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Valentine Valley #2
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True Love at Silver Creek Ranch
by Emma Cane
Welcome to Valentine Valley, where tongues are wagging now that the town bad boy is back--and rumor has it the lean, mean ex-Marine is about to lose his heart! But like it or not, in a town like Valentine, love happens ...
Adam Desantis is back--bruised, battle-weary and sexier than ever! Not that Brooke Thalberg is in the market. The beautiful cowgirl of Silver Creek Ranch needs a cowboy for hire, not a boyfriend--though the gaggle of grandmas at the Widows' Boardinghouse thinks otherwise. But from the moment she finds herself in Adam's arms, she's shocked to discover she may just want more.
Adam knows it's crazy to tangle with Brooke, especially with the memories that still haunt him, and the warm welcome her family has given him. But he finds himself in a fix, because tender-loving Brooke is so much more woman than he ever imagined. Can a soldier battling demons give her the love she clearly deserves? Just about everybody in Valentine thinks so!
"Sweet, passionate, and engaging...a compelling romance...a cast of characters you care about and a community that draws you in."
"Another heartwarming tale from Emma Cane."
"This touching family- and community-centered romance addresses some serious issues and is a lovely, uplifting addition to Cane’s ongoing series."
"...a heart-warming Christmas tale...Emma Cane crafts stories that will stay the distance, books you will want to return to again and again."
"There's just something about Valentine Valley--a charming read that's perfect to ring in the New Year."
RT Book Reviews Magazine
"I absolutely loved this town."
Love Romances and More
"TRUE LOVE AT SILVER CREEK RANCH will tug on your heartstrings...a tender--yet sexy--romance."
Romance Reviews Today
"I couldn't put the book down."
Once Upon a Romance
"a nostalgic and very emotional tale"
"The characters are engaging, often in unexpected naughty ways that are laugh-out-loud funny."
(The following is the property of the author and Avon Books, and cannot be copied or reprinted without permission.)
(Story Setup: Brooke Thalberg of the Silver Creek Ranch discovered that an old family barn was burning. She saved her horses with the help of a stranger.)
“Come on,” Brooke said wearily, refusing to glance one last time at her family’s barn, although she could hear the crackle and roar of the fire. “The bunkhouse is close. We’ll wash up there and see to your face.”
And she could look into his eyes and see if he was the sort who set fires for fun. He didn’t seem it, for he didn’t look back at the fire either, only trudged behind her.
The bunkhouse was an old log cabin, another of the original buildings from the nineteenth century silver boom days, when cattle from the Silver Creek Ranch had fed thousands of miners coming down from their claims to spend their riches in Valentine Valley. Brooke’s father had updated the interior of the cabin to house the occasional temporary workers they needed during branding or haying season. There were a couple sets of bunk beds along the walls, an old couch before the stone hearth, a battered table and chairs, kitchen cabinets and basic appliances at the far end of the open room, and two doors that led into a single bedroom and bathroom.
The walls were filled with unframed photos of the various hands they’d employed to work the ranch over the years. Some of those photos, tacked up haphazardly and curling at the edges, were old black and whites going as far back as photography did.
Brooke shivered with a chill even as she removed her coat. The heat was only high enough to keep the pipes from freezing, and she went to raise the thermostat. When she turned around, the stranger had removed his hat and was shrugging out of his Carhartt jacket, revealing matted down hair and a soot-stained face. He was wearing a long-sleeve red flannel shirt and jeans over cowboy boots.
To keep from staring at him, she pointed to the second door. “Go on and wash up in the bathroom. I’ll find a first-aid kit.”
He silently nodded and moved past her, limping slightly, shutting the door behind him. He might be hurt worse than he was saying, she thought with a wince. As she opened cabinet doors, she realized the kit was probably in the bathroom. Sighing even as she rolled up her sleeves, she let the water run in the kitchen sink until it was hot, then soaped up her black hands and started on her face. If her hair hadn’t been in a long braid down her back, she’d dunk her whole head under. She’d have to wait for a shower. Grabbing paper towels, she patted her skin dry.
A few minutes later, the stranger came out of the bathroom, his hair sticking up in short, damp curls, the first-aid kit in his hand. His face was clean now, and she could see that the two-inch cut was still bleeding.
“You probably need stitches,” she said, even as the first inkling of recognition began to tease her. “You don’t want a scar.”
He met her gaze and held it, and she saw the faintest spark of amusement, as if he knew something she didn’t.
“Don’t worry about it, Brooke.”
She hadn’t told him her name. “So I do know you.”
“It’s been a long time,” he said, eyeing her as openly as she was doing to him.
He was taller than her, well-muscled beneath the flannel shirt that he’d pushed up to his elbows.
And then his name suddenly echoed like a shot in her mind. “Adam Desantis,” she breathed. “It’s been over ten years since you went off to the Marines.”
He gave a short nod.
No wonder he looked in such great physical shape. Feeling awkward, she forced her gaze back to his face. He’d been good-looking in high school—and knew it—but now his face was rugged and masculine, a man grown.
