The small mountain town of Nugget, California, has a strange way of giving people unexpected reasons to start over—and find the most irresistible chances to fall in love... Maddy Breyer needs to prove she can make her own life after betrayal blew up her previous happily-ever-after. Staying totally focused on renovating a decrepit mansion into a bed-and-breakfast might help her—and this recession-hit town—finally turn things around. But the mysterious new sheriff is the kind of lawbreaking temptation that's an even bigger challenge to resist... Detective Rhys Shepard is only back in Nugget long enough to care for his ailing father. He's got a big-city promotion far away from this place that never accepted him. He does not need a sudden crime wave to solve. Or one leggy case of heartbreak stirring up all kinds of trouble and challenging his rules. Which might explain why he's suddenly finding it hard to leave... Praise For Stacy Finz “Finz is a unique new voice. Nugget, California is a charming small town filled with inventive characters and sweet romance."--Jill Shalvis, New York Times bestselling author of the Lucky Harbor Series "Tender and touching, Stacy Finz writes romance with heart."--Marina Adair, #1 National bestselling author of Summer in Napa 98,000 Words
Release date: June 9, 2015
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 306
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When his dad looked up at him with those basset hound eyes Rhys actually felt sorry for the old man.
“You listening? You’re looking at grand theft here. That’s a three-year sentence.”
They’d been at it for nearly forty minutes and Rhys was about to throw up his arms in defeat. Out of professional courtesy the Plumas County sheriff’s investigator had given him a heads-up about his dad’s arrest. Rhys in turn had called a highly recommended local attorney, jumped on a plane to Reno, and driven the eighty-one miles in a lousy rental car across the Nevada-California line to Quincy, the county seat.
If they didn’t resolve this mess soon, he’d miss his flight back to Houston. With the two-hour time difference, he wouldn’t get home until midnight, and he had to be in court in the morning to testify on a case he’d solved.
But Rhys was starting to panic. Stan Shepard might be a mean SOB, but he was no thief. And his lack of memory and fits of confusion didn’t seem to be an act.
“Pop, you okay? What’s going on with you?”
Stan, known simply as Shep by what few friends he had, responded, “You gonna make me some of that Dinty Moore stew, boy?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” Rhys banged his head against the institutional green wall of the nine-by-nine-foot sheriff’s interrogation room.
“You’re gonna hurt yourself, son.”
He hadn’t heard his dad’s lawyer come in. For a big guy, he was light on his feet. “Where the hell have you been?”
Del Webber didn’t seem to take offense. “Been getting your old man’s test results.”
“What test results?” No one had told Rhys about any tests.
“Psych eval.” Del grabbed a chair and dragged it over to the conference table that anchored the windowless room, motioning Rhys to do the same. “You want the good news first?”
Rhys remained standing. “Yeah, sure.”
“Sit down, Detective. This might take a little time.”
Rhys sagged into one of the folding chairs and rested his elbows on the table. Shep continued to sit in the corner, staring into space.
“For now, they’re holding off on officially charging him.”
“How’s that?” Rhys had worked for Houston PD going on eleven years now. He knew the drill. “Mental incompetence?”
Del took off his cowboy hat and set it down on its crown, then ran his fingers through what little was left of his hair. “Although there is no definitive diagnosis, it looks like your dad’s in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s. I’m sorry, son.”
Rhys probably should’ve felt a whole range of emotions, including grief. All he felt was inconvenienced. “They putting him in a state hospital?”
Del shook his head. “I can make this whole thing go away. He probably misplaced a few of his own things and thought these were his.” He looked over at the collection of stolen goods: a set of keys, one of those gaudy figurines they sold in shopping mall jewelry stores, a Kodak camera, and some corroded jumper cables. The gun and the ring.
“I don’t know about Nugget anymore, but in Texas people don’t take kindly to someone walking into their home and making off with their stuff.”
Del frowned, running his hands through that thin hair again. “The truth, Rhys, is he probably was disoriented. Didn’t even know he was committing burglaries. People around here are pretty forgiving.”
