Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Wednesday's Words. The Rancher's Romance Chapter One

 Please keep in mind, the first chapter is the one that gets rewritten the most. It's also the most important, because it sells the book. The last chapter is the second most important because it sells the next book. Even though I know how important this chapter is, when I'm writing the first draft, I don't spend a lot of thought over this chapter--or any of the chapters, really--because I know the magic lies in the rewritting stage. And this first chapter gets the most of that secret sauce.

The Rancher's Romance

Chapter One

Brad leaned against the bar, one ankle crossed over the other, surveying the gathering. How typical of the Fleurs to throw a wedding at a barn. Jason was as rich as Hades and Joel’s cosmetic company was an overnight sensation. Either one of them could have thrown a wedding worthy of the society pages and yet, here they were eating pigs in a blanket in a barn to celebrate their mom’s wedding. Ridiculous.

Jason caught his eye and strode his way. Brad tried to tamp down his rivalry toward his younger cousin. Their grandmother had always favored Jason, probably because with his dark Mediterranean coloring coupled with his startling blue eyes, he looked like the West side of the family. Brad, on the other hand, was more the color of dirt—brown eyes, brown hair. And now, thanks to a sad turn of fate, he was on the brink of becoming dirt poor. Jason not only had financial success, but he also had Celia, Mia's sister…Brad cut off his dark thoughts and plastered on a smile.

“You’re brave being here.” Jason pointed his glass at Brad. His tone carried wonderment tinged with a hint of admiration.

“What can I say? Claudette loves me.” Brad strove to sound nonchalant, even though the last few hours had greatly pained him. Watching Mia with that stuffed shirt Darrel Doyle had been like sitting through church with a burr stuck on his butt, an irritation it would have been rude to scratch or inspect. Not that he wanted to reflect on his relationship with Mia. He tried not to think of her, but that endeavor was going about as well as his failing business.

“Celia tells me you refuse to sign the divorce papers.” Jason sipped from a champagne flute and watched Brad over the rim.

“Is that the story Mia’s telling?” Brad pulled away from the bar and headed for a corner table near some stacked hay bales. Mason jars filled with sunflowers sat in a ring of strewn sawdust on each table. He didn’t know if Jason would follow him, or not, and he also didn’t care. He not only didn’t want to think about Mia, he also didn’t want to discuss her.

“Are you saying it’s not true?”

Jason must have followed, because his voice was at Brad’s back—hitting him squarely between the shoulder blades like a well-placed knife.

Brad sat at the table in the shadows. After the Clinton property debacle, Brad had one last scheme on how to save his company and it was not only a long shot but also just one brush away from hair-brained. He needed Jason’s help, but he didn’t want the request to get back to Mia. Just thinking of what she would say if she knew made him cringe.

He shouldn’t care what she thought. But he did.

Jason braced his hands on the back of a chair. “Look, I love you, but I’m also a member of this family—”

Brad cut off the lecture. “Claudette invited me, okay? I wouldn’t have come if she hadn’t. If Mia has an issue with my being here, she should bring it up with her grandmother.” Brad dropped his voice so it was barely audible above the sound of the string quartet playing across the barn floor. The quartet had stuck with classical music before the ceremony, but since then they’d abandoned pretentiousness and had been playing Blue Grass for the last twenty minutes. Brad wasn’t sure how much more he could take.

His gaze slid to Mia and Darrel. They sat on the other side of the barn, but despite the distance between them, the music, the clinking of forks against plates, and dozens of conversations flitting in the air, he could still hear her laughter. It pained him.

Brad straightened his shoulders and gave himself a mental pep talk. He would say what he needed to say and leave. “To be perfectly honest, I probably wouldn’t have come, but I’m worried about Sam. Have you heard from him lately?”

“Sam? No. You know he disappears for weeks on end.”

Brad bit his lip and tapped his fingers on the table. “Talk to me about the Witching Well.”

Jason blinked at the sudden change of subject and settled into a chair across the table from him. “What does that have to do with Sam?”

Brad tapped his fingers on the table. “I was just wondering the well might have something to do with Sam’s disappearances.”

“Oh, maybe.” A worried scowl formed on Jason’s forehead. “I told you what happened to me and Celia.”

Brad sipped his champagne and felt the tingles tickle his nose. His gaze kept slipping to Mia. When she wasn’t glaring at him, she was so beautiful it made him ache. He stared into his drink. “Do you think it could work for me?”


