Sunday, April 30, 2023

Review: Trailing a Killer by Carol Post

Author: Carol Post
Publisher: Love Inspired (Harlequin)
Publication Date: February 2021 

A killer with an explosive agenda…

And a K-9 and determined detective on the case.

In a hurricane’s aftermath, Detective Erin Jeffries is stunned when she and her search-and-rescue K-9, Alcee, uncover a collapsed building’s only survivor—her long-ago ex, Cody Elbourne. And it’s quickly clear that the disaster was no accident. Now only Cody can identify the man who set the explosives that killed his grandfather…and Erin must stop the killer dead set on silencing him

Trailing a Killer is the second book in the K-9 Search and Recue series.  As I said in my review of the first one in this series, THerse are not related at all.  Only that they involve rescue dogs and their handlers.  This one involves Erin and Cody.

I thought this one was a pretty good.  I liked the msytery of who was trying to kill Cody.  I was genuinely surprised at the identity of the killer. I also really enjoyed the second chance romance between  Cody and Erin.  It was really sweet.  I do recommend this one.  It's a quick read, so give it a shot.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Spotlight: Excerpt from Zora Books Her Happily Ever After by Taj McCoy


by Taj McCoy
On sale: April 25, 2023
ISBN: 9780778333524
Fiction; Romance
320 Pages

A heart-pounding, curvy romance about an indie bookstore owner who finds herself in a love triangle when she meets the author she's had a crush on for years...and his best friend.
Zora has committed every inch of her life to establishing her thriving DC bookstore, making it into a pillar of the community, and she just hasn’t had time for romance. But when a mystery author she’s been crushing on for years agrees to have an event at her store, she starts to rethink her priorities. Lawrence is every bit as charming as she imagined, even if his understanding of his own books seems just a bit shallow. When he asks her out after his reading, she’s almost elated enough to forget about the grumpy guy who sat next to her making snide comments all evening. Apparently the grouch is Lawrence’s best friend, Reid, but she can’t imagine what kind of friendship that must be. They couldn’t be more different.
But as she starts seeing Lawrence, and spending more and more time with Reid, Zora finds first impressions can be deceiving. Reid is smart and thoughtful—he’s also interested. After years of avoiding dating, she suddenly has two handsome men competing for her affection. But even as she struggles to choose between them, she can’t shake the feeling that they’re both hiding something—a mystery she’s determined to solve before she can find her HEA.

Enjoy this sneak peek:

“Well, is he attractive? You know I don’t want no ugly great-grandbabies.”

“Granny!” Zora laughed, pulling books from the stocking cart to arrange on the shelving display for the storefront window. The sun poked through the cloudy morning, threatening to scorch another early September day. Opus Northeast had been open for less than fifteen minutes, and its owner was already rolling her eyes. Silly her for making the mistake of mentioning the man who hit on her as she walked from her parked car into the store. “There’s no such thing as an ugly baby.”

Granny Marion shook a ruby-red fingernail at her granddaughter. “Now, I know I taught you better than that. Ain’t no reason to lie, baby. You know good and well that the li’l girl two doors down from you has one, bless his heart.”

Zora stifled a snort as she stacked middle-grade fantasy books next to some young-adult ones. Stories of witches, magic, and other worlds rich in cultural traditions and majesty. Running her fingers over the foiled titles of their hardcover jackets, she pictured her younger self staring into the window in awe, ready to devour each word in the safety of her cozy bedroom fort. Her parents would shake their heads in amusement before turning her loose in the children’s section. She’d beg to take home every new story that she hadn’t previously spent hours poring over, eventually convincing her parents to allow her a new armful. “That baby is cute. He just has a big head.”

“Hmmph. I think the word you’re looking for is oblong. And why are his eyes so big?” Granny Marion widened her eyes until they bulged behind her wire-rimmed glasses, her taut brown skin hugging high cheekbones and a proud forehead. Her long, salt-and-pepper hair twisted neatly into a bun at the nape of her neck—a nostalgic reminder of her past as a professional dancer turned dance teacher. Every move of her petite frame flowed with grace and intention, even when she ridiculed their neighbor’s newest family addition.

“Granny.” Zora squeezed out from the window front, smoothing her hands over her shapely figure clad in her usual skinny jeans, camisole and cardigan—today’s was hip length and plum colored. She loved a layered look, and her sweater matched her matte lipstick perfectly. “I’m sure he’ll grow into his features as he gets older.” She leaned down to kiss her grandmother on the cheek. “Remember, I had to grow into my smile—I had that awful headgear the orthodontist made me wear.”

For her entire fifth grade year, Zora had been plagued with jeers and jokes about the metal contraption affixed to her upper jaw to help with her overbite. Her only reprieve was when she ate, but even then, her classmates would tease Zora about her protruding front teeth. She’d sit with her closest friends on benches outside to avoid the meanest kids posted up at tables in the cafeteria.

Granny Marion kissed her granddaughter back, eyes sparkling. “Mmm-hmm, I remember. That gear gave you character. But there ain’t no headgear to fix a misshapen head, baby.”

“Jesus.” Zora shook her head, unable to hide her smile. She grabbed Granny’s hand, entwining their arms, and led her farther into the store. “So what are your plans for today?”

They walked past rows of bookshelves, display tables full of must-read paperbacks, and the checkout counter to a large corner filled with comfortable furniture for patrons to enjoy their purchases. Four-top tables lit with antique desk lamps were often filled with college students studying or local writers needing a change of venue. Against the farthest wall stood a coffee kiosk operated by a local Black-owned coffee shop and bakery. “I’m going to grab myself a latte and a breakfast bagel before I enjoy today’s newspaper.”

Granny Marion visited the store daily without fail, only deviating slightly from her routine when the Kerri’s Coffee kiosk sold holiday-inspired treats and she craved a holiday spice latte with a splash of eggnog instead of her regular skim latte. From open to close, Granny was often the one constant, greeting patrons, playing with kids, sharing her favorite reads and best cake recipes and reading her morning paper. She set her newspaper down on her favorite plush, high-backed chair in the reading corner, winking at the barista as they neared the coffee kiosk. “Hey there, young man, how you doin’ today?”

As they approached, Brian, a shy college sophomore, circled in front of the kiosk to wrap his arms around her. “Good morning, Ms. Marion. I’m doing good. How you doin’?” He waved at Zora. “Hey, Z.”

“What up, B?” Zora slapped him five and grabbed her usual from the counter—a raspberry cheese Danish and an oat milk latte. Before she could grill Brian about his upcoming calculus exam, the bell on the front door jingled. She raised her latte in thanks, and left her grandmother to chat. On Zora’s way to the front, she picked up a folded paper towel from the floor and chucked it into a waste bin. “What’s this doing here?”

Rushing in with several bags in her hands and flushed cheeks was Emma, Zora’s best friend and roommate. Her box braids were swept up into a high bun and framed by a colorful head wrap. Big hoop earrings barely skimmed the shoulders of her chambray dress shirt, which was tied at the waist over a colorful pleated skirt. “Girl. It’s already hot out there—I’m sweating! Now, don’t get mad. I know I’m late.”

