As a camp cook, Vickie Brown loves feeding any size crowd in the great outdoors--with one notable exception. She never would have predicted she'd join the crew led by gruff cowboy Slade Wilder, the man who broke her heart just days before their wedding.
Life has gone on since Vickie left him, but Slade can admit his attraction to the one woman he's ever loved remains stronger than ever. If he wasn't in such desperate need of an experienced cook for his paying guests, he would send Vickie packing. He knows better than to seek out the company of the woman who broke off their engagement so many years ago.
Except there's no escaping each other in the confines of the wilderness area, especially once their anger begins to soften in the shared close quarters. But after Vickie finds the courage to confront Slade, it will take a leap of faith for them to put their past behind him, even if it's the only way to recapture their once-in-a-lifetime love.
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Three and a half years later
What the hell am I doing up here? Erin De Laney had asked herself that question at least two dozen times over the last hour, and the only answer she could think of was, Shit happens. Only she wasn't really certain she would survive this to laugh about it later. She was all alone in the middle of a montane forest and on a horse, for Pete's sake. Given the fact that she'd never ridden a horse and her idea of a wilderness foray was a trip to Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, she was completely unqualified for this assignment. When she'd been five, her uncle Slade had put her on the back of an old mare and led it in a circle around a corral, but that was the grand total of her experience with equines. She knew even less about remote, high-elevation woodlands. And, damn it, the gelding she rode had no digital compass like the dashboards of patrol vehicles did. What if she got lost out here? Most of the time, she could tell her direction by studying the sky, but in this jungle of towering old-growth trees, she couldn't find so much as a sliver of blue without nearly breaking her neck to look up.
Hands clenched on the reins, Erin stared hard at the open space between her mount's ears. His name was Butterscotch, probably because of his color, a mottled-caramel body with a mane and tail the off-white of whipped cream. Sheriff Adams, his owner, said the gelding was a red roan. Not that Erin cared. What mattered to her right now was being on top of a four-legged giant when her cell phone and portable radio might not have reception to call for help if she fell off. A thirty-minute predawn riding lesson hadn't prepared her for this, and, emergency or not, she didn't appreciate being asked to do something when there were other deputies far more qualified. How was she supposed to check hay for noxious weeds with only a skimpy pocket manual as a reference? While tending the flower gardens that bordered the front lawn of her rental cottage, she'd pulled more actual plants than she had weeds, and her landlady had nearly fainted when she saw the damage. In Erin's parents' neighborhood, most people hired all the gardening done, and Erin's mother reviled practically everything that came in contact with dirt. As a result, Erin had never learned anything about plants or the weeds that invaded flower beds.
Calm down, she lectured herself. Being a deputy in this laid-back county is so much better than working in a crime-ridden metropolitan area, and you don't want to lose the job because you're a whiner. Focus on your surroundings. Take a deep breath of the pure mountain air. Watch for deer. Notice the ferns and wildflowers. This is why you left the Greater Seattle area, remember? You wanted a slower lifestyle and to be surrounded by nature. Instead of being such a grump, why don't you try to enjoy this?
She straightened her spine and filled her lungs. It was silly of her to be so tense. Horses were just larger versions of dogs. Right? And she loved dogs. Well, she liked them from afar, anyway. She'd never actually had one. Her mother had forbidden it, afraid that Erin would sneak it inside her spotless house.
The trail ahead crawled ever upward through a stand of old-growth ponderosa pines. Massive tree trunks the color of cinnamon sticks peppered the terrain. Drooping lazily under their own weight, pine boughs formed an overhead canopy of interlaced green and shielded the forest floor from the late September sunlight, allowing only splashes of butter yellow to spill through. On a light, capricious breeze, the smells of evergreen, fern, moss, manzanita, and wildflowers created a heady perfume unlike anything she had ever experienced. This was why she'd pulled up stakes over a year ago and moved to Mystic Creek, Oregon. This was why she'd abandoned a promising career as a law enforcement officer in King County to become a deputy in a country setting. For her, this place should be like a dream come true. Except for the man-made trail ahead of her, there were no obvious signs that humans had ever been here. No buildings. No litter. No city sounds. It was so different from where she'd grown up.
