January 2, 2024

HTP Romance Blog Tour Promo Post: River Strong by BJ Daniels

at 1/02/2024 04:46:00 PM

For two rival families, the only thing that matters more than land…is love.

There’s a lifetime of tension between the McKenna and Stafford ranching families, and Oakley Stafford has the bullet scar to prove it. Defying the bitter rivalry between their families, Oakley grew up thick as thieves with Duffy McKenna. But now the Staffords and the McKennas are competing to buy a neighboring property. Both need that land desperately—and the reasons are more dangerous than Oakley knows.

But there’s another unspoken rivalry, too, between Duffy and Pickett Hanson, the McKenna family’s ranch hand. Once upon a time, Oakley ignored the way the two handsome cowboys playfully flirted with her, but now she’s untangling complicated feelings that could upend years of friendship. And when a body is found on the contested ranch, their secrets will be forced into the open at last…

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Oakley Stafford jolted upright in bed, the nightmare chasing her from the deep darkness of sleep into the growing light of the Montana winter day. The sun rimmed the mountains to the east, but her view from her bedroom window on the Stafford Ranch was still cast in shadow. Through the bare-limbed cottonwoods, the Powder River wound its way north, dark and silent beneath a thick layer of ice.

Even now awake, Oakley felt as if she was still spurring her horse through the darkness of the cottonwoods months earlier. The leaves created a dark canopy overhead with only slivers of sunlight filtering through, casting long shadows in her path. She raced for the county road, chased by a killer as she ran for her life. Don’t look back. Don’t look back.

She shuddered, the recurring nightmare feeling so real because it had been. She’d awoken in the hospital, shocked to hear that she’d been shot just as she and her horse had burst from the cottonwoods and onto the county road. Shot in the back, she’d fallen from her horse, striking her head so hard that it wiped out all memory of two full days of her life.

Her hand went automatically to her scar near her heart where the bullet had been removed. Even after all this time, the shadowy images still plagued her, daring her to remember. What had really happened that day?

While her memory felt like a black hole tempting her to come closer and look at what was waiting for her inside, her mind kept crying out, Don’t look back! It made her fear that the truth might be more terrifying than her lack of memory.

Oakley started as her bedroom door opened, her older sister filling the frame. “I heard you cry out. The nightmare again?” She nodded as Tilly entered the room and sat down on the edge of her bed. “I thought after CJ confessed to accidentally shooting you, it would get better.”

“So did I.” But she didn’t trust her older brother’s version of the story. There was a part of her brain that told her there was something important she desperately needed to recall before it was too late.

“You stayed here last night?” she asked. Tilly often stayed with her fiancé at the McKenna Ranch that adjoined theirs. The river dividing their land, the two families had been at odds for years. The bitterness between the McKenna patriarch, Holden McKenna, and their mother, the matriarch of the Stafford Ranch, Charlotte Stafford, had gotten worse recently.

“Have you heard from Mother?” Tilly asked as she rose from the bed and walked to the window. Oakley saw her glance at the engagement ring on her finger, the diamond catching the early-morning light. In the distance, the mountains rose in rocky cliffs and pine-dotted hillsides capped with the last of winter’s snow. Closer, the thick stand of cottonwoods stood stark along the river as it wound its way through the Powder River Basin under a clear, cold, cloudless blue late-December sky.

“Maybe you should tell her about your engagement before she returns home,” Oakley suggested, leaning against the headboard as the remnants of her nightmare burned away like morning mountain mist, leaving her unsettled.

“Mother has enough on her plate right now.”

Oakley had been shocked when she’d learned who’d shot her. Her own brother. CJ swore it was an accident. She knew in her heart that there was more to it and that was what had her scared. She had to remember, because all her instincts told her that her would-be killer was waiting in fear for her to do just that.

While Oakley had been fighting for her life in the hospital, CJ had tried to flee the law. He’d rolled his pickup, almost killing Tilly and himself. Paralyzed, he’d been whisked away by their mother to a hospital in Minnesota that specialized in the care he needed. Their mother had gone with him. Oakley hadn’t seen either of them since; nor had she gotten a chance to confront her brother.