Brad looked up and met his cousin’s concerned frown. “You heard me.”

“No,” Jason said without hesitation. He braced both hands on the table as if to push himself to his feet. “It won’t work for you.”

Brad grabbed Jason’s wrist. “Why do you say that?”

Jason shook him loose. “Because whatever you have planned, it’s a bad idea.”

Brad tried not to sound smug. “You don’t know what I’m planning.”

“I don’t have to. I know you. You’re infamous for your bad decisions.”

Brad dropped his hands. “That’s not fair.”

“You let Mia go.”

Brad let out a long breath. “My plans have nothing to do with Mia, by the way.”

Jason rocked back in his chair. “You’re not planning on going back in time and trying to salvage your marriage?”

“No. I won’t even see Mia. I’ll be far, far away and years before her birth.”

Jason brought the front legs of his chair to the earth, leaned forward, and studied Brad. “Why?”

Brad swirled his champaign flute and watched the bubbles turn into a mini whirlpool. “I’ll tell you if you’ll tell me how it can be done.”

“There are no guarantees, you know.” Jason’s gaze turned to suspicious slits. “What are you up to?”

Brad sipped his drink and swallowed before speaking. “This benefits you just as much it does me.”

Jason cocked his eyebrow but didn’t say a word.

Brad sucked in a deep breath. “Okay. You don’t have to tell me. In fact, please don’t. I’ll find a way to make it happen on my own, and then I won’t share the spoils.”

“Spoils?” Jason asked. “What sort of spoils?”

Brad tapped his fingers on the tablecloth. “The well is around here somewhere…I found it once before, you know.”

“I didn’t know. You never told me.”

“I didn’t tell anyone.”

“Where did you go?”

“The same place I want to go now.”

“What are you planning?” Jason put his hand flat on the table. “You know it can be dangerous, right?”

“How so?” Maybe if he could keep Jason engaged in the conversation, his cousin would slip up and offer a clue.

“You could end up anywhere,” Jason said. “Besides, Celia has a theory that it can only happen to members of the Fleur family.”

“Not all of the theories hold—pun intended—water.”

Brad scratched his chin, thinking. He’d really rather have Jason’s help than attempt this on his own, but, knowing his cousin, he had to spin it the right way. “Do you want in, or not?”

“What are you trying to do?” Jason asked. “I’m only asking because if something happens to you, I don’t want to face Aunt May’s wrath.”

“Mom will be fine.”

“You’re her only child.”

Brad rubbed his hands together. “Which makes it all the sweeter. We have less people who’ll want a cut.”

“A cut of what?”

Brad propped his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “You know Great Grandpa West owned a sheep ranch in the Big Horn Valley.”

“In Wyoming,” Jason said.

Brad nodded. “Today, that land is worth millions.”

“What?” Jason looked as if he couldn’t believe what Brad was telling him.

“Oil fields.” Brad steepled his fingers and tapped them together. “Do you see where I’m going with this?”

“Does this have anything to do with the Clinton property?”

Brad waved his hand as if he could make the Clinton’s disappear. “That’s old news.” Or so he hoped. “I’m going to convince Great, Great Grandpa West to sell that land to me.”

Jason let out a huff of disbelief and shook his head. “This isn’t going to work.”

“Why not?”

“Why would he sell you the land?”

“Why not? I’m going to offer him twice whatever he sold it for back in the thirties.”

“You know, Western Wyoming during the Great Depression wasn’t exactly a party place.”

Brad rubbed his forehead. “I’m not the partier Mia says I am.”

“That may or may not be true,” Jason said, “But never the less—”

“Come on, Jason. Don’t you see? That land could-have-should-have belonged to us.”

“We’re not entitled to anything—” Jason bit back his anger. “Listen, I’m not going to help you because I personally don’t believe in chasing the easy buck.”

“Oh, man. Can you listen to yourself? Can you get any more self-righteous?”

Jason stood and strode away from the table without saying another word.

Brad watched him go, his emotions waffling. Part of him knew he didn’t need Jason’s cooperation or his blessing. He’d find some way to get to 1932 Wyoming with or without his cousin’s help.

A hand fell on his shoulder. He looked up to see Lacey Harmon, one of Celia’s best friends. She gave him a friendly squeeze and offered him a smile. “It’s good to see you, Brad. I miss you seeing you in the studio.”

