Read the first 5 chapters of The Strongest Love!

Written on 12/18/2018
Mel Storm INC

You don't have to wait! Read the first 5 chapters of The Strongest Love right now. If you like what you read, make sure to grab your copy here!

Chapter 1

Brenna tied an apron around her waist and stood back silently as Elizabeth Jane gave her a tour of the ranch’s main kitchen. Dorian had already showed her around thoroughly, but it seemed important to the ranch proprietress that she also show their new hire the ropes, so Brenna went along with it again.

“Not too much to remember, and as long as you take the guests’ various food allergies into account, you’ll be just fine,” the red-headed woman said with a sweep of her hand over the counter.

Brenna smiled and nodded, eager to prove herself, to start a new life. She’d worked in a few kitchens before but had never been the one in charge until now. Of course, this kitchen was nowhere near the large, stainless steel kitchens she’d seen in most restaurants—but then again, the coziness of the ranch’s setup felt so much more comfortable to her.

Kind of like a home.

The small butcher block island in the middle of the kitchen offered more than enough room for Brenna to work on as she prepared meals for the guests on the ranch. Elizabeth Jane asked if she might sometimes be willing to cook for the staff, too, as needed, which of course would be no problem at all. Brenna also secretly planned to have fresh baked goods available every day for anyone who wanted a treat. 

Cooking and baking were the two things she’d loved all her life. No matter how hard—how scary—everything else became, the kitchen had always served as a place of warmth and safety. Now they were the source of her newest adventure in this place so far from the home she’d known. A good thing, too. She needed time to heal and put the memories to rest that still haunted her, pulling her under a bit more each day. Memory Ranch was a refuge, yes, but it was also a last resort. If she didn’t get out from under her terrible memories soon, she didn’t know what would become of her.

She desperately hoped it wasn’t too late, that she wasn’t too broken to fix.

Suddenly, Liz’s voice cut into her stream of consciousness. “Brenna? Are you still with me?” Her new boss wore a patient but concerned expression. 

Oh, no! Did you seriously mess things up already? Way to ruin everything before it could even get started.

Brenna shook her head to dislodge the ugly, little voice inside it and offered Liz an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. Go on.” 

Liz nodded and rushed full speed back into the conversation, leaving Brenna to wonder how much else she’d missed while she let her inner monologue get the best of her. “Yeah, so I was just saying… well, I know you said that we’d just use your pay to go toward your cabin rental and your stay at the ranch. But I can’t in good conscience have you working for free, so while you are making use of the facility’s therapy sessions and other resources, you won’t receive full pay, but you will be getting half of your wages. Then, once you feel you’re ready to work as staff only, we’ll work something out so that you can choose to stay living on the ranch if you’d like and just pay rent.” 

Brenna’s head spun as Elizabeth Jane pushed a stack of employment papers across the island and then a pen as well. 

“As mentioned in the job description,” Elizabeth Jane continued, hardly stopping for even a moment to breathe, “there will be guests who will be coming to assist you each day, too. The guests are all required to do certain chores around the ranch during their stay, so you’ll have plenty of help. Not that I think you’ll need it, but it’s good for those who are healing to feel like they still have a purpose.”

Brenna signed the papers and pushed them back toward her new employer. “Thank you for everything, Elizabeth Jane, really. I can’t wait to get started.”

The other woman rolled her eyes. “No need to be so formal. I mean, my friends call me Liz, so I hope you’ll consider it, too. And, since you’ll be working Tuesday to Saturday, with Sunday and Monday off, my husband Dorian will take over those days. But if he gets under your feet any of the other days you’re working, feel free to tell him to get out of the kitchen. He’s been in charge of the cooking since we opened, and he loves it, but the truth is we just have so much else he needs to be taking care of around here that he doesn’t have the time anymore.”

“I heard that.” Dorian walked into the kitchen and pretended to scowl at his wife. “I won’t get under anyone’s feet. This is your kitchen now, Brenna, and not a moment too soon.”

Brenna averted her eyes as the husband and wife embraced and shared a quick kiss.

“Are you off to a good start, then?” Dorian asked, keeping his arms around Liz’s waist as he spoke to Brenna.

“Yes, I think so,” she answered with an awkward smile. She hated seeing public displays of affection, but then again, this was Liz and Dorian’s home. She was the guest here.

