STOP RUNNING . . . AND START FALLING For Ruby James the Walker Mountain Ranch is her safe haven. Here in Aspen, Colorado, she can finally build a quiet life for herself without fear of her old one rearing its ugly head. Or so Ruby thinks. Any single woman would be happy to indulge a tall, dark, and curious cop-but the closer Ruby gets to him, the closer she gets to losing her newfound peace. Police officer Sawyer Hawkins is no stranger to secrets. He's ready to leave town for good until a security threat brings him back to Walker Ranch, and Ruby's gorgeous green eyes soon have him second-guessing his decision to go. Her kindness and quiet strength awaken feelings he'd thought long buried, even as her reluctance to talk about her past worries him. The cop in Sawyer only wants the truth-but the man in him wants Ruby in his arms forever . . .
Release date: March 29, 2016
Print pages: 282
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More Than a Feeling
Morning was hands-down the most beautiful time of day in the mountains.
Ruby James stepped out of her Honda Civic and raised her face to the sky, closing her eyes, breathing in the fresh, sweet scent of the dew-kissed grass. At five o’clock the sky was still dark and studded with stars, but the frayed edges of the mountainous horizon glowed with the promise of light.
A new day. Fresh, clean air, a blank slate of possibilities. Each morning for the past year, she had been the first one to greet it at the Walker Mountain Ranch. And for the first time in her life, she had started to understand freedom. It manifested itself in the expanse of mountainous space, in the stillness of a world still asleep, in the opportunity she’d been given to take care of herself, to pursue a life she wanted, instead of one that had been thrust on her by a broken system.
The air’s chill infused her with energy as Ruby tromped from her parking spot behind the Walker Mountain Ranch, lugging along a cloth market bag that held her very own personal set of stainless-steel measuring cups and a marble rolling pin. Elsie Walker, her boss and the head chef at the ranch, kept a set in the kitchen, but she preferred to use her own for baking. Then she’d take them home each night to polish them and bring them back the next morning. She imagined it was something akin to having a briefcase except instead of a laptop and a cell phone and whatever other devices were popular at the moment, her briefcase was filled with kitchen utensils. They were the best she could find at that gourmet kitchen store in town, solid and unbendable, the highest-quality materials for baking. And this morning she had to do her best baking because their best clients would be coming off the trail later this afternoon, and everything had to be perfect.
Each year in the spring, before things got busy, the Walker Mountain Ranch welcomed a group of foster kids from other towns in the area. They stayed at the ranch free of charge and went backpacking and horseback riding. They got to do the ropes course and zipline—why anyone would want to do that was beyond her. She preferred her feet firmly on the ground, thank you very much. But the best thing about the whole week was that the kids had the chance to just be kids without a care, for once in their lives.
She would’ve given anything for that chance back when she was being carted to foster home after foster home. So when Elsie had told her about the group—when they’d started planning—Ruby had decided she would do everything she could to make this week at the ranch the best of these kids’ lives, cooking for them, volunteering to help out whenever they needed her—anything to make them feel wanted and accepted and free.
She approached the lodge’s back door, the familiar scent of wood stain greeting her. The massive logs stacked one on top of each other always reminded her of the Lincoln Logs she and her brother, Grady, used to play with before Mama went to prison. They’d build structures almost exactly like the one that stood in front of her, grand mountain palaces where magical things happened—where families gathered around fireplaces and drank hot chocolate. Where there were no drugs and no cops and no fears. They’d set up the fences and add in small plastic farm animals they’d shoplifted from the drugstore, pigs and cows and chickens, and even a crotchety rooster they’d called Slim.
Back then she’d believed things could turn around for them. She’d believed Mama would go to rehab like she always said, and then things would be normal. Once she’d even shoplifted an apron for Mama—a frilly thing that looked handmade. As if when Mama put it on she’d be magically transformed into the woman Ruby had always dreamed she would become. The mom who made chocolate chip cookies and drove the car pool and cut her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into funny shapes that’d make her giggle at school.
But Ruby didn’t believe in magic anymore.
