and heart tested like never before in the battle
for love in Ryder by Barbara Freethy!
You won't want to miss a single one!
"I just need some time," Bailey Tucker said, her hand tightening around her phone as her good friend, Shannon Cooper, asked her for the third time why she'd left New York in the dead of the night without so much as a conversation. "I need things to die down," she added, still cringing at how stupid she'd been.
She sat down at the table in her father's kitchen, looking around a room that was comfortably familiar but also an uncomfortable reminder of her latest failure.
She'd left this house eight years ago at the age of twenty. After going to the local community college after high school, she'd moved to New York to attend culinary school. Classes and jobs in Paris and Rome had followed, and eventually she'd returned to the Big Apple to work for a brilliant chef and to hopefully take her career to new heights. But everything had shattered this week—her professional life and her personal life.
Now she was hiding out and licking her wounds in Eagle's Ridge, a small town in southeastern Washington State, shadowed by the Blue Mountains and nourished by the Snake River, a place she loved but was about as far from her dreams as she could possibly be.
She couldn't imagine what everyone would think about her shameful return. She could now consider herself a joke on both coasts.
"Franco should have been the one to leave town, not you," Shannon said, the anger in her voice drawing Bailey back to the conversation. "Nothing that happened was your fault."
"According to Franco, it was all my fault. You saw what happened when I tried to defend myself—he made it all worse. He said things about me—" She stopped abruptly, unable to say the words aloud. "I can't even bear to repeat them."
"Everything he said was a lie."
"It doesn't matter. He has more credibility than I do."
"I don't think that's true. You just haven't had the same opportunity to tell your side of the story. That's why you need to come back."
"I can't," she said. "I've tried to talk to the press, but they are all on Franco's side. He's a celebrity in the culinary world. No one wants to believe anything but the best about him, and he's incredibly good at spinning lies. I just can't be in the city right now. As soon as we end this call, I am going to toss my phone into the river, because I am being blasted by texts."
"They can't be all bad. You have friends."
"Some people are supportive, but the pity is almost as bad as everything else."
"It will blow over. I know it's big news in the foodie world, but there are a lot of people in Manhattan who have never heard of you or Franco," Shannon pointed out.
"You're right, but the only thing that felt good in the last seven days was getting on a plane and coming home."
"You always told me that Eagle's Ridge was too small for you, that you had bigger dreams."
"Well, those dreams turned into nightmares. And right now, Eagle's Ridge feels safe. My dad is here, my grandpa, my older brothers Adam and Zane. They're both out of the service now. It's odd that for a long time we were all gone, and now we're back in the same place again."
"Have you told your family what happened?"
"Not yet. When I arrived late last night, I just saw my dad, and I said that I needed a break, that I was missing home. He didn't ask a lot of questions, which is pretty much the way he is. He said we'd talk when I was ready, which might be never. I just don't want to disappoint everyone. I left with big proclamations a long time ago about how I was going to change the culinary world, and I certainly haven't done that." She felt a little embarrassed at the memory of how cocky her twenty-year-old-self had been.
"I'm sure your family will understand."
"Maybe, but my brothers have done big things. Zane was an Army cavalry scout. Adam was a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. They both literally saved people. They followed the tradition of service fostered in this town, and I didn't. I just wanted to cook."
"Hey, people have to eat. Cooking is important."
She smiled at Shannon's pragmatic comment. "Thanks for that."
"So, what did you do today?"
"Nothing. I wasn't quite ready to venture outside. My brother Zane stopped by briefly. He was in a hurry so he said we'd talk later. His main purpose for coming by was to ask my dad to watch his dog tonight, because apparently his floors are being redone. Since my father is going to be out, I volunteered. And, if you can believe it, I actually had to beg for the dog-sitting job."
"You did not."
"I did. Zane doesn't think I'm very good with animals, because one time while I was watching his goldfish while he was at camp, it died. Like that was my fault."
"Definitely not your fault."
"And apparently his dog Gambler has a long list of things he doesn't like. I haven't read the entire list yet, but I think doorbells and bubble wrapping were at the top." She glanced at the large clock on the kitchen wall. It was almost seven. "I should probably get Gambler some food. I wonder why he hasn't been bugging me." Uneasiness suddenly ran through her. She hadn't actually seen Gambler since Shannon had called.
"Hang on—are you good with animals, Bailey?" Shannon asked doubtfully. "Didn't you not date that guy from Brooklyn because he had two cats?"
"It wasn't the cats that I didn't like; it was the way he talked to them, like they were his girlfriends. It gave me the creeps." A cool breeze lifted her hair, and she shivered, wondering why it was suddenly colder.
Frowning, she got up, walked down the hall and saw that the front door was open.
Her heart leapt into her chest. "Oh, no!" She put her hand over the phone and yelled, "Gambler!" No response. "I have to go, Shannon."
"I cannot lose Zane's dog. He will never forgive me. And can this week get any worse—seriously?"
