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Romancing Redemption – first 3 chapters!

Romancing Redemption

Love isn’t illegal.

The outlaw’s daughter…

A man seeking a connection to his family…

Can love push past boundaries and exceed expectations?

When it’s all about honor in Clearwater County, Rosie has a hard time believing anyone would want the daughter of an outlaw. With her secrets and her past, she only wants to make life easier for her sister. But a man from her past only wants to make her his.

Michael has a shot at Rosie but when her secrets come out, his family objects. Then competition for her hand turns out to be danger in disguise. Can Michael save Rosie before it’s too late? Or will her pride keep their hearts apart?

Fight with Rosie as she seeks the only redemption necessary – true love.

Grab this sweet read today!


Rosie

Chapter 1

Five years earlier

Waiting to be fed didn’t sit well with Rosie.

She wasn’t an animal. Her sister, Sara Beth, was hungry, too. But if they touched anything in the pantry or fridge, Madam would make them regret it.

Five years since Mom died and they’d been ripped from the only home they’d ever known and thrust onto the Madam’s ranch.  Even after all that time, Rosie still couldn’t get used to the begging-for-food part of living there.

Or the men. All the men as they walked in and out of the house, the way they looked at Rosie and Sara Beth, the way they handed money to Madam or squeezed her round behind.

Nothing was easy to get used to in that house. Sleeping on the floor when they used to have a bed and having cruel slaps aimed at their heads when they used to have kisses fall on their cheeks.

Nothing made sense. Especially the angry red creeping up Madam’s face as she growled at the person on the other end of the phone.

Truth be told, Rosie didn’t care about the conversation between Madam and whoever. It had nothing to do with her and she wanted to keep things that way.

Her stomach rumbled and she pushed her clenched fist into the soft skin of her abdomen to help with the noisy pain. She and her younger sister hadn’t eaten since the day before. Not being fed on a consistent basis didn’t dull the gnawing pain of hunger as it threatened to eat through her ribcage. She bit her tongue, hoping the taste of coppery blood would help blunt her hunger’s edge.

Huddled in the corner of the kitchen, Rosie and her sister tried to keep silent, avoiding the guaranteed wrath from Madam – the only constant in their lives. Next to the door to the laundry room where they slept on a pile of blankets, Rosie chewed on her cheeks to keep her mind focused on holding still instead of crying for food. She’d taught the same trick to Sara Beth the first few months they’d been at the place.

They’d finished scrubbing the kitchen floor, wiping the windows, washing the toilets and showers, and organizing the laundry about the time the phone rang. Thankfully, because Madam was in the kitchen and maybe when she hung up, they’d be able to ask her for food without being cuffed or whipped.

Rosie had more scars on her shoulders and back because Madam had tried breaking her over and over and hadn’t succeeded… yet. Sometimes Rosie wanted to yell at the top of her lungs that they didn’t live in the 1800s and people weren’t supposed to be treated that way. Or were they?

Clasping her sister’s hands, Rosie whispered. “It’s okay, Sara Beth, I’m sure we’ll get something soon.” She caressed the chapped knuckles with her own cracking fingers.

Sara Beth nodded her head, but kept her gaze down. The broken spirit Rosie saw more and more in her sister hurt. She wanted to shake her and yell not to forget their mother, not to forget what happiness – even what slight joy – felt like. They’d escape, someday, but not until they had enough money or security to keep them off the streets.

Rosie had dreams and when the time was right, she was going after them. She’d steal and hoard as much as she could until then. That’s what digging holes in the yard were for – storing items to pawn later.

Madam glanced over her shoulder, the phone pressed tight to her ear. She glared at the girls, the dark lining of her makeup shadowing her eyes into haggard gloom rather than exotic temptress.

Rosie tightened her jaw. Emboldened by the consistent hunger and the ever-present dreams of happiness without Madam always around to tamp them down, she gave in to the independent side persistent in breaking out. She had enough. She’d be hanged before she let that woman continue to feed the whores better than two girls who worked hard for nothing.

Especially the daughters of the bastard who owned the place. Was it a card she should play? Probably not, but Rosie had learned a couple things since being placed with the Madam. She’d do what she had to, even if only to survive.

Hanging up the phone, Madam turned and placed her hands at the waist of her tight black dress. She never allowed pants, said they were of the devil.

Apparently, she and the devil had made a pact to ignore prostitution as a sin as long as pants counted toward damnation.

Her heavily made-up expression twisted, the red of her lips like a slash of blood on white painted porcelain. “Well, girls, looks like you’re not going to have a pot to piss in. Devlyn Caracus was arrested this afternoon. You’re out.” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder, smirking. “I don’t have to keep you here anymore.” Her dyed-black hair swung back and forth around her shoulders as she laughed mirthlessly.

Shock curdled in Rosie’s stomach. Her mouth fell open and she shook her head. She was only seventeen. She didn’t have anywhere else to go… but impending escape slammed her lips together. Getting out of that whore house was the most important thing, second only to keeping Sara Beth safe and alive.

The need to get her twelve-year-old sister out of there hummed deep inside.

Rosie lifted her chin, eyes hard. “You can’t just throw us out. We need money and food.” No way did Rosie have the guts to ask for back pay, but still she needed money. She wasn’t stupid, just desperate.

Madam arched her eyebrow and stamped toward them. Each footstep echoed off the spotless linoleum – cleaned by Rosie and Sara Beth’s hands.

Rosie pushed herself up from the ground. Her thin legs and arms shook from the effort after constant work without food. But she moved in front of Sara Beth so Madam wouldn’t be able to hurt her, squaring her shoulders.

Madam raised her hand, and then dropped it. She halted inches from Rosie and studied her.

Shifting in the worn slippers Rosie had rescued from the garbage of one of the prostitutes, she hid her discomfort from the calculation in Madam’s eyes. Nothing good ever came of bringing too much attention to one’s self around the female pimp. Most of the time, less food and or a beating would be the least of it.

