9781335013316_prd

HQN
October 24, 2017


Christmastime Cowboy

(Liam's book)

It's Christmas in Copper Ridge, and love is waiting to be unwrapped… 

Falling for a bad boy once is forgivable. Twice would just be foolish. When Sabrina Leighton first offered her teenage innocence to gorgeous, tattooed Liam Donnelly, he humiliated her, then left town. The hurt still lingers. But so does that crazy spark. And if they have to work together to set up her family winery's new tasting room by Christmas, why not work him out of her system with a sizzling affair?

Thirteen years ago, Liam's boss at the winery offered him a bribe—leave his teenage daughter alone and get a full ride at college. Convinced he wasn't good enough for Sabrina, Liam took it. Now he's back, as wealthy as sin and with a heart as cold as the Oregon snow. Or so he keeps telling himself. Because the girl he vowed to stay away from has become the only woman he needs, and this Christmas could be just the beginning of a lifetime together…

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Excerpt

Liam Donnelly was nobody’s favorite.

Though being a favorite in their household growing up would never have meant much, Liam was confident that as much as both of his parents disdained their younger son, Alex, they hated Liam more.

As much as his brothers loved him—or, whatever you wanted to call their brand of affection—Liam knew he wasn’t the one they’d carry out if there was a house fire. That was fine too.

It wasn’t self-pity. It was just a fact.

But while he wasn’t anyone’s particular favorite, he knew he was at least one person’s least favorite.

Sabrina Leighton hated him with every ounce of her beautiful, petite body. Not that he blamed her. But, considering they were having a business meeting today, he did hope that she could keep some of the hatred bottled up.

Liam got out of his truck and put his cowboy hat on, surveying his surroundings. The Grassroots winery spread was beautiful, with a large, picturesque home overlooking the grounds. The winery and the road leading up to it were carved into a mountainside. Trees and forest surrounded the facility on three sides, creating a secluded feeling. Like the winery was part of another world. In front of the first renovated barn was a sprawling lawn and a path that led down to the river. There was a seating area there and Liam knew that during the warmer months it was a nice place to hang out. Right now, it was too damned cold, and the damp air that blew up from the rushing water sent a chill straight through him.

He shoved his hands in his pockets and kept on walking. There were three rustic barns on the property that they used for weddings and dinners, and one that had been fully remodeled into a dining and tasting room.

He had seen the new additions online. He hadn’t actually been to Grassroots in the past thirteen years. That was part of the deal. The deal that had been struck back when Jamison Leighton was still owner of the place.

Back when Liam had been nothing more than a good-for-nothing, low-class troublemaker with a couple of misdemeanors to his credit.

Times changed.

Liam might still be all of those things at heart, but he was also a successful businessman. And Jamison Leighton no longer owned Grassroots Winery.

Some things, however, hadn’t changed. The presence of Sabrina Leighton being one of them.

It had been thirteen years. But he couldn’t pretend that he thought everything was all right and forgiven. Not considering the way she had reacted when she had seen him at Ace’s bar the past few months. Small towns.

Like everybody was at the same party and could only avoid each other for so long.

If it wasn’t at the bar, they would most certainly end up at a four-way stop at the same time, or in the same aisle at the grocery store.

But today’s meeting would not be accidental. Today’s meeting was planned. He wondered if something would get thrown at him. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

He walked across the gravel lot and into the dining room. It was empty, since the facility had yet to open for the day.

rustic barn with a wooden chandelier hanging in the center. There was a bar with stools positioned at the front, and tables set up around the room. Back when he had worked here there had been one basic tasting room, and nowhere for anyone to sit. Most of the wine had been sent out to retail stores for sale, rather than making the winery itself some kind of destination.

He wondered when all of that had changed. He imagined it had something to do with Lindy, the new owner and ex-wife of Jamison Leighton’s son, Damien. As far as Liam knew, and he knew enough—considering he didn’t get involved with business ventures without figuring out what he was getting into—Damien had drafted the world’s dumbest prenuptial agreement. At least, it was dumb for a man who clearly had problems keeping it in his pants.

Though why Sabrina was still working at the winery when her sister-in-law had current ownership, and her brother had been deposed, and her parents were—from what he had read in public records—apoplectic about the loss of their family legacy, he didn’t know. But he assumed he would find out. About the same time he found out whether or not something was going to get thrown at his head.

The door from the back opened, and he gritted his teeth. Because, no matter how prepared he felt philosophically to see Sabrina, he knew that there would be impact. There always was. A damned funny thing, that one woman could live in the back of his mind the way that she had for so long. That no matter how many years, or how many women he put between them, she still burned bright and hot in his memory.

That no matter how he had prepared himself to run into her—because he knew how small towns worked—the impact was like a brick to the side of his head every single time.

And no matter that this meeting was carefully orchestrated and planned, he knew it was going to be the same.

And it was.

She appeared a moment after the door opened, looking severe. Overly so. Her blond hair was pulled back into a high ponytail, and she was wearing a black sheath dress that went down past her knee, but conformed to curves that were more generous than they’d been thirteen years ago.

In a good way.

“Hello, Liam,” she said, her tone impersonal. Had she not used his first name, it might have been easy to pretend that she didn’t know who he was.

“Sabrina.” The word came out neutrally enough, but he couldn’t ignore the fact that he could taste it. Like honey on his lips. Sweet. Enticing.

Something he hadn’t tasted in far too long.

Sabrina didn’t seem to feel the moment at all. Her expression remained cool. Her lips set in a flat line, her blue eyes looking through him.

