The Rockwell Legacy (Books 1-3) - Jennifer Bernard - E-Book

The Rockwell Legacy (Books 1-3) E-Book

Jennifer Bernard

6,49 €


Every family has its secrets. Some more than others.

“I was certain my Kindle was going to melt!  A really great series that I would highly recommend.” 5 Stars

A remote mountain lodge. A family legacy at risk. Settle in for steamy romance and suspense deep in the Cascades mountains in Books 1-3 of the Rockwell series.


The Rebel


Only one thing could bring rescue paramedic Kai Rockwell home to Rocky Peak Lodge—a threat to his family. He knows his father’s new nurse aide Nicole Davidson is hiding something, but their crazy chemistry makes it hard to see straight. Equally determined, equally passionate about protecting their families, the two don’t know if they should be enemies or lovers. Yet they can’t resist each other…no matter the price.


The Rogue


Griffin Rockwell has returned to Rocky Peak Lodge with a secret. Locals still consider him a hero, but these days the best he can do is play bodyguard to the fascinating new waitress at his brother’s pub. But Serena Riggs has a secret of her own; she’s investigating the disappearance of her father. When another threat surfaces, the only place she feels safe is in Griffin’s arms…and in his bed. 


The Renegade


Battling a takeover, billionaire Lyle Guero has been asked by his board of directors to lay low. What better place than Rocky Peak Lodge, his latest silent investment and home to Isabelle Rockwell? The beautiful trauma surgeon has haunted his thoughts ever since an unforgettable airport encounter; now he has a second chance at the one thing his billions can’t buy.

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Seitenzahl: 1112






The Rebel

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31


The Rogue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34


The Renegade

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33


About the Author

Also by Jennifer Bernard


Every family has its secrets. Some more than others.

“I was certain my Kindle was going to melt!  A really great series that I would highly recommend.” 5 Stars

A remote mountain lodge. A family legacy at risk. Settle in for steamy romance and suspense deep in the Cascade mountains in Books 1-3 of the Rockwell series.

The Rebel

Only one thing could bring rescue paramedic Kai Rockwell home to Rocky Peak Lodge—a threat to his family. He knows his father’s new nurse aide Nicole Davidson is hiding something, but their crazy chemistry makes it hard to see straight. Equally determined, equally passionate about protecting their families, the two don’t know if they should be enemies or lovers. Yet they can’t resist each other…no matter the price.

The Rogue

Griffin Rockwell has returned to Rocky Peak Lodge with a secret. Locals still consider him a hero, but these days the best he can do is play bodyguard to the fascinating new waitress at his brother’s pub. But Serena Riggs has a secret of her own; she’s investigating the disappearance of her father. When another threat surfaces, the only place she feels safe is in Griffin’s arms…and in his bed. 

The Renegade

Battling a takeover, billionaire Lyle Guero has been asked by his board of directors to lay low. What better place than Rocky Peak Lodge, his latest silent investment and home to Isabelle Rockwell? The beautiful trauma surgeon has haunted his thoughts ever since an unforgettable airport encounter; now he has a second chance at the one thing his billions can’t buy.


When it came to battles and standoffs and confrontations of all kinds, Kai Rockwell was a pro. Blowouts with his dad happened all the time, but not like this one. He still felt the fury streaking through his system like lightning, practically crackling out of his fingertips.

He was so out of here. Done. No more.

Barely seeing what he was doing, he stuffed random items of clothing into his duffel bag. He’d grab the essentials, the cash he’d been saving, his ID, his iPod, and he’d hit the road. In four months he’d be eighteen, a legal adult. Why wait?

He wasn’t sure which had come first during their fight—Dad kicking him out or him yelling that he was leaving. Maybe it had all happened in the same moment because on one thing, they completely agreed. Kai and Mad Max Rockwell could no longer live in the same house. No matter how big it was.

He’d be fine on his own. He passed for twenty-one all the time; just ask the bartenders in the towns outside of Rocky Peak. Everyone here knew him as one of the Rockwells of Rocky Peak Lodge, but outside this dot on the map, he rarely even got carded. He’d get a job, maybe travel around. He had friends outside of the Cascades—guys who came to work at the lodge during ski season. He could couch surf while he figured out what he wanted to do.

This was going to be awesome. No more getting reamed by Dad over every little thing. No more shouting matches freaking out everyone within a half-mile radius.

”Kai? What’s going on?”

And…no more brothers and sisters.

His throat closed up tight. He zipped up the duffel and swung around to see all four of his siblings standing in the doorway of his bedroom.

Shit. Fury at his father was one thing. But he and his siblings had stuck together like lost puppies in a storm during the past year and a half. Leaving them—he might as well rip his heart out and feed it to Gracie’s pet gerbil.

“Are you going camping?” Gracie, the youngest, stuck her thumb in her mouth, which meant she was stressed. Her other hand tugged at her curls—which she did when she was really stressed. For some reason she was wearing swimming goggles propped on her head, even though it was still ski season.

“No, sweetheart. Not this time.”

He couldn’t quite break it to her that Dad had kicked him out. Or that he’d kicked himself out. Or both.

“You’re leaving,” said Isabelle accusingly. “Abandoning us.”

Trust Izzy to cut right to the heart of things. And to exaggerate. She was both a truth teller and a drama queen, and he could never figure out how she pulled off that combo.

“Lighten up, Izz. It’s either me or Dad, and he’s kind of got a family to raise here. You don’t want me making your salami sandwiches. There was that whole moldy mustard incident, remember?” Using humor to get through crap was a signature Rockwell trait.

But it didn’t work on Isabelle. She just folded her arms and glared at him with those emerald eyes of hers. All the Rockwells had some version of green eyes, ranging from hazel-brown to deep smoky heather, in the case of Jake. But Izzy’s were the only pure green.

“Come on, I’d be leaving soon anyway, I’m just a little ahead of schedule.”

Jake, Isabelle’s twin, looked to be fighting back tears. He’d always been the more soft-hearted of the twins. The kind one, while Isabelle was the fierce one. “Come on, Kai. You can work it out, like always. You know how Dad is. He stomps around and swears, kind of like a bull, but it doesn’t last.”

“If he’s the bull, then I’m the black fly on the bull’s as—butt.”

Kai shifted course just in time. Gracie had a way of picking up on things, like a little satellite dish. Tomorrow she might be prancing around telling everyone about bull’s asses.

