She wants to leave Nugget behind, he’s just made it his home. Sometimes love is worth throwing plans—and caution—to the wind . . .
Raylene Rosser is Nugget’s most infamous prodigal daughter. The townspeople aren’t exactly holding a welcome home parade when she returns, but that’s okay with Raylene—she’s only here to make amends for selfish mistakes, sell her property, and get out of town asap after her half-brother Logan’s wedding. Picturesque Nugget is her past, and Raylene is determined to build a future . . .
All of which would be easier if Logan hadn’t asked his business partner to keep an eye on her. A security specialist, Gabe Moretti certainly knows how to shadow a girl—and how to boss said girl around. It would be infuriating, if only Raylene could keep her eyes off Gabe’s broad chest, rugged profile, and sexy smile. Falling in love might not be the safe choice, but sometimes everyone needs to tempt fate . . .
PRAISE FOR STACY FINZ
“Sweet humor, well-defined and appealing characters, and just enough adventure sports and fashion detail make Finz’s print debut, and series launch, a delightful read.”
—Library Journal on Need You
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"That girl has some nerve showing up in this town after all the trouble she's caused."
"I was surprised Logan and Annie even invited her to the wedding."
Raylene Rosser huddled behind a display of canned goods, trying to make herself as small as possible while eavesdropping. She recognized Donna Thurston's voice. The Bun Boy owner always was a sanctimonious bitch. But Raylene expected better from Ethel. She'd known her since before she could walk. Donna, too.
Then again, it would've been foolish to think she'd be welcomed back to Nugget with open arms. She hadn't exactly left on the best of terms. Nope, instead of burning bridges, she'd blown them up with a hand grenade.
That's okay. As soon as Logan and Annie tied the knot, and Raylene found what she was looking for and sold the last of her inheritance, a prime piece of Nugget real estate, she'd get in her truck and leave this dusty, godforsaken town. Forever. Let Logan carry on the Rosser legacy — such as it was. She had places to go and people to meet. Without Butch, the worst husband in the annals of bad husbands, she was free to roam. Free to do whatever the hell she wanted. And if it all worked out, she could dig herself out of the mess she'd buried herself in. But for right now, she wanted to be with Logan on the most important day of his life.
Funny, that. Last summer, she'd hated him on sight. Her daddy's secret love child. But then Logan Jenkins swooped in and helped her clean up her train wreck of an existence and they connected like only blood can. And Annie ... the woman was a saint. Earth mother rolled in sugar and spice and everything nice. And the best part: she accepted Raylene, warts and all. No judgment.
So no way was Raylene missing their wedding, even if the town busybodies wanted to burn her at the stake. She strained to hear if Donna and Ethel were still talking about her. Apparently neither of them knew she was in the store. Or perhaps they didn't care.
"Who are you hiding from?"
Raylene jumped at the voice, a deep baritone with more than a hint of New Jersey. A voice that irritated the hell out of her. She whipped her head around and put her finger over her lips. "Shush."
Gabe Moretti leaned against the spaghetti sauce shelf, a six-pack in one hand and a bag of Ruffles in the other, a smile playing on his lips. "You can run, Ray, but you can't hide."
"Don't call me that." It was her father's name, and Ray Rosser had been a mean son of a bitch. Probably still was, even six feet under. "Now go away."
He didn't budge, just continued to stand there, all two hundred and twenty pounds of him. The man was a brick house who moved like a freaking ghost. The way he'd snuck up on her ... well, she was lucky he hadn't given her a heart attack.
"Don't pay attention to them," Gabe said. "Small town, small minds."
The truth was she deserved every ounce of their venom, and more. That was what was so hard about being here. Every day was like looking in a mirror and seeing something you didn't like staring back. At least in LA, no one knew her and she could be anyone she wanted, even if it meant living on ramen and letting out rooms in her beach rental.
"I thought you liked it here," she said.
"Love it." He jabbed the bag of potato chips at the front of the store. "Love those two old biddies, but they don't know you like I do, Ray."
