Excerpt

Book 2 : River’s Bend Series

1

Freedom. For the first time in too many years, Sawyer Murphy was doing things his own way. In his own time. In this wild, western land he loved. This home.

When summer arrived, fishermen would stand in Black Bear River’s rapids, casting for rainbow trout. Come fall, as colorful leaves scattered over rocks and water, bright pink salmon—which provided a buffet for the bears the river was named for—would swim upstream to their annual spawning grounds. In winter, it would become a ribbon of blue ice framed by a blanket of glistening snow.

This time of year, as the land stirred from its deep winter’s sleep, the tips of ponderosa pines shone a bright Kelly green from new needle growth, while trees whose limbs had spent the past months bare and cold were sporting coats of spring leaves. The river was running fast, fed by snowmelt flowing from Modoc Mountain, one of the peaks in the Cascade Volcanic Arc. There’d been a time, long ago during the Ice Age, when the ice and snow on the mountain had been up to three hundred feet deep.

Now, as it rushed down through wildflower-brightened meadows and evergreen forests, the water refreshed. Renewed. In the same way being back in this beautiful wilderness land he loved had always renewed Sawyer.

But not today.

A flash of sunlight hit the water, triggering a rapid-fire series of flaming images that flung him back to another mountain, thousands of miles away. As fast as it had struck, the flashback dissolved, and he was back on the Oregon riverbank.

Sawyer shook his head to clear it. Pressed his fingers into his eyes. When he took them away, he saw a woman headed toward him. Seemingly at one with her horse, Austin Merrill rode as if she’d been born in the saddle, which she’d almost been since her father had stuck her on the back of a gentle trail mare before she’d been old enough to walk.

She stopped at the boundary between their two families’ ranches. When they came together, as they had so many times over so many years, past and present collided.

Austin’s family had owned Green Springs Ranch as long as his had settled the Bar M. Not only a neighbor, she’d also been, aside from his brothers, his best friend.

When they’d been children, they’d run free through meadows and woods, swung from a rope tied to a tree limb over the river swimming hole, screeching like banshees as they plunged into the icy water. They’d gone out with flashlights, patrolling dampened grass for night crawlers to use to catch the rainbow trout Sawyer’s mother would fry to a golden brown in an old iron skillet.

They’d both begun having success on the local rodeo circuit at a young age, and although he’d watched her practice racing those barrels, by the summer after they’d graduated middle school, things had begun to shift. The wild-child tomboy who’d been as close as his brothers had, seemingly overnight, turned into a girl with shiny hair the color of winter wheat and eyes as blue as the wide western sky. She’d grown taller, and how had he never noticed that her legs, tanned to gold dust by the sun, were so coltishly long and smooth?

One day, while they were picking wild blackberries, a strap had slipped off her shoulder onto her arm. As he’d stared at that delicate white strap against her sun-gilded skin, Sawyer became all too aware that, beneath her sleeveless blue-and-white-gingham blouse, Austin Merrill had breasts.

By the time school started up again, her body was showing slender curves that tormented both his waking and sleeping hours.

He wasn’t the only one who’d noticed the change. When she’d walked down the hall of Eaglecrest High School, heads would turn and hungry eyes would follow. Since his hormones had revved up by then, Sawyer knew exactly what those other guys were thinking. And hated every one of them. Especially since, as a lowly freshman who still hadn’t grown into what would become his six feet, two inches of height, he was definitely outgunned by those upperclassmen who’d put on sinew and muscle and had perfected their slick, woman-seducing moves.

If his first year of high school had been a time of agony, their sophomore year became even worse because Austin had dipped one of her pink-tipped toes (that new, shiny polish being another thing that had driven him crazy) into Eaglecrest’s dating pool. Just the sight of her, sitting next to Brody Ames as his pickup passed the school bus Sawyer had been riding, was nearly enough to make his head explode.

Although time had passed at a glacial speed in those days, finally Sawyer’s sixteenth birthday had arrived. After leaving the DMV with his driver’s license, he’d driven over to Green Springs Ranch to pick Austin up for the party his father and grandparents were throwing for him.

She’d seemed puzzled at why she couldn’t just ride her horse over to the Bar M, as she’d been doing for years, but apparently sensing it was important to him, she’d flashed her sunny Austin smile and agreed. Unfortunately, as she climbed up into the front seat, the white shorts revealed a hint of panty line that had given him a boner even harder than the one inspired by the Miss August centerfold from the Playboy he’d stolen from Ryan’s stash. A situation that wasn’t helped when she casually put her boots up on the dashboard, making it impossible to ignore those long tanned legs. With the scent of her soap or shampoo or whatever it was that had her smelling like peaches causing his head to spin, Sawyer was relieved when he managed to pull off the short drive without running off the road.

