The Canadays of Montana, Book 1
Big Marietta Fair, Book 5

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Montana Born Books
The Canadays of Montana, Book 1
Big Marietta Fair, Book 5
Release Date:

Aug 13, 2014

ISBN:

978-1-940296-73-9

More From Barbara →

A Cowboy to Remember

by

Barbara Ankrum

Twelve years ago, equestrian Olympic hopeful Olivia Canaday and her best friend, Jake Lassen, made a pinky-swear promise to reunite at the Big Marietta Fair on her thirtieth birthday and marry each other if they were both still single. But that was before they grew up and went their separate ways.

Now, after a disastrous divorce and a career-changing accident, Olivia limps home, minus her mojo, her courage and her faith in love. She retreats to her parents’ ranch, determined to play it safe, but when ex-Army helicopter pilot Jake Lassen arrives to make good on their promise, he reignites passion and hope, two things Olivia had forgotten existed.

Olivia resolves to keep Jake at arm’s length, even though the memory of his kisses keeps her up at night. She knows better than to let her heart get involved, but Jake is planning for the future. Their future. Can Jake convince her to risk it all one more time and really make this a fair to remember?

*Previously titled A Fair to Remember

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On the night of her thirtieth birthday, at the Big Marietta Fair, Olivia Canaday took a pull on her long neck beer, leaned on the porcelain sink in the restroom—where she was hiding from what had, officially, turned into the worst blind date in history—and stared at her reflection in the mirror.

What, in the name of all that is holy, are you doing here? Haven’t the last seven years taught you anything?

She sighed and took another swig.

A rhetorical question, of course. She’d learned plenty in the last seven years, she thought, tucking a strand of dark hair behind her ear, not the least of which being that her cowardice was legend and the dating pool teemed with slimy bottom feeders and narcissists.

Not that she was bitter.

She mentally added a new entry under the heading, Note to Self, which read: Never allow wicked stepsisters to trick you into another blind, pity date again. Ever.

Kate and Eve—the traitors—and their respective dates had conveniently lost Olivia in the fair crowds after Peter Moreno, the former high school classmate they’d set her up with, lost track of his ‘shut-the hell-up’ button. He’d been talking non-stop about himself, and his booming law practice, for the last two hours. He’d even brought along the photograph taken of him outside the Marietta Courthouse that had appeared in the latest edition of The Copper Mountain Courier, which, he’d pointed out, was taken from his ‘more photogenic’ left side. He had generously reenacted the pose for her with a cheesy wink.

She shuddered, remembering it.

Outside the restroom door, the sounds of the midway, couples laughing and genuine happiness, rushed on by her like a river. The scent of corn dogs, barbeque, and cotton candy reminded her of all the other, long ago nights she’d spent at this fair, being part of something. Tonight, she’d caught glimpses of friends she hadn’t seen since high school, now married up, with children, and moving on with their lives, while hers seemed stuck on hold.

She rubbed her temples, trying to remember some Confucius wisdom she’d heard about moving forward, but it eluded her. Something about studying the past to define the future. But, at the moment, her possibilities felt as small and confined as the mistakes she’d left behind.

But whose fault was that?

Yours, a small voice retorted.

If left to her own devices tonight, she’d be tucked into her favorite reading chair, in her childhood bedroom, with a tub of Chunky Monkey and a good romance novel. All to take her mind off the fact she was thirty, divorced, and, yes, living in her childhood bedroom. But, her sisters hadn’t allowed it. They’d dragged her to the fair for a ‘date’ so she wouldn’t spend her birthday alone. But, hands down, she would take alone over the rejoining ‘party of one’, who’d never even asked her if she wanted a churro.

She scooped her hair away from her face, then leaned closer to inspect a new crinkle near her eye. Under the flickering florescent lights, she looked older, and a little tipsy, which made sense since she had just exceeded her two beer limit with a third one.