"You've met me exactly twice." Three times, if she counted now. "Neither time did we say more than three words to each other." The first time, he and Logan had come to Denver to help her get away from Butch. The second time was yesterday, at a small, pre-wedding gathering at Logan and Annie's place.
"Yep." He winked. "But both times I made a lasting impression on you." His lips ticked up in an arrogant grin. If he weren't her brother's best friend and business partner, she'd wipe that smirk off his face. "Are you planning to stay in canned goods your whole life?"
She pretended to study the various brands of tomato paste. "Annie asked me to pick up a few things for the party tonight. I'm trying to decide which one is best."
"Annie cans her own tomatoes." He lifted his brows in challenge, then slid a glance at her empty basket. "Coward."
"I am not." She stuck her chin out with false bravado, because she was a coward. The worst kind of coward. "They can all go to hell."
"Isn't that the kind of attitude that got you labeled the wicked witch of the west in the first place? Why don't you just go out there, smile, and say, 'Fine afternoon'? It's called diplomacy."
"They teach you that in SEAL school?"
"It's BUD/S, not SEAL school." He pushed himself away from the shelf.
She noted that he had on a stupid straw cowboy hat and a pair of pointy boots. Gabe Moretti was as much a cowboy as she was Snooki from Jersey Shore. "It's after Labor Day, by the way." She nudged her head at his hat.
"Felt in the winter; straw comes out Memorial Day. You want people around here to laugh at you?"
"People around here love me, sweetheart. You, not so much."
He had a point, at least about her. She had no clue how the people of Nugget responded to Gabe. According to Annie, they loved Logan. He'd gotten the good Rosser genes — if there were any. Or maybe he just took after his mom, a woman Raylene had never met. Soon she would, when Maisy got here for the wedding. The whole thing would be very strange. Meeting the other woman, the one who'd been her father's mistress right under Raylene's mother's nose.
"Just trying to help you pull off the look," she said. "No self-respecting rancher wears a straw cowboy hat in December, just saying."
"Good thing I'm not a rancher."
His eyes took a long, leisurely stroll down her Wranglers. You could take the girl out of Nugget, but you couldn't take Nugget out of the girl. She had a closet full of designer jeans in every color. In LA you could easily pay three hundred dollars for denim. But nothing got between her and her Wranglers. From the gleam in Gabe's eye, he wished he could. But she was done trying to impress men. Her father, Butch ... she was done.
He lifted his gaze to her face. "You better hurry if you're planning to make dinner."
She glanced at her watch. There was still plenty of time to pick up the items Annie needed. The whole point of this expedition was to get out of the house and avoid the neighbors, who were over at the farmhouse to help Annie set up for the dinner. She and Logan had been in remodel hell since they bought the place last summer and had only recently moved in. Annie had wanted an August wedding but they'd had to speed things up a bit, otherwise the bride would've had to walk down the aisle in a maternity dress. Raylene shuddered. A baby Rosser. Crazy.
"Are you bringing that?" She pointed at the beer and Ruffles.
"Yeah, why? You think I should get barbecue, instead?"
She rolled her eyes and grabbed the bag. Sour cream and onion. "Hey, you're the best man. If you think bringing potato chips to pre- wedding festivities is appropriate, there's no hope for you."
"Give me a break, Ray. I'm bringing a case of Veuve Clicquot." He held up the Ruffles and the six-pack of Bud. "These are for me."
She gave Gabe a quick scan. The man could eat chips and drink beer until the cows came home. Washboard abs under his thermal shirt, lean hips encased in denim, and not an ounce of fat on him. Butch had had to switch to light beer because he was getting a gut. He used to stare at himself in the mirror until it made Raylene nuts. Poor Butch, no longer able to reel in the young rodeo queens as easily as he once had.
"Well, nice chatting with you." She waited for him to leave, hoping he'd take a hint so she could figure out a way to sneak out of the market sight unseen. Graeagle was just a few minutes up the road; she'd buy her groceries there. They were probably cheaper there anyway, and she had to make her money last.
But Gabe stayed put. Either he was dense as Denver or he wanted to witness her humiliation.
