By A.J. Pine
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Ten years ago, Jack Everett left his family’s ranch without a backward glance. Now, what was supposed to be a quick trip home for his father’s funeral has suddenly become more complicated. The ranch Jack can handle—he might be a lawyer, but he still remembers how to work with his hands. But turning around the failing vineyard he’s also inherited? That requires working with the one woman he never expected to see again.
Ava Ellis broke her own heart the night she let Jack go. She was young and scared—and secretly pregnant with Jack’s baby. Now that he’s back and asking for her help, Ava sees her opportunity to right the wrongs of the past. But how will he feel about the son he’s never known? Could this be their second chance—or their final heartbreak?
"A fabulous storyteller who will keep you turning pages and wishing for just one more chapter at the end."—New York Times bestselling author Carolyn Brown
"Cross my heart, this sexy, sweet romance gives a cowboy-at-heart lawyer a second chance at first love and readers a fantastic ride."—New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Ryan
"A.J. Pine's writing is superb."—Romancing-the-Book.com on Six Month Rule
Ten Years Ago
Ava snaked her fingers through Jack’s and squeezed.
“Come on,” she said. “It’s going to be fun.”
His head fell back against the seat as he put the truck in park. Parties weren’t his thing, especially here. He’d only been at Los Olivos High School for five months, so celebrating graduation as the odd man out wasn’t exactly top on his list.
But it was top on Ava’s list, and there was nothing he wouldn’t do for the girl who’d made those months bearable.
No. That wasn’t fair. Time with Ava was more than bearable. It was everything that got him out of bed in the morning and kept him from cutting class when he would have been fine taking the GED, even if it meant losing his baseball scholarship. It’s how he endured not being able to play his senior year. And it was the reason that maybe—after college and getting some distance from this place—he’d be able to come back and see it differently.
“I love you,” she said softly, her pale cheeks turning pink as she leaned across the center console and kissed the corner of his mouth.
He blew out a breath and skimmed his fingers through her thick, auburn waves.
“And I know you’re leaving soon for summer training, but I think we should tell my parents about us. Unless—I mean if this is only a senior year thing.”
He tugged her closer, his palm cradling the back of her neck as he brushed his lips over hers. “You’re it for me, Red,” he whispered against her. “But I thought they were still getting over you and Golden Boy breaking up.”
She groaned. “I know you know Derek’s name.”
The corner of his mouth quirked into a crooked grin. “Doesn’t mean I have to say it.”
“You wanted to wait, remember?” she reminded him. “Because my dad is way overprotective.”
Jack laughed, the sound bitter, and his smile faded. “And thinks I’m gonna be like my father. I got it then, and I get it now.”
It didn’t matter that Los Olivos was an hour away from Oak Bluff, Jack’s hometown. News traveled fast when three new students transferred into a school second semester. And a drunk almost killing his oldest son was the best sort of gossip for a small California wine country town.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t have the same fears. The apple usually didn’t fall too far from the tree.
He hadn’t planned on anything more in Los Olivos than biding his time and getting the hell out of town when summer came.
He hadn’t planned on her. So when he’d suggested they keep the relationship quiet—that he didn’t want to make waves in her seemingly perfect life—she hadn’t argued.
She cupped his cheeks in her palms and tilted his forehead to hers. “He doesn’t know you. Plus I’m not good at secrets. Or lying. As soon as he sees how amazing you are, he’ll know there’s nothing to worry about.”
He closed his eyes as she kissed him. Maybe this could be him now, the guy a girl brought home to her parents instead of the one people whispered about when they thought he couldn’t hear.
“I love you, too,” he finally said. “In case you didn’t know.”
He felt her lips part into a smile against his.
“Oh, I know,” she teased. “But I like to hear you say it.”
Both of them startled at the sound of the passenger side window rattling.
“Party’s out back!” someone yelled as another graduate drummed against the glass again.
Ava giggled. “One hour,” she said. “If it sucks after an hour, then we leave. Promise.”
He pressed a soft kiss against her neck and she shivered.
“Anything for you, Red.”
He leaned across her and opened her door. Then he hopped out of his own and met her at the passenger side.
Maybe this was what it had been like for his parents before it all went to hell—when his mom was alive and his dad sober. He couldn’t remember anymore. The past five years couldn’t be erased, but maybe whatever the future held could cushion the blow.
Ava swayed when her feet hit the ground outside the truck, and Jack caught her by the elbow.
“Hey there,” he said. “You okay?”
She forced a smile even as her stomach roiled.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m fine. It’s just so hot out tonight.” Thankfully, that was the truth—even if it wasn’t her truth. “I need to splash some cool water on my face. That’s all. Head out to the bonfire, and I’ll be right back.”
