Thursday, February 18, 2016

NEW RELEASE!

DAKOTA HOMECOMING
Dakota Hearts, Book 10


Julian McKinnon hasn't been home to South Dakota and the family that had always been his anchor, and they want to know why. He may seem like the black sheep of the family, but telling his family he was an undercover FBI agent after all they'd been through didn't seem like a great idea. Now there's another McKinnon wedding planned for the holidays and the family has made it clear Julian isn't going to miss it for any reason. That leaves his informant wide open. The only way to make sure she's safe is to bring her home to meet the family. Aside from Georgie Garcia (Gigi) being too close to the front line of one of Mexico's notorious drug lords, she's incredibly beautiful, making it hard for Julian to separate his job from his growing feelings for her.



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Chapter One Excerpt:


“You’re going to have to take your informant with you to South Dakota.”

Julian McKinnon listened to the voice over the phone.  Kelly Montgomery, the head of the Chicago office, had only recently contacted him about his missing son.

“You’re serious,” he replied.

“I can’t have her hanging around here.  We’re being watched.  And if we’re not, we will be.  This development is too sensitive to risk having Georgie Garcia slip through our fingers.  You understand what I mean.”

He did.  But it only complicated an already tenuous situation he’d put himself in with his family.  “Sir, the only reason I’m going home is because my brother is getting married.  If I show up with a woman…”

“What?  You’ve never brought a girl home to meet your mother before?”

Julian shifted his jaw to one side and glanced out the window of his motel room.  Motels had been his home for the better part of six months.  He was looking forward to going home.  Looking forward to Aunt Kate’s good cooking and his mother’s pampering.  He needed it.

“Don’t make me laugh.  I’m still stunned.  None of us, bar my sister, Grace, would ever think of bringing someone home until there was a ring involved.  The second we do, my mother has us married off.”

Kelly laughed.  “Your mother sounds like my wife.  To some extent, that’s the reason we’re having this conversation.  Given what happened to her sister, I wouldn’t blame her for wanting to disappear.  But she is the only link I have to finding my son’s whereabouts in Colombia.  I can’t risk that Georgie Garcia will slip through our fingers.”

“But, sir…”

“Make it happen, Julian.  If you’re going home, she’s going with you.  It’s either that or skip your brother’s wedding.  I don’t care what you tell your family.  I don’t care what she tells your family as long as she never mentions Eduardo Sanchez’s name to them.  You know that wouldn’t be safe.”

* * *

“Remind me again why I have to drive all the way from Texas to South Dakota with you?  Haven’t you ever heard of an airplane?”

Julian glanced over at the woman sitting in the seat next to him.  She was pulling at her seatbelt to give it slack and then letting it tighten again.  It was a nervous habit.  He already knew that about her.  Just like she played with her long black hair and pulled it to one side of her shoulder when she was thinking.

“You’ll never get on a plane undetected.”

“You mean the FBI can’t pull that off?”

“Not even a private one.”  He flashed her a smile but his expression quickly turned serious.  “We can’t risk anyone knowing who you really are and who you’re talking to.  It’s a lot harder to track you on the road than through a heavily guarded airport.”

“And you really want me to be your date?”

“Yes.  For a family wedding.”

“Was this Kelly Montgomery’s idea?”

“Look, Georgie, none of that has changed since we left Galveston.  It’s for your own safety.”

She paused a moment to look out at the road and then turned to him.  “Then why go at all?  I mean, if it’s so dangerous, why are we even going to this wedding?”

Julian felt the ache in the center of his chest grow.  “Because I haven’t been home in the nine months since I’ve been working this case and…”

“And what?”

“And because my big brother is getting married.  He’s finally happy again.”

“He wasn’t before?”

“He was wounded while in the military.  He went through a touch and go time when he returned home.  None of us could have imagined his life turning around like this three years ago.  I want to be there to support him.  I’m sure you can understand that.”

She sunk a little lower in her seat.  “Do I get to talk to anyone there?”

Julian McKinnon chuckled.  “You’ll have a hard time not talking.  My family won’t let you be quiet.”

“Oh.  One of those types of families.”

He took his eyes off the road just long enough to glance at the shocked expression and quickly dismissed it.  He’d already gone through his own shock about how he was going to make the next seven days’ work and recovered from it.  Georgie would as well.  And they had a long ride for her to do it.

She was right.  It was a little odd for him to be bringing her home to meet the family, especially since he hadn’t been home since his father had a heart attack nine months ago.  And even then it had only been for a day or two to make sure his father would survive and recover.  Over the past nine months Julian had revisited the memory of his mother’s bewildered face when he’d said he was leaving.  Yet, she’d let him go without a fight.  She didn’t have it left in her to stop him.  But his sister, Grace, had and he’d gotten an earful from her on the drive back to Oklahoma where he’d had a lead about one of Eduardo Sanchez’s men trying to set up shop in the US.

Deep down, Julian knew his mother had been keeping her fight to get through his father’s recovery.  And Grace hadn’t liked his disappearing act one bit.  It was convenient for Julian to let them all think he was just being irresponsible and selfish.  Only he knew the truth.  But it still made him feel like a bastard.

The timing of Ian’s wedding was beyond awful giving the assignment he had.  But none of them knew that and he intended to keep it that way.  He couldn’t exactly expect the world to stop spinning just because he was working a job.