"Go. Call me later. And don't throw your phone in the river."
"I can't make any promises."
She ended the call, slipped her phone into her pocket and ran out the front door. Her father's house was in the woods, with the nearest neighbor—her grandfather—almost two miles away. It wasn't like Gambler could run into traffic, but there was plenty of wildlife in the area, not to mention the river about two hundred yards away.
"Gambler," she yelled again. "It's dinner time. Aren't you hungry?" She ran through the brush, her feet slipping on the wet leaves and muddy ground. Apparently, the first two weeks of March had been very rainy.
Her brothers would be happy about that. The more rain, the higher and faster the river ran, perfect for their adventure watersports business. Unfortunately, it was not perfect for running in the woods in flats better suited for a city street in Manhattan.
"Gambler," she called out again, pausing as she heard barking.
Following the sound, she ended up in a marshy meadow that had turned into a wet tributary with the nearby river spilling over its banks.
Gambler had somehow managed to get himself onto a tiny island of dirt about ten yards away from her. He was barking and looking at the water and then looking at her.
"Come on, boy," she said, patting her thighs as she urged him to come back.
Gambler barked in response. He put one paw in the water, then backed out.
"If you don't like the water, how did you get out there?" she asked.
Gambler backed up, barking again. She suddenly realized what was upsetting him when she saw several splashes in the water near him, along with the sound of frogs.
Frogs! Dammit! Frogs were on the list of things Gambler didn't like, weren't they?
She vaguely remembered seeing them on the list, and she probably should have paid more attention, but she hadn't planned on Gambler getting out of the house. In fact, she still didn't know how he'd accomplished that. She was one hundred percent sure she'd locked the front door.
Well, maybe eighty percent sure…
She'd opened the door when a package had arrived for her father, and she'd chatted maybe a minute with the delivery man, who was a longtime friend of the family. But she thought she'd closed the door when he left.
She sighed. It didn't really matter at this point. What did matter was getting Gambler into the house and dried off before Zane came back.
"Gambler, come on, boy. You can do it," she said again. "I'll give you a treat."
Gambler barked, then roamed around his tiny island, before barking again.
Putting her hands on her hips, she assessed the situation. It didn't look like Gambler was running back through the water to join her any time soon. That meant she needed to go and get him, but wading through the muddy, cold water wasn't high on her list of things to do. Still, she had no choice. It was a standoff, and Gambler was winning.
"Okay, fine," she muttered. "It's not like you're the first male to want everything his own way."
She looked down at her flats, debating on going barefoot or using them to protect her feet against the rocky ground. She decided to go for protection after seeing a layer of mud already piled on each shoe. They were done for anyway. She rolled up her jeans to her knees and then waded into the water. It was slow going, her feet sinking deep into the wet ground, the water swirling around her calves and knees, and by the time she reached Gambler's tiny sanctuary island, she was feeling wet and cold.
She grabbed Gambler's collar and tried to pull him toward her, but he was ninety-pounds of terrified dog, and he wasn't budging.
"Come on, the frogs are not going to hurt you," she pleaded. "I'll protect you."
She tried pulling him toward the water once again, but he reared back so abruptly, she was knocked off her feet. She let out a scream as she landed hard on her ass in the water.
Could her life get any worse? And then she realized it could when a frog jumped onto her head. She scrambled to her feet, trying to get the frog out of her now wet, tangled hair.
"Hey," a man shouted, waving to her. "Are you all right?"
She finally knocked the frog back into the water and then turned her gaze toward the man standing on the bank. He looked familiar, wearing jeans and a black leather jacket over a dark T-shirt. In the evening shadows, she couldn't see his features clearly, but the sound of his voice had taken her back in time. She pushed strands of hair away from her eyes. "Ryder Westbrook?"
"Yes, and you are…"
He didn't recognize her?
Well, of course he wouldn't. Why would he? Ryder Westbrook was four years older than her, and he'd been the golden boy of Eagle's Ridge—the high school quarterback, the basketball all-star, the class president, following in a long line of Westbrooks who thought they owned the town. His girlfriends had all been beautiful and all had come from the other side of the river, the wealthy side—the side the Westbrooks had stolen from her family sixty-five years ago.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Bailey Tucker." She couldn't keep the irritation out of her voice.
"Adam and Zane's little sister?" he asked in surprise.
"That would be me."
"You need some help?"
She jumped back as a frog landed on her foot. She kicked it into the water while Gambler barked again. "Does it look like I need help?"
"It does," he said, amusement in his voice. "What are you doing out there?"
"I'm rescuing Zane's dog."
"He looks fine to me."
"Oh, he's fine all right—he's just nuts. He's scared of frogs."
"How did he get out there?"
"I have no idea. He ran away from the house, and I found him here." She looked down at the dog, who was nuzzling her hand and now seemed happy to have her with him on the island. "Oh, sure, now you want to make friends, Gambler. You just knocked me off my feet."
