Jeremiah gripped the rusty nail with his pliers and yanked it out of the fence post, glancing at his Australian shepherd when the dog jumped to his feet with eyes and ears alert. Murph’s tail stump wiggled, and when Jeremiah followed his dog’s gaze, he spotted Aaron striding toward them from the back door of the main house. The older man would be heading in to work shortly, so he was dressed in his brown and tan uniform, and the sight of it brought a trickle of adrenaline. He set his pliers on top of the post and waited for the sheriff to stride across the snowy yard.
Snow. On the eighth of May.
It didn’t matter how long he lived in Northstar; its weather and beauty still left him with the same wonder and awe as it had that first year he’d worked for the Hammonds.
As Aaron neared, the trickle of adrenaline increased to a stream. He didn’t like the grim set of the sheriff’s jaw.
When Aaron was a dozen yards away, Murph raced out to him, prancing around his legs until the man gave in and lavished him with pets. Satisfied, the dog trotted back to Jeremiah looking entirely too pleased with himself.
“Well?” Jeremiah asked when Aaron reached him.
“Zach got the early parole.”
“Fuck.” He winced, glancing at his companion. “Sorry.”
Aaron’s brows rose. “Been a long time since I’ve heard you use that particular word.”
“Yeah.” He raked his gloved hand through his hair and scowled. He needed a haircut. “When’s he getting out?”
“I seriously doubt he’d throw away all his hard work to get the early release and risk his freedom to get back at you.”
“You don’t know him.”
“You’re right. I don’t. But I know one thing.” Aaron nudged him with his elbow and offered a teasing grin. “He’s not a hothead like you were.”
Jeremiah snorted and folded his arms on the top rail of the fence. He let his gaze wander over the snow-covered hayfields and pastures dotted with cattle and horses. Above the cacophony of his thoughts, the quiet, natural sounds of the Lazy H ranch—cows calling to their calves, the twittering of birds in the willows by the nearby creek, the sighing of the wind through the pines blanketing the foothills—were a soothing song, but even that couldn’t ease the clawing anxiety.
Not today. Maybe, if Aaron had brought different news…. But not now.
“He’ll never forgive what I did.”
“Do you really believe he’d gamble his freedom for revenge?”
Jeremiah held his friend’s gaze with brows lifted and his mouth pressed into a line. It was all the answer Aaron needed.
“I hope you’re wrong,” he said. “I need to head in to work. You gonna be all right?”
Jeremiah inhaled, held it, and frowned. As he let the breath out, he said, “I will be.”
Aaron wrapped him in a strong hug and didn’t let go for close to half a minute, and Jeremiah closed his eyes and took another deep breath as he hugged the man back. Where would he be right now if Aaron hadn’t wrestled him into submission that day eleven years ago with every diner in the crowded restaurant trying hard to pretend they weren’t watching? What would’ve happened to him if, after that, Aaron had rightly slapped cuffs on him for a third time as he had the second and sent him back to jail instead of offering him a job?
Aaron released him but didn’t entirely let him go, gripping his shoulder tightly. “I know what you’re thinking about,” he said. “Knock it off. The past is the past and whatever might’ve been won’t ever be.”
Jeremiah only nodded.
“Try not to think about this too much, all right?”
“Can’t make any promises.”
“I know. But try.”
He watched Aaron stride away. When the sheriff was a dozen paces from the fence, Jeremiah called after him. “Hey, Aaron?”
The older man stopped and turned around. “Yeah?”
“Thanks. For everything.”
Aaron could have said something like no thanks needed or my pleasure or any other of a dozen polite phrases, but he only dipped his head once in acknowledgement, and that said more than words could. It said Jeremiah was valued, that he was part of the family. And that was something he’d lost the day his older brother had put a gun to his head. Zach might be his cousin, but he’d never been family. Nor would he ever be.
He dropped his head onto his arms and pinched his eyes closed.
Maybe he was wrong. Not about Zach forgiving what he’d done—there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening—but maybe about how important revenge was to him. Zach was a lifer, as addicted to the power and money of his illicit empire as his customers were to the drugs he sold them. He couldn’t rebuild that empire from behind bars.
Lifting his head, Jeremiah shook it and let out a mirthless laugh.
