A Maverick to (Re)Marry
Married—and divorced!—in secret…
Rust Creek Ramblings
Rust Creek Falls’ flirty cowboy and the shy, straight-A student—a couple? We have it on good authority that not only were Derek Dalton and Amy Wainwright once an item, they were actually married! With Amy back in town for her friend’s wedding, how long before their secret past is revealed? Gather your rose petals, dear readers… We suspect these high school sweethearts may soon get a second chance at happily-wedded-after!
Montana Mavericks: The Loneyhearts Ranch
What Readers are Saying
“This story has a lot of heart and emotion. I love the fact that we get each side of the back story. Derek shares his emotions and how he feels and so does Amy. A run to the alter at 18 can be scary but when it is over as fast as it happened it can definitely make you question your relationships with others for the rest of your life.”
4 stars, Jess Lawson, Goodreads Reviewer
“Derek and Amy are so adorable together!! They are high school sweethearts with a big secret, but in a little town secrets have a way of getting out… This was a great start to a new series and I can’t wait to see who’s next to find love.”
5 stars, Therese Lopez, Goodreads Reviewer
“I loved seeing Amy and Derek find the magic that had been there before. It was a terrific mix of old and new…
5 stars, Susan, Goodreads Reviewer
“I found this book to be sweet and sensual. I loved the addition of past characters who popped up to give the story depth… Christine Rimmer always brings a new twist on an old plot."
5 stars, Kimberly, Goodreads Reviewer
“I can’t believe you’re here at last,” said Eva Rose Armstrong with a tender little smile. “When you pulled up in your fancy car yesterday, I almost wondered if I was seeing things.”
“I’m here and I’m staying,” Amy Wainwright replied. “You won’t get rid of me until the wedding, no matter how hard you try.” She spoke firmly and did her best to ignore the growing sense of dread that had her stomach feeling queasy and her nerves on a thin edge.
“Thirteen years,” Eva scolded fondly, “do you realize that? Thirteen years it’s taken us to get you to come back to town.” Us included Eva and her older sisters, Delphine and Calla. Growing up, the Armstrong sisters had been like family to Amy. In the years since Amy had moved to Colorado, the Armstrong girls had come to visit her often, but Amy had always found some reason she couldn’t make the trip to Rust Creek Falls—and in actual fact, it had been nine years, not thirteen, since Amy had last set foot in Montana. But Eva didn’t know about that other visit and she never would.
“It took you getting married to do the trick.” Amy strove for a light tone. “But I’m here now. And I’m going nowhere until I see you walk down the aisle to the man that you love.”
Eva laughed. “You don’t have to look so grim and determined about it.”
Relax, Amy reminded herself for the umpteenth time. It’s going to be fine. “Grim?” She reached out and took Eva’s hand. “Are you kidding? I’m thrilled to be your maid of honor.” It was coming face-to-face again with the best man that had her belly in knots and her heart stuck in her throat.
They stood near the sunny front window in the living room of the farmhouse where Eva lived with her fiancé, Luke Stockton. The best man would be joining them any minute now. And Amy would get through this meeting with her pride and her dignity intact.
She was going to smile in a cordial sort of way, just smile and say hello and ask him how he’d been. She would treat him as exactly what he was—a guy she knew way back when. An old high school boyfriend, nothing more.
What had really happened between them all those years ago was their secret, his and hers. And Amy could see no reason on earth why it shouldn’t stay that way.
“Now, we just need to find a way to keep you here forever,” Eva said with a definite smirk.
“Highly unlikely.” Amy lived in Boulder. She owned her own home and she worked for a major accounting firm as a digital forensic accountant. Most people’s eyes glazed over when she talked about her work, but Amy had always been a math whiz and a computer nerd. She totally loved stopping hackers and fraudsters dead in their tracks.
“You never know,” Eva teased, “you could finally meet the man of your dreams right here in Rust Creek Falls. This town is magic when it comes to love and romance, you just ask anyone.”
