Excerpt for A Reason to Live (Reasons for Loving, Book 1) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


By R. Barri Flowers

A REASON TO LIVE is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, business establishments, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


Copyright 2018 by R. Barri Flowers

All rights reserved.

Cover Image Copyright ffolas, 2018

Used under license from

To lovers worldwide of women’s and mainstream fiction and to the most supportive spouse a writer could ever have—love you!

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“R. Barri Flowers writes with the passion and knowledge of someone who truly knows his craft.” -- Allison Leotta, former federal prosecutor and law novelist

“Would read other books from this author in the future.” -- OOSA Online Book Club

“Does a good job of developing the main and secondary characters.” -- Urban Reviews

His characters are intelligent, strong, and classy. Would recommend to other lovers of romance.” -- OOSA Online Book Club

“Gripping writing, wonderfully rounded characters you really care about, and vivid locations.” -- Peter James, international bestselling author

“Flowers always relates an engrossing story in a hard-hitting and fast-paced manner.” -- Robert Scott, true crime author

“Fans of contemporary romance starring real people you will want to read.” -- Harriet Klausner, book reviewer

“Vivid details of police procedure one would expect from an author who is also a top criminologist.” -- Douglas Preston, bestselling mystery writer

“Flowers may be a new voice in modern mystery writing, but he is already one of its best voices.” -- Statesman Journal

“This author weaves a magical web, as well as, a tangled one [and] wraps up the mystery thriller beautifully!” -- Huntress’ Book Reviews

“Each page flowed from chapter to chapter without missing a beat. Highly recommended.” -- Pamela Bolden, book reviewer

“Flowers once again has written a page-turner legal thriller that begins with a bang and rapidly moves along to its final page.” -- Midwest Book Review

* * *


Dark Streets of Whitechapel

Dead in the Rose City

Dead in Kihei

Dead in Pukalani

Deadly Defense

Forever Sweethearts

Fractured Trust

Justice Served

Killer Evidence Legal Thriller Bundle

Killer in The Woods

Murder in Honolulu

Murder in Hawaii Mysteries Bundle

Murder in Maui

Murdered in the Gourmet Kitchen

Murdered in the Man Cave

Persuasive Evidence

Private Eye Bestselling Mysteries Bundle

Seduced to Kill in Kauai

Serial Killer Thrillers Bundle

State’s Evidence

* * *

Dear Reader,

This is the first book in an emotionally moving four-book fiction series of family drama and challenges, romance, relationships, and friendship titled Reasons for Loving.

A Reason to Live is about love, loss, heartache, courage, and second chances. Nora Sheridan, a loving wife and mother and talented artist lives with her husband Dan, an architect, and their two young daughters, Suzie and Kristin, on their sprawling horse ranch in Akers Ridge, Oregon.

Nora’s world is shattered when her family is the victim of a violent crime, tragically taking their lives and ending hers in the ways that counted most. Left all alone in her mid-thirties, Nora struggles to adjust to a life that hardly seems worth living, with the help of her best friend Marilyn, and father-in-law George.

Years later, she reunites with her first love, Robert Logan, at a 20-year high school reunion in Portland. Robert is a successful art dealer who recently returned to his hometown with a precocious teenage daughter, Steffi, after a failed marriage. He courts Nora, seeking more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane, but finds the going tough as he has to compete with the memories of her late husband and children.

Slowly, but surely, Nora begins to let down her guard and open up to the possibility of a new yet old romance, giving her a reason to live and love again in this poignant novel.

The tale blends horse country and city life with inspiring contemporary drama and complex romance and will tug at your heartstrings.

Stay tuned for book two in the Reasons for Loving series, A Reason to Love, with a bonus excerpt included at the end of this book.

To keep abreast of current and upcoming novels by R. Barri Flowers, follow me on Twitter, like me on Facebook, or visit my website at

Now sit back and enjoy A Reason to Live.


R. Barri Flowers

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Part 1

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Part 2

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Part 3

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

A Reason to Love—bonus excerpt

Forever Sweethearts—bonus excerpt

Graduate Circles—bonus excerpt

To Find That Love Again—bonus excerpt

About the Author

* * *

Part 1

Chapter 1

Nora Sheridan put her sketch pad atop the wooden paddock fence and clicked her new square toe Western boots together as though to break them in. Might that actually do the trick? she wondered whimsically. No such problem with the well-worn skinny ankle jeans that fit snugly on her slender frame, along with a red short sleeve scoop-neck top. She lifted the brim of her straw cowgirl hat, careful not to release the mounds of thick blonde hair stuffed haphazardly within and panned the springtime surroundings with deep blue eyes. There were rolling hills, green meadows, aspen and pine groves, and open spaces that stretched as far as she could see, along with terrific mountain views. She and her husband Dan had purchased the property in Akers Ridge, Oregon, forty miles from Portland, a decade ago. It was a working horse ranch with Appendix, Appaloosa, Arabian, Mustang, Palomino, Pinto, Pony, Quarter Horse, and Thoroughbred breeds.

Now known as the Sheridan Ranch, the equestrian estate was a safe and nurturing environment for horses and included rescuing and healing abused horses, boarding and training of horses, and trail riding. They also gave riding lessons, tours, and provided an idyllic setting for everything from recreation to weddings.

But most importantly, Nora considered this a dream home for her family and one she embraced with all her heart just a few days from celebrating her thirty-fourth year of life. She turned her attention to the paddock, where Dan stood calmly, surrounded by two horses. At thirty-seven, he was the picture of perfection—tall, lean, and brown-eyed, with a full head of salt and pepper hair beneath a black retro felt cowboy hat. It went well with his red flannel shirt, indigo twill jeans, and handcrafted brown Western leather boots. They had been married for fifteen years, having met on a blind date and never looking back.