“I’m done trying to work it out. Last time we tried I thought he’d pop a blood vessel, or my eardrums would burst with all his yelling. Don’t you guys want some peace and quiet around here?”

“But why can’t you just…not fight with him?” Griffin, the next in line after Kai, still wore his outdoor workout gear, black polar fleece with reflective strips. He lived for adrenaline. Nothing else seemed to matter much to him. “Do what I do. Run or ski or do pushups until your arms fall off.”

Kai shrugged. “Doesn’t work for me. I just get angrier. It’s just the way I am.”

“Natural-born rebel, that’s what Mom always used to say,” said Isabelle.

His throat tightened again at the mention of their mother. If he left Rocky Peak, maybe he wouldn’t see her everywhere he looked. Maybe he’d no longer think about those last moments with her in the car.

Looking away from his siblings, his glance landed on a framed photo of the five of them posing in front of Rocky Peak Lodge, with the spectacular Cascades outlined behind them. Every Christmas, Dad brought in a photographer to take a new picture for the next year’s brochure.

“You kids are the best advertising I’ve got,” he’d always say. “God, I made some good-looking kids. Smile, baby Rockwells. Smile big.”

Kai’s smile, in the latest photo, was more of a bloody-murder glare.

He grabbed the photo, frame and all, and stuck it in his messenger bag. His expression would remind him of why he’d left, in case he got homesick.

“Where are you going to go?” asked Griffin, almost casually, as if it didn’t matter much to him. Kai didn’t buy that for a second. He and Griff were tight, and his leaving was going to hurt Griff the most. If it was the other way around, Kai would feel the same way. But he wouldn’t stop him. A guy had to do what a guy had to do.

“Somewhere warm, for now. Those snow shovels can kiss my as—butt.”

“What’s an as-butt?” asked Gracie through her thumb. “You keep saying as-butt.”

Jake snorted and bent down to snuggle with Gracie. He was her favorite. “Don’t listen to him. He’s clearly lost his mind. Who doesn’t love shoveling snow?”

“What about college?” Isabelle asked. “What about taking over the lodge when Dad gets too old?”

“Yeah, that is never happening. No way in hell am I ever doing that. This place can die in an avalanche for all I care.” His heart twisted at his own words. Leaving Rocky Peak Lodge—creaky, quirky, historic, beloved—was like cutting off a body part. He couldn’t feel it, he had to just do it.

“I’ll be fine. I don’t want you guys to worry.”

“And Dad?” Griffin’s jaw worked. He and Kai were different in so many ways. Kai was more fiery on the surface, while Griff kept his emotions banked deep inside. “What do we tell him?”

Tell Dad—” He broke off, unable to finish the sentence. He didn’t know what to say to his father. All he knew was he had to get out. “Tell him I’m sorry, I guess,” he finally said.

He was sorry for a lot of things. For the accident. For his out-of-control emotions. For his rebel-ness.

“Yeah, well, he’s never going to believe that.” Isabelle’s flat statement broke the tension of the moment, and they all laughed.

Kai looked around at his siblings, memorizing their faces. The Rockwell kids were a pack of goofy, stubborn, fun, crazy survivors. God, he was going to miss them.

Impulsively, he gathered them all into a kind of group hug. Gracie clung to his legs. Isabelle was sniffing back tears. Jake got very quiet and Griffin squeezed Kai’s shoulder. For a moment they all stood like that, like pieces of a kaleidoscope about to be scattered into a new pattern.

“We’ll be together soon,” he assured them—or maybe himself. “And if any of you ever need anything, you know I’ll be back in a flash, no matter what Dad says.”

“Don’t worry about us,” Griffin said. He sounded more mature than he had even a minute ago. As if he were already assuming the role of oldest and most responsible.

“And don’t you guys worry about me. I saw this coming a long time ago. I got this.”

Kai stepped back from the circle of his siblings. Gracie was sniffling, on the verge of bursting into tears. Her goggles had gotten knocked askew by the hug, so he straightened them.

“Come on, don’t be sad, guys. We’re Rockwells. What do we do when everything sucks?”

“I’m gonna go with punch someone,” said Isabelle, going for sassy. “Preferably you, Kai, but I guess I’ll have to find a replacement.”

“Don’t look at me,” Jake told her. “Remember our twin armistice agreement?”

“Yeah, we might have to renegotiate that one.”

“What’s renegoshate?” asked Gracie. Griffin grinned and picked her up so she sat in the crook of his arm. Gracie had always been small for her age.

“It means lots of twin arguments,” he told her. “You know how long those last. Long enough for the two of us to get an ice cream cone, or five.”

Gracie clapped her hands at the mention of her favorite thing in the world.

At the sight of her delighted pixie face, Kai fisted his hands to hold back the pain. Taking Gracie to the lodge’s restaurant for a double scoop of Rocky Peak Nugget was his favorite thing.

When would he get the chance to do that again?

This would have been so much easier if his siblings hadn’t nabbed him before he slipped out of the lodge. Goodbyes sucked.

“Gotta hit the road,” he told them in a breezy tone. “This family meeting is officially adjourned. And since none of you got the right answer, I’ll say it myself. When life sucks, Rockwells laugh their as—” He broke off with a glance at Gracie. ”We laugh our as-butts off. Don’t forget it.”

They all stared at him, reality sinking in. Not a single hint of laughter to be heard.

So he had to dig deep. Slinging the duffel over his shoulder, he duck-walked toward the door. He made it as goofy and ridiculous as possible.

Gracie giggled, then Isabelle. A half smile tugged at Griffin’s mouth, while Jake chuckled. Kai ducked around the doorjamb, then poked his head back to make a face at his brothers and sisters. They were all smiling now, and Isabelle broke out in another giggle. She’d get them all laughing soon. Jake would help, because the two of them always backed each other up. Griffin would step into the big brother part, in his own distracted way. And Gracie —don’t think about Gracie. Don’t think about how much I’m going to miss my baby sister.

He’d made his choice, and he wasn’t going to change his mind now. He had to leave Rocky Peak. Had to leave the lodge, these mountains, the only home he’d ever known. Most of all, he had to get the hell away from his father before someone got hurt.

He’d just have to paper over the hole he was ripping in his heart. Follow the Rockwell family motto, the one passed down through generations just like the lodge. The one that he and his siblings lived by. Laugh your ass off, so you don’t cry.


