©2019 Christyne Butler

Cover copy text used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. Cover Art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. ® and ™ are trademarks owned by Harlequin Enterprises Limited or its affiliated companies, used under license.

Hi there! If you've found this page thanks to the amazing movie, Art of Falling in Love,

airing on UpTV, welcome! Yes, the move was inspired by my 2014 Harlequin novel, The Last Chance Maverickbut parts of the book--from characters' names to the story itself--were changed.  However, the heart and soul of this story was captured beautifully!  

THE LAST CHANCE MAVERICK

 

Prologue

Carrollton Cancer Center, Philadelphia, PA
Eleven months ago

 

“Okay, read it to me…” Adele’s voice faded for a moment as she struggled to speak against the plastic mask covering her nose and mouth that supplied her with fresh oxygen. “…again. We need to finish our list.”

Vanessa Brent swallowed hard against the lump in her throat that refused to go away. Every time she walked into this room—as plush and beautiful and unlike a hospital room as a sun-filled space could be—she had the same physical reaction and it stayed with her until she’d left again. 

One would think after three months of being here on a daily basis she’d be used to the sight of her best friend fighting a battle they’d recently accepted she wasn’t going to win. That she’d be able to sit here, hold Adele’s hand and do as she asked.

“All of it?” Glad her words managed to find their way around the obstacle in her throat, Vanessa glanced at the aged piece of paper she held in her hand. Titled “Adele and Vanessa’s Bucket List, created July 4, 2001, Secret Clubhouse, Vanessa’s Attic, Chestnut Hill, PA”, the well creased, lined sheet of notebook paper was covered with two distinct styles of handwriting, one belonging to her twelve year old self and the other a more mature scrawl. “Or just the things we’ve added?”

They’d discovered the childhood list one day while going through some forgotten boxes in Vanessa’s loft apartment. Back when they’d thought Adele had once again beaten the childhood cancer that returned at the tender age of twenty-five, but then went into remission after treatment. 

That had been just before Easter. By early June Adele was back in the hospital, but during those few precious weeks they’d managed to check off some of the items on their list.

“Start at the beginning,” Adele turned to look at her, the bright red silk scarf protecting her sensitive scalp brushed against the pillow. “Let’s review again…what we’ve done…so far.”

Taking a deep breath, she started reading. “Number one: dance beneath the Eiffel Tower. I did that back in college the year I studied abroad,” Vanessa said, thankful she had a photograph to honor the event as she technically didn’t remember doing so thanks to generous amounts of wine that night. “Number two: swim in the Pacific Ocean. You did that when you were in college.”

Adele smiled, but remained silent.

“Number three: get a tattoo.” Letting go, she flipped her hand and laid it side by side next her friend’s, their matching interlocking heart tattoos visible on their inner wrists. “Number four: see a Broadway show. By ourselves.”

They’d done both on a last minute road trip to New York City that Adele had insisted on in May not long after they’d found their long forgotten list. 

“Shouldn’t have taken us…until age twenty-five to accomplish…” her friend rasped. “…either of those.”

“Considering how unhappy your mother was with us for taking off without telling her, not to mention our permanent souvenirs, we’re lucky she didn’t ground us when we got home like she used to do when we were kids.”

“I think my mom was more worried because of me being in remission. Your father never said a word.”

Vanessa wasn’t even sure her father had even realized she’d left the city, much less inked her body. “Okay, let’s see. We did go to Disney World on our senior class trip so that counted for number five. I was lucky enough to visit the White House and shake hands with the President during an art exhibit a few years back. Number six. I attempted to learn to scuba dive while visiting Australia the summer before my mother— well, before she got sick, so that covers numbers seven and eight.”

“That’s right. So you swam in the Pacific Ocean too.”

“Well, technically, it was the Tasman Sea. It doesn’t count. So, other than the first eight, we haven’t managed to accomplish the rest of the 2001 list.” While Vanessa was sure that flying among the clouds (and not in the airplane!) was a childish wish that would never come true, she guessed moving out West, learning to ride a horse and the last goal, kissing a cowboy, were still possible. At least for her.

She swallowed hard again, but the unfairness of it all kept the lump firmly in place. “You know, judging from the last few items, I think we watched too many old westerns back when we were twelve.”

“I always liked John Wayne. The strong, silent type,” Adele said. “So how many…do we have so far now? With the new ones included?”

