EXCERPT:Ella backed against her car door as the horse paced closer. She willed her gaze not to dart around searching for Merry—no need to draw attention to her sister, who might or might not be baring behind to the breeze at this very moment. The man made a soft clucking noise in the back of his throat, and the horse stopped walking.
“Are you lost?”
The man’s voice was as rough as his stubbled cheeks, low and deep in a way that reached into Ella’s chest and messed with her breathing. He was big. Broad through the chest and shoulders, with powerful thighs that gripped his mount’s flanks, effortlessly controlling the huge, snorting animal he rode. Most of his face was shadowed by the brim of a battered white baseball cap, the fringe of hair spiking out from under it dark gold, like antique coins. Ella flinched when the horse stomped one massive hoof and blew out a loud breath. Large animals made her nervous.
Heck, big men who appeared out of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere, made her nervous. Falling back on her tried-and-true method of dealing with nerves, Ella swept the man with a swift, assessing gaze, sizing him up in a single glance. She couldn’t get much of a read on his expression under the cap, but his honeyed southern drawl had sounded…carefully neutral. Not particularly friendly, but not threatening, either. His body language was noticeably loose and relaxed, especially considering he was sitting on top of two thousand pounds of raw-boned muscle.
So he was comfortable in his skin, comfortable in the outdoors—but even as she thought that, she noticed the way his leather-glove-clad hands were clenched tightly around the horse’s reins. Interesting. Maybe he wasn’t as comfortable as he seemed. But that was a mystery she didn’t have time to solve. Shooting for a sunny smile, Ella found it best to appeal to the manners hopefully ingrained in this Virginia gentleman since he was a much littler boy.
“As a matter of fact, I’m a bit turned around. If you could point me in the right direction, I’d be so grateful. And then you can get back to your ride.”
He crossed his arms casually and leaned forward over the horse’s heaving neck. The
morning light caught a gleam in his shadowed gaze that sent a shiver of awareness down Ella’s “Well, ma’am, I surely do appreciate you giving me permission to keep riding on this land, but I’m not the one that needs it.” Ella blinked at the edge in his tone. Wow, it had been a while since she misread someone so completely.
“Permission. Fact of the matter is, you’re trespassing.”
The rustling sound from the bushes behind her had Ella stiffening. Willing Merry to have the sense not to come charging into this tense little standoff, Ella said, “I’m just passing through.” A slight sneer twisted his mouth, drawing Ella’s attention to the sensual, masculine curve of his lips. “Is that right?”
He sat up tall in the saddle once more, his gaze moving to something over Ella’s shoulder as he went on, voice bland as butter. “That’s not what I heard. Jo Ellen said you and your sister were coming to stay a while. Get to know the island. And her.” This man knew their mother. The knowledge struck Ella like a blow to the head. As if he could read the complex stab of emotion under Ella’s ribs, he shrugged and sat back in the saddle. “Then again, maybe I heard wrong. And maybe that’s a good thing. God
knows, Jo doesn’t need any more trouble than she’s already got.” He was sending out waves of disapproval strong enough to nearly knock Ella off her feet.
“Who the hell do you think you are?”
“Just a friend of your mother’s. And I have to tell you, darlin’…” The tip of one leathergloved finger tipped up the brim of his ball cap, and for the first time, Ella got a glimpse of his handsome, hard-jawed face and burning blue-gray eyes. Those eyes skewered her, pinning her in place as he told her, “You look like big trouble to me.”
“Well, hello, gorgeous!” Merry’s delighted voice shattered the tense, shocked silence as
she sidled up next to Ella, her lips parted in a happy grin. The man’s dark gold brows winged up, a maddening smirk twisting his lips. Ella clenched her fingers against the itch to slap that mocking half-smile off his face.
“She’s talking to your horse,” Ella said in the most withering tone she could muster. “I am,” Merry agreed, with stars in her eyes, all her attention zoomed in on the big, dark
reddish-brown horse. “What a beauty. Not that you aren’t nice-looking, too, mister.”
“Hey, don’t do me any favors,” he said, clearly amused. Merry had worked her magic once again. Since they were kids, people had been drawn to Merry’s bubbly personality, the vivid, reckless sense of fun and life that beamed out of her bright blue eyes. Within moments of meeting most people, Merry had them eating out of her hand.
A thin sliver of something oddly like jealousy pierced Ella’s belly. Reminding herself she didn’t give two shakes if this unfriendly stranger fell all over himself for Merry, Ella turned determinedly away from him.
“We need to get going,” Ella told her sister. “Apparently, we’re trespassing on this man’s property.”
“I never said it was my property.”
“Then what, exactly, is your problem?” Ella couldn’t help the sharpness of her voice,
even when it made the horse eye her nervously and prance in place. “Shhh,” Merry cooed, before the man could respond. She held out one calm hand, green-tipped fingers curled under to let the horse bump its nose against her knuckles. Ella fought the urge to snatch her sister’s hand away from the horse’s whuffling nostrils and big teeth. Merry had always loved animals. The horses on the island were a huge part of the draw for Merry in coming here, Ella knew. This was part of the plan—the sooner Merry got her fill of the horses, the sooner they could go back to D.C.
