“…the story’s suspense and surprising conclusion nicely counterpoint the dual romances.” – Publishers Weekly
Bitter Creek – Book 5
New York Times bestselling author Joan Johnston brings to life an unforgettable love story between two strong-willed people from different worlds in her thrilling new novel featuring the Blackthornes of Bitter Creek, Texas, and their formidable rivals, the Grayhawks of Wyoming.
Juggling single motherhood and her job as deputy sheriff of Teton County, Sarah Barndollar hasn’t lost hope of solving two cold cases of missing young women. When a third vanishes, all hell breaks loose — because she’s the illegitimate daughter of Texas scion Clay Blackthorne and the granddaughter of his mortal enemy King Grayhawk. The crisis pits the two powerful families against each other in a race against time.
Playboy Drew DeWitt, a Blackthorne cousin, insists on taking part in the search — putting him on a collision course with Sarah. Her cop instincts tell her the sexy Texan is trouble. But when evidence emerges of a conspiracy against the U.S. government, Sarah accepts Drew’s high-powered help as she negotiates a shadowy landscape of hidden rivals and ruthless greed where every moment counts in saving lives, including her own.
Sarah was making oatmeal raisin cookies after dinner when she got the call from her sister-in-law that Sarah’s brother Mike was drunk again and had run the tow truck off the road on his way to a job. Theresa couldn’t leave the kids alone and wanted Sarah to please rescue Mike and then go tow some idiot out of the Hoback River.
“The call came in more than an hour ago,” Theresa said. “The guy must be going crazy waiting for his tow.”
“No problem, Theresa,” Sarah said. “I’m leaving now.”
Sarah yelled for her stepson. “Nate, can you come and keep an eye on the cookies in the oven? I’ve got to go do a tow for Uncle Mike.”
“I’m playing Metroid,” Nate shouted back. “I’m about to defeat Mother Brain. Can’t Brooke do it?”
“Brooke is getting Ryan ready for bed.”
“Is Uncle Mike drunk again?”
Sarah headed into the living room, wiping her hands on a dish towel, and got there in time to meet Nate’s eyes as he finished speaking.
“Yes, he is,” she said. “Which should be a lesson to you about the dangers of drinking.”
Nate flushed. He’d been caught the previous Friday night drinking at the Valentine’s Day dance at school and had been suspended for three days. He set down the controller and rose from his seat on the floor facing the TV, heading for the kitchen. “You’ve made your point, Mom,” Nate said. “Endlessly,” he muttered under his breath.
Once upon a time, Sarah would have ruffled her stepson’s hair as he passed by her. But Nate was already six feet tall and still growing. He had her husband Tom’s wiry build and Tom’s warm brown eyes, sandy hair and freckles. She brushed a hand down the sleeve of Nate’s black-and-gold Jackson Broncs sweatshirt instead, wanting the contact, wanting to reassure him that they were going to be all right, despite the hardships of the past fifteen months.
“Thanks, Nate. I appreciate the help. Don’t eat all of them before I get back,” she said with a grin. “Save one for me.”
“Sure, Mom,” he said, shrugging free of her touch.
As she was putting on her coat, her eight-year-old son Ryan came running toward her, his pajama top still unbuttoned. Brooke came stalking in behind him, her hands on her hips — her jeans a few inches below that — and her fifteen-year-old eyes so caked with mascara that it was hard to tell they were hazel behind the black fringe.
“Where you going, Mom?” Ryan asked as he launched himself at her.
Ryan was too big to be picked up, really, but Sarah picked him up anyway. If Tom were still around, he could easily have hefted Ryan’s weight. But Tom was gone.
Sarah knew there was debate in town about whether Tom Barndollar had finally gotten tired of his wife wearing the pants in the family and taken off. In fact, she and Tom had argued the morning he’d disappeared about the long hours Sarah was spending as a Teton County Deputy Sheriff hunting for some missing teenage girl, instead of staying home and taking care of her own family.
Sarah might have believed Tom was mad enough that morning to walk out on her, but she couldn’t believe he would have left without a word to Nate and Brooke, his children by his first wife, and Ryan, who was Sarah and Tom’s son.
Sure they’d argued, but in the past, they’d always worked things out. Only, that long-ago morning Tom had given her an ultimatum. He’d threatened to leave her if she didn’t put her family first.
He’d only threatened to leave. Which meant he was giving her a chance to change her priorities. But when she’d come home that evening, both Tom and his truck had been missing.
That had been fifteen months ago. She hadn’t heard a word from him since.