“Tell you what, Rosie. You can have all the food you want, all the creature comforts of this grand establishment, and your own room…” Madam looked them over, lifting the corner of her mouth. She glanced at Sara Beth peeking over the side of Rosie’s shoulder. “I’ll even let your sister stay and not work, for now, and you can save up some money to get out.”

A sinking sensation like rocks plopped into Rosie’s lower stomach. It wasn’t the first time Madam had insinuated Rosie would enjoy their living conditions better with a change in vocation. She’d just never come right out and offered.

The only business Madam was involved in was selling flesh. Women flesh. And Rosie wasn’t yet an adult. She’d never had a first kiss or even been on a proper date and there Madam wanted her to have sex with whomever Madam chose? Rosie glanced at Sara Beth, too, whose big blue eyes widened in fear. Her cheeks had sunk in long before from continuous hunger.

Rosie hesitated in declining. If nothing else, Madam did take care of her whores.

But Rosie was nothing if not confident in her worth. Her potential lay well above that of screwing men for money. She was going to find the man who would love her for herself and he’d treat her like a princess. She wouldn’t be a whore or a beaten down woman like her mother.

Before fear could reason with the swing of her arm, she pulled back her hand and put her weight into the slap that wiped the self-gratifying grin off Madam’s face. Rosie stepped close to the older woman, enunciating every word. “I’m no whore. We’ll take our things and go.”

And they had nothing. Not even the clothes on their backs were technically theirs, but they’d worked for so long and for so little, Rosie justified her actions as they gathered together supplies.

Madam owed them so much more than bread and old sheets.

Rosie was determined to get what had been taken from her.

Respect.

 

Rosie

Chapter 2

Present day

Sara Beth’s long gold waves trailed behind her as she pushed the horse into a gallop. Healthy color bloomed in her cheeks and her bright eyes attested to the happiness Rosie had been able to deliver.

Rosie watched her sister play with envy and joy.

Play. The word made Sara Beth sound like an eight-year-old. But she did play, riding a horse at the local Salish fair. Once a year, the Salish elders invited the outside world onto the reservation at the Lodge and offered a fair-like atmosphere to promote cultural connection and good will.

And also, to remind everyone of the casino standing tall in the distance.

Everyone had to sully their morals to make it in the world.

Rosie adjusted her legs on the Adirondack chair set up in the shade of a large Aspen copse. Beautiful silvery-green leaves fluttered above her in the slight breeze, whispering like old friends.

Tucking a loose strand of hair under the sun hat, Rosie didn’t take her eyes off her sister. She avoided looking too closely at the other fair attendees. Who knew when she’d see someone from Madam’s and then – worse – they’d recognize her.

She would have to get back to work soon, but she prolonged leaving as long as possible. Sara Beth would be starting school again that week and Rosie wouldn’t see her as much since she’d started working nights.

But not for Madam.

That day had branded itself on her memory, cauterizing her independence and sealing her responsibilities.

She may not be from grand parentage or even a lineage better than a mutt, but at least she hadn’t spread her legs for money. She could hold her head up about that.

A slow smile spread over her lips as she curled her fingers into her palm. When she was feeling self-conscious, she’d remember the tingle in her hand from slapping Madam and reminded herself it took guts to do that.

The steady clip-clop of horseshoes brought her back to the present. She peered up at Sara Beth laughing in the saddle. “Can you believe this beauty, Rosie? One day I’m going to have seventy horses and ride a different one every day.” The sight of her sister’s sun-kissed, filled-in cheeks and sparkling blue eyes warmed Rosie.

Standing, Rosie reached for the reigns. “Come on, trouble. I need to get to work and we still haven’t eaten lunch yet.” She wouldn’t have a chance to eat dinner with Sara Beth, since Rosie worked the dinner shift.

“I’ll take the horse back. Just give me a minute.” Sara Beth clucked her tongue and moved the reigns, turning the horse to the booth offering rides for three dollars. Rosie hadn’t wanted to say anything but three dollars was a lot of money to throw away on a horse ride.

But she’d kept her mouth shut because Sara Beth had a lot of childhood to catch up on and being seventeen didn’t leave a lot of time to make up for it. They’d escaped hell when Sara Beth was twelve. Rosie refused to let her teenage years fade to drudgery like hers had.

Rosie reached down beside the chair and gathered up the secondhand tote bag she used as their outing bag and a purse. Inside she carried extra snack foods like saltine crackers and dried fruit, sunblock, a how-to business book, as well as an extra set of clothes for each of them.

The one thing she wouldn’t admit to Sara Beth or anyone else was how she’d painstakingly sewed every extra dollar of their savings into the lining of the bag and how she could never let the ratty thing out of her sight.

The sun shifted, moving the shadow of the aspen east, exposing the grass and her feet to the afternoon rays. A tall silhouette with straight legs and wings of a hat paused beside her bag.

Male attention was not on her list of wants and dreams. And lately, she’d gotten nothing but the annoying kind from men trying to breach the solitude she wrapped around herself – forward and unappealing.

Rosie finished packing her bag and stood, dragging her gaze up the long, well-stacked jeans. The tight V of his waist and chest didn’t go unnoticed. Rosie caught her breath, swallowing the curt reply ready on her lips.

Michael Rourke.

Crap. How had she not known he was at the fair?

Normally, every inch of her flesh was tuned to his presence. Nothing was more annoying than having such a strong attraction for a man she’d never spoken with. Absently, Rosie brushed off her jeans and raised her eyes to meet his.

She wanted calm and steady. Loyal.

Word around town was his work ethic screamed consistency and determination. She respected that in a man – in anyone.

His low, deep voice soothed the air around her. “Excuse me. I think this is yours.”

