Authors: Lindsey Brookes
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
COPYRIGHT 2014 by Lindsey Brookes
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Author’s notable awards: Four-time Romance Writers of America Golden Heart finalist, Finalist in Dorchester Books/Romantic Times Magazine’s American Title III competition, Winner of Harlequin’s Great American Romance Novel Contest, finalist in the Booksellers’ Best Award.
To my wonderful agent, Michelle Grajkowski. Thank you for believing in me, for your never-ending perseverance on my behalf, and especially for being my friend. You’re the best!
Table of Contents:
Jarrett was dead.
Lucas Tanner stared at the letter lying on the table in front of him. The one from his brother’s attorney, conveying the devastatingly grim news of Jarrett’s death.
Dragging a hand back through his hair with a heavyhearted sigh, Lucas closed his eyes.
His brother was only twenty-nine-years-old, five years younger than himself. Too young to die. But then he knew firsthand that death had no age requirement.
Forcing his gaze back to the neatly scrawled words, he read on. There had been no funeral. Just a small, private memorial service in remembrance of his brother. That was how Jarrett had wanted it.
Flexing his fingers, he slid them forward to cover the crisp white stationary, as if by doing so it would block out the finality of the word -
His fingers flexed and then dug into the letter, crumpling the sheet into a tight ball.
Three years before he’d heard that same life-altering word. Or in his case life-ending, because he’d pretty much stopped living the day his wife died. At least emotionally. And it was that same grief and the circumstances surrounding it that drove him away from Wyoming.
Despite his brother’s urgings to come home, Lucas had never returned. He couldn’t. Not with so many painful memories waiting for him back in Eagle Ridge.
Regret over that decision swept through him now with a vengeance. Jarrett had been the only family he had left and now he was gone, too. All thanks to an icy stretch of road and the aging cottonwood that took on his brother’s truck and won.
Lucas’s jaw clenched at the injustice of it all. While he’d been down in Venezuela seeing to a herd of horses, his brother had been laid to rest back in the states without any family there to mourn him.
Pushing away from the table, he dug his cell phone out of the front pocket of his jeans and punched in the number of his closest friend and employer, Alexandre Alvarez Reynolds.
Three rings later, he answered.
“Lucas,” his friend greeted, just a hint of his Portuguese heritage coming through in his accent. The son of an American businessman and a Portuguese mother, Alex had inherited his father’s height and solid frame and his mother’s dark, refined features. His father was a successful businessman, investing his money into property throughout Brazil. But when Alexandre was 17 his parents died in a plane crash, forcing his friend to become a man overnight. And he had done so in a way Lucas was certain his father would have been proud of.
“Alex,” he said as he paced the hardwood floor.
“For a man who’s earned himself a much-deserved, work-free weekend, you don’t sound too happy.”
A long silence filled the connection between them before Alexandre spoke again. “Lucas... I don’t know what to say other than I’m very sorry.”
“I’m going to have to extend that weekend. I’m going back to Eagle Ridge.”
“I never thought I’d hear you say those words,” Alexandre replied.
“It’s not by choice,” Lucas admitted. “I have to go back to settle my brother’s estate.”
“Take as much time as you need, mi amigo. Fernando can see to things until you return.”
“Thanks. I’ll call you once I get to the states and know more.”
“Safe journey, my friend.”
Lucas snapped his phone shut and then looked down at the wadded ball of paper in his other hand. Walking over to the hearth, he tossed it into flames. Moments later, the crumpled missive from Jarrett’s attorney was nothing more than ashes.
* * *
Ellie Sanders straightened and placed a hand at the base of her spine. Her back ached from the long hours she’d spent on her feet that day waiting on customers. Now she was in the back kitchen of her coffee shop, baking sweets to serve the next morning.
Her days had become a never-ending blur. She moved through them with as much detached thought as possible. As it had when she was younger, keeping her feelings at bay that way helped her go on. And she had to go on. Her business wouldn’t run itself. And the coffee shop was her sole source of income. Without it, she couldn’t pay the bills or keep a roof over their head.
She looked down with a sad smile as her hand smoothed over the swell beneath the front of her apron. Not ‘their’, she forced herself to remember. Her child would have the life she’d always been denied. One with a happy, loving, financially secure family. One with two parents. And maybe even siblings to share childhood joys with.
Her decision to give her baby up for adoption had taken a lot of soul-searching. And now that she had finally made it she had to be strong. Had to do what was best for the child growing inside her. That meant not being selfish like her own parents had been, doing only what was right for them without considering what the ramifications of their choices would be for her.
No, she had to stay strong. Had to hold herself together no matter how many doubts crept into her mind over the coming months. The fear of the past repeating itself through her was too deeply ingrained.
Walking over to the oven, she slipped her hands into a pair of oven mitts and pulled the two remaining pans of banana nut bread out. Turning to the work island behind her, she placed them on the waiting cooling racks. Then she removed the mitts and tossed them onto the counter next to the freshly baked loaves of bread.
She glanced up at the clock on the wall with a frown. It was only a few minutes after six o’clock, but it felt like midnight. Oh how she longed to go upstairs to her old apartment and take a nap, but she had responsibilities back at the ranch to see to.
Jarrett had always tended to the animals. But now that he was gone, she thought, her eyes misting over, it was up to her to see to their care. Thankfully, his best friend, Blaine Cooke, had been coming by in the mornings to feed the animals so she could get into town and open up the coffee shop. She wasn’t sure how she would have kept things going without him.
If she had hired someone on to help out at the coffee shop, she could have come and gone as she pleased. Take naps at leisure until the baby came. But hiring someone on meant paying out money she didn’t have to spare. Especially now that she was trying to keep both her coffee shop and Jarrett’s ranch afloat. So as it had been all of her life, she was on her own.
