Rancher Jack West knows what it means to love a woman with all his heart and to lose her far too soon. A widower for seven long years, he thinks love and romance are a thing of the past, nothing more than cherished memories. He devotes himself to his grown son and his family, the horses they raise, and the land that has been theirs for three generations. He doesn't know that life has a surprise in store for him in the form of Janet Killeen, the lovely FBI agent he threw off his land last winter.
The bullet that left Janet Killeen seriously wounded also tore a hole through her life. All she wants is a little peace and quiet in the mountains, a chance to feel like herself again. That chance comes to an abrupt end when she goes off the road in a snowstorm and winds up stranded alone in a ditch. The last person on earth she wants to see is that arrogant jerk Jack West, no matter how handsome he is. But from the moment Jack finds her and offers her his hand, she realizes there's far more to this gruff cowboy than she had imagined.
But trouble is brewing at Cimarron Ranch. A deranged man with an inscrutable motive is moving in for the kill, threatening to end Jack and Janet's romance before they can claim a love that is...Soul Deep.
Read an excerpt below...
Order your copy today!
Janet Killeen gripped the steering wheel of her Toyota Corolla, snow falling so thick and heavy that she couldn't see the side of the highway. Her windshield wipers were clumped with ice and snow, the rubber blades no longer making contact with the glass. She would need to pull over soon to clean the ice off—if only she could see the shoulder so that she could pull over.
Leaving Denver had been a mistake.
She rolled down her window and scooted forward in her seat, ignoring the sharp pain that shot through her hip and pelvis at the motion. Reaching outside, she grabbed the bottom of the wiper blade. Icy flakes hit her face, the cold almost taking her breath away as she raised the blade and dropped it against her windshield once, twice, three times. The thick crust of ice and snow broke off.
She rolled up the window, turned her heater up a notch.
She'd left the city first thing this morning, hoping to make it to the mountain town of Scarlet Springs before the storm hit. She'd booked a room for a week at Forest Creek Inn, a family-run bed and breakfast, and had been looking forward to seeing the aspens and maybe even sitting on a horse again. It was part of a promise she'd made herself, her way of celebrating her survival and the end of rehab.
Having grown up in Hudson Falls in upstate New York, she always yearned for fall color, and the only place a person could find that in Colorado was in the high country during that brief couple of weeks when the aspens turned. It had become her yearly ritual, the one time of the year she put aside her badge and her duties as an FBI special agent and let herself go.
Forecasters had predicted up to eighteen inches in Denver and a good few feet in the mountains, but when were the forecasters ever right about Colorado's weather? Last week, they'd predicted snow, and Denver had gotten hail and funnel clouds instead. Of course, they'd just had to be right this time.
You should have turned back.
Yes, well, it was too late for that now. She needed to reach Scarlet Springs—or find someplace she could pull off the highway and wait for a break in the storm.
She glanced down at the speedometer. Ten MPH. At this rate she'd get there faster if she got out of the car and ran. Except that she couldn't run. She would probably never run again. She was lucky to be able to walk.
You're lucky to be alive.
Last February, a sniper bullet intended for journalist Laura Nilsson, whose protection detail Janet had managed, had ripped through Janet's left hip, shattering the joint, breaking her pelvis, severing her sciatic nerve, and damaging her vaginal muscles before exiting through the front. Doctors had replaced her hip, used plates to put her pelvis back together, reconnected the severed nerve, and stitched her vagina, but her body would never be the same.
Gone were the days of running daily 10Ks and rock climbing on the weekends. Though she had learned to walk with a cane instead of a walker, her left foot still dragged. She didn't know whether she'd ever be able to ski or ride a horse or even enjoy sex again. Little things she'd always taken for granted were difficult now—grocery shopping, keeping a clean house, getting a full night of pain-free sleep.
And then there were the nightmares.
Gun shots. Screams. Pain.
