It had been a long time since Jace Strickland had some decent time off to think about anything other than the military. At a crossroad in his life, he has two months of leave to decide whether to reenlist in the Navy or discover something else in life that gives him the same rush as being a Navy SEAL. Meeting single mother Grace McKinnon at a veterans event in South Dakota was an unexpected pleasure. Given the nature of the life he'd chosen, he'd never been the forever kind of man. He craved adventure. But Grace's sweet lips and loving heart makes him wonder if the ultimate rush in life...is loving one special woman for the rest of his life.
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“He hates me.”
Grace McKinnon propped her foot on the first rail of the fence and leaned against the splintered wood as her ten-year-old son rode around the paddock on a horse called Moondust. Her cousin Ethan and a friend of his from the Navy—her cousin’s HOT friend—was giving Liam instruction. Liam was hanging on every word.
“He’s ten. He hates everyone,” Gray said.
“Right now he’s reserving it all for me. Boys don’t really hate everyone until they’re about thirteen.”
“How do you know?”
“I grew up with four brothers and five male cousins. I could write a book on the subject.”
She glanced up at her brother, who was taller than her by nearly a foot, and groaned. Even with her cowboy hat on, she had to squint her eyes from the summer sun.
“These days he’d rather be with Ethan and his friend, or with you, or Ian, or Luke than with me. Anyone but me.”
“You’re his mother.”
As if that was supposed to make her feel better. “I don’t recall any of you treating Mom the way Liam treats me.”
“Mom and Dad didn’t get divorced.”
Her stomach rolled. “Thank you very much for reminding me of that.”
Gray sighed and draped his arm around her shoulder protectively. “That wasn’t a put down.”
“Yes, it was. I failed at my marriage.”
“You didn’t fail. You just married a jerk.”
“My son hates me.”
“Fine, he hates you.”
Glancing up at Gray again, she saw his teasing grin and couldn’t stop the laugh from escaping her lips. “You can at least lie to me when I whine. What good are you otherwise?”
“He’s a kid. He wants male companionship. All boys are like that.”
Grace observed Liam on the horse as he talked to the man standing with her cousin.
“Who is this guy with Ethan?”
“Strick? Technically his name is Jace. He’s a Navy SEAL. Ethan worked with him when he was in the Navy.”
“Strick? That’s a name?”
“Last name is Strickland.”
“What’s he doing here?”
Gray gave her a sidelong glance. One side of his mouth lifted to a grin. “Why are you so interested?”
She rolled her eyes. “Knock it off. I’m not. Well, I am to a point. Liam seems to be hanging on his every word.”
“I think Ethan brought him out here to check on Tessa’s new project. They toured the Wounded Veterans Center yesterday.”
“He’s an investor?”
“A donor. He has money to burn. I don’t know how. And Tessa doesn’t care as long as he’s impressed enough to give her the funds to push this project over the edge. She’s relying on donors to run the Rolling Rock Equine Rehabilitation Center. Strick is a horse guy.”
Grace glanced over at Jace “Strick” Strickland, who was now lovingly stroking the neck of one of the horses as he spoke to it. He had to be talking very low to the horse because she couldn’t hear what he was saying.
She snapped her gaze to her brother. “A horse guy, huh? Does that mean rodeo?”
Gray chuckled as he leaned against the rail of the fence. “Not exactly. His family owns a stock company out in Wyoming. He was looking for something to be a part of, so Ethan invited him out here.” Gray sighed. “When is Joe picking Liam up?”
“Day after tomorrow.” Grace couldn’t hold back the sigh that made its way up her throat. “He’ll be gone for a month.”
“Wow. How’d Joe swing that one?”
“It was a compromise. Liam asked him if he could live with him permanently.”
“Ouch,” Gray mouthed.
“I told you. He hates me. You have to peel Haley from Tessa every time her ex has visitation and my kid doesn’t even give me a backwards glance.”
“First of all, Haley is a girl and she’s only five. You were like that with Mom and Aunt Kate for the longest time. Don’t beat yourself up. Liam will get over it.”
“I wish I had your confidence.” She released another sigh. It was getting old lately, resigning herself to things she had no control over. The worst of it was that Joe was actually considering having Liam spend more time with him on the road. It opened up a whole slew of problems that Grace hadn’t planned to think about and now didn’t want to think about. Spending time on the road with his father during the summer was one thing. But during school…she didn’t even want to think about how much that would disrupt her son’s life more than his parents’ divorce already had.
But Grace had no choice if she didn’t want to fight the way Tessa and her ex-husband were fighting over custody. She had a front row seat to just how ugly that could get. And the fact that Liam had done nothing but talk about being with his father since the moment he finished the school year only drove that point home harder.
What the hell was she going to do with herself for the next four weeks without her son?
* * *
Strick couldn’t remember the last time he’d had time off from the military. And this time, it hadn’t been his choice. When a Navy doctor forces you to take leave, it’s a done deal no matter what the SEAL had to say about it. Stand down “rules” aside, Strick was lucky that his CO didn’t expect him to take the full three months of leave that he had banked up over the years. One month away from his unit was already too much for Strick. Especially now that he was nearly the end of his tour and needed to make decisions about reenlisting.
