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“This is going to be great,” Em Keller said as Sweeney, her giant white dog, nosed his way through the old homestead house, chasing down interesting scents.
“Better you than me,” Trenna Hunt murmured as a scratching sound came from the wall separating the kitchen from the single bedroom.
Em sent her future sister-in-law an I’ve-got-this look. “Mom said that the place was tight before the branch from the old cottonwood tree went through the window. I’m sure it won’t take much to get the temporary inhabitants out.”
Em had claimed the four-room house when she turned five. It had been built by her great-great-grandparents, who had settled in Montana at the turn of the last century. Her brothers had helped her sweep it out, and in return, she’d tortured them with tea parties and demands to play school. Often Spence and Reed, her older brothers, managed to elude her, but her twin, Cade, had drank more tea and learned more “lessons” than he’d wanted to. In return, though, Em helped him set up a vet hospital in the barn. They’d nursed their fair share of birds and small animals back to health, and only a couple of them had turned out to be dangerous.
Later, after hitting her tween years, the homestead house became Em’s “I need to escape from all these brothers” getaway. Because she loved the place, her parents had continued to keep it tightly sealed and varmint free after she left home, and it had remained in relatively good shape until a recent storm broke a window, causing water damage and allowing access to small critters.
“I was thinking more about the floor and the walls, and . . . you know . . . plumbing?” Trenna ran her hand over a water stain on the plaster wall. The wall gave a little beneath her palm.
Em pretended not to hear the plumbing remark as she surveyed her future domain. “There are challenges,” she allowed. “But nothing a good contractor can’t fix, and, in the meantime, I’ll rough it.”
Trenna grinned. “In your old bedroom down the hall from your parents?”
But Em was no stranger to roughing it, having spent her younger years camping with her brothers and then going to work for Standing Tree, a nonprofit organization that studied and helped preserve ecosystems. Until recently, she had been based in Anchorage. The job involved a lot of fieldwork in various conservation districts as she ran surveys of soil, vegetation, and wildlife, evaluating what kept specific ecosystems in balance, or what needed to be tweaked to bring that balance back to others. She mapped, sampled, endured a lot of weather, and enjoyed the life she’d carved out for herself, right up until her own carefully balanced work-life relationship shifted.
Her former boyfriend/beau/partner—she’d never really settled on a name that fit—Will Simmons was assigned to a different branch of the operation than she was, one in which he worked with the public and brought in grants while Em followed her love of the outdoors. They were people who understood the other’s need for freedom and Em had congratulated herself on finding the ideal guy—someone to share movies and dinners and long hikes with—until things changed. It had been a slow process, akin to the frog in boiling water, but once Em became aware of the fact that Will was asking more of her than she wanted to give, she took a step back. That resulted in the asks edging closer to demands, and she ended things.
Will did not take rejection well and Em soon realized the magnitude of the mistake she’d made by dating the man, even if they were in different departments. The vibe in the office was tangibly uncomfortable when she was there, not only for her, but for the people they worked with. She’d hoped that after she spent the summer in the field, she and Will would find new professional footing, but then he followed her home one night, demanding to talk—a demand she refused through her front door—and she knew that she needed to put some distance between them. A couple of thousand miles seemed good.
It was time to go home.
Things had been in flux on the Keller Ranch at the time, with her dad due to have his second back surgery, so she’d requested a three-month, unpaid leave of absence for family reasons and then applied for a transfer to the Washington State branch of Standing Tree where there was some amazing work going on with man-made beaver dams and bringing back the wetlands associated with them. Now it was a wait and see situation, but one thing was certain—she was not going back to Anchorage. And she was polishing her resume and updating her LinkedIn profile, just in case.
Sweeney sniffed his way into the bedroom, then let out a throaty growl. Trenna gave Em a wide-eyed look. Trenna was no sissy, but Em had more wildlife experience, so she led the way to the room where Sweeney was pointed at the beadboard closet.
“Shall we get a weapon? Or leave well enough alone?” Trenna asked. She stooped down to pick up an axe handle that was lying next to her feet. Em recalled that she’d intended to use that handle for something a couple of decades ago, but she couldn’t recall what it was.
There was a vicious scratching noise on the front door that startled both Em and Trenna.
“Patty hates being left out,” Em said, her gaze still on the closet. Patty was Sweeney’s canine sister and of the two, the more likely to run over the top of them in pursuit of a mouse or squirrel. Em preferred to keep on her feet.
“I think we should let her in to help her brother,” Trenna said as whatever was in the closet made a rustling noise and Sweeney responded with a high-pitched noise of frustration.
