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It’s mud season in Vermont, and things are getting dirty… 

Landon Abbott and his identical twin brother, Lucas, always shared everything—until they laid eyes on Amanda Pressley and both wanted something only one of them could have. All it took was her pretty little mouth uttering the words “prostate massager” during a sales pitch at his family’s Green Mountain Country Store in Butler, Vermont, to make Landon’s heart stop and other parts of him jump to attention. Unfortunately, his brother felt the same—or at least he did. Now Lucas is head over heels for Dani and her daughter Savannah, and the path is clear for Landon and Amanda. Except that even with her staying with him, nothing is happening, and Landon isn’t sure how to change the status quo.

Amanda is making a list and checking it twice. Nearly dying in the fire at the Admiral Butler Inn has left her with tons of regret and a new lust for life. Topping the list of things she wants to do with her second chance are two key items—fall in love and have an orgasm with a man. The last person she expects to check all her boxes is the world-renowned player named Landon Abbott. She might’ve made the mistake of saying yes to dates with both brothers once upon a time, but only one of them makes her heart pound. Too bad she can’t figure out how to move off the starting line toward something more than friendship with the ridiculously handsome firefighter.

When she needed a place to stay after the fire, Landon was first in line to offer his home, and now that she’s sleeping in his bed, he’s determined to show Amanda only one Abbott brother is capable of helping her achieve her goals. Things are heating up in Butler this spring as Landon and Amanda find just what they’ve been missing on the road to happily ever after. But like mud season in Vermont, that road is full of potholes as a long-buried secret from Amanda’s past and Landon’s plethora of female admirers threaten their newfound happiness.

Return to Butler, Vermont to catch up with the Abbotts, the Colemans and Fred the Moose, and find out if baby Dexter the Moose has found his way inside Hannah’s house yet.

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All My Loving

Butler, Vermont, Series, Book 5

 

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” —Mary Oliver

Chapter 1

Days after the fire at the inn, the smell of smoke clung to Amanda’s hair and skin, the stench pervasive despite multiple showers and shampooing her hair so many times, her scalp had begun to hurt. As she sat in front of the woodstove in Landon Abbott’s cozy cabin, Amanda noted the irony of needing the fire to stay warm when fire was the thing she was now most afraid of.

While a late-May Nor’easter raged outside, she had nothing but time to think and relive the horror of her near-death experience.

It’d been a week since the Admiral Butler Inn had burned, trapping her with a badly sprained ankle until Landon’s identical twin brother, Lucas, had come to her rescue. They’d been on the way out of the room when the ceiling had come down on top of them, trapping them.

She shuddered every time she thought of that explosive moment and how Lucas dove on top of her. He’d been the more badly injured one, suffering a broken arm that had required surgery to repair, as well as smoke inhalation.

Amanda had been briefly hospitalized to receive oxygen and IV fluids as well as treatment for her ankle. When she was released, Landon had brought her home to his place to recover, as the next closest lodging was two towns away.

Since most of her possessions had been lost in the fire, Landon had bought her new jeans, sweaters, pajamas, socks and underwear at his family’s Green Mountain Country Store, probably in consultation with one or all of his three sisters. They would’ve been able to accurately guess her sizes. He’d even gotten her a new coat and boots to navigate the lingering mud season, and his family had delivered enough food to feed ten people.

Her own mother had been in a panic after hearing about the fire. Once Amanda finally succeeded in assuring her that she was fine, her mother, who was also her boss, had sent a new cell phone and laptop. They were already configured to the company’s servers, so she could get back to work whenever she felt up to it.

She had everything she needed to resume her life already in progress, if only her hands would quit trembling. If only she didn’t see and hear and smell the fire every time she closed her eyes. If only she could shed the bone-deep fear that followed such an incredibly close call. She’d relived it a thousand times, from waking up to find the room engulfed in fire, to jumping out of bed and landing wrong on her ankle, to Lucas storming in to rescue her and shielding her from the falling ceiling with his own body.

There’d been just enough time before Lucas showed up for Amanda to contemplate the very real possibility that she might die from the flames and toxic smoke that filled the room so quickly, she barely had time to process what was happening, let alone react, before it became too late to do anything.

