An emotionally broken physical therapist and a man who’s broken in more ways than one, and their pasts which try to drown their chance at happiness…
With her heart at war with her mind, Lisa’s main goal is to keep herself emotionally detached from her clients and their families. She has nothing else to offer them but professionalism and a hard work ethic. Taking on a new client proves to be a challenge and Lisa is up for challenges. Love is the last thing she expects to find, especially with her past revolting against her future.
The only love Ryan’s heart has room for is the love he has for his motherless son’s. But, when he finds himself yearning for Lisa, Ryan has to convince himself and her that they are exactly what the other needs to start healing from their past.
Will Ryan and Lisa’s stubbornness destroy their future before either of them can accept the true meaning of love?
The wedding invitation glared at Lisa from the clipboard sitting on the seat beside her. Or maybe Lisa glared at the shiny copper and blue ribbons embossed on the cover. Either way, there was no happiness about the personal relationship the invite suggested.
Shake it off, Lisa. Heading out to Mr. Noland’s house to work with his son, Jesse, had become the highlight of her week. The fact that Mr. Noland made her pulse race didn’t hurt anything either.
Tapping her leather thumb ring on the vinyl steering wheel cover, Lisa ran her tongue over her teeth. She’d worked too hard to get where she was to let some… some… invite get in her way. When had she given the impression that she was searching for family? And sisters for crying out loud. Lisa had a hard time considering them sisters. Growing up, well, it’d always been easier to attribute even Mary to be from the same sperm donor, but never to categorize her as a sister. Or any of them.
And Sara Beth.
All three melded into a different time and a different place than she wanted to be.
Fresh clippings lined the roadway and Lisa inhaled the cleansing scent as if it could do something to erase the irritation at being tricked. Lisa couldn’t prove that Sara Beth and Rosie had manipulated her into being Sara Beth’s physical therapist so they could trap her to talk. Not yet anyway.
None of it mattered. Playing games wasn’t her style. She made her own rules – all the way down to changing her last name so no one would recognize her on paper or by reputation. No one could find her. And she needed that.
Not even Charlie.
He couldn’t find her. He couldn’t.
She couldn’t handle the repercussions on her heart.
One of the bordering ranches on the west side of Clearwater County, Noland’s land had a carefully groomed appeal to someone like Lisa. She liked things neat and clean and controlled. Anything out of line and she had to rein in her abject terror. The calming sensation that flooded over her every time she visited could be due to the orderliness of the ranch.
Even physical therapy was a form of controlled chaos. She molded someone to help them regain what they’d lost or helped them find something they didn’t know they were missing.
Sara Beth had been a terrific challenge. When Lisa had started at Rourke Ranch, she’d been excited at the prospect of such a promising patient, but irritated because an ex-fling, Johnny Mayfair of the Montana Rodeo Mayfairs, also worked there.
When she found out he was in some kind of relationship with Sara Beth, Lisa forced herself to ignore the awkwardness of the situation. The promise of the learning experience, the chance to help that poor girl walk again, all of the hope involved was more than she was willing to turn down.
Plus, she hadn’t been suing Johnny for sexual harassment – not exactly – it just seemed that way when the bastard Big Man Mayfair told everyone she was. Heck, she’d been suing him! The jerk had very inebriated fingers, even when he hadn’t been drinking, and they liked to touch things that didn’t belong to them.
The sleekly maintained drive, bordered by sentient standing river rock and oak trees, waited in serenity for anyone to show up. Soon the season would turn to fall and Lisa would give anything to see the colors along the driveway as the leaves changed.
Everything with Johnny and his family was yesterday’s rodeo. Lisa didn’t work for Sara Beth or anyone else on Rourke Ranch and that suited her just fine.
Disembarking the truck, Lisa swung her bag to the side and up her arm to rest on her shoulder. She absorbed the peacefulness as a breeze picked up strands of her dark brown hair and caressed it back to her shoulders.
She strived to look good, even though she hated the time it took. Nothing was wrong with how she took care of herself. Lisa held everything together. Maintaining her appearance had become the only weapon she’d ever needed. She made sure she always looked like a million bucks. And on a good day, she even felt like it.
But on a day like today, when she had her half-sister’s wedding invitation mocking her from her work pile, she couldn’t shake the sensation that something was chasing her. Whatever it was, it didn’t care how put together she was or how well she fit her size eight jeans.
“Lisa!” Jesse’s exuberance dimmed the green pasture and brilliant orange poppies growing alongside the fence. He waved from the path leading around the barn to the back patio. “I’m back here. Come eat with me.” Turning, he braced himself on the foam-covered handles of his walker and pushed himself forward, his feet turning and rolling as he struggled to keep them facing forward.
