August 29, 2017

Wild Ride Cowboy

(Alex's Book)

He's come back to Copper Ridge, Oregon, to keep a promise—even if it means losing his heart… 

Putting down roots in Copper Ridge was never Alex Donnelly's intention. But if there's one thing the ex-military man knows, it's that life rarely unfolds as expected. If it did, his best friend and brother-in-arms would still be alive. And Alex wouldn't have inherited a ranch or responsibility for his late comrade's sister—a woman who, despite her inexperience, can bring tough-as-iron Alex to his knees.

Clara Campbell didn't ask for a hero to ride in and fix her ranch and her life. All she wants is the one thing stubborn, honorable Alex is reluctant to give: a chance to explore their intense chemistry. But Clara has a few lessons to teach him, too…about trusting his heart and his instincts, and letting love take him on the wildest adventure of all.

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He was perfect in every way.
Clara Campbell didn’t even bother to hide the look of longing she knew was currently etched on her face. Asher was facing away from her anyway, working on making a cappuccino behind the bar—for her—so he wouldn’t notice if she spent a little while admiring the elegant way he moved while he steamed the milk.
Okay, maybe most people wouldn’t be applying words like elegant to the process of steaming milk. But in her mind, Asher could do no wrong, and everything he did was poetry. Including his work as a barista at Copper Ridge’s newest artisan coffee house, Stim. Which was little more than a hole in the wall in the building down near the sea that used to house Rona’s diner.
The diner had closed a few months back and had since been bought, gutted and remodeled to fit several new businesses that were geared toward the influx of tourists that had been passing through Copper Ridge, Oregon, in increasing numbers over the past few years.
It was perfect for Clara since Stim sat along the coastal highway, right at the turn off she took to head inland to Grassroots Winery, where she was working part-time—and it gave her an excuse to see Asher every morning.
Too bad she didn’t like coffee.
But sacrifices had to be made for love.
And she did love him. Well, as much as you could love a guy you hadn’t so much as gone on a date with.
She’d met Asher at an open-house event the winery had hosted as something of a relaunch of the brand, when Lindy, the owner, had officially gained full ownership after her divorce.
He’d walked into the converted barn, where Clara was serving drinks, and it had been like a light shone down on him. Even in the crowd of people he stood out to her.
From there she’d found out where he worked and developed a fake coffee habit. Which made her sound a little like a weirdo as things stood now, but would be a charming story to tell later if things worked out.
“Here’s your cappuccino, Clara.” Asher turned and passed the coffee across the counter. There was no lid on the white paper travel cup yet, which gave her a moment to admire the heart he’d traced into the foam. Okay, it was kind of a fern. But like…a heart-shaped fern. And either way it made her own heart skip a few beats.
“Thank you,” she said, doing her best not to blush when she looked directly at him in all of his man-bunned glory.
He was lean and rangy, wearing a T-shirt for a band she’d never heard of and would probably hate if she did. But she liked the look of the shirt, so she didn’t really care about the band. Plus, it was nice to listen to him talk about music and how every popular song had the same three chords. Sure, afterward she got into her truck and put on the popular country music station, but he was passionate. She liked that.
Even if her tastes were regrettably mainstream.
She loitered at the edge of the counter for a moment. She was running early for work. She’d built in extra time for this stop, so she could afford to linger a little.
He lifted his brows, his dark eyes questioning. She would answer any question he wanted. “Did you need anything else?”
“Okay.” Then he turned around and began cleaning up the drink station. She let out a long, slow sigh. She really didn’t have a reason to linger.
Slowly, very slowly, she added one sugar packet to her coffee. Then another one. Then a third. All while watching Asher. She wasn’t going to drink the coffee so it didn’t really matter what it tasted like. And since she wasn’t going to drink it, she wasn’t going to stir the design away either.
Reluctantly, she covered the coffee with a white to-go lid then turned to walk out the door. She didn’t make it very far, though, because she ran right into a brick wall.
Well, it wasn’t really a brick wall. It just felt like one. Large, hard and uncompromising.
But breathing. Which brick walls definitely didn’t do.
“Clara Campbell. Fancy meeting you here.”
Clara blinked and stared up into Alex Donnelly’s forest-green eyes and felt a strange response that seemed to originate in her stomach and travel upward to her chest, where it twisted, hard and sharp.
After looking at Asher, his understated physique and much softer brown gaze, the sight of Alex was jarring. Too intense. Too masculine. Too a lot of things.