“The original twelve and the eight we added while in New York.” Vanessa read through the rest of the list. When her friend had insisted on updating it with new goals that weekend, they’d truly believed both of them would have time to accomplish things like going skinny dipping, being part of flash mob or dancing in the rain. Knowing now that her friend was never going to be able to accomplish any them…. “I think twenty is a good number.”

“No. Need four more. Twelve old and twelve new.”

“Well, number twenty is to see an active volcano. I don’t know how we’re—” Vanessa’s voice caught again, but she pushed on. “—how we’re going to top that.”

“Number twenty one: take a bubble bath…with a man.”

She couldn’t help but smile at her friend’s words as she propped her sketch book on the edge of Adele’s bed, using it as a base to write on. “How do you know I haven’t done that already?”

“Because you would’ve told me. Best friends tell everything.”

Vanessa nodded. “You’re right. And I think that might top the volcano experience.”

“Number twenty two: kiss…Prince Charming and number twenty three…” Adele’s voice fell to a whisper, barely heard over the steady beeping from the row of machines on the far side of her bed. “…have a baby. Or two. Or three.”

Vanessa blinked rapidly against the sting of tears, struggling to see clearly enough to add them to the list. Adele’s words brought back the memory of how each of them, being only children, had always wished for younger siblings. That shared secret, revealed on the day they first met when Adele’s mother had come to work for Vanessa’s as a social secretary, had sealed their lifelong friendship. She still remembered the afternoon she’d returned from a ballet lesson and found a scrawny girl, her flaming red hair in braids and wearing a hand-me-down dress with dirt on her knees, sitting on the silk tufted bench in the grand foyer of Vanessa’s home reading Little Women. 

“And number twenty four…fall in love forever.”

Vanessa’s fingers tightened on the pen until she was sure it would break. She tried to write the last goal, but the page was too blurry. 

Then Adele’s fingers brushed against the back of her hand. She latched onto her friend’s cool touch and pressed Adele’s hand to her heated cheek. “That’s…that’s quite a list.”

“It’s not a list. It’s a life. Your life.” Adele’s voice became strong and clear, more than it has been in days. “It’s time for you to get back to it.”

“Adele—”

“You’ve been with me constantly over the last year. I’m surprised you’ve found time to get any painting done, not that I want you to jump back into your crazy work schedule.” She paused for another breath. “And I know it’s you I have to thank for being as comfortable with this outrageously expensive hospital room. My mom and I are so grateful—”

“Oh, shut up,” Vanessa admonished her friend gently, her gaze still on the blurred list. “You know I would pay anything—doanything—to have you well again.”

Adele jiggled on Vanessa’s hand, signaling she wanted her attention. Vanessa brushed away the tears before looking at her friend who’d tugged the plastic mask from her face. 

“What’s that saying? We only have one shot at life, but if we do it right once is enough? You know better than most—especially now—how quickly life can be taken away,” Adele said, her voice low and strained. “Don’t get so lost in your art after I’m gone that you forget about all the wonderful things waiting out there for you.”

“I still have three pieces to finish,” Vanessa said, the familiar argument returning once again. One that had started years ago between them when she’d spent her thirteenth birthday working on a painting instead of attending a school dance. “You know how I get before a show. This is an important one, too. People are coming from Europe, the Far East—”

“You’ve been painting since you were a kid,” Adele cut her off. “You were a star in the art world at seventeen and we both know that’s because you buried yourself in your art after your mom died. Please don’t do that again. Thanks to your gift and your trust fund, you’re set for…life. It’s time to live it.”

“You make me sound like a nun or something.”

“You’re not too far off. What happened to that fun loving girl you were a few years ago?”

Vanessa’s memory flashed back to her time in Paris. “That was college, Adele. Being foolish and wild was part of the curriculum back then. Now, it’s about my work.”

“There’s more to life…than work. Than art.” 

Vanessa had heard all of this before. Adele had always been supportive of her career, especially during the darkest moment in her life after her mother died when Vanessa was only sixteen, but she also constantly reminded her there was more to the world than her beloved brushes and paints. 

“Art is my life, Adele. It’s what got me through the pain and the heartache last time.” She pulled in a deep breath, but her eyes filled again. “I’m counting on it to help me again…oh, how am I going to…”

Adele tightened her hold. “Please, don’t be sad…for too long. We’ve talked about this. That’s why I insisted we finish our list. I want you to go out there and experience all the things we’ve dreamed about. I want you to put check marks by every single one of those items.” 