She smiled, following his awkward gait. Easily catching him, she leaned toward his shoulder and arched her eyebrow. “I see you’re leaning a bit more on the right than the left. We need to work on that.”
“By we, you mean me. Right?” His go-get-‘em attitude was contagious.
She fell into step beside him, a bit slower than she was used to walking, but not an uncomfortable pace either. Half-shrugging, she glanced around the spacious patio set up to accommodate Jesse’s walker and the wheelchair he’d worked so hard to be free from. “No, I meant we. I’m here with you and I’ll work beside you. You know that.” She nodded toward the table where four plates had been set up for lunch. “Where’s your dad?”
A small butterfly flickered inside her stomach at the chance she’d get to see the aloof Mr. Noland. His coloring reminded her of the local Salish tribe but then she’d see his eyes – the startling green of emeralds – and she’d be searching for some ethnicity that would accommodate such a mix. Because as much as she knew about his past, his green eyes taunted her, telling her there was so much more behind their emerald depths.
She understood genetic mixing. Wasn’t she herself a mix of outlaw and librarian?
Jesse’s coloring was a softer contrast, more blond with brown eyes versus the rarity of the green.
Claiming the seat beside Jesse’s, Lisa set her bag on the ground beside her and tucked her clipboard on the table next to her plate. “Oh, I’m dying of thirst. This lemonade is going to be amazing.” She lifted the glass to her lips and sipped the tart drink. If the Noland’s cook was on today, Lisa would be eating a solid meal that didn’t resemble macaroni and cheese or ramen noodles crunched together with lettuce and mayonnaise.
“What’s that?” Jesse pointed an inquisitive finger at the copper and blue colored card on her board. “It’s pretty.”
Gazing at the stationary and jumbled words claiming Michael Rourke and Rosie Scott had decided to tie the knot in just a number of days, Lisa cleared her throat. “It’s just a wedding invitation.”
His eyes lit up. “Whose? I haven’t been to a wedding before. My dad says I shouldn’t be so interested in them, but…” Jesse glanced down as he situated himself in his seat and dragged it forward. He peeked around behind him then lowered his voice. “I want to be able to walk down the aisle and then turn and wait for my bride. They do that on TV, you know. And they don’t have legs like mine.” He scrunched his lips to the side like he tried not crying about it. “It’d be neat though.”
Taken aback, Lisa leaned over her plate setting, reaching for his shoulder. “You’re ten, Jesse. You shouldn’t be worried about walking at your own wedding yet. Remember what I said, practicing for your goals is just as important as reaching them, right?”
He nodded, lifting his hope-filled gaze. “Do you really think I can walk normally? Without my walker or cane or something?”
Did she? With as little therapy as he’d had before that year, Jesse as a kid born with spina bifida shouldn’t have as much progress as he already did – at least not that fast – but Jesse defied the odds daily.
Lisa opted for complete honesty. He expected that from her, heck, most people did. He deserved it. “You know what? I’m going to tell it to you straight. Anything is possible. It’s ninety percent attitude in getting there, right? Without the right attitude, you’re more likely to…?” She let the question dangle, while she waited.
“Fail.” He nodded, pressing his lips into a determined line. “Okay, I won’t give up then. So, are you going to the wedding? Whose wedding is it?”
She drew her eyebrows together. “You know, I don’t know how to describe her. She doesn’t fit a niche yet.”
“What does that mean? How do you know her?” He rubbed his nose, all his attention focused on Lisa.
She straightened in her seat and cracked her knuckles. “It means I’m not sure where she fits in my life yet – if she fits – and I met her on another physical therapy appointment. I actually found out recently that we’re related.”
“Wow, how?” His eyes widened.
“She’s my half-sister. Well, she claims to be, but I don’t know.” She didn’t want to go into further detail, not because she was against getting to know the Scott sisters – much – but more like she didn’t understand herself what was going on. How did she fit them into her life when she didn’t even know if she wanted them there?
Suddenly dreamy-eyed, Jesse looked out over the field dotted with dark brown and black bison – the staple for the ranch’s income. “I’d give anything for a brother or sister – even a half one.”
Lisa patted his shoulder. She hadn’t considered that. She’d always been the only child and had never disliked it – even while she knew about one sister – that sister had been oblivious to anything. To instantly have sisters who wanted to be family didn’t seem realistic when she’d wished for that exact thing all while growing up. “Well, maybe you’ll get one someday. Look at me.” She ended on a laugh.
