—Publishers Weekly STARRED REVIEW
New York Times bestselling author, US Navy Veteran, and genre pioneer Lindsay McKenna combines pulse-pounding suspense with the romance of a contemporary Western for the first installment in her highly emotional, engrossingly swoon-worthy Silver Creek series.
Love's flame burns bright...
Leanna Ryan's hometown in coastal Oregon has been her refuge ever since a traumatic event during her teens. But over time, even the safest harbor can start to feel more like a prison. That's why Lea, a master carpenter and wood sculptor, is moving to Wyoming, a place whose rugged beauty has long captured her imagination. The scenery around Silver Creek is as stunning as she hoped, and her new employer, Logan Anderson, is generous and fair, though his eyes reveal a sadness she recognizes all too well.
Logan immediately knows he can trust Lea with his Wild Goose Ranch remodeling project. Her skill, her dedication—they're as appealing to him as her unaffected beauty. But he has other reasons for unease. There have been disturbing events around the ranch. Then Lea's car is rammed in a hit and run. Logan has already lost so much; now he fears he's jeopardizing not only his property, but Lea too. His dream is to convince Lea to make Silver Creek her home—but first, he'll have to keep her safe...
Release date: October 27, 2020
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 370
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Silver Creek Fire
Did she have the courage to move to Wyoming?
Leanna Ryan ran her dusty fingers down the column of a piece of driftwood sculpture she had just finished creating for a client. She lived in Brookings, a small seacoast town in Oregon, and collecting driftwood during a meditative morning walk along the nearby beach was something Lea looked forward to, with her mug of coffee in hand. It was how she started her day: calm, quiet, and contemplative.
The velvety smoothness of the wood soothed her fractious inner state. Wood was alive, warm to the touch of her cold fingertips. She slid them with knowing experience as she followed the curve of the sperm whale she had fashioned. The wood soothed her, as it always had. It was another form of escape, Lea admitted to herself, but it was her passion: woodworking in all its various forms, and it was the world she chose to live within. Her father, Paddy, an Irishman from the Galway Bay area, was a master carpenter, known for his handmade, one-of-a-kind furniture. He charged high prices and his clientele was more than eager to give him what he deserved.
He was seacoast Irish; his father—her grandfather, Connor—made his living as a trawler fisherman along the Oregon coast. Boutique grocery stores along the West Coast eagerly paid handsomely for his fresh catch. Paddy didn’t want to be a fisherman, furniture was his passion, just as it was hers. Only, Lea had decided after that traumatic afternoon as a thirteen-year-old, to devote her life to woodworking. She didn’t want to be a trawler fisherman, either. Paddy had often teased her that she had his woodworking genes, not the fishing ones. Her mother, Valerie, who was well known in North America for her art quilt creations, said Lea had not inherited any sewing genes, either, and they always laughed about that. Fabric didn’t draw her. But wood always had.
Her red brows dipped, her hand smoothing the long flank of the whale she’d created, its golden-brown sides gleaming in the midmorning sunlight as it poured through the wood shop window. Sunlight was rare in Brookings. It was a tiny seacoast village that was usually hidden beneath the gray, scudding clouds over the Pacific Ocean. There was always lots of rain, too. Lea loved the rain and the moodiness of the Pacific Ocean here along the coast. It suited her own emotional nature.
Was she really ready to leave the only safety she’d ever known? Go east to Wyoming? Every time she thought about it, her stomach clenched in fear. She was twenty-nine years old. What woman stayed with her parents until that age? Single. Not interested in romance. Focused solely on her career and enhancing her master carpenter skills and wood sculpture skills.
She was such a coward. Oh, no one accused her of being that, but inwardly, Lea knew that she was. And it shamed her in ways she couldn’t give words to. Any man who flirted with her, or asked her out, she said no to. Luckily, she had plenty of women friends and she was more than grateful for them being a part of the fabric of her life. Her friends were her lifeblood. Full stop.
