A near psychotic laugh bubbles up before I can stop it. Braden immediately begins to launch a series of irritated questions at us.
“Why are you laughing? And why in the hell are ‘trending’ and my name being uttered in the same sentence? Someone tell me what the fuck is going on. Now.”
I finish my giggle-fest with a satisfied sigh and slump into my seat, turning lazily to point my phone his way. “The picture I posted earlier. Part of your handsome frowning face is in the shot, and chicks are getting lady boners over you.”
His face screws up. “That’s a sign of some sort. I’m going home. I have shit to do later, and Charley will pout if I hold up dinner—and I hate it when she pouts.”
My grin starts to fade. Not that he owed me a relationship status disclosure, but who is this pouting “she” he’s talking about? What sort of woman does Braden go home to? She pouts? I can’t picture him putting up with much drama of any kind, let alone female drama. What does she look like? Is she pretty?
Oh, hell, who am I kidding? Look at him. The dark hair and the scruff, the serious sage eyes, and a sourpuss attitude many a woman would love to claim she single-handedly charmed into submission. All of that and he’s built like the caricature of a lusty lumberjack. So yeah, she’s probably gorgeous.
My phone beeps with a text, interrupting my internal ramble. Bless my little brother’s heart, because he probably just saved me from making a fool of myself had any of the ramblings become external.
Where is your extra laundry detergent? I know you have some. You’re my laundry whisperer. Better yet, come home, laundry whisperer. WHITES! COLORS! MY DELICATES! THIS IS TOO HARD!!!
Sigh. The kid is twenty-five going on twelve. His adulting skills are especially weak when it comes to laundry, and since I find laundry to be the most relaxing chore in the world, I’m content to be his enabler when it comes to his aversion to washing machines. Plus, he’s my kid brother. We lost our parents in a fire when I was ten and he was seven, and despite Uncle Cal taking us in and loving us the best he could, the two of us still became a little codependent unit. I mothered him and he protectedme—and we do the same today. If I were home, he would have shown up with his laundry basket like a college kid, dumped it next to the washing machine, and then concocted a bullshit story about a sudden work emergency. But given that he’s part owner of a burgeoning custom furniture company and runs the design portion of the business, most of his job involves him hunched over a sketch pad. Not exactly a job fraught with crises.
Another text lights the screen.
You’ll need to buy more peanut butter when you get back. And eggs.
And milk. Toothpaste. TP. I’ll make a list. You’re welcome.
I snort. He also struggles mightily with grocery shopping, so I’ve been known to stock up on extras of the things he likes. I tap out a quick reply.
Stop *shopping* in my pantry and take your lazy ass to the grocery store. IT’S THAT HUGE BUILDING NEXT TO THE STRIP-MALL DIVE BAR YOU FREQUENT.
Teagan peers toward my phone. “Trey?”
“Yeah,” I answer, clicking the lock on my phone. “I can’t leave him alone. His laundry won’t do itself, and I’m not there to make it magically disappear, then reappear clean and folded.” Braden clears his throat and my eyes shoot to his. We’re both holding our phones awkwardly, somehow quizzing each other without so much as a word.
“Well, I’m sure your brother,” Teagan offers, “will figure it out. Either that or I’m sure he can just brush off the sawdust and make do.”
Visible relief works across Braden’s features. Suddenly, he thrusts his phone in my face. My eyes drop to his home screen, where there’s a picture of a dark toffee-colored Chesapeake Bay retriever zonked out in a layout blind, her head resting on what I’m assuming is one of Braden’s manly thighs.
“Charley,” he declares.
A smile spreads across my face. Braden returns my smile with his own.
OK, calling it a smile might be pushing it. But he isn’t glaring or frowning, and the left side of his mouth is curved up ever so slightly, enough to send a zing of satisfaction through my body. We stay that way until Colin’s stage whisper absolutely kills the moment.
“Jesus. Is that what we look like?”
