Cruz Rivera is on his last second chance. He can't afford to blow it by falling for the beautiful blonde widow who just hired him to fix up her family's New Mexico property. If he's going to get back on the rodeo circuit, Cruz needs to focus. Besides, a sweet single mom like Sara Mendez can do better than someone with Cruz's troubled history.
Sara isn't making it easy for Cruz to keep his distance. He's a man of many secrets, but Sarah sees only good in his warm brown eyes. Though Cruz knows he should move on before Sara discovers the truth about his past, he can't leave the closest thing to a home he's ever known. Cruz is the only man Sara wantscan he become the one she deserves?
About the Author
Award winning author Marin Thomas writes western romances for Harlequin and Tule Publishing Group as well as women's fiction for Berkley Books. She graduated from the University of Arizona and she and her husband live in Phoenix. When not writing she spends her free time junk hunting and researching ghost tours. Learn more about Marin's books at www.marinthomas.com or sign up for her newsletter at http://bit.ly/MarinThomasUpdates.
Read an Excerpt
On a Monday afternoon in mid-May, Cruz clutched the plastic bag that held his few belongings and waited for the prison guards to buzz the tower. The massive gates yawned open and he walked away from the hellhole that had been his home for far too long.
Ignoring the clanking sound of the iron bars closing behind him, he breathed deeply, filling his lungs with hot, dusty air. Crazy, but he swore the oxygen in the parking lot smelled a whole lot sweeter than it did inside the prison yard behind him.
Let it go, man. You're thirty-one years old. The best days are yet to come.
From here on out whatever road he traveled would be better than the one he'd been on for over a decade. He shoved his hand inside his pants pocket and clutched the fifty dollars in gate money and the bus ticket to Las Cruces. The Greyhound passed by the prison three times a week. He had fifteen minutes to make the half-mile walk to the highway and catch the bus. But damned if he could get his feet to move. He checked over his shoulder. The guards stood sentry, their faces expressionless. The gray-bar hotel sucked the life out of everyone who worked or lived within its walls.
His cell mate, Orlando, had been in and out of prison most of his adult life and had warned Cruz that he might freeze up on the outside. Cruz had hated prison with every fiber of his being but it had been predictableeven comfortable in a perverse way. He'd been told what to do, how to do it and when to do it for the past 4,326 days. There was no one on this side of the wall instructing him to do anything. From now on every decision was in his hands.
"Need a lift?"
Cruz's heart jumped inside his chest but not a muscle twitchedyears of bracing himself for an unexpected attack had taught him to control his body's reactions. It took only a few seconds for the familiar voice to register, then Cruz relaxed. Riley Fitzgerald. He grinned at the former world-champion saddle-bronc riderthe only man who'd ever tried to make a difference in Cruz's life.
"Considering where you just came from, you look good." Fitzgerald clasped Cruz's shoulder and gave him a hug. The last hug he'd received had been from Maria Alvarez, Fitzgerald's wife and Cruz's former high-school teacher, after he'd passed the tests required to earn his GED. She'd been proud of him that daytoo bad he'd let her down. "How's Maria?" She and Fitzgerald ran the Juan Alvarez Ranch for Boys outside Albuquerque. The ranch had been named after Maria's deceased younger brother, who'd been killed in a gang shooting when he was a teen.
"Maria's fine. She's eager to see you."
Cruz wasn't ready to socialize with people. Not yet. Not until he grew acclimated to life outside of prison.
"There's a job waiting for you at the ranch," Fitzgerald said.
"What kind ofjob?"
"Counseling troubled teens."
Cruz had spent more than a decade behind bars and the experience had left him jaded. He was the last person who should mentor gangbangers.
"Thanks, but I'll pass." Last week Cruz had met with his parole officer and had been handed a laundry list of do's and don'tsthe most important being that he stay the hell away from Albuquerque and gangs. Fine by him. There was nothing left in the barrio but bad memories. Cruz was free to move about the state as long as he reported in to his parole officer on a weekly basis.
"What are your plans?" Fitzgerald asked.
"I don't have any yet."
"We both know what you're qualified to do."
Rodeo. Cruz had promised himself that when he left prison he'd never ride again. What had once been a dreambecoming a world-champion saddle-bronc riderhad been stolen from him the moment the gun had gone off in his hand.
He'd had a hell of a rodeo run in prison and his prowess in the saddle had earned him the respect of the inmates and guards and those living in the surrounding community. But no matter how accomplished he'd become, he was still a felon cowboy and his victories were tainted.
"I've had my fill of rodeo," Cruz said. All he wanted now was to be by himself and reclaim the sense of peace that had been ripped from him when the judge had handed down his sentence.