“It won’t be that bad.  Technically you don’t even have to go to the wedding if you don’t want.  You could stay back at the house.”

Her eyes widened. “House?  What house?”

Julian kept talking.  “But if we’re going to be staying together, it makes sense for you to be my date.  I can’t very well tell my family who you really are.”

It didn’t matter that Georgie was his prime informant in a case he’d worked nearly a year on with the Chicago FBI office.  Kelly Montgomery wanted him to stick to Georgie twenty-four/seven.  What started out as routine had become deeply personal to Kelly.  The bastard they were after had kidnapped his son.

“Wait a minute.  I want to get back to this house thing.  Whose house?”

“My parents’.”

“We’re staying at your parents’ house?  What am I supposed to tell your family who I am exactly?”

Julian McKinnon had thought about that and came up empty.  He hadn’t exactly been forthcoming with his family about his current line of work.  He had his reasons.  But this little…complication of having to guard Georgie made this homecoming a bit harder.

“That does create a problem.  They’re probably going to make more out of this than it is.  My brothers will pretty much accept anything I tell them.  My cousins…they’ll probably buy it easy enough, too.  My parents will probably just be thrilled I brought any woman home to meet them.”

“Any…what?  You mean, you never have?”

He shook his head.  “I have a sister.”

“Lots of people do.”

“Not like Grace.  I can fool just about anyone in my family except Grace.  It’s like she has radar.  And my aunt Kate.  She has this sixth sense, too.” He laughed.  “None of us were ever able to get anything past Aunt Kate growing up.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.  If it’s going to be this hard, maybe you should just skip the wedding all together?”

“No can do.  I tried that.  My sister said she’d hunt me down and drag me back home by my collar.  And she’ll do it. I’m surprised I’ve been able to stay away from the family this long.  We’re too close, Georgie.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that.  I don’t have any siblings.”

“No, I mean with Eduardo.  I know you’d rather stay put at that hotel with the big indoor pool, but it’s too dangerous.  There are people who are counting on getting the information you have, or can get.  I can’t let them down.”

“Nor should you.  But what makes you think that my going to South Dakota is going to bring us any closer to finding your friend?”

He was silent a moment.  “Cash Montgomery isn’t a friend.  He’s a colleague.  We barely know each other.  But he was onto something big.  Eduardo Sanchez was at the heart of it.  Quite frankly, until you came to us, we’d assumed he’d been killed.  It isn’t like him to stay quiet this long.  Your Intelligence was the first clue we’ve had that he may still be alive.  Cash Montgomery is Kelly’s son.”

“It wasn’t Intelligence.  It was a conversation that was overhead.  I don’t even know if it’s true.”

“You must have thought it was true.  Otherwise, why did you come all the way to the United States to ask the FBI to help you get your cousin out of Colombia?”

“Because Angela is scared.  I have no more family in Colombia now that my mother is dead.  But Angela does.  It’s not as easy for her.  And if she quits her job at the compound, Eduardo will know something is up.  You don’t just give up a job like that without a reason.”

“Which is why I’ve stayed away from my family while I’ve been investigating Eduardo Sanchez.  I know what he’s capable of.”

* * *

Georgie listened to Julian talk about a monster that had been responsible for the deaths of so many people she knew.  Sure, he wasn’t directly responsible for her mother’s death.  But he had a hand in it through Diego.

No, Julian didn’t need to elaborate any further.  Georgie knew full well what Eduardo was capable of doing.  She’d seen it first hand and escaped with her life without drawing suspicion.  At least, she hoped she hadn’t.  If not for the baby, she’d have disappeared and never made contact with Eduardo again.

“I don’t understand why I have to go with you.  That’s all,” she said.  “I can stay at a hotel and sit by the pool in some small no-nothing Southern town until you’re done with your family time up in...  Where did you say this wedding was going to take place?”

“South Dakota.”

“Freeze country.  I’m no pampered gal, but it’s not very appealing for a woman like me who is used to the hot weather.  Look, if anything comes up, I’ll call you.”

“I’ll be too far away.  That’s not how it’s going to happen.  We’re too close to breaking this thing open.  Between you and your cousin we’re going to find where Cash Montgomery is being held.  I won’t risk his life.”

He was right not to risk it.  But Julian didn’t really know just how much.  Or maybe he did and he didn’t care about the odds. The chances of this mission succeeding was zero based on what people had done to infiltrate Eduardo’s operation in the past.  People had tried and died.  Julian was savvy about military operations and about the drug trafficking trade.  He knew more than she did about Eduardo’s operation and over the years she’d learned a lot.  But Georgie was counting on what she knew being her ace in the hole to help Angela and her family get out of Colombia the way she had.

“You came to us, remember?  You asked us for help to get your cousin out alive.  This is how we’re helping you.”

Georgie twisted her lips into a grin.  “By making me go to a wedding?”

Julian shrugged.  “That can’t be helped.  Look, if you really don’t want to come then I can send you to Chicago and you can stay with Kelly and his family.”

She sighed.  “Another family?”

“You definitely have a thing about families.”

“Maybe because I don’t have any other than Angela.  I don’t understand why I have to stay with anyone at all.  Despite the fact that I’ve lived most of my life in Colombia, I’m still an American citizen.  I’m in America now.  I could lose myself anywhere here.  I should be safe.”

