One divorce, one mind-blowing kiss with a stranger (code name: Matthew McConaughey), and one year later, Joey Nix desperately needs to find a job in Nugget. It’s the only chance she’ll have of sharing custody of her sweet little daughter with her soon to be remarried, renowned surgeon ex-husband. Luckily, Joey’s qualified to work as an in-home caregiver. Coincidentally, a job offer comes from the afore mentioned unforgettably sexy stranger (real name: Ryder Knight). It’s a terrible, irresistible idea . . .
Ryder needs help with his ailing, depressed mother, and darn if Joey isn’t the best candidate. Good thing he’ll be sleeping in his camper, because their chemistry is still crackling. Besides, the loss of his wife and unborn child five years earlier have left Ryder squarely focused on his trucking company—and even that’s on shaky ground. Still, Joey knows how to lift his mom’s spirits. And his too—despite a troubling secret she’s shared with him. But when she asks him to accompany her to her ex’s wedding, Ryder “I don’t do weddings” Knight will have to do a lot of soul searching. What he discovers just might surprise them both . . .
PRAISE FOR STACY FINZ
“Sweet humor, well-defined and appealing characters, and just enough adventure sports and fashion detail make Finz’s print debut, and series launch, a delightful read.”
—Library Journal on Need You
“Stacy 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
Release date: May 18, 2021
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 242
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Joey Nix hopped out of her car and watched as the man she’d nicknamed Matthew McConaughey alighted from his 18-wheeler. His brown suede cowboy boots stepped off the running board, and a pair of long, denim-encased legs followed.
He tipped his hat and graced her with a grin that showed off those pearly whites. “Fancy meeting you here.”
She moved in, took a fistful of his collar, flattened him against his tractor trailer, and caught his mouth with hers. He tasted good, like coffee and man. And he felt even better. Big and strong and something else Joey couldn’t quite identify. Perhaps a little dangerous but at the same time safe. It didn’t make sense, but she didn’t dwell on it. Instead, she closed her eyes and let him take her away.
Unlike her ex-husband, who didn’t want anything to do with her, McConaughey kissed her back, cradling the back of her head with his hands. He angled her face so he could take the kiss deeper, exploring her mouth with his tongue. The scent of his aftershave, or maybe it was just soap, drove her up.
She moved closer, feeling the evidence of his arousal pressing against her. Long and hard. The hot pull of his mouth made her whimper. She could’ve sworn she heard him laugh, but she was too enthralled with his kiss to care.
Even the chatter of the men gathered outside the Ponderosa had faded into the background, their voices nothing more than a dull whisper.
His hands moved down her sides and around to her back, where his fingers reached her backside. His mouth, hot and hungry, continued to devour her. It was then that she realized she didn’t even know his name, even though they’d been flirting with each other for weeks.
She started to ask him, but his lips had moved to that sensitive spot behind her earlobe and she forgot her own name. He left a trail of kisses across her jaw and recaptured her mouth, his hands skimming the waistband of her jeans.
If they weren’t careful, they’d be arrested for indecent exposure.
Somewhere in the distance a car backfired, the sound so jarring that they pulled apart. She immediately missed the warmth of his body and the intoxicating pull of his mouth.
“I thought you were married.” He cocked one booted foot against his rig and grinned in that slightly sarcastic way of his, giving her naked ring finger a scan for good measure.
“I was.” She pressed her key fob to unlock her car door. Five more seconds in his presence and she’d follow him to the hotel down the street or any other place he wanted to go. How could she feel that kind of longing for a stranger and only a mild sensation of nostalgia for the father of her child?
“Yeah?” He gave her a long appraisal. “What does that mean?”
“It means that I’m not anymore.” With that, she got in her car and drove away.
She was halfway to Reno when she remembered she still didn’t know his name.
“So, this is it, huh?” Ryder tossed the keys in the air. Thirty days ago, with the scrawl of a signature, he’d signed his life away.
“It’s all yours, Ryder. Congratulations, and welcome to Nugget,” said Dana, his real estate agent.
Ryder switched his gaze from the small Craftsman cottage to the detached one-car garage. Dana had called it a carriage house, which sounded a whole lot fancier than it was. If he squeezed it in real tight, he might be able to fit a John Deere tractor mower. Definitely not his truck.
The house was also pint sized. But he’d purchased the place for the property, ten acres of mostly flat land. Enough for a couple of buildings to house his long-haul trucking business. The location was also primo. Smack-dab in the middle of his route and a quick drive to Reno. Only a mile from the Feather River—good fishing—and about five to the main highway, which in less than an hour could get him to Interstate 80, a major transcontinental corridor that connected California to New York. His trucking route rarely took him that far east, but depending on how he grew the business, it could. He had all kinds of plans.
