The Second Chance Billionaire Cowboy – Book 1 – Sneak Peek

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The Second Chance Billionaire Cowboy

Money can solve all her problems, but it can’t mend a broken heart.

Stryder Flint returns to Two Rides, Montana and he’s out to win back more than his reputation. He wants Melody Steel.

Growing up, they’d been inseparable but a last minute choice had stolen his heart and made him rich beyond measure. Too bad he could never buy what he truly wanted…

Flint and Steel made fire and she was done getting burned.

With more debt that she can comprehend after her dad died, Melody doesn’t need her poverty rubbed in her face or that Stryder found happiness and money without her. All she’d ever done was make her loved ones miserable.

Well, no more. Stryder was free and Melody was going to keep it that way – no matter how much it tore her apart.

 

Chapter 1

Melody

Melody’s life would have been darn different, if Stryder Flint had never left.

Everything was or wasn’t according to how it should be. Wasn’t that her dad’s favorite saying? Maybe she’d gotten it wrong. She didn’t really care at that point.

Melody Steel wiped her hands on the threadbare kitchen towel hanging from the oven handle. She stood in the center of the once grand kitchen with her hands on her hips and slowly pivoted, surveying her cleaning job.

She’d swept, mopped, dusted anything she could reach, cleaned inside the nearly-empty fridge, reorganized all the chipped dishes in the cabinets, and scrubbed the windows more than once. Sleep had eluded her while she waited for news.

Her nerves were getting to her. If she didn’t stop wiping the counters or doing the dishes, she’d wear a hole in something.

Cutting through the tension, the landline phone rang, the peel sharp and demanding in the strong acoustics of the house.

Melody jumped, folding her arms and taking a deep breath. The second ring seemed to jolt her into action and she swooped onto the phone, grabbing up the receiver and cradling the mouth piece in her other hand. “Hello?” Why did she sound all breathy and weird? The phone never rang unless a telemarketer felt lucky. Her hands shook, even as she tried being brave.

“Ms. Steel, it’s Doctor Gideon. It’s time.” His words were nothing out of the ordinary, yet his tone promised she needed to be ready. “Your dad has passed.”

Nodding, even though he couldn’t see, Melody swallowed and murmured, “I… I understand. I’ll be right in.” She hung up, staring at the cream phone she’d never been able to talk her dad into getting rid of.

A memory of just a year ago flashed through her mind’s eye.

Standing at the phone, Melody waved her hand at the old rotary piece while holding the pink bill in the other. Her voice broke as she tried convincing her father again. “We can’t pay the phone bill when we have the electricity bill, Dad. We can’t. This is not a priority. Keeping our food from spoiling is. We could save a lot of money, if you’d just get rid of it. Please.”

He stood there, his bloodshot eyes wide as she spoke. Stooped shoulders that had once been strong and straight hunched inward. His barrel chest had taken on a concave form and he’d clung to a bottle of Wild Turkey. Shaking his head, he’d pushed close to the phone, gripping the handset but not pulling it from the base. His lips quivered. “No. She might call. This is the only number she knows.” Even as drunk as he was, his words didn’t slur.

Melody stared at him, sadness curling in her chest. She leaned close, tucking the bill in the pocket of his overalls. “She’s not coming back, Dad. Mom left. She’s not coming back.” Why couldn’t he accept it? Melody accepted it, no matter how much it hurt.

Even as the collectors circled like vultures, he’d never gotten so far behind on the phone bill that they would disconnect it. The power, yes, but not the phone.

The pain of the memory seemed fresh as she hung up the call. Closing her eyes, Melody sank to her knees in the middle of the peeling linoleum floor of the kitchen. If it wasn’t for the alcohol her daddy drank to curb the pain of his wife leaving him, Melody wouldn’t be in danger of losing her home and everything important to her.

She bowed her head, her shoulders shaking as hot tears coursed down her cheeks. The doctor had said it’s time. All she needed was a break, but she didn’t need her dad to die. Clint Steel tried so hard to be a good dad after his wife had left, Melody didn’t blame him for his coping skills.

If she wasn’t so against drinking, she could only imagine what she would do faced with the future she had ahead of her. What was she supposed to do there on that old ranch all by herself?

Drown in debt, apparently.

 

***

 

A few days since the call about her dad, Melody didn’t worry that she’d missed a call on the landline phone. She disconnected it as soon as she’d gotten home from saying goodbye to her father.

