When a bull-riding champion is left caring for his friend’s baby, could it be time to put down roots in Gold Valley?
Midwife Mallory Chance is ready for a fresh start in Gold Valley. And when she locks eyes with a handsome cowboy, it feels like fate. After too many years wasted on her cheating ex, good girl Mallory is ready to cut loose. But when the dust settles, it turns out that her mysterious one-night cowboy is none other than her new landlord—and someone she’ll be seeing very regularly around Gold Valley.
Bull rider Colt Daniels has a wild reputation, but after losing his friend on the rodeo circuit, he's left it all behind. If only he could walk away from his guilt as easily…or the temptation of Mallory. But he can’t offer her the future she deserves. Then his friend's tiny daughter ends up on Colt's doorstep. Colt has never wanted to rely on anyone, but he needs Mallory's help caring for the baby he's beginning to love as his own. Is it all still temporary, or is it their chance at a forever family?
Release date: December 28, 2021
Publisher: HQN Books
Print pages: 384
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The True Cowboy of Sunset Ridge
IT WAS HIM. The man. The fantasy man. The one who had haunted her dreams for the past six months.
And he was just like Mallory Chance remembered him.
Tall, broad shoulders, broad chest. Tight black T-shirt and black cowboy hat. His midsection looked hard and solid, and so did his thighs.
He was the sort of man who would have terrified her when she was a teenager. Far too much masculinity to cope with—and why bother?—when there were soft, gentle boy band members to fantasize about from the safe distance of a bedroom wall poster.
The sort of man she’d never had the chance to lust after because she’d made her choices about men at fifteen—again, when she’d been more into boy bands than bad boys and had proclaimed chest hair “gross”—and had therefore been stuck with her teenage sensibilities even as she’d transitioned into adulthood.
He looked like danger. The kind you ran from when you were a girl and wanted to run to when you were a woman.
The hardest-looking man in the room.
The one who would win the bar fight.
The one whose muscles looked like they could carry the weight of the whole world. Or possibly just handily beat up her trifling ex.
But it wasn’t enough that the man had the most incredible body she’d ever seen.
He had dark blond hair, dark stubble covering a square jaw. His mouth was perfectly formed, and while she’d never given much thought to what constituted a perfectly formed mouth, it turned out she knew it when she saw it.
But his eyes...
That night in the Gold Valley Saloon, six months ago, while she’d been seated next to her boyfriend, they’d locked eyes.
And she’d felt it all the way down to her core.
Like a bolt of lightning.
An electric current that had run beneath her skin and down to her bones and had left her feeling changed.
It had been a moment. A brief moment. But she hadn’t been sure how she would breathe through it, let alone carry on like it hadn’t happened.
She’d never experienced anything like it before.
Like she was staring down fate in cowboy boots.
But that had to be ridiculous because she didn’t believe in things like that, and if she did, she’d have to claim Jared as her fate, not some random guy in a bar.
Jared, the man she’d been with since she was fifteen years old.
What was that if not fate?
At least, that was what she told herself. For a long time. Too long.
The word whispered over her skin, the concept like firecrackers going off in her stomach.
It was why she had come here tonight, and she would be lying if she said that wasn’t true.
All the whole way from San Francisco she had played the music as loud as she could, had rolled the windows down and shouted Taylor Swift lyrics into the wind. Because her world had been broken open, and because Jared had hated that music.
And it didn’t matter what he liked or didn’t like.
So she’d done it, because she could. And she had ignored the ten times her cell phone had rung with his number flashing across the screen.
She wasn’t taking him back. Not this time. Not ever again.
In the past he’d left her, and she was the one who felt lost. And every time, she’d just get used to him being gone, he’d call and she’d pick up. She’d tell him to come home. Because she needed him.
She hadn’t known how not to need him. And she’d done her best to make sure he needed her. Because it was in that space where she felt right. Like she was doing the right thing, and like she mattered.
That sweet spot of contentedness and a little bit of penance.
Not this time. This time she’d done the leaving.
With very little forethought, and nothing more than a couple of haphazard emails, she had decided to uproot her entire life and go to the town of Gold Valley.
