The clunk and bang out of the engine was the only warning Keely had that her old truck was going to die.
Just up and die.
She was still at least five miles out of town, on a stretch of road that saw cars, but not as often as a person who was stuck would like. The occasional tractor-trailer sped by causing tremors all around her, leaving the smell of diesel fuel in its wake. Keely was thankful there was a nice wide shoulder.
In her mind this was a bad sign, though. She hadn’t been home for more than a few days at a time since she graduated from college six years ago. Ever since then, she jumped from one research site to another, trying to uncover the secrets that were buried in the earth.
What made the earth tick was Keely’s calling.
And now she was going to spend a year back in the place where she first learned to love nature, where she found that rocks sometimes revealed more of a story than the best books in the library.
Getting stuck had to be a bad omen of some sort.
Her truck couldn’t be dead. Refusing to accept it, she turned the key, and for a second she thought she might be in luck. The engine made a pathetic attempt to turn over, but then it clunked again, and went quiet. “Great.”
Pulling out her cell, service was spotty at best. The story of her life in this valley.
Still, she pressed the button to speed dial her mother, and hoped the call went through. “Hey, Sweetie! Are you home? I’ll be there soon.”
“Hi Mom, no. My truck died out on 89, not far from Carter’s Bridge.” She wanted to give a landmark her mother could easily identify. “I’m fine, but I can’t even get the engine to turn over.”
“I told you that truck would strand you. Thank goodness you’re not too far from home.”
Getting a new truck was on the top of her list once she settled in at home. She knew she needed one, but what she didn’t need was her mother’s ‘I-told-you-so.’ “I know, Mom. Can Dad come out?”
“I’ll call him. He had clients to see today, but I’ll let him know. I can’t wait to see you, honey.”
“Me too, Mom. Me too.”
Her mother was a worry wart and had recently been suggesting that a teaching job at the university in Bozeman would be much safer than hopping around the world. Her parents, specifically her mother, were proud of everything she’d accomplished, but at the same time, they saddled her with guilt over not taking a more traditional path. Someday, Keely knew she’d pull back from her high-octane life, but for now, her research was her passion. Tradition would have to wait.
Opening the door, she checked the road and hopped out. The cold was a shock to her system, but she had no idea why. It was mid-March in Montana, which meant cold weather. Not knowing what made her do it, she popped the hood of her truck and looked at the very dead engine. She was no mechanic, but there was a funny smell coming from the compartment, and that made her wonder if the damn thing was going to burst into flames.
Wouldn’t that be a sight?
Shaking off her desire to see the old truck go out in a blaze of glory, she closed the hood, and stepped down.
Sighing, Keely parked her behind on the front bumper, taking a long look at the foothills that surrounded her. The air was so clean here. Every breath cleared her head.
The expansive beauty was overwhelming at times. It was easy to take for granted that she was coming back to such a beautiful place. Less than fifty yards away, the Yellowstone River ambled past, its water bubbling and cold. There was still snow on the banks, a gentle reminder that the weather was still unpredictable. Further on, the dormant grass in the meadow faded into a grove of trees and then the mountains rose into the sky. A few cattle dotted the landscape, and almost immediately, a sense of calm settled over her. Home was a good idea. It was time. Keely had missed it.
Her work was all she knew, and it had her full attention all the time, but she was ready to put school behind her. A prime research job was waiting for her when she finished her dissertation, and she couldn’t wait to apply what she’d learned to make lives better. And maybe somewhere in there, she could start having an actual life.
The mountain ranges around Marietta were perfect for her final study and coming home was no hardship. She’d missed her family and her friends. Missed her grandparents. Missed her hometown. It was going to be different being back in the middle of nowhere, but in some way, she was ready for a new routine. A lot had happened while she was gone, and it was high time she gave some attention to the people who had given so much to her.
Sitting on the wide chrome bumper of the truck, she glanced at her watch before wrapping her parka tightly around her and folding her arms. It might be an hour before her father arrived. Or longer. She could call roadside assistance, but that was no guarantee of help arriving any quicker. She sighed. It really was time to buy a new truck. She couldn’t risk getting stranded in some of the more isolated spots she planned on studying. The last time she got in trouble in the mountains, she’d nearly died.
In the distance, she heard a car coming her way. Probably a pick-up truck, based on the sound. It was a steady hum, but then something changed. The truck was slowing down. She took a deep breath, but then froze when she heard the telltale sound of tires kicking up gravel. The driver cut the engine. A door slammed. Footsteps.
Keely cursed herself for not following rule one of being stranded on the highway: Stay in the car. Why hadn’t she stayed in her truck? She knew better. The headlines flashed before her eyes.
Clueless Graduate Student Murdered on Side of the Road.
It would be a brutal end. She just knew it.