She glanced at his outstretched hand. A lone yellow-centered purple flower lay across his calloused palm. Rosie didn’t let her surprise show.

She shook her head, careful not to allow the hat to fall from her hair or the sunglasses to slip down. “I’m sorry, you’re confused. That’s not mine.” Lifting her gaze, she ignored her strong desire to reach out and twist an appealing dark curl peaking from under the edge of a low bucket chocolate brown Stetson – the hat choice of most of Montana cowboys.

His even darker russet eyes watched her intently but with a humorous tilt to the eyebrows. “It could be, if you’d take it.”

She couldn’t keep her grin from spreading across her lips as she reached for the solid stem and plucked it from his hand. “The alpine aster. Thank you.” Her first flower from a man – and a good looking one at that – was her favorite. The resilient plant had a lot in common with the girl Rosie had been and who she continued to be. Rosie kept to herself the flower was her favorite.

Turning, she lifted the lightly scented flower to her nose and sniffed long and slow. Spindly petals reminded her of a tattered dress Devlyn Caracus, her father, had allowed her mother to wear when he wasn’t in town. Mother had been so lovely without the stress of him around.

Drawing the bag up her shoulder, Rosie glanced at Michael, but didn’t stare too long. “Would you like to walk with me? I’m heading over that way to pick up my sister.” She pointed toward Sara Beth, returning her gaze to the booth where the horses waited calmly.

Michael fell into step beside her, his thumbs hooked into the pockets of his well-stacked denims. Rosie couldn’t ignore the breadth of his shoulders or the rugged tan of his forearms beneath the half-rolled flannel shirt sleeves.

She’d never seen a man at Madam’s who obviously worked the land. Most of the clients had been pale and soft looking. But not the man walking beside her. He’d never appeared weak or cowardly or desperate for anything. Things she wanted in a man. A husband.

Dang it.

Rosie glanced at his face as they walked. He looked straight ahead, as if walking along beside her but not with her. The sensation that he might be ignoring her was a little confusing.

How had she missed him walking up? Michael Rourke. Oh, Mylanta! She’d been watching him for so long. The strong, silent type, Michael was the complete opposite from her father – nothing but an abusive monster to her mother. The man had never really acknowledged Rosie or her sister, but the bruises, cuts, and burns on their mom had done more than enough damage. He’d been loud and mean and the more Rosie lived in the outside world, the more she learned about his gang and all the raping and pillaging they’d done before jail.

But Michael… well, he’d been her Colby-crush when she’d never had a chance to go back to school after moving to Madam’s.

Twirling the flower between her fingers, petals splaying like a spinning skirt, Rosie stopped and faced him when he too halted, mimicking her. Raising her gaze, she also tried ignoring the dark stubble along his jawline and the soft curve of his bottom lip. Up close he was even better looking which was more than a little intimidating.

The crazy urge to find out what the stubble around his lips would feel like as it grazed her bottom lip almost made her giggle.

She didn’t giggle.

His rugged charm magnetically pulled her gaze his way as she tried to focus on Sara Beth. Part of her wanted to tell him she wasn’t worth a date but another, larger part of her wanted to nibble his earlobe – no, wait, find out what he wanted. That’s what she meant. Heck, she’d have to lie like the devil to stay around him.

And she was worth a date. A lot of them. She just didn’t know how to convince him of that.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Rourke, I don’t know what else to say.” It was awkward calling him by his last name considering he couldn’t be more than four or five years older than her. But she’d watched him from afar and he’d always handled everything around town with such formality. She glanced at the horse booth, spying Sara Beth patting the horse goodbye.

“It’s Michael. You make it sound like my grandfather’s standing behind me.” He held out his hand. “It’s nice to finally meet you… Rosie.”

Lifting her sunglasses to peruse him without obstruction, she accepted his gesture and smiled. “I honestly cannot believe you know my name.” Warm and calloused fingers wrapped around her palm. Michael Rourke could be what Sara Beth referred to as “the perfect combination of man”.

He winked. “Why wouldn’t I know your name? You work at the diner and you’re a natural blonde.” Motioning toward the waves she had shoved under her hat, he added. “Which you shouldn’t hide under a hat, it’s gorgeous.”

“How do you know it’s natural?” She couldn’t look away. He’d captivated her, the way his lips formed his drawl just so. She wanted to watch him talk all day.

“In all the time I’ve seen you, I’ve never seen your hair color change or show roots.” He laughed, the melodic sound swirled around her on the soft breeze. “My mother and sister are hair coloring queens and I’ve seen enough rainbow roots, I can spot a dye job when I see one. And you don’t have one.”

At just that moment, a large chunk of Rosie’s hair fell from the bucket of her hat to land on her shoulder.

Tenderness softened the humor from his eyes and lips. He reached for her, softly twisting the golden strands between his fingers and thumbs. His voice lowered, the rasp and huskiness returning from when he’d arrived. “And nothing this soft has ever been ruined with chemicals.” He tucked the stray hair up into her hat, the rounded bottom of his bicep brushing across her ear and neck.

The effort to not lean into his solid strength took more out of her than she’d thought possible.

Rosie offered a half-shrug. “Is your hair naturally dark?” She groaned inwardly. Seriously? Had she just asked that?

He laughed again, the sound warm with humor, but not at her expense. “Yes, it is. Although when I was younger, my oldest sister tried coloring my hair with Kool-Aid. She wanted it to turn the brightest green – lime, I think.”

“I bet it smelled delicious.” Rosie’s laugh mingled with his and when she fell silent, she found herself just staring into his eyes. The silence between them full of static and comfort.

After a long drawn out moment that might have been a lot of moments combined, Rosie bit her lip. “I’m so sorry. I hate to leave. I know it’s just something people say, but it is nice to meet you. Thank you for the flower. I would love to stay and talk, but we were just leaving. I’m already running late for work.” She lifted the bloom and tilted it toward him. “Is it dumb for me to say have a nice day?” Had she seriously just flirted with him? With a flower?

