February 20, 2018

Smooth-Talking Cowboy


Welcome to Gold Valley, Oregon, where a rough and tumble rancher and the girl next door are about to learn that opposites attract

Olivia Logan has a plan: to win back her ex by making him see what he’s missing. But first she needs to find a man who’s willing to play along. With his laidback cowboy charm and knack for getting under her skin, Luke Hollister is an unlikely hero—but he wants her help convincing her father to sell him land, which means he needs her as much as she needs him.

Luke likes his life—and his women—uncomplicated. So why does good girl Olivia heat his blood like no one else? She’s always been off-limits, but the more time they spend as Gold Valley’s hottest new “couple,” the more real it’s starting to feel. Luke was supposed to help her win back another man…not keep her in his arms. But now that he has her there, he’s not sure he’ll ever let go.

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Olivia Logan supposed it could be argued that she wasn’t heartbroken, so much as she had broken her own heart. But it could not be argued that she had flattened her own tire.

Someone had left something sharp in the road for her to drive over with her little, unsuspecting car. Because people were eternally irresponsible, and Olivia never was. She never was, and still, she often got caught up in the consequences of said irresponsibility. Because such was life. That the idiot who left something treacherous in the road wasn’t the one with the flat tire was another painful reality check.

Olivia had had quite enough of life being a pain in the rear. If there was a reward for being well behaved, she hadn’t yet found it.

She got out of her car to look at the flattened tire in the back on the passenger side, bracing herself against the frigid wind that whipped up right as she did so. The typical chilly, Oregon January weather did nothing to improve her mood.

And there it was. Silver and flat, sticking into her tire. A nail.

Of course. She was running late to work down at Grassroots Winery and she had a flat tire as well as a broken heart. So, all things considered, she wasn’t sure it could get much worse.

She scowled, then looked down at her phone, trying to figure out who she should text. Normally, it would have been her boyfriend, Bennett, but he was now her ex-boyfriend because she had broken up with him last month at Christmas.

She had her reasons. Very good ones.

She couldn’t text him now, obviously. And she probably shouldn’t text his older brother Wyatt, or his other older brother Grant, because their loyalty to Bennett made them off-limits. Even for pitiful Olivia and her flat tire.

She was pondering her quandary, sitting on the outer edges of Gold Valley with her car halfway in the ditch when a beat-up red truck came barreling down from the same direction she had just come. Her stomach did a somersault and she closed her eyes, beseeching the heavens for an answer as to why she was being punished this way.

There was no answer. There was only a flat tire. And that red truck that she knew well.

Oh well. She needed rescuing. Even if it was by Luke Hollister. She moved closer to the road, crossing her arms and standing there, looking pathetic. At least, she had a feeling she looked somewhat pathetic. She felt pathetic.

Luke would stop, because despite being a scoundrel, a womanizer, he had that innate sense of chivalry that cowboys tended to possess. All yes ma’am and opening doors and saving damsels from the railroad tracks.

Or the side of the road, in this case.

The truck came closer, and she registered the exact moment Luke saw her. Felt it, somehow. She took a step back, making room for him to pull off and up next to her car.

His truck kept going.

She stared after him. “He didn’t stop!”

She had been incredibly peeved that Luke Hollister had been the salvation she hadn’t wanted, but she was even more peeved that he had declined his opportunity to be said salvation.

Then she saw brake lights, followed by reverse lights.

Slowly, the truck backed up, easing its way up beside her.

Luke leaned across the seat, working the crank window so that it was partway down. He had a black cowboy hat on, covering most of his dark blond hair, his green eyes glittering with humor beneath the wide brim. And then he smiled. That slow, lazy smile of his that always made her feel like he had spoken an obscenity.

“Olivia Logan, as I live and breathe. You seem to have gotten yourself in a bit of trouble.”

“I didn’t get myself into any trouble,” she said crisply. “There was a nail in the road, and I now seem to have a flat tire.” He just looked at her, maddeningly calm. “You weren’t going to stop,” she added, knowing she sounded accusing.

“I thought better of it. I’d hate it if you were eaten by wolves.”

“There are no wolves here,” she said, feeling impatient.

“They recently tracked one that came down from Washington. Just one though, so probably the worst that would happen is you’d get gnawed on, rather than eaten in your entirety.”

“Well. I’m glad you decided to help me avoid a vicious gnawing,” she said grumpily.

“I could change the tire for you,” he said.

“Do you want to pull off the road before we have this discussion?” she asked.

He looked in his rearview mirror, then glanced back at her. “There’s no one coming. It’s not exactly rush hour.”

“There is no rush hour in Gold Valley.”

But that didn’t mean someone wouldn’t be pulling up behind him on the narrow two-lane road soon enough.

He still didn’t move his truck, though.

“Luke,” she said, “I need to go to work.”

“Well, why didn’t you say so? Do you have a spare tire?”

“Yes,” she said impatiently.

“I’ll tell you what. I’ll drive you down to work, and then when I head back this way back I’ll fix your tire.”

