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Last Chance Family
By Hope Ramsay
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Charlene Polk has two talents: healing sick critters and falling in love with the wrong men. Mike has trouble written all over him, but she can’t leave him in the lurch. And the more time she spends with the sexy high roller, the more she sees that this ready-made family is the best stroke of luck they’ve ever had . . .
Table of Contents
A Preview of Last Chance Knit & Stitch
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The kid should have been named Stormy, not Rainbow.
She didn't wear pink or have girlie cartoon characters on her shirt. She didn't have cute pigtails or a precious smile. No. Rainbow wore faded Goodwill clothing that didn't fit her. Her hair stuck out in all directions in a big, nappy mess that thwarted all efforts to brush it. The five-year-old sat in the rented Hyundai's backseat with silent tears running down her cheeks. She had an equally bedraggled tiger-striped cat clutched in her arms. The cat was also weeping but only out of its left eye. Occasionally it would sneeze.
Mike Taggart, Rainbow's reluctant uncle, figured the kid had plenty of reasons for crying. Ten days ago her mother had been killed in another case of senseless gun violence on the streets of Chicago. A few hours ago, Rainbow had lost her grubby stuffed elephant, probably in the men's room at the Atlanta-Hartsfield Airport, where they'd made a pit stop before boarding their connecting flight to Columbia, South Carolina. And then the final blow fell at the baggage claim, when the cat arrived sneezing.
Mike swallowed down the acid churning in his stomach. He should have done more to rescue Angie, his half-sister, from the life she'd been living. But Angie hadn't wanted to be rescued. And her five-year-old daughter had paid the price.
He needed to make amends for his failure. Which explained why he'd brought his niece here to the middle of nowhere, determined to find her the kind of family that he'd always dreamed of as a little boy. Reverend Timothy Lake, Mike's half-brother and Rainbow's other uncle, was exactly the kind of upstanding citizen Mike wanted for Rainbow's new father.
The cat sneezed again, and the kid clutched it to her chest in a death grip that the animal tolerated with amazing patience. Clearly the cat played favorites, because it had pretty much shredded Mike's right hand when he'd battled it into the cat carrier in Chicago this morning. But it seemed to love the kid, and vice versa.
He didn't understand cats. Or little girls.
"Don't worry," he found himself saying. "We're going to find a vet right now."
This announcement did nothing to stop the silent flow of Rainbow's tears.
It would have been so much better if the kid had wailed or made even the smallest of sounds. But no. Rainbow had been silent from the moment she'd witnessed her mother's murder ten days ago.
He hoped he hadn't promised something he couldn't deliver. They had to have vets out here in the boonies of South Carolina, didn't they? They needed them to look after the cows. Not that Mike had seen a lot of cows during his drive south to Allenberg County. But he'd sure seen a lot of fields planted in various crops. There had to be cows someplace around here.
He touched the screen of his smartphone and keyed in a search for veterinarians. Lady Luck smiled on him. He had a bar and a half of service and managed to activate his GPS and set a course for Creature Comforts Animal Hospital, only ten miles away, just south of the little town of Last Chance.
It didn't take him more than two minutes to motor through the town, which was still swagged out in yards of red-white-and-blue bunting from yesterday's Memorial Day celebration. They probably had a parade or something down Main Street, which, in Mike's estimation, made Last Chance perfect in every way.
The vet's, a building of tan-colored cinder blocks with a green roof, stood about half a mile past the retail district. It could have been a medical building in any small town or suburban location, except for the collection of animal statues in its front yard.
A life-sized cement German shepherd, collie, and boxer guarded the front door. Half a dozen cats in a variety of colors frolicked on either side of the walkway. A squirrel and a raccoon peeked out from the bushes planted along the front of the building, and a collection of plastic birds hung on strings tied to the eaves. The tacky menagerie didn't inspire confidence.
Mike helped the little girl out of her booster seat, enduring the cat's hisses and dodging its claws. The cat refused to go back into its carrier, which was a moot point because Rainbow refused to let the animal go. She carried the cat right below its front shoulders, with the bulk of its body dangling over her little arms. Why the cat tolerated this was one of life's greatest mysteries.
In any case, Rainbow had control of the cat, which was more than Mike could say about himself. They made their way to the air-conditioned waiting room, where his luck ran out.