They had been blessed with two beautiful girls, Suzie and Kristin. Nora gazed at Suzie, who was riding a Foundation Quarter Horse. At nine years of age, she was already an accomplished rider and they often found it hard to pull her off her favorite horse named Wonder. Nora considered Suzie a child version of herself, with long blonde hair and blue eyes. She was wearing her typical horse-riding attire, including a helmet and paddock boots.

The same was true of Kristin, her seven-year-old, who was atop an Appaloosa named Cotton. Guided by Dan, Kristin resembled her Dad and had his eyes, while having her very own long black hair that was currently tied in a ponytail. She had overcome her fear of riding horses, which Nora had also gone through in childhood, before finding her stride while spending some summers at her grandparents’ farm in Mississippi. Now both girls were comfortable with horses and vice versa.

Nora began to sketch her family, something she loved to do in making the most of her skills as an artist. She had attended art school and once had dreams of becoming a famous artist, specializing in landscapes and portrait art. But these dreams had been put on hold while raising a family and dealing with the demands of a horse ranch.

“You’re doing fine, honey,” Dan encouraged Kristin. “Just hold on tight.”

Kristin broke into a wide grin. “I won’t fall,” she promised.

“Neither will I,” Suzie said, as if feeling left out.

“You never fall,” Kristin told her, frowning.

“That’s because she’s two years older and a little more experienced,” Nora said gingerly, not wanting the girls to ever feel the need to compete against one another.

Dan flashed his eyes at her teasingly. “You know, if you want to put that pad down, you’re free to join us and show your daughters how it’s done.”

Nora smiled, tempted, as she loved riding, and even more, when they could do so as a family. But she had many years of that to look forward to before Suzie and Kristin reached adulthood and ultimately moved on to start their own lives and families apart from their parents.

“Thanks, but I’ll take a pass on that this time,” she said, continuing to sketch. “Especially when I’m on a roll.”

Dan nodded, understanding how important her art was to making her life complete. “I had to try.”

“And I love you for that.” She blew him a kiss, which he accepted by returning in kind, before turning back to Kristin and leading Cotton around in circles.

Nora finished the sketch, hoping to use it later as the basis for a painting. At least that was the plan. Some of her sketches had made it to canvas, while others were still works in progress. For now, she had to think about what to have for supper. Dan had promised the girls pizza. But she had a better idea, preferring something more wholesome, such as lasagna.

“Am I too late to get in on the party...?” Nora heard the distinctive raspy voice.

“Grandpa!” Kristin voiced happily.

Nora turned to see George Sheridan come up beside her. Dan’s father was tall like him and of medium build with brown-gray eyes, crinkled at the corners. After losing his wife of four decades three years ago, he had left his home in Eugene, Oregon, some two hundred plus miles away, and moved to Akers Ridge to be closer to the only family he had left. They had all been supportive and gave him his own space with a cottage on the property to come and go as he pleased.

“Hey, sweetheart.” He gave Kristin a big smile, and then directed it at Suzie, who beamed back at him.

At sixty-seven, George was the quintessential cowboy, from his slate Stetson cowboy hat to leather vest over his checkered shirt, to a weathered work belt holding up suntan colored dungarees, right down to his dark brown steel toe work boots. Having sold his own horse ranch, George had stepped right in as the ranch manager, freeing up Dan to concentrate more on his other job as an architect. The girls loved having their grandfather around and so did Dan, still reeling from the death of his mother Clare. Nora could relate to this, having lost her own parents when she was very young. She could only imagine how difficult it would be were anything to ever happen to Dan or the girls. Fortunately, that was the farthest thing from her mind as they were all the picture of health and had decades ahead of them.

“Can I get in on that sketch or what?” George got her attention.

Nora smiled. “Of course. But it’s just a rough draft.”

He peered at the drawing. “Looks pretty good to me.”

“That’s what I’m always telling her,” Dan said. “If I had half of Nora’s talent, there’s no telling how far I could go in life.”

She blushed at the effective tag team approach, appreciating it while considering the sources and the fact that Dan was very great as an architect, having won awards to that effect. When had she?

“With that in mind, I better get back to work on this, so as not to disappoint. Better get in there, George.”

“Will do.” He cracked a grin and laid a calloused hand on her shoulder. “Knowing my son and granddaughters as I do, you could never disappoint them or me.”

“Couldn’t have said it any better myself,” Dan followed.

“Me neither,” Suzie said as she trotted around the paddock. “You’re the best Mom!”

Kristin made sure she wasn’t left out, uttering: “In the world!”

Nora refused to let this sudden show of affection go to her head, even if it felt nice to be cherished by those she cherished with all her heart. “And you’re the best family in the world!”

She watched George step inside the enclosure and make everyone laugh when posing for the sketch while taking the reins of Kristin’s horse from Dan, who happily stepped aside. Suzie climbed off her horse and joined them.

By the time she finished the sketch, Nora was satisfied that it seemed to capture the moment in a way that somehow was apropos in ways she couldn’t begin to imagine.

* * *

Dan Sheridan had a long arm around his wife’s slender shoulders as they stepped away from the barn, where the girls’ horses were safely back in their stalls. Nora leaned her head against his shoulder while they walked toward the house, with Suzie and Kristin running and playing up ahead. The three were his pride and joy, and so much more. They made the efforts it took to turn this magnificent property into a welcoming home for them and some amazing horses more than worthwhile.

Having his Dad, who was sometimes too stubborn for his own good, finally agree to stay with them, made life at the Sheridan Ranch even better. Losing his Mom had been one of the toughest things he’d ever had to deal with. The heart attack had come without warning, as was so often the case, and no one even got a chance to say goodbye—least of all, his father. He had somehow blamed himself for her death, believing that if he had only gotten to the house sooner, it could have made a difference.

Dan rejected this argument, knowing that her time had just come and nothing could have changed it. His father seemed to have come to terms with this when selling his ranch and relocating to Akers Ridge. But Dan sensed that it still wasn’t easy to let go, in spite of his father having fit in very well and keeping himself busy running the ranch, by and large.

