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The Only Exception - Signed Paperback

The Only Exception - Signed Paperback

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She was supposed to figure out his secret, not fall in love.

Wolf Creek Ranch series book 3.

Main Tropes

  • Opposites Attract
  • Enemies to Lovers
  • Fierce Protector


She was supposed to figure out his secret, not fall in love.

Ridge Cooper did what he had to do to protect his sister, and everyone watched as America’s football king lost it all. Only the people closest to him know the truth, and he doesn’t care if the rest of the world hates him as long as they leave him alone. His mysterious new assistant is tearing down his walls and digging up his secrets, and for once, he wants to let someone in.

Cheyenne Keeton took a job that seemed too good to be true: find out what cowboy Ridge Cooper loves most and her ailing mom’s care bills are completely covered. When she gets the job as Ridge’s assistant at a dude ranch in Wyoming, it sounds like her investigation will be easy.

But he’s not at all like the monster she heard about. Invading the privacy he loves so much feels wrong. When Ridge trusts her and lets her in, showing her a love she’d never imagined, she can’t betray him. But backing out of her former deal puts a target on both of their backs.

Cheyenne will do anything to clear his name, but will Ridge forgive her when he finds out what she’s done?

The Only Exception is a heartwarming redemption romance and the third book in the Wolf Creek Ranch series.

Read Chapter One

A loud thud woke Cheyenne from a fitful sleep, and she threw the covers off the bed. The old clock on the bedside table read 6:12 AM–a quarter of an hour before the alarm was set to go off.

Padding across the worn, brown carpet of her bedroom, Cheyenne listened for other noises. The locks on the trailer doors were flimsy, but anyone with eyes could see that there wasn’t anything worth stealing inside. The drapes were worn, the porch steps rotted, and the “Beware of Dog” sign out front wasn’t too foreboding without any sign of a real dog.

Poor Sport. She’d probably never know what happened to him.

Cheyenne took a deep breath, reached for the bedroom doorknob with a trembling hand, and opened it. It squeaked on the old hinges. Peeking out into the hall, all seemed quiet.

“Cheyenne?” Hadley called from her bedroom.

Cheyenne opened her sister’s bedroom door to find Hadley lying on her back on the floor. Her long, dark hair sprawled around her, and her head was a mere inch from the dresser that took up most of the space in the small room. “I fell,” Hadley said.

Cheyenne extended a hand to Hadley, sighing in relief. “You forget how to walk?”

Hadley stood, then bent to rub her calf. “I was putting on my shoe, and I got a cramp. I fell like a tree.”

“What are you doing up so early?” Cheyenne was always the first to wake, and she often had to herd her younger sister out the door in the mornings.

Hadley brushed at her plain black shirt–the standard uniform at The Back Porch Bistro. “I thought I’d stop by and see Mom before I went in.” It had been almost a week since Hadley had been able to visit their mom at the rehab facility.

“I’m sorry. I know you’ve been missing her,” Cheyenne said.

The guilt hit all at once. Guilt that Cheyenne got to visit their mother every day. Guilt that she’d lost her job when even two jobs wouldn’t pay the bills. Guilt that her younger sister was the only one pulling her weight around here.

The strongest emotion was always guilt, and Cheyenne had it in spades. The guilt was followed closely by anger. Hadley deserved more than this broken family and a pathetic sister who couldn’t even keep a steady job. Cheyenne had worked at Food Land since she was sixteen, and she’d worked her way up to manager. Not even that could save her when the store closed its doors.

Not that managing a grocery store was her dream, but what did dreams matter when Mom had needed help raising two daughters? Money had been tight since before the stroke. It just hit a new level of danger after.

Hadley secured her hair into a high ponytail and let her thin arms flop to her sides. “Cheer up, buttercup. I can wake up early every now and then if I have a good reason.”

Cheyenne forced a smile. “Look at you. My little girl is growing up.”

Hadley rolled her eyes. “Stop it. I am a mature woman. I can be responsible.”

Hadley was barely nineteen, and while she usually made good decisions, there were many mature situations Cheyenne didn’t want her sister to have to face.

Cheyenne had lost count of the decisions she’d had to make since their mom had a massive stroke two months ago. Most of those decisions involved either their mom’s healthcare or how to keep the sagging roof over their heads.

“You have time for breakfast?” Cheyenne asked.

“Sure. Can you make me a fried egg? I just need to put my makeup on.”

“Fried egg, coming up.”

At least Hadley was resilient. They’d both struggled to come to grips with the aftermath of their mom’s stroke, but Hadley hadn’t complained once about the new responsibilities. She hadn’t even told Cheyenne she’d dropped out of college until after it was done.