“Rosie, I doubt anything you say is dumb.” He pinched the brim of his hat and tilted it to her and watched as she turned to join Sara Beth in front of the horses.

The tingle in her palm from his touch intensified with her disappointment that he didn’t chase after her, demanding her attention.

Watching over her sister’s shoulder, Sara Beth’s eyes grew wide and the grin on her face had Rosie rolling her eyes. Sara Beth’s squeal probably reached everyone on the reservation – including Michael Rourke. “Oh wow, Rosie, please tell me that was the Michael Rourke talking to you!” She stared longer toward the spot Rosie had left Michael. “He is so cute.”

But Rosie didn’t turn. Regret would be something she’d deal with later.

She grabbed Sara Beth’s hand and tugged her toward the Volkswagen Beetle she’d recently taken ownership of. Parked under a collection of evergreen trees, the bright blue Bug shined. If one looked past the dented bumper and the small rust spots on the back quarter-panel, they’d see the beauty in the simple machine.

For Rosie the way it looked didn’t matter. No, the freedom in owning something all by herself that could take her and Sara Beth wherever they wanted or needed to go was paramount.

“Climb in and tell me what you have planned for tonight while I’m at work. We have a bit of a drive.” Rosie couldn’t help throwing one last look behind her where she’d left Michael. He’d disappeared. A little disappointed and more than a bit regretful she didn’t get one last chance to smile his way, Rosie forced her dreams of Michael to the recesses of her mind until she had a chance to recall every memory of him and their conversation. Times like that she longed for a girlfriend who would let her hash out everything as many times as she wanted.

Oh, well. She shook off her regret.

She had work to do. She hoped to have the chance to date him, but not until she was working for herself.

Even daughters of men like Devlyn Caracus had dreams.

 

Michael

Chapter 3

Michael puffed his chest out as he walked from Rosie Scott. He’d finally gotten up the nerve to talk to her. From afar, she had the soft-spoken allure of a fairy tale princess in the stories his grandmother had read him as a child. But up close, her smile captured him and her skin had him aching to reach out and touch it. And, dang, if she wasn’t sassy as hell. He grinned just thinking about it.

At the line to the vendor booths along the northern side of the fair, his best-friend, Jeffrey, waited with his hands in his jeans pockets. “How’d it go?”

Michael turned and watched the blue Bug roll out of view. He lifted his hat, allowing cool air to swarm his crown before sliding it back into place. “I gave her the Aster and she didn’t bite.” He turned back to his friend, conscious of his idiotic grin but unable to make it go away.

“Oh, I bet you would’ve liked her to, though, right? Come on, Rourke. Did you ask her out?” Jeffrey waited expectantly for a yes, his grin a sure sign that he expected a positive answer.

Michael cleared his throat. Shaking his head, he shrugged. “No, but I think I can next time. I finally had the guts to speak to her. Do you know how hard that was?” Rosie Scott wasn’t one of the rodeo groupies passing through town, looking for a good time. She wasn’t even extremely friendly with people. She was overly nice, but standoffish regarding relationships.

“Yeah, she’s pretty unapproachable.” Jeffrey clasped his hand on Michael’s shoulder and directed him down the aisle of booths. “Come on, let’s have something to drink. We can have dinner, too, if you’re serious about eating.” Raised to never be tardy to a meal, Michael had become the butt of jokes among the other ranch hands at Lacey Cavern because of his promptness.

He grinned, still floating from his conversation with Rosie. “What can I say? I love my food.”