Prior to the fire, she’d been on autopilot, traveling through life with no attachments, no responsibilities other than work, no emotions and a stubborn refusal to reexamine her painful past. After the fire, she could think of little else but what she might’ve missed if she’d died that night.

For one thing, she’d never been truly in love. She’d been in lust that she’d mistaken for love, but that didn’t count. In the seconds before Lucas arrived to save the day, it had occurred to Amanda that she could actually die before experiencing true love. She’d never skied or zip-lined or bungee-jumped or traveled to Europe or been on a cruise or gone swimming in the Pacific Ocean. Even though she’d been to Los Angeles for work at least six times, she’d never once bothered to swim in the ocean. She’d always assumed she’d have plenty of time to do those things. There was always more time to be had in the future.

Now she knew better.

After being reminded that time was finite and how quickly the future could be stolen from her, Amanda had begun a list of the things she’d never done. She wanted to take piano lessons, climb a mountain, learn to drive a stick, have an orgasm with a man. Amanda underlined those three words multiple times. She’d had plenty of the solo kind, as well as a few from trying out her company’s product line, but never once with an actual man.

Her body shook with sobs that came over her with alarming frequency every time she thought about how much she would’ve missed, how close she came to losing everything, of dying before she ever got around to actually living.

In addition to making a list of all the things she hadn’t done, she was also listing her mistakes.

  1. Dropping out of college before finishing my degree.
  2. Never actually choosing a career, but falling into a job that paid the bills.
  3. Getting a second credit card. The first one had been more than enough.
  4. Dating both Landon and his twin, Lucas—huge mistake.

She’d caused trouble between Landon and his brother, who was also his closest friend. Amanda deeply regretted that. When they’d asked her out—at the same time—she’d panicked and said yes to both of them, not thinking it through or weighing the many ways it could turn into a catastrophe. Mostly, she’d wanted to avoid hurting any feelings since her company had just landed a major account with their family’s business.

In truth, she figured they’d asked her out because they were fascinated by a woman who spoke about sex toys the way other women discussed shoes or jewelry. She’d grown numb to the salacious nature of the products she represented, but Lucas and Landon had been seriously intrigued.

It hadn’t taken long for Amanda to realize she would’ve been far better off kindly saying no to both of them. The situation had gone from innocent fun to messy in the course of two days. After a delightful evening with Lucas, she’d truly connected with Landon, which was baffling. How could she have such different reactions to identical twins? It hadn’t made any sense to her, but the fact remained—she was attracted to Landon but not to Lucas. He was a great guy—fun and funny and entertaining.

But there was just something about Landon…

He was everything his brother was and somehow more. When she looked at his golden-brown eyes and dirty-blond hair and sweet, sexy lips, she wanted things with him that she hadn’t wanted with anyone.

Not that it mattered now. She’d made a hot mess of things by dating him and his brother, and even though Lucas had since met and fallen for Dani and her baby daughter, Savannah, things had been awkward with Landon before the fire and were even more so now.

No wonder she’d never been in love. Clearly, she sucked at dating. And now she was holed up in Landon’s house, recovering from her fire-related injuries and contending with an emotional tsunami that would freak out any man, let alone one she’d kinda sorta dated before things got weird. She ought to get the hell out of Butler and go home to her mother in St. Louis. Her mom had called daily on Landon’s house phone to check on her since the frightening night of the fire.

“I’ll send a ticket,” her mother had said. “Come home. Let me take care of you.”

Amanda loved her mother, but feared if she went home, she might hunker down, pull the covers over her head and never leave again. That was not an option. The plan was to stay with Landon until her ankle healed enough that she could get around better, and then she’d get back to work and figure out what was next. She’d given up her apartment some time ago, rather than pay rent while she traveled nonstop for work.

Before the fire, she’d decided to stay in Butler for a while longer to work on the rewrite of the product catalog and had been halfway through the project before her laptop went up in the flames. Thankfully, she’d saved a backup copy to an external server, so she didn’t have to start over. But she had no desire to work, not to mention her concentration was nonexistent.

Outside, the wind howled as driving rain fell in quantities she’d never seen before she arrived in the mountains of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Landon was out there somewhere, working with the search-and-rescue team to find some missing kids.