Once, long ago, Amy would have agreed with her friend. Now, though? Not happening. No way, uh-uh. “If you say so…”
Eva tugged on her hand. “Come on.” She led Amy to the sofa and chairs grouped around the coffee table. Eva and Luke had moved to Sunshine Farm last winter. Slowly, they’d been fixing up the old farmhouse, stripping dated wallpaper, installing new countertops and appliances in the kitchen. The furniture was mostly family hand-me-downs and stuff picked up at estate and yard sales, but Eva had a great sense of style and the effect was homey. Welcoming. “Sit down,” Eva said, “and have a cookie.”
Amy took one of the two wing chairs across from the couch—and a lemon praline macaron. Eva was a baker by profession, her cookies as irresistible as her sunny smile.
The doorbell chimed.
Adrenaline spurted. Amy’s throat locked up tight on a bite of macaron.
Calm down. You’re okay. Breathe. She gulped a sip of iced tea and somehow managed to swallow the bite of cookie without surrendering to a choking fit.
Across the room and through the open arch, in the small foyer, Eva pulled open the door. “Viv!” It was the wedding planner, Vivienne Shuster. Not him, after all. Amy’s heartbeat slowed a little as Eva ushered the other woman into the living room.
Vivienne, a tall, striking blonde in a simple tan skirt and a white shirt, took a seat on the couch. She set down her stack of pastel binders and her tablet, shook hands with Amy and said yes to a glass of iced tea and a butter pecan sandy.
For a few minutes, the women chatted about nothing in particular. Viv was relatively new to town, just getting started with her wedding-planner business. “Eva, the house looks great.”
“We keep working on it,” said Eva. Luke had grown up at Sunshine Farm, but the place had fallen into disrepair when his parents died and the Stockton family was torn apart.
Viv had obviously heard the whole heartbreaking story, including the current state of affairs. “It’s wonderful,” she said, “that Luke and his brothers and sisters are reunited now—or almost.” Her bright smile dimmed a little. “Any word on Liza?” Liza Stockton was the only one of Luke’s siblings who had yet to be located.
“No. But we’re still looking. We’ll never give up.”
“Well, you’re certainly bringing the family ranch back to life again.” Viv picked up one of her binders and flipped to a tab labeled Barn Weddings. Like Luke’s brother Danny last Christmas, Luke and Eva’s wedding venue would be the big yellow barn right there on Sunshine Farm. “So, we’re still going with holding the ceremony outside, and then the reception dinner in the barn, right?” At Eva’s nod, Viv continued, “Good, then. I have a few new ideas to run by you.”
Amy heard boots out on the front steps. Her mouth went dust-dry and her ears started ringing.
But it was only Luke coming in from the horse pasture. She took slow, deep breaths to settle her absurdly overactive nerves as Luke left his muddy boots by the door and slipped on a pair of soft mocs. “Am I late?”
“Nope.” Eva got up to offer a quick kiss and pull him into the living room. “You’re right on time.” They did look so happy together, Amy thought. She was glad for her friend. A born romantic, Eva had survived more than her share of disappointments in love. But she never gave up. And now she’d finally found the perfect man for her.
The doorbell rang again. Amy’s stomach lurched and her heart beat so hard, she knew it would pound its way right out of her chest.
“That’ll be Derek,” Luke said. “I’ll get it.” He returned to the door as Amy practiced slow breathing and prayed she wouldn’t sink to the floor in a dead faint like the heroine of some old-time novel, felled by her own secret past. “Come on in,” said Luke.
And then, there he was.
Derek Dalton. In Wranglers and a soft chambray shirt. He took off his hat and his hair was just as she remembered it, thick and unruly, sable brown. He was just as she remembered—only bigger, broader. A grown man now, not a nineteen-year-old boy.
He hung his hat by the door. Luke signaled him forward and he entered the living room, filling it with his presence, with their past that seemed to suck all the air right out of her lungs. He greeted Eva and Viv. And then he turned to Amy, those leaf-green eyes homing right in on her. “Hey, Amy. Long time, huh?”