He hesitated, but she needed to get inside—quick.
“Go.” She nudged his shoulder. “I’ll meet you out back.”
“I’ll come with you,” he said insistently, and she could see the worry in those blue eyes.
They both turned to where a group of girls were coming up the street toward Jack’s truck, her friend Rachel heading up the pack.
“Ohmygod,” Rachel said in one breath. “Please tell me you know where the bathroom is and that you can get me there safely.”
Saved by the drunk friend.
“See?” Ava said to Jack, grabbing Rachel’s hand. “I’m not alone. See you in five minutes.”
He ran a hand through his overgrown blond waves, then kissed her on the cheek.
“Five minutes,” he relented. “You’re sure you’re okay?”
She nodded, afraid if she opened her mouth again her lie would be exposed. Instead she and Rachel ran for the front door of the house up the drive.
Once in the bathroom, she dropped to her knees in front of the toilet and emptied her stomach.
“Damn,” Rachel said. “I thought we prepartied too much.”
But Ava hadn’t had one drink that night. And this was the fourth time this had happened in the span of a week.
She grabbed a wad of toilet paper and wiped her mouth, then flushed and turned toward the sink.
“Yeah,” she said absently. “Too much prepartying.” She cupped cold water in her palms and drank, then thankfully found a tube of toothpaste in the medicine cabinet. “I’ll see you out there.”
She slipped out of the bathroom and into the small hallway off the foyer, heart hammering in her chest.
She pressed a palm against her flat belly. She would have to take a test to confirm, but she was already over a week late. It looked like she had something to tell Jack before they broke the news to her parents that they were dating.
“There you are,” a voice crooned from the end of the hall.
Ava rolled her eyes. “Not now, Derek,” she said, attempting to push past him as he came nearer. Instead he backed her into the corner where the wall met the doorframe to the guest bedroom.
“Not funny,” she said, trying to slip out from where his arm palmed the wall above her shoulder.
“I miss you,” he said, his breath tinged with the scent of liquor.
“You’re drunk. You always miss me when you’re drunk.”
His free hand cupped her breast and she swatted it away. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
But he wasn’t deterred. This time he pressed the length of his body against hers. “Come on, babe. I know how much you like taking in strays, but enough is enough. Two years, and you never gave it up for me, but you give it up for that trash from Oak Bluff?”
He ground against her pelvis, pressed his fingers hard against the base of her throat. He was too close for her to knee him in the balls—too big to push away.
“Stop it, Derek.”
Golden Boy. Right. Nothing could be further from the truth.
She pushed her palms into his chest, but he wouldn’t budge. It only made his weight against her feel heavier, his fingertips on her skin pressing harder.
Over his shoulder she saw Rachel step out of the bathroom. The girl caught Ava’s eye and grinned, then pressed her fingers to her lips in a promise to keep quiet as she started backing away. After all, Ava and Derek Wilkes had been the couple most likely to—well—everything just before the holidays. Until she wouldn’t give him what he wanted for Christmas. To Rachel this probably looked like reconciliation.
“Rach—” she started, but Derek shut her up by pressing his lips to hers.
This wasn’t happening. Except it was. So she bit down on his lip.
“Shit!” he growled, backing away and swiping the back of his hand across his mouth, his skin smeared with blood. “You little—”
He reached for her again, but his hand never made contact. In a blur, someone slammed Derek up against the adjacent wall.
“She said stop, asshole.”
Jack was seething, something dark and dangerous in his eyes.
“Thanks for breaking her in for me,” Derek said with a sneer. “But I think I can take it from here.”
Jack slammed him against the wall again.
Ava yelped, and Jack’s eyes met hers.
“I’m okay,” she said. “Let’s just go.”
But then his gaze dipped to her collarbone. She ran her fingers over the skin, wincing when she felt the beginnings of bruises.
That was all it took for Jack to lose his focus—and for Derek to throw the first punch.
Ava watched in slow motion as Jack’s head snapped to the side and blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. And then before she knew it, Derek’s head crashed into the wall as Jack’s fist collided with his face again and again until blood poured from Derek’s nose and a group of guys Ava hadn’t seen arrive were pulling Jack from his limp human punching bag.
She hadn’t even known she was screaming until the commotion settled and one of the guys let go of Jack to keep Derek—now unconscious—from crashing to the floor.
Jack stared down at his bloodied knuckles, then up at her, his eyes wide with horror.
“I’m him,” he said softly—like he hadn’t meant anyone else to hear but himself—as sirens wailed in the distance.