He hadn’t seen his cousin in almost sixteen years, but the last time he had, Zach hadn’t needed to say the words for Jeremiah to get the message.
You’re a dead man.
Abruptly, he straightened. Grabbing his pliers, he ripped out the last four nails left behind when the old rails had succumbed to rot this winter and made quick work of nailing the new rails in place. Then he yanked off his gloves and stared at his trembling hands. He jerked his hammer off the ground and whipped it back to hurl it across the yard but stopped himself. His whole body quivered as he fought the surge of anger. He was better than this. The Hammonds had helped him get better. He wasn’t the young, dumb hothead who had twice assaulted Aaron. Not anymore.
Letting out a guttural sound as he overpowered the raging despair and frustration, he dropped his arm and slumped against the fence post, ignoring the knot digging into his back. The hammer slipped from his hand, and he sank to the ground, sitting on his heels to keep his butt out of the snow. Murphy wiggled into his lap with a low whine, and Jeremiah buried his fingers in the dog’s soft, thick fur.
He tipped his head back with his eyes closed. He still had a lot more fence to fix today, but there was no way he’d be able to get it done without hurting himself or breaking something.
After giving himself a few minutes to fully regain his composure, he pushed to his feet and gathered his tools. He returned them to their homes in the shop, called to Murph, and headed to the main house. He commanded his dog to stay before he stepped inside the front door. He found Tracie Hammond enjoying a book in the living room with her lunch sitting half-eaten on the end table beside her recliner. She looked up with a smile when he entered.
“Finally decided to come in for lunch?” she inquired.
Crap. He’d forgotten lunch again. “Not exactly.”
“You know, someday I’d love to not have to remind you to eat.”
“Sorry. I get so focused on work….”
“I’m teasing, Jeremiah.” She studied him with narrowed eyes. Tracie Hammond was a gracious and compassionate woman, and she undoubtedly had no trouble gauging his troubled thoughts as if they were as plain on his face as the words on the pages of her book. “So serious today. What do you need, honey?”
“I hate to ask because I still have a lot to do on the fence,” Jeremiah began. “But—”
“Yes,” she interrupted. Setting her book aside, she rose and walked over to hug him. “Take the afternoon off. That fence isn’t going anywhere.”
“Aaron already told you.”
“I was standing right next to him when he made the call. Are you okay?”
He started to give the same answer he’d given her son—that he would be okay—but instead, he took a deep breath and went with complete honesty. “Not right at this moment. I need some time to… I don’t know. Wrap my head around it? I thought I’d have a few more years before he got out.”
“We all hoped you would, too. Take all the time you need. The work will wait.”
“Thank you, Tracie.”
“Try that again.”
Chuckling, he corrected himself. “Thank you, Mom.”
She hugged him again, holding him longer this time, and when she released him, she rested her hand briefly against his cheek like he imagined she’d done to her sons when they were younger. She must’ve sensed he was on the verge of losing it because she ruffled the mop that was his hair and shooed him away with a promise to give him a haircut tomorrow. He glanced back at her as he walked out of the living room to the entryway, and though she’d returned to her recliner, she watched him with a concerned frown. When their gazes met, she smiled reassuringly, and he nodded in acknowledgement before he slipped outside.
He owed Tracie and her family—especially Aaron—more than he could ever repay. Not that they’d ask him to. He’d’ve been lost without the Hammonds. Or dead. Did they understand that… truly understand it?
“Come on, Murph,” he said to his dog. With a snap of his fingers, the blue-eyed Aussie jumped to his side. “Let’s go for a ride.”
Without a conscious thought about what he needed to do to calm his erratic thoughts, he opened the driver-side door of his old Ford pickup to let Murph in and climbed in after the dog. The truck wasn’t much to look at with some rust here and there and a few more dents he still needed to pull—it was a ranch truck, after all—but thanks to many a late night in the shop with Henry, the old girl ran like a dream, and she’d never once let him down. He turned the key in the ignition and smiled when the engine growled to life.
“Atta girl,” he murmured, patting the sun-faded dash.
Despite the snow on the ground, it was close to fifty degrees out, so he reached across the cab and rolled the passenger-side window down enough for Murph to window-surf.