Shaking her head at herself, she paused to study the Walker Mountain Ranch’s lovely façade. Maybe that’s why she’d ended up here last year. When she’d gotten in the car, she hadn’t known where to go. She’d never had a place, and god knew Aspen, Colorado, was worlds away from Cherryville, North Carolina. But it was either stay there with Derek and live with the bruises that always splotched her skin, or go. Disappear. Build a new life, a new name, a new future for herself.
So she’d chased freedom. As she’d worked her way west, the mountains had called her name. She’d seen mountains before, of course, but nothing like the Rocky Mountains. Instead of mounded, green hills, they were massive and sharp, lovely but impenetrable. Exactly the refuge she was seeking. While there was a certain fragility to her new life—her new identity—this was the first time she’d felt rooted since before Mama’d been put away.
As always that thought burrowed deep in the tomb where she normally kept all those memories vaulted. That was where they belonged. Stashed away. Course with Mama’s birthday being today, those crushed hopes and dreams were getting restless, feeling almost uncontainable. Was she still in jail? Had Derek contacted her mother after Ruby had run away? Cold dread washed over her and she plowed through the ranch’s kitchen door before the tide of fear dragged her back into the currents of the past.
The kitchen was dim with only the under-cabinet lighting turned on, but it was warm, too, scented with cinnamon and yeast. Inhaling the familiarity soothed the tremble out of her hands. No one here knew a lick of anything about her past, and she had to keep it that way. She couldn’t risk Derek tracking her down, not after the threats he’d made the last time he’d beat her up.
Holding her breath, she willed her heart to stop pounding so hard. She had to calm herself down. Derek couldn’t find her here; she’d made sure of that. She’d been sad to hear of her old neighbor’s passing, but Ruby James’s death had given her the perfect opportunity to escape.
The woman hadn’t had any children of her own, and she’d always had a soft spot for Ruby. Still, she’d been surprised to hear that Miss James had left her everything. Her house and her car. She’d never told Derek. She’d simply sold off the furniture, packed the sentimentals in storage, and loaded all of her things into Miss James’s Civic. She used the proceeds from the estate to fund her trip out west, paying cash for absolutely everything.
As a cop Derek had the means to look for her, to watch for a ping on her credit card, to scan reports from all over the country. That’s why she’d been so careful. That’s why she’d used Ruby James’s name. That’s why she’d cut up all her credit cards.
No. He wouldn’t find her, she told herself again as she marched to the other side of the room and set down her bag. It was time to stop thinking about him. About Mama. A new day. A new life. And she had cinnamon rolls to bake.
The Walker Mountain Ranch kitchen didn’t open until eight o’clock during the slow season, but Ruby and Elsie made all the baked good from scratch, which meant Ruby had to get an early start every morning. She preferred it, anyway. Being alone. It was easier because she didn’t have to pretend. She didn’t have to watch herself so closely, to guard every word and thought so she wouldn’t risk confusing her new identity with her old life. When she was alone she could let down her guard, turn on some tunes, and put her hands to work, rolling out scones and cinnamon-roll dough and whatever else was on the menu for the morning.
Just the thought of that therapeutic process of kneading and rolling and mixing was enough to set her emotions right. Even though she’d left it behind, her old life was always there in the dreams, in the memories. Sometimes they leaked out, spilling over into the present, but she could usually outrun ’em as long as she stayed busy.
And speaking of busy…she shimmied out of her fleece coat and hung it on the hook behind the pantry. She had a whole mess of baked goods planned for those kids—gooey chocolate-chip cookies as big as their heads, fat, fluffy cinnamon rolls that would melt in their mouths. Smiling at the thought, she started to unpack her supplies. First, the heavy marble rolling pin that had cost her a small fortune. Admiring the swirled gray-and-white stone, she pulled it out of the bag and—
The jarring sound stilled her. A breath lodged in her throat. She strained her ears, listening.
A series of thuds and rumbles sounded again from the pantry.
Oh, god. A swallow tangled her windpipe. Something was in there. Her grip tightened on the rolling pin’s handle. Was it a bear fresh out of hibernation? Scenes from that damn grizzly bear documentary she’d watched two days before flashed like a horror flick, the bear towering over her on his hind legs, teeth gnashing, claws slashing through the air. Aspen had a major bear problem. They broke into restaurants and homes, raiding kitchens, pilfering through trash. They were only black bears but still…
God. Oh, dear god. Her heart catapulted into an arrhythmia. Perspiration beaded on her skin. She stared longingly at the kitchen door, all the way on the other side of the room. It might as well have been Antarctica! There was no way she’d get over there without the thing hearing her! The pantry’s half-open door stood between her and a clean escape…
More clatters cinched tension into her neck.