Rosie Scott landed on his list of things he loved, too. He just hadn’t had a chance to date her yet.

~~~

Michael groaned, rolling over in the twin-sized bed he claimed as his in the ranch bunkhouse. He’d had too much to drink on his day off and the alcohol gods reared their heads to celebrate, giving him an overly large headache and an even larger urge to visit the bathroom.

Something had woken him, but he couldn’t remember what it was.

“Rourke, phone.” Another ranch hand already up tossed the cordless piece onto Michael’s chest.

Of course, it was the phone. The peeling bell had broken through his coma and pulled him from a dream where he and Rosie —

“Hello? Hello? Michael?” Even the phone muffled on his chest couldn’t contain the commanding tone of his grandfather’s voice.

Michael stifled a yawn and took a deep breath. One had to be completely awake and ready for full combat when dealing with Donald Rourke. He pulled the phone to his ear and forced the sleep from his throat. “Good morning, Grandfather. How are you today?”

“Good morning? It’s almost noon. Are you lying around again, Michael? Ronan James doesn’t tolerate laziness. I don’t either. If you want to maintain your position as the heir to this ranch, you’ll get off your butt and earn it. I had to.” He clipped his words as if biting the consonants like steak.

“Yes, sir. I’m actually scheduled for the late shift this week and I just got to bed a few hours ago. Honest, sir. I’m not lazing around on the job. I’m working hard.” Michael hated the pleading in his voice. Respectability and honor held more than meaning in the Rourke family. Nothing was worth more than how others perceived the family.

“Well, I’m glad to hear it. From what Ronan has reported, you’re performing consistently and above mark. I’m calling because you missed our scheduled conversation thirty minutes ago.” Ever punctual, his grandfather refused to release others from the expectation of timeliness.

Michael nodded, even though his grandfather couldn’t see the gesture. “Yes, sir. I apologize, sir. I forgot to set my alarm.” He wouldn’t offer anything further in the excuse department. One thing Donald Rourke wouldn’t tolerate more than slothfulness and tardiness was irresponsibility.

And until four years ago, Michael had been the embodiment of everything the Rourke family wasn’t.

Being the only male descendant left him in the lurch. If he wanted to have a future with Rourke Ranch, he’d straighten out his act and prove his trustworthiness and hardworking ethics or the ranch would go to his sister and her husband.

He couldn’t have that.

His dying grandmother had made him promise.

Michael’s grandfather hung up. He’d never been one to waste time over trivialities. For most of Michael’s life, he’d had to learn to deal with the sting of the blunt edge that wrapped his grandfather in strength.

He punched end on the phone and rested his arm across his eyes. Groaning, he pushed the phone further from him on the mattress.

“That bad, huh?” Jeffrey leaned on the wooden post of Michael’s bed.

Avoiding the bright light streaming in through the skylights, Michael used his forearm to shade his eyes. “Always.”

Jeffrey plopped onto his mattress feet from where Michael lay. “When’s he going to let you back on?”

Sighing, Michael turned his head to face Jeffrey from beneath the protection of his arm. He screwed his lips to the side. “I don’t know. My grandfather is one of a kind. Your background and who you are is what makes you. I messed up in college, man. You were there. He’ll never let me live it down. I’ll never be able to escape it.” But hopefully, Donald Rourke would allow Michael to take his rightful place at the helm of the family ranch.

If he didn’t, Michael would have to ranch hand for the rest of his life. He’d never make enough to be able to save and buy a plot of his own land. Plus, if he was out of the family enough to lose his spot at the ranch, he’d lose his family, too. The Rourkes didn’t forgive much of anything.

Thoughts of his own land and maybe even his own family directed his thoughts toward Rosie.

He grinned. “Can you believe it, Jeffrey? I talked to her yesterday. She’s amazing.”

Jeffrey rolled his eyes. “Yeah, man. Finally. You’ve only watched her like a half-crazed stalker for almost three years. You going to wait another four years before asking her out?”

Would a woman like Rosie consider going out with a simple ranch hand? She worked at the diner. He’d been in a few times to sit at the counter and watch her from afar. Her blonde hair, always up, brought out the honey gold of her skin. Sometimes when she concentrated, her nose crinkled and she chewed on her bottom lip. Just talking to her at the Salish fair had taken a lot of nerve for him.

He shrugged. “She’s not like the other girls. I want this one long term, not just a fling. You don’t mess around with a girl like that. She’s going to help me get back into the family.” But Michael hid behind his cavalier attitude. Something about Rosie stirred the desire in him to be better, do better. She never stopped working. He envied her drive.

He wanted to wake up next to her for as long as he lived on the earth.

Corny as it sounded.

She’d lit up when he’d given her the simple flower. Just to see that glow again, Michael would give her a flower every day for the rest of her life, if he could convince her to spend time with him.

The last thing he wanted was to spook her.

And telling her they belonged together for life was guaranteed to scare the saddle right off any mare.

Keep reading in Kindle Unlimited or grab it on Amazon

 

NEW Covers for Slate and his friends!

I love covers and I love this series… There’s a lot going on in Clearwater County and I just had to make it even more interesting!

What used to be separated out by sub-series is now one continuous series with branded covers and better serializing.

Here are the new covers alongside the original 10 covers from what used to be the Montana Trails series.

Also, I have room for a 3 book Clearwater County Christmas collection! What!?

Full Throttle, gear 2 is HERE!

They both love to ride… and they’ve fallen for each other, but her brother is in the way of happy-ever-after.

Blake’s biggest competition is himself – both on the track and in life. His closest friend is family and he’ll do anything to protect the relationship.

Even if that means not following his heart and pursuing his friend’s sister, Eva.

Eva is going to rock her racing class. She’s tired of being known as the little sister to one of the greatest dirt bike champions in US history. She wants, no, needs to be seen as herself.

But when what she wants professionally and longs for personally collide, everything could blow up in her face and destroy any chance at happiness. For either of them.

ALL RETAILERS

Chapter 1

Blake growled at the mud peppering his goggles. Just in time to cover his view of the checkered flag as it waved over his head. Come on, Mac! The sweet scent of exhaust lingered in Blake’s nose. His best-friend roostered off in front of him as he claimed first place about three bike lengths ahead of Blake.

Only two ahead of JT.

Another reason for Blake to growl deep in his throat with a rough timbre like that of his Yamaha YZF450.

Third.

What was going on with him?