She brushed a finger across her unglossed lips and blinked at her reflection. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been seriously kissed by someone she really wanted to kiss her. Even though she’d sworn off men and marriage, and anything to do with relationships, a fluttering curl of want settled down low in her belly at the thought of such intimacy, reminding her some little part of the person she used to be still had a pulse.

Sadly, only one memorable, toe-curling smooch came to mind when she allowed herself to think of such things and her ex-husband of five years had nothing to do with it. No, the one she had in mind was the kiss that always came to her in the middle of a sleepless night, or as she watched the dark water of a river slide across a deep, trout-filled pool or, honestly, whenever she thought of kissing at all.

She had no trouble admitting Jake Lassen was the one that got away. But in truth, she’d intentionally let him off the line and released him. He’d been her best friend in high school, but even that was understating the teenage angst of their relationship, a strange mix of confidences, friendship, and unrequited longing.

Timing had always been their issue. Either she’d secretly wanted him when he was dating someone else or it had been the other way around. But through it all, they’d been friends. Friends, like no other friend she’d ever had.

THE KISS had only happened only once, the night of their graduation after-party, in the wee hours of the morning down by the river.

She and Jake had walked downstream, where he wanted to show her a secret fishing spot, and it had happened. A mutual collision of hunger, so unexpected and thorough, that just thinking of it now sent a hot wave of longing through her. That day, they’d lost control for a minute, tumbling on the beach in a tangle of lust, unrequited love and confusion.

In a way, their kiss had unalterably changed things between them. She blamed herself for not letting it go any farther, because she hadn’t wanted to risk their friendship that way. It had become too important to her to lose because Jake had been her rock. Her compass. So, she’d taken the blame, as well—rightly or not—for his sudden decision to join the U.S. Army a few weeks later, because for the next month, she’d pretended the kiss hadn’t happened. But whatever the real story, she’d squandered her chance to make things right with him.

She’d never seen him again after that summer.

Her life went in one direction, his in another. Oh, they’d stayed in touch for a few years, with him in the Middle East and her on the east coast, but then they’d lost touch.

And the pinky swear promise they’d made to meet up again on her thirtieth birthday at the Big Marietta Fair, to be each other’s fallback person, was just—silly. Jake had joined the army and, as far as she knew, hadn’t been back to Marietta since he’d buried his parents two years ago after that terrible accident. She’d been gone nearly twelve years. He was probably still somewhere in Afghanistan, being brave and she…?

She was hiding in a bathroom.

Oh, why the hell was she thinking about kissing and Jake now anyway? All she wanted to do was escape this evening, go home, and soak in a long, hot bath. With bubbles.

Olivia took another desperate gulp of beer as she scoped out the windows at the back of the rest room.

Wait.

She could actually climb out one of those windows and escape without Peter seeing her. It wouldn’t be hard, except for the dress, but who’d be looking? Then she’d find her sisters and make them drive her home.

A pair of teenagers pushed into the restroom, giggling about some boy who was not only flirting with the blonde one, he was already, apparently, going steady with another girl.

The shorter one, a dark-haired girl—who reminded Olivia of herself at that age—was swooning at the thought of such attention.

“If Jarrod Stephenson likes you,” Mini-Her told the taller one, “senior year is going to rock for you. You know Jarrod can do no wrong.”

Except maybe cheat on his current squeeze. But hey…

As the blonde one expounded on her good fortune, Olivia washed her hands, contemplating whether asking the girls for a boost up to the window would be too much.

Mini-Her scrunched her nose at her reflection, clearly not pleased with what she saw. She pulled her hair back away from her face, then let it fall across her cheek like a curtain.

“If Jarrod Stephenson liked me,” she sighed, as if auditioning for the part of a Disney princess, “I’d do anything for him.”

