Navy SEAL Cooper Hansen hasn't been home in more than a decade. He has never forgiven himself for the accident that killed his mother, and as far as he knows, neither has his family. But when his brother's widow, Millie, needs his help to save the Hansen ranch, Cooper can't stay away any longer.
Millie has always loved Cooper in some wayas a childhood friend, a high-school crush and then as a brother-in-law. Now that he's back in Brewer's Falls, she's discovering new, unexpected feelings for him. But if Cooper keeps holding on to the pain of the past, will he ever give their future together a fighting chance?
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"Hey there, cowboy."
From his stool at Tipsea's crowded bar, Navy SEAL Cooper Hansen cast a sideways glance at the stacked brunette who'd slipped her arm around his shoulders.
"Buy a lady a drink?"
"Be happy to " After tipping the brim of his raggedy straw Stetson, he nodded to the bartender. "Only I'm gonna need you to finish it over there."
When he pointed to the opposite side of the most popular squid hangout in townher expression morphed from confusion to anger. "I should've known better than to chase after a no-good cowboy in a SEAL bar. Obviously, you don't have a clue what it's like to be a real man."
"Guess not." Rather than watch her go, he swigged his longneck brew, intent on enjoying his few remaining hours of freedom for what he feared could be a good, long while.
His pal and team member, Grady Matthews, took the stool alongside him. Everyone called him Sheikh due to the fact that on any given night of the week, he was surrounded by his own personal harem of beauties.
"You do know the object of hitting a bar is to go home with the pretty girl, not to run her off, right?"
After taking another deep pull, Cooper snorted. "Thanks for the advice, but given my current dark-ass mood, the only place any sane woman would want me is far away."
"There you are, Cowboy!" Another longtime friend and team member, Heath Stone, wandered up. "Everyone's looking for you. The whole point of this gathering was to give you a night so good, you don't forget to hurry back."
"I appreciate it, man" Cooper patted his friend's shoulder "but knowing what's ahead of me, any hellhole on the planet looks better than where I'm headed."
"Which is where? Sorry, I only paid attention to the guys'-night portion of the email." He gave him a wink and an elbow nudge. "Not that I'm complaining, but I can't remember the last time I've been out of the house. Libby keeps me on a tight leash."
"And if you don't kiss me, I'll give that leash a good, hard tug." Heath's wife, Libby, snuck up behind him to nuzzle his neck. Cooper was no expert on the whole love thing, but if he was a betting man, he'd say his friend was a goner.
While the two indulged in giggling and good, old-fashioned necking, Cooper discreetly looked away. The bar was dim and Pearl Jam loud. Tipsea's was a legend in Norfolk, and since another team member's wife purchased it, SEALs always drank freea perk Cooper would very much miss. The grunge rock? Not so much. He was more of an old-school Hank Williams kind of guy.
His pals meant well by hosting this shindig, but the God's honest truth was that he'd just as soon get on with things. No amount of beer or pretty women would sugarcoat the fact that what he had waiting for him back home in Brewer's Falls, Colorado, was good, old-fashioned hell.
"How's Clint doing?" Millie Hansen looked up from the stack of bills she'd been arranging in order of importance. The electric company's blazeorange shut-off notice took precedence over the two late-payment credit card notices.
"Finally asleep." As she was near to sleepwalking herself, Millie's heart went out to her sister-in-law, Peg.
"I can't thank you enough for your help. Since Jim died " She removed her reading glasses, blotting her eyes with her sweater sleevewho could afford genuine tissues?
"He's my dad. Where else would I be?" She arched her head back and closed her eyes.
At 10:00 p.m. on a blustery January Monday, the old Queen Anne home shuddered from the force of the Colorado plain's wind. The desk's banker's lamp provided the office's only light. Both kids were blessedly in their roomsMillie didn't fool herself by believing the older one was actually sleeping. Eleven-year-old LeeAnn was probably reading with the aid of a flashlight beneath her covers. J.J.age sevenhad crashed before Millie finished tucking him in.
