Falling Hard by Stacy Finz
This is the summer of Annie Sparks—at least according to her. No more supporting lazy jerks or coddling irresponsible family or taking care of anyone who doesn’t deserve her help. Instead she’s headed to an estate in a remote mountain town, to spend her summer with her boots covered in mud and her hands working the earth. Love is the last thing on her mind.
Nugget is a long way from Logan Jenkins’ old life as a Navy SEAL. But before he starts fresh in the private sector, he receives a bequest from a man he never knew: his biological father. To learn more about his background, Logan makes his way to his late father’s estate, where he is immediately knocked on his heels by an incredible woman with a heart of gold.
Annie’s not looking for a fling, and Logan knows Nugget can’t be forever, so falling in love should be impossible. But when they’re together, time stops, and suddenly the impossible seems like the only thinkable option . . .
Until a week ago, he hadn’t given a good goddamn. Then, boom, life had changed with just one phone call.
He pulled his pickup to the side of the road, slung his backpack over his shoulder, and got out to have a look around. Picturesque and peaceful, nothing like the hellholes he’d come from.
The gate was impressive with its curlicue ironwork, but not much for keeping anyone out. To prove it, Logan hopped the twelve-foot fence, avoiding the top’s sharp, ornamental spears, in under a minute and hiked up the long gravel road. At the peak of the hill he paused and let out a low whistle. Even from a hundred yards away, he could see that the house put the gate to shame. It looked like one of those mega–ski chalets plucked from an Alpine mountainside. Lots of large windows, tiered decks, and big log siding. It was built to appear rustic, though it was anything but. The landscape wasn’t bad either. A river snaked through miles of rolling pastures with the Sierra Nevada mountain range looming in the background.
This is where he would’ve grown up if things had been different. Instead, for the last twelve years he hadn’t belonged anywhere—or everywhere, depending on how he looked at it. His last address—be- sides the apartment he shared with Gabe when he was stateside—had been Afghanistan. A far cry from Rosser Ranch.
No one tried to stop him, so he continued down the driveway, to- ward the house, taking in the sights. A four-car garage with a guest house. A front lawn as big as a soccer field. And lots of flagstone pathways. Someone went to a lot of trouble to make the gardens seem native to match the surrounding countryside.
By now he would’ve expected at least a dog to have barked at his presence. Crappy security. But he suspected there wasn’t much crime in Nugget, California. Just a spot on the map, really. According to a quick search on the internet, its claim to fame was the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, which offered a train ride through gold country. The blurb he’d read said Nugget was still very much a railroad town, now a crew-change site for Union Pacific. Before the railroad, there’d been the Gold Rush. But ultimately, the pioneers had made their fortunes from timber and cattle. Major cattle ranches still covered the countryside.
Logan laughed to himself. Who would’ve thought his ancestors were cowboys? The closest he’d ever gotten to livestock was the Kochis’ goat and sheep herds in the Hindu Kush. Here, he could see plenty of cows dotting the hills in the foreground like a poster advertising rural life on the farm. Pretty domesticated and attractive, he had to admit. Just not for him. He maneuvered better in chaos. Thrived in it, actually.
When he got close to the house, he circled around it to the back- yard. A couple of hammocks swayed under a log cabana. The large, kidney-shaped pool was tempting in the heat. The whole upscale setup was very dude-ranch spa.
So far, he wasn’t feeling his roots. No cosmic connection with the land. All he was feeling was a shitload of money. The old man was supposed to be buried in the family plot on the property. Maybe Logan would check that out and see if he could summon the ghost of the man who’d given him life. Thank him for being a douche bag.
Logan ambled down a well-worn path designated by a split-rail trail fence that jutted off from the pool area toward a stable. Like the house, the building was constructed of logs with two cupolas and a weather vane on top. It was probably where Rosser had kept the thoroughbreds or whatever kind of horses he’d raised.
“You’re late,” a woman called to him. She leaned against the side of the barn, shielding her eyes from the sun, a cowboy hat pulled over her forehead.
“Excuse me?” He walked toward her. Up close, he noticed her com- bat boots right off the bat. They looked funny with the bubblegum-pink tank top and short floral skirt that flared a few inches above her knees.