Fifteen years later

Two days of trudging across the Chugach backcountry in a downpour had put Kai in a lousy mood. Now, finally, by some miracle, he’d stumbled across the two teenage girls who’d gotten separated from their outdoor education group. The girls he’d been searching for with barely a break.

Chelsea and Heather, both sixteen, city girls on their own in the Alaska wilderness. They were huddled together in the shelter of a fallen spruce, staring at him with big eyes.

“I’m Kai, I’m here to rescue you,” he said, absurdly, to his mind. Why else would he have trekked through alders and across glacial creeks? The two girls clung even closer together, as if he was Yeti come to life.

Oh, right. He touched his jaw and the two-day growth of beard there. He probably looked like a crazed mountain man. Even though he was sore and wet and exhausted, he forced a smile onto his face.

“Look, I’m Kai Rockwell, I’m a mountain guide and paramedic working with a local rescue team. Are you Heather and Chelsea? Are either of you injured?”

Finally the girls relaxed their guard. They scrambled to their feet and exchanged a high-five with each other. “A-plus survival skills,” said the one who must be Chelsea. who’d been described to Kai as Asian-American.

Kai dug out his handheld radio and spoke into it. “Victims located. Both appear to be in good condition.”

The crew leader answered in a crackle of static. “Good work, Rockwell. Can they hike out or should we send the bird?”

He glanced around at the terrain. No obvious place to land a helicopter. “You girls okay to hike a bit?” he asked them.

The other girl, Heather, groaned. “Seriously, we have to walk some more?”

“If you complain about your blisters again, I’m going to scream.” Chelsea turned to Kai. “Yes, we can hike. Just get us out of this pinecone hellhole.”

At least they were acting like normal teens now. No big damage done during two nights in the wilderness. He had to give them credit for that.

“No on the chopper,” Kai told the coordinator. “We’ll be back to base in an hour, tops.” He switched off the radio and spoke to the girls again. “Do you two still have water? Are you hungry?”

“We rationed our water and our trail mix,” said Chelsea proudly.

“One M&M an hour is not rationing, it’s torture.” Heather made a face at her friend.

Fighting a laugh, Kai grabbed their packs and added them to his load, which was already heavy with first aid and rescue gear.

These girls reminded him of the twins. They used to bicker like that. It used to drive him nuts, until Max kicked him out. Then he missed it.

“You both did good. Two days lost in the mountains can be pretty scary.”

“Thanks, Hottie Mountain Guide.”

He snorted. Apparently they’d gotten used to the beard. He led the way down the path he’d bushwhacked. The girls had managed to go in circles, so they weren’t actually very far from base. He could set a nice slow pace and they’d still get back before dark.

His cell phone buzzed, surprising him. Generally he had no service in these mountains, but occasionally a signal slipped through a line of sight in the terrain.

“Wait. You have cell service?” Chelsea gasped.

Kai dug out his phone from his pack. The text was from his brother Griffin.

What’s going on with Dad? I got a weird call from Jake, something about some chick changing things up at the lodge. Know anything?

He frowned. Did he even care what happened at the lodge? It wasn’t part of his life anymore. All his brothers and sisters had scattered in different directions. He hadn’t been back to Rocky Peak since the age of seventeen. He texted back. Nope. I’d be the last to know. What’s up?

“Can we call our parents?” Heather asked.

“Of course. But don’t worry, the crew’s in touch with them. By now they know you’re safe.” He handed over his phone. She dialed, but the call didn’t go through. Her lip quivered as if she might burst into tears. “Try texting. There may not be enough service for a call.”

But before she could tap out a text, the phone buzzed again. She handed it back to him.

This text was from Jake. Jake owned a pub in the town of Rocky Peak, close enough to the lodge to keep an eye on things.

Sounding the alarm here. Dad’s acting strange. Not sure what’s up. Maybe it’s because of his new nurse.

NEW NURSE? He fired back. Who? Why?

Heart disease. Nicole Davidson. She’s a nurse aide. Didn’t you get his email?

Yes, he’d gotten Max’s email but he must have minimized the danger. He hadn’t mentioned anything about hiring a nurse. What does she have to do with the lodge?

He likes her ideas. Spa treatments, retreats, stuff like that. Talks like he’s ready to dump the place on someone else.

Wow. Max Rockwell had devoted his entire life to the lodge. Not once had he mentioned turning it into a spa. And “dump” it? That sounded so unlike him.

What’s the nurse like?

Young. Cute. Never comes to my bar because she doesn’t drink. Always at the lodge.

“Excuse me, Mr. Hottie Mountain Guide, you said we could use your phone.”

He handed it to Chelsea, who tapped out a text message while Heather looked on.

Kai barely paid attention as he processed the news from Jake. Some non-drinking nurse-type was going to waltz into Rocky Peak and take over the lodge? The historic place his great-grandfather had started as a remote ski cabin over a hundred years ago? That Kai’s parents had built into a destination for skiers, families, rock-climbers, hunters, anyone who wanted to breathe fresh mountain air?

Hell, it even doubled as a volunteer fire station, with an engine and rescue gear stored on the property. Kai had helped out there as a volunteer fireman and with the ski patrol from the age of fourteen onwards.

And then there was the cozy, lantern-lit restaurant with its legendary venison chili and scoops of Rocky Peak Nugget ice cream. Guests used to drive miles up that winding mountain road just for a glass of wine by the fireplace.

Of course that was in the old days. A lot had changed since Kai had left. He really had no idea how much.

“You’re getting another text,” Chelsea called to him, rolling her eyes. “From Isabelle. Is that your girlfriend?”

“Sister.” He reached for the phone, but the teenager kept her grip on it.

She read the text out loud. “She says, ‘Someone has to check on Dad. I nominate you and everyone else seconds that.’”

“That’s ridiculous,” Kai said, as if his siblings were actually in front of him. “I’m the last person who should check on him.”

“Relax, mountain dude. I’m just reading the message.” Chelsea squinted at another text message coming in. “Isabelle sounds really worried, though.”

“What else did she say?” God, now he was sounding like a middle school kid himself. Also, this was getting ridiculous. “You about done with my phone yet?”

Another text buzzed.

“If we didn’t keep getting interrupted…” This time Heather read the text out loud. “It’s Isabelle again. She says ‘why are you ignoring my texts? You can’t just bury your head in the sand.’ She’s right, Hottie Mountain Guide. Burying your head in the sand doesn’t work. When my so-called boyfriend was cheating on—”

Kai threw up a hand to stop her. “Don’t need to know. Just wrap it up and give me back my phone.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair and took a long swallow from his water bottle. Some rescues—many—were literally life and death. This one was more like a wilderness version of Clueless. At least his two rescues were in good shape, already back to their sassy teenage selves.

