Lone Wolf Cowboy
Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Copyright © 2019 Maisey YatesISBN: 978-1-335-47464-3
All rights reserved.
Vanessa Logan had been avoiding going home again for a very long time.
And for most of that time, she had been convinced that no one was terribly sad about her absence. It had been seven years since she'd seen her family by the time she'd come back to town about two years earlier for her sister Olivia's wedding.
She'd been in a haze then — not a drug haze — which she imagined is what her family would have assumed, but just a kind of strange, surreal sensation, returning to a place that she hadn't been to in so long.
It was different this time.
Different now two years later as she drove past the welcome sign all done up in blue and cheery yellow, welcoming her to the town of Gold Valley.
Back to the county that bore her last name, where she had been born, raised and let everyone down who had ever loved her.
She was closing the loop. That's why she was back. Anyway, there was an opportunity here, and she figured she might as well take it. Olivia had a baby. Olivia had a family, and no matter what had happened between them in the past, Olivia was her twin. It seemed ... it seemed like she should be closer to her.
Geographically, and emotionally. Though she knew it would all have to be done in stages.
She imagined her parents would want her near eventually. Maybe. She couldn't say for sure. She wouldn't particularly blame them, she supposed, if they couldn't get over it.
She had been difficult. She'd caused them worry. They had assumed the worst about her ... and in many ways they'd been right to. At least, at the time.
Her childhood had been ideal for a while. Before she'd wanted to be anything other than Olivia's twin, and Cole and Tamara Logan's daughter. Before she ever got curious about the forbidden things her parents had warned her so sternly about.
She ached for that sometimes. For those simple days. When a hug from her father had healed all wounds. When she'd gone for long lunches with her mom after shopping in town.
When she and Olivia had whispered secrets under the covers. Until Olivia had gotten scared of secrets, and Vanessa's had gotten too dark to share.
She might never get back to those times. It might all be too broken. But even if it was ... even if it was, she was still glad she was here.
She was back for her.
Gold Valley was the last refuge for her demons, and the final locked door in her life.
It was her origin story. And everyone needed to revisit an origin story.
She'd gone out on her own, failed, hit rock bottom and healed. But she had healed away, not at the site of her very first fall from grace.
And it was time.
It was just time.
She maneuvered her car through Main Street, marveling at the brick buildings, the faded advertisements painted on the side, the lone neon sign above Gold Valley Saloon — allowed only because it had been installed in the early sixties and was considered historic.
Any new neon would not be considered historic.
And the fact that Vanessa still knew those things — could still hear her father explaining them and that cool, authoritative voice of his that Vanessa could've listened to forever — made her smile.
Though, it wasn't an entirely happy smile.
Home was complicated.
That was for sure.
Well, home would be a little less complicated now than it had been, maybe. She had her own place, and the keys were waiting for her. All of her possessions fit in the back of her car, and she was ready to start a new job in a couple of days.
She had things lined up. She was responsible now.
Had been for a number of years.
And she'd been too cowardly to get in touch with her family and let them know that she was doing better.
So, maybe she wasn't totally responsible.
She tried not to dwell on that as the road carried her through the main part of town, and back out again, out into a densely wooded stretch of highway, with long, direct, gravel driveways.
One of those long gravel driveways would be hers.
Well, hers and a couple of other people's. There were typically several homes back up one of those roads.
Her car's navigation system buzzed and let her know that she was in fact at her road. She turned left and started to look for numbers. Every few trees, there was a sign posted and Vanessa kept watch for the four-digit number that marked her new home.
She would have hated this when she was a teenager.
She'd hated where she lived already, and a road like this — that took her out farther away from the nearest larger town, that was several miles out of Gold Valley, and over all this dirt and gravel — would have mortally wounded and offended her.
Thinking of that girl, with her bright, big ambition, her seeds of dissatisfaction and her deep certainty she knew better than everyone else around her ... It was almost painful.
She'd had no idea what she was going to walk herself into.
And she supposed that was another reason she'd had to come here.
It was the last place she'd been that Vanessa.
It was also where she'd changed. Completely and utterly.
She saw the number for her rental, nailed to a tree. She turned her car onto a much narrower gravel road than the one she'd just been on.
The house at the end of the drive was small, humble, with white siding that was peeling in places, a shingled roof and a covered porch with a few hanging flowerpots.
She wondered if Ellie Bell, her contact in Gold Valley was responsible for the flowers.
She doubted it was the landlord's work, given the state of the paint.
Rustic was a generous description. Both for the landscape, and the house itself.
