April 18, 2017

Slow Burn Cowboy

(Lane's Book)

In Copper Ridge, Oregon, a cowboy's best friend might turn out to be the woman of his dreams…

If Finn Donnelly makes a plan, he sticks to it. After his brothers left Copper Ridge, Finn stayed behind, determined to keep their ranch going by himself. And when he realized his feelings for Lane Jensen were more than platonic, he shoved that inconvenient desire away. It was easy…until it wasn't.
Suddenly his brothers are coming home to claim their share of the property. And Lane is no longer just in his fantasies. She's in his arms, and their friendship is on the line…

He's been her buddy, her handyman, her rock. But until that one breathtaking kiss, Lane somehow overlooked the most important thing about Finn Donnelly-he's all man. They're right together, no matter how much his volatile past has bruised him. Finn wants to hold Lane's body, but he doesn't
want to hold her heart. But Lane is falling fast and now she's got a plan of her own…to show Finn there's nothing hotter than friendship turned to slow-burning love.

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“Another casserole?”

“You’re welcome,” Lane said, crossing the threshold into Finn Donnelly’s house carrying a disposable tin pan that looked like it was full of enough food to feed a small army.

“I can’t eat all of this, Lane,” he said, watching his best friend’s petite form disappear as she made her way from the expansive entry into the kitchen.

“But your brothers can,” she shot back.

He followed her path, his footsteps echoing on the stone floor as he entered the kitchen behind her.

“I don’t know how long they’ll be staying.”

His brothers. The entire Donnelly clan was theoretically showing up any day now. To collect an inheritance none of them deserved. Who knew that his grandfather—possibly the most difficult old bastard on the planet—possessed such a sense of fairness from the great beyond?

Finn had dedicated the last twenty years to working on the Laughing Irish Ranch while his brothers had gone off and made their own way. Which was fine by him. At least, it always had been. It was much less fine now that the old man was dead and his three brothers had been left with equal share in a property they had no blood, sweat or tears invested in.

But Finn figured they would come to pay their respects, and then he could offer them monetary compensation and send them on their way.

They’d never been interested in the ranch before. He didn’t see why they were acting like they wanted to be involved now.

“I imagine they’ll be staying long enough to eat a meal,” Lane said, her tone dry. She flipped her dark hair over her shoulder as she opened the fridge and bent down, examining the available space. “I have brought you a lot of food,” she said, looking back over her shoulder.

“Yes. A lot.”

“Well, most of these dishes you shouldn’t have to cook while you’re dealing with all of this. But some of them are also the result of my testing various sauces and spices that get sent to me. So I can figure out what I want to stock in the Mercantile.”

“Lane of Copper Ridge,” he said drily, “the patron saint of self-serving charity.”

She made a scoffing sound as she straightened and closed the fridge, then set the pan on the counter before turning away from him again. “No one else is cooking for you, Finn. Because you’re a cranky asshole. So maybe you should show a little more appreciation.”

She jerked the fridge open again, bending back down and starting to rearrange the contents. She made a little humming sound, her back arching as she reached deeper inside.

He looked at her ass. He didn’t even bother to try and stop himself. He had accepted the fact that he was attracted to Lane a long time ago. And around the same time he had accepted that he was never going to do anything about it.

He had a host of reasons for that, all of which he’d spent the past several years reinforcing. She was younger. Her older brother would kill him. But more than that, it just wasn’t worth messing with their friendship, no matter how fine her ass was.

Lane was special to him. Important. There was also something fragile about her that he’d sensed from the first, when she’d turned up in Copper Ridge to live with her brother. Finn was the wrong man for fragile.

The first time he’d ever felt attracted to her had come as a shock. Like getting hit in the chest with a bolt of lightning. She’d been eighteen to his twenty-four and he’d been at her and her brother Mark’s house for dinner. Mark had gone to bed, citing an early morning, and he and Lane had ended up staying up to watch a movie.

It was a comedy, and Finn could barely remember what it was. But he remembered Lane laughing. It had been the sweetest sound, and it had done something to him. Then she’d leaned up against him and placed her hand on his thigh to brace herself, and that something had become abundantly clear.

He’d been so disgusted with himself he’d made a thousand excuses and gone straight home. It had never gone away. Not after that. Not once he’d seen her as a woman.

But it had dulled to a vague ache now, instead of that sharp shock of heat. And that was how it had to stay. Repressed. Controlled.

Given that he’d made his decision early on, normally, he made a show of controlling his desire to check her out. Right now, he didn’t see the point. Right now, his grandfather was dead and he was going to be invaded by family that he hadn’t seen in longer than he cared to admit.

