The Other Sister
What It's About
The Story Behind the Story
What It's About
You gotta have faith...
Years after a prom-night accident claimed his best friend, Brody Austin decided it was time to stop runningand return to Troublesome Gulch, Colorado, to overcome the pain and guilt. Right away, a chance encounter on the ski slopes brought Brody face-to-face with his best friend's kid sister, Faith Montesantos. Boy, was she all grown up! And yes, the vivacious high school guidance counselor still missed the older sister she'd lost, but she chose to focus on the joyful memories of their short time together…and seemed determined to teach Brody to do the same. He had hoped to conquer the demons of his past, but in Faith he found the key to his future...
RETURN TO TROUBLESOME GULCH... Leaving trouble behind for true love
The Other Sister
Book One, Return to Troublesome Gulch
Silhouette Special Edition/September 1, 2007
The Story Behind the Story
First of all, Troublesome Gulch, Colorado is a fictitious town based on a whole bunch of real mountain towns patchworked together. BUT, when I lived in the mountains, there was a Troublesome Gulch in between the towns of Evergreen, where I lived, and Kittridge. I always wanted to name a town after that gulch. I first came up with the idea for these books years ago, before I'd even sold to Silhouette Special Edition. We'd had a really tragic prom-night auto accident with multiple fatalities, and my writer's brain got to thinking...what's life going to be for the survivors two, five, ten years down the road? That kind of life-altering experience has to change a person. And so, the miniseries came into being. I decided to make the survivors all work in the emergency services fields of fire fighting, paramedicine, police work, and emergency 9-1-1 dispatch because I've been a police officer and I am a 9-1-1 dispatcher for the fire/paramedics. It seemed a natural fit. The Other Sister's storyline started out COMPLETELY different, with a different heroine and storyline altogether. But about four chapters into it, I realized I was missing my own point. So I sent the original heroine packing and Faith appeared on the page. She's perfect for Brody, and after that, the writing seemed to flow. Thank goodness!
Borders/Waldenbooks Romance Bestseller!
"Lynda Sandoval's The Other Sister (4-1/2 stars) has an extraordinary hero. The story is intensely emotional but also frequently very funny. This is top-notch."
Catherine Witmer, Romantic Times Book Reviews
"This is the only romance novel to make me cry in the end. The book was so awesome that I couldn't put it down. Silhouettes are books that I usually have fun reading, but then I forget them. Not this one. If you like the plot your going to love it even more when you actually read the book."
Emma White, on Amazon.com (5 stars)
"What an utterly charming book. It was poignant and funny in all the right spots with a cast full of vivid and real characters. I found it rather amazing how Ms. Sandoval was able to write such a full story in such a tight space. I never felt cheated or rushed as I rode along on the journey with Faith and Brody. This reader can't wait for the rest of the books in the Troublesome Gulch series."
Robyn DeHart, Amazon.com reviews (5 stars)
THE OTHER SISTER has been nominated for a Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award, Best Silhouette Special Edition of 2007!
Why here?" asked Ken Hayward, the Chief of Troublesome Gulch Paramedics. He flipped through Brody Austin's job application and résumé, then peered at him over the top of his half-perch reading glasses. "That's the million dollar question, son. If we were FDNY, Chicago—even Denver—it'd be a no-brainer, but—" He spread his arms to indicate the mishmash decor, circa 1980, that comprised their headquarters.
Perspiration gathered beneath Brody's collar, despite every vow he'd made to keep his cool. He'd figured the topic would come up eventually. Of course. But he still felt unprepared to address it, even after all this time, which had to say something negative about his character.
"Well..." He cleared his throat—the standard stall tactic. Luckily, the grizzled old medic went on, affording Brody time to concoct some sort of explanation that didn't make him seem as if he were hedging, which he was, or worse—that he'd completely lost his mind. And the jury was still out on that issue.
"Not that we won't be thrilled to welcome you." Hayward held up a hand. "Your training is extensive, and I'm even more impressed by your experience. Large agencies, Flight for Life, the U.S. Army, for cripe's sake."
"How's your skiing?" Hayward asked, out of the blue.
Brody blinked, thrown by the seemingly unrelated question. "Ah...a little rusty, I guess. Used to be good."
Hayward indicated the mountain range looming outside his office window. "We work with Alpine Search and Rescue as part of our duties. They're always abysmally short on trained volunteers. So you'll pull some tours as ski patrol. But, don't worry—it's like riding a bike. Few weeks on the slopes, and you'll be fine."