Sarah knew her husband was dead. Because if Tom Barndollar had been alive, he would have contacted her. Whatever the town of Jackson thought, Tom had loved her. And he would never have walked out on Nate and Brooke and Ryan.
Nate had been seven and Brooke six when Sarah married Tom. She’d been twenty-two and looking for an escape. She’d found it in Tom’s arms. It hadn’t been easy winning her stepchildren’s love. She’d persisted, despite the setback when Ryan had been born, and Nate and Brooke had feared she wouldn’t love them anymore, now that she had a child of her own.
Sarah’s relationship with all three kids had been tenuous lately. A second girl had disappeared from Jackson three months ago, and Sarah was suddenly spending more time at work than ever before. She’d called on Nate to take care of the housework and on Brooke to keep an eye on Ryan.
Neither of them were happy about the additional responsibility. Both of them had heard that final argument between Sarah and Tom. Both of them had recently accused Sarah of reverting to the behavior they believed had caused their father to leave home.
To make matters even worse, Sarah’s husband and her brother Mike had run the tow service together, but since Tom’s disappearance, Mike had had trouble managing on his own. The added pressure had caused him to start drinking again.
Sarah didn’t see that she had any choice but to help out when Theresa asked. Her sister-in-law needed the money too much to send the business elsewhere. And Sarah would rather do the tow herself than let her brother drive drunk. In any event, some reckless cowboy needed his pickup hauled out of the Hoback River.
“I shouldn’t be gone more than a couple of hours,” Sarah said. “Ryan, you can have some cookies and milk before you go to bed.”
Brooke had already dropped into the spot on the floor in front of the couch her brother had occupied and picked up the controller to finish his game of Metroid.
“Is your homework done?” she said to Brooke.
“Why should you care?” Brooke shot back.
Sarah felt her stomach clench at the defiant — and hurtful — response. “I’m still your mother, young lady. I asked you a question.”
When Brooke ignored her, Sarah’s hands balled into frustrated fists. She was at the end of her rope with her stepdaughter, who grew more rebellious by the day. “Well?” she demanded.
“It’s Friday,” Brooke muttered. “I don’t have any.”
“Fine. Help yourself to some cookies when they’re done.”
“I don’t want any of your damned — darned — cookies,” Brooke quickly corrected, eyeing Sarah sideways from beneath straggly brown bangs.
Sarah surveyed Brooke’s thin frame, wondering if the girl was eating enough. A few months after Tom had disappeared, Brooke had stopped eating entirely for a twenty-four-hour period — something no healthy, happy teenager would do.
Sarah had caught Brooke, who was swaying, ready to faint, when they were cleaning out the garage one Saturday morning and confronted her about whether she was ill. Brooke had denied being sick. When Sarah asked when she’d eaten last, Brooke admitted she’d had “a potato chip” at a party the previous evening, but that was all she’d eaten since Thursday supper.
That same afternoon, Sarah had handed her stepdaughter all the books she could find in the Teton County Library on anorexia. Nowadays, she made sure Brooke at least ate dinner — when she was home to make sure Brooke ate.
Lately, that was less and less often.
Sarah released her balled fists and said, “I’d appreciate it if you’d help Ryan read the next chapter in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix before he goes to bed.”
Brooke rolled her eyes. “Fine.”
Sarah knew her stepdaughter loved Ryan, and that she’d likely help him for his own sake, rather than Sarah’s.
“Thanks, Brooke,” she said. “Good night, Ryan,” she called. “Thanks for the help, Nate.”
Then she was out the door.
She drove her Teton County Sheriff’s vehicle, a white Chevy Tahoe, to pick up her brother and returned him to his home above the Teton Valley Garage. She picked up a pair of waders, since she was going to find herself in cold water before the night was out.
As she headed south out of Jackson in the tow truck, she could see how the cowboy’s pickup might have ended up in the river. The roads were icy and fog hindered visibility. She slowed when she neared the mile marker she’d been given and looked for signs of a vehicle off the road. A pair of headlights flashed on in the river, and she pulled to the side of the road, angling the tow truck so its headlights lit the vehicle, and hit her overhead flashing yellow lights.
As she stepped out, the driver rolled down his window. She shouted to him over the rush of water, “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m waiting for a tow.”
“I’m your tow,” she called back, as she began unwinding the cable she would need to pull the pickup out of the river. She stumbled down the hill, sliding in the shale, a flashlight in one hand and the frame hooks attached to the winch cable in the other.
As she headed into the river, the driver’s door opened and the passenger started to get out.
