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Deb_Black Hills Billionaire

BLACK HILLS BILLIONAIRE: a Hollywood-meets-the-real-wild-west contemporary romance series


February 2016
ISBN: 978-1-944300-01-2

His guilt.

Success can hide a multitude of secrets, but when Hollywood’s “wunderkind” producer/director Shane Reynard’s path crosses into memory lane, he knows he’s screwed. Jenna Murphy, the only girl he’s ever loved, doesn’t have a clue that the chance-of-a-lifetime Shane’s offering her is based on guilt. And the closer they get, the more Shane’s got to lose when the truth comes out. Because once it does, there’s a good chance Jenna will never want to see Shane again.

Her heartbreak.

Jenna Murphy doesn’t trust men easily. With valid reason. But Shane Reynard is different. The writer in her sees a tortured soul searching for redemption. She doesn’t understand the reason behind Shane’s generosity…until it’s too late to keep from falling in love with him. Too bad neither love nor Shane’s wealth can protect her from the past.

 

The myth and magic of the Black Hills comes alive in Sentinel Pass.

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Reviews

“…wonderfully written.”

“Guilt isn’t the only reason Hollywood producer and writer Shane Reynard hires
small-town girl Jenna Murphy to help him pen the pilot for a TV show
based in her hometown of Sentinel Pass. Shane’s been harboring an
attraction for Jenna ever since college. When he finally tells her that
it was his own brother who drugged and raped her back then, will she
believe that it was her talent that landed her the job?   Salonen’s characters
are as realistic as their problems. Shane is likable, and Jenna’s
insecurities make her easy to relate to.”—ROMANTIC TIMES

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Excerpt

PROLOGUE

Shane Reynard set the heavy obelisk of glass and pot metal made to resemble gold on the artisan table he’d picked up on a trip to Sweden. The table’s clean simple lines pleased him–far more than the award he’d picked up a few hours earlier at one of the growing number of Hollywood red-carpet gala award spectacles.

Best TV crime drama reflecting significant social themes…or some such drivel. Shane didn’t give a crap about awards. But as the show’s producer, he’d attended to play the PR game. He’d also used the venue to drop hints about his new project set in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Cooper Lindstrom’s brainchild.

“Brilliant fun.”

“Coop at his best.”

“Comedy, pathos, and romance–what’s not to love?”

Shane kicked the heavy, carved mahogany door closed and reset the alarm before heading to the ultra-modern steel and glass bar–a focal point in the home’s living room created by some architect with his head up his butt, in Shane’s opinion. He hadn’t bought the place for its so-called “edgy” design. He’d paid the six million asking price for the view–and the sense of detachment the mountaintop perch provided.

He made a drink–three ice cubes, his favorite vodka and a twist of lime. A simple drink, but, by far, the best of the evening.

At the post-ceremony party–a shoulder-to-shoulder affair filled with Hollywood’s glitterati, he’d nurse a bland martini while his date guzzled anything and everything someone put in her hands.

“No wonder she ralphed all over the backseat of the limo,” he muttered under his breath as he carried his cocktail to the wrap-around deck suspended above a steep drop-off that disappeared into a black void.

He set his glass on the wide, flat stainless steel railing to shrug out of his Armani tux jacket and tie. He unbuttoned his shirt to feel the warm southern California breeze on his skin. The kid who’d grown up in Minnesota winters never took the beautiful weather of his adopted state for granted.

After a long, refreshing gulp, he rested his elbows on the railing and stared at the glittering mosaic of lights in the distance. LA. Muse. Loadstone. Refuge. Shane never planned on returning to the Mid-west. He had one very good reason to avoid his old stomping grounds–Adam. His brother. His twin.

“Think Cain and Able on steroids.” That was how he’d once described his and Adam’s un-brotherly relationship to Cooper. “As long as we stay out of each other’s worlds, there’s a good chance we won’t kill one another.”

Typical Coop, the location he picked out for his next sitcom? South Dakota. Minnesota’s next-door neighbor. Too close for comfort, given Shane’s and Adam’s history.

But an electronic boarding pass for a flight leaving LAX in the morning for Denver, with his final destination Rapid City, South Dakota, had appeared on Shane’s phone moments before his acceptance speech. Somehow, he’d managed a few glib producer comments and the requisite staff acknowledgements without embarrassing himself.