Afternoon sunlight streamed through the streaked glass of the front window, warming the hardwood floor. How did windows get dirty when no one was there to put their fingers on the glass?

Melody slid her black heels off, kicking them to the side as she stepped onto the warm rug and closed her eyes. Reaching up, she pinched the soft flesh of her neck. She was tense and didn’t know if she’d ever feel rested again.

The funeral had been hard. Not only had her dad died a few days before, but the cost of the funeral had tacked itself to the mounting pile of debt and all she’d done while burying her father was itemize everything at the graveside service. The flowers had cost close to a hundred dollars. The casket a few thousand – and that was the base model! Melody had even had to accept a bill from the pastor who’d spoken over the body.

An obituary would be printed free of charge in a couple days, but Melody had gone with the basic information instead of creating anything worth cutting out and saving. Not many people had come to the funeral, but that wasn’t because of anything other than Melody hadn’t announced it in the paper. That cost money. Money she didn’t have.

Plus, let’s be honest, when people showed up, they expected refreshments of some sort. As it was, Melody could only offer dry ramen noodles and cold well water. That was no way to send off her dad.

To make matters worse, Mrs. Singhe had approached – the old biddy made it to every funeral and wedding in Two Rides as if it were her duty to attend. She’d shaken Melody’s cold fingers – even though the day was warm with early afternoon summer heat – and she’d smiled with pinched creases framing her lips. “It’s too bad about your daddy, Ms. Steel. I heard Stryder Flint has so much money, he could have thrown you a right proper funeral, if that hadn’t been messed up.” She’d eyed Melody without cracking a smile, her gaze skimming Melody up and down.

Pulling her fingers from Mrs. Singhe’s grasp, Melody hadn’t spoken or acknowledged that she’d spoken. She didn’t have to be polite, not right then. She wasn’t at work. Her customer service wasn’t required as she stood beside the hole her father would be dropped into and covered with dirt.

How dare Mrs. Singhe mention Stryder Flint. As if the rags-to-riches cowboy had anything to do with Melody any longer. He’d left with her heart and hadn’t looked back.

Of course, Stryder could have paid for a better funeral. With all his billions he could buy the town a couple times over. Everyone in Two Rides, Montana waited for the day he came back – not only to berate him for leaving the small town, but also to ask him for money.

The Steels weren’t the only ones suffering from the devastated economy.

A knock on the front door startled Melody and brought her back to the present. Gritty dust coated her cheeks where the wind had whirled against her soaked skin. Why would anyone show up at her house so soon after the burial? Maybe the collectors resorted to showing up at her door instead of calling since she’d disconnected the phone. She wouldn’t be surprised.

Although, she wouldn’t be surprised at a lot of things.

Turning from the warm spot on the floor, Melody opened the door and raised her gaze. Her jaw stiffened and she lifted her chin. She was distinctly out of her element in her black mourning dress. She needed her jeans and t-shirt to feel more in control of the moment. Narrowing her eyes, she took a deep breath and waited for her visitor to speak.

Brock Stidwell. She clenched her teeth and closed the door halfway until she was able to block the bottom of the door with her foot so he couldn’t push inside. The man had brutish down to a whole new science.

“Melody.” He took his cowboy hat off and inclined his head, a stray lock of shiny strawberry blond hair fell across his forehead. The man wasn’t sore on the eyes, but he expected a lot of allowances based on his looks and his personality grated on Melody’s nerves.

“What do you want, Brock? Today… Today isn’t the day.” She didn’t want anything to do with him. How many times did she have to say that? No matter how many times her dad had pushed her toward the Stidwell family, Melody hadn’t been interested. She’d agreed to go on one date with him a few years back and that had been the most uncomfortable she’d been in her entire life.

She’d promised never to subject herself to that again.

His tall silhouette blocked the sun working its way over the field and across the deck planks. Pulling his hat from the crown of his head, Brock leaned against the doorjamb. “You need to marry me. I’ll pay your bills and help you sell this place.” Brock pleaded as he studied her hungrily. The man even had the audacity to lick his lips as he scanned her form with his gaze.

He’d had a thing for Melody for years, even longer than she’d known about him. The Stidwells lived on the south side of town, with their granary one of the last big businesses in the area still running. They had modest money but with the economy the way it was, they were rich compared to everyone else. Brock liked to remind Melody of that regularly when he came into the café.