“Stay in your truck until I get you to the edge of the river,” she said.
“You’re going to need help,” he said.
“Stay in your truck,” she said more firmly, flashing the light in his eyes. “You’ll only be in my way.”
Sarah picked her way carefully across the shallow river to the front of the pickup and bent to locate the openings in the frame and attach the mini-J-hooks. She swore when icy water splashed her leather gloves. She finished the job as quickly as she could, then pulled her leather gloves off and substituted a pair of fleece ones she’d brought along.
When she flashed her light at the driver a second time, she realized his head was bleeding. “You’re hurt! Why didn’t you call the paramedics? An accident with injuries needs to be reported to the police.”
He dabbed at his head with a bloody kerchief and said, “It’s just a bump. I’m fine.”
She eyed him dubiously, then said, “I think I can get your truck out of here in one piece. Be sure the brake is off and the transmission is in neutral. You can help by steering till I get you closer to the riverbank. Then you’re going to have to get out. There’s always a chance this rig will tip and roll when it comes out of the water and heads up that incline.”
Sarah climbed up the hill and began winching the pickup toward the edge of the river. The tires bumped over the stones in the river bottom, then came up against some sort of obstacle that held the truck fast. She eased the slack on the cable and headed back down the slope.
“I should have known this wasn’t going to be easy,” she muttered.
When she got to the truck, the driver already had the window down.
“It’s stuck,” he said.
She nodded curtly, then did a quick search with her flashlight to see if she could find the problem. When she checked the right rear tire, she found it hooked on a submerged log. She kicked at the log a couple of times with her booted foot, but it wouldn’t budge.
She came around to the driver’s window and said, “It’s stuck on a log. Try starting it up. Maybe you can back it off.”
“The engine won’t turn over,” the man said. “I’ve already tried it.” He looked down at the water. “Damn. Guess I’m going to get my feet wet after all.”
“I can attach the winch to — ”
Before Sarah could explain how she planned to rearrange the mini-J-hooks, run the cable around a nearby pine and winch the truck backward, the man had stepped down into the frigid river.
He almost fell face-first into the water. Sarah caught him with an arm around his waist and felt him sag against her.
“You are hurt,” she said.
“I’m fine,” he said, straightening. “I was a little dizzy there for a moment. Water’s freezing.”
Sarah lifted his arm around her shoulder, slid her arm more snugly around his waist and said, “Next time the roads are icy and it’s foggy, maybe you’ll take your time around the curves.”
“It wasn’t my fault.”
Sarah sighed. “It never is.”
She couldn’t help noticing how tall he was. She was five feet ten in her bare feet, and he was several inches taller, lean and lithe and muscular, like most cowboys she knew, who spent their days doing physical labor from the back of a horse.
“I’m fine. Really,” he said, straightening and freeing himself from her supporting grasp. “Let’s take a look at that log.”
“I can winch it from — ”
He was already slogging through the frigid water toward the rear of the pickup. “Mmm. I see,” he said as Sarah focused her flashlight on a branch of the log that stuck out above the waterline.
He gave the submerged log a couple of hard kicks with the heel of his boot, and it broke in half. He reached down and yanked the log from under the wheel. “That should do it,” he said.
Sarah caught him as he swayed and almost fell. He tried shrugging her away, but she slid her arm firmly around his waist and said, “All right. You’ve proved you have the muscle. Now let’s see if you have brains enough to let me help you.”
The flashlight was in the hand she was using to support him, with the light aimed up at his face, and she saw a grin flash as he sagged against her.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Whatever you say, ma’am.”
Sarah helped him up the hill and into the cab of the tow truck, where the heater was running full blast. In the light that came on when she opened the door, she saw his face was pale, and his teeth were clenched to keep them from chattering.
“Those boots need to come off,” she said, suiting word to deed. It wasn’t easy getting wet cowboy boots off his feet, but she knew he’d warm up faster that way. She peeled his socks off, revealing feet that were long and narrow and ice cold. She rubbed each of them briskly and realized his Wranglers, wet from the knees down, were dripping ice water onto her hands.
She tugged at his soggy jeans and said, “Those better come off, too.”
He lifted a brow suggestively, then reached under his anorak for his belt buckle and undid it, before unsnapping and unzipping his jeans. He lifted his hips and she pulled on the hems of both legs until they came off. He was wearing some kind of snug black underwear that hit him midthigh.
She handed him a gray wool blanket and said, “Wrap yourself in this. I’ll be back in no time.”