Jack glanced down at his rumpled shirt, then ran a hand through his perpetually overgrown hair. Despite a sleepless night, he had somehow made the five-plus hour drive from San Diego to the outskirts of San Luis Obispo County—and the blip on the map that was Oak Bluff—without killing himself. A shit night of sleep was the norm. Spending the entire morning on the 101 with only the two cups of coffee he’d bought on his way out of town and thoughts he’d rather not have the time to think? That was another story. A man alone with his thoughts for too long was a dangerous combination. It was one of the reasons he rarely came home. Another one of those reasons was about to make his way six feet underground.
His vision blurred, and he shook his head, swerving to avoid a blown-out tire in the middle of the road right before the entrance to the cemetery. The coffee wasn’t exactly doing its job.
He let out a bitter laugh as his truck rolled to a stop on the narrow lane along the gravesites. “Would you have appreciated the irony?” he asked aloud. His voice was deep and hoarse after the hours of silence, hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel of his now-parked truck. “Me kicking the goddamn bucket the day I come to see you laid to rest?”
No one answered, of course. He glanced at the cattleman hat on the passenger seat, still not sure why he’d kept it all these years in San Diego, or why he’d felt the need to bring it with him for the drive back. As soon as he made sure Luke and Walker—and even his aunt Jenna—were taken care of, he had another life to get back to.
Because home wasn’t here anymore. Hadn’t been for years. He wasn’t sure any place fit that definition these days, but it sure as hell wasn’t the small, ranching town of Oak Bluff. Boxed in amongst vineyards and only miles from the ocean, tourists who wanted a quaint, off-the-beaten-path segue from wine country kept the place on the map. But Jack hadn’t taken that segue in a decade. Until now.
He hopped out of his truck and grabbed his suit jacket from its hanger in the back of the cab and the fresh bouquet of flowers from the floor. In the distance he could see the distinct figures of his younger brothers, his aunt, and a fourth body—most likely some funeral officiant—standing at the grave.
That was it. The four of them and a stranger to preside over the burial of a man he wasn’t sure deserved even that much. Yet here he was.
As he approached, his aunt Jenna was the first to look up. Not even ten years his senior, she’d always felt more like a sister, and a pang of unexpected longing for the family he’d left behind socked him square in the gut. It had been over a year since he’d seen her—since he’d seen any of them. God, she looked more like his mother now than ever, her short blond hair having grown to her shoulders since the last time they’d met. At thirty-six, Jenna, the baby sister, had now seen more years than his mother ever would.
He stopped at the grave next to his father’s and knelt down, laying the small arrangement of white and purple orchids on the grass in front of the headstone that read CLARE OWENS-EVERETT, BELOVED WIFE, MOTHER, SISTER, AND DAUGHTER.
“Hey, Ma,” he said softly. “Still miss you. Brought you your favorite.”
“Has it really been fifteen years?”
He heard Jenna behind him, the lilt of her Texas twang that never left, much like his mother’s—but he lingered several more seconds with the orchids and his memories. He silently wished for his mom to send him some sort of sign that she was at peace. Had she known what happened to her husband after he lost her? What he’d become and what he’d done to her boys?
“I tried,” he said under his breath, not wanting Jenna to hear. “I tried to fix him. But he didn’t want to be fixed.”
He stood then, towering over the woman who’d taken them in when she was barely done being a kid herself.
“You’re huge,” she said as he pulled her into a hug. “Were you always this tall?” He laughed, and she pushed far enough away to rest her palms on his lapels. “Look at you, Jack. Christ on a cracker, you’re all grown up. You bring home any of your fancy lawyer friends for your aunt? Maybe on the other side of thirty, though.”
She winked at him. Still the same Jenna.
“Not this trip,” he mused. “Maybe next time.”
She hooked her arm through his and pulled him the last several feet to their destination, where his father’s casket sat suspended over the rectangular hole in the ground.
“Nice suit,” Walker sneered. Jack could barely see his brother’s eyes under the brim of his hat, but he knew they were narrowed.
“Aren’t you supposed to remove your hat to show respect for the dead?” he countered.
Jack thought he heard his youngest brother growl.
“Is that what that getup is?” Walker asked, taking a step closer. Jack was sure he smelled liquor on his brother’s breath and decided to let any sort of comment about drinking before noon slide. He’d give him a free pass for today. “A sign of respect?” Walker continued. “Since when do you respect the man who almost killed you? And since when do you have a fucking say? This ain’t your home anymore, pretty boy.”
The funeral officiant cleared his throat.
Luke, taking his role as middle brother literally, stepped between the other two men, removing his own hat and holding it against his chest.
“All right, boys. Let’s save this twisted pissing contest until later and shove our dicks back in our pants. Shall we?”