The fact that her friend was spending her last days thinking of her made the constant ache inside Vanessa fracture a bit more, sending icy tentacles deeper and farther, their frozen tips scraping at her heart. The feeling was a familiar one, felt for the first time since almost a decade ago. The time from her mother’s diagnosis to her death had been less than eight months, barely any time for them—her or her parents—to come to terms with the illness that would take her life. While her father had thrown himself into his work after the funeral, Vanessa had done the same, her art allowing her a way to express her pain and grief. 

Back then she’d poured all her fears onto the canvas as in the back of her mind, she too worried that she might die young. Though genetic testing reassured her she was unlikely to develop the same disease, and her time in her studio produced magnificent pieces of abstract art that made her famous, for years, Vanessa had been unable to shake the feeling that something bad was about to happen to her. She’d never dreamed it would be the loss of her best friend.

It was Adele who’d helped her pick out a prom dress, who came to visit her at art school, who got her to laugh again when the someone she’d thought was her true love had broken her heart. Even more than her father, Adele and her mother, Susan, had become Vanessa’s lifeline. They’d been there for every birthday, every holiday and now…

“Come on…promise me.” 

Adele started to cough and quickly shoved the oxygen mask back into place. Vanessa shot to her feet and bracing herself on the bed, gently laid her hand over her friend’s, making sure the device was working properly. “Hey, take it easy.”

Adele held up her hand, fingers curled in a fist except for the last, her pinky finger extended into a hook. She looked up, her deep green eyes locking with Vanessa’s. “A solemn vow between best friends.”

Vanessa saw a lifetime bond that went beyond friendship in her friend’s gaze. Adele was the sister she’d never had.  They knew each other’s secrets, fears and dreams. They’d shared late night whispers, dried each other’s tears and laughed together more times than she could count. “You make it sound like this is my last chance to have a life.”

“No, but maybe it’s a second chance. How many do you think we get? Just promise you’ll work hard to be happy…to fulfill our list.”

Vanessa wrapped her pinky finger around her friend’s and dropped her forehead to rest against Adele’s as both squeezed tight and held on. “I promise.”

 

Chapter One

 

Present Day

Rust Creek Falls, Montana

 

Vanessa wasn’t sure she’d heard Nate Crawford correctly. 

A rushing noise that reminded her of the crazy bumper-to-bumper traffic on Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Expressway filled her ears, except it was the beautiful mountain scenery around her that went a bit hazy as she choked down a mouthful of hot tea. Blinking hard, she focused on the disposable cup in her hand, noticing for the first time she’d grabbed two different flavored tea bags which explained the chocolatey orange taste burning her tongue. 

Even though she’d rememberedarriving early enough for this morning’s meeting to grab some refreshment at the canteen here on the job site, not to mention watching the breath-taking Montana sunrise through the two-story, floor-to-ceiling windows that filled the back wall, maybe it had all been a figment of her imagination. 

Maybe she was still tucked beneath her goose-down comforter in that amazingly oversized Davy Crockett style bed in her cabin dreaming?

“Are you all right?” Nate asked, getting her attention. She looked up in time to see him rock back on his heels, a slight frown on his handsome face. He then glanced at his fiancée, Callie Kennedy, a nurse who helped run the local clinic, who’d placed a hand on his arm. 

“Yes,” she gasped, “yes, I’m fine.”

No, that was a lie. Vanessa was definitely notfine despite the fact she stood in the cavernous lobby and main entertaining space of a log mansion that Nate, a local businessman and member of one of the town’s founding families, was converting into a year-round resort. 

The gorgeous view of the Montana wilderness was at her back while a stone fireplace big enough to stand in filled the opposite wall. And then there were the rest of the walls. All empty. Her gaze homed in on one such wall—freshly painted if the scent tickling her nose meant anything, above the oversized, hand-hewed, carved desk where guests would check in once the resort officially opened.

“You want to hire me…” Vanessa asked, knowing she had to hear the words again. “…to do what?”

“Paint a mural,” Nate repeated, gesturing at the large blank space. “I thought it would be a great tribute to the people and places that mean so much to this town, to Montana. Rust Creek Falls has a connected history with both Thunder Canyon and Whitehorn and I’d like see all three towns honored here in the resort.”

Her gaze followed, trying to see the vision the man’s words created, but nothing came to her artist eye. Zero. Zilch. Her stomach cramped at the now conditioned sensation. How many times had she experienced that same feeling over the last year? 

“I think we’ve surprised you, haven’t we?” Callie asked.

