Start reading this book:
Mace Nichols was on his own.
He stood in the doorway of the tiny two-room log cabin, where he’d just dumped his gear, and stared out across the valley, Horse Thief Mountain at his back.
He was alone.
The cabin echoed with emptiness. No one had lived there since Jed McCall and his nephew had moved out the year before.
Originally it had been a settler’s cabin, then a line shack, then the place Mace and his brother Shane, along with Taggart Jones and Jed, had come to as teenagers whenever they wanted to get away from nosy adults. “The Horse Thief Mountain gang,” they’d called themselves, yearning after rougher, wilder times. Here they had drunk beer, looked at pictures of naked women and indulged their youthful dreams.
In fact Mace had indulged in a little more than dreaming the first few times he’d brought Jenny up here. But he had never told anyone about that.
Later, after they were married, well, it was no secret what they had been doing.
Same thing Taggart had done when he’d brought his new bride, Julie, to live in the cabin eleven years ago. Unlike Jenny, though, Julie had hated the cabin. She’d thrown a fit and insisted they moved to back to ‘civilization’ in Bozeman. Taggart had, but even so, their marriage hadn’t lasted a year.
After Taggart and Julie’s brief stay, Mace and Jenny had managed a down payment on the land on which the cabin sat. It had been Mace’s dream to own the land—to have his own ranch, to build a new place for them to settle on forever. Five years ago, he had, and the cabin had gone back to line shack status until Jed and his nephew, Tuck, had taken it over.
But now Jed was married. Jed was a father. He and his wife Brenna, and Tuck and baby Neile, had taken over running Brenna’s dad’s ranch in the Shields Valley.
Now it was Mace’s turn to move to the cabin again.
Only this time he was alone.
Because—for the first time in fourteen years—there was no Jenny.
He shook his head and rearranged the thought. ‘No Jenny’ was the negative way of looking at it.
He tried to focus on the positive: Jenny would have her life. He would have his. He was his own man now, answerable to no one. No one at all.
He’d never been on his own before. Ever.
He’d fallen in love with Jenny Fitzpatrick at the age of seventeen. He’d married her not quite two years later. They’d spent over fourteen years as two halves of a whole.
He was on his own. The thought opened up the horizons. Gave him new scope. He tried to imagine it—all the places he could go, people he could see, adventures he could pursue.
He wanted Jenny.
“Grow up, for Christ’s sake,” he told himself sharply. The words echoed around the cabin like bullets in a hat box. “You don’t always get what you want.”
A hard adage when it came to you so late in life. In his thirty-three years, Mace had pretty much become accustomed to problems being somebody else’s. His own life had always been charmed.
How could he not feel that way?
He’d been so loved and had come so far. A humble ranch hand’s son, he’d scrimped and saved and worked and slaved until he’d managed to become a rancher himself. A small-scale rancher, true enough—one of those men who lived daily on the edge of potential disaster from beef prices or governmental meddling or city-slicker politics or the freak Montana blizzard—but a rancher, nonetheless.
And blessed, because it was the only thing he’d ever really wanted to do. The land was in his blood.
And he’d been blessed, too, for having had Jenny.
Sweet, funny Jenny. Jenny, who’d tickled and teased him, laughed and squeezed him since they were seventeen years old. She’d had her eye on him since they were eight, she’d told him once. He hadn’t noticed her until their senior year in high school.
“What a late bloomer,” Jenny had scoffed.
Well, yes, he’d admitted it. But when he fell, he had fallen like a ton of bricks. Once he’d even fallen off his horse he’d been so preoccupied with thoughts of her.
His father had said he wasn’t good for anything but digging post holes when he was thinking about Jenny.
“Reckon I’ll just keep you on the ground,” his old man had said, shaking his head in disgust. “Leastways there you won’t fall off.”
Mace hadn’t cared. He’d brushed off all comments about his love of Jenny. He ignored Taggart’s speculative remarks, and Jed’s silently raised eyebrows and Shane’s teasing.
There was a bunch of late bloomers for you, he’d thought at the time.
But he didn’t spend much time thinking about them. He had other things on his mind—one thing—Jenny.
