Stella Reid hadn’t cried since she was eighteen. And even though a lump the size of her rental car filled her throat, she didn’t plan on starting now. She squinted through the snow that flecked the windshield, gripping the steering wheel tight enough to make her fingers cramp. Side benefit to her late flight into Bozeman: it was too dark to see if a streak of bright red paint still marked the second pole past the turnoff to Moosehorn Lake.
There weren’t any other cars on the road to keep her company, either. A snowstorm on a Thursday night meant the locals went to bed at nine, she supposed. Turning up the volume on the stereo, she glanced at the odometer, then the clock on the dashboard. Why did the small ski town where she’d grown up have to be so far away from civilization? She’d left the place in her dust to go to college, and could count on two fingers the number of times she’d returned since.
Her plans had eclipsed Montana far before the biggest mistake of her life. Being eighteen and sitting on the side of the road, handcuffs biting into her wrists and rain pelting her face, had only solidified her drive to get out and put her mark on the world.
She’d climbed the rungs of a Manhattan hedge-fund firm, but it was a ladder that was currently collapsing, one workplace rumor at a time. At least she’d avoided handcuffs this go-round.
But she was still going to land on her ass in Sutter Creek and watch her life crumble around her.
Her head swirled faster than the flakes falling outside the vehicle. In the face of her firm’s fraud scandal, which would go public any day, her high-school shenanigans—wrecking Ryan Rafferty’s uncle’s car and getting threatened with the loss of her scholarship—sounded like a picnic. And she didn’t even know how to begin removing the wedge she’d put between her and her family since she’d blown the whistle on her CIO six months ago.
Six months of distance? Try your whole life.
Sighing, she forced herself to focus on the dimly lit, snowy road. Emotional reunions weren’t her thing, and she doubted her half siblings were in the mood to hear her out. But she had to start somewhere, right? Making herself useful with repairs to the family’s veterinary clinic expansion seemed to be her best bet. She’d keep busy while she waited to see if her career imploded after this morning’s information leak at the firm. God, when was the last time small-town USA had more options for forward movement than New York?
She swore to herself. Shaking her head, she tapped the built-in Bluetooth controls. She told her phone to call her half brother, Lachlan. When she’d contacted him this morning to tell him she was finally hopping on a flight for a visit, he’d mentioned something about a work bee two days from now, on Saturday. Maybe she could get a few more details out of him while she had nothing better to do than drive. Provided he was willing to talk. He hadn’t done a very good job lately of hiding how pissed off he was over how little she’d been in contact.
But facing his temper was preferable to letting her mind drift to that telephone pole a mile back, and all the memories she didn’t want to revisit during her trip.
Getting knocked up. Getting arrested. Loving—and losing—Ryan Rafferty.
Her brother answered after three rings.
“Stella? You here? I don’t see your car outside.” He yawned audibly.
“Not yet. I just passed RG Ranch. Or whatever it’s called now.”
He chuckled. “Still the same.”
“Like everything else in town.”
“No, I’d say you’ve missed out on a hell of a lot of new things.” His lighthearted tone vanished. “Starting with your niece. She rolled over the other day. And you haven’t even gotten to hold her yet.”
Stella’s heart squeezed. “I know. Like I said, I would have come sooner but—”
“Work got in the way,” Lachlan snapped.
She exhaled. There was the anger she’d been expecting. The anger she deserved. The problem with being in the middle of a massive securities-fraud investigation was not being able to tell anyone about it. Including her family. Not when her niece had been born, or when, back in November, a fire had ripped through an old barn that Lachlan was in the process of converting into a search-and-rescue dog school. Stella had been stuck in a boardroom in Manhattan with a wire taped under her blouse when she got the news their sister, Maggie, had been admitted to the burn unit. She had so much she had to make up for.
“If I’m going to keep paying the seed money for your business, I need to keep my job,” she said. “And there was no way to leave my ongoing work project partway through.” She’d only managed to get leave from the investigators yesterday. They’d decided that the rumors swirling around the firm necessitated Stella being somewhere else, so they’d approved her request to go to Sutter Creek, provided she surrender her passport and agree to return when required.
“Maggie and I needed you to be here, not just to play the wallet. But you’ve never been one for home, Stell. I don’t know why I thought Laura’s birth or the fire would be different.”