"If you want, I'll help you finish your shopping and walk you to Ethel's cash register." He winked. "Safety in numbers."
"No thanks, I'm good." She dropped the basket on the floor and told herself screw it. There was a time in this town when the residents bowed down to a Rosser. She'd walk out of the market with her head held high.
She marched past Gabe, through the center of the store, and watched as Ethel and Donna did double takes. They immediately exchanged glances, probably wondering if she'd heard every cruel word they'd said.
Raylene pasted on one of her old barrel-racing smiles and flipped her hair from her collar. "Spill on aisle five."
Outside, in the parking lot, she let the cold air wash over her, relieved to leave the stuffy market behind. She'd nearly forgotten how frigid Nugget was in the winter. Southern California rarely dipped below fifty degrees. She headed to her truck, noting that Gabe's big-ass SUV was parked next to her Ford F-150. Knowing her brother, he'd probably bribed Moretti to babysit her and keep her out of trouble. Old reputations were hard to shed.
Yes, there'd been a time when she liked to stir things up. She and her father had left a lot of carnage in their wake. That's why she knew there'd be daggers out for her the minute she crossed the Plumas County line.
Raylene couldn't fix what she'd broken. As soon as the wedding was over, as soon as she got what she came for, she could leave. Go back to Los Angeles and start searching for a ranchette in the San Gabriel Valley to raise her cutting horses.
In the meantime, she could handle the dirty looks and the nasty comments spoken behind her back. With practically the whole town coming to the wedding, there would be plenty of whispering. But Rossers were made of stern stuff, she told herself, pressing her clicker to unlock her truck.
Except for a charging station for an electric car and a few new shopping cart storage docks, the parking lot was the same as she always remembered. Like her, it was a little frayed around the edges. The letters on the market sign could use a new coat of paint and the building a power washing.
From the corner of her eye she saw a dark-haired woman leaning against her Outback, giving Raylene a steely stare. Cecilia Rodriguez — now Stryker, according to Logan — hadn't aged a bit. Those high cheek bones still slashed across olive skin on a wrinkleless face. A face Raylene knew as well as her own mother's.
Raylene stood there awkwardly, letting the seconds stretch to minutes. Finally, Cecilia flipped down her sunglasses from the top of her head and walked away. Raylene watched until she disappeared inside the automatic sliding doors of the Nugget Market, then she let out a breath and climbed into the cab of her Ford. She didn't realize she was crying until Gabe tapped on her window.
She rubbed her eyes, smearing black mascara down her face. Great. When she didn't immediately respond, he tapped again. Persistent cuss.
She started the ignition and cracked the window just enough to say, "What?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" She swiped her cheeks with the back of her hands, hoping to conceal evidence to the contrary.
"Dunno, you tell me."
"I have something in my eye." She tilted the rearview and held her eyelid up, pretending to look for a lash. It was easier than telling the truth. Gabe was the only person in this town who didn't know the full story of her past, and she wanted to keep it that way. It was bad enough that he knew the shoddy way she'd treated Logan when she first found out about him. All those years, Ray had abandoned his only son and kept any knowledge of him a well-guarded secret.
"Let me see." He tried to squeeze his big hand through the opening, but it wouldn't fit.
"There," she said. "It's gone. All good."
"I called Annie and got the things on her list." He held up a grocery bag. "You don't have to worry about it."
She should've been thankful that he'd saved her a trip to Graeagle. Instead, she felt a sting of humiliation for not being able to stand up to Donna and Ethel. For letting Gabe see her run out of the Nugget Market with her tail tucked between her legs.
"You want to get a cup of coffee?"
"You making fun of my Jersey?"
She took another pass at her face with the back of her hand. It was hard to be a smart ass with raccoon eyes. "You do know the nearest Starbucks is in Glory Junction? That's thirty minutes up the road."
"Forty-eight minutes to Dunkin'." He grinned, and the dimple in his chin became more prominent. It looked like someone had shot him with a BB gun.
She motioned her head at his bag. "The groceries will spoil."