He’d been gone for hours, giving Amanda way too much time to think and add to her lists. Another mistake had been to nurse a crush on Landon after causing so much trouble for him—and not just with his brother. They were sharing close quarters in his small cabin. He’d given her his bed and was bunking on an air mattress in the living room. He said he didn’t mind, but of course, he probably did. He was too nice to say otherwise.

As soon as she could walk without hobbling, she’d get out of his house. She’d decide where she wanted to make a home base, get an apartment and figure out her shit. Once she did that, maybe she could start working on that list of things she’d never done.

A knock on the front door startled Amanda out of her thoughts, giving her a welcome respite from her own hyperactive brain.

Landon’s mother, Molly, stuck her head in. “Just me with dinner. Don’t get up.”

“Come in. Please tell me you didn’t come out in this storm just to bring me dinner.”

“Oh, this is nothing. There’s an old Vermont saying that if you don’t go out in bad weather, you’ll never go out.”

“Still. It’s very nice of you.”

“I thought of you home alone while Landon is out with the search-and-rescue team and thought you might like some company.”

To her dismay, Molly’s kindness had Amanda crying again. “I’m sorry. I can’t believe I have any tears left. I’ve done nothing but cry since the fire. I cry at commercials on TV.”

“That’s totally understandable.” With her usual efficiency, Molly removed her boots and coat and carried in a tote bag. “You had a terrible scare, and it’s only natural you’d be upset afterward.”

It was so much more than the fire, not that Amanda could tell Molly that.

“I’ll put your dinner in the oven on warm, and you can have it when you’re ready. It’s pot roast.”

“Thank you so much. It smells delicious.” She choked on a sob and pulled yet another tissue from the box Landon had gotten for her. “I’m so sorry about the waterworks. Landon says I’m like a hot spring.”

Molly smiled and came to sit next to her. As always, Molly’s long gray hair was braided, and her pretty, youthful face belied the fact that she’d raised ten children. “You look like you could use a hug from a professional mom. Would that help?”

Wanting that more than anything, Amanda nodded and went willingly into the arms of Landon’s mother.

“My poor, sweet girl. It’s only natural you’d be emotional after what you’ve been through.”

“The fire was so frightening, but it’s not just that.”

“If you need to talk to someone, I’m more than happy to listen.” Molly pulled back and straightened Amanda’s hair. “And I promise whatever we talk about stays between us.”

Amanda desperately needed to talk to someone, and she’d already cried all over Landon for days. “I’d like to talk about it.” Maybe if she did, she might be able to stop crying every five minutes. After another pause, she forced herself to say the words. “I had something happen, twelve years ago. It was a very big something that I don’t ever talk about.”

Molly only listened, which Amanda appreciated.

“After that, it was like I shut down. I threw myself into school and then work.” She wiped away new tears with yet another tissue. “I did really well in my job, became my company’s top salesperson. I traveled almost nonstop from one trade show to another, from one product install to another, kept my head down and just powered through. And then the fire happened, and since then… It’s like everything I refused to feel for all those years is trying to get out all at once, and I think that’s why I can’t seem to stop crying.”

“That’s a lot to process on top of the fire.”

“It is, and Landon has been an absolute saint about it. I’m sure he’s regretting asking me to stay with him after days of histrionics.”

“I doubt that. He’s enjoying having you here.”

“He is? How do you know that?”

“Because he told me so when I helped him pick out clothes for you at the store.”

“Thank you for doing that.” Amanda wiped yet another flood of tears. “Everyone has been so kind. Your family is amazing.”

“That’s nice to hear. I’m glad you think so.”

“Everyone thinks so.”

“I’m proud of them.”

“It helps to talk to someone. Thank you. I haven’t wanted to unload on my own mom or my friends because they aren’t here, and it would upset them, and Landon has done enough for me.”

“I’m happy to listen, sweetheart, and you’re right. It would upset them. There’s nothing worse than knowing one of your babies is hurting and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Nodding, Amanda wiped tears from eyes that felt raw and achy. “I want you to know, this isn’t me at all. I’m not a basket case, I swear. I’m a planner. I plan every minute of every day so I know exactly what I’m doing. I follow strategic and marketing plans at work.”

“The fire upset your plans and forced you to live without one for the time being.”

“Yes, exactly, and I feel like I’m adrift at sea or something.”

“You will for a while, and then you’ll start to figure out a new plan. I also had something happen to me when I was a senior in high school. I lost someone very close to me. Took me years to move past that, and it wasn’t until I met Linc and fell for him that I truly confronted the loss, so I understand better than you might think.”