He drove off the ranch and turned south on the Northstar Scenic Byway, not questioning the impulse guiding him. When he reached the main highway, he turned left, toward Devyn, driving slower than he normally did to take in the mountains and hills and the sweep of the valley, trying to remember when this landscape hadn’t been as familiar as his own reflection.
The highway curved east and ran straight for a few miles before crossing Northstar Creek and starting the climb up Badger Pass. As he crossed the bridge, he noted the three crosses just beyond and gave a moment’s thought to the intricacies of fate. One of those crosses was for Pat O’Neil’s ex, and the crash that had ended her life had set him free just as hitting a deer sixteen years ago today had knocked Jeremiah off the path he’d been headed down.
As he crested the pass and started down the other side toward Devyn, he glanced in his rearview mirror and let the memories roll through him.
That night, he’d driven a BMW sedan instead of an old ranch truck. Narrowing his eyes, he scanned the right side of the road. There it was, at the top of the small rise before the highway began the long descent into the valley—the turnout by the shallow gravel pit. Panic had surged when he’d spotted the pickup marked with the county sheriff’s department insignia. He’d been so close… so close to completing his run, but when Aaron had pulled onto the road and followed him, he’d been so anxious that he hadn’t paid proper attention to the road in front of him. Eight miles down the pass, he’d been watching in his mirror, waiting for those red and blue lights to turn on, and he hadn’t seen the deer.
He’d hit it full on at seventy miles an hour.
It was a miracle he hadn’t been killed.
The BMW, spraying sparks that had glowed eerily in the dark night, had skidded into the ditch and up onto a pasture access approach, coming to an abrupt stop against a remarkably sturdy fence.
The deer had—mercifully—died instantly. It was a small consolation, and all these years later, Jeremiah still regretted that loss of life. And yet… he wouldn’t have everything he did now if not for that deer.
He saw the spot where the BMW had ended up and pulled over. Shutting the truck down, he waited for a semi hauling cattle to pass by before he stepped outside and let his dog out. Walking around to the front of his truck, he propped his foot on the bumper and patted his leg. Murph leapt up to his thigh and then onto the wide hood of the old truck. Jeremiah joined him, leaning against the windshield.
The storm that had dumped six inches of wet snow in Northstar hadn’t been cold enough to bring snow to the broad valley around Devyn, and a distinct snowline ringed the valley. Everything above six thousand feet was blanketed in white while everything below gleamed emerald.
It was gorgeous. He was lucky to be alive to appreciate it and the turn his life had taken.
He reached over to ruffle Murph’s ears and was rewarded with enthusiastic kisses.
“Yeah, you’re part of all the good things, too,” he said, laughing. “One of the best, in fact. We’re both pretty lucky, aren’t we?”
He didn’t give voice to the thought, but he couldn’t stop it from resounding in his head.
How much longer would his luck last?
Because, no matter how much he hoped he was wrong, he knew in his gut Zach wasn’t going to let him off the hook for ratting him out.
* * *
Heather adjusted her grip on the steering wheel and scowled. She’d done it again—ruined her parents dreams of her marrying the perfect man and giving them three more perfect grandchildren. On her birthday, no less. And not just any birthday. Her thirtieth. The one that was supposed to be the transition into full, no-more-excuses, time-to-get-serious adulthood. Somehow, breaking up with her boyfriend seconds before he proposed because some stupid, childish voice in the back of her mind balked at the idea of being tied down—the same voice that nagged her about how temporary everything in her life felt even if it wasn’t—didn’t seem like a very adult thing to do.
Dinner with her family tonight was going to be oh-so-fun.
She flipped on her blinker as she reached the exit for the highway out to Northstar and swiped at the tears leaking down her cheeks. Why was she crying—or almost crying—anyhow? It wasn’t like this was the first time she’d broken up with a great guy.
She had quite the track record, stretching all the way back to Shane McGuire, her first serious boyfriend in high school. And every single one of the boys and men she’d dated—or, in the case of Luke Conner, had wanted to date—were now happily married to incredible, loving wives. Of them all, Shane was the only one not married, and that would change next summer when he and Becky Epperson finally tied the knot.
She didn’t begrudge them their happily-ever-afters; they all deserved nothing less.
The fault wasn’t with the men. It was with her.
Why did she keep doing shit like this? Giving up on a good thing because she was…. What? Stubborn? Overly picky? Afraid?