She frowned, suspicious at the friendliness. “Why would you do that?”

“Because I’m going that way anyway,” he said. “You still work at the winery?”

She nodded. Grassroots Winery sat in between the towns of Copper Ridge and Gold Valley, and Olivia worked predominantly in the dining room at the winery itself. It wasn’t, she supposed, the most ambitious job, which usually didn’t bother her. She liked the ambience of the place, and she enjoyed the work itself. But she had always assumed that she would marry a rancher and help him work his land. Make a home for them. The way her parents had done. That seemed silly now that she was single, and there was no rancher in her future.

She had been sure that by now Bennett would have come back to her. Was sure that breaking up with him would make him realize that he had to commit or he could lose her.

Except he seemed all right with losing her. And that was terrible, because she was not all right with losing him.

With losing that vision of her future that she had held on to for so long.

“How will I get home?” she asked.

“I could help you out with that too, but I’ll have your car in working order by then.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Why are you being nice to me?”

That wicked grin of his broadened. “I’m always nice.”

She let out an exasperated sound and clicked the lock button on her key fob before climbing into the passenger side of his truck. She struggled to get in because of her skirt and nylons, but finally shut the massive, heavy door behind her.

“Thank you,” she said, knowing she sounded ridiculously prim and not really able to do anything about it. She was prim.

She grabbed hold of the seat belt, then pulled it forward, having to wiggle it slightly to get it to click. His truck was a hazard. She straightened, held tightly to her handbag and stared straight ahead.

“You’re welcome,” he said, stretching his arm over the back of the bench seat. His other forearm rested casually over the steering wheel. His cowboy hat was pushed back on his head, shirtsleeves pushed up past his elbows, forearms streaked with dirt as if he had already been working today. Which meant that he had likely been out at Get Out of Dodge before driving down toward town. She wondered if he had seen Bennett.

“Were you out at the Dodge place today?” She tried to ask casually.

“You want to know if I saw your boyfriend,” Luke said. Not a question. A statement. Like he knew her.

And this, in a nutshell, was why she didn’t really like Luke. He had a nasty habit of saying the one thing that she wished he wouldn’t. With a kind of unerring consistency that made her suspect he did it on purpose.

“He’s not my boyfriend. Not anymore.”

“Still. You’re wondering about him.”

“Of course I wonder about him. I dated Bennett for a year. I’m not going to just…not wonder about him suddenly.”

“I expect, Olivia, that you could go down to Get Out of Dodge on your own pretty feet and find out how he’s doing for yourself if you had half a mind to.”

Olivia cleared her throat and looked at Luke meaningfully. Which he seemed to miss entirely. “I don’t know that I would be welcome,” she said, finally.

“Come on. It’s been at least…six months since Wyatt has run anyone off the property with a shotgun.”

Olivia sighed. “You’re a pain—do you know that?”

“Now, is that any way to talk to your roadside savior?”

“Normally, I would agree, but I suspect that you’re trying to irritate me on purpose. Otherwise, you would have just answered my question.” She settled back into the bench seat, looking down at the floor mats that were encrusted in mud. She had no idea why Luke had mats on the floor of his truck at all. It seemed ridiculous when the whole thing was covered in a fine layer of dust and small bits of hay.

She felt woeful on behalf of her black pencil skirt.

“You caught me,” he said, sounding not at all contrite. “I am absolutely trying to irritate you. I would say that I’m succeeding, too. You do know how to make a man feel accomplished, Olivia.”

“And you know how to make a woman feel feral, Luke.”

“You and I both know you’ve never felt feral a day in your life, honey.”

She wanted to argue with him. Except he had a point. But she was not going to give him the satisfaction of knowing that. Instead, she sniffed and looked out the window as they crossed into the town’s city limits and drove down Main Street.

The red brick gold rush era buildings that lined the streets were picturesque, and whenever her friends from college came in from out of town they commented on them. To her they were simply buildings, rather than charming relics that looked as though they could have come out of an Old West movie. To her, having lived in Gold Valley her entire life, it was home.

Sometimes she wondered what it would be like to see the town for the first time. With fresh eyes. To see it as something unique, rather than something that simply was.

The Logan family, founders of Logan County, had been the first settlers in the area, after coming from the East Coast on the Oregon Trail.

As they paused at the four-way stop she took a moment to look at the faded, painted advertisement on the side of Gold Valley Saloon. She couldn’t quite make out what it said, and it was one of those things she had never really bothered to try to do, because it was something else that was simply there.

It was early in the day so the saloon sign—the only lighted sign allowed on Main Street, and only because it was a classic neon sign that had first been put up in the 1950s—wasn’t turned on at such an early hour, and there was a large Closed sign propped up in the window. In fact, most of the businesses on Main were closed at this hour.

The coffeehouses were open already—three of them all within walking distance of each other—because if there was one thing Oregonians liked more than craft beer or wine, it was definitely coffee.The little greasy spoon café that had been there since the middle of the last century was probably packed full of people getting their daily hash browns and bacon.

