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Choices Of The Heart–excerpt

Choices Of The Heart
Prologue

Jillian Blake watched in horror when the big screen television in her brother, Justin Coleman’s, Irish pub left a scheduled program to announce a fiery plane crash outside of London that had presumably killed all aboard, including forty-three Americans.

“Oh my God.” Scrambling up from her table, her eight-month-old son, Jaxon, in her arms, Jillian raced over to Justin. “Turn it up. Turn it up,” she repeated, her voice rising in panic as she grabbed Justin’s arm, making him spill the beer he’d just filled for a customer. “Did they give the flight number? Stan was flying into London this evening.”
Justin blanched as he slid the beer down the bar before giving Jillian his full attention. “Do you have his flight number?”
“He texted it to me,” Jillian said, feeling lightheaded. Jaxon began crying, and she did her best to soothe him as paralyzing fear invaded her body.
Justin took the baby from her. She opened her purse to get her phone, both desperate and terrified to see Stan’s text. Grabbing her phone, she tried to tap on Stan’s text, but her fingers were so shaky she kept missing.

Justin balanced Jaxon on his hip and took her phone, tapped the icon. “Flight 2536 is Stan’s.”
Jillian squeezed her eyes shut. “Please let him be safe,” she whispered. Stan could not be gone. Not now when they were doing so well. When they had finally worked things out following a rough patch after Jaxon was born.” She covered her mouth with her fingertips and squeezed her eyes shut, trying her best to stop her fingers from shaking, but to no avail. Blood roared through her ears, making it hard to hear.
“Deep breaths, Jillian.” Justin wrapped his free arm around her as they waited for more details, and she welcomed his strength.
Her heart squeezed as she remembered telling Stan goodbye early this morning. He’d held her close for a long time, told her he loved her and would see her in a couple of days.

As Justin’s flight number ran across the top of the television screen, Jillian’s vision blurred, then total darkness engulfed her.

Chapter One
Two Years Later

Jillian lifted Jaxon and carried him to the car. She was glad the new pediatrician, who had replaced her old one when he’d retired, had been able to work Jaxon in at the end of her day. She was certain her son had an ear infection. Goodness knows she’d become a pro when it came to ear infections. Jaxon was probably looking at getting tubes, and the thought scared her. It might be a simple surgery, but there were always risks, and if anything ever happened to Jaxon, she wasn’t sure she would be able to put herself back together. After losing Stan, Jaxon had become the center of her world. She knew she’d become a bit overprotective, but she couldn’t seem to help herself.
After buckling her son in his car seat, she scooted into the Suburban—Stan’s car that she swore still held a teensy bit of his scent— and fastened her seat belt. The day was slightly nippy and winter would be here soon, but autumn was one of her favorite seasons, and Jaxon loved the cooler weather. Oh, how Jillian wished Stan was here to see all of Jaxon’s firsts. Play with his son and do all the special daddy things with him. Hold her at night when her fatigue and fears sometimes got the better of her.
Jaxson started to cry. She glanced in her rearview mirror. “We’ll be there soon, honey. Drink some juice,” she suggested, glad she’d set a bottle of apple juice in his car seat holder.

If she still lived in Nashville, they could get to his pediatrician in a matter of minutes, but she’d sold the huge house she and Stan had bought after they’d gotten married, and bought her dad’s new wife’s much smaller house in Crystal Springs. The friendly town of Crystal Springs was just what she’d needed to help her heal. In addition to her wonderful neighbors, she also lived close to the dude ranch, where her dad and Dottie stayed at least half the time. Thank goodness her sister, Claire, was close by, too. She and Sam came by to visit often and let the kids play. Their son, Tyler, was only five months younger than Jaxon, and they played well together. Jillian was eternally grateful most of her family lived close by. They’d been a lifeline to her since Stan’s death. And her dad and brothers were wonderful father-figures for Jaxon.

Twenty minutes later, she pulled up to Dr. Hendrix’s office and parked. Scooting out of the Suburban, she rounded it and lifted Jaxon out of his car seat. “My goodness you’re getting to be a big boy,” she said, nuzzling his neck. Slinging his diaper bag over her shoulder, she entered the doctor’s office and stopped in her tracks at the sight of a huge dog lying on the floor in front of a man and his young daughter.

The dog lifted its head and thumped its tail on the shiny tile floor, and Jaxon scrambled to get down, but she held on tight, not sure about such a big dog. And what in the world was it doing here?

