She had to leave…
He can’t stay…
If they need each other enough, can they find a way to end their pain?
On a mission across Montana to bring the family’s leader home, Ryland stops to help a stranded woman on the side of the road.
Amy is headed anywhere but back and she begs to go with Ryland on his search. She just wants to be free and he wants answers.
Can Ryland find what he’s looking for or is Amy the fate he’s meant to have in this sweet romance set in the wilds of Montana?
Racing after the leader of the family wasn’t a glorious job, but Ryland Johnson wasn’t backing down. He would wrangle his older cousin, Nate, right back home where he belonged or one of them was going to die.
Okay, not really and the humor probably wasn’t appropriate considering his cousin’s wife had passed away. That’s what started this whole mess, not that Emma dying was a mess, but it affected the whole family in more ways than just the visible loss.
Ryland leaned his elbow on the windowsill of his old pickup and he rested his chin on his palm. One-hand driving was a requirement on that long stretch of I-90 between Missoula and the junction toward Billings. The road seemed to go forever into nowhere and the skies and the prairies melded together way in the distance. A blend of blue and gold suggested they ended somewhere, but not any time soon.
His cousin, Nate, had run. Up and run right after his wife had died from a very aggressive cancer that had plagued her throughout her life. She’d given up and Nate hadn’t waited around to see how anyone else in the family was coping.
Keeping his eyes dry while thinking of Emma and Nate was impossible. Ryland placed his finger across his lip. He watched the skyline seemingly meander past, tripping along at a brisk eighty miles per hour. The landscape locked him in never-changing beautiful redundancy.
If this kept up, he’d go blind. Maybe not, but he had to think about something besides Emma and her death. Nate’s abandonment just ripped her loss harder through Ryland’s heart.
The phone in Ryland’s front pocket buzzed, jerking him from his thoughts. He willingly grabbed at the small vibrating body and flipped it open, slamming it to his ear. “Yeah.”
“Ry, I thought you weren’t leaving until after dinner?” Damon’s husky voice sounded too much like Nate’s and Ryland scowled.
“Yeah, I know, but I told you. I’m getting Nate and bringing him home. Can’t do that sitting on my butt, waiting for Rachiah or Stephany to tell me what they need done.” He let his wrist rest on the lower cracked vinyl curve of the steering wheel and stared at the hazy road ahead. His dig at his brother wasn’t as churlish as it sounded. He was happy Damon was happy with Rachiah, lots of happiness, just oozing happiness.
Ryland forced himself not to groan.
“Don’t be a brat. Hannah just got back from town and she said one of her friends mentioned running into Nate in Great Falls a couple of days ago. I think you’ll be safe heading that direction.” Damon sounded tired, but not as much as Jareth would be since he’d taken on leading the ranch-handing cousins, The Montana Trails.
Nate had led them effortlessly while everyone else just kind of did the best they could without falling apart.
“Okay, I’ll head that way. How’s Rachiah?” Ryland grinned. That Salish princess was going to give Damon a run for his money and Ryland didn’t think Damon would ever be happier. Plus Ryland liked Rachiah. He liked women with spunk and beauty who didn’t rely on their looks to get what they want.
Damon sighed, his frustration carrying over the line like hot air. “Fine, her brother is a bear. I’m thinking about proposing, but I’m not sure how her family will react since I’m white.”
“Yeah, well, they aren’t sure if she’s half-white or not either. They won’t get better than you, Damon. I don’t care how white you are or aren’t.” Ryland had grown up with the divide between the ranches and the reservations. That didn’t mean love didn’t bridge that separation on occasion.
He ignored the twinge of jealousy he had whenever he thought of Damon and Rachiah. He wasn’t stupid. Ryland could see what happened when you fell in love. You were torn apart when you lost the other half. No one needed that kind of pain or vulnerability.
Especially not Ryland.