She stared up at him, unable to speak. But then he held out his big, blunt-fingered, work-roughened hand. She forced herself to take it and the shock of touching him again after all these years sent a bolt of lightning straight up her arm—and jolted the necessary words out of her.
“Hey, Derek.” She pulled her fingers free of his grip and somehow managed the barest semblance of a smile. “Great to see you again.”
“You, too.” With that, he turned away at last and lowered his big frame into the other wing chair.
The meeting began.
Viv opened a binder, pulled the rings wide and took out a small stack of papers. “Derek.” She handed several sheets to him. “And for you, Amy.” She passed Amy the rest. “You each now have the phone numbers and email addresses of everyone in the wedding party. Also, you’ll find a series of suggestions for the joint bachelor/bachelorette party, which is slated for the Saturday before the wedding. You two will be working as a team to pull it together. Invitations have already been sent and we’re counting on a big crowd. I threw in a few brainstorming sheets. It always helps to have those—just as a way to get the ideas flowing, you understand.”
“Wonderful,” Amy said, because Viv was looking at her and it seemed important that she say something.
“As for the bachelor party venue,” said Viv, “Maverick Manor is a dream setting, luxe and rustic at once. A real coup that we got it.” She gave Derek a nod. “Big thanks to Derek.”
“Don’t thank me,” Derek said. His voice was a little different somehow, deeper than Amy remembered. The sound of it reached down inside her, stirring up memories, reminding her of tender moments she really needed to forget. He added, “Nate Crawford’s the one.”
Eva asked, “You remember Nate, Amy?”
“Yeah. Of course.” Nate had been four or five years ahead of her in school, but everybody knew him. He was the oldest of six children. His parents, Laura and Todd, owned the general store.
“Nate’s become kind of a town benefactor in the last few years,” said Eva. “He’s a major shareholder in Maverick Manor.”
Derek said, “I just mentioned the party to him and he offered the Manor as a good place for it.”
“Ah,” said Amy, staring straight ahead, unable to make herself look at him though he was sitting right there at the other end of the coffee table from her. “Terrific.”
Eva explained, “Instead of separating the girls and the guys, I wanted one big party for all of us—with nothing X-rated, if you know what I mean.”
Viv clarified, “No strippers. And the games can be a little sexy—”
“—but nothing over the top.” Eva patted Luke’s hand. “Just good fun, right, Luke?”
“Works for me.” The groom nodded.
“It’ll be a nice, relaxed get-together for everyone,” added Eva, “not only for the wedding party, but also for all of our friends in town. We want it to be loose and easy and the Manor is a beautiful, comfortable place for it.”
Viv nodded at Derek and then at Amy. “Food and music are already taken care of, again thanks to Derek.”
Wait a minute. Had Derek paid for all this? Or just arranged everything? The boy she’d known in high school hadn’t had a lot of money. So, then he’d done well for himself?
Not that it mattered how much money he had. What mattered was that she would make sure the financial burden didn’t all fall on him—and wait a minute. Why was she worrying about Derek and his finances anyway?
Really, she didn’t even know the guy anymore….
Viv was still talking. “If you need specific songs played or whatever, I’ll be happy to pass your requests along to the band. You two will be putting your heads together and coming up with some fun things to do for the event, along with party favors and prizes.
“Mostly, it’s a balance. You don’t want to pack in too many activities, but you need a few games and such, to get people mingling. I’ve listed some very basic ideas on your party brainstorm sheets, just to jump-start the process for you. I’ll be ready with more suggestions if you need them and to help in any way I can.”
Amy tried really hard to focus, to keep her mind in the now, to think about great things to do at a coed bachelor party and what prizes and favors might be cute.
But her brain defied her will. Images assailed her, of those five days all those years ago, the tacky motel by the highway, the sound of the big rigs going by in the night, the reassuring warmth of Derek’s strong arms around her. How much she had loved him.
How scared she’d been, her life spinning out of control, nothing going the way she’d planned it.
“Fun activities,” she heard herself repeat. “Will do.”
