Sneak Peek!

Chapter 1

Clara was looking her best and feeling like a million bucks when she entered the kitchen.

“I like that sweater,” her mother greeted her, hardly glancing up from the newspaper.

“Thanks! It’s my first time wearing it. You think it goes with hunter green pants?”

“Yeah, I do,” Dr. Wilder said, looking again.

“Do I have time to make an iced coffee?”


They kept a carafe of strong brew in the refrigerator for the purpose. Clara filled a travel mug with ice, saying loudly over the noise of the ice dispenser, “I’m kind of surprised he wanted a ride.”

“He didn’t. I had to insist.”

That made more sense. Jesse had never liked to be beholden—an understandable sentiment for a foster child to espouse.

On a whim, she began to fill a second mug for her passenger. She filled both with black coffee and added simple syrup, half-and-half, and a drop of vanilla. 

“All right, see ya,” she said to her mother, shaking both mugs to mix them.

Her mother lowered the paper and looked at her for a moment.

Clara did a 360-degree turn to show off the high-waisted, wide-leg trousers that she’d paired with a little crop top and an oversized cardigan.

A smile tugged at Dr. Wilder’s mouth. “Drive safely,” she merely said, and returned to her reading.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Outside, the Colonel’s truck waited, the attached flatbed trailer behind it a not-so-subtle reminder that she had volunteered to pick up a month’s supply of alfalfa from a farm near Marfa and her father was trusting her with the mission.

She’d also be fetching Dr. Jesse Calhoun, her mother’s protégé, from the small municipal airfield.

Two birds, one polished little stone.

She climbed into the high cab, where she waited for the seat to adjust itself to her inferior height and weight. Her phone connected automatically and soon her driving playlist came over the sound system.

Jesse had been her parents’ first and most successful foster; he had lived with them from the time she was nine until he had left for college when she was twelve, and in those three years her crush on him had not wavered. She had been far beneath his notice, of course, but like Don Quixote, happy to worship from afar. 

She had seen him a few times since then, mostly on holidays and at graduations, but the forty-five-minute drive from the airport today would be the most time they had ever spent alone together and she was not sure what to expect. They had never really had a conversation beyond a dust-up involving his precious comic book collection, when he had told her nine-year-old self that she was entitled and lacked boundaries.

She laughed ruefully at the memory as she merged onto the interstate; rather than being devastated by the criticism, she had basked in his undivided attention and found his absurdly disproportionate wrath adorable. Had it deterred her from entering his room without permission? Not at all.

It was just possible that she had been a total brat.

At the airport, she parked at the curb and went inside to wait. She was immediately hailed by the man behind the counter, and waved a careless hand at him.

But he called to her again, adding, “Long time no see! How’s your brother Hart doing?”

Reluctantly she made her way over. Ryan was only a few years older than her and their mothers were friends. “Well, hey. Hart’s doing great, I think. I never talk to him.”

He laughed. “Still making the big bucks in NYC?”

“No, he’s in Austin now.”

“I just knew Hart would make some kind of big name for himself out there. So, you don’t see much of him, huh?” he asked with sympathy.

“Well, I think he’s coming in for my mom’s birthday in a couple weeks,” she said, and good manners made her ask, “Why don’t you stop by the house and see him?”

His face brightened. “Hey, I might do that. You think he’d like that?”

“Well, sure.” She was used to the Hart worship by now, but she did think it was too bad that no one ever asked after her other two brothers.


Her head whipped around at the voice—a sharp, disapproving bark—and there stood Jesse Calhoun, frowning beneath the bill of a worn out ballcap.

Oh, Lord, he’s beautiful, she thought wildly. Somehow she had not been prepared to see a tall, broad-shouldered man with a flat stomach and a chiseled jawline covered in rough, dark stubble. 

“Ready to go?” he asked impatiently.

Was her mouth hanging open? “Sorry,” she said quickly. “I was having a flashback to the comic book incident.”

He jerked his head toward the door and her feet moved of their own accord.

“Bye,” she said to Ryan, who looked interested but confused by this turn of events.

“Bye! I’ll see you soon, if you’re sure.”

“Of course I’m sure,” she said automatically, waving again as she stepped out into the sun. “Well, that’s us over there.” She indicated the big truck, and saw that Ryan’s brother, Dale, loitered near it. His polo shirt identified him as airport security.

“Why, Miss Clara Wilder,” he drawled. “Should’ve known. Couldn’t think how your dad would park in the red zone.”

“You going to turn me in, Dale?”

“Aw,” he protested, waving away this concern. “Whatcha got the flatbed out for?”


“Thought y’all got hay from your uncle.”

“He didn’t have much surplus this year.”

“Been dry,” Dale agreed readily. “And Pat Delancey had that fire, right at harvest time, too. Tough luck, I say. Wonder how it got started.”

“I haven’t heard anything about it,” Clara admitted, in the interest of saving time.

“Well, sure,” he allowed indulgently, and looked Jesse up and down with undisguised interest. “Who you got with you here?”