That single bullet hadn't just ripped through her body. It had torn a path through her life. Byron, the skier she'd been dating, had ended things during her second month of rehab. He'd said that he'd changed and needed to move on, but she'd known he was turned off by her lack of mobility and had run out of patience waiting for them to have a sex life. But that wasn't all of it. When she returned from this little vacation, she would be going back to work, but not to the position she'd held before the shooting. She'd be taking a desk job instead. An agent who couldn't run or stomach the thought of holding a firearm was an agent who couldn't leave the office.
The life she'd known had vanished in a split second, and she missed it, even grieved for it, crying tears she didn't share with anyone.
Melodie, her younger sister, saw this as a sign that Janet should leave the FBI, find a husband, and start a family before it was too late. Setting aside the fact that Janet's biological clock seemed to have wound down, her injuries would likely make sex and pregnancy difficult even if by some miracle she could get pregnant.
Janet and Melodie were very different people. Melodie had always wanted to be a mother, and Janet had always wanted to be a superhero and save the world. It wasn't that Janet didn't want a husband or kids, but her life as a special agent had been busy and fulfilling enough without them.
Besides, finding a husband wasn't like shopping for patio furniture. A woman could spend years looking for the right man and still not find him. Janet had had her share of boyfriends and lovers, but after Byron, it seemed to her that a woman might be better off on her own.
Despite whatever her sister might think, Janet didn't regret her choices, not even her decision to volunteer for Laura's protection detail. She had always admired Laura and was proud to have played a role in saving her life. Laura had just married Javier Corbray, that sexy SEAL lover of hers. Seeing her move on from the hell that had been her life to claim some happiness had been the best reward Janet could have received.
She would adapt and find a way to do the things she loved again. That's exactly why she'd made this trip—to reclaim some part of her life for herself.
Snow had begun to build up on the wipers again, the tail lights of the truck that was at most ten feet in front of her barely visible. Janet rolled down her window once more, scooted forward, then grabbed the wiper blade and tapped it against the glass, dislodging the snow and ice.
It seemed to be coming down even harder now, the wind driving the snow straight into her windshield. How could the driver in front of her even see where he or she was going? Were they blindly following someone else's tail lights like she was? If so, what was guiding the person in front?
She needed to get off the road. She tried to remember if there were any gas stations or small towns between here and Scarlet Springs. She didn't think so. The only place she knew of for certain was the Cimarron Ranch, but she wouldn't stop there even if she knew where it was. Jack West, the man who owned it, was as big a jerk as he was handsome. She'd had a less-than-pleasant exchange with him when she'd gone there as part of Laura's protection detail to make certain the place was secured.
I know every man, woman, and child on my land, SA Killeen. I don't need you checking IDs or running background on my people. I understand you want to protect Ms. Nilsson. So do I. But I've got twenty men here, every single one of whom knows how to use a firearm. They've all been made aware of the situation. Laura is safe under my roof. I guarantee you that. Now, either come inside for a bite to eat, or get the hell off my property.
She'd only been trying to do her job, and West had ordered her off his land as if she'd been nothing more than a trespasser. She'd been furious at—
Ahead of her, the red tail lights swerved. The highway seemed to vanish from beneath her tires, the car sliding sideways down a steep embankment, coming to a rest with a sickening crunch.
Janet found herself holding the steering wheel in a death grip, her heart slamming in her chest. She took a few deep breaths, tried to dial back on the adrenaline.
Way to go, Killeen. This was one way to get off the highway.
She wasn't hurt, and the car was no longer moving—two reasons to be grateful. The car had come to rest at close to a forty-five-degree angle, what looked like a fence post pressing against her crumpled passenger side door.
She knew there was no way for her to get back onto the road, not without trading her Corolla for, say, a M1 Abrams tank. She would have to call for help. The tow would probably cost a small fortune, to say nothing of the damage to her car and the fence.
Consider it all a tax on stupid.
She turned off the vehicle, took off her seat belt, and bent down to retrieve her handbag off the floor. She pulled out her cell phone. No bars. "Damn it!"