“He’s harmless,” the man who sat with the dog said.

“He’s huge,” Jillian responded. And a dog had no business in a pediatrician’s office, she thought, admitting to herself the dog was beautiful.

“Want to pet him?” the brown-haired girl, who looked to be about four asked, wrapping an arm around the dog’s neck, or at least partially around its neck.

“He loves kids,” the man said with a grin that almost had her forgetting how strange it was to see a dog in the doctor’s office.
“Do you bring him to your pediatrician’s office often?”

The man’s grin widened. “Every time I come. Nicole loves Buster as much as I do. Well, almost as much.”

“Nicole?”

“Dr. Hendrix. My ex. I’m dropping my daughter off for the weekend.”

“Oh. That explains why you can bring a dog here, I guess.”

The man ruffled the fur around Buster’s neck and the dog pushed up to a sitting position, eager for more. Goodness, that really was a huge dog, but she did love his coloring, black and brown with a white chest and white blaze up the center of his face. “What kind of dog is he?” she asked.
“Bernese Mountain dog. My daughter and I rescued him, didn’t we Lexi?” The girls head bobbed up and down. “Buster has been so good for Lexi, that I ended up training him as a therapy dog.” The man held out a hand. “Cade Hendrix. This is my daughter, Lexi.”
Jillian took his offered hand. “I’m Jillian and this is Jaxon,” she said, only too aware of the warmth of this man’s hand and the friendliness in his dark eyes.
She smiled, not only at the man, but at the sudden realization that she wasn’t totally dead when it came to the opposite sex. This guy was charming and had a grin that could melt even the most frozen of hearts.

She turned around to sign in at the desk, barely able to balance Jaxon and the overloaded diaper bag as she started to sign her name.
“Here, let me help.” Cade slipped the diaper bag off her shoulder. “Are there bricks in here or did I just forget how much junk you have to cart around for a toddler?”

“You forgot,” she said, taking a seat and motioning for the bag.

“What’s wrong with your son?” Cade asked, handing her the diaper bag.

“I’m pretty sure an ear infection. He tends to get them. A lot,” she added.

“Ear tubes. Lexi had to get them. Piece of cake,” he added, tousling the little girl’s hair.

Lexi danced out of her dad’s reach and motioned to Jaxon. “Want to pet my dog? He’ll make you feel better.”

The girl’s father nodded his agreement, and Jillian let Jaxon slide off her lap and go to the dog, who greeted him eagerly.

Cade leaned over, planted his arms on his jean-clad legs, and smiled at Jaxon. “Buster likes little kids. You qualify as one of his favorite kind of people.”

Jillian couldn’t hold in her smile as she joined her son by the dog. “Does he like grown-ups, too?”

“Almost always.” She stepped back and the man grinned. “No worries for you. He has great taste.”

Oh yeah. This guy’s too charming for his own good, Jillian thought, surprised at how much she’d enjoyed his casual teasing.

The door to the waiting room opened and a nurse called for Jaxon, then grinned at Cade. “This is doctor’s last patient. You can leave Lexi here with me if you want, Dr. Hendrix. I’ll watch her.”

“We’re good. You ever gonna quit calling me doctor?”

“Sorry. It’s the nurse in me,” she responded with a flirty grin.

Jillian watched the exchange. Looked like Cade-the-doctor was just a friendly kinda guy, so she could quit wondering if he might possibly be flirting with her. To be truthful, it was a relief to know he wasn’t. No way was she ready be chummy with a man. Just the thought of having a date, gave her hives.
She took Jaxon’s hand. “Tell the dog bye-bye,” she instructed her son, praying he wouldn’t throw one of his royal two-year-old fits.
Jaxon tried to pull free. When she picked him up, he started screaming like she was about to murder him. She felt her cheeks grow hot.

“Makes me yearn for the good ole days,” Cade said, lifting the diaper bag and hanging it over her shoulder.

Jillian chuckled and her humiliation eased. “I can spot a lie a mile away,” she quipped as she carried her kicking and screaming son out of the room toward the privacy—thank you God—of an exam room.
***
“I’m camping out with the guys this weekend, Nicole. It’s our annual fishing gig. It’ll be late Sunday afternoon, maybe evening, before I pick Lexi up if that works for you.” Cade gave his daughter a big bear hug. There was something about dropping his daughter off for the weekend that always tore at his heart. No way did Lexi deserves this, but no way could things ever work with Nicole.