“I haven’t heard anything from her,” Oakley said. As far as she knew, CJ was still paralyzed, needing a wheelchair, something their mother refused to accept. If stubborn determination could heal her oldest son, Charlotte Stafford would have had him walking by now and the two would have returned to the ranch.

“I can’t believe that you’ve forgiven him,” Tilly said. “He almost killed you.” CJ had fired the bullet that had come so close to Oakley’s heart that it had been amazing that she survived. It was his reason for shooting her that still haunted her. He’d apparently followed her onto McKenna Ranch property because he thought she was meeting someone from the rival ranch. Allegedly, he’d fired a warning shot to stop her that had gone awry.

“I don’t know that I can ever forgive him entirely,” Oakley said. “It was bad enough what he did to me. But he almost killed you.” She shook her head. “He’s never had to suffer the consequences of his actions, thanks to Mother. But this time he went too far. Not that I’d ever wish him to be badly injured. But he needs to spend some time behind bars. Not that Mother will ever allow that.”

Tilly looked as if she hadn’t completely forgiven their brother, either. She’d been on her way into town the day CJ found out the sheriff knew that he’d fired the near-fatal shot. Their brother abducted Tilly, taking her hostage as he raced along backroads, determined to escape punishment.

“You realize CJ will go berserk when he finds out about your engagement to Cooper McKenna,” Oakley said.

“I’m not worried about CJ,” Tilly said. “I’m more concerned about Mother. You know how she feels about the McKennas.”

Charlotte Stafford could be scary when crossed, but for Oakley it was CJ who appeared in her nightmares, along with a nagging conviction that he was lying about the shooting. “I just worry about what she’ll do, Tilly. Didn’t she threaten you if you kept seeing Cooper?”

“There’s nothing she can do,” her sister said, sounding more confident than Oakley suspected she was.

“I’m marrying Coop and she can’t stop me. As far as the ranch…”

Oakley heard the catch in her sister’s voice. Tilly loved the homestead, loved working it, always thought she would be the one who kept the Stafford Ranch going for future generations. It was why she and CJ and their mother often argued about the future of the ranch and ranching. They’d especially been at odds over coalbed methane drilling on the property. CJ had talked their mother into letting the gas company drill on the ranch for the money. He’d never considered the long-term or what it would mean to future generations.

“Mother’s going to need me working the ranch even more now until CJ is up and around again,” Tilly said.

“If he ever is.” Oakley didn’t remind her sister how Charlotte Stafford handled those she felt had been disloyal. She cut them out of her life as brutally as if taking a knife to them.

“I should get moving,” Tilly said. “Cooper and I are driving out to Oregon to pick up a bull. He wants to start a whole new breeding program at the ranch. Holden has offered us a section of land for a house as a wedding present. We’re planning to build this summer, although I know Holden would be happy if we stayed in the main house. But with Cooper’s older brother so opposed to us being together…”

“Treyton,” Oakley said like a curse. “He is so much like CJ except for the fact that he hasn’t shot anyone lately.”

“As far as we know,” Tilly said. “Holden thinks his son will come around. I have my doubts. But it doesn’t matter. Cooper and I are going to be together, no matter what.”

Oakley smiled. Her sister seemed to glow whenever she said her fiancé’s name. “I couldn’t be happier for you.” Tilly had found love and like she said, there was nothing anyone could do to stop them from marrying. At least she hoped that was the case.

The sun broke over the mountains and filled her bedroom with warm golden light, chasing away the nightmare—at least until tonight. She couldn’t wait for the days to get longer, the sun stronger. This winter had been harder than most and it had only begun.

“You have plans today?” Tilly asked, still standing next to her bed.

She heard the suspicion and worry in her sister’s voice. “Nothing exciting. Just going into Miles City, meeting up with some friends.”

“Anyone I know?”

Oakley knew exactly what Tilly was asking.

“I hope you’re not still involved with that subversive group, Dirty Business,” her sister said. “Stu told me that there’d been more vandalizing of the coalbed methane drilling rigs. He said the gas company is going to be cracking down.”