She set her reading glasses atop her open, ledger-style checkbook. "Hate to bring up a sore subject, but did you ever hear from Cooper?"
Peg sighed. "Left a half-dozen messages. Does hearing his gruff voice mail recording count as contact?"
"What're we going to do?" During the long days spent cooking and doing the dozens of other daily chores it took to keep the ranch running, Millie didn't have time to worry, much less spare a thought for her absentee brother-in-law, Cooper. But at night, fears crept in, slithering into every vulnerable part of her soul, reminding her just how bad the past few years had been and how much worse her future could get. If they lost the ranch that'd been in the Hansen family for over a hundred years, she didn't know what they'd dowhere they'd even go.
"I ask myself that question every night when I'm up pacing, because worry won't let me sleep."
"Will we make it to spring?"
Shrugging, Peg leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. "You know I'd stay if I could, but my savings is dwindling, and I still have a mortgage back in Denver. The hospital won't give me more leave. Come Monday, I'm expected back."
Millie swallowed the knot in her throat and nodded. "I understand."
"Dad's stable enough that I've arranged for a series of nurses and therapists to keep up with his rehabilitation here at home. His speech therapist said Dad's making all the right sounds, so with work, in between official therapy sessions, you and I should be able to help him make the right connections. Hopefully, a few neighbors will step in to help with his general care during the day."
And at night? Caring for a stroke victim was an around-the-clock job. Getting the Black Angus herd that would be their salvation come spring through what was feeling like a neverending winter wasn't exactly your average nine-to-fiver. Then there were her kids, whom Millie already spent precious little time with. The weight of her responsibilities bore down on her shoulders, making them ache. "Lynette mentioned she'd be willing to come over anytime we need her. I'll give her a call." Lynette was Millie's best friend since kindergarten. She'd been a godsend after Jim died.
"Good. Maybe Wilma could help out some, too? I'll drive up every weekend." Wilma was a widowed neighbor who used to be in a quilting circle with the woman who would've been Millie's mother-in-lawthat is, if Kay Hansen had lived long enough to see her youngest son marry. Her death was never spoken of. Her passing had launched the beginning of the Hansen family's unraveling.
Exhaustion from the twenty-seven-hour drive did nothing to ease the acid churning in Cooper's stomach. The cold, cloudy morning cast a gray pall over his already dreary hometown.
In the twelve years since he'd been gone, nothing about Brewer's Falls had changed. Same bedraggled downtown with the century-old brick bank that also served as the post office and drugstore. Besides the feed store, Elmer's Grocery, the diner, bar and community center, no other businesses lined the only road. The few kids were bused the two-hour round trip to attend school in Wilmington.
The half-block stretch of sidewalks was weed-choked and cracked, and the few trees were bare. Hanging baskets filled with the brown ghosts of summer's bounty swung from the diner's porch.
In all of a minute's time, he'd left town to turn onto the dirt road leading to his family's ranch. He'd forgotten the plain's stark beauty, and yet he'd joined the Navy with the express purpose of finding that same beauty at sea.
The ugly-ass town with its homely jumble of buildings had no redeeming qualities other than, he supposed, the good people who lived there. A few old-timers. His little brother's widow and her kidsthe nephew and niece that due to his father's hatred, Cooper had never even met.
If anything, the lonely town served as a blight upon the otherwise beautiful land. Hell, Brewer's Falls didn't even have a waterfall. The town's founderHawthorne Brewerthought the idyllic name might draw in folks wanting a quieter way of life.
The road was in even worse shape than he remembered, which served his purpose well, considering the rock-strewn surface forced him to slow his pace.
The school bus passed.
Were his niece and nephew on board?
For a moment, the passing vehicle's dust cloud impeded his view, but when the dust settled, the life he'd spent years trying to forget came roaring into view.
At first, the two-story home, outbuildings and the cottonwoods his grandparents had planted were a distant speck. As they grew, so did his dread.
You're not my son, but a murderer .
Bile rose in his throat while his palms sweat and his pulse uncomfortably raced.