“That’s fine,” Nicole said. “We’ll be there whenever you come. I’ll try to have her bathed and ready for bed.”

Cade nodded, glad he and Nicole got along so well. It was the least they could do for their daughter. Thank goodness, he was finally beginning to accept that none of this mess was either Nicole’s or his fault. It simply was what is was. After five years of marriage, Nicole had finally admitted to him that she preferred women. He could still remember only too clearly the jolt that had zipped through him at her shocking words. Words that momentarily wiped out all thought except a few choice cuss words and the worry that maybe he’d somehow pushed Nicole in this new direction. His therapist had assured him that wasn’t the case, but there were still times when the thought stalked him.

“See you Sunday, Pumpkin,” he said, giving Lexi one last hug. “Come on Buster. We have packing to do.”

“Wait,” Lexi hollered, racing after him. “I forgot to hug Buster.”

Cade waited patiently as Lexi wrapped her arms around Buster’s neck and buried her face in his soft, thick coat. Almost as quickly as the hug began, Lexi was done and skipped back to her mom.

Heading outside, Cade allowed Buster to water every bush on the premises. “It’s just you and me this weekend, Buster,” he said as the dog continued to mark every bush. After what seemed like an eternity, the dog finally had an empty bladder.

The door to the clinic opened and out stepped the woman he’d met earlier carrying her toddler. Must be his lucky day, he thought. He might have sworn off women for the foreseeable future, but he could still appreciate a real beauty when he saw one. Her shoulder-length dark hair swung softly as she walked. He couldn’t help but notice her big dark eyes were filled with weariness. He told himself he didn’t want to know why.

“Was it an ear infection?” he found himself asking.

The woman—Jillian if he remembered right—nodded. “We’re off to get his prescription filled. She referred us to a specialist.”

“It’ll be okay,” Cade said. “Really.” She nodded and pursed her lips, and he wished he could console her. “He’ll be in and out of surgery before you and your husband can grab a cup of coffee and get comfortable.”

“Thanks. You’re kind to say that. My sister will probably go with us to the hospital. Or one of my brothers. Thank goodness for family, right?”

“Absolutely. Sorry his dad’s not around to be with you. Divorce can be a bitch.”

She drew her brows together and shifted her gaze away from him. “I’m not divorced,” she said after a pause. He arched his brows and waited, somehow knowing she had more to say. “I lost my husband to a plane crash a few years ago.”

Oh hell. Now he really wanted to be nice to this lady. “That’s rough. I’m real sorry, Jillian. Did I remember your name right?”

“Yes. I can’t seem to remember anything these days,” she offered.

Feeling bad for this mother and the boy who would never know his dad, he reached out and stroked a hand over the toddler’s light brown hair. The thought of Lexi losing him made his stomach clench. “I’m glad you have family close by,” he said as he dropped his hand.

“Thanks,” she answered. “They’re the best.”

“Doggie,” Jaxon said, pointing at Buster. “Pet doggie.”

“It’s okay if he pets him again,” Cade assured her. “Buster loves the attention.”

Jillian set the toddler down and he headed straight to Buster, his short legs churning as fast as they could. Stopping, he patted the dog’s shoulder, a big grin on his face.
“I should maybe get him a dog,” Jillian said. “It’d probably be good for us both. Do you recommend this breed? My brother has a pony that Jaxon loves to sit on. Logan is married to the equine therapist at the Crystal Springs dude ranch and insisted on getting Jaxon a pony.”

“Seriously? My buddy, Hank, is part owner out there. Great guy. I was all for it when he decided to buy some horses and build that program.”

Jillian’s face brightened. “Hank and Ashley are the best. My dad married Ashley’s mom a couple of years ago.”

“I’ve heard about them. Hank thinks the world of Dottie.” Cade couldn’t believe he and Jillian had this in common.

“So how do you know Hank?” she asked.

“Vet school. We got even better acquainted when he used my office for surgeries while he was setting up a practice at the dude ranch. “Hank’s a great guy. Matter of fact, he’s going with me and a few others on a fishing trip this weekend.”

Jillian’s eyes widened. “Now there’s a big bunch of trouble waiting to happen.”

Cade laughed out loud, and it felt good. Before he could censor himself, he pulled out his wallet and gave Jillian his card. “Holler at me when or if you decide to get a dog. I’ll be glad to give my professional opinion. I’m a huge believer in pets being great healers. Buster has been a life saver for Lexi.”