A fifty-something woman with obviously dyed red hair sat at the reception area guarding the inner sanctum like a bulldog. "We're about ready to close. Y'all will have to make an appointment for tomorrow. We don't have late hours on Tuesdays," she said in a drawl so thick Mike could practically slice it.
"This is an emergency. We just got into town. The cat is wheezing."
The woman arched her eyebrows and gave the cat a quick look. The cat fixed the woman with its strange, green-amber eyes and sneezed. "Hmm, upper respiratory infection," she said. "You know, if you didn't let your cat outside he wouldn't get sick."
Mike put on his poker face and gave the infuriating woman a smile. "We'll try to do better in the future, but for now, the cat is sick."
"It's a kind of herpes virus that causes this, you know. Once your cat gets it he'll have it for life."
Great. Rainbow's cat had herpes. It figured. It had lived in one of the poorest and meanest neighborhoods in Chicago. Mike remained calm and continued to give the receptionist the blank, emotionless stare that he used in poker games. "I'm happy to pay for emergency services. Are you the vet?"
The cat sneezed again, and the woman peered over the side of the reception desk at Rainbow, who seemed to know exactly what was required of her. She stood there looking pitiful with tears running down her cheeks.
"Oh, you poor thing," the woman said. "I'll just buzz Dr. Polk and see if she can see y'all. She's got a meeting she needs to get to, but I know she'll make time. In the meantime, fill in this paperwork." The receptionist handed Mike a clipboard with a patient form.
It didn't take Mike more than a few seconds to realize that he couldn't fill in most of the blanks on the form. He only knew the animal's name because the cat had a collar with a name tag and rabies vaccination date. On the opposite side of the name tag was a phone number that didn't belong to anyone. He had no idea about Tigger's age or whether the cat had been fixed. And since Rainbow refused to talk, Mike was in the dark.
He couldn't even fill out an address because he didn't know where the cat would ultimately end up. The cat should have been sent to the animal shelter. But Rainbow had pitched a fit, and Rachel Sanger, her caseworker in the Chicago Department of Social Services, was a cat lover. Ms. Sanger had broken all the rules and found a way for Rainbow to take the cat with her to the foster home where she'd stayed for a week before they were able to locate Mike.
And really, now that she'd lost her stuffed elephant, the cat represented an important link to Rainbow's former life. Not that living in the slums with Angie had been all that idyllic.
Hopefully, Timmy could take both the kid and her cat. The management of the hotel where Mike hung his hat didn't allow cats. And besides, a man who made his living as a professional poker player and part-time day trader didn't need a cat.
Or, for that matter, an unhappy little girl named Rainbow.
Cindy, the receptionist, had said something about a sick cat. But when Dr. Charlene Polk walked into examination room two, all she found was a tall, redheaded, blue-eyed man with a square jaw, cleft chin, and oh-so-carefully groomed stubble.
He looked like a fashion plate standing there with his Ralph Lauren polo shirt open at the neck and his hands jammed into his AX jean pockets. He didn't look like your typical cat owner.
But then the missing animal spoke, giving forth an anxious meeeooowwww.
Charlene blinked and turned to find a little girl standing at the opposite side of the room. She bore no resemblance to the man with her. The child was maybe five and had brown skin and dark, frizzy hair. Unlike the logo-wrapped guy, the child wore a grubby-looking blue T-shirt and a pair of jeans with holes in both knees. The only clue to the child's gender was her long, delicate hands.
Her mixed-race looks grabbed Charlene right where she lived. This could have been Derrick's child. Except that she was about ten years too young.
Tears trickled down the girl's cheeks. She hugged her tiger-striped cat as if the animal were a toy. People who carried their cats into the office were one of Charlene's pet peeves. A cat should always be transported in a carrier. But in this case, Charlene decided to forgo her usual lecture.
She squatted down to be on the same level. "What's the matter?"
The child said nothing. But the cat let out another slightly squeaky meow.
"She doesn't talk," the man said.
Charlene looked up. "Oh, I don't know. By the shape of her face and pointy ears, I think she has a bit of Siamese in her, or maybe Abyssinian. They are notoriously talkative."
"No." The man shook his head, his blue eyes looking oddly animated in his otherwise expressionless face. "I mean Rainbow. She doesn't talk."