Brody swallowed and leaned slightly forward. "Does that mean I have the job?"
Hayward's chair creaked as he tipped back and braced his hands behind his head. "Hell, I'm not going to beat around the bush. You want it, it's yours. Most of our applicants are fresh out of EMT-Basic and don't know PVC from PMS."
"We welcome someone with your experience. I guess I'm just curious what would make a young guy like you want to move way out to the north end of Timbuk-nowhere."
A small measure of relief trickled through Brody knowing he tentatively had the job offer, but he still had to tackle the unanswerable question. Everything could change if Hayward knew the whole truth. Brody nodded. "The thing is...."
What was the thing, damnit? Any idiot knows you can't start out a statement with that phrase when you have no clue about the thing. Against his will, his jaw clenched, and so did his fists. He was blowing this. And he couldn't. He had no explanation for why, but he just...couldn't.
"Frankly, our salaries don't even come close to those in the city," Hayward prompted, inordinately patient.
Brody acknowledged by lifting his chin. "I'm aware of the pay scale. Money isn't why I do this job, Chief. It never has been."
"That's admirable, and I share your feelings." Hayward raised one bushy eyebrow. "But, just to play devil's advocate...it's expensive living in a Colorado ski town." He gave a rueful half-smile. "Even a redheaded stepchild ski town like Troublesome Gulch. We're not Aspen or Telluride, by any means. Hell, we're not even Keystone, but the going's still rougher than you'd imagine. You independently wealthy?"
"Not that. I wish. My needs are simple." He didn't bother mentioning the blood money settlement he'd received from the state all those years ago, or the fact that he hadn't been able to touch a dime of it. Consequently, it had grown over the past ten years, and the interest alone provided a cushion of security that allowed him to work for a smaller salary than he might otherwise have to.
Hayward chuckled and glanced toward a framed photograph on the corner of his desk. "Simple needs definitely means you don't have a wife or kids at home."
It wasn't a question, but Brody answered anyway. "Not sure I'm the marrying type, if you ask my former girlfriend's opinion," he said, wryly. "But, no. It's just me. My folks live in New Mexico. Brother's in Iraq."
"God speed to him."
"Which brings us back—again—to my original question." Hayward flipped his hand casually. "Why Troublesome Gulch Paramedics?"
It took some effort for Brody to appear nonchalant. Somehow Hayward had pinpointed the sore spot on Brody's soul, and he just kept jabbing it. Brody wanted to answer the man's question. He really did. Problem was, he didn't think he could make anyone understand what drew him back to Troublesome Gulch after a decade trying to erase the godforsaken place from his memory altogether. Hell, he barely understood it himself.
All he knew for sure was that something in his life needed to change, and if his ex-girlfriend, Kelly, knew what she'd been talking about the day she'd unceremoniously kicked his ass to the curb, all Brody's "issues" started and ended in this place.
But he couldn't say any of that.
Not during a job interview.
And, frankly, he wasn't sure what it meant anyway.
He went for a bland explanation that would hopefully pass. It even held a bit of truth. But it wasn't the whole truth, nor was it anywhere close to the bottom line reason he'd come back. "I think," he started slowly, "all towns, no matter how big, small, or remote, should have great emergency medical care." He hiked up one shoulder. "I know it's difficult to draw qualified medics out to these smaller departments. And you're right. A lot of guys couldn't afford to live in the high country on the salary you offer—no offense intended. I can manage, so here I am."
Hayward steepled his hands in front of him on the desk blotter. He inclined his head and smiled. "A guy willing to take a hit in the wallet so the residents of Troublesome Gulch will be safer. You don't come across that kind of dedication very often."
The implication of some superman-like devotion or personal sacrifice made Brody's skin hot and itchy. His decision had a helluva lot more to do with atonement than altruism. "I don't mean to imply I can singlehandedly—"
"No, no." Hayward brushed the notion away. "I didn't misunderstand you, and I appreciate it. Before you accept the position, though, I want you to be absolutely aware of what you're getting into, because we need commitment. We have enough turnover as it is, Brody. We can't take another personnel hit if you decide three months down the road that the town is too restrictive for your tastes."
"My own personal work ethics wouldn't allow me to do that. But fill me in on the cons anyway."
"Winters can be hell. Tourists. Or 'tourons,' as some of the locals call them, which is a hybrid of tourist and moron. Ski traffic. Not to mention the cold."