“I could tell she adores him.” Jillian leaned down and petted Buster, who sat quietly beside Cade, as Jaxon continued to bury his face in the dog’s neck and pat him endlessly. Jillian smiled at her son. “Jaxon obviously loves your dog.”

“Buster’s pretty lovable. I should rent him out,” he added, thinking this lady was easy to visit with.

“Be sure and provide food when you send him for a stay.” Jillian’s eyes twinkled, and he couldn’t hold in a grin.

“Seriously, holler sometime and Lexi and I will bring Buster for a visit.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” Jillian said shaking her head.

“Sure, you could. It would be fun and good for your boy.”

She seemed to ponder his words, then nodded slowly. “You have a point. I might surprise you—and myself—and take you up on that generous offer sometime. As long as Hank gives you the okay,” she tacked on.

“I look forward to it.” Picking up the toddler, Cade gave him a quick hug, then handed him to his mom. “Nice to meet you, Jillian. Hope your boy feels better real soon.”
With that, he led Buster to the truck, loaded him in the back seat, and started out of the parking lot, taking one last look in his rear-view mirror at the beautiful woman and her son before he turned onto the road and headed home to pack for his much-anticipated fishing outing with the guys.

Home at Last (Crystal Springs Homecoming Romances)

CHAPTER ONE

Exhaustion tugged at Ashley Richardson as she pulled her loaded-to-the-hilt car up to her brother, Ethan’s, dude ranch outside Crystal Springs, Tennessee and parked at the side of the huge two-story white frame farm house. The bright red baskets of geraniums hanging across the front of the wrap-around porch made her smile. Her mother’s touch, she felt certain, and a welcoming first impression, especially with the porch swings and rockers, all with red cushions.

Ashley leaned her head back against the car seat and breathed a sigh of relief that her long, hot, three-day drive was over. She hoped she’d made a good decision to come here and be the public relations director for the ranch, but if it didn’t work out she could always leave and find a job in Nashville.

She glanced at the lush rolling hills surrounding her. It was definitely beautiful, and right now she was glad she’d let Ethan talk her into moving here. If truth be known, it hadn’t taken much talking on his part. She’d been away from her family for thirteen years. Thirteen long years of running from herself. It was time to join her family. Time to come to terms with her past and move forward.

“It’s a perfect fit,” Ethan had told her when he’d offered the job.

She’d harumphed, not at all sure it was any kind of fit, let alone perfect. But it was a job and it was close to family – a huge plus at this point in her life – and it gave her time to figure some things out and find herself.

A sharp rap on her window had her practically jumping out of her hot, sweaty skin. She clutched her heart and shot daggers at Hank Bradley, co-owner of the dude ranch and the main source of her reservations about taking this job. Holding back a curse, she rolled down her window.

“Ethan had to go out to a building site. Said to welcome you. Pop the trunk. I’ll grab an armload.”

“That’s a heart-warming welcome if ever there were one,” she muttered, shooting him a fake smile.

“I do my best.” Tipping his cowboy hat at her, he sauntered to the trunk and grabbed an armload of luggage. “Follow me. I’ll show you your room.”

Ashley grabbed her two smaller bags, slammed the trunk shut, and followed him inside, where it was blessedly cool. He climbed the stairs and she followed, unable to keep from admiring the view. Men weren’t the only ones who enjoyed eyeing good butts, she mused. She’d known Hank since they were in junior high and he’d always had a cute butt. And broad shoulders. And a killer smile when he bothered to use it. Which was rare around her.

She shifted her gaze, chastising herself for admiring Hank’s assets, and continued to follow his long-legged stride, practically running to keep up.

When they landed on the second floor, he spoke. “Ethan put you in the new wing. Thought you’d enjoy the view and the peace and quiet it offered.”

“He got that right.”

Hank shoved the door open to a gorgeous mauve and cream colored suite, and Ashley sighed with pure pleasure. She set her two bags on the gleaming hardwood floor, kicked off her sandals and walked toward the antique four-poster, walnut bed, sinking her tired feet into a thick, cream-colored, area rug adorned with mauve flowers and dark green leaves.

She scooted onto the bed and bounced a few times. “This bed is magnificent. Where did Ethan pick this up?”

“My folks’ place. I cleaned their house out last month after Mom died.”

“Oh,” she said, at a loss for words. Seemed she was always at a loss for what to say around this man of few words. He certainly never talked about his family. She’d never heard anything good about his folks, and every time she’d asked Ethan about them he’d told her Hank’s family life wasn’t any of their business.

