Back home in Montana, free spirit Jodie McCauley plans to stay at her late father's ranch for just two months. Then she'll sell the Rocking M and head off on her next adventure. But first she'll have to take her beloved horses from wild to sellable. That means asking the boy she once loved for help. Finn Hicks is now a deputy sheriff and a horse trainer. Working so closely with Jodie, his feelings are suddenly resurfacing. But Finn remembers her as a wild child, not the family-oriented woman he's looking for. A second chance seems impossible, but is there still hope for the rugged cowboy and his first love?
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Seriously? Two speeders in half an hour? Was there some unknown crisis people were outrunning?
Deputy Finn Hicks was not in the mood to deal with this. In two hours he was supposed to be delivering the eulogy at his old friend and mentor's funeral. He had one more call, then he hoped to head home, shower and get to the church on time.
But he couldn't let this go. The little blue car blew past him at least twenty miles per hour faster than the posted speed.
Finn pulled in a deep sigh, flicked on the flashers of his cruiser, spun it around and stepped on the gas to catch up with the vehicle speeding toward town. This shouldn't take long if the driver cooperated.
Out-of-state license plates. Broken rear taillight, and it wasn't stopping.
He beeped the siren to get the driver's attention and then, finally, the car slowed and pulled over onto the shoulder.
Finn did a rapid run-through of the plates and his heart turned over in his chest.
Registered to one Jodie McCauley, twenty-seven years old. Female. Resident of Kansas. Onetime girlfriend of one Finn Hicks. If you could call one summer of romance being a girlfriend.
Jodie had no doubt returned to Saddlebank, Montana, for her father's funeral. The same funeral he hoped to attend once his shift was done.
All he had heard lately of Jodie's life had come from his friend Keith. Finn knew Jodie worked as a waitress during the day and played piano in bars at night.
Such a waste of her talent, he had often thought. Jodie had been set to audition for a prestigious music school in Maryland the summer they had dated, ten years ago.
She was also supposed to have gone on another date with him. A date he thought would move things from casual to serious.
She had ditched both appointments and never told him why. The rest of the summer she'd avoided him and hung out with a bad crowd. After that he'd never seen her again.
The window rolled down as he came near. Jodie looked up at him through large, dark sunglasses, her mouth pert as always. Thick brown hair flowed over her shoulders, and in her bright red dress and gauzy purple scarf, she looked more as though she was on her way to a party than a funeral.
"Driver's license, insurance and registration, please," he stated, sounding more brusque than he liked.
A reaction to her effect on him.
"Sure thing," she said, handing the papers to him. "Can I ask why you stopped me?"
Her voice was formal, her mouth unsmiling. She didn't seem to recognize him, but then he was wearing sunglasses himself.
"You were speeding, ma'am."
"I understood that the speed limit didn't change for another mile," Jodie said.
"The boundary changed a couple of years ago."
"Has Mayor Milton been digging into the town of Saddlebank's tax coffers again that they need to be replenished with speeding tickets?" she joked, her left elbow resting on the open window, her attitude bordering on cocky.
Still the same boundary-pushing girl he remembered.
"I need your driver's license, Jodie. I mean, ma'am."
Her name slipped out. Most unprofessional of him.
She frowned, then took off her sunglasses.
Eyes blue as a mountain lake and fringed with sooty eyelashes stared up at him, enhanced by dark eyebrows. Her fine features were like porcelain, and combined with her thick, brown hair, it was enough to take his breath away.
Then Jodie glanced down at his chest and he saw the moment she recognized him. Her cocky smile faded away and for a moment, her lashes lowered over her eyes. Her shoulders lifted slowly, as if she was drawing in a calming breath.
"Hey, Finn. Or should I say Sheriff Hicks?" Her voice held a faintly taunting note, which bothered him more than he cared to admit.
"It's deputy. Sheriff Donnelly is still around," he said, unable to stop the confused flow of memories as he thought of her father sitting by himself at the dining room table of the ranch he owned, lamenting the fact that his three daughters never came to visit anymore. Keith McCauley had been a good friend and mentor to Finn, helping him through a rough time in his life after his father died when Finn was fifteen. Finn's mother had retreated into herself after that, and then Finn had come home from school one bitterly cold March day to find out her gone. She had left a note on the table telling him she needed to focus on her musical career. That she would be back. She just wasn't sure when.