Afterwards at the party, he’d mingled, bull-shitted, fake-flirted and kept a faintly paternal eye on his date–a gorgeous young starlet with a seemingly hollow leg. Her subsequent “food poisoning” provided the perfect excuse to take her home.

He’d already planned to cut the evening short so he could pack, but sex would have been nice. Work had kept him in monk-mode too much lately, and he didn’t expect that to change once he got to the Black Hills. Unlike Cooper, Shane wasn’t going to get lucky–or fall in love.

Just the opposite, in fact. The only satisfaction Shane could hope to walk away with from this trip was appeasing a years-old guilt.

“You’ve got to come and meet Libby,” Cooper had begged. “And her book club friends are great, too. I think you’ll like Jenna Murphy. You’ve always had a thing for redheads. Jenna’s gorgeous and smart. And she’s a writer, like you.”

Shane polished off the rest of his drink, then picked up his jacket and tie and walked inside.

Jenna Murphy. A blast from the past. A name he’d tried to forget over the years…with very little luck. A face that still appeared in his dreams from time to time. His first infatuation. His deepest regret.

“Temptation, thy name is Cooper Lindstrom.”

CHAPTER 1

“Cooper wants to marry me, Jenna. Can you believe it?”

Libby’s voice came across the phone line as close to tears and mystified. But Jenna didn’t doubt for a minute that Lib’s dreams were about to come true. Nobody deserved this shot at happiness more than Libby McGannon, Sentinel Pass Postmaster and Jenna’s best friend for more years than either cared to count.

“Me,” Libby repeated, before Jenna could respond. “And he asked before I told him about the baby. I think. Wait. Maybe not… Oh, I don’t know. My mind is such a swirl of hormones and guilt and worry. But this feels right. Doesn’t it? I said yes, anyway. Oh, I’ve gotta run. He just went to Mac’s to formally ask for my hand –- isn’t that sweet? — but I can see him coming back. Thanks for listening. I love you. ‘Bye.”

Jenna Murphy slowly replaced the phone on its hook. The Murphy family’s was an old-fashioned model. Practically museum quality. Black, because black was cheaper. She was proud that her hand didn’t shake, not even a little. Surprises had never been her friend. Even good ones took time to become familiar, and thus…safe.

“That was Libby,” she told her mother who’d probably been able to hear bits and pieces of Libby’s exuberant monologue from where she sat across the room. “Cooper proposed.” She swallowed the metallic taste in her mouth. “And Lib said yes.”

“Oh, my,” Bess Murphy exclaimed, springing up from the kitchen table where mother and daughter had been eating breakfast. Granola and soy milk. Bess’s latest health fad. “I knew it. I knew he was in love with her. I could see it in his eyes last night at the town meeting. Even when he was talking about what was going to happen and how the town would benefit from the television production crew coming, he kept looking at Libby. Like a starving man in a 7-Eleven.”

Jenna couldn’t help but smile at the metaphor. Cooper Lindstrom, TV star and talent show personality, didn’t strike her as the type to frequent quick-stop convenience stores. But Bess was renowned for saying the first thing that came into her head – often at her daughter’s expense.

“Have they set a date?”

“She didn’t mention one, but I imagine it’ll be soon,” she said, gathering up both empty bowls to put in the bottom rack of the dishwasher. If she left them for her mother to tend to, they might still be on the table when Jenna returned from work. The completion of household chores was dependent on the intensity of one or all of Bess’s ailments: arthritis, diabetes, gastro-intestinal troubles, migraines or any other unexplained medical symptom that might flare up, leaving Bess prone on the couch watching Lifetime or Turner Classic Movies – or, God forbid, Discovery Health — for the entire day.

Her mother was a hypochondriac, plain and simple. She’d always been overly wrapped up in everyday aches and pains, but since Jenna’s father’s death two years earlier, Bess had pretty much honed the art of fretting about her health to a doctorial level.

Bess refilled her coffee mug and leaned casually against the dated olive green Formica countertop. “Why do you say that? They haven’t known each other long. And Libby was pretty upset with him when she found out Cooper had been playing her for a fool.”