“Just find Nate and get home. Drake and Stephanie got more than just bison and we need all the hands we can get. I’ll let you know, if I hear anything else.” Damon’s concern carried over the phone as easily as his frustration had.
“Got it. Thanks, Damon.” Ryland meant it. He hadn’t felt whole in the last few weeks since Emma had died.
“Hey, Ryland, no one can make you happy. You have to give yourself permission to find it. And for the record, it’s not Nate’s fault Emma died.” Damon’s tone shifted from consoling to admonishing.
Clenching his jaw, Ryland shook his head, pulling off the window. “Well, I don’t think it’s fair. Why fall in love, when you’re going to lose them anyway? Doesn’t seem to be worth it.”
“When you find Nate, I want you to ask him.” Damon sighed.
Ryland set his jaw to the side. Of course he would have another task piled on top of retrieving the older cousin and getting him home. “Ask him what?”
“If any of it was worth it. Would he have traded his time with Emma for never knowing her so he wouldn’t hurt so badly?” Damon’s tone hardened and then softened as he continued. “Look, there’s more to happiness than just grinning all day. Once you realize that, you’ll see nothing is perfect and you’re going to find happiness in imperfection.”
“Yeah…” Ryland didn’t really believe him. “It still doesn’t seem fair.”
“Life isn’t about fair. Life’s about making it, leaving, learning, finding people to love again along the way and trying to survive. That’s what Nate needs to do. He needs to figure out a way to live after something like that.” Damon’s end of the phone rustled. “Look, I gotta go. Rachiah’s hollering for something. I’ll call you, if anything comes up.”
“Got it, thanks.” Ryland hung up and tucked his phone back in his shirt pocket. The sun would set soon and the oranges and purples streaked across the sky as the sun got lower in the sky. He’d heard once that all the colors in the sunsets were from chemicals in the atmosphere. Hopefully, that wasn’t true. Something so beautiful shouldn’t be attributable to something so awful.
The new angle to the sun gave a better view of the road ahead.
Just past Nissler and the southbound I15 junction toward Dillon, the silhouette of a vehicle flashed emergency hazards in the far distance.
As he got closer, Ryland squinted his eyes, searching for the occupant or signs of life. If there was someone there, he’d stop to help. If not, he’d keep on driving. Most oftentimes, people stopped right away in Montana. Courtesy and helping their neighbors were unspoken state mottoes. Ryland lived it and he knew many more that did, too.
The sedan’s hazards blinked in a slow pattern that didn’t really scream urgent. The battery was probably running down which meant the car had been out there long enough to burn it out.
He just about decided to pass the abandoned-looking car when movement caught his eye from beside the back tire facing away from the highway.
Ryland would never pass up the chance to help someone, let alone a woman whose hair flew about in the hot breeze.
Amy ducked behind the rear panel of her old Buick. The car fought her on everything, but she’d been certain it would carry her to Basin, but she hadn’t even made it to Butte.
Why couldn’t anything go her way? She reached in and turned off the A/C which really wasn’t working with the engine frozen anyway, but the breeze through the car was better than nothing.
Cars didn’t fly by on the freeway very often, but when they did, she had to hide. What if it was Buck coming for her?
She wouldn’t survive being caught. Not again. And now, she had so much more to live for than just making him hot dogs and mac and cheese, and being his punching bag.
She had to.
The end of the summer heat had a popular name of Indian summer. Amy usually loved the lingering warmth when night fell. Trying to escape with the sun beating down on the sagebrush and blacktop covered shoulder during the day was only worsened by the heat.
She worked her dry tongue to try to swallow something, anything. Amy would give anything for some water. Or almost anything. She couldn’t use the small amount she’d brought for her. She needed that. Who knew when she’d get to a place she could get more.
A quick breeze came up and picked her long blonde curls from her shoulders and tossed them wildly around in the air. She moaned, reaching up carefully to tug her hair down tight. Why hadn’t she tied it back?