His company had started small, just him and a Peterbilt truck and a livestock trailer. Back then, he’d driven solely for rodeo contractors, delivering bucking stock to arenas across the country. He’d bought the rig with his own National Finals Rodeo championship winnings. But over the last five years, his business had expanded to livestock hauling of all kinds and included sixteen tractor units, fifteen semitrailers, fourteen drivers, and a bookkeeper. He wasn’t wealthy by any stretch, but he made a good living. Enough to afford a nice piece of California real estate.
“Thanks, Dana. And thanks for the gift.” He held up the basket that had been elaborately wrapped in cellophane and tied with a big bow.
“It’s my pleasure. I hope you’re happy in your new place. When’s your mom coming?”
“A week.” He needed the time to give the house a good scrubbing. But first on his agenda was an in-home caregiver.
“If there is anything you need, just holler,” Dana said, her hand idly resting on her protruding stomach. A month ago, when they’d started shopping for property, he hadn’t even noticed she was pregnant.
Ryder raced ahead to open her car door. “Say hi to your husband for me.”
“I will. We’re all excited to have you as our new neighbor.”
For the last year, he’d been making pit stops in Nugget to either pick up livestock from surrounding ranches to deliver to feedlots or to park his big rig overnight. Through his old rodeo buddy, Lucky Rodriguez, he’d gotten to know many of the locals while enjoying the hospitality of Nugget’s only bar and sit-down restaurant and its only inn. It was a small town and a crew-change site for the Union Pacific Railroad. But a good many of its residents were cattle ranchers, or like Lucky, raised rodeo stock. They’d provided Ryder with plenty of business.
As he watched Dana’s car jackknife down his long driveway, he thought about the possibilities here. Roots. Something he hadn’t had in more than half a decade. He’d been renting space in a trailer park in Oakdale and living out of his fifth wheel. Most of the time, though, he bunked in his sleeper out on the road.
Staying in one place too long had been difficult after the accident. It had made him feel like he was drowning in quicksand.
Ryder didn’t know if it would be any different this time around. But for the sake of his mother, he had to at least try. It was just a place—an inanimate object—to hang his Stetson when he wasn’t on the road, he reminded himself.
He carried the basket up the porch steps, bouncing up and down on the treads to test their strength. Solid but ugly. Nothing that a little sanding and painting couldn’t fix.
He opened the door with his new key and let himself in. It was as stuffy as hell. Putting the basket down on the kitchen counter, he went around the house, opening windows, mentally adding screens to his shopping list. At some point, he’d have to install central air-conditioning. It was May, and the temperature was still tolerable. But here in the high Sierra, June was hotter than a pancake griddle.
He looked around, taking stock of the house. It was a hundred years old, according to Dana, and had once been the foreman’s residence when the property was part of the old Montgomery sheep ranch. The ranch had since been divvied up into smaller parcels, many of which had been sold years ago for grazing land. His had been listed to appeal to a residential buyer and had sat on the market for years. He didn’t know why.
Although the house wasn’t much—just twelve hundred square feet of nasty, mismatched carpet, kitschy wallpaper, and chipped tile countertops—it had a wide front porch and a sunny interior. And it still had the original moldings and baseboards from the 1900s, great wainscoting, coffered ceilings, and quarter-sawn white oak flooring underneath the ratty carpet.
The kitchen had been updated in the fifties, complete with one of those O’Keefe and Merritt stoves, which he kind of liked. The trashed linoleum flooring, not so much. But it wouldn’t take a lot of effort—or cash—to bring it into the twenty-first century. A fresh coat of paint on the wooden cabinets, new countertops, and it would be like new.
He’d already lined up a local contractor to refinish the old wood floors. He could peel off the wallpaper himself and plaster and paint. That was just cosmetic. His top priority, though, was making the house safe for his mother.
Since her stroke, she had problems with coordination, balance, and dizziness. The doctor had suggested twenty-four-hour in-home care while she worked with a physical therapist to get her mobility back.
Before the stroke, Siobhan Knight had been a spry sixty-six-year-old. Now, all it would take would be one bad fall, and she’d be back to where she’d started. Ryder wasn’t taking any chances.
He eyed the bottle of wine in Dana’s gift basket, thinking it would be nice to celebrate his new acquisition. On further reflection, he didn’t want to drink alone. He’d spent two years doing that and little else. Bad habit. He stuck the bottle in the pantry and unpacked the rest of the basket, hoping he wouldn’t be sharing his treats with nesting critters. According to Dana, the house had been vacant for at least three years.