If she hadn't been on a horse, the majesty of this place would have made her want to linger. She'd find a comfortable place to sit at the base of a tree and just absorb the peacefulness, reconnecting with the basics of life and pondering the fact that she was only a tiny speck on a gigantic canvas painted by a divine artist. Just ahead, the terrain grew steep on one side of the path. Huge slabs of shale and lumps of lava rock, trimmed with clumps of fern, composed much of the hillside. So beautiful and serene. She could almost imagine woodland fairies living here, momentarily hiding so they wouldn't be seen. Somewhere up ahead, she even heard the rush of what sounded like a stream. If she quit making noise, she'd be sure to see animals. Maybe even a deer or elk. But she'd be happy just to study the squirrels and birds that would surely show themselves.
With a mental jerk, Erin snapped back to the moment and, with a lurch of sick dread, realized that the gelding had stopped walking. It was almost as if he'd sensed that her mind had wandered off, and he'd been uncertain what to do. The rhythmic clomp of his hooves had ceased. The rocking motion of his gait no longer shifted her from side to side on the saddle to make her thighs burn.
"Butterscotch?" She leaned forward to pat his neck. "We aren't where we need to go yet, buddy. You need to keep moving."
With a flick of his ears, he snorted and then blew air out his nostrils. Erin's heart caught. What did that mean? Sheriff Adams, her boss, had given her very few tips during her riding lesson that morning. "There's nothing to it," he'd told her. "He knows what to do. Your only job is to stay in the saddle."
As Adams had directed, Erin tapped the gelding's sides with her feet. In response, he chuffed, snorted again, and angled his head around to look at her. She didn't like that she could see the whites of his eyes. Surely that wasn't a good sign. She could only hope he wasn't thinking about different ways he might get her off his back. The thought stripped her of the magical feeling that had come over her moments before. Fact-check. She'd been trained how to fall so as not to injure herself, but during those sessions, she'd been on a gym mat. The dangerous hooves of a slightly overweight male quarter horse and countless jagged rocks hadn't been factored into the equation. If she got hurt out here in a wilderness area, her goose might be cooked.
"Okay, Butterscotch." Who in his right mind named a male horse Butterscotch? "Maybe I'm forgetting part of the go signal." He'd started fine for her down at the trailhead. She nudged him with her heels again, then clicked her tongue. At the sound, he flicked his ears but didn't budge. "Let's go!" she tried. "Giddyup!" Still nothing. Finally she nudged him and made the clicking noise both at once, and the gelding moseyed forward into a walk again. "Awesome!" she said, uncertain of whom she felt prouder, herself or the equine. "You're such a good boy. I think I heard the sound of a creek while we were stopped. Maybe when I find a place to set up my checkpoint, it'll be where you can drink and graze. Sheriff Adams said to make sure you have grass to eat. He didn't mention water, but if I'm thirsty, you must be, too. You're the one doing all the work."
Only Erin didn't feel as if the animal had been doing all the work. Being on a horse made her nervous, and she'd been vising her legs around his belly all the way up the mountain to make sure she didn't fall. She tried to stay in shape, working out five days a week without fail and jogging six miles each weekend morning. But apparently she needed to focus more on her legs. Her inner thighs and glutes hurt. As in, ouch. What was that all about? She'd been convinced as recently as yesterday that she had thigh muscles of iron, but they were sorely disappointing her now.
The trail suddenly grew steep, and without warning, Butterscotch decided to do the horse version of a jog to scale the incline. Erin's butt parted company with the saddle and slammed back down, not once but repeatedly, each landing hurting so much that it nearly took her breath away. Only she was so scared, she couldn't focus on the pain. The saddle seat was slick, and no matter how firmly she tried to grip with her knees, she could barely stay on. Her right boot came out of the stirrup, which started flapping without her foot to anchor it, and Butterscotch seemed to think she wanted him to shift from fast to jet speed.
"No, Butterscotch! Whoa! Are you trying to kill me?"
The horse only increased his pace, and in her panic, Erin couldn't think how to make him stop. The lunging motion threw her backward, and she almost went flying off over the gelding's rump. It flashed through her mind that she could mortally injure herself if she fell and hit her head on the rocks. Realizing that she'd completely lost control of the situation, she turned loose of the reins and threw her arms around the horse's neck to stay on him. That decision resulted in breath-robbing punches from the saddle horn to her belly.
