Sunday, February 28, 2016

THE FABLE OF US Epilogue!!!

Hey Everyone!

In case you didn't get a chance to read the bonus epilogue for THE FABLE OF US, you can read it here on Natasha is a Book Junkie's spankin' new website! Check it out and make sure to take some time to peruse the new site—it's STUNNING!


Friday, February 26, 2016

COLLARED's Cover Reveal and First Excerpt!

The cover for COLLARED is here!!! What do you think? I absolutely adore it, and can't wait for March 22nd to get here so I can share this book with you.

I've listed the first excerpt as well as the blurb below to introduce you to Torrin and Jade. Enjoy!

He holds my eyes, not letting them wander away from him. “Why have you been avoiding me?”

I wander my room, not sure where to go now that he’s here. I’m not sure where I fit now. I’m not sure where I belong in his life.

“You know why,” I say quietly.

“I want to hear you tell me.”


“So I can change your mind.” His hands slide into his front pockets, and the sunlight catches on his dad’s watch and casts golden beams through the room. It lights up like someone just lit a million candles at once. “I can’t do that unless I know exactly why you don’t want to see me.”

He wants a reason? I’ll give him a whole list of them.

“Because I don’t want to drag you into my mess of a world any more than I already have. Because I don’t want to smear you through the mud on the media’s march to burying me. Because I don’t want to hurt you—again—and because I want to protect you.”

“I can protect myself from them.”

I shake my head and cover my chest with my hand. “To protect you from me.”

Torrin’s jaw hardens. He works it loose the moment after. “I don’t need protection from you.”

“Everyone needs protection from me. There’s something dark in me now, Torrin, and I can’t get it out. It’s growing, spreading, and I don’t want it to infect the people I love.”

He pushes off the closet doors and crosses the room before I know he’s coming. “There is nothing dark in you, Jade. Nothing.” He backs me into the wall and stares at me, unblinking. “There is light and good in you. There always has been. There always will be.”

“That’s gone. He took it from me.”

“No, he didn’t.” Torrin’s hand slams into the wall beside my head. “It’s still there. You had to bury it to keep it safe, but it’s still there. You’ll find it. I know it.”

I want to believe him, but that doesn’t make it true. “You can’t find what isn’t there, Torrin.”

“Dammit, stop talking like that,” he says, his jaw tensing. “It’s there. I know it.”

“I’ve tried. I can’t find it.” Even as I say it, I start to feel different. It’s because of him being so close, saying what he is in the way he is. He’s the tether that keeps me from floating away.

His eyes lower to mine. “I’ll help you find it.”

I feel my heart again. My lungs. Everything else. I feel it waking up. “What makes you so sure you can find it?”

“Because when I look in your eyes, I still see it.” His other hand fits against the wall beside my head. “Because when I’m close to you like this, I can still feel it.” He leans a little closer, and I feel something too. “It’s there, Jade. It’s not gone. He took ten years of your life—ten years.” The corners of his eyes crease as an emotion fires in his eyes. “Don’t hand him the rest of it by believing that kind of shit.”

When a seventeen-year-old girl vanishes,
A community is shaken.
Parents turn desperate.
Friends hold vigils.
And the boy who loves her searches.

When a year goes by,
The community is recovering.
Parents feel hopeless.
Friends feel helpless.
And the boy who loves her continues his search.

When ten years go by,
The community has forgotten.
Parents cling to the past.
Friends move toward the future.
And the boy who loves her . . .

Brings her home.

Jade Childs spent ten years in captivity, but now that she’s back, the real battle for survival begins. The media shadows her. Flashbacks haunt her. Her old life evades her. Her so-called new life rejects her. She spent too many years in the dark to recognize the light. She spent too long repressing her feelings to remember how to express them. She spent a decade abandoning hope and cannot dare letting it back into her life. Jade’s not just defined by what happened to her—she’s collared to it.

When the twenty-seven-year-old woman is found,
A community wants to know the story,
Parents want to forget the story,
Friends want to be a part of the story,

And the man who still loves her faces the greatest challenge yet: letting her go.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Hi Everyone!

In case you missed the release information yesterday, I wanted to post the purchase links for THE FABLE OF US. Don't forget to take advantage of the special release week pricing too!

Yesterday was an amazing release day (really the best one ever), and I know I have you all to thank for that. With all of my heart, thank you for being the best readers in the whole world!

Monday, January 25, 2016

First Teaser for THE FABLE OF US!

Here is the first teaser for my upcoming novel, THE FABLE OF US, scheduled to be released on February 2nd! I'm really, REALLY excited for you all to read this one. My love affair with writing found its way back to me with this one and has decided to hang around (much to my great relief). I'm so excited for what's coming this year . . . can't want to share it all with you.

Missed you all!