She got out and looked around, the pine trees that towered overhead seeming to swallow her whole as she stood there, feeling increasingly smaller. As if her place in the universe had shrunk significantly.
She didn't mind the feeling. She grabbed her shoulder bag from the car and began to walk up the porch steps, one of the pieces of wood creaking beneath her feet.
It was such a lovely little place and would make a welcome change to the apartment she'd called home for the past few years. Quiet. Isolation.
Well, except for all the teenagers she would be working with.
That wouldn't be very quiet.
She was okay with that too.
Teenagers shouldn't have to be quiet. They should get to live as loudly as they could, in safe spaces where they wouldn't be punished for trying and failing.
Of course they needed boundaries too. She did know that.
It was just boundaries had been suffocating for her, and sometimes it was tough to remember that others suffered from a lack of them.
She heard the sound of tires on gravel, and she turned just in time to see a mint-green SUV headed up the roadway.
There was a blonde woman in the car, looking harried. She parked behind Vanessa's car and got out.
"Hi," Vanessa said hesitantly.
"Vanessa?" the woman asked. She moved to the back of the car and opened the door. A little blonde girl hopped out, her hair bouncing with each movement.
The tiny child gave Vanessa a momentary feeling of discomfort.
"I'm Ellie," she said, walking forward and extending her hand.
"Oh," Vanessa said. "It's nice to meet you."
"I'm Amelia!" The little girl spun in a circle as she announced her name.
"Hi, Amelia," Vanessa said, not sure what to do with her hands.
"I didn't make it up here earlier to put the key out for you," Ellie said. "I'm really sorry. I was hoping to beat you here, but I had drama with Amelia's sitter. It's just been a day. Plus, everything at the ranch is a little bit nutty right now."
"I'd guess so, with you just getting everything up and running."
The whole endeavor sounded great to Vanessa. An alternative school for kids who were either having trouble in school, or at home. Or in the system. Kids who were at their last stop, basically.
As a kid who'd been there, Vanessa wished there had been something like that for her. Of course ... she doubted her parents would have ever been able to admit she needed help.
That was if she'd ever been able to admit to them that she did.
"It should be. Now that we're getting all the bugs worked out. And just in time to get started. We're going to have about twenty students, most of whom are from out of the area and will be living with foster families in town."
"That ... That seems like a good size."
"Yes. Well, I was really impressed with your work. Not just your art, but your explanation of how you've used art for therapy."
"It's something that I ... that I really believe in." It had saved her. Finding a passion. She wondered what her parents would think of it now.
They would have disapproved if she'd said she wanted to be an artist back when she was in high school. But maybe they'd think trading in pills for paintbrushes was an all right idea.
"Okay," Ellie said, "I don't want to clutter up your day. I'm sure that you want to get settled. But, if you need anything, feel free to give me a call. And if you have an emergency, Jacob is just up the drive. Jacob Dalton, I mean."
Vanessa's heart twisted. "Jacob Dalton?"
She could see that name, clear in her mind, on a name badge. His hand strong, firm. His expression full of concern.
Stay with me ...
She blinked. "I ..."
"Do you know Jacob?" Ellie asked.
"No," she said. It was the honest truth. She didn't know Jacob. Not really. "I know his name. You know how things are in a small town."
"Definitely," Ellie said. "He's home unless he's out fighting fires. Though, the serious part of the season is mostly winding to a close. I don't ... I don't like it when he and Caleb are out on fires."
"Yeah, that sounds like an intense job," Vanessa said, struggling to keep her mind in the present, when half of it was still lost back in the past.
"Yeah," Ellie said. "And it's just ... my husband ... Amelia's father ..." They both looked over at the little girl, who was turning circles just next to the porch. "He died. He died out on a fire. The helicopter he was in crashed."
That brought Vanessa right into the moment. What an awful thing to have to go through. She couldn't even imagine.
She might not know that kind of pain, but she knew what it was like to be an oddity. To be someone with a wound other people had a hard time understanding. And if Ellie wanted to open up, to share her pain ... well Vanessa was here to listen.
She knew what it was to be isolated that way.
"I'm sorry," Vanessa said.
She meant it. She'd lost a lot of people in her life. But not to death. By her own systematic alienation of them. And in some cases, by them cutting ties with her. But those losses had other chances available, no matter how unlikely.
A loss like Ellie's didn't have another chance.
"Me too," Ellie said. "He would've been a good dad."
And Vanessa probably would have been a terrible mother. But she was here. She lost her pregnancy. And this little girl was here without a good father. Because the world was strange, and it was nothing if not horrifically imbalanced.
"I really am sorry about that."