She got flashes of memory then—Adam as the cool wide receiver all the high school girls wanted, with his posse of arrogant sidekicks. He’d been able to rule the school, doing whatever he wanted—because his parents hadn’t cared, she reminded herself. And then she had another memory of the sixth grade science fair, where all the parents had helped their kids with experiments, except for his. His display had been crude and unfinished, and his mother had drunkenly told him so in front of every kid within hearing range. Whenever Brooke thought badly of his antics in high school, that was the memory that crept back up, making her feel ill with pity and sorrow.
“Your grandma talks about you all the time,” she finally said. Mrs. Palmer spoke of him with glowing pride as he rose through the ranks to Staff Sergeant, a rarity at his age.
“Hope she doesn’t bore everybody,” he answered, showing sincerity rather than just tossing off something he didn’t mean. “I hear she lives with your grandma. The Widows’ Boardinghouse?”
“The name was their idea. They’re kind of famous now, but those are stories for another day. Come here and let me look at your cheek.” He moved toward her slowly, as if she were a horse needing to be calmed, which amused her.
“I can take care of it,” he said.
“Sit down!” She pulled out a kitchen chair and pointed. “I can’t reach your face. I’m tall, but not that tall.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered gruffly.
She pressed her lips together to keep from smiling.
He eased into the chair just a touch slowly, but somehow she knew he didn’t want any more questions about his health. Adam Desantis, she told herself again, shaking her head. He wasn’t a stranger—and he wouldn’t have started the fire, regardless of the trouble he’d once gotten into. She told herself to relax, but her body still tensed with an awareness that surprised her. She was just curious about him, that was all. She cleared her throat and tried to speak lightly. “I imagine you’re used to taking orders.”
“Not for the last six months. I left after my enlistment was up.”
Tearing open an antiseptic towelette, she leaned toward him, feeling almost nervous. Nervous? she thought in surprise. She worked what most would call a man’s job, and dealt with men all day. What was her problem? She got a whiff of smoke from his clothes, but his face was scrubbed clean of it. She tilted his head, her fingers touching his whisker-rough square chin marked with a deep cleft in the center. His eyes studied her, and she was so close she could see golden flecks deep inside the brown. She stared into them, and he stared back, and in that moment, she felt a rush of heat and embarrassment all rolled together. Hoping he hadn’t noticed, she began to dab at his wound, feeling him tense with the sting of antiseptic.
Damn it all, what was wrong with her? She hadn’t been attracted to him in high school—he’d been an idiot, as far as she was concerned. She’d been focused on her family ranch and barrel-racing, not the kind of girl who would lavish all her attention on a boy, as he seemed to require. Brooke always felt that she had her own life to live, and didn’t need a boyfriend as some kind of status symbol.
But ten years later, Adam returned as an ex-Marine who saved her horses, a man with a square-cut face, faint lines fanning out from his eyes as if he’d squinted under desert suns, and she was turning into a schoolgirl all over again.
Adam stared into Brooke Thalberg’s face as she bent over him, not bothering to hide his powerful curiosity. He remembered her, of course—who wouldn’t? She was as tall as many guys, and probably as strong, too, from all the hard work on her family ranch.
A brave woman, he admitted, remembering her fearlessness running into the fire, her concern for the horses more than herself. Now her hazel eyes stared at his face intently, their mix of browns and greens vivid and changeable. She turned away to search the med kit and his gaze lingered on her slim back covered in a checked western shirt that was tucked into her belt. Her long braid tumbled down her back, almost to the sway of her jean-clad hips. It’s not like he hadn’t seen a woman before. And this woman had been a pest through his childhood, too smart for her own good—seeing into his troubled life the things he’d tried to keep hidden—too confident in her own talent. She had a family who believed in her, and that gave a kid a special kind of confidence. He hadn’t had that sort of family, so he recognized it when he saw it.
He wondered if she’d changed at all—he certainly had. After discovering his own confidence, he’d built a place and a name for himself in the Marines. His overconfidence had destroyed that, leaving him in a fog of uncertainty that had been hovering around him for half a year now.
Kind of like being in a barn fire, he guessed, feeling your way around, wondering if you were ever going to get out again. He still didn’t know.
After using butterfly bandages to keep the wound closed, Brooke taped a small square of gauze to his face then straightened, hands on her hips, to judge her handiwork. “You might need stitches if you want to avoid a scar.”
He shrugged. “Got enough of those. One more won’t hurt.”
He rose slowly to his feet, feeling the stiffness in his leg that never quite went away. The docs had got most of the shrapnel out, but not quite all of it. The exertion of the fire had irritated the old wound, but that would ease with time. He was used to it by now, and the reminder that he was alive was more than he deserved, when there were so many men beneath the ground.
After closing the kit, Brooke turned back to face him, tilting her head to look up. They stared at each other a moment, too close, almost too intimate alone here. Drops of water still sparkled in her dark lashes, and her skin was fresh-scrubbed and free of makeup. She looked prettier than he remembered, a woman instead of the skinny girl.
