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FROM HOME-SWEET-HOLLYWOOD...TO HOME ON THE RANGE
Former child star Sara Wellens has hit a dead end in Hollywood. When she inherits half of a crumbling guest ranch in Crimson, Colorado, Sara figures she'll sell her portion to get back on her own two feet and be back in the black in no time at all. No harm, no foul...right?
The one thing she didn't count on was her partner-in-property, hunky former bull rider and single dad Josh Travers. Sara is surprised at how quickly she bonds with the charming cowboy and his daughter. But she insists that she's definitely not looking for a forever family. Can the rancher and the starlet let down their guards to find their own Hollywood happy ending?
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Michelle Major grew up in Ohio but dreamed of living in the mountains. Soon after graduating with a degree in Journalism, she pointed her car west and settled in Colorado. Her life and house are filled with one great husband, two beautiful kids, a few furry pets and several well-behaved reptiles. She’s grateful to have found her passion writing stories with happy endings. Michelle loves to hear from her readers at www.michellemajor.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Sara Wells gripped the steering wheel of her ancient Toyota and tilted her chin. "Punch me," she said, and squeezed her eyes shut. "Right in the face. Go on, before I lose my nerve."
She heard movement next to her and braced herself, flinching when a soft hand stroked her cheek. "I'd never hit you, Sara, even if I wanted to. Which I don't."
Sara opened her eyes to gaze into the kind, guileless face of her best friend in the world, April Sommers. Her only friend. The friend whose entire life savings Sara had recently lost.
She swatted April's arm. "You should. I deserve it." A bead of sweat slid between her shoulder blades and she rolled down the window a crack. Her lungs stung as she inhaled the crisp alpine air. "How does anyone breathe around here?" she muttered. "I miss the L.A. smog."
"Go see the attorney. Stop avoiding reality."
"Reality Bites." She paused, then lifted a finger. "1994. Starring Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder and a very green Ben Stiller. Who would have thought that of the three, Ben Stiller would end up the biggest star? Come on. Little Fockers? Are you kidding me?"
"You're doing it again."
Ignoring the soft admonishment, Sara leaned forward to gaze out the car's front window at the row of brightly colored Victorian stores lining Main Street. "Look at that. Warner Bros. couldn't have created a better Western set."
"This is the West." Right.
Crimson, Colorado. Population 3,500 if the sign coming over the pass into town was accurate. Altitude 8,900 feet. Sara blamed the lack of air for her inability to catch her breath.
April rummaged in the sack at her feet. "Aren't you curious?" She offered Sara an apple. Sara held up a half-eaten Snickers in response.
"I gave up curious a long time ago." She stuffed the candy bar into her mouth. "Along with cigarettes, savage tans, men and chocolate." She swallowed. "Okay, scratch chocolate."
That resolution had fallen by the interstate about four hours into the thirteen-hour drive from Los Angeles. While Crimson was only thirty minutes down the road from the ritzy ski town of Aspen, it held as much appeal to Sara as a blistered big toe.
Sure, it was beautiful if you were one of those back-to-nature types who appreciated towering pines, glittering blue skies and breathtaking views. Sara was a city girl. A blanket of smog comforted her; horns blaring on the I-5 made her smile. In her world, ski boots were a fashion statement, not a cold-weather necessity.
She was out of her element. Big-time.
"Go on." April leaned over and opened the driver's-side door. "The sooner you talk to the attorney, the quicker we'll be back on the road to la-la land."
Sara's need to put Rocky Mountain Mayberry in her rearview mirror propelled her out of the car. She couldn't do that until she met with Jason Crenshaw, attorney-at-law, whose cryptic phone call two days earlier had started this unplanned road trip.
If nothing else, she hoped the money Crenshaw had for her would buy gas on the way back. And groceries. Sara could live on ramen noodles and snack cakes for weeks, but April was on a strict organic, vegan diet. Sara didn't understand eating food that looked like cat puke and tasted like sawdust, but she had no right to question April's choices. If it weren't for Sara, April would have plenty of money to spend on whatever she wanted. And rabbit food cost plenty of money.
She pulled her well-worn jeans jacket tight and squinted through a mini dust tornado as a gust of wind whipped along the town's main drag. Mid-May in Southern California and the temperature hovered at a balmy seventy degrees, but Crimson still had a bit of winter's chill to the air. The mountain peaks surrounding the town were covered in snow.
Sara didn't do snow.
She opened the pale turquoise door to the office of Crenshaw and Associates and stepped in, lifting her knock-off Prada sunglasses to the top of her head.
The desk in the reception area sat vacant, large piles of paper stacked precariously high. "Hello?" she called in the general direction of the office door at the back of the lobby.
A chair creaked and through the door came a younger man who looked like he could have been Andy Griffith's rumpled but very handsome son. He peered at her over a pair of crooked reading glasses, wiping his hands on the paper napkin stuffed into his collared shirt.
