"Charming, witty, and fun. There's no better read. I enjoyed every word!" --Debbie Macomber, #1 New York Times bestselling author A DARING PROPOSITION When it comes to business, Avery King always comes out on top. So after a very public breakup, work is the perfect excuse to flee the Windy City for the gentle breezes of Aspen, Colorado. Her mission: acquire the land of a rundown mountain ranch. Avery expects an easy win . . . until she meets the rugged and irresistible rancher who won't give up his property without a fight. Bryce Walker is stunned by the stubborn beauty determined to get what she wants. But what she wants is his last connection to the life he used to have. Bryce has plans to return the ranch to its former glory and no way will he sell his family home. Yet the more time he spends with Avery, the more her sweet touch makes him forget his painful memories. Now Bryce must decide whether living in the past is worth losing his future . . .
Release date: May 26, 2015
Print pages: 369
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No Better Man
Some girls claim the spa or a favorite mall as their happy place, but Avery loved Wrigley Field. She loved the blaring red sign, WRIGLEY FIELD, HOME OF THE CHICAGO CUBS. She loved the smell of popcorn and hot dogs and stale beer, the sticky crunch of the concrete beneath her feet. It was her haven, almost as familiar as her own home, which smelled like the hazelnut lattes she made every morning, for the record. Didn’t matter if the Cubbies were trailing by 12 or up by 10—every time she sat in section 14, row 4, seat 12 (right behind the home dugout), she was utterly, completely, divinely happy.
Which was why she never should’ve let her father sit next to her.
The day should have been heavenly—a shining Sunday afternoon complete with a jewel-blue sky and hints of fall crisping the air. The Cubs were up on the Yankees by three, which was a miracle in itself.
Dear Old Dad, AKA the infamous Edward King, sat next to her, dressed in a tailored gray suit, if one could imagine. His million-dollar hair was slicked back from a widow’s peak. Silver Armani shades deflected the sun. He leaned forward, hands securely fastened to his knees so his bare skin wouldn’t graze the defiled concrete rail in front of him. Really, though. Who’s afraid of a little stale beer? They were at a baseball game, for crying out loud.
“Did you have time to read the Aspen briefing?” Dad shouted over the roar of the crowd.
Ignoring the question, she glanced at Vanessa, Dad’s assistant and one of her best friends. The woman was supposed to be her buffer at the game so Dad wouldn’t pull her into some big work discussion, but at the moment, Van happened to be otherwise occupied in a nonverbal flirting contest with some hot guy sitting halfway down their row.
“Hey.” She jabbed an elbow into her friend’s ribs. “A little help here?”
“Excuse me.” Van flipped her curly black hair over her shoulder and gave her a girl-code glare for I’m busy.
Avery rolled her eyes. Please. Vanessa could get any man she wanted. She had the diva look about her, dark even skin that didn’t need make-up, round innocent bedroom eyes accentuated by thick lashes, also natural, of course. She could have that man down the row eating out of her hand with a hello, but there was one problem. “I didn’t drag you here and sit you between my father and me so you could troll for men.” She needed her right now. “I will personally go get the guy’s phone number if you shut up my father,” she whispered.
“Avery? I asked you a question,” Dad broke in. “Have you read the briefing on Aspen?”
She raised her hand toward Vanessa. See? The man was relentless. How could he even think of work at time like this? Two more outs. They only needed two more outs and they’d be back up at bat…
“Of course I sent Avery the briefing,” Vanessa said as she waved to Mr. McDreamy eyes. “She’s looking into it.”
He leaned over to see past Vanessa. “Don told me an old ranch is about to foreclose. He sent me some pictures. It’s exactly what we’ve been looking for.”
Don Pendleton, the mayor of Aspen and an old friend of her father’s, had been trying to get King Enterprises to build a resort out there for the last ten years.
Dad went on and on about the unique location, about the natural spring on the property, yada, yada, yada. “Your mom would’ve loved it.”
That snapped her out of her baseball stupor. “I know, Dad,” she said, softening. “I was copied on the e-mail, remember? Don’t worry. I’m watching it.” Without looking over, she reached across Vanessa and gave him a consoling pat on the arm. She loved the man and everything, but nothing ruined a good baseball game like talking.
To tell him as much, she scooted to the edge of her seat and refocused on the game. One of the Yanks’ best sluggers who’d been on a hot streak since…well…forever, was up to bat. Great.
“We have to do more than watch it, Avery.” Her father used his stern lecture tone, which had stopped working when she was eight.