She heard the warning loud and clear. “You still see the sheriff?”

“Don’t try to change the subject. Stu and I and Cooper are friends. I was never serious about the sheriff. Oakley, you can’t stop the drilling in the Powder River Basin. Sabotaging the drilling equipment will only end you up in jail or worse.”

“It hurts me that you think I would do something like that.”

Tilly rolled her eyes. “Maybe that works on Mother—”

It didn’t. “Thank you for the early-morning lecture, big sis, but I’m well aware of all of that.” She swung her legs over the side of the bed and felt that twinge around the gunshot scar. She was kidding herself if she thought she could ever forgive her brother for shooting her, especially when she couldn’t shake the feeling that there had been more to it than he’d admitted. If only she could remember those lost forty-eight hours.

Unlike Tilly, she was anxious for CJ and her mother to return to the ranch. She wanted answers. She would finally get to confront her brother. She planned to get the truth out of him, one way or another. But that wasn’t all she had planned as she waited for her sister to leave her room so she could call her two coconspirators about tonight.

“You have another date?”

Duffy McKenna turned to see the latest addition to the McKenna Ranch standing in the doorway, one hip cocked, a smile on her cute pre-teenaged face. He touched his finger to his lips and pretended it was a secret. It actually was, but he didn’t want Holly Jo to know that any more than he did the rest of the family.

“You must like this one,” the twelve-year-old said as she plopped down in a chair to watch him finish getting ready. “You’re always looking in the mirror, messing with your hair, but you seem nervous this time.”

He turned to look at her, unable not to grin. Holly Jo was sharper than some of the people in this house gave her credit for. He needed to watch this one. “You think so, huh?”

“So what’s she like?” she asked, twirling a lank of her long dark hair on a finger as she studied him with those big blue eyes.

“Smart, strong, determined,” he said at once. He laughed at how quickly the words had come to him and yet they didn’t do Oakley Stafford justice. He realized he could have added another half dozen adjectives easily.

Holly Jo rolled her eyes. “Is she pretty?”

“No prettier than you.”

She mugged a face at him, but he could tell she liked the compliment. “Are you serious about her?”

He’d never been that serious about any girl he’d gone out with. But Oakley? He realized he was dead serious. So why hadn’t he done something about it? He’d been telling himself that there was plenty of time, except that he’d been thinking that for a long time now. She wasn’t as close to anyone as she was him, he told himself. So of course they would be together one day. What was the hurry?

“What do you think?” he said in answer to Holly Jo’s question. “You know what a serious cowboy I am.”

“Exactly,” she said. “Cooper says you like to play the field. That you’re too immature to have a real relationship. Treyton said he doesn’t understand what women see in you.”

Duffy laughed. “Me neither.” Great to know how the family really feels, he thought. Even his brother Treyton had weighed in.

“You going to break this one’s heart?”

“Chances are that she’ll end up breaking mine.” That was a sobering thought.

“Elaine says it will take getting your heart broken before you find your true love.” Elaine was their cook, head housekeeper, a fixture at the ranch from before Duffy was born.

“That’s what Elaine says, huh? You two spend a lot of time talking about me, do you?”

“As much as anyone else except Treyton,” Holly Jo said innocently enough. “Elaine doesn’t see much hope for him and neither do I. But she says everyone has the potential to change and be a better person no matter their past indiscretions.”

“I never knew Elaine dispensed so much good advice.” He grinned at her. “What does she suggest for you?”

Holly Jo made a face. “She says I have a lot of growing up to do, but that I just need to be patient.”

“I agree with her. Now, get going. I can’t be late for my date. Don’t you have homework to do?” He watched her shove herself up with a groan.

“Holden says I can’t date until I’m at least sixteen. Sixteen! Do you know how old that is?”

“I do.” As he watched her shuffle out of his room, he wondered what the real story was about Holly Jo. All his father had told them was that he’d made a promise to Holly Jo’s mother years ago that he would take care of her daughter if anything happened to her. Had he known the mother was going to die young?