“Well,” Paddy said, entering the wood shop, “looks like this will be the last sculpture you create here, colleen.”
Warming to her father’s Irish brogue, she turned, wiping her hands on her canvas apron she wore while working. Her goggles to protect her eyes were hanging around her neck. Lea smiled as her father wandered over to the table, his blue eyes twinkling as he halted opposite her. She saw him admiring her work and he looked very pleased with her efforts. “Looks like,” she agreed.
“This is already sold,” he said. “I’ll box it up for you and make sure it’s crated properly.”
“Thanks,” she murmured, loving the whale that she had created, rising in a breach, the tail in the water. Looking around, she whispered, “I’m really going to miss you and Mom . . . this place,” and she gestured around the large, clean shop that had many windows to allow in plenty of light.
“Well,” Paddy said gently, “it’s time, Lea. I’m glad you’re leaving to fulfill your dream.”
She nodded. “Who knew when I was thirteen years old, that I’d read My Friend Flicka and Green Grass of Wyoming by Mary O’Hara, and want to live where she wrote those books.”
“As children, we dream without inhibition,” Paddy said, sitting down on a nearby stool, clasping his sixty-five-year-old gnarled hands. “And you’ve always wanted to go to Wyoming. It’s a good thing to bring a lifelong dream to reality,” he assured her.
Lea took another cloth, a clean, dry one, and began to wipe down her whale one last time. “Isn’t it funny, Dad? How after I was beaten up by those boys as a girl, that I found Mary O’Hara’s books? They were like an anchor to me, a homing beacon to overcome my shock and trauma, and focus on something good, beautiful. That was the beginning of my dream to go live in Wyoming.”
“Your mother found them for you at the library,” Paddy agreed, frowning.
Laughing softly, Lea continued to wipe the four-foot-high whale until the molten gold color of the driftwood gleamed. “I guess I didn’t realize at that time how traumatized I was by that one incident.”
“Hmph, it was more than an incident, Lea. Those boys broke your nose and fractured your left cheek. They meant to hurt you bad.” He looked away, swallowing hard, then raised his chin and held her gaze. “It changed your life, colleen. Before? You’d been a loving, outgoing, carefree wild child. Afterward? And no one can blame you, you crawled deep inside yourself. Those boys couldn’t take that you were blossoming into a young woman who was wild, carefree, and so full of life and hope.”
“Some days, Dad? It seems like it was yesterday.” Gently moving the cloth across the head of the whale, she added, “And other days? The incident doesn’t bother me at all.”
“Unless you run into strange men at the grocery store or any other public place,” Paddy said, sadness in his tone. “And then it all comes back and you react.”
“I can’t help my reaction, Dad. I wish I could. And two or more strange men nearby will send me into a panic that I can’t control, either.”
“Your brain sees these situations as a danger because of what happened to you,” he agreed sadly.
Lea put the cloth down on the table. “I have to get on with my life. You and Mom have taken care of me long enough. Time for this baby bird to leave the nest.”
“We’ll miss you, but it’s good that you’re going,” he agreed. “That letter from that rancher in Wyoming, Mr. Logan Anderson, wanting to hire you to come and do woodwork for him in the kitchen and living room, was your ticket to the life you’ve been dreaming about, Lea. It’s a new door opening up for you. I’m glad you took the challenge and agreed to meet with him and look at the year-long project he has laid out for you.”
Nodding, Lea pulled up a second wooden stool and sat down across from her father. “He’d wanted you, Dad. But you handed over the assignment to me. When I saw it was Wyoming, I wanted to go despite my issues with feeling unsafe out in the world. I’m glad you gave it to me. It’s time for me to get on with my life and stop hiding from it.”
“And when you talked to the rancher, you seemed settled.”
“I asked him a lot of questions,” she said, smiling a little. “He was patient. He seemed . . . well, nice . . .”
“But not a threat to you?” Paddy asked, prying.
“No.” Lea shrugged. “For whatever reason, he didn’t scare me like most male strangers do. I can’t explain why not.”
