Three siblings searching for the truth about their family are about to find more than they bargained for....
For years, Brandon Ferringer has sought to untangle the mystery surrounding his father’s disappearance. Now training as a hotshot—a seasonal wildland firefighter—Brandon feels he’s on the verge of finally discovering the truth. In need of temporary lodging, Brandon rents a room at a local farm, and he is surprised when his attraction to the ranch’s alluring owner threatens to distract him from his mission.
Single mother Victoria Meese struggles to find time for herself in between raising her son, Randy, and running the Lady Luck Ranch. When she meets Brandon, she suddenly finds something to believe in again. But Brandon’s search for answers is about to turn dangerous, threatening their growing connection—and their very lives.
“If you love romantic suspense, don’t miss Lisa Gardner's version. Intelligent, smart, and romantic.” —Jayne Ann Krentz
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Lisa Gardner is the New York Times bestselling author of fourteen previous novels. Her Detective D. D. Warren novels include Catch Me, Love You More, and the International Thriller of the Year award–winning novel The Neighbor. Her FBI profiler novels include Say Goodbye, Gone, The Killing Hour, The Next Accident, and The Third Victim. She lives with her family in New England, where she is at work on her next novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Even with the real estate agent’s directions, it took Brandon three tries to find the Lady Luck Ranch. The first time, he assumed the dirt trail splicing off from the main road was a forgotten forestry path. After driving another five miles, he turned and went back. Beaverville, Oregon, wasn’t that big. Downtown was a collection of six weathered gray storefronts that could’ve been mistaken for a ghost town if not for the single golden pine addition gleaming on the corner.
Twenty-?six people served, the dust-?covered sign joked at the corner grocery deli. The new store turned out to be a cattle feed shop, its front porch and back loading docks buried beneath huge burlap bags of grain. Next to it, a hunting store boasted a dozen gleaming rifles in the windows and enough boxes of bullets to make the NRA proud. Next to it was a beat old saloon claiming to be Whiskey Jack’s. Two hundred and sixty people served, its sign boasted.
Brandon got the impression Beaverville might be just slightly different from Manhattan.
He passed the high school. At first glance, he thought the simple three-?story cabin was someone’s home, but then he spotted the football field next door and discerned the fallen two-?hundred-?year-?old tree trunk with Beaverville High School branded into its bark. The town hadn’t wasted much money on the slightly tottering school. On the other hand, the taxpayers took football seriously. The lines were freshly painted brilliant white, the wooden bleachers were carefully stained, and a decent-size snack bar advertised beer, hot dogs, and Tums, all for seventy-?five cents apiece.
“Wonderful,” Brandon murmured. “Let the good times roll.” He’d spent the whole night on a red-?eye flight and the whole morning driving. After four years of rigorous hiking in the vast outdoors, he’d developed a healthy loathing of confinement. He wanted to stretch his long, lean legs. He wanted to draw real air into his scratchy throat and feel fresh wind against his face. He wanted out of his car.
He headed down Highway 26. He still didn’t see any signs of a ranch.
In another couple of weeks, these dry, barren fields would be covered in lush prairie grass and pink foxglove, all rimmed by the snowcapped mountains rising majestically in the horizon. Now, however, the landscape was arid and desolate, a stark compilation of tinder-?dry sagebrush and persnickety prairie grass poking out of dusty red soil. One bolt of lightning, and the whole thing could burst into flame, walls of fire reaching two hundred feet high, sounding like a jet engine and racing eighty miles per hour. Deer would scatter and fall. Hundred-?year-?old oaks would burn so badly, their stumps would smolder well into November.
Brandon remembered it all vividly—?the heat, the smell, the roaring sound, the bloodred sun, the unquenchable thirst. The enormous awe of seeing what nature could do. Boss Hoggins, the superintendent from the White Mountains, had told Brandon that once a man saw a true wildland fire, he never was the same. Four years ago, Brandon had been in the flames. And Boss Hoggins was right—?he’d never looked at Mother Nature the same way since.
Brandon hit the center of town again, scowled and turned around. “The Lady Luck Ranch is just off the highway,” the real estate agent had said. “The only ranch around for miles. Just look for the sign. Can’t miss it.”
“Can’t miss it,” he mocked. “Can’t miss it.”
Brandon began to contemplate wringing the real estate agent’s neck.
The dirt road loomed to his right again. Abruptly Brandon slammed on the brakes and brought the car to a grinding halt, his gaze glued to one of the more impressive examples of sagebrush. Funny, but that looked like a piece of wood tangled in those prickly limbs. Say, a sign.
Brandon climbed out of his car, thinned his lips impatiently and stalked toward the offending plant. Oh, yes, that was a sign, all right. The Lady Luck Ranch sign.
“Your mother was a cactus,” he informed the bush coldly, picked up the sign and stuck it on the barbed-wire fence. He turned his red rent-?a-?wreck down the path. The car jostled over the overgrown dirt road hard enough to rattle his bones.