“I’m sorry that happened to you.”

“Thank you.”

“So you don’t think I’m a total loon because I can’t stop crying?”

Molly smiled. “Not at all. I’ve known some real loons in my time. What you’re feeling is totally normal. The fire was a big wake-up call, a reminder that nothing is guaranteed.”

“It really was. Just when I think I’m getting better, Landon does something nice for me, and I dissolve into tears all over again. The poor guy can’t catch a break with me.”

“I’m sure he’s just fine. He understands you’re emotional after the fire.”

“There’s emotional, and then there’s me. I’ve been taking it to a whole other level lately. I wouldn’t blame him if he sent me packing.”

“He’s not going to do that. You weren’t there, so you don’t know how he jumped right in to volunteer when we discussed that you’d need somewhere to go after you were released from the hospital. He wouldn’t hear of any other plan but you coming home with him.”

“I… I didn’t know that.”

“You’re here because he very much wanted you to be. People tend to underestimate him and Lucas. They think the two of them are nothing more than silly clowns—and they can definitely be that. But there’s a lot of substance beneath their tomfoolery.”

“I’ve seen that since the fire. He’s been incredible. He hasn’t left my side, except to go to work, since I got here.”

“That sounds like him. He’s true blue, but you don’t need me singing his praises. You’ve seen it with your own eyes.”

“I have.”

“Don’t worry about being emotional around him. He can handle it.”

“I’m not sure that I can.”

Molly laughed. “I bet you’re stronger than you think. In the time we’ve known you, all I’ve seen is a strong, capable, competent, intelligent woman.”

The kind words from someone she greatly respected had her weeping again. “You see? All it takes is someone being nice to me, and I’m a disaster.”

Molly hugged her again. “I promise you’ll get through this strange phase, and you’ll start to get used to feeling all the things again. Maybe it’ll turn out to be a blessing that this happened. It’s not healthy to stuff your feelings into a box for years on end. That’s not sustainable long-term.”

“Is that what happened to you?”

Molly nodded. “I was numb for five years. I met Linc right after I graduated from college, and when I started to feel all the things for him, I had a similar reaction. I finally grieved the boyfriend I’d lost. It was like a delayed reaction. I knew Linc was the one for me when he never blinked an eye at me crying over another man.”

“I’ve cried more about the thing from high school in the last week than I have in all the years since it happened.”

“Because the fire opened the door to all those old emotions. I’m so sorry you’re hurting that way. I wish there was something I could do to help.”

“This has helped. More than you know. Thank you for listening and for understanding.”

“I do understand, and I feel for you. Emotional overload after years of numbness is tough to take.”

“It is, and it helps to hear it might be normal, despite how it feels.”

“It’s completely normal.” Molly handed her yet another tissue. “I promise you’re going to survive this, and perhaps be better off once you figure out how to process everything you’re feeling.”

“I’ll have to take your word on that.”

“You have my number if you ever need to talk. I’m always available to you.”

“Thank you so much, Molly. For dinner and for listening.”

“Any time. Hang in there. Like the storm raging outside, the one raging inside you will pass, too, and I promise you’ll be just fine.”

Amanda hugged her. “I hope you’re right.”

“I usually am. Just ask my children.”

Laughing, Amanda said, “How do you stand knowing your sons are out in this awful storm?”

“They’re very well trained, and they love what they do. Besides, all Vermonters are used to bad weather. It doesn’t faze us.”

“You’re made of hardy stock, as my mother would say.”

“We have to be. Reach out if you need anything at all. You’re not alone with the Abbott family in your corner.”

Amanda got up and hobbled to the door to see Molly out. “Thanks again.”

“Take care of yourself, Amanda.”

“I will.”

Amanda waved from the door as Molly drove off, and then she locked up since she had no way to know when Landon might make it home. She decided to retrieve her dinner from the oven and enjoyed every savory bite of the meal Molly had brought. It was so nice of her to do that, and to listen to Amanda’s troubles, too.

Molly had given her a new perspective by telling her there would be sunshine after the rain and that the emotions battering her since the fire were actually healthy despite how dreadful she felt at the moment.

That was the best news she’d had in days.