Shaking her head, Melody stared belligerently at Brock. “I said no. Things haven’t changed.” She wasn’t going to marry him and that was final. She’d rather end up a crazy cat lady than a Stidwell.

“Your daddy’s dead, Melody. You can’t stay here all by yourself. I know the situation with the bank and your other debts. If you don’t come with me, you’ll be out of your home. Who knows what that will lead to.” He arched an eyebrow as if to suggest all kinds of fire and brimstone activity lay before her. The breadth of his shoulders would have been impressive, if she didn’t know how rude he was to other waitresses and just how little he worked for the money he got from his dad.

“I don’t need any one to help me figure out what to do.” A sharp panic started to work its way through her chest. While it was true she didn’t want help from him, Melody had to admit that she needed something from someone or she was going to lose the Steel home.

“If you don’t take me, no one else is going to want you. I’m your last hope.” He smiled, but it didn’t come across as consoling with its oily edges and satisfaction.

“I’ll take my chances.” Melody set her jaw as she closed the door and locked it for good measure. She didn’t need Brock or anything he offered. She wasn’t that desperate – yet.

She didn’t stay in the front room to see how long he hung around. Bending to grab her black heels, she rushed upstairs to her room and crawled into bed. Ignoring the scratchy tulle of her long black dress she’d borrowed from her mama’s closet, Melody blinked back more depressed tears at the thought of the closet full of clothes the woman had left behind when she’d abandoned the Steel family.

Melody’s mama had left without a solid goodbye. No reasons. Nothing. How long had Melody waited by the front door for her mom to return? Longer than her pride wanted to admit.

If her mother hadn’t left, Melody wouldn’t be stuck in the situation she was caught in. Her dad had always said if he’d only had enough money he wouldn’t have lost his wife. But Melody didn’t think that was the case or he would have sold the Corvette his dad had left him. The Steel family had always had enough. No, money couldn’t have been the reason she’d left. Melody had always suspected her mom had left because of Melody, but she didn’t know what she’d done.

With both parents gone, Melody was all alone. Not a big deal at her age, but she had the responsibilities of the ranch all on her and no way to bolster them. What was she supposed to do?

Melody curled onto her side, gripping a pillow to her chest as she stared at the peeling peach and cream wallpaper.

She couldn’t breathe. She was going to lose her home and everything she owned because her alcoholic father couldn’t keep a job and her own position at the café was only enough to keep the edge of the bills paid. Just the edge. She had no idea how much was due in total.

Tired of crying and worrying, Melody shoved the panic aside and closed her eyes. Her father was dead. She had no one else.

At least she had work. She could count on her job.

And even though her father’s funeral had just ended, Melody had the graveyard shift at the café that night. She had to get some rest. She had bills to pay and taking a day off wasn’t an option – no matter who had died.

Mrs. Singhe’s mention of Stryder Flint fluttered through the back of her mind. Mrs. Singhe didn’t have to bring the topic of the absent man to the conversation. Stryder was never far from Melody’s mind. How could he be? He’d been the only thing holding her together for so long.

 

***

 

Dotty’s Diner wasn’t owned by Dotty but even the locals acted like they all knew Dotty and talked about her like an old friend when they sat at the faded and chipped tables.

Melody yawned as she wiped another empty booth. The all-night shift had sapped a lot of her non-existent energy. Her apron whacked the edge of the laminate table. Pushing the salt and pepper back to the side of the table nearest the wall beside the napkin holder, Melody bent down and wiped out the creases of the seats.

The door dinged as it opened. Not another customer. No, she wanted to go home to sleep – at least while she could sleep at her own house. She was just bone tired enough she might be able to get some rest this time.

Glancing up, she pasted a tolerant smile on in preparation of another customer. Her shoulders relaxed at the sight of Jesse, Melody’s oldest friend, bustling through the door.

Jesse’s dark hair pinned up in a bun enhanced the heart shape of her face. Her energy seemed more kinetic than anything as her petite shape moved gracefully around the edge of the counter. She grabbed her apron, jerking her chin upward at Melody. “Mornin’, girl. You survive last night?” She arched an eyebrow at Melody and tied the apron strings to the pink and black polka-dotted piece. The apron even had ruffles but at least it had pockets. Melody tugged on the bottom hem of her matching apron and stood from the table.

