For Annabelle Harper, summer in her hometown of Lonesome Way, Montana, means a chance to make a home for her orphaned young nieces and nephew. It’s also a chance to find a new direction for her life—one that doesn’t include romance. So when rugged Wes McPhee shows up back in town, she has every reason to keep him at a distance…
Even unhappy memories can’t keep Wes from returning to Lonesome Way to help his grandmother recover from an injury. And his fear of commitment isn’t enough to make him resist the tantalizing heat that he feels whenever he’s near Annabelle. But can a wandering man like Wes ever settle down? When an old enemy comes to Lonesome Way, and their dreams of love are threatened, Wes and Annabelle must fight for the future their hearts have always wanted.
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LONESOME WAY, MONTANA
Wes McPhee’s dusty black truck roared off the highway and zoomed past the gas station on the corner of town without slowing even a fraction. Wes was in a hurry. He accelerated down Main Street without looking left or right, not bothering to admire the shimmering gold and lavender sunset gilding the Crazy Mountains in the distance.
In fact, he didn’t even notice.
He paid no attention to the neat storefronts of the little town where he’d spent the first miserable eighteen years of his life. Didn’t spare a glance at the profusion of early-summer flowers planted in brightly colored pots lining the streets, or think about the hushed, peaceful quiet tiptoeing through the town as dusk encroached on the peaks of the cottonwoods.
Wes thought about only one thing. Seeing his grandmother; his mother; his sister, Sophie; and her family all in one quick, painless visit—and then getting the hell out of here.
Away from this town, hopefully within two or three days.
He’d returned to Lonesome Way only a handful of times in the past fifteen or so years, and he didn’t miss the place one bit. The pleasant, cheerful streets, the tiny quaintness of it, were still as familiar to him as the knuckles of his right hand, but there were memories here he’d left behind, and he had no desire to get reacquainted with them.
Hitting the gas pedal harder, he just beat the one streetlight that turned yellow on him. Picking up speed, he bulleted through the intersection, but one block down—ironically in front of his sister Sophie’s bakery—an elderly woman began crossing Main, her steps slow, unhurried, and deliberate. She cut him a look as if to say nothing was going to stop her from crossing and she would take her sweet time about it.
Swearing under his breath, he had no choice but to slam on the brakes.
He recognized her, of course.
Grimly, Wes lifted a hand in a brief, polite salute, though his mouth never softened to a smile.
Martha, one of his grandmother’s oldest friends, owned the Cuttin’ Loose hair salon, he remembered. Had owned it as far back as he could recall. Gran would be mighty pissed if he ran down her friend, so he waited impatiently as the eighty-something woman in the patterned purple blouse, belted dark trousers, and heavy gold jewelry gleaming at her ears and wrists took her sweet time strolling across the road.
At this rate it would be dawn before he got to the Good Luck Ranch.
Finally the old woman reached the curb. She apparently figured out who he was by that time because, turning slightly, she lifted one spider-veined hand in a regal wave, and shouted at him.
“Is that you, Wes McPhee? If you’re here to see your gran, she’s staying with your mother on Daisy Lane!”
The few other people still out on the streets all turned and stared at him.
Remind me not to come back for a dozen more years, he told himself ruefully. But he nodded at Martha. “Thank you, ma’am.”
It was the exact wrong thing to say. Planting her hands on her hips, she first frowned, then marched back toward him, determination gleaming in her eyes.
“Now, you wait right there, young man.”
The light was green but he couldn’t go, because Martha Davies was bearing down on him, apparently hell-bent on bending his ear.
“‘Ma’am’? Since when do you call me ‘ma’am,’ Wes McPhee? It’s Aunt Martha to you. I’ve been best friends with your gran for well over sixty years and I knew you when you were a tiny little thing sporting diapers.” She waggled a finger at him. “If you’re sticking around Lonesome Way for a while, I don’t want to hear any more of that ma’am stuff.”
With that, a smile broke across her face and he caught a glint of mischief in her faded eyes as she beamed at him through the truck’s open window.
“Yes, ma’am—er, Aunt Martha.” Wes couldn’t stop the answering grin that began at the corners of his mouth and spread up to his eyes. Some things never changed.
Especially in Lonesome Way.
To Martha and his grandmother—and Gran’s circle of elderly friends—he’d always be a kid. Didn’t matter that he was six foot four, easing toward his late thirties, and that for roughly the past ten years he’d headed up a crack team of the toughest agents in the DEA. That he’d tracked down and rounded up the baddest of the bad guys, investigating, infiltrating, and arresting worldwide drug dealers and heads of cartels—and the terrorists who joined forces with them.
The past three years alone he’d worked undercover in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Colombia for months at a time, going up against two of the most powerful drug syndicates trying to stream cocaine into the United States. He’d nailed a legendary meth kingpin in the wilds of Colorado several months ago, shortly before leaving the DEA.
