February 1, 2016

Hometown Heartbreaker

(Aiden's book)

He knows that Copper Ridge’s newest bartender is running from her past… but will he recognize that she’s his last chance at salvation before she leaves town?


Aiden Crawford knows all about responsibilities. He’s already shouldering more than his share when beautiful drifter Casey James cruises into town with a broken car, a chip on her shoulder, and enough secrets to have her ready to leave Copper Ridge the second she can afford the auto mechanic’s bill. Aiden has no time for long-legged, sultry-eyed complications, especially when he catches her joyriding in his father’s car, but when he realizes that she’s hungry and homeless, he grits his teeth and does what he does best: takes on another person’s problems as his own.


Casey is no man’s charity project—she takes care of herself and that’s all she needs to survive. But in the gruff and ruggedly gorgeous Aiden, she finds a man whose demons match her own—and who tempts her to stop running once and for all. Yet even if she finds the courage to stay, can she convince him that a future together is possible before time runs out?

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Ace was very proud of the microbrews they served at his bar. Casey James didn’t see what was so special about them. Because at the end of the day after she’d been serving drinks over the course of a seven-hour shift, whether it was a lager brewed in a small quantity or a light beer brewed for the masses, it all smelled the same to her. By then it had woven its way around the fabric of her clothes and settled down beneath the surface of her skin.

Ace’s was the primary hangout in Copper Ridge, Oregon, for anybody looking to unwind after a hard day’s work. At least, that’s what she’d absorbed over the past couple of weeks working there.

Along with alcohol fumes and more country music than she had even known existed before she’d walked into this place.

When she went home—such as her transient dwelling was—she did so smelling like beer and oil from the deep fryer and humming Garth Brooks. She felt invaded by the place. Still, she couldn’t complain. She’d been broke when she’d driven into Copper Ridge about sixteen days ago. Not enough money for a hotel, or even a sketchy motel. Not enough money for food on the road. She’d gotten sick of hitchhiking somewhere back in the Midwest and had bought the cheapest car she could find, and it had let out its last gasp when she’d rolled over into Logan County.

Now the car was parked at Copper Campground, and her tent was pitched at the most convenient space in the park. Not that camping anywhere was very convenient right now, considering that nights here in the little coastal town were cold and heavy with mist, and she possessed very serious black-bear-related concerns. Solitude also provided some pretty heavy silences. Not her favorite on the best of days.

But God knew she’d slept in worse. And with worse.

When Ace had first hired her she had sort of imagined he might be expecting a different kind of arrangement. Why else would a guy agree to hire a woman on a very temporary basis so she could earn a little pocket change before moving on?

He was good-looking, so she hadn’t really thought it would be too big of a deal. Plus, she thought it might get her out of her sleeping bag and into an actual bed. But, much to her surprise, Ace had never even given her an inappropriate side-eye since he’d hired her.

Yay for his scruples. Less yay for her chilly sleeping arrangement.

“Hey, baby.” The words were slurred across the bar, and she wasn’t even going to bother with telling the guy that that wasn’t her name. If he was going to leave a tip, her name could be baby if he really wanted it to be. “Another drink.”

She turned and faced the guy sitting down at the far end, clad in a flannel shirt and overalls. He had been running up his tab all night, and was definitely starting to look a little bit worse for wear.

“Sure thing.” She was not a human breathalyzer. It wasn’t her job to worry about whether or not someone should have another drink. She just wanted to get paid.

Once she’d collected enough cash to figure out what was going on with her car, plus enough extra to crash somewhere other than a campground for a while, she would move on.

You have to stop sometime.

No, she didn’t. Anyway, if she was going to stop it would be somewhere warmer. Someplace near the ocean, but not the kind of ocean that felt like a melted glacier.

She poured another measure of bourbon for the evening’s best customer—which, in her world, was a dubious honor—and slid down toward him. “Another one on your tab?”

He nodded, picking up the glass and raising it in mock salute. She raised her brows in return.

Just then, the door to the bar opened, and for some reason she felt compelled to look. People filed in and out all evening, so there was nothing particularly remarkable about another arrival. But somehow this one felt remarkable. It kept on feeling more and more so while she studied the new arrival.

He was notable in part because he was enraged—which was something she paid attention to, but wasn’t unique. People got mad, and they tended to get mad even easier when alcohol was involved. So pissed off dudes weren’t remarkable in and of themselves, or something she got too worked up over. But there was something about him…his dark brows lowered, intense and angry, his chiseled jaw clenched—broad shoulders, a trim waist. Well, really he was hot. He had some very admirable forearms and hands that looked just the right size to hold on tight to her hips.

Behold the power of a pair of sexy, masculine hands.

The handsome stranger stood in the door for only a few moments before storming down into the dining area and making a beeline toward the bar. He didn’t notice Casey, or anyone. At least, not anyone besides her best customer.

“What are you doing here, Dad?” The stranger’s voice was uncompromising, deep and very, very angry.

The older man grunted. “Winding down after work. I didn’t realize that was a problem.”

“It is when you’re a damn alcoholic.”

