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Five hundred acres of gorgeous California land is a life-changer for cousins Cash, Jace, and Sawyer—and a surprising chance for each of them to find a game-changing love . . . Sheriff Jace Dalton’s plate is piled high even before he discovers a stranded motorist just a few miles from his home. With two lively young boys to raise, a challenging reelection to win, and a hefty tax bill due on the ranch, all he wants at the end of the day is a shower and a cold beer. But the woman in the packed SUV clearly needs his help—and though she’s a stranger, Jace finds himself wanting to turn her haunted look into a smile . . . Fleeing her abusive boyfriend, Charlotte Holcomb thought she’d escaped before she lost everything, but more heartache was to come. Now, sidetracked by a brewing storm, Charlotte has to trust the handsome sheriff. Just one night, she tells herself, before she’s on her way again. But when gentle Jace and his kids offer the kind of sanctuary she never imagined possible, it’s hard to say goodbye. Soon the two wary strangers are becoming friends, and longing to open their hearts to more—if they can move beyond the pain of their pasts . . . PRAISE FOR COWBOY UP “Stacy Finz delivers a fantastic tale of cowboys, cattle rustling and the power of love and family in the California gold country.” –Kate Pearce, New York Times bestselling author
Release date: February 4, 2020
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 242
Reader says this book is...: entertaining story (1) happily ever after (1) heartwarming (1) realistic characters (1) terrific writing (1) unputdownable (1)
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Jace Dalton pulled to the side of the road, rubbed the bristle on his chin and tried to remember whether he’d shaved that morning.
It had been that kind of day.
He checked the clock on his console. Five. Not so late. Then again he’d been up since dawn.
He let out a loud yawn, exited his vehicle and crossed the two-lane road, one hand lazily resting on the butt of his service weapon. He stuffed the other in the pocket of his down jacket.
There was a CR-V parked on the wooded shoulder, perilously close to the road. In less than an hour it would be dark and a motorist coming around the bend might not see the SUV in time. From a distance, the vehicle appeared vacant, though it was hard to tell.
The nearest services were a good five miles away and Highway 49 was three in the other direction. He hadn’t seen anyone hiking along the roadside, at least not in the direction he’d come from.
As he got closer, he walked around the hood of the car to get out of the line of traffic and peered through the fogged windshield. The driver seat was in a reclining position. Something resembling a bundle of clothes lay on it. He blew out a breath that turned white in the cold and tapped on the passenger window.
The bundle moved, and his hand reflexively gripped his gun tighter.
“Unroll the window, please. And put your hands on the steering wheel where I can see them.”
The window came down and a pair of brown eyes stared back at him. That was all Jace could see because the person was covered in a hooded coat and wrapped in a blanket.
He leaned in the window and scanned the back seat and the trunk area, which was packed with suitcases, clothes, cartons, and overstuffed garbage bags. It looked like someone’s entire apartment.
How long the vehicle had been on the shoulder like that was anybody’s guess.
“You can’t park here,” he said. “There’s a campground six miles down the road, a motel off the highway, or a shelter in Nevada City.”
California’s homeless problem had spread from the big cities to the state’s rural areas. While Dry Creek hadn’t attracted too many vagrants, its neighboring towns had seen an influx. Jace didn’t know why they came here. In late January, the Sierra Foothills weren’t a particularly hospitable place for someone living out of a car or on the streets. Temperatures dipped into the twenties. And just up the road, where the elevation reached 2,500 feet, they got snow.
“Okay, I’ll go.” The voice was barely audible but distinctly female.
He took a few steps back and when the woman made no move to leave, he leveled his gaze at her. He’d meant what he’d said. She couldn’t stay here. He was about to give her directions to the shelter but noticed she was clutching her stomach.
“Are you okay, ma’am?”
“I’ll leave now.” Her eyes welled as she reached for the ignition.
Jace couldn’t let her get on the road if there was something truly wrong. He hadn’t smelled alcohol on her breath or seen any signs of drug use. But clearly there was a problem.