Zora bit into her Danish and chewed, waiting. “I’m not mad.” Ain’t nothin’ new.

“It’s just that, I don’t even know how to tell you this…” She shoved her bags into a cabinet under the checkout counter, clenching and releasing her hands as she shuffled from one foot to the other nervously.

Zora sipped her latte, side-eyeing her friend. Nothing was new about these antics. “Rip the Band-Aid off, Em.”

She blew out a breath, grimacing. “I think I lost the inventory tablet. I couldn’t find it last night. It wasn’t in any of my bags or at home. I am so, so sorry. If we can’t find it, I promise I’ll pay for a replacement.” Emma wrung her hands. “I’m kinda hoping you can do your Zor-lock Holmes thing and help me retrace my steps.”

Emma lost everything. Back when they were college roommates, she lost her dorm keys the day she moved in. She lost her car in parking lots, lost her water bottle at yoga, and lost good wigs on multiple occasions when there was no logical reason for them to have been removed in the first place. One time she lost her date, which Zora never let Emma live down. Emma tried organizing differently, or keeping a note on her phone so that she knew where she parked, but then she’d lose her phone. Their freshman year Zora spent all of her free time retracing Emma’s steps to find her lost items, eventually printing instructions to call Zora onto adhesive labels to stick onto most of Emma’s property for the next time it went missing. They used Emma’s number originally, but she lost her phone more than anything else that she owned.

Chewing on a bit of Danish, Zora interlaced her fingers, pushing her palms out in front of her to stretch her arms before shaking them out at her sides. She tilted her head side to side, cracking her neck. “Okay, so you stayed to do inventory last night. What section were you working on?”

“Cookbooks.” Emma bit her lip.

Zora pulled her lips into her mouth, pressing them together as she nodded. “What did you eat for dinner?”

“I bought a chicken wrap from Brian, but then I wanted French fries, so I grabbed some duck fat fries from next door.” The bistro next door boasted New American cuisine with a hefty price tag.

“Ooo, I love those.” Now I want some.

“Right? They’re perfection.” Emma brought her fingertips to her mouth, kissed them and splayed them wide.

“Hmm.” Zora sipped her latte thoughtfully. This is too easy. “Did you check the bathroom? On top of the paper towel dispenser.”

Emma frowned, hugging her arms over her stomach. “Why would I check the bathroom? This isn’t like that time I ate those deep fried Oreos…”

Zora giggled. “I promise you, I wasn’t thinking of the day you blew up the bathroom. Honestly, I’d rather forget that one. Just go check.”

In a huff, her friend turned on her heel, walking back toward the coffee kiosk. “Hey, B! I’ll be right back for my coffee.” The bathroom door opened. “What the— How?” Emma rushed back, tablet in hand, mouth wide open. “How did you know it would be in the bathroom?” She plugged it into a charger hidden behind the counter and grabbed the backup, which was fully charged.

Zora sipped her latte, serving enough suspense to make her friend bounce with anticipation. “You had a chicken wrap and then ordered duck fat fries. You brought the food over to the cookbook section, but you always forget napkins, so you went to the bathroom. You carried the tablet with you, because you were worried you’d lose it. I found a paper towel on the floor next to the cookbook display.”

“So much for keeping it safe,” Emma muttered, eyeing it like the device betrayed her.

“It’s fine, we found the tablet, and now we can keep going through the inventory. Are you still on cookbooks?”

Emma nodded. “One last shelf, and then on to travel.”

“Okay, well let’s try to get through travel and self-help today? I want us to get through a full inventory sweep so that we can place our next orders and start planning out the short-story contest. We only have a couple of months left.”

“You got it. What are you working on today?” Emma leaned against the counter, looking surprised when Brian brought over her cinnamon-topped cappuccino. “You betta stop flirting with me, B!”

He grinned, walking back to the kiosk, as several shoppers wandered into the store.

“I’ve got social media posts, graphics for event flyers, and I’m trying to nail down this author for a book signing in two weeks.” Zora logged in to her workstation, climbing onto her black mesh-back stool at the main checkout desk of the bookstore.

Emma surveyed and greeted the guests, offering a friendly nod. “You know you could work in your office, Z. Take advantage of the peace and quiet? I can handle this out here while you get through some of that computer work.”

“I know you can, but I like it out here.” Zora shrugged.

Emma sucked her teeth. “You should be a professional people-watcher, girl.”

She chuckled in response. “It’s an addiction. I really can’t help it!” Zora watched her friend turn toward the cookbooks, but not before giving Granny Marion some sugar. Squeezing the matriarch’s hand, Emma plopped a big kiss on her cheek before leaning down to whisper something in her ear. Granny chuckled and they slapped five, as Emma strode to the cookbook display, sat cross-legged on the floor and started reviewing inventory figures on the tablet.

Z exchanged an amused look with her grandmother, who blew a kiss in her direction. Catching it, she touched the tips of her fingers to her cheek. She blew a kiss back and turned her attention to her computer monitor. After pulling up the bookstore’s calendar, she made a list of the upcoming events for the next three weeks, putting together digital flyers using templates she’d made previously. She added book covers and author photos to author event flyers, candid photos of regular customers highlighting some of their favorite reads that year, and a photo of Granny Marion reading to a group of children to publicize upcoming story time events. She dropped links to all of the graphics into her social media spreadsheet, where she scheduled out posts weeks in advance, complete with post language, hashtags, author account handles, and registration links. Such a Capricorn.

Being organized was how Zora had gotten the business running smoothly so quickly. After her father died, she’d received a generous inheritance that allowed her to purchase Opus Northeast from its previous owner, Ms. Betty. A bookeller for decades, Ms. Betty had decided to retire and move to Arizona to be closer to her grandchildren. Betty had known Zora since adolescence, and she was delighted to sell her store to someone who loved the place just as much as she did. Zora took great pride in updating Opus Northeast in a way that invited the community to come in and stay awhile.

After a couple of hours of events and social media planning, she moved on to email, deleting all of the spam before responding to emails from book distributors, patrons inquiring about upcoming releases not currently available for preorder, and local authors replying to her invitations for in-store author events. Looking down at her desk, she clicked her tongue at herself for leaving her breakfast sitting there as she worked. She had a habit of leaving food sitting next to her for hours as she zoned in on a task only to pick at it once it was cold. She popped the last of her flaky Danish into her mouth, as a new email hit her inbox. “Oh, my God.”

“What is it?” Emma asked curiously as she advanced toward the counter, setting a fresh latte in front of Zora.

“He said yes.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. She lifted the latte to her lips on autopilot, humming softly as she took in the scent. “Thanks.”

Her friend peered over her shoulder. “Is he who I think he is?”

Stunned, Zora looked up at Emma, her brows furrowed in confusion. “He said yes?”

“Are you having a stroke? I’m gonna need for you to use your words, sis.” Emma waved her hand in front of Z’s face.

She couldn’t find the words. Her mouth went dry. Helpless, Zora pointed to her computer screen.