"Rainbow? That's a nice name for a cat."
"No." The man gestured toward the little girl. "Tigger is the cat's name. Rainbow is Tigger's owner. And Rainbow doesn't speak. I mean, she hasn't spoken for about ten days."
Charlene's disquiet grew. Something wasn't right. "Ten days?"
"Yeah, ten days. Since her mother died."
"Oh." Just a four-word sentence but it sure packed a wallop. The little girl had lost her mother. Charlene's heart turned in her chest. Rainbow's tears seemed endless. They left long tracks across her brown skin.
Charlene held her hands out toward the girl. "May I take Tigger?" she asked.
The girl sniffled once and then reluctantly allowed Charlene to take the cat, who promptly sneezed. Charlene stood and put the animal on the examination table and turned her attention back to the man. "I'm Charlene Polk, the assistant vet here. And you are?"
"Mike Taggart. We just arrived in town. I'm Timothy Lake's brother. Do you know him?"
She didn't see a resemblance, except that both men were tall. Pastor Tim had blond hair and a classically handsome face. This guy looked way more rugged, like he spent a lot of time out in the sun surfing or mountain climbing. "I'm acquainted with Pastor Tim," Charlene said. "But I don't know him well. I'm not a Methodist."
Mr. Taggart's face remained utterly impassive. The lack of emotion creeped Charlene out.
She began a routine examination of the cat while Mr. Taggart folded his arms and observed in an intense and unsettling manner. Rainbow watched, too. She stood on tiptoes, looking up at Charlene out of a pair of amber-green eyes that were almost the same shade as Tigger's.
"Uh, Mr. Taggart, Tigger is not a male cat," Charlene said as she checked the paperwork where the cat's sex was marked as male. Besides the cat's name and incorrect sex, the patient information sheet was entirely blank. What was going on here?
"Uh, its name is Tigger. Who names a girl cat Tigger?" he asked.
Who indeed? "Has Tigger been eating?"
"The cat was eating just fine before we put it on the airplane. She wasn't sneezing until we picked her up at the baggage claim," Mr. Taggart said.
"The cat was transported recently?" Charlene asked.
"Yeah, today, from Chicago to Columbia by way of Atlanta. We were transported the same way."
The poor cat. She'd obviously been stressed. Her placid demeanor might also be a warning of more serious conditions.
"How old is Tigger?"
The child remained silent. The man let go of a long breath. "I have no idea. Up until a few days ago, I wasn't even acquainted with the cat."
Charlene gave him a stare. He stared back, giving nothing away. Alarms went off. Maybe she should stall this guy and give Sheriff Rhodes a call. Things were not adding up. The man seemed not to care very much about the cat or the child.
Their gazes remained locked for a long moment before he eventually looked away. "Look," he said stabbing his hand through his fiery hair. "I know what you're thinking, but here's the situation. Rainbow's mother died about ten days ago. I'm her uncle, and Timmy is my half-brother. I am not parent material. But Timmy's a minister. So I'm here to leave Rainbow with her uncle. The cat got sick along the way, so you can call this an emergency fly-by-night visit. If you can fix it up, that would be great. But don't ask me any questions about it. I don't know anything, except that it has sharp claws." He ran his finger along a nasty scratch on the back of his hand.
"You should put some antiseptic ointment on that," she said.
"I will when I get to a stopping place. The animal didn't want to go into the cat carrier this morning." Mr. Taggart had the temerity to glare at the cat. The cat glared right back at him, obviously unimpressed and unperturbed.
Wow. The gossip mill in Last Chance would be running overtime once the members of the Methodist Altar Guild got wind of this. Those busybodies had been trying to find a wife for their minister since he arrived last winter. Even Charlene's aunt Millie, who wasn't a Methodist, had broadly suggested that a single woman of any faith would be crazy not to set her cap for the young, handsome pastor. If Pastor Tim agreed to adopt a child, the Altar Guild would have to go into hyperdrive or something.
"Does Reverend Lake know you're coming?" she asked.
"No. I doubt that he remembers me at all. The last time I saw him I was five and he was three. But he turned out okay. And that's why we're here."
Charlene shifted her gaze to the child. Rainbow stood with slumped shoulders, her body language tragic. In that moment, she looked like the personification of every unwanted child who had ever lived.