She ran a hand over a polished bed post and admired the intricate pattern carved into it. “I heard about your father passing a long time ago. I hadn’t heard about your mom. When did you lose her?”

“A few months ago. Heart.”

Ashley’s hand stilled. “I’m sorry, Hank. I can’t imagine losing my mom.”

“That’s because your mom’s one-of-a-kind. She’s been more like a mother to me than my own mom. Count yourself lucky.” Hank turned to go. “If you need anything, I’m right next door.”

“Seriously?” Irritation scraped through her. This was not what she needed. “When I was here at the first of the summer, you were living in a stall in the barn,” she said, rolling her eyes before she could stop herself.

“I’m expanding the barn. Adding some therapy horses and another arena. By the way, this is a Jack and Jill suite. We share a bathroom.” He nodded toward a door on the other side of the bed.

Ashley’s mouth fell open. “I’m sharing a bathroom with you?” she hissed, anger churning through her before she reined it in. She wasn’t sharing a bathroom with anyone, but especially Hank Bradley. She didn’t want to even see the man, and she sure as hell wasn’t sharing the intimacy of a bathroom with him. She and Hank could barely manage to be civil to one another so this would never work. Never. Not in a million years.

She’d have Ethan find her another room. Or move to a hotel if she had to.

“Calm down, Ash. I’m used to a stall. I rarely even shower.”

“Very funny.”

Chuckling, Hank left the room. Ashley closed the door forcefully behind his retreating back. Big brother would pay for this. Of course big brother had no idea how much Hank got on her nerves, but still. She glanced around the room and tried to calm herself. It really was quite lovely. A sitting area off one side of the room caught her eye. She started toward it, stopping when her bare feet sank again into the thick area rug beside the bed. She dug her toes into the plush rug and admired a walnut six-drawer dresser, complete with an oval, beveled glass mirror and wondered if that had come from Hank’s old house, too.

She headed toward the sitting room, sighing with pleasure when she stepped into it. A light yellow chaise was in one corner, facing French doors that gave her a beautiful view of a meadow. A delicate Tiffany lamp sat on a side table, which looked like yet another antique. She wondered if it was a piece from Hank’s childhood home.

She sank onto the chaise and propped her feet up. Okay, so the room was lovely, but she still didn’t want to share a bathroom. What had Ethan been thinking? She wanted her privacy for crying out loud. No woman in the world would want to share a bathroom with a male stranger. Okay, so Hank wasn’t a stranger, but still. Ethan should have at least checked this out with her.

She stormed over to the bed and grabbed her cell phone out of her purse. She pulled up Ethan’s name then groaned and tossed her phone onto the bed. She could hardly complain when the room was free, and Ethan was paying her generously for her job. Besides, she also had a balcony, one of the few rooms that boasted that amenity. She walked back to the sitting room, opened the French doors wide and stepped outside. A sigh of pleasure left her as she took in the green rolling hills spotted with horses. To her right was the barn and arena, where five horses stood saddled and, she assumed, waiting for riders.

A family of four walked to the horses, and Hank stepped out of the barn, greeting them. He talked with them a minute, probably giving them instructions, then led the way to the horses. No one needed help mounting their horse, so they must have some riding experience.

Hank swung onto a gorgeous black stallion and headed out, the family filing out behind him into the south pasture. Ashley watched until they were out of sight, thinking a morning ride sounded wonderful. She’d have to do that soon. In the meantime, she had a lot of unpacking to do. That is, if she stayed in this room.

Reluctantly, she went back inside, opened a suitcase and grabbed some clean clothes. Picking up her small bag of toiletries, she headed for the bathroom. At least she’d have hot water this early in the evening. And Hank wasn’t anywhere around.

She opened the door to the bathroom and almost squealed with delight. A huge whirlpool tub greeted her. Talk about the perfect way to mellow after her long drive from California. She locked the door and prepared to indulge herself.

****

Ashley joined the breakfast crew early the next morning, smiling as she sat beside Ethan at the end of the table. Several guests were finishing up their breakfast and Ashley made a point of greeting them.

“How did everyone sleep last night? I slept like a milk-drunk baby.”

“Nothing like clean country air,” one man said as he scooted away from the table. “We’re heading out for a hike. See you all later.”

“Watch where you walk,” Ethan called after them. “Country life has country critters.”

The man nodded and escorted his wife and two teenage boys outside.

“So what are the big plans around here for Labor Day?” Haley asked after taking a sip of orange juice.