But he’d never known when to quit.
“It will go fast. There will be multiple bids. You know what I always say—”
He hit the ball high and long, sent it sailing straight for the right-field stands. No! She jumped to her feet. The outfielder—Colvin?—sprinted hard, arms pumping, head angled back and up, watching…
He leapt, arm outstretched, reaching…
She squeezed a hand over her mouth.
Smack! The ball hit his glove. It hit his glove!
“Yes! Way to go, boys!” She fell back to her seat, heart pounding with the thrill of a close call. “Did you see that circus catch?”
Clearly Vanessa had no time to actually watch the game. She was too busy mouthing call me to her new boyfriend. “I’ll be right back.” She stood, smiling in that coy way that brought out her dimples, and sashayed over people’s feet to make a love connection.
Shaking her head, Avery pressed her fingers against her lips and gave a good, solid whistle. “Come on, guys! Don’t let ’em back in it!”
Her father winced and stuck a finger in his ear. “How much longer will this thing last, anyway?”
“It’s only the top of the seventh, so it’ll be awhile.” An eternity to him. Baseball had been Mom’s passion, not his. Family outings at Wrigley Field painted Avery’s most vivid and cherished family memories. For three seasons, before Dad became “America’s favorite tycoon,” they’d all tromped to the field in matching jerseys, her and Mom’s blond hair tied back into swinging ponytails like the perfect picture of the American dream. They’d buy tickets for the cheap seats and sit way up high, peering through second-hand binoculars. She and Mom would put on their pink mitts just in case someone’s rogue hit made it all the way up to the nosebleed section.
Oh, how things had changed. Ever since Mom’s death, her dad had despised America’s favorite pastime. But then, he despised anything that reminded him of her.
That thought was all it took to turn her to mush. There was a reason he hid inside his work. There was a reason he was desperate to complete the Aspen project. In his mind, the resort would be Mom’s legacy. She’d always loved it there.
Tuning out the game, she faced her father. “The ranch in Aspen is on two hundred forested acres. Located on Maroon Bells Road. Built in 1956 by the Walker Family,” she intoned as though doing a voice-over for a documentary. “The projected foreclosure date is not until January. So far, there are no other known interested parties.” See? She really did do her job. “I’ll travel out there in a few weeks to make Mr. Walker an offer before he loses it. By then, he’ll be desperate to sell. Trust me. It’ll be the biggest bargain we’ve found in years.”
“That’s my girl.” A look of pride dawned in his dulled gray eyes and made them come alive again. But he never looked into her eyes for too long. They must’ve reminded him too much of her mother’s. She saw it every time she looked in the mirror, too.
“Now can I watch the game in peace? Please?” she mock-whined. “You know how I feel about mixing baseball and business.” She rustled a bag of sunflower seeds out of her purse, ripped it open, then dumped a pile into her lap.
He gave her a disgusted look, but a slight smile relaxed his face. “I don’t see how you can watch an entire game in these ungodly seats.”
“And I still don’t see why you had to sit with me. Are they renovating your box?” That was where he always hid, far away from the memories, distracting himself with members of the board or potential investors or unsuspecting business associates being buttered up for a negotiation.
He shifted with an impatient grunt and straightened his suit coat. “Logan asked me to join you. Down here.” He said it like they were in some third-world country.
“Logan?” She flipped up the bill of her hat and stared at the pitcher’s mound. Though he’d never jinx his concentration with a glance back, she waved and gave him a thumb’s up. “Logan doesn’t care where you sit.” Sure, Dad and Logan had chummed around since she’d started dating him last year, but it wasn’t like things had gotten that serious. He was on the road half the time. And she worked sixty hours a week. He was a great guy, but…they’d never had what her parents had in those early days of their marriage, that fiery spark of energy that seemed to charge the space around them.
Speaking of Logan… She glanced at the scoreboard again. Holy moly! Two balls, one strike. Two outs? She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Come on, Logan! Strike ’im out!”
“Did you wear makeup today?” Her father’s tanned face slid into view. “Or brush your hair?”
“Why?” She smiled sweetly. “Am I embarrassing you?” Lord knew, it wouldn’t be the first time. There were certain expectations for people in their position, as he always reminded her, but she’d given up on meeting expectations in the looks department a long time ago.
“Of course you’re not embarrassing me.” He waved her off like that was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. “You never know when the media will take a shot, that’s all. I want you to look your best.”