“Ah, yes.” Vanessa glanced down at her cup again. “Maybe I should’ve gotten something a bit stronger to ensure I was fully awake for this.”

“And maybe we shouldn’t have asked you to meet us here so early, but we both have to be down in Kalispell for most of the day. Nate didn’t want to wait, and you did say—”

“Ah, no, early is fine. I’m usually up before the sun anyway.” Looking up at her friend, she waved off Callie’s concern. “But I’m still a bit confused. You’re asking me to do this because…”

“Because I was quite amazed,” Nate paused and took a step closer, his head bent low even though the three of them were the only ones around, “and pleased when I found out the Vanessa Brent who’s running an after school art program at the community center and V.E. Brent, world famous abstract expressionism artist, were one in the same.”

Nate’s soft spoken words took her completely by surprise. Not that she went out of her way to hide who she was or what she did with her life before moving to Rust Creek Falls back in July. When asked, she’d only said she’d worked in the creative arts, but was currently on a time-out, rethinking her career plans. She’d then change the topic of conversation because deep down, the explanation had more than a ring of truth to it. 

Or more simply put, she hadn’t painted anything in almost a year.

Oh, she’d thought about her craft often, obsessed about it, really. At least until she’d moved out here. Lately, she’d begun to dream about it again, like she’d done as a child. But even though she’d brought along all of her supplies, the white canvases that lined one wall of the cabin she’d rented a few weeks after arriving in town were still blank. Her paints and brushes lay untouched, her heart and her mind as vacant as the walls that surrounded them now.

“Ah, yeah, we’re the same person,” she finally responded to the expectant looks on Nate and Callie’s faces. “I mean, yes, I’m V.E. Brent, but I haven’t… been involved with the art world for quite some time.”

Even now, Vanessa was still surprised at the deep depression she’d sunk into after the death of her best friend last year. Or the fact that she hadn’t been able to fill the void with her art.

Adele had hung on until just before Thanksgiving and the day of her memorial service had been the start of an arctic winter that had settled in Philadelphia, and most of the country, last year. She too had become locked in her own personal deep freeze. For months she’d mourned, but unlike when her mother died, she failed to find the same solace and comfort in her work. No matter how hard she’d tried, no matter the techniques or tools she employed, her gift had faded into a vast wasteland where nothing flourished. 

Even after she’d finally broken out of her self-imposed grieving this past spring, thanks to an intervention led by Adele’s mother, the ability to create was still dormant and she’d decided something drastic was needed to shake her back into the world of the living. 

Number ten: Move out West.

Vanessa had been reading a weekly blog by a big city volunteer coordinator who’d moved to Rust Creek Falls to help the town recover from a devastating flood the year before and ended up falling in love and marrying the local sheriff. Soon the idea to move to this little slice of cowboy heaven planted itself in her head and wouldn’t let go. So she’d sublet her loft apartment, refused to listen to her father’s halfhearted attempts to change her mind and bought an open-ended plane ticket to Big Sky Country placing the first check mark on her and Adele’s list by arriving just before the July Fourth holiday.

“But you are involved in art,” Callie said, breaking into Vanessa’s thoughts. “You’re great with the kids at the community center.”

Vanessa smiled, remembering how she’d gotten roped into helping with a summer day camp that’d showed up at the center looking to entertain a group of kids on a rainy day. “That’s pretty much finger painting, playing with clay or simple watercolors. Other than that I’m not…”

Her voice cracked and she looked away, that familiar lump back in her throat. Damn! She walked across the vast space, her gaze centered on the empty fireplace. “I’m not…well, let’s just say that side of me—V.E. Brant—she isn’t painting. At all.”

“Oh, please don’t think we’ve invaded your privacy.” Callie hurried to her side. “We haven’t told anyone else who you really are. Nate came up with this idea before we even knew thanks to your beautiful sketches.”

She looked back at them. “My sketches?”

“Yes, the ones you’ve been doing of the locals around town. They’re amazing. I love the portrait you did of me when I was tending to a scraped knee at the playground. I never even realized what you were up to until you gave it to me. I’ve got it hanging in my office at the clinic.”

A few weeks after her kids program took off, Vanessa had started to once again carry a sketch pad and colored pencils in her oversized bag. 

Something she hadn’t done in months. At first, the blank pages seemed to mock her whenever she opened the pad, but then she’d forced herself to do quick exercises, simple pen and ink sketches of whatever might catch her eye. 

Surprisingly, it had been people. 