Emma leaned forward. “‘Dear Ms. Dizon,’ blah blah blah. ‘I’ve spoken to Lawrence Michaels, and he would love to have an author event hosted at Opus Northeast! As you may know, he grew up not far from there, and he is excited for an opportunity to read an excerpt from Trial by Fire, which is also based in Northeast D.C. Following the reading, he can stay for a brief Q&A and a book signing,’ blah blah blah. Wow, are you freaking out right now?”

It was no secret that Zora had been crushing hard for years on bestselling author Lawrence Michaels, whose newest installment of his Langston Butler mystery thriller series was selling like hotcakes, and word on the street was that the first two books in the series were being optioned for film. Aside from being a local star, Lawrence’s good looks were undeniable. “I bet he’s tall,” Zora murmured, grabbing his book from a pile of new releases on the counter behind her. Opening the book to the author photo inside the back cover, she ran her fingertips over the image of his clean-shaven brown skin, a hint of a smile curving at the edge of his closed mouth. A cleft in his chin and strong jaw led down the column of his neck to broad shoulders cloaked in a dark blue blazer. “Wonder if he has dimples.”

Emma stared at her friend, pinging her eyes back and forth between Zora and the author photo. “I think you might need to break out the ol’ vibrator tonight, girl. This ‘hot for author’ thing is getting unhealthy. Look at you—you can barely string words together right now. What are you going to do when he gets here? Drool on him?”

Zora swatted her friend away. “I’m fine. It’s just… I didn’t think he’d actually be willing to come here.”

“Why? He’s too big and bad for Brookland? He’s from here!” Emma shoved her hands onto her hips.

Zora pulled at one of her tight curls, coiling it around her finger. “You know what I mean. Folks like that set their sights higher than modest indie bookstores like this. And he’s from Petworth.”

“He’s from D.C. And he could still be a total douche. Besides, when have you ever cared about someone having too much bravado to fit their big ass head through our doors? He’s lucky to be invited, girl. Don’t gas that dude up too much.” Emma dragged her fingers across her throat, deading the subject. She really should have gone to law school.

She struggled to find the words. “I just— I’m surprised is all.”

“‘Oh, Rexy, you’re so sexy.’” Emma quoted one of their favorite movie quotes from their college days—they’d scored a box of her sister’s old DVDs and binge-watched everything, but some lines stuck forever. Emma was forever quoting Empire Records, Center Stage, and The Cutting Edge. She curled her fingers into a claw and delicately pawed in Zora’s direction as she turned toward the travel section.

Exasperated, she pursed her lips, still tugging at her curls. “I hate you.”

“I heard that, heffa.”

Excerpted from Zora Books Her Happy Ever After by Taj McCoy © 2023 by Taj McCoy, used with permission from HarperCollins/MIRA Books.

Photo Credit:
Alaysia Jordan
Law grad Taj McCoy is committed to championing plus-sized Black love stories and characters with a strong sense of sisterhood and familial bonds. Born in Oakland, Taj started writing as a child and celebrated her first publications in grade school. When she’s not writing, Taj boosts other marginalized writers, practices yoga, co-hosts the Fat Like Me and Better Than Brunch podcasts, shares recipes, and cooks supper club meals for friends.

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Friday, April 28, 2023

Spotlight: Excerpt from Return to Hummingbird Way by Reese Ryan

Return to Hummingbird Way
Reese Ryan
Publication date: April 25th 2023
Genres: Adult, Contemporary, Romance

In this heartwarming small‑town romance, can three months, two planning projects, and a meddling grandmother finally make two high school hate crushes see just how right they are for each other?

Ambitious real estate agent Sinclair Buchanan is ecstatic to be her best friend’s maid-of-honor—until she discovers the best man is Garrett Davenport. Sin and Rett’s mutual hate crush ignited when they were teens and hasn’t let up since . . . except for that one extremely hot (and extremely regrettable) night they shared five years ago.

Nothing gets Rett fired up like going toe-to-toe with Sinclair. She’s as infuriatingly stubborn, and as absolutely gorgeous, as when he fell for her back in high school. Working together to plan their best friends’ last-minute wedding is one thing, but when his matchmaking grandmother gets involved Rett knows he’s in deep. Attraction has always simmered between them, but this time, they’re both in danger of losing their hearts.

Goodreads / Amazon / Barnes & Noble / iBooks / Kobo / Google Play


“Garrett Davenport, how very nice of you to finally show up.” Sinclair sashayed toward him, clutching a clear clipboard decorated with a colorful floral design.

Sinclair assessed him with disdain, flecks of green and gold dancing in those large hazel eyes he’d been mesmerized by from the first moment he’d laid eyes on them in high school. She pursed her glossy pink lips, her nostrils flaring, and planted a fist on one curvy hip.

The bossy little she-devil was infuriating, attitudish, and fucking gorgeous. And she damn well knew it.

Her floral, sleeveless dress showed off her toned arms and sculpted shoulders—a feature he’d never noticed on a woman before, let alone been attracted to. The hem of the flirty little skirt grazed her midthigh, accentuating her tawny brown skin, a shade that landed smack between her father’s dark brown skin and her mother’s olive skin tone.

Sinclair flipped her hair, a deep, rich brown highlighted with ribbons of honey blond, over one shoulder and ran her manicured nails through the waterfall of shoulder-length waves. Her gaze bore into him, and if looks could kill, he’d be lying on the floor stone cold.

“You do realize you’re an hour late to your own best friend’s engagement party.” She leaned into him, speaking in a harsh whisper that only he could hear. “You sure you gon’ be able to show up for the wedding on time?”

Her nasally voice reminded him of Whitley Gilbert’s from A Different World. And just a few minutes into the conversation, she’d already intimated that he was an unreliable slacker. Rett clenched his jaw. Yet, as annoyed as he was, he couldn’t help noticing how hot Sin looked tonight.

“Sorry I’m late,” Rett finally managed. He shoved his hands, balled into fists, into his pockets. “Something came up.”

Sinclair’s gaze dropped to the placket in front of his zipper momentarily. Her eyes widened and her cheeks and forehead flushed. She quickly returned her attention to the clipboard.

Maybe he wasn’t the only one who couldn’t forget their previous encounter.

“It’s always some excuse with you, Rett.” Sinclair wrapped her arms around the clipboard, clutching it to her chest. Her eyes didn’t quite meet his.

Was she clutching the clipboard because he made her nervous? Or was she shielding her body’s reaction after shamelessly ogling him two minutes into their conversation?

It didn’t matter. Because Sinclair Buchanan was as irritating now as she’d been when they’d been forced to hang out together while Dexter and Dakota had dated in high school. She seemed to hate him on sight back then. But he hadn’t helped matters when he’d tried to talk his cousin out of getting serious with Sin’s best friend.

When Dex had suddenly ended things with Dakota the Christmas after he’d left for college, Sinclair had confronted Rett outside his grandmother’s house. She’d been as mad as a hornet and had cussed him out six ways to Sunday—sure he’d been behind the breakup.

He hadn’t been. But he hadn’t bothered telling her so. Besides, as distraught as she’d been, he’d doubted Sinclair would’ve believed a single word he’d said.