“This is my best,” she assured him. Maybe her current attire didn’t scream business executive, but it sure beat the hell out of those tight skirts and starched button-ups and godforsaken, ass-pinching pantyhose. “I haven’t washed my jersey all season. It’s good luck. See this mustard stain?” She pointed out the yellow blotch just below the V-neck with a proud smile. Proud and maybe somewhat mocking. She couldn’t help it. He sometimes had that effect on her.
“Whatever makes you happy, Aves.” Over the years, it had become his favorite platitude. Hers, too, actually. The thought was nice. Even if he rarely meant it.
“Can I start wearing my jersey to work?” She bounced her eyebrows.
“Once you take over as CEO, you can do whatever the hell you want,” he grumbled.
Yeah, right. Edward King would never retire. He was only fifty-five, and healthy as a Clydesdale. Besides that, she had no desire to take over as CEO of King Enterprises. Not that she’d tell him that. It’d break what was left of his heart.
“Let me know when it’s over.” Dad dug out his iPhone and started to peck away.
Good. She could finally refocus on the game…
Out on the mound, Logan wound up.
She hunkered down, held her breath.
The ball zinged past home plate.
“Strike!” The ump signaled.
“Whoo hoo!” She leapt to her feet and screamed with the rest of the Cubbie faithfuls. “Way to go, Logan! One more!” Leaning forward, she gripped the concrete bar in all its sticky glory. Come on…you got this…
Logan wound up and let it fly.
She high-fived the men behind her, her throat raw from another high-pitched squeal.
“Seventh inning stretch.” Sliding back into her seat, she flung an arm around Dad and rattled his shoulders. “Isn’t this the best?”
“The best,” he parroted as he shrugged from her grip.
Waiting for the tune that exuded Americana, she hummed to warm up her vocals, find the right key. It was the best part of the whole game! Everyone singing about America’s beauty, then pining after peanuts and Cracker Jacks…
Except the music didn’t start. Instead, an announcer marched across the infield and handed a mic to Logan. He trotted toward the dugout.
Dad straightened his suit coat. “You might want to wipe that mustard stain off your shirt now.” He reached over and brushed a pile of sunflower seeds from her lap.
“Hey!” She dusted his hand away from her beloved snack and looked up.
Logan didn’t stop at the front of the dugout. He kept going, all the way to the end of the bench. Closer, closer…until she could see his smile, his eyes. What was he doing? He would ruin his concentration!
Vanessa rushed back to her seat. “What’s happening?” she whispered.
“I have no idea,” she hissed. “Vanessa, what is he doing?”
“Got me.” Her eyes were as wide as Avery’s. “I thought you knew.”
No. She didn’t know. But she had a bad feeling…
Logan hoisted himself up on the dugout roof and knelt in front of her with a nervous grin. His blond curls poked out from beneath his baseball cap in that endearing little-boy way.
She tried to focus on his eyes, brown and calming, the same color as a sweet, foamy latte.
Behind him, his teammates whooped and hollered.
“Time’s a wastin’, big boy!”
“Man up, Schwartz!”
“Logan?” The mic caught her whisper and carried it into an echo. A pound resounded in her chest. Her heart. Yes, that was her heart getting ready to gallop away…
“Pardon the interruption everyone, but I have something to ask my girlfriend.” His voice sounded so different in the microphone, low and manufactured. Like something out of a reality show.
“Mierda,” Vanessa choked.
Shit was right. Her palms broke out in a sweat. She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move. More whoops and hollers dented the silence, but the longer Logan stared at her, the quieter everything got. Muffled. Like she was sinking into the ocean.
“Avery…” He took her left hand in his. “You mean everything to me.”
“Awwww,” reverberated around the stands.
Gasp. Choke. Gulp. She couldn’t utter a word, but she managed to peek over his shoulder. There, on the Jumbotron, was her mustard stain, glowing in the neon way of projection images.
“I love you. I want to share my life with you.”
Another awww stretched into a deafening chorus.
Oh, dear God. Oh, no. He wasn’t proposing. Not like this. Not in front of 20,000 people. Whatever happened to baking the ring in a cake? She’d gladly chip a tooth over this any day! Whatever happened to discussing things like marriage? A lifetime? Forever? Those weren’t exactly spur-of-the-moment decisions.
“Make me the happiest man in the world.” The goofy grin expanded. “Marry me.”
“I’ll marry you!” some woman behind her screamed.
Logan handed the mic off to Dad and dug in his pocket. Out came a baby blue Tiffany’s box. When he flipped it open, a gargantuan emerald-cut diamond caught the sun.