“I’ve found that small critters usually sound much larger than they are.” To prove the point, Em walked to the cupboard and flung open the door, expecting to scare a mouse. Instead, a packrat sprung out of the darkness, bounced off her thigh, then defied gravity, circling the room halfway up the wall with Sweeney in pursuit. The dog roared and made a lunge at the rodent as it squeezed itself through a gap in the cardboard covering the broken window and escaped.
“Holy—” Em laughed, pressing a hand to her chest as she recovered from the shock of a rodent assault. She looked at Trenna, who was also half laughing, half gasping.
“Thank goodness it wasn’t a bobcat,” Trenna said.
“I may have to rethink the ‘small critters sound larger than they are’ theory,” Em said. She cautiously opened the closet door, which had slammed shut during the packrat meet and greet, and took a sniff. “Mr. Rat hasn’t been here long.”
Trenna joined her at the door and also sniffed. “You lucked out,” she said.
“Yeah.” Packrat odor was strong and pervasive, and she was fortunate to have found the little beast when she did.
“I’ll help you board up the window.”
Em shook her head. “You should go soon if you’re going to make that meeting with Reed.”
Trenna pulled her phone out of her pocket and checked the time. “You’re right. And let me tell you, Reed is very excited to meet with a caterer.”
Em grinned as she opened the front door and Patty pushed her way inside. The dog gave her a quick look before joining her brother in the bedroom, sniffing and piecing together the adventure she’d missed.
Trenna headed to her car and after she’d driven away, Em went to the barn, where the extra wood was stored in the workshop area for just such emergencies. She was picking through the pile next to the radial arm saw when the door opened and Henry Still Smoking came in.
Henry had been with the ranch forever and was supposed to be retired, but the only concession he’d made to that status was to no longer pick up a weekly paycheck from the Keller family. He still lived in the trailer next to the barn and helped with all the chores. He had a garden and a few cows, which he ran with the Keller animals, and was essentially self-sufficient. He simply had nowhere that he wanted to go, and Daniel and Audrey, Em’s parents, didn’t want to see him leave. After two decades on the ranch, he was family.
“You’re moving slow,” she said to the old man. Thankfully, he wasn’t, but “moving slow” had been a running gag with them since she was a kid, yelling for him to hurry up when they’d been doing chores or saddling horses. Em had been a bundle of impatience back then, but she’d finally learned to slow down. A little, anyway.
“Rub it in,” he muttered. “Are you making a bomb or something?”
“Just looking for a piece of plywood to cover the window of the homestead house. Sweeney chased a packrat out.”
Henry made a face. “Hate those things. I thought we’d have the glass put in before the critters figured out there was a weak spot.”
“Didn’t work out,” Em said. “But he hadn’t been there for too long, and Reed is supposed to bring the glass home today.”
“You’re really going to fix that place up?”
Em considered his question as if it were the first time that she’d heard it. “I am.”
“You going to stay long enough to get some return on your investment?” Em lifted an eyebrow, and Henry said, “You know what I’m talking about.”
“I do,” Em said with a smile. “Even a rolling stone needs a place to land every now and again. What better place than my old playhouse?”
“Maybe you can do one of those work-from-home jobs,” Henry said. “I know your folks would like you closer than Alaska. Or”—he tilted his head as he thought—“where was that other place? The hot one?”
“Mojave Desert?” Her very first job right out of college. She’d loved studying the checks and balances involved in a desert habitat, but the heat had been a touch oppressive.
“Right. Maybe a temperate climate close to home . . . that would be good.”
“It would, but I’m making no promises,” Em said. Because promises and expectations led to unnecessary disappointments. She’d had that lesson hammered in a few times over the past few years, mainly in the personal relationship arena. She was up-front about her expectations, but then the game shifted. Will had been an extreme example.
Henry pointed to the wall behind Em. “How about that piece? It’s left over from last year’s grain shed repair.”
She turned and, sure enough, the dusty piece of plywood leaning against the wall looked like a good candidate for temporary window covering.
“I’ll help you nail it up,” Henry said.
The two of them tacked the plywood to the old house, Henry holding the board and Em nailing. When they finished, she said, “I’ll just check to make sure we haven’t locked the rat in, then I’m going to town. Do you want anything?”
Henry cleared his throat. “Cherry Garcia ice cream?” He spoke as if he were asking for something sinfully indulgent, and Em had to fight not to smile.
“You got it.”