I won’t fight him on that, Dan thought, cuddling Nora a little bit tighter. If the shoe were on the other foot and he’d lost Nora, he knew his father would have been there for him every step of the way in supporting him any way he could.

The main house was just off a quiet country road with a circular driveway. Two stories, it featured bay windows, vaulted ceilings, and glossy maple hardwood floors throughout. He had custom designed it himself, putting all his knowledge of architecture to work in wanting it to be the dream home he and Nora could spend the rest of their lives in and the girls could always come back to.

“Do they have to grow up?” Dan asked, as Kristin and Suzie bounded toward the front door.

Nora laughed. “I’m afraid we can only have them for so many years.”

He frowned. “Too bad.”

“Look at the bright side—that leaves us with at least a decade to enjoy their presence and growing before our very eyes.”

Dan smiled. “Guess I’ll just have to settle for that.”

She faced him. “At least you’ll be stuck with me to keep you company forever and ever.”

“Now that’s something to look forward to.”

Her eyes twinkled. “Good response.” She tilted her chin upward and kissed him.

He reciprocated in kind, hoping to go further on this later.

Chapter 2

Nora loved her house with its rich architecture and open floor plan. There was a formal and casual dining area, a contemporary chef’s kitchen that included granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, a gas range, dine-in counter on a center island, and much more to relish. The formal Great Room and relaxed family room both had natural stacked stone wood burning fireplaces and a combination of rustic and traditional furnishings. There was a circular antique stairwell leading to the upstairs where there were two master suites and separate rooms for the girls, allowing them to enjoy their own individual styles and space.

Nora’s land and seascapes were on display on stucco and stone walls throughout the house. She hoped to someday have her paintings in an art gallery. But for now, she happily settled for expressing her talents to those she most cared about and valued.

She made dinner with George pitching in, known for his ability to make the tastiest chicken dishes—having picked up the skills from his wife, who had learned to cook from her own mother.

Afterward, she cleaned up the kitchen and read Kristin a bedtime story, grateful that her youngest daughter still enjoyed what Suzie had outgrown. She tucked Kristin in and glanced around the purple colored room with all the personal touches and items of a seven-year-old girl, before shutting off the light.

Across the hall, she peeked in on Suzie and saw that she was sound asleep. The riding had apparently worn her down, even if she was in good shape at her age. Through the muted light, Nora eyed the contents of the rose colored room—including a small desk, laptop, and collection of print books, which Suzie preferred over eBooks. Her daughter had indicated that she wanted to one day become an author and Nora had no doubt she could do anything she put her mind to.

Closing the door, she headed down the hall to the master suite Nora shared with Dan. He’d designed it with her input, including dramatic angles and a combination of soft ambient and task lighting, along with accent lighting that highlighted her artwork that adorned the walls. There was a bay like sitting nook where, during the day, they could watch the horses grazing out in the pasture. A stone fireplace complimented the impressive surroundings, and a stylish en suite included two walk-in closets, a walk-in shower, and separate soaking tub.

She found Dan sitting on the old-fashioned sleigh bed, working on his laptop. He looked up through his glasses, smiling at her. “Are the girls in bed?”

“Yes.” Nora moved closer to him. “They both look like angels.”

“That’s because they are,” he said. “Just like their mother.”

She warmed at the love that radiated from him. “We have you to thank for that.”

“Ditto.” He closed the laptop. “Been waiting for you...”

Nora flashed him a teasing smile. “Oh really?”

“Yes, really.” He put the laptop and his glasses on the nightstand. “Come here.”

She loved the desirous tone of his voice and was eager to be with him. Taking off her black chiffon wrap robe, there was a teddy underneath. The moment she slid next to him, it came off too, as did his short pajamas. They cuddled and began to kiss. It was slow and deliberate before they started making love.

Nora lost herself in the man and the moment, barely realizing when she had reached the pinnacle of pleasure. Dan had waited for her body to react and only then did he allow himself to complete their lovemaking with his own powerful release.

Afterward they held each other and whispered sweet thoughts before falling asleep.

* * *

Jason McIntosh sat on the bathroom floor of his sister’s crib getting high on crystal meth, which he’d snorted up his nose. He closed his eyes as the drug took effect. His body shook all over and his heart pounded incessantly like a drum. His breathing was choppy and came in and out of his nostrils and mouth. He felt as though he might throw up. Or maybe pass out.

For an instant, he wondered if his sister would even give a damn if he dropped dead from an overdose. Maybe that would be a good thing. Then he wouldn’t have to sponge off of her. And she wouldn’t have to make excuses for her no-good eighteen-year-old brother who had dropped out of school, been kicked out of their parents’ house, and seemed totally lost as to what he would do with his life.

Except get high and hang out with his friends and girlfriend Lucy. In fact, he was supposed to be meeting her at that exact moment. But he had needs that simply couldn’t wait. She’d understand, wouldn’t she?

He squeezed his eyes shut again and bit down on his lower lip as the bad part of the high subsided and the good part started to kick in. He was beginning to get back to himself. Or at least the person he had become since getting hooked on meth.

After sucking in a deep breath, Jason stretched his long arm over the toilet and flushed it, if only to suggest that’s what he’d been doing in there all that time.

He climbed to his feet and looked at himself in the mirror. His blonde hair was disheveled and his blue eyes were sunken in like a vampire. There were blotches on his face like he had the measles or something. He definitely wasn’t a sight for sore eyes.

He cut on the water and splashed some on his face, making a half-hearted attempt to at least make himself look decent so he wouldn’t get the third degree from his sister Gwen. Not that she needed any excuses for getting on his case. He only put up with it because he had nowhere else to stay at the moment. As soon as that changed, he was out of there.

After wiping his hands on his jeans, Jason cut off the light and opened the door. Already he felt the need for more meth, but would have to force himself to hold off. At least till after Gwen went to bed.