Mallory had been enchanted by Gold Valley from the first time she had come to visit her brother, Griffin.
She and her parents had come six months ago, along with Jared. It had been wonderful. And he had been horrible. And all of the doubts that bubbled up on occasion had come roaring to the surface during that week.
He’d been bored at dinner; he’d been completely uninterested in all of the quaint brick buildings in town. He’d overslept and missed family breakfasts.
In general, every single one of his bad qualities, every single thing that Griffin hated about him had been on full display.
Your brother already hates me. I’m not going to perform.
He’d said that while lounging in the passenger seat of her car, his sunglasses on, holding his phone up, paying it more attention than he did her, as usual. In the years since they’d started dating, his blond hair had transitioned from floppy boy band to man bun, which was the only way he’d transitioned from boy to man, really. He was still handsome in that smooth way, slim and... Well she’d always found him... Cute.
But he was much less cute when bored and slumped in her car, texting on a phone she’d paid for while he acted aggrieved by the vacation she’d also paid for.
He’d said that her brother hated him. And it was true. Griffin did hate him. But it was based on things like that, not on nothing.
Griffin had never been shy about his feelings for Jared, and it had always hurt Mallory.
She’d idolized Griffin all her life. Her older brother was her hero and always had been. A shining beacon of everything good and successful. Her parents had always been so proud of him. And so had she.
Eight years older than her, she’d been ten when Griffin had moved out, and it had devastated her. Even though it was the natural order of things. It had changed her world, and she felt unspeakably lonely with him gone.
He’d gone off and gotten his own life. Fallen in love, gotten married.
And then he lost his wife and little girl, and Mallory had lost her beloved sister-in-law and cherished niece.
Even though Griffin had survived, in many ways she’d felt like she’d lost him too.
It was only since he’d met Iris that Mallory felt like she really had them back.
Which, other than the natural pull she felt to the town, had been the reason that she’d come to Gold Valley.
She wanted to be near her brother.
And she needed, desperately, to be very far away from Jared.
Her rental wouldn’t be ready for a couple of days, but she just... She hadn’t been able to stay. Not anymore.
And there were a whole lot of conversations that she was due to have. Mostly because Griffin didn’t even know that she was moving to Gold Valley.
Her parents didn’t even know what she was doing.
Par for the course, isn’t it?
Maybe. But there were just... There were some things she just wanted to keep to herself. So she didn’t have to feel the sting of their disappointment. Her own failures mixed together with disapproval from the two people who mattered so much to her.
She’d always tried to cover for Jared too. Every time he’d left and hurt her, she’d tried to minimize it. Every time he’d spent three weeks or a month apart sleeping at another woman’s house, only to come home, she’d tried to hide that.
And she’d tried to forget it.
Her relationship with Jared was fifteen years long. They’d grown up together. Well, he’d grown up less, she’d grown up more. But they’d shaped their lives around each other and she’d felt like...
Like he was the only person who knew everything about her. Things she’d never shared with her parents, never with her brother... He’d been there for.
And in the darkest time, he had been there. And she’d clung to that through every bump in their road.
But this time, he’d cheated. They hadn’t been separated before he’d found his way into another woman’s bed. She’d thought everything was fine. Great. Better than it had been for a long while, in fact.
And that was what hurt the most.
She gritted her teeth. Feeling angry. And she looked back over at her mystery cowboy.
Yeah, the thing was, he had probably cheated on her before. He had probably been cheating for their entire relationship, and she had just believed him every time he ever said that the only times he’d touched another person had been when they were on a break.
That had hurt. It always had. Because she had never...
He was her one and only.
And of all the silly things that had enraged her, the one that had fueled her down I-5 the whole way here, was... That.
Was the fact that she had seen a man that had made her feel things just with one look that no one, not even Jared, had ever made her feel before.
She’d felt that deep connection back then. Sitting there with a man who was tipsy off his sixth beer, which she’d paid for, while she looked at another man who incited some kind of fire in her stomach—it felt unfair. And in that period of time when she’d been in that house she used to share with Jared in a town that she wanted to leave desperately, she just decided she needed to... Go.
