Book Three: Independence Falls
January 20, 2015
He was nobody's hero until he landed in the wrong bed … Armed with a golden retriever and a concealed weapons permit, Lena Clark is fighting for normal. She served her country, but the experience left her emotionally numb and estranged from her career-military family. Staying in Independence Falls seems like the first step to reclaiming her life until the town playboy stumbles into her bed … Chad Summers is living his dream—helicopter logging by day and slipping between the sheets with Mrs. Right Now by night. Until his wild nights threaten his day job, leaving Chad with a choice: prove he can settle down or kiss his dream goodbye. But when he ends up in the wrong bed, the one woman in Independence Falls he can't touch offers a tempting proposition. Chad is ready and willing to give in to the primal desire to make Lena his at night—on one condition. By day, they pretend their relationship is real. But their connection extends beyond the bedroom, threatening to turn their sham into reality if Chad can prove he's the hero Lena needs night and day … forever.
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“Thirty minutes,” Lena murmured. “That has to be a record.”
Lena Clark stared at the Cascade Mountains, the postcard-perfect backdrop to the backyard barbecue on the verge of turning into a full-blown party. Hero, her golden retriever, sat at her feet by the man-made pond in Eric Moore’s yard. Although the cleared field behind the sprawling timber-framed structure, home to the owner of the largest timber operation in Oregon, could hardly be classified as a “yard.” Inside the Portland city limits, where she’d lived on and off for the past six years—more off than on, really, due to training and deployments—people had the traditional postage stamp–size grassy areas behind their homes.
But she’d escaped Portland. And landed in Independence Falls, hoping to find her way to normal. Now she was thirty minutes closer.
“I talked to half the people here,” Lena continued, her fingers brushing her dog’s golden fur. Hero’s ears perked up, his head cocked to one side in what she’d come to think of as his I’m-listening expression. A stuffed yellow duck, the doggie toy she’d bought to keep him from chewing on furniture, hung from his mouth. “I mingled without running away and hiding.”
She hadn’t shaken a single hand, and Hero had been by her side the entire time, but she wasn’t looking for major breakthroughs or big victories. At twenty-eight, she knew a war was not won overnight. It took time, bravery, and determination. She possessed all of those things. Even if she had lost more than she liked to admit on the battlefield—like the ability to let anyone get close to her.
“Hey, Lena. Are you OK?”
She turned at the sound of Katie Summers’s voice, glancing past her friend to the crowd gathered on the blue stone patio. “Fine. I just needed some space from the party.”
And a chance to talk to her dog …
OK, so maybe normal was still out of reach.
“Georgia told me that you were looking for a place to stay,” Katie said.
“Just for a night, maybe two. I’m planning to find my own apartment soon.” Along with a job and her equilibrium. “But I wanted to give Georgia and Eric some space seeing as Nate is visiting his grandmother.”
“You think they might get down and dirty on the kitchen table while the three-year-old is out of town?”
“Yes. I do.” Lena looked up the hill. Eric stood behind Georgia, his arms wrapped around her waist, holding her close against his body. Georgia held a beer in one hand, her other reaching back, brushing against Eric’s leg as if she had to touch him. The kitchen table would only be the beginning for those two—if their home was free and clear of a guest who moved in for a couple of nights, and more than a week later, still hadn’t left.
“The apartment over our barn is yours for as long as you need it,” Katie said.
“Your brothers won’t mind?” Lena slipped her hands into the hidden pockets in her long halter dress. Katie still lived with her three older brothers on their family farm. Granted, Josh, the youngest of the three, was in the hospital right now recuperating from a logging accident that had landed him in a coma. But Chad and Brody might object to Katie lending out the apartment to an almost-stranger. Lena hadn’t met Chad yet, but she knew the family was close and the brothers were protective of their little sister.
Liam Trulane, Georgia’s older brother and the man head-over-heels in love with Katie, might not like the idea either. “And you don’t need it?”
“Liam and I have other plans,” Katie said. “Far away from my brothers’ watchful eyes. There is a spare key under a rock to the left of the door. Once you’re inside, move it to the right and take the key upstairs with you. That is the in-use signal.”
Katie’s expression turned serious. “Lena, I would never ask you to leave Hero behind. He’s welcome in the apartment too.”
Lena felt a rush of relief. The thought of leaving her golden retriever outside, even for a night, sent her barreling toward panic. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow? Georgia and I were planning to take a hike. Nothing crazy. I made her promise.”
