May 26, 2015
2016 RITA® Winner for Contemporary Romance: Long
There are lines best friends shouldn't cross, but in Copper Ridge, Oregon, the temptation might be too much…
If practice makes perfect, Connor Garrett should be world champion of being alone. Since losing his wife he's concentrated exclusively on his family's ranch. Until his dear friend Felicity Foster needs a place to stay and Connor invites her to move in temporarily. That's what friends do—and Liss is his rock. What friends don't do? Suddenly start fantasizing about each other in their underwear. Or out of it…
Since high school, Liss has kept her raging crush in check. Another few weeks should be a breeze. But helping Connor rebuild his life only reinforces how much she longs to be a part of it. One explosive encounter, and she'll discover that getting what you always wanted can feel better than you ever dreamed…
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Connor Garrett was a grown-ass man. He knew there was nothing to fear in sleep. He knew the darkness of his room didn’t hide anything more sinister than a pair of carelessly discarded cowboy boots, waiting for him to stub his toe on them in the dead of night during a sleepy trip to the bathroom.
He knew these things, just like he knew the sun would rise over the mountain just before six this time of year, whether he wanted it to or not. He knew these things as surely as he knew that an early-morning breeze tinged with salt meant a storm would blow in from the coast later. That unintentional run-ins with barbed-wire fences burned like a son of a bitch. That wooden barns burned and people you loved left.
Yeah, he knew all that.
But it didn’t stop him from waking up most nights in a cold sweat, his heart pounding harder than a spooked horse’s hooves on arena dirt.
Because the simple truth was that Connor Garrett knew all these things, but his subconscious had yet to catch up.
He sat bolt upright in bed, sweat beading on his bare chest and his forehead. If this weren’t standard procedure for his body he might’ve been concerned he was having a heart attack. Unfortunately though, he knew at this point that the racing heart, accompanied by chest pain, was just stress. Anxiety.
Damn lingering grief that refused to lessen even as the years passed.
He wasn’t surprised when he woke up alone in bed, not anymore. It had been three years, after all. He wasn’t surprised, but he noticed. Every time. Was acutely aware of how cold the sheets were on her side of the bed. It wasn’t even the same bed he’d slept in with Jessie. He’d bought a new one about a year ago because continuing to sleep in the bed they’d shared had seemed too depressing. But it hadn’t accomplished what he had hoped it might.
Because no matter how hard he tried, whether he lay down in the middle of the bed at the start of the night, or even on the side nearest to the window, he always ended up on his side.
The side by the door. In case of intruders or any other danger. The side that allowed him to protect the person sleeping next to him. The side he had taken every night during his eight years of marriage. It was as if his late wife’s ghost was rolling him over in his sleep.
And then waking him up.
Unfortunately, Jessie didn’t even have the decency to haunt him. She was just gone. And in her place was emptiness. Emptiness in his bed. In his house. In his chest.
And when his chest wasn’t empty, it was filled with pain and a kind of dread that took over his whole body and made it impossible to breathe. Like now.
He swung his legs over the side of the mattress, the wood floor cold beneath his bare feet. He stood and walked over to the window, looked out into the darkness. The black shadows of pine trees filled his vision, and beyond that, the darker silhouette of the mountains, backlit by a slightly grayer sky. And down to the left he could barely make out the front porch. And the golden glow of the porch light that he’d somehow managed to leave on before he’d gone to sleep.
His chest tightened. That was probably why he’d woken up.
Abruptly, the dream he’d been having flooded back through his mind. It hadn’t been a full dream so much as images.
Opening the door late at night to see Eli standing there, his brother’s face grim, bleaker than Connor had ever seen it. And a ring of gold light from the porch had shone around him. Made him look like an angel of some kind. An angel of death, it had turned out.
As stupid as it was he was half convinced that leaving that same light on downstairs brought the dreams back stronger.
It didn’t make sense. But if there was one thing he’d learned over the years it was that grief didn’t make a lick of sense.
He jerked the bedroom door open and walked downstairs, heading toward the entryway. He stood there in front of the door, looking at the porch light shining through the windows. For a second he had the thought that if he opened it, he would find Eli standing there. Would find himself transported back in time three years. Listening to the kind of news that no one should have to hear.
There was a reason his darkest nightmares consisted of nothing more than his younger brother standing on his front porch.
Because in that moment his life had transformed into a nightmare. There was nothing scarier than that. He was confident he could take the bogeyman if need be. But he couldn’t fight death.
And in the end he hadn’t been able to save Jessie.
And he was not opening the damn door.
He flipped the light off and found himself walking into the kitchen and opening the fridge, rather than going back upstairs. He looked at the beer, which was currently the only thing on the shelves besides a bottle of ketchup and a bag that had an onion in it that had probably been there since the beginning of summer.
He let out a heavy sigh and shut the fridge. He should not drink beer at three in the morning.
Three in the morning was clearly Jack Daniel’s o’clock.
He walked over to the cabinet where he kept the harder stuff and pulled out his bottle of Jack. It was almost gone. And no one was here. No one was here, because his fucking house was empty. Because he was alone.
Considering those things, he decided to hell with the glass. He picked up the bottle and tipped it back, barely even feeling the burn anymore as the alcohol slid down his throat.
Maybe now he would be able to get some sleep. Maybe for a few hours he could forget.
He’d given up on getting rest years ago. These days he just settled for oblivion.
And this was the fastest way he knew to get it.