09/21/2017

EXCERPT: The Coppersmith Farmhouse

Enjoy this excerpt from The Coppersmith Farmhouse, the first book in the Jamison Valley series and my debut novel!

PROLOGUE

Gigi,

The lawyer should have told you by now that you’ll be getting my estate. It includes a farmhouse in Prescott, Montana, that I lived in years ago. I loved that house and never could let it go. I was happy there.

I want you to move there. Be happy there too.

I know it’s a big ask but it’s time for you to start a new life. For you and Roe. Spokane has nothing left for you but memories and tombstones.

A man named Brick has been watching over the farmhouse for me since I moved. Nineteen years, he’s taken care of it. I’d like you to give him $50,000 from the estate proceeds. He’s always taken good care of the place. My guess, it’s in better condition today than it was when I left. If it wasn’t for him, I would have had to sell that house and then my girls wouldn’t have a place to start their new life. So, Georgia, you get him to take the money. It will give me peace to know I’ve made it right by him.

Love you, my Gigi girl. Love my Roe too. With all my heart. Thank God every day you came into my hospital room.

See you on the other side,

Ben

CHAPTER 1

New town. New house. New car. New job.

New life.

That’s what Ben had asked me to do. To start a new life for my four-year-old daughter, Rowen, and a new life for me.

And as much as I would have liked to explain that a major life change was completely unnecessary, it was tough to argue with a dead man.

So here we were in Prescott, Montana. Starting a new life.

Rowen and I had made the trip from Spokane to Prescott today, pulling into town late in the hot summer evening.

I had no clue what to expect, having just uprooted our life to move to a town where I had never been and knew not one person. As we passed a sign reading, “Welcome to Prescott! Population 823,” my anxiety peaked.

Prescott wasn’t a town, it was a small town.

Correction. It was a very small town.

Prescott was close to Yellowstone National Park and located in the southwestern corner of Montana. Bordered by mountain ranges, the town sat at the base of the Jamison River Valley.

Buildings started popping up along the highway as I drove toward Prescott. At the farthest edge was the hospital where I’d be working, followed by an auto parts store, a taxidermist and a police station. I doubted I’d ever set foot in one of the latter buildings. I did make a mental note when I spotted the grocery store though. Past the motel, the road veered to the left and the speed limit dropped.

I crept down Main Street to take in as much as I could. Shops and offices filled the downtown street from one end to the other. Interspersed between them were two bars, a bank, a handful of restaurants and the hardware store. Overflowing flower baskets hung from old-fashioned lampposts. Clean and tidy windows featured Western apparel and paraphernalia.

I was looking forward to spending a day wandering the street and exploring the shops. I dreamed of how it would feel to walk into a store and have the owner greet me by name. I longed to be a part of this small community. To feel like I was a part of something, not just on my own and left behind.

“Mommy, look! Ice cream!” Rowen screeched from the back seat, kicking her legs wildly.

“Uh-huh,” I muttered automatically.

After we passed the ice cream store and a community fishing pond, I stopped looking around and focused on the directions in my hand, trying to navigate to our new house that was so country I couldn’t use GPS to find it.

“Can we stop? Please?” she begged.

I glanced quickly over my shoulder. “Sorry, Roe. Not today. But we’ll stop a different day. Sometime soon, I promise. I really just want to get to Ben’s farmhouse and get settled for the night. The moving truck gets here in the morning and we need to be ready.”

She let out a frustrated “humph,” the first grumble she’d given me all day. She’d been a trooper on the seven-hour trip, keeping me company while I drove and quietly watching a couple of movies. But I knew she was totally over this long drive. Way over it. So was I.

“When we get to the farmhouse, you get to pick out your new room,” I said into the rearview mirror. “Won’t that be fun? And if you want, we can set the air mattress up in there tonight. Okay?”

“Okay,” she muttered. She wasn’t overly excited but it was better than another grunt.

I drove my new gray Ford Explorer down two roughly paved county roads before turning onto a long gravel drive. The farmhouse itself was situated in the foothills outside of Prescott. The land to the front of the house, toward town, was covered in golden prairie grasses. Behind the farmhouse was an evergreen forest.

I double-checked the address with the number by the front door. Wow, this was really it. My heart fluttered.

Paradise. My new house was in the middle of a mountain paradise.

