Garth Black. This dark, troubled, smart-alecky cowboy stole my heart in Finders Keepers, but I have to admit that getting a continuation of his story was equally thrilling as it was terrifying at first, because every protective bone in my body did not wish any more harm to come to these beloved characters. Garth and Josie’s love story had been a lesson in perseverance, of stubbornly fighting for what we want most in our lives, and of breaking the self-disparaging cycle we might have been born into. But their tale was not over, as blissfully as it had ended, and one more hurdle was needed for Garth to recognise and truly embrace the unconditional love a woman like Josie was offering him. An intensely emotional and thought-provoking story, sugar-coated with light-hearted humour and sarcasm, it never steered away from getting across a very meaningful message of hope and courage, of learning to grab life by the horns instead of fearing it, of living to the fullest regardless of what the future has in store for us, and of seizing every minute of every day like it were our last. I fell in love with these characters all over again, and I still find myself smiling from time to time as certain scenes unexpectedly flash through my mind, because this superb, feel-good story stays with us long after we turn the last page.
“I had nothing to compare to the way she loved me, and that’s what made it so special. No one but her had ever come close to loving me like that. No one had ever believed in me the way she did. Her love was so big and overwhelming that each day with her erased another day of pain and failure from my past. Her love was magic, healing me as it lifted me up, and though she tried convincing me otherwise, I knew I could spend ten lifetimes trying and failing to give her what she’d given me in a year’s time.”
Garth and Josie have found their happy ending in each other’s arms and with a hopeful future before them. But, after a childhood void of affection and approval, and having been told all his life that he was nothing, Garth still struggles with his self-esteem issues, especially when it comes to truly believing that he could ever be worthy of someone as wonderful as Josie. He plans of handing her the world, of making every single one of her dreams come true, thus making her as happy as she makes him, and his career as a bull rider is his means to that very end. But one moment, one flash in time, steals his dreams away and leaves him facing the kind of future he has dreaded all his life.
“My whole life, everything I’d been and everything I’d wanted to become, was spiraling away from me. Fragments of the man I’d been and the man I’d wanted to become were gusting out of reach. My life as I’d known it was over. My life as I’d hoped it would be would never come to fruition.”
As we watch him reverting to his old, sarcastic, self-destructive ways in an attempt to cope emotionally with his own helplessness and inherent pessimism, we also watch him push away those he loves the most in life—his Josie most of all. Convinced that she would be better off without him and determined to give her the life he believes she should want, he becomes his cantankerous old self, the man he knows Josie should not love. But all his plans fall through one by one as he realises that the firecracker he loves more than life itself is not a woman who can be told what to feel or what to do. And that her love comes with no conditions.
“Joze, you and I are more alike than both your mother and father pray every night we’re not.”
“Ah, that’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me. Nothing says romance like implying your woman’s the asshole equivalent of you with boobs.”
Ms Williams has given us a kickass heroine that created the perfect character balance to the hero’s often belligerent and gloomy ways. Josie is Garth’s perfect match in so many ways, defusing his negativity with her sharp tongue and quick wit, disarming him with her bubbliness and playfulness, and mending his broken heart with her endless love and devotion. Even in his darkest hour, she is the beacon that pulls him out of his own misery.
“My God, Joze. You’re the best damn woman God had the audacity to go and create. How did I end up with you?”
There is something so emotionally fulfilling about a story like this one—even the sadder moments leaving us bursting with hope and positivity—but it is the sheer magnitude and beauty of the love present on every single one of these pages that captured my heart irreversibly. This inspiring, uplifting, touching love story was great before, but now it became a sight to behold. I cherished every moment and was only too happy to discover that one way or another, we would not be saying goodbye to these beloved characters just yet, as they would inevitably play a minor role in the final chapter of Jesse and Rowen’s story in Heart and Soul. This is a book for the heart and mine is overflowing right now.
“Nothing’s fine without you, Joze. But with you? Everything’s perfect.”
It was getting close to being my turn to ride, but I liked to wait until the last possible moment to make my way to the chute and the bull. I liked taking my time and running the dirt through my fingers before I got sucked into the adrenaline vortex that resided within a fifty-foot radius of the chutes.