Carrying the wet cloth loosely in her hand, Melody returned to the back-counter area and glanced in the direction of the kitchen. Tom, owner and operator and also surly cook, was nowhere to be seen. The man was a bully and Melody tried to stay out of his way more often than not.

Melody leaned close to Jesse, stacking napkins and silverware as she folded them together. She had to look busy in case the old man came out. He didn’t like Melody and the feeling was mutual, but she needed the job. There weren’t many in Two Rides. Everyone needed work and the truck stop style diner was one of the only places that stayed busy since they were right on a junction of two highways. Thankfully, the customers adored her which kept her job there safe.

“How you doin’? I wish you would’ve let me go to your dad’s funeral yesterday. Mama said it was bad form on my part not to be there. It took nearly an hour to explain to her you told me I couldn’t go. She’ll probably ask you all about it when you come over next time. Like she doesn’t believe me. That woman.” Jesse shook her head, but her words lacked venom. She loved her family and it was more than evident by the things she did for them.

Melody blinked back tears, shaking her head. “Brock showed up.” The long night and the events of the last few days wore on Melody. She couldn’t feel lonelier or more fatigued than she did in that singular moment. What would everyone do, if she just laid down on the tiled floor and fell to sleep?

Jesse wrapped her arms around her and rested her chin on Melody’s shoulder. “I know things seem bleak right now, but you can’t marry Brock, Melody. He’ll only cause you heart break.” Jesse had known Brock because of her brother. Brock was a couple years older than the girls and he’d graduated high school before Jesse and Melody were even freshman. In a small town like Two Rides, the entire high school student body count wasn’t more than fifty. Jesse’s brother knew things about Brock that would never let Melody date him – no matter how badly her father wanted her to.

Melody nodded, grateful for the embrace, but she pulled back anyway. “I know. He offered to pay my bills, though. You know how enticing that is.” If anyone got it, Jesse did. Melody offered a wet smile like she didn’t mean it, but she did. Brock had more money than Melody did. She didn’t like the guy much at all.

Even if she didn’t like the guy, what if he was the only one who could ever love her? Loving her seemed to be too much effort, took too much out of people. Loving Melody had been too much for her mother and look what it had cost her father.

Jesse shot her a sympathetic smile. They’d covered the topic of Brock’s money more than once in the past. As appealing as his cash was, Melody wouldn’t marry anyone for their money. She refused. Plus, she was still holding out hope…

The television set up over the far side of the dining space was set to the news. The anchorwoman’s voice cut through the silence that Melody and Jesse fell into.

“Not only is Flint Industries taking over Lexico Computers, but the CEO and owner, Stryder Flint, promises more jobs to the small town as he brings in his research and development team. On a more disappointing note to the young women out there, rumors have become more solidified around the Candy Cross and Stryder Flint union. Friends of the couple have reported the mention of dates and a guest list.”

Melody turned to stare at the screen. “Are you kidding me?” She was waiting for a man who was moving on. When was she going to see that?

The diner phone rang and she reached for the earpiece. She didn’t need Tom coming out to yell at her to answer the phone. “Dotty’s Diner. This is Melody Steel.” Why did she keep answering with her last name? Jesse shot her an amused glance. There’d be teasing when Melody hung up for sure.

“Melody Steel? This is Frank with Thompson and Thompson Mortgage. I’ve left you multiple messages on your home phone. You’re a hundred-and-eighty days past due. You have thirty days to get caught back up on your payments or you’ll be in foreclosure. If you happen to have a sell pending, we need to be made aware of that.” His voice had the clipped tones of a man who wasn’t taking anymore from a customer who obviously didn’t have the means to pay.

Melody didn’t wait to hear more. She lowered the phone piece back to its base and stared at the phone while the anchorwoman continued speaking. “…Stryder has made his own fortune and he’s been heard saying more than once that he just wants to give back. Well, Stryder Flint, you’re one amazing man.”

Melody blinked back tears. If he’d been so amazing, why had he left? One more person who couldn’t survive loving her. He’d left on a cloud of promises and Melody had held out hope all this time.

Regret was cold and so was loneliness. Melody didn’t have time for either.

She had a home to save and no life vest to hold onto. She turned back to ring up the tickets in her apron pocket. How much would her thirty dollars in tips help out at the ranch?