Ruby inhaled a gasp. Not a bear! Definitely not a bear. A muffled string of curses edged her back against the wall. A man. There was a man in the pantry! Except there were no other cars outside. Bryce and Shooter, the ranch’s other guides, were camping with the kids out on the trail…
Wait a minute. She jerked her head and squinted in a futile effort to examine the kitchen door she’d walked through not five minutes before. It hadn’t been locked. Holy Moses, it was always locked! If she wouldn’t have been so preoccupied with the past, she would’ve noticed. Someone had broken in!
An icy sensation spread over her shoulders and locked them tight, the remnants of past trauma seeping into her.
No, no. He couldn’t have found her.
Another crash seemed to shake the floor.
Panic came in wrenching gasps, clouding her vision, prickling her skin. Dial 911. She had to call 911 before the man came out and saw her.
Still gripping the rolling pin, she reached her other clammy hand into the market bag and fished for her cell phone.
The pantry door creaked, then cranked all the way open.
It was dark inside, but a man’s silhouette stood under the lintel. A large man. Tall, broad shoulders. The hood of a black sweatshirt obscured his face.
“Freeze, dirtbag!” Arm stiff with fear Ruby held out the rolling pin, brandishing it as if it were a gun.
“What the hell?” The man took a step toward her.
“I said freeze,” she squeaked, because technically, there wasn’t much she could do if he decided not to obey.
“Easy,” the guy murmured in a patronizing voice, like he was trying to lure a scared puppy or something.
“You hold it right there, asshole!” She waved the rolling pin again. “I’m calling nine-one-one.”
“Take it easy.” Slowly the man held up one hand while the other took down his hood. “It’s me, Ruby,” he said, but me who? All she could see were the bright lights of panic shooting holes through her vision. Because she’d never been able to fight back.
She’d tried, once. Not long after she’d moved in with Derek. He was drunk and angry that she’d left the dishes in the sink after dinner. She could still smell the alcohol on his breath, still feel the ways his fingers had dug into the flesh of her shoulders. He’d shoved her hard against the sink, bruising her lower back. “Clean this shit up,” he’d screamed at her. “Or I’ll fucking break your arm.” Terror had rattled through her, blurring her vision into a surreal haze like it was now. Out of sheer desperation, she’d grabbed the handle of a frying pan and swung it as hard as she could. Next thing she knew, Derek had her pinned on the ground, his fingers laced around her neck, cutting off her air…
Gasping for a breath, she realized her fingertips were tingling with numbness. Oh, god! How would she fight back with a rolling pin?
“Ruby!” The man shuffled a step closer. “Lower the weapon.”
How? Her arms seemed locked in place. Her lungs heaved and gasped. No! Not here. Not now. She hadn’t had a panic attack since she’d come to the Walker Mountain Ranch. But sure enough, her heart pounded so hard her head got light. It felt like her lungs were filling with water. She had to fight for a breath.
“Hey.” A hand enclosed hers.
Fire roared through her. She would not let him hurt her. She would never let anyone hurt her again. “Don’t touch me!” She ripped free and swung the rolling pin as hard as she could, feeling a thud as it collided with the man’s body.
A winded groan punched out of his mouth and he sank slowly to the floor, clutching his groin.
“Holy Moses,” she whimpered. She’d taken the guy down. What now? What the hell should she do now? Frozen, she stood over him, still clutching the rolling pin.
“You hit me with that again, I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to walk for a week,” the man said. “Kids’ll probably be out of the question, too.”
Ruby’s vision cleared. She gazed down at him and stared into eyes so blue they put the Colorado sky to shame. “Sawyer,” she panted. Realizing who he was didn’t do much to curb the panic. Sawyer was Bryce’s cousin! A cop! She’d nailed a cop in the balls with a marble rolling pin!