He shook his head.  “And what if Angela calls?  What if Eduardo calls?  What if he becomes suspicious?  Anything could happen and if you don’t have someone right next to you to protect you, you’re dead.  We all lose.  We don’t find Cash.  Your cousin will most likely end up dead, and so will you.  Deep down, you know I’m right.  Eduardo has deep ties with a lot of organized crime in America.  Sure, we could stay away from Providence.  We could stay away from Texas.  But I found you in Oklahoma.  And if I can find you, so can he.”

A chill raced through her.  “Kelly said something about witness protection.”

“That’s probably going to happen eventually if word gets out of your involvement.  It will mean leaving everyone and everything behind.”

“I already did that.”

“Not really.  There’s still Angela.”

Sadness filled her.  “There’s no one left but her.  Eduardo made sure of that.”

“Precisely the reason why I can’t let you out of my site.  Not until we get the information we need and then get you to a place where you can have a normal life.”

“Do people like me do that?  Have normal lives?”

Julian took his eyes off the road for a second to look at her.  “I don’t know.  But it’s worth trying. Don’t you think?”

She turned her eyes to the road ahead and slumped back in the seat.  “How long before we stop for the night?”

“Hungry?”

“No, my butt is falling asleep.”

Julian chuckled and quickly glanced down to her seat.  On more than one occasion, his gaze had drifted to the swell of Georgie’s bottom despite his every attempt to stay professional and see her as nothing more than an informant in an investigation.  She’d caught him glancing at her.  She wasn’t a fool.  She knew when a man found her attractive.  Most times she didn’t give a damn.  The men she’d known in her life had no respect for women and she wanted no part of them.

But Julian had been different.  She could complain all she wanted about being forced to go to South Dakota to spend a week with people she didn’t know.  But part of her was intrigued by the idea of seeing how a normal family lived.

Every so often while he was driving he’d glance over at her and his gaze would linger.  There was no reason for him to do it.  But he did.  And when he did, like he was now, she’d feel a warm sensation flow through her as if he were caressing her with his penetrating blue eyes.  There was nothing sleazy about the way he looked at her.  He probably was a man who genuinely enjoyed a pretty girl.  That’s all.  But it still affected her.

 She’d worn her loose almost black hair down today and it hung past her shoulders.  She reached up to the back of her head and combed her hair over to her left shoulder and played with the ends.  She’d done this on their first meeting, when she’d been near tears and afraid to say a word.  It was hard to believe that had been a month ago.  Harder to believe that Julian had been following her for months and she’d never even known he was there.

Looking at him now, it was hard to believe she hadn't noticed him.  On their first meeting, she’d noticed his eyes first.  They were a dark blue.  So much different than her hazel eyes, something she’d inherited from the father she’d never known.  She’d seen a picture.  Julian had said he’d known who she was, that he’d learned about her from Kelly.

He’d been tracking her for months, and when they’d met, he knew things about her and her life that she’d actually forgotten.  She was so scared that she nearly bolted.  But the sound of his voice, his reassurance that she’d finally be free from Eduardo Sanchez when the investigation was over, gave her so much relief that she nearly flung herself in his arms and wept.  Nearly.  Only someone who truly understood the long reach Eduardo Sanchez had beyond borders could understand her reaction.  Julian had.

“I planned on stopping in Amarillo.  From there it’s another full day’s ride though Colorado and Nebraska until we get to Rudolph.  Is that okay?”

“Do I have a choice?”

He didn’t say anything in response to her obvious irritation.  She was tired.  So was he.  When they finally had a chance to stop it would be a relief.  But he probably wanted to put as much time behind them as he could before they made the stop. She forced herself to remain calm and asked, “How much longer before we can stop for a bite to eat?”

“We past Abilene about an hour ago.  Can you wait until we get to Lubbock?”

Her stomach grumbled with the thought of food.  “I guess.”

“It’s about another hour and a half from here.  Amarillo will be about another two hours after that.  Then we can stop.”

She nodded and then smiled.  “I’m picking the restaurant.  I don’t care how famous Texas is for its beef.  We’re not stopping for a burger off the highway.  I want something good.”

“Deal.”


Order DAKOTA HOMECOMING:

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Dakota Hearts, Book 9: ONE DAKOTA NIGHT


Grace McKinnon had her chance at love, and she lost. She'd married a thrill seeking rodeo man who was never around. All she wants now is to find someone she can depend on while she raises her young son who is determined to follow in his father's footsteps. When she meets her cousin Ethan's friend, a form Navy SEAL, she thinks it's just more of the same. Same man, different suit. But Grace soon learns that life can be thrilling with the right man...as long as she's in his arms.

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.

Order ONE DAKOTA NIGHT:

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Chapter One Excerpt:


“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.

“Grace?”

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 fiancĂ©e 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
“Haley?”

“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.”

“Exactly.”

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.

“Likewise.”

“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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Sunday, February 14, 2016

Dakota Hearts, Book 8: DAKOTA COWBOY

The last thing Luke McKinnon wanted in life was to work at the family oil business. He'd done a good job steering clear of that by setting up a successful law practice in Sioux Falls. But when the patriarch of the family falls sick, Luke steps in. He's only trading his crisp white dress shirt for a t-shirt and hardhat until his father is back on his feet. He doesn't plan on sticking around. That is...until he meets Tessa.