Maybe she could sell her secrets about Stryder to the anchorwoman interested in his love life. Melody knew more about the ex-cowboy than anyone. He’d been her first love and she his.

That had to be worth something.

Dang, her life would have been so different, if she’d never met Stryder Flint.

Chapter 2

Stryder

California billions beckoned but they had nothing on the sunsets of Montana or the smile of Melody Steel. Stryder Flint rolled his head on his shoulders, stretching after a long day at the office. He leaned back in his leather recliner and used his toe to turn him to face his ocean view window on the coast of California.

The cliffs of the shoreline reminded him of the jagged mountains surrounding his hometown. He missed the feel of the Montana air – it even had a cleaner scent than the ocean air did. Sure, the smell of the salty air was refreshing in its way and something Stryder had grown to love, but when you’d been on the back of a horse with the sun beating down on your back and the scent of wheat fields and fresh streams filling you, it was hard to beat with any other sensation on the earth.

Slightly ajar, the window let in the sounds of waves crashing beneath his home onto the rocks below.

He swirled the amber liquid in his crystal glass. He wasn’t sure of the name of his whiskey, only that his butler kept him well-stocked in the smooth alcohol. When he was feeling particularly melancholy, he reached for his secret stash of Wild Turkey – the same as Clint Steel.

Stryder’s cell phone rang, sitting beside his laptop and a dossier on his newest business acquisition. He might be home from a long day at work, but that didn’t mean work had ended. He loved working and he loved that it distracted him from overthinking the events of the last decade.

Moonlight would soon replace the setting sun over the water and Stryder’s favorite time of day would be reflected in the waves. If he stood there long enough with the stars mirrored on the inky surface, he could almost pretend he was standing in a field in Montana with the biggest widest skies spread out around him.

Everyone said the ocean was the grandest thing you’d ever see, make you feel just how small you were. But Stryder knew that was a lie. He’d lived under the Montana skies and his soul ached to feel that complete again, to see the heavens spread out before him with no end in sight.

The call went to voicemail and he blinked. Shoot, he might have gone after the whiskey a little too fast when he’d gotten home. It’d been a hard day and he really just wanted to numb it all away.

His ringer peeled through the silence again and he leaned forward, sobering enough to focus on the call. He swiped the screen. “Stryder.” He kept his tone light but professional, more habit than affectation.

“Mr. Flint, it’s Marcie from Seek Realty. You’re a lucky man. A nice chunk of land bordering your current piece of property in Clearwater County just went on notice. The piece will be up for auction in a month.” The realtor’s perky tone made it easy to make sense of what she was saying.

Stryder angled his head to the side, blinking hard as if everything was fuzzy but truth be told, nothing had been clearer. “Notice?” The only piece of property bordering his family land in Clearwater was the old Steel place. Last he’d checked, it was still owned by the family. “Notice? But that’s not a guarantee the piece will go up. I asked specifically for when they were available or a guarantee.” His hard tone suggested the time was a waste.

Marcie’s tone dimmed enough to add her own level of professional ice. “Yes, sir, I know that. This particular piece is… shall we say, more of a guarantee than anything else. The homeowner has been given plenty of time. The bank has already given foreclosure notice – this isn’t just a standard warning. It’s in foreclosure, unless the back owed amount gets into the bank in the next thirty days. If the piece is sold, then the foreclosure can be avoided. The sum owed to the bank isn’t a small one and compounded with all the fees, this owner doesn’t stand a chance.”

“How do you know this?” Stryder had hired Seek Realty because they were discrete and got things done. He paid them handsomely to find the types of properties he could work with, that he could make money from. They worked within his parameters and he usually didn’t care how they got their information, just so long as they got it.

This time was different. This time the information was directly about her and anything and everything made a difference.

“Well, between you and me, my cousin works at the bank, Wendel. He lets me know on any pieces in the area that you might be interested in.” A smug pride filled her voice.

“Wendel is your cousin? That’s good to know.” Wendel Singhe was married to Two Rides’s busybody wife and between the two of them, there were no small-town secrets. Weasel Wendel had a nickname for a reason.

His information always had panned out, though.

“Let me know if you want it and I’ll move in.” A couple clicks in the background. “Check your email for MLS number. You can see the property but it’s not on the market as of yet. I’m sure we can pull some strings and get things done without that happening. Thanks, Mr. Flint.” Marcie hung up. She knew Stryder didn’t like small talk and didn’t like wasting time. They’d been working together long enough, she knew when the conversation was over.