“Just the usual unless you want to throw something together at the last minute.”

“Talk about pressure,” she muttered around a piece of toast with fresh blackberry jam that practically melted in her mouth. “Looks like I have my work cut out for me.”

Hank sauntered into the room and sat across from them. “Mornin’. Did my snoring keep you awake, Princess?”

Ashley narrowed her gaze at him, angry and hurt and hoping only the hurt showed. The man barely talked to her, but when he did she often wished he’d kept his mouth shut. She took a bite of eggs, watched him as she chewed and remembered only too vividly the last time he’d called her Princess. His words still stung. “You need to grow up, Princess.”

She swallowed down her humiliation and shifted her attention back to the present and her brother. “We’ve got three nights until Labor Day. How about a barn dance? Invite the entire area, not just people staying here.”

Ethan practically choked on his food. “You think big. That’s a lot to pull off in a few days.”

“Wuss. How about in a couple of weeks? Make it a grand opening for the place? Don’t you think the Crystal Springs Dude Ranch needs a grand opening?”

Ethan leaned back in his chair, rubbed his flat belly and groaned with pleasure. “Sounds like a plan. Francie knows some ladies in town who own a place called Comfort Cafe. Bet you could get them to cater the food.”

“Francie knows everyone. Having her for a sister-in-law comes in handy, huh?”

Ethan grinned. “Matt did good.”

“Yes he did, and so did you when you finally convinced Haley to marry you.” Ethan’s grin covered his face, and Ashley was happy for him. “I’ll talk to Francie. How are she and Matt doing by the way?”

“Still two little love birds. Francie keeps trying to give Haley riding lessons, but she keeps declining.” Ethan chuckled. “Francie is persistent, so my money’s on her, not my beautiful wife.”

“My money’s on your beautiful wife,” Hank announced. “That woman found her voice and she’s never giving it up.”

“Good for her,” Ashley said. “Besides, Haley has her own strengths,” she added, taking another bite of scrambled eggs.

“How do you like those ostrich eggs?” Ethan asked.

Ashley’s mouth froze. “Really?” she mumbled around her food.

Hank pointed his fork at her. “You’re in God’s country now, Ashley. Pretty sure we’re having rattler for dinner.”

She swallowed her eggs. “You are so full of it.”

Ethan and Hank grinned at each other. Ashley frowned at them. “Some things never change, and you two guys are one of those things. You’ve been egging each other on since grade school.”

“It’s become a fine art, don’t you think?” Ethan punched Hank in the arm.

“My end of it has. Not sure about yours.” Hank took a sip of coffee, a smirk on his face, and Ethan laughed.

“Okay, how about a nature hike and barbeque on Labor Day?” Ashley suggested. “Just for the guests.”

Ethan pondered her suggestion then looked at Hank. He arched his brows. “Don’t look at me. Just remember they’d have to watch for rattle snakes, depending on where the clues are.”

“God you’re a spoil sport.” Ashley scooted away from the table. “You two think about it and let me know. I’m going for a morning ride. Which horse do you suggest, Hank?”

He shoved away from the table, picked up his plate. “I have a couple that would be a good choice for you. A bay mare and a gray gelding. Why don’t you show her, Ethan? I have work to do.”

“Sorry. No can do.” Ethan stood. “I have an early appointment with a client in town. When you get a few minutes, Ashley, Haley and the kids would love to see you.”

“Sure thing. I’ll ride to your new house, tie the horse at the fence post.” She grinned. “You do have a fence post, don’t you?”

Laughing, Ethan grabbed her up and twirled her around. “Good to have you here, little sis.” He set her down, kissed her cheek. “See you later. Hank’ll take good care of you. Answer any questions you have.” Ethan grabbed his cowboy hat and headed outside.

Hank’s gaze coasted over Ashley. “I’ll meet you in the barn after you change into riding clothes.”

“Just show me which horse and where the gear is. I can take it from there.” Ashley walked outdoors and pulled in the fresh morning air, not about to dash upstairs and change because of what Hank said. She would change after she’d saddled her horse. Hank knew she was an experienced horse woman. Why did he always have to goad her?

She walked to the corral and leaned over the railing, spotting the gray gelding immediately. She clucked and his ears pricked as he watched her with interest, chewing on some hay. Several of the other horses glanced at her, but the gray walked up to her and stretched out his neck. She patted his sleek, dappled coat.