“I’m so sorry!” She dropped to her knees next to him. “Are you okay? I thought you were an intruder!”
“Obviously,” he mumbled as he gingerly sat up and hunched over, resting his elbows on his knees. He shifted slightly with a wince.
“Why didn’t you stop me?” Yes, it was perhaps a bit unsympathetic for her to ask that question when the man’s voice was still cracking like a preteen’s, but what the hell? With all of those bulging muscles of his, he could’ve immobilized her with one maneuver. He could’ve taken away the rolling pin and they wouldn’t be in this situation now, would they?
“Didn’t want to scare you,” Sawyer mumbled. “You already seemed pretty freaked out.”
Humiliation soaked her face. This was not good, him seeing her have a panic attack. Really not good. Out of everyone here, she’d avoided Sawyer the most. He was a cop. A little research and the man could bring down her entire fabricated life…
“You want to tell me why you didn’t recognize me?” His tenor had settled back into the deep, gravelly voice she’d heard before. A tingle skittered up her spine. It was like having a conversation with Keith Urban.
“Because you looked right at me,” he continued, locking his gaze on hers.
Oh, lordy, those eyes. So gorgeous. His face wasn’t bad, either. Straight nose, strong, square jaw stubbled with a few days of growth. And there was an adorable faint line running down the center of his chin. Her heart started a traitorous flutter until she realized he was waiting for an answer; then the flutter turned violent.
“Um.” She studied her hands, worry boiling up. “I saw you. Of course I saw you. I was just…a little panicked, that’s all.” If she told him the truth, that she couldn’t control the panic, that it crashed over her and dragged her into a riptide of confusion, he’d start asking more questions.
“A little panicked?” Sawyer shot back.
“Well, can you blame me?” Her heart thumped in her ears. “I mean, I wasn’t expecting anyone to be hiding in the pantry—”
“Hiding?” Sawyer laughed. “Why would I be hiding in the pantry? Bryce asked me to fix the shelves while he was gone.”
She shot to her feet. “At five o’clock in the morning?”
He was slower to get up, but at least he wasn’t grimacing anymore. “I’m on shift at eight.”
Panic started to pump through her again, but this time it had nothing to do with fear and everything to do with the way he looked at her, the way his gaze drifted down her body. She crossed her arms so he couldn’t guess her cup size. “How’d you get in here, anyway?”
Sawyer casually leaned against the kitchen counter, still looking her over like he appreciated what he saw. “I have a key. I’m staying here.”
The room whirled. Not what she’d hoped to hear. That was bad. Very, very bad. It had been hard enough to avoid him before, but if he stayed here it’d be impossible! “I thought you were moving to Denver,” she said, going for a casual, conversational tone. Damn the squeak of panic. But Sawyer was supposed to be leaving for good. Rumor had it that his wife had cheated on him with one of his friends. As far as she knew, he couldn’t wait to get out of Aspen.
He shrugged. “The house sold faster than I thought. I still have a month left at work.”
Fabulous. That was just her luck. The last thing she needed was a cop poking around the Walker Mountain Ranch.
“So what’s with the panic attack?” he asked again, sounding more like a cop this time.
She busied herself with unpacking the rest of her kitchen utensils from her bag. “What’d you mean?”
“You know what I mean. I know what a panic attack looks like, Ruby.”
“It wasn’t a panic attack,” she insisted, then focused on lining up her measuring cups so he couldn’t read the flush on her face. “I was surprised. That’s all. No big deal.” She peeked over at him.
His eyes narrowed into skepticism. “Do you hyperventilate every time you’re surprised?”
No. But she was about to hyperventilate right then. “Why do I feel like you’re interrogating me?” she demanded in case he could see how weak she felt. Now that the adrenaline had drained away, her legs and arms shuddered with a growing frailty. The memories were closer, breathing down her neck. If she would’ve hit Derek with a rolling pin, he would’ve broken her jaw…
“Ruby? Is everything okay?” Sawyer asked quietly.
Crumpling the market bag in her shaky hands, she turned and smiled. “Everything’s great.” She’d learned how to lie, how to cover up the truth a smile. “I’m so sorry about your…” The blush made a strong comeback. “Um…do you want ice or anything?”