“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to step out of the car.”
She doubled over. “I…don’t…think…I…can.”
He reached in the window, opened the door, and tried to lean across the passenger seat. A pile of clutter was in the way. “What can I do to help you?”
She didn’t answer, just continued to grip her midsection. He spotted an open box of saltine crackers on the floor and a bottle of carbonated water. Maybe she had a stomach flu.
“Is there someone I can call?” he asked, hoping there was someone local.
“No.” She wrapped the blanket tighter around her and tried to sit up straight and adjust herself in the seat. “I’ll be okay…just need a few seconds.”
That’s when he saw the blood. A small pool had settled in the seam of her seat. He’d missed it before when the folds of her wool coat had draped over the chair.
“Ma’am, you’re bleeding.”
She whimpered. “I think I’m having a miscarriage.”
He dragged his palms down his legs and observed her for a few seconds, trying to assess what to do next.
As a patrol cop he’d helped deliver a baby in the back of a pickup once. He’d also seen his fair share of gunshot and knife wounds. Auto wreck injuries were his bread and butter. But never a miscarriage. Not ever.
He crouched down. “When did the bleeding start?”
“I’m not sure.” She grimaced. “The cramping about thirty minutes ago, that’s when I pulled over.”
The closest hospital was twenty minutes away in Auburn, only a little bit farther than the nearest firehouse. He could get her to the emergency room faster than waiting for an ambulance and didn’t think moving her himself was any more dangerous than leaving her by the side of the road until the paramedics could come.
“I’ll take you to urgent care, okay?”
“No,” she protested. “There’s nothing anyone can do.”
Her reaction seemed odd to him. Shouldn’t she want help? He couldn’t force her to go, but he couldn’t leave her here like this, either.
“Maybe there is,” he said. “Maybe they can save the baby.”
She darted a glance at him, her eyes shining, and he saw it. Hope.
“Okay.” She started to open her door but he stopped her.
“Let me come around in case of cars.” Even while he’d been focused on her, a few trucks had whizzed by. Besides the campground, there were more than a dozen homes off the windy road.
“My SUV,” she said suddenly. “I can’t leave it here. Everything I own is in it.”
“I’ll get one of my deputies to park it at the station.”
She shook her head. “No! I’ll drive myself.”
There was no way she could drive in her current condition.
He walked around the front of the CR-V, took her key from the console, locked the door, and hid the fob in the dirt. “It’ll be safe, I promise.” He scooped her out of the vehicle before she could object and found her purse next to the box of saltines.
She started to struggle, gasped, and clutched her stomach again.
“Put your hands around my neck,” he said. She wasn’t much heavier than his fourteen-year-old, but he wanted to give her something to hold on to.
Her hands were ice-cold, and he made sure to secure the blanket around her as he settled her into his front seat. “I’ll get the heater going.”
Her eyes were closed but she wasn’t asleep, just checked out.
“You with me?”
She nodded but he was starting to worry. He got on the road, called the hospital to let them know he was coming, and flicked on his light bar. He left the siren off because he didn’t want to scare her.
The second call was to dispatch a deputy to fetch her car. Then to Mrs. Jamison. He briefly explained the situation and asked her to drop the boys at Cash and Aubrey’s house. His cousin and his cousin’s fiancée lived on the ranch, just a short walk from Jace’s. If they weren’t home, his other cousin, Sawyer, would be.
“You have children?” she asked when he got off the phone.
“Two boys. Travis is fourteen and Grady’s nine.” He glanced over at her. Her eyes were still closed and her arms were wrapped around her middle like she was literally trying to hold herself together.
“That’s nice,” she said, slowly rocking back and forth.
“We’ll be there soon. Are you sure you don’t want me to call someone?” Her husband? A relative?
She jerked and her hand clenched the edge of the blanket. “I’m sure.”
“All right.” If she was homeless, Jace suspected she had no one to call. The world was filled with tragedy. In his line of work, he saw it every day. Still, to be alone like that… “What’s your name? I’m Jace. Jace Dalton.”