Right now, his focus was dedicated to dealing with that.

Amid a host of unenjoyable things, he was going to go ahead and enjoy the sight of Lane’s ass in those jeans.

“I’m sorry, Lane,” he said. “I will try to be more appreciative of the fact that I’m going to die buried beneath a pile of bereavement foods.”

“At least you won’t die of starvation,” she said, straightening and turning to face him, her smile brilliant, her brown eyes glittering. She picked up the casserole pan and put it in the newly cleared space in the fridge, then closed the door.

“Well, that’s a small comfort.” He crossed the kitchen, making his way over to the sink, pressing his palms flat on the countertop and gazing out the window. The house—which was a giant monstrosity that Finn had never understood, given the fact that for as long as he’d known his grandfather the old man had lived here alone—was nestled into a hillside, overlooking interlocking mountains covered in pine trees that stretched on into the distance until they faded from deep green to a misted blue.

The back of the house faced the ranching operation. The fields, containing herds of dairy cows, and the barns.

His blood, sweat and tears were there. Soaked into the ground, the wood and basically every other damn surface in the place. Like the rest of his brothers he had spent summers here as a kid. Unlike them, when he was sixteen he had decided that he was here to stay.

Finn had never felt anything quite like the peace that came from working his body boneless out in the field. And after a life spent with his volatile mother and completely unreliable father, he had liked finding something that he could control.

If he did the work, he got a result. If he spent the day fixing a fence, at the end of the day he had a functioning fence. It was tangible. It was real.

It completely boggled his mind that his grandfather had decided to give any of the property to the grandsons who had never showed an interest. But there was no arguing with a dead man. Hell, there had been no point arguing with the old man when he was alive.

“Do you want to stay and eat?” Finn asked, now that Lane had put the food away.

“Don’t mind if I do,” she said. “Of course, I spent most of the day tasting different products that came into the store. I got some pistachio cream from Italy. You have no idea. It was amazing.”

He frowned. “What do you do with pistachio cream?”

“Eat it with a spoon? Bathe in it?”

“As long as the food you made me is normal.”

She waved a hand. “Normal. Dull. Your palate needs work.”

“If loving chicken nuggets is wrong I don’t want to be right.”

“You’ll be pleased to know that the casserole I brought tonight is mostly pasta -based, and is in no way in violation of your steak and potatoes philosophy on food.”

“Pasta-based and steak and potatoes? That sounds weird.”

“I meant that in the metaphorical sense. The metaphor being that you like boring food and it grieves me.”

“I think you’re adventurous enough for the both of us, Lane.”

“Well, tonight I think we’re going to have a combination of potpie and pot roast. There’s a theme.” She took two containers out of the fridge and set them on the counter. “I shall commence warming them.”

“Why don’t you let me take care of that?” he asked.

Lane arched a brow. “Oooh. You mean I don’t have to microwave my own dinner? And they say chivalry is dead.”

“I am a chivalrous bastard, Lane Jensen.” Something about the way the corner of her mouth turned up just then caused a tug low and deep in his stomach.

“You’re a study in contradictions, Finn Donnelly,” Lane said as she continued to assemble the dinner as though he hadn’t offered to be the one to do so.

But this was how things went. He took care of everything in her house that she considered to be man’s work. Any kind of plumbing or wiring issue, arachnid-related concerns and the extermination of the odd errant vole in her yard.

In return, she often took care of things like feeding him, or buying him clothes when she went into Portland or Eugene. He never even had to ask. She just appeared with things. Usually after noticing that he had worn a hole through his boots or something like that.

Basically, Lane was his wife. But with virtually none of the perks a man actually wanted from a marriage.

But, considering he didn’t ever want a wife, that was fine by him.

A blow job. Sometimes he would like a blow job. But a friendship was hardly worth detonating over that.

“That’s me, a walking contradiction. Complicated and shit,” he returned, his voice a little harder than he’d intended it to be.

Due in large part to the fact that he had just been thinking about Lane’s lips on his body. Always a mistake. One he didn’t usually make.

“Yes, a man of deep complexity. And steak and potatoes,” she said, a laugh hovering on the edges of her words.

The sounds of domesticity settled around them, and he let them wash over him just for a moment. There was something nice about watching her bustle around the kitchen.

Probably because he had never really experienced that growing up. His father had taken off when he’d been little, making a new life with another woman, and for a while with the two kids that had come from that union—Liam and Alex.

After his father had left, his mother had been more concerned with the drama in her love life than dealing with her son.

Finn had learned early on to make peanut butter sandwiches and hot dogs.