“Boone?” I said, twisting my neck to look at him. He hadn’t stopped looking at me. “What are you doing this week?”
            He reached for his replenished drink and lifted it in my direction. “A whole lot of this.”
            I swallowed when he did, but I was fighting the voice in my head that warned me this was a bad idea—quite possibly my worst idea to date. “How would you feel about earning some extra money?”
            Boone settled his glass on the counter, keeping it clutched in his hands. “Who says I haven’t already earned so much of it I couldn’t possibly be interested in earning any more?”
            Now it was my turn to lift an eyebrow in his direction. While the Abbotts were known for the wealth spilling from their ears, the Cavanaughs had been known for the past few generations for the opposite.
            From his worn brown boots that probably should have been tossed out last summer, to the plaid button-down shirt I had a distant memory of him wearing back in high school, I had my answer. Plus, there was the whole issue of . . . “That last five dollars in your wallet that is now in Tom’s pocket might say something about you not having so many more of those you wouldn’t be interested in making more of them.”
            Finally his face gave way to emotion. Just a flash and only for a moment, but his eyes narrowed at the same time his forehead creased, like he was almost insulted. “You Abbotts think you can buy the world and anyone in it. I’ve known that about your family for years, Clara, but I guess I didn’t realize that gene had been passed down to you.”
            I refused to back down, not after bringing it up. Besides, Boone’s impressions of me couldn’t get much lower.
            “Ten thousand dollars,” I said and shut up after that.
            Boone was clearly as shocked by the number as I’d guessed he’d be. Ten grand was a lot of money to anyone anywhere. Especially to earn in one week. Down here though, working the kinds of jobs Boone had worked back in high school and probably still did, that was a third of a year’s salary.
            He looked away for a moment, glaring at the wall across from us, before his gaze cut back to me. His shoulders were tense, his neck so rigid that his veins and muscles were showing. Part of me knew he felt insulted that I was offering him money in exchange for a favor—part of me felt ashamed for the same—but Boone’s and my relationship had been severed years ago. This was nothing more than a business transaction between a couple of acquaintances.
            “You know, the last time someone offered me that chunk of change over a few drinks, it wasn’t followed by an offer that was on the up-and-up.” His voice was cool and removed, the way he was looking at me the same.
            “What I’m about to ask isn’t illegal, I promise. It’s not even inside.” I shook my head. “It’s just . . . maybe a little deceitful.”
            He huffed and gave a nod. “I’d expect nothing less.”
            When I thought of a way to phrase what I was about to suggest, nothing sounded quite right. No matter how I worked the pieces of my proposition in my head, no arrangement made it seem less undignified. So I went with the most basic explanation.
            “All I need from you is for you to pose as my plus one for the week. Nothing more. One week, ten grand. What do you think?” My words came out too fast, my voice too high. Because no matter what I tried to convince myself of, no matter how much radio silence had passed between us, Boone and I were not and would never be mere acquaintances. We had too much history to ever be “acquaintances.”
            Boone was silent for a minute. One long minute I thought would never pass. When he did finally say something, I’d been two seconds away from leaving and spending the next seven years trying and failing to forget about Boone Cavanaugh again.
            “Let me get this straight, because I thought I understood the English language, but I cannot get my head wrapped around what you just said.” Boone scooted his stool a half foot in my direction, the skin between his brows pinched in a deep line. “Are you asking me to show up at your family’s place with your family inside and pose as your date for the wedding?”
            I shook my head. Hard. “As my plus one. That’s all.” My traitor voice gave me away though. Still too high and fast.
            Boone didn’t miss it either. Something that resembled the stirrings of a smirk worked its way into his expression. “As your boyfriend.”
            He wasn’t going to make this easy. Not that he had any reason to. “As my plus one.”
            Boone’s smirk became as pronounced as it got. His head tipped just a bit, his eyes flashing, and his mouth turned up in a hint of a smile. “As your lover?”
            My fingers curled into my palms. “As. My. Plus. One.”
            An uneven chuckle vibrated in his chest as he studied me. He probably couldn’t figure out my business deal any more than I could. “Why? Why me?” He held out his arms and shrugged. “With all the history between us and the history of your family treating mine like we were trash . . . why choose me?”
            I picked at the frayed ends of my cut-offs, considering his question as much as I was considering my answer. I had too many reasons to ask him, most of those reasons ones I didn’t want to legitimize by voicing . . . even to myself. When I’d left Charleston seven years ago, I’d told myself the Boone Cavanaugh chapter of my life was over. Yet here I was reopening it, or starting a brand-new chapter.
            Boone continued to wait, his silence screaming at me.
He wanted to know why, so I gave him an answer, though it might have been the least honest one I had. “Limited options.” I scanned the few dozen customers, most of them older than my father and most looking like addiction had played some recent role in their lives. “Running short on time.” I tapped my wrist. “That’s why I choose you. Now if you’re done with the Q & A, what’s your answer?”
            My pulse was pounding in my neck as I waited. I needed him to say yes. I needed him to agree to crawl into that cab with me and pose as my plus one for the next week because even though my family weren’t fans of the Cavanaughs, showing up single was a worse crime.
            “Am I to understand that who you’d originally planned on bringing as your ‘plus one’ fell through?” Boone scooted his stool down another foot.
I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do more: scoot closer or farther away. “Stop talking like an asshole. If you have a question, ask me for Christ’s sake.”