The citizens of Rust Creek Falls had become her test subjects, either in the park, the community center or while sitting tucked away in a corner of a local business. Sometimes she asked for permission, but usually the sketches were done so quick the focus of her practice exercise didn’t even realize what Vanessa was doing until she’d rip out the page from her sketchbook afterwards and offered it to the subject. So far, no one had been upset with her. She’d figured most had just been tossed away, but she had spotted a few, like Callie’s, posted around town. Evidence that her creativity was trickling back little by little.

“The drawing you did of my mother working the counter at Crawford’s Store is now matted, framed and holds a place of honor in my father’s study,” Nate said. “Callie and I were there for Sunday dinner and that drawing got me thinking about the mural, the resort and you.”

Surprised at that, Vanessa’s gaze was drawn back to the empty space over the desk, looking very much like the oversized blank canvases in her cabin. Nate’s request caused her fingers to itch, a familiar sign they wanted to be wrapped around a paint brush again. But Vanessa knew what would happen. As soon as she’d pull out her paints. Nothing. Sketching a few random subjects was vastly different than taking on a commissioned work, where the nuances she’d have to capture in oils required planning and a delicate touch.

Things that were still beyond her reach.

Moving far away from home and memories of Adele had been her way to start her life again, and deep down, hopefully her craft. Except for those rare moments when she tried to paint and still failed, Vanessa was enjoying her time in Rust Creek Falls. She’d been lucky enough to find a great place to live, joined the Newcomer’s Club, made some great friends and explored the area. The art program at the center kept her busy, she’d gone on a few dates with some of the local cowboys and made a point to appreciate each day of her new life.

Number thirteen: stop and enjoy sunrises and sunsets.

Another check mark on her list, made the first morning she woke up in Montana. Adele had been right. Concentrating on her life, and using their list as a guide, had helped her to find joy again. 

Which made this idea of Nate’s downright scary. What if she said yes and her creative block kept her from putting anything on the wall? And her work was abstract in the truest sense of the word. Powerful color compositions with no reference of any kind to anything recognizable. What Nate was describing was much more detailed, and in a way, more personal. Still, she found herself wanting desperately to take on the challenge.  Maybe this mural was her last chance to find her talent again.

Jonah Dalton breathed in the cool morning air, holding it for a moment in his nose and mouth, like he used to do as kid. The air had a bite to it—like the fresh tartness of a granny smith apple the moment you first sink your teeth into it—that couldn’t be matched anywhere but here in the wilds of Montana. 

He’d missed that taste more than he’d been willing to admit. 

The air in Denver, his home for the last eight years, had a flavor that was a mix of excitement and culture, but that was to be expected in a sophisticated city of over 600,000 people, he guessed. 

He released his breath, watching the white puffs disappear. He stood on the large circular drive outside of ‘Bledsoe’s Folly’, soon to be known as…well, whatever Nate Crawford decided to name his as-yet-unopened resort. All Jonah knew was that when the chance came to restore and revitalize this twenty-year-old log mansion into a state-of-the-art, and hopefully popular destination for year round vacations, his architect’s heart wouldn’t let him turn down the project. Not when the initial construction of the castle-like mansion had fueled his love of architecture and design all those years ago. 

So he’d taken a leave of absence from his job with one of the top firms in the country and worked pretty much non-stop on the plans and blueprints for the necessary renovations.

And now he was here. 

Even though he’d been less than thrilled about Nate’s condition that he be onsite for the last three months of the project in case any problems arose, Jonah had always enjoyed seeing his designs come to life. At work, he forgot everything else. And that’s just how he liked it. He figured he could do the same thing here, even if it meant coming home. And he had to admit he was looking forward to the quiet and slow pace of his home town, especially after all the craziness—professional and personal—he’d left behind in Denver. He’d arrived late last night after driving fifteen hours straight and hadn’t made it past the living room couch at his parents’ place. 

Yet, here he was at the job site first thing the next morning, anxious to see his dream turned into reality. 

His shiny Cadillac Escalade looked a bit out of place in the parking lot crowded with older model cars and trucks, but Jonah took the number of vehicles present as a good sign that the crew was already hard at work. He grabbed his white hard-hat and turned to head inside, surprised when his older brother Eli pulled up the long winding paved road in a battered pickup. 

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Good morning to you, too, little brother.” Eli waved a piece of paper at him. “Hey, I found your note on the kitchen counter as I was heading out. Decided to stop by and—”

“What are you doing with that?” Jonah cut him off. “I left that for Mom, warning her I plan to stay out at the cabin and not to worry about getting my old room ready.”