During his years as an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, he’d gone head-to-head with thugs in the most dangerous cities of the world, bringing down some of the most ruthless terrorists and criminals of the twenty-first century, and yet, not five minutes back in his hometown, he was being schooled by a lady in her eighties for not addressing her in the manner she preferred.
Not ma’am. Aunt Martha.
“So,” Aunt Martha said, as if he weren’t stopped in the middle of an intersection, and she had all the time in the world. “Tell me something. Are you?”
“Am I what, ma’am—er, Aunt Martha?”
She smiled. “Sticking around Lonesome Way. You’ve scarcely been back all these years and never for more than forty-eight hours at a time, if I recall correctly. And I’m sure I do.”
“Not staying long. Only came to visit my grandmother.”
“Because of her accident.” Martha nodded knowingly. “Well, I’d think you’d spend more than a little bit of time, seeing as you’ve come all this way. I’m sure you’ll want to get to know your niece and nephew a mite better as well, since you’re here. Does Sophie know you’re back?”
“You’re the first to know, Aunt Martha,” Wes said drily. He heard another car coming up behind him.
“I’m holding up traffic, Aunt Martha. Better be on my way. And you might want to get home yourself. It’s nearly dark.”
“Wes, honey, don’t be silly. This is Lonesome Way. It’s perfectly safe after dark,” she informed him affectionately. She headed again toward the sidewalk. “I live just around the corner, you know, so it’s not as if I have very far to go.”
But as he took his boot off the brake, she suddenly turned back and yelled, “Tell your gran I’ll come by tomorrow morning to discuss the parade route!”
Wes shot through the intersection, then hung a right on Squirrel Road. He wondered what she meant about a parade route. Suddenly it hit him—the Fourth of July. Less than six weeks off.
The Fourth was huge in Lonesome Way. When he was a kid, the town had held bake sales, quilt auctions, and a parade every year on the Fourth.
So. The tradition continues.
But it was only June. Early June. Wes knew he’d be long gone before the Fourth of July rolled around. His mother had emailed him about his grandmother tumbling off the curb outside of Benson’s Drugstore. How she’d lost her balance, and ended up lying in the street with a concussion and a broken wrist.
Wes figured it must be gnawing at her to be laid up and waited on.
Ava Louise Todd was nothing if not independent, active, sharp as a bayonet. She was at once the sweetest and most imperial little woman he’d ever met. She had grace, guts, and instincts—along with a twinkle in her eye that Wes had always loved.
He missed her. Of course, he missed his mother and sister, too. But he’d carved out a very different life for himself in a world far from Lonesome Way. He couldn’t set foot in this town without all kinds of memories flooding back, and they sure as hell weren’t the warm and cozy kind.
Mainly because Hoot McPhee was a bastard. A dead one now.
But Wes always associated stepping into his family home on Daisy Lane with an explosive confrontation with his father.
That mean, demanding, ultra-critical son of a bitch had made his family’s life a living hell. Nothing anyone in his family did had ever been good enough for Hoot. Especially nothing that Wes did.
He couldn’t be sorry that Hoot was dead. He’d be hard put to it now to resist the urge to slam a fist into his father’s face if they ever met up again. For his mother’s sake, he’d managed to refrain from doing that—except for once—but it hadn’t been easy.
Which was why Wes had taken off right after graduating high school. He’d had too much anger to stick around—he and Hoot likely would have come to blows on a daily basis if he’d stayed.
So he’d made his own way through college and law school, and he’d never looked back. Never asked for a dime. And wouldn’t have taken one.
When his father died, Wes had been holed up in the jungles of Colombia, but even if he’d been within a hundred miles of Montana at the time, he wouldn’t have gone to Hoot’s funeral.
Hell, he wouldn’t have crossed the street for Hoot McPhee.
The man had bullied his children and cheated on his wife. He’d made everyone in his family miserable. The irony was, he’d been well respected in the community—until it came out that he’d had affairs with too many women to count, including Lorelei Hardin, the mayor’s wife. Only then had his mother finally had enough. She’d kicked Hoot out of the house—her house, since the Good Luck Ranch had been in her family for generations—and Hoot had spent the remainder of his days alone in a cabin on Bear Claw Road.
The sky had darkened to deep twilight blue by the time he turned onto Daisy Lane. In the distance, the Crazies loomed against the sky like ominous craggy giants. Night creatures rustled on either side of him in the brush. A bald eagle took flight from a thicket of trees. Then the Good Luck Ranch house appeared at the end of the dusty road, warm light glowing from its wide windows.
He felt a strange clutch in his stomach.
Home. Or what had once passed for it.
Wes didn’t feel as if he’d ever really had a home. He didn’t expect he ever would. But now that he’d left the DEA and was starting over after all these years, he wanted to have someplace . . . someplace he could hang his hat, park his truck, and live alone and at peace.
He had a lot of bad memories to leave behind. Memories worse than those of life with Hoot McPhee in Lonesome Way.
He’d seen death, cruelty, greed, evil.
He’d lost friends. Good ones.
