Steve Johnson is living his life’s passion watching over the Colorado Mountains as a ranger and wildlife consultant. But his peaceful life is upended when overzealous and insanely beautiful Shannon Braden flits back into his life after returning from a brief trip home to Maryland. He thought his attraction to her was under control—after all, she’s only in Colorado temporarily, and he doesn’t do casual affairs.
Shannon’s return to Colorado has as much to do with the game of cat and mouse she and Steve have been playing as it does the data she’s been hired to collect. But despite her efforts to explore the undeniable heat simmering between them, Steve’s intent on keeping his distance.
When a ranch abutting the national park goes up for sale, Steve will do whatever it takes to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. And when all his attempts fail, he’s left with no alternative but to follow Shannon’s guidance into the online world he abhors in order to raise the funds. The more time they spend together, the deeper their attraction becomes, and a game of cat and mouse turns into an unstoppable connection. But when Shannon’s assignment comes to an end, will it mean an end to them, too?
The sweet sounds of her humming floated into his ears, and he tried harder to deny the thrum of heat racing down his spine. He heard the crunching of leaves and his smile widened further. Damn, he needed to get a grip.
“Hey there, mountain man.”
He forced the foolhardy smile from his lips, replacing it with what he hoped was a less lustful one, and turned to find the all-too-chipper and insanely hot brunette. Her hair was piled on her head in a messy bun, a few dark tendrils curling past her shoulders. She held a mug in each hand. Curls of steam rose into the air. Her pink shirt hitched on her breasts, and he chalked that up to the list of things he was futilely trying not to react to. But his body wasn’t on board with the off-limits plan, and it brimmed with heat. It had been a hell of a lot easier to be around her when she was staying at her uncle’s house in town. At least then by the time he saw her she had a freaking bra on.
He dropped his eyes to avoid staring, but her flannel pajama pants hung low on her hips, revealing a sliver of taut skin just below her belly button. Christ, she was gorgeous. Striving for a safe view, he looked at her leather boots. Boots were safe. There was nothing sexy about boots. Bright pink laces hung loose over the dark leather, her pajama pants bunched around the tops, showing another flash of skin. He pictured her shoving her bare feet into them before jaunting out the door with her mind-blowing smile in place. There must be something wrong with him, because he found that sexy, too.
“You should lace those up.” He ran a hand through his hair, grinding his teeth against the way his entire body was buzzing like a live wire.
“Well, Mr. Safety. I missed you, too.” She thrust a mug toward him with a coy smile. “Just the way you like it. Bitter as weeds.”
She was too damn cute, too damn social, and too damn temporary for the likes of him.
He reached for the mug. “Thanks, Butterfly.” The nickname flew off his tongue without thought, just as it had the first time she’d flitted into his yard, turned his insides to fire, and flitted back out. He was surprised to realize he’d missed saying it while she was gone.
“No prob, Grizz.”
Grizz. Hell if he hadn’t missed that, too. Her eyes dropped to his bare chest, lingering long enough for him to feel it lower. Much lower. Her cheeks flushed, and she slid those gorgeous hazel eyes to his ax—the one in his hand, not the one in his pants.
“Preparing for a cold night, or thinking about becoming a serial killer?”
I wouldn’t have cold nights if you were in my bed. As if on cue, his body stirred again, reminding him it’d been far too long since he’d been with a woman.
“As interesting as becoming a serial killer sounds, I don’t think I’m cut out for it.”
“Right. It would require human contact.”
“I missed that smart mouth of yours,” he said sarcastically. He’d been fantasizing about her full lips and sassy mouth ever since they’d reconnected at Rex and Jade’s wedding several months ago. But she was only there until her project ended, so sarcasm it was.
“Heard you ride in with Cal last night. How long are you here for?” He hadn’t just heard her arrive. He’d gone out to see who was riding up the mountain and had seen her arms wrapped around Cal from behind as they rode past the overlook. In the moonlight they’d looked like a frigging Hallmark card.
“A few weeks. Four and a half, I think. Something like that.” She stretched one arm, flashing even more of her midriff.
Torture. Pure, exquisite torture.
“You could have called me to bring you up the mountain.” He shifted his eyes away, trying to figure out who had taken possession of his mouth. Called me? He had nothing against Cal. He was a nice guy and was one of the most respected horse trainers around. And he shouldn’t give a shit who Shannon was with. Sure, she was hot, smart, and he liked her ballsy attitude, but he liked his life just the way it was. The last thing he needed was a social butterfly like her bringing noise and chaos into his life, telling him what to do or how to live.
“I know.” She kicked at the dirt, her eyes downcast. “Treat and Max stopped by in the afternoon and I went into town with them to visit my uncle Hal and my cousins. Cal was there and he offered to drive me back, since he lives in Preston. It was only once we got back to his place that he suggested we ride up on horseback. Besides, you don’t exactly love going into town.”