With her hands over her heart, Keely thought about how her poor parents would react when they heard she’d gone missing. They were strong people, and they’d gotten her through so much, losing a child would devastate them. She took deep breaths and steeled her spine waiting for the end to come.
She shrunk down against the grill and listened. The footsteps drew closer. “Hey, do you need…” The voice was deep and soft, like a warm summer day in the hills. “Science Girl?”
Keely’s eyes flew open. Only one person called her Science Girl.
One very big, bad, and gorgeous person.
Sure enough, when she turned her head she saw the man who had occupied her daydreams and fantasies since the day she left Marietta. “Jonah? I… wow.”
She’d been home a half dozen times in the last five years, but they’d never crossed paths. If they had, she’d have known Jonah Clark, the cute boy who’d been her brother’s best friend was an even more gorgeous man. And built. Mother of God, the man was built.
“What are you doing out here?” He folded his arms and widened his stance.
“I’m on my way home and my truck broke down. I was just enjoying the view.”
He scowled, his brow furrowing between his deep blue eyes. “You should be enjoying the view from inside your locked truck.”
“Still bossy, I see,” she teased.
“Some things don’t change,” he replied flatly, gently nudging her out of the way.
“I’m just… waiting… for… my dad. What are you doing?”
“Move,” he mumbled, as he bumped her with his hip. “I’ll take a look.”
And just like that, he was rescuing her again. And while younger Keely would have swooned, and let him do what he wanted, older Keely was a little more hesitant. But before she could say a word, Jonah had flipped up the hood of her truck, jumped on the pitted chrome bumper, and grumbled.
“Do you ever have this serviced?”
“Yes. I had the oil changed not too long ago. This is silly. My dad is coming…”
“Uh huh.” He was tugging on something and grumbling. “Call him and tell him not to bother. I think I see the problem. You need to be towed.”
“What are you talking about? I’m sure it’s not that serious.”
“Yeah, it is. Your engine is done.” Reaching into his back pocket after he hopped down, he pulled out a rag and wiped his hands. “Your dad doesn’t need to come out here. I’ll bring you home. Let’s get your things.”
“That’s not necessary.” Keely pushed her glasses up her nose and took him in. He was bigger—broader—than the last time she saw him, if that were possible. His angular jaw was rough with stubble, and his eyes were a stormy blue. Something was different, though. Jonah had always been more serious than her brother, but he had a sweetness to him that made all that brawn totally irresistible. He was steady and mature, but it was his innate kindness that made him so special. He did his best to hide it from people, but he couldn’t hide it from her. Even now, couched in seriousness, there was no way to hide he was a good man.
“Jonah, I can wait for my father.”
She was all revved up and ready to argue, because gorgeous or not, she didn’t like to be told what to do. But something stopped her. Something in the way he made her take a breath, and fold like a lawn chair. She was weak.
“Fine.” She threw up her hands. “This is under protest.”
“Whatever. Where are your things?” He really was bossy and stubborn. But there was no use fighting it. She gave up the information.
“My duffle is behind the passenger seat, and there are four large plastic totes with my equipment secured in the back.”
“Four? I thought you science types traveled light. You know, more room for your microscopes.” From the corner of her eye she could see his wry grin. No way was she going to give him the satisfaction of a snarky response.
“Not this time.”
Pulling her cell from her pocket, Keely pressed the button for her mother.
She felt so much of the old Jonah in their exchange. He was concerned. Kind. He wanted to help. But something had changed. He was more somber, and there was a very dangerous edge. Something in his eyes told her Jonah Clark had a story, and Keely intended to find out what it was.
For Jonah, few things were better than time in the mountains, where he could decompress without anyone to answer to but his horse. Just loading his favorite mount into the trailer took his blood pressure down a few points.
He figured he’d be gone two days, but was prepared for three. Truth was, staying on Black Mountain, away from the ranch and the town, had its appeal.
His brother Dan said he was hiding. Ever since the idea to a do a first responder calendar to raise money for Harry’s House had been brought up, Logan and Lyle Tate, along with his brothers—pretty much everyone in town—had been pestering him to commit to it. He knew it was a good cause, and that he’d get his pictures done eventually, but he just didn’t strip bare on a whim. When he ran into the cute little English photographer yesterday, that was the last straw. It seemed where ever he was, she was right there. That’s when he decided to get out of town, and claim it was work.
It wasn’t a total lie. Every month, he scouted out the mountains surrounding Marietta because he never knew when someone would need to be rescued, and more important, he didn’t know where that would be. It was his job to know the area better than everyone—to know every possible landing zone, every possible access point. Someone’s life could depend on it.