Olivia rolled her eyes and, for reasons that had everything to do with the third beer, said,

“You say that now, but in ten years you’ll realize that girl”—she gestured at Mini-Her’s reflection in the mirror—“is perfect, exactly as she is. Don’t try to make her into something she’s not for any boy. She’ll just wind up losing herself and her dreams and everything she could have been, and I guarantee you, he’s not worth it.” She punctuated her questionable piece of wisdom with an unladylike beer burp. “’Scuse me.”

For a moment, the two girls stared at her in horrified silence. Before she’d spoken, Olivia had apparently been absolutely invisible to them. A thirty-year old, invisible—

“Wow, lady. Ever heard of privacy? C’mon, Amanda. Just ignore her.” The blonde grabbed Amanda’s arm and steered her toward the door in a pubescent huff.

But Amanda/Mini-Her cast a confused, eerie look of recognition back at Olivia before she disappeared out the door.

Olivia glanced in the mirror.

Lady?

Pfhhtttt!

She took her last gulp of beer, checked the windows again, and dismissed the coward’s way out. There was only one thing to do. She had to put on her big girl panties and ditch Peter like a mature adult.

Past the crowd milling beneath the colorful strung up lights, she caught sight of him waiting beneath the big wheel. He had apparently buttonholed another victim to hold captive to his autobiography.

The stranger, whose back was to her as she approached, was a few inches taller than Peter; lean, but powerfully-built, his too long, dark hair tickling the collar of an old, denim jacket.

A quick scan downward revealed a perfectly sculpted ass encased in a pair of threadbare, but oh-so-sexy jeans and scuffed, worn-down-at-the-heels cowboy boots peeking out from underneath.

A charge of heat traveled up through her as if she’d accidentally stepped on an exposed electrical wire. She blamed it on the beer, or the fact that the only backsides she’d been noticing lately had belonged to horses.

Beside him sat a large buff-colored dog who reminded her of a Siamese cat, with its soft grey ears, nose and tail. The dog stared adoringly up at its owner, clearly ready to follow him to the ends of the earth.

With his back still to her, the cowboy touched the brim of his hat to Peter, then took off, walking away with the dog at his heels. She frowned at a niggle of something familiar about him, but by the time she reached Peter, the stranger had disappeared from sight.

“C’mon,” Peter said, reaching for her hand before she could say what she’d come to say. “I got the tickets. We’ll be the last ones on.”

“Peter, wait—”

The bearded carny, an apparent refugee from Duck Dynasty-land, had the last seat waiting for them with the lap bar held open. “Hurry up, you two lovebirds. Wheel’s about to go.”

Lovebirds?

As. If.

Olivia shot him the evil eye as Peter bum-rushed her into the seat. The lap bar slapped shut with a disquieting clunk. Beside her, Peter was smiling, watching her as the Ferris wheel began to spin. Olivia white knuckled the bar and focused on the fairgrounds, secretly hoping to spot her sisters heading to her rescue.

“That was weird, running into him,” Peter said, almost to himself.

“Who?” Was that Kate and her date walking over by the Zipper?

“I almost didn’t recognize him after all these years,” Peter said with a small laugh. “It’s this fair. Brings people out of the woodwork. You know, I think you used to know him.”

That got her attention. “Wait. What?”

“Jake Lassen. From high school. We played football together. I was talking to him just before you walked up.”

Olivia felt her face drain of color. Oh, no. No!

She jerked a look back at the crowd, searching for him. That couldn’t have been Jake. That guy had been a good four inches taller than the boy she remembered and built like a… heaven help me… like a soldier.

As they reached the apex of the wheel’s spin, she spotted him, making his way out of the fair entrance, Jake and his dog. Heading toward—she bit her lip—‘Orca’, the Caribbean blue, ’57 Chevy pickup with shiny chrome wheels and oak railings that had once belonged to his father.

How perfect to have missed him by inches, the only person she’d longed to see on the day she left her both her twenties, and the mess she’d made of her life behind her.

The breeze tugged at her as they spun. Above them, a pair of teenagers laughed and rocked their chair, drawing the carny’s wrath.