After parking in the circular gravel driveway, I hopped out of the car and jogged around to unbuckle Rowen from her booster seat.

“Well, what do you think?” I asked.

“It looks cool!” Her big smile beamed brightly.

“It sure does,” I agreed, touching her freckled-covered nose with mine.

The farmhouse had a simple square footprint. Windows on both levels were framed with black shutters and faced the open land across the driveway. The exterior was painted a clean, classic off-white. Perpendicular to the house was an old wooden barn. Between it and the house, two enormous trees shaded the yard.

I grabbed the bare essentials from the car, anxious to get settled for the night. I was exhausted from the long drive and late nights spent packing.

“Let’s go in!” I said, swinging Roe’s hand in mine.

We climbed the five front steps and walked across the wide wraparound porch with its chocolate wood posts. I unlocked the heavy wooden door so Rowen could push her way inside.

The front door opened to a tiled entryway and a long staircase that split the house in half. To the left was the living room and dining room. On the right was the office and kitchen. A short hallway connected the dining room and the kitchen at the back of the house.

My dark leather furniture and cozy toss pillows would go perfectly with the main floor’s honey-colored hardwood. And I couldn’t wait to put my old reading chair in front of the brick fireplace in the office.

With the exception of a small powder room underneath the stairs, the bedrooms and bathrooms were all upstairs. I let out a loud “Woo-hoo!” at the walk-in closet in the master bedroom.

Rowen picked out her room, and after blowing up an air mattress, we settled in for our first night in the farmhouse.

I cuddled my girl closer and stared up at the ceiling. We’re here. I actually did this.

I just effing moved to Montana!

Though it was terrifying to be in a whole new place, it felt amazing to be starting over. Starting an adventure. Replacing the loneliness I had felt in Spokane with excitement. Leaving all of the bad memories from the past behind.

Settling deeper into the mattress, I gave my girl a long hug. “Do you like Ben’s farmhouse, sweetie?”

“I love it,” she sighed.

“Me too.”

During the drive over today, I had guessed at what shape the house would be in, how well the caretaker had done his job over the last two decades. I had mentally prepared myself to find the house infested with mice and bugs, but the house was like a dream. Clean and varmint-free.

Like the rest of Prescott, the farmhouse had a quaint and unique character you couldn’t find in a large, commercialized city. I would get to enjoy my morning coffee while staring at the beautiful Rocky Mountain range instead of the shopping center that had been across from my house in Spokane. There weren’t neighbors to block my driveway or glare at me when my grass was overdue for mowing. When I walked down the street, people would actually say hello, not just look at their feet and avoid eye contact.

I had space. I had privacy.

It was perfect.

“I love you, Roe,” I said into her hair.

She yawned her “Love you too, Mommy.”

And with that, we both promptly passed out, getting as much sleep as we could before a busy day of officially moving into our new life.

***

After a week of unpacking boxes and painting Roe’s room (because she’d declared that she “simply couldn’t imagine trying to sleep in a room without pink walls”), I had our home put together. Even so, we were heading into our first “regular” Monday morning a bit frayed and slightly nervous.

Rowen was at her preschool, Quail Hollow, and I was rushing into Jamison Valley Hospital.

The long, two-story building was much smaller than the towering Spokane hospitals I was used to. The ER was situated at one end and the main entrance at the other. I would be forgoing some of the luxuries of a big hospital, but I would gladly trade efficiency for the chance to get to know all of my coworkers, to feel that I was part of the small-town hospital team with its three doctors and ten nurses.

After meeting my nursing manager and doing the standard HR orientation, I set off to start my training.

“Hi!” I called to the nurse sitting at the ER desk. “I’m Gigi. You’re Maisy, right? I think you’re going to be hanging with me the rest of the week and showing me the ropes.”

“Hey!” she said, shaking my hand and flashing me a million-megawatt smile. “Yep, I’m Maisy Holt. I’m super, super excited you’re here! Usually we have to work the ER by ourselves because Prescott doesn’t have many emergencies and it is so, so boring,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve actually looked forward to being down here. And we have the whole week to gab. Oh . . . and I’ve never gotten to train anyone before so I am, like, stoked I get to.”

Maisy was adorable, with white-blond hair cut into a short bob. Her big, doe eyes were a light grayish blue.

I couldn’t help smiling back. “Well, I’m excited to be the first to experience your amazing training skills.”