His “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed” tone was worse than his earlier curtness. She was never going to be part of her half siblings’ close-knit duo, not with them being full siblings and Stella having a different mom. Maggie and Lachlan had grown up in Chicago and both had moved to Sutter Creek after they’d graduated from the elite prep school Stella would have sold her soul to attend. She’d wanted nothing more than to be in a big city, so had only spent the summers with them during their childhood. And her mom had never gotten over Stella’s dad’s infidelity. Encouraging a bond between Stella and her “cheating husband’s brats” had been crazy low on the family priority list.
Fear struck Stella. Would two weeks of helping with the rebuild even put a dent in all that? Picking up a paintbrush on Saturday seemed too small an effort. But where else could she start? “Count me in for slapping some paint on a wall this weekend.”
“We’re starting with framing and drywalling,” he corrected.
“A hammer, then.” Getting to participate in the barn rebuild would be a small beam of hope amid the dimness surrounding her career. “I really do want to help out. Even if I have a few things to catch up on.”
“Almost twenty years’ worth of things, Stella,” he growled. “You’ve actively put more distance between you and us.”
No, between her and Sutter Creek. She hadn’t intentionally widened the sibling divide.
Or had she?
“Well, you’ve got me for two weeks. All of me.”
“And we’re not going to turn down an extra set of hands.” He sighed. “You should know that Ryan—”
“I don’t want to talk about him.” She refused to waste any valuable brain energy on Ryan Rafferty. When she’d needed him most, he’d cut off all contact. Half a lifetime had passed. It was no longer relevant, no matter how much she’d lost in the aftermath of their breakup.
Deal with the things you can fix.
“I’m really looking forward to getting to know Laura and Marisol.” She yawned. Oh, man. Her hasty escape from New York was catching up to her. She did not have the energy to meet new people tonight. If she rolled in half-asleep and midargument with Lachlan, she’d make a terrible first impression. “I know you offered that I could stay at your place, but I think it’s better that I grab a room at one of the hotels.” Predicting she’d need a place to recharge, she’d booked in at the Sutter Mountain Hotel mid-flight. This conversation was only confirming she’d made the right decision.
A long pause filled the SUV. Had she lost the connection? “Lachlan?”
“You’re not even going to stay with us?” He sounded like he couldn’t decide whether to be relieved or hurt.
“You have enough going on without having to play host. I’ll come have coffee in the morning before you head off to work.”
He swore under his breath. The quiet bite in the word reverberated through Stella.
“We could invite Gramps, too,” she suggested. Their grandfather had moved home from his winter residence in Arizona to help out Maggie at the veterinary clinic after the fire. Maggie’s burns limited what she could do with her animal patients, and their grandfather had stepped back in as the main veterinarian.
“Did you even bother to tell him you were arriving?” Lachlan said, his voice a hairbreadth from a shout.
“Of course. I texted him before I left New York.” They’d have plenty of time to catch up in more detail.
“And the bathroom I spent cleaning today? And Marisol forgoing napping when Laura napped so that she could wash the sheets and get the spare room ready for you? You didn’t think to text us, too?”
All right, that was a full-on shout. She lowered her voice, hoping that if she was calm, he’d follow suit. “I left so quickly, I lost sight of the details. I didn’t mean to put you out. How about I come for a drink tonight, then? Meet Marisol, at least. I assume Laura’s asleep.”
“So’s Marisol—she passed out on the couch a half hour ago, waiting for you to get here. So if you don’t want to stay here, there’s no point in coming by tonight. What’s one more day, when it’s been, what, over a year since I last saw you?”
Guilt stabbed her clean through and acid burned her throat. “This was really my first opportunity to take holidays. The past few months… Like I’ve said a hundred times, I’ve been tied up. I’m sorry.”
“Maybe one of these days, I’ll actually believe you. See you tomorrow.”
He hung up.
Her stomach lurched, and she clutched the wheel. Okay. She was going to need her quiet night in the hotel to strategize on how to begin to make amends with Lachlan.
If only I could be honest.
She winced. Taking holidays… Bit of a stretch. More accurately, she’d been forced to take a leave of absence. The authorities investigating her firm’s
CIO had told her to stay away from the office until the investigation was complete and charges were laid. Focusing on anything other than work had been impossible since the moment when, newly promoted and with access to more information than she’d ever had as an analyst, she realized some of the practices of the senior members of the firm were shifty as hell. She’d been a key part of the case, right up until her role as whistleblower was leaked internally a couple of days ago. All problems she wasn’t able to explain to her siblings because of the non-disclosure agreement she’d signed.
Her marching orders for the next two weeks were clear—visit her family, but no breaking her silence. Either the investigators would finish gathering evidence and charge her colleagues, exonerating Stella, or the whole mess would go public, make the national news and people would naturally assume she had snitched to cover her own ass. Either way, losing her anonymity meant her name was mud at the firm.