“You got another text from Jake,” called Chelsea. “He says to stop ignoring Isabelle’s texts. Want me to answer?”

“Please don’t—“

“Too late, I told him you don’t appreciate his attitude.”

Kai called on his ‘first responder’ voice, the one that issued commands that people generally followed. “Phone, please.”

The girl meekly handed over his phone. Another text had just come in. This one came from Gracie, the only sibling who still lived at the lodge.

Is it true you’re coming home? Yay!!!! And then a string of happy-looking emojis.

At that point, the two girls needed his attention—all the blisters and bickering were getting to them.

Later, after he’d delivered Chelsea and Heather to their group leader, he changed out of his wet gear, sat in his truck in the trailhead parking lot and blasted the heater. What he wanted most right now was a giant cheeseburger with extra pickles and a beer, a hot shower and a good night’s sleep—in whatever order he could get them.

But first he had to find out more about this Max situation.

He initiated a group text with all of his siblings. Correcting rumors. Not coming back. If Max wants to pass the torch, that’s his right. He wouldn’t listen to me anyway. He’d probably do the opposite of what I say. He’d probably GIVE the lodge away just to spite me.

From Gracie: How can Dad give the lodge away? It’s the Rockwell legacy!

He’s supposed to avoid stress, Jake texted. No more coffee or alcohol.

Good argument for me to stay away, Kai tapped out. If I showed up his blood pressure would go crazy.

Isabelle joined in for the first time. He’ll have to have surgery unless he can change his lifestyle.

Lifestyle or anger level? Kai texted.

He could imagine each of them, in their various far-flung locations, wincing at that comment.

That’s why Nicole is here, Gracie chimed in. She’s helping him work on his stress. He’s a lot calmer than he used to be.

Griffin texted, I’d go back but I have the Lucas Pro coming up. Biggest race of my career. Then I can take a break.

Wow. Maybe this really was serious, if Griff was considering a break from racing. He lived for motocross.

I have a few weeks left on this contract, but I’m due for a vacation after that.

Isabelle, take a vacation? Kai’s worry deepened. Isabelle was a fiercely dedicated workaholic surgeon who worked with Doctors Without Borders. If she was that concerned about Max, there must be good reason.

What if this Nicole chick is a con artist going after the lodge? Maybe that sounded paranoid, but someone had to say it. Gracie was too naive. Jake too kind. Griffin and Isabelle too absent. Kai would have to take on the role of cynic. Hell, he was used to it.

He waited for someone to tell him that was a dick thing to say, but none of them did.

The next text came from Gracie. That’s silly. She’s very nice. But you can find out for yourself when you get here! Squeee!!!

He’d walked right into that one.

He gazed out his windshield—cracked from a rockfall—at the breathtaking view of Turnagain Pass. Snow still glistened in the cornices of the mountains. Alders and spruce blanketed the lower slopes. God, he loved the Chugach.

But not as much as he loved the Cascades.

The summer guiding season in Alaska would be over in a month or so. A ski patrol team in Montana was trying to recruit him for the winter. He hadn’t said ‘yes’ yet, and he wasn’t entirely sure why. He loved rescue work, it was incredibly satisfying. Last winter he’d helped save a high school ski group from an avalanche. He’d rescued skiers who’d broken bones, snowboarders who’d sprained their wrists, multiple concussion victims, kids who’d gotten lost on the cross-country trails.

On the other hand, he was thirty-two now, and he’d spent his entire adult life roaming from one job to another. Short-term leases, short-term jobs, short-term relationships. Since the age of seventeen, he’d known exactly how to kick the dust off. He knew how to track, how to rescue, how to fight.

One thing he didn’t know was how to go back. How many times had he thought about it? Wanted to? Longed to breathe Rocky Peak air again?

Maybe this was the perfect opportunity. It would be short-term, of course. A check-in. A drop-in. No strings. No demands. No obligation.

Geez, now it sounded like a credit card application.

If he could handle an eighty mile per hour avalanche, he could handle a visit to Rocky Peak Lodge. To Mad Max Rockwell, who had a heart condition.

A stab of real fear shot through him. He imagined his giant volcano of a father grabbing his chest. In pain. He imagined not seeing him again, ever. Fuck. He had to go back.

There’s a Rocky Peak Nugget double scoop in it for me, right? he texted.

Squeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!! wrote Gracie.

Double shot at the Last Chance too, texted Jake.

Griffin said simply, Good.

And Isabelle added, Don’t forget—no stress for Dad. No fights. No yelling. No arguments. Promise.




Nicole fastened the blood pressure cuff around Max Rockwell’s arm and pumped it until it was tight. As always, he grumbled at her. Max was nothing if not a grumbler.

“All those brilliant doctor minds, they can’t invent a way to measure blood pressure that doesn’t pinch?”

“Don’t you know that everyone in the medical profession is a sadist?” She winked at him. “Especially us home health aides. We live to torment.”

In her experience, teasing Max was the best way to stop him from getting riled up.

She watched the gauge. “Looking good. I think the new diet is working.”

“Yeah, working to drive me nuts.”

“Oh, come on. You loved the vegetarian chili I made last night.”

“It was an insult to beans, that chili. If you were just more honest and called it Flavorless Bean Mush, it might not be so bad.”

Nicole rolled her eyes as she stowed the blood pressure cuff back in her bag. “Call it whatever you want, I don’t care. As long as you try it.”

Max rolled down the sleeve of his flannel shirt so she could button the cuff for him. Max was a big bear of a man with a lion’s mane of pure white hair. With his wide barrel chest and booming voice, his hulking stature and charismatic presence, he was a dominating figure, even now that he was battling heart disease and arthritis.

At first she’d found him intimidating. But she’d quickly figured out that Max was all bluster and thunderstorms. There was actually a soft heart behind all that grumbling. Well, soft-ish.

“Are you ready for your visualization?” she asked him. It sounded goofy to some, but she liked trying out different methods of stress-relief. As soon as she’d arrived at Rocky Peak Lodge, she’d started fantasizing about things like healing retreats and spa days.

Which totally wasn’t her job here.

Either of her jobs.

