The Other Side - Signed Paperback
The Other Side - Signed Paperback
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They fell in love before their families hated each other. Will their love be enough to mend fences?
Wolf Creek Ranch series book 5.
- Family Feud
- Second Chance Romance
- Fierce Protector
They fell in love before their families hated each other. Will their love be enough to mend fences?
Thea Howard skipped town five years ago after a tragic accident. She left behind the man she loved, along with the grief and anger that consumed their lives.
Brett Patton never expected to see Thea again. When he finds her injured on a snowy night, he sees his second chance with the one who got away.
Despite the years, distance, and obstacles between them, Brett helps her hide at the ranch where he works, but his attempts to convince her that things could work out between them this time come to a screeching halt when she disappears.
Brett won’t stop until he finds the woman he never stopped loving. Can he find her in time to get their second chance? Or will their feuding families once again rip them apart?
The Other Side is a gripping second chance romance and the fifth book in the Wolf Creek Ranch series.
Read Chapter One
Read Chapter One
Crouching in the woods behind her mom’s house wasn’t Thea’s idea of a fun Saturday night. Well, it had been her home too at one point in time, but to say she was unwelcome now was an understatement.
Shifting to stretch her leg out of a crouch, she brushed against a bush, sending a flurry of snow falling from its branches. She pulled the collar of her coat tighter around her neck. It had been years since she’d experienced a Wyoming winter, and she’d forgotten to bring a scarf.
Thea’s gaze darted back and forth over her mom’s backyard. Despite the darkness covering everything, the place seemed unchanged.
Five years could be a day or half a decade. For Thea, it had been a century.
Five years since she’d been in Wyoming. Five years since she’d seen her mom. Five years since she left without looking back.
Coming home was often romanticized. Reunions, kisses, hugs. Thea would get none of that tonight. She’d been hiding in the woods behind the house for half an hour, and this was hardly a welcome home party. If she was lucky, she could see her mom’s face and kiss her.
Hopefully, it wouldn’t be the last time.
The constant shivering tightened every muscle in her body. After half an hour in the cold woods, even her lungs burned with the frozen air. Her teeth chattered together, making her jaw ache. Emerson said the coast would be clear by six thirty, but Thea couldn’t risk checking the time on her phone.
A bright light shone over the backyard, and the screech of the screen door cut through the quiet night. Just as she’d been warned, a towering man stomped out into the darkness.
Thea released a shaky breath only to regret it as the puff of her warm breath billowed in the cold. She rested a hand over her mouth and nose.
The last five years hadn’t been good to her uncle. He still walked with the same unbalanced gait, and his bulging middle only served to make him look more off-kilter. The shadows blended with the night, making it hard to tell much else about him.
Her cousin, Emerson, had pretty much confirmed the dark family secret Thea had only guessed before–their Uncle Tommy had gotten everything he’d wanted all those years ago. Thea’s dad was out of the way, allowing Uncle Tommy to sit high and mighty on the Howards’ family throne. To top it off, he’d slithered his way into Thea’s old home under the pretense of taking care of his brother’s widowed wife.
What a joke. Sharon Howard knew how to stay out of trouble. Thea’s mom just knew too many family secrets, and Uncle Tommy wanted to make sure she stayed quiet, right under his oppressive thumb.
Disgusting. As if they didn’t have enough to worry about with the family rival, the Pattons. Uncle Tommy had done his own part in tearing the Howard family apart, starting with moving in with his brother’s wife before Thea’s dad was cold in the ground.
The injustice ignited a new spark of heat inside her, despite the dusting of snow that landed on her eyelashes. Did the man not care that he’d thrown fuel on the fire?
Then again, that’s what she’d been accused of all those years ago.
It had been a long time since Thea had even dared to think about the family she left behind. Distance and time had done at least a little to numb the painful memories.
Her dad’s death had only been the beginning. At the time, she hadn’t had a clue she’d end up losing everything before the month was out.
Everything. Absolutely everything.
Thea swallowed hard and kept her gaze locked on Uncle Tommy as he climbed into an old pickup truck and slammed the door. The tired engine roared to life and carried her uncle down the driveway. He turned left on the road and disappeared.
