Authors: Shelly Alexander
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Shelly Alexander
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of
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Cover design by Laura Klynstra
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014922409
To my husband, the sweetest man and best chiropractor on the planet. Thank you for insisting I buy my first laptop so I could start writing down my stories, and for living out an incredible romance and happily-ever-after with me for the last twenty-five years and beyond. I love you.
To Lola, our English bulldog, who has brought truckloads of love and laughter to our household.
And to the town of Red River, New Mexico: You are my muse and my refuge. While the characters and establishments in my novels are formed solely from my imagination, the real people and places of Red River are no less wonderful. I’ve taken a few creative liberties with the geography to make the setting work to the advantage of the story, but in real life, Red River is one of the most magical places on earth.
Ella Dennings had a
to pick with the
’s Most Eligible Chiropractor two years running. She snorted. Jeez, she
Okay, get a grip.
Humoring herself seemed like a good idea while stuck in a muddy ditch in the middle of the night. She could really use Cooper Wells’s help right now, even though he wouldn’t be at the cabin when she arrived. And it was for the best. Ella had made sure she’d have the cabin to herself. Her late husband’s be
st friend owned half the vacation retreat, but spending the summer in Red River under the same roof with him was the
thing she wanted.
Now, if she could just get her car out of the damn ditch and actually make it to the cabin herself. Unfortunately, her BMW wasn’t built to four-wheel itself out of the mud.
“I should’ve traded this thing for a four-wheel drive,” she grumbled, even though it wasn’t true. When she drove the Beamer, Bradley’s presence washed over her like he was in the seat next to her. Maybe she imagined it, but his scent still filled the plush interior and eased the dull ache in her heart every time she got behind the wheel.
“I think it’s time to brave the storm on foot, Winston. We may not get out of this ditch any other way tonight.”
The overweight English bulldog occupying the passenger seat panted toward her, his oversized tongue hanging a good six inches out one side of his flattened snout. It resembled a wagging slab of roast beef, and a glob of slobber rolled off, making a splat on the console. Ella didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
She snapped Winston’s black leather leash onto his matching spiked collar.
I will not cry, I will not cry, I will not cry
. Both hands gripped the leash, and she counted to ten, a little trick she’d learned while teaching history at Bella Vista High. One of the roughest schools in Albuquerque, she’d had to outmaneuver the less motivated students with a few tools in emotional restraint. Either that or she would’ve quit on the first day of classes when a saggy-pants sophomore offered to get her high between classes.
“I. Will. Not. Cry,” she whispered into the darkness. A giant tear the size of the raindrops pounding the windshield slid down her cheek. She swiped at it. How could she possibly have any tears left? She’d cried an ocean the last two years since Bradley had been gone. Dabbing her eyes with a sleeve, she glanced at Winston. “I’m pretty pathetic, huh?”
Winston cocked his head to one side, whining as if he understood.
Bradley’s car, Bradley’s dog. He’d been a true dog lover and never minded one bit the smeared windows or sticky seats the way she did. Now she was going to Bradley’s cabin in Red River to spend one last summer and finally—hopefully—say good-bye.
The familiar sting of sadness settled in her chest.
Ruffling the wiry fur on top of Winston’s expansive head, Ella sucked up her resolve. “Yeah, I know you miss him as much as I do.” She chucked the canine under the chin and winked in his direction. “But, we’ve still got each other.” He burped and resumed his tongue-wagging pant. “God, I
pathetic.” She wiped a gob of slobber off her hand and leaned against the window to study Winston. He rested his oversized head on the console and stared up at her with giant, adoring eyes.
Her attention returned to the deserted road, and she flicked on the wipers again. The cabin wasn’t more than a half mile farther. But in this rain, at night, and on foot, it might as well be on the other side of the universe.
She blew out a heavy breath, making her overgrown bangs flutter, and stared into the black sheets of rain.
Cooper Wells. Bradley’s buddy since their pimply faced youths. They went through high school and college together, then on to chiropractic school. Afterward, they’d both returned to Albuquerque to set up their own practices, and they stayed best friends until Bradley’s diagnosis.
A vein throbbed at her temple.
Just the thought of Coop inspired a desire for margaritas. A whole pitcher would be great just about now. Except that after two drinks, she usually ended up dancing on the nearest table with a lampshade on her head. Cooper Wells just wasn’t worth the embarrassment or the hangover.
“Ancient history,” she mumbled. It didn’t matter anymore. Bradley was gone, and her association with Cooper Wells ended with Bradley’s passing. Except for the cabin, which was her reason for being here in the first place. It was time to let the cabin go, too. Bradley would’ve wanted Coop to have it. They
buy it fifty-fifty long before she and Bradley married.
Ella stared at the windshield, now completely obscured by the heavy rain, and sighed. Of course she arrived on one of only ten days out of the year when it rained in northern New Mexico. Traveling to a cabin located two miles down a dirt road would’ve been too easy in nice weather.
Shoulders sagging, she thumped her forehead against the steering wheel.
Final score: Muddy Ditch – 1, Stupid Redhead That Didn’t Check The Weather – 0.
A bolt of lightning cracked open the sky and revealed the jagged silhouette of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. She and Winston both jumped.
Her heart thumped against her ribs. “Ready or not, it’s time.”
Winston’s head popped up.