Dustin was a good man, like all the rest, if a little too set on the whole white-picket-fence dream for her tastes. He was kind and generous, tall, and good-looking, and he had a good job and a loving family who had accepted and adored her from the get go. He was—as far as she and the many, many women she’d caught eying him could tell—absolutely perfect.
That was the problem, and it was the same one she’d had with Ty Evans. And a dozen other men. He was too perfect, and she’d known from their first date that she would never be entirely comfortable with him. And the reason why had nothing to do with him. She couldn’t imagine letting him see the cracks in her. Because, in his wonderful, compassionate perfection, he would try to help her heal them and only end up cracking himself.
Sure. She was going to go with that explanation. That way she sounded noble and selfless and not totally insane.
Of course, her mother’s first words after Heather broke the devastating news were likely to agree with the latter explanation. Heather could almost hear the practiced balance of exasperation and disappointment in her mother’s voice. Are you crazy?
“Plenty of evidence pointing in that direction,” she murmured, glancing at the leather wrist band on her left arm.
Maybe Dustin wasn’t so perfect after all. He’d never once asked why she always wore it, assuming, as everyone else did, that the band with its elegant Western tooling was a fashion statement. And she’d never felt the desire to explain it to him.
Tired of that depressing line of thought, she skipped through her playlist until she landed on Eminem’s The Way I am and cranked the volume up.
Halfway between the interstate and the top of Badger Pass, she spotted a familiar 1978 Ford F-250 parked on an approach to a pasture on the other side of the highway. Its owner and his ever-present four-legged companion sat on the hood. At first glance, they looked rather comfortable, like they were taking in the scenery, but maybe the old truck had broken down and they were waiting for someone to stop. As far as she knew, the man didn’t own a cell phone. She slowed and pulled over onto the approach across the highway from them. Leaving her truck running, she climbed out and waited for a car to pass.
“Need a ride, cowboy?” Heather called as she jogged across the road.
Jeremiah turned his head toward her, and she expected him to grin that shy, adorable grin he usually gave her, but his lips barely twitched, and his eyes remained distant.
Guess I’m not the only one having a shitty day. She rested her hand on the hood near his leg. “The ol’ girl finally give up on you?”
“Then… what are you doing here?”
“Retracing steps and pondering the quirks of life and fate.”
Heather’s first instinct was to laugh at the turn of phrase, but his somber expression quieted the urge. “Want some company?”
He eyed her, and for a moment, she thought he was going to turn her down. Then he scooted over and patted the hood in invitation. She climbed up beside him without considering for even half a second why she hadn’t just turned around and left him to his pondering. She might not have given him much thought, but that didn’t mean she was oblivious to the way he’d always looked at her. And right now, with her heart and mind twisted into knots about Dustin, his quiet but obvious attraction to her was soothing.
“So, what quirks of life and fate are you pondering?” she asked, redirecting her thoughts before they spilled out her mouth and got her in trouble. She reached across him to let his dog sniff her hand, gauging his expression from the corner of her vision. When the Australian shepherd nudged her hand with his nose, she ruffled his ears.
Jeremiah didn’t seem to notice. Man, he was caught up in his own thoughts.
“My cousin’ll be out of prison in a couple weeks,” he said quietly. “He got the early parole.”
His cousin? Right. Zach Neely—sentenced to twenty years in prison for masterminding the biggest drug ring this county had ever seen. It had been all over the news when she and her family had first moved out here, but she’d been too young and having too much fun much exploring her new home to pay much attention to it. “Ah, I’d forgotten about him.”
“Most days, I do, too. But not today.” He leaned forward with his forearms braced on his thighs and stared unseeing across the valley at the mountains. “I wish Aaron had waited to tell me.”
“What’s so special about today?”
“Today marks sixteen years since he arrested me. And Zach getting out early makes it difficult to celebrate that.”
“You want to celebrate getting arrested?”
“That arrest started me on the right path even if it took me a few more years to see it.” He shook his head. “I need to go back and remember it all today. To remember how far I’ve come.”
Heather stared at him. This was way deeper than anything she’d expected. “Ah,” was all she could say in response. Suddenly, agonizing over her breakup seemed pathetic.