Crouching, I cupped a handful of dirt from the arena and felt the weight of it. This past year, I’d spent more time riding indoors than outdoors, which meant I’d “arrived” in the bull riding world. It seemed kind of backward to me that when a rider made it big, he started spending more of his time indoors than out, but that was the way it worked. The soil in the indoor arenas had taken some getting used to. Don’t get me wrong, it was still dirt, but it had a different feel. It was heavier, grittier almost. Like every grain of dirt was vying to get its own attention. It was darker too.
After spending long summers riding outdoors, where the dirt got dry and hard in August, or spending plenty of time in the red soil of eastern Montana, the dark, thick indoor soil had been as foreign as the bright lights and giant crowds. After a few months, I’d gotten used to it. The bright lights and giant crowds at least. The soil still felt wrong, but I couldn’t let rituals die just because the dirt felt strange.
I was sifting the last of it through my fingers when I heard someone come up behind me. I knew who it was without looking. Before I knew it, I was smiling . . . and I wasn’t supposed to be the goddamned smiling idiot.
“There’s a rumor going around that Garth Black is signing women’s bras at the end of the rider’s hallway.”
The last of the soil slipped through my fingers. “You know what a rumor is, right?”
“A half truth.”
I lifted myself up, fighting every instinct to whirl around and wrestle her into my arms. The other thing I didn’t know about “realizing” my dreams in the arena was that it meant spending plenty of nights in roadside hotels and waking up to a cold bed. Being away from Joze so much was the worst part of it, but a bull rider’s career only lasted a few years. My plan was to win as many competitions and cash as many checks as I could before I was either forced or broken enough to retire. Then I’d spend the rest of my life crawling into bed beside the woman I loved. If I made the same kind of money for the next couple years that I had this past year, we’d be all set to remodel the old farmhouse we’d purchased last summer and purchase the thousand acres around the house to raise cattle on. That was our goal. The guy who’d wanted nothing better than riding bulls and winning buckles wanted to retire as a cattle rancher. Go figure.
“Are you asking me or accusing me?” I tilted my head back just enough to see her silhouette behind me.
Josie’s hand flew to her hip, making my smile stretch. She was about as jealous a girlfriend as she was a prim and proper one, but she was up to something.
“Neither,” she answered, moving closer. “I came to get my own Garth Black autograph . . . right here.”
The coy act was over. Whipping around, I found Josie unbuttoning the top couple buttons of her shirt and pulling it down to reveal the top of her bra.
“Joze,” I warned, looking around and ready to prod any wandering, gaping, or otherwise inappropriate looking eyes.
“Come on. I want an autograph.” She fingered the top ridge of her bra, playing with it. My throat went dry. “With the way he’s been riding this past year, an official Garth Black autographed bra should fetch me at least a few hundred bucks on eBay.”
I feigned a look of insult. “A few hundred? Try a few thousand.”
She smiled, continuing to play with the cup of her bra. “That’s nice . . . but sign my bra already. Before I’m forced to get physical with you.” She wet her lips, slowly and deliberately, as she moved closer.
Shit. I was supposed to be focusing on my ride and doing the whole visualization thing, but the only thing I was visualizing was Josie’s bra and the rest of her clothing winding up in a pile at her feet.
“Now why would I give you your autograph with that threat on the table?” My boots couldn’t stay where they were any longer. I found myself moving toward her without making a conscious decision.
When my arms were about to ring around her waist, she pulled a pen from her pocket and lifted it in front of my face. “My autograph,” she said in a firm voice, tapping the lace of her bra with her finger. “Now.”
I took the pen and pulled the cap off with my teeth. “I can’t say no to my biggest fan, now can I?”
Josie’s eyes held mine as she raised an eyebrow. “Saying no isn’t exactly your strong suit when it comes to me.”
A crooked smile slid into place as I dropped the tip of the pen to her chest. “No, it isn’t.”
Signing a girl’s bra is harder than a guy might like to believe. The unevenness of the lace, matched with the knowledge of what that material is covering or, depending on the style, just barely covering, makes focusing on signing one’s name legibly and correctly next to impossible.
“Oops,” I said as I finished signing my last name on her skin. It may or may not have been done intentionally.