There it was again. The guilt. The anger.

Cheyenne headed to the kitchen where the light buzzed and flickered before steadying when she turned it on. She opened the fridge and groaned. The shelves were almost bare, but at least there was an egg carton. She picked it up and flipped open the top. One egg. Thank goodness Hadley hadn’t asked for two. Or toast to go with it. There wasn’t a stitch of bread in this place.

Once she had the egg frying in a hot pan, Cheyenne scanned the kitchen, then the living room. She needed to sell something, but they were running out of things that had any value. She’d sold the couch to an old woman last week, and if she got rid of the recliner, there would literally be nowhere to sit in the living room. Did they really need to sit? They weren’t home that much, and keeping the lights on was more important.

Hadley bounced into the kitchen whistling an old country song. Their mom had raised them on Tim McGraw and George Strait, and there was something comforting about those old tunes. Cheyenne always scanned the radio stations, hoping to hear one for just those few minutes of happiness.

Hadley’s straight ponytail swished from side to side as she pulled a plate from the cabinet. “What are you up to today?”

“Mom has an appointment with Dr. Krenshaw this morning. Then I’m headed to the library to apply for more jobs. If you can wait for me to take a quick shower, we can ride together.”

“Nah. I don’t want you to have to leave Mom to take me to work. I’ll drive myself.”

Cheyenne looked up from the sizzling egg in the skillet. Could they sell one of the cars? Right now, it would be easy to get by with one, since they didn’t have to work around two work schedules.

But selling a car meant taking something else away from Hadley. She was the one with a job, and she worked hard. She deserved her own car.

Cheyenne slid the spatula beneath the egg.

“You’re huffing again. Stop it,” Hadley said.

“I’m not huffing. I’m just thinking.”

Hadley leaned back against the counter and crossed her arms over her chest. “You huff when you think. You always look angry. You’re going to need Botox soon, and we don’t have the money for that.”

Cheyenne lifted her head. “Hadley–”

Hadley held up a hand. “Stop. It was a joke. Lighten up.”

“How can you joke about this? We literally have no money. Like, none. We can’t afford a Coke, much less Botox.”

The real kicker? Cheyenne hated that she always looked angry. She wasn’t angry. She was worried sick that she’d lose everything while trying to keep their heads above water. There was a really good chance they’d be sharing a can of pork and beans for dinner if she didn’t get a job soon.

Cheyenne brushed a hand over her forehead and hair. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to unload on you.”

“How’s the job hunt going?” Hadley asked quietly.

“No luck yet.”

“Where have you applied?”

Cheyenne huffed. “The better question is where have I not applied.”

“There's not much in Bear Cliff,” Hadley pointed out. “You should apply all over. You could get a job as a celebrity’s assistant or at a luxury resort in Tahiti.”

Cheyenne snuck a glance at her sister. “I’ve applied to some out of the area, but nothing quite so glamorous.”

Hadley punched Cheyenne’s shoulder. “Dude. You are so getting out of here. I can totally handle things.” Hadley gasped. “You could be a flight attendant. I’ve always thought that would be so much fun.”

“Are you really okay with that?” Cheyenne asked tentatively. “If I could get a job paying more, I could send money for you and Mom.”

“I’m definitely okay with it.” Hadley bounced and clapped. “You’re gonna have so much fun!”

“Work is never fun.”

“But you need to live a little. What are you doing here, besides worrying and sitting at Mom’s bedside? I can spend time with her, and we can video chat with you. People do that now. It’s the twenty-first century.”

Maybe things would be easier for Hadley if Cheyenne wasn’t walking around with a cloud over her head like Eeyore.

“We’ll see. I haven’t gotten a single interview yet.”

“It only takes one,” Hadley said cheerily.

“My resume is pathetic. It’s not even half a page long.”

“Don’t you know that employers only look at a resume for an average of thirteen seconds? That’s long enough to read the whole thing in your case!”

Cheyenne threw her head back and groaned. “Stop it.”

“And you have managerial experience! Employers like leaders.”

“Managing a grocery store doesn’t translate well into anything else.”

Hadley clamped her hand over Cheyenne’s mouth. “Shhh. You’re spiraling.”

Hadley slowly removed her hand and stepped back. Cheyenne huffed a deep sigh.

“Feel better?” Hadley asked.

Cheyenne plated the fried egg and handed it to her sister. “How are you so optimistic all the time?”

Hadley shrugged and stabbed her fork into the runny center of the egg. “It’s a gift from Mom. I’ll start sending you motivational texts.”

“Please don’t.” Cheyenne was plenty motivated. The threat of hunger or not being able to pay the electricity bill was enough to keep her trudging forward through anything. She’d already lost her apartment, and she wasn’t about to lose her mom’s house too.