"I appreciate it. It's been a while. But, that is the thing. Jacob and Caleb being out on fires ... It always makes me think of Clint. Of course, so does Amelia's smile. But, that's a happy thing."
"Does she like to paint?" Vanessa asked.
"Oh, she hasn't really done much of it. I mean, besides at preschool."
"I'd love to do some painting with her," Vanessa said. She wasn't quite sure why she offered, particularly given her initial reaction to the child. But, if she could do art, and help Amelia express herself, then she felt like that was a bonus. Anyway, it gave her a place to focus some of the rattling nerves that were jittering around inside of her.
Well, so much for her particular setup being less complicated.
Not that he would remember her. There was no reason for him to remember her. She would just be one of the many phone calls he'd had during his time as an EMT in Logan County.
"All right, Amelia," Ellie said. "Say goodbye to Ms. Logan."
"Bye, Ms. Logan," Amelia said, her smile cherubic and sweet. Ellie waved and headed back to the car. As Ellie got inside, Vanessa had to wonder what the other woman knew about her, and what she didn't.
Vanessa's fall from grace was something she imagined people in town discussed. Or maybe they didn't. Maybe her parents had done a good job of hiding the activities of their daughter for the past nine years.
Surely, the label of rebellious had been given to her before she'd left town. That, she actually knew for a fact.
She had been running with the wrong crowd. Being wild.
But if there had been any knowledge or subtext to her interaction with Ellie, Vanessa hadn't sensed it. And she usually did. When people knew her background, they often spoke to her as if she was fragile. Perhaps mentally incapacitated. And if not that, then simply with a slight curl to their lip and a bit of disdain. Ellie had given her none of that, and Vanessa was grateful for it.
If she could just find enough people to surround herself with on a daily basis who knew her only as she was now, things would be great.
And if Jacob Dalton could just not remember her. That would be even better.
Or, maybe, she wouldn't end up having to deal with him at all.
It was optimistic, but she could hope.
That was the thing. No matter what, Vanessa Logan could always hope.
It was the only reason she was still breathing now.
So she would cling to it no matter what.
She took a deep breath and walked back to her car, fishing a large duffel bag out of the back. It had everything in it she would need for overnight. That way, if she didn't get around to unpacking the other couple of boxes she'd brought, she would be fine.
She was feeling pretty exhausted, and mostly she felt ready to make herself a glass of iced tea and sit.
That was the point of this new life. This new pace.
That was the point of coming home.
Jacob Dalton was tired down to his bones. It had been a long-ass time since he'd done ranch work like he'd done today. But his brother Gabe was actively attempting to recruit him into a full-time capacity at the ranch, and somehow his sales pitch included working Jacob until his knuckles were bloodied.
He sat down heavily at the table, a beer clutched tightly in his hand. "You're a sadist," he groaned, leaning back in his chair.
"Hey, I got you to come out and drink. So I must've done something right," Gabe said.
His brother was in a good mood. He was in a good mood a lot lately, thanks to his recent engagement to Jamie Dodge, a little tomboy, hell-raiser cowgirl that Jacob would never have thought his brother would take an interest in. But it turned out he'd taken more than an interest in her. He had fallen in love with her.
Nice for him, Jacob supposed.
"Yeah, well, I wasn't going to turn down free beer." Though he had beer up at his cabin, so it wasn't like he couldn't drink there. And, anyway, he couldn't drink to excess, because he didn't have anyone to drive him home but himself. One beer and he was out. He could get back to the solitude of his cabin.
"The place is really looking good," his brother Caleb said, leaning back in his chair.
Only eleven months younger than Jacob, Caleb was almost like a twin. Though things had been different since their friend Clint died in a helicopter accident. He had been a part of their band of brothers, he had grown up eating dinner at their house, fought fires with them. He had been such a hugely important part of their life. And something about losing him, about losing that piece, had made everything different.
It didn't help that he felt responsible for Clint's death in a lot of ways. He and Caleb were the ones that had dragged their friend into the orientation for wildland firefighting. It was along the lines of what Jacob had done in between riding and the rodeo, back in the day. Since he had gotten work as an EMT right outside of high school. And Caleb ... Caleb had just been looking for a hit of something.
He was close to his brother or, rather, he always had been, but something had changed when they become adults, and Caleb was difficult to read. He was friendlier than Jacob, had a readier smile and made conversation with people pretty easily. But if you paid attention, you would notice that it was light conversation. Easy. Nothing behind it all.
"I do appreciate you picking up some work," Gabe said. "This has been a pretty huge project."
"No kidding," Jacob responded.
The throb in his shoulder agreed.
Caleb nodded. "I've been enjoying it."