Unexpectedly, Casey’s heart clenched with sympathy. Addiction. If there was one thing she was more familiar with than she’d like to be, that was it. Actually, there were quite a few things she had more familiarity with than she would like, but addiction was the most insidious. Still, she didn’t usually waste emotion on strangers. Typically, she didn’t waste emotion on anyone but herself, and when it came to herself she was still pretty spare with it. She couldn’t afford to wallow. If she did, she might never get back up.

“That’s your word, boy,” the older man said. “Not mine.”

“A John Deere isn’t a Ferrari just because you call it one. Doesn’t matter what you want to call it, or not call it. Anyway, you promised.” He said the last part in a hushed, sincere tone that left her in no doubt that Handsome Stranger had truly believed his father wasn’t going to drink again, just because the old man had promised.

She wondered how in hell he gotten to his age—his late twenties, she guessed—still believing the promises of an addict.

“Let’s go, Dad,” he said again, uncompromising.

He didn’t wait for the older man to comply, but grabbed him by the back of the shirt and hauled him off the stool. It was easy enough to do, given the inebriated state of his father. He started to direct him out of the bar, and irritation started to build in Casey’s chest. She had spent all evening letting that drunk-ass old guy call her baby. And if she wasn’t going to get a tip, it had hardly been worth it.

“Hey!” she shouted.

Handsome Stranger paused, turning to face her, the expression he treated her to as stormy as the one he had been aiming at his dad. “You have a problem?”

“Yes.” She planted her hands on her hips. “Your dad ran up a pretty serious tab tonight. And I’ve been serving him. If you think you’re going to walk out of here without passing any cash my way you’re very wrong.”

He didn’t address her; instead, he turned to his father. “Dad, give me your keys.”

“The hell I—”

“You aren’t driving.” He stood there, angry, but with something deeper radiating from him, as well. A well-worn patience unlike anything she had ever witnessed before. “Give me your keys. Don’t make me call Sheriff Garrett.”

Much to Casey’s surprise, the older man complied, pressing his keys into his son’s hand. Then Handsome Stranger moved back toward the bar, toward her. She wasn’t the kind of woman to get breathless over a man. In her experience, men were like cheap appliances. They might be shiny out of the box, but all too soon they shorted out and left you high and dry. Fine in many cases, since she wasn’t exactly looking for a promise, but as this man approached her she had to confess to a little bit of breathlessness. She blamed the broad shoulders, which looked like they would be very nice to hold on to. And again, those large hands, which looked like they would be very good at holding on to her.

He reached out, one of the very hands she had just been weaving inappropriate thoughts about extending the keys toward her. “Keep his car. Consider it collateral. I’ll be back for it as soon as I can make it down here tomorrow.”

She curled her fingers around the keys, the sharp edges digging into her palm. “You realize I could just drive off into the sunset with this. Or into the dawn, as the case may be.”

“Don’t,” he said, casual, unconcerned. As though he were confident that his calm, rational command would be met with obedience, because how could she refuse?


She kind of liked it.

As if she needed any more proof that her issues had issues.

“Just so you know,” she said, earning herself another backward glance, “I’m not very good at following instructions.” She jingled the keys, arching her brow meaningfully.

“Just so you know, I’m good friends with the sheriff. See you tomorrow.”

And with that, Handsome Stranger stormed back out of the bar, propelling his old man with him, along with what she had hoped would be her biggest tip of the evening.

“Hey baby, can I get another drink?” She turned toward the source of the request—the man now vying for position as new best customer—and let out a heavy sigh.

“Of course, sugar,” she said. And by sugar, she meant asshole. But she wasn’t in the mood to lose all of her tip money in one evening.

By last call she was exhausted, grumpy and in no mood to walk all the way from the bar back to the campground. This, in a nutshell, was why it was so much better to work out an arrangement with someone if it was possible.

This was why she almost wished her boss was the kind of person who liked to take a little bit of personal advantage of his employees. She would have somewhere warm to sleep if he did.

Self-preservation was an art form she had taken to a new level. But in her situation, it was necessary. Men made great allies because she had something they wanted. She was perfectly comfortable going it alone in the general sense. But she’d been through enough to realize that while she never wanted to depend on anyone emotionally, it was practical to have someone else by your side.

Two a.m., with no car, and three miles to walk until she could finally lie down and get some rest, was one of those times.

Of course, that acknowledgment went hand in hand with feeling like she might prefer death to actually asking for help. She preferred to find ways to engineer receiving help without actually admitting how much she might need it.

Finding yourself in dire straits was one thing. Acting helpless was quite another.

She pressed her hand to the pocket of the black apron she was wearing, felt the bulk of the keys beneath the fabric. Oh yeah, she had that car. Wherever it might be parked. Farm boy was going to be back tomorrow to pick it up, but she would be at the bar before he would, most likely.

She chewed the inside of her cheek, pretending for a second that she was weighing her options. Like there was another option. She had keys to a car that no one needed tonight. And the difference between an hour-long walk and a two-minute drive was pretty much a no-brainer.

She smiled to herself as she took a clean rag out of the bleach water bin and started to wipe down the top of the bar. As things worked out, she’d managed to get help from a guy after all. And she’d gotten to keep her top on.



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