Adam was surprised at the sensations her nearness inspired in him, this awareness of her as a woman, when back in high school she’d barely registered as that to him. He’d dated cheerleaders and party girls, not cowgirls. Now she held herself so tall and easily, with a confidence born of hard work and years of testing her body to the limits.
She cleared her throat, and her gaze dropped from his eyes to his mouth, then his shirtfront. “You have a limp,” she said. “Did one of the horses kick you?”
“Had the limp on and off for awhile. Nothing new.”
She nodded, then stepped past him to return the med kit to the bathroom. When she came back out, she was wearing a fixed, polite smile, which, to his surprise, amused him. Not much amused him anymore.
“I’m glad you’re not hurt bad,” she said. “You did me—us—a big favor and I can’t thank you enough for helping rescue the horses. How’d you see the fire?”
“I was at the boardinghouse and saw the smoke out the window.” If the trees hadn’t been winter-bare, he might not have seen it at all, which made him think uneasily of Brooke, battling the fire alone. “Where are your brothers? They might have come in handy if I hadn’t seen the fire. I assume they still work on the ranch?”
She nodded. “They’re at the hospital with my dad, visiting my mom. Did you remember she has MS?”
He shook his head. “I never knew.”
“She never talked about it much, so I’m not surprised. Most of the time, she only needs a cane, but she’s battling a flare-up that’s weakened her legs. The guys took their turn at the hospital today, while I rode fence. Guess I found more than I bargained for.” She eyed him with speculation. “So you’re back to visit your grandma.”
She put her hands in her back pockets and rocked once on her heels, as if she didn’t know what to do with herself. That stretched her shirt across her breasts, and he had to force himself to keep his gaze on her face.
“Grandma’s letters were off,” he admitted. “She seemed almost scattered.”
Brooke focused on him with a frown. “Scattered? Your grandma?”
“My instincts were right. I got here and she was a lot more frail, and she’s using a cane now.”
“A cane? That’s new. And I see her often, so maybe I just didn’t notice she’d slowly been…” She trailed off.
“Declining?” He almost grumbled the words. Grandma Palmer was in her seventies, but some part of him thought she never changed. She was still the one woman who could briefly get him away from his parents to sleep on sheets that didn’t smell of smoke, to eat meals that didn’t come from a drive-thru. He was never hungry at Grandma Palmer’s, whether for food or for love. There weren’t holidays or birthdays unless Grandma had them. All he’d been to his teenage parents was an unwanted kid, the result of a broken condom, and they blamed him for making so little of their lives. He saw that now, but at the time? He’d been relieved to enlist in the Marines and start his life over.
Now he and Grandma Palmer only had each other. His parents had died after falling asleep in bed with cigarettes a few years back, and he hadn’t experienced anywhere near the grief he now felt in worrying about her. He might have only seen her once or twice a year, but he’d written faithfully, and so had she. The packages she’d sent had been filled with his favorite books and food, enough to share with his buddies. He felt a spasm of pain at the memories. Some of those buddies were dead now. Good memories mingled with the bad, and he could still see Paul Ivanick cheerfully holding back Adam’s care package until he promised to share Grandma Palmer’s cookies.
Paul was dead now.
When Adam was discharged, it took everything in him not to run to his grandma like a little boy. But no one could make things right, not for him, or for the men who died. The men, his Marine brothers, who were dead because of him. He didn’t want to imagine what his grandma would think about him if she knew the truth.
“Those old women still seem strong,” Brooke insisted. “Mrs. Ludlow may use a walker, and your grandma now a cane, but they have enough…well, gumption, to use their word, for ten women.”
He shrugged. “All I know is what I see.”
And then they stood there, two strangers who grew up in the same small town, but never really knew each other.
“So what have you been up to?” Brooke asked, rocking on her heels again.
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Nothing much.”
In a small town like Valentine Valley, everyone thought they deserved to know their neighbor’s business. Brooke wouldn’t think any different—hell, he remembered how she used to butt into his in high school, when they weren’t even friends. She’d been curious about his studies, a do-gooder who thought she could change the world.
She hadn’t seen the world and its cruelties, hadn’t left the safety of this town, or her family, as far as he knew. He’d seen the world—too much of it. There was nothing he could tell her—nothing he wanted to remember.
“Oo-kay then,” she said, drawing out the word.
He wondered if she felt as aware of the simmering tension between them, and as uneasy as he did. He wouldn’t let himself feel like this, uncertain whether he even deserved a normal life.
“What am I thinking?” she suddenly burst out, digging her hand into her pocket and coming out with a cell phone. “I haven’t even called my dad.”
She turned her back and stared out the window, where the firemen were hosing down the smoldering ruins of her family barn. For just a moment, Adam remembered coming to the Silver Creek Ranch as a kid when his dad would do the occasional odd jobs for the Thalbergs. He’d seen the close, teasing relationships between Brooke and her brothers, the way their parents guided and nurtured them with love. Their life had seemed so different, so foreign to him.
And now Brooke would never be able to understand the life he’d been leading. So he turned and walked quietly out the door.
|Copyright © Emma Cane|