            “I didn’t think debutantes were supposed to take the lord’s name in vain . . .”
            I was tempted to slug the smirk right off his face, but I didn’t. I needed him to agree. I needed to not show up solo and become the target of sabotage setups and sneaky double-dates the whole week.
            “Fuck you, Boone Cavanaugh,” I fired off before I could bite my tongue.
            A second of silence passed between us, then he laughed. “There’s the Clara Belle Abbott I’d been convinced had been adopted at birth. Damn, I missed her.”
            I found myself laughing with him, because crying seemed like the less enticing option. Laugh or cry—the beat of Boone’s and my relationship. “So does that mean you’ll do it?”
            Boone wiped his eyes, his laugh rolling to an end. It had been forever since I’d heard him laugh, but it sounded the same. Just like I remembered. “If you answer my questions to my satisfaction.”
            “And there’s the Boone Cavanaugh who makes so many conditions no one can ever get close enough to him to get through.” I peaked a brow at him, letting him know he wasn’t the only one allowed to take shots.
            “You were planning on bringing some rich California boy toy with you this week?”
            “I was planning on bringing my boyfriend who, yes, lives in California, but was a transplant from Ohio, and who was very middle class, with me this week.” The three or four or five shots were making my mind muddy. I couldn’t tell if I was saying too much or too little, but Boone seemed satisfied with my answer.
            “But that fell through?”
            I nodded, my head stuffed full of cotton and tequila.
            “You broke up with him.” It was a statement, not a hint of doubt in his voice.
            “He broke up with me.
            Boone’s forehead creased. “How long ago?”
             “Three days ago.”
            Boone’s mouth parted some. “The guy broke up with you three days before he was planning to fly down here to support you and save you from the blood-suckers?”
            “Boone—” I warned.
            “Sorry, the creatures of the night,” he continued, not hiding his smile when my frown deepened. “I gotta tell you, you really know how to pick ‘em. First Ford McBride, the behind-your-back-fucking-your-little-sister loser, and then this prick who bailed on you a few days before you flew out to face your own personal Armageddon.”
            I cracked my neck from side to side. Boone wasn’t saying anything I hadn’t heard or told myself a thousand times, but it felt different coming from him.
“Let’s not forget to toss you into that knowing-how-to-pick-‘em pile,” I muttered, more to myself than to him, but he didn’t miss it.
            “You didn’t pick me, Clara. I picked you.” For the briefest moment, I caught a glimpse of the Boone I remembered. The one who’d occasionally open himself up and share his world with me.
            I swallowed. I’d finished my last shot minutes ago, but I felt like hundred-proof alcohol was streaming down my throat. “Any more questions? I’ve, or we’ve, got to get going unless I want my dad calling the sheriff to come looking for me.”
            “Wouldn’t be the first time, would it?” A smile pulled at the corner of Boone’s mouth.
            “It wouldn’t be. But at least this time the sheriff wouldn’t have to lie to my daddy about how he found me, and who he found me with.”
            “Or where he found us . . .” Boone’s gaze shifted away, staring at the wall opposite us like he was seeing something else.
            “So?” I pressed.
            He took another sip of his drink. “Aren’t you going to ask me if I’m seeing someone? Don’t you care if I’ve got someone in my life I’ll need to explain this little week-long arrangement too?”
            “Of course, yes, I should have thought of that. Do you have . . . someone? Do you think she’d care if you did this?”
            Boone finished his drink before rising from his stool. He’d always been tall, but it looked like he’d stretched another couple inches in the years since I’d seen him. And that was definitely the same shirt he’d had in high school. I remembered those buttons. The shiny marbled ones that snapped closed . . . or popped open.
            “I’ve only ever had one someone special, Clara, and she turned me off to the whole idea of ever having another.” He wouldn’t look at me as he talked. “So no, there’s not someone special in my life to care what I do or who I do it with.”
            He tipped his chin good-bye at Tom as he headed toward me. I scrambled off of the stool, trying not to sway in place when I stood. I wasn’t short—in fact, I was taller than average for a woman—but standing a foot across from Boone Cavanaugh, I felt very small. Almost like he could squish me between his thumb and index fingers.
            “Ten thousand dollars? Seven days?” He shuffled a step closer, putting himself so close that if I kept swaying in place, I was going to sway right into his arms. That shouldn’t have seemed like such an appealing option.
            I nodded because I couldn’t form any words I trusted to say out loud—because I’d just been hit by a familiar scent. One I’d tried to delete from my memory, and one I knew I never could. Boone smelled like my childhood. Like the best years of my life in Charleston. Salty from sweat, sweet from his mom’s and sister’s shampoo he used to use instead of buying something more manly, and sour with the reminder of the past. I wanted to bury my face in his shirt and breathe him in until I’d had my fill, but if this next week was ever going to work, I couldn’t let past feelings and history bleed into the picture.
I couldn’t wreck him again—and I couldn’t let him wreck me again.
Distance. Arm’s length. Collected, cool, and calm. That was my marching beat for the next week. Boone and I had started out as friends; we could do it again.
My vision was blurry from the shots, the background of the bar hazy and undefined. The only thing I could see clearly was him.
His hand lifted, moving toward my face. Just when I thought he was about to cup my cheek and kiss me, his fingers grasped a chunk of my hair swinging just above my shoulders. He studied it for a moment like he didn’t recognize it. After a minute more of that, he leaned in, dropping his mouth to just outside my ear. He was messing with me. I knew that. It wasn’t enough that I was paying him ten grand; he was going to cost me more by the end of this.
“You’ve got yourself a boyfriend. Temporarily,” he whispered, his voice raising bumps on my forearms.
Lifting my shoulders, I cleared my head and slowly shoved him back until he was an arm’s length away. “A plus one. Temporarily.”