Jenna felt her cheeks heat up. She was one of the few people who knew that Libby was pregnant. She’d just assumed that Libby and Cooper would want to make their relationship official before the baby came, but that wasn’t always the case these days. “I don’t think Lib will hold that against him, Mom. I’ve known her a long time, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen her throw caution to the wind – relationship-wise. That says a lot, don’t you think?”

Bess didn’t answer right away, but at least she seemed distracted from Jenna’s gaff. The break in conversation gave Jenna time to pack a small lunch. Apple. Cheese stick. Cookies – the not-so-healthy brand her mother refused to buy. At times, Jenna felt like a child living with her mommy. But most days she felt old. Very old. Caught in a one-sided generational squeeze caring for her ailing mother without the benefit of a husband and family of her own to balance things out.

By choice, she reminded herself. She’d had a couple of chances to unknot the apron strings over the years, but the men she’d dated had been either too much or not enough like her father. Or, in Brian’s case, too much like her mother. She honestly had no expectations of ever finding Mr. Right for more reasons than she cared to list – the most verbal of them was looking deep in thought at the moment.

“I’m not surprised Libby fell for Coop. He’s like a big, handsomely-groomed Golden Retriever. You just want to hug and pet him. But that friend he brought with him to the meeting wasn’t too shabby, either. At first, I thought he was purebred Doberman…because he was dressed all in black, I suppose, but when I looked closer I could see the depth in his eyes. So, I’m calling him Mr. Bernese Mountain Dog.”

Jenna shook her head as she rolled the top of her brown paper sack in a neat crease and stapled it. “I’m sure he’d be thrilled to know you think of him as a big slobbery pooch.”

“Not just any old dog, dear. My favorite breed. When I was a young girl, our neighbor had one. His name was Franz. His owner went all the way to Switzerland to buy him. Now, there are breeders around the country. I always wanted one, but Clarence claimed an animal that size would eat us out of house and home. He’d never budge – even when I played the Jenna card.”

“The what?”

“You know how much your dad doted on you. I told him every little girl should have a dog.” She pursed her lips and frowned in a way that made her look older than fifty-one. The frumpy cotton housecoat worn over faded pastel blue pajamas and open toe scuffs didn’t help. Jenna remembered a time when her mother looked glamorous and exotic – even before nine in the morning.

She made a mental note to ask the doctor about clinical depression the next time she accompanied her mother to an appointment.

“Clarence said if you wanted a dog that bad, you could buy one when you were paying the bills.”

Jenna smiled. That sounded like her father. It also reminded her of a debate that Libby had mentioned between her brother, Mac, and his daughter, Megan. The widower had yet to give in, but Jenna knew it was only a matter of time. Despite his gruff outward demeanor, Mac was a big softy deep down. Jenna had had a crush on him, off and on, for years. He might actually be the only man she’d consider marrying; unfortunately, he’d never shown the slightest interest in her, except as his sister’s friend.

With a sigh she’d meant to keep silent, Jenna stuffed the lunch sack into her backpack and looked around to see if she was forgetting anything. As usual, she’d laid out things the night before. She double-checked her list just to be sure.

“I know I told you this, Mom, but it’s important so please don’t call me in an hour asking me to run to Rapid with you,” she said walking close enough to make eye contact. “The Health Department is supposed to send out an inspector today. He has to check the new pipes before we can cover up the open trenches. We can’t afford to lose another day; otherwise, I would have been filling in for Libby at the Post Office.”

Her mother’s still pretty lips pursed expressively. “Who’d they get to fill in? Not the girl from Hill City, I hope. Last time she worked I wound up with Rufus Miller’s mail.” When she shook her head, a lock of silvery blond hair escaped from the knot she’d piled on top of her head. “Libby’s excellent, of course, but I miss the way things were when Mary was Postmaster.”

Libby’s grandmother had practically run the town for as long as Jenna could remember. Now in retirement, Mary “lived in sin” with her companion, Calvin.  “I know, Mom, but Mary’s not doing too well right now. Lib said they had a scary episode yesterday. Calvin’s hoping it was a reaction to a new medication, but they don’t know for sure.”

Mom sighed heavily. “If I ever start showing signs of dementia, I want you to toss a hairdryer in the water while I’m in the tub.”

Jenna had been hearing various exit strategies for the past couple of months. “With my luck, you’d catch it, and then accuse me of attempted murder.”