Stop this thing! Stop it right now!

“Yeah,” Peter continued, “he said he was supposed to meet some chick here, but I guess she stood him up. So, he just took off.”

Dread settled over her. “What did you tell him, Peter? Did you mention me?”

Peter shrugged. “Well, yeah, sure. I mentioned I was waiting for you.”

“By name? You said you were waiting for me by name?”

He gave her another wink. “Your name is Olivia, isn’t it?”

She slid her eyes shut. When had a thirtieth birthday gone any more wrong than this one? Jake had come. He’d kept the promise and she had screwed everything up.

The damned wheel just kept spinning and spinning. Orca pulled out of the parking lot, its red tail lights glowing as it disappeared across the railroad tracks.

As Party of One chatted up his end of the conversation about how his prom queen had dated Jake Lassen once, Olivia secretly texted Eve:

Olivia: Get your Aaron Burr ass over to the Ferris wheel, now! Need a ride.

Eve: Uh, who’s Aaron Burr?

Olivia: U R on thin ice here.

A momentary pause stretched across the airwaves.

Eve: B right there.

Over the din of music, conversation, and clinking-glasses at Grey’s Saloon, Jake ordered a whiskey shot from his seat at the long, polished bar. The bartender, whose nametag read, Brady, obliged and Jake scooped the glass off the bar, stared at it for a moment, then downed it in one searing gulp.

He inhaled deeply before sliding the glass toward the bartender again.

“You got it,” said Brady. He poured another. “I haven’t seen you around here before. Here for the Big Marietta Fair?”

“You might say that.” Jake slugged back the second one. He hissed a breath out, tempted to just ask for the bottle and be done with it. But he’d left his dog, Monday, in the truck and he still needed to drive home, unless he decided to ask his friend and sometimes roommate, Ben, to pull his nose out of his medical journals and pick him up. And Ben would do that, if Jake asked him.

He should eat something. But he’d lost his appetite.

Hell.

What had he expected? That she’d be waiting for him, twelve years later, with open arms? That she wouldn’t be taken? By Peter-freaking-Moreno? That was hard to stomach.

He could have stuck around, just to see her. God knew he’d wanted a glimpse of her. But that would have been a mistake. He’d come back for her and she was unavailable. Why torture himself?

“Fair’s a big draw here in Marietta.”

Brady was a chatterer. He talked as he wiped down the bar. Jake tried to ignore him.

“Pretty much everyone goes,” the kid went on. “They’ve even got some country music star showing up this week, I hear, if you’re into that kind of thing.”

He felt about as far from country music as he did from Olivia. A whole damned world apart.

“Jake? Jake Lassen?”

Jake looked up from his empty glass to see a tall, familiar-looking cowboy with a long-neck beer in his hand. It took him a second.

Danny Krebs.

He’d played second-string tackle on their football team in high school. Jake had been first-string running back. Danny had lost most of his hair, but made up for it with a handlebar mustache and a herd of cowboy-themed tattoos climbing up his arms and neck.

Jake was in no mood to talk to anyone right now, but it looked like there was no escape.

Jake stood and took his hand. “Danny. How are you, man? Been a long time.”

“Great, great. Hell, you grew since high school. Almost didn’t recognize you, except for that photo of you a year ago in the local paper.”

Jake narrowed his eyes. Photo?

“Now that was something. It’s not every day one of our own makes the national news. Hey”—Danny summoned up the handful of friends who were mingling in the crowd nearby—“guys, look who I found. Jake Lassen. Remember him? Our own local hero!” He dragged Jake close for a manly, shoulder-to-shoulder hug.

Oh, hell no.

As Danny’s friends began to surge and surround him, Jake felt himself break out into a cold sweat. His skin began to itch. Snippets of congratulatory well-wishes swelled around him and people started slapping him on the back.

