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Playing for Keeps

Playing for Keeps

Emerald Lake, BOOK 2

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 508 5-Star Reviews

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Synopsis

Sophie Elliott has found a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. With a drug company searching for her, and a sister and Mom who need her help, she has to leave Chicago fast. When she meets Ryan, she knows his home could be the safest place for her—until she tells him a secret that changes everything.

For the last five years, Ryan Evans has been riding the wave of country music super-stardom. He has everything he’s ever wanted, more money than he knows what to do with, and a reputation that’s been shredded to a pulp. When he meets Sophie he knows he’s in trouble. 

With more at stake than either of them realize, they have to work together to keep everyone safe—even if it means giving up the one thing that could change their lives forever.

Chapter One Look Inside

Ryan sat in his truck, watching the people on the sidewalk. Downtown Bozeman wasn’t exactly the center of the universe, but it was as close as he’d gotten in a long time. For the last few months, he’d been building his dream house beside Emerald Lake and hiding from a past he wasn’t proud of. 

But that was all about to change. In ten minutes he was meeting his publicist, strategizing about the best way to deal with his crazy ex-wife and the media frenzy that was about to hit town.

Dorothy Patterson was nothing if not punctual. She strode along the sidewalk like the leader of a marching band; back straight, head high, and with the kind of serious expression that didn’t bode well for a good meeting. 

She’d made the journey from Nashville to Montana in record time. She had as much to lose as he did. If his ex-wife’s photos hit any of the publications she was threatening to use, they’d both go down in flames.

Stepping out of his truck, he shut the door and prepared for one of the most important discussions of his life. By the time he made it inside Angel Wings Café, Dorothy had already found a table at the back of the room.

“You’re late,” she said with a forced smile. Dorothy looked like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. But underneath the girl next door veneer, there was a woman with a heart of steel.

“I’ve been waiting in my truck. Have you spoken to her?”

“The only person Cindy’s talking to is her lawyer. He called me four hours ago and told me her terms and conditions haven’t changed. She wants half the royalties from the song you wrote when you were married. If you don’t pay her, she’ll release the photos. Sit down. I’ve ordered coffee.”

He wasn’t surprised his ex-wife hadn’t changed her mind. “She’s not getting any royalties from the song. My lawyer has already spoken to her lawyer. There’s no way a judge will give her what she wants.”

Dorothy smiled at the waitress as she left their drinks on the table. She leaned forward, her blue eyes boring into his. “You can’t afford to let her release those photos. They’ll kill your career.”

“I divorced Cindy six years ago. She took half of what I owned then. There’s no way she’s getting more money. If you can’t speak to Cindy, tell her lawyer she won’t see another dime from me.”

Dorothy pulled a folder out of her bag. “I thought you’d say something like that. I’ve been working on a plan to salvage what we can of your reputation. Are you sure she doesn’t have more photos?”

“She sent me copies of all of them. They’re so out of focus she’ll be lucky if anyone believes her.” 

“It doesn’t matter what they believe. What matters is that they’ll be available for everyone to see. If Cindy can’t get her hands on the money she thinks is hers, she’ll take what she can. If that means destroying you in the process, she’ll do it.”

“She’s not that calculating.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it.” Dorothy turned the folder around and opened the cover. “Tell me what you think.”

Ryan read the document but didn’t get very far. Dorothy’s suggestions for combating his ex-wife’s demands were almost as bad as releasing the photos. “What do you mean, sing for a charity? I’m living in the middle of Montana, being hounded by my ex-wife, and you want me to give a charity concert?”

“I don’t care how you do it or where you do it, but you need to generate some positive publicity. Hiding in Bozeman will make people think the photos are genuine.”

It was his turn to lean forward. “They are true. I’d had too much to drink. I was twenty-one years old, and we’d been married for less than a year. I learned my lesson.”

“It looks as though Cindy did, too. She’s probably kicking herself that she didn’t take more.” Dorothy pointed to the list. “We need photos of you at your new house, with your clothes on and a tool belt around your waist. That will let people know you’ve got more than a pretty—”

“I get the idea.”

“Let’s hope everyone else does, too.”

Ryan didn’t bother looking for a smile on Dorothy’s face. He’d given up years ago believing she had a sense of humor. Instead, he studied the list and frowned. Out of all the options she’d come up with, having his photo taken wearing a tool belt made the most sense. 

He read the next bullet point on her list. “You’re not asking for much. I haven’t written any new material in the last six months. How do you expect me to write, produce and record an album in the next six months?”

“Your ex-wife was your inspiration for ‘Sad Time Coming’. It made you an overnight success. Use that same energy to produce your next number one hit. Maybe you could call it ‘Goodbye to Bad News’.” 

This time, Dorothy’s mouth was tilted at the corners. “And here I was, thinking you didn’t have a sense of humor.”