He shook his sweaty, shaggy dark hair out of his face after pulling off his helmet. The bandana that usually held his hair back in his helmet had failed him that time. The stupid thing was probably back on the track somewhere.

He dangled the helmet on one of his handlebars while he pushed his bike from the race toward his pit and crew. His crew was great, but Blake would still take care of his bike. If he didn’t know how his bike was doing, then he couldn’t ride well.

Third. Again. How come he kept missing the stupid mark? Why couldn’t he get in second or first? Of course, he was happy JT was back from his injuries and racing so well. Blake hated seeing his friend injured and his pride had taken a beating when his injury had stemmed from falling down the stairs. Blake had felt awful at all the missed riding time, but he didn’t feel bad enough to take second to JT.

Seeing JT happy with Kelsey ate like acid at Blake’s insides – more than the winning.

Blake loved JT and Mac like brothers, but he was sick of being the outsider, sick of being alone. Where JT had Kelsey and Mac had his dad to fall back on, Blake had no one.

He’d never shared his thoughts with his friends, though. They had his back, and he knew it, but it wasn’t the same.

Waving at fellow competitors and other racers as he crossed the track, he worked on zoning out the loud rumble of the crowd and the general carnival feel flooding around him.

Blake didn’t want to be in last place forever. True, he wasn’t last with regards to the whole rest of the competition, but when it came to Mac and JT, Blake usually came in last.

Pushing his bike to the pit, Blake turned his scowl into a semblance of a smile. Mac and JT laughed as Blake approached. Sometimes, he felt like he was just enough on the outside that while he was part of the trio, he wasn’t a complete piece of the puzzle. Maybe that came from having the kind of background he had which wasn’t something he wanted to focus on. Not when he was already depressed about the third-place spot.

Mac jerked his chin at Blake. “Hey, man. Great race. If we keep this up, we’re going to be able to finish out as the top three for the division. FIM is just around the corner. I know you both want Des Nations as badly as I do.” He thumbs-upped Blake and slugged JT’s shoulder.

No one wanted Des Nations as bad as Mac did.

Blake shook his head, unable to fight the chuckle Mac’s words brought out. “You and that race. What if we don’t make it? If I don’t get better at my racing, I’m not going to get anywhere. Certainly, not into Glen Helen.” Even if he did live miles away.

JT clamped his hand on Blake’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about Glen Helen. Worry about Anaheim next week.” He winked at Blake and then glanced over Blake’s shoulder. “Hey guys, I gotta go. Kelsey’s waiting for me.” He waved at a strawberry blonde curvy girl whose smile could charm you into taking the worst tasting medicine on the planet. Her nursing skills had helped JT overcome his injuries and his determination to break from his father’s unscrupulous managing ethics.

Not only was JT winning the races Blake wanted to win, he’d also gotten the girl. Well, not the woman Blake wanted. At that point in time, Blake would be happy to settle for anybody, even if his heart wasn’t in it. His heart just hurt too much not having the one he wanted.

Since he discovered how much he actually cared for her, Blake hadn’t been able to date any other woman out there. He had to smother his true feelings under the heel of his dirt biking boot.

Blake set his after-market kickstand and pulled off his gloves. Third place would still warrant interviews. He had to get the new tight chest plate off before throwing on his hat and a clean jersey covered with sponsor info.

The warm day had dried the mud on his bike and gear to a crusty dust. Blake wiped at the sweat on his brow and wouldn’t mind snagging one or two of the polish sausage dogs he could smell from the concession stand in the bleachers.

Mac leaned over, pushing his hair out of his face. He jerked his thumb towards the disappearing JT. “Our brother got all his stuff fully moved out. He won’t be with us anymore.”

Blake smirked. “He has lived with us for a while, Mac. Are you just now figuring this out?” He laughed, shaking his head. “There’s nothing about Kelsey that will let JT return to our place. Not to mention his sweet house that his dad doesn’t live in anymore. The guy has heaven at home. He’s set. You and I are just lowly bachelors. We don’t even rank anymore.” But Blake hid his sadness over the fact that he was alone. He didn’t want to be and he was sure Mac didn’t either.

As if thinking about his lackluster love life made the object of his focus appear, an image walked into view. Blake nodded at Mac’s comment, distracted.

Because there she was. Eva Hudson. She hid her curves well underneath her black LBZ canvas pants and dark blue and white riding jersey. Her sponsors were sparse but the logos stood out well on the simple coloring scheme she had chosen.

Blake had seen her in swimsuits and tight jeans and even just a pajama shirt. He knew what she hid from the world and it had everything to do with her femininity, even as she worked on smothering it beneath layers of tomboy racer and defiance.

He hadn’t meant to, but Blake had swayed her towards riding Yamaha. Blue was the way to go and dang, she made the color look good.

She walked toward the racing pit, tightening her riding gloves and fixing the chin strap on her helmet. Her race was up, and Blake knew how nervous she was. He’d overheard her talking to Mac about her nerves. Mac had laughed and hugged her, saying it was okay and normal, but he hadn’t tried to address the problem.

Blake was a fixer, he wanted to make sure whatever upset her didn’t continue hurting her. She just needed to be reassured and Mac had only generalized it. Mac didn’t really understand where she was coming from. Blake understood her drive and her need to break away.

Eva had been riding the circuit all year, tried hitting qualifying times the year before and she was finally hitting scores where she could compete professionally. Girl even landed her own sponsors.

Blake was nervous for her. He knew how much riding meant to her. He understood it even more than Mac, her brother. The difference was Mac loved to ride and Eva did it because she couldn’t breathe without it.

“Do you think Eva is going to hit the necessary marks this week?” Mac turned and watched Eva with Blake. “She won’t let me help her. She said I’m too impatient to teach her. I’m not impatient. She’s slow.” He ended on a laugh but rubbed his nose to hide his concern for his sister. Blake could spot his concern without much trouble. They’d been friends forever and a half.

Blake bit his tongue to keep from lashing out at Mac or saying something that would be taken wrong. Mac actually was impatient.

If you didn’t hit Mac’s expectations the first time, you had some explaining to do. Blake couldn’t remember the last time he had successfully met the lineup of expectations from Mac.

JT seemed to hit them all the time, but Blake and Mac had been on each other’s nerves lately. Mac was wearing on Blake’s patience as well

He understood where Eva’s frustration came in. It sucked when you felt like you were never good enough.