“We sure are!” Liz interjected, shaking loose of Dorian’s embrace and going straight back to business. “Now, since today is Sunday, we’ll wait until Tuesday for you to take over. But if you’d like to spend some time in here tomorrow, we can show you around and what you’ll have to do.”

Liz quickly looked from Dorian to Brenna before adding, “Unless you already have plans?”

Brenna swallowed. “Actually, I kind of do have plans. Is that okay?”

“Of course it’s okay!” Liz said merrily. “That’s good. It means you’re settling in already. What are you going to be doing tomorrow?”

“You don’t have to answer that,” Dorian said abruptly, then whispered to Liz loud enough for Brenna to hear, “Give the woman some privacy. If she wants to tell you, she will!”

Liz turned bright red at the reprimand, but her smile didn’t falter. 

“It’s fine,” Brenna shouted, perhaps a little too loudly. “I was just planning to run into Anchorage to pick up a few things. I came from Florida so, to be completely honest, I never really thought my wardrobe through very well, and now I need some warmer clothes.” 

Wow, she’d only been here a couple days and already she was starting to talk like the loquacious Liz. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but freezing to death definitely would be. Luckily, it wasn’t too cold yet, but she’d already been feeling chilled. She had a couple pairs of sweat pants and a hoodie, but she already knew these paltry items wouldn’t be enough when the weather really turned cold.

Liz nodded along. “Of course! If you want to run into town in the morning, you can just come and shadow Dorian as he makes the evening meal. That will be the big one anyway.” She pulled out a piece of paper and leaned over the counter. “I can write down a few places you can check out that will have clothes for you. And you’ll definitely need a winter jacket, mittens, a scarf, and hat. Hmm, maybe I should make a list for that, too.”

Brenna smiled at Liz. “Thanks. I appreciate your help. These are all things I’ve never really had to think about before. Maybe I should have come up earlier in the year to get myself prepared better. My body might go into shock coming from such hot weather to cold Alaska winters.”

Liz waved her hand dismissively and laughed. “Aww, the winters really aren’t that bad once you get used to it. And I know you’ll love the snow.”

Brenna’s breath hitched. Snow. “I’ll admit I’m kind of excited to see snow. I’ve never seen it before.” 

Dorian dropped his mouth in fake horror. “How could a person never have seen snow before? I’m speechless.” 

Brenna laughed and shrugged. “Is it bad if I admit I’m more excited about building a snowman than anything else I’ve ever done in my life?”

Liz finished her lists and handed the paper to her. “I’ve marked down a good place for you to grab your lunch, too. It’s a little diner, and I just know you’ll love it. You can’t miss it from the directions I’ve put down here… it’s right beside a friend’s tattoo shop, and he’s got a big neon sign that you can’t miss. Just look for Pipeline Ink and you’ll know you’re in the right spot.”

Brenna committed the name Pipeline Ink to memory. This was definitely a sign that her passing interest in getting a tattoo was truly meant to be. “That’s actually really funny you would mention that,” she told Liz, smiling bigger than she had yet since arriving on the ranch. “I’ve been thinking of getting a tattoo to celebrate my new life. Kind of a way to start letting go of my past. You know, marking the beginning of a new dawn. Brenna two-point-oh.”

Liz’s eyes widened as if she, too, were struck by the serendipity of it all. “You should definitely do it! Trust me, my friend Matt is one of the best you could ever go to.” She quickly took the paper back and scribbled some more on it before handing it back to her. “If you decide to go forward with it, make sure you talk to Matt. There are a couple other guys working in there now, too, but tell him you want him to do it. You can tell him I sent you.”

Brenna looked down at the unfamiliar address scrawled across the top of the paper and took a deep breath. Well, that decided it. She’d get her tattoo and she’d be getting it from—she squinted as she tried to interpret Liz’s messy penmanship—Matt Sanders.

Tomorrow was the big day. Hopefully she wouldn’t talk herself out of it by then.

Chapter 2

Brenna slept deeply that night. Her dreams seemed to be the one place the memories couldn’t reach her, and for that she was exceedingly grateful. Upon waking, however, it all came flooding back—why she was here, what she was running from, how her life had been before.

She swallowed it all down deep in her gut, hoping the stomach acid would destroy it once and for all. 

He can’t hurt you anymore, she reminded herself as she got ready for the day. He’ll never hurt you again.