She didn’t answer, and to Jace it seemed like she was somewhere else entirely. Lost in the physical pain and the emotional anguish of knowing she was likely losing her child.
Jace drove in silence, leaving the woman alone with her thoughts. He was out of his depth on what to say anyway and hoped that his quiet presence gave her at least a small measure of comfort.
By the time he pulled up to the emergency room, the sky had turned dark and moody. When he opened his door a gust of wind hit him and the air smelled pungent. The forecast predicted showers, but it felt more like a storm.
An orderly met them at the ramp with a wheelchair and Cash lifted her out of the passenger seat. A rust stain now covered the part of the blanket that had been tucked under her bottom. She was still bleeding.
“My purse!” She snapped out of her trance and held her hand to her chest. “Oh God, I left it in my car.”
Jace registered that she was wearing a diamond wedding ring and filed the information away for later.
“I got it. It’s right here.” He dug the handbag off the floor of his back seat and placed it in her lap, noting that, like the ring, the purse looked expensive.
They went inside, where she was quickly whisked away.
“Evening, Sheriff.” The desk clerk waved.
“Evening, Kay.” Other than a woman with a small child, the waiting room was nearly empty. The hospital served three counties and there were times when the emergency room’s small lobby was standing room only. “Slow night, huh?”
“It’s still early.” She motioned behind her where the exam rooms were separated by a wall. “You waiting, or do you want us to call someone?”
“Nah, I’ll hang out for a while.” Jace didn’t know if they’d keep her overnight. He supposed if they released her he could always have a deputy shuttle her to her car. But he didn’t feel right about leaving her alone.
There was a hat rack by the double glass doors and he hung his Stetson, then took a chair near the television, where he scrolled through his phone. Cash had texted that he and Aubrey had the boys. His family was good that way. As the Mill County sheriff, his schedule was often unpredictable.
About fifty minutes later a pregnant couple came through the door. Jace overheard the man tell Kay that his wife was cramping, which turned his thoughts back to the woman. He still didn’t know her name.
He wasn’t so sure anymore that she was homeless. The handbag and the plaid pattern of the blanket reminded him of a designer brand that Mary Ann used to go nuts about and cost roughly a month of his sheriff’s salary. Then there was the wedding ring. He didn’t know how he’d missed that the first time.
No, not homeless.
A more likely scenario was that she was moving, which would explain the cartons and clothing. The Honda had California plates, but he didn’t recognize her being from around here. Then again, her face had been mostly obscured by her hood.
Jace found the TV remote and flicked on the news. The pregnant couple had been escorted to one of the exam rooms, leaving only him and the lady with the child in the waiting room. He glanced over at her to make sure she wasn’t bothered by the sound of the television. She smiled, fluffed her hair, and tried to strike up a conversation, when one of the emergency room docs came through a pair of swinging doors.
“Sheriff.” He nodded at Jace and motioned for him to follow him back to where the exam rooms were.
They went inside a small office with white walls and generic pictures of Gold Country. The doctor shut the door. Jace took a seat and the doctor wheeled a stool to the countertop desk.
“You know anything about the patient you brought in?”
Jace had seen the doctor a few times before. Unfortunately, as a cop and a father of two young, rambunctious boys, he was more familiar with the ER than he wanted to be. Still, he didn’t remember the doc’s name and had to look at the tag on his white lab coat.
“Nope. I found her in her vehicle on Lakewood Road. She okay?”
“She suffered a second-trimester miscarriage, which isn’t all that common. But not unheard of. There’s no indication of an infection. We’re running tests for chromosomal abnormalities, but my suspicion is trauma. A beating, to be precise.” He paused and locked eyes with Jace to see if he understood.
“She was assaulted?” Jace didn’t know why it surprised him. He’d been in law enforcement more than a decade. Still, there hadn’t been any bruises Jace could see, just the blood from the miscarriage.