"I served a tour of duty in Afghanistan before leaving the Army. Trust me, you haven't faced a cold winter until you've weathered one in those godforsaken mountains."
"I'd heard that," Hayward said. "I bet you have some stories."
"That I do."
"Weather aside, housing prices are ridiculously inflated. Whether you can manage them or not, it rankles to pay several hundred thousand dollars for a pre-fab shack."
"I can deal with that."
"And your social life will suffer, too."
Brody lifted one ankle and rested it on the opposite knee. "How so?"
"Well," Hayward drawled, "you must know we're not exactly a bustling metropolis, especially in the off-season. As old Betty at the phone company loves to say, 'if you didn't bring her with you, you sure as hell ain't findin' her here.'"
Brody smiled. Luckily, he wasn't in the market for yet another relationship to overload with his baggage until it broke beneath the weight, so old Betty had nothing to worry about on his behalf. "Frankly, my last relationship was a disaster to the power of ten. I'm looking forward to some time alone here."
"Man can't live on work alone. The nights get chilly."
"I'll deal," Brody said, fully planning to give the alone thing a fair shot. If it got too cold, he'd buy a big old dog who could curl up on his feet. But he didn't want to talk about his private life anymore. He wanted to sign on the dotted line and get on with it...whatever it was. "I just..." he blew out a breath "...I'm not generally this inarticulate, but I don't know that I can adequately explain why I'm here."
"Give 'er a shot."
Brody just couldn't understand why Hayward was making this so difficult on him. "I'm a good medic, and I love what I do. Yes, I've worked in big cities. I've worked with the military. I've taken advantage of a lot of great opportunities." He paused, pressing his lips together as he gathered his thoughts. "But I'm 29-years-old, Chief, and I feel rootless."
"I want to work someplace where I can make a difference, where I can build...some kind of life. I have no idea why, but it feels like I might be able to do that here. So I'll answer your question with a question. You ask, why Troublesome Gulch? I ask, why not?"
Brody hesitated, thinking that wasn't it at all, but he settled for a terse nod.
Another silence yawned. The older man's piercing gaze never left his face, and, not knowing what else to do, Brody held the stare. He couldn't stand much more of this.
Finally, Hayward sighed, removed his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose wearily, then replaced the glasses. "Son, listen. I was there." He paused, and when he spoke again, his voice came out huskier. "That night. We were a volunteer batallion then, but...I was there."
Brody's stomach clenched. He knew exactly the night to which Hayward referred. How could he not? To him, the word prom had become synonymous with death. Dread drizzled over him, cold, ugly, and oh so familiar as resignation settled on his shoulders like a shroud. Okay, so he wasn't going to skate out from under the crush of his past like he'd hoped. His body sagged. "I...I don't remember you. I'm sorry."
"Of course not. I don't expect you to. The scene was swarming with emergency personnel."
"Eventually," Brody said, and the words came out more bitterly than he'd intended.
A shadow of pain crossed over Hayward's face. "Yes, it did take awhile for help to arrive. I'm sure is seemed like forever to you kids. But, we did finally get there. God, what a scene."
Brody closed his eyes for a moment, but forced himself to open them again. He didn't care to expose how much that night had affected his life. Jaw clenched, he stretched his neck to one side, then the other.
"I've never forgotten any of your names. Those who passed, of course. But the survivors', too." Hayward absentmindedly tapped a pen on his desk. "Especially yours."
"Isn't that obvious?" Hayward's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "You haven't been seen nor heard from since you were released from the hospital the next morning. That's a mystery, boy. Everybody loves a good mystery."
Brody swallowed and shifted his gaze to the sweeping vista of mountain peaks and valleys outside the window behind the older man's desk. "It's been a long time. I just want to get on with my life. Or, I don't know, get a life. I figured...or maybe hoped people would've forgotten by now," he added in a low tone.
"How could we forget? That tragedy was the worst Troublesome Gulch has ever seen. It changed emergency services here forever. In a damn good way. We're one of the top batallions in the state now, and High Country Medical Center has been upgraded to a level two trauma center. Two choppers and a plane."
"So something positive came from that nightmare," Brody said, in a pained monotone.
"One thing, yeah. You could say that." Hayward's thoughts seemed to move inward for several moments, but then he shook off the distance and refocused on Brody. "How about for you? How have you gotten along since—"
"Fine," Brody said. Immediately regretting the rudeness of his interruption, not to mention his clipped tone, he added, "Thank you for asking, sir."