She told herself this again and again until it became a mantra. There was nothing left to fear, so why did she still start every time she heard a loud voice or a sudden slam? Her nerves had, perhaps, been irreparably frayed. Fear was a funny thing, Brenna now knew. Leaving the only life she’d ever known behind to come to the ranch, not scary. A man she knew for a fact was buried six feet under in the Florida soil, utterly terrifying.

These things take time, she told herself as she navigated the unfamiliar Alaskan streets toward downtown.

You’ve got this, she thought—or maybe hoped—as she sat in her car and watched the hustle and bustle of a busy Sunday afternoon unfold from her little safe spot in the parking lot. 

Sure, Anchorage was bigger than she expected, but from everything she’d seen so far, it looked like the perfect place to get lost. Perfect.

The only thing left on her agenda for the day was to work up the nerve to walk through the door to the tattoo shop that Liz had told her about. She’d been so anxious that morning she’d had a hard time choking down breakfast despite knowing she’d need her strength. So instead of seeking out the diner Liz had recommended for lunch, she sat alone in a parking lot trying to convince herself to open that door and take the next step toward her future.

What the tattoo represented was far more terrifying than the actual process itself. It represented a new start, a fresh beginning, a promise to herself. Still, the thought of being stabbed over and over again by a buzzing needle wasn’t exactly comforting, either. Maybe if she just went inside and talked to the guy, he could reassure her it wasn’t going to hurt. He didn’t need to know about her other hesitations.

Focus on the physical, then the emotional won’t hurt quite as bad.

Before she could change her mind again, Brenna rushed out of her car and into Pipeline Ink. The sign was just as Liz had described it, and the numbers in the hastily scrawled address matched up, too. There was no doubt she was at the right place. The inside, however, was nothing like she’d imagined. She’d half expected to find a gang of bikers waiting for her, each sporting full body tattoos of skulls, crossbones, and scantily clad women.

Instead, she found herself looking directly into the shining eyes of a handsome young man standing behind the counter and smiling broadly at her. “Well, hey there,” he said.

Brenna froze, knowing now that she couldn’t just turn and run away or she’d look like a coward. “Hi. I’m here for a tattoo,” she said, holding her head up confidently to hide how nervous she felt. 

“You don’t say?” he answered with a chuckle. “Let me guess, a pretty tattoo for a pretty lady. Maybe a heart or a butterfly?” 

Her eyebrow lifted as she listened to his perfectly rehearsed line. “Why do I get the feeling you’ve said that to more than one pretty lady who’s walked in your shop?”

“Okay, okay, fair enough. It doesn’t make it any less true, though.” He winked playfully at her. “We have some great designs. Let me show you.” He reached under the counter and pulled out a binder full of artwork. His strong hands were firm as he turned the pages, straight to a breathtaking watercolor tattoo of a dragonfly.

She looked around the small waiting room at the comfortable couch sitting in the corner. There were a few chairs sitting around it, and a coffee table with magazines stacked neatly in the middle. She felt more like she was in a doctor’s office than a tattoo parlor. There was even a small table next to the counter that had a coffee maker, mugs, and creamers. It wasn’t at all like what she’d pictured.

She turned back to him and shook her head. “It’s beautiful, but not what I had in mind. I’m sorry. I should go.” Brenna turned to leave, almost feeling a wave of relief that she wouldn’t have to go through with it.

“Wait,” he called before she could push through the doors and make her escape. “I can tell you’re nervous, but don’t be. You said you have something specific in mind. What were you thinking?”

When she told him her idea, he nodded and turned a few pages to show her a second stunning design. “Like this?”

“It’s perfect,” she said on the wings of an exhale.

He gently extracted the paper from its plastic sleeve and beamed at her. “Then today’s your lucky day. I just had a cancellation for my next appointment. It’s almost like you and this tattoo were destined. Maybe even made for each other. We definitely shouldn’t ignore that.” 

“Oh.” Brenna tittered nervously. There was no escaping now. It was out of her hands. She’d be leaving with a tattoo to call her own. “I guess that is lucky, then.” Her voice really didn’t hold a great deal of enthusiasm.

All at once she remembered that she was supposed to ask for Matt. Maybe she’d get lucky and this wouldn’t be him, but what would she say if it wasn’t? “I’m Brenna. Are you Liz’s friend, Matt? I got so nervous I forgot to ask earlier.”