“If I threaten to rip my eyeballs out, will that get me out of it?”

“You don’t need eyeballs for visualization, you big whiner.”

He groaned and lumbered to his feet. “Give me a minute. Even torturers need a break.” He wandered over to the sky-high picture window that dominated the “great room,” as he called it.

Nicole followed his gaze. Admiring the incredible scenery here at Rocky Peak was never a hardship. It was early August, and people were already talking about the change in seasons. She kept looking for signs of autumn, but Max had explained that evergreen forests didn’t change much from one season to the next.

As a city girl, this was all news to her. Maybe she was imagining it, but she sensed the approach of fall in the air. The sky was a deeper blue, the night temperatures dipped lower, and visitors wore more bulky sweaters. She couldn’t wait for the snow to start falling. She’d never experienced winter in the mountains. Her hope was that the entire lodge would be blanketed with snowdrifts and she’d forget all the worries and stress of her regular life.

She’d never fallen in love with a place as quickly and thoroughly as she had with Rocky Peak Lodge. It was almost a chemical thing. As soon as she’d driven her red Jetta into the wide gravel lot and laid eyes on the main lodge, with its steeply peaked roofs, rough-hewn log construction, and chalet-style trim, she’d exhaled a deep breath, as if something had settled into place inside her.

It wasn’t just the crystal fresh air, or the deep peace of the surrounding forests, or the homey atmosphere of the lodge. She felt a sense of possibility here. If she did her job right, she’d walk away from here with enough money to take care of her sister for years.

Not her Max job. Her other job.

“All right, Nurse Nicole. What do you have for me today?” Max turned away from the window and settled his big body into his favorite leather armchair. “White light? Ocean waves? Shark attack?”

“Ha ha.” She dug out her notebook in which she’d scribbled some ideas for visualizations. “How about a magic carpet?”

“Ooh, that one sounds fun.” Gracie Rockwell skipped into the room, and as always, Max’s weathered face lit up. She came over to kiss him on the cheek. “I have big news, Daddy. Do you want it now or after the magic carpet ride?”

Gracie was another reason Nicole had fallen in love with Rocky Peak Lodge. Max’s daughter was such a sweetheart of a girl. With her wispy light hair and luminous eyes, her perpetual quirky dimple and petite figure, she was the type of adorable that made boys fall in love with her at a glance.

But she seemed mostly oblivious to that. Gracie rarely left the lodge, except to join friends for hikes on the lodge’s trails, or see a movie in town. Nicole would have worried about her, except that she always seemed happy as a bluebird. She kept plenty busy at the lodge, mostly with the restaurant. She scooped ice cream, took reservations, handled the website. On her off hours, she read, or filled sketchbook after sketchbook with her drawings. Maybe she had everything she wanted here at the lodge.

“Sorry to interrupt, Nicole,” Gracie added, tossing a smile her way. No one could resist that smile, and Nicole didn’t even try.

“No worries, we haven’t started yet. This is perfect timing. Max, do you want to chat with Gracie first? I can come back later.”

He gave her a “stay here” gesture. “Let’s hear the big news, but you don’t have to leave for that. You know all about my bodily functions. Might as well know the rest.”

“I agree, you should stay, Nicole. If Dad has a heart attack, I’ll need help.”

“Sweet hell on a cracker, Gracie. What’s going on here? Are you pregnant?” Max asked.

Gracie flushed a deep rose. “Of course not. How can you say such a thing?”

Nicole knew the answer to that. Because Max had no sense of tact or delicacy. It wouldn’t surprise her if Gracie was still a virgin, judging by her shyness about that sort of thing.

“Oh, don’t get your panties in a bunch,” Max grumbled. “It was just a joke. Why are people so sensitive?”

“For heaven’s sake, Max. Just apologize and move on,” Nicole told him. “He’s sorry, Gracie. It was a rude comment and he knows it. He just can’t admit it.”

Max muttered something that might have been agreement.

“As a side note, that’s the best way to keep your blood pressure down,” she added. “Think of an apology as a pill. They’re scientifically proven to reduce stress.”

“Is that true?” Gracie asked.

“I think so.” In her experience, you could dig up a study to prove just about anything. Besides, preventing an argument was definitely good for Max’s blood pressure. “Anyway, back to your news, Gracie.”

“Right.” She drew in a long breath and faced her father. She was wearing a summer outfit of cutoffs and a baby doll top and was barefoot. Gracie only wore shoes when she had to for health department reasons. “This is big, Dad. Brace yourself.”

Nicole braced herself too, mentally running through the steps she should take in case of a heart attack.

“Kai is coming home.”

Max went still, as if those words had turned him into a statue during freeze tag. He stared at Gracie for a long, long time, while Nicole summoned every bit of knowledge she had about Kai.

It wasn’t much. She knew he was the oldest son, that he’d left Rocky Peak as a teenager and never come back. She’d seen him in the old brochure photos. Tall, fit, stormy-eyed. He was the rebel who’d defied his father over everything, big and small. These days, he was a mountain guide, sometimes. Ski patrol, sometimes. He’d spent some time in the Army, even earned a medal. The closest thing he had to a home was a condo in Colorado, but he traveled a lot.

She also knew the story of his name. Kai meant “ocean,” which was odd for a family that lived in the mountains. His mother had named him Kai as a link to the Pacific Ocean because she’d grown up on a sailboat. Marrying Max had meant leaving behind the open seas and embracing the mountains.

Gracie didn’t say much about her deceased mother. Apparently she’d died when Gracie was small. Nicole didn’t like to pry, but she’d seen a few photos of her on the walls of the family wing of the lodge. There were photos of Griffin winning races, a photo of Isabelle graduating from medical school, Jake at the Last Chance.

But not a single photo of Kai, other than in the old brochures.

“When?” Max finally asked. “Why?”

“Dad, don’t be rude. He probably wants to see us, that’s why. He’s coming soon. Today, actually.”


Max jerked forward.

Nicole put a soothing hand on Max’s arm and shot Gracie a scolding look. “A little more notice would probably be helpful.”

“Well, I’m sorry, but I didn’t want to say anything until I was absolutely sure it was happening. That would be like Christmas getting canceled. But he’s really coming!” She gave a little skip of excitement. “Dad, don’t worry. Isabelle made him promise not to get into any fights with you.”

Max’s arm trembled under Nicole’s hand. She squeezed it lightly and checked his color. A little heightened, but not too bad. She checked his pulse and found it slightly thready.