“Maybe the lure of Wyoming has dissolved some of this fear within you?” he asked her.
“I’m not sure, Dad. All I know is that while I’m battling a fear of leaving the place I’ve lived my whole life, the yearning to go to Wyoming just got stronger because we talked to one another.”
“Your mother and I think you should give Wyoming a try. It’s a long-term project and it sounds like he’s got the money to support your efforts. He’s seen your work on our website, and he likes it. The unfamiliar is always scary for all of us.” He gave her a soft smile, holding her unsure gaze.
“If he hires me, that will be the best, but if not, I can always get another job. Time to go,” she agreed. “As I get older, I’m not as afraid as I used to be, and that’s a good sign that the past isn’t controlling me.”
“You’ve made a lot of progress, Lea. Always pat yourself on the back for that. It takes courage to live, not just survive and breathe.”
Grimacing, she folded the canvas apron, putting it away beneath the large, long table. “There’s so much more to do.” She straightened. “If you’d told me that one incident could wreck a person’s life, I wouldn’t have believed you. But”—her voice grew hoarse—“I do now.”
Paddy stood and came around the table, giving his only daughter a strong, loving hug. “A day at a time, colleen, a day at a time.” He released her, clasping her upper arms. “Just think, you’re going to Wyoming, the place you’ve dreamed about. That has to excite you and make you happy. Everything is packed and we’ve put it in the back of your truck with a waterproof tarp over all of it. Your carpenter tools are in there, as well. Your sculpting tools are in your black nylon bag sitting on the front seat. You’re ready to go.”
Lea forced a smile for her dad’s benefit. She hated being a wet blanket to her parents and often masked her reaction for their benefit. “You’re right. Off on a new and glorious adventure.” So why didn’t she sound more enthusiastic?
Dread was replaced with excitement as Lea drove her Ford three-quarter blue and white truck closer to Silver Creek, Wyoming. The valley sat south of Thermopolis, below the archeological and dinosaur area of Wyoming. She’d just driven through Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and it was spectacular! There were plenty of mountains around the huge canyon area, but right now, the highway leveled out, descended several thousand feet to a huge plain below. Silver Creek Valley was filled with lush grass, ranches, and rolling hills dotted with stands of pine and deciduous trees here and there.
Her gaze was always on the types of trees in the area, most of them pines of the species she’d identified so far. The mountains were still clothed at the very top with white, gleaming snow.
It snowed often in May, she was told by a waitress when she’d stopped at a restaurant several hours ago. She’d seen several bighorn sheep, males and females, which had been thrilling. Lea had stopped and photographed them whenever she could safely pull over and take the shots. She’d never seen bighorns before!
With every mile, her heart lifted with a carefully shielded and closeted joy. The southern half of Wyoming was plains, desert, and some gorgeous sedimentary buttes that looked like torte cakes created by soil, in white, red, and cream layers. She’d taken photos of them, too. Then, she’d rolled into central Wyoming where the Wind River mountains and Indian reservation inspired her. Her hometown of Brookings was surrounded with thick, green, old-growth forest; that part of Wyoming reminded her deeply of it, soothing some of her homesickness. She could see huge natural gas rigs dotting the area the farther north she drove. If she didn’t miss her guess, they were fracking, which she disliked and didn’t believe in. That bothered her because she was environmentally oriented. Each rig, and she lost count of how many dotted the landscape, reminded her that it was an oversized hypodermic needle slammed through the skin of the Earth, sucking life blood out of her, harming her. She knew not everyone looked at it like that. Natural gas was a cleaner fuel than oil or coal, no argument. But she’d heard about the many earthquakes created by fracking, breaking through the layers of sedimentary rock beneath the surface in Oklahoma, and the damage it was doing above and below ground to get to this natural resource. Oklahoma had more earthquake tremors than nearly anywhere else in the U.S.
