Thankful for Love
Servicemen of Long Valley Romance Novel – Book 1
But Gunner’s finished his stint in the Navy, and is now drifting, looking for a purpose in life, or at least a roof over his head. His older brother, Luke, offers him a place to stay until he can get back on his feet.
He never expects to find love in the process…
Coming December 1, 2021, Thankful for Love is the first novel in the Servicemen of Long Valley Romance series, although all books in the Long Valley world can be read as standalones. A HOT romantic story with a guaranteed happily ever after, it does have some strong language and oh my, sexy times. Enjoy!
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Keila Wilson let out a jaw-cracking yawn and rubbed at her eyes wearily. She was so damn close. It’d be ridiculous to pull over now and take a nap.
It’d also be ridiculous to get in a wreck just miles from her destination.
Not that she had a choice in the matter anyway – there was no room to pull over. The steep canyon walls rose up either side of the winding road, the occasional tenacious pine tree growing out of the granite cliffs. There was considerably more room between her and the cliffs to her right, but that was only because there was a mountain stream winding its way far below her on the passenger side of the road. The occasional flash of light reflecting off the turbulent surface reminded her yet again how very much she did not want to fall asleep, no matter what her body begged for.
Vienna – her Class C RV stuffed to the brim with every amenity and upgrade she’d been able to get her hands on – shifted into a lower gear, growling against the strain of the climb. “You’re good, Vienna,” she said encouragingly, patting the steering wheel. “You’ve got this. We both do.”
The road curved again and opened up to show it taking a sharp right and spanning the gorge, the water rushing by far below.
But that bridge…
Keila instinctively hit the brakes, causing the traffic behind her to sound their horns, but she ignored them, letting out a string of profanity that would’ve made her uncle proud.
Was she supposed to drive over this thing? It looked like the bridge had been built at the turn of the century – the twentieth century, not the twenty-first. It was made of marble or granite…? She couldn’t quite tell and wasn’t about to stop and inspect it. It was ornate and old-fashioned and beautiful…and way too small for modern traffic.
A diamond-shaped sign in primary yellow read Narrow Bridge Ahead, just feet from the start of the bridge.
“No shit, Sherlock,” Keila grumbled, and without any other choice, eased onto the bridge, her hands trembling on the steering wheel. Her side mirrors, helpfully sticking out like Dumbo ears on either side of her RV to always give her a clear view behind her, were within a hair’s breadth of the railing on the passenger side. If only she’d been given a chance to get out and push them in before getting on this bridge of death, but this damn mountain road didn’t have a pull-off big enough to hold a motorcycle, let alone Vienna.
Breathe, Keila, breathe. This isn’t any worse than Boston traffic.
Even as she thought it, she knew it wasn’t true. Boston had a lot of cars, sure, but was decidedly short on undersized ornate bridges that shouldn’t be accommodating two Smart Cars side by side, let alone a beast of an RV like Vienna.
She pushed the thoughts aside. She needed to focus on the cars and trucks shooting past her without a care in the world, heading back towards Boise. A scraped mirror wouldn’t kill her. A head-on collision with oncoming traffic could. She bit down hard on her bottom lip, anxiety swimming inside of her. She probably wasn’t even making 5 miles per hour, but she didn’t dare look down long enough to check her speedometer.
Based on the blaring of the horns behind her, though, she was gonna guess the people stuck trailing her weren’t too happy with the pace.
“Too shittin’ bad,” she said aloud, her knuckles white from gripping the steering wheel. “I intend to live. You dumbasses can do whatever you want. Just a few more yards…”
It wasn’t until her front tires hit the pavement on the other side that she realized in the faint recesses of her mind that she’d been holding her breath the whole way across.
The road made a sharp turn to the left and there, thank Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, was a pull-off on the right-hand side as the steep gorge opened up into a wide valley, beautiful Idaho scenery as far as the eye could see.
Something she could appreciate once she caught her breath.
She eased into the pull-off, ignoring the honking and middle fingers extended at her by passing traffic as she breathed in deeply, held it for a moment, and then let it back out.
She was never going to drive Vienna across that bridge again. Even if she had to pay someone else to drive while she rode behind in a car, she didn’t care.
Never, never, never again.
“Well, I’m awake,” she said aloud as she waited for an opening in the traffic before easing back onto the road.
“Sawyer - 5 miles” the sign said as she gathered speed.
Now that she wasn’t in imminent danger of dying, she could admire the scenery flashing by. Huge open meadows with cows grazing, some derelict wooden fencing on the verge of collapse, groups of trees scattered about, and the massive wall of a mountain continuing on her left, the right side fading away to the fields. It was picturesque and quaint, and simultaneously both exactly what she expected and bizarrely unreal. Were there really places that still existed like this in the world? Her eyes were saying yes, even if her brain was calling bullshit.
“You’re not in Boston anymore,” she said aloud.
She really needed to stop talking to herself. She knew that. But the bad habit had snuck up on her after long weeks of being by herself on the road, and somehow, she hadn’t been able to shake it.