 

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Chapter 2

Landon trudged through wind, driving rain and ankle-deep mud that slowed him down. A spotlight attached to his helmet provided limited help in seeing through rain that hadn’t let up in hours. Mother Nature was being a serious bitch this year, with the rainiest May on record extending mud season weeks longer than usual. After this latest downpour, they’d be in for more mud when they should’ve been settling into summer.

His voice had gone hoarse from screaming the names of the three teens who’d gone missing almost four hours ago. They were tourists from southern Connecticut who’d had no idea they’d entered a whole other world in the Vermont mountains. They’d thought it would be fun to leave their hotel for a late-afternoon hike.

During a Nor’easter.

Now Landon, four of his six brothers, their cousins Grayson and Noah, and ten others from the Butler Mountain search-and-rescue service were trying to find them. Good times. In the meantime, the rain fell and accumulated at an alarming rate as the temperature continued to drop. The very real fear of flooding hung over the effort. A few years ago, a spring storm just like this one had caused the creeks to overflow into the town.

No one knew what the kids had been wearing when they left the hotel, but the searchers were operating under the assumption that they were in no way prepared to be out in weather like this for hours.

Landon was connected to the rest of the team by satellite radios that conveyed the coordinates of each searcher. The radios made it possible to split up and cover more ground rather than rely on the buddy system, like they had before satellite technology made it safe to work alone.

He welcomed the time to himself to ponder the confounding situation with his sexy roommate. Having Amanda living in his cabin was wonderful—and torturous. The house was so small that her distinctive sexy scent invaded every corner of the place. He had to move her toothbrush to get to his own, had to step over her pile of folded clothes to get to his closet. She was everywhere he looked, and he liked looking at her—a little too much, if he was being honest.

He’d tried to keep his distance, to give her room to recover and cope with the emotional overload that came from surviving a fire, but it was hard to keep your distance from someone when you were living practically on top of each other.

Not that he’d mind being on top of her.

“Cut it out,” he muttered as he stopped moving to take a breather. The mud was getting so deep, it was becoming harder to get through it, not to mention the cold was seeping through his foul-weather gear into his bones. He reached into his pocket for a protein bar and downed it in three big bites, chasing it with Gatorade.

Amanda was in no condition for him to be thinking of her that way. The poor girl hadn’t stopped crying since the fire, and the last thing she needed was him panting after her. But what did it say about him that he thought she was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen, even when her face and eyes were red and puffy from crying? What did it say about him that he wanted to wrap his arms around her and make everything that was hurting her better? He didn’t dare do it, but oh, how he wanted to.

The radio came to life with a query from his brother Wade. “How long are we going to look?”

His brother Will said, “I was just at the firehouse. The parents are hysterical. All they could talk about was how they’re good kids—on the honor roll, varsity athletes. We gotta keep going.”

Landon had known someone was going to say it. They never gave up before they found the people they were looking for. Most of the time, they were alive, if half frozen and suffering from exposure. It’d been a few years since they lost someone on the mountain. He’d like to keep that record intact and knew his brothers, cousins and friends felt the same way.

The kids they were looking for were someone’s sons, grandsons, brothers, friends. Whenever they looked for missing people, Landon tried to imagine it was one of his siblings or cousins, and he tried to give strangers the same effort he’d give his own family.

He continued on, powering through the wet, heavy mud as he blazed a trail in the direction where the teens were last seen. No one knew how far they could’ve gotten before the storm intensified, so they were basically looking for needles in the proverbial haystack.

“Connor! Jeremy! Michael!”

He’d called for them so many times by now, his voice was nearly shot. But he kept going, kept yelling out the names every few feet, while trying not to think about the situation at home. Easier said than done. He liked thinking about her, loved having her living in his cabin, even though he hated the reason she needed shelter, and was upset to see her so undone for days now. Landon wouldn’t wish getting caught in a fire on anyone. It was terrifying, even when you were wearing fire-retardant equipment and equipped with oxygen.

He wouldn’t soon forget realizing the roof had fallen in on the room where Lucas had gone to rescue Amanda. Knowing two people he cared about were in mortal danger had been one of the most frightening experiences of Landon’s life.

His identical twin was his best friend. The thought of even a day without Lucas was unfathomable. A week after the fire, Landon still felt sick when he considered the magnitude of what he’d nearly lost that night, especially since things between him and Lucas had been tense after they both went out with Amanda.