He shook her off. “Good God, woman, can’t a man find out his prodigal son is coming home without a doctor’s exam?”

“I don’t know, can he?” she answered tartly. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m O.K.” He dragged out the word sarcastically. “But if Kai is coming back for one of those damn apologies, he can turn right around.”

“Dad, it’s nothing like that. He’s not looking for anything, especially not an apology. And you can’t get into a fight with him. Nicole, you’ll help, right? No fighting. Promise?”

“Me? Why would I get into a fight with Kai? I don’t even know him.”

She fiddled with her friendship bracelet. “Not you. I’m talking about Dad. You’re always so calm, I can’t even imagine you getting into a fight.”

Calm? Try ‘careful.’ Nicole had to watch every word she said here at the lodge.

Gracie clapped her hands, eyes gleaming. “Actually, that’s perfect. Maybe you can stay closer than usual to Dad just in case they start getting on each other’s nerves. Dad’s always more mellow when you’re around.”

“Mellow?” Max snorted. Nicole could practically see the steam coming out of his nostrils. “If I’m ever ‘mellow,’ take me out and run me over with a four-wheeler.”

Gracie pointedly ignored him and kept her gaze fixed on Nicole.

“I don’t know, Gracie…” Nicole’s job here was essentially a grownup babysitter. Gracie sometimes called her the “Max-Whisperer,” although that seemed overboard to Nicole. “I wouldn’t want to intrude on a family reunion.”

“Kai won’t mind. He’s cool, you’ll like him. Kai’s like…hmmm, what’s the best way to describe Kai? He’s like…that feeling when a cold front comes through and suddenly the wind is all brisk and blustery and you feel wide awake.”

Max snorted again. “Not bad, Gracie. Not bad. Sounds like Kai in a nutshell. He’s half tornado, that kid.”

“You’re saying your brother’s like a weather disaster?” Nicole had never heard someone described in quite those terms.

Gracie screwed up her face, searching for the right words. “He’s…exciting. Maybe that’s a better way to put it. He’s kind of wild and adventurous. But not in a scary way, because he’s also really knowledgeable about survival skills. If I was lost in the wilderness, he’s the one person I’d pick first to be stranded with. He’s rescued so many people from avalanches and accidents.”

Nicole shuddered at the very thought. She had no intention of getting lost in the wilderness. Admiring it from the safety of the lodge was good enough for her. And Kai Rockwell didn’t sound at all like the kind of person she’d like. She wanted peace and harmony, not storm fronts. Life held enough turmoil already.

But for Max’s sake, she’d do her best to be nice to Kai—and to keep things on an even keel. That was her job here, after all.

Or at least the job Max had hired her for.

He didn’t know about her other job. She tried not to think about that one, because she was a terrible liar and stood a good chance of giving everything away.

“I look forward to meeting him,” she said, faking a smile. Truthfully, she planned to avoid Kai Rockwell as much as possible. Unless she got lost in the wilderness, of course.


After getting Max settled into the media room for his afternoon nap in front of the TV, Nicole escaped to her own room, which was in the dorm area set aside for seasonal workers. Since these days the lodge was operating with a skeleton staff, mostly comprised of locals, she’d scored her choice of rooms. She’d chosen a cozy room nestled under the steep slant of the peaked roof. Its round window looked out over the wilderness behind the lodge, where hiking and cross-county trails wound through spruce and birch forests. She absolutely loved her little room.

She ought to call Felicity and report in about Kai’s impending arrival. That was her mission here, after all. Instead, she called Birdie. Birdie was the reason she’d taken this job and right now she needed to hear her sister’s voice.

Birdie picked up on the fifth ring. That meant she was distracted and it would be a short conversation.

“Hi Birdie, it’s your favorite sister.”

“Only sister.”

Their standard conversation opener. “How are ya, kid?”


“Oh yeah? What’s the matter?”

“Lulu’s a thief.”

Lulu was her roommate and definitely not a thief. She was paralyzed from the waist down and nearly always in her bed. She hated using wheelchairs, unlike Birdie, who loved hers.

“What did she steal?”

“My name. She told nurse, call me Birdie.”

“Oh man. Sorry about that, Birdie. She must really look up to you.” She went to the window and gazed out at the front lawn. A strange man stood in the midst of a small knot of staff members gathered around him. He was tall and very fit, though she couldn’t get a good look at his face. It must be Kai Rockwell.

”Look up?” asked Birdie.


“Oh. That’s nice then.”

She couldn’t pull her eyes away from the oldest Rockwell son. One of her problems—according to Felicity—was that she didn’t get out much. Making sure Birdie had all the care she needed took a lot of work. She didn’t have the bandwidth to get involved with men.

The one time she’d taken a chance, it had been a disaster. Roger, her fiancé, had promised that Birdie could live with them, but a month before the wedding he’d changed his mind. The house didn’t have wheelchair access, they weren’t properly equipped, it would be too expensive, so on and so forth, until he finally ran out of excuses and admitted the truth.

He was embarrassed by Birdie and didn’t want a disabled sister-in-law in plain sight.

That was the end of that relationship. Birdie came first.

She dragged her gaze away from the much-too-attractive Kai Rockwell and wandered over to her bed. “I miss you, Birdie. I’m going to try to visit really soon.”


Nicole recognized the uplift in her voice and knew she was grinning like sunshine. The damage to her brain hadn’t quenched her spirit.

“Time for basketball! Goodbye.”

“Bye!” Birdie had already hung up. Not much for etiquette, her sister.

Nicole yawned, realizing that she was exhausted. She should probably call Felicity next.

Instead she lay back on her bed with a sigh. “Sorry, Felicity. Even spies have to take naps,” she murmured as her eyes drifted shut, and her mind wandered back to that fateful day when she’d taken this crazy job.

Two months ago, in Seattle, at the high school track where Felicity liked to jog before work.

The list of things Nicole preferred to do instead of jogging was basically endless. It started with bed and ended with “really anything else.”

But her quest to lose ten pounds was ongoing, and early mornings were the only free time Felicity had. In two hours, Felicity would be in her office working on million dollar deals, while Nicole would be with Birdie, playing their traditional game of “Go Fish” over breakfast.

Yawning widely, Nicole tied her shoelaces while Felicity jogged in place, checking her morning emails. “I’m so close to making partner, I could cry,” her friend said. “One more big deal and I’m in.”