Hopefully, she hadn’t been seen. She peeked out past the silver outline of her bumper and winced at the sight of a slowing truck as it crept closer to the sedan on the side of the highway.
She couldn’t see the color or the exact make with the sun at its back. Ducking back behind the panel, she pressed her back against the hot metal. Looking up toward heaven, she murmured, “Please, please, please.” Although, why she even cared didn’t make sense since she’d never been given any favor from the rodeo upstairs.
From not too far off, a truck door closed followed by the crunch of cowboy boots on gravel. The pace was more languid, like that of a slow moving creek rather than a raging river like Buck. He moved in varying degrees of rage, never anything but mad, madder, or fuming.
Amy dug her fingers under a collection of scraggy rocks and gripped them tightly in her hand. If the man was there with ill intent, she’d make sure he ate a mouthful of rocks before she’d let him have her.
A shadow cast across her face, the abating heat more of an indication than the increased darkness over her closed her eyes. She slowly opened her eyes, first one and then the other.
He was a dark form over her but not intimidating like Buck would be. No, the new man had his hand extended downward and the flash of white teeth when he smiled. “Looks like you’re havin’ some trouble. Can I take a look?”
Taking his offer, she let him pull her to her feet, the comfort in his touch foreign. She was on guard as she stood, keeping herself between him and the car as he passed.
Pointing at the raised hood, he smiled. “I’m Ryland. I know a couple of things about cars. Do you have any idea what happened? What was it doing before you pulled over?”
Ryland, huh? He had a square shape to his face and brilliant blue eyes. His jeans fit well and Amy’s cheeks flushed when she caught herself tracing the rear of his pants down to the well-stacked jeans over his faded and worn brown boots. His button-up blue and white plaid shirt had been rolled at the sleeves to the elbows, revealing forearms that testified of hard work and time in the sun.
She didn’t close the doors or roll up the windows she’d left open to catch any stray breeze, but she did block his view of the car as he rounded the front of the hood and leaned over the dirty motor compartment.
He reached down, his arm disappearing into one of the many holes amongst the engine compartment. Ryland grunted and commented while he worked. “Wow, your oil plug feels like it’s missing. How far have you come?”
“I left Dillon a few hours ago.” She tucked her hands into her rear pockets and glanced over her shoulder. “My oil plug is missing? Is that bad?”
His chuckle wasn’t condescending but more like she’d genuinely made him laugh. “Yeah, that’s bad. If you’d lost it closer to Dillon, you would’ve broken down closer. Once that plug’s out, the oil drains pretty fast, especially on these highways and with the shaking the frame would be going through.” He looked at her over the long side of the hood. “You’re lucky you made it to the side.”
“It started smoking and then grinding.” She’d known something was wrong when she’d heard something metal clank against the undercarriage of the car. She’d pulled over one second before the engine had seized. Nothing was going to fix that motor. One more thing destroyed by Buck.
Because that’s the only reason her oil plug had fallen out. Her ex-boyfriend had most definitely messed with the engine. He’d probably wished she’d get in an accident that would be easier to track her.
She tried hiding her fear as it mounted in her gut. Sitting there, Amy was worse off than a herd of elk in a prairie on opening day. The guy sitting there seemed nice. Did she take a chance and trust him enough to ask for help? Or was he a part of some good ole boy club where men had each other’s backs and didn’t care about anything else?
He wiped his hands on a handkerchief he pulled from his back pocket and closed her hood. “No point in leaving that open. There’s nothing to be done.” Ryland winked as he retucked his bandanna in his pocket and approached her. He nodded at his truck. “Can I give you a lift? You’re probably heading back toward Dillon, right?”
Even though she was facing away from there it was a logical assumption, she just couldn’t go back. She shook her head, her curls fluffing around her face and attacking her eyelashes. She puffed them away from her mouth. “I’m not going back to Dillon. I can’t. If you’re going along here, can I tag along until you can’t take me any further?”