“Thanks! So how long have you been a nurse?”

“Almost ten years,” I said, taking a seat. “I worked at a big hospital in Spokane before coming here.”

“Well, I’ve only been a nurse for three years and only ever worked here. I came right back home after college. Ida—she’s the senior nurse here. She’s taught me so much. But now I can learn from you too!”

We spent the next two hours going over the computer system and getting to know each other, though I learned much more about her than she did about me. For the first hour, she switched between showing me the patient chart procedure and telling me about the town. I didn’t utter more than ten words in that hour, mostly just variations of “Yep,” “Okay,” or “Gotcha” when I could sneak them in.

She must have finally realized she’d been dominating the conversation (or she’d gotten light-headed from her nonstop chatter) and started asking me about myself. When I told her where I was living, she got so excited she shot out of her chair and flailed her arms above her head.

“You live at the Coppersmith Farmhouse? Sweet! That place is, like, amazing! Total shame it’s been empty for so long but how cool that you get to live there. If you need any help getting moved in or decorating, I’ll totally come help. I’ll volunteer my brothers to pitch in too if you need some muscle. We’ll bribe them with beer and pizza.”

This girl was a total sweetheart. She had energy. She was spunky. She didn’t say anything without a smile. She used the word “like” way too much. And I loved her immediately.

A few hours later, almost lunchtime, Maisy and I had our heads together gossiping. She was telling me about the “hotter than Hades” new doctor. She had yet to learn much about Dr. Everett Carlson other than he’d started at the hospital about four months ago, he wore no wedding ring, he drove a sporty black BMW, and he’d bought a house in town where he kept mostly to himself.

A man clearing his throat scared us both out of our huddle. Heads and hair went flying up to see none other than the hot doctor smirking at us. At least I assumed he was the hot doctor.

He had brown eyes and chocolate-brown hair trimmed and styled neatly. He was good-looking, likely in his mid to late thirties, though not really my type. His look was a bit too put together for my tastes, but I could see why Maisy was interested.

And he definitely knew we were talking about him.

Maisy’s face turned a brilliant shade of red. Luckily, she was saved from the impending awkward conversation when the phone rang and she ducked away.

“Uh . . . hi. I’m Gigi Ellars.” My own cheeks were turning pink. This was how I made my first impression on one of Prescott’s few doctors?

One corner of his mouth twitched as he shook my hand. “Everett Carlson. Nice to meet you.”

Before I had to think of something else to say, Maisy called out to us in a loud, panicked voice.

“The EMT crew is on their way. They’ll be here in about three minutes. A man was nearly beaten to death last night! They’ve revived him twice on the way here but he’s got a very weak pulse and has lost a lot of blood.” Her face started to pale.

Dr. Carlson started issuing orders. “I’ll meet the ambulance outside and get the report from the EMTs. If he needs surgery, I’ll be the doctor in the operating room. You two will need to get him prepped while I get scrubbed.”

“Okay,” I said.

Maisy didn’t move or say a word.

“Maisy, get ahold of Dr. Peterson and tell him to come in and cover my other patients. Ida is here today. Make sure she’s the one in the OR with me if we need to do surgery,” he said before jogging to the ER doors.

Maisy was standing still, frozen in her spot. Normally I would let her take the lead because she had tenure at the hospital, but we didn’t have time for her to freak out and from the looks of it, she wasn’t going to be taking that lead anytime soon. We needed to get going.

“Maisy, do you want to meet the ambulance with Dr. Carlson?”

She shook her head as her eyes widened.

“Okay, how about you get the cart ready? Then get ahold of Dr. Peterson and Ida.”

After she nodded, I turned and followed Dr. Carlson outside to wait for the ambulance.

The next hour went by in a hurried blur.

After doing a quick scan of the patient’s internal injuries, Dr. Carlson decided he would indeed need surgery. Maisy managed to pull herself together and we worked side by side to prep the patient for surgery.

The man had been so badly beaten I could barely make out his facial features. His swollen body was covered in cuts and bruises, and there were glass shards in one leg from what appeared to be a broken beer bottle. Maisy and I cut off his bloody clothes and removed the dried blood caked on his body. When the bulk of the blood was cleaned away, we rushed him to the operating room.

I said a silent prayer that my first patient in Prescott would make it through.