Hank joined her, resting his arms over the top railing. Big hands, Ashley thought. He rubbed the gelding’s face and the horse shoved his nose closer. Gentle hands too. “Jagaer can be a bit spirited and stubborn but you’ll be able to handle him.” Hank gave the gelding one last pat. “The prettiest area is the south pasture. The tack room is the third door on the right. Have a good ride.” He headed toward the barn without even a good bye.

“Hank, wait.” He stopped and turned, one eyebrow arched. “It’s obvious we’ll be running into each other a lot. Don’t you think it’s time we tried to get along?”

He studied her a minute, and she felt uncomfortable, exposed like some teenager who had just been caught doing something she shouldn’t be doing. “You just want to butter me up so you’ll get more bathroom time,” he finally said.

Ashley laughed, irritated that he could amuse her as easily as he irritated her. “I’m serious. We’ve been at odds since. . .” She swallowed hard and shrugged. “Well, you know.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I know. I pissed you off bad. You don’t forgive easily.”

“What? You never gave me a chance to talk to you again, let alone forgive you. Besides, you didn’t really need forgiving,” she added, looking down and kicking at the dirt. “I’m the one who needs forgiving.”

“I forgive you. Have we cleared the air now?”

She glared at him. “I just want us to get along. I’ll be living here a while and it’d be a lot more comfortable if we could just be” – she hesitated. “Friends.”

He walked back to her, his stride long and loose, and stopped practically on top of her. She had to crane her neck up to not be looking at the middle of his chest. “Friends, huh?”

“Yes,” she all but squeaked.

His blue eyes were intense, taking in her face as if memorizing every detail. She felt herself grow hot.

He leaned so close their noses almost touched and she could feel his body heat radiating off of him. He rubbed the dark stubble on his chin. “Nope. Don’t think I want to do that.”

And just like that she was eighteen years old and stupid again.

Hank stepped back. “Let me know if you need anything though.” He pivoted and strode toward the barn as if once again he couldn’t get away from her fast enough.

Humiliation suffused her face as she watched the arrogant jerk jump over the corral fence and enter the barn. What did he do in that damn barn all the time? Avoided people would be her best guess, since he was so distant with them. Or maybe it was just her he was distant with. There was a time back when they were kids, she’d followed Ethan and Hank around like a puppy dog, and for the most part Hank hadn’t seemed to mind.

Then everything had changed.

Her spirits took a nose dive. She’d hoped Hank didn’t hate her anymore, but she’d been wrong and it stung. A lot. She would definitely ask Ethan for another room tonight.

She went into the house, fully intending to enjoy her ride this morning even if Hank had upset her. Hurrying to her room, she changed into jeans and boots, eager to gallop a horse across the pasture and forget about Hank’s dismissive and hurtful response to her pathetic attempt to repair the understandable grudge he held against her – and even more eager to outrun her fear that coming to Crystal Springs might be the second biggest mistake of her life.

 

 

A New Season

The long, bitter cold winter is finally coming to an end. For many people, this winter has been much harsher than any they have experienced before, yet they have persevered and the beauty of spring is in sight!

Sometimes life throws us what feels like almost too much to bear: enormous hardships, devastating losses, the heavy weight of grief. And yet time and again we gather those we love close and force ourselves to move forward, knowing deep within that we must trust in the power of love.

My Crystal Springs/Coming Home series is set in a small Tennessee town where community and family are important, where hope and comfort are abundant, and, most of all, where people reach out to one another, offering support and love when it is needed the most.

COMING HOME Blurb, Book 2 in my Crystal Springs Series

Francie turned as Dottie struggled to a sitting position, wincing with pain. “My son’s going to be spittin’ mad,” she said, a look of worry cutting through the pain etched on her face.

“I’m sure he’ll be upset,” Francie said, “but surely not mad. It’s not your fault.”

The woman scowled. “Trust me. He’ll be mad.”

“Oh.” Francie practically bit her tongue to keep her thoughts to herself. The guy sounded like a real peach. Thank God he’d signed the permission note for his daughter to take riding lessons, or this could get ugly real fast. “I’ll call him if you give me his number,” Francie suggested, stroking Dottie’s arm.

Dottie blanched. “Not a good idea. He doesn’t want Chloe riding, especially jumping.”

“He signed his permission,” Francie reminded her. “And accidents happen.” Not that this had ever happened before, thank God.

“He didn’t sign it. I did.” Dottie’s mouth set in a firm line, whether in pain or defiance, or both, Francie wasn’t sure…

Fact is Always Stranger Than Fiction…

…and that can really be to a writer’s advantage!