The tattoo artist’s grin grew even wider, confirming his identity loud and clear. “That’s me.” He came around the counter and leaned against it. “Now are we really going to do this, or do you want to stall some more? Believe me, the more you hesitate, the harder it gets. The sooner you sit down and get started, the faster it will be over. Unless you’re too scared. I mean, you wouldn’t be the first person to turn around and run back the other way.”

She laughed nervously. “You know, for a businessman, you don’t really do a great job of convincing people to stay.”

He shrugged. “I’m not going to tie anyone down and make them get a tattoo. It’s a personal decision and not one I think should ever be done without thinking it through. It’s not like you can wash it off when you go home.”

“Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. It’s not really the commitment of the tattoo that worries me.” She looked away and frowned.

But Matt was quick to finish for her. “Right. It’s the needles. And the thought that it’s going to hurt.”

“Something like that,” she admitted as her cheeks began to burn in earnest. “I’m not usually scared of needles, but I’m worried it will hurt so bad I’ll have to ask you to stop before you can finish.” He didn’t need to know anything more than that. He didn’t need to know why the pain scared her or that she’d chosen to get the tattoo in a spot that had sported deep purple bruises for much of her life. The bruises were healed now and ready to be replaced by something wonderful, something like the gorgeous tattoo Matt had designed and shown her from his book.

“I’m not going to tell you that it doesn’t hurt. It does. But not really a pain that I believe anyone would find unbearable. And when you can picture the final product and how it will look, it can help to ease the pain a bit. Besides, once I get going, the area usually gets a bit numb anyway.”

She crossed her arms in front of herself. “You’re supposed to tell me I’m being silly and it won’t hurt at all. That would make me feel a lot better.”

He raised his eyebrows at her and, for the first time, she noticed his eyes were a stunning shade of blue. “Do you want me to say that? I can, but it wouldn’t be true. I’d rather you make the decision based on the truth than something I think you’d want to hear. If you want to try and it hurts too much, I can always stop and we could do a bit at a time instead.”

She looked at the man leaning against the counter and somehow knew she could trust him—and she also knew she could do this, she had to do this.

“Let’s just get it over with,” she said. “And don’t make fun of me if I scream.”

Chapter 3

Brenna nervously watched as Matt placed the reversed image of her soon-to-be tattoo onto her skin. The ink would leave a slight outline for him to follow as he traced the artwork onto her arm. She’d chosen three little birds in flight to represent herself, her mother, and her sister. Wild birds could fly, which meant they’d always be free. Birds also migrated as she’d done to avoid the winter of her own life. Funny she’d chosen a place with so much snow as her destination.

The design was even more gorgeous than the one she had envisioned in her mind’s eye. If the resulting tattoo ended up looking even half as good, she already knew she would love and cherish it. This Matt guy had talent, that was for sure.

Now she could only hope he also had a steady hand and a gentle touch. Her head was already feeling a bit dizzy from the excitement of it all, but she didn’t want to admit that aloud. Getting this tattoo represented a turning point for Brenna—a chance for her to show her strength while moving ahead with her life. She needed to do this. She needed it so much.

“Okay, so this is what I’ll be using.” He turned his needle gun on, causing her to jump at the noise. He shook his head subtly and held it closer for her to see. “I wanted to make sure you knew what it would sound like so you don’t jump like that while I was pressing it onto your skin. That would be not good for you, and it wouldn’t be good for my business if you ended up with nothing but a long, squiggly line streaking across the inside of your arm.”

Her eyes opened wide with concern. “Has that ever really happened?”

He laughed and shook his head. “Nope. I always give my little demo first just to be sure. Now even if you don’t find it funny, laugh. Laughter helps ease the anxiety and lessen the pain.”

Matt waited for a moment, but Brenna only bit her lip and tried not to cry. 

“Seriously, try to laugh. I mean it. It really does help.”

“Sorry, I’m just a bit nervous. I’m sure you’re actually quite funny under normal circumstances.” She took a deep breath and bit her lip again. “Okay. I’m ready.”

He tilted his head slightly and watched her. “Are you sure? You’re looking a bit pale. The last thing I need is you falling out of my chair and landing on my lap.”

Brenna forced a laugh, but it sounded odd even to her own ears.

Matt stared at her straight on. “Okay, so that actually wasn’t a joke. Some people do pass out, but I don’t think you’ll be one of them.”

