Book 1: Wyoming Rebels
Chase Stockton knew he’d found the woman he’d come to meet.
There was no mistaking the depth of loathing in the gaze of AJ’s dad when he’d glared at the woman in the pale blue sundress. There was only one woman Alan could despise that much, and it was Mira Cabot, AJ’s best friend from childhood.
Chase grinned. After more than a decade, he was about to meet Mira Cabot in person. Hot damn.
Anticipation humming through him, Chase watched with appreciation as she ducked into the last row of pews, her pale shoulders erect and strong as she moved down the row. She was a little too thin, yeah, but there was a strength to her body that he liked. Her dark blond hair was curly, bouncing over her shoulders in stark contrast to the tight updos of the other women in the church. He’d noticed her flip-flops and hot pink toenails, a little bit of color in the chapel full of black and gloom.
Chase had hopped a plane to attend the funeral, but it hadn’t been just to honor AJ. He could have done that from his ranch in Wyoming. Nope, he’d come here to meet Mira, because he’d had a feeling this was going to be his only chance.
He ignored the line of churchgoers waiting to be seated. Instead, he strode around the back of the last pew to the far side, where his quarry was tucked away in the shadows. As he approached, someone turned up the lights in the church, and the shadows slid away, casting her face in a warm glow, giving him his first view of the woman he’d been thinking about for so long.
Chase was shocked by the raw need that flooded him. Her eyes were the azure blue as in her photos. Her nose had that slight bump from when she and AJ had failed to successfully install a tire swing in her front yard, resulting in her crashing to the ground and breaking her nose. Her lips were pale pink, swept with the faintest hint of gloss, and her eyelashes were as long and thick as he’d imagined. Her shoulders were bare and delicate in her sundress, and her ankles were crossed demurely, as if she were playing the role that was expected of her. Yet, around that same ankle was a chain of glittering gold with several blue stones. He knew that anklet. He’d helped AJ pick it out for her twenty-first birthday.
She was everything he’d imagined, and so much more. She was no longer an inanimate, two-dimensional image who lived only in his mind. She had become a real, live woman.
Mira was eyeing the crowd with the faintest scowl puckering her lips and lining her forehead, just as he would have expected. She didn’t like this crowd any more than AJ had.
Chase grinned, relaxing. She was exactly what he’d imagined. “You don’t approve?” he said as he approached her.
She let out a yelp of surprise and jumped, bolting sideways like a skittish foal. “What?”
Chase froze, startled by the sound of her voice. It was softer than he’d expected, reminding him of the rolling sound of sunshine across his back on a warm day. Damn, he liked her voice. Why hadn’t AJ ever mentioned it? That wasn’t the kind of thing a guy could overlook.
She was sitting sideways, her hand gripping the back of the pew, looking at him like he was about to pull out his rifle and aim it at her head.
He instinctively held up his hand, trying to soothe her. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” He swept the hat off his head and bowed slightly. “Chase Stockton. You must be Mira Cabot.”
“Chase Stockton?” Her frown deepened slightly, and then recognition dawned on her face. “AJ’s best friend from college! Of course.” She stood up immediately, a smile lighting up her features. “I can’t believe I finally get to meet you.”
He had only a split second to register how pretty her smile was before she threw her arms around him and hugged him.
For the second time in less than a minute, Chase was startled into immobility. Her body was so warm and soft against him that he forgot to breathe. He had not been expecting her to hug him, and he hadn’t had time to steel himself. He flexed his hands by his sides, not sure how to react. It had been so long since anyone had hugged him, and it was an utterly foreign experience. It was weird as hell, but at the same time, there was something about it that felt incredible, as if the whole world had stopped spinning and settled into this moment.
When Mira didn’t let go, he tentatively slipped his arms around her, still unsure of proper protocol when being embraced by a woman he’d never met before. As his arms encircled her, however, a deep sense of rightness settled over him. He could feel her ribs protruding from her back, and he instinctively tightened his grip on her, pulling her into the shield of his embrace. In photographs, she’d always been athletic and solid, but now she was thin, thinner than he liked, thinner than he felt she should be.
She tucked her face in his neck and took a deep breath, and he became aware of the most tempting scent of flowers. It reminded him of a trail ride in the spring, when the wildflowers were beating back the last remnants of a stubborn winter.
