Sheriff Blake Gatlin has moved to rural Montana for a fresh start. When he meets Brandyne, a single mom of five who’s struggling to make ends meet, he’s determined to be the only man to help her out.
Brandyne wants to stand on her own two feet, though, very aware that Blake might not jump in for a ready-made family. However, when her past comes knocking, she’s forced to decide between love and what’s right for her children.
Brandyne Parker was most noted for her starring role in a Christmas pageant at the age of six. She had been voted head of student council in middle school and most likely to succeed at the age of fourteen. She had a mother and a father, who’d also had six other mouths to feed. She, being the eldest and the wisest, as her mother had pointed out, only had to follow some common sense: stay focused at school, work hard, and don’t fall for some no-good dreamer. After all, Brandyne had everything, brains and beauty, and she was expected to be homecoming queen in high school, which would only have opened more doors for her. The problem was that everything changed the day she met William, or rather Willy, Barkley. It had all started one sunny June day when Brandyne’s good friend talked her, against her better judgement, into cutting biology class and slipping off to the rodeo that was in town for the weekend.
Truth be told, this was the first time she’d skipped, but her favorite teacher, Mr. Rheaume, had been away sick, and instead Mrs. Potter, an old woman with thick glasses and a bad attitude, cranky as all hell, was filling in. Because of that one moment in time, Brandyne’s bright future slipped away. Yes, all her goals, her carefully charted plans, got tossed out the window because of a cocky smile, a handsome face, and the skintight wranglers of one cowboy riding the broncs. Add in a beer or two, and their chemistry was off the charts. She let him sweet talk her into the back of his pickup at a pullout at the edge of town, and she not only lost her virginity but fell head over heels for a rodeo star. Nine months later, she had Rita, the first of five, in Sweet Rock, Wyoming, at the age of eighteen. Rita was now fifteen years old, and she had been followed by Colton, now fourteen, Hadley, now ten, Nora, now six, and Emma, now four. Each had been born on the road in a different town, a different place, each a symbol of another rodeo lost.
But Brandyne and Willy were far from a love story. Willy followed the rodeo circuit, and Brandyne tagged along, living in tents, trailers, whatever Willy could find as he chased the buckle, the booze, and, if she was honest, the women. Soon he became a washed-up rodeo star, dumping Brandyne and their five kids in Columbia Falls at a local park and promising he’d be right back after he took care of a few things. Now, almost a year later, she hadn’t set eyes on him again.
“Mama, where’s that white blouse of mine?” Rita asked. Her eldest had stunning dark hair, an oval face, and long legs—the image of Brandyne as a teen. Unfortunately, she was also far too boy crazy for her own good.
“It’s hanging out back on the line,” Brandyne called out from the small living room in the older three-bedroom house where she lived rent free, courtesy of a nice older couple from the community church. Her new friends Kim and Bruce Siegel and Andy and Laura Friessen were also all about helping out when they could, and this house and all their assistance had come at a time when Brandyne couldn’t have sunk much lower. With not a dime to her name after Willy had cut and run, she’d been found squatting in a rundown shack behind Andy’s place with her children by the sheriff, Blake Gatlin, a man who had terrified her before surprising her with his kindness.
No, Brandyne knew she needed more time to figure things out, to get back on her feet, to keep her kids fed and try to make sense of this mess. She was folding clothes, making three piles, one for clothes the kids had grown out of and two for everything else that needed patching, from holes in the knees to tears. The smallest pile would be the clean clothes that still fit, which she could put away for her kids.
“Mama, how come Rita is going out on a school night?” asked Hadley, who was looking more and more like his daddy every day, with his big blue eyes and square jaw and a stubbornness that reminded her he was his father’s son.
“She’s not going out on a school night. Whatever would give you that idea, anyway? Now put these clothes away and help me out here so I can get dinner finished,” she said as Emma raced into the living room barefoot, wearing only her underwear. Her brown curls were a tired mess, and freckles dotted her face. “Where are your clothes? You turn around and go put them on right now. Nora?” she called out. Her second youngest was supposed to have been watching Emma.
