The Strongest Love
Series: Alaskan Hearts, Book 5

To claim her future, she’ll need to forget her past.

When Brenna’s abusive father dies, she seizes the opportunity to flee to Memory Ranch in hopes that the majestic horses and caring staff at the ranch can help her overcome a past filled with abuse and neglect.

But as she starts her new life, complete with a new identity, Brenna finds she can’t outrun her pain. Not even with the help of a charming local, who's faced his own demons and won. He wants to help Brenna conquer hers as well, but opening up to friendship--and possibly love--is the scariest thing she's had to face yet.

Will Brenna find the strength to move forward and forgive those in her past who turned a blind eye to her helplessness? And when at last she strips all the hurt away, will there be any part of her left?

Join Brenna and Liz at this healing Anchorage horse ranch in an unforgettable tale of new beginnings, second chances, and finding where you belong from a New York Times bestselling author.

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Brenna tied an apron around her waist and stood back silently as Elizabeth Jane gave her a tour of the ranch’s main kitchen. Dorian had already showed her around thoroughly, but it seemed important to the ranch proprietress that she also show their new hire the ropes, so Brenna went along with it again.

“Not too much to remember, and as long as you take the guests’ various food allergies into account, you’ll be just fine,” the red-headed woman said with a sweep of her hand over the counter.

Brenna smiled and nodded, eager to prove herself, to start a new life. She’d worked in a few kitchens before but had never been the one in charge until now. Of course, this kitchen was nowhere near the large, stainless steel kitchens she’d seen in most restaurants—but then again, the coziness of the ranch’s setup felt so much more comfortable to her.

Kind of like a home.

The small butcher block island in the middle of the kitchen offered more than enough room for Brenna to work on as she prepared meals for the guests on the ranch. Elizabeth Jane asked if she might sometimes be willing to cook for the staff, too, as needed, which of course would be no problem at all. Brenna also secretly planned to have fresh baked goods available every day for anyone who wanted a treat.

Cooking and baking were the two things she’d loved all her life. No matter how hard—how scary—everything else became, the kitchen had always served as a place of warmth and safety. Now they were the source of her newest adventure in this place so far from the home she’d known. A good thing, too. She needed time to heal and put the memories to rest that still haunted her, pulling her under a bit more each day. Memory Ranch was a refuge, yes, but it was also a last resort. If she didn’t get out from under her terrible memories soon, she didn’t know what would become of her.

She desperately hoped it wasn’t too late, that she wasn’t too broken to fix.

Suddenly, Liz’s voice cut into her stream of consciousness. “Brenna? Are you still with me?” Her new boss wore a patient but concerned expression.

Oh, no! Did you seriously mess things up already? Way to ruin everything before it could even get started.

Brenna shook her head to dislodge the ugly, little voice inside it and offered Liz an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. Go on.”

Liz nodded and rushed full speed back into the conversation, leaving Brenna to wonder how much else she’d missed while she let her inner monologue get the best of her. “Yeah, so I was just saying… well, I know you said that we’d just use your pay to go toward your cabin rental and your stay at the ranch. But I can’t in good conscience have you working for free, so while you are making use of the facility’s therapy sessions and other resources, you won’t receive full pay, but you will be getting half of your wages. Then, once you feel you’re ready to work as staff only, we’ll work something out so that you can choose to stay living on the ranch if you’d like and just pay rent.”

Brenna’s head spun as Elizabeth Jane pushed a stack of employment papers across the island and then a pen as well.

“As mentioned in the job description,” Elizabeth Jane continued, hardly stopping for even a moment to breathe, “there will be guests who will be coming to assist you each day, too. The guests are all required to do certain chores around the ranch during their stay, so you’ll have plenty of help. Not that I think you’ll need it, but it’s good for those who are healing to feel like they still have a purpose.”

Brenna signed the papers and pushed them back toward her new employer. “Thank you for everything, Elizabeth Jane, really. I can’t wait to get started.”

The other woman rolled her eyes. “No need to be so formal. I mean, my friends call me Liz, so I hope you’ll consider it, too. And, since you’ll be working Tuesday to Saturday, with Sunday and Monday off, my husband Dorian will take over those days. But if he gets under your feet any of the other days you’re working, feel free to tell him to get out of the kitchen. He’s been in charge of the cooking since we opened, and he loves it, but the truth is we just have so much else he needs to be taking care of around here that he doesn’t have the time anymore.”