“…it was all over the Copper Mountain Courier a year or so ago…”

“…what you did for those men was really…”

“…and a freaking rescue chopper pilot…”

“…a medal from the President himself.”

By now, half the bar was paying attention and Jake was desperately looking for an escape route. Hold it together, damn it. Just get out of here. He pulled money from his pocket and tossed it on the counter.

Danny stuffed it back in Jake’s shirt pocket. “I got this, Jakey. Our own Marietta hero ain’t payin’ for his own drinks tonight!”

There was no arguing with him about the money. “Look, thanks, but I-I gotta go.”

“What? No.” He slapped the bar. “Brady, a round on me for our boy, here.”

Brady had ten shots lined up before Danny could finish and expertly filled the line in one swoop of the bottle.

Jake swiped a fist across the sweat on his upper lip as Danny thrust the shot glass at him. He counted backward, trying to slow his thudding pulse.

“To Jake Lassen. Our own freakin’ hero.” He lifted the glass higher. “We thank you for your service, man. Your mom and pop—God rest their souls—would’ve been damned proud of you.”

That nearly knocked the wind out of him. He lifted the drink, but left it untouched. His heart slammed irrationally against the wall of his chest as the crowd seconded Danny’s toast, then began firing questions at him about Afghanistan, the army, his job as a helicopter pilot.

Their voices seemed to come from underwater. He couldn’t quite catch his breath.

That’s when he saw her. Standing ten feet away, those haunting green eyes of hers watching him calmly, the way she might one of her horses in full blown panic.

Olivia.

A foul expletive escaped him, which, from her wince, she interpreted as meant for her.

With another curse, he turned and pushed his way out of the noisy chaos of Grey’s Saloon.

He was already halfway down the block to his truck by the time Olivia had fought her way out of the bar and caught sight of him. “Jake! Wait!”

He slowed, but didn’t turn. From here, she could see his dog poking its head from the passenger window of his truck, waiting for him.

“I’m sorry,” she called. “Please, just stop.”

He did and turned, then stole her breath all over again. Twelve years had only trebled how handsome he’d been at eighteen. And she hadn’t forgotten the color of his eyes. Even under the street lights, their color, the stark blue-lavender of the Absarokas at sunset, stood out against his tanned skin. He looked every bit the warrior he’d become, from his posture to the expression on his face that suggested meeting on a half-lit street at night might be an ill-conceived impulse.

His gaze dragged down her from the top of her head to the tips of her turquoise boots and back up again. His look skimmed the pale blue cotton dress that clung to her now and suddenly made her self-conscious.

His perusal of her, a look loaded with raw, male intensity, bore little resemblance to the boy she remembered. The boy from the river, who’d stopped at one kiss, was gone. This man would know exactly what to do with a woman.

An uncharacteristic shiver of hunger ruffled across her skin and curled deep inside her as his eyes rose to meet hers again.

Lord.

Imagine that. Olivia Canaday—divorcee, escapee from paths wrongly taken, the girl who’d officially sworn of men of all ilk, wanted her best friend.

But that was wrong. Wasn’t it?

With fifteen feet still separating them, she dropped her gaze deliberately to his mouth. Because if she remembered anything about him, it was his easy smile. The one that had always encouraged her to laugh at herself. The one she’d relied on, the way others counted on the sun coming up or the grass to grow.

He wasn’t smiling, now, though. Instead, his jaw was set and something closer to a scowl crossed his expression.

Since she’d last seen him, he’d grown four inches and added at least thirty pounds of lean muscle to his tall frame. The plain, black T-shirt he wore, tucked into his low-slung faded denims, wasn’t skin tight or, she decided, even a calculated attempt to emphasize his transformation into the man he’d spent the last twelve years becoming. But concealing his swoon-worthy physique was impossible, and—she fought the urge to fan her face—unwarranted.

“Back there, at the fair,” she explained, “I never expected you to come.”

“Yeah. I figured that out all on my own.”