The timing of Ethan McKinnon’s call after he’d heard the news about Lara was enough to make Strick come to South Dakota instead of going home and facing things he wasn’t yet ready to face. A distraction. That’s what Ethan had called it. A chance to reconnect with an old friend. And an opportunity to find out what else was out there.
It had been a mistake. Despite reconnecting with his old friend, Strick had never felt more alone in his life. He was used to being part of a team. Part of something bigger. But right now he felt empty. The Navy medic has insisted that feeling would go away eventually, but Strick had his doubts.
He didn’t need to regroup. He needed to work. He needed the Navy. Taking time out just gave him a reminder of what he didn’t want to think about. But before he could do that, he had something important to take care of. He owed Lara that.
Ethan McKinnon had been a Navy SEAL in his units during one of his tours in Afghanistan. He had his own demons to fight. At the time Strick didn’t fully understand the struggle that drove Ethan to become the SEAL he’d become. But he had a good glimpse of it now.
“Tessa has just added three more horses. Eventually she plans to fill the barn so that there are enough horses for everyone in need at any given time,” Ethan said. “If she needs more room, she can always board some horses over at Logan’s ranch in Rudolph.”
“What about instructors?”
“She’s working on that too. She’ll start slow and grow from there. The possibilities though are amazing.”
Logan McKinnon, Ethan’s twin brother, owned a ranch on the other side of Rudolph, where Strick was currently staying at a local motel. Ethan and his fiancée Maddie had insisted on him staying with them in Maddie’s condo. But now wasn’t the time to intrude on their privacy. Had the home that Ethan and Maddie were building been finished, he might have decided to spend a little time with them there. He had only been in town for two days, and still had a month of leave ahead of him. Ethan had insisted the invitation was open-ended, he could come stay with them at any time. Either way, Strick was thankful for the little bit of space he had at the end of the day right now. There was plenty of time later to change his mind.
“I’d love to take a ride out on the property at some point,” Strick said.
Tessa, the owner of the Rolling Rock Ranch and the Equine Rehabilitation Center, glanced around the paddock and shielded her eyes from the sun.
“It’s kind of a long ride for Haley this time of the day,” she said holding on to the reins of the horse her five-year-old daughter was riding. “I’m sure Gray or Grace wouldn’t mind taking a ride out with you, unless you don’t mind waiting until tomorrow.”
“Gray and Grace are Ian’s siblings, right?” he asked.
“That’s right,” Tessa said. “You met Ian at the Wounded Veteran Center yesterday.”
“Yes, the WVC was quite impressive.”
Ethan beamed with pride and he should, Strick thought. His friend, along with his cousin Ian, had built something special for wounded veterans and their families.
“He’s a good kid. Who does he belong to?” Pointing to a little boy riding a hardy quarter horse named Daisy.
“That’s Grace’s son, Liam,” Tessa said.
Strick smiled as he watched Liam trotting around the paddock in the saddle. The look on his face showed the boy had no fear of the size of the horse or what that horse could do. Luckily for him, the horse seemed well-trained. That was promising.
Strick nodded to Liam. “The kid looks like he wants to be a bronc rider.”
Tessa laughed. “Not if Grace has anything to do with it.”
“Mommy!” Haley said. “I want to ride.”
“You said that sentence very well. How do you use your words to get Dodger to walk?” Tessa asked gently.
Haley said the command that started Dodger moving and Tessa walked next to the horse as Haley rode around the edge of the paddock.
“You’re looking at the inspiration for starting this equine rehabilitation center,” Ethan said
“It’s only been a few short months. Weeks really. But Haley has blossomed so much since Tessa has been working with her.”
Strick watched Haley for a few minutes. “She looks like any other normal kid.”
“She is a normal kid. But she has had a seizure disorder since she was very small and it kept her from developing normally. She still has a long way to go. But now that she’s on medication, and Tessa has been working with her, you can hardly tell that she struggled at all. It’s amazing. She is the reason why Tessa wanted to open this equine rehabilitation center. When Ian and I realized what a profound effect this was having on Haley, we thought perhaps this was something we could get on board with for veterans who have been disabled or who were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Strick certainly hoped so. “It has some great possibilities.”
Ethan smiled. “I was hoping you would see it that way.”
Tessa came around the paddock with Haley again.
“You have a nice ranch, Tessa,” Strick said, peering out at the hills in the distance. “I can see why Ethan was so insistent I come out here and check out the Rolling Rock Ranch out. I like what I’m hearing so far about what you’re doing and how it will help the kids.”
“And veterans. We want to help as many people as we can. But I can only do that if I can get the rest of the donation money I need to fully implement my idea.”
“Regis is working on that part,” Ethan said.
Strick knew that Ethan’s brother, Hawk, was the only doctor in Rudolph, and he was engaged to Regis, a former insurance adjuster and army brat. Her connections to the military were many and she’d managed to secure funding for the Wounded Veterans Center. Now she was digging into deep pockets for the equine center.
The sun was setting in the distance, making the sky a full spectrum of color.