“I heard that.” Dorian walked into the kitchen and pretended to scowl at his wife. “I won’t get under anyone’s feet. This is your kitchen now, Brenna, and not a moment too soon.”

Brenna averted her eyes as the husband and wife embraced and shared a quick kiss.

“Are you off to a good start, then?” Dorian asked, keeping his arms around Liz’s waist as he spoke to Brenna.

“Yes, I think so,” she answered with an awkward smile. She hated seeing public displays of affection, but then again, this was Liz and Dorian’s home. She was the guest here.

“We sure are!” Liz interjected, shaking loose of Dorian’s embrace and going straight back to business. “Now, since today is Sunday, we’ll wait until Tuesday for you to take over. But if you’d like to spend some time in here tomorrow, we can show you around and what you’ll have to do.”

Liz quickly looked from Dorian to Brenna before adding, “Unless you already have plans?”

Brenna swallowed. “Actually, I kind of do have plans. Is that okay?”

“Of course it’s okay!” Liz said merrily. “That’s good. It means you’re settling in already. What are you going to be doing tomorrow?”

“You don’t have to answer that,” Dorian said abruptly, then whispered to Liz loud enough for Brenna to hear, “Give the woman some privacy. If she wants to tell you, she will!”

Liz turned bright red at the reprimand, but her smile didn’t falter.

“It’s fine,” Brenna shouted, perhaps a little too loudly. “I was just planning to run into Anchorage to pick up a few things. I came from Florida so, to be completely honest, I never really thought my wardrobe through very well, and now I need some warmer clothes.”

Wow, she’d only been here a couple days and already she was starting to talk like the loquacious Liz. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but freezing to death definitely would be. Luckily, it wasn’t too cold yet, but she’d already been feeling chilled. She had a couple pairs of sweat pants and a hoodie, but she already knew these paltry items wouldn’t be enough when the weather really turned cold.

Liz nodded along. “Of course! If you want to run into town in the morning, you can just come and shadow Dorian as he makes the evening meal. That will be the big one anyway.” She pulled out a piece of paper and leaned over the counter. “I can write down a few places you can check out that will have clothes for you. And you’ll definitely need a winter jacket, mittens, a scarf, and hat. Hmm, maybe I should make a list for that, too.”

Brenna smiled at Liz. “Thanks. I appreciate your help. These are all things I’ve never really had to think about before. Maybe I should have come up earlier in the year to get myself prepared better. My body might go into shock coming from such hot weather to cold Alaska winters.”

Liz waved her hand dismissively and laughed. “Aww, the winters really aren’t that bad once you get used to it. And I know you’ll love the snow.”

Brenna’s breath hitched. Snow. “I’ll admit I’m kind of excited to see snow. I’ve never seen it before.”

Dorian dropped his mouth in fake horror. “How could a person never have seen snow before? I’m speechless.”

Brenna laughed and shrugged. “Is it bad if I admit I’m more excited about building a snowman than anything else I’ve ever done in my life?”

Liz finished her lists and handed the paper to her. “I’ve marked down a good place for you to grab your lunch, too. It’s a little diner, and I just know you’ll love it. You can’t miss it from the directions I’ve put down here… it’s right beside a friend’s tattoo shop, and he’s got a big neon sign that you can’t miss. Just look for Pipeline Ink and you’ll know you’re in the right spot.”

Brenna committed the name Pipeline Ink to memory. This was definitely a sign that her passing interest in getting a tattoo was truly meant to be. “That’s actually really funny you would mention that,” she told Liz, smiling bigger than she had yet since arriving on the ranch. “I’ve been thinking of getting a tattoo to celebrate my new life. Kind of a way to start letting go of my past. You know, marking the beginning of a new dawn. Brenna two-point-oh.”

Liz’s eyes widened as if she, too, were struck by the serendipity of it all. “You should definitely do it! Trust me, my friend Matt is one of the best you could ever go to.” She quickly took the paper back and scribbled some more on it before handing it back to her. “If you decide to go forward with it, make sure you talk to Matt. There are a couple other guys working in there now, too, but tell him you want him to do it. You can tell him I sent you.”

Brenna looked down at the unfamiliar address scrawled across the top of the paper and took a deep breath. Well, that decided it. She’d get her tattoo and she’d be getting it from—she squinted as she tried to interpret Liz’s messy penmanship—Matt Sanders.

Tomorrow was the big day. Hopefully she wouldn’t talk herself out of it by then.