Single mother, Tessa Rock isn't afraid of hard work. She can hold her own with the ranch hands on her daddy's ranch and on an oil rig. She doesn't have time for a man to mess up her fragile life...until Luke McKinnon shows up on her rig. The handsome lawyer is probably used to having beautiful women draped on his arm. But at the end of the day, it's a miracle if she can get all the dirt and grime out from under her fingernails. The two of them couldn't be more different. But none of that matters. She quickly learns what a fool she'd been to think of Luke as just a lawyer who can help her get what she wants. One night in his warm embrace, and seeing the heart and soul of a man who loves so deeply, Tessa realizes she wants the man...for the rest of her life.



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Chapter One Excerpt:


Rumor had it Luke McKinnon was a lawyer.  He was the kind of lawyer who untangled all the knots that married people spent a lifetime tying up.  The kind who won tough cases for the clients he represented.

At least, that is what Tessa Rock had overheard during lunch earlier that day.  She’d pretended not to listen.  She even pretended not to notice Luke McKinnon when he’d come into the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee, although in truth, it was hard not to notice a man like him.  There was something commanding about him.  Not unapproachable or intimidating.  Luke McKinnon was a man who made it hard not to notice him in a room full of men.

Tessa Rock knew she needed Luke McKinnon.  The question was how to approach him with her troubles without everyone else on this oil rig jumping into her business.

Tessa picked up one end of a section of pipe that had been dropped on the platform by Dibs Dobinski, the crane operator, and then she turned to Matt Henley, another roughneck worker on the MW oil rig she’d been working on for the past year.  She’d worked tours with both of these roughnecks and had gotten to the point where they’d fallen into a rhythm that functioned like a well-oiled machine.  She waited until Matt gave a nod and she lifted the pipe, holding steady so he could ease the pipe into the fitting.

Once the pipe was secured, Tessa turned to see if Luke was still talking to his brother, going over production numbers.  Ever since John McKinnon had been laid up in the hospital after suffering a heart attack on that very platform, Luke had been visiting the rig, trying to keep it producing oil. And that was just fine with Tessa.  Working on the rig wasn’t any harder than working on her ranch, but she needed this paycheck if she had any chance of keeping the Rolling Rock Ranch and making it solvent again.  If she lost the ranch, she’d lose everything.

That wasn’t going to happen if she had a breath left in her.

She needed to keep herself focused on her work like she did every day she spent at MW Oil.  It had taken her a long time to win over the acceptance of a crew that initially wasn’t too sure about a woman being on the platform with them.  Now that she had, she didn’t want a handsome face to undo everything she’d worked hard for this past year.

And she couldn’t deny that Luke McKinnon was a man who commanded attention just by standing there.  But if she didn’t get her mind off the man and on her work, she wouldn’t be standing here much longer.

“Ready!” she called out to Dibs.  Rinse, Repeat.


A few moments later, she heard yelling from below.

“Damn,” Matt yelled.  Tessa still held a section of the pipe in her hand, but with Matt’s outburst, she turned and spotted the pipe Dibs had secured on the crane swinging toward them as if it had a will of its own.

“Watch out!” she heard someone call out.

In the split second it took her to realize the pipe she was holding was going to connect with the pipe that was swinging from the crane, Tessa dropped the pipe and rolled across the platform out of the way just as the two pipes collided.  As she rolled, her hardhat slipped off her head and disappeared over the side of the platform.

When she stopped rolling and the pipes settled, Tessa glanced over at Dibs and took in the panicked expression on his face as he stood up inside the crane, and then shut it down.  She gave him a thumb up to let him know she was okay.

“Sorry, Tessa.  When I felt the wind, I should have checked to see if that pipe was stable.  I didn’t see it coming until it was almost right at you,” Matt said, heading toward the pipe that had rolled across the platform.

“It’s okay.  No one was hurt.  Just give me a minute to get my hardhat.”

“Earth to Tessa!” Matt called out, pointing above her.  “Watch your head!  You have a pipe coming your way!”

Tessa turned her attention back to the platform, and to the task at hand.  Her cheeks flamed after having been caught gawking at Luke McKinnon.  At least, that’s what the smirk on Matt’s face told her he was thinking.

She grabbed the pipe that Dibs was easing over to them to keep it steady, and repeated the same process she had for the last ten pipes they’d fitted today.

Tessa quickly ran to the stairs leading down to the ground from the platform she’d been working on.  She spotted her hardhat on the ground at the same time she saw Luke McKinnon walking toward it.  He got to it before her and picked it up with the hand that wasn’t holding the clipboard and turning it as if he were inspecting it for damage.

“I guess this is yours?” Luke said, handing her the hardhat.

“Thanks.”  She took the hardhat, but didn’t put it on her head.

“Were you hurt?”

“Up there?  No.  It gets gusty on the platform.  Every so often the wind takes one of those pipes like it’s the rope of a kite.”

He frowned.  “You mean a near accident like that is normal?”

She glanced up at the platform.  Matt was waiting for her.  He could wait a minute.

“No,” she said. “But it does happen.”

He pointed to his head.  “Better get that back on then.”

“Where’s yours?”

He seemed taken aback by her response.

“I don’t work on the platform.”

“You are today.  That means a hardhat for everyone here.  I’m surprised Gray didn’t mention it.  He’s very careful about such things.”

“I’ll remember it next time.”

She started to turn away, but then stopped.

“They say you’re a lawyer,” she said, watching his face.  She knew that a first impression was important, and she didn’t want to leave Luke with the impression that she was a shoddy worker.