She’d tried to be nice to them when they’d asked her out at the same time, but had ended up in a bad situation when both brothers had a great time with her.

Lucas had been so upset about the situation with Amanda, he’d left town to get away from it all. On that trip, he’d rescued Dani and her baby girl, Savannah, and had fallen for both of them.

With Lucas now out of the Amanda picture, Landon had been trying to figure out his next move, while also trying to get a read on her and whether she wanted to hang out again as more than just platonic roommates.

Before the fire, Amanda had stayed in Butler to work on a rewrite of her company’s catalog. Lucas had pointed out that she could’ve done that anywhere and had made the choice to stay in Butler, probably because of Landon.

Landon had been skeptical about that and had planned to talk to her about what, if anything, was going on between them, but then the fire had happened, and they’d had far bigger things to worry about ever since. So he still had no clue what she was thinking where he was concerned, but she was staying in his cabin, so that gave him an advantage he hadn’t had before.

For all the good that’d done him. In between her bouts of weeping, they’d barely exchanged more than ten sentences per day as they discussed what they wanted to heat up for dinner from the ton of food his family had made for them.

With her feeling so fragile, this was no time to push her in any direction. However, he was miserable from wanting something more substantial with a woman for the first time in his adult life and having no earthly idea how to make it happen.

He was jolted out of his thoughts by a noise that had him stopping to listen more closely. When he didn’t hear anything, he called out again for the boys.

The weak sound of “help” came from his right.

Landon set off in that direction while keying his radio to report in. “I might have something.” He pushed hard through the mud, mindful of staying on the path so he wouldn’t fall down the side of an embankment. Their team knew this mountain so well they rarely had to worry about falling. However, situational awareness was critical so they didn’t end up needing to be rescued themselves.

“Are you out there? Let me hear you!”

“Help! Over here!”

“I’ve got them,” Landon reported.

The team would use his coordinates to send in backup.

One of the boys was standing, waving to him as he battled his way through brush to reach them. “Are all three of you here?” Landon asked.

“Yeah, but Michael… He stopped talking an hour ago.”

Landon pulled his backpack off and moved quickly to withdraw thermal blankets for each of them. “Help me get him wrapped up.”

The boys had created a bunker of sorts under a grove of trees, and from the indentations in the mud, he could tell they’d been huddled together to share body heat, a smart move that had kept them warmer than they would’ve been on their own. “Which one of you is Connor?”

“Me.” They wore sweatshirts and jeans that were completely soaked through. Even in late spring, hypothermia was a real concern in the mountains, especially under these conditions.

“That means you’re Jeremy?”

“Yeah.”

Landon gave them protein bars and bottles of Gatorade to start getting them rehydrated and then reported in. “All three are alive. Michael is unresponsive, possibly hypothermic. We need to get him out of here.”

“On the way,” Landon’s eldest brother, Hunter, replied. “Five minutes out.”

“Can you two still walk?” Landon asked the other boys.

“I can,” Connor said.

Jeremy’s teeth chattered so hard he could barely speak. “I-I th-think s-so.”

With Hunter’s help, Landon could carry Michael out.

“We’ve got a two-mile hike to get out of here. We’re going to have to move fast for Michael.”

“We can do that,” Connor said, glancing at Jeremy.

Jeremy nodded.

“We’re really sorry,” Connor said, sounding tearful. “We never should’ve left the hotel. We didn’t mean to go so far.”

“Let’s not worry about that right now. Let’s stay focused on getting you guys warmed up.”

“N-never b-be w-warm a-again,” Jeremy said, shivering.

“Yes, you will. I promise.”

Hunter arrived on the scene, and between the two of them, they hoisted Michael up and headed for the trail, following it for two long miles before they reached a clearing where a fire department SUV waited to transport the boys. They loaded Michael into the back, while the other two boys got into the back seat.

“Let’s go with him,” Landon said.

Hunter got into the front seat with one of the other searchers driving, and Landon crawled into the back with Michael. On the way to the hospital, he removed Michael’s soaking-wet sweatshirt and used the supplies in his pack to start an IV to pump some fluid into the boy. He was grateful to feel a regular, though shallow, pulse.

“Is he going to be all right?” Connor asked, looking over the seat, his face muddy.