He reached into his pocket for his wallet and Em raised her palm to stop him. “How about we make a deal? I’ll keep you in ice cream, and you keep me apprised of the things that my dad tries to keep from me.” Daniel was a protective father and, for some reason, more protective of her than of her brothers, which was nuts because of the four of them, she was the best at getting herself out of whatever trouble she might have stumbled across.
Em made a face, then held out her hand and Henry laid a ten in it. She closed her fingers around the bill.
“Why are you headed back to town?” Henry asked as he walked with Em to her Tacoma, a rusted-out shell of its former self, thanks to being parked on the Alaska coast for a decade before she’d purchased it from a work friend five years ago. The truck wasn’t very pretty, but it ran and was cheap to insure, and Em liked old things, so she hung onto it. Also, no one bothered it when it was parked for long periods of time while she was in the woods, or the bush, or the desert. Good thing, because the door lock was broken.
“I’m meeting with a contractor about the house.”
Henry held his hand to his ear as if holding a phone and Em shook her head. “I prefer to talk in person.” So much of what she did in the wilderness was over the phone or a radio or satellite system that she liked communicating face-to-face when possible.
“Me too,” he said. “It’s just that another storm is rolling in, and you’ll probably be driving home in the brunt of it. Is that thing waterproof?” He pointed at her truck.
Em gave him the scowl he’d been angling for, and he laughed. A few seconds later they parted ways, and as he headed back to his trailer, she realized that while he wasn’t moving slower, his gait was stiffer than it used to be. It was good that he’d decided to stay on the Keller Ranch where they could keep an eye on him, make sure he had a supply of Cherry Garcia, and generally keep him out of trouble.
She was halfway to the house when he called her name.
“I forgot to tell you ‘welcome home.’”
A little pang went through her. “Thanks, Henry. I’m really glad to be back.”
“Colton!” Trace Montero shifted his grip on the sheets of reclaimed teak paneling that he’d foolishly tried to unload alone. He’d been doing fine until his foot slipped in the mud created by the recent storm. Gritting his teeth, he pushed and managed to shift enough of the load back onto the tarp-covered truck bed to avoid dropping it into the puddle at his feet, but he was still on the heavy end and couldn’t get traction.
“Colt!” he bellowed.
“Do you need a hand?” The unexpected feminine voice startled the hell out of him, and he almost lost his grip.
“I’m good,” he grunted, trying again for some traction.
As he fought to regain his balance, the mystery woman shouldered past him to take hold of the heavy panels. Together, they shifted the load back where it belonged.
“Thank you.” Trace stepped back, feeling self-conscious at being rescued by a stranger. The feeling evaporated when he recognized Em Keller.
Talk about a blast from the past. And not a good one.
“Well, well,” Em said in a low voice. Her eyes, which were remarkably close to the color of the clouds that hung low over Copper Mountain, narrowed in a no-nonsense way, but before she got beyond pleasantries, Trace jerked his head in the direction of the truck. “I need to get this paneling under a roof. It’s expensive.”
He also needed a minute to figure out how to tackle the situation. Phil, his partner, wasn’t from Marietta, so when he’d asked Trace to cover for him in a client meeting, he’d had no way of knowing that the client, now staring at Trace with thinly veiled animosity, wouldn’t be a client for long if she met with Trace. Or that Trace wasn’t particularly interested in working with her.
Em took a step back as wet spots began to form on her dark jacket and rain beaded on her long, wheat-colored hair. “I’ll find Phil.”
“He got called away and won’t be back for an hour or more.” Rich-people problems, one of the realities of working in home construction in an area where the wealthy liked to have summer homes. Trace and Phil tried to direct most of their business toward what Phil called “regular folk,” but every now and again they took on a wealthy client for short jobs. Some were great to work for and others, not so much.
“I’m supposed to meet with him.”
“I know.” Trace took a breath before saying, “Why don’t you wait for me in the office? This will only take a minute.”
He got into the truck without waiting for an answer and drove it around the end of the lumber shed and directly into the prefab metal building known as the barn, where they kept their vehicles. A moment later, he squinted against the rain as he rolled down the oversized garage door. It landed with a thud, splashing water on his already soaked boots.
He found Em standing just inside the office, her coat still zipped to her chin and her hands in her pockets, obviously ready to leave. “Do you work for Phil?” she asked.
“I’m his partner.”
Her mouth opened in a silent ah. “You’re the M in KM Construction.”
She considered the situation, then said, “This isn’t going to work. I’ll take my business elsewhere.”
“If you want.” He didn’t want to work with her, but he was a little curious as to where she was going to take her business. It wasn’t his place to point out how overbooked most contractors were. That said, his easy acquiescence had her eyes narrowing again, as if she suspected there was something he wasn’t telling her.