“Not today,” he said.

“If I’d have asked you last week, what would you have said?”

“Last week?  I would have said I was the son of an oil company president.”

Her lips lifted just a fraction.  “You still are.  I heard your father is doing much better.”

The worry he’d been feeling over the last few weeks was deep and showed on his face.

“You hear a lot of things.”

“I asked.  I like your father.”  And Tessa did.  She’d always liked John McKinnon.  He didn’t treat her like someone who didn’t belong on his oil rig.  True, he was a gentleman, much like Gray had always been.  But he showed how much he valued her and respected her work.  With so little other positive in her life, that one small thing seemed huge.

Luke was clearly pleased at her compliment.  “He’s a good guy.  It’s hard not to like him.”

“Then why the guilty face?”

He eyed her and then glanced up at the platform.  “Aren’t you supposed to be doing something?”

“Yes.  But I’ve clearly touched on a topic that is sensitive.  Sorry about that.  I have no filter.  I just say what’s on my mind.”


“I’ll remember that, too.”

She put the hardhat on her head.  “You’re not going to fire me for it, are you?”

He frowned.  “Why would I do that?”

She couldn’t help but smile.  “Thanks.” 

When she remained standing there, he asked, “Was there anything else?”

There was so much more.  However, this wasn’t the place. 

Tessa shook her head.  “I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

“At least for today.”

Her stomach dropped.  “Are you leaving us already?”  He couldn’t leave.  She hadn’t even had a chance to talk to him.

“I meant I’ll be here until my father is well enough to come back to work.”

“Oh, let’s hope that’s soon.”

She walked away and felt his eyes on her back as she walked toward the ladder. When she reached the ladder to climb to the second platform, she turned around. Luke was still standing in the same place they’d spoken together, holding his clipboard in his hand.  He was staring at her.  Unlike most men who would turn away when caught, he continued to look at her.  She smiled and was rewarded with the same.  A stab of regret hit her as she turned away.  She’d been so focused on talking to him that she couldn’t see his smile up close or see if his eyes lit up, making his smile genuine or something he just pasted on for show.  Something told Tessa Luke wasn’t the kind of man to put on airs that way.  And she liked that.

Later.  Definitely later.

* * *
A woman on an oil rig.  Luke didn’t know why that surprised him, but it did.  Of course, he had known all along that MW Oil had a woman working here.  His brother Gray had spoken of Tessa Rock.  But now that Luke had met her…  He watched Tessa climb the ladder to the next platform. There were definitely some puzzle pieces missing from the picture that made up Tessa Rock.  She was a mystery and he couldn’t put his finger on it.

He glanced down at the roster of roughnecks working this tour.  They only had one female roughneck among a sea of men working on the rig for this two-week stretch.  Checking the records, he found that despite employing many women in various positions in the company, Tessa Rock was indeed the only woman working as a roughneck. 


Gray came up next to him and tapped him on the arm with a hardhat.  “You can’t be on the rig without protection.”

“So I’ve heard.  Who is Tessa Rock?” Luke asked as he placed the hardhat on his head.

As if needing to point her out, which he didn’t, Gray extended his hand in the direction of the woman standing on the platform.

“You just met her.”

From a distance, Luke wouldn’t have been able to tell Tessa was a woman unless he’d already known.  In fact, at first glance, she blended in with all the other roughnecks with her grease-covered overalls and hardhat.  But as she’d climbed down the ladder to retrieve her hardhat and gotten closer to him, he’d seen how slight Tessa looked compared to the other men working on the rig, even underneath the baggy overalls.  The dark brown hair pulled up in a clip at the back of her head was another dead giveaway.  But as she stood next him, he wondered about the curves of her body beneath those baggy overalls.

“She’s been with us for about a year.  Maybe a little more,” Gray said.  “She’s one of our best roughnecks.”

“Have you reviewed her file?”

“I wrote it up.  I gave her a yearly review about a month ago.  Don’t worry, she pulls her weight just like the rest of the crew.”  His brother eyed him suspiciously.  “What’s this all about?”

“Nothing. I’m just checking on a crew member.”

Gray gave him a teasing grin.  “Yeah, the only female crew member we have up on that platform.  I’m surprised you didn’t ask about Matt or Dibs or—”

“Dibs?  What kind of a name is that?”  Luke pretended to move his attention onto the other crew member and looked over at the roster in his hand again.

Gray laughed and pulled off his glove, pointing to the name on the clipboard that Luke had missed.  “It’s a nickname.  Malcolm Dobinski.  He’s the one running the crane.”

“Where’d he get Dibs from?”

“He used to get first dibs on drawing the name of a bull at the local rodeo when he was a kid.  I don’t know why but I’m sure there is a story behind it.”

Luke raised his eyebrows.  “Another bull rider?  Grace’s favorite.”

Gray shrugged.  “Hey, I’m a bull rider and Grace still loves me.”

Luke glanced up over the clipboard.  “She has to love us no matter what.  We’re her brothers.”

Gray looked in the direction where one of the men was cursing up a storm after a pipe had jammed and bent.  It was all in a day’s work on the rig, but Luke’s thoughts immediately went to the woman who was now standing next to the foul-mouthed roughneck.

“Do they always talk like that in front of Tessa?”

Gray chuckled.  “They’d better.  Tessa wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Luke frowned at Gray.