Great, now he was stuck envisioning her at Cal’s sprawling horse ranch.
He finished his coffee and handed her the mug. “Thanks. It was perfect.” He turned to set another log on the stump. “You ought to be careful bringing guys up to your cabin,” he said with his back to her.
“I thought I left my overprotective big brothers at home.” She sighed. “I hardly think Cal is a threat. He’s known Rex forever.”
Steve rested the ax over his shoulder, weighing his response. The last thing he wanted to be was her big brother, and he’d known Cal forever, too. Cal wasn’t the kind of guy to take advantage of a woman, but that didn’t stop Steve’s gut from churning at the thought of them cozied up together.
“He’s a friend, Steve.” She narrowed her eyes as he drew the ax back. “Don’t even try to pretend you don’t bring women up to your cabin.”
He arched a brow. That would be a big no fucking way. He liked his privacy.
Her jaw gaped. “What? Don’t you ever get bored? Lonely?”
“Not really,” he said as he swung the ax. It was a damned lie, at least since Shannon had flitted into his life, making him feel things he’d once been adept at ignoring.
“Why not? That’s not normal.” She finished her coffee and set the mugs on the ground as he split the log and set another one on the stump. “What do you do for sex?”
He laughed under his breath. “Seriously, city girl?”
“I’d hardly call Peaceful Harbor a city. It’s a beach town, and you’re avoiding the question.”
“Maybe because you’re asking questions you shouldn’t be asking.” He swung the ax and split another log.
She smirked. “Look at you, all big and brawny and afraid to talk about sex.”
“What’s gotten into you?” He set the ax-head on the ground and leaned on the handle. Before she’d gone home, he’d gotten away with a strategically placed Uh-huh. “I’m pretty sure you weren’t this curious about my sexual habits the last time you were on the mountain.”
Her eyes rolled over him, and he couldn’t tell if she was assessing or enjoying the view.
“I don’t know,” she said with a mischievous grin. “You’re standing there like a lumberjack. Six…what?”
“Three,” he said with a sigh.
“Right. Six three of shirtless, sweaty muscle, with your hair all tousled.” She moved her hands around her head, causing her shirt to lift up again. “You haven’t shaved in who knows how long, and you look like the guys on ‘Seriously Sexy Hot Guys’ Pinterest boards. A guy who looks like you can’t be going without.” She shrugged and her cheeks pinked up. “It made me wonder…”
“How about you wonder a little less?” Because hearing you talk about my sex life makes me want you in it. Front and center.
“Pinterest? What the heck is Pinterest?”
Her eyes widened with disbelief. “I forgot you know nothing about the real world. Pinterest is this awesome social media site—”
“Never mind. That’s so far from the real world it shouldn’t exist. People nowadays are content to sit inside and stare at screens, talking with people they don’t know instead of living their lives. Bodies are meant to move, Butterfly. Weather is meant to be experienced. If people were more like animals, the world would be a better place.”
He saw a hint of hurt in her eyes and felt bad. Sometimes he forgot that he wasn’t the only one protective of their lifestyle. He tried to change the subject to a lighter one.
“What are you doing out here so early anyway?” he asked.
“The company offered me a new project, and my boss at my real job gave me a leave of absence to do it. I thought that was pretty cool of him. I’m going to be comparing the habits of gray and red foxes, and I’m here to scout the grays. You know how red foxes prefer edge habitats and grays prefer mountainous forestland?” Edge habitats were the boundary of two habitats, like field and forest. She didn’t wait for him to respond before continuing with her explanation. “They’re similar in life and history in almost every way, except for grays being shier and slightly smaller and where they make their dens. I’m going to study them to see if their behavioral patterns reveal reasons for the difference in habitat preference. I was hoping you’d have time to show me where I can find them.”
The request took him by surprise. She’d spent weeks researching red foxes and hadn’t once asked him to help her.
“No can do today, Butterfly.” He had a busy day planned. He’d caught a group of twentysomethings partying by one of the rock ledges last week and he’d spotted a few of them again yesterday. He needed to make the rounds to ensure they weren’t back and getting into trouble, and he had to head down the mountain to meet with his old buddies Mack and Will Cumberland. Yesterday he’d learned the Cumberland ranch was going up for sale: two hundred acres in Weston, adjacent to the national park where Steve had worked as a ranger and wildlife consultant for a decade. Steve had grown up in Weston, and though he lived two towns away now, his small-town roots ran deep. He wanted to try to convince his buddies to put the land into conservation instead of selling.
“Bummer. I was looking forward to catching up on all the crazy shenanigans you were up to while I was gone.” She waggled her brows with the tease.
He smiled and shook his head. “Be careful out there. I caught some kids partying recently. They’re probably harmless, but guys and alcohol…Just be careful. You got that Mace I left in your cabin?”
“That was you?” She narrowed her eyes and said, “You do realize I’m a grown woman, right?”
Christ, had he ever.