Mike Taggart was a jerk. He seemed to have no idea how his words hurt Rainbow. And even worse, he didn't seem to care.
Familiar guilt tugged at her. She wanted to fold the little girl up in her arms and tell her that everything would work out fine. But she couldn't do that because Charlene knew that things might not work out for Rainbow.
Charlene quickly finished the exam and handed Tigger back to Rainbow. "She's going to be fine. I'm going to give your uncle Mike some medicine for her."
The child took the cat, hugging the animal as if she were a stuffed toy. Tigger allowed this indignity as if the cat knew how much Rainbow needed her.
"Now, I need you and Tigger to go sit quietly in the room outside. There are some yummy oatmeal cookies out there and a few cat treats. I'll be right here with Uncle Mike. I need to tell him what he needs to do for Tigger."
She ushered Rainbow into the outer office and handed her one of the cookies the receptionist baked for staff and pet owners. She also gave Rainbow a treat for Tigger. When they were settled, Charlene returned to the examination room and shut the door behind her.
"Tigger's lungs are clear, so this is not an upper respiratory infection. It's probably a herpes virus outbreak brought on by stress. My guess is that the sneezing is probably a reaction to the lack of humidity in the airplane. The cat may be dehydrated, so make sure she has plenty of water. If the sneezing continues, you'll need to bring her back for a follow-up.
"In the meantime you'll need to put some drops in Tigger's eyes twice a day, and I've got some antiviral meds for her to take by mouth. The meds are disguised as cat treats so you probably won't get scratched trying to dose her."
She paused for a moment, wondering if she should go on. Every instinct told her that she should. But who was she to give parenting advice? She didn't know the first thing about kids.
Still, she couldn't let her concerns go unvoiced. She already had enough guilt to haul around. So she squared her shoulders and looked him right in the eye. "I'm equally concerned about Rainbow, who is probably one of the sources of the cat's stress. Have you any idea how frightening it is for a child to hear that you're planning to drop her off with someone she doesn't know and who doesn't even know that you're coming?"
That got a reaction. The mask he'd been wearing slipped, and anger flared in his eyes. "Look, lady, I came in here for vet services. I know precisely how sad Rainbow feels. And I'll bet you a thousand dollars that you have no clue. I'm sure you had a nice, middle-class upbringing and never once worried about whether you'd go hungry. I'm sure you didn't have a parent with a drug problem. I'm sure you got your clothes new, instead of from the Salvation Army. But Rainbow and I have both known that kind of thing. And I'm here precisely because I want her to have a better life. So butt out, okay? Just give us what we need for the damn cat and we'll be out of here."
Once Tigger and her unsettling owners had departed, Charlene hung up her lab coat, snatched her purse from the hook behind her office door, and headed toward the reception area and the exit. She needed to hustle her bustle or she'd be late for the executive board meeting of the Allenberg Animal Rescue Coalition. They would be discussing the fund-raiser scheduled for June fourteenth—a bachelor auction at the VFW hall in Allenberg.
Even running late, Charlene took a moment to poke her head into Dr. David Underhill's office. He sat at his desk reading the most recent issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, his head propped up on his fist, his dark hair falling ever so perfectly across his high forehead. If you looked up "tall, dark, and handsome" on Wikipedia, there would be a photo of Dr. Dave. He had a square jaw, a set of amazing dimples, white, perfect teeth, bright blue eyes, and a body to die for, which he honed to perfection at the Allenberg YMCA gym.
Charlene knew this because she also belonged to the Y. In her case, however, there was no honing involved. Charlene needed to drop about fifteen pounds so she would fit into the maid of honor dress for her best friend's wedding, scheduled for August sixteenth. Of course, her gym membership also afforded her the opportunity to watch Dr. Dave pump iron while she strolled on the treadmill.
To say that she had a crush on Dr. Dave was to understate the point. Her feelings verged on a deep, dark obsession. He was as handsome as Prince Charming. He was kind to small animals and children. He was smart. And he was… her boss. Which made him untouchable.
A year ago, he'd arrived in town from Charlotte, North Carolina, and bought the practice from old Doc Matthews. Doc had given Charlene the job as assistant vet a few years ago, right after she'd graduated from vet school. She loved old Doc, but he had never quite trusted her with the large-animal practice. Dave's arrival changed everything. Dave had no desire to go tramping through barns and stables. He felt way more comfortable in the surgical suite.