More to the point: Was there any blood connection to the girl and their family? Holden swore she wasn’t his daughter. But Duffy had no doubt there was more to the story. There always was.

All the family knew was that Holly Jo was going to be living with them indefinitely. Not that the girl had been pleased about that. She’d spent months getting into trouble, trying to leave and generally fighting with their father.

Duffy liked her. It was probably the kid in him, but he thought she liked him, too. Treyton ignored her, their sister, Bailey, threatened her if she came near her room or her business, Cooper taught her to ride a horse and their ranch hand and Duffy’s best friend, Pickett Hanson, was giving her trick riding lessons. Lately, she’d seemed to be settling in as if accepting the way things were. He hoped it worked out. He would miss her if she left for any reason.

Duffy turned his attention to his so-called date tonight. Who was he kidding?

It wasn’t a date. It was three friends, Duffy, Pickett and Oakley, going to a Dirty Business secret meeting. Sometimes he felt like Oakley was completely out of his league even if she hadn’t been a Stafford. Not just that. She often seemed to like his best friend, Pickett, more than him.

He planned to change that, he thought with a grin as he looked in the mirror. This woman was a challenge, something he wasn’t used to, but that made him all the more determined. He raked a hand through his thick dark hair. Holly Jo was right, he thought with a laugh. He definitely more than liked this one.

But he also didn’t want anyone else to have her—not that he was worried about Pickett.

Cooper found his father behind his desk in the den. He saw worry etched deep in Holden’s once very handsome face. Holden McKenna was still a powerful-looking man with broad shoulders. His dark hair had gone salt-and-pepper with gray, and his blue eyes seemed to have dimmed some, but there was an inner strength to him that Cooper had always admired.

“Problem?” he asked as he stepped into the room.

His father looked up from the papers on his desk. “I suppose you’ve heard. Inez Turner is now in hospice care. Word is that the Montana 360 Ranch will be up for sale after she passes. Her son Bob isn’t interested in ranching, apparently. We could use that land, but mostly we need the water that flows through it.”

When Charlotte Stafford had a coalbed methane well drilled right next to their ranch, their artesian well had gone dry. It was a loss that had put the two families even more at odds. Cooper was familiar with the Montana 360 Ranch. It had good wells and access to the river.

“You know Charlotte will want that land,” he said. “If she diverts the water away from our ranch…”

His father nodded. “I’ve already spoken to Bob, letting him know we’re interested in purchasing the ranch. We will have to top whatever Charlotte offers.”

Cooper figured this would make the rivalry between the two families even worse. But it also might put the McKenna Ranch in financial jeopardy. He was pretty sure that was why his older brother, Treyton, had been pushing their father to cash in by having coalbed methane wells drilled on their ranch. Thankfully, Holden was dead set against it.

But there would also be a personal cost for his father. According to the local scuttlebutt, his father and Charlotte had been lovers when they were young. She’d thought they would marry. Holden’s father had someone else in mind for his son, a woman whose ranch land the McKenna Ranch needed.

Charlotte never forgave him for betraying her. Cooper suspected his father had also never forgiven himself. There were times when her name was mentioned that Cooper had seen the pain in his father’s eyes. He’d long suspected that Holden still loved her.

“Does Treyton know?” he had to ask. Since recently returning to the ranch after leaving two years ago, he suspected his brother might be planning to go behind their father’s back to do what he felt was best for the ranch.

“He doesn’t know the extent of it,” Holden admitted. “I don’t want to have another argument with him about drilling on McKenna land. We just have to make sure we get the Montana 360 Ranch. I’m afraid it’s going to be a bidding war with Charlotte Stafford and probably some other ranchers in the area. Treyton seems to think I should go to the ranch, get Irma to sell to me on her deathbed.” He shook his head. “I don’t know about your brother sometimes.”

Sometimes? Cooper had butted heads with Treyton since they were kids. Since returning to the river basin a some months ago, he’d warned his father about Treyton having been seen talking with one of the methane company bosses. He’d also told him about catching Treyton at the real estate office in town, possibly seeing what the ranch might be worth on the open market.