She and Felicity had been best friends in high school, but their lives had gone in radically different directions since then. Felicity worked as a hotshot real estate investor and drove a Jaguar convertible. Nicole worked mostly as a home health aide, which came naturally since she’d grown up with a disabled sister. But that didn’t pay much, so she usually doubled up on jobs.

“That’s cool. I lost my Uber gig.” Nicole yanked her last shoelace tight and stood up. “They banned me for life after that run-in with a fire hydrant. I really think that thing was faulty.” Her passenger had gotten drenched and six firefighters had shown up to fix the hydrant. Which wasn’t all bad…

“You have bad car karma, that’s all,” said Felicity loyally.

They set off down the track, Nicole straining to keep up with Felicity. “Any other prospects? You can’t stay unemployed forever, girl.”

“Believe me, I know.” Her heart rate was already rising and her words came in a pant. “I had a phone interview…the other day…for a job at a lodge in the mountains.”

“A mountain lodge? How romantic! Except for that mountain part. Ew.” Felicity wasn’t at all out of breath yet.

“Not romantic…seventy-year old man with a heart condition. Room and board included, low pay. Not an option. Besides…it’s too far…from Birdie.”

A group of football players jogged past them as if they were standing still. Sometimes it seemed that everyone went faster than her, farther than her. All she wanted…never mind. It didn’t matter what she wanted, all she needed was to take care of Birdie.

“Shootskies,” said Felicity. “It would be fun to take the Jag on all those hairpin mountain roads. Where is this lodge?”

A stitch developed in her side and she slowed down, causing Felicity to shoot her an impatient look. “Here in Washington State. In the Cascades.”

“Wait a second…what’s it called, this lodge?”

Nicole searched her memory. She’d already written off the whole idea, for all the reasons she’d just told Felicity. At first her imagination had been fired by images of mountain peaks and wildflower meadows. Then reality had sunk in. “Rocky Peak Lodge.”

“Oh my God.” Felicity stopped dead. “Rocky Peak Lodge? Are you serious? You’d be working for Mad Max Rockwell?”

Nicole seized on the chance to stop moving. “Max Rockwell, yes. Why is he ‘Mad’ Max?”

“Because he’s got a wild temper. He threatened a realtor with a shotgun once. We’ve been eyeing that property for two years, but he won’t sell. A hundred acres of pristine forests and trails, practically the last substantial chunk of available real estate in that area. Prime investment opportunity. And he’s sitting on it like a dragon guarding his hoard. Oooh, my evil genius mastermind brain is having a moment here.” She jogged in a little circle around Nicole.

Nicole rested her hands on her knees and heaved in a few breaths. “I looked up the lodge. It’s historic but kind of decrepit.”

“Exactly. It needs major capital investment, which makes it a perfect target for the Summit Group. Buy it for a song, sell it for a freaking fortune. With all that acreage…” Felicity looked like she might spontaneously orgasm on the spot. She flipped her inky black ponytail over her shoulder. “Here’s the plan.”

“You have a plan already?” Nicole started jogging again, Felicity keeping pace next to her.

“That’s what makes me so good.” Felicity gave her a smug smile, legs pumping. “The plan is that you take that job.”

“I can’t. Birdie.”

“I’ll watch out for Birdie. I’ll visit her twice a week. You know she loves me. And this will help Birdie in the long run.”

“Keep talking.” Anything that would help Birdie was worth considering.

“I…and by I, of course I mean the Summit Group, will double your salary. Whatever Max Rockwell pays you, we’ll twice that, on top of what he’s paying you.”

“For what?”

“Oh, just a little light espionage.” Felicity ran ahead of her, then turned and jogged backwards, facing Nicole. “Geez, can’t you kick it up a gear?”

“Don’t … have…another…gear,” Nicole gritted out, lungs heaving. “And I’m not going to spy on a patient. That would be completely unethical.”

“No, of course you don’t have to spy on him. You’re not going to do Max Rockwell any harm, in fact you’ll be helping him.”

“I still have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You’ll be our eyes and ears on the inside. It’ll be like, I don’t know, Ocean’s 8. Except you won’t be doing anything wrong, it’s not like that. If Mad Max sells us the lodge, he’ll make millions. And if you help that sale happen, you’ll get a huge bonus. I’ll guarantee it. Enough to take care of Birdie for years. This is brilliant.” She gave an “evil genius” laugh that made Nicole wonder just when her friend had changed into such a shark.

“How long…would I…be there?”

“It’s up to you. You can fly back and visit Birdie whenever you want. Think of it as a mountain vacation with lots of benefits.”

The football players jogged past again, inspiring a low whistle from Felicity. “Oh! Word of warning, though. Mountain men. I heard they don’t even shave up there in the mountains. I recommend temporary celibacy.”

Nicole gave up and stopped jogging, planting her hands on her knees and panting through the stitch in her side. “That’s so not even on the radar. But Felicity…I can’t be a spy! I’d be terrible at it.”

“But think about the bonus.” Felicity drew the word out. “You can also think about my partnership if you want, but mostly…booonnnusss. Bonus for Birdie. Nice ring, right?”

Nicole looked away from her friend, at the dreary sky, with the typical spring in Seattle overcast. At certain times in her life, she’d spent more time away from Birdie. When she was taking her nurse aide certification class, for instance, and when she’d nearly married Roger. Her little sister had managed without her during those times. And now Birdie had a roommate at Sunny Grove—a friend, Lulu.

And Sunny Grove was so, so expensive. Birdie’s disability payments didn’t come close to covering it. It was on Nicole, always had been.

Slowly she nodded. “I’ll do it. I’ve never been a spy before, so that’s something new for my resumé.”

Felicity laughed, then gave her a quick high-five. “I’m going to do one more lap!” She whisked off down the track. Nicole started after her, then gave up and flopped onto the grass next to the track. She lay back on the ground, lungs still heaving. Mad Max Rockwell. Mountain men. Decrepit lodge. Espionage. How the heck did she get into this kind of situation?

Bonus for Birdie. That was how.

Bonus for Birdie. Bonus for Birdie. Nicole came back awake, those same words running through her mind. If she wanted that bonus, she had to get her act together.

Over the past two months, she’d picked up lots of details that she’d reported back to Felicity. The lodge needed major renovations. Roofs leaked, plumbing got stopped up. Max kept scaring away new workers—even the guests sometimes. Also, the lodge was running at a loss.