Once back down the hill, she checked to make sure his pickup was still in neutral, that the brake was off, and that the mini-J-hooks were attached properly. Then she headed back to the tow truck to take up the slack.
She took her time getting the truck up the hill, moving back and forth between the pickup and the winch, making sure the wheels were headed in the right direction, so the truck came up clean and easy. Once the pickup was secure for the tow back into town, she removed her waders and stowed them.
Within fifteen minutes she was back in the cab expecting to find the cowboy warmed up. She was troubled to see that his eyes were closed. “Hey, are you all right?”
His eyes blinked open and he scooted upright.
“Sorry to fall asleep like that. I had a late night last night.”
“You shouldn’t be driving when you’re tired. That’s what causes accidents.”
“It wasn’t my — ”
“I know,” she interrupted. “It wasn’t your fault. At least you were wearing your seat belt. You might have been killed, taking a flying leap off the road like that.” She reached over to peer into his eyes, her flashlight angled slightly away to keep from blinding him. His eyes were blue. An astonishing blue. The sort of blue that made you want to keep on looking.
He looked right back at her. And grinned. “Last time a woman looked that intently into my eyes, she — ”
Sarah flushed and backed away, shutting off the flashlight, buckling herself in and putting the tow truck in gear. “Spare me the details. Where do you want me to drop you and your pickup off?”
“You can leave the pickup at the Jackson Hole Garage. I could use a ride to my ranch, if you don’t mind.”
Sarah didn’t usually provide cab service, but it was late and he was wet, half-naked and hurt. He might very well collapse or get frostbite before a cab finally showed up at the garage to take him home.
“Where’s your ranch?” she said, eyeing him curiously. She knew most of the ranchers around town, and she didn’t know this man. The way he’d been dressed, in a plaid wool shirt, worn jeans, and boots, she’d figured him more for a cowhand than an owner. “Is there someone who can take care of you overnight? You shouldn’t be alone. You might have a concussion.”
He cocked another brow at her. “There’s nobody at the main house right now except me.”
“Where is that?” Sarah asked.
Sarah turned to stare at him. “Forgotten Valley is owned by a couple of guys from Texas.”
“Drew DeWitt, at your service, ma’am.”
Sarah frowned. “I didn’t think the owners lived there.”
“I moved back in December.”
“Moved back?” Sarah said skeptically. “I didn’t realize you’d ever — ”
“Moved in,” Drew corrected. “Quit my job in Houston and moved here to…” He paused and said, “That’s another story.”
“I’ve got time. It’s a long ride back to Jackson.”
Drew shrugged. “I needed a change of scenery.”
“You could afford to quit your job?”
He shrugged again. “It was only a job.”
“Your work wasn’t important? What did you do?”
“I was a litigator with DeWitt & Blackthorne.”
“A lawyer? I can see why you wanted to get away,” Sarah said. As a policeman who caught the bad guys, she was leery of the lawyers who got them off. “What is it you plan to do now that you’re here in Jackson?”
“I haven’t decided.”
“I suppose if I’d quit my profession and moved a couple thousand miles away, I’d need more than six weeks to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, too. Just don’t do your thinking on the highway,” she said. “That way you’re more likely to stay among the living long enough to come up with another life plan.”
“I was forced off the road,” he said.
Sarah frowned. “Where’s the other vehicle? Didn’t the driver stop? Do I need to be looking for another reckless driver out there somewhere?”
“It was a friend of mine — and no, I’m not going to tell you who it was,” Drew said. “It was an accident. No one was hurt — ”
“That bump on your head should be looked at by a doctor,” Sarah interrupted.
“I’m not going to a doctor,” Drew said firmly.
“Have you got someone to stay with you overnight, just in case?” Sarah asked. “A girlfriend? A wife? A friend? You shouldn’t be alone.”
“I’m not married. And I don’t have a girlfriend…anymore,” he said bitterly.
“Ah,” Sarah said, eyeing him speculatively. “So you came here to nurse a broken heart.”
He didn’t say anything, which Sarah took as a confirmation of her guess. She figured he must really have loved the woman to have quit his job and moved away when the relationship ended. “She dumped you?” Sarah asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“She dumped you,” Sarah concluded. “What did you do to her?”
“I didn’t do anything. She — Look,” he said, “this is none of your business.”
“It became my business when you let yourself get distracted and drove off the road.”
“I told you — ”
“I know. It wasn’t your fault. A mystery woman drove you off the road. That woman wouldn’t have been the one you broke up with in Houston, would it? You let yourself get distracted by thoughts of her and — ”
“I wasn’t thinking of Grayson Choate. She never crosses my mind. I’m over her,” Drew insisted. “Your job is to drive, not to interrogate me.”