The doctor shifted in his chair. “There are physical signs of injuries consistent with abuse. Her back is black and blue with contusions and she has a hematoma on her left leg, as if someone pummeled or kicked her repeatedly. And her demeanor…She doesn’t want us to call anyone, refuses to give us access to her medical history, and won’t supply us with a home address.”
“What about medical insurance?”
“She claims she doesn’t have any.”
That, in and of itself, wasn’t hard evidence. A lot of people didn’t have medical insurance.
“Her name?” Jace asked. “Did she give you that?”
“Charlie Rogers.” The doctor lifted a brow. “I suspect it’s not real since she won’t give us an address. She does, however, have a driver’s license with that name.”
Jace snorted. With Photoshop and a piece of heavy card stock he could be Buster Posey. But why a fake ID? Unless she was trying to disappear, which was nearly impossible in this day and age.
“Is a social worker talking to her?” Jace asked. It was protocol.
The doctor pinched his lips together. “She refused.”
“I’ll talk to her.” But if she’d already refused to talk to the doctor, Jace didn’t expect he’d have any better luck. It wasn’t atypical for victims in these types of cases to refuse to report their abusers. “Are you releasing her tonight?”
“We’d rather not. She’s passed most of the fetus and placenta. I gave her something to pass the rest and for the pain. But she should be monitored. She says she doesn’t want to stay.”
No one could force her to.
“Let me see what I can do,” he said, though a female social worker would’ve been better equipped. He grew up on a cattle ranch and was raised by a rough-and-tumble cowboy. Needless to say, Jace didn’t have a lot of finesse in these situations.
And the woman had just lost her child.
“I’ll check to see if she’s ready for a visitor.” The doctor left the office and Jace went in search of a men’s room.
He took a leak, washed his hands and face, and checked his phone. Grady had sent a miss-you emoji, which probably meant Cash or Aubrey had given him a nine-year-old’s equivalent of a time-out for misbehaving.
He went outside, leaned against the wall, and called his cousin. “Everything okay?”
“Yep, we just had dinner. How ʼbout you?”
Jace couldn’t remember the last time he ate. Breakfast maybe. “I’m gonna be a while. The boys behaving?” They were probably celebrating Mrs. Jamison’s last day. They’d managed to run her off too.
“They’re good, Jace. They did their homework and are now watching TV. Why don’t we keep them overnight and get them to school in the morning?”
Jace looked up at the sky. Lots of angry clouds. A storm was definitely coming, he could feel the electricity in the air and smell the sharp scent of ozone. “If it’s not too much trouble, I’d appreciate that.”
“You got it.”
He signed off and went back inside.
“Doctor Madison says you can go back,” Kay told him. “She’s in exam room five.”
Jace passed through the double doors again and the duty nurse waved to him from behind her station. “When are you taking me dancing, Sheriff?”
“As soon as I learn how to two-step.” He winked, crossed the floor, and knocked on number five’s curtain.
“Come in,” came a weak voice.
When he got inside, she was gathering up her coat and purse from the chair. She was pale and her eyes were ringed with deep, dark circles. But even in her pallid condition, she was beautiful. He could tell that right away. Not the kind of woman he was usually drawn to, too understated. She was a little younger than him, maybe in her early thirties, with long dark hair, almond-shaped brown eyes, and a slight overbite. She seemed petite but it was hard to tell in the oversized scrubs she had on.
“Mrs. Rogers”—his eyes slipped to her ring again—“you mind if we talk?”
She rested a trembling hand on the exam table. Jace got the impression she was using it to hold herself up.
“I would like to get to my car now, please.”
“It’s securely parked at the station, about twenty minutes away. Nothing will happen to it. Why don’t you sit down for a second?”
She did, but Jace suspected only because standing was difficult.
“You can’t drive in your condition.” He pulled up a chair and straddled it. “The doctor thinks you should stay here, let the nurses monitor you.”
She didn’t respond, staring vacantly at the wall.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Rogers. I’m terribly sorry for your loss.” He started to reach for her hand and thought better of it.