“Sure.” Lena knew all about Georgia’s need for adventure, the drive that had followed Georgia home from a war zone. And Lena understood it too. Probably more than most, even if she didn’t share the same pull. PTSD refused to follow a linear, predetermined path. Nightmares and survivor’s guilt haunted Georgia. Those symptoms were on Lena’s list, but anxiety topped the chart.
In Lena’s shattered world, every little touch triggered fear. If her ex or one of her friends wrapped an arm around her, took her hand, or pulled her into a hug, she would brace for an attack. Fear would build until panic won. And afterward, once it receded, she’d sink further into depression, cutting herself off from the world around her.
Anxiety had become her constant companion, leading her to an isolated place. Until she’d decided to do something about it, entering therapy and finding the golden retriever lying at her feet, gnawing on a stuffed dog toy.
Katie turned to head up the hill. Lena watched, wondering if she should go back to the party and try for another thirty minutes. She scanned the group of people mingling and drinking—and spotted him.
Jeans and a button-down flannel shirt hugged his body, not too tight, but enough to suggest that this man had muscles begging to be touched. He raised a hand, running it through his short, wavy brown hair. Everything about him screamed for hands-on exploration. That chiseled jaw, the light dusting of stubble as if he hadn’t shaved in a day, the way he smiled …
Lena drew a sharp breath and tried to look away. But her brain short-circuited and her eyes refused. His sex appeal flowed down the grassy slope like rushing water. And if she weren’t careful it would sweep her off her feet, and leave her fighting for air. Looking at him, she wished the road to normal led straight to orgasms.
He turned his head and their gazes met across the empty space. And she swore his warm, I-promise-you’ll-like-me-if-you-get-to-know-me grin touched his eyes.
Lena dropped her gaze to the ground, breaking the contact. He wasn’t touching her, not even close. But that smile …
She turned to face the water. It was better not to look at what she couldn’t have. And that man—he was one giant step beyond thirty minutes of small talk.
Sometimes beauty knocked a man on his ass, leaving him damn near desperate for a taste, a touch, and hopefully a round or two between the sheets—or tied up in them. The knockout blonde with the large golden retriever at her feet took the word “beautiful” to a new level.
Chad Summers stared at her, unable to look away or dim the smile on his face. He usually masked his interest better, stopping short of looking like he was begging for it before learning a woman’s name. But this mysterious beauty had special written all over her.
She stared at him, her gaze open and wanting. For a heartbeat. Then she turned away, her back to the party as she stared out at Eric Moore’s pond.
Her hair flowed in long waves down her back. One look left him wishing he could wrap his hand around her shiny locks and pull. His gaze traveled over her back, taking in the outline of gentle curves beneath her flowing, and oh-so-feminine, floor-length dress. Chad had nothing against jeans on a woman. But he loved clothes that offered access to a woman’s legs. The thought of the beauty’s long skirt decorating her waist propelled him into motion. Chad headed in her direction, moving away from the easy, quiet conversation about God-knew-what on the patio.
He appreciated the fact that Eric Moore—who’d recently become his boss/business partner after Moore Timber bought the Summers Family Trucking business—had decided to throw a party celebrating Chad’s little brother’s return to the land of awake and alert. But the laid-back gathering lacked excitement. Music. Dancing. Something more than a small group of people he’d known most of his life—three dozen at most—drinking beers and eating burgers.
The blonde, a mysterious stranger in a sea of familiar faces, might be the spark this party needed. He was a few feet away when the dog abandoned his post at her side and cut Chad off. Either the golden retriever was protecting his owner, or the animal was in cahoots with the familiar voice calling his name.
The blonde turned at the sound, looking first at him, her blue eyes widening as if surprised at how close he stood, and then at her dog. From the other direction, a familiar face with short black hair—Susan maybe?—marched toward him.
Without a word, Maybe Susan stopped by his side and raised her glass. With a dog in front of him, trees to one side, and an angry woman on his other, there was no escape.
“Hi there.” He left off her name just in case he’d guessed wrong, but offered a warm, inviting smile. Most women fell for that grin, but if Maybe Susan had at one time—and seeing her up close, she looked very familiar, though he could swear he’d never slept with her—she wasn’t falling for it today.
She poured the cool beer over his head, her mouth set in a firm line. “That was for my sister. Susan Lewis? You spent the night with her six months ago and never called.”