When he met her eyes—big ones that reminded him of golden brown sugar—she smiled and he went to DEFCON 3 in less than a heartbeat. It was like sunshine, that smile. So damn guileless that it instantly put him on alert. Where he’d come from everyone had an agenda.
“You were supposed to be here thirty minutes ago.” She pushed herself off the wall of the barn and shrugged as if she was willing to overlook his tardiness. “Come on. I’ll show you what needs to be done.”
Out of curiosity he followed her as she took the same path he’d started on through a wooded area. Her gait was brisk. Her legs and arms were toned, like she got plenty of exercise, and her ass . . . well, yeah, that looked toned too. They came up on a large cabin and she stopped.
“Your first task would be to clear this.” She swept her arm across the weeds and brambles strangling the building, which on closer inspection seemed more like a barrack, and eyed him up and down. “You look like you’re up to the challenge.”
Even with his Gatorz on, he could see the trail of freckles running across her nose. “What’s the cabin for?”
“It’s a bunkhouse and we’re going to use it for the program.”
He got the sense that he was expected to know what the program was, so he just nodded.
“There’s another one over there.” She pointed across a clearing at an identical building that had also seen better days. “Once the shrubs and weeds are cleared away, we’ll get to work on the insides.”
He probably should’ve told her he wasn’t the job candidate. But once he did, she’d kick him off the property and he wasn’t done looking around yet.
“After we finish up here, there are a few more cottages and a fore- man’s house we have to ready before the roofer and construction crew comes. If you still need work after that I could use you to help till the fields for the hay planting in the fall. You said you’re experienced operating a tractor, right?”
He’d never driven a tractor in his life, but there couldn’t be much to it. Anyway, he wouldn’t be here for that. His conscience told him to come clean because she’d find out sooner or later that he wasn’t here to clear brush. If she booted him off the land, he’d find another way to explore the place . . . his origins.
“Actually, no,” he said.
She tilted her head in surprise. “Were you trying to win me over on the phone so you could get the job?” Her mouth turned down into a frown. “I’ll be real honest with you: Riding a tractor isn’t required. We just need someone who isn’t afraid to put his back into the work.”
“No, I mean it wasn’t me on the phone.”
“Oh? Did you read the help-wanted ad in the Nugget Tribune?”
He felt compelled to remove a leaf that had gotten stuck in the band of her cowboy hat but kept his hands at his side. “Nope. I was checking the place out.”
“Rosser Ranch? Why?”
This is where it got tricky. He didn’t want to lie—liars were louses—but he wasn’t ready to advertise the truth. Hell, he’d just learned the truth seven days ago and was still trying to wrap his head around the news. The old man hadn’t even owned the ranch when he’d died. So to come here like this . . . well, it would seem strange.
“I was passing through, saw the gate, and got curious.”
“Passing through?” She seemed dubious. “So you’re not looking for work?”
Actually he was, just not this kind of work. He’d gotten out of the navy a couple of weeks ago and had found himself at loose ends, which was strange when for the last twelve years he’d been told where to shit and when to sit.
Gabe, also a former SEAL, wanted to start a private security business. Everything from risk management and cyber security to VIP protection and contract work for Uncle Sam. He wanted Logan to work for him and was trying to scrounge up investors and a few con- tract jobs to keep them busy. Any time now, Logan expected to get a call with an assignment.
“Nah,” he told her, and took off his shades and stuffed them in his shirt pocket. “You having trouble finding someone?”
“The only guy who called from the ad is a no-show. That’s why I thought you were him.”
“Sorry. I should’ve told you from the get-go.”
“That’s okay.” But her shoulders deflated in obvious frustration. “You sure you don’t want the job? It comes with living quarters . . . nothing fancy, but you get to live here.” She spread her arms wide.
“Yeah, it’s quite a place. You own it?” Somehow, he didn’t think so.
“Gosh, no. The owner, Gia Treadwell is great, though. She bought the place less than a year ago, after her financial-advice show got canceled.” She watched him closely, presumably to see if he recognized the name Gia Treadwell.
Logan wasn’t surprised that a celebrity owned it now. It would take that kind of money to maintain a place like this. He remembered seeing Treadwell’s program once or twice and hearing that she’d been embroiled in some sort of legal problems.