She swiped at her eyes. “I need to go.” Her voice was barely above a whisper.
He tilted his head so they were eye level. “You’re safe here.”
She shakily got to her feet, clutching her purse, coat, and a plastic bag with her soiled clothes to her chest. “Please…take me to my car.”
There wasn’t a whole hell of a lot he could do to keep her here, short of arresting her.
“Ma’am, I have to ask you a few questions first. Okay?” He looked at her, hoping to compel her to sit back down, even though she was dead set on leaving. But to where? That was the question.
She let out a huff of frustration, waited a beat, and finally took the doctor’s stool in the corner of the exam room.
“Is your home safe?” he asked softly, knowing he sometimes came off gruff and he didn’t want to frighten her. Although he’d been trained in how to handle victims of domestic violence—and that’s what he thought she was—he’d only done it a handful of times.
“Yes,” she answered quickly, not meeting his eyes.
“Is there someone in your life who makes you feel unsafe?” He tried to make eye contact with her, but she lowered her gaze to her short brown leather boots.
“No.” She swallowed and lifted her chin defiantly. “Why are you asking me these questions?”
He took a deep breath and, in that instant, decided to take off the kid gloves. “Are you being abused, Mrs. Rogers? Because Doctor Madison thinks you are…He thinks it’s the reason for your miscarriage.” She started to protest and he held up his hands. “No one’s judging you, Mrs. Rogers. All we want to do is keep you safe.”
She started to respond but clutched her stomach instead. “I have to use the restroom.” She winced while trying to unfold herself from the stool. He jumped to his feet to help her but she rejected his hand. “I’ll meet you in the waiting room.”
In essence, she was telling him his Q&A was over. He watched her leave the exam room, hunched over in pain, then scooped up the rest of her belongings and made his way to the lobby.
He waited by the glass doors. It was raining now and even from inside he could hear the wind howling.
“It’s really coming down,” Kay said.
The waiting room was as quiet as when he had gotten here. An elderly man now sat in the place where the mother and child had been.
“Yep, looks like we’re in for a soaker.” He stared out the window, thankful that his SUV was still parked at the curb.
The woman…Mrs. Rogers…emerged a few minutes later and Jace joined her at the desk. She signed a release form and paid her bill—in cash. Jace watched as she counted out more than a thousand dollars. No wonder she’d freaked out about her purse when they’d first arrived.
He grabbed his hat off the rack, helped her with her coat, and held his own over her head as they rushed outside to his vehicle. “Not a good night to be out on the road,” he said, hoping she would see the foolishness in him taking her to retrieve her car.
She responded with stony silence and wrapped her arms around herself.
She nodded. He cranked up the heat, then pulled out of the parking lot onto Highway 49. The rain was coming down in sheets, lashing his windshield. He turned the wipers to full force and still had trouble seeing the road in the glare of the headlights from oncoming traffic.
He slid her a sideways glance. It was difficult to see in the dark, but under the glow of an occasional streetlamp her face still appeared ashen. “You okay?”
“Yes,” she said, then took a long pause. “Thank you for waiting for me.”
Once they got out of Auburn the constant pelting of rain made visibility worse. Afraid of hydroplaning, Jace took the road much slower than he usually would. Next to him, she sat motionless, perhaps asleep.
About halfway to Dry Creek, she stirred. “I’m sorry I kept you from your family.”
“It’s part of the job,” he said. “How about you? Do you have someone expecting you tonight?”
She didn’t answer. No surprise there, but he wanted to open the line of communication and hoped that away from the hospital she might feel more comfortable telling him what was going on.
A bolt of lightning lit the sky, followed by a clap of thunder. Beside him, he felt her tense.
“Mrs. Rogers, why don’t you let me take you to a motel? Even in the best of circumstances, it’s not a night for driving. I can have a deputy deliver your car.”
She silently rested her head against the passenger window and let out a long, low sigh. “All right.”