“They mind their manners well enough, in case that’s what you’re worried about.  But Tessa won’t have them treating her like a fragile flower.  She’s said it at least a thousand times since the day I met her.  She doesn’t want the crew fussing over her or she’ll be the object of ridicule.  She’s surprised all of them with how good she is.  She has the crew’s respect.”  Gray paused a few seconds and then added, “You think she’s pretty, don’t you?”

Luke felt his face grow warm.  He didn’t need ribbing from his brother, especially about a roughneck in their employment.  Yeah, he’d seen Tessa in the cafeteria.  She wasn’t dressed for office work and for a minute or two he thought maybe she was the wife of one of the other roughnecks coming in for a visit.  With the long hours most of the workers on the rig put in during a tour, it was common for them to stay at the dormitory on site, rather than drive a good distance home only to come back in the morning.  Tessa was the exception.  He’d seen her leave the first day he’d been here.  She was going home for something.  Or someone.

“Talk like that would get me in trouble fast,” Luke warned. 

“If you were saying it to her face, or to one of the other crew members, it would.  She’d probably deck you, too.”  Gray chuckled and adjusted his hardhat to shield the glare of the sun overhead.  “But you’re talking to your brother.  Surely that is exempt from legal scrutiny and Tessa’s wrath.”

“How often did Dad come out to the rig?”

“Quick change of subject,” Gray said with a sigh.  “Once a week usually.  He didn’t even need to do that.  He just liked to keep his eye on things and let the crew know he was available.  Dad was very hands on.  I emailed him the reports every week though.  If you want, I can do the same for you.”

“I can get them from Dad’s email.”  Luke sighed and glanced around.  “I guess you’ll be seeing me around here a little more, too.  I don’t want the crew to think they’ve lost a McKinnon.”

Almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth, Luke realized his mistake.

Gray shot him an annoyed look.  “What the hell am I?”

His brother was right to be cross with him.  Luke was trying his best to fill shoes he had no business wearing.  Their father was one of a kind, and the sooner he recovered from his heart attack, the sooner John McKinnon would be back at MW Oil.  And Luke would be heading back to Sioux Falls and the caseload he’d offloaded to a partner.

“I meant Dad, not you.”

Gray’s expression calmed.  “Yeah, okay.  I have to get back to work.  By the way, now is as good a time as any to tell you we’re losing our field engineer.”

“What?”

“Daryl Banks stayed on as long as he could.  He knew Dad was recovering from the heart attack.  But he was offered that job in California and he starts next week.”

Luke smacked the underside of clipboard with his hand.  “Damn.  I didn’t know that.”

“Daryl mentioned it to me again this morning since he knew Dad never had a chance to get a replacement before he went on leave.  But to be honest with you, getting a replacement is going to difficult.  Dad lobbied hard to get Daryl in here a few years ago.  He only stayed in South Dakota because of family.  But now this job in the Silicon Valley is calling him.  We could go back with a better offer, but it sounds like a done deal.”

“If he’s leaving next week, that sounds pretty done to me.”  Luke sighed.  “Thanks for letting me know.  Has Maddie gotten started on finding a replacement?” 

Maddie Newton was the personal assistant to both Luke’s father, John McKinnon and to his uncle, Donald McKinnon.  Maddie was also now engaged to be married to Luke’s cousin Ethan, a former Navy SEAL who was now a police officer in Rudolph.

“I’m not sure,” Gray said.  “I know Dad knew Daryl accepted the job in California the morning he had his heart attack.  Beyond that, I’m in the dark.”

“I’ll check in with Maddie when I get back to the office.”

Luke watched for a few moments as his brother walked away and then climbed the ladder to the upper platform of the rig where the rest of the workers were busy.  Tessa stopped what she was doing when she saw Gray approaching, as if he’d called out to her about something.  Then she turned and glanced to the lower platform where Luke stood. 

She was pretty.  Luke couldn’t imagine how he’d mistaken Tessa for just another roughneck when he’d first arrived here.  He wouldn’t make that mistake again.

* * *
The best part of Tessa’s month was always the Friday she was finished with her two-week tour and was able to go home.  That meant a two-week visit with Haley.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t a time lately when Tessa’s ex-husband didn’t give her grief about bringing Haley out to the ranch for the court-ordered visitation.

Today was no different.

“My shift is done today.  Same as always, Mason,” Tessa said, walking through the parking lot toward her truck. Her feet were aching inside her work boots and her shoulder still throbbed from being hit by pipe that had slipped from her gloved hands.  It wasn’t the first time she’d left a shift with aches and pains.  But getting grief from her ex-husband made the pain feel ten times worse.

She listened to Mason’s voice on the phone and tried her best to stay calm as he tried to convince her to agree to a new custody plan that favored him.  Mason always had a way of making Tessa’s blood hot.  In the beginning, it had been because she couldn’t resist him.  He was her first love.  Now…  If it weren’t for Haley, she wished she’d never met Mason.

“I’ll be home in an hour and a half, like always.  There is no need to postpone my time with Haley.  I come home the same time as I always do after a shift.”  She listened a minute to Mason’s diatribe and then felt herself lose it.  “Don’t you dare threaten me!  If Haley isn’t home when I get there or pretty damned near close to it, then I’ll be calling the tribal council myself.”

Tessa hung up her cell phone just as she reached her truck.  Gripping the cold metal hood of her truck, Tessa paused a second to breathe. 