Her smile disappeared. “I hide it well. Getting mad achieves nothing, but at least getting even makes you feel better. Cindy won’t be impressed if her threats make you another million dollars.”

“Especially if she can’t get her hands on any of it,” Ryan muttered. 

He would have laughed at the next bullet point if it had been someone else’s life they were talking about. “What do you hope to achieve by setting me up with another woman? The only thing I need is a good lawyer and a plan to keep Cindy away from me.”

“A new girlfriend is my emergency option. After what happened with Cindy, you could be asking for trouble. But, after a lot of soul-searching, I believe it could be your saving grace.” She reached across the table and pulled another piece of paper from the back of the folder. “She would have to meet certain criteria. You can’t afford to make the same mistake twice.”

He didn’t bother reading what Dorothy had left in front of him. There was no way he’d date another woman to make his publicist happy.

Dorothy sipped her coffee. “You haven’t had a serious girlfriend since you left Cindy. If you’re not willing to do anything else, at least think about it. I might be a miracle worker, but I’m not Cupid.”

“I’m not paying you to be Cupid,” Ryan said. “I’m paying you to look after my career. I’ll take the list home and read it. If I have any questions, I’ll call you.”

“I’ll be in Bozeman until four o’clock this afternoon. I have a meeting with your lawyer in half an hour. If there’s anything else you need to tell me, call me on my cell phone.” Dorothy left her coffee cup in the middle of the table and stood up. “If you hear anything from Cindy, call me straight away.” 

“Yes, ma’am.” 

She passed him her folder of notes. “At least promise me you’ll read the other ideas. You’re not the first musician to be blackmailed by an ex-wife.”

Ryan didn’t bother replying.

Dorothy sighed. “Why do I get the feeling that as soon as you leave the café, you’ll put my notes on the floor of your truck and leave them there?”

“I guess we’re both learning something new about each other. Cindy’s not getting her hands on more of my money or ruining my reputation. I’ll read your ideas and let you know what I think.”

Dorothy left the café as quickly as she’d arrived. 

Looking down at the folder, he frowned. Some days, being a country music superstar sucked.

* * *

Sophie Elliott lifted one of her suitcases out of the trunk of her car. In both directions, the road was as straight as an arrow for as far as she could see. 

Ten minutes ago she’d run out of gas. She knew she would have been lucky to reach Bozeman, but over the last two weeks she’d been in more difficult situations than a blinking fuel indicator. This time, she’d pushed her luck too far. About two miles too far.

Locking her car, she pulled up the handle of her suitcase. Bozeman couldn’t be more than a thirty-minute walk from here. She’d buy more gas, walk back to her car, and keep looking for somewhere safe to stay.

As she started walking, she wondered how many people drove down this stretch of the interstate. In the last ten minutes, the only living thing she’d seen had been a hawk.

She’d driven from Chicago to Montana out of desperation. A friend who’d worked with her in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Chicago University had lived in Montana for six years. She’d told Sophie it was the prettiest place on earth. It was so quiet you could hear the wind whispering through the trees and, in the summer, it was so hot you could fry an egg on the asphalt. Even knowing all of that, Sophie wasn’t used to feeling as though she was the last person on earth.

Her suitcase bumped over the stones, jarring her arm and slowing her down. At this rate, she’d never make Bozeman by nightfall. She pushed the handle back into the suitcase and carried it. 

She kept reminding herself she was doing the right thing, that she could do more good by disappearing. Sharing what she knew with the wrong people could be deadly, not only for herself, but for her mom and sister. 

A brown pickup truck drove toward her. Sophie put her head down and kept walking. The truck slowed to a crawl, and the driver rolled down his window.

“Looks like you could do with a ride?”

Sophie glanced at the cowboy. “Thanks for the offer, but you’re going in the wrong direction.”

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

She didn’t think her Chicago accent was that different from his, but she wasn’t about to start a conversation with a stranger. Pushing a strand of hair off her face, she kept walking. It must have been ninety-five degrees, and it was barely eleven o’clock in the morning.

The cowboy turned his truck around and followed her down the road. “That suitcase seems mighty heavy,” he said with a smile. “Looking at the car on the side of the road, I’d say you’ve run out of gas. I can easily drive you into town and bring you back here.”

Sophie stopped walking. The cowboy’s hat covered most of his face. She had no idea what he looked like, but there couldn’t be many mass murderers and trained killers who wore plaid shirts.

His truck was covered in dirt. It had enough bumps and scrapes to pass for the real thing. “I don’t want to inconvenience you. You’ve just come from Bozeman.”

“It won’t take long to drive back into town. Besides, you’ll get there a lot faster in my truck than if you were walking.”

She looked down the road once more before deciding what to do. It was hot and she was desperate. After two weeks of running like a scared rabbit, she was tired of second-guessing everyone. It probably wasn’t the most logical thing to do, but logic didn’t work so well when you were alone and thousands of miles from home. 