“You must be Merry. You’re good with him,” the man observed. “Is he a gelding?” Merry was all eagerness, the unguarded innocence of her voice at odds with the sullen darkness of the makeup ringing her eyes, the streaks of punk-rock red highlighting her brown hair. “What’s his name?”
“Yep, he’s a gelding. I call him Voyager. Do you ride?”
Merry shook her head, hand still outstretched and that enchanted look turning her pixieish face soft and dreamy. “Never had the chance to learn.” Ella squeezed an arm around her sister’s shoulders, a pang hitting her heart. “It’s not too late,” the man observed, watching them. “I’m sure your mom would love to teach you. Or I could.”
Time to take control of this encounter. Sending the rider a frosty smile, Ella said, “Oh, I think we’ve taken up enough of your no-doubt valuable time. Just tell me how to get to Jo’s house, and we’ll be out of your hair.” With a reluctant sigh, Merry gave the horse’s nose one last stroke and said, “Guess I’ll start the ten-minute process of squishing this blimp of a body back into the car. Nice to meet you and Voyager.”
Ella waited until Merry was in the car before whirling to face the unnamed stranger who felt he had the right to meddle in their relationship with their mother. “Look. I understand you’re a friend of Jo Ellen’s,” Ella said, striving to keep her voice even. “But that doesn’t give you the right to pass judgment on me or to put ideas in Merry’s head
about what this visit is going to be like. You don’t know us. You don’t know our family history, and frankly, it’s none of your business, anyway. So just tell me how to get out of here, and hopefully that will be the last we’ll see of each other.”
He studied her for an endless moment, the heat in his green eyes taking away the chill of the storm-washed morning air. There was something new on his face, an expression she couldn’t read, as he stared down at her. A pulse of feminine awareness pulled at Ella’s consciousness, but she didn’t allow herself to break eye contact.
“You’re right,” he finally said, his drawl slow and rough as honey over gravel. “I don’t
know you, but I do know your mother. And if you’re here to break her heart, then the only directions I’m going to give you are for how to get back to the mainland.”
Fire kindled in her blue eyes—that same clear blue she shared with her mother and sister. Grady Wilkes stood his ground in the face of Ella’s shocked anger, but it wasn’t the easiest thing he’d ever done. After five years on Sanctuary Island, surrounded by friends and family, he was a little out of practice when it came to dealing with strangers. And despite how much Ella and Merry looked like their mother—from their wavy dark hair right down to the fact that their mouths were made for smiling—and despite the fact that he’d never seen Jo Ellen happier than the day she found out her daughters were finally accepting her standing invitation to visit, Grady was worried about his friend. Jo wanted so badly for this to work out, and he understood better than anyone that guilt and regret could make a person do crazy things. It was a tough situation, because Jo definitely had plenty to feel guilty about, and Grady realized her daughters had every right to hold a grudge. But he didn’t want to see Jo get hurt.
Blood ties don’t make a family. Family is the people who are there for you when you
need them most.
10 Fun Facts:
10.) I’m writing this post from my in-laws’ house in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on a back
deck overlooking a creek surrounded by tall grass and flowers. It does not suck.
9.) No matter how many pies I bake, the crust is never as buttery, flaky, tender, and
delicate as my mother’s. I keep trying, though!
8.) My husband and I named our two Border Terriers after a famous journalist and his
famously crazy lawyer/sidekick/buddy: Hunter and Oscar. They are every bit as nuts as their namesakes, but much cuter, so they get away with it.
7.) In college I majored in Romance Languages, and now I write romance novels.
Coincidence? You decide!
6.) I love to play favorites, but I hate it when anyone asks me my favorite book. Too
hard! But if I am pressed for an answer, I always say Anne of Green Gables, because that book confirmed the importance of imagination in my life. Also, Gilbert Blythe! Sigh.
5.) My younger sister is one of my best friends, and I used a lot of that emotion in crafting the relationship between the heroines of Sanctuary Island and the follow-up,
4.) I have been dating my husband since I was nineteen—in fact, he is the only man I
ever dated for longer than a few weeks. When I fall, I fall hard.
3.) When I was ten, I was deeply in love with my summer camp horse, Shawnee Starbuck. Nicknamed Captain, he was a gray Appaloosa with cinnamon speckles flecked over his haunches. As patient and gentle as you’d imagine a camp horse would be, Captain was the first thing I thought of when I woke up in the morning and the last thing I thought of at night for a full year. My parents never bought me a horse (they gave me a college education instead, humph) but I have never forgotten old Captain.
2.) It took me three years to write and revise my first (never-to-be-published) manuscript. The second one took a year and a half. And now that I have a contract? It takes me exactly as long as contractually specified—so, 5-6 months. Amazing what a little outside motivation can do!
1.) The first romance novel I ever read was The Shadow & the Star by Laura Kinsale, when I was eleven. Victorian England, a dashing, mysterious warrior hero, stolen
antiquities, and brandied cherries. It hooked me for life!