He had a good two hours before the first—and only—caregiver candidate arrived for an interview. He’d been warned it wouldn’t be easy finding someone in the wilds of Nugget and hoped that Comfort Keepers, the agency he’d hired out of Reno, had come through. Originally, he’d used a home-care company from the neighboring town of Quincy, figuring a local firm would net better results. But he hadn’t gotten so much as a bite.
It was getting down to the wire. He didn’t want to leave his mother alone while he was on the road. And he had six hauls on the books between now and the end of June.
Deciding that he might as well get lunch before his interview showed, Ryder hopped in his truck. It was only a few minutes to the Bun Boy. The drive-through hamburger stand was in downtown Nugget on the square, a four-block commercial district anchored by a grassy park, the Lumber Baron Inn, and the Ponderosa saloon and restaurant. There was also a barbershop, a sporting goods store, and a smattering of other assorted businesses. The town’s sole grocery store was a few blocks away, near Dana’s real estate office, and the Gas and Go, the only fill-up station in town. It was hardly a metropolis. But as far as Ryder was concerned, it had everything anyone would ever need.
As usual, there was a line of cars waiting to pull up to the speaker box at the Bun Boy. “Screw it,” Ryder said aloud, pulled out of line, and parked in the lot, deciding it would be quicker to order at the counter.
On his way in, he noted the redwood tables on the lawn were all taken. The Bun Boy didn’t have indoor seating. And even though it wasn’t all that warm for dining al fresco, the sun was shining. In Nugget that was enough for a picnic. Instead of waiting for a table to free up, Ryder would just take his to go.
The owner, Donna Thurston, greeted him with a big smile. “Today moving day?”
“Colin Burke said he’s doing your floors.”
Ryder chuckled. “Word gets around here quick.”
“Small town, big mouths.” Donna flipped the page on her order pad. “What’ll you have?”
He listed what he wanted, including the joint’s legendary fries.
“It’s nice you’re fixing up the place.” In no hurry to get his order in to the kitchen, she put the pad down and leaned across the counter. “I always thought it had potential, maybe add on to the house when you start your family.”
He nodded just to be agreeable. But the little Craftsman was more space than he would ever need.
“Anything I should know about the neighbors?” he asked. If Donna didn’t care about the line forming behind him, he might as well learn what he could about his new neighborhood. She had a reputation as the town busybody and probably had enough intel to write a book.
“That would be the Lamberts,” she said, warming to her subject. “Wyatt is a police officer for Nugget PD, and Darla cuts hair over at the barbershop. She’s Owen’s daughter. Thank God she takes after her mother. They’re a sweet couple. Go over and introduce yourself. It’s good to have a cop next door. On the other side of you is that weekender couple. Shoot.” She snapped her finger in the air. “I can’t remember their names. Nice folks. Hope to retire here someday. And down the road a piece are those daft Addisons. They own the Beary Quaint off Highway Seventy.”
He’d seen the place. Chainsaw bears littered the front yard. A few times, he’d considered pulling in and getting a room for the night, instead of crawling into his sleeper. But the motor lodge gave him the creeps. It wasn’t like he hadn’t stayed in plenty of skeevy places over the years. Rodeo cowboys weren’t too picky. Truckers even less so if there was a hot shower involved. But something about the motel reminded him of the movie Psycho. So, he’d opted for the Lumber Baron, a more expensive alternative but worth every freaking cent.
“Watch out for those two,” Donna continued. “They’re always looking to make trouble.”
Donna finally put in his order, and he moved away from the counter so the next person in line, who’d been patiently waiting, could have his turn. That was the part about Nugget that was going to take some getting used to. It was a chatty town. After keeping his own company for the last five years, he wasn’t used to a lot of conversation. But his ma would whup his behind if he wasn’t respectful. And despite Donna’s gossipy nature, he got a kick out of her. She was a good-hearted woman.
He took his food to his truck and ate in the cab. The agency texted while he scarfed down the last of his fries, confirming that its candidate was en route. He dashed off a reply that he’d be there and sent directions, even though the place was easy to find with a GPS.
Then he hit the road, pulling into his driveway a short time later. He sat in his pickup for a few minutes, surveying his new land. There was a copse of pine trees, nice for hanging a hammock in the summer. An old barn that looked ready to fall down. And post-and-rail fencing that needed repairing. But the land was beautiful. Green and lush from winter’s rain.
It was hard to believe he’d actually pulled the trigger on buying the place. There was a time when a house and a small plot of land had been the dream. It was a time he didn’t like thinking about.
Now home ownership was no longer a dream, just a good tax shelter.