Her mouth opened, but she didn’t know what to say. “Thank you?” she tried.

“You’re welcome. Besides, I can tell you’re tough. It’s usually the big men who come in acting like they’re tougher than nails that end up in a heap on the floor. You seem just as strong as you are beautiful. Am I right?”

She shrugged, unable to take the compliment at a time like this. “I think maybe it’s best if you just get started before you have me screaming and running as fast from here as my legs will take me.” 

He nodded in agreement. “Okay, it’s just going to feel like something is scratching your skin. Let me know whenever you need me to take a little break.”

She clenched her eyes tight and waited for him to start. When the buzzing of the needles started up again, she had to fight not to pull her arm away from him. She pushed herself back into the chair hard as Matt held her arm steady. She couldn’t stop. She’d committed to this tattoo, and she was going to get it now. No matter what.

You chose this pain, she told herself. That gives you power over it.

And, sure enough, after a few minutes, the pain began to ease. Or else she’d just become numb to it, she didn’t know for sure. Brenna let herself open one eye slightly to see what was happening. Just as she peeked down at her arm, Matt paused and lifted his gaze to study her. 

“How are you doing there?” he wanted to know.

“Is that b-b-blood?” Her voice didn’t sound as strong as she’d hoped. In fact, she’d suddenly developed a stutter.

He glanced toward the cloth he was using to wipe at her arm as he worked. “Just a little bit. It looks way worse than it actually is because of the ink and everything mixing as I’m cleaning the area to work.”

She swallowed and took another deep breath. At least she could see the picture starting to emerge of her tattoo, so she knew the pain would all be worth it. 

If she could just live through it.

You’re stronger than this! Stop being such a baby. This is good for you, her inner voice chastised right on cue.

“Hey, hey. Talk to me,” Matt said as he went back to work. “Tell me about you. It’ll make the time go by faster. You mentioned that you know Liz. Have you known her long?”

She knew he was just trying to get her mind off the pain, but she was grateful he was being nice enough to help. “I actually just came to town a few days ago. I’m from Florida originally. And Liz, yeah, I’m going to be working for her at Memory Ranch.” She didn’t think a near stranger needed to know she’d also be a guest there for a while. 

“You’re a long way from Florida. Are you sure you can handle the cold Alaska winters?” It was amazing how calm Matt sounded at a time like this. 

She studied his face when he put his head back down to concentrate on his work. His short hair was a mix between blond and red, and his jawline was quite pronounced. He had a thick growth of stubble along his chin, and Brenna chuckled to herself as she realized he actually looked a lot like Prince Harry.

She was sitting in a chair getting a tattoo by royalty—or at least an inked-up version of a certain Prince Charming.

Matt glanced up again, lifting the needle from her arm and brought his eyebrows together. “Is it tickling you now? I’ve never had anyone actually laugh while getting a tattoo.”

“No, I’m sorry. I was just thinking of something else.” If ever there was a time to be thankful people couldn’t read thoughts, this was it.

She watched him go back to work, concentrating carefully on what he was doing. Normally she was attracted to men with dark hair and brooding looks, but Matt wasn’t at all like that. He looked more like someone who liked to laugh and have fun but who also had a more serious side of himself tucked away. She wasn’t quite sure how she could tell all of that just from looking at him, but somehow, she just knew.

Could he tell certain things about her, too? Oh, she hoped not.

Still, as she continued to watch, she found herself wishing she knew more about Matt. He’d already proven he was a nice guy, but she knew very well that niceness could turn to cruelty at the slightest provocation. She’d seen it all too often with her father.

Giving her head a shake, she attempted to still her thoughts and make her mind as blank as the untouched skin on her opposite arm. Being attracted to Matt just wasn’t an option. Being attracted to any man couldn’t be part of her life. That would only lead to problems she never wanted to go through again.

You’ve already proved you’re brave. Now don’t be reckless.

Matt might have been cute, and he might have seemed like someone she could enjoy being around, but Brenna would never trust any man enough to let him get close to her. 

Not again. 

Not ever.

Chapter 4

Brenna shifted her arm gently from side to side, admiring the way her new tattoo caught and played with the light. It was still a little sore, but she was surprised how quickly the redness had begun to fade. Now she would forever have this little reminder of her strength and ability to fly forward to a new life hidden just above her elbow. 

No more bruises. Only beauty.