"If you won't accept the job then you're going to need these." Fitzgerald dropped a set of keys in Cruz's hand.
"Shorty wanted you to have his wheels." Fitzgerald pointed to an older-model red Ford parked next to a Dodge Ram with a man sitting in the front seatprobably an employee from the ranch.
Before Cruz found his voice, Fitzgerald said, "I'd better get on the road. We have a group of boys arriving in a few days and Maria's got me busy until then." He shook Cruz's hand. "I'll tell her that you'll visit soon."
When Fitzgerald reached his vehicle, Cruz called out, "You hear much from Alonso or Victor these days?"
"Come out to the ranch and Maria will fill you in on the guys." Fitzgerald hopped into the Dodge and drove off, leaving Cruz alone.
Alone was good. Alone was his normal. Even among the thousands of prisoners he'd lived with daily, he'd always been alone.
He stared at the Ford. The sun glinted off the shiny paint, highlighting minor dings and scratches on the doors. Fitzgerald must have run the pickup through a car wash on the way to the prison. As he crossed the lot an image of Shorty popped into his headgray hair, scruffy beard, bow-legged and cheek swollen with chewing tobacco. The retired bullfighter could spit tobacco juice twenty-five feet through the air.
Cruz pressed the key fob and unlocked the truck. He slid behind the wheel, then remembered he didn't have a valid driver's license. He'd have to remedy that sooner rather than later. He rummaged through the glove compartment and discovered the truck's titleit was in Fitzgerald's name. Cruz assumed Fitzgerald was paying the insurance on the vehicle. He shut the glove box then started the engine. The needle on the gas gauge registered a full tankenough fuel to get him the hell away from this place by the end of the day.
He turned on the air conditioning and adjusted the vents toward his face. Freedom was feeling more real every second. When he buckled his seat belt, he noticed the envelope sitting on the passenger seat with his name scrawled on the front. He tore open the seal and removed the handwritten note.
If yer reading this, son, then I must be ten feet under in the boot yard. I was hoping I'd be there to greet ya when ya got out of the slammer but the ol ticker must have quit ticking.
Cruz's eyes watered. Damn Shorty for dying.
What the hell, man? Did you think life wouldn't go on for others while you were in prison? Yes. No. Shit.
I ain't never spent time in prison, but I had a friend who did and it took a while fer him to get used to being free. Ya gotta stay out of trouble, son. The best place fer ya is the circuit. Ya keep riding just like ya did in prison and before ya know it, yer pent-up anger n pain'll disappear.
Cruz rubbed his eyes, ignoring the moisture that leaked onto his fingertips.
I made sure Fitzgerald set ya up proper-like fer the next go-round. Do me proud, son. That's all I ask. See ya on the other sidebut not too soon, ya hear? Shorty.
Cruz glanced into the backseat. A Stetson sat next to brand-new rodeo gear, including a saddle for bronc riding. Next to the gear rested a duffel bag. He unzipped the canvas. Several pairs of jeans, shirts, underwear and socks were packed inside along with a Ziploc bag of toiletries. A belt and pair of cowboy boots rested on the floor. Had Shorty paid for all this?
A sharp stab of guilt pricked Cruz. Each year he'd rodeoed for the prison, he'd given the warden a list of people he wanted to deny entrance toFitzgerald and his wife, Maria, and Shortybecause he'd let them down and he didn't have the guts to face them. And his two best friends, Alonso and Vic. Alonso because he couldn't bear to see the sympathy in his eyes, and Vic because he should have been the one sitting in prisonnot Cruz.
Included in the envelope was a list of summer rodeos. Shorty had backed Cruz into a corner. The last thing he wanted to do was ride another bronc, but out of respect for the old man, he'd rodeo until he figured out what to do with his life.
First things first. He needed a job. The fifty dollars in his pocket wouldn't last long. His best bet was to look for work in a city like Las Cruces. Instead, he drove west, hoping to find temporary employment on a ranch or a farm. As soon as he earned enough money to keep the gas tank filled and pay a handful of entry fees, he'd hit the circuit.
Cruz drove over two hours before giving in to the gnawing hunger in his gut. When he whizzed past a billboard displaying a faded and tattered advertisement for Sofia's Mexican Cantina in Papago Springs, he took the exit and drove the frontage road for a mile before arriving in the one-horse town.
The two-block map dot consisted of abandoned mobile homes and bankrupt businesses. The gas station's single pump was missing its hose and the attached convenience store was packed from floor to ceiling with junk. Behind the station an antiques shop and Cut & Dry Hair Salon sat vacant.