Saturday, January 24, 2015

THREE BROTHERS Deleted Scene #1

I originally wrote THREE BROTHERS with chapters that included both present and past scenes, but after discussing it with my editor, we felt the flashback scenes slowed the story down. There are about five chapters that take place from the time Scout first arrived at Red Mountain to the time she left, and I think they're fun in the sense of shedding light on her relationships with the three Armstrong brothers.

I was planning on keeping these scenes for my own grins, but since THREE BROTHERS did break into a few international top 100 charts on Amazon (not to mention breaking the top 200 in the United States!), I wanted to release one of these scenes as promised. When it reaches 25 reviews on Amazon, I'll release another scene, along with another when it reaches 50. Should it break the top 100 on Amazon U.S., I will release another!

Please keep in mind this is an unedited version and a way to say thank you to everyone for making the release week of THREE BROTHERS so outstanding! I hope you enjoy getting to know the young Scout and Armstrong brothers as much as I enjoyed writing about them.


June 21, 2003

            My whole life, all thirteen years of it, had been packed up in a couple of boxes and one old suitcase. I hadn’t realized my life had been so small until I’d seen it stacked on the porch of the place that I was expected to call home now. It was a place I’d never seen before, in a state I’d never come anywhere close to. Inside of it lived people I’d never met or even seen before in an old photograph.
            Red Mountain Ranch owned and run by John Armstrong and his three sons was apparently a legend out here in the still semi Wild West, but to a girl who’d spent her life jumping from one high-rise apartment to the next buried deep in the city of Chicago, ranches and mountains were places I’d seen in magazines or were portrayed in the pictures hung on waiting room walls.
            My mom had never been one for losing herself in the country or finding peace in the quiet places of the world. I think she felt most comfortable and at rest when she was socked in by people and skyscrapers. Where the air around her was filled with such a din of noise she couldn’t hear the voices in her head.
            My mom wasn’t crazy—at least by a devoted daughter’s point of view—although her psychiatrist might disagree. I suppose if she hadn’t been crazy, I wouldn’t be here now, trying and failing to crawl out of a car and face “home sweet new home.”
            My eyes had been locked on the black leather headrest in front of me since I’d scrambled inside of the car at the airport and even though I could sense a shadow looming up on the porch waiting for me, I couldn’t seem to force my stare from that headrest. The fear of the unknown was crippling. I’d left friends and all that was familiar behind and even though I knew there was no going back, that didn’t stop me from longing for it.
            Another minute passed and that shadow lumbered down the steps, stopping just outside of the car door. The instant the door opened, a dozen new smells rushed at me, flooding the car with scents that were as foreign as this place. Earthy smells, like trees and flowers, weeds and grasses. It was a potpourri of scents I had nothing to compare it to; all it brought to mind was the way the Earth had probably smelled the first days of its existence. Nothing in the city smelled like this, nothing even close, not even the scent of fresh bark the city raked into the flowerbeds every spring at the park by our last apartment.
            “I’m sorry about your mom, Scout. She was a fine person, Make sure you don’t forget that.”
            The voice was a man’s, low and rough from old age and what I guessed had been a hard life. His voice reminded me of the way a grizzly bear’s pelt I’d once touched at a museum felt—course and weathered. Like even the strongest of storms couldn’t cut through it.
            My hands were clutched together, sweat clamming them up. “She was weak,” I whispered, immediately followed by my head lowering. My mom might have been weak, but she deserved better than me broadcasting it to the world.
            “Your mama wasn’t weak, nowhere close to it. She was strong.” That rough voice filled the air, seeming to boom right off that giant mountain towering above this place. “It just turned out that in your mama’s case, the demons in her past were stronger.”
            I felt something stir in my blood. Something hot and explosive. It was a sensation I’d been becoming more and more familiar with since my mom’s death and the comments and criticisms that had come with it. “Is that what you tell all of the orphaned children you take in after their mother’s swallow a bottle of the very pills that were supposed to be helping with her depression, not letting her give in to it?”
            John Armstrong didn’t say anything. He could have, after the words I’d fired off at him in the tone I’d encased them in, he had every right to fire back with something of his own, but he didn’t. Instead, he held out his hand that was as large and weathered as the size of that Grizzly Bear paw, and he waited.
            I hadn’t realized I’d taken his hand until he was guiding me out of the car and once I was standing in front of him, he placed his hands on my shoulders. There was a smile on his face, but there was a sadness behind it, like no matter what happy moment or joyous encounter, nothing could smudge away the sadness from this man’s past. It made me wonder if my smile would be the same going forward. If after finding one’s mother and only known family member dead on the bathroom floor with an empty pill bottle still clutched in her hand, her eyes for the first time ever peaceful, would drip enough sadness into my life to ensure all of my smiles going forward would miss their mark.
            “It will be okay, Scout,” John said, giving my shoulders the lightest squeeze.
            “If this is where you try to comfort me that time will heal everything, you can save yourself the effort. A few dozen others have already beat you to that proverb.”
John Armstrong towered a foot over me and had to weigh three times what I did. He was a pillar of a man who had a beard that was thick and tangled with streaks of gray. His face was dark already and summer had only just begun, but he had the deep canyons of wrinkles to prove he didn’t hide from it like my mother had. With that mountain in the background, John Armstrong seemed almost the same size of it, and just as rugged. I should have been intimidated into silence from the size of this man alone, but I wasn’t. Instead, the silence I’d kept close to me since my mom’s death was finally falling away, revealing a person I wasn’t quite familiar with.
            “Then I guess I’ll be the one to tell you the truth.” Somehow, the lines of his forehead drew deeper before he led me up the steps to his house. “Time won’t heal everything—it won’t really even heal some things.”
            “Are you saying I’m always going to feel this way? That I’m always going to feel so . . . lost?” I wasn’t sure if that was the word I was searching for, but it was close.
            John nodded and that nod should have depressed me more than it did, but something about someone finally telling me the truth was a relief. Hearing a word of truth in a sea of lies was refreshing in the most unexpected of ways. “Time won’t fix the past and the scars you sustained as a result, but it does make it easier for you to endure them.”
            “I’m not sure I want to endure this for the rest of my life. I’d rather forget it. I’d rather have it wiped from my memory for good.” The steps creaked and groaned beneath my soft footsteps, but they barely made a sound beneath John’s large, mud-coated boots. It was like he was a ghost passing over them . . . or he’d just learned where to step so they didn’t sound like they were about to snap.
            “If that’s what you really want, that would also mean your memory of your mother would have to be erased for good as well. To forget her death means forgetting her life as well. Is that what you want?”
            I thought about that the rest of the way up the last few steps and crossing the wide-stretching porch to the front door. As hard as life had been living with a chronically depressed parent, there’d been enough good to almost even the scales. There’d been enough random whims where my mother had pulled me out of school to spend a sunny afternoon sprawled out on a blanket in the park while we binged on gelato and vanilla wafers. There’d been enough happiness to counteract the sadness. Enough joy to skew the sorrow.