Hadley swirled the egg on her fork in the runny yellow on the plate and stuffed it in her mouth. She mumbled around the food she chewed, “I’ve got to get on the road.”

“Drive safe.” Cheyenne checked her watch. “Mom’s appointment is at 8:00. I’ll let you know if Dr. Krenshaw says anything important.”

“Thanks. Love you.” Hadley kissed Cheyenne’s cheek, leaving a smear of egg where her lips touched.

“Love you too.”

Hadley was out the door before Cheyenne finished washing the skillet. She had just enough time to shower and eat a bowl of oatmeal. Thankfully, she was in the mood for maple and brown sugar because that was the only thing in the pantry.

Cheyenne walked into Hidden Ridge Rehab ten minutes before her mother’s appointment. She waved at the nurse behind the desk, Clara, and adjusted her purse on her shoulder.

“Cheyenne,” a sweet voice called from behind her.

Her feet stopped, but she waited an extra beat to turn and face the music. “Good morning, Rhonda.”

Cheyenne forced a smile.

Rhonda was a good woman. Her job just always came with bad news.
Rhonda was in her late fifties, but she could have passed for mid-forties. With smooth skin and glossy hair, she was the poised and pristine face of Hidden Ridge Rehab.

“Come on in,” Rhonda said, gesturing to the open door of her office.

“Can I come back in half an hour?” Cheyenne didn’t want to miss the visit with Dr. Krenshaw.

“I’ll make this quick,” Rhonda said as she stalked back into her office, not even looking to see if Cheyenne would follow.

Cheyenne looked down the hallway and hoped Dr. Krenshaw would be running late. Ducking into the office, Cheyenne closed the door behind her.

Rhonda steepled her hands on her desk. “Dr. Krenshaw ordered another six weeks of occupational therapy and physical therapy for your mother. Unfortunately, the additional therapy can’t be approved until there is proof of payment or the claim has been submitted to the insurance company.”

“What? Why would they do that?” Cheyenne asked quickly. “The doctor ordered it.”

“Your mom has been in our therapy programs here for two months, and you haven’t made many payments. If we see a lack of payment, we can deny a renewal.”

Cheyenne gripped the armrests on the chair. “She’s getting Medicare. It just hasn’t come through yet.”

“I’m aware of that, but we can’t keep treating without payment on the account.”

“What does this mean?”

“It means she won’t be here much longer if she isn’t approved for a therapy program. By an insurance company or by proof of payment. The rehabilitation center is–”

“Won’t be here much longer? You mean you’ll kick her out?” Cheyenne asked. Her pitch was rising, and her ears were burning hot.

“Yes, if her therapy orders aren’t renewed and accepted, she’ll be discharged.”

The air left Cheyenne’s lungs in a whoosh, as if she’d been kicked in the chest. “Where will she go?”

“She should be approved for a long-term care facility or home health care. Has her disability claim been approved?” Rhonda asked.

“No, and I’ve called about it numerous times. No one is in a hurry to get it approved.” Cheyenne didn’t even want to think about what would happen if her mom’s disability was denied. There’d be no Medicare and no possibility of her mom ever having an income. No help paying for the bills or prescriptions. They could appeal, but that was another hurry up and wait scenario. Her mom needed approval now.

“Don’t worry just yet. I’m going to contact Medicare this morning to find out why they haven’t approved her yet. I’ll send a copy of today’s medical record as well.”

Cheyenne scooted to the edge of her seat. “Today’s? Has Dr. Krenshaw already come by?”

“Yes, she made her rounds at about 7:00,” Rhonda said.

Cheyenne frowned again and remembered Hadley’s joke about Botox. Botox! Her mom couldn’t roll over on her own, much less be discharged home, and Hadley was joking about wrinkle repairs. The whole idea was so ridiculous that Cheyenne stifled a laugh.

Yet, she’d missed her mom’s doctor appointment this morning, and nothing was actually funny about it.

“Are you okay?” Rhonda asked softly.

“Not even close,” Cheyenne said. She was close to locking herself in a closet and screaming until her throat was sore, but “okay” was lightyears away.

“I’ll come find you today after I speak with Medicare.”

Cheyenne said a soft, “Thanks,” before ducking out of the office. One hand fisted tightly around her purse strap and the other at her side. Now that she wasn’t running to get to her mom’s room before the doctor arrived, she walked a lap around the first floor of the facility.

Adrenaline was still pumping in her veins, but less urgently, when she slipped into her mom’s quiet room. Hadley’s paintings decorated the walls, and a misshapen clay bowl Cheyenne had made in high school sat on the bedside table. Her mother had always clung to anything that was beautiful.