Since Dexter and Dakota’s reconciliation, Sinclair must surely have learned the truth: he had nothing to do with Dexter and Dakota’s breakup back then. In fact, he’d been as shocked by it as anyone. But evidently, it didn’t matter, because Sinclair clearly still wasn’t a fan. Though she certainly had been that night in his hotel room, given the enthusiasm with which she’d called his name and the marks she’d left on his back.

“It’s not an excuse, Sin. I planned to be here on time, but I was sidetracked by—”

“Didn’t think you were going to make it.” Dexter approached, holding Dakota’s hand. The two of them looked ridiculously happy, and Rett felt a slight twinge of envy.

“And miss your engagement party?” Rett slapped palms and clasped hands with Dex. “No way, cuz. Been waiting half my life to see you finally tie the knot with this beautiful lady.” He turned toward his cousin’s soon-to-be better half. “Congrats, Dakota.”

“Thank you, Rett.” Dakota’s grin lit her brown eyes. She gave him a big hug. “And for the record, I knew you’d be here tonight. It was these two who were sweating it.” She gestured toward Dex and Sinclair, then glanced around the room. “Mama Mae didn’t come with you?”

“She’s sick and didn’t much appreciate me fussing over her,” Rett said.

“But you did anyway.” Dakota smiled. “The relationship you two have is adorable.”

“’Cause Mama Mae is the only woman who can get him to behave,” Sinclair muttered as she scanned her clipboard. When they all turned to look at her, Sin looked up and shrugged. “What? You know it’s true.”

“Be nice, Sin.” Dakota pointed a finger at her best friend. “You promised you two would get along.”

“Fine.” She flashed Rett a dead-eyed smile and turned up the Whitley Gilbert singsong southern belle voice. “We are so very glad that you could join us this evening, Garrett. I was just about to ask the staff to take the food away. So please make yourself a plate.” She batted her long, thick eyelashes. “In fact, why don’t I escort you to the buffet?”

Dexter and Dakota snickered, and Rett couldn’t help chuckling to himself.

That was as warm a greeting as he could expect from the former beauty queen, who now employed that same charm in her job as one of the island’s top real estate agents. Evidently, she reserved that charm for people not named Rett Davenport.

Sinclair turned and walked toward the buffet, indicating that he should come with. He did, captivated by the subtle sway of her hips as he followed in the wake of her soft, delicate scent. All of it taking him back to that night they’d shared in Raleigh five years ago.

Yes, he’d been an immature jerk to Sinclair in high school. She clearly still held a grudge and had no intentions of letting him forget it. Despite the night they’d shared.

Fine. Because he wasn’t here for Sinclair. He was here for Dexter and Dakota. For them, he’d tolerate Ms. Thing. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t have a little fun with her.

Author Bio:

Reese Ryan writes sexy, deeply emotional romances with family drama, surprising secrets, and unexpected twists.

Past president of her local Romance Writers of America chapter and a panelist at the 2017 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Reese is an advocate for the romance genre and diversity in fiction.

Website / Goodreads / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Bookbub / Youtube

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Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Spotlight: Excerpt from The Loner by Diana Palmer


Author: Diana Palmer
ISBN: 9781335545312
Publication Date: April 25, 2023
Publisher: Canary Street Press

Tanner Everett spends most of his time jet-setting around the world. But that hasn’t stopped innocent Stasie Bolton, the daughter of a neighboring rancher, from falling head-over-heels for the jet-setting playboy. So Stasie is secretly thrilled when both her father proposes linking the properties in matrimony…which means Tanner will be hers, for good.
Despite his globetrotting ways, Tanner can’t help but be enthralled by the quiet girl next door. But as the embers between the two are fanned into flames, Tanner wonders if he’s found forever in the last place he ever expected.

Buy Links:
Barnes & Noble

Read an excerpt:


Anastasia Bolton, nicknamed Stasia, was nineteen today. She looked at herself critically in her bedroom mirror, making a face at her lack of beauty. She had a pretty mouth and big, soft brown eyes. Her cheekbones were high, her ears small. She was only medium height, but her figure was perfect. She had elegant long legs, just right for riding horses, which she did, a lot. She’d done barrel racing when she was younger, but art had taken over her leisure hours. She painted beautifully. She was named after a semi-fictional character in a movie her romantic late mother had loved, Anastasia, which starred Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman. Her mother had loved the movie and named her only child after the unforgettable heroine. Stasia lived with her father, Glenn Bolton, on a huge beef ranch in Branntville, Texas. Her last living grandparents, her dad’s parents, had died of a deadly virus the summer before her graduation from high school. Her mother had died tragically when Stasia was only thirteen. There was no other family left, just Stasia and Dad. They were close. 

Glenn Bolton was only fifty years old, but he had a very bad heart and he was in the final stages of heart failure. It was treatable, but he hadn’t shared that knowledge with Stasia. He was terrified of the open-heart surgery treatment would require. He and the doctor had spoken privately the week before, and afterward, Glenn had been quieter than usual and he’d contacted his attorney. That had been a private conversation as well. Stasia worried about what was being discussed. She didn’t want to think about what her life would be like without him. She had no family except him. Well, there were the Everetts, who lived next door to her father’s ranch on their own enormous ranch, the Big Spur. They were sort of like family, after all, since Stasia had known them all her life. Cole Everett and his youngest son, John, were frequent visitors. 

Glenn had the only groundwater suitable for ranching in the small community of Branntville, Texas. A river ran like a silver ribbon through his entire property, so he wasn’t dependent on wells for watering his cattle, as other ranchers were. He approved of Cole and John. He wanted more than anything to see his daughter settled with one of the Everett sons, but she was only in love with one of them—with Tanner, the eldest, who was the cookie-cutter design of the spoiled rich kid. Cole hadn’t spoiled Tanner. That had been his wife, Heather, a former singing star and current songwriter. Their firstborn had been the light of her life. He was twenty-five now, a strong, incredibly handsome young man with dark hair and pale blue eyes, almost silver like his father’s, and a Hollywood sort of physique. He liked variety in his women, but for the past year he’d had a girlfriend who enjoyed the jet-setting lifestyle that he favored.

