmacy in the grocery store. And even if there were, her grandparents never trusted places that multitasked, as if the pharmacist in a grocery store might mix up and give you pills with lettuce in them by accident.
The odds of seeing someone she knew were around 99.5 percent. She was sure the town's entire population had heard about her performance at Tyler Blue's induction to the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, and everyone she ran into would want to know why they hadn't heard her singing on the radio yet — something she'd assumed would happen shortly after that performance in Louisiana, too.
That was before everything had fallen apart, though, and after the last time she'd gotten on a stage ... well, she didn't want to think about it, because she was fighting bursting into tears as it was.
There'd also be questions about how long she'd be in town, and since she looked like crap from traveling on top of all that cheeriness, Homeland Foods was the last place she wanted to go. But it's not like she could say, No, Grandpa, I need to primp and mentally prepare before buying food that's, you know, necessary for life.
So she just smiled. "No problem."
Luckily there weren't many items on the list. She strode into the market, grabbed a basket, and shopped as if she were in a high-stakes race. At the last minute, she paused in front of the condiments. Green olives weren't on Grandpa's list, but he and Sadie used to sneak into the kitchen late at night and down a jar between them, along with large glasses of chocolate milk. He even used to joke that all the olives she'd eaten were how her eyes got to be so green. Just in case, she grabbed a jar and headed to the next aisle over to pick up a canister of Nesquik. She took one last glance at the list.
Looks like I got it all. Miracle of miracles, she'd managed to avoid running into anyone she knew. All she had to do was get out of here and back to the safety of Grandpa's truck.
But then she turned, and the world ground to a screeching halt. The guy she'd just been thinking about — the one who'd offered her another dream all those years ago — was coming down the aisle. She darted out of sight, her heart jumping around like crazy. A thump and a squeeze, and she was starting to get light-headed with how fast it was going.
What was Royce Dixon, her high school boyfriend and the guy who'd asked her to marry him all those years ago, doing in Homeland Foods right now?
And how the hell could she get out of here without him seeing her?
* * *
Royce grabbed the jumbo jar of peanut butter, picked up raspberry and grape jam — they always seemed to be the favorites — and made his way to the checkout stands. As usual, his mind was still back at the ranch, spinning over everything he needed to get done and how behind he was. Being shorthanded was starting to become a huge problem. Important things were falling by the wayside, and with the new batch of teens for the camp just in, he desperately needed another employee, and he needed one now. Especially after the bomb his lawyer had decided to drop today. Everyone in town was busy working their own jobs, and most of them had ranch work, too. He'd asked around — even taken out an ad — and had gotten squat. Not even one person.
And now it didn't just need to be a person. It needed to be a she.
Royce pressed his fingers to the throbbing headache forming between his temples. Working with troubled teens brought all sorts of extra issues and liabilities, and apparently he was putting himself at risk every single day that there wasn't another female adult around. Mom couldn't be everywhere at once, not to mention she couldn't be confined to the ranch full-time.
The appointment with Mr. Blackstone was supposed to be simple, just a few signatures and papers being notarized, all the t's crossed and i's dotted, the way they always had to be when a new batch of teens came in. I can't believe I thought I was at least almost on top of the alternative youth camp side of things.
The lawyer had told him there was a case going on the next county over where a woman had filed a sexual harassment complaint against the owners of a dude ranch. The guy she'd accused claimed she was just mad because he'd rebuffed her advances, but the all-male staff made it look worse, and now the owner might lose his ranch, regardless of what had really happened.
"He put himself in a bad situation," Mr. Blackstone had said. "And you are, too. It's a liability you can't afford, Royce, especially not with a bunch of bitter teenagers around. You've got to cover your assets."
Royce had wanted to tell him that he'd just forget about the youth camp side of the ranch, then. He could focus on the horses he had and take on more work training roping horses, which was what he was better at anyway. Horses came naturally — teens, not so much.
But then he'd thought of Mom's face. How it'd drop, and there'd no doubt be tears involved. The Alternative Ranch Camp for Youth was her dream, one that Dad had bent over backward to make happen and had spent countless hours helping her run. Royce knew he made a poor substitute. After Dad passed away, Mom had thrown herself even more into the youth camp. She was always coming up with new ideas. Pushing them to do more, with less time in between. It was how she'd dealt with the grief, and Royce knew it was what kept her getting up every day, no matter how much she missed her husband.
So he'd asked Mr. Blackstone what he needed to do, and the lawyer suggested he hire another woman to work at the camp — or even the ranch, as long as she was around to help balance out the genders on the adult side. Otherwise Royce was opening himself up for a lawsuit, and if that happened, someone could go after not just the camp but also the entire ranch. A ranch that had been in his family for three generations.
Shit. What the hell am I going to do? Especially since I've already got two cabins of teens at the ranch?
His headache doubled in size, a heavy sense of urgency coming along with it. Royce neared the front of the store, and he wasn't sure exactly why, but the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck rose. Only one checkout stand had a light on, and there was a skinny girl with a messy blond bun putting her groceries on the conveyor belt. There was something about her ...
She glanced over her shoulder and then immediately whipped her head forward.