As she approached the town of Silver Creek, the plain flattened out and she left the mountains behind. Now the hills were softly rounded, clothed in dark, thick, green grass, ranches to her right and left off the highway. This was a lush, verdant valley. To her artist’s eye, it reminded her of a dark green emerald, faceted into the earth, full of life, vigor, and vitality. She saw many herds of Herefords in different pastures along the way, all heartily eating the nutritious fare. There were some patches of snow here and there, but the green grass had the say and Lea was sure the cows were very, very happy with their lives at the moment.
Traffic increased as she drove past the SILVER CREEK sign at the right side of the two-lane asphalt highway. It said: POPULATION 10,000. Below it, the sign said that the town was incorporated in 1905. She’d seen photos of this magical place that reminded her of a gypsy-like, Bohemian hideaway. But photos she’d seen online couldn’t match what she saw in person as she slowed to twenty-five miles per hour in midmorning traffic. There were bright wooden crests on nearly every business, looking like a colorful hat for each one. Some had silver or gold outlining the color of the wooden building’s headdress. She saw a light blue hardware store, the crest darker blue and outlined in silver. There were narrow alleys in between these 1900s-era buildings. The donut shop was painted a fuchsia color with a pink crest outlined in gold, flashing in the morning sunlight across the clear blue sky. On the other side was a bright red Dairy Queen, with a white crest outlined in red, the company colors, with a flash of gold.
She didn’t see many major corporate businesses along the half mile of buildings packed on either side of the four-lane highway. Most looked owned by individuals, not megacorporations, the main street of the town looking like a fabulous collection of Easter eggs bracketing the street. Huge pots of brightly colored flowers were hanging on antique brass lamps on both sides of the street for a good half mile or more. May was still a snow month, so Lea figured they would be filled with cold-loving colorful blooms until June first.
In the center of town, there were three major traffic lights. Most of the vehicles were either pickup trucks, ranch flatbed trucks, or muddy SUVs. She saw few other types of cars, but they all had out-of-state license plates and most likely were tourists just like herself. At ten a.m., the town was waking up. To her delight, she saw a large bookstore, The Unicorn, to her left, and it was painted a pale lavender color with a dark purple crest outlined in shiny silver paint. Below it was painted, in silver lettering: 1905, the year it was built. Next to it was a large restaurant that took up half a block, Olive Oyle’s. It was a two-story brick building; the crest painted a bright yellow, orange highlights with gold trim. She saw a sign that said: LUNCH AND DINNER. There were lots of pickups parked in front of The Unicorn bookstore. That was a good sign! She saw a sheriff’s black-and-white Tahoe cruiser parked in the mix, as well. Hungry, Lea decided to stop at The Unicorn bookstore because it had a large sign out front that said: COFFEE, PASTRIES and BREAKFAST/LUNCH. She never ate breakfast, per se, but coffee was her saving grace.
Parking in a space in front of the bookstore, she took the large black nylon bag holding her carving tools off the passenger seat and placed them out of sight, down on the floor of the cab. Climbing out, the chill of the thirty-degrees-Fahrenheit temperature made her glad she’d pulled on her trusty purple goose-down nylon jacket that fell to her hips. Taking a purple, white, and pink knit hat her mother had made for her last Christmas, she pulled it over her cap of short red hair and looped the muffler of the same colors, around her neck. Picking up her small knapsack, Lea hitched it across her left shoulder and locked the pickup. Patrons were coming and going, with large cups of coffee and sacks of pastries in their hands, wearing big smiles.
Lea stopped and peered through the large plate glass window. It showed aisle after aisle of books that were arranged nicely so that people passing by might be tempted to come in and check them out. Lacy white curtains were arranged around the top and sides of the window, giving it a decidedly feminine look.
Walking into the bookstore it smelled welcoming, and automatically, Lea inhaled the scent of thousands of old leather-bound books. It was a dizzying fragrance to her and she stepped aside so other patrons could come and go, just looking around, admiring the two-story building. This place reminded her of the ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt, thousands of books crowded perilously on very old, stout, wooden shelves that had to be made of a hardwood or they would have bent and bowed under the weight a long time ago.