They started driving again and that cut off her ruminations as they headed out of town and down the highway toward the winery.

“What business do you have down this far?” she asked.

“I was headed down to Tolowa to hit up the Fred Meyer. Got to grab a few things.”

That was Luke. A man of few words until he wasn’t, and then they were annoying ones.

“I see,” she said.

“I didn’t see Bennett this morning,” he added. “Since you were wondering.”

“Right. Well.” And that made her wonder if he had been there. Or if he had spent the night somewhere else—which made her stomach feel like acid. All things considered, Bennett was probably happy that she had cut him loose. She of the self-inflicted metaphorical chastity belt, who had been making him wait to be intimate until he had proposed to her.

But now he was free.

She sniffed again.

She and Luke lapsed into silence as they continued down the winding road. Finally, Luke turned off the main road and onto the long, dirt drive that led up to the winery.

“This parking lot,” she said, gesturing to the paved lot on the left.

The road forked there, and the right turn would have taken them up to Lindy Parker’s house. Lindy owned the winery and lived on the grounds. The unintentional parting gift of her cheating husband after their divorce.

She hopped out of the red truck as quickly and delicately as possible, but even so, her skirt hiked itself up a few inches above her knees. She hurriedly pulled it down, and when she chanced a look back at Luke, she saw that he was looking at her a bit avidly. He smiled, and that same flipping sensation she had felt in her stomach when she had first spotted his truck made an irritating return.

“I still have your number from the beach trip,” he said, referencing a time over the summer when a group of them had driven in a caravan over to the coast for a beach barbecue that she had ultimately found a bit too sandy to enjoy. “I’ll text you. Let you know how things go with your car.”

“Thank you,” she said, trying to avoid sounding wooden and uptight, both things she had been accused of being several times over.

He was actually being nice, even if he was mixing some annoyance with it.

“You are very welcome.” He reached up, grabbed the brim of his hat and tipped it slightly, and she felt something inside of her tip in response.

“I’ll look for that text.” She gripped her bag tightly and walked quickly toward the refurbished barn that was now a rustic but elegant dining room.

When she walked in, both Lindy Parker and her ex-sister-in-law, Sabrina Leighton, were standing at the window, staring out of it, and then turned to look at her with curious expressions on their faces.

“What?” Olivia asked, blinking.

“Who was that?”

“No one,” Olivia said, and then suddenly realized how all of it looked. Her denial hadn’t helped. “I got a flat tire.”

Lindy only stared, and Sabrina’s mouth quirked upward at the corner. “And you hitchhiked here?”

“No. I know him. I mean, he did pick me up on the side of the road. But, he’s…a family friend.” Of Bennett’s family, but she didn’t add that last part. Because it only underscored just how tangled up her life was with Bennett Dodge, and the whole rest of the Dodge family. That Luke was embroiled in her life simply because she had spent so much time at the dude ranch growing up.

Because her father and Bennett’s father had always been so close, and because Olivia had carried a torch for Bennett for her entire childhood, all through high school, and then finally, that torch had become something real after college.

Her memories, her connections… She had so few that weren’t involved in the Dodge family in some way. And now she wasn’t really involved with them anymore.

Her thoughts had gone off track, and she had a feeling that Lindy and Sabrina were interpreting her silence to mean something different.

Lindy’s follow-up question confirmed that. “A family friend?”

“Yes. He rescued me and is going to fix my car. Which seems really nice, but since he was on his way to Tolowa, it was actually just logical.”

“Okay,” Lindy said, clearly disbelieving.

Olivia sighed, and then her eye caught sight of something glittering on Sabrina’s finger. “Sabrina. What is that?”

Sabrina curled her hands into fists. “We don’t have to talk about it, not if you don’t want.”

Olivia didn’t have to answer, because she knew exactly what it was. An engagement ring. Which meant that Sabrina’s boyfriend of almost no time at all had already proposed to her.

Because apparently Olivia Logan was the only person in the entire county who was commitment proof.

“Congratulations,” Olivia said, forcing a smile for as long as she could before turning away to keep from crying. She shed her long coat and hung her purse up on the peg, then took a deep breath, closing her eyes. She was not going to be a baby about this. She was going to be happy for her friend.

The whole world didn’t stop just because she was going through a heartbreak, and she knew that. She still had to go to work, people still had to get engaged, her tire was still going to go flat, and Luke Hollister was still going to be a pain. Life went on. The world still turned.

“Thank you,” Sabrina said, smiling. “It’s hard to believe. Especially since until a couple of months ago I was mostly convinced that I hated Liam. And now I’m marrying him.”

Those words hit Olivia in a funny way. Because she had never been confused about her feelings, not like that. She had always known that she loved Bennett Dodge. The same way that she’d always known she had to work to make her parents proud. To make sure she didn’t cause them worry. The same way she had known since high school she wanted—needed—to be different than her sister. Better.

Olivia was, and always had been, confident in her feelings.

When she felt something it was set in stone. Just like she had always known that she didn’t like whiskey, shellfish or Luke Hollister.And that was just how it was.

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