In Molly O'Keefe's captivating new contemporary romance, a woman with a past and a man without a future struggle to find a place where they belong.
A girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Tara Jean Sweet knows that opportunity will never knock; she'll have to seize it. Elderly Texas rancher Lyle Baker has a dying request: He will give Tara Jean a stake in his leather business in exchange for a little family subterfuge. All Tara Jean has to do is play the part of a gold-digging fiancée to lure Lyle's estranged children home. The mission is soon accomplished.
Now Lyle's gone--and his ridiculously handsome son, Luc, an ice hockey superstar sidelined by injuries, is the new owner of Crooked Creek ranch. He's also Tara Jean's boss. But being so close to sinfully sweet Tara Jean does crazy things to Luc's priorities, like make him want to pry her deepest secrets from those irresistible lips. But when Tara Jean's past demands a dirty showdown, will Luc stay and fight?
This was not how Tara Jean Sweet imagined her engagement. Perched on the edge of her eighty-nine-year-old fiancé's wheelchair wearing a skirt so short there was a good chance the photographer was getting a shot of her uterus.
But at the top of the very long list of what was wrong with this picture were the cows.
There were ten of the hulking, stinky animals, hand-picked by Lyle Baker himself to be as much a part of her engagement photo as his ten-gallon hat and the big blue sky backdrop of Crooked Creek Ranch.
Look at me! the cows said--metaphorically of course. Look at me, I'm so damn rich.
As a young girl, planning her dream engagement, there hadn't been many cows. None, really.
She tugged on her pink leather skirt, but Lyle lifted his trembling hand to stop her.
"Leave it," he gasped, refusing to wear the oxygen for the photos, a decision that was probably pinching precious minutes off his very short remaining life span.
But he was the boss so she didn't nag about the oxygen, tried to ignore the cow lowing in her ear, and left the skirt alone.
Sighing, she curled her upper body around Lyle as best she could without bumping into the various monitors and wires that ran off him as if he were a supercomputer.
"Smile, baby," his voice an agonized whisper.
A flash popped and she turned up the wattage of her smile, getting as much teeth and as little brain behind it as she could. She knew the drill. Had been living it for four years.
From the fur lining on his wheelchair, Lyle pulled a cigar the size of her forearm. She plucked it away from him.
"You've got to be kidding."
"Give it back." The words wheezed past his cracked lips.
"As your bride," her smile was sharp, letting him know the game worked both ways, "I must insist."
The photographer laughed and Lyle's scowl faded away, replaced by a calculating smile.
"You think this is gonna work?" She laid a hand on the old man's papery cheek. He was so smooth; age and disease had turned him into a river stone.
How did we get here? she wondered, sadness a dark lining to her victory.
Lyle turned toward her with obvious effort and she saw his runny eyes glittering. Nothing like a devious plan to get the old man's heart pumping.
"Watch 'em come running."
Luc Baker stepped out of the team doctor's office into a viper's nest of reporters.
Camera flashes exploded in his face.
"Holy shit." Beside him, his teammate, Billy Wilkins, who had waited for Luc after his physio appointment, winced at the blinding lights on the video cameras.
Luc didn't even blink.
Twenty years in the NHL, the last seven in Toronto; vipers were part of the job. And right now the viper's nest was well and truly stirred.
"Ice Man!" the reporters yelled, using Luc's nickname.
"Is it true you're having extensive brain surgery?"
"Is it true you have brain damage?"
"Are the Cavaliers going to buy out your contract?"
Luc smiled and lifted his hands, calming the seething knot of parasites in front of him, like a priest before a congregation.
"Luc?" Jim Muggs, from the Toronto Star, cut through the chatter. "What did the doctor say?"
Scar tissue on your frontal lobe. Possible brain-eating protein. Increased chances of lasting cognitive damage.
For a second, Luc's vision went red and his instinct was to grab Billy's crutch and clear a path of cracked skulls and broken camera equipment, just to avoid answering that question.
"Dr. Matthews says I'm good to go next year," he lied, forcing his lips to...