Before the split, Mia had routinely dragged him into Lacey’s Yoga Go Go. His willingness to follow Mia into the studio was evidence of his love—not for the practice, but for his wife. Not that he minded being surrounded by dozens of nimble yogis—most of them scantily clad females who were, for the most part, as lovely as Lacey—but he preferred to work out on the basketball court or the football field. Not that he hadn’t enjoyed yoga, but he’d gone mostly to be with Mia.

He gazed at Lacey. With her blonde hair, blue eyes, and rosebud lips, she was a pretty little thing, but she reminded him of a piece of dandelion fluff. Wispy, insubstantial, and about as deep as a mud puddle.

She dropped into a chair beside him and pinned him with her gaze. “How are you?” Her focus slid across the room to Mia before returning to him. “Is this hard for you? Seeing your ex with someone else?”

Brad swallowed. He wasn’t about to open himself up to Lacey, and he bit back the urge to tell her to go down-dog herself. “I’m fine.” The words sounded harsher than he’d intended. He softened his tone and tried to practice sincerity. “How are you?”

Lacey flushed and a light in her eyes lit. “I’m good, thanks for asking.” She reached out and fiddled with a piece of sawdust on the table. “I’m thinking of selling my studio.”

Aw. That was it. She wasn’t really interested in him. She just wanted him to list her property. Why did that hurt? He wasn’t interested in Lacey, either, so why would it wound him when she reached out with a business proposition?

Maybe because he wanted someone other than his mother to care about him.

“You know it used to be my grandfather’s cigar shop,” Lacey was saying. “And even after all these years, I can still smell the smoke. Could you come by and tell me what you think I could sell it for? I don’t know anything about real estate.”

“It’s a prime downtown Woodinville location.” He could sell it in a heartbeat, but what about Lacey? “But where would you go?”

Lacey nodded. “I’m thinking of—” She broke off her sentence, stood. “I’m sorry. I have to dash. Can I call you tomorrow?” Before he could answer, she scurried away without a backward glance.

That was weird, but then, Lacey had always been a little off. He stared at her retreating back, puzzled.

Another hand dropped on his shoulder. He twisted to see Mia standing behind him. The late afternoon sun streaming through the barn’s massive doorway backlit her, giving her a halo around her beautiful strawberry blonde hair. Even when she scowled she was beautiful. “Hey,” he said softly.

“Did you sign the papers?” she asked without preamble.

“Yeah,” he lied. “They’re at my place.” That, at least, was true.

Her expression brightened and Brad’s heart twisted. Why was she so eager to end their marriage? To sever what little they had left together?

“I’ll be by tomorrow.”


“What time works for you?”

“I’ll be out in the morning. Will the afternoon work?”

She gave him a rare, beaming smile. “Any time that’s best for you. Thanks, Brad.”

“Anything for you, sweetie,” he said.

Brad had no intention of being anywhere Mia could find him or the papers.


Fireflies flitted through the warm night air. Now, some distance from the barn and the party noises, nature’s songs—the hooting owls, the chirping crickets and clacking cicadas, a breeze ruffling the leaves—could be heard.

Darrel squeezed Mia’s hand. “At one point do I become an adulterer?”

His tone carried a hint of laughter, but Mia also heard his impatience. She turned to face him. He really was a handsome man—tall, lean, angular jaw, straight nose and thin lips—but different from Bradley, who had a more teddy bear appearance. Softy, cuddly, warm brown eyes, thick softly curled hair, full lips. Sighing, she reprimanded herself comparing anyone, let alone Darrel, to Bradley.

Returning Darrel’s squeeze, she said, “He promised to sign the papers.”

Darrel swallowed and Mia watched his Adam’s apple bob up and down. “Do you believe him?”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

Darrel looked at something over her shoulder before saying, “I don’t blame the guy. If you were my wife, I wouldn’t want to let you go, either.”

Mia’s heart stuttered. She wasn’t ready to be anyone’s wife. Again. Maybe that had been the problem all along. This straddling act she’d been struggling to perform—half-married, half-single—wasn’t fair to anyone. Herself included.

The clouds shifted and the moonlight disappeared. The breeze turned cold, making Mia shiver. “I’ll call you as soon as pick up the papers.” It was more of a promise to herself than to Darrel.