Stryder dropped his phone to the table and turned his attention to his laptop. He pulled it onto the tops of his thighs and clicked on his email icon. The email was already there. He opened it, grimacing and sipping his whiskey again, welcoming the fire as he swallowed.

Clicking the link Marcie had sent, Stryder refused to believe the Steel place was up for sale. Wendel or Marcie had to be wrong. Nothing else made sense. Maybe the property was on the other side, which again, didn’t make sense. That was national forest land and not usually up for sale. The property had been in the Steel family for generations. They would do anything to keep it.

The page loaded and he blinked, his lips falling open in shock.

Marcie had sent him the unlisted MLS, but it was still the property he knew like his own.

He slowly put his drink down. His pain at breaking his promise, so many promises, ate at him and the alcohol was one he could at least push to the side for the moment.

No. Not the old Steel place. Not when Stryder was just starting to get his act together, or, well, thinking about it. How could he go back to his land if Melody wasn’t living on hers? He couldn’t go back when he was close to labeling himself a drunk. No, he wasn’t an alcoholic, not yet. He had to go back to Two Rides, but not until he was ready. And when he went back, he had to find Melody there.

If she wasn’t there, then what was the point?

Why would the Steel family sell? Clint had never cashed the checks Stryder had sent so Stryder had always assumed he had money and his pride had kept him from depositing the money. The only thing that would make Clint sell was that they had no money. What had gotten so bad that Clint was losing the property?

Stryder pulled up the search engine on his computer and looked for the Two Rides Chronicle. He read it every once in a while to see if Melody would end up in the paper – like in the wedding announcements section.

He had a case of whiskey waiting for that day. He wasn’t stupid. A woman like Melody Steel would be claimed the first chance she let a man stake her as his own. Stryder had tried to be that man, but she was no longer interested.

Stryder clenched his jaw. He didn’t want to think about Melody moving on. The pain was still raw, would probably always be raw.

An obituary with Clint Steel’s name at the top caught Stryder’s eye and he stilled to read it.

 

Clint Steel passed away this last Monday. He was survived by his daughter, Melody, who continues to live at the family ranch.

 

That was it. The obituary was sparse with no mention of what had happened. No mention of Melody’s mom who never came home. Stryder ready the short lines over and over, searching for some clue or hint of what the words weren’t saying which was everything. Had Clint ever stopped drinking? Had Melody found out about anything between Clint and Stryder?

Clint Steel. Dead. Stryder couldn’t believe it. Was that relief or just regret? He hadn’t heard back from Clint in years, but Stryder had always held out hope Melody’s dad was working behind the scenes to convince Melody that Stryder was the man for her. But hope faded and the things Clint had passed along had almost broken Stryder.

Almost. Alcohol had numbed the pain for him but just barely. He had to still function, to work on his empire so he could one day try to get Melody back.

That day had come.

He had to prove to himself he didn’t need to drink. Stryder had seen the alcohol in Clint’s cupboards. In fact, Stryder had stolen his first drink from the Steel stockpile where he’d developed his taste for whiskey. Then Clint had offered him a glass to seal the deal.

Melody had never known. Now that she had lost her father, she was about to lose her family’s place, too. Why? What had happened? The newspaper didn’t say much but taking that information and combining it with the information that Marcy had shared and Stryder could put two and two together.

She was in trouble. No matter what else had happened between them, no matter how much he’d let her down, Stryder couldn’t ignore Two Rides any longer.

Melody was in trouble and it was time for Stryder to go home.

Chapter 3

Melody

Melody had been painting her fake smile on her lips for such long periods of time over the last week or so, her cheeks hurt. She’d taken another extra shift and her feet screamed for a break, but she needed the money to make as many payments as she could. As long as she didn’t think about the full amount due, she could chip away at it. She had to.

She shivered, unable to get fully warm the last few days. The power had been shut off at her house which meant cold showers and no fridge. Rolling the silverware beside the coffee maker was as close as she could get to a mini heater. Melody sighed, blinking hard to ward off her fatigue as she glanced out over the restaurant and the customers.

Her thoughts were jumbled. She’d shut off the unnecessary phone line. Her mom wasn’t coming back. No matter how long her dad had hoped. Melody had to accept that about Stryder as well.