The Black Angus cattle that, for as long as Cooper could remember had been the ranch's lifeblood, huddled near the south pasture feeding station. The livestock's breath fogged in the cold morning air. How many mornings just like this had he ridden out at dawn to check on them?
It seemed inconceivable that he'd once felt more at ease on the back of his horse than he now did at a depth of a hundred feet.
The closer the house loomed, the more evident it became that the ranch and its occupants had fallen on hard times. His big sister, Pegan ICU nurse who'd long since moved to Denverwas the only family he talked to. She'd told him that after his brother's death, his father had for all practical purposes shut down. Cooper had offered to return then, but Peg reported having broached the topic with their dad only to find him not just unreceptive, but downright hostile.
And so Cooper had continued his exile.
He pulled onto the house's dirt drive, holding his breath when passing the spot where basically, his life had ended. Sure, he'd worked hard and made a new family with his SEAL team, but it was his old one he mourned.
The one he'd literally and figuratively killed.
He put his truck in park, letting it idle for a minute before cutting the engine. He braced his forearms against the wheel, resting his chin atop them, staring at the house that in his mind's eye had once been the most wondrous place on earth. Now the front porch gutter sagged and over a decade's worth of summer sun had faded his mother's favorite shade of yellow paint to dirty white. Weeds choked her flower garden, and the branch holding his childhood tire swing had broken.
A dozen memories knotted his throatcruel reminders that this was no longer his home. Per his sister's repeated requests, he'd help until his dad got back on his feet, but after that, Cooper would retreat to the haven the Navy had become.
Forcing a deep breath, he knew he could no longer put off the inevitable. From the sounds of it, his dad was in such bad shape, he wouldn't even realize his son had stepped foot in the house. By the time he did, Cooper would've worked up his courage enough to face him.
Out of his ride, he grabbed his ditty bag from the truck bed, slinging it over his shoulder.
Feet leaden, heart heavier still, he crossed the mostly dirt yard to mount steps he'd last tread upon when he'd essentially been a boy. The Navy had honed him into a man, but confronting his past eroded his training like ocean waves ripping apart a fragile shore.
It all came rushing back.
That god-awful night when he'd done the unthinkable. His sister's screams. His brother's and father's stoic stares. The funeral. The guilt that clung tight to this day.
He looked up to find his sister-in-law, his little brother's high school sweetheart, clutching her tattered blue robe closed at the throat.
He removed his hat, pinning it to his chest. "Hey "
"What're you doing here? I thought I'm sorry. Where are my manners?" She held open the front door. "Get in here before you catch your death of cold."
He brushed past her, hyperaware of the light floral fragrance she'd worn since her sixteenth birthday when his brother had gifted it to her, declaring her to be the prettiest girl he knew. Millie was no longer pretty, but beautiful. Her hair a deep chestnut, and her haunted gaze as blue as a spring sky, despite dark circles shadowing her eyes. He couldn't help but stare. Catching himself, hating that his face grew warm, he sharply looked away.
The contrast of the front room's warmth to the outside chill caused him to shiver. He'd forgotten a real winter's bite.
"II can't believe you're here." She'd backed onto the sofa armthe same sofa he used to catch her and Jim making out on. She fussed with her hair, looking at him, then away. "Peg tried calling so many times ."
"Sorry." He set his ditty bag on the wood floor, then shrugged out of his Navy-issued pea jacket to hang it on the rack near the door. He'd have felt a damn sight better with his hat back on, but his mother had never allowed hats in the house, so he hung it alongside his coat. "I've been out of town." Syria had been lovely this time of year. "Guess I should've called, but "
"It's okay. I understand."
Did she? Did she have a clue what it had been like for him to one day belong to a loving, complete family and the next to have accidentally committed an act so heinous, his own father never spoke to him again?
"You're here now, and that's what matters."
"Yeah " Unsure what to do with his hands, he crammed them into his pockets.
"I imagine you want to see your dad?"
He sharply exhaled. "No. Hell, no."
"Then why did you come?"
"Peg said you need me."