Finally, Thea could breathe. She stood slowly from her crouched position and groaned. She was barely twenty-three, but a pain shot through her knees and down her shins. She stretched her back to the right and left before taking the first step.
An ominous thought ghosted through her mind. Emerson had seemed sure that the coast would be clear this evening, but what if she was wrong?
Too late to turn back now. Thea had flown halfway across the continent to see her mom, and this was the best chance she’d get. Her uncle was the biggest threat, and he’d just left. It was go time, whether she was ready or not.
Thea snuck through the woods bordering her mom’s backyard, stepping over the underbrush and winding her way around small trees. When she reached the dark road, she looked both ways.
The main road was anything but a prominent street. She’d fallen into the habit of calling it the main road because that’s what the men in her family had always called it. Several unmarked roads and trails led into the wooded area behind the property, and they all had code names. It was one of the many ways they protected the moonshine stills in the hollers.
A thin layer of white covered the blacktop, and Thea stopped to stare at her feet. Her boots sank two inches in the otherwise undisturbed snow. She’d have to be careful with her tracks. It was the whole reason she’d avoided just waltzing through the backyard and up to her mom’s door. Tracks in the yard wouldn’t go unnoticed.
The compressed tire tracks in the road were her best bet. Thea took a big step, trying her best to put her feet in the tracks. She looked over her shoulder and took a few steps to test for footprints. Nothing.
The hard part was over. Now to see her mom. Thea jogged up the road until a stinging ache settled in her chest. The cold air burned like fire in her lungs, but she couldn’t stop for a break. She needed to get this over with and get out.
She was already dreading leaving. Her whole reason for coming was to see her mom, but would she be able to turn around and leave again? It had almost torn her apart the last time. She’d spent her first two years in the South depressed and lonely. Would she have to endure that again this time?
When she reached the driveway, Thea kept to the tire tracks, shuffling her feet when the snow hadn’t been disturbed enough to hide her prints. She stopped twenty feet from the house and scanned the outside of her old home.
There were floodlights on both ends of the house. There wasn’t a way around them, but if no one was here, who cared about the light? It was a risk, but did she really have a choice?
She could have stayed in Alabama, but could she live without ever hearing the voice of the woman who loved her so much?
No, she couldn’t.
Thea would risk everything for her mom, and the woman needed to know. She slowed her pace and walked up to the house, ignoring the weight that settled on her shoulders the nearer she got to the door.
The house had been falling apart a decade ago, and time had worked its awful magic on the place. The gutters on one side of the door hung from the roof to the ground, overburdened by the weight of leaves and snow, a rusty truck sat up on cinder blocks in the side yard, and a metal barrel riddled with holes sat beside the door. When Thea got closer, she peeked inside. It was half filled with cigarette butts.
She stepped up onto the first of two cement steps and shook her hands out. She’d forgotten to bring gloves–another rookie mistake. One thing she’d loved about the South was the mild winters. She didn’t need to be able to feel her face to meet her mom after all this time, but it would be nice.
Thea knocked on the door and let her hand fall. She pushed a few inches of snow off the sides of the steps. Back when Thea had lived here, the front door had been a forgotten part of the house. Her footprints near the back or side doors would have been noticed, but not at the front of the house. The front was useless. Too formal for use by the family, and too dangerous for door-to-door salesmen. The “No Trespassing” signs were the first line of defense, followed by “Enter at Your Own Risk” signs.
Laws were mere suggestions to the Howard family and rarely followed. They lived in an imaginary world above the law of the land. The Howards made their own laws based on blood and a warped sense of loyalty.
Funny, Thea had once thought the Howards provided her protection. She’d given up that perk when she left town. They’d disowned her when she passed over the Wyoming state line. Emerson had warned her about that little fact when she called with the news earlier this month.
“It’s your mom. She’s not gonna make it through this one.”
Emerson’s warning had been simple and clear. If Thea wanted to see her mom again, she needed to act now.
Thea brushed the back of her cold hand over one eye, then the other. She’d cried over her mom on and off for years. It seemed the well never ran dry.
Her mom had been her rock–the one person in her life who loved her and would do anything for her.
A stray memory jolted through the sadness. There’d been a time when she’d thought there was one other person who loved her. Thoughts of the whirlwind summer with Brett Patton carried more pain than happiness.