“I won’t. I promise.”

“Dementia robs you of short-term memory, Mom. You might forget that the plan was your idea. Libby’s grandmother didn’t even recognize her yesterday.”

Mom lifted the cup to her lips but didn’t drink from it. Instead, she frowned and said, “Well, I’m sure that no matter how bad I get, I’ll still know when it’s time to exit stage left with grace and flair.”

Jenna knew better than to argue. They’d had this discussion as recently as a week ago when Mom thought she’d developed C.O.P.D. — Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. No one adored diseases that came with abbreviated names more than Bess Murphy. Her doctor had insisted the symptoms were that of a cold. Possibly a little bronchitis. Mom had been crushed.

Her mother needed to get out more. At the very least, she’d benefit from a hobby.

Jenna and her friends in the Wine, Women and Words book club had discussed the topic at length. They’d even invited Bess to join the group. Mom had declined, claiming her failing eyesight was proof of macular degeneration. For some reason, Bess was convinced that her life was on a slippery slope and she could swoosh off into the ethers to join her deceased husband at any moment. A drama queen on skis.

“I probably won’t be home until four or five,” Jenna said, heading for the door. “You’re in charge of supper.”

“You’re not going to miss Jeopardy, are you? Alex Trebek is so cute…in a Miniature Schnauzer kind of way.”

Jenna stopped abruptly and wheeled about. “Mother, what is it with you and dogs? Are you trying to tell me something? Do you want a pet?”

Bess put a hand to her chest as if aghast. “Heavens, no. With all my health problems? What would happen to the poor thing if we bonded then I died? I wouldn’t inflict that kind of anxiety on any living creature. No…no…,” she shuffled to the chair she’d vacated earlier and sat. “I…well, if you must know, I’ve been trying to come up with a character I could play in the new TV show. Say…a quirky older woman who runs a pet adoption service.”

Jenna’s stomach crimped. She loved her mother. The last thing Jenna wanted was to see her disappointed. She was too emotionally fragile to handle rejection. And Bess’s acting experience had been limited to local stages. Surely the people who were turning Libby’s story into a television sitcom had a script – and characters – in mind.

“Oh, don’t say anything. I can see in your face you think I’m slightly whacko for thinking such a thing, but I’ve given this a lot of thought, Jenna Mae. Hollywood coming to Sentinel Pass doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Not only will the increased traffic and advertising the filming brings in be good for business, but from what Cooper said last night, he and his producer friend are looking for locals to appear in the show.”

His tall, dark and handsome producer friend. The Bernese Mountain Dog. The guy who had set off all kind of weird bells and whistles the moment he walked into Char’s gift shop where Jenna had been working yesterday afternoon. The man who disappeared like a ghost a short while later.

Jenna made herself focus on her mother. Dreams were good – to a degree. But the chance of Bess securing even a bit part in some not-yet-written TV show seemed pretty iffy. And Jenna knew who would be left to pick up the pieces when nothing came of all this dog talk. “I’m sure Cooper means well, Mom, but the only way the Mystery Spot is going to benefit is if we’re open for business. Have you thought any more about your hours this summer?”

Jenna and Bess had been having this discussion for weeks—no, months. Bess made a limp, noncommittal gesture. “I really don’t know if I’m up to it this year, Jenna. The arthritis in my back isn’t helped by standing around taking tickets and playing tour guide to a bunch of tourists.”

“What arthritis?” Jenna almost asked. So far, not one of her mother’s many X-rays had shown even a hint of arthritic deposits.

“Well, you know our budget as well as I do, Mom. If I have to hire someone to take your place, there won’t be any money left for the improvements we have slated. Like paving the parking lot.”

All vibrancy left her mother’s face, making Jenna regret her impatient tone. She could blame her short temper on budget woes, but those were ever present in a small, tourist-oriented business. The real cause was something she didn’t want to talk about. Or think about. Her chase dream had returned last night. An old, unwelcome friend that had been a constant in her life through most of her twenties. It always started with a pleasant, harmless stroll down a busy street but ended in a heart-racing pursuit by a faceless demon whose heavy breathing reminded her vividly of a memory she thought she’d mastered.