Landon noticed a cut under Connor’s left eye that would need attention at the ER.

“I think so.” Landon didn’t tell him that he’d probably found them with very little time left to spare for Michael.

Jeremy sobbed as he shook violently.

The boys had learned a tough lesson about mountain life, and it was one they weren’t apt to forget any time soon.

 

The dogs were in the yard when Molly returned home to the barn she’d shared with her husband, Lincoln, for close to forty years now. It never failed to stir her to see their home lit up at night and to think about how the place had looked the first time they saw it. Linc had bought a wreck, sight unseen, and they’d created a home where they’d raised ten children. And now, as their children settled into marriages and long-term relationships, their family continued to grow.

“There you are,” Linc said when he met her at the door. “I was just starting to wonder if you’d forgotten the way home.”

“Never.” She kissed him and let him help her out of her coat. “We’re going to need to towel off those pups. They were rolling in the mud.”

“They do love them some mud season.”

“Indeed.”

He grabbed the old towels they used for the dogs and handed one to her. “Ready?”

“Let’s do it.”

He let in George and Ringo, both of them female yellow Labs named for members of Lincoln’s favorite band. They were the third George and Ringo they’d had, along with three Johns and four Pauls over the years, each of them beloved members of the family.

Molly dried Ringo while Linc wrestled with George. Both dogs thought they were playing, which made for a challenging and funny few minutes.

“Why do they always think that’s a game?” Linc asked after the dogs had run in to warm up by the hearth in the family room.

“Every one of them is the same that way.”

“How was your visit with Amanda? Is she any better?”

“Physically, she seems to be getting around much better, but emotionally, she’s dealing with a lot after the fire.”

“Which is completely understandable.”

“Yes. Any word from the boys?”

“Nothing yet.”

“I sure hope they find those kids.”

“They will. They always do.” He put his arm around her and guided her to the sofa in the family room, where they spent most of their time.

“What’s Max up to?”

“Not sure. He went up to give Caden a bath and put him to bed. Haven’t seen him since.”

“Is he bummed about missing out on a search party?”

“I don’t think so. He didn’t want to leave Caden when he was fussy and teething. That boy has got his priorities straight.”

“Yes, he does,” Molly said. “I’m worried about Landon in this situation with Amanda. She’s dealing with an awful lot in addition to the fire, and I just hope he’s not going to end up disappointed.”

“Your dad and I were talking about that today. Amanda is a lovely woman and very good at her job.”

“But?”

“I was telling Elmer she’s been here awhile now, but I don’t feel like we know her much better than we did when she first arrived.”

“I suspect that’s about to change.”

“Is that right?”

“Uh-huh.” She’d seen a side of Amanda tonight that gave her all-new perspective on the woman who had Landon’s head turned all around.

“So you feel like it’s going to be okay between the two of them?” Linc asked.

“I’m not completely sure yet, but we should know fairly soon if they’re going to make a go of it.”

“I sure hope they are. I’ve never seen him this way over a woman.”

“He was once. Remember Naomi?”

“The girl who died when they were in high school?”

“Yes.”

“I knew he was terribly upset about that.”

“We all were. But Landon was devastated. I think he had real feelings for her that he was only beginning to understand when he lost her.”

“Huh, I don’t remember that.”

She patted his leg. “That’s okay. I was on it, and I got him through it. Took some time, though, and if I had to guess, she’s the reason he’s never given his heart to anyone else. He discovered a long time ago that love can be so very painful.”

“Why can’t I remember this?”

“We had a lot going on in those days. I’m sure there’re things I don’t remember.”

“I doubt that. You’re always one step ahead of me. Been like that from the beginning.”

“I have to keep you guessing, or you might lose interest.”

His low chuckle made her smile. “No chance of that, as you well know. In fact, why don’t we turn in early tonight? I’m feeling particularly tired tonight.”

Tired had been their code word for meet me in bed when they’d still had a barn full of kids. “I’m rather exhausted myself tonight.”

Linc shut off the television, banked the fire and closed the glass doors to the fireplace. Then he held out his arm to her.

Molly tucked her hand into his arm and followed him to bed while saying a silent prayer for her sons who were battling the elements looking for the missing kids, and a special request for wisdom for Landon as he navigated the situation with Amanda. Molly liked her for him and thought they’d make a wonderful couple.