A collective gasp hushed the crowd.
“Mamacita!” Vanessa yelped.
“Look at that rock!” someone else shouted.
Jaw hinged open, she stared at the prism-like diamond. It was wrong. All wrong. She’d always pictured her wedding ring as something of an antique, tried and tested by two people who’d weathered year after year of storms together. It would be a family heirloom, handed down to her future fiancé as a blessing when the stars aligned and he found his soul mate…
Logan slipped the imposter-ring on her finger and gazed into her eyes. “Avery?” The mic was still close enough to project his voice to the crowd.
Everyone quieted in anticipation of her answer.
Vanessa had officially invaded her personal space to inspect the ring.
Her body trembled. Could Logan feel it? Could he feel that she didn’t love him? She liked him. A lot. A whole lot. They had fun. But love? Marriage? Forever?
Extreme terror scorched her cheeks and made her feel like she’d sat in the sun too long. Oh, no. I’m gonna throw up. Chest heaving, she wrapped her free arm around her stomach.
Logan squeezed her hand a little too desperately. “Avery King, will you marry me?” he repeated in case the whole world hadn’t heard him.
“Uh…um…” The stares of twenty thousand people burned into her. “I…well…”
His arms flew around her neck. He kissed her hard, his lips like steel. Then he let go and waved to the crowd. “She will! She said she will!”
What? Wait! No! She’d said well. Well. For the love of everything holy, it was a completely different vowel sound! The words remained trapped in her frozen throat. Her hand was still splayed in front her, weighted down by at least three carats.
A cheer rose from the stands and swelled into a roar.
The loudspeaker played a wedding march.
Edward stood next to her, stiff as one of his marble statues, clapping like he was at the opera and the fat lady had sung.
Only Vanessa seemed to get it, seemed to realize she was drowning.
“Oh, boy,” her friend muttered, mimicking her own look of fear.
Hands jostled her shoulders. “Wanna chug?” The guys behind her held up their plastic beer cups in a mock toast.
“Ohhhh! How romantic!” shouted females, from ages eight to eighty. Best wishes for a happy life mixed with music and chants.
Her heart palpitated. Not in a happy, ohmygoodness I’m getting married pattern, but in a dreaded thud, thud, thud, that made her chest feel too crowded and small. Oh, this was bad. So very bad.
“I didn’t say yes,” she whispered.
Vanessa nodded discreetly. She got it. Her eyes shifted as though searching for an escape, some way to end this before it got too ugly.
The blood drained from Avery’s face and pooled in her chest. She couldn’t marry him. She couldn’t.
But…maybe she should go with it and give everyone a good show, a happy ending. It was the King thing to do, as her father would say. She glanced at Logan, at his broad, friendly smile. At the generous way he waved to all of his fans.
Her heart felt steeped in pain. She couldn’t live a lie. Not even for five minutes.
He deserved more than that. She couldn’t lead him on.
Slowly, she rose, legs shaky and weak.
Vanessa stood, too, arms outstretched, eye blaring a warning… Don’t do it, Avery. Not here. Not now.
But she had to.
Logan finished waving to the cameras and leaned into her for another hug.
“Wait.” She jutted out her arms to stop him. Stop. It had to stop. Her hands rested on his broad, muscular shoulders.
His eyes met hers.
Slowly, she shook her head back and forth.
A frantic look of understanding cranked open his mouth. “Oh, no. I…I thought you knew… I’m sorry…”
He was sorry because he realized it, too. What would happen if she said no in front of 20,000 of his most devoted fans? He had to realize it. He was Chicago’s Golden Boy. Everyone loved him, which gave them every reason to hate her right now.
The crowd hushed as if they’d caught on that their little fairy tale wouldn’t have a happy ending. She hated to burst their bubble, but the popping had to start somewhere.
“I’m sorry.” She tuned out the horrified gasps around her and kept her eyes trained on him. Because this was right, even if breaking his heart broke hers. “I can’t do this. I can’t marry you, Logan.”
For a moment, a deafening silence smothered everything, then a horrible booing rose up from the crowd.
Logan said something, his eyes worried and sad, but she couldn’t hear…
Cold splashed against her back. The smell of beer overwhelmed her. Things flew at her—cups and hats and…oh no! Popcorn rained down over her head, the kernels sticking to the mess on her clothes.
“Avery!” Vanessa huddled against her and raised her coat over their heads.
“Get her out of here!” Dad yelled at some security guards who’d sprinted over to help. Hands gripped her shoulders and ushered her down the aisle. She couldn’t see. Beer and soda dripped down her face. Ice cubes slid down her matted hair.