If he felt like mentally punishing himself, Blake would imagine telling Mac how he felt about Eva. He fell so far below the standards that Mac had set for any guy to date her, Blake would never get to see her or the Hudson family again. Not if his true feelings were revealed.

Going after Eva as a love interest was not an option.

Even though they were well into their twenties, Eva didn’t date much because of Mac’s controlling older brother personification. He had a habit of blocking most men that tried to get close to his little sister.

“I think she’s going to do fine. She bore that throttle down and didn’t hesitate. She needs to stick it on the triple and she’ll do better on the last lap.” Blake didn’t glance at Mac, choosing instead to keep his gaze trained on Eva. She was easy to pick out in the line of girl riders. She held herself with a confidence he usually only saw in male riders.

The women raced great, but there was something in the way they held themselves. Eva’s posture and handling of the bike mimicked Mac. She held herself like she’d been riding with the boys her whole life.

Because she had.

Maybe it was her love for biking that had clinched Blake’s interest in her. How she commanded the larger bikes with a domineering attitude. The big engines didn’t faze her and she went for whatever popped out the higher horsepower. Blake couldn’t help responding to the hotness of that trait.

Or maybe it was just her. He’d probably fall for her, even if she didn’t ride. Before he started a mental compilation of all the tremendous facts about Eva, he returned his attention to the race. He always listed what he loved about her.

“I’m glad JT is back. I don’t want anyone but you guys going with me to Glen Helen. We are going, Blake. Don’t even try getting out of it.” Mac tapped Blake on the shoulder to get his attention. His touch wasn’t soft as he prodded with one finger.

Blake reluctantly turned his gaze to Mac. “Yeah, man. I get it. I’ll do my best.” He tightened his jaw and returned his gaze to Eva’s race. He had to remind himself how much he loved his friend. They were like brothers. Closer than most people were with their own blood.

Peering through the strong plastic netting used to protect the pits from any racing paraphernalia, Blake squinted to see the racers on the end farthest from him.

The deafening noise would give Blake a headache before the day was out. He preferred the relative quiet of a couple people riding along mountain trails where if you turned off your bike, there was silence – not another fifty bikes fighting to be heard.

Eva was coming up on the triple and those jumps were her hardest. If she didn’t hit the throttle hard enough, then she would come down too early and that would cost her time she didn’t have. Hopefully. the racers in front would get stuck on the whoops. Eva did really well on the short bumps that came in quick succession.

Mac prodded Blake’s shoulder as if to remind him they were talking. “Okay, you better not let me down. I need to be able to rely on my guys.” Mac nodded again, then walked off. Probably to discuss things with his sponsors.

All he did was talk about the Des Nations. Winning the last season of their careers was the only thing that mattered to Mac. He hadn’t even said if he was for sure retiring or mentioned his plans for after Des Nations. It was like all of his life’s focus had centered down to one race in time. The race was the only thing Mac and his dad, Brian, talked about. Dinner at the Hudson house had become a commentary on who was winning what race where and would they end up at Des Nations.

Thank goodness, Mac’s mom could cook.

Short timer syndrome had never made so much sense before to Blake. He didn’t even want to continue racing, even to finish the season. He was burnt out. He’d been racing with his friends since they were eleven or twelve years old. Before that riding had just been for fun.

Great, now he sounded like he was complaining about being paid to do something he loved. But that was the problem, when someone loved something as much as Blake loved riding, getting paid for it deleted a little bit of the fun and added pressure in its place.

All kinds of pressure.

Blake wanted to warn Eva and tell her that riding professionally wasn’t the way to go. The millions of dollars weren’t worth it, if you made it that far. Blake didn’t even know what he would do after he was done and the end of his career loomed nearer and nearer. Coaching would be great, or something that didn’t require him to be in the spotlight so much.

JT had a great plan after Des Nations to go into freestyle. He’d even lined up his sponsors to follow him across.

Maybe Blake would do the same thing. He honestly didn’t know for sure. All he did know was that as long as Eva was riding the circuit, Blake would be right there watching.

Eva headed into the next pass and Blake could only imagine what she would say if he told her just how much he cared. He imagined telling her over candlelit dinner, giving her roses, while she wore a silk, strappy dress. Her blonde hair would be in a braid down her back. Her brown eyes would sparkle with laughter instead of looking at him like one of Mac’s friends. Not just one of her brother’s friends, but the bad-boy friend that had nothing to offer her.

One way or another, he had to figure out a way to get Eva to look at him as more than just a friend. Heck, he’d be happy if she looked at him as a friend. Most of the time she looked at him like he was the most annoying thing she’d ever seen. Which wouldn’t be bad, if he annoyed her in ways she couldn’t keep out of her mind late at night.

Blake had to get her attention… But how?

Downshift, Gear 1, is HERE!

When a lonely dirt bike champion is injured, it puts him on a crash course with a determined redhead nurse. But she is desperate to deny this daredevil into her heart. Can they help the other escape their lonely lives or are they destined to race from their hearts for all seasons?
J.T. is one of the top dirt bike champions in the US. With sponsors and races filling his calendar, he should be happy in his success. But until his ten year contract is up, he’s tied to the controlling and thieving management of his father.
Kelsey’s responsibilities are crashing around her. The only way to get ahead is to get a job that pays more and with impossibly specific benefits. If she can’t succeed, her dreams will fade like her grandmother’s memories.
An accident thrusts J.T. into Kelsey’s care. She accepts his proposal and challenges him for a price. But when their emotions and attractions get in the way of their mutual goals, they need to choose which is more important – their hearts or their dreams?
***
Chapter 1
JT
The clutch stuck. JT shifted on his seat to avoid squirreling to the side of the track or into another race. Another ride, probably Blake, clipped his right handlebar.
Come on. JT squeezed, released, and squeezed again, but his Honda refused to respond. He was fast losing his spot in first, hell, his chance to place at all.
The cacophony of roaring engines surrounded him, vibrating from under his jersey to his helmet. Even muffled, the thrum filled his body. In the short second everything happened, JT remembered to breathe.