Reaching up, she touched his cheek. He was a nice man. A solid man. A police detective who routinely saw people behaving their worst and yet still believed most people were kind and good. She owed him honesty. “Darrel, even after the divorce, I’ll still need time.”

He captured her hand, turned it over in his, and lifted it to his lips. His kiss was warm, sweet. Her heart melted towards him. Why couldn’t she love him? He was a good person. Honest. Stable.

“I’ll meet you for dinner.” Darrel lowered his forehead to meet hers. “We can celebrate.”

But Mia didn’t know if she’d be in a celebratory mood. Plus, she didn’t like the feel of his breath on her face.


Mia pulled up in front of the townhome on Arrington Heights Road. The daisies she’d planted three years ago still thrived. The grass—maintained by the homeowner’s association—sprouted sharp, pointy, and green. Only the dingy windows spoke of sadness and neglect.

Not my problem, Mia told herself. She rapped on the door that had once been hers.

Silence answered.

Mia debated for a moment before trying the doorknob. After all, could it really be called breaking and entering if her name was on the deed? Even if Bradly had been the one making the mortgage payments for the last three years? How would they divide the equity if Bradly ever decided to sell? What would be fair?

I don’t need to think about that right now.

But, if Mia was being honest with herself, something she wasn’t really very good at, she’d have to admit this I’ll deal with this tomorrow attitude was what had landed her in this position--married and separated for the past three years.

Enough is enough!

She pounded on the door so hard her knuckles hurt.

A dog barked. Mia turned to see Lacey, clad in her yoga uniform and carrying a gym bag standing across the lawn beside a mammoth dog.

The creature bounded toward Mia. Lacey tripped after her pet. “Mia! Hi!”

“Hi, Lacey.” Mia stooped to pet the dog. “Who’s this?”

“Harry. Like Harry Potter?”

“He’s so huge. Maybe you should have named him Hagrid.”

Lacey shrugged. “I like Harry, because it’s also like hairy, a double-entendre. Are you looking for Brad?”

Mia nodded.

“I don’t think he’s home. His car isn’t in his parking space.”

How did Lacey know which spot belonged to Bradley? An uncomfortable twitch made its way down Mia’s spine. And what was Lacey doing here? Shouldn’t she be at her studio by now?

“I teach a class at the rec center.” Lacey pointed her chin at the community room. “You should join us some time. It’s free, you know. Included in your HOA membership.”

“I didn’t know.”

Lacey shifted the bag on her shoulder. “I just picked up the gig a few weeks ago.”

Mia rocked her weight from one foot to the other. Going to the studio had been something she’d done with Bradley. Without him huffing and twisting and making witty comments beside her, yoga had lost its appeal and so she’d let her membership lapse. But, of course, she couldn’t say this to Lacey. Or to anyone, really. She even hated admitting it to herself.

“I’ll do that sometime. Thanks.” Was it ethical to take advantage of the HOA programs if she wasn’t paying the mortgage? My name is on the deed. But maybe she needed to rectify that. Ask Bradley to buy her out.

The thought gave her an ache in her gut.

“Does Harry attend your classes?” Mia stooped to ruffle the dog’s ears.

“He does. He’s my mascot. People love him, and I do, too. Most of the time.” A scowl flitted across Lacey’s face so quickly, Mia wondered if she’d imagined it. Lacey nodded at Brad’s townhome. “He left the front window open. You should tell him not to do that.”

Mia noted the half-opened window and the blinds clicking in the breeze.

“I better get going,” Lacey said with what sounded like genuine disappointment. “I don’t want my practitioners to realize they don’t need an instructor, or a mascot.”

Mia watched Lacey go before coming to a decision. Maybe Bradley had signed the papers and they were just on the other side of the door. She could crawl through the window, but why not try the back entrance? Bracing her shoulders, Mia strode around the building to the side gate and let herself into the small courtyard. Here where the groundskeepers weren’t invited, the true state of Bradley’s care—or lack thereof—was more obvious. Shoots of grass sprang through cracks in the patio’s cement. Weeds as tall as her knees filled the flower beds. The gardening tools piled beside the backdoor had spiderwebs threading the trowels. They looked like they hadn’t been used in the three years since she’d left them there. Mia nudged them with her toe and discovered her old green gloves—now black with mildew—lying beneath a soggy box of fertilizer.