Standing in the ER bay, I was in the middle of bagging what was left of the patient’s bloody clothes when I glanced over at Maisy. She was supposed to be disposing of the bloody bedding before the cleaning crew came in to sanitize the room, but instead, she was just standing by the bed, clutching a white pillow streaked with dark red stains.

“Maisy, are you okay?” I asked softly.

When she didn’t answer, I walked to her side.

“Maisy? I asked if you were okay.” I touched her shoulder.

She flinched and then turned to me, her beautiful eyes flooded with tears. The next thing I knew, she was sobbing into my shoulder while I hugged her.

My heart went out to her. She’d probably never seen such a violent case before. It had taken me years of working in the ER to build up a strong enough stomach to handle seeing such things on a regular basis.

“You okay?”

“Yeah.” She sniffled.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I’ve just never seen anything like that. Someone did that to him, tried to kill him. Who would do something like that?”

“I don’t know, sweetie, but unfortunately, not everyone has a good heart.”

She wiped her eyes and sniffled again. “I’m really glad you were here.”

“Me too,” I said, gently rubbing her arm.

“Excuse me?”

A newcomer poked his head around the bay’s curtain. He was wearing a long sleeve, tan button-up shirt with dark jeans and cowboy boots. A badge shone brightly on one side of his belt, a gun on the other.

“Hi . . . ah, Officer?”

“Deputy,” he corrected. A blood-soaked wrap was wound around his right hand, and blood smeared the front of his clothes.

“Deputy. Are you—” I started.

“Milo!” Maisy shrieked from behind me, then ran to his side. “Oh my god! What happened to you?”

“Maisy, calm down,” he said. “I’m okay. Got a cut on my hand that’s small but pretty deep, so I need to get a couple of stitches.”

“How’d you get that cut?” she asked.

“I cut it on some glass.”

“Where? How? Weren’t you in your patrol car all morning? What were you doing today where you had to be touching broken glass?” she asked, examining his wounded arm.

He opened his mouth to respond but she cut him off.

“Oh my god! You found the beaten man, didn’t you? He had glass in one of his legs!” She was shrieking again.

“You know I can’t answer that question or talk about work,” he said.

“Well, today you will. Tell me what happened.”

“I. Cut. It. On. Glass. End of story, Maisy.”

“Where. Was. The. Glass. Milo?”

Since Milo was bleeding and neither one of them gave any indication of backing down, I decided to interrupt their standoff.

“How about we get Milo admitted before he wrecks the floor? Then you two can continue your conversation.” I pointed to the blood spots at our feet.

They both immediately dropped their eyes, then nodded. The ER bay where we put Milo was surrounded by a long curved curtain. Closing it behind her, Maisy left me with Milo to go and call Dr. Peterson for the stitches. I pulled up a stool and snapped on some latex gloves, preparing to remove the bloody wrap from Milo’s hand and clean his wound.

“You’re new here,” Milo said.

“Yep, just started today. My name is Gigi.”

“Sorry about that scene with Maisy. Our moms are best friends so we grew up spending a lot of time together. She’s like my little sister.” Milo sighed.

I smiled. “Ah . . . hence the squabble.”

“Milo Phillips. Glad to meet you.” He smiled back.

We sat quietly for a few moments while I worked.

“Sure has been a crazy day, huh?” he said into the silence. His lean shoulders slumped and his head drooped, giving me a close-up view of his buzz cut.

“You could say that. It sure wasn’t the quiet and relaxed work environment I was promised,” I joked.

“Ha. Yeah, I bet. I’m sure that in two weeks, you’ll get quiet and relaxed. Today has been . . . different. This is the craziest thing to happen to me in my two years as a deputy here.”

Milo was attempting to mask it with a brave face, but his shaking hands betrayed his shock.

Just as I was about to ask Milo more about himself, a deep, rumbling voice from outside the curtains interrupted.

Milo’s hand jerked in mine and I turned as the curtains surrounding the bed flew to the side.

I opened my mouth to ask what was going on but the words got stuck in the back of my throat. My brain short-circuited. All of my attention was focused on the man standing right in front of me.

Seated on my stool, I had to tip my head way back to examine his face. I blinked a few times because this man was so ruggedly handsome I had to be imagining him.

He had light brown hair, long and messy at the top. It was styled in the I-just-showered-and-ran-my-hands-through-it look. What would it feel like if my hands were the ones to give it that style?