Sara caught the whiff of barbecue and her stomach grumbled. No food envy, she reminded herself. Noodles were enough for her.
"Sorry, miss," the man said as he looked her over. "No soliciting. Try a couple doors down at the diner. Carol might have something left over from the lunch rush."
Sara felt her eyes widen a fraction. The guy thought she was a bum. Fantastic. She pulled at her spiky bangs. "I'm looking for Jester Crunchless," she said with a well-timed lip curl.
"I'm Jason Crenshaw." The man bristled. "And who might you be?"
Immediately his posture relaxed. "Ms. Wells, of course." He pulled out the napkin as he studied her, revealing a tie decorated with rows of small snowboards. "You know, we watched Just the Two of Us religiously around here. You're different than I expected."
"I get that a lot."
"Right." He chuckled self-consciously. "You're a heck of a lady to track down."
"I'm here now."
"Of course," he repeated. "Why don't you step into my office?"
"Why don't you hand over the check?"
His brows drew together. "Excuse me?"
"On the phone you said inheritance." She reached into her purse. "I have ID right here. Let's get this over with."
"Were you close to your grandmother, Ms. Wells?"
"No." She could barely remember her grandmother.
Sara's mother had burned a trail out of Crimson as soon as she could and had kept Sara far away from her estranged family.
"The heart attack was a shock. We're told she didn't suffer." He paused. "It's a loss for the whole town. Miss Trudy was the backbone of Crimson."
A sliver of something, a long-buried emotion, slipped across Sara's heart and she clamped it down quickly. Shaking her head, she made her voice flip. "It's tragic that she was your backbone and whatnot. I barely knew the woman. Can we talk about the money?"
Another pause. "There is no money." Crenshaw's tone took on a harsh edge. Harsh was Sara's home turf.
Sara matched his emotion. "Then why in the hell did I just drive all the way from California?"
He cleared his throat. "We discussed an inheritance on the phone, Ms. Wells. Not money, specifically." He turned to a rickety file cabinet and peered into the top drawer. "I have it right here."
Great. She and April had driven almost a thousand miles for an old piece of costume jewelry or something. She mentally calculated if she could get to Denver on the fumes left in her gas tank.
He turned back to her and held out a set of keys. "There's some paperwork, for sure. We should talk to Josh about how he fits into the mix. He and Trudy had big plans for the place. But you look like you could use a rest. Go check it out. We can meet again tomorrow morning."
Tomorrow morning she'd be halfway to the Pacific Ocean. "What place?"
"Crimson Ranch," he told her. "Miss Trudy's property." He jingled the keys.
Sara's stomach lurched. "She left me a property?" Before Crenshaw could answer, cool air tickled Sara's ponytail. She turned as her mother, Rosemarie Wells, glided in with bottle-blond hair piled high on top of her regal head. A man followed in her wake, indiscriminately middle-aged, slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair, slight paunch and cowboy boots that looked custom-made. Sara assumed he was the latest in her mother's long string of rich, powerful, jerk boyfriends.
Could this day get any worse?
Rose slanted Jason Crenshaw a dismissive glance then snapped her fingers at Sara. "We need to talk, Serena."
Sara's stomach lurched, but she focused on the attorney, snatching the keys out of his still-outstretched palm.
"May I help you?" he asked, his eyes a little dazed. Her mother had had that effect on men since Sara could remember. It had been at least two years since she'd seen her mother last, but Rose looked exactly the same as far as Sara could tell. Maybe with a few less wrinkles thanks to the wonders of modern plastic surgery.
"You can ignore her." Sara bit at a cuticle.
"Serena, stop that obnoxious behavior."
She nibbled harder. "This is kind of a coinkydink, Mom. You showing up now." Sara locked eyes with her mother. Rose knew about the will, she realized in an instant.
Her mother's gaze raked her. "You look like hell, Serena."
"Stop calling me that. My name is Sara." She narrowed her eyes but crossed her arms over her chest, suddenly conscious that she was wearing an ancient and not very supportive sports bra. "Sara Wells. The name you put on my birth certificate."
Her mother's large violet eyes rolled to the ceiling. "The name I had legally changed when you were eight."
"I changed it back and you know it." Sara took a step forward. "A monumental pain in the back end, by the way." She cocked her head to one side. "Although it's handy when collections comes calling."
Her mother's nose wrinkled. "I can help you with that, Serena."
Rose ignored her. "Richard wants to buy your grandmother's property." She tilted her head at the aging cowboy, who tipped his hat rim at Sara, Clint Eastwood style.
"I don't understand why Gran left it to me."
"To make things difficult for me, of course," Rose said with an exaggerated sigh. She dabbed at the corner of her eye. "Mothers are supposed to look out for their children, not keep them from their rightful inheritance."