Now he needed a change. A small space of peace. He knew he wouldn’t find it in the home of his childhood, but this was just his first stop. Someplace on the road ahead, he’d find what he was looking for. The DEA was behind him.
Thanks to a fellow agent’s brother-in-law who’d helped him make some key investments over the years, he had a pretty big nest egg saved up. And a new line of work in mind. Along with a hankering for a piece of land, a cabin of his own. Nothing fancy, just a small place close to nowhere with a barn, a corral, and a couple of horses.
Solitude and quiet. A place where he could look at the stars, roam the wilderness and mountains, forget everything he’d done.
And everything he’d seen.
And everything he’d lost.
Fifteen minutes later, Wes tucked his grandmother’s frail, spider-veined hand into his own large palm.
Gran’s still-piercing green eyes eagerly searched his face. “It’s so good to see you, dear. How long can you stay? Please tell me you’re finally home for good.”
“Can’t. I’d be lying, Gran.” Seeing her forlorn expression, he pressed a kiss to her softly wrinkled forehead. “Hey, c’mon. I’ll be here for a few days—at least.”
“A few days? Is that all?”
He reacted without thinking.
“Maybe a week.” Wimp, he thought an instant later. But it was too late to take it back now. “Someone has to make sure you’re behaving yourself, right? No more falling and landing in the hospital—you got that, Gran?”
“Trust me, young man. That is not an experience I’d care to repeat.” She gave a tiny indignant snort. “Your mother keeps hovering over me as if she expects me to kick the bucket any moment, and that new husband of hers means well, but I’m not used to people constantly popping in and asking me if I need something. Up until this happened . . .” She glanced balefully at the cast that ran from her wrist nearly to her elbow. It was decorated with childish crayon scrawls made by Aiden, her great-grandson. “I was fit as a fiddle, just fine in my own apartment. And I will be again.”
“I’m sure that’ll be soon, Mom. But only if you follow doctor’s orders.”
Wes’s mother, Diana, spoke soothingly from the doorway. She looked calm now, but she’d let out a scream of shock and excitement when she’d first seen Wes standing at the ranch house door. Her face was still flushed with happiness at having her son home at last.
“I always follow doctor’s orders.” It was almost a snap. Ava had never liked having to lie about—she’d always been active and independent. And, Wes noted, she didn’t appear interested in listening to her daughter telling her what was good for her.
Instead she focused on Wes as if Diana weren’t even there.
“Tell me about you, child. What are your plans now that you’ve left the DEA?”
“Nothing real specific yet. Exploring something with an old buddy—ex–FBI—but I’m not ready to talk about it right now. Just feeling my way.”
He leaned back in the chair he’d drawn up beside the bed in what had long ago been his mother’s crafts room. It was true; he did have an idea for his future but it was probably going to happen in Wyoming, not Montana, and nothing was set in stone yet. So he wasn’t ready to share with anyone.
“You’ll stay for supper, won’t you, Wes?” His mother shot him a hopeful glance and smiled when he nodded.
“Sure, Mom. Do you think I can walk away from whatever you’re cooking? It smells incredible.”
“It’s just a potato-broccoli casserole.”
“The one I love?”
“Of course.” A smile curved her lips. She was still a very pretty woman. “Doug’s grilling steaks and the salad is already chilling in the fridge. I just invited Sophie and Rafe and the kids for dinner, too. I hope that’s okay.”
She looked so unsure, Wes felt a stab of guilt. Did his mother think he disliked his family or something? Crap. Rolling to his feet in one smooth movement, he pulled her gently into his brawny arms and gave her a reassuring squeeze.
“I can’t wait to see them. Actually, I picked up a couple of gifts for Ivy and Aiden along the way. So bring ’em on.”
A wistful look crossed his mother’s face. Wes knew she fervently wanted him to stay. For a year, ten years, forever.
Well, he couldn’t give her that but he supposed he could give her a week. Maybe two. And, he thought resignedly, in the future I’ll have to keep more in touch. Visit more. Call . . .
He gave her another little squeeze; then his grandmother started in.
“You’ll stay here tonight, won’t you? In your old room?”
“Don’t push it, Gran.” But amusement flickered in his eyes. He’d slept in all kinds of places in the past ten years since he’d entered law enforcement, most of them hellholes while he was undercover—some just a few yards of hard ground or mud, without a blanket, much less a pillow—but they’d all be preferable to staying in his old room from high school, under the same roof with his mother and grandmother in the ranch house that his father used to rule with an iron fist.
He needed space, solitude, and silence.
He needed air to breathe.
He wasn’t used to being around people. At least not regular, law-abiding people, and certainly not his family.
“I’ll probably catch a few winks in the barn.”
“The barn?” His mother looked startled. “But it still gets quite cold at night. And there’s not even a cot in there anymore!”
This time he couldn’t contain a grin. “I promise, Mom, it’ll be like the Ritz compared to some places I’ve been.”