“Sorry,” she said, crossing to the chair where her mother sat. She gave her a hug, gently patting her back as she might a child. “I’m just a little tense because it’s the middle of June and we’re not open. I probably should have hired someone else to fix the broken water line, but I felt so sorry for Walt.”

Walt Gruen was the plumbing contractor she’d hired to repair her broken water line. Unfortunately, his college-age daughter had been injured in a car accident a few days after he started the job and he’d had to drop everything to attend to her in Denver. Since he worked alone – for a fee even Jenna could afford – there was no one to pick up the slack.

“I know, dear. But you can’t blame yourself. This kind of thing was bound to happen. I warned your father about taking short cuts, but you know how he was with money.” Bess shook her head. She was one of the special women who gray with such grace and beauty it would be a sacrilege to color her hair. Jenna feared she wasn’t going to be that lucky since she’d inherited her father’s red hair.

Clarence Murphy had been sixty-four when he suffered a heart attack one morning before leaving for school. Scientist, teacher and mastermind behind the popular summer attraction that had baffled and intrigued visitors for twenty-odd years, his death had been mourned by many. Jenna had been a part of the family’s summer business almost from its inception, but her father had sheltered her from one undeniable truth: her mother couldn’t be trusted with money. His widely reputed miserliness may have been prompted by a need to offset his wife’s tendency to spend without reservation. Every day, Jenna felt she understood her father better.

“I know that’s what you think, Mom, but I can’t figure out why the break happened so long after the frost melted.” Jenna sighed. They’d been over this ground before. The pipe broke and needed to be fixed before they could reopen. Bottom line. “I’d better go. Don’t want to miss the inspector. I’m just sorry I didn’t schedule this for yesterday. Then I could have subbed for Libby today instead of holding down the fort for Char. The Post Office pays better.”

“But if you hadn’t been working at the teepee, you wouldn’t have met Mr. Bernese Mountain Dog.” Her mother fluttered her eye lashes coquettishly. “Tell me again what he said.”

Jenna paused, hand on the door knob. She’d never understood her mother’s fascination with Hollywood. Bess had nearly wet herself the first time she heard Cooper Lindstrom was in town, and last night when introduced to a real live producer, she’d gotten honest to goodness stars in her eyes.

“His name is Shane Something. I only remember that because I knew a guy in college named Shane. Not knew knew, but we had a class together. And, to be honest, this Shane didn’t leave that much of an impression.” Liar. “We barely exchanged two words before Coop showed up asking where he stood with Libby. Your Bernese Mountain Dog slipped away.”

Bess looked in the direction of the McGannon homes. “And now Libby is getting married. There’s hope for you, yet, honey.”

Jenna didn’t see the correlation, but she let the comment pass. She was happy for her friend who – with a little luck – might get some well-deserved happiness – and the baby she’d gone to such extreme lengths to procure. “Gotta go, Mom. ’Bye,” she mumbled.

“Wait. Promise me one thing.”

Jenna held her sigh as she paused in the doorway. “What?”

“If you bump into the handsome producer, try not to mutter. It’s distracting and makes you appear a little odd.”

“What on earth makes you think I’ll be seeing him? He and Coop are supposed to be holding open meetings for the townsfolk this week. I’m going to be busy at the Mystery Spot trying to get the plumbing fixed so we can open and start earning enough money to pay our taxes.”

Her mother’s reply was one Jenna had heard a million times. “I just have a feeling. You’ll see.”

As always, Jenna wished she’d been born with a just bit less of her father’s pragmatism and a bit more of her mother’s optimism. Maybe then she wouldn’t spend all of her time worrying.

* * *

Shimmering lines bounce off hot pavement.

Wavy, unbalanced. Like a girl

Going nowhere.

Fast.

“Going nowhere fast,” Shane repeated, as he looked up from the small volume of poetry that Coop had given him.

Kinda like me yesterday.

He shook his head, still embarrassed by the way he’d reacted to seeing Jenna Murphy behind the counter of the big teepee. Like an inexperienced schoolboy drooling over the girl of his dreams. He’d come to South Dakota to find her, he just hadn’t expected her to be the first person he bumped into.

And he hadn’t expected her to be so vivid. Possibly more beautiful than he remembered. Definitely more real than the tragic figure he’d made her into in his mind.