He stepped out into the hall right off the living room of the small apartment. His sister was sitting on the couch watching television. Or pretending to. He suspected she’d been snooping. Or was it his imagination? She had more time on her hands now when not at work as a nurse, after kicking her no-good boyfriend to the curb. The scumbag had cheated on her and practically threw it in her face. She was better off without him.

“Are you all right?” she asked, as if believing otherwise. She ran a hand through layered and dyed crimson hair and shifted her plump body around.

“I’m fine,” he replied, unsure if he was convincing or not.

“Do you want something to eat? There’s leftover spaghetti.”

Actually, he was starved. Or was that craving he felt for something else?

“I’ll heat it up later,” he said, trying not to look like he was standing on shaky legs. “I have to go to Lucy’s.”

Gwen gave him a suspicious look. “You should eat first.”

He checked himself from having an outburst. Maybe he should eat something. That way he wouldn’t look like he was running on fumes when he saw Lucy.

“Yeah, you’re right. I’ll heat up the spaghetti.”

He headed for the kitchen before she could pry any further about his comings and goings. Grabbing the cell phone out of his pocket, he texted Lucy to say he’d be there shortly. He could only hope she wasn’t too pissed to welcome him with open arms, all things considered.

Chapter 3

The next morning, Nora was in a dreamy sleep when she heard the tender voice whisper: “Wake up, sleepyhead.”

Opening her eyes, she looked up at Dan’s handsome face. “What time is it?”

“Time to rise and shine,” he told her.

She noted he was already dressed, but asked anyway half-teasingly in recalling their passionate night together: “Sure you don’t want to pick up where we left off...?”

Dan chuckled. “Don’t tempt me.” He kissed her on the mouth and she could taste coffee on his lips. “Hold that thought till tonight. Right now, I have to tend to the horses with Dad and the crew and you have to get the girls ready for school. If that’s not enough, I believe there’s a new boarder arriving, a trail ride you’re leading, and some riding lessons to give. Need I go on...?”

Nora gave a little laugh. “No, you need not.”

He grinned. “Didn’t think so.”

Of course, he was right as usual. She would never complain, though, as she loved her life, kids, horses, the ranch, and most of all, her husband. Besides always being there for her and his family, he managed to give the horses all the attention they could handle—all while holding down full-time work with his architectural firm.

“I’m up,” she said, wide-eyed to convince him.

He gave her another sweet kiss and said: “See you later.”

She woke the girls up, fed them, and saw them off to school, as the school bus arrived right on time as usual.

Kissing Kristin on the cheek, Nora handed her her homework. “Don’t forget this.”

Kristin twisted her lips with embarrassment. “Thanks.”

“That’s what mothers are for,” Nora reminded her, and turned to Suzie, who was already getting on the bus.

“Bye, Mom.”

She waved at her daughter, knowing she was at the age where she didn’t want too much public affection, only to be teased by her friends. “See you this afternoon,” Nora settled for.

After the bus driver drove off, she headed for one of the two barns on the property. Upon reaching a stall, she saw one of the trainers, Julie Dandridge, treating an injured Mustang. Three weeks ago, it had been found badly abused and neglected and brought to the ranch for rehabilitation. Julie practiced natural horsemanship techniques, using the horse’s natural instincts rather than traditional methods to treat them. The ultimate goal was to nurture the horse back to full health and either welcome it into their family of horses or give some horse lover a chance to adopt and bring it into a safe environment.

“Good morning,” Julie said, as she looked up from where she was leaning over gently rubbing the Mustang’s side.

“Morning,” Nora replied to the forty-year-old mother of three. “How’s he doing?”

“Great.” Julie stood upright, tossing her long brunette hair over her shoulder. “The treatment is working wonders.”

Nora stroked the horse’s neck, which clearly pleased it. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“My guess is he should pretty much be back to himself soon,” Julie stated, “and we can try to find a good home for him.”

Nora continued to stroke the horse. “That would be terrific.” Even if she loved the idea of keeping every horse that came to them, she knew that realistically they had their hands full and had to let some of them go, provided there was a satisfactory place for them to go.

As if to hammer down that point, Julie mentioned two other abused horses on the mend who were also looking for new homes.

* * *

Dan rode the stallion amid some horses grazing in a pasture. He watched his father doing the same on another pasture. It warmed his heart to see the person who taught him everything he knew about horses and ranch life clearly in his element. If this was what it took to get him to live again, Dan was all for it. Nora had welcomed his Dad to the ranch with open arms, as had the girls, which meant the world to him and his father as well. Though George Sheridan was a proud man, he was also a family man and had settled into spending the years he had left with those who gave him a purpose for carrying on without the love of his life.

Dan continued to trot while wondering what he would do if he ever lost Nora prematurely. Could he step into his father’s shoes and ever get back on his feet? Could he manage to raise Suzie and Kristin alone? Or would he simply be a basket case and unable to cope in being without the best thing to ever happen to him?

He prayed that he’d never have to find out.

In the afternoon, he joined some ranch hands in cleaning the stalls and worked with a high school equestrian team, before having lunch of ham and salad with Nora and putting in an appearance at his architectural firm.

* * *

“She’s a real beauty,” Nora uttered of the black Arabian filly that stood before her. The sixty-something owner, Sally Valdez, was boarding her at Sheridan Ranch.

“You don’t have to convince me of that,” she said, running a frail hand across its head. “Her name’s Tiger because she can be a little feisty at times.”

“Hi, Tiger.” Nora caressed her neck.

“Now you behave while you’re here, okay?” Sally commanded.

The horse snorted, but otherwise was calm. “She’ll be fine,” Nora said confidently.

Sally’s blue eyes locked with hers. “I’ll be back in town in a couple of weeks.”

“Not a problem.”

“Take good care of my baby.”

“She’ll get the best care here,” Nora assured the owner, before taking possession of the horse.