“Five minutes, Liam,” a woman who Ethan had said was his cousin Grace, called out from by the sidelines. Her hands were at her mouth making a cone to amplify her voice over the sound of the farm animals and the horse’s hooves clopping in the paddock.
Liam nodded and rode his horse to where the rest of them were standing and then dismounted, holding onto the reins. His feet barely touched the ground as he climbed out of the saddle. Ethan held a hand out to keep him from falling backwards, but Liam held his stand.
“You did really good,” Ethan said. “I’m not sure I rode that well when I was ten.”
“Ten? Is that all you are?” Strick asked.
“Yes, sir,” the boy said, adjusting his cowboy hat on his head as he peered up at Strick. “Everyone says I take after my dad.”
“But you’re still all McKinnon,” Ethan said, tapping Liam’s cowboy hat.
The young boy smiled up at Ethan. “If you say so, Uncle Ethan.”
Strick turned and saw that Gray and Grace were now inside the paddock, walking toward them.
“He’s tall for ten, but still looks incredibly dwarfed by the size of Daisy,” Grace said, tapping on the top of her son’s cowboy hat as Ethan had when she reached him. But unlike the look of approval Liam had given Ethan, he now glared at his mother.
“He’ll grow into him,” Strick said, admiring how the child seemed so confident.
“Can we ride more, Mommy?” Haley asked.
“Not tonight. We need to hurry and give you a bath. Daddy is going to be here in a little bit to pick you up for a visit and you want to be clean. Right now you have dust on your cheeks. So let’s get Dodger settled inside so you can have that bath.”
With eager eyes, Liam turned to Tessa. “I can take the horses in while you tend to Haley.”
“That’s a big job, Liam,” Grace said.
Liam looked annoyed with his mother. “I can do it!”
Tessa intervened. “Why don’t you have Uncle Gray go with you, just in case. Would that be okay?”
Liam’s mood changed as soon as Tessa spoke. “Okay.”
Gray nodded to Grace. “I’ll follow you, Liam. You’ve got the lead.”
“Come here, Haley. Let’s head in for that bath.” Tessa said, reaching up for Haley.
Haley put out her arms and fell into Tessa’s embrace. Then she wrapped herself around her mother and pouted.
“You two haven’t been formally introduced,” Ethan said. “Grace, this is Jace Strickland. Strick to most of us. Strick, this is my pain in the butt cousin Grace.”
Grace’s mouth dropped. “Ethan, I love you. When was I ever a pain in the butt to you?”
“I got into more trouble because of you.”
“You got into that trouble all by yourself,” she said, weaving her arm around her cousin. “I just made your mom aware of it.”
They all chuckled for a few seconds. Strick took a moment to focus on Grace McKinnon, who Ethan had told him once before was the only female McKinnon in a family full of men. Unlike her siblings and her cousins, Grace’s hair was much lighter and had a hint of red in it. It was most likely highlighted as some girls did these days. And she was slender with long legs but still dwarfed Ethan by at least eight inches. Her slightly upturned nose and a sprinkle of freckles on the tip of her nose spoke of her Irish heritage.
“It’s nice to meet you, Grace,” he said.
“We won’t be long,” Tessa said as she headed towards the house with Haley. Turning back, she added, “Are you staying for supper, Grace? Luke won’t be home until later tonight, but Ethan and Strick are staying.”
Grace glanced at Liam, who was walking Daisy into the barn with Gray behind him. The heavy look of sadness that hung in her expression was telling.
“It’s my last real night with Liam for a month. I was planning on spoiling him a little by myself before Joe comes to pick him up.”
“I thought that wasn’t until Tuesday?” Tessa asked.
“It’s not. But tomorrow we’re going shopping for some much needed clothes because he’s growing like a weed. He hates clothes shopping so he’ll complain the entire time. Tomorrow night he’ll be too excited about his dad coming the next day to give me any attention, so tonight it is.”
“Say no more.”
“Why is Luke coming in so late?” Ethan asked. “He’s been wrapping up a lot of work in the Sioux Falls office. Did he tell you the firm is going to open an office in Rapid City?”
“Yeah. It’ll be nice to finally have him close by.”
“Luke would be your older brother?” Strick asked Grace.
“Yes, he’s a family attorney based in Sioux Falls. We don’t get to see him very much so it’ll be nice having him here.”
“Yes, it will. No more lonely nights. Since I quit working on the oil rig, I almost have too much time on my hands when Haley isn’t here. And then when Luke isn’t here too.” She nuzzled Haley’s neck and then looked at them. “I’ll be back in a few minutes with a clean little girl.”
“When is the custody hearing?” Ethan asked when Tessa and Haley were out of earshot.
“A few weeks. They’re trying a temporary visitation now that Haley has started school. Tessa is hoping it will hold if she can get enough progress with Haley. But all that could be wiped away if the judge thinks Haley is better off on the reservation, which is what Mason is pushing for.”
“Maybe I should go help in the barn so you two can talk,” Strick said, feeling as if he were a fly on the wall eavesdropping on family affairs.
Grace shook her head and turned to Ethan. “I’d rather talk about happier things. Like when are you and Maddie going to set a wedding date?”
Ethan groaned. “On that note, I think I’ll help out in the barn.”
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