Stop it. He didn’t love you. He–
The thought came to a halt as someone shuffled behind the door.
“Who is it?” The soft voice shook with weakness and fear.
Thea pressed her palms against the door, desperate to be closer to the woman on the other side. “It’s me. Thea.”
“Thea?” Her mom’s voice held more strength now, along with a higher pitch, and the lock clicked. Seconds later, the old wooden door creaked open a sliver. Her mother’s soft-blue eye was framed in the small space.
“It’s me,” Thea said softly. The sight of her mom and the sound of the sweet voice that had once soothed her to sleep now wrapped around her throat like a noose, choking her with a mixture of joy and fear.
Her mom threw the door wide and opened her arms. Thea moved to the top step and fell into the embrace. Her mom’s once strong frame was small and thin, but nothing could compare to this feeling. Holding her mom meant more than anything in this moment.
“Baby, what are you doing here?” her mom seethed in Thea’s ear. “It’s not safe. You have to go.”
“I know, but I had to come. Emerson said–”
Her mom tugged Thea inside and looked both ways before closing the door. “Emerson shouldn’t have told you. You shouldn’t have come.”
The sobs broke from Thea unannounced, and her mom gathered her back into the embrace. Her whole body shook as she buried her face in the crook of her mom’s neck. “I had to. I missed you so much. I–”
“I missed you too, baby, but you know…” Her mother pulled away and let her gaze roam over Thea’s face. “You’ve changed so much.”
“Not really.” Thea sniffed and wiped her eyes.
She took her own chance to study her mom. Sharon Howard’s hair was a lighter shade of brown almost overtaken by gray. The lines around her mouth had deepened slightly, but her eyes had changed the most. They’d lost all traces of youthfulness.
Thea stared into those eyes that had once mirrored her own as something broke inside of her. She could practically hear the crack. The moment when her heart finally accepted that her mom–this beautiful woman–was slowly dying from a disease with no cure.
Cancer. The old nemesis had taken her grandmother too–another woman who could have been a light in the darkness had she not died before Thea knew how to walk.
Her mother’s chin quivered as their stares locked. “I’m so sorry about what happened to you.”
Thea shook her head. “I’m okay. Let’s not talk about that.”
Her mom’s arms wrapped around her again. “I’m so proud of you. You did what I could never do, and I hope you never come back here.”
Thea tightened her hold. “No, Mom. I can’t leave you again.”
Her mother’s words were stronger this time. “You have to. Or else all of this will have been for nothing.”
Thea shook her head, wiping her cold tears in her mother’s hair. “I miss you so much.”
The soft caress of her mother’s hand trailed down Thea’s hair. “I miss you too, but you have a chance to get away from all this. Take it. Use it. Have the life you couldn’t have here.”
“But it won’t mean anything if you’re not there,” Thea cried. It was the horrible truth she’d been carrying for years. She’d escaped, just like her mom said. Why didn’t she feel free?
Because her mom wouldn’t be there to see any of it. A potentially full life with a husband, kids, and a successful career–it all fell flat when Thea remembered that the woman who’d loved and protected her wouldn’t be there for any of it.
“It’s not about me, baby. It’s about you.”
Thea pulled back, struck by a question she’d been dying to ask for years. “Why did you let him in? Why did you let that man into our home?”
Her mother sighed and shook her head. “No one lets Tommy do anything. I didn’t have a choice, and I still don’t. But you? You do. Get out of here.”
Everything twisted in her gut. Fear, injustice, and heartache–it was all fresh and raw, boiling into the hatred she knew all too well.
Thea’s jaw tightened. What she wouldn’t give to see Tommy Howard get what he deserved.
“Don’t let him have that power over you,” her mother said. “It’ll eat you alive if you let it.”
“He ruined everything,” Thea seethed through clenched teeth. “He took everything from us!”
“Keep your voice down,” her mother said.
The tears stung behind her eyes. Thea’s life had been one disappointment after another, but her mom had endured that sadness even longer. Maybe her mom’s life had been decent before she met and married Thea’s dad, but the years since had erased anything good there had ever been.
Her mother lifted a frail hand and brushed her fingertips over Thea’s cheek. “Hating him doesn’t help us.”
A sharp huff spewed from Thea’s chest. “It sure makes me feel better.”