            “No, I don’t want to forget her. I guess,” I added when I felt that familiar stab of pain in my stomach when I thought of her . . . only to realize the only place I’d ever see her again was in my mind or photographs. She’d laughed her last laugh and we’d fought over the last bite of lemon gelato for the last time.
            “The people we love are as much a curse as they are a blessing, Scout. I know that’s not what people want to believe, but it’s the truth. The ones we love can lift us high as much as they can tear us down. To know love is to know pain, and to feel love is to feel pain. Choose who you love carefully. Make sure they’re worth the pain that comes with loving them. Make sure they’re worth the gut wrenching feeling that’s surely going to come. Make sure they’re worth your love.”
            I hadn’t known what to expect when the lawyer had read me my mother’s will, informing me of who she’d named as my guardian, but when I’d learned he lived on a ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and was named John Armstrong, I hadn’t expected he’d start our first conversation with a lesson on the merits and pitfalls of love.
            “Are you saying some people deserve to be loved and some don’t?” I asked slowly.
            “Everyone deserves love. Some just deserve your love more than others.” As John’s hand swallowed the doorknob as he prepared to open the door to my new life, my eyebrows pulled together.
            “So then how do I know what people deserve my love?” I wasn’t sure if we were still talking about my mom in some loose sense, or if we’d moved on to something else entirely, but this seemed like a powerful enough life lesson to have clarified.
            “That’s easy.” Another smile touched by sadness pulled at his mouth. “They’re the ones who love you back, not the ones who back away from your love.” That was all he offered before pushing open the door and motioning me inside of his home.
            I sucked in a long breath before taking my first timid step inside of Red Mountain Ranch. The lawyer who’d informed me of what my life would be like from here on out had given me a little bit of history on John Armstrong and his relationship to my mother. Apparently, they’d met in college, been the best of friends before quite likely giving the role of lovers a try, and after that had failed and they’d graduated, they’d gone their opposite ways and remained in contact with the occasional letter or phone call until their different lives had cut off all connections.
            John Armstrong came from old money and his family had a rich history in Wyoming. Somewhere in his ancestry line had been one of the founding families of Jackson Hole, and somewhere else had been the family who’d built the very ranch I’d wound up at. He’d married, had three sons, and his wife had died a while back. I didn’t know the particulars or even a few details, but I did know this was a wealthy and influential family and that I was a girl from the inner city who’d grown accustomed to having the water shut-off and having to get creative with whatever was left in the fridge when it was mealtime.
            My mom had considered herself a starving artist, and she was proud of it. She wasn’t a sell out like so many others she’d seen rise to fame, but the cost to not selling out meant not selling very many of her pieces. So we ate canned soup for more dinners than I liked to remember and the second hand store on Fifth and Browne was responsible for keeping clothes on my back and shoes on my feet.
            I wasn’t sure how to act in a home where they apparently had so much money, they could throw tens and twenties to keep the fire burning in their fireplace all winter long and not feel its effect. It wasn’t like there was a manual for young teenage girls whose poor, artist of a mother had just killed herself and she was now being swept off to one of the wealthiest families this side of the Mississippi. I wish.
            John followed me inside of the house, closing the door behind us. When I heard the driver pull away, the sound of crunching gravel growing fainter and fainter, an air of finality settled over me. This was it. There was no going back. I was home. Although it was a home I knew nothing about and next to nothing about the people living within it.
            Not even the names of John’s three sons, or their ages.
            “Welcome to Red Mountain Ranch.” John’s hearty voice filled the vast entry, bouncing off the timbered walls. “I’m sorry if it’s lacking something of a warm, welcoming touch. I’ve found that to make a home inviting, it requires a woman’s touch and my wife’s been dead for long enough now I’m not sure I remember what the scent of her coffee cake smelled like or the way her smile could light up a room all by itself.”
            I wasn’t sure what to make of this giant of a man who talked so openly, but I figured I was safe with issuing an, “I’m sorry.”
            His eyes scanned the entry, almost like he was expecting to find her. “I’m sorry too,” he said after a moment, a sigh immediately following.
            “This is a really nice home you’ve got,” I said conventionally, clueless as to what to do or say next. I felt like a thank you was in order given he’d agreed to accept guardianship of me having never even met me, but I wasn’t quite sure if I was thankful yet. This whole situation made thanksgiving a difficult emotion to conjure up.
            “My great, great grand-daddy built the first establishment a mile off to the north of here. It’s still there, but slowly crumbling away. My great grand-daddy built the big barn you might have seen when you pulled up. And my granddaddy built this place a year before my daddy was born.” John scanned the room again, but instead of seeming to search for his wife, it was like he was seeing shadows and shapes invisible to me. “Every generation of Armstrong has somehow added something to this place.”
            “What are you going to add?” I asked, inspecting the vast room, imaging what was left to be added.
            “I’m not going to add anything. If I had my way, instead of building this place up, I’d burn it down to the ground.” John’s eyes were already dark, like the color of water as the sun set, but they went another shade darker.
            I took another look around. I’d only seen the outside of the house and the entry, but it didn’t seem like the kind of place a person would want to take a match to. The walls were made of round, wide logs, gleaming like a sheet of ice, not dilapidated walls that time, rodents, and un-reined tempers were crumbling. The ceiling was high, the floors were a shade darker than the walls but just as shiny, and the furniture and d├ęcor scattered throughout the room was tastefully done and had the look of things that had been purchased at a hefty price tag. It might not have been my style and there might have been five too many animal heads adorning the walls, but Red Mountain Ranch had its charm. I didn’t understand why anyone would want this place to burn
            “Why would you want to do that?” I asked, verbalizing my thoughts.  
            John didn’t answer me right away. I was almost certain he wasn’t going to answer me at all when he let out a long exhale. “Because this place, and the land surrounding it, is cursed.”
            I waited a moment, then I waited a couple more, hoping he’d expand on his answer. Cursed? Were we talking some voo-doo hoo-doo witch had sacrificed a dove here and made a star using its blood? Or did he mean cursed in the way a person said half-heartedly as a way to explain a sequence of bad luck with no real explanation to pin the blame to? Maybe John meant something else entirely, but whatever his definition of cursed was, I learned one thing—that was all he was going to say about it right then. Well, and I suppose I learned something else. That based on the way he’d said it and how his expression had changed, it became clear that this was the thing he both feared and hated the most in his whole life.
            It might have been the cool temperature lingering in the hallway or it might have been the topic we’d just glazed over, but something caused shivers to cascade down my back, trickling down into my legs.