Cole had given Tanner a Santa Gertrudis stud ranch that he’d bought when the owner went into a nursing home, hoping to settle down his wild son. It was a good property, adjoining his and the Bolton properties, but the water situation there was dire. There had been drought in the past year, and they’d had to drill wells to get enough water just to keep the livestock watered. The Bolton place had a river running through it, and many small streams that ran over into the Everetts’ holdings. However, that water didn’t belong to them so they were unable to divert it for any agricultural purposes. For a long time, Cole had toyed with the idea of a merger with Glenn Bolton, but Glenn wouldn’t hear of it. He found all sorts of reasons for his stubborn attitude. Cole saw right through him. Stasia was still living at home, and she was in love with Tanner. The fly in the ointment was that Tanner didn’t like Stasia. He liked experienced, sophisticated women like Julienne Harper, his girlfriend. Tanner could have made an empire out of the ranch Cole had given him, but he wasn’t home enough. He and Julienne were always on the go somewhere. Skiing in Colorado, parties on somebody’s yacht off Monaco, summers in Nice. And so it went. Stasia knew about Julienne. Everybody in Branntville did. It was a small community where gossip flourished. It was mostly kind gossip, because the people who lived there had known each other’s families for generations. Tanner was one of them. But Julienne, who was sarcastic and condescending, was an outsider, a city woman who’d alienated just about everyone she came into contact with. Tanner had a couple, Juan and Minnie Martinez, who ran the house and managed the ranch for him while he played around the world. They’d just threatened to quit because ofJulienne’s last visit to Tanner’s ranch. Cole had played peacemaker. The Martinezes were good at ranch management, and somebody had to keep the place going. Cole despaired of Tanner ever settling down to real work. He’d always had everything he wanted. Cole, who adored his wife of twenty-five years, hadn’t had the heart to make her stop coddling Tanner, while there had still been time to knock some of the selfishness and snobby attitude out of him. Now, it was too late. Stasia came into the living room where the men were talking with a tray of coffee and sliced pound cake. All three men stood up, an ancient custom in rural areas that still had the power to make her feel important. Her generation cared less about such things, as a rule, but Stasia was a throwback. Glenn had raised her the way his parents had raised him. She’d absorbed those conservative attitudes on the way of the modern world. She hated it. She hated it most because Tanner liked women who belonged to that sophisticated crowd. John Everett looked like his mother, Heather, in coloring, at least. He was big and blond and drop-dead handsome, with his father’s silver eyes. His young sister, Odalie, also looked like Heather, with pale blue eyes and blond hair. Tanner was the one who most resembled Cole, who was tall and still handsome. Tanner had the same thick, dark hair but with pale blue eyes that just missed being the silver of his father’s. John went forward and took the heavy tray from her. He grinned. “I love cake.” She laughed, a soft, breathy sound. “I know.” She smiled at him with warm affection. He was like a cuddly big brother to her. He knew that and hid his disappointment. “How’s the art going?” Cole asked with a smile. “I sold a painting!” she exclaimed happily. “There was a man passing through, from someplace back East, and he sawthe landscape I painted in the local art shop. He said it was far too cheap for something that lovely, so he gave Mr. Dill, the owner, three times my asking price. I was just astonished.” “You paint beautifully,” John said, his eyes brimming with love that she tried not to see. He indicated the landscapes on the walls of the Bolton home; one with running horses in a thunderstorm was entrancing. “Thanks,” she said, flushing a little. “Mr. Dill said the man looked Italian. He was big and muscular and he had these two other big guys with him. He was passing through on the way to San Antonio on business.” “Sounds ominous,” John teased. She laughed as she poured coffee all around and offered cake on saucers with sparkling clean forks. “He told Mr. Dill I should be selling those paintings up in New Jersey, where he was from, or even New York City, where he owned an art gallery and museum. He said he was going to talk to some people about me! He even took down Mr. Dill’s number so he could get in touch.” She sighed. “It was probably just one of those offhand remarks people make and then forget, but it was nice of him to say so.” “You really do have the talent, Stasia,” Cole told her. “It would be nice if he could put you in touch with some people in the art world back East. If that’s what you want to do with your life,” he added gently. She smiled at him. “I like to paint.” She grimaced. “I’d like to marry and have a family, though.” “No reason you couldn’t do both,” John said. “And if you had to fly back East to talk to people, well, we have a share in a corporate jet, you know. You could let us know when you had business there and I could go with you.” She smiled sedately. “Thanks, John, but it’s early days yet.” “How’s Tanner?” Glenn asked.

Cole’s light eyes grew glittery. “Off on another trip. To Italy, this time. My daughter’s studying opera in Rome. He thought he’d stop by and see her on the way to Greece.” “Odalie has a beautiful voice,” Stasia replied, hiding disappointment. She’d hoped Tanner might show up with his brother and father. “Does she want to sing at the Met eventually?” “She does,” Cole replied. He drew in a long breath and sipped coffee. “I’ll hate having her so far from home. But you have to let kids grow up.” He glanced at John with affection. “At least this one doesn’t have itchy feet yet!” “I’m a homebody,” John said easily. “I love cattle. I love ranching. I don’t want to leave home,” he added, with a covert glance at Stasia. “Good thing,” Cole chuckled. “I have to leave the ranch to somebody when I’m gone.” “You’re not going anywhere for years,” Glenn chided. “The Everetts are a long-lived bunch. Your grandfather lived to be ninety.” “Yes, but my father died before he was sixty, and my mother died before I married Heather,” Cole replied. His face tautened as he relived those days, when a lie split him apart from Heather, whom he’d loved with all his heart. It had been a torment, those months apart before he discovered that a jealous rival had told him lies about Heather’s parentage and made it sound as if he and Heather were actually related. They weren’t, but it was heartbreaking just to think it. Heather had been singing in nightclubs in those days. Cole had been cruel to her because her feelings for him were all too visible and he thought nothing could ever be allowed to happen between them. When he found out the truth, Heather had already backed out of his life. It had taken a long time to win her back.

He glanced at Stasia. She reminded him of Heather in her youth. She wasn’t as beautiful as his wife, but she was sweet and gentle and she’d make someone a good wife and mother. He knew that it wasn’t going to be Tanner. The boy had mentioned weeks ago that he hated having to talk to her father at all because Stasia would sit and stare at him as if he were a tub of kittens needing a home. He found her juvenile and dull. John, on the other hand, adored her. Cole grimaced as he processed the thought, because Stasia so obviously thought of John as the brotherly type. “Now, about what I mentioned on the phone,” Cole began as he finished his coffee and put it and the cup and saucer back on the tray. “I know what you’re going to say,” Glenn broke in, with a smile. “But I’ll never give you permission to dam the streams.” Cole sighed. “Only one stream, the one nearest my south pasture. The cattle are going to suffer for that decision,” he told the older man. “We’ve drilled every well we can.” “I know that,” Glenn told him. “I’ve got things in motion that will solve your problem. Don’t bother asking; won’t tell,” he chuckled. “But you’re worrying over something that’s already fixed. Just a matter of time. Short time, at that,” he added with a faraway look in his eyes. Cole started to argue, realized it would do no good and just shrugged good-naturedly. “Okay. I’ll rely on your conscience.” “Good place to put trust, since I do have one,” Glenn replied. He scowled. “That boy of yours got himself into hot water in France, they say. It was on the front page of the tabloid those Lombard people back East publish.” “It wasn’t Tanner who started the trouble,” Cole replied curtly. “It was his…companion, Julienne Harper. She started a row in a high-ticket French restaurant with another woman, and her companion started cursing and threw a punch at Tanner when he intervened. Tanner had some explaining to do.” He glanced at Glenn. “This time, I didn’t interfere, and I wouldn’t let Heather do it, either. The boy’s got to grow up and take responsibility for his own actions.” “According to the tabloid, he made restitution for the victim’s dress and paid the dentist to replace one of her date’s front teeth.” Glenn shook his head. “Reminds me of you, when you were that age,” he added with twinkling eyes. “Got arrested for a bar brawl when you got home from the service, I believe…?” Cole glared at him. “Some yahoo made a nasty joke about what soldiers did overseas. I took exception. The guy wasn’t ever even in a good fight, what would he know about being a soldier?” “Well, your dad kept him from suing, at least,” Glenn said, and chuckled. “Most people around here were scared of your father anyway. He was a real hell-raiser.” Cole smiled sadly. “He was, and he died far too young.” Glenn knew some stories about Cole’s father that he wasn’t about to share. Some secrets, he reasoned, should be kept. “Your son was in black ops when he went in the military, wasn’t he?” he asked suddenly. Cole looked thunderous. “Yes, he was. I didn’t find out until he was back home.” He sighed. “I told him he had to get an education, so he joined the Army and got it that way. At least he finally decided that risking his life daily wasn’t conducive to running a ranch. It’s one reason I bought the old Banks property for him, to draw him back home.” He leaned forward. “I thought if his income depended on ranching, he’d make better life decisions. At least he did get a degree in business, even if it was between assignments.” He laughed shortly. “And then he met her.” He shook his head.