Rhys got up and paced the room. “What am I supposed to do with him? He obviously can’t be left to his own devices.”
“Maybe find one of those assisted-living facilities. Our doctors said there will be times when he’s totally lucid. But he’ll need medical care and someone to watch over him.”
Rhys looked over at his father. They shouldn’t be talking about him as if he wasn’t sitting in the same room. But Shep seemed more preoccupied with a loose thread on his shirt than he did with their conversation.
“You ready to go, Pop?”
He lifted his head as if seeing Rhys for the first time that day. “You gonna make me some of that Dinty Moore stew?”
Rhys turned to Del. “You want me to write you a check?”
“I know where you live. You’ll get my bill in the mail.” He grabbed his hat off the table and gave Rhys’s shoulder a fatherly squeeze. “I’m truly sorry, son.”
Rhys acknowledged Del’s condolences with a slight nod of his head and gently tugged his father up out of the chair. “Let’s go home.”
Home? When had he ever thought of Nugget as home? Even though Rhys had lived there a good part of his life, he’d always felt like an outsider, like someone peering through a picket fence, watching a party he hadn’t been invited to. Something about that kind of alienation, the hollowness of it, made Nugget the loneliest place in the world.
He maneuvered his father past the front desk and out the door into the parking lot. It was colder here than it had been in Houston. He wished he’d thought to bring something warmer than a sweatshirt. His dad’s denim railroad jacket wasn’t any heavier, but he seemed oblivious to the temperature. Rhys hustled him into the front passenger seat and got behind the wheel.
“What do you say we blow this popsicle stand?”
Shep didn’t respond, just stared out the window as Rhys headed east on Highway 70. The last time he’d been back was twelve months ago for the funeral of his best friend Clay’s father. Shep hadn’t bothered coming to the chapel to pay his respects, but Rhys had called on him anyway. Like always, they’d had nothing to say.
It’d been Rhys’s only visit since peeling out of town eighteen years earlier. With nowhere in particular to go, he’d just wanted to get far away from Nugget—to a new place, where no one knew him and he could reinvent himself.
About the only good thing in coming back was he’d get to see Clay again. The McCreedys had been ranching in Plumas County for four generations. Clay knew everything about these mountains. And everybody. Rhys grabbed his cell phone and punched in Clay’s number. When voice mail came on, he left a message, then tried his lieutenant. His partner would have to pull court duty while Rhys took a few days to get his dad settled.
Thirty-five minutes later he rolled into downtown Nugget. The place was looking a little long in the tooth. But the surrounding snowcapped mountains and hulking pines still awed him. Funny how when he told Texans he was from California they automatically conjured up images of palm trees, sandy beaches, and balmy Santa Ana breezes. It was late September. In a month, Nugget, located in the northern Sierra Nevada, could be socked by sleet and snow.
He drove up Donner Road to the two-family home where he’d grown up. It hadn’t been much then and looked even worse for wear now—little more than a double-barrel shotgun shack, housing the Shepards on one side and Old Lady Brown on the other. But it was spitting distance from the Union Pacific Railroad depot, where Shep, up until the time he retired, reported to work every day. The house practically sat on the tracks. As a kid, Rhys had hardly noticed the constant roar of diesel engines and the piercing blows of train horns.
“We’re here, Pop.” Rhys got out of the car and helped his dad out of the passenger seat, noticing for the first time how frail he’d gotten. He could feel the sharpness of Shep’s bones through the flimsiness of his dungaree jacket.
“I’m hungry, Rhys.”
That caught Rhys off guard. He couldn’t remember a time when his father had actually called him by his name, the only remaining vestige of his mother’s Welsh heritage. Other dads sometimes used nicknames: Shortstop, Sport, Buddy. He was just “Boy.” Or if his old man was in a particularly foul mood, “You good-for-nothing little punk.”
“Let’s get inside and I’ll fix you something to eat.” Rhys turned the knob and smiled when the door gave way with a little shove of his shoulder. People still didn’t lock up in Nugget.