Josie gave me a look, knowing every bit how intentional it had been. “So? How did it compare?”
I capped the pen and handed it back to her, admiring my autograph . . . or admiring the spot where it was. My handwriting was sloppy as hell and looked more like a middle schooler’s graffiti than a grown man’s signature. “How did what compare?”
“Signing your girlfriend’s bra next to signing the rest of those”—Josie cleared her throat to substitute the word, or string of words, she’d been considering—“bras?”
My brows were nearly hidden beneath the brim of my hat, so she couldn’t see them pull together. “There is no comparison.”
She smiled at where I’d signed my name, tracing the letters of my last name with her finger. I realized just how perfect this moment was for pulling out the ring in my back pocket. I had planned on waiting until after the competition, when I’d had a shower and was in fresh clothes, and doing it over a fancy dinner with a fancy bottle of champagne, but this was the moment. I knew it. She was with me for the first time in three weeks, and she was smiling at my last name scribbled on her body—the same last name I was hoping with everything I had left to hope with that she’d want to make her own one day.
I might have had a plan for how I wanted to propose, but life was meant to be spontaneous. The same went for engagements.
“Have you been working on that ‘there is no comparison’ answer for a while, Black?” She finished tracing the K before lifting her eyes to mine. “Because it was a good one. I guess since I’ve hardly seen you for a solid twenty-four hours this past month, you’ve had plenty of time to work on it.”
I patted my back pocket for the hundredth time. It was still there. I didn’t know where I thought it would go—it wasn’t like an inanimate object could just hop out of my pocket and bounce out of the arena. “Joze, when I said there was no comparison, I meant that in both the literal and figurative way.”
She lifted an impressed brow. She liked it when I talked as though I used my brain for more than just a cushion when I landed headfirst after being thrown from the back of a two-thousand-pound animal.
“Your bra-slash-chest”—my eyes lowered to my name and everything around it—“correction, your perfect chest, is the first one I’ve ever autographed, so there is, literally, no comparison.” When her forehead started to crease, I continued. “But even if I had signed all of those bras you’ve heard from the rumors I have—even if I’d signed millions—there would be, figuratively, no comparison whatsoever. None.”
She was fighting to keep that stern expression, but it was close to slipping. Joze was a champ at giving me a hard time and making me walk a fine line, but she could never stay upset at me, for real or pretend, when I was layering on the good lines.
“Let’s get a bit more figurative with this whole thing then.” Her gaze dropped to her chest, her finger hooking under the clasp at the center of her bra.
My gaze followed hers.
“Let’s fast forward thirty years, or copious amounts of tanning without sunscreen and bouncing up and down stairs without a bra . . . can you still say there’d be no comparison?” I was opening my mouth to reply when she added, “And look me in the eye while you answer?”
I tipped my hat back just enough she could get a good look at my eyes. Since we were kids, Josie had been able to call out my lies just by taking one good look into my eyes—that was why I’d avoided letting them drift her way for a good portion of our lives—but I didn’t divert them anymore. Not even when she was asking a hard question, and with a history like mine, there was no shortage of difficult questions to ask and answer.
I had to work to keep my face straight before I let myself say one word. “That’s what lots of money and a skilled surgeon are for, so yeah, I can answer that even thirty years from now, with all of that sun . . . bouncing . . . stuff, there will still be no comparison.” I worked my tongue into my cheek when she crossed her arms. “Post operative, of course.”
Her arms crossed tighter. “You drew VooDoo, right? I’m going to go have a little chat with him and request that he drive one or both of his horns into your ass after you give the eight-second ride of your life.”
Josie started toward where the bulls were being sorted into the chutes before I grabbed her hand. I couldn’t let her go one more step without asking my question. I couldn’t let myself go one more step without knowing her answer.
Sure, we’d purchased the old farmhouse together and talked as though we would live and die together, but the actual topic of marriage hadn’t been discussed. I guessed she wasn’t against the concept, but my palms were still breaking out in a sweat and my heart was thudding so powerfully, I could practically feel it vibrating against my chest armor.
“Joze, wait.” I tugged on her hand to bring her back. “I’ve got to ask you something before you go ask VooDoo to pierce my backside.” I peaked a brow at her as I slipped my hand into my back pocket.