Pop the gears down into first, and then… he closed his eyes and released his clutch. The bike jerked forward and JT pulled hard on the throttle. He snapped his fingers tight and jerked his left foot up to fourth as fast as he could. That last side crunch on a jump had messed with his cable, or something, messed with the mechanical aspects of his bike.
A full bike-length behind fifth place when he entered the whoops, bumps on the trail that demand skill to cross over, JT took the corner at full speed. Idiot. Once again, he had to downshift or lose his balance in the curve.
Blake’s blue and gold helmet weaved in and out, popping up when he hit the triples and nailed all three slopes. He disappeared again past the tabletop.
JT’s breathing sped up. He had to catch Blake. If Mac won, fine, but Blake couldn’t beat JT. Not again.
This season had to be different. It had to be.
Someone on a Kawasaki cut in front of JT, roostered around him, and crested the first plateau. The mud and rocks peppered JT’s jersey and pinged on the plastic of his bike.
A tangled milieu of bikes and riders covered the course thirty yards in, just feet from the finish line.
Back far enough to observe the mess, JT throttled over a fallen bike’s rear tire. He grinned when he recognized the bike’s gold Fox emblem. Ah, Blake. Down this time.
As the checkered flag waved through the thunderous applause of the crowd and cameras flashed, JT downshifted and cruised toward the two bikers who’d finished before him – Mac and a rookie. There weren’t many things more annoying than to be considered old when other kids JT’s age were just finishing college.
Distant roars echoed off the stadium walls, mixing with the droning crowd. Unclipping his helmet, JT slid it from his head. “Mac, glad you made it!” he yelled as he thrust his chin upward at one of his best friends.
Mac leaned across his handlebars and shook JT’s outstretched hand. “Hey, man. Great race. Was that Blake down again? Where the hell are the rest of the riders?”
JT wiped his sleeve across his damp forehead. “Yeah, that was Blake, alright. Punk passed me after I thudded off the whoops. Messed up my clutch. Karma, right? Here they come now.” He pointed at the stragglers coming into the fielding area.
A rider decked in orange and a healthy layer of brown mud brushed at his jersey. Another in yellow pushed his bike down the incline, the handlebars hanging at an angle.
One hand steadying his bike and the other resting on his leg, JT pasted a fake smile on his face when Blake’s Yamaha came into view. Pushing the bike, Blake clenched his helmet over the side handle and glared at JT.
“What the hell was that? My rear tire’s bent now ‘cause of you, prick,” Blake groaned.
The fact that he’d reclaimed third place helped JT maintain his good mood. “Hey, good race, Blake. Maybe next time, yeah?”
JT ignored the urge to flip off his friend. Only during the season was it hard to remember they loved both riding and each other. Exhaust filled the air, the sweet smell of Maxima two-stroke oil wafting just under the high octane of the four-strokes, announcing Eva’s arrival.
Mac’s sister only rode two-strokes for practice, but raced four-strokes. She was the only girl that practiced with the pro circuit. Too many girls tried, but zero held their spots with the men.
She pulled up and parked next to Mac in time to witness him call JT and Blake to task.
Mac held up his hand. “Alright, boys, that’s enough. Blake, your manager’s over there. Go grab your replacement and get to the awards area. JT and I will go around for interviews and meet you there.”
“Pssh. Your captain is showing.” Blake growled, but managed a smile, He glanced at Eva as he smoothed his shoulder-length dark brown hair back from his face. His solid jaw and dark eyes sobered as he watched Mac and his sister.
Mac had been voted as their leader a long time ago. About the time they’d all crept into the woods to face the werewolves together. Mac had been the only one smart enough to bring a flashlight and not run screaming from the forest when an owl hooted. Eva had laughed the entire time they’d been shaking in the mud room, huddled around the fire.
JT smothered the grin he wanted to throw at Blake. He’d get interviewed while Blake had to clean up and watch. “Yeah, you need to do what the boss says.”
Blake’s glare could bubble the graphics on JT’s Honda. Chuckling, JT glanced around for his father who acted as his manager. Relief stole through him at the man’s welcome absence.
“Stop baiting him, JT.” Mac tossed his helmet into his dad’s open arms.
Mac’s father, Brian Hudson, acted as his son’s manager as well, but he didn’t tie Mac into a contract or take three times his cut of pay.
“Hey, Dad, do you have any more of the Pepsi caps? I’m heading up to interview.” Mac pulled a wristband from his pocket and wrapped it on his right wrist. The logo of one of his sponsors prominent on the wide leather strip.
“I have some.” Eva pulled off her backpack and withdrew a flat brimmed cap from the pocket. “Don’t tilt it to the side this time. You looked like an idiot.” She handed over the hat and glanced after Blake and the group of women following him for an autograph.
“Yeah, and don’t forget to drink this and hold it. The last shot wasn’t really clear and the sponsor wasn’t really pleased.” Brian held up his son’s can of pop and smiled at JT. “Good race, Josiah. It looked like your clutch was sticking. Did you smash your handlebar when you landed off that double?”
“Yes, sir. I must have hit the jump at the wrong angle.” JT cranked on the bar and shrugged. He didn’t want to admit that he’d most likely gotten cocky and relaxed into the jump instead of being ready.
“Have your dad take a look, if your pit crew won’t do anything.” Brian poked Mac. “Get goin’, son. First place waits for no man.”
He one-arm hugged Mac, smiling at him with genuine affection. Something JT didn’t remember ever getting from his own father.
Blond hair stuffed under a dark blue Pepsi baseball hat, Mac gripped the can and slid off his bike. “Thanks, Dad. Ready, JT?”
JT wiped at the mud splatters on his jersey. It wasn’t the first time he’d wished Mr. Hudson was his dad. His own father’s notorious tardiness was usually due to ogling the card holders and crowd teasers. JT waved to a pit member loitering by the gates and left his bike with him to be returned to the loading area.
Paraphernalia would be nice to display, but JT had set up his sponsors to pay for plastering his jersey and bike with logos and ads, rather than count on his dad to bring the stuff he needed for interviews. He did wear an LBZ bandana under his helmet to hold his long hair back from his face, but it fell back often and didn’t always stick where it was supposed to. He’d never let his hair get longer than nape of the neck. He couldn’t cut it short like he wanted to, or he’d miss a huge opportunity to piss off his dad.
The trophy area and media stage had been mashed together at the north end of the arena. Bulbs flashed and the attention hungry waited to descend like vultures. Mac glanced back at JT and raised his eyebrows to bolster them both. This was the worst part of the gig.
JT tilted his head toward Mac as if to say, “let’s get this over with.” On the other side of the stand, coming up the stairs, was Dick Thompson. JT’s dad.
Dang it.
JT had been so hopeful he wouldn’t have to deal with him. No such luck. The end of the day couldn’t come soon enough.