Take the lady who tried to slide down her ex-boyfriend’s chimney naked and got stuck! Yes, you read that right! Twenty three firemen rushed to rescue her. I feel quite confident they jumped on that fire truck and blazed through town — siren wailing, hearts pumping — ready and eager to save the naked damsel in distress!

Once there, they were forced to chisel away the fireplace mantel piece by piece to find the body. The naked body.  Slowly she began to emerge — soot-covered feet first, soot-covered calves next, soot-covered….Well, you get the picture!

What would POSSESS a woman to try and slide down a chimney under ANY circumstances, let alone the chimney of her ex-boyfriend, in the dead of winter, and in the raw?

I’m tucking this away in the corner of my mind for possible use. After all, this was an ex-girlfriend, and ex-girlfriends have a way of showing up in the wrong places and at the worst times and making total fools of themselves, especially if they are naked and a camera crew is waiting to snap their picture!

 

Thoroughbreds versus Quarter Horses

In LONG ROAD HOME, a contemporary romance and the first book of my Crystal Springs/Coming Home Series, you will meet several Thoroughbreds horses and a few Quarter horses. Here in Oklahoma, we’re proud of both! However, it’s the versatile Quarter horse that Oklahoma cowboys chose (and still choose) to ride. After all, Quarter horses are built to be good cutting and reining horses! They are compact horses that can stop and start on a dime and beat just about any horse in a quarter mile race. Thus their name.

The magnificent Thoroughbreds are also loved by many, but for different reasons. Thoroughbreds are bred to run! And run! And run!  They are the perfect horse if you want to compete in not only racing but in hunter/jumper events. Their long legs are good for not just running longer distances, but also jumping. And because of their long legs, they are almost always taller than Quarter horses. While Thoroughbreds are gorgeous animals, those long legs are one of the reasons they are not the best choice for cutting cattle or reining events. Most Thoroughbreds stand at 17 – 19 hands high, while a typical quarter horse is usually 15-16 hands high. This can vary, but you get the drift. Short legs, short fast sprints. Long legs, long races and sailing gracefully over jumps.

LONG ROAD HOME is set around Thoroughbreds, both their racing and also hunter/jumper events. 

Which breed is your favorite, Quarter horse or Thoroughbred?

COMING HOME (Book 2 in my CRYSTAL SPRINGS series.

For those of you who have read my first book in this series, LONG ROAD HOME, here is a blurb about the second book, COMING HOME, due out at the end of December.

COMING HOME

When Francie Bennett’s father is diagnosed with dementia and she discovers she’s pregnant by her cheating ex-boyfriend, she leaves college to help take care of her ailing father and have her baby.

Matt Richardson lost his father and wife to preventable accidents and will do whatever it takes to keep his daughter safe, even forbidding her life’s passion — riding horses. When his mother sneaks Chloe to a riding lesson, Matt feels like he’s lost control, and there’s nothing he hates worse.

Eventually, Matt gives in and allows Chloe to take riding lessons but only under one condition: he’s always there. Unfortunately, nothing has ever affected his feeling of being out of control worse than falling for the fiery, red-haired riding instructor whose life revolves around horses.

As her father worsens and her due date nears, Francie is determined to prove she can handle everything by herself, even if that means keeping the man she cares about at a distance. But when Francie’s life takes a dangerous turn, will she let Matt in and allow him to help her? And will the power of love be strong enough for Matt to finally overcome his deepest fears?

Life seasons…

Fall is in full swing. Here in Oklahoma we should see our peak time in about a week or so. As tree leaves change to brilliant reds, yellows and oranges, the hummingbirds know it’s time for their long migration across the ocean, butterflies are flitting around our fall flowers taking in life-giving food for their migration, and squirrels are burying nuts in a frenzy of activity.

And while fall marks the end of summer, it also marks the beginning of winter. The whole world sees spring as a new beginning, but fall has its own beginning. Every season of life has a beginning and an ending. We all know how difficult it is to see the closure of a relationship as a new beginning, even the closure of life itself as a new beginning, but if we can be still and breathe in love, allowing that love to flow through us, the blessings this life has to teach us will flow in and through us and guide us to our new beginning.

For me, that’s what life is – seasons, one after another, surrounding us, filling us, and allowing us to embrace a newer depth of understanding ourselves and the lessons we are here to learn.

Mary Jane