Breathe.  Just breathe!

It wasn’t going to do any good to get into a car accident on the way home because she was so angry with Mason.  She had so little time with Haley as it was that she didn’t want to spend any of her precious time laid up in a hospital.

“Is everything alright?”

Her hand connected with the door handle when Tessa heard the deep concerned voice behind her.  Swinging around, she’d expected to see one of the other roughnecks she worked with getting ready to head home.  They usually all left around the same time.  But this wasn’t one of the guys she worked with on the rig.

Heat crept up her cheeks when Tessa saw Luke McKinnon standing about twenty feet away from her by another parked car.  The car was fancy.  Tessa didn’t know the make of many cars but she knew this one was expensive. She had never seen it parked next to the other SUVs and pick-up trucks in the parking lot before.  Of course it would be Luke’s car.  What other kind of vehicle would a high-priced lawyer drive?

Luke wasn’t one of the roughnecks.  And he was definitely not a cowboy.  Tessa didn’t know any cowboys who drove an expensive car like that.  And it had been a long time since Tessa had seen any other type of man.

“I’m fine,” she said, waving him off as she gripped the door handle.

Luke’s lips lifted to one side although she still saw concern in his expression.  “I’m no expert, but you don’t look fine.  It sounds like someone was giving you a hard time.”

“It’s nothing I can’t handle.”

He chuckled, glancing away for  a second and then back at her.  When his gaze locked on hers, she saw a sparkle in his eyes.  “You spend two weeks out of every month working alongside this crew of roughnecks.  I have no doubt there is a whole lot you can handle beyond a difficult phone call.”

Tessa hated that his admiration made her feel good.  She resisted returning a smile. She didn’t need Luke McKinnon’s approval in any way other than when it was time to give her a job review and pay raise.  If he was still working here next year when her turn rolled around again.  She’d overheard Gray telling Matt that Luke would only be staying at MW Oil until his father returned to the job.

Yet seeing the admiration in his eyes made her tingle.  “Thank you,” she said. 

She was being a coward.  When she’d heard that Luke McKinnon was going to be coming out to the rig, she’d been determined to meet him.  She hadn’t counted on him being as charismatic as he seemed.  Or as handsome.  He looked a lot like Gray.  She could tell that the strong jaw and sympathetic eyes were a true McKinnon trait.  But there was something about Luke…

She needed him.  He just didn’t know how much.  And she wasn’t about to go all school-girl in front of him and blow her plan.

Digging deep for courage, she said,  “Say, would you like to have a cup of coffee sometime?”  When he hesitated, she added, “Or a glass of iced tea or whatever it is you drink.”

“I don’t know that I’ll be getting out to the rig that often.”

“It doesn’t have to be in the lunch room.  I live over in Lakeridge.  It’s not too far of a drive from Rudolph.”

His brow knit.  “What makes you think I’m staying in Rudolph?”

She was bagged.  “I’m sorry.  I thought Gray had mentioned you were staying with your parents while you’re in town.”

He shook his head and chuckled.  “Word gets around, huh?”

“We’re stuck together on a rig for two weeks straight.  There’s nothing better to do than talk to each other about mundane things.”

“Mundane, huh?”

“I’m not saying you’re mundane.  Never mind.  It’s just talk.  Nothing is sacred.  We all share little things that aren’t important to the big picture.  So what do you say?”

“About what?”

“Coffee?  Iced tea?”

His eyes drew together again and examined her expression as if he were scrutinizing her.  In that brief few seconds she couldn’t help but do the same, looking at his eyes. They were blue, much like Gray’s eyes, only a little darker with golden flecks that lit up while they stood in the sun. 

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” he finally said.

“Why not?”

“People talk.  It’s probably not a good idea around here.”

“We’re not swapping trade secrets.  It’s just a coffee.”

Luke let out a slow sigh and looked uneasy, something Tessa guessed was a foreign feeling for such a confident man.

And then Luke’s hesitation hit her like a steamroller flattening her to the ground.  Heat singed her cheeks.  “My God, you think I’m hitting on you?”

His mouth opened, and then he gave a shake of his head.

“Yes, you do,” she said, pointing an accusing finger at him.  “You thought this was a come on.”

“Isn’t it?”

If she weren’t so humiliated, she’d be angry.  “As a matter of fact, no.”

He genuinely looked surprised. “Really.”

The guy was gorgeous.  There was no doubt about that.  His dark hair was cut short and stayed neat despite the wind in the open parking lot.  There wasn’t a speck of dirt on the man, unlike all the other roughnecks, including her, who didn’t notice all the grease and dirt that caked on them by the end of the day.  She could smell a lingering hint of his aftershave even after a day of being out in the sun on the rig. And he smelled incredible.  After two weeks with men who were sweating under the sun despite the cooler temperatures, she welcomed standing next to a man who smelled clean.  He probably didn’t even have dirt under his fingernails.

“I didn’t mean to offend you,” he said.  “I can see I handled this all wrong.”

“Don’t flatter yourself.”

“I wasn’t—”

Tessa shoved her hands in her pockets.  “Look, I heard you practiced family law.  As my bad luck would have it, I need one.  The phone call?  Remember that?”

His face showed immediate understanding.  “Ah.  Ex-husband?”