And Charlene loved horses. And cows, and sheep, and alpacas. If they had hooves, Charlene had a weakness for them. So when it came to caring for Allenberg's animals, Charlene and Dave were a great team. But Dave still signed her paychecks.
So throwing herself at him, or sneaking off with him to a no-tell motel, or otherwise indulging her fantasies by ripping off her clothes in his glorious presence was so not going to happen.
Besides, it always got messy where her hormones and heart were concerned. She had been in and out of so many relationships that she'd lost count. All in all, making a play for the boss would be stupid. But that didn't mean she had to keep her distance. After all, Dr. Dave was like poetry in motion. So she found reasons to talk to him, just so she could bask in the light of his male beauty, not to mention his adorableness.
"Hey, I'm off to the AARC meeting," she said. She couldn't help herself; she batted her eyes at him and leaned into the doorway. Maybe he'd notice how all that gym time had reduced her waistline by an inch.
He looked up. He gave her his dreamy smile. His blue eyes lit up, and Charlene knew a moment of hope. "Say hey to Angel and Wilma and the rest of the crowd." He looked back down at the medical journal. He had not noticed the slightly revealing neckline of her sweater. He had not noticed that her upper arms were beginning to shrink. He had not, in fact, noticed her at all, except in the most professional and vaguely friendly way.
"Will do," she said, trying hard not to show her disappointment in her voice.
On some level, Charlene knew Dave couldn't be Mr. Right. But she had reached the desperate spinster phase in her life. She was older than thirty, lived in a tiny town, and Mr. Right had passed her by. She wanted a family and kids. And she had to admit that Dr. Dave would make beautiful babies. The kind of babies Mother and Daddy would cherish and appreciate.
Charlene reluctantly left Dave's doorway and headed down the hall and into the reception area where Cindy was finishing up her paperwork for the day. "What did you think about the last appointment—the walk-in?" Charlene asked.
Cindy had a talent for reading people, even if she had an appalling weakness for concrete yard art. Dave pretended to love the sculptures Cindy brought back from every trip she and her husband, Earl, took in their camper. Dave's tolerance for the statues made Charlene adore him even more.
"The little girl was pitiful," Cindy said, bringing Charlene back to the worry at hand. "I hope the cat's okay. Because I never saw a child cry like that without making a sound."
"The cat's going to be fine. But I felt the same way about the girl."
"You don't think that guy with her was…"
"I don't know. He told me Reverend Lake is his brother. And he said the girl's momma was killed ten days ago. He's brought that little girl here with the intention of leaving her with Pastor Tim. But the preacher doesn't even know he's coming. You're a Methodist, Cindy. Have you heard anything about the preacher having a half-brother or a long-lost niece?"
"No. I thought he was alone in the world. I heard his mother died of breast cancer, and his daddy died of a stroke or something. Not too long ago. I clearly remember him saying that he was an only child. He and I had a whole conversation about how lonely it was not to have a brother or sister. Did that guy really say he was the preacher's brother?"
"Oh, my. I need to call Elsie right away." Cindy picked up the phone and started punching numbers.
Before tomorrow morning, every blessed member of the Methodist Altar Guild would know all about the stranger in town who claimed to be Pastor Tim's brother. Charlene prayed that the town's busybodies would use that information to make sure little Rainbow got what she needed.
Charlene had great faith in the church ladies of Last Chance. They were, for the most part, angels of mercy.
With its soaring steeple, red brick facade, and Doric columns, the First Methodist Church looked as if it came from right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. It was as far away from the streets of Chicago as a person could get. And that made it perfect.
Mike helped Rainbow and Tigger out of the car. He decided against telling Rainbow that there were probably rules against taking a cat into a church. Mike didn't want any tantrums from either of them. So he held his tongue when Rainbow draped Tigger over her shoulders as if the cat were an old-fashioned fox fur.
Once the cat settled, Mike took Rainbow's hand, and they walked up to the big oak doors, which were open even at six o'clock on a Tuesday evening.
The churchy smell of the place—one part brass polish and one part old hymnal books—overwhelmed him the moment he entered the vestibule. He didn't like churches or the hypocrites who visited them on a regular basis. Good Christians tended to look down their noses at sinners like him. And that probably explained why he could count the number of minutes he'd spent inside a church on one hand.