Everybody knew what that meant. “Her.” Julienne Harper. The fly in the ointment. She’d lured Tanner back into the jet-set lifestyle the military had purged him of, and now he was even less responsible than he’d been before. “A bad woman can make a fool of a good man. And sometimes, the reverse,” Glenn added. He didn’t mention his late wife, but they all knew the tragic story. His wife had been suddenly and hopelessly attracted to a man straight out of prison who’d worked on the ranch. The tragic consequences were still being lived down, by Glenn and his daughter. “She was a good woman,” Glenn said stubbornly. “She was just impulsive and easily led.” “Which is how many good people end up in prison,” John said sadly. “I’m hopeful that we can keep my big brother out of it.” Cole stood up with his son and clapped him on the back. “Something I’ll never have to worry about with you,” he said with obvious affection. “At least one of my kids turned out right.” He was referring to Odalie, who’d had a brush with the law in her teens, just as Tanner had—when going into the military was the only thing that saved him from serving time. Tanner had fallen in with a few ex-cons and gotten drunk with them. He passed out in the back seat just before they robbed a convenience store, but Cole had to get attorneys and pull a lot of strings to keep his son out of jail. “Most kids turn out right eventually, even those who have a rough start,” Glenn said with a smile. “Yours turned out very well,” Cole said, smiling gently at Stasia. “She reminds me of Heather at her age.” “And that’s a compliment indeed,” Glenn said, watching his daughter flush shyly. “Well, we’d better get back home,” Cole said. “We’re getting ready for roundup. If you need any help over here, when you start, you know we’ll do anything you need us for.” Glenn smiled and shook hands with both men. “Yes, I do know. I’ll send my hands over if you need extras. We’re waiting a week to start.” “We’d be grateful. No matter how many hands you have, a few more are always welcome.” “Done. Just say the word.” “I don’t guess you’d like to take in a movie this weekend?” John asked Stasia on the way out the door. She hesitated. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings. She smiled gently. “I would, but I’m working on a landscape and I have a real incentive to finish it quickly now, just in case that nice man does give my name to somebody back East,” she added with just the right touch of regret. She liked John, but she didn’t want to encourage him. Nobody could replace Tanner in her heart. “Okay,” John said easily, hiding his disappointment. “Rain check?” “Sure,” she lied. He grinned and they all went out onto the long, wide front porch to see the Everetts off. Cole stared into the distance. “Good weather, for early spring,” he said, admiring the grass that was just getting nice and green in the pastures beyond. “I hope it holds.” “So do I,” Glenn replied. “See you.” Glenn threw up a hand. Stasia waved. The Everetts got into one of their top-of-the-line black ranch trucks and drove away. “John’s sweet on you,” Glenn mentioned over supper that night. “I know,” she groaned. “I like him so much. He’s like the brother I never had. But he wants more than I can give him, Dad. It wouldn’t be right to encourage him.” Glenn nodded. “I agree.” He cocked his head at her. “It’s still Tanner, isn’t it?” She grimaced and nodded. “I can’t help it. I’ve been crazy about him since I was fifteen, and he can’t see me for dust. It’s such a shame that I’m not beautiful and rich and sophisticated,” she added heavily. “A man who loves you won’t care what you are or what you’ve got,” he said gently. “I guess not.” She poked at her salad with a fork. “Julienne’s really beautiful. Of course, she doesn’t talk to the peasants. I saw them together in Branntville just before they left for overseas. She looked me up and down and just laughed.” Her face burned at the memory. “So did he, in fact. He thinks I’m a kid.” Glenn had a faraway look in his eyes. “That could change,” he said, almost to himself. He turned his green eyes toward her, the same green eyes that he’d hoped she might inherit. But her brown ones were like his late wife’s, he reflected, big and brown and beautiful. “You’ll inherit this ranch,” he added. “I hope you’ll have the good sense to find a manager if you don’t want the responsibility of running it yourself. And I hope you won’t be taken in by any slick-talking young man who sees you as a meal ticket,” he added worriedly, because she wasn’t street-smart. “This property has been in our family for a hundred years. I’d hate to see it go to an amusement park for tourists.” She frowned. “Why would it go to someone like that?” “Oh, this guy offered me a lot of money for the property just the other day, when I was at the bank renewing a couple of CDs. The bank president introduced us.” “You told him no, of course, right, Dad?” she asked.

He pursed his lips. He drew in a breath. “I told him I’d think about it.” He didn’t tell her that the ranch was mortgaged right up to the eaves of the house. His bad business decisions had led the place to ruin, something Cole Everett knew. It was why Cole was trying to get the ranch. But then, he’d have it soon, Glenn thought sadly. He couldn’t let Stasia become a charity case, and the sale of the ranch wouldn’t even cover the debts, as things stood. “But it’s right next door to the Everetts’ new ranch, the one Tanner owns,” she said worriedly. “Can you imagine how nervous purebred cattle would react to an amusement park next door?” “I can,” he said. “Tanner could lose everything,” she said. “His livelihood depends on the new ranch, especially since his dad has already split the inheritance at Big Spur between John and Odalie. He figured Tanner would have enough of a fortune with the Rocking C.” The Rocking C was the name of Tanner’s ranch. The previous owner, an elderly Easterner, had called it his rocking chair spread. Hence the name. “Well, Tanner might have to make a hard decision one day, when I’m gone,” Glenn said, and smiled to himself. “Are you plotting something, Dad?” she asked, worried. “Me?” He contrived to look innocent. “Now what would I have to be plotting about?” He chuckled. “How about some of that apple pie you made? This new heart medicine my doctor put me on makes me hungrier, for some reason.” “You never did tell me what he said when you went to him last week,” she mentioned. “Same old same old. Take it easy, take my meds, don’t do any heavy lifting,” he answered, lying through his teeth. He was due to speak to a cardiologist soon, who would decide ifthe open-heart surgery Glenn was frightened of was required to keep him alive. A quadruple bypass, the doctor had recommended, and soon. Too many fats, too much cholesterol— despite Stasia’s efforts to make him eat healthy food—a history of heart problems and not recognizing his limitations had placed Glenn in a bind. Glenn hadn’t shared that information with his daughter. No need to worry her. Besides, he felt fine. A few days later, just after his cardiologist’s office had phoned with an early appointment to see the intervention cardiologist, he started up the steps into the house and fell down dead. Tanner Everett was cursing at the top of his lungs, so loudly that Cole had to call him down before Heather heard her son. “Go ahead. Rage,” Cole snapped. “But the will can’t be broken. Nobody in Branntville will agree that Glenn Bolton wasn’t in his right mind when he made it.” “An amusement park! Next to my purebred herd!” Tanner whirled on his heel and glared at his parent. “And if I don’t marry damned Stasia, that’s my future.” Cole felt the resentment in the younger man. In his place, he’d have felt it as well. “It was a rotten thing to do,” Cole agreed. “But we have to deal with what we’ve got, not what we wish we had.” “I’m twenty-five years old,” Tanner raged. “I’m not ready to get married! Not for years yet!” He stared at his father. “You were older than me when you married Mother.” “Yes, I was. I played the field for years.” He looked down at his boots. “I loved your mother. For a long time. But she had a rival who lied and said Heather and I were related by blood. She took years away from us.” Tanner knew the story. All the Everett kids did. It would have been a tragedy if Cole hadn’t found out the truth in time.