His dark hair wasn’t military short anymore. It was long enough to hang into his face. He pushed it back off his forehead and again, something twisted, low and deep inside of her.
And then it wasn’t only his features that seemed too sharp. It was seeing him at all. She had been studiously avoiding him ever since he had moved back to Copper Ridge. If ever she’d caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of her eye, she’d gone the other way.
The last time she’d seen him up close had been at Jason’s funeral.
Pain washed through her, canceling out all of the good Asher feelings from only a moment before.
No wonder she’d had such a strong, immediate response to the sight of Alex. The man was dragging a bunch of her baggage in with him. Another thing she liked about Asher.
He was separate from her life. From her pain.
Alex was all wound up in it.
“Hi, Alex,” she said, clutching her coffee cup tight, the warmth bleeding through to her palms. Which she was grateful for at the moment since her stomach had gone ice-cold at the sight of him.
“I’ve been meaning to stop by,” he said.
“That’s really okay,” she said, and she meant it. More than okay. Jason’s death meant that she was alone. Both of her parents were already gone. They’d had children later in life, and when her mother had gotten sick, her father had done everything he could to make his wife comfortable as her health declined. She’d died when Clara was twelve.
And there had been no amount of preparation that could soften the blow. No amount of expectedness that could have made it feel less like a giant, ugly hand had reached into their life and wrenched the beauty out of it, leaving nothing but a dark abyss.
Their father had thrown himself into work. Into the ranch and into drinking. He’d tried to be there for his kids, but it had been too hard for him to look at them sometimes.
And Clara could understand. It had been hard to look at him too. Hard to look at him and see the grief, stark and horrible on his face.
And then he’d died of a heart attack when Clara was seventeen, the stress of caregiving and loss too much for his body.
And now Jason.
A black sense of humor honed out of necessity—since a good portion of her life had been very dark indeed, and she’d had to find ways to laugh—forced her to wonder if she should look out for stray lightning bolts.
Whatever the reason—hex, divine intervention or plain bad luck—the Campbell family hadn’t been very long-lived.
So now Clara was alone. And really, she wanted to get to the business of being alone. She did not want to deal with Alex’s dutiful presence. Because that’s all it would be. He and Jason had been in the military together, they’d been friends and brothers in arms.
She had a suspicion Alex had even been there when her brother was killed. So of course the guy felt some sense of… Something. A desire to make sure she was okay. The need to check on her and the ranch, and whatever else.
But she didn’t need that. She didn’t need anybody coming into her life and carrying a portion of the weight for a limited time. She wanted to get on with that permanent, hard stretch that was the rest of her life.
She didn’t want a false sense of ease. That would only make it all the harder when she was alone again.
“It’s not okay, actually. We have some things we need to discuss.”
Clara looked down at the top of her coffee cup and wished that she hadn’t put the lid on, so she could make a show out of studying the milk-froth fern. “Oh. Do we?”
She looked at the clock on the wall and regrettably she had time.
Time she had built in so she could make conversation with Asher if he’d been in the mood to make conversation. Not so she could hassle with Alex and the myriad emotions just looking at him made her feel.
“Well, I’m on my way to work,” she said, edging around his masculine frame and backing toward the door.
“You have a job other than working at the ranch?”
She should have known the big, muscly soldier wouldn’t take hints well. “Yes,” she said.
She didn’t elaborate.
“Where at?”
She made an impatient sound she didn’t even try to cover up. “Grassroots Winery.”
“I haven’t been out there yet. Maybe I should check it out.”
Rather than answering, Clara lifted her cup to her lips and absently took a drink. She grimaced, barely stopping herself from spitting out the hot liquid. It was still bitter, with a kind of sickly sweet flavor running over the top of it. Compliments of that extra sugar she had dumped into the cup to linger over Asher a little longer.
She really, really didn’t like coffee.
Alex treated her to a strange look.
“It’s strong,” she said, gesturing with the cup. “Just the way I like it.”
“Glad to hear that.”
“Well—” she waved her fingers “—bye.” She continued walking past him, heading out the door.
Much to her chagrin, he followed.
She paused, turning slightly in the gravel parking lot. “You didn’t get your coffee.”
“I actually wasn’t there for coffee. I don’t like places like that.”
“Why not?”
“You can only get one size. What the hell is up with that? I don’t need some hipster giving me prescriptive coffee. I don’t need to be told the way they think coffee must be served to be better. I need it the way I want it.”
He stopped walking, crossing his arms over his broad chest. He was wearing a plain, tan colored T-shirt and a pair of dark jeans. Somehow, even out of uniform, he still looked like he was in one.