The old plaid fold-out sofa that Rhys used to sleep on still sat against the main wall in the living room. The linoleum floor, nicked and worn with age, had been swept clean and smelled of disinfectant. As he walked through his father’s bedroom to the kitchen in the back of the house he noted that the place remained as sparse and neat as the day he’d left it.
Rhys hunted through the pantry for a can of stew, checked the expiration date, and chucked it in the garbage can. “You’ll have to settle for soup, Pop.”
He grabbed a cast-iron pot off a shelf above the stove, found a can opener in one of the drawers, heated the soup, and reached by rote into one of the upper cupboards for two bowls, which he set on a small Formica table in the corner of the room.
His dad took one of the chairs while Rhys served them lunch. He tested the soup to make sure it wasn’t too hot and waited to see if his father could feed himself. “This okay?”
Shep slurped down a few spoonfuls of chicken and noodles and nodded. They ate in silence while the old man cleaned his bowl.
“You want more?” Rhys asked.
“Nah. I’m good.”
Rhys finished the last of his broth and pushed his bowl away. “Mrs. Brown still live next door?” He thought his father seemed a little more clearheaded now that he’d had something to fill his belly.
“That’s too bad.” Although Rhys meant it, he’d never liked her much.
Through the thin wall that separated their two houses, he knew she’d heard him crying as a boy on those miserable nights his father left him alone to work on the railroad. Instead of assuring him that she was just next door—there if he needed her—she’d cranked up the volume on her TV set. At least he’d had Johnny Carson to keep him company. “Anyone living there now?”
“Nope.” Shep took his bowl to the sink. He gazed out the window as if trying to get his bearings, and fiddled with the faucet uncertainly until a spray of water came out.
“Want me to do that?” Rhys called to him.
Shep didn’t answer, just placed his bowl on the drying rack and turned in the direction of his bedroom. “Get some sleep, boy.”
Rhys didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was only two o’clock. He washed his own bowl and stepped out onto the back porch, resting his elbows on the wobbly railing so he could admire the fall leaves on the trees that dappled the edge of town and inhale the familiar scent of wood smoke from the neighboring chimneys. The trains didn’t run as frequently as they used to—he hadn’t heard one since being back at the house. But the sound of the Feather River rushing at full throttle made Rhys think of record rain and snowfalls.
As he peered down on the town, he felt nostalgic for the kind of childhood he should’ve had. What boy wouldn’t love growing up in a place like this? A safe and endless playground of rivers and lakes, trees and fields, cow and horse pastures. Snowboarding and sledding in the winter. Swimming and inner tubing in the summer. Fishing, nearly year-round.
Now looking at it, Rhys found it hard to believe that Nugget had ever been prosperous—first, during the gold rush, later, when loggers from around the country discovered the area’s abundant fir and pine forests. The railroad eventually followed, so that lumbermen could ship their timber downstate. More recently, the place had become a mecca for weekenders, skiers, hunters, and outdoorsy types. But like every other rural town in America, when the recession hit, Nugget took it in the shorts. Badly.
His father had moved them here from Utah to work as a brakeman for Union Pacific when Rhys was just two. He’d never known his mother, who, according to Shep, had run off with a Mormon dentist to live the high life in Salt Lake City shortly after Rhys was born. Something about Nugget must have resonated with Shep, because no matter how solitary his meager existence got here, he’d never left this little town.
But tomorrow Rhys would have to start looking for a care facility for his father, and the likelihood of finding one near Nugget was next to nil. Shep would never make it through one of Texas’s hot, humid summers. Not that Rhys wanted him living there. He’d made sure over the years to put a lot of miles between him and his father. Sacramento or Reno seemed like the most logical choices. And the sooner Rhys got him tucked in the sooner he could get back to Houston. Back to his life.
“Hey, if you’ve got cigarettes, I’ve got beer.”
Rhys pivoted fast on his feet and broke into a huge grin at the sight of his best friend. “You scared the shit out of me.”
“Well, you know Nugget—full of toughs and ne’er-do-wells,” Clay said. “Gotta keep on your toes.”