He’d like to think that she’d finally come to her senses, but was more inclined to believe that she just didn’t have the wherewithal to drive in this weather after what she’d been through. He should’ve been more persistent about her staying overnight at the hospital. The idea of her being alone in a hotel room didn’t sit well with him, but he supposed it was at least something.
“There’s a place about three miles from here,” he said. “Nothing fancy, but it’s clean and family operated.” The Goldilocks Motor Lodge. He’d gone to high school with the owners’ son.
“Okay. Thank you.” Her voice sounded broken.
Up the road he took the turnout to the motel, a long row of stone cottages that hadn’t been updated since the ʼ90s. There was a pool in the courtyard where the wind had blown a deck chair onto the cover.
He pulled under the wooden porte-cochere over the office. “I’ll go inside and get you a room, if that’s okay?”
She nodded but followed him inside the lobby anyway. There was a fire going in the woodstove at the other end of the room and a wreath left over from Christmas.
Nell was working the desk. She raised her head from the book she was reading and looked curiously at Charlie Rogers’s blue scrubs.
“Evening, Sheriff. Miserable outside, ain’t it?”
“Yep, but we could sure use the rain.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
“Nell, Mrs. Rogers here needs a room.”
Nell shook her head. “’Fraid we’ve got no vacancies. Between the weather and that Teddy Bear Convention in Nevada City, we’re all booked up.”
Shit, he’d forgotten about the International Teddy Bear Convention at the Miners Foundry. It was an annual event and brought thousands of collectors to Gold Country, including historians from all over the world.
“You know if the Prospector Inn has rooms?” It was more expensive than the motor lodge and off the beaten path, but it would serve.
“Nope. They’ve been sending folks here.”
Okay, well that posed a problem. There were a number of B and Bs in the area, but he suspected most of those were full too. He could call around, but typically the local innkeepers turned on their answering machines after eight.
“There’s the Swank,” Nell offered, and Jace silently groaned. Back in high school they used to call it the Skank, and unfortunately it hadn’t changed since then. The motel, an old Howard Johnson’s from the 1950s, was off 49, next to a bar that catered to bikers.
“Thanks, Nell, we’ll check it out.”
They got back in his SUV and he sat there for a few minutes, considering the options. Everyone stayed at those Airbnbs now, but he didn’t know anyone with a room to rent. He blew out a puff of air, knowing he was about to break one of his hard-and-fast rules of never taking the job home with him. But in this situation he didn’t see any way around it, other than to drop her off at the station and let her sleep in one of the jail cells.
No way would she make it to Roseville where lodging was plentiful. Even in good weather, the Sacramento suburb was forty-five minutes away, and she was in no condition to drive. It hadn’t escaped him that on the short ride from the hospital, she’d gone from bad to worse, stooping over in her seat and holding her belly.
He started the engine for the heat and turned to her. “I live in a big house with five bedrooms. The guest rooms are in a separate wing. It’s warm, it’s dry, it’s safe, and it’s relatively clean. And it looks like it’s your only option.”
Her eyes grew wide and she wrung her hands. “We’re strangers.”
He waved at the raging storm outside. “It’s strangers or that.” If it was anyone besides himself he might not be so cavalier about a woman going home with a man she didn’t know. “May I be blunt, Mrs. Rogers? Staying in the home of the county sheriff appears to be less risky than whatever…whoever…you came from.” He gave her a pointed look.
She swallowed hard and gave an imperceptible nod. The poor woman could barely keep her eyes open. He suspected it was the painkillers.
Jace pulled away from the Goldilocks Motor Lodge. The turnoff to Dry Creek Road was five miles away and they drove it in silence while the rain turned to hail pellets the size of bullets. With only her soft breathing in the background, he wondered if she’d fallen asleep.
As he climbed his muddy driveway, the motion lights on the garage went on.
She lifted her head and became suddenly still. He wasn’t sure if it was her reaction to the grandeur of the ranch house or a statement about how unsettled she was with coming here.
“It was my grandfather’s,” he said about the house, try. . .
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