A smirk made him look less guarded. “Do I want to walk around with an icepack on my crotch? No thanks. I’ll live.”
“Suit yourself.” She sashayed past him like nothing had happened, like her stomach hadn’t tightened into a painful knot. “I should get to work, then.”
“You’re sure everything’s okay?” Sawyer called behind her.
“Of course.” She unstacked the stainless mixing bowls from the shelf above the sink.
“All right, then. Guess I’ll get back to work, too,” he said slowly. The pantry door opened and then clicked shut.
But something told her that wasn’t the end of the conversation.
Sawyer shoved the hammer into his toolbox and latched it. He considered putting his sweatshirt back on but then thought better of it. Best not to risk spooking Ruby again. Who knew where she’d nail him this time. Another shot to the nuts like that and he’d need more than an icepack.
He just might need a massage…
Whoa. Easy. Those weren’t the kind of thoughts he should entertain right now. And Ruby didn’t need them, either, apparently. Didn’t matter what she said—that whole scene in the kitchen earlier wasn’t normal fear. When he stepped out of the pantry, he’d seen something almost primal come over her face, a sickening fear, the kind he’d only witnessed on victims. When she looked at him, she hadn’t seen him. When he’d talked to her, she couldn’t hear him. It was like she was somewhere else.
So never mind that the woman had long red hair, round full cheeks, soft radiant skin, and the most perfect lips he’d ever seen. Never mind her Marilyn Monroe body with all those tempting curves. Something was off with Ruby. The whole panic-attack thing was weird enough, but add to that the fact that no one knew anything about her, and he had a good old-fashioned mystery on his hands.
Who was she? Where’d she come from? More important, what did she want at the Walker Mountain Ranch? One year ago she’d shown up in town. Aunt Elsie took her in, no questions asked. Even though he’d warned her about that kind of charity. She’d accused him of being jaded. How else was a veteran cop supposed to be? Being jaded was part of the job description. And since he was moving away, there’d be no one to keep an eye on things and make sure Ruby wasn’t a liability to Bryce.
After the recent thefts they’d had, they couldn’t be too careful.
He heaved his toolbox off the shelf. “Ruby?” he called through the closed pantry door.
“Yeah?” Her response was so soft he barely heard it.
“I’m coming out now. Just wanted to warn you.” He gave the words a few seconds to sink in and then opened the door and strode into the kitchen.
Ruby stood over a KitchenAid mixer, which was whirring away with another one of her tasty creations, which he’d heartily enjoyed for the past year. Something must’ve been in the oven, too, because the kitchen smelled like the inside of a cinnamon roll, rich and buttery. He inhaled. “Wow. Something smells amazing.”
She didn’t look up.
Was it just him, or did those rosy apple cheeks suddenly look pale?
Somewhere a timer dinged. Clearly avoiding his eyes, Ruby brushed past him, the scent of vanilla and brown sugar trailing behind her.
Damn. Was it the kitchen that smelled so good, or was it her? He leaned back against the countertop and let himself watch her hips sway as she bent to slide the tray of cinnamon rolls out of the oven. When she turned around, he was still watching her. She paused, bracing the tray of fresh, plump cinnamon rolls out in front of her, and if he wasn’t hard before, well…what could he say? He had a weakness for baked goods. And curves. It’d been a while since he’d let himself appreciate the finer parts of a woman. Kaylee’d put a stop to that last year when he’d caught her in bed with Jace. That’d been enough to curb his libido. Until he’d noticed Ruby, that was.
“Um. Do you need something?” the woman asked, her neck splotching.
“Yeah.” Grinning, Sawyer pulled out a stool from the kitchen island. “I need a cinnamon roll.”
Her eyes flared wide. “Excuse me?”
“After what you put me through earlier, I think I deserve a cinnamon roll.” He gave his best puppy-dog look. The one that’d always worked with Kaylee. “Don’t you?”
“Oh.” She slid the tray on top of the oven and swiped the back of her hand across her forehead. “Sure. Yeah. That’s fine.” If her rigid posture was any indication, it wasn’t fine. Not to her, at least. But that didn’t bother him much. Hanging out in the kitchen would give him the chance to get to know her better, to figure out what she was hiding. For Bryce’s sake. Not that it would be torture to spend the extra time with her or anything.