Abruptly, he looked at her with a thoughtful frown. “Funny you of all people should pull over.” Then his expression shifted into a glimmer of the smile she was most familiar with. “Happy birthday, by the way.”
“How’d you…?” She held up her hands. “Never mind. Thank you. Some birthday it’s turned out to be, but thank you.”
She glanced over him. He was dressed in a plain gray long-sleeved T-shirt and straight-legged jeans rather than the button-up shirt and classic Wrangler jeans many of their Northstar neighbors preferred, and with his hair shaggier than he usually kept it, he didn’t look much like a cowboy, but the stubble darkening his jaw added a hint of ruggedness to his otherwise boyish face.
A memory flashed across her mind—of the first time she’d met him, shortly after the Hammonds had hired him. It wasn’t a clear memory, but she recalled that he’d been even shaggier and a whole lot skinnier. Sometime between then and now, he’d added weight and muscle, and even that boring T-shirt of his couldn’t hide it.
She cocked her head. Why hadn’t she ever noticed what a cutie he was? Or that he was so sweet?
“Not having a good day?” he asked.
“Not particularly. And I’m on my way home to have dinner with my family, which is bound to make it worse.”
He looked at her like a man teetering on the edge of indecision, working up the courage to speak. It took a while, but finally, he did.
“If you need a backup plan, I’d be happy to buy you a couple of drinks.”
“Thank you. I mean that. And I will probably take you up on that.” She offered her hand and he shook it. “I’ll let you get back to pondering the quirks of life and fate. See you later.”
“Sure,” he replied in a way that said he didn’t expect she’d be knocking on his door tonight.
Giving his dog another pat, she slid off the hood and crossed the highway. She climbed in behind the wheel of her truck and rolled the window down to wave as she drove away. He lifted his hand in farewell. As she watched his truck shrink in her rearview mirror, an idea blossomed with delightful brilliance.
In addition to being generally perfect, all the men she’d dated had one more thing in common—they all fit within her family’s narrow definition of a “good man”. With his criminal background, Jeremiah definitely would not. Since she’d made a habit of bucking against her family’s wishes most of her life, maybe it was time to apply that tradition to her love life as well.
By the time she reached Northstar, it was already after three. Everyone was supposed to gather at her parents’ house at five, so she detoured to her cabin in the same subdivision where the Hammonds had their vacation rental just long enough to drop her overnight bag inside and run a brush through her hair. It probably wasn’t a smart idea to head down early, but if things were going to go the way she was certain they would, she might as well get it over with and give herself more evening to enjoy with Jeremiah.
She wasn’t entirely surprised that her mother, sister, and both sisters-in-law were in the kitchen when she arrived, decorating her cake at the island. Her father, brothers, and brother-in-law were certainly still out working somewhere on their small ranch. She leaned against the wall beside the kitchen door and watched as her mother’s skilled hands turned white icing into delicate lace against a smooth chocolate backdrop. The cake would undoubtedly be a feminine work of art when she was done… and absolutely the opposite of what Heather liked.
Finally, the three younger women realized they had company and glanced in her direction. Her sister, Brianna, couldn’t be troubled to give more than a nod in acknowledgement. Brock’s wife, Anna, at least smiled, but she had her hands full scooping more icing into a piping bag for Lily, who was so focused on her task that she remained oblivious to everything else. Curtis’s wife, Christina, was the only one who put down what she was working on and wiped her hands on the apron that did nothing to hide her gigantic belly. Heather took a step further into the kitchen, but Christina didn’t wait for her to come to her. She greeted Heather at the door with a big hug and a laugh.
“Happy birthday, old woman!”
Heather gave a sniff of laughter. “Thanks.”
“You’re early,” her mother remarked. “Where’s Dustin?”
This was a conversation they’d had so many times that she didn’t need to spell it out for her mother, and she didn’t expect she’d have to wait long for her mother to connect the dots.
Lily didn’t disappoint. Without so much as a brief smile of welcome, her mother groaned. “Not again. What did you do?”
“I woulda thought that was obvious. I broke up with him.”
“Oh, Heather…. Why? Dustin is such a wonderful man.”
“Yes, he is.”
Lily waited for her to elaborate with brows pinched together and an icing-spattered hand on her hip. Heather met her gaze head on and waited her out. For such a dainty and classically feminine woman, Lily Brown had a deceptively forceful nature, and Heather watched the practiced poise slide into scorn.