"Gambler?" Ryder echoed. "Your brother's dog is named Gambler? That's fitting."
Since Zane's love of betting was well known in Eagle's Ridge, she couldn't argue with that. "Yes, and you can go. We're fine."
"You're fine? How are you getting Gambler through those frog-infested waters?"
"I'm thinking about carrying him."
"He looks like he weighs more than you do."
"Yes, well, it will work out. Don't worry about it." She didn't need Ryder Westbrook witnessing her latest disastrous moment.
"I could help you," he offered.
"I don't think so."
"Because I'm a man and you're an independent woman?" he challenged.
"No, because you're a Westbrook and I'm a Tucker," she snapped back. "Tuckers don't get help from Westbrooks."
Good grief! Where had that come from? She was channeling her grandfather's favorite mantra.
"Seriously?" Ryder asked. "You're bringing up that old feud?"
"If you spent five minutes with my grandfather, you'll know it's as fresh in his mind now as it was when it started sixty-five years ago."
"Well, it's fresh in my grandfather's mind, too, but we're not them. And if you don't accept my help, you're going to have to leave Gambler and go find one of your brothers. Then who knows what will happen to the dog?"
He made a really good point. The last thing she wanted was for Zane to find out she'd let Gambler out of the house.
Taking favors from a Westbrook went against the grain, but there was a part of her that thought it was a silly old feud, too. Besides that, she was getting cold covered in muddy river water. And there was no way she could carry Gambler back to the shore.
Before she could say anything, Ryder was making his way toward her, striding through the foot-deep water with steadier feet and a hell of a lot more purpose than she had.
He looked a bit like a rugged, powerful warrior, and a shiver ran down her spine that had nothing to do with the chill in her bones.
It was possible she might have had a tiny crush on him when she was younger—really tiny—barely there.
As Ryder got closer, the moonlight danced off the planes of his handsome face, and she swallowed a knot in her throat.
Okay, so he was even better looking than he'd been in high school. So what?
She was off men forever, or at least the foreseeable future. And even if she wasn't off men—Ryder Westbrook would definitely be off-limits. He was a Westbrook and she was a Tucker, and if there was anyone in the world she owed loyalty to, it was her grandfather.
But when Ryder reached her, she felt even more overwhelmed by his attractiveness. Up close, the power of his body, the breadth of his shoulders, the sexiness of his mouth, the hint of humor in his dark eyes sent little trills down her spine. And she couldn't help but wish she didn't look a little better than a bedraggled, soppy mess.
"Hey, buddy," he said to the dog.
Gambler was happy to meet a new friend and immediately jumped up, putting his muddy paws on Ryder's chest.
To his credit, Ryder didn't take offense at the new layer of mud on his jacket. Instead, he took the opportunity to swoop Gambler up in his arms. The ninety-pound dog tried to wrangle free, but Ryder was having none of that. "Stop," he said in an authoritative voice. "You're fine."
Somehow Gambler seemed to believe him, quieting his panicked movements.
She watched in astonishment as Ryder carried Gambler back through the frog-filled marsh and set him down on dry land. Gambler barked and then lay down, as if exhausted by his adventure.
She was torn between relief that Gambler was safe and annoyance that Ryder Westbrook had saved the day. But that was petty. All that mattered was that she had not lost Zane's dog in the river.
"You need some help?" Ryder called back to her. "Want me to carry you?"
"Not a chance," she said, stepping into the cold water. She waded back to the shore, stumbling a few times as her feet sank into the mud. When she got close, Ryder extended his hand.
She hesitated for one minute, not really sure why. She told herself it was because of the feud between their grandparents, but she didn't really think that was it.
There was just something about taking Ryder's hand that seemed dangerous…like she was crossing a line she shouldn't cross.
When Navy pilot Ryder Westbrook is shot down, his only thought is making it home—to the place he left behind a long time ago. But dreaming about the small town of Eagle's Ridge and going back are two very different things, and upon arrival Ryder finds himself in the middle of another battlefield—an old family feud between the Westbrooks and the Tuckers. To complicate matters, he needs disputed land to start his second career at the local airfield. He decides to enlist the help of beautiful Bailey Tucker, but the chef soon has his senses spinning in another direction…
The last person Bailey is interested in helping is golden boy Ryder Westbrook. After a painful personal betrayal, irresistible attraction to another man, who is probably too good to be true, seems like a terrible idea. But she also needs something from the Westbrooks, a chance to start over and build the restaurant of her dreams.
Ryder and Bailey make a simple plan—work together to get what they both want, but what happens when they find out what they really want is each other?
Don't miss any of the sexy soldiers!
Ryder (#1) - Barbara Freethy
Adam (#2) - Roxanne St. Claire
Zane (#3) - Christie Ridgway
Wyatt (#4) - Lynn Raye Harris
Jack (#5) - Julia London
Noah (#6) - Cristin Harber
Ford (#7) - Samantha Chase
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