“She hired me to plant a Christmas-tree farm,” she continued. “I get to live on the ranch as part of the deal, which includes prepping the place for a residential program to help women down on their luck get back on their feet.” She hesitated and then said, “After . . . uh . . . Gia’s troubles, she wanted to pay it forward.”
Logan swiveled around to peer at the bunkhouses again. “They going to live in these?”
“Yep. And there are cottages for the women who have children.” “Nice.” He wanted to ask her if he could continue to check out the place, maybe wander over to the family cemetery plot, but thought
better of it. “I’m Logan Jenkins, by the way.” She stuck out her hand. “Annie Sparks.”
Annie had a good grip, even though his hands dwarfed hers. And she was so freaking pretty, with those big, soulful eyes and peaches-and-cream skin, that he couldn’t stop looking at her. Everything from her trusting demeanor to her flowered skirt and faded straw hat said sweet. Logan usually avoided the sweet girls; they always cried when he left and it broke his heart.
“Why don’t you show me where I’d get to live if I took the job?” It was an excuse to see more and to throw her a bone after initially misleading her.
“Sure,” Annie said, and perked up. She led him further down the path to a smaller log cabin. Unlike the others, this one had been cleared. The front porch even had a rocking chair and flower boxes underneath green trimmed windows.
She climbed the stairs and opened the front door. “Feel free to check it out.”
He went inside. The place was tiny, just a living room, galley kitchen, eating nook, and sleeping loft. What it lacked in space it made up for in charm, though Logan’s bar was pretty low. He’d been deployed so many times, living in enough CHUs—containerized housing units—that even the moldy, shoebox of an apartment he shared with Gabe in Coronado seemed like a palace.
“It’s adorable, isn’t it?”
“Not bad,” he said. Through the trees he could see wide-open pastures. The view certainly didn’t suck. “Where’s your place?”
“Over the garage. In the fall I’ll be commuting to finish my PhD program at UC Davis.”
“PhD, huh? What in?” “Agricultural economics.”
“Whoa, you must be smart.” Logan was lucky to have a high school diploma. Not that he was dumb, but he’d had trouble sitting through classes. The doctors had told his mom it was ADHD. They were wrong. He could concentrate just fine if it were something he was interested in. He loved to read, picked up languages fairly well— at least enough to be conversational—and was a quick study when it came to people. “So does that make you an economist or a farmer?”
“A farmer. Third generation. I don’t see that changing. I suppose the degree gives me extra credibility and the option to teach. How about you? What brings you to Nugget?”
“Uh . . . I recently got out of the navy, found myself between jobs, and have been doing a little traveling. The town looked interesting.” Most of what he’d said was true.
“I thought you might be military. Were you in the Middle East?” “Afghanistan and Iraq.”
“So you saw combat, huh?”
Logan nodded. “So why’s the place called Rosser Ranch?” He knew damned well why; he was fishing and it was a better topic than war.
“Ray Rosser used to own the ranch. It had been in his family since the Gold Rush. But he sold it to Gia last year to pay his attor- neys’ fees when he was charged with murder after killing a cattle rustler.”
The lawyer had already told him the colorful story, which still seemed bizarre. It was the twenty-first century. Shooting cattle rustlers? Who did shit like that anymore?
“A week ago he had a stroke in prison and died,” Annie said. “His wife and daughter live in Colorado.”
Logan had met them at the attorney’s office in Sacramento for the reading of the will. That had been a hell of a party. Apparently, they’d known as much about him as he’d known about them. That would be a big zilch.
The wife had been okay. He didn’t get the sense that there’d been any love lost between her and Rosser, nor that she’d been surprised he’d been stepping out on her. But the daughter, Raylene, had been a monster bitch. He could understand how finding out that you suddenly had a half-brother would make her resentful.
But he’d gotten the impression that she was mostly mad about the money—that she and her husband weren’t getting all of it. Logan hadn’t asked for any- thing. Hell, he hadn’t even known about his secret family until the old man croaked and would’ve been fine moving through life with- out the knowledge that he and Ray Rosser shared the same DNA. He’d gotten along thirty-one years without it. But his mother had pleaded with him to take his due.
“It’s part of your heritage,” she’d argued.
And if anyone could cajole him into something he didn’t want to do, it was Maisy Jenkins.