Be a whistleblower, the district attorney said. It’ll be kept confidential, the SEC authorities said. They can’t fire you—we promise. Or her favorite: your coworkers will thank you.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Well, right. Ethically, she’d made the right choice.
And she couldn’t control whether, or how fast, charges were laid against the fraudsters, or if her attempt to be the good guy would mean losing everything. But she could use these two weeks to rebuild some damage she had caused. Her half siblings deserved better than the arm’s length she’d held them to over the years.
Stella contemplated calling Maggie to check in, but her reserves were drained to zero. She narrowed her gaze on the two dark ruts of asphalt, ribbons of black running through the world of white. Slowing for one of the few stoplights along the two-lane highway, she waited for a pickup to turn, but a gust of wind shook the car, bringing a sheet of snow across her windshield. Her pulse jumped, and she took her foot off the accelerator for a moment.
God, she hated this road. Had it always been this far a drive from Bozeman? Then again, in high school, any time she’d made the trek into town, she’d usually been preoccupied by a certain handsome cowboy in the driver’s seat.
As a teen, she’d scrambled for every scholarship dollar, desperate to get to college without hurting her mom by asking her dad for help. And then Ryan had come along, wearing a Stetson and a broody smile, oozing teenage testosterone. She’d lost her head. And almost lost her shot at an upward trajectory.
He might have covered for her when they’d been stupid kids, giving her the chance to earn her place in the upper echelon of New York’s financial world. Might have pulled Maggie from the fire, too. But just because he’d saved both Stella’s ass and her half sister’s life didn’t mean she was required to look back on him fondly.
He’d earned her gratitude, but he’d never earn back her loyalty.
She pressed the accelerator just a hint more. The weather was crap, but the SUV had all-wheel drive and winter tires, and the faster she got to the hotel, the better. She needed to sleep. Lick her wounds a little. And show up at Lachlan’s in the morning, ready to make amends.
The dark stretch of road made it feel like she was the only person in the universe, except for whoever was in the car stopped at an upcoming intersection. Headlight beams lit the interior of her vehicle as she passed. White, to red and blue—
She startled, and her car swerved a little. The tires pulled in the shallow snow ruts, and her heart rate kicked up again. She steadied the vehicle, taking a deep breath to calm her pulse. Oh, crap. A cop. What the hell? She was going maybe two miles over the speed limit. Maybe she wasn’t the guilty one.
The siren blipped.
Ugh, definitely for her. She eased over to the side of the road, tires jittering as they caught the snow. Great. She was going to be even later checking in, if she had to spend any length of time explaining to the officer why they were completely in the wrong for pulling her over. She turned the key in the ignition, cutting off Chris Cornell mid-chorus.
By the time she had the window rolled down and was being blinded by a flashlight, her chest burned with irritation.
Snow swirled in through the open window, stinging her face. She squinted into the bright beam—with no streetlights, all she could see was a silhouetted cowboy hat pulled low over the officer’s face and broad, male shoulders.
“Do you want my license and registration?” Stella asked, holding the documents out for the still, silent man. “It’s a rental. And I wasn’t speeding.” And I just want to go to bed, and this highway is the worst because the last time I was on it, I got arrested—
“Holy God,” the officer said, gripping the open window ledge with a black-gloved hand. He lowered his flashlight. A gold star on his chest glinted in the beam. “Stella.”
“Ryan?” Fragments of her past sliced at her. Soulful, guarded eyes. Strong hands. A dry wit that made her laugh so hard she couldn’t breathe.
And ending up utterly, painfully alone. Having to deal with losing their baby without him even having known she was pregnant.
She blurted out the first thought that made it to her mouth. “You have a criminal record. How the hell are you the sheriff?”
Ryan clenched his teeth to stop his jaw from hanging open. If there was ever a time to rely on his impervious-sheriff face, it was now. He’d expected a routine traffic stop of an out-of-towner.
Not Stella Reid.
Not the physical remainder of his only heartbreak, sitting wide-eyed in the driver’s seat of a rental car in an expensive-looking wool coat.
He lifted his flashlight.
The beam fell on the set of blue eyes etched permanently on his soul. Catching her squint, he directed the light toward the dashboard. Had she forgotten he’d pled out to a misdemeanor? And was she really surprised by his occupation? He would have thought his name and position would have come up at some point. She must have specifically told her siblings not to mention him. Though his role in saving Maggie from that fire must have been mentioned at least once.