Chad nodded, silently grateful he hadn’t addressed the pissed-off woman by her sister’s name. “My apologies, ma’am.”
“You’re a dog,” Susan’s sister announced. The animal at his feet stepped forward as if affronted by the comparison.
“For the past six months, my little sister has talked about you, saving every article about your family’s company,” the angry woman continued.
Whoa … Yes, he’d taken Susan Lewis out once and they’d ended the night back at his place, but he could have sworn they were on the same page. Hell, he’d heard her say the words, I’m not looking for anything serious, and he’d believed her. It was one freaking night. He didn’t think he needed signed documents that spelled out his intentions and hers.
“She’s practically built a shrine to you,” she added, waving her empty beer cup. “Susan was ready to plan your wedding.”
“Again, I’m sorry, but it sounds like there was a miscommunication.” Chad withdrew a bandana from his back pocket, one that had belonged to his father, and wiped his brow. “But wedding bells are not in my future. At least not anytime soon.”
The angry sister shook her head, spun on her heels, and marched off.
Chad turned to the blonde and offered a grin. She looked curious, but not ready to run for the hills. “I guess I made one helluva first impression.”
“Hmm.” She glanced down at her dog as if seeking comfort in the fact that he stood between them.
“I’m Chad Summers.” He held out his hand—the one part of his body not covered in beer.
“You’re Katie’s brother.” She glanced briefly at his extended hand, but didn’t take it.
He lowered his arm, still smiling. “Guilty.”
“Lena.” She nodded to the dog. “That’s Hero.”
“Nice to meet you both.” He looked up the hill. Country music drifted down from the house. Someone had finally added some life to the party. Couples moved to the beat on the blue stone patio, laughing and drinking under the clear Oregon night sky. In the corner, Liam Trulane tossed logs into a fire pit.
“After I dry off,” Chad said, turning back to the blonde, “how about a dance?”
Chad waited for an excuse, expecting a lie—her dog would be lonely or she had a boyfriend. That latter one, lie or not, would send him on his way. But she didn’t say another word.
He stepped toward her, as close as the dog would allow. He was close enough to smell her floral scent. It was too faint for a perfume, most likely her soap. There was a hint of lavender and a touch of honey. As if the sight of her wasn’t enough, the smell made him want to taste her. He leaned in, a fraction of an inch, nothing more. But the next thing he knew, her dog was pushing at his legs.
“Hero is protective of my space.” Lena’s voice had a breathless quality that suggested maybe this time she wished her dog would butt out. Or maybe that was his imagination.
Chad moved back, looking at the golden retriever with renewed interest. For a breed with a reputation for being kind and friendly, this one looked as if he was debating dropping his chew toy and sinking his teeth into Chad’s leg.
“So what brings you two to Independence Falls?” he asked, keeping one eye on Hero.
“Georgia offered me a place to stay. While I get back on my feet.”
“Between jobs?” The rest of the country might be headed toward recovery, but rural Oregon was still suffering high unemployment. A lot of people around here were doing their best to “get back on their feet.”
“I guess you could say that,” she said.
She didn’t give an inch. And hell, he liked that. Rocking back on his heels, Chad pretended to think. “What did you do before? I might know someone who is looking.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I can’t go back to it.”
“Being a model is that tough?” He offered her a teasing look that he knew for a fact helped separate women from their panties.
Lena raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t know. And you can drop the sweet-talking act.”
“You’d prefer I talk dirty?” Chad cocked his head, studying her. There it was. A spark of interest in her blue eyes. But she hid it quickly.
“I’ve spent most of my life on army bases. I’m betting you don’t have anything I haven’t heard before.”
So the drop-dead gorgeous, not-a-model woman was a military brat? He took that tidbit and filed it away. He wanted to know more about her—where she’d grown up, where she’d worked, if she screamed during sex or maintained the calm control he was finding wildly attractive.
“I might use some of the same words,” he said. “But they would have a different effect on you.”
“You’re that good with your words?”
“Yes. And that’s not the only thing I’m good with.” He paused for a beat, expecting a laugh and hoping for a breathy sigh. Nothing. Her face was an impartial mask. “So how about that dance? I could whisper naughty things in your ear.”
“No.” The way she said that one word sounded like a reflex.
“A walk under the stars?”
“Romantic, but I can’t.” She stepped away even though he’d been careful not to move a muscle in her direction. “I wish I could.”