From the other chair, Derek spoke up, too. “Uh, yeah. We’ll get right on that.”
The meeting continued. To Amy, it seemed endless. The memories pressed in on her, making it hard to breathe. But really, no one seemed to notice that she wasn’t saying much. Did they?
Eva and Luke seemed relaxed, happy as only two people in love can be. Viv was laser focused on the wedding plans. Eva, a baker to the core, was all about the food and the cake, while Viv talked flowers and ways to make the barn setting really pop.
They discussed music for the wedding day, too. Luke and Eva had put in hours practicing their first dance. The band—the same group they were using at the bachelor party—had been given a long playlist of the couple’s favorites to fill up the evening. Luke joked that of course local eccentric Homer Gilmore would be welcome at the wedding. But they had to make absolutely certain that Homer’s infamous moonshine didn’t find its way into the punch.
As for Derek…
Well, Amy didn’t know how Derek was faring. From the moment he took the chair next to hers, she hadn’t been able to make herself so much as glance in his direction.
When it was finally over and Viv was closing up her binders and stacking them to go, Amy longed to race for the stairs and the big guest room up there that would be hers for the next few weeks. She’d brought her work with her. She could power up her computer and concentrate on keeping the giant accounting firm of Hurdly and Main, International protected from cyber-criminals and digital fraud.
But no. She and Derek needed to talk.
She needed to tell him…what? There was nothing to tell him. It was over and it had been over for years and years.
Still. They really ought to come to some sort of understanding as to how they were going to work together. Not to mention, she needed to know who in town knew about them. And how much they knew. And, from now on, what would be getting said to whom.
Suddenly, everyone was standing and moving toward the door—everyone but Amy. She shook herself and leapt to her feet.
And then once she was up, she just stood there at her chair, dithering over how to approach him, what to say to get his attention before he went out the door and she missed her chance to tell him…
Dear Lord, she had no idea.
She blinked and finally made herself glance in his direction.
He was looking straight at her. “So, Amy, got a few minutes?” Those green eyes gave nothing away. “We should touch base.”
Her heart pounding so hard she was lucky it didn’t crack a rib, she nodded. “A walk, maybe?” she heard herself offer lamely.
It took her several agonizing seconds to realize that he was waiting for her to join him. “Oh!” she exclaimed like a total doofus and ordered her feet to carry her toward him.
They all went out to the porch together and waved goodbye to Viv.
Luke shook Derek’s hand. “Friday, happy hour. The Ace.”
“I’ll be there,” said Derek.
The Ace in the Hole was the only bar within the Rust Creek Falls town limits. Amy remembered it all too well from her short, unhappy visit to town nine years before.
And then, last year, the Ace had garnered national attention when a reality show, The Great Roundup, had filmed final auditions there. Travis Dalton, Derek’s cousin, had been on that show and so had Travis’s now-wife, Brenna O’Reilly Dalton.
Amy had watched the show faithfully every week. The scenes filmed in town had made her feel all warm and fuzzy, made her long for Rust Creek Falls, made her remember the good times growing up. Best of all, The Great Roundup had allowed her to get sappy and sentimental from the safety of her Boulder, Colorado living room. Never had she ever planned to set foot in town again.
But now, here she was, about to get up-close and conversational with the very reason she’d stayed away for so long in the first place.
Luke and Eva went back into the house, leaving Amy alone with the gorgeous broad-shouldered stranger who’d once ruled her teenaged heart. She just stood there, like a lump. She had no idea what to say to him.
He had his straw Resistol in his hand. He slid the hat onto his head and tugged on the brim to settle it.
Everything inside her was aching. This couldn’t be happening.
But it was.
“Let’s go.” He started walking. She followed him down the steps and out into the late-afternoon sunshine.
He turned for the big yellow barn where Eva and Luke would get married in less than four weeks. Amy came up beside him and they walked together, but not touching, neither saying a word. Somewhere far off, a lone bird cried, the sound faint. Plaintive.
“Here’s as good as anywhere, I guess,” he said, stopping at a split rail fence fifty yards or so from the looming shape of the barn.