“Does it?” her mom asked.
Thea paused to think, but the moment only confused her more. Did it make her feel better to hate Tommy? “It might.”
The hand on Thea’s cheek dropped to her shoulder. “You shouldn’t stay much longer. This is good-bye. I need you to promise that you won’t come back.”
The last shred of hope crumpled in her middle. “Mom, no. We can see each other. I can come back. We could find a way to talk on the phone.”
“You know he watches everything I do. I won’t risk your safety. You need to get out of here.”
Anger boiled inside Thea again, bringing on a warmth that the cold couldn't touch. Why couldn’t she have her mom? Why couldn’t she be here for her mom when she needed help? “Will you tell Emerson about any updates?” Thea asked with a shaky voice.
“I will, but you have to promise you won’t come back. Not even when I’m gone.”
“Promise,” her mom snapped. “I love you, and I know you love me too. That’s all we need, no matter where we are.”
Thea nodded, only half agreeing with her mother’s wisdom. “Right.”
Her mother peeked over Thea’s shoulder out the small window. “You need to go. There’s no telling when he’ll be back.”
Pulling her mom into another embrace, Thea let the last of the tears fall. She’d never see her mom again, and it didn’t matter that they were both still living. A part of Thea’s heart was gone. All that was left was dark and ugly–worn down and beaten up by loss after loss.
When her mother backed up, Thea held her ground. She couldn’t leave yet. It couldn’t be over, but her mom was opening the door, and she couldn’t make herself walk through it.
Her mom took Thea’s hand and tugged her toward the door. A simple push on her shoulder forced Thea outside. “I love you,” she said through a closing throat.
“I love you too, baby. You’ll do fine. You’ll get past all this and be better for it.”
Thea shook her head and turned, wiping the last of the icy tears from her cheeks.
The light disappeared from the yard as her mom closed the door. Just like that, all the goodness was gone.
Thea walked back down the driveway and tucked her arms around her as she started on the road. It was over, and she couldn’t bring herself to care about anything. The numbness from the cold had seeped into her heart and soul, leaving a hollowness that she’d have to carry from now on.
The low rumble of an engine grew behind her, but she kept walking. She tucked her chin to her chest and prayed as her pulse raced.
Lord, please let it be a stranger. Anyone but Tommy. Please. Please.
The headlights shone on the road ahead of her, casting her long shadow on the gray snow. The truck was slowing down, and every muscle in Thea’s body tensed, ready to jump on cue.
The truck crept by her, and she kept her head down. She didn’t dare look up even to see the color of the vehicle.
When it didn’t stop, Thea released half a breath. The tree line was twenty feet away, and she could disappear into the maze until she found the path back to Emerson’s house on the back side of the woods.
But the red brake lights steadied, and the truck stopped between Thea and her freedom. Adrenaline kicked into overdrive, sending her heart speeding.
Now. Now was the time to go.
Her feet were moving before she registered the need to run. Thea darted into the yard and cut a diagonal trail toward the woods. If she could get into the covered darkness, she might be able to lose them.
The truck doors opened, and she made the mistake of looking over her shoulder. Two men. There was no telling who they were, but everything inside of her swore they were her kin. Her cousins? Her uncles?
Her brothers? Would they run her down with the rest of them if given the chance?
The burn in her chest grew as she pumped her arms and gasped for breath, pushing her legs faster than she’d run in years. Would it be enough? Would she be fast enough to make it back to her car? If she could just beat them by a dozen feet, she could jump in and head straight out of town.
The darkness wrapped thicker around her as she darted into the woods. Underbrush and fallen trees left the ground uneven, slowing her down every few steps.
Coming here had been a risk, but even as her ankle twisted on a hidden rock, she couldn’t bring herself to regret it. The only thing she had left was her life, and whoever was behind her might very well take it from her if they caught her.
Their shouts behind her grew louder, but Thea’s energy renewed when she burst out of the thick trees into the narrow path. She changed direction and set her sights on the house at the end. She’d run around the right side of Emerson’s house where her rental car waited on the other side.
A dark figure stepped into the path in front of her, stealing a gasp from her throat as she dug her heels into the snowy ground. The attempt to stop was too late, and the man’s arm wrapped around her throat as she tried to scream.