Chewing on the skin on the inside of her cheek, she widened her eyes in her most ardent attempt at pleading. She wasn’t a beggar and the action didn’t come naturally.
He looked back at his truck and then down the highway in the direction the vehicles faced. Ryland returned his gaze toward her and considered her proposition. “I’ll take you as far as Jefferson City, does that sound alright? Or I can drop you in Butte, if you want to stay on I90.”
That was a whole thirty miles further than she’d planned on escaping! She nodded excitedly. “Yes, thank you so much, mister.”
“Sure, it’s Ryland, though. Grab your things and let’s get going. I’m kind of on a schedule, myself.” He winked at her, reaching up to tilt his hat in her direction. “What’s your name?”
“Amy, my name’s Amy.” She smiled and held his gaze for a moment longer.
The sound of a baby crying froze the smooth smile on Ryland’s face. He glanced toward the rear seat of the car and then back at her face. “You have a baby?”
“Yeah, is that okay?” She didn’t care if it was okay or not. She needed out of there and he had promised to take her. She’d blackmail him or knock him out and steal his truck, if she had to, but she wasn’t leaving without her son.
He nodded tightly. “Hurry up. It’s too hot out here for a baby. I’ve got some water in the truck, in case he’s thirsty. You, too.”
His amusement changed to concern and he waited by the back door while she retrieved her two bags of meager belongings and the most important diaper bag. He took them from her before she could even place them on the ground to grab.
“I’ve got these. You grab that young’un.” He headed toward the truck, tossing her two bags in the back and carefully transferring the diaper bag into the front seat. He started up the engine and a trickle of fear mixed with Amy’s reassurances. Would he leave with everything she had?
But he didn’t move, just waited patiently for her as she unhooked the car seat from its base and then unbuckled the base from the seat.
Cody, her six-week-old boy, blinked tiredly at her from his sweaty car seat. She cooed at him as she carried him and the base to the truck. “It’s okay, sweets, we’re getting out of here. No more hot. Okay? Momma fix it. I promise.”
She climbed into the seat of the truck and Ryland took the base without asking and buckled it in the right way. “Snap him in and we’ll test it to see, if it’s in right.” They attached the seat in the right position and Ryland adjusted the straps to make it fit. “Let’s go.”
Amy closed her door, buckling herself as she peeked at Ryland out of the corner of her eye. She reached down surreptitiously and felt for the soft rustle of overly touched waterproof vinyl under the edge of her bra.
The envelope held all the money she’d managed to squirrel away from Buck and his thieving fingers. The man stole from her cookie jar any chance he got and she’d learned to put a small amount in there to train him to not to suspect any other place held her cash – like the bottom of the bathroom can, underneath the garbage bag.
She took the trash out. He didn’t. It was the only safe place in the house.
Ryland pulled the truck out carefully onto the highway headed east and for the first time Amy allowed a little bit of the tension in her shoulders to fade. Buck would never look for her in a truck with another man. Not immediately anyway.
She could rest. Someone else had the wheel. Literally.
But not for long. She only had until Jefferson City. Once there, she’d have to figure out how to make the expensive formula stretch while keeping her son healthy and happy.
When would she catch a break?
She glanced at Ryland. Maybe she’d finally gotten an inkling of favor from the Man Upstairs.
The small child’s soft hair wisped around his fine features and his mouth worked around the green pacifier the woman put between his small lips.
Creases on the sides of her eyes when he’d first seen her had softened as she relaxed into the truck. The rig was old but the air conditioning worked fine and while Ryland rarely used it, that day was an exception even without the child and woman inside.
Dark marks where perspiration had worked its way through her shirt started to fade. They’d been on the road for a few miles before Ryland felt comfortable breaking the ice. “I didn’t expect the baby.” He adjusted his hat by the crown and glanced at her with a sardonic smile.
“Neither did I.” She looked at the boy with mock shock and opened her mouth in a circle. Putting her hand over her mouth, she said, “Do you think he bites?”