She carefully pulled on her new jacket and stepped outside her cabin into the crisp fall air. The wind had picked up after the sunset earlier, giving the sky a chill she wasn’t used to but that she liked all the same. This strange new environment was already doing wonders for her soul, and it hadn’t even snowed yet.

A soft whinny sounded from the pen where she’d met Buddy earlier in the week. She made her way down the path toward him, eager to be able to see him again. Since Sunday evening after getting her tattoo she’d been kept busy working as she learned the ropes and settled in to her new routine. There hadn’t been a lot of time to walk down to the horses although Liz had taken her around, shown her where everything was, and introduced her to some of the people caring for the land and horses.

The horses were her favorite part of the ranch, unquestionably. Maybe her next tattoo could be in their likeness. Less than a week before she’d been terrified when faced with the needle, and now she was already planning to return for a second bit of ink! 

Matt had been so gentle and caring—and funny, even though she hadn’t dared admit that to him. More than once in the past week she’d recalled his messy strawberry hair and glinting blue eyes, his warm, reassuring smile. What was it about him that kept her thoughts returning to him again and again? 

She could honestly say the beginnings of such an obvious crush hadn’t happened to her before. She’d learned young that men were dangerous, how easily they could hurt you. Falling in love hadn’t been good for her mother, and it wouldn’t be good for her, either.

Brenna laughed at herself and shook her head. You don’t even know if he’s single. Or if he’d even be interested in someone like you! Stop assuming.

Besides, weren’t tattoo artists and guys like him normally attracted to similarly inked up girls with dark hair and bright lipstick anyway? Those beauties were nothing like her with her stringy blonde hair and absence of makeup. Brenna would much rather fade into the background than call attention to herself when given the choice. Too often, though, it seemed she didn’t have one.

Not that any of this mattered in the grand scheme of things. She hadn’t come all the way to Alaska to nab a boyfriend. She’d come here to find herself and a way to move past the memories that wouldn’t let go of her. 

She closed her eyes for a moment and breathed mindfully as her new ranch therapist had taught her, trying to push away the thoughts that always tried to come through as she remembered her past.

She placed a delicate hand on the inside of her arm where her new tattoo lived. It would be a constant reminder of her new start.

When she opened her eyes again, a tomboyish brunette approached with a friendly smile and an animated wave. “You’re Brenna, right? We were introduced the other day but I’m not sure if you remember me. I’m Kate. I work in the stables taking care of the horses and anything else that needs doing.”

Brenna smiled at the woman who now leaned against the fence facing her. She wore a wool hat and had a scarf wrapped high and tight around her neck. 

Buddy was right beside her and he came over to nudge at Brenna’s hand. She laughed and gave the horse some attention. “Buddy sure does enjoy being doted on, doesn’t he?” 

“You have no idea. He’s got to be the biggest sap of a horse I’ve ever known. Still, he’s so sweet you can’t help but love him.” Kate reached up and rubbed at Buddy’s back while Brenna continued to pet his neck. She was almost sure she saw his eyes close briefly as he relished in their touch.

“Do you ride?” Kate moved a bit to the side and leaned against the fence post.

“I have before, but it was a long time ago. My mom used to work at a stable outside of our town, and my sister and I tagged along whenever we could.” Brenna continued to rub at Buddy’s neck as the memories from her past flooded her awareness. 

The times in the stables with her mom had been the only thing that had saved her. It had been so long ago and lasted for less than a year, but it was also the only place she could be away from him. Her father hated horses and eventually made her mom quit her job, preferring to keep her confined to the house without any outside contact. The only sanctuary Brenna had away from the shouting and the fighting had been taken from her.

And, after that, everything had gotten a hundred times worse.

Kate nodded. “I can tell you feel at ease around the horses. Some guests take quite a bit longer to get comfortable. I’m sure the rest will come back to you soon. Riding a horse is like, well, riding a bike! When you’re ready to go for a ride around the property, just let me know. I’d be more than happy to saddle Buddy here up for you and take you out to show you the sights. For the first trip out, we do always ask that you take one of us along with you to make sure you don’t get lost and so we can point out all of the trails for you to use.”

Brenna thought for a moment before agreeing. “I’d love the chance to go out for a ride. The only days I could likely go would be Sunday or Monday, though, since I’ll be working in the kitchen every other day.” Kate was a bit goofy, but she seemed nice enough—and Brenna definitely preferred the company of another woman to that of a man, no matter how trustworthy he might seem.