To make ends meet, Melody had to sell things off and she wasn’t sure where to list items or even what would sell fastest.

Considering the customers in their seats, Melody pressed her lips together. If anyone was looking for farm equipment, those men would be the ones in the know. Gripping the black handle of the coffee pot, Melody pasted yet another fake smile on her lips and left the protection of the server staging area.

Approaching the packed booth of regulars, Melody licked her lips. The men knew her daddy was dead, but they hadn’t really acknowledged anything else about the situation over the last few days. A few of them had dropped extra change for her tip, but that was about it. Rough farmers and ranchers, they probably didn’t want to face Clint’s mortality in order to avoid their own.

Sidling up to the open corner of the table, Melody cocked an eyebrow and smiled even broader. “How’s the hashbrowns, guys? Anyone need a refill?” She held the pot aloft as if they didn’t know what she was talking about. Those men would go through three or four decanters all by themselves on any given morning.

The group was ultimately morning people. They were up before the sun to work started on their farms and their ranches every day but Sunday. They stopped by the diner for coffee and a bite and to get a pulse on what was going on. If ever there were a water cooler space for a farmer, it was at his local diner with a cup of joe.

The chime from the door opening announced another arrival. Melody glanced over her shoulder long enough to see Jesse seat a man with his back to Melody in a black suit in a side booth. Melody turned back to the group.

“Melody, we were just talkin’ about you.”  Ole Man Timmery tugged on the collar of his grass-stained coveralls and pointed at Jansen Stidwell. “Why won’t you marry Brock already?” Brock was Jansen’s son and everyone in town knew Brock planned on Melody being his bride. The Stidwells were the town bullies and most everyone gave them whatever they wanted.

Except Melody. She wouldn’t marry Brock.

The muscles around her mouth tightened in irritation. Leaning over, Melody topped off the mugs in reach. A couple of the men covered the mouths of their cups as a sign they didn’t want more. “How can I marry Brock when I’m in love with you, Randy?”

Brock wasn’t the topic she wanted to pursue when she was so tired she might very well say something she shouldn’t. Melody changed the subject. “Gentlemen, my daddy had the best farm equipment around. Would anyone be in the market?” She had more things, but she’d start with that. There was no sentimental value to the tractor or other items shacked up in the barn.

Mr. Stidwell leaned over, tapping the tabletop with the tip of his finger. He was the only one who wouldn’t be out working the fields that day and his white button-up shirt testified to his expectations for his daily work. “I’m interested in buying Clint’s ’66 split window Corvette. I’ll pay you top dollar for that piece and to sweeten the deal, I’ll get Brock to leave you alone.” He winked. If anyone could make Brock leave her alone, it was his father.

The group laughed, waiting for Melody’s reply. Stidwell had been bugging Clint for that car since before Melody could remember. Clint had never hinted that it was a possibility. He’d had too much fondness for the Corvette that his dad had bought brand new. Selling it to Stidwell seemed like a cop out.

Melody paused, she couldn’t imagine selling the car. That was her daddy’s most valued prized possession. He’d loved that car almost as much as he’d loved Melody – maybe more.

The men waited for an answer. Melody brightened her smile. “Tell you what, Mr. Stidwell, I’ll think about your offer. The price won’t be low, if I go that route. And getting Brock to back off will only be the start.” She smirked as if she were teasing, but deep down, she knew, if she were going to sell the Corvette, it wouldn’t be for a small pittance. Her daddy’s toy. She couldn’t sell that old car, but she might have to consider it. Something big was going to have to go – the house was the top of the list.

“Let me know if you need anything, guys.” She turned, pulling the pad of paper from her pocket to make sure she’d written down Stidwell’s extra bacon that morning to charge him. She was tired and if she didn’t double-check things, she forgot easily. She padded carefully down the aisle, retucking her ticket pad into her large apron pocket and sighing.

“Excuse me, I might be on the market for some farm equipment.” That voice. She’d know that voice anywhere. It had been years since she’d heard him speak just to her and her reaction was just as palpable. Of their own volition, her toes curled in her white tennis shoes and her shoulders tensed.

Melody broke stride, jerking to a stop. She took a deep breath and turned slowly to face the table Jesse had sat the newcomer at. The newcomer wasn’t some random stranger passing through.

Stryder had come home.

His voice matched the man he’d become.