Without a word, Ruby hurried to the cabinet next to the fridge and pulled out a plate. Using a huge spatula, she scooped out a mountainous cinnamon roll, then smothered it with a creamy homemade frosting.
He’d be lying if he said his mouth wasn’t watering.
When she slid the plate in front of him, he was pretty sure her hand trembled.
“Thanks,” he said cheerfully.
She turned away. Yeah. She was definitely doing her best to avoid him, but he wasn’t about to make it easy for her. “Can I have a fork?” he asked politely. Not to be a bastard or anything, but he was enjoying this more than he should’ve.
“Oh. Sure. Of course,” she sputtered, her face glowing with a sheen of perspiration. Man, he’d seen a convicted felon hold up better during an interrogation in the box.
Ruby handed him the fork, then sprinted back to her mixer, which was still whirring away.
He watched her all the way. Damn, she had a nice ass. Especially in those tight jeans. Of course, analyzing the curve of her ass wasn’t exactly part of his mission. Now was not the time for him to get sidetracked by a woman. Not after everything he’d been through with Kaylee in the past two years. If there was one thing that whole experience had taught him, it was how to recognize when a woman was keeping secrets. And Ruby definitely had something to hide. Which meant he had to keep himself in check. No matter how perfect her ass was.
Averting his eyes, he sawed off a bite of cinnamon roll and slipped it into his mouth. Damn. The woman could bake. The buttery frosting melted in his mouth and there it was again—that flare of desire. The one that had been hibernating in the cave of his disappointment. Doing his best to stuff it back down, he focused on eating.
Across the kitchen Ruby flicked off the mixer and detached the bowl. She peered into whatever it was she was making and frowned. He took the opportunity to get her talking. First thing he had to do was establish credibility. Interrogation 101. So he took another bite, moaning slightly for effect. Then he licked the fork. “Best cinnamon roll I’ve ever tasted. Seriously.” That was no lie. “You’ve got a gift, Ruby.”
“Glad you like it,” she rasped, still studying the contents of her mixing bowl.
He set down the fork. “How long have you been working here again?”
“Almost a year.” She dumped a mound of dough onto the countertop and pressed her hands into it.
“Where’re you from?” he asked, trying to distract himself from the way her hands kneaded the dough roughly into a flat square. He’d be willing to bet those hands of hers were pretty damn capable.
She froze. “Um. I’m from out east.”
“Out east” could’ve meant a thousand different things, but now he remembered. Months ago, when he’d pulled her over for parking illegally, she had North Carolina plates. “That’s right. North Carolina.”
“I pulled you over once, remember?” She’d been with Paige Harper at the time, who was once a guide at the Walker Mountain Ranch. Now she was married to Ben Noble, gazillionaire and one of Bryce’s best friends. The two of them owned their own ranch where Paige did equine therapy.
It was weird when he’d approached the car that day. Ruby hadn’t even looked at him. Hadn’t said one word. He’d thought she was just shy, but that day she’d acted exactly the way she was acting now—her gaze shifting, her face flaming.
Sawyer finished off the cinnamon roll and chewed thoughtfully. He’d never gotten around to asking for Ruby’s insurance information or registration. Come to think of it, he’d never even gotten a look at her driver’s license.
“Can I get you anything else?” she asked with a squeak of insecurity. Yet another evasive maneuver.
“Nah.” He stood and carted his dishes over to the sink, rinsing them the way Aunt Elsie had trained him to do. After securing them in the dishwasher, he turned to Ruby. She’d gone back to kneading the bread dough.
“So where in North Carolina?” he asked, leaning back, crossing his legs at the ankles.
“Charlotte area,” she answered quickly, like this was an interrogation instead of a friendly conversation.
“That’s quite a ways from Aspen,” he observed. “Is your family still there?”
At the mention of family, a dark expression dulled her skin’s radiant glow. “I’m sorry, Sawyer, but I don’t have time to talk.” She didn’t sound sorry. The waver in her tone made her sound downright scared. “The kids will be back soon and I have a lot of work to do.”
“Right. Sure.” He straightened and gathered up his tools. “I should get read. . .
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