“That’s fine with me. I’m here just about every day anyway.” Kate pushed herself away from the fence. “Now, I’ll let you be alone so you can visit with Buddy here. I need to get back in and start settling some of the others in the barn for the night. I just wanted to come over and say hello, welcome you to the ranch. It’s nice to have another woman around here to work with. Sometimes hanging out with all of these cowboys can be a bit tiring.” 

Kate laughed as she turned to walk back toward the barn. “See ya later, Brenna. We’ll be seeing much more of each other soon. I’m sure of it.”

“Bye.” Brenna watched the woman walk away, smiling to herself. It had been so long since she had made a real friend. Would Kate be the first of many?

Growing up, she’d never wanted anyone to ever get to close in case they saw the reality of what her life was. So she’d kept her shame to herself, locking others out and locking herself and her sister in. It was going to be a challenge for her to reverse years of behavior, but she knew she had to try. 

Kate would be a good first.

That was when Matt’s bright blue eyes popped back into her head again. When he’d looked at her, it was as though he knew she was damaged and that he would need to be tender. But surely, she must have imagined that. How could he have known anything about her from that brief time sitting in his chair?

Befriending Kate would be much easier, much safer. So why couldn’t she let Matt go?

She wasn’t sure what it was about that man, but he’d somehow managed to get into her mind and wouldn’t leave. 

It’s because of the tattoo, that’s all. It’s important to you, and you’re accidentally assigning that importance to Matt. He’s just a guy. Don’t lose your head.

And especially don’t lose your heart.

Chapter 5

Brenna’s first month on the ranch proved to be even more wonderful than she’d expected. In addition to feeling confident with her work in the kitchen, she was also enjoying the chance to meet the guests and staff members who stopped in for treats and a friendly chat. Liz and Dorian were the best bosses she could have ever hoped for, and she even liked her new therapist, too. Though her treatment cut deep into her pay, Brenna still felt rich with life and with the possibilities of what might come next for her.

Today, for example, she’d made arrangements with Kate to take her out for a ride. Brenna had made time to visit Buddy every day and had fallen hopelessly in love with the gentle gelding. She couldn’t wait to get back in the saddle and felt guilty it had taken her so long to find the time to do so. Still, it had been important to her to get her bearings in the kitchen and make sure she had mastered her new job before she took any additional time for herself.

After finishing up a quick batch of chores, she was ready to go. Before she could fully pull her coat over her shoulders, however, Brenna’s phone interrupted her. She glanced down at the screen and frowned.

Mom.

Guilt twinged in her chest as she debated not answering. She’d come here to heal, yet her mother was the realest and most constant reminder of all she had suffered. Her mother had suffered, too, of course, but that only added to the discomfort in speaking with her.

Brenna never knew what to say anymore, especially because sometimes her mom talked about missing him. For all his faults, for all the damage he’d done, she’d somehow managed to hang onto love!

The phone clicked over to voicemail. Just as Brenna thought she was off the hook, it rang again. She’d have to take the call eventually. It might as well be now when she had an excuse to end the call early and a pleasant afternoon planned for after.

“Hey, Mom,” she said, already out of breath from the emotional effort of picking up the phone.

Her mother sounded surprised to have gotten a hold of her. “Brenna, I’m so glad you answered. I was hoping you’d call once you got settled in up there, but I know you’ve probably been super busy.”

“Yeah,” she hedged. How much did she have to say? How much did she have to give when it felt like she’d already lost so much?

“How do you like Alaska?” Her mom’s side of the conversation felt equally stilted, but at least she was trying. Why couldn’t Brenna try harder, too? Why couldn’t she just forgive and forget? Oh, if only she could forget.

“It’s good,” she said, trying to inject a bit of enthusiasm into her voice. “It’s exactly how I’d pictured it to be.”

“I just…” The other woman hesitated for a moment, and Brenna instantly knew she wanted to talk about it, about him. She’d been avoiding calling or even texting her mom for precisely this reason. “I wish you wouldn’t have gone so far away. As family, we need each other now more than ever.”

That’s exactly why I had to go, she thought but didn’t say aloud.

Brenna swallowed hard and sat down on the edge of her bed. Her small cabin had just a bed, a chair for reading beside a small fireplace, a bathroom, and a kitchenette. It was perfect and already felt more like home than anywhere she’d ever lived before.