“Heather was just about Stasia’s age when I fell in love with her. She sang like a nightingale, just like Odalie does now. She was beautiful. She still is,” he added softly. Tanner, who’d never felt love for a woman, just stared at him without comprehension. “There must be some way to dispute the will,” Tanner said doggedly. “Go ahead and look for one. But I’ll tell you what our attorney told me: no way in hell. You marry Stasia or the property goes to the Blue Sky Management Properties. Stasia will get nothing.” “Bull! The ranch is worth millions,” Tanner shot back. “It was. Glenn was no rancher, even if his father was,” Cole replied curtly. “The place is mortgaged to the hilt, and you can’t tell Stasia that. She’s got enough misery right now coping with her dad’s death.” He grimaced. Even he was sorry for Stasia’s situation. She couldn’t help what she felt for him, he supposed. But he was never going to return it. She had to know that. “Which leads to my suggestion. I’m giving you the Rocking Chair ranch, and merging Stasia’s with Big Spur. We can pay off the debt by disposing of most of Glenn’s beef cattle and replacing it with our purebred Santa Gerts. In other words,” Cole added quietly, “either you make a go of your new ranch or you’ll be out in the cold. I’m not changing my will, Tanner,” he added firmly. “I’m sorry. But you could do worse. And it’s about time you stayed home and managed your own damned ranch and stopped acting like some Eastern playboy.” “I hate dust and cattle,” Tanner muttered. “You should have given this ranch to John. Then he could have married Stasia.” “She wouldn’t have him,” Cole said simply. “She doesn’t love him.” He jammed his hands into his slacks pockets. “She doesn’tlove me, or she wouldn’t have encouraged her father to do this to me!” “I don’t think she had anything to do with it. Glenn had a bad heart and she had no other family.” “You could have adopted her,” Tanner said with a sarcastic bite in his voice. Cole’s silver eyes narrowed and started to glitter. Tanner cut his losses. “All right, damn it!” he muttered. “I’ll do what I have to. But I’m not settling down to aprons and babies and white picket fences! Not for any woman!” “Nobody’s asking you to.” Cole felt sorry for Stasia. She loved Tanner. Maybe, maybe love on one side would be enough. But he was worried. Tanner was like a stallion with a new rope around his neck. This wasn’t going to end well. Stasia was in shock. She sat at the kitchen table and made the funeral arrangements, relying on the funeral home and her father’s attorney for clarity. She was penniless. Worse, her father had forced his attorney to put a clause in the will. Tanner married Stasia, or her father’s property went to the amusement park man, who would turn it into a loud, cluttered nightmare for Cole’s horses and cattle. She’d heard the terms of her father’s will from their attorney, Mr. Bellamy. She was shocked and miserable, especially when she recalled what her father had told her only days before, about the offer from the amusement park man. She’d thought she’d get at least enough to live on from the deal, but it wasn’t like that at all. Her father had kept so much from her. The ranch was worthless, mortgaged and debt-ridden. There was no way she could run it for a profit, or even hire someone to run it. And if the amusement park man got it, it would destroy Cole’s ranch as well as Tanner’s. Neither of them could afford to tear down existing stables and barns and rebuild them in a safer location. In fact, there would be no safer location, with that overlit nightmare of noise and light nearby. Not for one minute did she think Tanner would give in to her father’s subdued blackmail and marry her. She was ashamed that he’d even put that clause into his will. Tanner would probably think it was her idea. When she finished the preliminaries, she went to her father’s closet to look for his one good suit and his best pair of wing-tip shoes. The sight of the suit set her off. She dropped down onto the spotless paisley duvet on her father’s bed and bawled until her eyes were red and her throat hurt. That was probably why she didn’t hear the knock at the front screen door, which wasn’t locked. It was also probably why she wasn’t aware that Tanner had come into the room and was standing in the doorway, just watching her. He knew she loved her father. He was the only family she had left. It hurt him to watch her cry. He’d had no real feelings for her, except irritation that she was infatuated with him and let it show too much. But she was really hurting. He’d never lost anyone in his family. Both sets of his grandparents had been dead when he was born. He didn’t know death except as an observer. “Stasia?” he called quietly. She jumped, startled, and lifted a wet face with red-lined eyes to his. She swallowed down the pincushion that seemed stuck there and swiped at her eyes with the tail of the bright yellow T-shirt she was wearing. “It wasn’t my idea, what he put in the will,” she said, as if he’d already accused her of engineering it. Angry brown eyes warred with his pale blue ones. “He said the amusement park man would pay him millions for the land and in the next breath he said it had been in our family for over a century and we should hold onto it.” She swallowed, hard. 