Laughter and chatting filled the air and it was satisfying to hear sounds of happiness, ratcheting down the tension within her. She smelled the coffee, lifting her nose, inhaling the scent deeply and with appreciation. There was a full service restaurant on the right side of the huge area, a cash register and L-shaped counter on her left. She could smell bacon frying, the scent of vanilla pancakes, and her mouth watered. The door was polished gold brass with a window from top to bottom. No one was at the cash register. She looked and saw that the coffee bar was down on the right. There was an entrance to the busy restaurant for those who wanted a sit-down meal. The aisles opposite that area were filled with books, all neatly labeled: astrology, astronomy, environment, numerology, tarot, and on and on, in alphabetical order.
Lea loved the old, highly polished oak wooden floor. It pleasantly creaked beneath her boots, the sound telling her the wood was not only well cared for, but also, in very good shape despite its age. More than likely this floor had been placed in 1905. The golden color of it brought light into the aisles. There were plenty of antique lights above her as well, probably from the 1900s, all brass, all carefully polished, with the latest bright lightbulbs, which threw a lot of light. A person could spend hours in this place, Lea decided. She saw lots of short wooden stools, all oak, in every aisle, so patrons might sit down on one and open up a book to check it out. There were also some porch swings that had been recreated to become like sofas with soft, colorful cushions upon them, where readers could sit in one of the many alcoves to enjoy the book they’d chosen to peruse and while away a few minutes or an hour.
She was in love with this place.
Arriving at the coffee bar, a tiger-maple counter, twenty-five feet long, caught Lea’s knowing gaze. It was beautiful, with golden horizontal bars against a reddish darker wood, well cared for, too. Behind it, she saw a woman in her late twenties, blond hair, flashing green eyes, her lips in a smile as she served her customers, who waited patiently in line for their coffee orders. They were farmers, ranchers, and white collar types, a mix of women and men. Two girls in their late teens, the baristas, were making up the coffee orders as fast as possible for their eager clients.
Lea stood back and studied the overhead menu. She could see three waitresses delivering breakfast to the patrons in the restaurant. The glass bakery case up front had cinnamon-laced rolls drizzled with white frosting, and so many other yummy pastries. She leaned down, her stomach growling. There was an orange and pineapple pound cake, by the slice, for sale. Deciding on her order, Lea walked to the back of the line, glad that there was time to just absorb this wonderful old place with all its eccentricities. She spotted a man in his late twenties or early thirties in the restaurant and he looked like the manager in charge of running it.
Four customers ahead of her, Lea noticed the sheriff in a dark green khaki uniform, his black Stetson on his head, broad shoulders. He wasn’t that old, maybe in his early thirties, dark brown military-short hair and green eyes. She wasn’t immune to good-looking men and from an artist’s perspective, this law enforcement officer was very handsome in an interesting way. When he picked up his coffee and ambled down past the line, she read SEABERT, D. on his gold brass name plate across the left pocket of his jacket. He had green eyes like her, but they were a darker jade color, and he gave her a quick perusal. Not feeling threatened, she was sure the county sheriff made it his business to know who was new in his town and jurisdiction. Lea knew she posed no threat to him and he nodded, smiled a little, as he ambled past her, heading for the door. Dressed in a pair of worn blue jeans, her light tan hiking boots and a violet-colored jacket, Lea thought he might be wondering if she was a New Ager like this bookstore was.
Hiding her smile, she focused on the rest of the people in line, curious about who lived in this Bohemian dream that was clearly out of Queen Victoria’s nineteenth-century rule. This bookstore and its owner just never caught on to the twenty-first century, and Lea found it delightful.