The bell over the coffee shop door jingled, drawing her from her troubled thoughts. Ellie glanced up at the clock on the wall. It was a little late in the day for customers. Other than an occasional trucker passing through late in the day, most of her customers stopped by for coffee and a sweet or two during the morning hours. Especially in the colder months.
Pulling off the apron she wore when she baked, she draped it over the coat hook on the wall, pasted on a smile, and then stepped out of the kitchen to greet her customer.
A weathered old face peered up at her from across the lengthy counter, a sweater clad pup tucked securely beneath the woman’s coat sleeve.
“Hello, Mrs. Tyler.” Ida Tyler lived a half a block away from the coffee shop and stopped in sometimes when she was out walking her dog.
“You’re open late,” she noted.
“I had some baking to do.”
She set her dog down on the tile floor just long enough to shake the excess snow from her coat. “I’d like a cup of tea to go, please.”
“One black current with a dab of honey coming right up,” Ellie said as she turned to fix the older woman’s favorite specialty tea.
Mrs. Tyler settled onto one of the vinyl covered swivel chairs that lined the counter while she waited for Ellie to fix her order. “Appears the weatherman was right for a change. The storm he predicted to hit this afternoon is right on time.”
“I can see that,” Ellie said with a glance out the front windows where large, fluffy, white flakes of snow had begun to fall.
“Are you staying in town tonight?”
Ellie added a teaspoon of honey to the cup of tea she’d fixed and pushed it across the counter to Mrs. Tyler along with a dog biscuit for her little four-legged customer. “I wish I could, but I have to go home and see to the animals.” If not for that she would go upstairs to her apartment and allow her weary body to collapse.
Mrs. Tyler fed the treat to her furry bundle, a look of concern still marring her wrinkled face. “Ellie, dear, you really need to slow down. You’re taking on far too much for a young woman in your condition.”
She offered the woman a warm smile, appreciating her concern, but slowing down wasn’t an option. “I’ll be fine. You know, there are some women who actually run marathons while they’re pregnant.”
Mrs. Tyler reached out to place a cold hand atop Ellie’s. “You can bet those women didn’t just lay their child’s father to rest.”
Ellie pushed the image of Jarrett’s freshly covered grave from her mind. “If I don’t take care of them who will? I’m fortunate enough to have help in the mornings.”
“Sheriff Cooke’s a good man. Always helping out those in need.”
Like Jarrett had which was why the two had always been such good friends.
“If only Lucas had come home...” the older woman said, shaking her head.
“Well, he didn’t,” Ellie said stiffly, swallowing the anger she harbored towards Jarrett’s brother who had left town years before after the death of his wife. Not that she didn’t understand his need to get away from the pain of his loss, but in doing so he had left his brother behind both physically and emotionally.
Jarrett had longed to have his brother back in his life again. A man he’d looked up to growing up. A man he’d respected. The same man who couldn’t even spare the time to come home for his brother’s memorial service. That alone showed her what sort of man Lucas Tanner was. Nothing at all like his kind, caring brother. And if she were the kind of person who welcomed gossip, which she wasn’t, she was quite certain she’d discover a whole lot more to dislike about Jarrett’s cold-hearted older brother.
“Probably for the better, I suppose,” Mrs. Tyler surmised with a nod as she paid for her order, echoing Ellie’s own unspoken sentiments.
Ellie walked around the counter to open the door for the older woman whose hands were full.
“Thank you, dear,” she said as she moved in a slow gait toward the open door. She paused, the blowing wind tugging at her gray hair, and turned to Ellie. “Promise me you won’t wait much longer to close up and go home. If you’d break down on the way home in this weather...”
One thing she loved about living in Eagle Ridge was that people truly cared. “I promise, but only if you do the same. Those sidewalks tend to ice up pretty quickly.”
“On my way there right now,” Mrs. Tyler called back as she trudged out into the swirling flurries.
Ellie closed the door with a tired sigh. Everyone in Eagle Ridge had been so good to her. Especially in the days following Jarrett’s accident. In fact, they’d taken her under their wing like she was one of their own.
For the first time in her life it actually felt like she belonged somewhere. Another reason she had been in such turmoil when making her decision. What would those same loving, caring townsfolk think of a woman who chose to give her child away? A child that was part of that tightly knit community.
* * *
Lucas turned up the snow-covered drive that led to the family ranch, his heart growing heavier by the minute. When he’d moved to Brazil it had been to distance himself from the constant reminder of everything he had lost. Unfortunately, that decision had in the end distanced him from his brother as well.
He should have called Jarrett more. Should have written. Instead, he’d buried himself in his work, pushing himself physically until he sank exhausted into bed each night. His only focus had been on forgetting when he should have been remembering what it was he still had – a brother.
Now it was too late.
Emotion wedged thick in his throat as he pulled up in front of the cedar-sided ranch house. Shutting off the engine, he closed his eyes, silently cursing the feeling of pain and loss that churned inside of him.
His grip tightened, pressing into the cool, smooth leather of the steering wheel. He’d never wanted to come back here. Back to this place. To his past. To the pain.
Jarrett used to tell him he’d come home again someday, but Lucas never expected it to be this soon. And he never expected it to be to settle his brother’s estate.
The emotional dam he had so painstakingly erected after his wife Anna’s death three years before, and then again after word reached him of his brother’s passing, finally gave way, washing over him with such force he could scarcely draw his next breath.
Lucas forced himself to step out of the Jeep Cherokee he’d rented at the airport. Blowing snow clung to his hat and coat as he closed the door behind him. He trudged across the brittle layer of glistening white flakes that coated the walkway and made his way up the freshly swept steps of the wraparound porch.