That it was his favorite way to spend his time was the upside. He loved being outside, sleeping where the air wasn’t filled with dust and exhaust, and where there was nothing but quiet. No choppers taking off. No IED’s killing people. No shellings. But his plans had been blown all to hell by his Boy Scout tendencies. Instead of heading into the mountains, he was driving back to town with a passenger. A very pretty passenger who had just blown in out of his past.
Keely Andersen took him completely by surprise. He never would have driven by any car in distress, but seeing his old friend’s little sister, sitting on her bumper, blindsided him in a way he never expected. Keely had always been cute, in a nerdy kind of way. Quirky and brilliant, she threw herself into everything she did with total abandon.
He heard through the town grapevine that she was working on some intense geological research, and was on the verge of getting a major grant. It didn’t really surprise him that she was kicking ass, but how she’d filled out sure had.
Still sporting glasses that were way too big for her face, everything about Keely had grown up. She wasn’t a skinny teenager anymore. Even under her big parka he could see she was fit and curvy, and she wore a T-shirt and jeans like some women wore an expensive dress. She had a body that didn’t quit, and with her long, curly blonde hair pulled away from her face, he could examine every bit of soft skin. Her brown eyes were as deep and dark as he remembered, but now her intelligence was more refined and gave her gaze a wisdom that left a strong impression.
She was staring out the passenger window, the silence between them thick and uncomfortable. That was something new for them. While it was Keely’s brother Gabe who was one of his closest friends, he’d always liked the geeky girl who followed them around asking too many questions. She was thinking right now, probably a little bit too hard.
“So,” he ventured. “How long are you going to be home?”
Pushing her glasses up her nose in a move that brought the memories flooding back, she grinned. “A year.”
“A year? No wonder you have so much stuff.” The past ten years had kept them both out of Marietta. Gabe had told him about a few of her adventures researching the Pacific Rim, and readjusting to a small town wasn’t going to be easy, especially when you’d seen the world. He knew that better than anyone. But, he had to admit, the thought of seeing her more often boosted his mood. Shifting in his seat, he hadn’t realized how much.
“I’m doing geophysical research in the mountains—you know, seismic activity, plate tectonics—all that cool stuff. It’s for my dissertation.”
Jonah loved the mountains and knew the history of the area, as well as the Native folklore. He could track anything, or anyone. But geophysics? That was over his head.
For Keely, science was like air. She loved it. He remembered her finaling for some big science prize the year she graduated from high school. The town went crazy, posting pictures of her at the White House shaking the president’s hand. And now she was back home and sitting in the cab of his truck, with her big brain and goofy glasses, because she was too busy to get her truck serviced.
“Sounds like fun. I guess,” he smirked. “Just don’t get lost. I don’t want to have to come find you like last time.”
The last time he referred to was when she nearly froze to death.
He noticed her face drop into a scowl. “I won’t. Smartass. You’ll remember I didn’t die because I was prepared.”
“You were. You had everything you needed, except a weather report.”
He chuckled. Jonah thought his timing was perfect on that one, but glancing at Keely, he could see she was not amused. Yeah, that was definitely the side eye he was getting. “Sorry.”
“You are many things, Jonah Clark, but funny is not one of them.”
“I happen to be hilarious. Ask anyone. I’m a damn comedian.”
“Riiiight,” she said with a hint of sarcasm.
She might have a whole bunch more letters after her name, but her snarky attitude and quick wit hadn’t changed at all. The girl thought she knew everything.
Probably because she did.
It was time to change the subject. “So, will you be living at your folks?”
“Yeah. I can’t wait to see them.” She spoke slowly, almost like she was in a trance.
“It’s going to be different. Coming home was a shock for me.” For Jonah, shock was an understatement. “Took a while to settle in.”
“I’m sure. I’ve been some amazing places, but I missed it here. And frankly, I was tired of living in a tent.”
That was what he always liked about her. Yeah, she was a pest of the highest order. But she was funny, and curious, and honest. He loved watching her when she made a new discovery because she never hid her passion for what she loved, even if it got her picked on.
She was Gabe’s little sister, and Jonah saw himself as the honorary big brother—a job he took very seriously. He felt protective of her. Always with her nose in a book, she’d get teased every once in a while. Kids could be cruel when they didn’t understand something, and Keely, with her quick mind and nerdy little personality, was an outlier. It was tough being smarter than everyone, and even though Keely never bragged, there were always a few bullies who couldn’t handle a smart girl. So Jonah kept an eye out, and he made sure if anyone made her cry, the bully would be the one crying in the end. Jonah never told her that. Couldn’t imagine he ever would. Knowing Keely, she’d be pissed off.
Keely had always been fiercely independent, smart, funny—now she could add beautiful to the list. The girl had most definitely grown into herself. And Jonah found himself thinking about things that would get him a solid beating from her older brother.