“Really? I don’t like to think about that,” she said quietly.
Damn. Wes stood to his full six-foot-four height, and wrapped his arms around her. She was thin, beautiful, with soft fair hair peppered with gray and dignity in her bearing and an innate gentleness in her artistic soul.
And she worried about him.
He could kill three men in the space of four seconds, but his mother still worried about him as if each day she were sending him off to the first day of kindergarten.
Thank God none of his buddies from the D Unit were here, he decided with a twinge of amusement.
“Then don’t think about it, okay?” Giving her a gentle squeeze, he shook his head. “I’m done with the DEA and all that. Unless I miss it too much and decide to go back.”
“How about my apartment?” Gran piped up. “No one’s staying there. It’s right in town. First floor. I’m paying rent on it so you might as well use it—Martha lives in the same building, you know.”
Whoa. Practically roommates with Aunt Martha. There’s an incentive.
Wes held up a hand. “I’ll figure it out, Gran,” he said easily. “Thanks anyway.”
Adroitly he switched the subject, asking to see the latest photos of Sophie and Rafe’s young son, Aiden, and of Ivy, Rafe Tanner’s teenaged daughter from his first marriage. By the time he finished scrolling through them, Sophie and Rafe had arrived with the kids in tow and his mother’s new husband called out that the steaks were done.
Fortunately, by then, his mother and grandmother had managed to stop hovering over him like he was some frail little kid they needed to worry about, and not a decorated government agent for whom knife fights, gun battles, hand-to-hand combat, and dead-of-night drug raids were an almost daily routine.
Two months ago, after an extensive undercover stint in Tijuana, he and his unit scored the most important coup of Wes’s career—busting Diego Rodriguez and his crew, all of whom were among the biggest suppliers of cocaine in South America.
D Unit had chalked up more than a dozen arrests of key players in that takedown, and Diego’s son Manuel, twenty-two years old, deeply immersed in the family business, and with boatloads of blood on his hands, had been killed in a vicious firefight.
So had Wes’s partner, Luis, who’d cocommanded the operation. It was supposed to have been his last.
And it was.
But not in the way Luis had thought. He’d been planning to retire and live with his wife, Carmela, in San Diego for the rest of his days. Instead he’d lost his life.
And saved Wes’s.
Diego Rodriguez had been wounded—badly—but somehow he’d gotten away. Probably the old drug lord had been dragged off and driven away by his number-one lieutenant, Cal Rivers, an American thug who’d started out as one of Diego’s bodyguards and advanced in the organization to primary hit man and confidante. Wes didn’t know whether Diego had ultimately survived his wounds, but it was possible he and Cal Rivers were both still out there—either deep underground or floating in the wind.
If so . . . sooner or later, one or both would surface again.
Wes had a four-inch scar across his chest from that last little encounter with Rivers. Not a big deal when he considered all the rest of his nicks and wounds.
But now, after nearly ten years of doing battle mentally and physically, a new life loomed before him.
And he had some decisions to make.
“Wes, not to sound like Henry Higgins, but I think I’ve got it.” His stepfather, Doug Hartigan, snapped his fingers a short time later as Diana circled the dining room table, serving dessert—scoops of strawberry ice cream to go along with the frosted lemon cake she’d baked that afternoon.
It had been too chilly once the sun went down to eat outside on the new deck Hartigan had built. The nights hadn’t begun to warm up yet, so they’d eaten in the dining room, bright with light and the colorful, twisted floating candles his mother made, her latest artistic endeavor. They glowed in a row all along the center of the table.
“I have just the solution for you,” Wes’s stepfather told him. Doug Hartigan had taught high school geometry back in the day, and had a quick, methodical mind. “If you don’t want to stay here or in town, how about the old Harper cabin on Sunflower Lane? It’s close by and I’m sure Annabelle Harper won’t mind.”
“Annabelle? She’s back in Lonesome Way?”
Wes hadn’t seen Annabelle Harper since high school. Yet he could still picture the tall leggy blonde with the huge golden brown eyes, the saucily uptilted nose, and a figure that made all the boys drool. Back in high school, she’d had a reputation for being fast, an easy lay.
And for being a bitch.
Several of the guys on his wrestling team had bragged about being with her at some point or another—even if just for one night. Including Clay Johnson, Wes’s closest buddy back in those days.
It was Clay who’d told Wes and the others all about how easy it was to get Annabelle Harper naked. How she’d do anything to make a guy happy. After hearing Clay describe how hot she was, and how easy, all the guys lined up to date her.
But once someone broke up with that girl . . . whew. According to Clay, she got hostile in a big way.
Wes had seen that for himself when Annabelle slapped Clay in the school hallway one day, apparently out of the blue. And when Clay had shoved her in response, she’d punched him in the stomach. Wes had been opening his own locker a few feet away, but had needed to hustle over and intercede after Clay grabbed her by both arms and rammed her up hard against his locker.
Of course, Clay never should have put his hands on her, but that girl was trouble any way you looked at it.