“I don’t know if you ever met. Jesse Calhoun, Dale Keplinger.”

“Sure, I remember you now,” Dale said, leaning in for a handshake.

“How’s it going?” Jesse asked brusquely as they shook, and without waiting for a response, opened the rear passenger door and tossed his bag into the truck.

“Well, see you around, Dale. Sorry about the red zone.”

“I won’t tell a soul,” he promised, and she smiled her gratitude.

Inside the truck once more she started the powerful engine and watched with misgiving as her passenger silenced her Spotify with one ruthless jab.

“You must be exhausted. Do you want an iced coffee? I brought an extra.”

“Bad for your gut,” he answered, reclining his seat.

She knew he referred to her intestinal health, but the word grated on her ears. “You know, it’s bad manners to talk about a woman’s gut.”

“I’m a doctor.”

“You aren’t my doctor,” she snapped.

“All right, sorry,” he said, and though she was too busy navigating the exit lane to look at him, she suspected that he was amused by her reaction.

Amusement, even at her expense, was better than surliness.

“Did I yell at you about the comic books?” he asked curiously.

She switched her empty coffee cup for his full one before she replied. “Yeah, kind of.”

“Are you dating Ryan Keplinger?”

She had not been expecting the question, but deflected it deftly. “You want to talk about my love life?”

“No,” he said at once.

“Okay, then.” Boundaries.

He leaned forward and switched the coffee cups back. “Is it black?”

“No, I made it how I like it. You know, just in case.”

“Just in case I’d be a jerk about it,” he filled in.

“Just in case you didn’t want any.”

“Thank you for the coffee.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Sorry I’m cranky.”

She laughed a little. “No problem.”

He took a long drink and then settled back, pulling his hat lower over his eyes. “The Keplingers are losers.”

“They sure aren’t doctors,” she agreed with enthusiasm. And that, she thought, should teach him not to try the big brother act with her.

Jesse sighed slowly, like there was a lot he could say, but he was wise enough to change the subject. “So, what about you, huh? Last I heard, I think you were about to go to beauty school.”

“Hmm, that must’ve been a long time ago. I didn’t end up going.” She turned off the highway onto a dirt road, and clouds of dust rose around the truck as they picked up speed once more. She was surprised when he spoke again.

“Why not?”

She had to think back to what she had said last. “Why didn’t I go to beauty school? I think my dad talked me out of it. I don’t really remember.”

“Never too late.”

She glanced at him in amusement. Was he really giving her a motivational speech? He must think she was a Grade-A loser, living with her parents at her age. “Uh, thanks.” She pulled up between the house and the barn and put the truck in park. “Well, we’re here. This should only take a few minutes. You can wait in the truck if you want.”  

She hopped out before he could say anything else.

“Hey, Mabel,” she greeted the woman on the loading dock. “Please tell me you have our hay.”

Mabel climbed carefully down and crossed the yard to meet Clara at the porch. “It’s here waitin’ for ya. Who’s that you got with ya?”

Clara turned to see Jesse getting out of the truck. “Oh, that’s Jesse. He’s kind of a friend of the family. Jesse Calhoun, this is Mabel Rickles. Jesse lives in Austin.”

“Nice to meet you,” he said, and offered her his hand.

The older woman raised her eyebrows at Clara before taking him up on the handshake. “You two got anything going on?”

“I wish,” Clara retorted. “He’s way out of my league.”

Mabel liked that, and punched Jesse’s arm before telling them to sit tight and going inside the house.

“Still got a mouth on you,” Jesse remarked wryly.

“Fortune favors the bold,” Clara said righteously. It was kind of an unofficial family motto. “You know why she went in there, don’t you?”

“To get someone to load your order?”

“To call her sister and tell her that Clara Wilder’s driving around with some out-of-town hottie.”

“Am I a hottie?” he asked in surprise.

“To Mabel you are,” she said with a grin. “And her sister Sherry’s the postmistress, so word’s gonna spread.”

“How do you know everyone in Marfa? Were you homecoming queen here, too?”

“I don’t know everyone. Ryan and Dale Keplinger are from Wesson. Mabel and her husband are friends of Uncle Jim’s, and besides…they have hay.”

“And Pat Delancey had a fire.”

“Yeah,” she said, her humor fading. “The drought’s been hard on everyone. Bad yields. Lots of fires.”

“How’s Jim holding out?”

“He’s doing pretty good,” she assured him. “He’s always prepared, you know? Wily. And he diversifies, so he can shift his focus if he has to.”

He was watching two men walking towards them from the barn. “All of you Wilders are wily.”

She had to smile at his grim tone. “Does that mean you know why my mom guilt-tripped you into coming out here?”

“I have a pretty good idea. Shut up, now.”

She rolled her eyes at the cautious command, and went down the steps. “Hey, Curtis! How’s it going?”

“Hiya, Clara,” the farmer said.

“Jesse Calhoun, Curtis and Jake Rickles.”

The men exchanged brisk nods and Curtis promised that the flatbed would be loaded with bales in no time flat. Then Mabel came outside and invited them in.

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