“Thank you. I’d be grateful for a ride.” She waited beside his truck while he climbed out. He was taller than she imagined. Taller and wider. The man had muscles that would have put her male colleagues in the science lab to shame.

Sophie looked into his deep brown eyes. “I appreciate you stopping.”

“Happy to be of help,” he said with a smile. Opening the back door, he took her case out of her hand. “Were you planning on staying a while or just passing through?”

Walking around the truck, she opened the passenger door and thought about what she could say; the half-truths and downright lies she could use to keep herself safe. “I’m not sure yet.”

The stranger pulled on his seatbelt and started the ignition. “Montana’s a good place to work out what you need to do. Have you been here before?”

“No, but I’ve heard some great things about Bozeman. Do you live here?”

He looked in his rearview mirror and moved onto the highway. “I move around a lot. I have family living in Bozeman.” 

She waited for him to say something else, but he kept his eyes focused on the road. “I’m Sophie.” She held out her hand, wanting to keep the ride into town as professional as possible. 

The cowboy glanced across the cab. “Hi, Sophie. I’m Ryan.”

Their hands barely touched, but she felt the strength of his grip like a warning along her spine. “I thought I’d have enough gas to get me into town. I didn’t pay enough attention to how quickly the fuel gauge was going down.” Sophie closed her mouth. She was rambling. He probably thought she was a ditzy woman who didn’t know one end of a car from the other.

“You must have a lot on your mind.”

If Ryan knew what she had on her mind, he wouldn’t have stopped to help. Sophie glanced out of the cab, suddenly feeling nervous. It was a bit late for that. She’d jumped into a truck with a total stranger. She was heading toward a town she’d never seen and had ninety dollars in her wallet. 

As they drove closer to Bozeman, she thought about what she had to do next. After she’d refilled her gas tank, she’d look for a job. It wasn’t what she’d planned on doing, but nothing over the last two weeks had been part of her plans.

Ryan glanced across the cab. “Where do you normally live?”

She didn’t have to think hard about her answer. Before she left Chicago, she’d made up a story that would protect her and the people she loved. “San Francisco.”

“It’s a big city. I’ve stayed there a few times. Did you ever go to Tony’s Pizza Place? It’s on Stockton Street.”

Sophie felt her cheeks grow hot. “No, I don’t think so.”

“It’s opposite Washington Square Park. It’s well worth a visit.” 

Keeping her eyes on the passing scenery, she hoped Ryan got the message and didn’t ask her any more questions.

“How long have you lived in San Francisco?”

“About three years.” Sophie crossed her fingers, hoping the story she dreamed up sounded real. “I work in retail.”

“What do you sell?”

She tried to look confident, as if his questions were the most natural thing in the world to answer. “Shoes. Ladies shoes.”

Ryan looked down at her feet. He didn’t need to say anything about her choice of footwear. Her sneakers were the most comfortable pair of shoes she owned. But they weren’t the type of shoes a fashion-conscious twenty-nine-year-old would wear.

She pulled her feet closer to the edge of her seat. “I wore my old sneakers today.”

“That makes sense.”

As the first buildings in Bozeman came into view, she breathed a sigh of relief. The commercial properties were a mix of old red-brick buildings and newer retail outlets. The wide streets and almost empty parking lots were so different from Chicago. She felt as though she’d stepped back in time.

“There’s a gas station down the road. They’ll have a gas can we can use. When you get back to town, just drop it off to them.”

When they pulled into the station, Sophie looked at the vehicles parked at the pumps. Everyone was going about their own business. They weren’t worried about the brown truck that had parked at the side of the building. 

As soon as Ryan stopped the truck, she had her hand on the door handle. “Thanks for giving me a ride into town. I really appreciate it.”

He looked amused. “Anytime. It’s nice helping a damsel in distress, but I haven’t finished yet. I’ll take you back to your car once you have a full can of gas.”

Her eyes widened. She’d been in such a hurry to leave that she’d forgotten about getting back to her car.

“Just in case you need rescuing again, here’s my phone number.” He took a piece of paper out of a folder on the floor and scribbled a number on it. “Let’s get some gas for your car.”

Sophie didn’t need to be told twice. She jumped out of the truck and headed toward a person working at the station. The sooner she bought what she needed, the sooner she could work on her other problems.

Running out of gas wasn’t the best start to her arrival in Bozeman, but it was better than not getting here at all.

Fans of Netflix's Virgin River series will love this small-town, feel-good romance!

Sophie has found a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. With a drug company searching for her, and a sister and Mom who need her help, she has to leave Chicago fast.

When she meets Ryan, she knows his home could be the safest place for her—until she tells him a secret that changes everything.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ “Wow! Romance, mystery, and suspense. Talk about four amazing happily ever afters!"

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ "This book is like a cup of hot cocoa – comforting, sweet, and oh-so-enjoyable!"

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ "A lovely escape into a world of simple joys and heartwarming moments."

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