“I thought Annabelle left town right after high school.”
“She did. Just like you,” Sophie told him. “But she came back to stay a year ago. And I’m glad she did. So’s the rest of the town.”
“Annabelle really stepped up.” Lifting Aiden onto his lap, Rafe began rubbing the little guy’s back as he spoke. “She left her whole life and her dance career in Philadelphia to come home and take care of her sister’s kids.”
“Why? What do you mean? Something happen to Trish and Ron?”
Sophie looked chagrined. “Oh, God, Wes. You didn’t hear?”
“There was a plane crash last January. It was terrible—they both died.” Rafe’s daughter, Ivy, spoke softly, her eyes solemn. “And they had twin little girls at home. Megan and Michelle are only seven. And then there’s Ethan, of course—he’s ten. So now Annabelle has to take care of all of them. I babysit them sometimes. They’re nice kids, and not any trouble at all.”
Wes glanced at Sophie in shock. “How did this happen?”
“Ron was regional manager of J. T. Stevenson Lumber,” she said quietly. “He needed to go to Portland for a company meeting, and Trish went with him so she could visit her old college roommate who lived there. They were only going to be gone one night, so they arranged for the kids to stay overnight at friends’ houses that evening and during the day. But their commuter plane developed engine trouble. It went down over Saddleback Ridge. There weren’t any survivors.”
Wes sat back and let out a breath.
He’d bumped into Trish and Ron in Merck’s Hardware store the last time he’d been home. They’d both looked great—and happy. He hadn’t seen Ethan, but they’d had their twins in tow. The girls had barely been of school age, he remembered. Tiny little puffballs of femininity. Little more than toddlers.
Ron had mentioned a friendly poker game coming up at Dave Harvey’s home that evening—Dave had been the halfback on the football team in high school and Wes had barely seen anyone from back then in a whole lotta years.
“Stop by if you have time,” Ron had suggested. “There’ll be tubs of chilled beer. And pizza.”
He’d been friendly. Like most everyone in Lonesome Way. But Wes hadn’t gone to Dave Harvey’s to play poker. He’d still been grieving back then. It was only two months since Cara had died, and he hadn’t been in the mood for games or laughs or jokes.
Cara Matthews had been perhaps the toughest DEA agent he’d ever come across—not to mention his partner on more than a dozen cases. She’d actually been more than his partner. She’d been more to him than any other woman he’d ever met.
Cara had been in her mid-thirties, lean, tough, beautiful in an edgy way. They worked well together. Hell, they did everything well together. And she’d saved his butt more times than he could count. He should have been there to save her. If he hadn’t been tied up in Sierra Leone when she was assigned to a case in Bolivia . . .
His sister’s voice broke into memories filled with regret.
“Why don’t I give Annabelle a call and run it by her? She’s been wanting to rent out that cabin for extra income. But it needs some repairs first and she hasn’t been able to afford them. I know the roof needs to be patched. And some kids threw rocks and broke a couple of windows last summer, but the cabin has heat and a stove and a bed—”
“Now, that is an excellent idea.” Gran spoke in her take-charge tone. “Wes, the Harper cabin will be like a five-star country inn compared to what you’re used to—and it’s close by. I bet Annabelle would let you stay there for free, especially if you’re willing to do a little fixing up while you’re in town. She can’t afford to hire anyone. Sophie, why don’t you call her and let her know that Wes is in town and needs a place—”
“Gran, I’m a big boy,” Wes interrupted before she had him signing a lease. He’d noticed his mother growing quiet during all the talk about Annabelle, and then he remembered why.
Time to change the subject.
“I’ll swing by Sunflower Lane and speak to Annabelle myself,” he said easily. “Meantime, fill me in on the Fourth of July parade stuff. I’m sure you’re still in the thick of all the planning for every community event, as usual.”
“Of course I am, dear. But Sophie and Annabelle Harper happen to be working together on the entertainment committee this year. So if anyone can persuade Annabelle to let you stay in the cabin, it’s your sister.”
Ava Louise Todd was not a woman easily distracted, especially when she set her mind to something. “I’d feel better if you’d let Sophie call her right now and make all the arrange—”
“Gran,” Sophie broke in. “Wes has managed to return in one piece from all the hellish places he’s worked these past years, so I’m betting he can negotiate a place to stay with Annabelle Harper all on his own. Why don’t you let Doug help you into the living room while Mom and I clean up?”
Their mother was already stacking an armload of plates onto the empty casserole platter.
“I’m fine, Sophie. You all go and visit.” Diana spoke brightly, but Sophie and Wes exchanged glances, and Wes saw his stepfather frown.
Damn. Obviously, talking about Annabelle Harper still made his mother uncomfortable and Wes couldn’t blame her for that. His father’s cheating with Annabelle’s aunt Lorelei, the mayor’s ex-wife, had been the final straw in Diana and Hoot’s marriage.