They got married right out of high school, when she was just barely eighteen and he was not quite nineteen.
“You’re lucky you didn’t have to marry her sooner,” Taggart muttered. Taggart had eyes in his head. Jed had thought so, too. Even if they didn’t talk about what Mace and Jenny did when they went up to the cabin, they knew.
And Mace knew they were right. That was one of the reasons he considered himself blessed.
He’d loved Jenny too young and too fully—and yet they escaped the consequences of that love. There had been no weeping mother or shotgun-waving father forcing them to the altar. Thank heavens.
Not that Mace had anything against kids. But he’d been barely more than a kid himself. So he’d been just as glad he wasn’t going to be a father right away.
When they were older, he told Jenny, there would be plenty of time for that.
Besides he was too much in love with her to want to share their universe with anyone else just yet.
Even if he had wanted to, they couldn’t have afforded it. Working flat-out cowboying on Taggart’s dad’s spread, Mace barely made enough for them to live on.
“I can work, too,” Jenny said.
“Doing what?” Mace scoffed. “Slinging hash? Waiting tables?”
He knew Jenny was meant for more than that.
Hell, she’d wanted to be a schoolteacher all her life. She was always the brainy one at school, the one who got straight A’s and barely cracked a book. She’d made being valedictorian of their class look easy.
All the teachers thought it was a damn shame she gave up going to college to marry a dead-end cowboy like Mace Nichols. Oh, they hadn’t said so. But he knew it.
Mace might not have been the student she was, but he could read the dismayed looks they gave her as well as anyone. They wondered what she saw in him.
Sometimes Mace had wondered himself. But he didn’t question his blessings very long. He just thanked God for Jenny and vowed to be the man she needed, no matter what anyone else thought.
In fact all those pitying looks Jenny got had made him furious. They made him want to show everybody that marrying him wasn’t a dead end, that he could provide for Jenny just fine.
“You don’t need to work,” he had told her flatly when she suggested it.
But being home all day while he was out cowboying for Will Jones had given Jenny lots of time to think about what she was missing.
“God, you got babies on the brain,” Mace complained whenever she brought it up. “I told you, we can’t afford one.”
“We could if I worked,” Jenny said reasonably.
“But then you wouldn’t have time for it.”
Jenny smiled ruefully. “Catch-22. But lots of people manage, Mace,” she’d reminded him.
“I guess.” Mace knew the modern world was filled with working women. His own mother had worked her fingers to the bone, for God’s sake. He hadn’t wanted that for Jenny.
“I love you,” he’d told her, kissing her. Then he took her into his arms, nuzzling her neck, wanting to give her something better to think about.
“There’s lots of time left for babies, Jenn,” he assured her between kisses. “We’re only twenty. We got years and years.”
“I know that,” she answered with a sigh. And then she smiled against his mouth, succumbed to the touch of his lips, kissing him back.
The kissing led to touching. The touching led to the bedroom. The babies were forgotten.
And Mace got what he wanted. Again.
The following year, though, the issue came up again when Taggart married Julie, and within a month there was a baby on the way.
Mace had seen the yearning in Jenny’s eyes when she found out Julie was pregnant, but he had pretended not to notice. He had only been dragged into discussing it when she brought it up.
“Of course, I’d like a baby, too,” he’d said when she mentioned it. “But first I’d like to get us some land.”
They’d been lying in bed in this very cabin, what Will Jones had called “married cowboy’s housing,” when they’d talked.
The cabin had been cold and leakier than he’d remembered it as a teenager, but for the time being at least, it was theirs. Still Mace had known, as he had lain staring up at the tin roof, listening to the rain come down—and in—that he wanted better than this.
“Land?” Jenny had mused when he brought it up. She had been on her stomach beside him, naked and soft, and if he hadn’t just finished making love with her, he knew he’d be wanting to make love to her again.
He’d nodded. “Yep. Land. Our own ranch. You don’t get anywhere workin’ for somebody else.”
His dad had always told him that, and his dad’s example more than his dad’s words had shown the truth of the matter. The Nicholses had never, as far as Mace knew, owned the land they’d worked on. They’d always come too late, left too early. And whenever times got tight, they were the first let go. It wasn’t going to happen to him. To them. Not if he could help it.