If he ever found this damn ranch, he was never getting into a car again.
The road wove around and around, gradually beginning to climb. The brush gave way to a thick grove of pine trees that blocked the stark sun. Abruptly, the ranch appeared.
A beat-?up pickup truck, colored red by more rust than paint, sat in the circular dirt drive. The wooden cabin was small, the patio dusted with yellow soil. Covered by a thick carpet of pine needles and moss, the roof sagged in one corner while the chimney crumbled dangerously. The front door had weathered differently from the rest of the house—?a newer addition that already leaned on its hinges. The place obviously needed some work, and the neighboring stables didn’t look much better.
But blue gingham curtains waved cheerily at the square windows. Planters rimming the patio offered red, pink and yellow tulips. Two brightly colored horse blankets were draped over the railings to dry. A rocking chair in one corner had a thick yellow-and-blue comforter draped over the back and looked well-?used. What the place lacked in money, it made up in atmosphere. That was good enough for Brandon.
He climbed out of his car. He didn’t see any sign of people, but an striped orange cat appeared, wrapping its purring form around his legs in a long procession of figure eights. After a minute, Brandon squatted to scratch the tomcat behind his ears.
“Do you know where I can find Victoria Meese?” he asked the cat, since it was all he had to work with.
The cat purred smugly, blinking wise gold eyes. C.J. used to have an orange cat named Speedy. For years, there was nothing the Marine could wear that wasn’t covered in blond fur.
“How about renting me a room?” Brandon tried again. “I’ll buy you only the best cat food and fill your litter box with shredded money. Why not? I haven’t had much luck getting rid of the stuff any other way.”
The tomcat, no idiot, leaned against Brandon’s leg and purred wholehearted approval.
“Big, stubborn . . .” A husky voice spat a string of curses into the silence, and Brandon rose instantly, searching for the source. “Come on, into the corner. Move it. You little . . . ?I shoulda let them turn you into glue!”
Brandon followed the stream of disparaging words into the stables. The row of empty stalls gave way to the feed center. There, a blond woman in dusty Levi’s and a torn plaid shirt was wrestling with a thousand-?pound gelding and losing. She obviously wanted the big gray horse to back up into the covered arena attached to the stables. He obviously had no intention of doing any such thing.
“Would you like some help?” Brandon called.
She barely spared him a glance. “Nah. Doc doesn’t like strangers. You step forward and he’ll probably trample us both.”
Brandon looked at four hard hooves the size of salad plates. He didn’t take another step. In the meantime, the woman took a firm hold of the reins and tugged down the gray’s head.
“Hey, you,” she chastised. “Pay attention to me. Now move your big butt backward.” Her voice was deep and firm, the kind guaranteed to get immediate obedience from small children and dumb animals.
For emphasis, she leaned against the horse’s shoulder, pushing him along. Her long, blunt-?cut blond hair swept forward, liberally decorated with straw. On the reins, her dark, dusky hands were fisted, her forearms dark and strong, her fingernails dirty and short. Compact build. Nicely curved legs. A very capable woman. And an attractive one.
With a last oomph, she shoved the gray beast into the dusty arena and triumphantly slammed the gate shut. The horse pawed the ground a few times, then shook his mane as if to say, “Well, I never!”
“Next time, I will turn you into glue.” Shaking her head. she brushed off her hands, picked up her gloves and turned toward Brandon.
“So what can I help you with?” She pinned him with a direct blue gaze that brought his intelligence to an immediate halt. He’d never seen eyes that color before, not blue, not gray, but somewhere in between. Bright, vivid, intelligent eyes. Riveting, clear, honest eyes.
“Hello?” she quizzed.
Brandon shut his gaping mouth. “Ah, are you Victoria Meese?”
She chewed on a piece of hay jutting out of the corner of her mouth, appearing slightly wary. “Who wants to know?”
“I’m here about the rental. An agency in Redmond told me about it.”
“Oh, that.” She relaxed instantly, picked up two hay hooks and matter-?of-?factly stabbed them into a bale. The movement drew his eyes to her denim-?clad legs again. “Got a one-?room cabin out back,” she said as she hefted the bale. “Not much to it, but it’s clean and furnished. It was meant as quarters for a foreman or stable manager, but the Lady Luck Ranch isn’t that lucky these days.”
She dumped the bale on the ground and with two short jerks snapped the baling wire, then began peeling off leaves of alfalfa. “The cabin’s a hundred dollars a month. It doesn’t have its own bathroom or kitchen, but there’s a bathroom in the stables and I fix breakfast every morning. If you’re looking for luxury, this isn’t it. But it’s a sturdy little place, the bed’s comfortable, and spring around here is worth seeing. Are you interested?”
“I don’t require luxury,” he told her honestly. She was walking down the center aisle, depositing bundles of alfalfa to the four waiting horses as she went. At the last stall, the horse blew softly into her hair, scattering hay. She smiled at the oversize beast and patted his shoulder.