And anyway, if she didn’t talk to herself, her voice would grow rusty from disuse. How embarrassing would it be if she tried to talk to a gas station attendant and couldn’t because her voice didn’t work anymore?
She came up on the outskirts of Sawyer and sucked in a quick breath as she tried to take it all in. This might? Maybe? Hopefully? would be her future home. It was the very definition of quaint, with small brick buildings lining Main Street and a center plaza with some sort of statue ringed with flowers. All in all, it had a very Mayberry-esque feeling to it.
She wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about that. She was here for the mansion; the wilds of Idaho just happened to be where it was located. She’d googled Sawyer beforehand, of course, and had known that “tiny” didn’t begin to describe it.
Still, seeing it in person…
Did she really want to live one right-hand turn past the Middle of Nowhere?
She spotted a giant waving statue on the right, with Betty’s Diner printed across the woman’s apron, and decided she could start with a full belly and go from there. Since getting up that morning outside of Boise, she’d only had coffee and now, her stomach was growling its desire for some real food.
She turned into the parking lot, her eyes darting around, looking for a spot large enough for her RV. She loved the space that a Class C gave her compared to a van (which was what she’d originally considered), but along with that space came a distinct lack of maneuverability.
“I could’ve bought that Class A tour bus monstrosity that salesman was trying to pawn off on me,” she said under her breath, “and then I’d really be in trouble.” Just then, she caught sight of an open spot at the back of the parking lot. “Perfect,” she said with a grateful sigh, and headed for it.
After gathering up the newspaper and her purse with her cell phone tucked inside, she headed for the front door of the restaurant, winding her way through the maze of vehicles. When she got close enough to see in through the double glass doors, she saw it was bursting at the seams.
Damn. Is this place always this busy? Google lied to me. There weren’t supposed to even be this many people who lived here. She was starting to feel grateful she’d managed to snag that spot near the back fence. She was used to shitty parking options – Boston wasn’t exactly a joy to park in – but apparently she’d been wrong in her assumption that rural Idaho would be better.
She pushed her way inside and the wall of pancake, syrup, and sausage smells with a strong overlay of coffee hit her. She felt almost weak-kneed with joy. She really shouldn’t be eating pancakes with syrup if she was going to keep any semblance of a figure, but making it to Sawyer in one piece seemed like a good reason for a celebratory breakfast.
“10¢ pancakes!” read the whiteboard sign, and suddenly, the packed parking lot and even more packed dining booths made sense. Was this special run every Sunday? Or only once in a blue moon?
“You can sit wherever you like,” a pretty blonde in her mid 30s said as she bustled by with a coffee pot in hand. “I think there’s a stool up at the front counter that’s still open.”
Keila nodded her thanks and headed for the open bar stool. She was happy to see that on one side, it was an opening back to the kitchen and on the other side, a younger woman sat with her kid as they drew together on the paper place mat.
No males. Thank God.
Well, at least there weren’t any guys at the counter, but the rest of the place seemed to be a sea of cowboys.
Huh. What she assumed were cowboys, anyway. She’d always thought that cowboys had to have cowboy hats on their heads at all times to keep that label – she rather thought they even slept with them on – but here…
Not a hat on anyone’s head.
Bald, gleaming crowns were sprinkled in amongst thick full heads of hair, and of course, lots of women with hair in every style imaginable, but nary a hat in sight. As Keila slid onto the bar stool, she kept her eyes pinned on the crowd, feeling safer if she faced them instead of the counter.
It was then that she spotted the cowboy hats – laying on chairs, on the edges of tables, and even hanging off hooks on the wall that’d apparently been put there for just that purpose.
Was this some sort of rural tradition that Idahoan men didn’t believe in wearing cowboy hats inside?
What a weird rule.
The waitress appeared on the other side of the counter, pulling Keila out of her thoughts as she swung forward, daring to put her back to the crowd.
They won’t hurt you. They won’t hurt you. They won’t hurt you.
The blonde slid a menu, a coffee cup, and a wrapped bundle of cutlery into place in front of Keila with a practiced move. “You wantin’ water too?” she asked, already filling the coffee cup.
Keila glanced at the woman’s name tag. “Chloe” was pinned above her generous breasts; her short platinum blonde hair swinging clear of her name tag. “Yes, please. Creamer and sugar for the coffee too.”
“You betcha.” The woman was back just moments later, pouring the water while sliding the creamer and sugar into place next to Chloe’s elbow. “You got yourself an accent,” the woman said, her rich green eyes studying Keila intently. “Where you visitin’ from?”
Keila tried not to laugh. She sounded perfectly normal, of course. It was Chloe who had an accent.
“Boston,” Keila said, her voice just above a whisper. She wasn’t keen on anyone else overhearing this conversion. Were all Idahoans this nosy?
Before she could stop herself, she poured the thick cream from the stainless steel miniature pitcher into her coffee, and added in some real sugar with a stir. If she was going to get fat eating pancakes, she might as well really get fat. Enjoy herself. When was the last time she ate anything more fattening than a piece of lettuce?