But just because he hated churchy people didn't mean they didn't have something to give Rainbow. Maybe the church folks could save Rainbow from making the bad choices everyone in her family had made, except maybe Timmy and his father.
The foyer opened onto the sanctuary on the left. He peeked in. It could have been any Protestant church in any American town, with its whitewashed walls, oak pews, and brass cross. Rainbow would thrive here.
He turned away from the sanctuary. On the right, a long hallway with doors on either side extended to the back of the building. These had to be Sunday school classrooms, but even on a Tuesday, the sound of children's voices carried from the opposite end of the hallway.
He gave Rainbow's hand a reassuring squeeze and followed the sounds to an active and noisy day-care center that occupied several rooms at the back of the hall. Parents streamed through a back door that led to the church's parking lot, and it appeared to be pickup time. A lot of hugging and kissing was happening.
Rainbow tugged on Mike's hand. He looked down at her and wished she could talk. Watching parents pick up their kids must be breaking her heart. Did Rainbow even understand that Angie was never coming back? Maybe not. She was just barely five years old.
Tigger seemed excited by all the noise and activity, and she expressed her opinion with a couple of loud meows. A brown-haired young woman with a baby on her hip turned around and glowered at Rainbow and Tigger. "You can't bring a cat into the day care. We have children here who are allergic."
Rainbow said nothing. Tigger meowed again, as if she were telling the woman off. Mike found himself stammering. "Uh, I wasn't—"
"And who are you?" The woman shifted her gaze from Rainbow to Mike and then back again. He'd been getting that reaction a lot in the three days he'd been caring for Rainbow. Maybe he should be worried. Last Chance was a sleepy southern town. For all its apparent wholesomeness, it might still be a place where Rainbow would never fit in.
His stomach churned, and he slapped on his poker face. "I'm looking for Reverend Lake."
"Does he know you're coming?"
"Uh, no, but we're family."
That shut the woman up. Her questioning gaze shifted a couple more times. Rainbow probably bore about as much resemblance to Timmy as she did to Mike himself. Too bad. Everyone in this one-horse town would just have to get over it.
"Do you know where I can find him?" he asked.
- "4 Stars! Ramsay uses a light-toned plot and sweet characters to illustrate some important truths in this entry in the series."—RT Book Reviews
- "Last Chance captures the essence of Southern charm and quirkiness. I'm totally captivated!"—Sherryl Woods, New York Times bestselling author
"Is there anything more compelling than a shattered hero with a tender heart trying desperately to get his life back together - and to avoid falling for the woman who has given him grief since he was a teenager? Ramsay's latest visit to Last Chance, S.C., is a first-class romance, with compelling characters and a real sense of location - the town is practically a character on its own. This entry is sure to keep Ramsay's fan base growing."—RT Book Reviews on Last Chance Book Club
- "4 Stars! Ramsay's romance packs just enough heat in this holiday-inspired story, with lead characters who will induce both belly laughs and smiles. Her hero and heroine are in for rough times, but their heartache and longing had me longing right along with them."—RT Book Reviews on Last Chance Christmas
- "4 1/2 stars! Get ready for a story to remember...with characters that define eccentric, off the wall and bonkers, but most of all they're enchantingly funny and heartwarmingly charming."—RT Book Reviews on Last Chance Beauty Queen
- "Witty, touching, and absolutely delightful - this story has heart!"—JoAnn Ross, New York Times bestselling author of The Homecoming on Welcome to Last Chance
- "Welcome to Last Chance is an impressive start to a charming new series, featuring quirky characters you won't soon forget."—Barbara Freethy, New York Times bestselling author of At Hidden Falls
- "Last Chance, South Carolina, is a caring community filled with the promise of hope. Come for a visit!"—Lori Wilde, New York Times bestselling author of The Welcome Home Garden Club
- "Ramsay strikes an excellent balance between tension and humor as she spins a fine yarn."—Publishers Weekly (starred review) on Welcome to Last Chance
- "A sweet confection . . . This first of a projected series about the Rhodes brothers offers up Southern hospitality with a bit of grit. Romance readers will be delighted."—Library Journal on Welcome to Last Chance
- On Sale
- Nov 25, 2014
- Page Count
- 368 pages