She chewed on that for a moment, then shook her head. "I needed you when Jim died, too. Where were you then?"
"Aw, come on, Mill You know this is complicated."
Skimming his hands over his buzz-cut hair, he turned away from her and sighed. "Got any coffee?"
He followed her into the kitchen, momentarily distracted by the womanly sway of her hips. Two kids had changed her body, but for the better. He liked her with a little meat on her bonesnot that it was his place to assess such a thing. She'd always beenwould always behis brother's girl.
She handed him a steaming mug.
He took a sip, only to blanch. "You always did make awful coffee. Good to see that hasn't changed."
Her faint smile didn't reach blue eyes glistening with unshed tears. "I can't believe you're really here."
"In the flesh."
"How long are you staying?"
"Long as you need me." Or at least until his dad regained his faculties enough to kick him out again. To this day, his father's hatred still burned, but the worst part of all was that Cooper didn't blame him. Hell, the whole reason he worked himself so damned hard during the day was so exhaustion granted some small measure of peace at night.
"You haven't changed a bit," she noted from behind her own mug. "I always could see the gears working in your mind."
"Yeah?" He dumped his coffee down the drain then started making a fresh pot. "Tell me, swami, what am I thinking?"
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What is it about a good cowboy story that is so yummy? Cooper is the answer to that question. An accident when he was younger sent him away from home, from his family ranch, from all his family and from his life. The Navy molded him and made him a man. Now he's home again and it's harder than he thought. A fast read, this story is about healing. The healing of a Navy Seal that was never forgiven for an accident in his youth. The healing of an old cowboy that has never forgiven his son and now most recover from a stroke. The healing of a widow who needs this Cowboy Seal so much but isn't sure what to do with her attraction to him. Cooper (so LOVE that name) is strong and capable as both a seal and a cowboy but he's still grieving. Being home is the worst kind of hell. But it's also where he will find his peace. His sister-in-law who's struggling to keep the family and ranch together after the death of her husband needs him. And he's fighting his attraction to her. Could it be okay to love the girl his brother loved? Millie is a strong women holding it together as best she can. When Coop shows up and makes things so much better and so much more awkward, she wants him to leave. But her son has become attached and her father-in-law is working through his stubborn pain. What is she to do? I really enjoy stories like this. This book is a few hours of indulgence that just leave me content and happy. If those kind of books appeal to you, don't miss this one.
What a chillingly haunting yet wildly romantic story. Altom definitely pits love against the odds in this one, and love does win out in the end. This well-developed storyline combines with her down to earth writing to take readers all the way to a ranch in Colorado. She paints a vivid picture that you can’t help but see, all the while taking your heart along for the ride. Altom also had me emotionally engaged in this story. I laughed, I cried, I groaned and threw a couch cushion across the room. It was fantastic. This is a very character driven novel. Their pasts are so directly tied to the present that it is all very present in the novel. At the same time, their present is so full of difficulties that they can’t see their way out of it. Getting to know these individuals while they come to terms with their new reality was quite enriching. Altom has developed them so well that you can’t help but love them. This goes for both the main characters and the supporting cast. Overall, this was a quick, emotional read that kept my attention throughout. It is a brilliant addition to my library. Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this work in exchange for an honest review.
3 STARS is emotional, dramatic and sexy. Cooper Hansen has not been back home since he joined and became a Navy Seal. Now he is needed at the ranch. His father kicked him off and called him a murder of his mother. Cooper has to learn to forgive himself for the accident that killed his mother. He is single. He never even came open for his brothers funeral. Millie is a widow with two kids. Her father-in-law had a stroke and still have lots of health issues. She is trying to take care of ranch, her children and her father-in-law. Last thing she wants is to find herself attracted to her brother-in-law. J.J is a cute little boy. My favorite character LeeAnn is almost 12 and way too young to be thinking of boys that much. I love how they all become close and deal with forgiveness and become a family. I can relate to these characters in different ways. I was given this ebook to read from Net Galley and Harlequin. In return I agreed to give honest review in exchange.