She had no choice but to climb back up to the road. She might be able to flag down a trucker with a radio who could call for help on her behalf. Or maybe someone would come along who was willing to give her a ride to Scarlet Springs.
She grabbed her cane and pulled up the hood on her parka, determined not to be one of those drivers who wandered from their vehicles high in the mountains and froze to death. She pushed the door open—lifted it, really—then turned in her seat and tried to step out of the car into the snow. Her feet slipped, and she fell, instinctively reaching out with her hands to stop herself, her legs sliding beneath the car. The door swung down, almost hitting her in the face before she caught it.
Using her cane to steady herself and support her weight, she crawled out and got to her feet again, sidestepping the door and letting it slam behind her. Then she began to climb the embankment.
There couldn't be more than twenty feet between her and the highway, but it might as well have been a mile. Last winter, she would have been able to do this without difficulty, but now it was a struggle. Again and again she slipped, gaining only a few feet despite intense effort, her thigh and hip aching, sharp flakes of snow biting her face.
A wave of white billowed down on her from above, knocking her backward down the embankment, losing her all the ground she'd gained.
Snow from a Colorado Department of Transportation snowplow.
Thanks a lot, CDOT.
Chilled to the bone, she shook off the snow, climbed to her feet, and tried again, this time setting her cane aside and attempting to crawl up the slope, dragging her left leg behind her. But the snow was too deep, and she was soon out of breath and badly chilled.
If she didn't stop, she'd soon be hypothermic.
By the time she was back in the car, she was exhausted, freezing, and in pain. She would have to wait here until the storm let up. When the snow stopped, she would wave out the window at passing drivers. Someone would see her and call for help. In the meantime, she had a space blanket, water, ibuprofen, her Kindle, and chocolate covered almonds. It wasn't the Forest Creek Inn, but it would do.
Jack tossed the last bale into the bed of his Ford F-250 pickup, the cold biting his nose, the air fresh with the scent of new snow. A good four feet had fallen overnight, and the National Weather Service was saying the mountains could expect more this afternoon. He needed to get hay up to the herd in the high pasture before the flakes began to fly again.
He'd been working since before dawn, plowing the road to the ranch's front gate then seeing to the horses. His son, Nate, normally took care of these things, but he'd stayed at the family townhome in Denver, not wanting to drive up the canyon with Megan, his wife, and Emily, their daughter, in the middle of a blizzard. Jack supported that decision. He didn't like taking chances with the lives of those he loved.
Chuck, the ranch's foreman, stepped out of the barn. "Want me to come along?"
Jack frowned. "Is that your way of saying you think I'm too old for this shit?"
"You kidding, boss?" Chuck laughed. "You're in better shape than most of the younger guys."
"If that's true, I ought to fire the lot of you." Jack grinned, opened the cab door, and climbed into the driver's seat. "Say, did you get the last of this business with Kip resolved? I don't think ill of the man, but I don't want him having the keys to the bunk house now that he's no longer an employee."
Jack had been left with no choice but to fire the man. Kip Henderson was a great cattleman, skilled with steers and horses, but he was also a slave to the bottle.
"I took care of it yesterday. I've got his key on my desk."
Jack shut the door, buckled the seatbelt. "I appreciate that."
Chuck stepped back to give the truck room. "See you when you get back."
Jack turned the key in the ignition, the 385-horsepower engine roaring to life. He headed down the road toward the main gate, his gaze traveling over the valley. Apart from his time in the army, he'd lived his entire life here, the third generation to call this mountain valley home. His family had done well, running black angus and breeding quarter horses, managing to hang on through thick and thin to a way of life that had largely vanished from the state.
The Cimarron had been transformed overnight into a landscape of white, ribbons of golden aspen, dark patches of evergreens, and crags of red rock adding color to the mountainsides. The beauty of it was enough to take a man's breath away. Then the sun peered through the clouds on the eastern horizon, sending a shaft of pink light across the snow, making it sparkle.
Theresa, you would love this.