“Lindy told me that you wanted to talk about a potential joint venture. And since that falls under my jurisdiction as manager of the tasting room, she thought we might want to work together.”

She finally smiled.

The smile was so brittle it looked like it might crack her face.

“Yes, I am familiar with the details. Particularly since this venture was my idea.” He let a small silence hang there for a beat before continuing. “I’m looking at an empty building at the end of Main Street in Copper Ridge. I think it would be a great opportunity for both The Laughing Irish and for Grassroots. A tasting room that’s more easily accessible to the tourists who come to Copper Ridge.”

“How would it differ from Lane Donnelly’s store? She sells specialty foods.”

“Well, we would focus on Grassroots Wine and Laughing Irish cheese. Also, I would happily purchase products from Lane’s to give the menu a local focus. It would be nothing big. Just a small lunch place with wine. Very limited selection. Very specialty. But in a town like Copper Ridge, that works well. People want wander the historic main street and shop in boutiques.  A place that offers the change to sit and have a short break is perfect.”

“Great,” she said, her smile remaining completely immobile.

He took that moment to examine her even more closely.  She was more beautiful now than she had been at seventeen. Her slightly round, soft face had refined in the ensuing years, her cheekbones now more prominent, the angle of her chin sharper.

Her eyebrows looked different too. When she’d been a teenager they had been thinner, rounder. Now they were stronger, more angular.

“Great,” he returned. “I guess we can go down and have a look at everything sometime this week. Gage West is the owner of the property, and he hasn’t listed it yet. Handily, my sister-in-law is good friends with his wife. Both of my sisters-in-law, actually. So I’ve got the inside track on that.”

Her expression turned bland. “How impressive.”

She sounded absolutely unimpressed. “It wasn’t intended to be impressive. Just useful.”

Her lips twitched, like she was holding back a smile. But not a particularly nice smile. “Well, aim for what you can achieve I suppose.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t be impressive if I had the mind to be,” he said, unwilling to let that dig go.

Her lips twitched again, bit this time he sensed a lot more irritation than he had before. “That won’t be necessary.” She cleared her throat. “Lindy and I had discussed a shopfront in Gold Valley, since it’s slightly closer to the winery, and at the moment retail space is cheaper there. Why are you thinking Copper Ridge? Aside from the fact that it’s closer to your ranch.”

. It’s definitely on its way, but it’s not there yet.”

“But it’s on its way like you said. Property values are only going to go up.”

“Property values in Copper Ridge already have. And oceanside real estate isn’t going to get cheaper. At the price Gage is willing to sell for we’ll come in with equity.”

She looked irritated, but clearly didn’t have another argument ready. She sighed slowly. “Did you have a day of the week in mind to go view the property? Because I really am very busy.”

“Are you?”

“Yes,” she responded, that smile spreading over her face again. “This is a very demanding job, plus, I do have a life.”

She stopped short of saying exactly what that life entailed.

“Too busy to work on this project, which is part of your actual job?” he asked.

She looked calm, but he could sense a dark energy beneath the surface that spoke of a need to savage him. “I had my schedule sorted out for the next couple of weeks. This is coming together more quickly than expected.”

“I’ll work something out with Gage and give Lindy a call, how about that?”

“You don’t have to call Lindy. I’ll give you my phone number. You can call or text me directly.”

She reached over to the counter and chose a card from the rustic surface, extending her hand toward him. He took the card, their fingertips brushing each other as they made the handoff.

And he felt it. Straight down to his groin, where he had always felt things for her, even though it was impossible. Even though he was all wrong for her. And even though now they were doing a business deal together, and she looked like she would cheerfully chew through his flesh if given half the chance.

She might be smiling. But he didn’t trust that smile. He was still waiting. Waiting for her to shout recriminations at him now that they were alone. Every other time he had encountered her over the past four months it had been in public. Twice in Ace’s bar, and once walking down the street, where she had made a very quick sharp left to avoid walking past him.

It had not been subtle, and it had certainly not spoken of somebody who was over the past.

So, his assumption had been that if the two of them were ever alone she was going to let them have it. But she didn’t. Instead, she gave him that card, and then began to look…bored.

“Did you need anything else?” she asked, still looking determinedly cheerful.

“Not really. Though I have some spreadsheet information that you might want to look over. Ideas that I have for the layout, the menu. It is getting a little ahead of ourselves, in case we end up not liking the venue.”

“You’ve been to look at the venue already, haven’t you?” It was vaguely accusatory.

“I have been to the venue, yes. But again, I believe in preparedness. I was hardly going to get very deep into this if I didn’t think it was viable. Personally, I’m interested in making sure that we have diverse interests. The economy doesn’t typically favor farms, Sabrina. And that is essentially what my brothers and I have. I expect an uphill fight to make the ranch successful.”

She tilted her head to the side. “And yet, our winery is well-established and very healthy.”

“But Lindy wants to expand, I’m not incorrect about that. She was very interested in this proposition, and not only that, she’s started hosting weddings and farm-to-table dinners, right?”

“You know you’re right,” she said. “Like you said, you do your research.”

Her friendliness was beginning to slip. And he waited. For something else. For something to get thrown at him. It didn’t happen.

“That I do. Take these,” he said, handing her the folder that he was holding on to. He made sure their fingers didn’t touch this time. “And we’ll talk next week.”

Then he turned and walked away from her, and  resisted the strong impulse to turn back and get one more glance at her. It wasn’t the first time he had resisted that.

 

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