Jack caught sight of the laceration across Luke’s cheek, the few stitches holding it together. “What the hell is that?” he asked.
“Here we go,” Walker said, turning away. He’d either lost interest in pushing Jack’s buttons or was happy to let the attention fall on Luke.
“Tried my first bull,” Luke said with an easy grin. “He didn’t like me much.”
“You’re riding bulls now? I thought this rodeo stuff was a hobby. When the hell are you gonna take life seriously?”
Luke’s ever-present smile fell. “You mean like running the ranch you left? Hell, I know you send money, Jack. Helping in your own way. But I take life plenty seriously when I need to. When there isn’t need, I think I’m entitled to a little fun.”
Jack spun to Jenna, who had conveniently backed away from the conversation. “You knew about this?”
She shrugged. “Y’all are big, grown men now. You can make your own decisions.” Then she laughed. “Though I hate to see him mess up that pretty face of his.”
Luke threw his hat back on his head. “If it’s any consolation, Jenna, the ladies do not complain.”
His aunt shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut. “Sometimes I think it was easier when you were teenagers.”
Jack gritted his teeth and fisted his hands at his sides. It didn’t matter how long he’d been gone. After their mother died, their father had been far from a model parent. Jack had practically raised his brothers himself through their teen years, but he wasn’t going to lecture Luke, not now. Instead all he muttered was “It’s dangerous.”
Luke threw an arm over his big brother’s shoulder. “It’s fun, asshole. Thought by now you’d have figured out what that word meant.”
Again, the sound of a throat clearing interrupted their reunion, and all four of them looked up to find the funeral officiant, a small man with a gray comb-over in a suit one size too big, fidgeting as he stood at the head of the grave.
“Sorry, folks,” he said. “But I have another service in an hour. I don’t want to rush you, but—”
“Good,” Walker said, joining the fray again. “Let’s get this over with.”
The officiant swallowed. “Does anyone have something they’d like to say about Mr. Everett before interment?”
Jack’s stomach twisted. He wouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but he sure as hell wouldn’t say anything of import for the man who only knew how to speak with the back of his hand. He remembered standing here for his mom’s burial, the space crowded with family and friends—their local pastor leading the small ceremony. Jack had been thirteen, Luke twelve, and Walker ten. They’d watched the cancer and treatment ravage her body for a year. That was all they’d had from diagnosis until the end. When they’d lowered her into the ground, tears had streamed down both his brothers’ cheeks, but Jack decided then and there he had to be strong—for his brothers and his father. It hadn’t taken him long to realize he’d failed at the latter, but as for Luke and Walker, he was still trying, even if they ended up hating him for it.
“If no one says anything,” Jack finally said, “does that mean it’s over?”
The man raised his shoulders. “I work for the funeral home, so this is not a religious ceremony,” he said. “Usually the way it works is a family member or friend reads something. Or—or gives me something to read. If you have something prepared—”
Jack shook his head and looked at his brothers, who both studied their boots.
“Well, then…” The officiant wrung his hands. “If no one has any words…”
“I do!” Jenna said, a little too loudly for the small gathering. “I mean, someone should say something, and if y’all don’t want to, that’s okay. But—but someone should.”
She strode up to the head of the grave, and the man stepped aside. In her floral dress and cardigan, she really did look like their mother. Jack was so used to Jenna in a tank top and denim shorts—rain boots up to her knees as she stepped inside her chicken coop or chased rabbits from her garden. If this was a new look for her, it would take some getting used to.
She squared her shoulders, and the Everett boys all gave her their attention.
“Hi,” she said. “Um, yeah. Okay.” She took in a long breath and blew it out. “Jackson Everett Senior was my brother-in-law and the love of my big sister’s life. When we moved here from Houston, I was a scrappy seven-year-old who knew nothing more about love other than crying when our baby chick died. We lost our daddy when I was too young to remember him, and though I loved our mama—like I said, I was all about the chickens when we came here.”
She swiped at a tear under her eye, and Jack thought he should go to her, hold her hand or something. But the thought of standing there while she paid her respects to a man he’d lost all faith in years ago only made him clench his teeth harder, so he dug his heels into the soft ground and decided to stay put.
“When Clare, my sister, came home from her first day at her new high school, she told me she had met the boy she was going to marry, and when Clare Owens said something, it was the truth. Always. When she and Jackson were only eighteen and got pregnant with you, Jack?” Her eyes glistened when she looked at him. “Well, he practically married her on the spot. His dreams were always your mama and Crossroads Ranch. You boys were his legacy—the second generation of Everetts on that piece of land.” She took a breath, the tremor in it audible amidst the silence. “They built the place up with the little savings they both had, filled the house with boys born to be ranchers, but—” Another pause as Jenna seemed to relive the loss of her sister—their mother.