His brother always seemed to be angry, wanting their father to step aside and let him take over the ranch, convinced he could run it better. Cooper feared what Treyton would do if he got the chance.

“You’re headed out to Oregon, right?” Holden asked. “Taking Tilly with you?” He smiled. “Make it a nice little holiday. No reason to rush back.” As if thinking the same thing Cooper was, his father asked, “Any word on when Charlotte is coming back?”

He shook his head. “As far as I know she hasn’t been in communication with anyone here. I don’t think CJ is healing as she’d hoped. Doubt she wants to return until he is.”

His father sighed. “Charlotte hates to lose, but from what I’ve heard, CJ will be coming home in a wheelchair. How long he might be in one, possibly the rest of his life, is debatable. If she has anything to do with it, he’ll walk again.” Charlotte Stafford’s iron will was legendary. “Does she know about the engagement yet?”

“Not that I know of,” Cooper said. “Tilly hasn’t heard from her. But the fact that her mother hasn’t been taking her calls could be an indication that Charlotte has heard.” He saw his father frown. They both feared how Charlotte would take it.

As for CJ Stafford, he and his father felt the same way about the cowboy who had almost killed both of his sisters. Cooper was hoping CJ walked again for personal reasons. He needed to settle a few things with him.

“I’m sure you’ve heard,” Cooper said. “Charlotte’s lawyers are fighting to get the cases against CJ for both incidents dropped.” No one in the county who knew the Stafford matriarch believed her son would ever do any jail time.

His father said nothing. In recent years, he’d argued for peace between the families. Now he changed the subject. “Well, have a good trip. Can’t wait to see this bull when you get back. Drive safely.” Holden’s gaze shifted to something behind Cooper. “Was that Duffy leaving?”

“Said he had a date.”

His father shook his head. “I doubt he’ll ever settle down and get serious about a woman—let alone working this ranch.”

Oakley showered, dressed and headed for Miles City with a planned stop along the way to pick up her two cohorts, Duffy McKenna and Pickett Hanson. Duffy was Holden McKenna’s youngest son. Pickett had been a McKenna ranch hand since all three of them were in their teens. Both were her best friends and partners in crime and had been since then. She used to sneak over to the neighboring ranch and the three managed to get into all kinds of trouble. They still did.

Both young men had stolen a piece of her heart with their good looks, their heart-fluttering grins and outrageous senses of humor. Lately, the three of them had become even closer out of their determination to stop the coalbed methane drilling in their valley.

As she pulled up to the meeting place just outside town, the two men exited the pickup they’d arrived in and walked toward her, smiling. They were both so darned handsome, cowboys through and through. For years, Oakley had watched cowgirls throwing themselves at the two of them. She hadn’t been one of those cowgirls. She’d ignored both men when they flirted with her—and still did. It only seemed to make them both more determined to win her over.

She laughed now as the two wrestled over who was going to sit on the pickup’s bench seat next to her. They’d made a game out of trying to court her favor. “Quit horsing around. We need to get going.”

Duffy won the wrestling match, sliding in next to her, grinning and giving her a hip bump. Like all the McKennas, he had thick dark hair and incredible blue eyes with long dark lashes that made her jealous. “Hey, beautiful.”

She elbowed him in the side as Pickett climbed in, slammed the door and then got the truck moving. “Tilly told me that the sheriff mentioned to her that another drilling rig had been vandalized,” she said, getting down to business. Sheriff Stuart Layton was close to both Tilly and Cooper. Her sister had dated Stuart for a while before her true heartthrob Cooper had returned.

Oakley glanced over at the two men as she drove out of town and headed for the mountains they would cross before dropping down into the Yellowstone River Valley and Miles City. She loved both Duffy and Pickett, but lately Oakley felt as if something was changing. Or maybe it was her. “You know Stuart suspects us,” she said, keeping to the subject at hand.

“But he has to prove it was us,” Duffy said and grinned.

“I think we need to work on the ranchers,” Pickett said, always the practical one. When the three of them had built a treehouse in the woods, Duffy had been convinced it was safe enough. Pickett refused to climb up until it was supported better. Duffy broke his arm in the fall when the treehouse collapsed.