            “If this place really is—“ One sharp look from John stopped me from repeating the word—“what you say it is . . . then why haven’t you burned it already?” This was the strangest conversation I’d ever had with a stranger, and that I was having it with the person who was my parental figure and guardian by the court’s standards, was either a good thing or a bad thing, but it definitely wasn’t a neutral thing.
            “My sons,” John answered in a simple tone. “I’m getting old and this place belongs to them now more than it does to me. If they decide to burn it, they have my blessing. If they decide to repeat the same mistakes of their ancestors and myself before them, then God have pity on their souls.”
            My mom had always accused me of being more curious than a cat, and if curiosity killed the cat, what was it going to do to me? But I’d shrugged it off and claimed a healthy amount of curiosity could just as easily keep a person alive as it could kill them. So far, I’d proven my point since I was still alive and mostly well.
            “What kind of mistakes?” My curiosity asked as I followed John through the foyer. I didn’t know where we were going or what came next but for some misguided reason, I trusted this man and his unconventional topics of conversation.
            “Speaking of my sons,” John’s voice raised over each word as he leaned his head back, “they all swore to me on their mama’s grave that they’d be here to greet you at seven o’clock on the dot and if they don’t get their asses down here now I’m going to help them find their own graves!” John’s voice filled the foyer, bellowing up the stairs leading to the second floor where I guessed his truant sons were hiding.
            I’d be hiding too if my mom had told me a stranger would be moving in with us and I’d be expected to treat her as just another member of the family. I could hardly expect John’s sons to roll out the welcome mat and chime the bells that I’d arrived when I wouldn’t have done the same for them.
            But that was when I caught a glimpse of someone lumbering down the stairs from the second floor and when he made his way far enough down so that I could see all of him, I realized I would have rolled out the welcome mat, chimed the bells, and thrown a parade if this was the guy who showed up as the new member of the family.
            Years older than me, this guy who I assumed was one of John’s three sons couldn’t be described as hot because any guy with a nice body and face could be described with the same weak word. No, hot didn’t cut it. Not by a fraction. This guy was a god. A god in human form and one that was making my stomach twist into so many knots I doubted it would ever come untangled.
            He was tall and wide like his dad, but unlike the darker features of John, he had dark blond hair that was already starting to lighten from the early summer sun. I couldn’t tell what color his eyes were, but they were far lighter than John’s near obsidian color, and from the way this young man carried himself, I would have guessed he didn’t lack for confidence. When he stopped at the bottom of the steps, his focus shifting from the phone in his hands to me, he gave me a quick once-over before his gaze cut to his father.
            “She’s older than I thought she’d be,” was all he said, giving his attention back to his phone when it chimed.
            “I told you she was thirteen,” John replied.
            “Yeah, but not all thirteen-year-old girls are created equal.” The guy’s gaze flickered to me again, just enough to make my stomach tighten once more, before it flickered back to his phone.
            “Since you seem intent on arguing the definition of a thirteen-year-old, I’ll lead with the introductions.” John shook his head at his son. “Scout, this is my oldest son, Chase. He’s seventeen, thinks the world was created to meet his every whim and wish, and is responsible for breaking so many girls’ hearts, he’s recognized wherever he goes by the locals as well as most of the vacation crowd.”
            “My reputation wasn’t earned by just breaking hearts, if you know what I mean.” Chase arched a brow at me and made a clucking sound with his mouth. I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant, but I could take a few educated guesses.
            John was still shaking his head. “Chase, my first born, the child who was supposed to be the disciplined, over-achiever of the bunch”—I noticed Chase roll his eyes at his phone—“this is Scout. Think of her as your—“
            “Sister,” Chase interrupted with another eye roll as he stuffed his phone into his back pocket. “Yeah, I caught that the first thousand times you drilled it into all of us.” When a car horn blared just outside the door, Chase started moving toward it.
As he passed me, I realized just how much taller he was than I’d first thought. He might have only been an inch taller than John, but he towered over me. Kind of like I was some tiny ant staring up at this great, golden god.
            Chase had just passed me when he broke to a stop. “It’s nice to meet you, Scout. Sorry to greet and run but my social calendar calls.”
            On cue, the doorbell rang and Chase’s smile slid higher. He was at the door and pulling it open before John’s face could turn an impressive shade of pink. “I told you not to make plans tonight, Chase. I told you that tonight I expected us all to have dinner together and make Scout feel welcome.”
            Chase had the door halfway open when he shut it again, jogged back my direction, and before I’d realized he’d wrapped his arms around me and scooped me up into some kind of hug, my feet were back on the ground and Chase’s arms were unwinding. “Do you feel welcome now, Scout?”
            A verbal response wasn’t possible, so I bobbed my head. My body was still all tingly and warm from just having been so close to the divinity known as Chase Armstrong.
            “She feels welcome, Dad. Gotta run.” When he opened the door for the second time, Chase pulled it all the way open. On the other side of it were two girls. Two women. Their smiles matched Chase’s, slanted from what I guessed was expectation or maybe it was anticipation . . . something they were all looking forward to. They weren’t as pretty as Chase was, not by half, but if he wouldn’t have been beside them to compare to, I suppose they would have been what guys considered major hotties. Chase slung an arm around each one of their shoulders, and spun around to face us before leaving. “And just so you know Dad, I didn’t make plans tonight. But plans kind of showed up at my front door.” When the girls started laughing, Chase shrugged, then winked at me before turning their threesome around and heading down the stairs.
            He hadn’t shut the door behind him, so I had a chance to watch him leap into the convertible running outside as one girl climbed behind the steering wheel and the other crawled into the passenger seat. As the convertible sped out of the driveway in a spray of gravel and dust, I sighed. I actually sighed all wistful like. I was going to be living under the same roof as that guy.
            At that moment, life did not suck.
            “I’m sorry about that. Chase is easily distracted. And frequently,” John said, shaking his head at the spot Chase had disappeared from. “As for my other sons . . .” John went to the bottom of the stairs Chase had jogged down a few minutes ago and rested his hand in the large knoll-post that had been carved into the shape of some kind of bird of prey. “Conn! Don’t make me come up there and get you!”
            For John being all gentle and cautious with me, it seemed he was the opposite with his sons. There was nothing gentle or cautious with the way John’s face and posture were as he glared up at the top of that stairs, waiting.
            “We wouldn’t want that, now would we.” An even, smooth voice replied from the shadows in front of me where none of the lamplight glowing in the foyer could reach. Pulled to that dark place, I took a couple of steps forward, but that was when he crept out from his hiding place. With each step he took, more of the light from the room illuminated him. “Don’t get so worked up, Dad. We wouldn’t want you to have another heart attack.”
            He was only a few feet away when he seemed to notice me, but once he did, his attention didn’t wander, not even long enough to blink. His stare was similar to Chase’s in its investigation, but different in that it went farther, not stopping until his gaze felt penetrating and on the verge of unwelcome. This dark stranger was studying me like he couldn’t only see every last dark secret I possessed, but he could sense the ones I was hoping to one day accrue. Secrets like being with a guy like Chase Armstrong just to see if he was as godlike in the bedroom as he was outside of it, or getting high on a beach late at night, and going skinny-dipping all by myself. Sure, these might not have been the deep, dark secrets people shriveled away from, but they were deep and dark for a thirteen-year-old girl who had yet to kiss a guy or have her first drink of alcohol.