The turbulence that constantly roiled through his body seemed to quiet as he focused on her. He became aware of the desperate nature of her embrace, reminding him that she was attending the funeral of her best friend, and she was no doubt being assaulted by the accompanying grief and loss.
He bent his head, his cheek brushing against her hair. “You okay?” he asked softly.
She took another deep breath, and then pulled back. Her blue eyes were full of turbulent emotion. “It’s just that seeing you makes me feel like AJ’s here again.” She brushed an imaginary speck of dust off his shoulder. “You were his best friend, you know. You changed his life forever.”
He wasn’t used to anyone touching him with that kind of intimacy, especially not a woman. Women never got familiar with him. Ever. He simply didn’t allow it. But with her, it felt okay. Good even. He shrugged, feeling completely out of his depth with her. “He changed mine,” he said. “He did a hell of a lot more for me than I ever did for him.” AJ had been a lifeline in an ugly existence that had been spiraling straight into hell. He knew exactly where he’d have been without AJ: dead, or in prison. It was a debt he could never repay.
She nodded, still not stepping away from his embrace. She lightly clasped his forearms, still holding onto him. “He was like that, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah, he was.” Unable to make himself release her, Chase studied her face, memorizing the curve of her nose, the flush of her cheeks, and the slope of her jaw. “You were his rock, you know. The only person in this world he truly trusted.”
And that was it, the reason why he’d wanted to meet her. He was bitter, tired, and cynical, and he’d needed to see if the Mira Cabot his friend had always talked about actually existed. He needed to know whether there was someone in this world, anyone besides his brothers, who a man could actually believe in. Hearing that AJ had died had derailed Chase more than he’d expected, and he’d needed something to hold onto, something that connected him back to AJ and to some dammed goodness in his life.
Her cheeks flushed, and she smiled. “Thanks for telling me that. We didn’t keep in touch much over the last few years, but he’s always been in my heart.”
He stared at her, uncertain how to respond. Who talked about things in their heart? And with strangers? But he knew the answer to that. Mira did, and that’s why he’d wanted to meet her.
She finally pulled back, and he reluctantly released her, his hands sliding over her hips. She moved further into the pew and eased onto the bench. “Sit with me,” she said, patting the seat beside her.
“Yeah, okay.” Instead of taking the aisle seat, he moved past her and sat on the other side of her, inserting himself between Mira and AJ’s dad. The old man was across the church, but he hadn’t stopped shooting lethal stares in her direction. AJ wasn’t there to protect her, so it was now Chase’s job.
He draped his arms across the back of the pew, aware that his position put one arm behind Mira’s shoulders. Not touching, but present. A statement.
He looked across the church at AJ’s dad, and this time, when the man looked over, he noticed Chase sitting beside her. The two men stared at each other for a brief moment, and then Alan looked away.
Satisfied, Chase shifted his position so he could stretch his legs out, trying to work out the cramps from the long flight. He was glad he’d come. It felt right to be there, and he’d sent the message to AJ’s dad that Mira was under his protection.
He glanced sideways at her as she fiddled with her small purse. Her hair was tumbling around her face, obscuring his view of her eyes. Frustrated that he couldn’t see her face, he started to move his hand to adjust her hair, and then froze. What the hell was he doing, thinking he could just reach out and touch her like that?
Swearing, he jerked his gaze away from her, a bead of sweat trickling down his brow as he realized the enormity of what was happening. He was attracted to her. For the last decade, Mira had simply been AJ’s best friend, an angel of sorts that Chase had idealized from a distance, never thinking of Mira as anything more personal than simply a bright light in a shitty world.
He wanted her.
He wanted to brush her hair back from her face. He wanted to run his fingers over her collarbone. He wanted to feel her body crushed against his again. He wanted to sink his mouth onto hers, and taste her—
Hell. That spelled trouble, in a major way.
Suddenly, he couldn’t wait to get on the plane and get out of there, and back to his carefully constructed world.
He hadn’t come here for a woman. He’d come here for salvation, not to be sucked into the hell that had almost destroyed him once before. Mira Cabot might be the only woman on the planet worth trusting, but that wasn’t reason enough for him to risk all that he’d managed to rebuild.
Nothing was worth that risk. Nothing.