And she could stay in a motel until the rental date.
But she needed to be gone. And she had told herself that it wasn’t the vision of that man’s eyes that had propelled her. She had told herself that it wasn’t why, after she checked into the little Wine Country Motel on the edge of Gold Valley, she’d taken a shower and freshened up, put on some makeup for the first time in three weeks and a light, summer dress.
No, she had told herself that none of those things had anything to do with her mystery man.
And then, when she was bored and hungry and had bypassed any number of actual restaurants on the main street of town, walking to the Gold Valley Saloon, she had decided that there was no way she had any hope of seeing that man. Because what were the chances?
But then, in the back of her mind it was there. How people did like their regular bars. How it was possible.
But so not likely that, six months from the first time she had seen him, he would be there. Just happened to be there.
When she was free and unattached, angry and needing desperately to reclaim something... Or rather, claim it for the first time.
But there he was. There he was. And she was frozen to the spot in that Western bar, her feet grounded to the rustic wood floor. People were talking and laughing and dancing all around her. Country music was playing over the jukebox, and there was tension filling the air. Couples were everywhere. New and old, she imagined. Some who had forever. Some who were looking for a night.
But he was alone. Standing there at the back of the bar with the neon light from a beer sign shining over him like an unholy sign from the heavens. She knew it was him. Because she could never have confused him with anyone else. Sure, there were other handsome men in the room. But none of them made her feel like fire.
None of them made her feel like everything she’d ever known before was a pale, cardboard construct, and he might be the only thing that was real.
The only thing that could make her real.
She swallowed hard, walking over to the bar. The bartender was a handsome man, broad chested with a quick smile, tattoos up his brown forearms, a bright gold wedding band and a twinkle in his eye. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah. I... Whiskey. Please.”
“All right. Any particular kind?”
She didn’t know anything about whiskey. “Do you have a special kind that makes you brave?”
He grinned. “Even cheap stuff will do that. Just comes with a headache.”
“It’s my experience that just about everything in life comes with the headache,” she said, trying to smile. And then she felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Goose bumps broke out over her arms.
And the fire inside her flared.
That happened a split second before she heard a low, husky voice just behind her.
“It’s you, isn’t it?”
She turned, and there he was.
And she didn’t know if she could survive it.
Because those electric blue eyes were looking right into hers. But this time, it wasn’t from across a crowded bar. It was right there.
And she didn’t have a deadweight clinging to her side that kept her from going where she wanted to go, doing what she wanted to do. She was free. Unencumbered, for the first time in fifteen years. For the first damn time.
She was standing there, and she was just Mallory.
Jared wasn’t there. Griffin wasn’t there. Her parents weren’t there.
She was standing on her own, standing there with no one and nothing to tell her what to do, no one and nothing to make her feel a certain thing.
So it was all just him. Blinding electric blue, brilliant and scalding.
“I... I think so. Unless... Unless you think I’m someone else.” It was much less confident and witty than she’d intended. But she didn’t feel capable of witty just now.
“You were here once. About six months ago.”
He remembered her. He remembered her. This man who had haunted her dreams—no, not haunted, created them. Had filled her mind with erotic imagery that had never existed there before, was... Talking about her. He was.
He thought of her. He remembered her.
“I was,” she said.
He looked behind her, then back at her. “Where’s the boyfriend?”
He asked the question with an edge of hostility. It made her shiver.
“Good.” His lips tipped upward into a smile.
“I...” She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what to say, because this shimmering feeling inside of her was clearly, clearly shared and...
Suddenly her freedom felt terrifying. That freedom that had felt—only a moment before—exhilarating suddenly felt like too much. She wanted to hide. Wanted to scamper under the bar and get behind the barstool so that she could put something between herself and the electric man. She wondered if she was ready for this.
Because there was no question what this was.
With nothing at all between them. Nothing but unfamiliar motel bedsheets. A bed she’d never sleep in again and a man she would never sleep with again.
She understood that.
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