But the two of them were a long way from happily ever after.

 

As he rocked his baby son, Max Abbott heard his parents come up the stairs, go into their room and shut the door. He didn’t want to think about why they might be going to bed so early. With the wind howling and the rain beating against the windows, he thought of his brothers out in the storm looking for the missing kids and wished he was with them.

He loved his son more than he’d ever loved anything, but sometimes he missed his old life. In the seven months since Caden had arrived, everything about his existence had changed to accommodate his son. That was how it should be, but still… At times like this, with a long, boring evening stretched out before him, he yearned for what used to be.

Thank God for his parents, a thought he had at least once every day. But even having them by his side through this first year with his son couldn’t fill the gaping loneliness he felt at times like this. Everyone else was out living their lives, and he was at home with a baby son who was his sole responsibility.

Sometimes he even missed Chloe, Caden’s mother, who’d disappointed him so profoundly. He’d heard from a college friend that Chloe was still in Burlington and dating someone new. Good for her. Did she ever wonder about him or their son or how the baby was doing or how he was handling being a single parent?

Probably not. He’d worried about her after the night of Hunter’s wedding last Christmas when she’d come to the house and signed the papers his cousin Grayson had drawn up, surrendering her rights to Caden. Max had been concerned about postpartum depression and whether there was more he could’ve done to support her. But after checking in with numerous mutual friends who’d reported that she didn’t seem depressed at all, he’d let it go. Clearly, she’d moved on with her life, and he needed to do the same.

Except, how could he do that with a seven-month-old infant who relied on him for everything? He didn’t often indulge in this level of morose thinking, because, really, what good did it do? He loved his son, didn’t regret for one minute having custody of him and would do anything for him. But being a single father at twenty-three was a tough spot to be in. No question about it.

Max was inordinately blessed to have his big, loving family all around to help him any time he needed it. His mom was amazing about watching Caden while Max was at work, and both his parents were willing to take him so Max could occasionally go out with friends or his siblings.

But at the end of the day, the responsibility for the tiny bundle in his arms was all his, and at times, the weight of that responsibility threatened to crush him.

Not all the time, but far too often to ignore.

Sometimes he wondered if he was the one with postpartum depression.

He stood and carefully transferred Caden to his crib in the tiny room that adjoined Max’s. He and his dad had knocked down a wall to make the room for Caden in what used to be a closet. Max stared down at his sleeping son for a long moment, wondering what would become of the two of them.

Would they always be alone, or would he meet someone who could be a partner to him and a mother to Caden? And did he even want that? He was only twenty-three. What were the odds he’d meet anyone in the next few years who interested him enough to lock himself in for life?

He probably needed to accept that he was going to be alone with his son for the foreseeable future and make peace with that.

The other day, his brother Colton had told him he needed to get laid, as if that would fix everything. However, Max had to acknowledge that since Colton had mentioned it, that was all he could seem to think about.

Remember sex? Yeah, it’d been a while…

For a time, he’d feared Chloe had ruined that for him, too, but since Colton had brought it up, Max had found out otherwise. Not that there was any chance of it happening any time soon.

Ugh, he hated being in such a funk, especially since he loved every second he got to spend with his son. It was almost painful to leave him for the seven or eight hours he spent at work five days a week. Every afternoon, he rushed home to be with him, to play with him, to feed and bathe and rock him. But after the baby went to bed, the nights were long and boring.

And lonely.

Growing up the youngest of ten kids, Max had never experienced true loneliness before he had Caden. It had gotten so bad lately, he’d actually gone so far as to set up a Tinder account that he’d yet to make live because he wasn’t sure he wanted to go that route either. With cell service nonexistent in Butler, he could access it through the Wi-Fi at home or at work on the mountain, the one place in the area that had good cell coverage.

However, something was keeping him from pulling the trigger. Perhaps because he was a father now, and the thought of dating didn’t appeal the way it used to.

With Caden down for the night—at least for now—Max went into the bathroom to shower.

As he stood under the hot water, one thing he knew for certain was that he was sick of his own thoughts—and his own company. Something needed to change, but he’d be damned if he knew what.

Preorder RIGHT NOW to read the rest on June 23! See preorder links below. 

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Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. 

~ Calvin Coolidge

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