Whether Theresa could hear his thoughts, Jack couldn't say, but after almost forty years of being married to her, it was hard to experience life and not want to share it with her. She'd died seven years ago of an aneurism, and Jack had never stopped missing her. One moment she'd been inside making lunch, and the next she'd been gone. He'd found her lying on the kitchen floor, and his world had come crashing down.
Still, life went on, and Jack had had no choice but to go on with it. When Nate had been wounded in Afghanistan, badly burned in an IED explosion, Jack had devoted himself to helping his son heal and regain his strength. Now Nate was happily married, his wife Megan and their little Emily bringing joy back into the house.
And if there were days—and nights especially—when Jack felt lonely, well, that was just the price he paid for the privilege of having lived so damned long.
Nate had given him his blessing to remarry and wanted him to join some online dating service, but Jack couldn't see how any good could come of that. Not that he didn't have anything to offer a woman. There was the ranch, of course, and he had money. And, unlike a lot of men his age, he didn't need a pill to get an erection. But he hadn't dated in forty years and wasn't sure he'd even know what to say to a woman.
Hell, no, that wasn't for him. He'd been married once and knew what it was to love a woman and be loved in return. He and Theresa had made a good life together, and they'd had a son. Now, she was gone, and Jack's job, as he saw it, was to be there for her son and his family.
He reached the main gate, which he had already opened, and turned onto the highway. The road was slick and snow-packed—not surprising given how much snow had fallen. It was unusual for the state to get a blizzard this early in the fall, but this was Colorado. He'd seen it snow on the Fourth of July.
He was about a mile east of the turnoff to the high pasture when he saw a fence post out of alignment with the others. It took a moment longer before he realized why the post had been knocked to the side. A car had slid off the road, down the embankment, and struck the fence. The car itself was all but concealed by a big snowdrift, just a bit of tail light and rear bumper showing. CDOT plows must have buried it during the course of the night, concealing it under a few feet of snow and slush.
Someone was going to have a fun time digging that out.
He continued on to the access road and turned off the highway, stopping to lower the snowplow. It was slow going the rest of the way as he cleared the road. By the time he reached the pasture, the cattle were waiting for him.
He parked the truck, got out, and climbed up into the bed, cutting the cords that bound the bales and tossing hay over the fence to the hungry animals, mostly pregnant cows. They jostled against one another, lowing, their breath sending up clouds of condensation.
"Mind your manners, ladies. Someone might think you were raised in a barn."
When he'd spread the hay out over the snow, he got back into his truck and headed home, his mind on a hot shower and strong coffee.
Bitch and moan though he might, he loved this life. Other people were out there right now fighting traffic on the highway so they could sit in offices all day doing bullshit work for other people, and he was out here, breathing mountain air, being his own boss, and doing the kind of work that left a man's body tired but filled his soul.
Back on the highway, he made a mental note to repair that fence post once the owner of the car had their vehicle towed. As he passed the car, he saw that the headlights were on. Was someone down there?
He pulled off onto the shoulder, parked, then called Chuck on his sat phone. "Hey, I'm on my way back. There's a car off the road just past mile marker one-thirty-three. I think someone's still in the vehicle. I'm going to check it out."
He turned on the truck's hazard lights and pocketed his keys, then climbed out of the pickup. Why anyone had gone out in yesterday's blizzard without all-wheel drive was beyond him. Didn't they realize they were in Colorado?
He grabbed a snow shovel out of the back, then crossed the road, snow squeaking under his boots. The slope was steep, and he slipped and slid his way down to the vehicle. A few minutes of shoveling, and he'd managed to unbury the driver's side window.
Through the frost-covered glass, he could just make out a woman's face.
She rolled down the window. "Jack West?"
He found himself looking into a pair of familiar green eyes. Her dark hair was a longer than the last time he'd seen her, and there were lines of weariness on her face. Still, he recognized her immediately.
"Well, hello, there, SA Killeen. It seems you've run into a little trouble."