Worried about his mother, Finn had called Keith, who'd been a deputy at the time. Keith had come and driven him to his house. The next day he'd brought him over to the Moore family, who had taken him in. Finn's mother had come home four months later, and he'd moved back in with her. But a week later she'd left again.
Though she'd popped in and out of his life after that, he'd stayed with the Moores until he could move out on his own.
Keith had encouraged him and helped him through that difficult time. It had been Keith who'd introduced him to his fiancée, Denise. Keith who had encouraged him to date her after Keith had met her at the hospital in Bozeman.
"Hate to rush the long arm of the law," Jodie said, her voice holding a surprisingly tight note, "but am I getting a ticket or ?"
Finn mentally shook off the sad memories. "In honor of your father, a man I admired, I'll let you off today," he said, meeting her gaze. "He was a good man."
She looked up at him, her blue eyes flat now. Expressionless. "I'm sure he was good to you."
Her cryptic comment confused him, but he guessed her emotions were volatile on a day like today, so he let it go. He had heard from Keith that his three daughters had planned to visit him after his cancer diagnosis. But before that happened Keith had been killed when his truck rolled upside down.
Finn stood aside as Jodie rolled up the window, started the car.
He half expected her to peel off, tires spinning, but she slowly pulled away, keeping to the speed limit this time.
Her car topped the rise, the heat shimmering up from the pavement, distorting it, and then it dropped into the valley, disappearing from view.
Now he had to finish his shift, clean up and try to get to the funeral on time. But as he drove to his last call of the day, all his thoughts were of those blue, blue eyes.
Jodie clutched the single rose she held, staring at the casket bearing the remains of her father as the pastor read from the Bible. With her other arm she clung to her sister Lauren as a flock of ravens whistled overhead. The birds were a funereal black against the blue Montana sky that stretched from one mountain range to the other, cradling the basin the town of Saddlebank nestled in.
She took in a deep breath, slowing her still-racing heart, memories as raucous as the birds above them swirling through her mind. The service in the church had been mercifully brief and surprisingly difficult. Jodie's own emotions were so mixed as she listened to the pastor talking about her father's life. She wondered if they knew the same person.
Do not speak ill of the dead.
Her grandmother's words resounded in Jodie's mind. Her dear grandmother, who had also passed on, like Jodie's mother had. So many losses, she thought.
Only half her attention was on the casket and the pastor. The other half was on the man who stood toward the back of the sparse crowd assembled around the grave.
He was taller than the last time she'd seen him. Which wasn't a memory she enjoyed pulling out.
That summer had been both wonderful and awful. She'd dated Finn, and lost her chance at her audition for the music conservatory.
After her parents' divorce and their subsequent move to Knoxville with their mom, she and her sisters had spent their summers in Saddlebank with their father. He'd never approved of her seeing Finn. Keith McCauley thought Finn Hicks was too good for her.
But at the beginning of that summer Jodie had felt her life was coming to a good place. She was falling in love with a wonderful guy. Which had scared her, and led her to do something very stupid.
She was still dealing with the repercussions of that decision and her father's reaction to this day. After that summer, she'd never seen Finn again.
Until a couple hours ago.
Seeing Finn in the same uniform her father always wore, a uniform that evoked too many bad memories, was a shock, and yet not a surprise. Finn had always been a solid, salt-of-the-earth guy. Which was what had attracted her to him initially.
She wondered what he would think of her now, working as a waitress during the day, playing piano in bars at night.
Jodie sneaked another glance at Finn, dismayed to catch him returning her gaze. But he looked quickly away, his hazel eyes now focused on Keith's coffin. Finn had grown from an appealing teen into a handsome man, his strong features, square chin and broad shoulders granting him an authority that seemed ingrained. His dark brown hair, worn longer than her father's regulation haircut, curled just enough to soften his face.
She shouldn't have been surprised that Finn had followed in her father's footsteps. The eulogy Finn had delivered a few moments ago was lavish in his praise of a man he'd said had been a mentor to him. A shining example of Christian love in quiet action.
It had been a difficult funeral, Jodie thought, clenching and unclenching her right hand. Leaning on her sister as she so often did.
Lauren wore a sensible black dress, a stark and suitable contrast to her own bright red one. Jodie had refused to wear black, reasoning that with her dark hair she'd look washed out, but now she felt a touch of regret at her choice. She looked as though she didn't care, when, in fact, her emotions concerning her dad were complex and confusing.
For better or for worse, he was still her father, and now he was gone.