He put on a neutral tone to match his expression. “Been so long you didn’t recognize me, Stella?”
The last time he’d laid eyes on her, she’d been trudging off to his grandmother’s car, having just been released from handcuffs. Also on the side of the road. Also with lights flashing.
It’d been rain pelting his face then, as opposed to today’s snow. And his final words to her—I’ll do this, but after, we’re done—were still imprinted on his soul.
Hers, too, apparently, because he couldn’t think of the last time she’d visited. Almost ironic that when he’d pulled Maggie from the barn blaze, he’d given Stella a reason to come home. It was the opposite of when he’d taken all the blame for stealing his uncle’s car, and made her promise to leave so she could achieve her dreams.
She lifted her chin, gaze hardening more during each long second. “It’s pitch-black out here. And your hat’s hiding your face.” She waved her fingers in a circle and pointed at his chest. “And, you know, the law-enforcing cop getup.”
He flicked up the brim of his hat, exposing more of his skin to the heavy January snow. Once upon a time, he’d seen her in a future that hadn’t been for him. She represented a part of him that he wanted to leave long in the past. But those eyes still held sway over him. “Better?”
“Better would be you not having pulled me over, and being three minutes closer to my hotel room.”
He sent her a questioning look. Hard to believe Lachlan and Maggie wouldn’t have offered to put Stella up. Maybe the division between the siblings went deeper than he’d realized. God knew Maggie had taken eighteen years—and a life-saving grab out of an inferno—to forgive him for dumping Stella. Who knew what issues the Reids were still holding on to? But Stella’s choice of lodgings was not his concern. Her road speed was.
“You were driving too fast for conditions,” he said.
“I was going the speed limit.”
“Sure, if you call five over the speed limit. Which is unsafe in the snow. Did your rental company provide you with chains?”
“Yes.” Stella pressed her lips together. “I figured I didn’t need them until it started sticking to the road more.”
Oh, man, the ire spitting from those words. Was she still holding on to resentment from how he’d handled things after they broke up? He’d have thought she’d be more apt to thank him than to still be angry. The night of his arrest, the deputy had threatened her with felony charges, mocked her about losing her scholarship, until Ryan had lied and said he’d stolen his uncle’s antique truck for their midnight joyride without her knowing. It had made sense—she, having been the relative angel to his foible-prone teen self. He’d been guilty, after all. No need for both of them to suffer the consequences.
He’d made it clear that, in taking the blame for her, they were done. He’d thought she’d agreed to the plan. But weeks after his plea bargain, she’d come looking for him at the ranch where he was working off his community-service hours. Why, he didn’t know—he’d never asked. He’d meant it when he’d ended things, so he’d had a crusty old cowboy turn her away.
A jerk move, sure, though necessary to carry out the new start they’d both needed. Her, away from his bad influence. Him, figuring out how not to be one.
The problem with earning back his good name was that it was impossible to ever feel he’d done enough.
He cleared his throat. “Just make sure you keep the chains in the vehicle in case you’re on a road where the snow is deeper.”
“You’re so official.”
“It’s my job,” he said, clenching the door frame harder.
She shook her head in disbelief. “Eighteen-year-old Ryan wouldn’t believe that if he tried.”
“No, but I didn’t have much vision back then. And I was damn lucky. Otherwise I’d probably be living inside the detention center, not in charge of the people who run it.” He intended to continue on the straight and narrow indefinitely, including winning an election this coming fall. Something easier to do if the townsfolk weren’t reminded of his past. And reminder number one? Sitting in the driver’s seat in front of him.
Hopefully Stella’s visit would be a short one.
“If you’re that important, surely you had something better to do than lurk in the shadows, waiting for some law-abiding citizen to come along so you could pull them over unfairly,” she sniped.
He blinked at her challenge. He used to love it when she got snarky. The snap in her voice that had promised a hell of a good time when they made up. Kissing in the nook behind the high-school music room, in the back of his grandma’s Oldsmobile, in the loft of her family’s barn… And with those plump, rosy lips? He bet she’d be even better at it now.
Jesus, Rafferty. Reel it in.
Those lips weren’t, and wouldn’t ever be, his to kiss again. Not if he wanted to keep the star on his coat. He questioned her with a stony look. “Should have known you’d fall into the category of drivers who try to argue their way out of a ticket.”
“You’re going to give me a ticket?”
Damn right, he was. They’d had a fatality on this stretch of road over the Christmas holidays and were cracking down on speeders. Plus, it was better to have her good and mad at him. More likely she’d keep her distance that way. “Ticketing people who are driving dangerously is also my job.”
