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So I spent a lot of time in here. My ranch might be the home I’d always envisioned for myself, but this place was my refuge.

I sighed as a group of college-age kids came in. It was about to get loud in here. I finished my beer and threw some money on the well-worn bar.

It was time to be getting home, so I could rattle around my estate by myself, and then stare at the ceiling for another couple hours. Then I’d wake up and do it all over again.

1

Riley-Ann

Sometimes, the kind and loving thing to do is run.

That’s what my mother used to say to rationalize why my father had left us. He was a soldier. A multi-tour military man who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and returned to America a hero.

A hero with severe PTSD.

He’d tried to overcome his demons, to integrate into normal home life. But there was nothing normal about waking up in a cold sweat with one hand tight around my mother’s throat and another rising skyward with a bowie knife, ready to neutralize one more enemy on the battlefield. It only took one nightmare, one flashback like that for him to sober up, and the second after he had caught himself, he did the only thing he could.

He ran.

He left us and never looked back.

Mom had forgiven him, prayed that he’d find peace one day, and we moved on without a man in the house.

But I was no runner.

I was a fighter.

That night when my father had almost killed her by accident, it had been my shrill teenage screams and my small fists pounding as hard as they could into his broad, strong, sinewy back that had brought him back from his waking nightmare.

His eyes had gone from ruthless, deadly and empty to regretful, remorseful and penitent.

After he stopped himself, even in his guilt-ridden state, all he’d wanted to do was thank me.

I didn’t want gratitude. I wanted my dad back. I was hoping some switch would be flipped and that we’d all go back to the days where I was his sweet girl. His little girl. Daddy’s girl. The one he used to carry around on those big broad shoulders. He used to boast to everyone who would listen about my silly little six-year-old accomplishments.

But that man, my real dad, had been left to die somewhere in the Middle East desert sands. That man was gone and was never coming back. And when the amped up, emotionally devastated, PTSD-suffering shell of his former self had come to the same realization, he ran.

He had run to save us.

Then, I had fought to keep my mother and I afloat.

For years upon years, I had worked multiple part-time waitressing jobs. I had fought my way through high school and college. I had charged into my first real professional position in my chosen career field. But trying to overcome the obstacles of where I had come from, well it only left me one thing.

Exhausted.

No, two.

Exhausted and unappreciated.

After three years managing the office of four attorneys in town, I was downsized. In their defense, we kind of all were. There just wasn’t enough business in our small hometown to keep our books in the black or to help four attorneys stay busy.

In the end, they packed it in to set up shop in the big city.

Without me.

They had run.

But I’d become so damn tired of fighting by then, all I’d wanted to do was stand still.

My best friend Kate’s offer to stay with her at the cattle ranch she had recently inherited from her late uncle had come at just the right time. She had sold it to me as taking a break. A timeout. An opportunity to regroup and figure out what the next chapter of my life would look like.

Perhaps this was me, running too.

Three days after moving to the ranch and settling in, I had already become bored. So when I had seen the help wanted sign in the window of Danny’s, the only bar in the nearby town, I did what was second nature.

I asked for the part-time job and I got it.

What I hadn’t expected was that my first customer of my first shift on my first day on the job would be Caleb Jackson Reeves.

The man was a legend.

A local hero in his own right.

A corporate hero featured on the national and world stage in every reputable business magazine and blog that mattered.

A rags to riches story that I knew every detail about, because I’d studied all about him in a project during my studies for my business associate’s degree.

An inspiration.

An integral spoke in the wheel that used to be my bone-deep motivation.

And now, here he was, sitting on the barstool, his broad hands on the smooth well-worn bar between us, his square-jawed, ruggedly handsome, middle-aged face tilted up at me, waves upon waves of his masculine energy radiating from him in my direction, his intense deep blue eyes just staring at me.


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