Jack noticed Walker was holding his hat at his side now. Bitter as he was toward Jack Senior, his baby brother would never disrespect his mother, no matter how many years she’d been gone.
Jenna choked on a sob. “He broke when he lost Clare. We all did. I know that. But something in your daddy broke real deep. And I’m so sorry I didn’t know—” A hiccupping breath stole her words. “I’m so sorry—”
Jack was at her side now, his arm around his aunt. No way in hell was he going to let her fall down the rabbit hole of guilt. He’d spent enough time there to know it wouldn’t do her an ounce of good.
“Jenna, don’t,” he said as he led her from the grave. “You didn’t know,” he added. “No one knew.”
He’d made sure of that. Because despite the verbal attacks—and the physical ones—Jack Senior was all he’d thought they had. He’d cut his boys off from any other family. Jack had always believed he could wait it out until he was eighteen. Because what was the alternative? Report his father and risk him and his brothers getting separated in the foster system?
Instead Luke and Walker had almost lost him completely.
She wrapped her arms around him and buried her head in his chest.
“I’m sorry,” she said again.
All he could do was whisper “shhh.” She might have been eight years his senior, but she felt like a child in his arms, clinging to him to keep steady.
He knew her tears weren’t for his father. And as much as Jenna missed her sister, the choking sobs weren’t for her, either. They were for what Jackson Everett Sr. had hidden from everyone for five years—until that 911 call and the last words his father ever spoke in his presence:
Help. I think I killed my boy.
Ava Ellis stood in the open doorway of the empty bedroom—empty but for the countless portraits lining the floor—the ones filled with still lifes of fruit or images of the dog in various states of play—and the easel in the corner, the one holding the blank canvas waiting for another attempt at the one thing she still hadn’t captured. She could make a million and one excuses not to walk in there.
I should really catch up on laundry.
I haven’t put in enough hours at the vineyard this week.
- "A fabulous storyteller who will keep you turning pages and wishing for just one more chapter at the end."—Carolyn Brown, New York Times bestselling author, on Second Chance Cowboy
- "Cross my heart, this sexy, sweet romance gives a cowboy-at-heart lawyer a second chance at first love and readers a fantastic ride."—Jennifer Ryan, New York Times bestselling author, on Second Chance Cowboy
- "Both new and returning readers will be pleased."—Publishers Weekly on Make Mine a Cowboy
- "A sweet...love story."—Publishers Weekly on My One and Only Cowboy
- "My One and Only Cowboy was an entertaining romance that was woven with wit and warmth."—GuiltyPleasuresBookReviews.com
- "Cowboy to the Rescue delivers the goods!"—ReadAlltheRomance.com
- "A steamy cowboy romance novel that is sure to warm your heart!"—LovelyLoveday.com on Hard Loving Cowboy
- "Hard Loving Cowboy was a delightfully sexy read that made me want to go in search of a cowboy of my own."—KimberlyFayeReads.com
- "Sweet and engrossing."—Publishers Weekly on Tough Luck Cowboy
- "Light and witty."—Library Journal on Saved by the Cowboy
- "Ms. Pine's character development, strong family building and interesting secondary characters add layers to the story that jacked up my enjoyment of Second Chance Cowboy to maximum levels."—USA Today Happy Ever After
- "5 Stars! Top Pick! The author and her characters twist and turn their way right into your heart."—Night Owl Reviews on Second Chance Cowboy
- "This is a strong read with a heartwarming message and inspiring characters."—RT Book Reviews on Second Chance Cowboy
- "This book made me so happy! I swear I had a smile on my face the whole time I was reading."—LeighKramer.com on Worth the Wait
- "There was some serious heat, some conflict, some miscommunication and a evening out to yield the ultimate happy ending a romance novel needs. Overall, the read flowed well and the characters are easy to like."—Ramblings of a Young PR Girl blog on Three Simple Words
- "A winner for me from the very start."—Straight Shootin' Book Reviews on Six Month Rule
- "A.J. Pine's writing is superb. I loved following the characters. Their struggles were real. The needs were strong. This is a romance that I recommend to all."—Romancing the Book on Six Month Rule
- "Oh. Em. Gee. I started Six Month Rule and could not put it down. A.J. Pine has put in everything that I love about romance into a 280-page novel."—Books by Migs
- "Top Pick! 4 1/2 Stars! I loved this story."—Harlequin Junkie on I Do
- On Sale
- Aug 23, 2022
- Page Count
- 432 pages