“Well, actually…” Sarah hesitated, then said, “I’m a detective with the sheriff’s office. I only showed up to hook this wreck because…I’m helping someone out.”
From the corner of her eye, she saw Drew slowly run his eyes down her body. She shivered, as though he’d touched her with his hands.
“Well, well, well,” he said. “So you’re the law in Teton County.”
“One of many deputy sheriffs.”
He turned to face her and said, “Are you going to write me a ticket?”
“For what? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
His gaze stayed on her as he said, “Or maybe being in the right place at the right time. I met you, didn’t I?”
Sarah frowned. She hadn’t been flirted with in so long, she wasn’t quite sure Drew DeWitt was actually showing that sort of interest in her. If he was, she had to nip it in the bud. The DeWitts and Blackthornes were rich folks. All he could possibly want from her was a quick roll in the hay.
Sarah sucked in a silent breath at the thought that crossed her mind. Why not? He’s not going to be in town long. The rich folks never stay. And it’s been so long….
Sarah felt guilty for what she was thinking. But it wasn’t possible to have a casual affair with someone local, because the gossip would be devastating. And until she knew for certain that Tom was dead, she wasn’t willing to get emotionally involved with anyone. She missed being kissed and touched and held in a man’s strong arms.
She returned Drew’s gaze as long as she dared, then turned her eyes back onto the road.
The tension in the truck was palpable, like static electricity ready to spark the instant Sarah dared to touch. Drew said nothing, just kept looking at her, caressing her with his eyes.
Sarah was remembering his long, muscular legs and long, narrow feet, and the bulge in his fitted briefs when she’d stripped off his jeans.
She felt a growing tautness in her breasts and belly, as though he were already touching her. She took a hitching breath and let it out, then loosened her iron grip on the steering wheel.
Part of her wanted to take him up on his unspoken offer. She wanted to go to bed with him and have incredible, mindless sex. She needed a man. And he seemed willing.
Sarah pulled up at the Jackson Hole Garage, lowered the pickup and unhitched it. Drew could call the garageman tomorrow with instructions. When she stepped back into the truck, she noticed Drew had pulled on his jeans, which were still soggy below the knee, and his wet socks and boots.
“You look uncomfortable,” she said.
“My place isn’t far from here. They’ll be off soon enough.”
There was enough sexual innuendo in his voice to cut with a knife, but Sarah neither acknowledged nor deflected it. “I think I know the way, but why don’t you go ahead and give me directions.”
Sarah followed Drew’s instructions, heading down Spring Gulch Road, which quickly turned to dirt as she left the main highway. The ranch was located in a valley thirty miles wide and eighty miles long that lay between the east and west Gros Ventre buttes. Forgotten Valley Ranch was bordered beyond the butte on the west by tributaries of the Snake River, which was marked by the growth of aspens and cottonwoods.
It was an idyllic spot, with a one-story, split-pine ranch house that had been added onto for the better part of a century, surrounded by cottonwoods that had been planted by pioneers. It was a working ranch that, even in this modern day, ran black baldies and Herefords and the occasional longhorn steer. Cowhands grew hay in the summer that was baled in rolls to feed stock from a sleigh in the winter.
Sarah pulled up in front of the main house, which was dark. The foreman’s house, which was set across an open yard, was also dark. She looked at her watch. It was shortly after eight o’clock, but the foreman was apparently already in bed. That wasn’t unusual, since his day probably started around 4:30 A.M.
“I appreciate you coming to the rescue,” Drew said.
Which reminded Sarah she hadn’t charged him yet for the tow. “I’ll be sending you a bill.”
“I’d better get inside and get warmed up,” Drew said.
He opened the door and Sarah squinted her eyes against the excruciatingly bright dome light. He hesitated, then pulled the door closed again, leaned over, and touched his mouth to hers in the darkness.
Sarah was too shocked to resist.
His lips were soft. His touch gentle.
Sarah’s throat ached with longing. Her lips pushed back against his and opened to his probing tongue. She gasped at the warm wetness. And drew back with a shudder, staring into his glittering eyes.
“Come inside with me,” he said.
Sarah opened her mouth to explain why that was impossible. She was a married woman. She had to get home to her three kids. She was a Teton County Deputy Sheriff, for heaven’s sake, with a reputation to protect. There was no way she could indulge in sex with a stranger.
What came out was, “Okay.”