Hayward didn't press, but his expression said he knew "fine" didn't come close to explaining anything about Brody Austin's life. "You seem to have done well for yourself."
"You do what you have to do."
Hayward sighed. "Look, I'm not a big talker myself, and this isn't a therapy session. But if you want to work for me, I need to make a few things crystal clear. Understand?"
Brody's heart revved, but he forced a nod.
"If you've come back because you want to help make sure that kind of devastation never happens in Troublesome Gulch again, I understand the desire. Hell, that's why I'm still here. But, ultimately? That's up to God, son. Despite all our hard work, public service announcements about drunk driving, high school visits, heavy road coverage on prom night and homecoming—all of it—bad things do and will happen. Here, or anywhere else you might run to."
Hayward leaned in, adamant, impassioned. "You can't escape it. And, by God, Brody, as dedicated as you seem, you can't prevent it, no matter how desperately you want to. You can't."
He didn't want to go down that road. Not yet. Not here, of all places. It was that one "issue" of control he couldn't quite pry out of his clutches. "Of course not."
"You've got to let that unattainable need go, or you'll make yourself crazy."
"I'm trying. Maybe that's why I'm here, who knows?" He spread his arms wide. "What is there for me here? I didn't even live here when it...when it happened. I was the outsider, the only one who didn't go to TG High School." Brody pressed his lips into a thin line and calmed himself. "I don't know why I returned, except that my life's at a standstill and I'm out of options. For no logical reason, this seemed like the proverbial end of the long, long road to who knows where."
For a long moment, he didn't think Hayward would accept the simple answer.
Finally, the man nodded. "It's good to see you again. Really good, son, and I mean that. Always wondered where you'd gone."
To hell and back, thought Brody.
"Everyone else is still here, you know."
Not everyone, Brody thought bitterly. Four of them were dead. And yet, still so alive in Brody's mind. "I didn't know. We haven't really...kept in touch."
Hayward acknowledged the admission silently. "It's the damnedest thing, I tell you. Every one of you kids has ended up working in the field."
Brody blinked as surprise riddled through him. "In emergency medicine?"
"Not just. Police, fire, emergency communications. The whole gamut, basically. Lots of interagency cooperation up here, though." He cocked his head to one side. "You'll probably run into them from time to time on calls and such. That won't be a problem for you, will it?"
His stomach soured, and he didn't know if it was nausea or fear. "Not at all. I left, sure, but I don't harbor any bad feelings toward any of them. It's just...they weren't my circle of friends. They were—"
"Michelle Montesantos's friends?"
"Mick. She hated the name Michelle." That familiar knife of pain pierced Brody's heart at the casual mention of the best friend he'd ever had, and he couldn't go on. After all these years, he still couldn't hear the name Mick—or Michelle—without suffering a powerful, almost debilitating surge of guilt. Naturally.
Since her death had been his fault.
"Her folks still live here," Hayward said, softly.
The statement hit Brody like a boot to the gut. Why had his brain blocked out that inevitability?
"It's a small town. They'll hear that you're back."
He swallowed. "I'll tell them myself."
"I'm sure they'll be glad to hear from you."
Yeah. Right. He could just imagine. Remember me? I'm the guy who basically killed your brilliant, amazing, funny, exuberant daughter. He hadn't been behind the wheel when they'd crashed, but what the hell did that matter? He was the one who forced her to go to the stupid prom in the first place. Oh well. He'd chosen this path. Facing the Montesantoses on his own terms would be better than dreading it every day until the inevitable occurred, and he ran into them somewhere awkward. He'd rather control the when, where, and how. They might not even want to talk to him. Who knew? But, however they chose to react, he deserved it.
"Any other issues we should get out in the open?"
Brody pushed out a breath, then ran his palm over his face. He couldn't take much more of this. "None. Chief Hayward, look. Can I be honest?"
"Been hoping for that this whole time."
"I swore I'd never set foot in this damned town again after that night. The only thing for me here was Mick, and she was gone. Dead. Forever. I wanted to forget...." He paused and clenched his fists, unsure how to proceed.
"You didn't, did you?"
"God...I tried," he said, his words coming out stiff and halting. He never talked about this with anyone. Well, except Kelly, and look how that had turned out. "I did everything I could think of, got as far away as I could. You want to know the worst thing? I prayed every day that I'd get killed in Afghanistan—" His words caught, and he clenched his jaw. "And that's damned disgraceful to admit, considering all the soldiers who've lost their lives, and for what good purpose? My own brother off in Iraq. But it is what it is."