The only two places that appeared open for business were The Pony Soldiera bar with a life-size plaster horse spinning on a pole attached to the roofand Sofia's Mexican Cantina, which was located inside an adobe house. Next to the restaurant sat a corral with two donkeys and a horse, a lean-to, a barn and a rusted, windowless single-wide trailer. A newer SUV was parked alongside a battered pickup in front of the home.
He'd dreamed of his first meal as a free man taking place at a Waffle House. His mouth watered when he thought of how long it had been since he'd eaten homemade biscuits and gravy. But it appeared he was destinedat least for todayto eat what he'd eaten in prison, more bland refried beans and rice. He parked next to the SUV and noticed a Help Wanted sign in the window of the restaurant.
He knocked but no one answered. When he tested the knob, the door opened. The smell of chorizo and fry bread assaulted his nose and he forgot all about biscuits and gravy. The front room had been converted into a waiting area. He tapped the bell on the counter to announce his presence. A beautiful blonde with blue eyes and an engaging smile appeared out of nowhere.
"Hello." Her feminine voice sounded foreign to Cruz and he thought for a moment that he'd imagined it. "Welcome to Sofia's Mexican Cantina." She peered behind him. "Are you dining alone?"
Temporarily speechless, he nodded.
"Right this way."
The subtle sway of her feminine hips mesmerized him as he followed her into another room. She ushered him to the table by the window, which looked out at the donkeys and the lone horse. He cleared his throat. "Thank you."
She held out a laminated menu. "My name is Sara Mendez."
Her smile and twinkling blue eyes shot his concentration to smithereens. It had been a long time since he'd been this close to a pretty woman.
"If you're not in a hurry, José will cook anything you want."
Oh, man, he was so not in a hurry.
"His specialty is pork tamales and chicken enchiladas."
Hopefully anything José cooked would be better than the prison slop he'd consumed. "I'll take a tamale and an enchilada."
"You won't be disappointed." She hurried off, her long ponytail swinging behind her.
Left alone he stared out the window, watching the animals in the corral. He'd thought a lot about the day he'd finally be free from prison and none of the scenarios he'd imagined had been anywhere close to this.
And today wasn't over with.
His ears caught the sound of shoes scuffing against the floor and he spotted a miniature shadow ducking out of sight behind the doorway. Sara returned with a basket of chips, homemade salsa and a glass of water.
"I apologize for not taking your drink order." Her cheeks turned pink, and he wondered if he made her nervousand not in a good way. Could people tell he'd just been released from prison?
"I'll take a beer" He'd better not drink alcohol in case he got pulled over by the highway patrol. "Make that a Coke."
"Coming right up." As soon as she left, the tiny shadow darted from the doorway and hid behind a chair. He munched on a chip, waiting for the little spy to show herself. He didn't wait long before she popped up next to him. The sprite had dark pigtails and brown eyes.
"My name is Dani. What's yours?"
"Cruz?" She pulled out the chair next to him and climbed onto the seat. "That's a funny name. I'm five years old. How old are you?"
"That's really old. Do you know my grandpa?"
"No, I don't." The child was pure innocence, reminding Cruz not to get too close. "My papa's a good cook."
Cruz pushed the basket of chips toward Dani. "Help yourself."
She grabbed a chip and took tiny bites with her tiny teeth. "My daddy died."
Shocked at her blunt statement, Cruz fumbled for something to say. "I'm sorry."
"Mama wants Papa to come live with us."
Pity for the child and her mother filled Cruz, surprising him. He hadn't believed he had any compassion left in him, but the little girl's sweetness tugged at a place deep inside hima place he'd shut the door on as soon as he'd been locked up inside the prison walls.
"Dani." The blonde returned. "I'm sorry. My daughter is a chatterbox and we don't get many customers." She set the meal and drink on the table then brushed a strand of hair from Dani's face. "You miss your friends back home, don't you?"
Cruz wanted to ask where home was but didn't.
Dani pointed. "Cruz can be my friend."
Sara quirked an eyebrow and he felt as if he'd just been reprimanded. He held out his hand. "Cruz Rivera." She shook his hand and the calluses on her palm surprised him.
"Nice to meet you." Sara switched her attention to her daughter. "Go into the kitchen and help Papa with the dishes." Sara grabbed her daughter's hand and helped her from the chair, then they left him to eat in peace.
Cruz savored his first bite of real food, letting the spices soak into his tongue before chewing. A lump formed in his throat as he swallowed. Once the first bite hit his stomach, he devoured the meal.
"Oh, my," Sara said when she returned with a water pitcher and gaped at his empty plate. "You must have been starving."
"It was real good."
"I'll make sure to tell my father-in-law."