“She is going out, Mama,” Hadley said. “I overheard her on the bus today from school making plans with Mark Overland, and they said they were meeting at the Tasty Freeze after supper.”
Brandyne stared down at Hadley as Nora walked in. She could hear Rita and Colton, both teenagers, arguing about something. “You must have heard wrong.”
“What is it, Mama?” Nora asked. Her shoulder-length mop of hair was in need of washing, and her faded yellow t-shirt was too small.
“I thought I told you to watch your sister. Why is she running around half naked?”
“She won’t keep her clothes on! She keeps pulling them off. Why don’t you make her keep them on? She won’t listen to me,” Nora said, frowning.
Of course Nora didn’t want to watch her sister. For a moment the scene reminded Brandyne of her and her own siblings—and of her mother, who’d struggled to keep things together. Dirt poor seemed to be a legacy she was proudly continuing. Brandyne reached for a yellow nightgown folded in the pile on the sofa and grabbed her youngest to pull the thin gown over her head. “Rita!” she called out as a lock of hair dangled in her eyes, coming free from the messy bun she wore.
Brandyne glanced over to see her eldest in a nice white blouse, her dark hair brushed straight, a hint of blush on her cheeks as she stood with her siblings. “What is this I’m hearing about you planning to go out, and on a school night, no less?” she said just as Emma grabbed her leg and started bouncing. She heard a sizzle from the tiny kitchen and knew the potatoes she’d put on had just boiled over. “Oh no…” She reached down and lifted Emma into the tattered old brown easy chair that had come with the furnished house, and she raced to the kitchen and lifted the lid from the boiling pot, then turned the burner of the old yellow stove to low.
“I’m just meeting my friends for an hour or so,” Rita said, having followed her into the small galley kitchen. Its white cupboards and brown wallpaper were at least three decades old.
“Sheriff’s here, Mama,” Colton called out.
Brandyne heard voices and the door squeaking. “Were you not planning on asking?” she said. “What’s going through your head there, girl?”
She opened the oven door and took a look at the chicken legs, which appeared done. She slipped on a pair of blue hot mitts and lifted out the casserole dish, just one of many items the church people had pitched in and donated. She’d never expected this kindness from strangers. Even the sheriff stopped in often just to check and see how she was doing, as he said— to chat, to listen. Every time he seemed to come bearing something. Just the week before it had been used bikes for the kids, and the week before that, the church had donated a box of food, a grocery mart gift card, and some bounty from someone’s garden. Blake was always a bearer of kindness from the townspeople.
“Of course I was going to ask you, but you were busy, as you usually are, and I was waiting until dinner before bothering you.”
Little arms reached around her leg and grabbed hold again.
“Here, be helpful and take your sister off my hands for a bit,” Brandyne said, handing Emma to Rita as Hadley and Colton slid into the kitchen. Just then, the sheriff appeared behind them. He had thick dark hair and handsome features, not a pretty boy but a man who took things seriously, tall and lean and solid. He looked damn fine in just about anything he wore.
Rita didn’t say a word, just huffed out a breath and stomped out, holding her sister’s hand and all but dragging her. All Brandyne could do was gesture helplessly to where Rita had walked out before pointing at the boys. “Go get washed up for dinner and then set the table for me.”
Then there was no one in the kitchen but her and the sheriff, a man who, over the past year, had stopped in often to see how she was doing, whether she needed anything. He had been a friend, a confidant, but the chemistry that zinged between them was, at times, like lightning. Not once had he ever crossed a line with her, though. It was a pity, but then, what could she expect? At her age, with a houseful of kids, she had baggage that could fill a semi.
“Looks like you’ve got your hands full,” he said.
All she could think was Yeah, any man in his right mind would keep his distance.
She is frequently a Top 100 bestselling author in multiple genres, such as romance, western, military and mystery/suspense. She has written multiple series, including The Outsider, Walk the Right Road, The Wilde Brothers, Saved, The Friessens, and her two newest additions, Married in Montana, and her high-stakes suspense and sizzling, red-hot romance series, Kate and Walker, Deadly, Dangerous and Desired.