“You learn that in the Navy?”
“Sneaking up on me from the side like that.”
“Nah. You were just deep in thought.”
Rhys gave Clay a big bear hug. “How the hell are you?”
“From the sound of things, better than you.”
Rhys eyed the grocery bag Clay carried. “I gave up smoking when I went through the police academy.”
“Well, hopefully you didn’t give up drinking.” Clay pulled a six-pack of Sierra Nevada and a bottle of Patrón from the sack.
“Looks like your taste has vastly improved since high school.” The two of them used to shoot Cuervo Gold with Pabst Blue Ribbon chasers while smoking packs of Marlboros they’d filched off his old man.
“Just my booze. I still like my women cheap.” Clay laughed and took a seat on the porch steps. “It’s good to see you, man. I just wish it was under better circumstances.”
Rhys joined him on the stairs. “How’re the boys?”
Clay rubbed his temples. “A goddamn handful. Probably payback for everything we pulled. My dad’s gotta be laughing in his grave.”
Both he and Clay had been raised by single dads. Although Tip had enough love in him for two parents, it couldn’t have been easy.
“What’s Justin? About fourteen now?”
“Yup. Cody just turned eleven. The biggest little shit you ever saw.”
Rhys smiled, but quickly turned serious. “I’m sorry I didn’t make it to Jen’s funeral. I was in the middle of a big case and—”
Clay absolved him with a wave of his hand. “You came for Tip’s. I didn’t expect you to come back six months later.”
“I should’ve come for you . . . for the boys.”
“Things were pretty much over between us when she had the accident.” Clay stretched his legs down the length of the staircase. “But it’s been hard on the kids. Apparently even a bad mother is better than no mother.”
Rhys had met Jennifer only a couple of times in San Diego. She’d seemed nice enough—though a little overdone for his taste. Unlike Clay, he didn’t go for women who put their wares on parade. And Jen with her low-cut tops, her too-short skirts, and that mane of bottle-blond hair was a veritable window display. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been satisfied with men just looking.
“The kids like living on the ranch?” Rhys used his car key to pop the cap off one of the Sierra Nevadas and took a long drag.
Clay also grabbed a beer from the pack, but seemed more intent on peeling the label off the bottle than drinking from it. “It took them a while to adjust. They liked San Diego and missed their friends. But they’ve made new ones and I think they’re sort of tickled by having dogs, horses, and cattle. So stop changing the subject. What’s the plan for Shep?”
Rhys pulled his hood over his head. Damn, it was getting chilly. “Del suggested an assisted-living-type deal.... Thanks for the referral, by the way. Good guy . . . So I guess I’ll check out a few in Sac and a few in Reno, see which ones I like best.”
Clay nodded. “Sounds like a viable plan. He have insurance for that sort of thing? I hear they can get pretty expensive.”
“Shep’s never been too open about his finances.” He eyed the dilapidated duplex warily. “I’d say it’s not great—probably a pension from the railroad and social security. But he had pretty good benefits. Hopefully that carried over into retirement. I’ll have to check.”
Clay opened his beer and took a swig. “Any way you’d consider sticking around? Maybe hiring one of the ladies from town to help out with him?”
“No can do.” From the time he’d landed in Reno and had crammed his six-three frame into a compact rental car, he’d counted the hours until he could get back on that plane and hightail it out of here. “I’ve got a job in Houston, a good apartment, and a nice schoolteacher I’m seeing. Besides you, there’s nothing for me in Nugget.”
Clay continued tearing strips of the label off his bottle. He stuffed the shredded paper in his pocket and leaned toward Rhys. “Hear me out on this. There’s talk of hiring a new police chief. Ever since Duff retired, the town’s been contracting with the sheriff’s department out of Quincy. Folks here aren’t happy at all with their response time. Sometimes it takes a deputy forty-five minutes to get here. In an emergency . . . hell.”
Rhys had to laugh at that one. “Emergency? What around here amounts to an emergency? Floyd Simmons getting stuck in the mud? Someone stealing eggs from Tessa Barnes’s chicken coop?”