Even his voice had deepened. There was a rasp to it she didn’t remember, like it scraped up from deep inside him.

“No,” she said, taking another few steps closer. “I don’t know what Peter told you, but the truth is, my sisters set me up with him on a blind date. Without my permission, I might add. For my birthday. I am not dating him.” She shuddered.

A muscle in his jaw twitched.

She began again. “If I’d thought for a minute you’d show—and I-I still can’t believe you did—I would have been there waiting under the Ferris wheel. But I really never imagined… it’s so good to see you, Jake. I’m so sorry.”

From his expression, she couldn’t begin to tell if the feeling was mutual.

“No apologies necessary. Tonight was always contingent on… our situations.”

“Well, my situation is contingent free. I mean it. I am free of contingencies. So can we… can we start over?”

He narrowed a look at her. “I take it you’re not married anymore.”

She shook her head. “You?”

“Never was.”

She shook her head in disbelief. “Really, Jakey? ‘Cause you are… hot.”

A grin tipped the corner of his mouth for the first time and he extended a hand toward her. “C’mere, Canaday.”

Naturally, she went. It felt good to hear him call her that. She’d dropped her married name after the divorce, but this was the first time someone she gave a damn about had actually used it.

His strong arms curled around her and he pulled her against him. Her hands splayed against the corded strength of his back. It surprised her how small she felt here. Small and… safe.

No. The opposite was true. Because every female part of her—as if from awakening from a long, deep sleep—had just zinged to life in his arms, and down lower… well, she didn’t even want to think about how long it had been since she’d felt anything at all there.

Maybe it was just the scent of him—soap, fresh Montana air, and a little whiskey.

Or being held like she was something precious. It had been a long time since anyone had made her feel that way. She frowned at the thought.

He dipped his face against his hair and said, “I’m sorry you had to see that, back in the bar.”

So he was embarrassed, not angry? “Saw what? A man needing space? Personally, crowds give me hives. I avoid them whenever possible. Tonight?” She gestured with a jerk of her chin toward the fair grounds. “It took three beers.”

His shoulders relaxed fractionally and he grinned. “Isn’t that over your limit?”

She laughed, glad he remembered. “Some things don’t change. I’m just a little smidgen”—the word took two tries—“tipsy.”

“I see that. How’d you find me here?” he asked, stepping back from her.

“Orca.” She gestured with a tip of her head down the street to where his blue truck sat like a blinking headlight in the row of ordinary parked cars on Main Street. His father, Bill, had lovingly restored it to pristine Orca-ness fifteen years ago. His hobby had led to the weekly Friday night gathering of vintage car enthusiasts in front of the Main Street Diner, which he and Jake’s mom, Kelly, owned and ran.

All that had ended two years ago.

“My dog,” Jake said, and they started walking that way.

“They take dogs in the army now?”

“Actually, I found her in Afghanistan. Managed to bring her back here two years ago after I left the army.”

She stopped. “You quit?”

He nodded.

She felt like some wire in her brain had just jolted loose. How could she not have known he was out? For two years? But, of course, he’d stopped writing back to her years ago. How could she know? “But… you loved flying helicopters.”

Remnants of whatever had happened back in the bar still shadowed his expression. “Still do. I just… don’t fly for the army anymore. Long story for another time.”

She wanted to push for more, but they reached his truck and Jake let the dog out. Her entire body wagged fiercely at Olivia while she attempted to follow Jake’s instruction to ‘sit’.

Olivia bent down to pet her. “Hello, there. What’s your name, you pretty thing?”

“This is Monday,” Jake said, then added, “Don’t ask.”

“Hi, Monday-Don’t-Ask.” Olivia flicked a teasing smile up at Jake, who rewarded her with a grin of his own. She scrubbed her fingers into the dog’s fur behind her ears. “Oh, you’re adorable. Has anyone ever said that you look like a—”

“Cat?” He finished. “Don’t say that too loud. She’s a little sensitive about it.”