Her mother was waiting for an answer. She needed to say something.

“It won’t be forever,” she choked out at last, although a very large part of her hoped it would be, hoped that leaving behind Florida would leave behind all the terrible memories she’d formed there. 

“And I’m here because I needed something…” She thought very carefully about how to phrase this in a way that wouldn’t lead to more tears, more probing questions. “Something different to help me move forward again.”

“Different doesn’t mean moving thousands of miles away,” her mother said softly.

“Well, I’m already here, so there’s no point in arguing about it. Besides, I like it.” And, she added to herself, he took away my childhood; I’m not letting that man have any more days of my life. Not if I can help it.

The phone was quiet for a moment, and Brenna could picture her mom sitting and chewing on her lip as she fought back tears. That was something they both did—and often. 

“Do you still blame me for what happened?” she squeaked out.

“No, I don’t blame anyone but him. Not anymore. Besides, he hurt you, too. I’m just glad he never laid a hand on Olivia,” she said, and that was the greatest consolation—her father had channeled his anger so fully at Brenna and her mother that he’d left her little sister alone.

As much as her mother didn’t like admitting what they’d been through together, Brenna also knew she blamed herself. If only she’d been a better wife, more obedient, anticipated his needs better, then, then, then…

Then nothing. He still would have been a monster who’d hurt his family at every turn.

Her mom had been shouldering the guilt for all the years of abuse their family had withstood at her father’s hands. And it killed Brenna to see her so broken down. She’d tried helping her mom, begging her to see someone who specialized in this sort of thing, but every plea had fallen on deaf ears. That’s when Brenna knew she had to leave, had to get as far away as she possibly could. 

It was the only way she stood a chance.

She hoped that if she got help to overcome her own trauma she could someday go back and help her mom get through hers. Even her little sister, who had remained unbattered, was still hurting, too. They’d all been through the ringer and were now having a near impossible time straightening themselves out.

Almost a year had passed since he died and the curse had been broken. The princesses were free to leave the tower of their imprisonment. Still, his legacy of hurt lingered, dragged them down each and every day. Even though she was no longer confined, Brenna knew if she didn’t do something to truly save herself, it would be too late for any kind of happy ending.

Sometimes she wondered if she’d waited too long to seek help, if it wasn’t already too late.

Then she had a thought. “Mom, I’m about to go out for a ride. Maybe you should try to make some time to go out to the stables where you used to work. I know if you could just be around horses again, your own heart could start to heal. Since I’ve been here and had the chance to be out around horses again, I’ve felt a sense of peace that I don’t think I’ve felt since the days I spent out at the stables with you. Think about it, okay?”

Her mother sighed. “I will, Brenna. But I just don’t know if I could show myself back out there. After everything that has happened and now that everyone knows the truth, I think maybe it’s time for me to go somewhere far away, too.”

“No one’s as hard on us as we are on ourselves. We have to fight for what we want or we aren’t going to get it.” She’d learned both of these things from her new therapist and suddenly needed her mom to know them, too.

She heard her mom swallow on the other end of the line. “I’m so tired of fighting. Besides, it’s too late for me.”

Brenna had to fight back tears. Why was her mother giving up when she’d only just gotten the chance at a new life? Why didn’t she care enough about herself to try? “Mom,” she warned, “don’t talk like that.”

Her mother’s voice came out small and shaky, and Brenna had to strain to hear her. “I wish I could be as strong as you, Brenna. But I never have been.”

And I never will be either—the unspoken words hung between them.

“Mom, you’re stronger than you know, and sometimes being strong means asking for help when you need it,” she pointed out, hoping her words were hitting the mark.

The pain and hurt from the years of abuse started to seep back into Brenna’s consciousness—her mother crying in the corner as she shielded Olivia in her arms; her mother with a broken arm; a black eye; a torn dress. So much hurting. She needed to get away from it.

“I have to go,” she said abruptly. “I’ll call you soon.”

Saying her goodbyes to her mother was hard. She missed her so much, and even though she avoided her calls, a part of Brenna still desperately wanted to race back to Florida to be with her again. To see if she could help even though she hadn’t been able to before.

She’d tried all that before. The only thing she hadn’t tried was fixing herself first, being an example of the new happiness healing could provide. The wounds on her body had long since healed. Now it was time to fix the damage that had been done to her heart.