“For that to happen, Ms. Trinkett, I would have to be married.” Ryan Noland strode across the smooth cement of the patio floor. His well-stacked jeans over dark boots worked well with his black and blue flannel shirt stretched taut across his shoulders. Dark black hair had been styled back from his high forehead. His lazy smile as he reached his son had Lisa’s tummy turning cartwheels.
Shifting on her seat, Lisa maintained her professional composure. “Of course, Mr. Noland. My apologies. We were just discussing my newly discovered half-sisters and how Jesse would like siblings of his own.” For some reason, she never could get completely comfortable with the man. Like he held her at a formal distance on purpose, never allowing her to get too close or even close enough for first names.
“Lisa’s been invited to her sister’s wedding.” Jesse turned back to Lisa. “Are you going? What are you going to give as a present? Do you think they’ll have cake?”
“Probably not, Jesse. And if they’re getting married, they have to have cake. Why else would anyone get married?” Lisa laughed, ruffling Jesse’s hair as he giggled with her.
“The Rourke wedding this weekend? I got an invite, too. Sounds like it will be a fun affair.” Mr. Noland settled across from Lisa and pointed at the empty place setting. “Who’s that for, Jesse? Someone else coming I don’t know about?” He winked and unfurled his cloth napkin to place in his lap. He avoided meeting Lisa’s eyes, focusing on his son.
His indifference stung, but it wasn’t the first time and Lisa didn’t need the stress that would accompany a possible flirtation with a patient’s father.
Jesse shrugged. “Grandpa’s supposed to be here soon, too.”
Mr. Noland visibly tensed and Lisa raised her eyebrows, sipping her drink again to cover her shock. Word around the county was Mr. Noland’s father – an elder in the Salish tribe – didn’t speak to his son because of his choice to live off reservation.
Hopefully, by the time the older Mr. Noland arrived, she’d be finished with Jesse and on her way out of there. She needed family drama in her life about as much as she needed one of the Noland Ranch bison to sit on her.
Too late for wishes as a different truck rolled into place beside hers. The engine cut and a man that could only be identified as an older version of Mr. Noland stepped from the cab.
The younger Mr. Noland rose from his seat. He set his napkin on the table, his hands clenched into fists.
As he walked toward his father, Lisa leaned toward Jesse. “Did you do this?”
“Maybe?” He chewed his lower lip and watched anxiously from over her shoulder.
Lisa closed her eyes. “Oh, Jesse, I hope this doesn’t blow up in your face.” She pretended like nothing was happening. Like when she was little and her mom let that man abuse her in front of her daughter. He’d never loved them, but when he wanted in, nothing would convince Lisa’s mom to keep him out.
Even if Lisa did have a fling with anyone, she’d never be as attached as she had been to Charlie – even if her stomach did flip-flop around him.
She was smarter than her mother. Smarter than all of them.
Seeing Lisa had become the best part of his week, and Ryan didn’t even get to talk to her that much. Okay, he didn’t try to. The woman had more going on than her high-maintenance exterior let on.
Having his father – the great, highly esteemed elder of the local Salish tribe – at Noland Ranch for the first time in three years made Ryan more than a little nauseous. He offered his hand to shake and inclined his head as he reached the older man on the edge of the lawn.
Gruffly, his father patted his shoulder and walked past him, to the table where Jesse sat. He nodded at Lisa and claimed his seat across from his grandson.
Jesse said something and for the first time in what had to be forever, Ryan blinked at the smile that split the somber etching of his father’s face.
He returned to his seat and picked up his fork. His father cleared his throat and bowed his head. Ryan rolled his eyes and folded his arms. But try as he might, he couldn’t tune out the prayer his father gave for the food. It’d been a long time since he’d enjoyed the warmth of his father’s spirituality.
Even as irritation ebbed, Ryan glanced at Jesse at the conclusion of the prayer. His son caught his eye and squinted one eye in Ryan’s direction as if to ask if it was okay. Ryan nodded. He’d give the time to his son. Just because he and his own father didn’t get along, certainly didn’t mean that Jesse and his grandfather couldn’t have a relationship.
As long as Ryan kept his mouth shut, the short hour passed with the attention placed on Jesse, where it belonged.
His father left after the meal. Hugging Jesse, he spoke, his scratchy voice carried to Ryan. “Don’t worry about your blond, Jesse. It will grow dark.”
Equally somber, Jesse nodded. “Thank you, Grandfather.”
And then as fast as he’d come, he left and the tension relented.