“When are you going to grow up and stop pushing good men away? Or do you want to be alone the rest of your life?”
“Somedays that’s a rather appealing idea.”
“What is wrong with you?”
Heather stared at her mother in stunned silence. Lily was strict and stern and rigid in her idea of what was and wasn’t the proper way for a woman to behave, but she was rarely cruel. She glanced between her mother, Brianna, Christina, and Anna. They were all slight, delicate women, and Heather stood four inches higher than the tallest of them with a heavier frame toned by her highly physical job. She felt like an awkward giant standing next to them.
Her mother’s words echoed in her mind. What is wrong with you?
She straightened her spine and glared down at her mother, meeting Lily’s disgust with fire.
“A lot. Thanks, Mother. Happy fucking birthday to me.” She stormed to the door and yanked it open.
“Heather Jade Brown, don’t you dare—”
She slammed the door behind her.
She was halfway out to her truck when the door opened again and Christina jogged awkwardly out it. Heather winced, momentarily guilty for making her friend run when she was so close to her due date.
“Heather, wait! Please.”
She stopped and waited for Christina to reach her. “I’m not going back in there.”
“I didn’t figure you would. I wasn’t going to ask you to.”
“Then what do you want?”
“I’ll go out with you. We’ll celebrate your birthday in town, away from all this. Sounds like you could use a couple drinks tonight.”
Heather eyed her friend’s pregnant belly and lifted a brow. “That’s all right. I already have a backup plan.”
“Yeah. I bumped into Jeremiah a bit ago, and it turns out I’m not the only one who has something to drink about today.”
“I’m pretty sure he prefers to be called Jeremiah.”
“You can’t be serious. You just broke up with Dustin, who was a great guy, and—”
“And Jeremiah’s not?”
“Well…. Come on, Heather. He was arrested for running drugs, or did you forget that?”
“And one mistake—which he’s paid for—should condemn him for the rest of his life?”
“But it wasn’t just one mistake. Have you forgotten that he assaulted Aaron not once but twice?”
“And yet Aaron turned around and offered him a job on the Lazy H… a job he still has eleven years later. Seems you’ve forgotten that.”
“The man has a temper, Heather.”
“Maybe he did. Or maybe he was just a hurting kid lashing out. I don’t know, and I’m not going to judge him for what happened over a decade ago until I do know.”
Heather pressed her mouth into a flat line. Once upon a time, they’d been the best of friends, but that had changed when Christina had married Curtis, even though Curtis was easily Heather’s favorite sibling. “I miss the days when you were still my friend first and my family second.”
She’d said it gently, but that couldn’t strip the bite from the words, and Christina stared at her for a moment with her eyes rounded with hurt. Then her friend spun on her heel and marched back to the house.
She should call her friend back and apologize, but right at that moment, she wasn’t in the mood. There had been a time when such a thought would never have entered her mind let alone escaped her lips, and Heather missed it. She needed Christina’s unconditional friendship today, and that comment about Jeremiah made it painfully obvious she didn’t have it anymore.
Scowling, she jumped into her truck, started it, and slammed it in reverse, spraying slush and mud as she peeled away from her parents’ house.
She wasn’t sure if Jeremiah was even home yet, but if he wasn’t, she’d wait on the porch of the bunkhouse he shared with Austin McGuire. Anything was better than sticking around to listen to her family deride her for breaking up with Dustin or going home to stew in the silence of her cabin.
She was in luck. His old Ford was parked beside the bunkhouse, and she pulled her three-year-old Silverado in beside it. The stark difference in their vehicles ignited her anger at Christina’s remarks all over again. Whatever he might’ve done when he was young and stupid, Jeremiah had busted his ass to get to where he was now, and he’d done it with admirable humility. That said a lot more to her about his character than the choices he’d made as a dumb teenager.
He answered her knock with unveiled surprise. So he really hadn’t believed she would take him up on his invitation.
The smile that spread slowly across his face was one she’d never seen before, and right then, it was exactly what she needed.
“That offer still open?” she asked.
That sweet, surprised smile widened into a beaming grin, like she’d just handed him the world. Euphoria swamped her.
It was nice to be wanted without conditions.
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