His master plan, carefully thought out over the past months, had been to ask her to a movie at the Roundup Drive-In, where, maybe, in the privacy of a darkened car, he’d get lucky and she’d let him touch those breasts he’d been thinking of for what was beginning to feel like his entire life. All evening the words he’d rehearsed in front of the bathroom mirror ran in a continuous loop in his mind. So much so that he’d found it hard to concentrate on anyone or anything else going on around him.

And then, after the marble sheet cake with his name written over it surrounded by sixteen candles had been eaten, and the remnants of chocolate fudge ice cream were melting in the churn, he’d chickened out.

Fortunately, she’d been so merrily chatting away about the party, she didn’t seem to notice that he’d gone mute as a stone on the drive back to Green Springs. He’d have to try again. The Roundup didn’t close for the season until after the Labor Day showing. There was still time.

The problem was, back whenever they’d talk about their future, Austin always wondered why anyone would ever want to leave River’s Bend. She had no desire to chase rainbows when her pot of gold could be found right here. Working on Green Springs, getting married, having babies she’d watch grow up beneath the wide Oregon sky.

Which was why, every time he’d gotten the nerve to make his move, Sawyer’s logical mind would override his body, and later, he’d realize, his heart, and bring up all the reasons the odds of a serious relationship surviving were about even with winning Powerball. Even if they could stay together until graduation, he still had four years of college, and after that, military service ahead of him. At least that’s what he’d kept telling himself.

But the simple truth was that he’d been a coward. What if she hadn’t felt the same? Not wanting to risk the humiliation of her shooting him down, which could threaten their lifelong friendship, he’d kept his mouth shut.

He had kissed her. Once. It had been two years ago, outside the hospital where his father had been flown for urgent bypass surgery. Forgetting where they were, and letting his little head do the thinking for his big head, he’d pulled her tight against him and taken her mouth.

Hot. Freaking. Damn. It had been as if a dam had burst. Austin had definitely kissed him back, digging her fingers into his shoulders, clinging to him, pressing against him, with an eager enthusiasm that had included some hot tangling of tongues.

He’d wanted her. Then and there, and damn the consequences. With his head spinning and his knee between her thighs, pressing against her there, Sawyer’s lust-filled brain had scrambled to strategically war plan the mission logistics like the Marine Special Operations officer he was.

Where to go to get some privacy? How to get there since he didn’t have wheels due to his brother Cooper picking him up from the airport? And why the hell hadn’t he thought to buy a damn pack of condoms somewhere on the way from the airport to the hospital?

The intrusive scream of an ambulance racing down the street toward the ER had broken them apart and sent Sawyer crashing down to earth like he’d just done a HALO jump without a parachute.

It hadn’t been the place. And, once again, he’d told himself that it damn well hadn’t been the right time. Having witnessed too many wartime deaths, Sawyer wasn’t about to ask her to sit around and wait for him to return to River’s Bend safe and, please, God, in one piece.

As he’d flown back to Afghanistan, he’d assured himself that apologizing for what he’d called a momentary lapse was the right—the only possible—decision.

Which hadn’t kept his heart from feeling bull stomped when, three weeks later, she’d emailed him with the news that she’d married some rodeo cowboy she’d met in Las Vegas while she and her dad had been there as stock contractors to the National Finals Rodeo.

Their correspondence had dropped off after that, during which time Sawyer had tried, and failed, to put her out of his mind. Then one day his brother, Cooper, had mentioned in one of his daily emails that Buck Merrill had come down with post-polio syndrome and was selling off his rodeo stock. Which meant, he’d suggested, that Austin’s dad might be willing to lease some pastureland. If Sawyer was interested.

As sorry as he was to hear about Buck, Sawyer damn well was interested in the land. Then the good news/bad news got even better when his brother had tacked on the little bulletin that Austin had finally wised up and dumped her blacktop cowboy husband.

Stuck on a mountaintop in the Afghan Kush, he’d tested the waters by sending her what he hoped sounded like a casual Happy New Year email. He did not mention the husband.

She’d emailed right back, thanking him for thinking of her father. After two days of back-and-forth, while she’d only brushed over her divorce—which told him that she wasn’t exactly weeping tears into her pillow over the breakup—she’d brought up the idea of him leasing the pasture that Merrill cattle had grazed for decades.

Sawyer had jumped at the opportunity, raising the offer she’d suggested. From what Cooper had said, money was tight around Green Springs Ranch, and even after he bought some stock from his own father, he had more saved up than he’d need.

Sitting on his helmet out in the middle of nowhere, for the first time in longer than he could remember, Sawyer was looking forward to the future.

Then he’d gotten called out on that clusterfuck of a mission that had changed everything.