He had defined cheekbones and a strong jaw dusted with a bit of stubble. Along with the matching gun and badge, he wore the same tan shirt as Milo. But instead of the draping and boxy shape it had on my patient, the tight fit hinted at strong muscle and broad shoulders.

My mind wandered from the lines of the starched cotton shirt tucked into the jeans at his narrow hips to his rippled abs and how hard they would feel underneath my fingertips.

From his large thighs to his square-toed boots, his faded jeans fit his long legs so well they looked custom-made for him and only him.

I couldn’t be sure, but based on the rest of his physique, he probably had a great ass. There was no way a man could have those powerful thighs, that flat stomach and those strong arms without an ass sculpted perfectly with rounded muscle.

And I loved a man with a great ass. An ass that just begged to be squeezed while he was on top of you.

But what catapulted him beyond any good-looking man I’d ever seen before were his eyes, light blue eyes flecked with white. Bright, like the color of ice. I had never seen such a hue before. Did they melt when he kissed someone, or did the ice become even brighter?

Shaking my head a little, I blinked rapidly. I was sitting here, fantasizing and ogling this guy. I needed to stop staring and turn back into a professional. Maybe try and breathe again?

Thankfully, the perfect man wasn’t paying me the slightest bit of attention. His focus was solely on Milo. Had he even registered my presence? No, but at the moment, that was probably a good thing because he was not happy.

He firmly planted his hands on his hips and leaned into Milo’s face, firing question after question.

“Milo, you want to tell me why it’s taken nearly two hours after you arrived at the Silver Dollar this morning for me learn about the situation?”

He didn’t wait for Milo’s response.

“Why it wasn’t called into the station? Why you chose to call Sam from your cell? So while I’ve been doing paperwork at my desk, Sam’s been standing around the crime scene wondering where the fuck I was. Or while you’ve been sitting in the hospital, waiting to get stitched up, I’ve been doing fucking paperwork?”

Milo’s face paled at the verbal assault and he looked to his boots, muttering, “I’m sorry, Sheriff. I’m wigging out. That scene was fucked. I don’t even remember calling Sam or driving up here. I swear I thought I was in the waiting room for just a few minutes.”

The sheriff calmed down marginally, in that he was no longer yelling, and let out an audible breath. Then he reached out and placed a large hand on Milo’s shoulder.

“You wig out, Milo, you call me. I’ll help you sort it.”

Milo nodded.

Scowling, the sheriff turned to me and looked me over from head to toe. He actually appeared to be angrier at me than he had been at Milo.

What was that about?

“Are you about done drooling over me so you can finish patching him up?” he snapped.

My cheeks instantly flushed. My tongue swelled to about three times its normal size and I couldn’t find the right words to respond.

Damn. He had noticed me staring.

Which made sense. He was a cop. Being observant was probably in the job description. Regardless, he didn’t need to be so rude. Or to call me on it. He could have just ignored it and been nice.

When I didn’t respond, he cocked his eyebrows, waiting for me to answer his question.

“Can you speak?” he grumbled.

Jackass!

All previous thoughts of his perfection were pushed way, way back in my mind. You could be seriously hot on the outside but if you were nasty on the inside, all the exterior goodness disappeared.

I’d known a man like that once. Nate Fletcher. He’d been hot, cocky and confident. He’d taught me that lesson. And the way he’d taught it made sure I never forgot. Never.

I inhaled a deep breath and clamped my mouth shut. Because the words that wanted to come spewing out of my mouth were not good ones. I really wanted to call him an asshole and tell him to go to hell. But verbally accosting the town sheriff wasn’t on my list of things to do today so I mustered all of the mental fortitude I had and swallowed my insults.

“The doctor hasn’t been to see him yet,” I said, my smile saccharine. “I’m almost finished cleaning him up but Dr. Peterson will want to do the stitches.”

The sheriff stared at me for a moment, his jaw clenched.

“Fine. Make it fast,” he muttered, giving me one last glare. “When you’re done here, head to the station,” he told Milo. “I’ll meet you there after I talk to Sam.”

Turning on his boot heel, he stormed out of the room, grabbing the curtains and jerking them closed. They flew in the air and fell quickly but not before I caught a glimpse of him from behind.

I was right. He had a great ass.

Damn.

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