Hoot had been a terrible husband and a worse father, but Diana had pretty much looked the other way until Hoot’s affair with the mayor’s wife and several other women exploded through the town. Only then had Diana kicked him out. His father had been dead for years now, and his mother was happily remarried, but that didn’t mean any mention of Lorelei or anyone related to her didn’t still sting.
Maybe he should forget the Harper cabin, after all.
But the moment his mother vanished into the kitchen, and Doug escorted Gran to a comfortable wing chair in the living room, his sister zoomed back into the dining room and placed a hand on his arm.
“Don’t mind Mom and Gran,” she said in a low tone. “The two of them are just fussing over you because they’re so glad to see you. They’ll settle down in a week or so.”
“Great. I’ll be gone by then.”
“No . . . really? Wes, I was sort of hoping—”
Her voice trailed off.
He frowned. “Hoping what?”
“That you might stay a little longer. You have no idea how down Gran’s been since her fall. But she’s positively cheerful now that you’re here. Look at her—she’s smiling like a young girl. She’ll have to wear that cast for a while, and it’s going to get hot and itchy and will drive her crazy. She still gets a little dizzy sometimes from the concussion and won’t be able to cook or quilt or even dress herself without help for some time. But if you’re here, she might not mind all that so much. You always could twist her around your finger and you know it. You were her favorite.”
He started to deny this, but she cut him off. “You know it’s true. Nobody can cheer her up like you can. But maybe,” she said slowly, “you have something better to do? Somewhere to be?”
“Not exactly. But, Soph, that doesn’t mean—”
“Come on, Wes, promise me you’ll stay through the Fourth of July. Gran would get such a kick out of having you here—showing you off to all of her friends, everyone in town. You used to love that parade and the bake sale and all the food stands when you were a kid.”
“Yeah, I loved collecting spiders and eating banana popsicles twice a day back then, too, but I can live without them now.”
She grinned. “It’ll be fun. You’ll see. And by then, Gran’s cast will come off and the worst will be over. Think about it.”
“I just did. Two weeks, Soph, that’s my limit. Or else I’ll go stir-crazy.”
She shook her head at him, frowning. “You always were more stubborn even than Dad.”
“But not half as mean.”
“No. Not mean at all.” Her frown faded. She squeezed his arm and stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “You’re nothing like Hoot. You never were. You’re tougher than him, stronger. You’re fifty times the man he ever was. You were never a bully, always a defender.”
“How do you know I haven’t changed?”
Looking down into her eyes, he saw warmth and love deep within them. He felt the same about her. The years and miles couldn’t ever change that.
“I know,” she said simply. “So think about staying until after the Fourth. By then I’m sure we’ll all be sick of you and more than ready to let you go.”
“Nice. Very nice, sis.”
Sophie laughed at him, and disappeared into the kitchen.
By the time Wes drove back down Daisy Lane that night, he had just about decided to camp out under the stars. Except clouds were already moving in. There’d be rain before morning. And as he turned onto Squirrel Road, he heard thunder rumble in the distance and saw a flash of lightning spark across the cloud-tinged peaks of the Crazies.
The Harper cabin might have a leaky roof and a few broken windows but it would be shelter in the storm. His mother and grandmother would have a fit tomorrow if they found out he’d slept in his truck.
There was no damn way he could take being fussed over and worried about more than two weeks. He’d rather face a gang of human traffickers. He’d be long gone by the Fourth of July parade, but for tonight, he’d bed down in the Harper cabin.
Unless Annabelle Harper said no.
But from what he’d heard of her back in high school, that wasn’t likely to happen. According to his old friend Clay, Annabelle was the girl who didn’t say no.
As a storm blue darkness stole over the mountains, Annabelle sat on the front steps of the house she’d grown up in and sipped her coffee.
The front door stood open behind her, and only sweet, calm quiet came from inside.
She’d hear clearly through the screen door if Megan or Michelle called out for her.
Her ten-year-old nephew, Ethan, was no doubt still poring over his book. The title made her smile. Lost Loot: The Untold Riches Hidden in the American West.
Ethan was such a boy. Fascinated by a book crammed full of information on supposedly buried or hidden treasure, just waiting for him and his friend Jimmy to discover it in their own backyards.
The author, Peter Lamont, had passed through town on a book tour that took him through Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. He’d spoken to a packed crowd at the Lonesome Way Community Center two weeks ago. Lamont had done extensive research and had determined that a good deal of gold, cash, and jewels stolen from stagecoach holdups and bank robberies in the late 1800s were still buried where the outlaws who stole them had hidden them. The outlaws, he’d theorized, had always intended to come back when it was safe to retrieve the treasure, but most times, they’d been killed or arrested before they could do that.
Ethan and his best friend, Jimmy Collier, had listened with rapt attention—no doubt partly because both of their great-great-grandpas had belonged to the notorious Henry Barnum gang. They’d been two out of five outlaws who’d all killed one another off in Montana within months after their successful gold heist.