He pushed the heel of his hand against the uncomfortable pressure behind his breastbone and shifted in the car seat. He didn’t know why he’d never been able to get Jenna out of his head, but she’d definitely been part of his motivation for joining Cooper in Sentinel Pass.

If he could work up the nerve to contact her.

He reached around the steering column to turn the key in the ignition. The Cadillac’s dashboard lit up impressively, giving him the pertinent facts of time and outside temperature. He lowered the driver side window a few inches and drew in a deep breath of dewy, pine-scented air.

He’d been sitting in this car in front of Libby MacGannon’s house for over an hour after dropping Cooper off. Not because he lacked a plan – Coop had set the ball in motion the night before and people were expecting them to show up at the local restaurant, but Shane knew he’d be worthless until he got this thing with Jenna off his chest. Something he could have done yesterday, but didn’t.

He sighed and slumped down in the wide, comfortable leather seat. Maybe if he’d been better prepared. Had some kind of dialogue scripted in his head. But what do you say to the girl whose life you ruined?

Hi, Jenna. Remember me? Shane from Art Appreciation class. College. The semester you were raped.

He groaned and wiped his sweaty palms on his trademark black jeans. What the hell was wrong with him? He wasn’t an inexperienced kid who didn’t have a clue about what he wanted to do with his life. He was a successful television producer, director and screenwriter. He’d made a lot of money at a profession he enjoyed and was good at. Then, he’d taken that money and invested it–some said gambled it–in the stock market. His risk paid off. His shelf full of awards that included an Oscar for his adaptation of a popular novel a few years back was nothing to sneeze at, as his mother might have said. She would have been proud of him. And happy for him. Although he knew his personal life – or lack of one – would have concerned her.

But she’d been gone nearly six years. Six years that had weighed heavily on Shane since her deathbed confession of a secret that probably had shortened her life through the weight of the guilt. Shane also blamed that secret in no small part for the state of his love life.

He’d lost count of the times he’d drowned his sorrows in a bottle of Scotch, wishing for the impossible. That Mom had taken her secret to her grave. Or, even better, that he’d been born an only child.

Unfortunately, Shane had only to look in the mirror to be reminded of his brother. Adam. His twin. His opposite in every way that counted, though. Or so Shane hoped.

There were some in Hollywood who called Shane “the monk” behind his back. He often made the club scene but usually alone, unless work was involved. He dated on occasion but seldom took out the same woman twice. Luckily, he lived in a place and time where women enjoyed sex for the same reasons men did and weren’t necessarily looking for a long-term attachment.

If that made his life seem shallow and superficial, he didn’t really care. He couldn’t name a single person he was trying to impress. He’d cut all ties with Adam after their mother’s funeral. He’d done the same with his father a few months later when the old man married a woman half his age. His father’s act merely confirmed what Shane had always known about his dysfunctional family – the nucleus was split evenly down the middle. Shane and Mom on one side. Adam and Dad on the other. The gulf between the two factions was wide and deep. And Shane hoped it would stay that way. For Jenna Murphy’s sake.

He closed the book and studied the cover. Ashes of Hope by Jenna M. Murphy. Deep maroon watermark silk with gold leaf lettering. Elegant and lady-like. A little old-fashioned given the age of the author, he thought, but serene. Perhaps to mitigate the austerity of the poems, which, from the dozen or so he’d read, were intense, deeply personal and poignant.

Coop had given him the self-published treatise as a bribe to get Shane to confess how he knew Jenna, who was Libby McGannon’s best friend. Libby, Sentinel Pass’s Postmaster, was the catalyst that had set this whole, unwieldy circus in motion.

Shane hadn’t intended to blurt out the fact that he recognized Jenna, but seeing her behind the counter of the teepee-shaped gift shop just minutes after arriving in Sentinel Pass had left him badly shaken. And, naturally, that kind of only-in-the-movies coincidence sparked Coop’s curiosity. What Coop didn’t know — and Shane had no intention of sharing — was the fact that Jenna was Shane’s sole purpose for being in the Hills.

He could have delegated the research part of this trip to any one of a dozen minions, but from Coop’s very first mention of an online ad offering part ownership in a working gold mine in Sentinel Pass, South Dakota, Shane had known his past had finally caught up with him. There simply was no other explanation. Fate? God? Karma? Shane didn’t believe in any of them. But he firmly believed every person was capable of manifesting his or her own reality.