Jesus. What the hell was wrong with him?
Jonah was very aware of the heat building between his legs, and shifted uncomfortably. What was it about hometown girls? These were the women who knew all your secrets. They knew you ate crayons in kindergarten. They knew when you had a crush on the new English teacher. They knew everything. Which was the reason you should stay away.
But as he glanced at Keely, twirling her hair and looking out the window, all he could see was something warm and familiar. Something that felt like home.
“Where were you headed?” Her eyes were fixed on his. “You have your horse, and enough gear for a week. Hiding out?”
There was some truth to that, but he had no intention of telling her the whole story. “I was gonna check out some new trails. It’s a good time of year, before everything starts growing over.”
She dropped into silence again, thinking. “I’m sorry I screwed up your plans.”
“Not a problem.” He’d just go tomorrow. “I wasn’t gonna leave you stranded.”
“No.” Her voice was soft and sweet. Different than eighteen-year-old Keely, but very much the same. “You’d never do that, would you?”
They’d pulled off the highway and came to a full stop at an intersection just outside of town. “Never,” he said.
When he glanced over, Jonah felt the full-on hit to his heart. Shit.
“My hero. Just like old times.” And like she did ten years ago, Keely surprised him when she leaned over and kissed his cheek. Jonah became fully aware, as her soft lips grazed over his skin, that Keely was no longer a girl. She was a woman. And there was a very good chance she was going to drive him crazy.
Holy hell, what had she just done? She’d just kissed Jonah. And she flirted with him. Full out, batting her eyelashes flirted. WHO WAS IN HER BODY? My hero? Oh. My. God. In a second he’d burst out laughing and she’d want to die.
Pfft. Just like old times, indeed.
But he wasn’t laughing. He was staring at her and she couldn’t read the expression frozen on his face. He was speechless. Not completely out of character for the man they’d called a block of wood because he was so quiet, but there was something odd in the way he was looking at her. She’d completely freaked him out.
“I’m no one’s hero. I’m just glad to have been in the right place to help out.”
Then he looked down and grinned ever so slightly, and Keely melted right there in her seat. “Well, thank you,” she said, pausing for a moment. “Where were you headed?”
“There are a few spots on the western edge of Black Mountain that I need to know better. I need to get anyone out, I want to know the area like the back of my hand.”
“Ah. Got it. It’s nice of you to help out when you’re on leave. When do you head back to your unit?”
“You have been out of the loop,” he said as he turned the corner and drove past the high school. “The army and I parted ways.”
“Really?” Why didn’t she know that?
“I’ve been home for about a year.”
He was going to be in town? The whole time she was home? She was going to be tortured with all that hot, bad boy sexiness.
As they pulled through town, he honked his horn at a couple of men standing by the firehouse. They kept going, driving by the lumberyard, the hardware store, and the grand and lovely Graff Hotel in all its restored glory. Her town was beautiful, even without a leaf or flower in sight. The old brick buildings were warm and familiar, filled with people who took pride in their community. People who cared for their neighbors. Who honored those they’d lost.
That included her friend, Harry.
Everyone in Marietta knew Harry Monroe, and the tragedy surrounding his recent death had mobilized the town in a special project. He was around her age and had died when he’d been hit by a car over Labor Day weekend, while he was helping an elderly couple change a tire.
In his honor, an old house in town was being turned into an activity center for the kids, and Keely couldn’t think of a better way to pay tribute. “Where’s the house that’s being renovated?”
“A couple of blocks that way.” He pointed toward the center of town.
“How’s it going?”
Jonah took in a breath and shrugged. “It was going okay. Money is drying up, though. We need to raise fifty grand to fix some drainage problems.”
Whoa. “That’s a lot of money. Wow.”
“Yeah, we don’t have a lot of time, either. There’s a fundraiser I signed on for. It seems a little… I dunno… drastic.”
“Drastic?” That could mean a lot of things, but if there was one thing she knew about her hometown, it was that everyone would find a way to pitch in. “You know, somehow the money will be found. The people here are not going to let the project die.”
“I hope you’re right.” Jonah was solemn. It was obvious he had a lot invested in the getting the house up and running.
Turning corners without thought, it wasn’t long before they were on their way out of town and headed to her parents’ place. They lived in a vintage Victorian farmhouse about a mile out of town. The big old house sat on five acres of land, and like most people who had a little property, they kept a few horses, including one that was foaled at the Clarks’ ranch.
The Clarks were known in the valley for raising the best quarter horses in a 500-mile radius, and while Jonah was always passionate about the breeding program, like the rest of his family, his heart was in the mountains.
She guessed the call of home was stronger than piloting a helicopter in a war zone.
There was a lot to find out about Jonah Clark and she had a whole year to do it.
End of Excerpt