“I know, I read it. Here, take this.” Eli handed over a travel mug stamped with the brand of family’s ranch, The Circle D. “Geez, you’re just like the rest of the family, a bear without your morning cup of joe. Nice to know some things haven’t changed. Oh, and welcome home.”

The enticing aroma filled Jonah’s nose and his blood cried out for caffeinated bliss. Not wanting to wake his family, he’d only grabbed a quick shower and dressed, figuring he’d see everyone tonight at dinner. He’d guessed there’d be a canteen set up inside for the crew, but this was better. Jonah took the cup. After Eli shut off the truck and climbed out to join him, he grabbed his brother’s outstretched hand and allowed Eli to pull him into a quick hug that ended with a strong slap to his back.

 

“Thanks, it’s…ah, it’s good to be back, but I still don’t get why you took my note.” 

“You can’t stay at the cabin.” Eli stepped back and righted the dark Stetson he wore so much Jonah had often wondered if his brother slept with the darn thing. “It’s been rented.”

Surprised filled him. “You rented out my cabin?”

“Technically, it wasn’t me. It was Mom. And it’s not your cabin.”

“I designed it. I built it. It’s on the acreage Grandpa and Dad set aside for me.” Jonah held tight to the mug as the memories that went along with the one bedroom cabin he’d forged with his own hands came crashing back to him. After eight years one would think he’d be over it by now. “Why would Mom rent my cabin to a stranger?”

“I guess because nobody knew when you planned to show your face in town again.” Eli turned and headed for the main house. “This place must still have working bathrooms, right?”

Jonah sighed and followed his brother toward the oversized double front doors. Yes, he’d missed both Thanksgiving and Christmas, the two times he made a point of returning home over the last few years. “I couldn’t be here because I was out of the country most of last year working on a major project,” he said as he and Eli stepped through the rustic mahogany and iron entry-way that was original to the building. 

“And when you got back to the U.S. you still didn’t visit.”

“But I did call. I do have a life, and a job in Denver, you know.”

“I know that and you know that. Mom? Not so much. She and Dad were really excited to find out you were the lead architect behind the redesign of this place. The fact they had to hear about it from your boss didn’t go over so well.”

Jonah had planned to tell his folks about working with Nate Crawford, but his life had been going non-stop since he’d agreed to take on the project. “Well, I’m home now and since I’m going to stick around until at least Christmas I’d like to stay at my cabin.”

“Why? You never stayed there before.”

Because he hadn’t actually finished the darn thing until a couple of years ago, working on it whenever he was home. Besides, it was time to get rid of some old ghosts, but Jonah wasn’t going to share that. 

“There must be plenty of available housing from those who left town after the flood last year.” Including his ex-wife, he thought, taking a long sip of the strong brew despite the steamy vapors. “Mom can tell the renter they have to move. Or I’ll tell them. It’s my place so technically I’m the landlord.”

“Great. Here’s your chance.”

His brother pointed out Jonah’s boss across the room. 

Nate Crawford stood near one of the room’s best features, the original stone fireplace, with two women. One was his fiancée, whom Jonah had met when she’d come with Nate to Denver for one of their many meetings and the other was a stunningly beautiful brunette. 

A powerful jolt raced through his veins and Jonah immediately blamed the mouthful of java he managed to choke down. He took in her dark brown hair, a mass of curls that just touched the wide neckline of a bright purple sweater that hung down far past her hips, but still managed to display feminine curves in all the right places. Or maybe it was her black skintight sorry excuse for pants that did that. 

He couldn’t make out what she was holding in her arms, but then she reached up and pushed a handful of those curls off her face, releasing a jangle of bracelets that slid from her wrist to her elbow as she turned in a slow circle, her gaze seemingly locked on the empty walls of the room as her ankle high boots clicked on the newly finished reclaimed barn wood floor. Then Nate’s fiancée touched her arm and the two started to talk.

Staring was rude, gawking like a teenager was worse, but for whatever reason Jonah was helpless to look away.

“Yeah, that’s the typical reaction.” Eli reached around and waved his hand in front of Jonah’s face. “Not hard to tell Vanessa isn’t from around here, huh? Which is why she needed a place to stay. Like yourcabin.”

As if she heard them, or maybe because Callie was now pointing in his direction, the beauty looked over and caught him watching her. Jonah snapped out of his dazed state and pushed his brother’s hand away, realizing at that moment the woman he’d been transfixed by was the one sleeping in his bed. 

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