After making sure with the staff that Tiger would be made to feel right at home as their newest boarder, Nora met up with a group of guests for a trail ride. She described the setting as they rode their horses across smooth grassy meadows, over hills, and through the trees, while giving every rider a pleasant and fun experience. It was something she was sure they would pass on to others as well as make return visits to Sheridan Ranch.

Later she was able to enjoy a nice warm bath in a whirlpool tub before it was time for the girls to get home from school. Dan had phoned to say he would be a little late as he and his partner worked on an important new project. In the meantime, George had taken it upon himself to make dinner, as he was starting to spend more and more time at the main house and less at his cottage, giving the entire family more opportunities to bond.

* * *

Jason waited in his car, a used Toyota Camry, till Lucy’s Mom left the house, before he got out and went up to the door. He knew Lucy was pissed at him. He had fallen asleep last night after closing his eyes for what was supposed to be a few seconds while he tried to clear his head. Didn’t wake up till noon. By then, Gwen had already left for work, so he didn’t have to listen to her bitch and moan.

When the door opened, Lucy stood there with a hand on her slender hip. She was hot as hell, even when giving him the angry eye. Nineteen years old, she was petite and blonde-haired, blue-eyed, with a cleft in her chin. She stood barefoot, wearing ripped jeans and a one shoulder top.

“I saw your mother leave,” Jason muttered, knowing there was no father in the picture.

Lucy smirked. “Good for you.”

“Are you going to let me in?”

“Why should I?”

He expected some resistance and was prepared to get past it. Lifting a bag of marijuana from his cargo pants, he handed it to her. “Because I got you something special as my way of apologizing for screwing up. It’s good stuff.”

He watched her study the bag while pretending she needed to think about it. But he knew she loved to get high on weed and wasn’t about to let her pride get in the way.

She gave a half-smile. “Okay, you can come in, but my Mom will be back in a couple of hours.”

Jason licked his lips. “Then we better not waste any time making each moment count.” He stepped inside the stuffy small living room that was cluttered with old furnishings.

“Let’s go up to my room,” Lucy insisted.

She didn’t need to tell him twice, allowing her to guide him by the hand. The room was neat, unlike his own, and smelled of cigarette smoke. They wasted little time getting high. It was a good buzz, but no match for meth. But he knew she wasn’t cool with it, so he didn’t get in her face with it.

It didn’t take long for them to get naked and have sex. She liked to make a lot noise before and after coming. He didn’t. In the end, they both got what they wanted and he was out of there before her mother came home and tried to ruin the party. She accused him of being a bad influence on Lucy. He thought it might be the other way around, but as long as they continued to hit it off, what difference did it make?

He drove around, looking to buy some meth, after stealing money from Lucy’s mother, who had clumsily hidden a stash from Lucy in a cookie jar in her bedroom.

Chapter 4

Dan sat at his desk at Larringer-Sheridan, the architectural firm he started with his partner Carolyn Larringer. They were currently vying with eight other firms to design a new convention center hotel in Akers Ridge. It would be up to the town council to make the final choice. He was guardedly optimistic that their firm was in a great position to land the ambitious project for increasing tourism and revenue in the county, given that they had previously designed another successful local development. But anything could happen. Or not.

He could tell that Carolyn felt the same, as she fidgeted on the other side of the desk. Her green eyes seemed to look through him with worry. She was wearing a one-button russet blazer over a white top and black wide leg pants on a slender frame and had stylishly short dark hair. They had been friends since college. He and Nora had attended her wedding to a TV newscaster, Harold Larringer, and they had three children, one of whom had come with the territory from Harold’s first marriage.

“So what do you think?” Carolyn leaned forward, her gaze narrowed expectantly.

Dan sat back calmly, hiding his own butterflies, and responded confidently: “I think we’re in the driver’s seat.”

“Really?” she asked, as if in doubt.

“Yes. We’ve given them everything they could ask for and more.” He paused. “But if we fall short, there will be other opportunities—”

“You’re right.” Carolyn took a breath. “But the exposure we could get from designing the convention center could send business through the roof.”

She didn’t need to convince him of that. But it wasn’t as if they didn’t already have other projects lined up. They did and between that and their busy home lives, their hands were pretty full. He said nonetheless: “Let’s just wait and see what happens.”

She smiled evenly. “Agreed.”

He watched as she stood. “Whatever the case, we make a great team and I would put our designs up against anyone.”

“So would I.” Her cell phone rang. She grabbed it from her pocket. “It’s Harold. I need to take this.”

Dan nodded as she left the office. He lifted his own cell phone off the desk and texted Nora to let her know he was on his way home.

* * *

Nora watched amusingly as George had recruited the girls to make dinner with him. They seemed totally at ease with their grandfather and clearly enjoyed that he made a concerted effort to include them in his world and be a part of theirs. She suspected that it was his way of making up for not being there as much for Dan during childhood, giving him a second chance at parenting.

“Can I help?” Nora asked as Suzie put cornbread on a plate and Kristin worked on a salad.

“We’ve got this,” insisted George, wearing an apron stained with chili powder as he stirred a pot on the stove.

“Yeah, we’ve got this, Mom,” Kristin mimicked him.

“Relax, Mom,” Suzie uttered, “while you have the chance.”

Nora laughed, happy to relinquish her primary role as the family cook for a day. “I’ll do that.”

No sooner had she stepped out of the kitchen, when she heard the front door open. Dan stepped inside. He looked a little weary, while holding a briefcase, but handsome nevertheless in a polo shirt and chino pants.

“Hey,” she greeted him.

“Hey.” He smiled and gave her a quick kiss on the mouth.

She tried to read his mind, knowing that he had put a lot into the latest project put forward by the firm. Giving up, she asked tentatively: “Any news...?”

“Still in a waiting game,” he responded equably. “But, as they say, no news is good news.”

“True.” She could only hope for the best, as Nora knew he and Carolyn were hoping for.

Dan sat his briefcase on a side table. “So where is everyone?”

“The girls and George are making dinner.”