Ryland chuckled, careful to keep his volume low as he took in her playful side. “He’s probably the most dangerous one in the rig.” The softest scent of cherry blossoms assailed his senses when he laughed with her.
Her vulnerability reminded him of his cousin Ruby a long time ago. She’d been so many things – sweet, innocent, desperate for affection. Ryland and his cousins had done so much to stick up for her, protect her. They’d failed. He’d had a soft spot for women in trouble ever since, like maybe he could save someone else, change their situation.
Soft blonde curls framed Amy’s face and fell around her shoulders. They had the look of burnished gold and under highlights of copper. Her tan skin and dark brown eyes confused Ryland on just what he was going to say.
“So, where are you going?” Ryland shifted on his seat. The truck was comfortable but danged if it didn’t get worn in spots when he drove in it for a while.
She shrugged, the rounded curve of her shoulder barely moving as she stared at the road. “I guess wherever I can get the furthest from Dillon.”
“You don’t care where it is?” Ryland tried not to seem too worried or interested. Women like Amy were skittish. They sensed danger before they sensed heat or cold. The innate ability to survive had nothing to do with talent and everything to do with necessity.
She looked at him and then at the freeway stretched before them and behind.” Honestly? If I could choose, we’d already be off the interstate.” She picked at her cuticle and tried to keep her calm as she spoke.
“If I didn’t have to head north, I’d get you off the highway as fast as possible. I understand not feeling safe.” He snagged her gaze and narrowed his eyes. “You’re safe, okay? I know only murderers say that, but I’m not a killer. I can’t even put animals down when they need it.” His rueful smile was more at himself than anything.
She glanced at him, then at her hands, and then back at him. “Thanks. I don’t know if I believe in safe anymore.”
“Who are you running from?” Ryland didn’t know how legal it would be for him to take her and her child across the state, if she was married. There were all kinds of custodial laws that he didn’t want to violate, but he would, if she were in danger. Something about her brought out the protective side he’d never really tapped into before.
“My ex… boyfriend. I lived with him because I always knew something was wrong… but…” She offered a lopsided smile. “He’s really mean.” She wiped at tears under her eyes and finished in a whisper. “He promised if I ever left or tried to leave, I’d never see Cody alive again.”
“Wow. I’m sorry. That sounds like a horrible ordeal.” He shook his head. He didn’t have anything to offer her, but a ride far away from there. Too bad, it wasn’t far enough.
His phone buzzed. “Excuse me.” Ryland pulled out his phone and answered. “Hey, Damon.”
“Yeah, just heard from Cyan. She said Nate’s taken on a job in Godfrey headed toward Polson. I’m not sure if it’s temporary, but he’s been there a couple days. Sounds like he’s just doing odd jobs at the Bess Ranch there, outside of town. Go check it out, and let me know what you find.” Damon sounded tired, like he had more on his plate than finding their leader. Ryland didn’t want to ask.
Ryland glanced at Amy, then back at the road before answering. “Yeah, I can do that. Thanks for the heads up.”
They hung up and he replaced the phone in his pocket. He tapped his thumb on the steering wheel, the turnout was up ahead. He’d have to change course immediately. “Are you sure you want to get off a main highway? If you’re deadest on the direction of Butte, I can drop you off, but I need to get northwest to Godfrey. I don’t want you to feel pressured, but I have to get up there as soon as possible. You’re welcome to go that way with me, if you want.”
She didn’t hesitate, but nodded, her curls bobbing as she moved. “Yes, I’ll stick with you.” She absently put her hand inside the car seat to hold the tiny fingers of her son.
The tender touch reminded Ryland of his own mom.
“When we get to town, I’ll get us some rooms. You need to get some real rest tonight.” He made himself a promise, no matter how she’d felt to that point, as far as he was concerned, she would be safe. Single moms deserved more than fear and uncertainties.
They deserved everything.