It’s been twenty years; Renee and Hank are back where things started but reality is like a spring frost and is a long-distance relationship their only option for a second chance at love?
Renee Mitchell has returned to the small Montana town of River Junction to take over her family’s orchard. With big dreams for the future, she plants a large parcel of land with new apple trees. No sooner is the job done, when a herd of cattle from the neighboring ranch breaks through a fence line and creates mulch from the tiny saplings. With a streak of stubbornness as wide as the Colorado River, Renee’s determined to be a success. Even when her first love shows up with the offer to pay for replacement trees and lend muscle to replant.
Hank Shepard left River Junction at eighteen and, except for losing his chance with Renee Mitchell, he’s lived life with zero regrets. He takes a short-term leave of absence from his law practice, returning to his family ranch to help his dad get back on his feet. The last thing he expects while he’s there is to reconnect with the woman he let get away. But wayward Shephard Ranch cattle bring him full circle back to Renee.
Hank is determined to make amends for the destruction to her orchard and for how they left things almost twenty years ago. It doesn’t take long for Renee and Hank to rediscover their long dormant feeling are like the orchard after the long winter, ready to flourish.
When it’s time for Hank to return to his law practice, will they be able to make a long-distance relationship work? Or, is the difference between city life and big sky country too much to overcome?
Renee Mitchell couldn’t believe her eyes. The small apple trees that had taken her days to plant were trampled into the ground and the culprits were grazing on the new shoots of grass between what was to be the new section in her orchard. She threw her head back and let out an ear-splitting scream. That helped her feel a smidge better, not that anyone could hear her since this was Big Sky Country, Montana, where every day of the growing season was critical. If she could even get new stock, it would be at least a two-week setback and she was not calling her parents in New Mexico to share the bad news. Riverbank Orchard was her business now and she’d figure out a solution on her own. But first these stupid cows needed to get off her land before they did even more damage.
Cautiously, she inched closer to the large beasts, wary of how they might react. At least they didn’t have those wide horns that were famous in Texas. All these cows had were yellow tags dangling like earrings from their ears. Maybe it had the name of the ranch stamped on them. Once she got close enough without spooking one, she discovered they were numbers only. She popped her hands on her hips. “That’s not going to do me a bit of good.”
She reached for her cell phone but didn’t bother pulling it out. Cell reception was spotty out here, and besides, who was she going to call with her tale of woe? It’s not like there was a local resource to help find lost cattle, was there?
In the distance, on the other side of the small riverbed, she could see a lone figure galloping in her direction. Maybe that was the person responsible for these beasts. She stomped through the now downed trees, closing the distance between herself and the horse and rider. A man was in the saddle, and as they got closer, she could tell he was tall but not who he was. His cowboy hat was pulled low over his face, probably to keep the bright sun from his eyes, or more likely to not see the mess his cows made to her field. For a fraction of a second she thought about the fence she should have put up first, but once the cows were out of the barn, there was no use worrying about the door being closed.
She lifted a hand in greeting and called out to him. “Missing any cows?”
He pulled up on the reins and came to a full stop on the opposite side of the river. He scanned the landscape in back of her and scowled. “As a matter of fact, I am and I can see they’ve invaded your orchard.”
There was something about the man that was vaguely familiar, and his smooth voice tickled a long-ago memory, but Renee dismissed it. She needed to stick to the business at hand and have him move his cows back across the river. If they crossed once, they could do it again; the water wasn’t that high or running too fast now that the spring thaw was over for the most part.
“Well, we’re going to need to discuss the damage they did.”
The man urged his horse through the stream, and it danced up the low-rise bank in front of her. He swung his leg over the saddle and jumped down before giving her a hard look. A flicker of recognition flashed in his caramel-brown eyes, but it was gone just as quickly. Clearly, they must have met, and then Renee knew. She took a step back and stumbled. Before she landed on her butt, he had reached out and steadied her.
“Renee, are you alright?”
The deep timbre of his voice caused her heart to skip. Hank Shepard. The first boy she had ever kissed and the one man she had never forgotten. It had been almost twenty years since she had seen him and other than a touch of gray in his light-brown hair and the sun crinkles around his eyes, he looked exactly the same—drop-dead gorgeous as ever. It would have been better if he’d gotten out of shape with a big belly but no, he had stayed trim and muscular. And this was all with a quick assessment.
Despite the way his voice made her belly flip, she had to focus on the question and not the man asking it.
“Yes, I’m fine. I just tripped on a root.”
He looked down at the grassy bank and gave her a quirk of a smile. “Glad it wasn’t anything bigger.”
She wanted to groan but there wasn’t much else to say about the invisible root. “So, about your cows.” She couldn’t help but notice he still held her arm in his hand and she took a step back to break the connection so she could think clearly.
“There not really mine, more like my parents’. I’m home helping out while Dad recovers from a broken hip, you know, kinda running things for him. Then I’ll head back to Dallas. I’m a lawyer now.”