“If ranchers don’t let them drill on their land, CH4 will have to move on,” Pickett said. “Keeping them from using their drilling equipment for a few weeks isn’t stopping them.”

“Neither is trying to get ranchers not to drill,” Duffy said. “Too many of them need the money and if this drought continues…” It was no secret that Duffy enjoyed sabotaging the drilling rigs, but he really did want the drilling to stop. Like Pickett, he tended to joke around, making people think he didn’t take anything seriously. But most people didn’t know either man the way Oakley did.

“It does come down to money,” Pickett agreed. “So many of the ranches had to sell their cattle earlier than they wanted because of it, our ranches included.”

Oakley knew the argument too well. “Maybe someone will have a suggestion at this meeting in Miles City. We need to be careful, though. The sheriff is watching us. So are the folks at the methane gas company. It’s getting more dangerous.” None of them spoke until she was almost to Miles City.

“I’m not sure you should go with us to the meeting,” Pickett said.

She shot him a look that she hoped sent her clear answer to that.

“I’m serious, Oakley. You’re right about it getting more dangerous. I’m worried about you. Isn’t your mother coming back soon?”

“What does she have to do with this?” she demanded. While she planned to confront her brother, she knew her mother would fight like a mama grizzly to protect her oldest son—maybe especially if his injuries still had him in a wheelchair.

“The next well could be on your ranch,” Duffy said. “Your mother had been about to make a deal with CH4 before she left. I doubt CJ’s changed her mind.”

Oakley let out an oath, slamming her hand down on the steering wheel. “CJ,” she said. “I’m sure he talked her into it. He’d have wells all over the ranch if he had his way. All he thinks about is the money. Doesn’t care about what it will do to the ranch that our children and grandchildren will inherit.” She groused under her breath for a moment before glancing over at them. “If she goes ahead with it, we’re going to stop that well from going in.”

They instantly started voicing their concerns about any plan that meant crossing Charlotte Stafford. “That’s a little too close to home, don’t you think?” Pickett said.

“Exactly,” she snapped. “Duffy, you already lost a major well on your ranch because of the drilling on our ranch. You can’t afford to lose another one. Eventually, it is going to destroy our own water wells, not to mention what all that salt from the drilling water is going to do to the Powder River. We have to stop it. If you don’t want to help me—”

“You know better than that,” Pickett said.

Duffy chuckled. “Like we would let you do this alone.”

“I don’t know what I’d do without the two of you,” she said, meaning it even as her stomach roiled at the thought of going head-to-head with her mother and CJ. She had no idea how much time she had before her mother returned and the drilling began—let alone how they were going to stop it and stay out of jail.

In his office, Sheriff Stuart “Stu” Layton sorted through the photographs taken at the crime scene. The incidents of vandalism on the gas rigs had escalated, the damage more extensive. A bigwig from the CH4 gas company was flying in today, demanding something be done and threatening to go to the feds if the sheriff couldn’t handle the job.

Stu didn’t like being threatened. He really doubted the feds would be interested in taking on vandalism cases, but he was no fool. Things had gotten out of hand. He had to stop it.

He sorted through the photos again, knowing full well that the group calling themselves Dirty Business was growing in numbers. It was no longer some young hotheads. Area ranchers had joined the group, trying to organize against the gas company.

The sheriff figured the vandals only made up a small portion of the group, though. He was pretty sure he knew some of them, but he had no proof. They’d been clever, making sure no one saw them and leaving no evidence as to their identities.

He studied the photographs more closely. No tire tracks. They’d walked into the site where the drilling equipment had been. But they’d also left no footprints. He figured they had to be wearing shoe coverings. He wasn’t dealing with kids or hopped-up teenagers. This group knew what they were doing. He suspected they had been trained.

The only way to catch them was to stake out drilling equipment in isolated places around the Powder River Basin. The thought of putting his new deputy, Ty Dodson, on it gave him pause. Dodson tended to throw his weight around because of the badge. Stu hated to think what the deputy might do if the vandals ran or worse, put up a fight. He didn’t want anyone getting killed over spray paint and some temporarily inoperable equipment.