Her cheeks flamed red, illuminated by his flashlight. “More dangerous than driving a stolen vehicle?”
He cocked an eyebrow at her. Yeah, he’d screwed up plenty with this woman. But he was on the clock and wouldn’t make exceptions. “I paid my debt. Did you?”
“You…you can’t… Statute of limitations—”
“You’re fine, Stella. Except for the speeding.”
“Take my driver’s license.” She shoved her paperwork into his hand. “I’ve never had a ticket—don’t I deserve a warning?”
And have people question why he’d let his ex-girlfriend off when she was legitimately speeding? Let Stella think he still had a soft spot for her? That wouldn’t fly. “Excuse me while I go run this.”
A sharp curse followed him back to his patrol truck. He ran her New York license, unsurprised that she’d been telling the truth concerning her driving record. She’d never been a liar.
That label was reserved for him.
He’d contemplated apologizing years ago, but had decided it was better to leave well enough alone. Maybe he’d been wrong on that. No matter—the side of the highway wasn’t the place for it.
He wrote up the ticket, gripping the pen as he printed her name in triplicate. Reid, Stella Beth. Not Rafferty, like he’d caught her scribbling in a notebook once. The naivete of youth.
Tipping his hat back down to fend off the snow, he returned to her window.
She’d turned on the overhead light and was reading something on her cell. Snowflakes blew in through her window, landing on her black coat. Between her visible anger, her designer clothing and the way she’d scraped her blond hair back into a severe bun, she looked untouchable. Out of his league.
Not everything had changed since they were kids.
He handed her the ticket. “I won’t pretend I made smart choices that night, Stella. But I’ve done my best to make up for it.”
She stared at him for a long second. “I’m trying to tell myself that what you did for me that night outweighs how you treated me the day I came to the ranch. It definitely should balance out.”
“We’d agreed to a clean break.”
“Yeah, but I—” Her gaze shifted from his face, and he couldn’t help but notice how her hands shook a little as she put her phone in her purse, then folded the paper into a neat square and dropped it into the empty cup holder. “How many people besides you see the tickets you issue?”
“A few,” he said.
“No need to be the town criminal again,” she grumbled.
“You never were, Stella. That was me. That’s what I agreed to.” Shame nipped under his collar, a bite worse than the cold fingers of wind trying to freeze his skin.
“Well, clearly you’re doing okay despite all that. Are we done here? I’m sure you have someone or something to get home to.”
“Just a dog and an empty bed,” he said.
Something approaching satisfaction flickered across her face before she squeezed her eyes shut for a second. “Not my business.”
He couldn’t stop the corner of his mouth from quirking up at her clipped tone. She wasn’t entirely unaffected. And that fragment of vulnerability—he craved it. Still. He’d spent countless moments in high school coaxing those beats of emotion out of her. And it was still as much of a victory.
“How long are you staying?”
“Two weeks. Enough time to help Lachlan and Maggie run the work bees.”
“I committed to helping them, too. I’ll see you there.” Not that he was looking forward to it. Wanting anything to do with Stella Reid was asking for trouble. He removed his cowboy hat and ran a hand through his hair before fixing the hat back on. The cold made his scalp tingle, matching the rush of panic skimming down his limbs. “It might have been a long time ago, but it still hurt like hell when we left things so undone.”
She let out a disbelieving cough. “We left things undone? Try again, Sheriff.”
He shook his head slowly. Okay. He had been wrong about not calling to apologize. Maybe they could arrange to meet privately. “Given you’re in town, we should take the opportunity to talk. Clear the air.”
“Since when do you talk?” she scoffed.
Her disbelief rubbed at him and he cringed, like when anyone petted his Labrador backward. Taking a deep breath, he reminded himself she was basing her judgment of his character on who he’d been as a troubled boy, not a man. “It’s what adults do.”
“Nice high horse there, Ryan. I suppose you’re also looking for hero worship for having saved Maggie?”
But before he could put his words in order, she started her car and drove off.
A good reminder. She was all business. Manhattan and designer coats. And for the sake of being the opposite, it was better that she leave him in her dust.
No one had come close to touching his heart the way Stella Reid had. And if he started to look for similarities between the girl he’d loved and the woman she’d become, he’d risk everything he’d worked so hard to build.
Available in print Dec 29, 2020 or digitally Jan 1, 2021! Until then, pre-order your copy at any of the following links.
Harlequin (Available Dec 1 in print and digital!)