It was funny how he slipped that in, and there went the idea of suing the cows for damages. She laughed—suing cows.
“What’s funny, me being a lawyer or living in Dallas?” He gave her a long look just like he did when they were kids and he was trying to figure out what she was thinking.
“It’s nothing other than we need to talk about the damage done to my orchard. I just planted new tree stock last week and now your cows”—she pointed over her shoulder—“your dad’s cows used them like they were the yellow brick road.”
“It might not be that bad; do you mind if I take a look?”
She swept her hand in the direction of the field. “See for yourself.”
He looked from side to side. “Where’s the fencing?”
She kicked the ground with the toe of her work boot. “On order. It should be here in a few days.” Which was the least of her problems. Once it was delivered, she didn’t know how she’d hire anyone to help her get it installed. She had resigned herself to setting posts herself. She was more than capable given that she had done it a bunch of times with Dad years ago. It was like muscle memory; the know-how would just come back to her.
If he sensed she was holding anything back, he didn’t show it. With a curt nod, he said, “Care to lead the way?”
With his horse walking behind him, Hank followed Renee as she crossed the section of field that hadn’t been planted, at least not this year, and she wanted to cry when she saw the tiny green leaves crushed into the rows of dirt and the brown sticks split like strands of spaghetti noodles. The analogy was the best she could up with and since pasta was her least favorite food, it was okay to compare the damage to Italian food.
“Renee, I’m really sorry about the mess. Get me the cost estimate of the damage and I’ll cut you a check so you can buy new trees.”
That was nice of him but he didn’t understand; it wasn’t just the tree stock. She’d need to turn over the soil again, prep the bare root stock, and replant. She was looking at a couple more weeks of work and then the fence on top of that.
“I can do that.” She looked at the cows munching on what was left of her field, and not that she was counting, but there had to be at least fifty of them. On the upside, any cow patties left behind were free fertilizer, but who was she kidding. That wasn’t much of a consolation prize.
He pulled his billfold out of his front jeans pocket and handed her a business card. “My email address is on there so just send it over and I’ll drop off a check tomorrow if that’s okay.”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll probably be out here so you can just leave it in the mailbox.” She’d have to hook up the plow to get the rows churned up again. But at least she could get the stock on order and the land would be ready when it arrived. Then again, maybe she could expedite the shipment too; after all, how much could that cost?
She gave Hank a steady look. Maybe she’d just slide the air freight charges into the price of the trees so he’d have to pay for it. But she quickly dismissed that idea. That was dishonest, and they had been friends once upon a time. She wouldn’t do that to an enemy, let alone an old friend.
He gave her that wide smile that she remembered so well and her stomach was like a bunch of honey bees buzzing around the buttercups in spring.
“I’ll drive these girls across the river, and I’ll swing by tomorrow so don’t forget to email me. And I’m real sorry about all of this, but you should get the fence installed before you plant again.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah, she should do a lot of things and if she ever got to that to-do list she wrote out for herself, she’d be organized and already prepared for fall harvest. As it was, she hadn’t even had time to turn the list over and start with what she had thought was the number one priority. Not that she’d admit any of this to Hank, but as far as he was concerned, she was the businesswoman of the year in River Junction—well, maybe the orchard businesswoman of the year at a bare minimum.
She forced a bright smile. “It’s at the top of my list.”
“Good.” He stuck his left boot in the stirrup and settled into the saddle like he’d been born to be a cowboy. She thought it was ironic since that was what he’d been born into and now it seemed he turned in his Wranglers and Stetson for a suit and tie.
He gave a sharp whistle, and the cows slowly raised their heads while he maneuvered his horse through the herd. Once he got to the farthest bunch, he began to herd them in her direction. She moved off to one side and was surprised to see it looked like he had been doing this forever, instead of leaving Montana after high school graduation, never to return except for quick holiday trips.
But who was she to judge? Hadn’t she done the same thing? College and then worked in a city? At least her plan had always been to make money so that someday she’d return home and run the family orchard. Once, when they were young, Hank said when he left, he wasn’t ever living in small town USA again.
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Award-winning and best-selling author Lucinda Race is a lifelong fan of romantic fiction. As a young girl, she spent hours reading romance novels and getting lost in the hope they represent. While her friends dreamed of becoming doctors and engineers, her dreams were to become a writer—a romance novelist.
As life twisted and turned, she found herself writing nonfiction but longed to turn to her true passion. After developing the storyline for The Loudon Series, it was time to start living her dream. Her fingers practically fly over computer keys she weaves stories about strong women and the men who love them.
Lucinda lives with her two little dogs, a miniature long hair dachshund and a shitzu mix rescue, in the rolling hills of western Massachusetts. When she’s not at her day job, she’s immersed in her fictional worlds. And if she’s not writing romance novels, she’s reading everything she can get her hands on.
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