And with their deaths had gone the secret of what became of that massive chest of gold bars they’d snatched from a Kansas bank in 1878.
Annabelle’s great-grandfather Big Jed had been found dead—gut-shot on a rocky ledge on Storm Mountain—less than twenty miles from his cabin on Sunflower Lane. Rumor had it he’d been headed either toward or away from the hiding place of the gang’s buried gold when he was murdered.
But no trace of the gold was ever found.
Ethan and Jimmy were completely fascinated by the lore of this treasure.
Or perhaps obsessed is more like it, Annabelle thought, taking another sip of her coffee as a breeze flitted through the trees that flanked the house, and sent her long blond curls flying.
The treasure was all the two boys talked about. After hearing Peter Lamont speak, the boys had pooled their allowance money to buy his book, and pored over it together for hours at a time. They’d made a friendship pact to search for the loot together and split it fifty-fifty when it was found.
This was Ethan’s week to keep the book, and he’d been plopped on his bed practically memorizing every map and clue and anecdote each night before going to sleep.
No doubt dreaming all night long about finding lost gold, she thought ruefully. But anything that took his mind off losing his parents was a good thing. When she’d first moved home after Trish and Ron died, Ethan and the girls had asked her every day when their parents were coming back.
Much better to think about treasure than loss, she thought, her own heart aching. She missed her sister so much. Tears momentarily stung her eyes. She knew Trish’s kids were suffering even more.
Annabelle had immersed the girls in art and dance classes at the community center this summer, and she’d signed them up to start Brownies in the fall. Ethan, thank heavens, had basketball camp every day along with his dreams of finding lost treasure.
She wanted each of them to hold on to their dreams as long as they could. She didn’t have many dreams these days. Only bills. She wasn’t making much teaching ballet and tap at the Lonesome Way Community Center, and her own little nest egg from her so-called dance career in LA was dwindling quickly. She wouldn’t touch any of Trish or Ron’s insurance money—that had been safely invested for Michelle, Megan, and Ethan’s college educations.
If she could just get a little bit ahead . . .
She closed her eyes, dreaming of the possibilities. First she’d hire someone to fix up the dilapidated old cabin that had been built by Big Jed, and then she could rent it out. The rental money would help her get by each month and keep all three kids, growing like weeds, in new clothes. The twins really wanted a pony, too, but there was no way that was happening for a while. Not unless . . .
She’d been turning over an idea in her head, thinking about starting a small-scale candy business. Everyone loved her homemade chocolates. Her mother had taught her how to make them when she was in high school and in charge of the Valentine’s Day dance. Caramel truffles were her specialty. And if she could just find time to get a small-scale business going, she was sure she could earn some handy extra money making candy from home. She could make treats for birthday parties, anniversary parties, goodie bags, weddings—and maybe even sell a line of chocolates to Sophie Tanner at A Bun in the Oven bakery.
Perhaps there could even be a mail-order business down the road, she thought, her heart lifting with hope at the idea.
The only two things Annabelle liked better than dancing were reading and chocolate. And sex, of course. Not that she’d had any of that in a while . . . not since she’d left Zack.
Hands down the smartest thing she’d done in a long time. She still winced whenever she thought about how blissfully clueless she’d been going into her marriage to Zack Craig. And how much she’d put up with before she got out.
Just about the only good thing about her marriage was the part where she’d left. Somehow she’d been dazzled by his brown-haired, blue-eyed, boy-next-door good looks. By his crinkly, attractive, nice-guy grin. By the successful ad executive career, and his careless sophistication and readiness to buy drinks instantly for a crowd of her friends.
They’d married in the month of June less than six months after they met—and she’d moved out in November. Zack hadn’t called her now—alternately begging and badgering her to take him back—in almost three months.
A record. And a relief.
With any luck, that meant he’d finally given up. If the jerk had even a tiny bit of sense, he would.
But then, she reflected, tilting her head up toward the sky as thunder boomed and a jagged streak of lightning sliced the darkness, a man who pushed his wife around and knocked her into a wall if she even spoke to another man in an elevator, who cheated on her with an underage jailbait intern who just happened to be the niece of his firm’s marketing vice president, didn’t have much sense, did he?
And neither did the idiot who’d married him, she reflected ruefully. And then her cell phone rang.
Speak of the devil. Why wasn’t I thinking about Johnny Depp?
Her throat tightened. Reflexively she braced herself as she set her coffee cup down on the step and tugged her phone from the pocket of her white hoodie.
For months after their separation and divorce, Zack had called her almost every other day, in turns harassing her to take him back, and soulfully pleading his case. Doing his best to persuade her to give him another chance.
Like that was ever going to happen.
But one glance at her lit-up caller ID let her relax. It wasn’t Zack, thank goodness. It was her best friend, Charlotte Delaney, the petite brunette director of the community center who had never met a mojito she didn’t like.
“Annabelle!” Charlotte squealed. “Sit down! I hope you’re sitting down! I’m engaged!”