She’d come to believe that Max’s best option was to sell. She’d also come up with about a hundred ideas to improve the lodge. Why not hold special retreats for nature photographers? What about yoga training? People would pay big bucks for a dose of peace and quiet.

At first she’d only shared her ideas with Felicity.

“That’s good, that’s good, Nico,” her friend had said. “You know what? Tell your great ideas to Max. Make him see the possibilities. Make him want the lodge to be amazing again. Make him see that it will take big bucks and lots of energy to make that happen. None of his children are interested, right?”

“I don’t think so. Only Gracie still lives here, and she does her own thing most of the time.”

“Perfect. Then the only way to revive the lodge is for Rockwell to sell.”

Ever since that conversation, Nicole had let her imagination run free and shared every fun idea with Max. And it was working.

But now?

She rolled out of bed and walked to the window again. No sign of Kai anymore. With a sigh, she dialed Felicity and delivered the news that the prodigal oldest Rockwell son had returned.

Felicity peppered her with questions. “Why? For how long? What’s his purpose?”

Nicole answered as best she could. “I don’t know. Gracie didn’t say.”

“Do you think he’s moving back? That he wants to be involved with the lodge again?”

Nicole shrugged, gazing out at the thickly forested slopes that encircled the lodge. Why wouldn’t Kai want that? It was so beautiful here. “I haven’t even met him yet. I just saw him out the window.”

“Okay, here’s what you do, then. Be a spy. Spend time with…what’s his name, Kai?”

“Yes, Kai.”

“Sounds hot. Is he hot? I mean, for a mountain man?”

Nicole set her teeth, unwilling to say something so positive about the “storm front” arriving at the lodge. “He’s attractive enough from a hundred yards away out a window.”

“Well, either way, try to find out what he’s thinking. Who knows, maybe he can be an ally. If Rockwell sells, they’ll all get millions.”

“I was thinking that I should take a break and visit Birdie. He might be gone when I get back. I think he’s the free-wheeling type, comes and goes.”

“Absolutely not. This could be a great opportunity. No time for retreat. You’re doing great. Keep it up!”

“I’ll think about it.”

Nicole ended the call, tension running through her. Spying was stressful enough, but now with Kai around? She sighed. Best to get this over with and go meet the prodigal son.


Just as Kai finished chatting with the staffers he hadn’t seen in fifteen years, Gracie came flying across the lawn and launched herself into his arms. He staggered a little as she hit him full in the chest.

“I can’t believe you’re here!!!!” she kept saying. He hadn’t seen her since last summer, when he’d flown her to Yellowstone for a camping trip. He made sure to see Gracie at least once a year, and according to Jake, those trips were her only real exposure to the outside world.

With her baby-duckling hair and crooked smile, Gracie was made of pure delight, in his biased big brother opinion.

He couldn’t stop grinning at her. “Crazy, huh? I must be nuts. Does Dad know I’m here?”

“He’s taking his mandatory afternoon nap right now. Not to be disturbed.”

“Good. That’ll give us a chance to catch up.” He ruffled her hair, the blond wisps catching static and clinging to his hand. She swatted him away as they headed for the entrance.

“You’re not allowed to mess with the hair of anyone over twenty,” she scolded. “But I’ll give you a pass just this once.”

“Appreciate it. Because I just can’t help myself. You’ll have to send me to hair dungeon.”

She giggled as he pulled open the big oak front door to the lodge. It swung open with a squeak; the ironwork hinges needed some WD-40.

Not that he was going to mention that around his father. Max took all criticism of the lodge as if it was directed at him personally. Or at least he used to. After fifteen years, who knew?

“The place seems so empty,” he said as he dropped his bag next to the front door in the reception area. They walked into the lounge, with its high rafters and stonework fireplace. It used to buzz with guests helping themselves to coffee, or snuggling up with a book. Now it practically echoed, it was so deserted.

The parking lot had been the same way, come to think of it.

“Ten percent occupancy, by choice. Dad’s trying to avoid stress, remember?”

“Right. But what about the bills?”

“Every time I ask, he says we’re fine. Fewer guests means lower costs, I suppose. I can’t tell if he’s just not worried about it, or if he’s too proud to admit he’s worried.” She flopped onto one of the long comfy couches arranged around the fireplace.

Which was a mess, he noticed. Ashes everywhere, kindling in a disorganized pile. “Who’s been taking care of the fires in here?”

“Joint effort. Whoever remembers.”

Did anyone remember? It didn’t look like it. He grabbed the whisk broom from the stand of fireplace tools and crouched down to sweep up the mess.

Gracie propped a pillow behind her back and snuggled her bare feet into the couch cushions. “Well? Tell me everything! How are all the ladies in your life?”

“My love life is about as cold and dead as this fireplace.”

“Really? Things didn’t work out with Meg the Leg?”

“Stop it.” Meg was a dancer who liked to show off her toned and perfect legs. She’d come to Yellowstone with them and Gracie kept walking in ballerina posture behind her back. “That’s an off-limits topic.”

The smell of the old fireplace ash mingled with a hint of smooth tobacco from someone’s cigar butt and the cold air from the chimney. Such an achingly familiar scent, and suddenly he was fourteen again, cleaning out the fireplace as instructed by the captain of the volunteer fire brigade. Mom was sitting right where Gracie was now. She kept laughing at the ash drifting into the room, and Kai’s efforts to corral it.

“You need a butterfly net,” she’d joked.

He shook off the memory as he swept the pile of ash into a dustpan. It looked as if no one had paid any attention to this fireplace recently. Big oversight in a remote place like this. Old Mad Max must be really distracted.

Probably by his new “stress-reducer.”

“So fill me in on this nurse chick who’s working for Max. What’s she like?”

“Are you talking about Nicole? That’s not a very nice way to refer to her.”

“Three words. Meg the Leg.”

Gracie laughed and crossed one leg over the other. “Fine. But Nicole’s different. I don’t know a lot about her, but she’s good for Dad. I call her the Max-Whisperer.”

His hackles rose. What exactly was she whispering into Max’s ears? “Why don’t you know a lot about her? Didn’t he vet her before he hired her?”

“He did. His heart doctor put the word out with a network of home health aides. He interviewed several on the phone but Nicole was the only one he could stand. She was also the only one under fifty. So she came up for an interview and hit it off with Dad right away. You know that never happens. Dad doesn’t like anyone.”

“Jake says she’s young and cute. I suppose that’s why.”