Ryan excused himself and escaped to his office where he could see the field of bison as well as the patio where he’d left Lisa and Jesse to work. He couldn’t stop staring at her, wondering if maybe she had freckles underneath the light layer of makeup or if her hair color really was deep enough brown to resemble brownies.
Staring at his son’s physical therapist only created confusion where Ryan preferred things black and white. He abandoned the appealing view and called a supplier he’d intended to talk with for a week now.
The last thing he needed – no, the last thing he could afford, was adopting sloppy business practices. If he didn’t take care of Jesse, who would?
The rub of plastic on wood flooring announced Jesse before his voice did. “Dad? Lisa’s gone. Can I play on the computer for a little bit, please?” He reached Ryan’s office and knocked on the partially open door before shoving the panel open all the way to fit his walker through the doorway. “She said I’m getting better. Do you think I could try riding a horse soon?”
Ryan stood from his seat at the desk and gave what he hoped passed for an encouraging smile. “I don’t know, buddy. We can look into it. You know you have limitations though. So don’t be too disappointed, if it doesn’t work out.”
“Yes, sir.” The light in Jesse’s eyes dimmed and he dropped his chin toward his chest. Turning as if to go, Jesse shuffled his feet loosely, like he expected them to stop working because of his father’s words.
Screwing up his face and silently cursing himself, Ryan rounded the desk-island and rushed to stop his son. He pulled him close and bent some to put himself more on eye level with the ten-year-old. “I’m sorry, Jesse. I didn’t mean that the way it came out. If we can figure out how to do it, we can at least try, okay?”
A slow nod with a half-hearted smile would have to be enough for Ryan and he took it.
“Come on, buddy. Let’s go check on the new calf.” He grabbed his hat hooked to the wall by the door and matched Jesse’s slower gait.
“Did Shelby finally have one?” Jesse’s soft-spoken concern melted Ryan’s irritation at the continued naming of the bison. They were for sale, not to be pets.
He bit back his reprimand and pushed open the front door. “She had the baby this morning. Come on, we might be able to give the mama a brush down.”
Walking across the drive to the barn, Ryan glanced again at Jesse’s gait. “Hey, you’re doing pretty good with that thing. Still like it?”
The wheelchair had been Jesse’s norm for so long, Ryan hadn’t been prepared when Jesse’s new pediatrician had suggested a physical therapist to train him how to walk, even if it’d been assisted.
Jesse bounced with sudden excitement. “Yes, sir. It’s so much fun. I can actually go places because of my legs moving and not because of my hands.” He peered down at his sideways tripping feet. “Even if it doesn’t look right, I’m still on them, you know?” He glanced sideways at his dad, a half-smile filled more with sadness than hope.
“Oh man.” Ryan pulled Jesse to a stop. He knelt down and met his gaze straight on. His hat’s shadow protected his eyes from the startling sunlight but not from the tears on Jesse’s cheeks. “Hey, it doesn’t matter what you do to get around. I promise. It looks right – no matter how you do it. You’re getting better and better. These things take time.”
Doubt in the tilt of Jesse’s head nearly broke Ryan’s heart. The boy bit his lip and screwed up the left side of his face as he fought tears. “Do you think if I walk good enough, Mom will come back?”
And Ryan’s heart did crack, right over the spot where it felt like a thousand buffaloes had ripped it to shreds. He cleared his throat, but didn’t hide his reaction from Jesse. His son deserved honesty, no matter how painful.
Before he could answer, Jesse shook his head. “Never mind, I really don’t want to know right now. Do you think you can go to the wedding? Lisa doesn’t have any friends and she needs someone there that she knows.” He hung his head again, his mumble distinct on the soft breeze. “I know it’s hard not to have any friends.”
Uncomfortable with the distinct emotion in the air, Ryan lightened his tone. Hopefully, he could help pull Jesse from whatever doldrums he seemed to be stuck in. “Sure, I’ll go. I’ll even get her a frou-frou drink, how’s that sound?” At least he had a reason now to talk to her outside of a professional arena. The woman wouldn’t be able to say no to a non-alcoholic drink.
She’d have to speak to Ryan, rather than around him to get to Jesse. What he wouldn’t give to know, if she was even worth all the time he spent thinking about her. Most women weren’t – as evidenced by Jesse’s mother. But he didn’t need to marry Lisa, just figure out what she was like.
With a body like hers, she most likely had men breaking down the door to see her.