            “How long have you been skulking in that dark corner, Conn?” John’s eyes narrowed on his son as he approached.
            “Long enough to see Doe Eyes here get even more so as she watched big brother drive away looking like she wished he was what was being served for dinner.” Conn didn’t stop moving my direction until he was so close I could see the flecks of gold in his dark irises. “And I don’t skulk in the dark, Dad. I thrive there.”
            Conn shared a smile with me then, one that felt more chilling than it did warm, and for some reason, I shared a smile of my own with him.
            Where Chase had been big, blonde, and beefy, Conn was the opposite. He was still taller than me, but only by a couple of inches, and his hair was the same dark chestnut brown I guessed John’s had been before silver took over. His body could be described as lanky and lean, and the dark long-sleeved shirt and pants he was in gave off a sinister type vibe. That, matched with the brooding expression told me this was one of those boys my mom had warned me against. The kind who’d let too much darkness into their lives it suffocated out all of the light—which seemed hypocritical coming from a woman who’d decided to kill herself in her thirties.
            Studying Conn Armstrong, I didn’t need to have heard my mother’s warnings or remembered them to realize this wasn’t the type of guy I wanted to get mixed up with. This was the type of one I needed to avoid, so I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t seem to look away from him and take a step back.
            “Conn, meet Scout. Scout, meet Conn.” John stopped off to the side of us, looking between us like he was waiting to see who would be the first to blink.
            “What kind of a name is Scout?” Conn tipped his head.
            “My mom loved ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” I explained with a shrug.
            “Looks like Harper Lee’s Scout was a total opposite to the Scout you are. Your mom must have been disappointed.” In a different tone, Conn’s words could have been construed as harsh, but that wasn’t how they hit me.
            John took them a different way than I did though. “Don’t start, Conn. You promised you’d behave tonight.”
            “What? All I’m pointing out is that Scout’s here namesake was a strong tomboy. Not a—“
            “Weak little girl?” The words spilled out, boiling over before I’d even realized they were forming. Something about this boy in front of me made me shed that layer of discretion away.
            Conn’s eyes tumbled down me again, a sideways smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Princess. That was more the word I was looking for. Only princesses wear light pink and match their nail polish to their outfit. And their lip-gloss too.” When Conn’s scrutinizing eyes landed on my mouth, not in a hurry to leave, it wasn’t my stomach I felt knotting like I had with Chase, it was my heart.
            “Conn,” John warned, reaching out for his son’s arm but Conn deflected it by stepping aside.
            “My mom named me Scout because she hoped that I’d remember to question everything and try to see the best in all people.” I didn’t know why I felt the need to defend my mom’s choice of name for me, but it seemed important that this boy who was looking at me like he was just waiting for a punch line, knew there was more to me than a name and a pink dress.
            “And do you see the best in all people?” His head tipped deeper.
            I didn’t look away from his intense stare. “Yeah, I do.”
            Something gleamed in his eyes. A challenge? A secret? Who knows? “We’ll see.”
            “Stop being so damn cryptic, Conn. You’re going to scare her.” There was an edge of warning in John’s voice as he stared down at his son.
            I was just about to reply that I didn’t feel scared or anything close to it, when Conn chuckled a couple of low, rolling beats. “How about I’ll stop being so cryptic when you stop telling me who to be and not be?”
            “Can we not do this now?” John said, his face a light shade of red.
            “I’m not the one who started ordering you to stop being so hot-headed and narrow-minded.” Conn’s reply was eerily calm in contrast to his father’s.
            “God damn it, Conn,” John hissed through a rigid jaw.
            “Don’t worry, Dad. I’m damned, all right, but it might take a few more years before I can convince you.” Right then, in the most fleeting of moments, I saw it. I saw what Conn was talking about. The mask slipped back just enough I caught a glimpse of the Conn Armstrong who wasn’t all bravado and show, and that was the image I latched onto. It would be that flash of the sad, scared boy I’d come to regret for years to come, because that might have been the Conn Armstrong who resided beneath the surface, but that wasn’t the man who broke my heart so many times I’d stopped trying to put it back together.
            It was Conn who reminded me that it didn’t really matter who we were deep down inside, because it was the person we were with others who defined us.
            “If Harper Lee’s Scout was a strong tomboy,” I said, trying to slice through the thickening tension, and also trying to figure out what this boy I was so suddenly and inexplicable enamored by thought of me. “What does that make me?”
            Conn lifted a dark brow. “A princess. I thought we already went over this.”
            My arms crossed as I tried not to bristle at him repeating the term. “Strong tomboy. Fill in the adjective—what kind of ‘princess’ am I?”
            Conn rubbed at his chin. He was older than me, though not by much, but he already had a dark shadow of stubble covering his chin and jawline. Watching him rub his hand against it, made me wonder what it would feel like against my cheek.
            When a knowing expression worked into position on Conn’s face, I dumped that pondering from my head. Hopefully, for good.
            “Let’s see. Scout.” He said my name in the same tone he’d used when saying dad. Almost like it was more curse than address. “Other than your mother who killed herself by swallowing a pharmacy worth of pills, you have no other family, but because of some name your mom scribbled down on a piece of paper, we’re stuck with you now and you show up at our front door in a pretty pink dress, and those big, sad eyes of yours in hopes we won’t reject you like your own mother did when she decided death was better than living with you one more day.”
            Beside me, John was issuing a string of warnings, but I didn’t hear them. All I heard were the vile words spilling from the mouth of the boy in front of me. When I tried to take a step back from Conn, I couldn’t. It was like I was stuck being close to him. Not quite close enough to reach out and touch him, but close enough to be affected by his toxicity.
            “I’d say that makes you pathetic,” Conn continued. “One pathetic princess. Be glad your mom isn’t around to see the strong girl she hoped you’d become reduced to the pathetic one you are today. Be glad she isn’t here to see you for the piece of shit you are like I’m glad my mother isn’t around to see in me.”
            His words flowed over me like scalding lava, burning and singing their way deep inside. I could feel tears pushing their way to the surface, but I wouldn’t let them spill. I couldn’t let him see me cry. I wasn’t sure why and maybe letting him see me cry was exactly what he needed to realize what kind of person he was, but either way, I kept my tears to myself.
            “Get out! Now!” John’s booming voice finally cut through, making me want to cover my ears from the volume of it.
            When Conn stayed planted in place, John pointed at the door and lifted his brows in a way that suggested if Conn didn’t move himself, John would move him. Only when John made a move Conn’s direction, did he finally stop looking at me long enough to dodge his dad.
            Where John’s and Chase’s footsteps had echoed through the foyer, Conn’s were silent. He was more specter than man moving through that room.