Ella pulled up the hood of her flimsy windbreaker, zipped it up to her nose, and looked at Winston. Opening the door, she stepped into the watery ditch and sank half up to her knees in mud. Still in the car, Winston pulled on the leash.
“Oh, no you don’t.” She tugged harder against his sixty-five-pound girth. “If I’ve got to do this, then so do you.”
His tongue disappeared into his flattened face, and he dug all four paws into the expensive leather seat.
“Seriously? You’re seriously going to make me carry you?” She cursed, not really under her breath. “I should’ve gotten Bradley a Chihuahua. At least they can swim, and they don’t weigh as much as a small elephant.”
She tried to pull one foot free from the mud. A loud, sucking
sounded, and one shoeless foot appeared.
“Are you freakin’ kidding me?” She glared at Winston. “I just bought these!” He sneezed and resumed his wild-horses-couldn’t-drag-me-outta-here stance.
“That’s it, buddy boy. You’re coming whether you want to or not. And once we’re out of this ditch, you’re walking your prima donna butt the rest of the way to the cabin.”
With a “humph,” she hoisted the stubborn bulldog from the car and stumbled back under his weight. Thick mud clung to her feet like cement weights, and she lost her balance. A loud splash sounded as she fell backward, Winston clawing to stay on top of her like she was his lifeline. With both arms wrapped around him, her car keys began to slip from one hand. When she eased her hold on Winston to tighten her grasp on them, he clawed his way higher and pushed her down into the water.
Ella sputtered and gasped for air. One arm flailed to regain control, and the keys jarred loose. With a plop, they disappeared into the same watery grave as her shoe.
Where was a crane when you needed one? Or Animal Control?
Mumbling something about a Chihuahua, Ella picked her way up and out of the ditch, each step squishing and slurping. She walked the hydrophobic dog, now stiffened in protest, to higher ground and sat him down on the rain-soaked road. Then she waded back, dropped to her knees in the murky water, and searched for her keys.
Her hand brushed against metal, and she grabbed for it. Falling back onto her butt, she squeezed her eyes shut and rested her forehead against the keys fisted into one hand. Several calming breaths later, she forced herself up and sloshed to the car. She retrieved her purse from the front seat and kicked the door closed with a shoeless, muddy foot.
“And another thing,” she said, marching back to Winston to grab his leash. With a gentle tug, she and the obstinate dog set out toward the cabin. “You’re going on a diet as of right now.”
Coop stirred from his peaceful slumber but refused to open his eyes. He turned on his side, willing his interrupted dream of the curvy Megan Fox to restart right where it had stopped.
A low growl sounded at the foot of the bed, and his eyes popped open. He lay still, listening. The eleven-month-old boxer’s shaky growl quieted, and Coop heard nothing except heavy rain pelting the rustic cabin.
He rolled up to rest on one elbow as the dog moved closer, trembling. “What’s the matter, Atlas? Probably a raccoon. Go back to sleep, boy.” He scratched the dog behind the ears and lay back down.
Atlas whined like a baby.
“Are you really that big a chicken? Come on, grow a pair.” Coop rubbed his sleepy eyes. He should have gotten a German shepherd or a rottweiler. A poodle would’ve been a better guard dog than Atlas. A boxer had seemed so manly, so alpha. He had imagined doing a five-mile morning run with Atlas lumbering along with him.
He sighed, his head rolling to one side so he could look at his fifty-pound marshmallow. A chick magnet that all the ladies deemed as “sweet.” Great. Just what he needed—a cutesy dog who quaked at his own shadow and drew the attention of “aww”-ing females.
Females. He groaned. Better they stay in his dreams from now on. The real ones caused far too much trouble. Turning onto his side, he punched his goose-down pillow, anxious to get back to said nocturnal fantasies.
A loud thump had Atlas growling again, and Coop sat up. “Shh,” he murmured and listened into the darkness. Atlas scooted under the covers, cowering. Slipping out of bed, Coop inched to the window. With one finger, he pulled on the blind. The darkness gave away nothing, making him more aware of the chilled dampness that infused the air around him. Coop tensed, the back of his neck prickling.
He should have left the porch light on.
A crack of lightning illuminated the rural landscape, revealing a hooded shadow just as it moved onto the redwood porch to the left of his window. He pulled back, letting the blinds close.
His eyes scanned the dark bedroom, searching for something, anything he could use as a weapon. Shifting to the door, he pulled his prized baseball bat, Old Faithful, from behind it.
His bare feet moved silently across the hardwood floor, and he headed down the hall. With Old Faithful raised high and ready to swing, he eased into the entryway. The front door knob jiggled, and the lock clicked. Adrenaline coursed through him. As the door swung open, he surged toward the intruder. Half into the swing, the overhead light switched on, flooding the room with one thousand volts of eye-stabbing electricity. His recoil shifted his momentum upward, and Old Faithful crashed into the wall just above the intruder’s head.
Coop pulled Old Faithful back, ready to swing again. Now face-to-face with the prowler, familiar green eyes, rounded with fear, greeted him. Long, soaking tendrils of auburn hair escaped the confines of the hoodie, each lock finding a home against milky white skin.
Unfortunately, those deep feminine pools of green didn’t register any recognition of him, and she screamed. Loud.
Before he could explain, apologize, even berate his best friend’s widow for not calling to let him know she was coming, Ella raised her keychain, and a sparkly pink bottle streamed pepper spray right into his eyes.