“Got a minute?” He looked up to find a pretty brunette smiling in through his open office doorway at him. He and Abigail Creed, the new nurse at the local small hospital, had been dating for a few months off and on. Mostly off.

From the first time he’d met her, Stu had been suspicious of her reasons for being in Powder Crossing. Also for being so friendly to him. It wasn’t anything he could put his finger on, just a gut feeling that unnerved him. Maybe he just wasn’t used to sweet, thoughtful women being interested in him, he joked to himself. Or maybe Abigail wasn’t exactly who she pretended to be.

“Free for dinner? I hit the market in Miles City and I feel like cooking. Feel like eating?”

He searched only a few moments for an excuse to decline and then changed his mind. He felt as if their relationship was reaching some sort of climax, one way or the other. “I’d love to. What can I bring?”

“Just your appetite. Seven?” He nodded, smiling. “See you then,” she said and was gone.

Stu sat for a moment chastising himself. Abigail was probably what she appeared, a lovely, caring, pretty young woman who for whatever reason seemed interested in him. Why wasn’t he more suspicious of the ones who would end up leaving him for someone else?

He thought of Tilly Stafford. He’d really thought she might be the one.

She turned out to be the one all right—for Cooper McKenna, he reminded himself. Her falling for Cooper had strained his relationship with his once best friend. He and Coop had patched up their grievance, but there was some history there that they kept stumbling over. Another woman they’d both been interested in was now dead.

He pushed away the thought of Leann Hayes, not wanting to go back down that dark alley. As far as he was concerned, the case was closed. She’d committed suicide, end of story. He just hoped that he could eventually convince Cooper of that before he demanded the case be reopened. His friend was convinced that Leann hadn’t killed herself.

Fortunately, Cooper was busy, enjoying his engagement to Tilly Stafford and hadn’t mentioned reopening the case lately. His friend had stopped by earlier to tell him that he was going out to Oregon to pick up a bull. Tilly was going with him. “Can I pick you up anything from the West Coast?”

Stu marveled at how he and the ranch kid had become friends to begin with. The sheriff was as blond as Cooper was dark. The two of them had grown up together. Close to the same age, they’d been in the same grade in the small rural school for years. He couldn’t remember when they’d become best friends. There were rough times over the years when they’d fought over ball games or girls, but they’d lasted as friends. They’d always had each other’s back—even in the worst times.

Until recently.

Stu had a bad feeling that chasm in their relationship was about to widen when Cooper found out that the sheriff had been seeing quite a lot of his sister, Bailey. She would stop by his office or drop by the house to talk. She’d already told him about her brother’s trip, but Stu didn’t let on to Cooper that he already knew or that he’d been seeing his wild younger sister. He had a feeling that his old friend wouldn’t be happy about that. It had been Bailey’s idea to keep it on the down-low.

The sheriff had no idea where it was going—or if it was going anywhere. He liked Bailey’s company and she seemed to find his job fascinating. She also liked to talk about the valley’s history. Since Stu had taken his dad’s job as sheriff, he remembered stories his father had told. Those seemed to interest Bailey, too. She was especially interested in the feud between her family and the Staffords.

“Thanks, but I don’t need anything,” Stu had said, touched that Cooper would ask if he wanted anything from the West Coast. “Have a nice trip. When are you coming back?”

“Not sure. Only a day or two.”

He’d gotten the impression Coop had wanted to say more, but Stu had to take a call and his friend had waved goodbye as he’d left.

Excerpted from River Strong by B.J. Daniels. Copyright © 2023 by Barbara Heinlein. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

About the Author

Photo Credit: Doug Loneman

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author B.J. Daniels lives in Montana with her husband, Parker, and two springer spaniels. When not writing, she quilts, boats and plays tennis. Contact her at www.bjdaniels.com, on Facebook at B.J. Daniels or through her reader group the B.J. Daniels' Big Sky Darlings, and on twitter @bjdanielsauthor.

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