For more reasons than she cared to contemplate, she didn’t want to look directly at him, so she turned toward the pasture on the other side of the fence. The papers Viv had given her crackled in her hands as she rested her forearms on the top rail and gazed off at nothing in particular.
Silence. Out in the pasture, a bay mare snorted and shook her dark mane.
Derek said, “You look good,” and she tried to read his tone. Careful? Thoughtful? Maybe a little angry?
What did it matter, though, what was on his mind? She didn’t know him anymore. They were strangers to each other now and she needed to remember that. “Thanks. You too—and, well, I don’t even know where to start.” She did look at him then. He was watching her from under the shadow of his hat. Waiting. She swallowed. Hard. “I have been wondering, though…”
“Well, it would be good to have some idea of who knows,” she said, and then wanted to kick herself. Could she be any more unclear? He probably had no clue what she’d just tried to ask him.
But as it turned out, he understood perfectly. “About us, you mean?”
“Yeah. About, um, what happened thirteen years ago.”
“Nobody in this town,” he said. “Nobody but me.” A slow smile curved his beautiful mouth. “Well, and you, now that you’re here. While you’re here.”
She caught her lower lip between her teeth. “I would like it to stay that way.”
“Just between you and me, you mean?”
“Yes, Derek.” His name in her mouth tasted way too familiar. “Just between us. Can we keep it that way?”
“You got it. I’ve never told a soul and I won’t start now.” And then he frowned. “But what about the Armstrongs? You didn’t ever tell Eva or her sisters?”
“No.” Her silly throat had clutched and the word came out in a whisper. She knew her cheeks had to be lobster-red. “Ahem.” She coughed into her hand. And then she made herself explain. “I never told the Armstrongs the whole story. All they know is that you and I dated in high school. How about Luke? Your family?”
“I meant what I said, Amy. I haven’t told anyone. It just seemed better to put the whole thing behind me. It’s the past and it needs to stay that way.”
“I agree.” And she did. Absolutely, she did. She wished that none of it had ever happened.
But it did happen. And it changed her in the deepest way.
Did it change him, too, she wondered?
Not that she would ever ask. She had no right to ask and she needed to remember that.
He smiled again—halfway this time, one corner of his mouth kicking up. “Luke waited until after I said I would be his best man to tell me that you would be the maid of honor.”
A strange, tight spurt of laughter escaped her. She quickly composed herself. “I see Eva all over that.”
“What do you mean?”
“She got me to agree to be her maid of honor before she mentioned that you would be best man.”
“So, you think she knows more than you’ve told her?”
“Well, you know Eva, right? She’s a complete and unapologetic romantic. I think she suspects there was more than just a high school crush going on between us back in the day.” Another tight little laugh escaped her—and then she wanted to cry. Really, she couldn’t stand for him not to know what she truly felt, how much she regretted the way things had ended up. “Derek, I…”
“Yeah?” His eyes held hers, a deep look, one that reached down into the center of her and stirred up emotions she wished she didn’t feel.
“I, well, I just need you to know that I’m sorry. For everything.”
Wow. She almost couldn’t believe that she’d gone and done it, apologized straight out. And as soon as the words escaped her lips, she kind of wanted to take them back.
Because really, wasn’t he the one who’d told her to go?
But what else could a person say at a time like this?
“I’m sorry, too,” he said.
“But it’s fine,” she blurted out.
He nodded. “Yeah. You’re right. It’s water under the bridge. Years ago. Not a big deal.”
“Absolutely. Over and done. We’ve both put it behind us. Derek, we can do this. We can be there for Luke and Eva. We can help make their wedding everything they deserve it to be.”
He took off his hat, hit the brim against his denim-clad thigh, then put it back on. “Yeah. That’s our job and we can do it.”
She straightened her shoulders. “We will do it.”
“Yes, we will,” he agreed.
And then they just stood there at the fence, staring at each other.
The silence stretched thin.
He broke it. “Well, all right, then. I’ll be in touch.” And without another word, he turned and left her standing there.