“That’s bullshit now, Rhys. With the weekender population this town’s grown to nearly six thousand people. We have our fair share of crime. Maybe not the same caliber of crime you have in Houston. But look at it this way: the less law enforcing to do, the more time to fish.”
Rhys smiled. “You got me there.” He lifted his chin. “What about Frank or Deets? They still with Nugget’s finest?”
Clay tilted his head back and laughed. “Rhys, they were old even when we were kids. Frank died six years ago and Deets is in some retirement home near Las Vegas.” Clay pulled another beer from the six-pack, but didn’t open it. “Now we’re completely reliant on the sheriff’s department. So if you took the job, you’d get to hire your own staff.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” Rhys said. “But it ain’t happening.”
Two weeks later
The place was modest to say the least. Maddy had to walk through the bedroom to get to the kitchen, and the bathroom was in the back of the house.
But with a little imagination, she could probably make it habitable. Maybe even cute. Since deciding on her move to Nugget she’d put off house hunting until the last minute. At least this little duplex apartment would only be temporary. As soon as the contractors spiffed up quarters in the soon-to-be-renovated Lumber Baron Inn, she’d move in there so she could supervise the entire overhaul. In the meantime, she could walk to the inn from here.
“So you taking the place?” The guy who’d introduced himself as Rhys Shepard, the duplex owner’s son, leaned against the doorjamb.
“Maybe,” she said, noticing the way his shoulders filled the doorway. Maddy suddenly wished she’d put on makeup, maybe even worn her hair down instead of piling it up on top of her head like a mop.
She gave the apartment one last walk-through, staring out the windows at the breathtaking views. She could see the river, snow-covered mountains, and the town, which from here looked almost quaint.
“Did the Donner Party come through here?” she asked. Ever since her brother, Nate, had found her holed up in her Pacific Heights Edwardian, inconsolable over her husband’s deception, and had dragged her to Nugget, she’d become obsessed with the tragedy. She stared out at a distant mountain peak and thought maybe it happened there. Maybe that’s where the snowbound pioneers started feasting on the dead.
She’d have spatchcocked Dave, that’s for sure.
She turned to face Rhys. “Is that why this street’s named Donner Road?”
“Yeah . . . I think so. If you’re not interested—”
“I’ll take it.” She reached in her purse for a checkbook. “Deposit and first month’s rent, right?”
“That’ll do you.” He continued to stand there while she wrote the check. “So, you’re fixing up the old Lumber Baron place?”
“Yes. How’d you hear about it?” she asked.
He grinned, showing a nice set of white teeth against his tan skin. “The whole town’s talking about it. No secrets in Nugget.”
She caught him checking out her wedding ring as she handed him the payment.
“Let me get you the key.” He disappeared into his dad’s side of the building and returned a few minutes later. “Here you go.”
“Thanks. I probably won’t need it until Monday,” she said, stashing the key in one of the zippered compartments of her handbag. “That’s when the movers are bringing my stuff.”
“You know what time? Mine’s also coming Monday. I don’t think there’s enough room in the driveway for two trucks.”
Her curiosity must’ve shown, because he gave her a tight smile and said, “I’m your new neighbor.”
“I thought your dad lives here?” The apartment barely had enough space for one person, let alone a second, tall, really built one.
“Me, too, now.” He didn’t elaborate, just jutted that strong square jaw of his at her in a way that said, Wouldya answer my original question?
“Hopefully in the morning. What time’s yours scheduled?”
He shrugged. “They’re coming from Houston, so whenever they get here. Maybe it won’t be a problem. We’ll have to play it by ear.”
“Texas, huh?” Curiosity was killing her. “Job transfer?”
“Something like that,” he said, and Maddy thought she detected a tint of bitterness in his voice. “When’s your husband arriving?”
When he’s done screwing our best friend’s widow. For all Maddy knew Gabby had already joined Dave in Paris. “I’m not sure yet,” she answered, gazing out at the railroad tracks. “Do the trains run frequently?”
“Only every four or five hours.”