An oof follows, likely the back of Teagan’s hand whacking against Colin’s abs. Teagan then chimes in with an invitation.
“Come to dinner with us, Braden. We need you to tell us where to go anyway—you’re the local.”
His eyes drift over to Teagan before opening the truck door to get out.
“I can’t. I wasn’t bullshitting about having a thing to be at tonight. Your choices for dinner are limited in Hotchkiss, but there’s a barbeque place called True Grit. It’s pretty good. Give that a try.”
The door shuts, and he disappears into the low light of a late afternoon creeping toward sunset. We wait until his truck starts before turning to give one another the same skeptical expression.
“Did he just recommend a barbeque joint to us?” Colin asks.
“He did,” Teagan replies.
We all go silent for a few beats. Dumbfounded by what Braden has just so innocently proposed. Shocked by the nerve of it. Entirely confused.
“Was he joking? He knows where we’re from, right?” Colin continues, prompting only a shrug from Teagan and a questioning headshake from me.
Because if there’s one thing we Texans readily unite behind, it’s our barbeque—the belief that no matter how you smoke it, baste it, or slather it, no one else does it the way we do. We do it right. Everyone else does it wrong.
And to claim otherwise is blasphemy.
The entire room falls away, along with every anxiety, every question, every confusing thought I had. All that’s left behind is the two of us, intensely present and entirely vulnerable to whatever comes next between us. And I want Braden to decide what that might be, because I’m tired of taking the lead. I’ve made the first move more than once, and tonight, I don’t want to ply him or convince him, or have it feel like he’s simply succumbing to a craving he couldn’t control. It’s time for Braden to prove to me this isn’t one-sided by taking the reins, just so long as I know I’ll get them back at some point.
I caught a glimpse of the Braden I want earlier tonight, when the too-slick, too-skinny cowboy at the foundation dinner invaded a little too much of my space. Braden’s protective yet patient gaze was on me, and I wanted to wrap myself in that sensation, sink into the experience of being watched over without being hovered over. Braden didn’t storm over like a bull bent on drawing blood, or alpha his way in and deck the cowboy’s lights out, even when I was ready for him to do exactly that. He acted like a man, not a hotheaded kid, and I wanted that man—the one in possession of all that control and composure—to want me.
Braden moves to stand behind me. He draws my hair away from the side of my neck, placing a kiss to the sensitive skin behind my ear, then traces his fingertips to that same spot, and my entire body comes alive. Another sweep of my hair to the side, exposing the zipper on my dress, the one he could so easily yank down. Instead his hands land on my shoulders, fingers splayed wide so he can gently knead the muscles there. My eyes drift closed.
“I haven’t done this in a while,” he says.
Eyes still closed, my brow knits. This impromptu neck massage is diverting, but not so much that I don’t find what he just said a little surprising. Sure, Braden isn’t exactly a poster child or sociability, but he is hot. His looks alone could open a few bedroom doors, and anyone who bothers to peek under his surly Superman cape would find a man who never neglects to answer a text and sometimes checks his best friend’s forehead for sign of a fever. Add in that big, masculine body of his and the guy could easily get some if he wanted to, so there must be a reason why he’s been on hiatus.
Braden’s thumbs begin to work over deep knots near my shoulder blades that I didn’t know were there.
“Why has it been a while?”
He continues to knead until he feels my shoulders wilt in relief.
“I got burnt by an ex a few years back. I hadn’t met anyone worth the trouble since then. Until now.”
My curiosity doubles down on those last two words. “Why me?”
I’m not sure what it is I want him to say, so long as they aren’t trite words about how I look. From another man, that sort of desire might be enough, but with Braden I need something else.What, I’m not exactly sure. I just know I need more than the superficial.
Braden’s hands drop to my hips and he grips them firmly, pressing his groin to my backside.
“Because you make me feel like a goddam live wire. You’re in the room and I feel you. I don’t have to see you, even. Because you’re fucking everywhere. It puts my teeth on edge and sets my skin on fire. And I can’t get enough.”