Her older sister stared at the coffin, her pale face framed by her long blond hair, her blue eyes blinking, her narrow shoulders hunched protectively. She pressed Jodie's arm to her side.
Jodie wondered if she, too, thought of their missing sister, Lauren's twin. When they had contacted Erin to make the arrangements, all Lauren or Jodie had got in reply were terse text messages stating she couldn't come. Nothing else.
At a signal from the pastor, Lauren laid her rose on the casket. Jodie did the same, followed by Aunt Laura, their father's sister. Their aunt was short and plump, her graying hair cut in a shoulder-length bob. She wore a simple gray blazer, slacks and sensible shoes, as befitting the funeral of her brother. She placed her rose on the coffin, then stepped aside to let Monty Bannister, a tall, heavyset man who was their father's distant cousin, and his wife, Ellen, who barely made it to Monty's shoulder, do the same.
"In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, we commend the body of our brother Keith McCauley to the ground," Pastor Dykstra said, his voice tugged away on the breeze swirling around the graveyard. "And we cling to the promise of the resurrection of the dead. The hope of our eternal life."
Jodie said a quiet amen, a shiver traveling down her spine at the thought of eternal life. Facing God with the mess that had been her life the past ten years. That was one of the reasons she'd avoided God lately.
The casket slowly descended into the ground, and with each inch Jodie felt the complicated bonds tethering her to her father loosen. It had been years since she'd last seen him. Years since that horrible fight that had changed her life, broken the connection between her and Finn and sent her running away from him and everything he represented.
She'd called her father a few times a year. Each time she'd been on the receiving end of a litany of complaints and grumblings, and guilt piled on her for not coming to see him.
Then he had been diagnosed with cancer. But only weeks before she and her sisters had arranged to visit, their father was killed in a single-vehicle accident.
"The family would like to invite everyone to meet in the church hall for some lunch," Pastor Dykstra announced, ending the funeral service.
People started drifting away and Jodie took a deep breath, knowing what lay ahead. Well-wishers and sympathy and a headache that increased with each passing moment. She caught a glimpse of Finn walking to another part of the graveyard, then stopping by a stone.
Jodie wondered if it was his father's grave, remembering that his dad had died when Finn was only fourteen.
Finn's smile was melancholy as he looked down, then ran his fingers over the stone, as if trying to connect with whoever was buried there. His sorrow caught at her heart. She doubted she would ever look at her father's grave with the same love that seemed to shine in Finn's eyes.
"I'm so sorry for your loss," Pastor Dykstra said as he shook Lauren's hand, resting his other on Jodie's shoulder. Jodie focused her attention back on the man with another surge of remorse. "Your father talked often of you girls."
Pastor Dykstra shook Jodie's hand, his kindly eyes holding hers. "I pray you will let God comfort you at this time."
She nodded, giving him a smile. He squeezed her hand again, then walked away from the grave toward the church.
Monty Bannister also shook Jodie's, then Lauren's hand. "I hope that you'll be able to remember some of the good times you had with your father," he said, giving them both a winsome smile. "And that you feel God's presence in your lives."
Jodie wasn't sure how to respond to that. She hadn't spent a lot of time with God lately and doubted that He cared to spend much time with her. Nor was she so sure which memories of her father she would be remembering. When she and her sisters had come to visit, it was as if he hadn't known what to do with his daughters other than make them work. Each summer had been fraught with the tension of living with a man who, as sheriff of Saddlebank County, saw life in black-and-white. No shades of gray. A man who for some reason was especially hard on Jodie.
So she simply murmured her thanks. She was quite certain that even if Monty knew exactly what her father was like, he would have said the same thing.
"You girls make sure you call us if you need anything," Ellen told them, clinging to both their hands, her smile warm.
"Thank you," Jodie and Lauren said at the same time.
Jodie had only vague remembrances of Monty, Ellen and their three children, Keira, Heather and Lee. Keith had taken them only a few times to Refuge Ranch, the Bannister spread. Because Lauren and Erin were older, they'd hung out with Keira and Heather, leaving Jodie to play with either the cats in the barn or the horses.
"How are you girls holding out?" Aunt Laura slipped an arm around Lauren, giving Jodie a quick smile.
"This is harder than I thought it would be," Lauren said, wiping her eyes. "I feel so bad that we didn't take the time to see him before he died."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The story is set in a small Montana town, with compelling characters & just the right balance among mystery, county sheriff, & romance!