Somehow, the sight of the ruined gloves made her both impossibly angry and sad. Mia marched to the glass sliding door and yanked on the handle. To her surprise, it squeaked open.

Mia hesitated for only a moment before entering the tiny kitchen. The curtains she’d sewn still hung above the sink, but the herbs she’d grown in an army of little pots on the window sill had long since shriveled to brown dry sticks.

“Good thing we didn’t have any kids,” Mia said to the empty room. Despite the dirty windows, dead plants, and dust gathering in the corners, the kitchen wasn’t in total disrepair. Dishes didn’t fill the sink. The trash can had a clean liner.

She had thought maybe she’d find the divorce papers lying on the kitchen table or counters, but the only thing on the table was an empty water bottle and an advertisement for a local gym. So, Bradley wasn’t going to the yoga studio anymore either. This made her feel better, although she couldn’t say why.

Mia marched into the living room. Her heart sped when she spied a pile of papers on the coffee table. She plunked herself on the sofa and picked them up. Not divorce papers. She scanned the first page.

A study conducted by the University of Connecticut links the hysterical symptoms of the young women that had spurred the Salem witch trials to the consumption of ergot-tainted rye—the same alkaloids that are used in LSD, but local legends claim the Witching Well has the ability to transport drinkers through time.

Mia’s heart sped, and she pressed the papers to her chest and closed her eyes. What was Bradley planning? Did he think he could disappear into the time realms?

If anyone should believe in the mysterious Witching Well, it was Mia. Her mother, her grandmother, her sister, brother, brother-in-law, her sister’s best friend—all these people who she loved and trusted had drank from the Witching Well and had life-changing experiences. Mia had more than once been tempted to try it herself—but Bradley? She couldn’t see him ever doing it.

A paper fell to the floor and landed near Mia’s feet. It looked like a copy from a page of a newspaper. Wyoming Black Gold Rush! The headline read.

Wyoming? Bradley had relatives from Wyoming. Sheep ranchers. They’d attended her wedding wearing cowboy boots, giant silver belt buckles, and ten gallon hats. Mia picked up the paper and read.

Oil found outside of Sweet Berry Ridge has turned local sheep rancher Edwin Shaw into an instant millionaire.

Edwin Shaw?

Bradley’s relatives were named Wests and Bairds. No Shaws that Mia knew of. She rifled through the papers. Some were maps. Others were pedigree charts. With some care, as if they might explode upon impact, Mia returned the papers to the table. She sat and contemplated her next move before bouncing to her feet and heading down the hall.

The bedroom stirred a lot of unwanted memories. Her gaze skittered past the bed, not wanting to revisit happier times when she hadn’t slept alone. Mia ignored the growing hollowness in her belly and went to the closet. She half expected to find a packed suitcase filled with cowboy boots and plaid button-down shirts somewhere, but the suitcases and carry-on bags were lined up on the top shelf. Mia sighed in relief and sat on the bed.

What was she doing? Other than invading Bradley’s privacy? How would she feel if he came into her room and began poking around? Of course, if he tried to do that, he’d have to face Grammy. She’d give him a talking-to. Or feed him pie. Probably both. Mia stood, but as she did, the Bible lying on the nightstand fell to the floor. A photo fluttered to the floor and landed facedown. The Bible fell open. Stooping, Mia froze half-bent.

What would Lacey and other yogis call this? Forward fold.

The Bible had fallen open at one of Grammy’s favorite passages. Proverbs 31. The virtuous woman.@

This meant nothing. Mia scooped up the Bible, closed it, and returned it to the nightstand. Then she picked up the photograph and turned it over. It was a picture of herself riding Bradley piggy back, her legs poking through his looped arms, her long hair blowing in the wind, both of them smiling as if laughing at a joke.

Why did he have this picture of her in his Bible? She knew he read his scriptures every morning before he got out of bed and every evening before retiring. She had found it endearing, at first. After their argument—the one they had right before she left—she found it hypocritical. How could someone so devout be such a liar? And so mean?

He was the one who had lied. Not her. He was the one who owed her an apology. If he wasn’t going to apologize, he should just get on with his life. Without her. And Mia was going to tell him so. Her fingers curled around the photo. She thought about crumpling it, or burning it, or tearing it to shreds. Instead, she tucked it in her pocket.

The Rancher's Romance is available for pre-order on Amazon.

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