            I should have kept my back to him and let him go, but something about wanting to prove to him and myself and my mom if she could still see me from wherever she was now, that I was the strong Scout no one seemed to believe I was. “You can’t make me hate you just by spewing a few nasty words, you know.”
            John put his arm around me, probably more to keep me from following Conn through the front door than as a show of support, but when Conn twisted his head over his shoulder, his eyes black, that kept me in place more than John’s strong arm. “No, I can’t make you hate me. You’ll figure out a way to hate me all on your own eventually. Just ask my dad.” Conn’s eyes narrowed on me, but it was clear that look of disdain was intended for the man on my left.
            Conn powered through the door, disappearing into the night, but my eyes stayed on that spot long after he’d gone.
            “I’m sorry about that. I was hoping to spare you from Conn’s . . . disposition, for at least a few days while you got settled in.” John couldn’t keep looking at the spot his son had left, so he turned to face me. “If I would have known he’d be waiting for us, armed and ready to fire every last bullet in his artillery, I would have taken you in through the back door.”
            “Why’s he so angry?” I asked, wondering what happened that could have been so terrible to make Conn the way he was.
            “He hates the world and those in it as much as he’s convinced himself we all hate him.” John’s voice had calmed, to almost sound sad, but his face was still a special shade of red. “I love my son and he has his merits, but my advice to you is to give him as wide of a berth as you can while you’re here.”
            “Why?” When I found myself fretting with the hem of the pink dress Conn had made it a point to insult, I sighed. This morning, it had been my favorite piece of clothing, but after tonight it was going into a garbage can.
            “Because he’s made it a favorite pastime of his to make sure everyone around him is as miserable as he is.” When John’s face darkened, I caught a glimpse of Conn in him. The two had such similar faces I could have been looking at the Conn of the future. “Now, I promised you dinner. After those introductions, you’ve got to have worked up an appetite.”
            Actually, food and my appetite were the farthest things from my mind. Especially after having just met one father and two sons who redefined complex-bordering-on-unhealthy relationships. What kind of a family had my mother farmed me off to?
            “Don’t you have three sons?” I asked softly, peeking up the stairs to see if one more would come hustling down them, wondering what he’d have to say about me being here.
            John’s face softened instantly, the shadows under his eyes lightening. “Yes, I have three. Two you’ve met and one you’ll meet soon.”
            “A third that doesn’t have to fulfill the duties of his social calendar or won’t get thrown out of the house for saying mean things?”
            A deep chuckle came from John, vibrating deep in his chest. “No, no social calendars or general disdain for humanity to worry about when it comes to my middle son.”
            “So he’s the good son,” I guessed. Chase was the playboy, Conn was the black sheep, so the third one had to be the good one of the bunch. That was the only role missing from the line-up.
            “He is.” John nodded, his smile firmly in place.
            “What makes him the good one?”
            John raised a brow at me, likely as surprised at my series of pointed questions as I was. It might have been thanks to the Wyoming air stirring something up from deep inside of me, or it might have been the feeling that this life was a new start for me, a chance to redefine myself and be whoever I wanted. There was no one from my past life to hold me to the person and limitations I’d held myself to. This was a fresh start in every way a person could ever want one.
            John took his time replying, but when he did, I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen a man as proud as he was ashamed. “Because he didn’t turn out anything like me. That’s how I know he’s the good one.”
            John didn’t strike me as a saint, but he didn’t seem like the other kind of man either. I was about to tell him so when someone jogged through the same door two brothers had just escaped from. He looked different than the other two, but there was no denying this was the third brother. The middle. The good one. It seemed appropriate that he was the middle child given he was the bridge between his two other brothers. Not as tall or wide as Chase, but not near as lean and lanky as Conn. Instead of being light or dark, his hair was a warm brownish-red and his eyes went with the same middle-of-the-road theme being brownish-green.
            Other than John, he was the only other one who fulfilled the cowboy image when I learned I’d be living on a ranch. His light colored hat was dotted with flecks of mud, his boots up to the knees of his worn jeans were even muddier.
            His smile, though . . . well, it was wholly different from both of his brothers. It was wide, pulled up as high as a smile could go on either side, and there was no hint of any other emotion lingering within it other than genuineness.
            “I’m so sorry I’m late,” he began, sliding his hat off and taking long strides my direction. As he got closer, I could tell his face had also taken a beating from the mud. When he held out his hand for me to shake, my eyes widened. “And I’m also sorry for being such a mess.” He lowered his dirty hand, wiping it on the leg of his jean. “Do you mind if I take a quick shower and catch up with you at dinner, Dad?”
            “I’d say that sounds like a good idea unless you want to finish the job of convincing Scout we’re the bunch of barbarians your brothers and I have done a good job of assuring her of.”
            He leaned in, like he was going to whisper something in my ear, but kept a safe distance. Probably because he was slicked in mud. “They are a bunch of barbarians, but me, I’m fairly evolved.” With a shrug, he laughed when John shooed him away good-naturedly. John was a different person with this son. It was strange how the dark mood of one son seemed to have a direct effect on him, just as the light mood of this one did the same.
            “Nice to meet you, Scout. I look forward to getting to meet more of you once a little less mud is meeting me.” He waved at his dad and me before jogging for the stairs.
            “What’s your name?” I called after him.
            He was in the middle of kicking off his boots and dropping his hat onto one of the pegs punched into the wall where a few other hats swung from. “Chance. My name’s Chance.”
            “Chance?” I hadn’t realized I’d repeated his name out loud. Conn was a bit different, but I’d gone to school with a guy with the same name, and I’d run into plenty of Chase’s, but Chance? Not a single person.
            “Yeah, you know, like a chance encounter. Or take a chance on me. Or—“
            “Better not chance it?” I threw into the mix.
            Chance laughing, pulling off his socks that had somehow managed to also get muddy. “Yeah, or as in the legendary, notorious, known by every corner of the world . . . Chance Ranger Armstrong.”
            I found myself laughing with him. It was the first time I’d laughed since I’d found my mom’s body on the bathroom floor. “I like your name, Chance.”
            After balling his dirty socks up and burying them inside his dirty boots, he padded barefoot up the stairs. “I like your name too, Scout.”
            “I’m not like Harper Lee’s Scout if that’s why you like my name. You know, just to clear that up.” I was picking at the hem of my dress again, replaying the things Conn had said to me.
            “Good thing I like real life people only about a million times more than I like fictional characters then, Scout, not-Harper-Lee’s-Version.”
            “Are you making fun of me?” I asked as he continued up the stairs. Unlike his two brothers before him, I didn’t feel the need to worship every place his feet had touched the ground. That was a relief. At least I wouldn’t be sharing the same address with three brothers I couldn’t think straight around. Just two.
            “Nope, not making fun, just saying I like your name and that I’m looking forward to being your friend.”

            As it turned out, Chance was the only friend I had that summer, and became my best friend those five years I lived at Red Mountain.