Turning her attention to who she thought might be the owner of The Unicorn, it didn’t take a detective to spot her among the other hardworking employees. The woman was dressed in gypsy-like clothes: bright red, orange, and yellow flowers on her ankle-length skirt, a white blouse, and a colorful blue scarf around her shoulders. Her blond hair was held up with an orange scarf, and she wore long, dangling gold earrings and at least ten or fifteen multicolored bangles on each arm. The rings she wore on her small, slender hands were many and flashed with green, blue, and pink gems in each of them. The bright Kelly-green sash she wore around her waist had tiny gold bells stitched onto one edge of it, and every time she moved, they tinkled pleasantly.
Lea loved this woman’s audacity to be herself. She looked like the wild child Lea used to be, and sadness moved through her. From the time she’d started school as a six-year-old, she’d worn colorful skirts, blouses, and scarves, just like this woman. Her choice of clothing had drawn a lot of attention, but as a young girl, she didn’t care. It was her artist’s eye, her appreciation of all colors, that had decided what she wanted to wear. And her mother, who was a wonderful seamstress as well, would take the fabric they’d pick out at a quilting store in Brookings, and make her the big, swirling skirts she loved so much. Those were happy days for Lea and she left it at that, enjoying watching the owner chat warmly and sincerely with each customer as they came up to the counter to order. Many of them also bought egg and ham sandwiches along with some baked goods. Just about every man in front of her left with a sack of food, bakery items, and the largest cup of coffee they could order, in hand.
“Hi!” she said, greeting Lea. “I’m Poppy. What can I get you this morning?”
Smiling, Lea said, “One of everything?”
Laughing, Poppy said, “You’re new to town, aren’t you? I haven’t seen you in here before.”
“I am new. My name’s Lea Ryan. Could I have a large mocha latte? And I’d love a slice of your orange and pineapple pound cake.”
“Sure,” she said, calling out the coffee order to her busy baristas. Grabbing a bakery tissue, she hurried over to the bakery case and placed the slice into a paper sack. Coming back, she took Lea’s money and ran the order through her cash register.
“I see you have tarot readings here?” Lea asked.
“Yes, I’m the tarot reader.” Poppy’s eyes gleamed. “Are you in need of a reading?”
“I’d like one, yes. Could I get an appointment?”
Poppy saw her line of waiting customers was slowing. “Why don’t you go over there.” She pointed across the way toward an open door. “That’s my office. Go sit down on the couch and have your coffee and pound cake. I’ll be done here in another fifteen minutes. We’re about finished with the morning rush.” She gestured toward the line.
“How much do you charge?” Lea asked, taking the coffee brought up by one of the employees.
“On the house,” Poppy said. “You’re new. I’ll bet you’re looking for answers and information.”
Lea grinned and stepped aside for the next customer. “You got that right. Thanks, Poppy.” She turned and headed for the open doorway that was about six aisles away.
Poppy closed the door to her office and sat down at her messy desk, clearing a space for the tarot reading. “My husband, Brad, will take over for me now. Have you ever had a reading before, Lea?” She quickly shuffled the oversized cards.
“I have a friend in Brookings, Oregon, who is a tarot reader,” she explained. “I never got a reading from her.”
“Oh?” Poppy smiled and tilted her head. “And why not?”
Shrugging, Lea said, “I liked my life the way it was. I didn’t want to know about any changes that were ahead.”
Laughing, Poppy said, “There is nothing but change in our lives, Lea. That’s the only thing we can honestly count on.”
“Well, mine’s been pretty quiet until just recently.”
“What are you doing in Wyoming? That’s a long ways from Brookings, Oregon.”
A grin edged her lips. “Touché. I’m meeting a potential employer about a job later on this morning.”
“Great!” She held up the deck. “I’m going to do a three-card reading. The first card will represent your recent past. The second, the present. And the third, your future.” She held out the deck across the desk to Lea. “You can shuffle them as you like. Mentally, as you shuffle the cards, ask them: What are the energies surrounding me presently?”
Lea had finished her pound cake, which had been delicious, and half her coffee was already gone. She wiped her fingers on the sides . . .
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