“Really?” Dan made a funny face. “That should be interesting.”

“Hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” George said, coming into the Great Room, a towel draped across his shoulder. “Suzie and Kristin are little chefs in the making.”

Dan laughed. “If you say so.”

“Only one way to find out,” Nora said. “Why don’t you go wash up and we’ll eat.”

“Sounds like a plan,” he agreed.

By the time they finished eating, Dan offered nothing but praise for the meal, causing the girls to giggle, as George seemed perfectly willing to let them take most of the credit.

Nora marveled over the entire family. She only wished her own parents had been around to see her grow up and find the type of happiness that only came with having a loving husband, children, and father-in-law. She suspected they were in heaven watching over them all.

Later while the girls did their homework, Nora, Dan, and George went horseback riding—something they loved to do after dinner in enjoying the magnificent landscape of Sheridan Ranch during twilight. For Nora, it also gave her another opportunity to take note of the unique bonding of father and son, something she experienced as a mother with her daughters.

Once George split from them to go to his cottage, they rode home and watched some television with Kristin and Suzie, before all heading off to their bedrooms.

It was Dan who initiated their lovemaking and Nora who gave herself to him affectionately and got back every bit as much in return.

* * *

Jason sat in his car on a dead-end street with his homies, PJ, Tucker, and Tucker’s girlfriend Zoey, getting high on meth. They were smoking the ice, passing it back and forth between them, while talking trash.

Zoey and Tucker were in the backseat, and all over each other.

“Get a room,” PJ muttered, and inhaled the meth.

“We’re in one right now,” Tucker snorted.

Zoey spewed an expletive and continued sucking on Tucker’s lips.

“If my old man finds out that I skipped school today, I’m toast,” complained PJ.

“Maybe if he beats the crap out of you, that’ll make you a better dude,” Tucker shouted and laughed sardonically.

“Screw you!” PJ snarled.

“Whatever.” Tucker lit a cigarette. He puffed on it and tried to pass it to Jason.

“I’m good,” he said, preferring to finish the ice and let that settle into his system. Between the three of them they had managed to purchase just enough meth to give them a good buzz. Already he was trying to think of how he could get his hands on enough money to pay for more to feed his habit.

He thought about trying to steal more money from Lucy’s Mom. But how long would it be before she got wind of it? And would she report him to the cops?

Worse was that Lucy would break up with him for good. He didn’t want that to happen, unless it was on his terms.

Jason considered stealing from Gwen. He had before—more than once. She had let him off the hook as her brother, but warned against doing so again. He had to take her seriously, given that she was putting him up.

He glanced at Tucker and Zoey making out. It made him want to be with Lucy right now. But she had gone to see her sister in Cleveland, who was having a baby. As far as he was concerned, kids were not in the picture anytime soon. The last thing he needed was to have a kid who would end up just like him.

Musing again about getting some hard cash, Jason grabbed the cigarette from PJ after all, and took a drag.

Chapter 5

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Nora watched outside the paddock fence as Suzie and Kristin rode their horses in circles, playfully competing with one another in trots and skills. George was riding with them, comfortable on an old Appendix named Otto.

Resisting the urge to sketch them, Nora sat her pad on the fence and instead simply enjoyed watching the girls having fun with their grandfather.

“Look who dropped by,” she heard Dan’s voice from behind.

Turning, Nora smiled when she saw him approaching with her best friend and their lawyer, Marilyn Marciano.

“Hey,” Marilyn said in a high-pitched voice.

“Hi,” Nora said, giving her a warm hug. The two had been friends since attending high school together in Portland. Marilyn had gone on to establish a successful law practice as an estate and trust attorney. Her love life had not gone as well, with a number of failed relationships over the years in her struggle to find Mr. Right or at least Mr. Not So Wrong.

Marilyn was a year older and about the same height and size as Nora. She gave her friend a quick once over. As always, Marilyn’s shoulder length black hair was perfectly coiffed and her makeup evenly applied. She wore an open front navy jacket over a black top with white cropped flare jeans and dark ankle booties.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” Nora asked, glancing at Dan, who gave her an amused look.

“And spoil the surprise?” Marilyn flashed blue eyes at her, and then turned to the paddock. “Hi, girls.”

“Hi, Marilyn,” they spoke in unison.

“Looks like you’re keeping them busy, George,” she teased him.

He laughed, tipping his hat. “That’s what I’m here for—to be a granddad to the best grandkids around.”

Marilyn showed her teeth and faced Nora and Dan. “Can we go inside for a little bit?”

“Of course,” Nora told her, wondering what she had on her mind. Marilyn wasn’t much of a horse person, though she had managed to get her up on one every now and then.

They sat on the sofa in the family room, after Nora made tea to go with some leftover brownies. Marilyn’s briefcase sat open on the rustic wood console table.

“I brought over the documents for the trust funds you’ve set up for Suzie and Kristin,” she informed them.

“That’s great,” Nora told her. They had decided this was a good move to make in staying ahead of the game to ensure the girls’ future.

Marilyn removed the documents, handing copies to her and Dan. “Look them over carefully and if everything is in order, sign and return them to me and you’ll be all set. Or Suzie and Kristin will be anyway.”

Dan glanced at the papers. “We’ll get them back to you as soon as possible.”

“No hurry,” Marilyn said, then thought otherwise. “Well, it probably is best that we get this done just to be on the safe side. Not to say that you two lovebirds will be leaving this earth anytime soon.”

“We better not be,” Nora laughed, nibbling on a brownie. “Then who would be around to needle you?”

Marilyn chuckled. “Good point.” She raised her teacup. “That notwithstanding, as the girls’ godmother, you can be sure that if anything were to ever happen to you, I’d love and take care of them as though they were my own flesh and blood.”

“We’re counting on that,” Nora told her, remembering her own godmother and how she was there for her until dying herself from cancer.

“Enough of the morbid what ifs,” declared Dan, biting off a sizable piece of brownie. “No one is going anywhere, anytime soon, got it?”