When they reached the top of the hill, Butterscotch settled back into a walk, and Erin sent up prayers of thanks, silent ones because she felt as if her lungs had collapsed. As the horse moseyed forward, she finally caught her breath and dimly registered that the reins were dangling from the roan's nose. Now what? Butterscotch was still moving, and she'd lost her grip on her only way to steer him. She got both feet back in the stirrups and leaned as far forward over his neck as she dared, trying to grab the long strips of leather. He stopped and raised his head, bringing the reins closer so she was able to catch hold, one in each hand.
"Thank you, Butterscotch! Thank you!" She was so grateful that she wanted to hug him. As she got herself situated in the saddle again, she said, "Maybe you don't like it any better than I do when I have no control."
The horse chuffed, and Erin smiled shakily. She could have sworn he was saying, "Of course I don't, you idiot."
Erin sighed, took a moment to collect her composure, and then realized Butterscotch had stopped again. This time, she knew to click her tongue and nudge him with her heels simultaneously, and he moved back into a walk. She scanned the grassy flat that stretched to another tree line about a quarter mile away. Just ahead of them was a trail that intersected with the one they were on. At the junction was the large wooden box with a rickety, hinged lid that her boss had told her about. A drop station, he'd called it. When outfitters who provided guided hunts ran out of things at their base camps, they could find a hilltop that got cell phone service and text someone in town to bring what they needed to the drop station. It saved them from having to ride clear back down to the trailhead for a trip into Mystic Creek, and the people who delivered the goods were tipped handsomely for their trouble.
"We made it, Butterscotch! Sheriff Adams said there's only one uphill trail that flows into this one, so that has to be it. We can set up a checkpoint right on the other side, and nobody will be able to get past us without me seeing them." Erin couldn't help but feel proud of herself. She'd made it, and for a born-and-bred city girl, that was no small victory. The sound of rushing water that she'd heard earlier came from just ahead of them, too. That would be ideal. She'd brought water for herself, but it would be nice if Butterscotch could get a drink as well. "Yay! Now if I can just find some shade, we'll have a reasonably comfortable place to set up shop. I don't know about you, but I'm more than ready for a break."
They didn't go far before Erin saw the stream off to her left. It wasn't very wide, and due to the rocks, brush, and trees that peppered its banks, the water was almost inaccessible. But she did see one reasonably level place where she thought Butterscotch could slake his thirst. She also saw a big boulder partially shaded by trees, which would offer a comfortable spot for her to sit and watch the trail. She'd be a little way off the beaten path, but she saw no problem with that. If anyone pulling a string of packhorses appeared, she could just holler out and check their hay before they went any deeper into the wilderness. Perfect.
The crown of her brown Stetson, which was as much a part of her uniform as the tan britches and dark chocolate shirt, absorbed heat from the sunlight that bathed the clearing. As she steered Butterscotch toward the boulder, she realized that her head felt sweaty, and a hank of her dark brown hair had worked loose from the twist at her nape to tickle her neck. It felt like a bug was crawling on her. She'd be so glad for some shade, and a drink of water would be welcome, too.
Butterscotch quickened his pace and whinnied softly, indicating to Erin that he was as eager for a rest and some lunch as she was. She leaned slightly forward to pat the animal's neck, which was as sweaty as she felt.
"You okay, buddy?"
The gelding snorted and then blew air out his nose. That didn't sound like a positive reply.
"We'll get to rest in a minute," she assured him. "I'll take you over to the stream to wet your whistle first. How does that sound? And just look at all that grass! Sheriff Adams stressed that you'd be happiest if I could find a place where you can graze. This will be awesome for both of us."
The sky, now visible since they'd entered the clearing, was incredibly blue and wisped with fluffy white clouds. Erin could barely wait to get down, stretch her legs, and take off her hat. As they drew near the large rock, she pulled back on the reins to halt the gelding. Grabbing the saddle horn in both hands, she lifted her right leg back over the cantle and shifted her weight onto her left foot still in the stirrup. The next thing she knew, she hit the ground with such force that it nearly knocked the breath out of her. Stunned, she pushed up on her elbows and looked at Butterscotch, who'd turned his head to study her. He looked bewildered. That made two of them. She couldn't feel her legs. What the heck? Even her butt felt numb. What if she couldn't get up? The horse might step on her.
Excerpted from "Strawberry Hill"
Copyright © 2018 Catherine Anderson.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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