“Will would sell me this place, I reckon. Or maybe ol’ man Galbraith will sell out.”
“You want to buy a ranch, you mean?”
He had nodded again. “It’d take a heck of a lot of work to get the down payment, but we could do it. Maybe you could go out to work,” he’d ventured.
“Of course,” Jenny replied immediately. “They’ve been looking for someone to help at the school in Elmer. A teacher’s aide.”
“You’d do that?”
“Why not? I love kids. And I don’t have my degree yet. But it’s a foot in the door for when I do get my degree someday. You know I hope to teach.”
“Yeah, but—” But he didn’t finish because he knew her dream was teaching. And having kids of her own. “It’d mean . . . puttin’ things off,” he pointed out.
“Babies, you mean?” She had looked right at him, her hazel eyes unflinching.
He had run his tongue over his lips. “I know Taggart and Julie are having a kid. I know I said we’d start thinkin’ about a family. And I am thinkin’, believe me. But what I’m thinkin’ is that Taggart’s got his dad’s ranch coming to him someday. And I’m thinkin’ I got nothing. I want better for our kids than that. I want better than my dad was able to do for us. He tried, but hell, we up and moved so many times before we came here an’ Mr. Jamison took him on . . .”
The first eight years of Mace’s life had been spent moving from one ranch to another where his dad had worked his tail off and then got let go because the rancher decided to cut back.
Only Otis Jamison, because his spread covered a good chunk of the valley, could afford to take on a good man and keep him through the hard times as well as good.
But even then, there’d been no getting ahead.
Mace’s mother had worked just as hard as her husband, trying to make ends meet. It was hard work as much as pneumonia that had killed her when Mace was fifteen.
He wanted better for Jenny.
“What do you say?” he’d said to her then, nuzzling her ear, nibbling her jawline, beginning to want inside her once more.
Her hazel eyes smiled at him. Then she wrapped her arms around him and giggled. “I say ‘Just keep thinking, Mace. You’re so good at it.’”
“You think so, huh?” he’d said, rolling her in his arms until he slid on top of her, then into her. “I’m also good at this.”
And then he’d loved her.
He’d moved slowly, leisurely, fitting his body to hers, savoring the miracle of how well they fit together, how attuned they were to each other’s rhythms. They’d come a long way since their first fumbling attempts at lovemaking. In those days it had all been hot, fevered gropings and eager, desperate efforts that had, as often as not, left them breathless and frustrated. Certainly they’d left Jenny frustrated.
He wasn’t much good at holding back in those days, hadn’t really figured out yet the real meaning of “ladies first.”
But Jenny had never complained.
She’d wrapped her arms around him and moved with him, meeting his urgency with her own. And over time he’d got better at their loving. He’d been less frantic, more leisurely. He’d spent more time stroking and touching and kissing, enjoying that, letting the anticipation grow.
“Along with other things,” Jenny had giggled when he’d told her that one night. She’d reached a hand down between them and touched him where another part of his anticipation was “growing.”
Mace had trembled under her touch. His breath had hissed out between his teeth and his whole body tensed.
“You’re playing with fire,” he’d warned.
Anticipation was fine as long as he could control it, but when Jenny took over—watch out!
“Fire, hmmm?” She’d smiled and brushed a kiss across his lips. She moved above him then, bolder than she had been when they’d first begun making love together. Her hand moved more insistently. “What is it they say about starting fires with friction?”
But she didn’t let him go. She feathered kisses along his jaw, then dropped them on his breastbone. She touched his nipples with her tongue. She made him squirm.
Jenny could always make him squirm—and make him love every minute of it. And he always took great pleasure in returning the favor.
He had taken pleasure. Had. Past tense.
Mace’s fists clenched tightly at his sides. He swallowed against the ache in his throat and closed his stinging eyes to shut out the sight of the cabin to which he’d brought her fourteen years ago, the cabin in which he’d loved her the first night of their married life. Just hours before—at their wedding—he had vowed to love her for a lifetime.
He still did.
He always would—but the only way to love her now was to let her have her dream.
End of Excerpt