The morning of the wedding dawned earlier than Lisa wanted. She stretched on her queen-sized mattress and rolled to stare at the ceiling. Johnny Mayfair would be there since he was dating Sara Beth, Lisa’s half-sister. Yeah, her ex-boyfriend was dating her new sister. How great was that?
Lisa rubbed her eyes, yawning. The sleepless night didn’t want to release her to the day. Okay, who was she kidding? She didn’t want to get out of bed and face the approaching time of the wedding. The last thing she needed was to realize she had nothing to do except avoid the party.
Thrusting from her bed, she yanked on silky shorts and a t-shirt. She always slept naked, a fact she used to tease potential boyfriends with. She wasn’t vain enough to think it was because she was pretty that they reacted the way they did. Men were obvious – always had been. The thought of something almost did the same as the actual thing right in front of them.
She needed something sweet to curb her crankiness. Men made her tense. Even if there weren’t any around. Moving to the small kitchen of the townhome condo in Colby, Lisa retrieved the cinnamon rolls from the fridge. She’d given in a few days before and purchased the sweets for breakfasts. Starting the day with something decadent just seemed so… liberating.
Swiping her finger through thick white frosting, Lisa glared at the dark brown swirl in the dough. She’d never understand why she was alone when she had so many prospects for boyfriends. Even Charlie…
Lisa groaned, dropping her head into her hands. Leaning on the counter, she closed her eyes. No. Not Charlie again. “Stop it, Lisa. Dang it, stop!” She opened her eyes and picked up a wooden spoon abandoned in the small sink and hurled it at the wall beside the door.
Tap-tap-tap. The metal on metal sound of her door knocker startled her and she jolted upright. “Who in the world?”
Crossing the few feet to the door, Lisa peered out the peephole. The back of a man’s cowboy hat stared back at her. Okay, the hat didn’t mean much. She lived in Montana. Even the cows were known for wearing a Stetson.
Swinging the door open, she planted her hand on her hip and lifted her chin. “Yeah?”
The man turned revealing his tawny coloring and intense brown gaze. “Good morning, Ms. Trinkett. I hope I’m not catching you at an inopportune time.” He shouldered his way into the small room, his size shrinking the room to playhouse scale.
Internally, Lisa moaned and not in a good way. “Mendez. What do you want?” She crossed her arms over her chest, wishing she’d donned a bra before tossing on her slight clothing.
The federal agent didn’t even look at her as he perused the apartment like she had a drug cartel stored under her couch cushions and an illegal arms dealership in her cabinets. He studied every corner before finally settling his cool gaze on Lisa.
Arching an eyebrow, he clenched his jaw. “Ms. Trinkett, I thought I made myself clear at the rodeo. Be straight with me and there won’t be any problems.” He lowered his voice and stepped closer, suddenly zeroing his gaze on hers. “But mess with me and my investigation and…” His voice trailed off as he held her gaze.
But Lisa had been threatened by the best of them. She dropped her arms and took a step into his space. She growled from behind teeth that refused to part. “Don’t push me, Mendez. I don’t care who you’re with. I can’t give you information I don’t have. Now get the hell out of my place.”
He retreated, but only a few inches. Considering her, eyes hard with aggression, the agent didn’t speak for a long drawn out moment.
Lisa held her ground, not moving, not relenting under his sabre-like stare.
Switching gears, he became affable and grinning, the whites of his teeth dazzling. “Did you see that girl ride the horse at the rodeo? The one in a wheelchair? She did great. Nice to see traditions adapt.” He turned to the door, pulling it open as he turned back to face her. “Did you know her name is Sara Beth? Just like another girl on Caracus’s list of offspring. Just like you.”
And with that he disappeared, closing the door behind him.
Stunned, Lisa sank to the love seat, pulling her legs to her chest and staring at the plush brown rug still dusty from his boots.
He’d confirmed her as the Lisa he’d been searching for. He might have even found Sara Beth and her older sister, Rosie. What did Lisa do? Mendez wasn’t known for being an easy-going agent. He’d hounded her for a while now but hadn’t been able to put anything together. She’d always stayed on the move and changed her last name often.
For Agent Mendez, every case was black and white. If he suspected that any of the girls had part in anything illegal, he’d collar them for it and ask questions later.
Lisa shivered. She’d seen him do it to Charlie.
Well, there went her plans to avoid the wedding and the Scott sisters. Even if she didn’t want to consider them family, she at least owed a warning to anyone Jason Mendez was after. The man wouldn’t stop and Sara Beth and Rosie needed to be ready.
And to be honest? Lisa didn’t fight attending the celebration that hard. If Ryan Noland was going to be there, she really just needed a reason to go.