Cain, the oldest Donnelly, was from their father’s first marriage, Finn from his second. His brother Alex had been part of an affair that had occurred around the same time as the marriage to Finn’s mother, which put the two of them close in age.

Then Finn’s father had left and married Alex’s mother and produced one more child, Liam. Making the youngest two the only full-blood brothers in the crew.

Which left Finn with his mother. Until she’d left him too.

Family fun with the Donnelly’s was rarely all that fun, for all of those reasons.

He had never really been close to his brothers, for very obvious reasons. And now, they were all going to descend.

“How long has it been since you’ve seen your brothers?”

“Well, Alex was deployed for eighteen months, and then he went back to base rather than Copper Ridge when he got out. So it’s been a couple of years. Probably about the same for the rest of them.” He was pretty sure. He didn’t keep track. “Hell, I think I talk to your brother more than I talk to any of mine. And I don’t even talk to him that much.”

She let out a short, one-note laugh. “When you do, can you get more than a one-word conversation out of him?”

“Not really,” Finn said, not seeing the issue.

Lane laughed. “He’s so cranky.”

“That’s probably why the two of us get along.”

Mark Jensen was one of his oldest friends, and even though he’d moved down to California a few years ago he and Finn still kept in touch.

The two of them had gotten acquainted after high school, both of them young and away from their parents. Mark had moved to Copper Ridge at a young age and taken work on a fishing boat. And Finn had been working the ranch.

Eventually, Mark had moved away and gone to college for a while, but then he had come back and taken on engineering work on the same fishing boats he had started on as a grunt laborer. Finn was still a laborer. In fact, that was what he intended to be for the rest of his life. That was what he liked. There was honesty in it, working the land.

You couldn’t bullshit the earth. He liked that. You had to work, and the rewards were merit-based. Sometimes the weather swept in and messed things up, but living on the coast in the relatively temperate Oregon climate and with modern conveniences, that was not the biggest concern for a dairy farmer.

He had good contracts with one of the major dairies in the state, and additionally had been working on developing some other avenues for selling their products. Yeah, he was a laborer, but he had always been proud of it. Better to be like that than like his father. Running around the country screwing anything that moved and trying to get out of having to work for a damn thing. He had never understood how his grandfather’s only son had managed to turn out that way.

The old man was a hard-ass. Possibly because he was compensating for what had happened with Finn’s father. But either way, he had taught Finn the value of an honest day’s work. And he was grateful.

It had also shown him the value of staying. Investing. Which neither of his parents had managed to do.

And it had given him a way to have some control in his life. After spending his childhood being jerked around by the whims of adults, figuring out he could actively affect the world around him had been a revelation. That he could work at something, cultivate the land. Build up something that no one could take from him.

Except, apparently, when his grandfather died and left the land to his brothers. That felt much closer to losing his foundation than he would have liked.

“I don’t know about that,” Lane was saying, pulling their food out of the microwave. “I don’t actually think you’re as grumpy as Mark is.”

Lane turned around and nearly ran into him. Finn reached out to steady her, gripping her shoulders and holding her there. Her shirt was soft, and so was she, and it made it hard to pull away as quickly as he should.

He cleared his throat, releasing his hold on her. “Maybe I’m just not as grumpy with you.”

The moment extended, her blue eyes locked with his, then slowly, a tight smile curved her lips, slackening as the air between them seem to clear. Some of the tension loosening. Then her expression turned amused.

“If that’s the case, I really would hate to see you with other people. You might not be as cranky as Mark, but you’re not exactly rainbows and sunshine.”

“If I were rainbows and sunshine you wouldn’t like me. Anyway, without a thunderstorm you wouldn’t have a rainbow.”

“You are my very favorite thunderstorm, Finn.”

He ground his teeth together, still feeling the effects of his earlier lapse in self-control. Still feeling the impression of her warmth beneath his fingers. She did not seem similarly affected. “Happy to be the dark cloud in your life.”

“Stop scowling at me. I’m making you dinner.”

He did his best to relax the muscles in his face and to give her something that looked a little bit less surly. He would only ever do that for Lane.

Right when Lane took his plate out of the microwave, there was a knock on the door. He let out a heavy sigh. “If it’s another casserole…”

“Who else is bringing you casserole?” Lane asked, her tone full of mock offense. “I’m just kidding,” she said, smiling. “I know that no one else is bringing you casserole. At least, no one under the age of eighty.”

“Maybe I like older women,” he said, lifting a shoulder.

She arched her brow. “To each his own, I guess.”

His scowl returned and he walked out of the kitchen, heading toward the front door. He jerked it open without bothering to look and see who was on the other side. And when he saw, he froze.

“Hi, little brother. It’s been a while.”

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