“I didn’t know we were bankrupt. I didn’t even know how sick he was. He said he had new medicines and the doctor said he was…doing fine…” Her voice trailed off. Tears fell like rain from her eyes. She averted them. She could feel the pity in him and she didn’t want it. He didn’t want her. She knew that without asking. But he couldn’t watch her cry. It touched something deep inside him that he didn’t even know was there. He moved closer, pulled her abruptly into his arms and folded her up close. “Let it out,” he said in the softest tone he’d ever used to her. “Go on.” She did. Her father had never been physically affectionate with her. Neither had anyone, except Tanner’s mother. It was so nice to be held and cuddled and told that everything was all right. Nothing was all right. But Tanner was strong and warm and he smelled of deliciously expensive male cologne. She melted into him, letting the tears fall. Finally, she regained control of herself and moved shyly away. “Thanks,” she choked. He shrugged. “I’ve never really lost anyone,” he confessed. “Buddies, when I was in the service, and in black ops. But nobody close.” She looked up at him. “I guess not. I’m really sorry. About the will.” She swallowed, hard, and turned away. “I’ll find another buyer,” she said softly. Then she remembered that she couldn’t sell it herself. Besides, it was bankrupt. “There must be a way…” “There’s no way to break the will,” he returned. “My father spoke to our attorneys about it. Your father was in his right mind all the way,” he added tersely. She grimaced. Her pale blond hair was loose around her tanned shoulders, disheveled and wavy. In the tight jeans andT-shirt she was very attractive. Tanner had never noticed how attractive before. “Well, then, how about this?” she asked suddenly while he was still exploring her with new curiosity. “Suppose we get married and the next day we get it annulled?” “No wedding night?” he asked with mock horror. She just looked at him. “I don’t want to sleep with you. I don’t know where you’ve been,” she said and forced a smile. Humor flared in his pale blue eyes, despite his resentment at the situation they were in. “Besides, I’m saving myself for my future husband,” she added with faint hauteur. “Most men like experience, not green girls, in bed,” he returned. “My husband will be an extraordinary man, with a good heart and brain, and he’ll be grateful that I waited for him,” she said. “Of course. He’ll be standing right next to the Easter Bunny, waiting.” She just stared at him. “Dad and I went to church every Sunday. My great-grandfather was a Methodist minister. He founded the church we go to. My great-grandmother had been a missionary in South America. You may live in the fast lane. Some of us still believe in fantastic things and we like a slower pace.” “Snail pace,” he scoffed. “Whatever.” She turned away from him and pulled her father’s suit and a clean, nicely pressed white shirt, and a tie, off the clothing rack. She picked up his immaculate black wing tips and put them beside the bed. “What are you doing?” “He has to have clothes to be…buried in.” She almost faltered, but she took a deep breath and pulled a duffel bag outof her father’s closet. “I’m going to take them to the funeral home and go over the arrangements with the director. Dad had insurance there that will pay for it all.” He was surprised at her efficiency, despite her obvious grief. He didn’t know her well. In fact, he was convinced now that he’d never known her at all. “Can I help?” he asked. “Yes.” She turned to look at him. “Go home.” Both eyebrows went up. She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be snappy. I just want to be alone. I have to work through this by myself.” Her eyes turned back up to his. “You never answered me. Can’t we just get married long enough to fulfill the terms of the will and then get it annulled?” she asked. “I honestly don’t know,” he replied. “But I can find out.” She nodded. “Then, would you do that?” He stared at her with open curiosity. “You’ve followed me around like a puppy for years,” he said absently, watching her flush. “For a woman with a monumental crush on me, you seem strangely reluctant to try and keep me.” “Most girls have crushes on totally unsuitable people,” she said, fighting a scarlet blush. “They outgrow them.” “And you’ve outgrown yours?” he asked softly. “Yes,” she lied, averting her eyes. “Well, sort of. I mean, I just turned nineteen and I think I may have a future in art.” Sure she did, he thought to himself. She was talented, but a lot of women painted and never went past giving the canvases away as presents. His eyes went to a landscape on the wall of a windmill with a lone wolf sitting on a small grassy rise under a full moon. Beside it was a portrait of her father that was incredibly lifelike. He frowned. She really did have talent. Not that it would do her much good in this back-ofbeyond place.

There was a knock at the front door. She stopped what she was doing, went around Tanner and went to the door. Two women from the church were there with casseroles and bags of food and even a cake. “Oh, it’s so kind,” Stasia said, the tears returning as she hugged both women. “Thank you so much!” “Your dad was a good man, honey,” the eldest of the two said. “We all know where he’ll end up.” “If you need anything at all, you just call. Or if you’d rather not be here alone at night…” “I’ll be fine,” she said softly. “But thanks for the offer.” They said their goodbyes. She put up the food, aware that Tanner had come out of her father’s room and was now lounging against the kitchen door. “Small towns,” he said, shaking his head. “And all the little idiosyncrasies that go with them, still amazes me. Nobody outside a rural community would bring food.” “It’s a tradition here,” she said quietly. “I’ve done my share of cooking to give to grieving families.” She glanced at him. “But of course, that’s not your style or Julienne’s. You hate living here.” “I do. I’ve spent too much time in exotic places to settle for boring routine, even to please my father.” He thought about Julienne with faint despair. She was great in bed. He’d never be able to replace her. She was already furious and threatening to leave him after being told about Bolton’s will. “This isn’t the lifestyle I want. The family ranch, a bunch of kids, a wife in the kitchen.” He made a face. “I’d rather have Julienne in see-through black lace than all that put together.” “Fortunately for you, that’s still possible. All we have to do is fulfill the conditions of my father’s will and you can be off to the south of France, or Greece, or wherever you people go for fun.”

He frowned. “What do you do for fun?” Her eyebrows arched. “I paint.” “Besides that.” He looked around. “It’s just dirt and grass and mesquite and cattle.” “I like cattle. We have little white kittens in the barn,” she said, and her face softened, like her brown eyes. “There’s a family of rabbits out behind the barn. Dad had to fence them out of the kitchen garden.” She stopped, swallowed hard, went back to storing away food. “I like to sit on the front porch in the evening, just at dusk, and listen to the dogs baying in the distance.” “God, how exciting!” he groaned. She turned and looked at him. “You’re older than me, but you don’t know much about the way things really are, do you? You live in a fantasy world of artificial people and artificial places. I’d rather be who I am, where I am, doing what I’m doing.” “You’ll rot here,” he said shortly. She just smiled. “Difference of opinion. I like my reality straight up. I don’t need exotic stimulation to keep me going.” His eyes narrowed. “Meaning that I do?” “You’re not like your brother. John loves ranching,” she said. “He doesn’t even like to drive his Mercedes. He’s more at home in a pickup truck or in the saddle. He’s a realist, like me.” She smiled sadly. “You’re a dreamer. This is never going to be your kind of life.” She said it with a hollow certainty that dulled her eyes. She loved him so much. But he didn’t want her. He told her so with every word, every look. What he’d said about Julienne was like a knife through her poor heart. “If I don’t keep the ranch and make it pay, I’ll lose everything and be stuck here in the mud like my brother,” he said shortly.

“It’s the end of the world as we know it!” she exclaimed in mock horror. “What would you know about pretty clothes and party manners and sophisticated behavior?” he asked frankly, giving her a once-over with wise, sharp eyes. “I’d be embarrassed to take you anywhere in decent society.” “Did someone ask you to?” she asked reasonably and hid the pain that careless sentence dealt her pride. “Just as well,” he retorted. “Because if we can marry one day and annul it the next then, by God, we’re doing it. I can’t think of a worse fate than being tied to you for life.” “Thanks. I like you, too,” she replied with a determined smile, mischief showing in her twinkling eyes. “You’re sooooo sexy!” she breathed in her best femme fatale voice, puckering her lips at him. Suddenly, it was just all too much for him. He was confused. She made him hungry, in a way even Julienne couldn’t, and he was feeling trapped all over again. Damn her father! He let out a rough curse and turned and walked out of the house. Only then did she give in to the misery she felt, when he could no longer see it.

Excerpted from The Loner. Copyright © 2023 by Diana Palmer. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

Author Bio: 
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Chris Standford

The prolific author of more than one hundred books, Diana Palmer got her start as a newspaper reporter. A New York Times bestselling author and voted one of the top ten romance writers in America, she has a gift for telling the most sensual tales with charm and humor. Diana lives with her family in Cornelia, Georgia.
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