She’d raised him single-handedly, which was no easy feat. He’d been a wild boy, prone to getting into fights and hanging with the wrong crowd. Yet, Maisy had always loved and believed in him. Growing up in Vegas, it had never dawned on him that they lived a little too well for Maisy’s paycheck. She worked at a gift shop at the Bellagio and was usually home when he got off of school. Still, they’d owned a modest house in a subdivision, his mother drove a nice car, and they always had plenty of food on the table with money left over for him to buy Little League gear and new clothes. Not rich by a long shot, but comfortable. And that was because Ray Rosser had been footing the bill. In return, his mother had sworn to keep her love child’s paternity secret.
Logan wasn’t angry about it. She did what she had to do. Ray wasn’t about to leave his wife, who’d been pregnant with Raylene when Logan was one. Rosser certainly wasn’t going to publicly acknowledge him. So what was the point of pressing the issue? Maisy took the money and moved to Nevada with a signed declaration that Rosser would at least make room for his illegitimate son in his will.
He’d kept to the bargain.
And Logan was thinking he could use the money to partner with Gabe in the security company. With the cash, they could really build something, even hire a few more operators. But first they needed a couple of assignments under their belt to build a reputation.
In the meantime, Logan planned to learn more about the Rosser side of his family. The only real father figure he’d ever had was Nick, whom his mother married when Logan was a senior in high school. Nick, a former Navy SEAL in charge of security at the Bella- gio, was as good as they came. He’d been the one to make sure Logan walked the straight and narrow and had encouraged him when he enlisted to join Seaman-to-SEAL, a program that guaranteed he’d at least become a candidate because he’d already met many of the physical challenges. No one was prouder of Logan than Nick when he’d made it through six months of BUD/S—basic underwater de- molition. But Nick wasn’t his biological father, even though Logan wished otherwise.
“You want to sit for a second?” Annie asked, and Logan got the distinct impression she was getting ready to do a sales job on him.
“You’re pretty hard up, huh?” He took a seat at the edge of the porch and swung his legs over the side, waiting for her to join him.
“It’s difficult to find reliable people out here.” Annie took the top step, smoothing the back of her skirt as she sat down. “Most of the good ones have already signed up with a ranch or the railroad for per- manent work. We don’t have enough to keep someone on past fall, but I’m on a deadline. The women are due here in September.”
She smelled good, fresh like the outdoors. But it was her breasts straining against the pink tank top that was holding his attention. Those and her combat boots, which were sexy as hell. And . . . shit . . . he’d never found combat boots sexy before.
“What makes you think I’m reliable?” he asked, his gaze moving to her lips. Pretty, lush pink ones.
“Because you were in the military, I guess.”
He grinned because it was the truth. He was damned reliable. “So just the cabins, the cottages, and the foreman’s house?” Logan could probably get them cleared in a few days.
“And I get to live in this one?”
She nodded. “Utilities included, but you have to cover your own food.”
“I can park my truck here?” He figured it was as good a stopping place as any until Gabe called. Meanwhile, he could get a feel for where he came from.
“Where is it now?”
“I parked it near your security gate—which, by the way, sucks.” She laughed. “Why’s that?”
“Because I’m in here, not out there.”
“We’re a little less cautious here in the country, but I’ll pass the word on to the owner. You’ll take the job, then?”
“I’ll hack out all the overgrowth. After that, you’re on your own. Is there a laundromat around here? I don’t have a lot of clothes with me.” He’d only expected to stay a day or two, just long enough to check the place out, since it was only a three-hour drive from the lawyer’s office.
“There’s a washer and dryer in each of the bunkhouses, which you’re welcome to use.”
“I’m guessing the place comes with the furniture, right?” All Logan really cared about was the bed. He could do with not sleeping on the cold, hard ground for a while.
“It does. I’ll see if I can find you some bedding, though.” “I have a sleeping bag in my truck. That’ll do me.”
“Then we’re set.” Annie stood up, and he let his eyes linger over her mile-long legs. “Let’s go back to the barn where you can sign the paperwork. After that I’ll open the gate and you can bring your truck around.”
He suddenly realized he hadn’t thought to ask about the pay. This was a reconnaissance mission, he reminded himself. The job was just an excuse to keep him on the property. Now if he could just focus on the land of his ancestors instead of Annie Sparks’s smoking-hot body, he’d be okay.