He cut the engine, grabbed his toolbox from his truck bed, and went inside. He was installing his second grab bar in the shower when he heard a car pull up. From his window, he could see it was an SUV. He checked his watch. She’d passed the first test—punctuality. He was kind of a stickler for it.
She didn’t get out of the car, and he wondered if it was a safety precaution. Perhaps he was supposed to meet her outside. He’d never really thought about it until now, but he supposed it was kind of risky for a woman to come into a stranger’s house. Especially in the middle of nowhere. Then again, he and his mom had been fully vetted by the agency.
Unable to make out much from a distance, he waited a few seconds, then crossed the living room. He opened the front door to find her standing there. And…shit! He knew her. Well, not exactly.
Last spring, they’d shared an intense kiss outside the Ponderosa. But hell, he couldn’t even remember her name. He’d run into her a few times at the bar. She’d always been by herself, and he’d gotten the impression she had hit on hard times. She’d had that sad, hangdog look about her. Though she was hot as hell. Blond, blue eyed, fantastic body, the whole package.
If he remembered correctly, he’d propositioned her with an offer to come back to his room at the Lumber Baron. Dick move. And totally out of character for him. There was just something about her.
And here she was, standing in his doorway. Judging by her wide eyes and the little O forming on her lips, she was as surprised as he was.
After a long pause, she finally managed, “You.”
He quickly scanned her naked ring finger. She’d never been clear on whether she was married or not. Initially, she’d told him she was. Then a few weeks later, she was kissing him six ways from Sunday. Not that her marital status mattered anymore. Because nothing was going to happen between them. Not now. Not ever.
“I thought you were a nurse.” At least that was what she’d told him.
“And I thought you didn’t live here. ‘Just passing through,’ remember?” There was a glint of disgust in her eye.
“At the time, I was. Just closed escrow today.” He didn’t know why he was explaining himself to her. It wasn’t as if she’d been honest with him. She’d told him her husband was a surgeon and she was a pediatric orthopedic nurse. “You lose your job in the children’s ward?”
She blinked a few times and turned away. “I am…was…a nurse.”
He hitched a brow. “Yeah? Isn’t keeping a sixty-six-year-old stroke victim company below your pay grade, then?”
She didn’t respond, just took a deep breath and looked him in the eye. “The truth? Yes. But I need the job.”
That sort of knocked the fight out of him. Maybe because he was pretty sure it was the first honest thing she’d ever told him. He wanted to say that under the circumstances—the circumstances being that he was already wondering what a second kiss with her would be like—there was no way in hell he was hiring her to live under his roof.
He didn’t want to piss off Comfort Keepers or have Janine, the case agent, think he was too high maintenance, so he planned to go through the motions of an interview, then make up an excuse why the candidate they’d sent him wouldn’t work. Something other than the fact that not too long ago he’d had his tongue down her throat and a hard-on the size of Mount Whitney.
He moved over so she could enter and realized he had no chairs or anything for them to sit on. “Sorry, I don’t have furniture yet. There’s the kitchen counter or the porch.”
They went back outside. She smoothed down her skirt and sat on the top step. He crossed to the other side of the porch and sat with his legs dangling off the edge.
“Tell me about your credentials.” It seemed like a good interview starter.
“Okay.” She swallowed and cleared her throat. “I have more than ten years of nursing experience. I started in the ER and eight years ago went on to get a master’s degree to become a nurse practitioner. My specialty is orthopedics. And while I know your mother is a stroke survivor and will be working with a physical therapist, I, too, can help her regain mobility and balance. I’m responsible, hardworking, and have always been praised for my bedside manner. I also have excellent recommendations.”
She was making it hard to say no. But it would never work, given their weird history. Okay, “history” was an overstatement. If you added up all their interactions, they might take up a space of thirty minutes, max. But every damn one of those contacts had been a prelude to sex, even if they hadn’t actually wound up in the sack together. No, having her around 24/7 was a terrible idea.
“What else would you like to know?” she asked.
Plenty, like why was she applying for a job as a caregiver when she was supposedly a nurse? But what was the point in asking? He wasn’t hiring her.
“Comfort Keepers talked to you about the compensation package, right?”
“Yep.” She brushed her hair back from her eyes.
“And you’re okay with running errands and light housework?”
She nodded. “All part of the job.”
“I assume you’re certified in CPR?” Ryder knew damn well that all the caregivers for Comfort Keepers were. It was one of the first things Janine had told him during her sales pitch. Despite it being a Comfort Keepers’ requirement, he suspected CPR was Nursing 101.
“Of course.” She stifled an eye roll.