“Why did you stop in then?”
“I saw your truck outside.”
She frowned. “You acted surprised to see me.”
“No,” he said, “I believe what I said was ‘Fancy meeting you here.’”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, you knew how I would take it.” A strange sense of disquiet stole over her, a feeling of creeping tension.
“I tried to call your cell phone,” he said.
She blinked. “How did you get my number?”
“It was on some paperwork I got from the attorney’s office. It looked like something we both should have had copies of.”
Right. Paperwork that was probably sitting unopened in a pile on her table. To go nicely with the messages from the lawyer she’d been avoiding. He’d tried to talk to her at the funeral, too. But she hadn’t been able to handle it. Because then they’d be talking about her brother’s estate. Which was what your possessions turned into when you were dead.
An Estate.
She’d had to discuss her mother’s. Then her father’s. She’d had the feeling she’d crawl out of her skin talking to anyone about her brother’s. It was stupid, and she knew it. Ignoring bills didn’t mean they didn’t need to be paid. Ignoring a lawyer wouldn’t make Jason not dead.
But once she talked to him, it would all feel final. And she couldn’t handle that. She was barely keeping her head above water. She was dependent on her routine. These quiet mornings where she got coffee she didn’t want to drink from a man whose whole being made her feel…happy. If only for a few moments. Then she would go and work at the winery showroom until closing time, enjoying being surrounded by people. Then she’d head home. Home to her empty house, where she would do any chores that needed doing before she fell into bed, passed out, didn’t dream—if she was lucky—and repeated the whole thing the next day.
Maybe it was denial. But she deserved a little denial.
Alex was interrupting her carefully orchestrated coping mechanism. She didn’t like it. “You took my phone number from a piece of paper?”
“I told you, I need to talk to you about a few things. I assumed you knew some of this, I thought an effort had been made the contact you.”
Her cheeks got hot, and she went prickly all over. Efforts probably had been made, but she just hadn’t been able to cope. Which made her feel small and humiliated. She hated it.
Alex continued. “Your brother had a will.”
She didn’t want to do this. Not here. Not now. She couldn’t talk about Jason. She couldn’t talk about his will. She couldn’t deal with this. “I have to go to work,” she said.
She was going to deal with all of this—Alex, Jason’s will—someday. But not today. She just didn’t want to do it today.
“What time do you get off?”
“Six. But I’m going to be really tired and I…”
“Why is your phone turned off, Clara?”
She blinked hard, and yet, no matter how much she wanted him to disappear, no amount of blinking accomplished it. “It’s not a big deal. I don’t use my phone.” She wasn’t paying her bills. That was the truth. There was some money, it wasn’t like she was destitute. But there was something about dealing with the mail right now that felt overwhelming. Envelope after envelope, cards, condolences, bills addressed to Jason like he wasn’t dead. Like he could come back and open them.
He couldn’t. He couldn’t do anything.
“I’ve been busy,” she said. “I forgot to pay the bill. That’s all.”
She wasn’t going to admit her mail gave her anxiety. What kind of twit had mail anxiety?
Well. She did.
“And if I come to your house at six tonight are you going to be there? Or am I going to have to stalk you at your favorite coffee place again?”
She frowned. “Come to think of it, it’s a little bit weird that you were able to find me here.”
“Not really. I saw you here yesterday when I drove into town. I took an educated guess this morning and decided I would stop in. It’s pretty lazy stalking, all in all.”
“Lazy stalking isn’t really less disturbing than energetic stalking.”
“You can avoid all future stalking if we could just talk now,” he said, his expression suddenly turning serious.
“No,” she said, the denial coming out quickly.
She really couldn’t deal with this now. She couldn’t deal with discussing Jason in the past tense. Couldn’t deal with talking about his will in a parking lot. Couldn’t face looking at all the things her brother had left behind, his worldly possessions, which no longer belonged to him because he wasn’t part of the world anymore.
Hell, she couldn’t open a damn phone bill. She wasn’t going to do any of the rest of this.
“Then we’ll talk later. If I have to camp out in your yard, we’ll talk later.”
Then he turned and walked back toward his truck, leaving her standing there with her cappuccino.
She took another sip. “Dammit!”
She forced herself to swallow it, rather than spitting it out into the gravel, on the off chance Asher was watching.
She had to get to work now, she couldn’t worry about Alex. Whatever he had to say to her, she would take care of it then. Her life had already been rocked beyond recognition in the past couple of months. There was nothing Alex Donnelly could say that would bring it crumbling down now.

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