“Got it!” Marilyn laughed and saluted him.

“Then it’s settled,” Nora chimed in. “Now why don’t I refill our cups of tea and you can bring us up to date on what’s happening in your world in Portland—” Or as Nora knew it was appropriately nicknamed, the Rose City.

* * *

Half an hour later, Nora walked Marilyn out and to her car, a bright red Jaguar.

“Thanks for coming.”

“Happy to do so,” Marilyn said. She applied lip gloss to her mouth. “Besides, I never miss a chance to leave the big city life for the countryside—even if it’s for just a little while.”

“You’re always welcome here,” Nora assured her, as if she didn’t already know.

“And I love you for that. I also envy you for carving out the perfect life for yourself—with the perfect husband and perfect kids.”

Nora laughed at the sincere flattery. “We’re not perfect, but we’re happy and that means even more.”

“Yeah, it does.” Marilyn frowned thoughtfully. “It’s the type of happiness you can’t buy with all the money in the world, or success...”

Nora cupped an arm beneath hers, hearing the sounds of loneliness in her tone. “There’s nothing in the book of law that says you can’t have it all—including a man.”

“Easier said than done,” Marilyn muttered. “Problem is there aren’t enough men out there who are so attentive and adorable like Dan. Besides, the ones I meet can’t handle a career-minded, successful woman with a bit of attitude.”

Nora smiled at that last point. “Nothing wrong with a bit of attitude.” She chuckled. “Maybe I could clone Dan. But then I’d probably be jealous that I let his better half slip away.”

Marilyn laughed. “You’ve still got that great sense of humor you’ve had since high school. Don’t ever lose it.”

“I’ll try not to,” Nora promised. She gave her friend a hug. “Call me.”

“I will.”

Watching her get into the car and drive off, Nora waved. She couldn’t help but envy Marilyn in that she had so much going on—more than she realized—in pursuing her dreams and reaching her full potential. The ideal man would pop into her life sooner or later. As for cloning Dan, Nora rejected the idea wholeheartedly, as he truly was one of a kind and hers only.

She went back inside to see if he wanted to go riding while George was keeping the girls occupied.

* * *

Marilyn Marciano drove down the highway toward Portland, lost in her thoughts. She was so happy for Nora in that mostly everything she ever wanted since high school had come to fruition. So maybe her dreams of becoming a famous artist had been stalled by a detour to family life on a horse ranch, but Marilyn was sure that her friend would even climb that mountain eventually. As it was, her artwork was amazing and had already made a splash amongst her friends and the locals.

Marilyn wondered from time to time how Nora’s life might have turned out had she ended up with Robert Logan, her ex-boyfriend from high school. It once seemed like they were a match made in heaven. But reality and misunderstandings derailed that fairytale and they went their separate ways. Clearly Nora had ended up with the right man in Dan Sheridan and they had produced two amazing kids. So the universe had a way of knowing the best route for her in matters of love and family.

As for Robert, they had long since lost contact with him. The last Marilyn heard, he had moved somewhere back east and gotten married. She hoped he was half as content with his life as Nora was.

Marilyn exited the highway and made her way into the city. She wished her own life was as satisfying. Yes, the career was fantastic. And her townhome overlooking the river was everything she could have asked for. But she had yet to find a man to share her life with in the ways that counted. Juggling a couple of men for fun, frolic, and sex wasn’t quite cutting it.

Nora seemed to believe that she had set her standards too high, making it difficult for most men to measure up to. Maybe she was right. Maybe it was time for her to be a bit more open minded and even adventurous when it came to looking for love.

Already, Marilyn felt she had turned a page toward unfolding the next chapter or two of her life.

Chapter 6

Nora leaned against the paddock fence and watched as Julie trotted around the enclosure with the Mustang that had been terribly abused and was now practically recuperated completely. They had named him Fighter, for what he had gone through and for refusing to succumb to it.

“You go, Fighter,” Nora sang excitedly, tilting the brim of her hat a bit to block out the bright sunshine.

Julie laughed. “He hears you and is responding to everything we’re doing for him.”

“You deserve all the credit,” Nora insisted truthfully.

Julie would hear none of it, responding humbly: “It takes a village, Nora. I’m just a small part of it. Without you and Dan so generously making your ranch a place where injured and healthy horses can call home, healing those special ones like Fighter would never have happened.”

Nora smiled, conceding that. “You’re right, we’re all doing our part and it’s what makes Sheridan Ranch a great working environment and so much more.”

Julie caressed the horse. “Hear that, Fighter, Nora’s got your back and so do I. You’ll make some lucky person a proud owner someday.”

Nora didn’t doubt that for one moment, even if she was already starting to hate the idea of losing what would be a welcome addition to their family of horses.

She left Julie to continue fostering Fighter’s health and well-being, along with good behavior.

With Dan at the office and the girls in school, Nora saddled up her horse for a solo ride across the land. She loved breathing in the country air and galloping with the breeze hitting her face gently.

Afterward, she went in search of George, ready and willing to do any tasks he deemed necessary, after handing over the day-to-day management of activities on the ranch to him. Even so, she could almost hear his gravelly voice telling her the staff had everything covered; freeing her to do her art or whatever else suited her fancy.

While she appreciated this, Nora still enjoyed being a part of the functioning facets of Sheridan Ranch and caring for the horses, and wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty along the way. She was sure George, who had lived on a ranch all his life, would understand. Just as his son did, even if Dan also chose to put his skills to work in a different occupation.

* * *

Dan and Carolyn were called before the town council committee as they were ready to announce their decision on the winning designer of the taxpayer-financed convention center hotel.

Wilson Holloway, the seventy-year-old council president and a longtime Akers Ridge rancher and family man, stood at the podium in a gray suit on a solid frame. He outlined the council’s industrious agenda and the criteria established for landing the job.

Dan held his breath as he waited through more of the prepared statement before Wilson got to the nitty gritty.