"There's nothing perishable."
"You have an answer for everything, don't you?" The truth was she wanted a stiff drink. Badly. Caffeine was a tolerable substitute, she'd learned during the last few months. "We're not going to the Bun Boy." Donna Thurston might order one of her employees to pee in Raylene's cup.
"That only leaves one place."
"Meet you there." Raylene didn't wait for a response, just backed out of her parking space and headed to the square to the only sit- down restaurant in town, which also happened to be a bar and a bowling alley.
At least the owners of the Ponderosa hardly knew her. They'd moved up to Nugget from San Francisco, bought the place and rehabbed it while Raylene was still living in Denver with TAB — That Asshole Butch — though her reputation likely preceded her.
She found a spot in front of the Lumber Baron Inn, a Victorian B&B that took up a quarter of Nugget's business district, such as it was. The hotel was decked out in holiday decorations, as was the entire square. Lights, boughs of holly, and big red bows flocked with a smattering of leftover snow. She suspected the garland and ribbons would be coming down soon, since it was mid-January, and she would've stopped to take it all in but it was too cold to loiter. There were a lot of memories in this square. Farmers' markets, festivals, and concerts. In high school, after a game, they'd all pile into someone's truck and meet at the Bun Boy, where they'd blare music and eat burgers at the outdoor picnic tables.
Back then, she and her family had been the closest thing to royalty this town ever had. And she'd been the reigning princess, the girl most likely to have everything. Beauty, wealth, and the Rosser's Rock and River Ranch. A rusty laugh bubbled up in her throat, because all of it was gone. Look at me now.Dull, poor, and alone.
A blast of welcome heat and a Dixie Chicks song hit her as she entered the restaurant. Gabe had already claimed a table — she didn't know how he'd beat her here — and waved her over.
"Did you fly?"
Again with the obnoxious grin. "Nope, I'm just faster than you."
She took off her scarf and jacket, draped it over a chair, and took a quick look around.
"Doing a little recon?"
The man didn't miss a trick, and it was kind of spooky. Retired from the Navy, he and Logan owned a private security firm and still did a lot of top-secret missions for the government.
"Just reliving my misspent youth."
She watched Gabe scan the long, intricately carved bar. According to rumor, it had been salvaged from a Gold Rush bordello. But people around here liked to make up colorful stories, so the bar could've come from Ethan Allen for all Raylene knew.
"So this was your stomping ground, huh?"
She shrugged. "It sure didn't look like this." Back when she was a kid, the place smelled of cigarettes and cheap beer and looked like an old-man bar. Now it resembled one of those gourmet tap rooms on Nob Hill. Lots of dark wood paneling, period wall sconces, red velvet curtains, and pleather banquettes. Yet they'd still managed to retain the saloon's cowboy vibe. A vibe that reminded her too much of her father.
"Sophie and Mariah take pride in the place, that's for sure." Gabe perused the menu. "You hungry?"
"We're gonna eat in less than three hours." It was potluck, which, knowing the good folks of Nugget, meant enough casseroles to fill the grange hall. The evening would likely prove to be the most trying dinner of Raylene's life, depending on who attended.
"Yeah, so what's your point?"
A server came to the table. No one Raylene knew, thank God.
"You want coffee, a cocktail, or a glass of wine?" Gabe asked her.
A vodka tonic. She sat on her hands so they wouldn't shake. "Coffee's good."
Gabe got coffee as well, and a plate of sourdough bread and butter for the table. The waitress quickly returned with their order and left a carafe of piping hot caffeine in the middle of the table.
"How much did Logan pay you to be my minder?"
He tossed his head back and laughed. "Ah, Ray, you really have to work on your self-esteem."
She couldn't help herself and flipped him the bird. "Seriously, I don't need a keeper."
"What, you don't like my company?"
She was probably the only woman on God's green earth who didn't. Though to be truthful, he was funny. And good-looking, if you liked muscular men hopped up on cockiness and attitude. She'd had enough of those to last her a lifetime.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Tempting Fate"
Copyright © 2018 Stacy Finz.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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