“Bingo!  I simply thought it might be nice to have a cup of coffee to break the ice before we discuss whether or not you’re in a position to help me.  But whatever.  I’ll find someone else.”

“I’m sorry I misunderstood your intention.  Why don’t you tell me what’s going on.”

She waved him off and then yanked her truck door open.  “Forget it.  I can see you’re obviously not the right person for me to talk to about this.  I’m sorry I even brought it up.”

“Wait, please.  It was a simple misunderstanding.”

Tessa glanced over and saw Gray walking out of the main building with a few of the other roughnecks.

“You said that right.  I need to go.  See you…whenever you make your way back to the rig.”

He stepped forward as if he could actually reach her and keep her from getting into the truck.  “I’ll be here next week if you want to talk about whatever it was you wanted to talk about.”

Irritation continued to simmer inside her.  “Good for you.  I won’t be.  I’m off for the next two weeks and won’t be leaving my ranch unless I absolutely have to.  Thank you for your time.”

She climbed into her truck and gunned the engine before putting the truck into reverse.  What the hell had she been thinking asking Luke McKinnon to have coffee with her when she needed to be home in time for Mason to drop off Haley?  She had no time for this. 

But that was the problem.  She hardly had any time for anything.  She needed to make time for this.  But it was clear it wouldn’t be with Luke McKinnon.

“Tessa?”

She barely heard Luke call out to her as she pulled out of the parking space and headed out of the parking lot.  Only after she was down the road a few hundred yards did she look in her rear view mirror to see if anyone was behind her.  Her cheeks were still on fire and her heart was beating like tympani in her chest. 

“Stupid, stupid, stupid, Tessa!” she yelled, hitting her hand on the steering wheel.  She’d worked hard to win the respect of the men she worked with on the rig.  If word got out that she suddenly went weak at the knees for some suit from Sioux Falls, she’d be the laughingstock of the platform come her next tour.

The last thing she wanted was to be made a fool of in front of the men she worked with.  But then she thought of Haley.  She’d face whatever humiliation she had to if it meant she’d win full custody of her daughter.  To hell with Luke McKinnon and his pretty face and fancy car.

She hit her directional signal and turned the truck onto the on-ramp leading to the highway.  She was going to have to suck it up eventually.  If not with Luke McKinnon, some other lawyer.  Hopefully the next one would be a hundred years old, be bald and have a pot belly the size of her wood stove. 

* * *
Luke stared at the taillights of Tessa’s truck as she sped down the road.  What the hell had just happened?

“Tessa was in a hurry,” Gray said, standing next to Luke who was still looking at the exit to the parking lot where Tessa has just peeled out.  “What did you say to piss her off?”

“What makes you think I pissed her off?”

“You have that way with people sometimes.”

“Since when?”

Gray’s grin was wide.  “Since you became a lawyer.  You don’t even notice it anymore.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“Just keeping things real.  Are you going over to Grace’s for dinner tonight?”  Their sister had made it a habit of cooking dinner for the family a few times a week to make it easier for their mother since their father’s heart attack a few weeks back.

“No.  I’ve got some things I need to take care of back at the office.”

Gray grunted as he shook his head.  “Take the tie off Luke.  Let’s at least get a beer before you head over there.  A few of the guys are going.  It’s been a long two weeks.”

Luke eyed his brother.  “Aren’t you itching to get home?  You haven’t seen Nina in two weeks either.”

Gray shook his head.  “Nina went to visit her parents.  They’re having a rough time. She’s coming home from Chicago tomorrow.”

“Why didn’t she wait until your shift was over so you could go with her?”

“Because her dad still gives me the evil eye.  He still hasn’t quite accepted things between Nina and me yet.”

Luke slapped his brother on the shoulder.  “He’ll come around.  Just give it time.”

“I hope so.”  Gray walked over to his truck and made a face as he looked at Luke’s sports car.  “When are you going to get a real set of wheels?”

“Now you have a problem with my car?”

“You call that thing a car? It has two seats.  If that.”

“Get out of here!”

He watched a few of the other guys from the crew climb into their vehicles and spin out of the parking lot, presumably in the direction Gray was headed.  Luke waved to his brother as he climbed into his car.  He wouldn’t mind having a beer with his brother.  But so much of being on the rig felt foreign to him that he knew he stuck out.  The guys wouldn’t be able to kick back and just be themselves, something they probably needed after a long tour. Everything about being at MW Oil had always felt strange to him, despite his father’s desire to get him to work the family business.

Luke was a lawyer.  He liked practicing law and helping people who came to him at times of desperation or radical change in their lives.  He thought of Tessa and his stomach sank.  He could hide a lot of emotion behind a stone expression.  He’d learned that a long time ago in law school.  But he couldn’t hide completely from his brother.  Gray had pegged him.  Luke couldn’t deny he thought Tessa Rock was a pretty woman.  And then he’d assumed her invitation was…

What a colossal idiot he was! 

He shook his head as if that would somehow knock sense into his skull.  His father’s heart attack had shaken him beyond anything he’d experienced in his life.  It was only natural that filling in at the oil company while his father recovered would make Luke unsettled.  His life in Sioux Falls was nothing like his life here in rural South Dakota.

The only way he was going to get back to a life that seemed normal again was finishing his work at MW Oil while his father healed.  Once his father took his rightful place in the office, Luke would be headed back to Sioux Falls and a life where he didn’t trip over himself the way he just had with Tessa Rock.


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