For the past six years, Shane’s reality had included the ethereal image of a young woman he’d barely known for one short semester in his senior year of college. She haunted him at night. Not the happy, exuberant persona that had attracted him in the first place, but the hollow-eyed ghost of a girl in the back seat of her parents’ car as they took her home weeks before the normally scheduled holiday break. As far as he knew, she never returned to campus.

That girl was the reason he was here.

His plan…if you could call it that…was to ease his conscience and, if possible, to make amends.

He just hadn’t expected Jenna Murphy to be the first person he met when he and Coop pulled into town. But there she’d been – trademark red hair a dead giveaway. Behind a counter filled with Native American jewelry.

She hadn’t recognized him. A fact that didn’t surprise him given how much he’d changed since college. He was a different person, really. Short hair. A new name. Lasik surgery to lose the coke-bottle bottom glasses.

But she was still every bit as beautiful as he remembered…with a few changes. Her gorgeous red hair was shoulder-length instead of all the way to her waist. Now, she was the one with glasses. Small, stylish black frames drew attention to her flashing green-gold eyes, alive with wit and wisdom. She’d laughed a lot back them. Until the night she attended a party and became the victim of something the news media had branded the ‘date rape’ drug. Her attacker was never caught.

Shane heaved a weighty sigh and reached for the thermal travel mug he’d purchased that morning. He polished off the last gulp. Cold, but to his profound surprise, the brew wasn’t bad – unlike what his mother had passed off as coffee when he’d been growing up in Minnesota.

In atypical Coop fashion, his friend had rousted Shane at the break of dawn to drive him to the local bakery to buy doughnuts and jelly rolls, which he planned to use as props when he proposed to Libby.

Shane set the container back in the car’s cup holder and leaned forward to rest his arms on the steering wheel. He wondered how it was going for his friend inside the unpretentious two-story home. There was no outward sign of life, but a dark-haired man – Libby’s brother, Shane was pretty sure – had come and gone on foot half an hour earlier.

There hadn’t been any gunshots. Shane had been listening. Sorta. Mostly, he’d read the words of Jenna’s poetry, trying to catch a glimpse of the girl he’d fallen in love with.

Well, he’d called what he’d felt “love.” Maybe it was infatuation. Lord knew it was one-sided, completely unrequited. He and Jenna hadn’t exchanged more than a dozen words that semester, but his knees got weak whenever he saw her walking across campus.

He closed his eyes and smiled. Walking didn’t come close to describing the way Jenna Murphy moved. She danced with barely contained energy, like a happy hummingbird. The first time he saw her he’d assumed she was a theater major because she moved like a dancer and her voice carried as if she’d been trained to project. But he came to realize that was her “tour guide” voice. A by-product of spending her summers working in her parents’ business. A Sentinel Pass tourist trap called the Mystery Spot.

He’d spent hours constructing elaborate daydreams about visiting her at the place. Although that was before Jenna was attacked and left school. Before he dropped out and moved to California. He hadn’t been back to South Dakota since. Until now.

According to Coop’s plan that he’d laid out at the town meeting the night before, Shane was supposed to be “mingling with the locals.”

“Starting, perhaps, with the redhead that made the usually glib and suave Shane Reynard turn into a stammering school boy,” his friend had added, poking Shane with his bony elbow before hopping out the car.

Coop had even provided a crudely sketched map to find The Mystery Spot.

“I heard all about the Mystery Spot from Jenna’s mother, Bess, when I was here before,” Coop had told him. “Apparently, Jenna’s dad was some kind of eccentric college professor with a passion for optical illusions, although everyone pretends the exhibits are part of some scientific anomaly. I didn’t actually set foot inside, but it sounds like a hoot.”

Shane picked up the oversize sticky note that was attached to the passenger seat and studied the purple felt tip marker scribbles. The funny jittery just under his rib cage started again. Too much caffeine, he figured.

Or was it from knowing he was about to reconnect with Jenna?

“I know you said she didn’t remember you from college,” Coop had said before turning in last night, “but I bet she would if you introduced yourself using your family name. That might jog her memory.”

Shane didn’t doubt that for a minute. After all, it was the name of the man who raped her.

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