Sara never could cry on cue. She envied her mother that.
"No matter. I know you've gotten yourself into another mess, Serena. A financial nightmare, really. We can fix that right now. Mr. Crenshaw, would you be so good as to draw up the paperwork?" She leveled a steely gaze at Sara. "I'm bailing you out again. Remember that."
Rose had never helped Sara out of anything—contract negotiations, come-ons from slimy casting directors, defamatory tabloid headlines, a career slowly swirling down the drain. The only times in Sara's life her mother had stepped in to help were when it benefited Rose at Sara's expense.
"I'm not selling."
"Not yet. And not to you, Mother."
"Don't be ridiculous." Rose darted a worried glance toward the cowboy, whose hands fisted in front of his oversize belt buckle. "What choice do you have?"
"I'm not sure." Sara turned to the attorney. "Can you give me directions to the ranch?"
"I'll write them down," he said, and with obvious relief, disappeared into the back office.
"What kind of game are you playing?" Her mother pointed a French-tipped finger at Sara. "We both know you're desperate for money. You don't belong on that ranch." Rose's tone was laced with condescension. "She had no business leaving it to you."
Decades of anger boiled to the surface in Sara. "She did, and maybe if you'd look in the mirror beyond the fake boobs and Botox you'd see why. Maybe she wanted to keep it out of your hot little hands." She leaned closer.
"Want to talk about that?"
Her mother recoiled for an instant, then straightened. "You don't have a choice."
"No." Sara's spine stiffened. "I didn't have a choice when I was eight and begged you not to take me on another round of auditions. I didn't have a choice when I was thirteen and I wanted to quit the show after the assistant director came on to me. I didn't have a choice at seventeen when you checked me into rehab for exhaustion because the publicity would help the fans see me as an adult."
"If you'd taken my advice, you wouldn't be in the position you are now. I had your best interest at heart. Always."
Sara laughed. Actually laughed out loud in her mother's face. The statement was that absurd. "You tell yourself whatever you need to make it through the day. We both know the truth. Here's the kicker. Right now I do have a choice." She gripped the keys hard in her fist. "Stay away from me, Mother. Stay off of my property or I'll have you hauled off to the local pokey."
Sara met her angry gaze. "Try me."
She flicked a gaze at Jason Crenshaw, who'd returned to the office's lobby. "I'll be in touch," she said and took the piece of paper he handed her. Without another glance at Rose, she reached for the door, but a large hand on her arm stopped her.
"You're making a big mistake here, missy," the aging Marlboro man told her, his voice a harsh rasp.
She shrugged out of his grasp. She'd been intimidated by far scarier men than this old coot. "What's new?" she asked, and pushed out into the too-clean mountain air.
Josh Travers took a deep breath, letting the fresh air clear his muddled head. He'd been doing trail maintenance on the hiking path behind the main house for over three hours, moving logs to reinforce the bridge across a stream that ran between the two properties. His knee had begun throbbing about forty-five minutes into the job. Now it felt like someone had lit a match to his leg. Josh could tolerate the physical pain. What almost killed him was the way the ache radiated into his brain, making him remember why he was stuck here working himself to the point of exhaustion on a cool spring morning.
What he'd lost and left behind. Voices whispering he'd never get it back. The pain was a constant reminder of his monumental fall—both literal and figurative.
He turned toward the house and, for the first time, noticed a silver sedan parked out front. He didn't recognize the car as any of the locals. He squinted and could just make out California plates.
He thought of his daughter, Claire, alone in her bedroom, furiously texting friends from New York. Double damn.
If his leg could have managed it, he'd have run. Instead, he walked as fast as his knee would allow, trying to hide his limp—just in case someone was watching. It was all he could do not to groan with every step.
By the time he burst through the back door, he was panting and could feel sweat beading on his forehead. He stopped to catch his breath and heard the unfamiliar sound of laughter in the house. Claire's laughter.
He closed his eyes for a moment and let it wash over him, imagining that she was laughing at one of the lame jokes he regularly told to elicit a reaction. One he never got.
He stopped short in the doorway between the back hall and the kitchen. Claire's dark head bent forward into the refrigerator.
"How about cheese?" she asked. "Or yogurt?"
"Really, we're fine" a voice answered, and Josh's gaze switched like radar to the two women sitting on stools at the large island at the edge of the kitchen. One looked in her late thirties, two thick braids grazing her shoulders. She wore no makeup and might have a decent figure, but who could tell with the enormous tie-dye dress enveloping most of her body. She smiled at Claire and something about her made Josh relax a fraction.
His attention shifted to the other woman, and he sucked in another breath. She tapped painted black fingernails on the counter as her eyes darted around the room. Her long blond hair was pulled back in a high ponytail; streaks of—was that really fireengine red?—framed her face. The same blazing color coated her mouth, making her lips look as plump as an overripe strawberry. He had a s...
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