Brody flicked the psychobabble away with his hand. "Whatever you want to call it. Mick shouldn't have died. Period." He pressed his lips together for a moment, then lowered his tone and went on. "If I had it to do all over again, I probably would've stayed here, dealt with things better than I did."
"You did what you had to."
He lifted his arms, then let them drop helplessly to his sides. "I was a kid...." A piss-poor excuse, he knew, but it was all he had.
"But I'm here now. Baggage and all, I'd like to accept the job if your offer still stands."
Hayward searched his face for a moment, then nodded once. "You'll talk to me if things get to be too much? What is said in this room stays here. That's a promise, man to man."
The older man extended his hand. "Welcome to Troublesome Gulch Paramedics, Brody. And get your ass on the slopes as soon as possible. Hone your skills."
Brody stood and reciprocated. "Will do. Thank you. You won't regret it."
"I don't expect to, but that's not the issue." Hayward released Brody's hand and crossed his arms over his barrel chest. "I'm more concerned with what you might regret."
He wanted to say he'd learned to live with regrets, but it would've been a lie. Truth was, here he stood, 29-years- old, and he hadn't yet learned to live at all.
"Don't worry," he said instead. "I'll be fine." Even as he said it, he wondered at his word choice. If history were any indication, "fine" was just another lie he told himself to get through each day. But more than ten years had slipped through his fingers, and frankly his life was a mess. So, regardless of the personal risks, here he was.
Troublesome Gulch. And now, with a job.
God, he thought, as he walked down the hallway and then out to his SUV in the parking lot, he should be happier that he'd gotten the position. But he couldn't help but wonder, was he making the hugest mistake of his life coming back?
Everything here reminded him of her.
The streets, the smell of the air, the mountain peaks.
Mick Montesantos had been a different sort of girl, a raucous, athletic tomboy, full of life and laughter and more daring than any guy he'd ever known, before or since. She was beautiful, but she never gave a damn about that. Also, she wasn't his girlfriend—she wasn't anyone's girlfriend— thank you very much—and that was just fine with her. She was his pal. His closest pal.
From the first day they'd met in their coed rubgy league down in Golden, they'd been as inseparable as two teens who attended different schools could be. They could, and had, talked about anything and everything, from the mundane to the deepest secrets in their souls.
The absolute worst part? Mick hadn't even wanted to go to prom that night, claiming it was an outdated, exclusionary ritual that reinforced stupid male/female societal roles and blah blah blah, typical Mick stuff that Brody had never tired of hearing. She was passionate about her beliefs, about who she was—he liked that. He felt like he'd learned more about life and humanity and society in the "Mick years" than he'd learned before or since.
But, still, Brody had cajoled her. You'll always regret missing your senior prom, he'd told her. Come on, Mick. What can it hurt to go with a friend? It'll be a kick. Besides, if it's horrible, at least we can make fun of people and eat free food.
So she'd relented—even bought a dress. It had looked great, but she groused the whole evening that it was about as comfortable as a layer of wasps coating her body, and half an hour into the evening, she'd ditched the tiny, strappy, heels in favor of bare feet, handing the shoes unceremoniously to Brody to carry. They'd headed off to the dance with three other couples, someone's Dad's Range Rover, and a cache of smuggled booze. Hell, they were all 18- years-old and invincible, right? They'd planned on making it a prom night to remember.
Famous last words.
Now, instead of Mick, it was Brody living with regrets. Not to mention guilt and anguish, the nightmares, his so- called control issues and the inability and lack of desire to get really close to anyone. Mick and three of the others had died in that horrific crash and the subsequent fire. One split second had ended their lives and changed Brody's forever. All he had left of her was one stupid strappy high heel shoe that she'd never have worn voluntarily. The other one had burned to ash in the fire.
Shave it right down to the bone, and the truth was, he'd killed his best friend. He should've died, damnit. In a lot of ways, he had, but not in the ways that counted. Mick had had so much more to offer the world than he did. More than anyone else in the world, Mick never, ever should've died so damn young. And he didn't give a rat's ass what anyone said, it was his fault.
So, scared or not, confused or not, skeptical or not, here he stood in Troublesome damn Gulch, the mountain town where all his nightmares started and ended, where all his ghosts remained. It was way past time he faced his demons.