Apparently, that also included Cheyenne’s dad–another injustice she didn’t want to think about today. She’d never even met the man, but she knew his face well and hated it anyway. Football star Jerry Keeton had turned more than his fair share of heads, and even in his fifties, the man had a face made for TV.

Too bad fame and a handsome smile didn’t make him a good father. There was no denying the resemblance in Cheyenne’s features, but if her mom’s words hadn’t convinced him, dimples and a pointed chin wouldn’t either.

Whatever. Cheyenne didn’t need him. She needed to be here for her mom–the one who’d never complained about raising her kids alone.

She smiled at her mom as she closed the door behind her. Her mother had been beautiful too. Now her tawny hair was pulled into a low ponytail that hung over one shoulder and fell over the white bedsheets. Her once bright eyes were dull, and her collarbones jutted out beneath the top of her nightgown.

It was the lack of expression that always hit Cheyenne hardest. Her mother had been a joyful woman, even though she’d had few things to smile about. She’d kept a smile on her face through the darkest times.

Hadley was right. She’d inherited that blissful optimism from their mother, and sometimes, jealousy reared its ugly head. What Cheyenne wouldn’t give to go through life without the worry that was giving her premature wrinkles.

“Baby,” her mother murmured.

“Hey, Mom. You look nice.” Cheyenne put her purse on the shelf by the door. “I’m sorry I missed Dr. Krenshaw.”

“It’s okay. How are my flowers?” her mom asked. She spoke slowly and carefully, but most of the time, it was understandable.

“Good as always,” Cheyenne lied.

Their mother had always called Cheyenne and Hadley her flowers. When she was a child, she’d loved the nickname. Now, it reminded her of all the good they’d lost since Mom had the stroke.

“Hadley is working a lot, but she said she was coming by today.”

“She did. She was here when the doctor came,” her mom said. Her eyes darted to a handpicked pink flower in a short vase. Hadley had probably picked it off the side of the road.

She was like their mom–always stopping to smell the roses.

“Good. I thought the appointment was at 8:00.”

Cheyenne had barely sat down before her phone rang. The number was out of area. Probably spam, but what if it was a job offer? It was a long shot, but the hope of hearing from anyone about an opening had her answering the call.


“Hi, is this Cheyenne Keeton?” the woman asked.

Oh no. The woman sounded like a bill collector. Way too peppy. Cheyenne gave her mom a tight smile and answered, “Yes, it is.”

“I’m Jaden from Lang Corp. I’m calling about the PR position you applied for last week. I’d like to set up an interview.”

Cheyenne’s mouth went dry, and her mind was inconveniently blank. “Um, yes.” She had no idea what Lang Corp. was or anything about PR. “Can I get your address?”

“Sure, it’s 551 South Crest Boulevard.”

Cheyenne reached for a pen on the bedside table and scribbled the address on her hand. “And the city?”

“Chicago,” Jaden said.

Cheyenne almost dropped the pen. “Illinois?”

Jaden giggled. “Yes, that’s the one. Are you available today at noon?”

Cheyenne twirled the pen between her fingers. The first bite she got on a job and it was hundreds of miles away from Bear Cliff, Tennessee. “Well, I—”

“Is the address on your resume current? We can set up a video call.”

Cheyenne’s shoulders sank in relief. “Yes. That would be great.”

“Your application says you’re willing to relocate. Is that still true?”

“Yes. Definitely.”

Thankfully, she’d had the talk with Hadley this morning about leaving Bear Cliff if necessary, but the fear of leaving her sister to handle everything here gripped her throat.

“Great. Can you be on a video call at noon today?” Jaden asked.

“Oh, um. Yes. Noon would be great. That’s Central Time, right?”

“Yes, Central. Is the email address on your resume current? I’ll send you the link where you can enter the call.”

“Yes. Thank you.” Cheyenne bit her lips. Would it be rude to ask for a job description too? She couldn’t remember the job she’d applied for to save her life. She’d sent dozens of applications just this week.

Jaden hummed for a second on the line and then announced, “Done. You should have an email from me. I look forward to seeing you in a few hours.”

“Thank you. I look forward to seeing you too.”

Cheyenne ended the call and released a long breath. “It was a call about a job,” she told her mom.

“Good. What job?” Cheyenne’s mom asked quietly.

“It’s a public relations position. I’m not even really sure what that is,” Cheyenne added. She still hadn’t caught her breath from the phone call. She had an interview in four hours, and though she was woefully unprepared, she had to get the job.

At this point, she’d dig ditches on the sides of the road if it meant she got a paycheck that would help keep her sister fed and her mom here where she could get the care she needed.

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