“Boston?!” Chloe repeated loudly, her eyes wide. “Boy, you’re a hop, skip, and a jump away from home, aren’t ya?” Without waiting for an answer, she pulled out her pad. “You wantin’ the 10¢ pancakes?” At Keila’s nod, she asked, “How many? And anything else – eggs or bacon or anything?”
After giving Chloe her order, the waitress gathered up the unopened menu and tucked it under her arm. “I’ll get this into the kitchen for ya,” she said with a cheery smile, and headed for the pass-thru window. An older lady with steely gray hair pulled back in a bun, so short only her forehead was showing through the window, was busy pushing two steaming plates into the pass-thru and yelling, “Order up!” before going for the next ticket off the ticket stand.
Chloe clipped the order sheet on the spinner, grabbed the two plates, and headed back out into the diner with a practiced ease of someone who’d done this a thousand times and would do it a thousand more.
After one more glance around the restaurant to verify no one was paying any attention to her, Keila pulled out her iPhone and indulged in her favorite pastime as of late: Yet another fruitless search for the physical address of the hoarder mansion.
The newspaper article had only mentioned that it was “on the outskirts of Sawyer, Idaho, a quaint rural town located 90 minutes outside of Boise,” a phrase she’d memorized by now.
With her years of experience as a real estate agent, it was making her pissy that she couldn’t just pull up the local MLS and find the address there, but of course, her membership to the MLS that covered Massachusetts didn’t stretch across the nation and cover Idaho too. She was having to rely on the information available to the average citizen off the street, and that damn well rubbed her the wrong way.
Just her luck to get here on a Sunday. Now she was stuck needing to find an RV park to hang out in overnight; then she could be at the courthouse at 9:00 a.m. sharp. It’d taken her a week to get here; she could wait another few hours.
“So, what brought ya into town?” Chloe asked as she reappeared in front of Keila, coffee pot in hand. She leaned over and topped off Keila’s cup, and then settled in against the high counter, apparently willing to hang out there all day long.
“I…” Keila wasn’t sure what to make of this. Could she just tell some random stranger that she intended to move to town? What if that stranger was actually a mass murderer and hunted for her victims at Betty’s Diner?
She looked into Chloe’s bright green eyes and only saw kindness there, and maybe a little bit of understanding. What this woman could possibly understand about Keila’s life would fit inside a thimble and yet, she had that knowing glint in her eye.
“I found a house I want to buy here,” she finally said quietly, deciding that if Chloe were actually picking off her restaurant guests, surely the police would’ve figured it out by now. Keila still didn’t trust a whole restaurant full of strangers, but surely she could tell just this woman what she was doing. And maybe, just maybe, Chloe would know where the hoarder mansion was.
Stranger things had happened.
“It’s a big mansion here in Sawyer. Or, on the outskirts of Sawyer…I don’t know where it is, exactly.”
It would be hard to convey to another soul just how much she hated saying those words. She felt like a prize fighter with her hands tied behind her back.
Chloe’s eyes went wide and her eyebrows shot up. “You want to buy a house,” she said slowly, “but you don’t know where it is?”
Chloe’s intonation made Keila sound more than a little insane. And really, driving across the states to buy a house she’d never clapped eyes on did seem a little crazy, if a person didn’t figure in all the rest of it.
Feeling more than a little defensive and already questioning her decision to share, Keila pulled the newspaper out from underneath her purse, smoothing down the pages a bit. “I was reading a newspaper over breakfast – I was in this tiny podunk town somewhere in Kansas that I think even God forgot about,” she said with a sarcastic laugh, “and…saw this.”
She folded the page back so that the picture of the mansion was front and center, and handed it over with a flourish.
“Oh! The Roberts’ mansion,” Chloe said chidingly, the undertone of why didn’t you say so blatantly obvious. “Boy, outskirts of Sawyer is a stretch, though.” Her eyes were quickly skimming over the article. The cook in the kitchen yelled, “Order up!” but Chloe only held up her hand for a moment, signaling for the cook to be patient.
“I only saw the place once,” Chloe said, handing the newspaper back, “and it was at night. I can’t rightly say where it is, but I know it’s a few miles out—”
“Which of you dadblamed idiots parked in front of the ATM?” an older man roared as he pushed through the glass front doors and then stood, hands on hips, hat on head – at least he wears a hat inside – and…
A sheriff’s badge pinned to his chest?
Standing right in front of the doors, the bright light around him was giving him a halo effect, but there was no missing the glint of the gold star on his chest.
Keila looked around the dead-silent restaurant, waiting for someone to own up to blocking the ATM, but no one moved.
“A Mercedes Benz RV?” he prodded, his eyes scanning the restaurant. “With Massachusetts plates?”
Keila’s jaw dropped, nearly hitting the counter. Vienna was built on a Mercedes Benz chassis, and of course she had Massachusetts license plates, but Keila hadn’t parked anywhere near a—
“Well now, just who are you?” the sheriff barked when they caught eyes, and headed straight for her.