“That’s right! Leave, bitch!” A woman yelled.
The hands of her security entourage pushed her forward, shielding her with their coats and bodies, following her father’s directives.
Vanessa found her again, threw an arm around her and somehow kept her moving. Her feet stumbled down a series of steps.
“Don’t come back!” a kid shouted.
“How could you do this to him?” some lady wailed.
“Go!” Dad commanded behind her. “Bring the car!”
Locked inside the security guards’ shelter, she and Vanessa staggered on and on for what felt like miles. Her body shivered from the way her wet clothes clung to her skin. Boos still echoed from the stadium, but they grew softer.
Finally, the momentum stopped.
Wheels screeched somewhere nearby. The hands herded them into the limo and slammed the door.
Avery sank into the leather seat next to Vanessa and tried to remember how to breathe. Breathe. Just breathe.
“Here, honey.” Vanessa handed her a soft towel from the minibar.
She mopped her face. When her vision cleared, she saw her father’s expression, the worry lines engraved in his forehead, the sad pull of his lips. It was the same look he’d worn at Mom’s funeral, and then again every time he saw Avery in pain.
“Everything’ll be fine,” he insisted, even though everything was so not fine. His eyes brightened. She could practically see the light bulb flicker on over his head. “Schedule the jet for Aspen,” Dad said to Van. “As soon as possible. We need to get her out of the city for a while. Might as well get some work done.”
There was no point in arguing. Logan’s botched proposal was destined to be tomorrow’s YouTube sensation. She wouldn’t be able to walk down the street without getting yelled at. “Let the death threats commence,” she muttered.
“I’ll get the PR department on it. We’ll release a statement,” Dad said briskly, as if that was all that mattered. Like her ruined public image was what had finally freed her tears.
He should know better. She didn’t care what people thought. She didn’t care if the whole world hated her.
She gazed out the window at the place she loved so much, the only place where her mother’s laugh came back to life in her memory.
An overwhelming sense of loss weighted her heart.
She’d lost so much more than the city’s respect.
After what had just happened in there, she’d never be able to show her face at Wrigley Field again.
Hey batter, batter! Swing batter!”
Bryce Walker positioned himself behind home plate and glared at the woman who taunted him from the pitcher’s mound.
“Love that tight t-shirt, baby!” Meg Carlson called, then bounced her curls like a blonde Betty Boop. He shook his head at her. What was she thinking, wearing that low-cut white t-shirt and short skirt to a damn baseball game? She wasn’t careful, someone might mistake her for a cocktail waitress instead of an ER doctor.
“You been lifting weights or what? Those guns are gonna tear your sleeves!” she crooned.
If it hadn’t been for the bat, he’d have flipped her a one-finger salute, but as it was, his hands were occupied. “No weights, sweetheart,” he called back, making sure to smile real big at Nelson, her nurse fiancé who manned the outfield. “Just the usual mountain man stuff. Wood choppin’, tree haulin’. You know the drill. Tough stuff for delicate hands like yours.” Or for Nelson’s, but he didn’t say it. That might be one step too far over the line.
“Can you bend over real quick?” she shot back. “I want to get a picture of that tight ass of yours.”
“We want a pitcher, not a belly itcher!” someone yelled from the bleachers, but he couldn’t see who. The floodlights above him cast a glare right into his eyes. It was the perfect night for a game at Lower Moore Field—cool and crisp, the smell of campfire lingering in the air. With the fall tourist season in full swing, it seemed the stands were fuller. Or maybe they’d all turned out to see Aspen’s prodigal son make his return to the town baseball league.
Whoosh! The ball sailed past him and smacked into the catcher’s mitt.
“Hey.” Bryce lowered the bat. “I wasn’t ready.”
Meg shrugged. “Always gotta be ready, Walker.”
Trash talk flew from his team’s dugout.
“Don’t let her ruin your concentration!” Mom shouted. Even the sweetest woman in town knew Meg’s M.O. She’d earned a reputation as the biggest flirt ever to grace the mound, and her strategy usually worked. She made half the guys in town practically swallow their tongues when they stepped up to bat, which meant she had the best pitching record in the history of the league. Lucky for him, he’d known her since he was old enough to open his eyes, so she didn’t do much for him. Kind of like that annoying older sister who’s always humiliating you in front of your friends. Or the whole damn town, as the case may be.
“You know, that whole shaggy mountain man look is really working for me,” M. . .
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