This time her words were not a quick dismissal. She said the word “wish” with the fervor of a kid looking up to the stars and asking for a snow day in July. Hell, if there was one thing he understood, it was wishing and hoping for things he couldn’t have.
His mother walking through the front door to the farmhouse and admitting that leaving her family had been a mistake … His dad seated beside him in a helicopter one last time …
“Can I ask you something?” Chad said.
She nodded. A strand of blond hair fell across her face and he resisted the urge to brush it away. With any other woman, he would not have thought twice about an innocent touch in a public space. But he sensed Lena had boundaries that demanded respect.
“Where did you meet Georgia?”
The words, coupled with her matter-of-fact tone, nearly knocked him on his ass. “You’re a veteran. I never would have guessed that one.”
“A little different from a model,” she said with a small smile. “I was in the army. Until eighteen months ago.”
“The job you can’t go back to,” he said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
She nodded, her blue eyes trained on him as if tracking his movements. Had someone hurt her? The thought of it pissed him off. Or had the time spent serving her country left her battle-scarred on the inside? Either way, he wasn’t the man to fix her problems. He’d never been drawn to wounded creatures.
Chad glanced at the dog. Whatever had happened to her, Lena already had her hero. She didn’t need him. And he didn’t want a woman in his life he couldn’t walk away from come sunrise. Or a woman he couldn’t touch …
He looked up at the patio and spotted another blonde. With her jeans and low-cut blouse, the other woman possessed the same petite build as Lena. But there was nothing striking about her. Looking at her didn’t leave him wanting to pull her hair, or hear his name on her lips, never mind learn her secrets.
“She looks like fun,” Lena said.
He glanced at the woman who made him want to do all those things and more. “Sure you’re not?”
“I can be,” she said with a wry smile, as if this bit of information was a carefully guarded secret. “But not the kind you’re in the market for. Not tonight.”
“That’s a shame. I was looking forward to whispering dirty things in your ear.”
She pursed her lips, her eyes filled with wistful wanting. “I’m not ready for that kind of fun,” she said, her voice low, but certain. “Not yet.”
“That’s fair.” Yeah, those words made it crystal clear she wasn’t up for his no-strings-attached, down-and-dirty nights. But it didn’t keep him from hoping.
“If that changes, I’d like to know,” he added. Chad slowly backed away from the woman and her dog, offering her one last smile. “Try and have a good time tonight, Lena. This is a party.”
“I’ll take that under consideration,” she said, the golden retriever returning to her side. “Good-bye, Chad Summers.”
Other Books By Sara Jane Stone
No touching allowed …
After serving her country, Georgia Trulane craves adventure—and sex. She's set her sights on her brother's best friend—now her boss, since she took a temporary job as his nephew's live-in nanny. Only problem? Eric refuses to touch her. That doesn't stop Georgia from seducing him. But an earth-shattering encounter leaves her fully exposed, body and soul.
Eric has a long list of reasons to steer clear of the woman he has wanted for as long as he can remember. For one, he refuses to be her next thrill ride. When he claims her, it will be for good. But the attraction is undeniable, and the more they fight it, the stronger it pulls. But will it be enough to conquer their obstacles?
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Caught in the Act
Falling for his rivals' little sister could cost him everything … For Liam Trulane, failure is not an option. He is determined to win a place in Katie Summers' life before she leaves Independence Falls for good. But first, he needs to make amends for the last time they got down and dirty. Only problem? His professional success hinges on striking a deal to buy Katie's family business. And after Liam's relationship with their Katie went south years ago, the Summers brothers are more enemy than friend. If both parties agree to set the past aside, they can reach an understanding. But when Katie welcomes him back into her bed, Liam risks everything to make her his. After Liam betrayed her trust, Katie Summers will do anything to keep him from walking away with the family business. She decides to seduce him, knowing that when her brothers find out, they will back off from the deal. And she'll finally have her revenge. But when her plan spirals out of control, Katie learns that payback may come at too high a price …
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After several years on the other side of the publishing industry, Sara Jane Stone bid goodbye to her sales career to pursue her dream—writing romance novels. Sara Jane currently resides in Brooklyn, New York with her very supportive real-life hero, two lively young children and a lazy Burmese cat. Visit her online at www.sarajanestone.com or find her on Facebook at Sara Jane Stone.
Two Signed Sets of Caught in the Act and Full Exposure along with a $10 Amazon Gift Card