“I’m happy to say that our fabulous new convention center hotel project has been awarded to the firm of Larringer-Sheridan. Congratulations, Dan and Carolyn. Why don’t you come up here and take a bow?”

Dan turned to Carolyn, who gave him a big smile and an even bigger hug. “We did it,” she whispered in his ear.

“Actually, we’re just getting started,” he told her delightedly. “But it’s a terrific first step!”

They shook hands with the losing architects, promising to try to work together wherever possible, before heading to the podium.

Even as he graciously accepted this latest project, Dan couldn’t wait to share the news with Nora, his Dad, and the girls.

* * *

Nora’s home art studio was everything she’d hoped for when Dan designed it with an eclectic décor, including large windows on bright walls, a high ceiling with exposed beams, skylights bringing in natural light, and plenty of storage space. There were unfinished and finished drawings and paintings leaning on the walls and others on easels. The room was deliberately sparse in furnishings, with only two small wooden working tables and shelves for her brushes and other supplies. There was a traditional area rug on the hardwood floor.

Feeling inspired, she stood at her canvas wearing a paint-stained printed poncho top and denim overalls. Moving the brush delicately in up and down strokes, she was just beginning the painting, using the drawing she’d recently completed of the entire family inside the paddock with a couple of horses. With any luck, it would turn out to be wonderful and could be hung anywhere in the house.

“There you are...” Nora snapped out of her reverie as Dan stood at the doorway.

She smiled. “Here I am.”

He walked over to her. “Can I see it?”

Normally, she preferred to keep her paintings under wraps till finished. But in this instance, she wanted him to see what she had done up to this point, which wasn’t much.

“Be my guest...” she told him.

He took a look. “I like it.”

“Do you?”

“Yes, from what I see thus far.” He eyed it again. “I’ve no doubt that you have the makings of another masterpiece here, as usual.”

She blushed. “You’re my biggest supporter.”

Dan grinned. “Always.”

Nora could tell that there was something else on his mind. “Did you hear from the town council?”

“I did.” He nodded and lost the smile.

She felt a lump in her throat. “Well...?”

After waiting a beat, Dan’s face suddenly brightened and he said: “We’re designing the convention center hotel!”

“Really?” Her eyes grew wide.

“Yes, really. Just got the word from the town council president himself! We’re in like Flynn!”

Dan laughed enthusiastically and, cupping her cheeks, gave Nora a big kiss on the lips.

She laughed too, excited for him and Carolyn. “Congratulations!”

“Thanks.” He wrapped his arms around her small waist and spun them both around like little children, ignoring any paint that ended up on his clothing. “The finer points of the contract are being worked out even as we speak. But the bottom line is that we’ve been given a tremendous opportunity, which will be good for both Larringer-Sheridan and our family.”

Nora flashed her teeth supportively. “It will be great for Akers Ridge too.”

“I agree.” Dan released her. “To celebrate the news, we’re going out for drinks with Carolyn and Harold tonight.”

“All right,” Nora said thoughtfully.

“If you’re worried about the girls, Dad has already agreed to child sit while we’re away.”

“Looks like you’ve got all the bases covered,” she teased him.

“That’s what happens when you hit a home run,” he said, sticking with the baseball analogy. “Make that a grand slam!”

She laughed. “I look forward to a night on the town with the Larringers.”

“And they’re looking forward to spending time with me and my adorable wife away from the job,” he declared, and kissed her again.

Nora welcomed every opportunity she got to be kissed by him and to return it.

* * *

Jason sat at the small glass table in the dining room with his sister, eating mashed potatoes and meatloaf. He ignored the broccoli on his plate, hating the ugly green veggie.

“Have you thought about going back to school?” Gwen asked, gazing across the table.

“Not really,” he responded truthfully. He didn’t get along well with most teachers and the stuff they taught often went over his head.

She furrowed her brow. “What about looking for a job?”

He paused, unsure what she was getting at, but not liking it nonetheless. “Yeah, I’ve been asking around,” he lied.

“Ask harder,” she spoke bluntly. “I could use some help paying the bills now that Kevin is gone.”

Jason used that opening to switch the subject. “What little he was giving you wasn’t worth putting up with his crap.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Her mouth tightened.

“I’m just saying...” He’d gotten under her skin. Maybe now she wouldn’t keep finding ways to get under his.

She forked some mashed potatoes. “They have an opening at the clinic for a custodial worker. I could put in a word for you—”

The last thing he wanted was to have to live and work with his overbearing sister. He told her what she wanted to hear, even if he had no intention of following through. “Yeah, you put in the word for me.”

This seemed to pacify her for the moment and they finished the meal mostly in silence.

After she had disappeared to her room and closed the door, Jason went to his own room and got high on meth and marijuana. The combination did a real number on him and he was out like a light.

He awakened in a cold sweat and had the shakes. Stumbling to the bathroom, he threw up in the toilet. He felt sick to his stomach, craving more meth. But he was broke and there were no more freebies from his dealer. Jason considered robbing him, but he wasn’t the type of dude you mess with and come out of it in one piece.

No, there had to be another way to pay for the ice that didn’t include stealing from Gwen or Lucy.

* * *

Nora had fun hanging out with Dan like they used to before the girls and ranch came along. It was even better to get to spend time with Carolyn and Harold. He was ten years her senior and really funny in person, in stark contrast to his much more serious nature when he was reporting the evening news. Clearly Carolyn was as much in love with her husband as Nora was with Dan. And Harold was just as proud of his wife for being chosen to design the convention center hotel.

When they parted ways, Nora promised to invite them both over soon for dinner, which they seemed eager to accept. Though Dan had made a point to limit mixing business with pleasure, he was clearly up for more socializing with the Larringers, if only to keep the lines of communication free flowing.

At home, Nora and Dan made love like they were teenagers again. Or as if it might be their last time to be intimate as husband and wife, making it all the more pleasurable.

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