“The lease agreement is simple,” she called to Brandon. “Just pay me one month up front and give me four weeks’ notice before you move. I’ll need you to fill out some forms—?name, permanent address, employment, Mr. . . .”
“Ferringer. Brandon Ferringer.”
“What brings you to these parts, Mr. Ferringer?”
“I am a hotshot,” he said quietly.
“What?” She straightened abruptly against the stall, startling her horse and apparently herself. “You’re the last hotshot?”
Beaverville didn’t have much, but from spring to fall, it was the premiere spot for training and deploying hotshots around the country. When the big wildland fires broke out, the Smokejumpers parachuted into the hard-?to-?reach areas and launched the first wave of attack. The hotshots followed like ground-?force Marines, hiking through rugged terrain with twenty-?five pounds of equipment on their backs, clearing the brush, digging the fire trenches and working, working, working while the roaring flames stained their faces black.
“I’m going to be a hotshot,” Brandon agreed, confused by her reaction. She still looked flustered.
“You’re the hero from New York?”
“I’m . . . ?I’m from New York.” Hero? How had that got out?
Victoria was waving a hand as if to clear the air. “Sorry. I’m making a mess of this. I know all about the hotshots, you see. My brother Charlie also made the crew. Beaverville’s team is only eighteen people, and with sixteen returnees, only two slots opened up. Charlie got one, and according to the rumor mill, some hero from New York got the second.”
“Oh,” Brandon said with feeling. He’d forgotten about the rumor mill. The forestry service was notoriously cliquish, with everyone knowing everyone and talking about everyone. Except for Brandon. He was officially the outsider in a world unaccustomed to outsiders.
Victoria was giving him a frank up and down. “If you don’t mind me saying, you’re not what we expected. For starters, you should be ten years younger.”
“That old? Charlie’s twenty-?two.”
Brandon made a face. “They’re probably all kids, aren’t they?”
“Hardly a soul over twenty-?eight,” she assured him. “But then, none of them can say they rescued two kids in the middle of a blowout.”
“It was luck.”
“Really? I’d say taking on a wildland fire in the Presidential range was less about fortune and more about a death wish.”
Brandon didn’t comment. That fire had happened only six months after Julia’s funeral, so she might very well have a point
“Well,” Victoria said when it become apparent he wasn’t going to elaborate, “that must have been some experience, Brandon Ferringer, because Superintendent Coleton Smith hates to take outsiders onto his crew, but he accepted you. Two hundred applications for that slot, men he knows and has personally worked with on the district crews, and he chose you.”
Brandon smiled wanly. “I’m in good shape, even for an old guy.”
A wry gleam suddenly appeared in Victoria Meese’s clear gaze. “Oh, I won’t argue that.” She gave him a sudden flashing grin. “Boy, you are going to have a fun summer. Come on, hotshot. I’ll show you the cabin.”
True to Victoria’s description, the cabin wasn’t much. Built as a miniature of the main house, it had the same aging roof. Inside, however, he found a decent-?size room that was well-?maintained and smelled of lemon wax. The furniture was old, probably garage sale bargains, but Victoria had done her best with it. A hand-?sewn blue gingham slipcover brightened up the couch, while an old blue-and-green quilt decorated the double bed. The cabin didn’t offer a kitchen, but an old yellow counter against the back wall provided a sink and an outlet for a hot pot. Mostly, the small quarters offered a stunning view of the back pasture framed by the mountains. Dappled with sunlight, two newborn foals kicked and frolicked close to their mothers’ protective forms.
“What do you think?” She rested against the doorjamb, her arms crossed over her chest, her gaze patient as he inspected the room.
“It’s perfect, Victoria.”
“Please, call me Vic. Only my mother calls me Victoria. And my brothers when they’re trying to get my goat.”
“A lot of brothers?” he guessed.
“Six. Three older, three younger. I didn’t exactly grow up playing with dolls.”
“But you had the best arm on the Little League team?”
She grinned unabashedly. “Exactly. Listen, I’m happy you’re interested in the place, but there are a few things you should know.” She straightened in the doorway and suddenly got down to business. Brandon waited obediently.
“My father is the sheriff around here,” she said levelly. “You might as well know that, because he’s going to conduct the background check from hell on you. In Beaverville, we don’t have any secrets.”
“I don’t have anything to hide.”
“Okay. Two, I have an eight-?year-?old son.”
“Pardon?” She didn’t look a day older then twenty-?six.
“I’m twenty-?seven,” she said crisply, as if reading his thoughts. “That makes it no less stupid, but a little more legal—?”
“It’s none of my business—?”
“Damn right. But for the record”—she took a deep breath and spoke more quietly—“I have a great son. A fabulous kid, and I really want to keep him that way. So, while this place is yours, I do ask that you set a good example. No drunken, disorderly, loud parties. No, um, well, women.”
He said, “I’m a thirty-?six-?year-?old widower. I’m not exactly into wild parties, an...
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