“You think I’ll have a hard time finding someone?” she asked.
Em gave a small snort and turned to the door. She was reaching for the handle when he said,
“I had no choice but to fire you.” He’d been a probationary crew boss on the now defunct Somerset Guest Ranch and had followed the rules to a T . . . except for a small bend he’d made for his friend.
“You didn’t fire Jesse Blevins,” Em said, as if he’d spoken his thoughts aloud.
“I did not.” Trace ran a hand over the back of his neck, wishing Phil hadn’t been called away. Then he dropped his hand and let go with a simple truth. “You aren’t going to get another contractor unless you wait until late spring or summer. If you go with us, I’ll recuse myself from the job. Phil will be back later this afternoon. I can have him—”
Em drew herself up. “I wouldn’t hire this firm . . .”
Her voice trailed, but what she’d been about to say was obvious.
Trace raised his eyebrows. “If it were the last contracting outfit on Earth?”
Trace expected Em to fling the door open after the retort. But Em never seemed to do what one expected—the Em of old, that is. He didn’t know this Em, but she had the same confident attitude and the same beautiful face. If anything, she was more striking. Her blond hair was longer now and fell down her back in a mass of waves, and her face seemed more angular. The angles were softened by full lips and a rounded chin, but her eyes were ablaze with something that was close to indignation.
He’d been fascinated by the woman when she’d worked on his crew, and at the same time, put off by her supreme self-assurance. She’d been born into a close-knit family that hadn’t been teetering on the brink of financial ruin like both his and Jesse’s families. She’d been utterly secure. He had not. It had felt oddly like an us-versus-them situation. Em was of the class of people they catered to, while he and Jesse had been struggling to survive.
He’d been jealous. Not that he’d realized it at the time, but looking back, it was clear that he’d wanted what Em had. A safety net. He wasn’t proud of the fact that he’d fired her, but he’d done it to save his job and Jesse’s job too. He couldn’t undo the past.
Now it was coming back to bite him in the ass.
“By the way, Jesse was driving, not me.”
Trace had nothing to say to that because he knew it was true. A few days after he’d fired Em, Jesse had confessed that while it had been Em’s idea to take the forbidden shortcut over the mountain to set up the first campsite on the trail ride, Jesse had agreed with the decision, and he’d been driving. They’d been equally guilty of totaling the company pickup, but only one of them had been fired.
“I know,” he said. “But I didn’t at the time.” He gave her a questioning look. “Did you really want me to fire Jesse too?”
Because he should have. After Jesse had confessed, he’d found that he looked at his friend differently. He understood that Jesse needed the job desperately, but he’d allowed Trace to fire Em without knowing the full story. And that, in turn, had led to Trace saying things that would have been better left unsaid. Things that Em obviously hadn’t forgotten.
Her expression softened an iota, then went hard again. “I guess I wanted a level playing field. You know—one where all the facts came into play.”
Yet she hadn’t given him the facts until just now. She’d covered for Jesse, which didn’t make Trace feel any better about what had gone down. The only saving grace was that she didn’t need the job as much as Jesse had.
A moment later Em was gone, the door closing behind her with a muffled click, and then Colt appeared out of the dark hallway where he’d obviously been lurking.
Trace gave him a frowning look. “How much did you hear?”
“Enough to know that you have a colorful past.”
Trace sat in an antique oak office chair, another of his reclamation projects. It gave its characteristic squeak as he leaned back and considered what had just gone down. He’d lost a client, but honestly, not through any fault of his own. Seventeen-year-old Trace couldn’t have known that telling a few home truths might affect his livelihood a decade later.
“Think she’ll find another contractor?”
“Maybe one out of the area.”
Colt gave Trace a skeptical look. With all the building in Big Sky and Bozeman and the surrounding areas, contractors were in high demand. He and Phil had decided early on to cater to locals only, and they had their hands full, but they also carefully managed their workloads to allow them to take on new clients at regular intervals. Em would have been such a client.
“I wonder what she’s building?” Trace muttered. And why she was back. Em had made no secret of the fact that she was going to spend her life seeking out adventure. Nine to five at a desk was not in her future.
“What are you going to tell Uncle Phil?” Colt asked.
“That she changed her mind.”
“I guess that covers it,” Colt said. “Nice-looking lady.”
Trace reached for the phone. He had calls to make, and he needed something to take his mind off Em Keller, a lost contract, and memories that he’d thought he’d laid to rest once and for all.
End of Excerpt