Monday yawned and ducked the crown of her head under Jake’s hand for a pat. Her tail thumped against the sidewalk and Olivia was a goner. Animals. They were her downfall. “I love that you still have Orca. She’s still… perfect.”

He nodded. “Ben Tyler—you remember him—two years ahead of us in school? He’s an orthopedic surgeon now—he’s been watching over Orca for me and caretaking my parents’ old place.”

“Of course I remember Ben. He worked with you at the diner. But a surgeon?” Her brows went up. “I didn’t know that. It’s so nice you can help each other that way.”

“Yeah. I owe him.” He ran his hand over the shiny blue door, the way a man might the curve of a woman’s hip. “Anyway, I’ll never sell this old broad; too many memories.”

She understood only too well.

Before she could get in, he pulled a small white box wrapped in a purple bow out from under the seat.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“It is your birthday, isn’t it? Happy Birthday, Liv.”

Her eyes prickled unexpectedly with moisture. Of course, he’d remembered. Their promise to meet on her birthday had been the reason he’d shown up at the Ferris wheel tonight, after all. Still, it touched her more than she could say.

“Thanks, Jake.”

Jake rested a forearm on top of the open door, watching her, and Monday sniffed the ribbon as Olivia untied it. The box weighed next to nothing and her heart beat a little faster. Naturally, it skidded in the direction of rings, considering he’d actually shown up to keep their promise tonight. She opened the box.

Inside, she lifted a piece of batting and inhaled.

It was a small, quarter-sized, flat stone elephant, made of pink quartz. Where a key ring had once been attached, only a small hole in the stone remained.

Surprised, she lifted her gaze to his. “I-is… is this the one I gave you?”

One corner of his mouth lifted. “I kept it with me, in my pocket, every day. It was my good luck charm. I thought it should come back to you, now that I’m done over there.”

She had a thing for elephants. She always had. So it had been their tradition, starting back God knew how many years ago, for him to win a stuffed elephant for her before they were allowed to leave the Big Marietta Fair for the night. Winning had never really been a problem, since tossing a football and even shooting a gun came to him almost preternaturally. But as they’d gotten older, he’d begun missing his targets and taking forever to win one, she suspected intentionally, so they could stay out past their curfews.

She stared down at the small circle of pink quartz in the box.

It had been the last day, at the fair twelve years ago, when Old Tom Braemer, a local gemstone miner and trader, had sold it to her from his Exhibit Hall display booth. It wasn’t expensive. But it was precious to her. On this small, quartz elephant, they’d made their pinky swear promise about tonight.

So long ago. So much water under the bridge.

The fact Jake had kept it stunned her. All those years… and every day, when he touched it, did he think of her?

She picked it up and rubbed the cool stone between her fingers. Instantly, it began taking on her heat. At the center, she could feel a dip, as if he’d worn the stone down with his thumb.

Like the whir of a slide projector, her mind conjured up pictures of all the places he’d been since he’d left her, all the heartbreak and danger he’d faced. She’d glimpsed the specters of war in Jake’s eyes, back at the bar, and was reminded of the haunted shadows she’d seen in the eyes of the handful of the wounded veterans who’d attended a friend’s equine therapy groups back east.

She gave him a teary smile. “Shouldn’t you keep this? It’s your good luck charm, after all. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for any reversals of fortune.”

He shook his head. “It did its job. It got me home.”

She stood and wrapped her arms around him again. He felt as sturdy and warm as the quartz rock. “It means so much to me that you kept it, Jake. Thank you. It’s come full circle.”

He didn’t let her go. He held on as if the hug could encompass all the ones they’d missed over the last twelve years. And it felt good.

“Let’s go somewhere,” she suggested on impulse.

“Like…?”

“You choose. I trust you.”

A smile actually curved his mouth. “Good to know.”

End of Excerpt

A Cowboy to Remember is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-940296-73-9

August 13, 2014

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