“Why don’t I show you the accommodations?” He turned his head and pointedly stared at the front door, where cobwebs dripped from the overhang like rope hammocks. “Maybe after you see them, you won’t be interested.”
She sure didn’t strike him as the roughing-it type. Her leather boots were high-end, her handbag had a designer logo on the front, and her Ford looked like this year’s model. Hopefully, the state of the house would scare her away.
He led her through the empty front room to the hallway and showed her the first of the two bedrooms. “This’ll be my ma’s room. And the one next to it is where you’d stay.” He showed her the ten-by-twelve room and watched her quickly glance at the putrid green carpet and then up at the ugly-ass floral wallpaper.
“This is great.”
Liar. But he’d give her points for pulling it off with a straight face.
She cleared her throat again. “Where are you staying?”
“Out there.” He nudged his head at the window. “In the fifth wheel.”
“Oh,” she said, slightly taken aback.
The fact was, the camper was a freakin’ mansion compared to the house. He’d bought it after winning his first saddle bronc world title, tired of sleeping in fleabag hotels or in the cab of his pickup while chasing the next rodeo.
“Let me show you the bathroom. There’s only one, so you and my ma will have to share.”
The bathroom, though dingy, was probably the best room in the house. It was comparatively large for a home this small and had a clawfoot tub and a separate walk-in shower. The black and white tile could use some caulking, but all in all it had held up well over the last hundred years. A little paint and a lot of cleaning would go a long way. But he reckoned whatshername went in for something a little sleeker.
“You know, I don’t think we ever introduced ourselves.” He grinned at the awkwardness of the situation. Just a year ago, he’d had a tour of her tonsils and his hands up her shirt. “I’m Ryder Knight. And you are?”
“Joey Daniels…I mean Nix.”
He gave her a long, sideways glance. “Is it Daniels or Nix?”
“Nix. Daniels was my married name.”
“You sure? Or are you running from the law?” He was only half kidding.
“Ha-ha.” She flipped her blond hair.
“So, what happened to the surgeon?” It wasn’t any of his damn business. This was a job interview, not speed dating. But for some odd reason, he felt the urgent need to goad her. Or at the very least, find out if anything she’d told him was the truth.
“We’re divorced. He’s one of my references if you’d like to call him.”
“References for what?” He hitched a brow, and one side of his mouth slid up.
“A job reference. We used to work together,” she said, refusing to take the bait. She opened the shower door and looked inside. “The grab bars are good, but you need a stool in here for your mother to sit on. I’ll give you a website where you can order one. The tub is out of the question for her.”
She walked out of the bathroom and headed to the kitchen. “Cute rooster wallpaper.”
He leaned his hip against the counter as she explored the rest of the room, including the inside of the empty refrigerator, which Ryder planned to replace with something from this decade.
“I’m getting a new one,” he said, annoyed at himself for feeling the need to tell her that. What he did with his refrigerator was his business.
“Hopefully some furniture, too.” She continued to nose around, popping open cabinet doors and closing them with a thud. “You’ll also need an alert button for your mom. Even though the house is small, you’ll want to make sure your mother can call out for help any time of the day or night.”
He hadn’t thought of that. “Okay. Anything else?”
“Lots.” She pursed her lips. “Do I have the job?”
He rubbed his hand down the back of his neck. “I’d like to take a couple of days to sleep on it.” Which would give him time to find someone else. Someone he hadn’t pinned against his big rig and kissed into tomorrow.
She nodded. “You should know that I have a few requirements.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“I share custody of my daughter with my ex. I’d like to know that she would be welcome here when the relief caregiver is working. My daughter will be eight in June, is well behaved, and won’t be any trouble.”
In general, he considered himself kid friendly. But since he wasn’t planning to hire Joey Nix, her little girl wasn’t an issue.
“I’ve got no problem with that,” he said, leaving out that she was the problem, not her daughter.
He watched her drive away in her red SUV, cursing his luck. As soon as her taillights were out of view, he phoned Janine and asked her to send someone else.
Joey pulled over to the side of the road, grabbed a wad of tissues from the dispenser on her visor, and blotted her face. It wasn’t a particularly hot day, but she was sweating like she’d spent forty minutes on a treadmill, going full speed.
Ryder Knight. Damn.
Twelve months ago, he’d simply been Matthew freaking McConaughey, the silly name she’d given him because he looked a little like the movie star. A tall, lanky, broad-shouldered cowboy with pale blue eyes and a square jaw. Well, to be truthful, he was better-looking than the real Matthew McConaughey. And probably a better kisser, if she had to guess.
After initiating a brazen make-out session with him in the middle of downtown Nugget—one that had left her feeling more than a little exposed—she’d hoped to n. . .
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