As if reading her mind, he said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it,” and flashed those pearly whites again.
Maybe it was just Maddy, but the smile seemed slightly sadistic. She got the feeling that moving here didn’t rank high in his top picks of places to live and you know what they say . . . misery loves company.
“Well . . . I guess I better get going. I have a meeting with the contractor and the carpenter.” Folding the rental agreement, she stuffed it in her purse.
He pushed himself away from the door. “I’m on my way to the bowling alley, too. Want a lift?”
She jerked her head up in surprise. “How’d you know the meeting was at the bowling alley?”
He grinned again. “I told you: no secrets in Nugget. You want that ride?”
She looked over at her new Subaru. The locals told her she’d need all-wheel drive for the rough winters. So she’d traded Dave’s right-out-of-the-showroom Porsche Carrera for an Outback and kept the change for her divorce fund.
What the hell. She’d take a ride with a stranger. It was just a short walk back and Maddy could certainly use the exercise. Ever since finding Dave and Gabriella’s emails she’d been eating nonstop, lying on the couch, watching the Shopping Channel, stuffing her face with Cheez-Its. At one point she’d thought about taking a pair of scissors to her husband’s designer suits, scattering his pant legs and jacket arms across the front lawn. Instead, she’d just wolfed down another morning bun. The Porsche had been Nate’s idea. All that business acumen had turned her brother vicious.
“Thanks,” she said and got in the passenger side of the Ford Focus while he held the door open.
“It’s a rental,” Rhys said. “My truck’s coming with the movers.”
Maddy tried not to roll her eyes. “You grow up around here?”
She fastened her seat belt and waited for him to say more, but he didn’t. “So what was that like? Growing up here?”
A deep chuckle rumbled through his throat. It was a good manly sound that gave her a little tingle. “I left as soon as I turned eighteen. So that should tell you how much I liked it.”
“Is that when you moved to Texas?”
“Went to Alaska first to work on a fishing boat. Heard through the grapevine that Houston PD was hiring, so I moved there a few years later.”
“Oh. So you’re a police officer?” Maddy thought his ruffled hair and five-o’clock shadow looked a little scruffy for law enforcement.
“Narcotics detective, actually. After Katrina, I got promoted to sergeant.”
“So what brings you back to Nugget?”
He let out a breath. “I found out a couple of weeks ago that my dad has Alzheimer’s. I took a six-month leave of absence from the department so I can work things out here.”
She reached out and touched his arm as it rested on the console. “That’s awful about your dad. I’m so sorry. What about your mom, siblings, can’t they help?”
“Don’t have any, it’s just the two of us.” He turned onto the square, parked the car, but left the engine running. “So what’s your story?”
“Well, not so much to tell. My brother and I are planning to rehab the Lumber Baron and turn it into a luxury inn.”
He looked skeptical. “Luxury and Nugget. Now there’s an oxymoron.”
Her thoughts exactly. But she stuck to Nate’s spiel. “This place is a dream for outdoor enthusiasts. But other than the campsites in the state park and a few motels and rustic cabins, there are no higher-end lodging options. Not unless you schlep all the way to Reno, Truckee, or Tahoe.” She removed her safety belt and turned sideways in her seat. “It’s not like we’re building a Ritz or anything, just a more comfortable alternative to what’s already available. Not all adventurers want to rough it.”
He made a face. “Y’all know what you’re doing?”
Disarmed by his brusqueness, she laughed. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure we do. My husband’s family happens to own one of the largest luxury hotel chains in the world.”
“Didn’t hear you mention him being involved in this little venture of yours. Just your brother.”
He was blunt. And perceptive. “My brother owns one of the best known hotel management companies in San Francisco. And my parents operate high-end boutique inns in the Midwest. Does that work for you?”
Rhys cut the motor and turned to face her. “I didn’t mean to offend you, sugar. It’s just—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” she stopped him. “Do I look like a sugar to you?”
He gave her a cheeky grin. “Excuse my Texas . . . What I was trying to say, Miz Breyer”—he drew out bo. . .
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