Everything inside of him turned cold and hard, and it felt like he'd been punched in the gut.
It couldn't be ... but he knew it was. The glimpse of her profile had been enough. She didn't used to be so thin, and her hair used to be more of a strawberry than a platinum blond, but the way she held her head, the curve of her neck — the way everything inside of him was pulled to her, regardless of all the years that had passed ...
Sadie Hart. The girl who'd made him fall in love and then left him without a second thought. Resentment came then, thankfully clearing out that wussy, weak sensation that'd first clenched his body. For years he'd wondered when he would turn on the radio and hear her familiar voice belting out a love song. He'd dreaded it so badly, but part of him wished for it, too. He would've changed the station, but regardless of all that had happened, he'd like to think there would've been a glimmer of pride over the fact that she'd made it.
Sadie glanced back again and winced, but she didn't look away this time. As much as he didn't want to see her, her wide-eyed, struggling-for-air expression said that right now, he had the upper hand.
So he plastered on a smile and moved closer.
She picked up a jar and held it in her hands like some kind of lifeline, her knuckles white and her face pale. "R-Royce. Hi."
It was so mean, the words on the tip of his tongue, but he said them anyway. "Why, if it isn't the famous Sadie Hart. I'm still waiting to hear you on the radio. When's that gonna happen, by the way?"
Her face paled even more, her eyes blinking rapidly like she might cry, and a twinge of regret went through him. The girl had hardly ever been without a giant smile — not just that, but if anyone had dared to frown around her, she'd use it on him or her and add a joke or two, not letting up until she got a smile back. He'd never been able to see Sadie sad without taking it on himself to fix it, the way she did with everyone else.
But that was all before. Why didn't I just keep my big mouth shut so we could both pay for our groceries and get out of here as quickly as possible?
"Well ... I ..." Sadie twisted the jar in her hands, and it slipped loose and hit the floor with a loud crash. She quickly dropped down, scooping at the shattered remains and gathering up slimy green olives while muttering swear words.
Royce squatted down, guilt at pushing her now forming a lump in his gut. "Stop picking it up. You're going to get glass in your fingers."
"I have eyes," she spat at him. "I can see the glass, and I'll just grab the edges."
He gritted his teeth. "Fine. Slice your fingers off for all I care."
"Thanks for that. And for the singing comment. You're as charming as I remember."
"Right back at you, sweetheart." He stood, irritation tightening his muscles, a layer of frustration under it. Okay, the singing comment had been an ass move, but he'd immediately felt bad, and he sincerely was trying to keep her from hurting herself. How had he managed to forget how quickly her temper flared? Or how it sent a sexy flush of red across her cheeks?
Lucy, the cashier, looked on at the mess and Sadie, chewing her gum and not bothering to call for help or put forth more than minimal effort into her job.
"Ouch!" Sadie brought up her finger and sucked on it.
Royce leaned a hip on the edge of the conveyor belt. "Cut yourself, didn't you?"
She glared up at him and straightened, getting right in his face like she used to whenever they argued. It wasn't like they'd been one of those couples who always fought; they were just one of those couples who didn't always agree and were passionate about it.
"You know what?" she asked, jabbing a finger in his chest. As much as he shouldn't be turned on by it, he sort of was, the blood in his veins pumping faster and hotter than it had in a long time. He waited for her insult, anticipating what he could say back. But then her face suddenly fell and she sighed. "I'm too tired to do this right now. And I don't even know what I'm doing. I'm just getting groceries, and I didn't expect ..." Her gaze lifted to his, and he forgot how to breathe for a second. While everything else about her looked slightly different, the dark green eyes were the same. He'd been focused on the glint of anger, but now he could see the softer side. The vulnerable side that used to make him want to curl her into his arms and protect her from the rest of the world.
Damn, now he was getting mushy, and he couldn't let her do that to him. He wasn't the guy she'd left behind for Nashville anymore, full of optimism and thinking all he needed was his horse, his truck, and his girl by his side and life would be perfect.
He gestured toward Lucy. "I think she's waiting for you to pay for your groceries."
Sadie glanced at the cashier, nodded, and then held out the money. "Sorry about the olives. I'll just take the rest of the groceries, and I guess you'll have to call for a cleanup or whatever."
Now he felt bad again. He wasn't sure if Sadie was in town for a visit or if she planned on staying awhile — no doubt he'd hear the gossip soon enough — but he needed to stay away from her. The woman was toxic, and there was no way he'd let her mess with his heart or his head ever again.
* * *
Sadie glanced at Royce as the cashier took the hundred-dollar bill from her.
He looked so much the same. Still tall — although she swore he'd grown another inch or two — chestnut hair shot with golden streaks from hours in the sun, despite the fact he wore a hat most of the time, and deep brown eyes. He'd filled out since high school, too, his chest stretching the fabric of his shirt, his defined arms several inches bigger around than they used to be. Like when she'd been in high school, she got a little breathless when she looked at him. It was one of the reasons she'd almost given up her singing dream and married him, regardless of the fact that they'd barely been out of high school. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Second Chance Ranch by Cindi Madsen, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2014 Cindi Madsen. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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