He’d heard my thoughts. He had to—that’s the only explanation for his being able to say exactly what I needed to hear, yet couldn’t name for myself. I calm the urge to all but shout, Take me, sailor!—like some swoony matinee star from back in the day. Slowly, I turn in his grip and meet his heavy-lidded gaze, intent on kissing him or dropping to my knees, whatever feels right.
But Braden slinks one arm tight around my waist, trapping me in his grip so he can run his fingers across my mouth, his eyes fixed there so intensely my face heats under the lovely scrutiny. My lips part a fraction, ready to speak or kiss or moan, I’m not sure which.
Braden continues to stare at my mouth. “Because it’s been a while for me, I need you to let me set the pace this time. Can you do that?”
My chest begins to rise and fall raggedly. “Can we take turns after that?”
Braden’s face immediately cracks into a broad grin. One that’s wry and exasperated, but above all, charmed . . . charmed by me.
A slow shake of his head. “You couldn’t just say yes, could you?”
“You know you would have been disappointed if I had. I just want to be sure I get my turn. I want to drive you crazy, but in a good way.”
His grin fades, his eyes darken, and I find myself tossed over his shoulder before I can even act like I might object.
“Fucking live wire,” he mutters, striding down the hallway and ducking when we make it to the doorway, flipping on a light switch at the same time. Braden sets me back on my feet near a single nightstand next to an enormous bed.
The room itself isn’t huge, so the bed takes up most of it. The frame is gray-stained pine trimmed with black wrought iron, and if I didn’t know better, I’d think it was one of Trey’s designs because it’s industrial-looking and impossible to ignore. The nightstand holds a tower of books and an alarm clock, and there’s a grocery-store bag tossed there, partially open to reveal its contents.
Condoms. Good man, Braden.
I waste no time after that, reaching for him with a tug while trying to work his belt open and yank his shirt off all at the same time. Braden’s hands swoop in and latch on to mine, letting out a low rumble as he spins me to face the other direction, still somehow able to keep my wrists in his loose but commanding grip.
His lips meet the crown of my head, whispering, “My pace. We agreed.”
Featuring Liora Blake’s signature “funny, endearing, and more than a little hot” (Library Journal) style, the third novel in the Grand Valley series features a rough-talking game warden going toe-to-toe with a TV star who unexpectedly turns his life upside down.
Braden Montgomery is certain about three things: one, luck is for suckers; two, time spent outdoors is what keeps him sane; and, three, when it comes to sharing his bed, there’s only one female he’s willing to put up with—his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Charley. Braden’s constructed his life on these beliefs, and he’s quite content with the status quo.
But when a moment of bad luck lands Braden toe-to-toe with a blonde bombshell with her own television show, his stubbornly structured reality begins to unravel.
As for Amber Regan, her brand has been built on camo, cut-offs, and cleavage. With her own hunting show on the foremost sports channel and enough social media followers to garner her plenty of endorsement deals, Amber’s come a long way from the tomboy in a small Texas town she once was. Unfortunately, ratings are down and her contract for next season is in limbo, so she’s in desperate need of a reboot to save her show—and filming a rough and tough archery elk hunt in Colorado might be the way to do just that. Too bad the local game warden grunts more than he speaks, seems determined to despise her—and makes her heart race in all the most inconvenient ways.
Romance Contemporary [Gallery Books, On Sale: October 31, 2017, Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9781501155178 / eISBN: 9781501155185]
About Liora Blake
Liora Blake is a contemporary romance author who writes because it’s what she’s always wanted to do. She writes novels because she likes to tell the whole story, and she writes romance because a happily ever after is the best kind of story to tell.
When she isn’t writing, she’s likely baking cookies she shouldn’t eat, inventing elaborate excuses to avoid going for a run, or asking the nice barista to sell her another quad-shot Americano.