Smooth, velvety, and something bold. His high cheekbones and hooded eyes only enhanced the masculine bend in his jaw and the thick brown hair unadorned with a hat. Every man wore a cowboy hat around Two Rides. The absence didn’t make him seem weaker or less than. In fact, Melody could easily imagine reaching out and running her fingers through the soft, shiny strands.

She wanted to touch him, throw herself in his lap and beg him to tell her why he hadn’t come back for her. The smoldering heat in his eyes promised something she didn’t trust anymore.

His eyes. Why? Why did they have to be so deep and knowing? The brown left her knees weak and if she didn’t do something, she was going to throw the pot of coffee into his lap. As her control threatened to abandon her, she couldn’t help wondering if dumping the hot liquid over him would be a bad thing.

A chill broke out over Melody’s skin followed by a hot flush that left her shaking. She didn’t even smile as she turned from him and his angular jaw. Dang his good looks! Long strides carried her to the counter and she nudged Jesse who was pulling on her jacket. “A little bit of a heads up would’ve been nice.” Although, to be fair, it wasn’t Jesse’s fault Melody had been taken by surprise.

Jesse cast a curious glance at the booth. “What?” She turned back to Melody, swiping lip gloss over her lower lip. “I didn’t get a chance to look at him. Is he cute? I’m trying to get home. Mom’s not feeling very well again and she needs help with one of her jobs.” Money was tight with everyone and Jesse helped her mother at home with her tailoring work while also helping with the bills.

“You sat Stryder. Stryder Flint. In my section.” Melody set her jaw, careful to keep her back to the restaurant. She couldn’t go back out. Not with Stryder sitting there. What was he doing? Why did he have to come in when she was drowning in debt, desperate for cash and he lived in an ocean of money? He couldn’t have come in at a worst time. She was exhausted, hadn’t slept much over the last week, just finished a long graveyard shift, and who knew the last time she’d eaten a solid meal was.

Jesse’s jaw dropped. “Are you serious?” She leaned over, glancing toward the booth and then, eyes wide, she looked at Melody. “I didn’t even recognize him. I’m… Wow, I don’t know what to say. What are you going to do? I can’t stay to help, Mel. I’m late as it is.” She pulled off her apron and tucked it into her cubby under the register.

“Melody, get out there and serve the customer.” Tom leaned out of the order window and pointed toward Melody. “You’re going to get out of here, Jesse, unless you want Melody’s shift.” He arched a bushy eyebrow and settled back on his feet, flipping hashbrowns and grunting at his assertiveness.

Heart sinking, Melody half-turned to grab a tray and a glass of ice water. A cell phone rang in the distance and Melody glanced at Jesse.

“He’s on the phone. She can’t go over yet.” Jesse offered a look of sympathy and mouthed, “Call me.” With one last glare at Tom, Jesse left the diner. Melody didn’t blame her. She had other responsibilities and it wasn’t fair to ask Jesse to cover for her.

Melody had to be over Stryder. It wasn’t Jesse’s problem Melody couldn’t go out there. Not when it was only because Melody was still so hurt by being abandoned by Stryder that she didn’t want to go serve him. Damaged pride was no reason to run from duty. Plus, he had money. Maybe he’d tip her really well.

The dulcet tones of his deep bass voice sent shivers down to her toes. She’d sworn the next time she heard his voice she would have some witty comment and maybe even slap his face. Neither was an option at the moment and that just increased the bitterness in Melody’s heart.

He didn’t have to come back better looking – which she hadn’t thought possible. The cameras hadn’t done him justice. Melody worked her throat at the sudden dryness in her mouth. Everything about Stryder left her bothered. Why did he have to come back?

Who cares that she’d been dreaming and praying for so long that he’d return? There was too much under the bridge between them. How could she ever get him to love her again, when she wasn’t sure why he’d stopped?

Why was he there? Why couldn’t he just stay away? He’d been the one to leave before. Of course, he would be there at the lowest point of her life. Wasn’t that the way of their relationship?

She took a deep breath and ignored Tom’s glare. As long as Stryder was on the phone, Melody didn’t have to approach him.

Maybe he’d be on his call for a year. Melody could handle that. She could handle the heat he spread through her body. She could even handle the way her pulse shifted when he looked at her.

She could handle anything but going up to take his order. That was just asking too much.

Kindle

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