Several incoherent screams of joy followed these words. “Wait, Annabelle, talk to Tim! I have to jump and run around a little. I’m so freaking excited!”
“Charlotte! This is awesome—” Annabelle tried to get in, but Tim Deane’s calm voice interrupted her.
“Hey, Annabelle. It’s me. If my future wife doesn’t break a leg from jumping around like a lunatic, it’ll be great. She’s going nuts. She grabbed the ring right outta my hand and put it on her own finger the minute I pulled it out of my pocket.”
“That’s Charlotte for you.” Annabelle smiled on the darkened porch. “Congratulations, Tim. To both of you.”
Charlotte and Tim had been dating on and off for nearly a dozen years. First in high school, then a breakup after a year at different colleges; then they got back together for six months, then a huge blowout that had Charlotte crying for two straight weeks. Then Charlotte got engaged to someone else, but after three months she called it off, and for the past two years Charlotte and Tim had been back together, making good and sure before they took the next step.
“You two finally figured it all out,” she began, filled with happiness for them, but suddenly it was Charlotte, not Tim, on the phone again.
“I need to freaking show you this ring!” Charlotte was talking faster than ever. “Can we come over? Tim, can we go see Annabelle? I . . . Oh, yeah, okay. You’re right. Good idea. Annabelle, we’re going to go have sex now. It’s okay, Tim. What’s wrong with you? It’s not my mom; it’s only Annabelle. She knows we have sex. Well, yes, my mom knows, too, but I wouldn’t bring it up to her and . . . okay. Annabelle, gotta go, but you’re the first to know after my mom and Aunt Susie, and I’ll tell Tess tomorrow. Tim’s going to call his brother now . . . Oh, you’re not? Okay, sex first, and calling his brother tomorrow.”
“Have fun, you two. Shower planning starts ASAP,” Annabelle managed to get in before Charlotte was laughing again and sounding breathless.
“I don’t know if I want a bridal shower. I have to check first and see if it’s bad luck.”
Then she was gone.
Annabelle rose to her feet, a smile curving her lips as she turned to go inside. She wanted more hot coffee and her mind was already whirling with ideas for shower invitations, decorations, and bags of gaily wrapped chocolate candy favors. But as her fingers touched the latch of the screen door, she heard a sound that made her turn back toward the road.
Headlights glowed along the gravel road.
A car was rolling down her out-of-the-way lane.
At this hour?
It couldn’t be Charlotte and Tim—that was for sure. And it wasn’t a car at all, she realized, peering through the darkness sliced only by the faint gleam of the moon. It was a truck. And it was coming fast.
She squashed the urge to retreat inside and lock the door, to speak through it until she found out who was here this late at night.
She wasn’t dating anyone. And she wasn’t expecting anyone at this hour.
But this is Lonesome Way, she reminded herself. Not Los Angeles or New York or Philadelphia. This is a very small, very safe town.
But still . . . she wasn’t exactly in the town; she was outside of it. Miles from another house, in a rural, fairly deserted area, and it could be anyone.
Plus, there was that hiker who’d disappeared a few weeks ago in the mountains. Sheriff Hodge had called off the search only yesterday without finding a trace of the man. No one knew what had become of him.
She drew a breath as the black truck pulled up twenty feet from her front steps, doing her best to ignore the tightening in her throat. But she did reach into the pocket of her hoodie, her fingers closing around the tiny can of Mace tucked in the folds.
A tall man swung out of the truck. Her stomach tightened as he strode toward her but suddenly she sensed something familiar about him.
Impossible to place it . . . but there was something in his walk . . . in those long, purposeful strides. He wasn’t just tall; he was big. Muscular. He moved with authority and purpose in the night and she sensed a forcefulness that went well beyond his powerful build.
He had the authoritative walk of a quarterback, she thought. Or a Navy SEAL. His shoulders were broad, his chest sculpted beneath a white tee and an open leather jacket. His longish hair looked almost as dark as the night sky.
As he closed the distance between them, she drew the Mace out of her pocket and clenched it tightly.
“Stop right there. Who are you?”
She wasn’t afraid, not really, not with the Mace in her grip, but she felt tension whipping through her. He advanced one more step, putting him within the gauzy glow of the porch light—and suddenly she recognized him.
She dropped the Mace back into her pocket.
He looked different. Harder, rougher, and fifty times tougher than she remembered. But still . . .
She knew him. Trying to keep her face expressionless, she swallowed hard as memories rushed back.
Bad memories. High school memories.
The man approaching her porch was Wes McPhee. Sophie’s big brother. The baddest of the bad boys in Lonesome Way.
And Clay Johnson’s friend.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Jill Gregory
“An amazing talent.”—Catherine Anderson, New York Times bestselling author “For tales of romance and adventure that keep you reading into the night, look no further than Jill Gregory.”—Nora Roberts "Gregory…writes the stuff that romance readers yearn for. If you haven’t yet read her, you’re missing out on a great treat.”—Oakland Press