One minute you could be standing in the middle of a cocktail party, wearing a formal black taffeta dress while pretending to listen to a balding business associate detail his recent adventures at the dentist, wondering how quickly you could get home to watch Fixer Upper.
The next minute you could hear the sound of a masculine voice so rough it reminded you of aged Kentucky bourbon straight from the bottle, turn around only to be ensnared by eyes so blue they rivaled a Kashmir sapphire, and know instinctively in that moment you were staring at the father of your children.
Despite the shadows cast from a low-hanging moon, Olivia could see him clearly. Highlighted by the glow of a thousand tiny lights draped over the patio railing, along with the flickering lanterns on the outdoor tables, his commanding presence was hard to miss.
Dark hair, styled by a skilled hairdresser and not a military barber, was cut in short, messy layers, the shaggy ends telling her he cared about his appearance, but only so much. There was little doubt he'd used anything but his fingers to comb it. A few days’ growth covered his face, masking undeniable male beauty and adding a ruthlessness that was sexy for sure and just short of wicked.
And unlike the other black-tie attendees, he'd dressed down for the party in worn jeans, black work boots, and a gray T-shirt that had seen better days.
He wore rugged and muscular like a tailored suit. And danger like a second skin.
The annual Coleson Creek tasting party, thrown the first Friday night of every June, was in full swing. The sounds of chinking glasses and laughter filtered through the open French doors, which flooded light onto the deserted patio where Olivia found sweet escape. Happy to breathe air unpolluted with cigar smoke and too many hits from a Chanel No. 5 bottle.
“You're on private property, ma'am. I'm gonna need to see some identification. Pat you down and make sure you're not hiding any contraband. I'll need access to every nook and cranny, too.”
Glancing around the empty patio to make sure he was addressing her, she grinned at the tall stranger, intrigued by his threat of a full-body search.
“I'm not trespassing.”
“Tell it to the judge, little lady.” He tapped his chest, a bottle of beer in his hand. “That'd be me.”
“What if I throw myself on the mercy of the court?”
“That's what I'm counting on, darlin’.” He glanced at his watch. “Your court date's in an hour. Back at my place.”
Briefly taken aback, Olivia's broad smile gave her away. She was thoroughly charmed in less than ten sentences. “You're quite forward, aren't you?”
He shrugged innocently, but his grin was guilty as sin. “I find it's a real time saver.”
She laughed, unable to look away from that vibrant blue gaze. She'd never laid eyes on him before, but Olivia knew his name.
The man so many mythologized, if not completely idolized, was finally home. And both Rosa and Hope, Marshall's only daughter, were the leaders of his fan club.
Whispers had traveled the winery for days. Rumors that Ash, the bad-ass Special Operations soldier, was in town. Marshall hadn't said a word, dismissing any queries from the staff with a withering look that only fanned the gossip fire. The golden son that was long gone before she'd been hired, Olivia hadn't thought much about Asher Coleson, one way or the other. Concerned only about her position within the company's pecking order, she'd spared barely a passing thought for the unknown man everybody but Marshall put on a pedestal.
Words like charismatic, heroic, and humble had been tossed around, and while Olivia couldn't attest to the last two traits, he was charisma personified if the last thirty seconds were any indication.
And he was no slouch in the looks department, either.
“A man who cuts right to the chase,” she mused, sipping chardonnay. “Been out in the desert a little too long, soldier?”
His smile froze. “It was a jungle, ma'am. And hell yeah, it was too long.”
“Olivia Quinn.” Reaching out first, she shook his hand, holding on longer than appropriate. “And you're the popular, but mysterious Asher Coleson, right?”
“I'll cop to the name, but popular around these parts, I'm not. And it appears you have me at a disadvantage.” His firm grip sent tingles down her spine. “Unless you're a mind reader, and in that case, I apologize for my impure thoughts regarding what I'm gonna do to you once that dress comes off.”
“I'm not a trespasser or a mind reader.” It was difficult, but she released his hand. “Unfortunately,” she added, with a saucy eyebrow lift.
“And I'm not really sorry.”
She was prepared for the jolt of sexual chemistry at the physical contact, but not the sense of rightness that followed. Like the ratty Georgia Bulldogs sweatshirt she'd had since high school, it felt comfortable wrapped around her. Peaceful and secure. Like coming home.
“I work here.”
“You work here,” he repeated flatly, less question, more statement of doom.
“Yep.” She couldn't stop her cheeky smile in the presence of such male beauty. “What can I say? I get to drink on the job, and it comes with a sweet employee discount to boot.” Tipping her glass his way, she sipped the wine, letting the cool liquid fuel her courage. “When you go through a bottle a night binge-watching HGTV, that adds up. The bad news? My garbage man is probably planning an intervention.”
His big body relaxed, the sudden chill thawing. “You couldn't pay me to drink that nasty shit.”
Jaw dropping, she gave a short, disbelieving laugh. “Aren't you gonna own all this one day?” She looked around, indicating the house and endless rows of grapevines beyond. “Maybe you should be more complimentary?”
“Not if I can help it, I won't,” he said, after a disgusted snort, taking a long pull from his beer. “And believe it or not, I'm working hard to keep my distaste on the down low.”
“You're drinking domestic light beer straight from the bottle at the annual tasting party for wines with your name on them. That doesn't seem very down low to me. And it's not even a good brand.” She gestured toward the silver label.
“What, this?” He held it up proudly. “This is cold filtered with Rocky Mountain spring water.”
“Yeah, the same water all those bears who live in the Rocky Mountains piss in.”
An odd look crossed his face. “Well, that's a goddamn first, darlin’.” His charisma was back in spades. “I've never heard a beautiful woman say the word piss while wearing a prom dress and diamonds.”
“Cheap costume jewelry,” she admitted, her fingers grazing the heavy necklace. “I don't wear real diamonds.” Or prom dresses, but she'd let his description of her strapless, mermaid-style gown slide. Considering it was so tight she could only take shallow breaths, Olivia was just glad he'd noticed.
“That's a shame. What about underwear?” His gaze licked over her body. “You skipping those tonight, too?”
She let out a shocked laugh, knowing she should be insulted by his audacity. Instead, she was entertained. Proof positive those cobalt eyes allowed him far too much leeway in life.
“You think I'm gonna let you find out firsthand? Get you drunk on nasty wine, put on a Lionel Richie album, and do my best to take away your cares for the night? And my name is Olivia.”
When he replied, she heard the veiled strain of weariness in his voice. Saw the tiny exhaustion lines creasing the corners of his eyes. Felt the real Asher Coleson in the sincerity of his bruised words, for the first time tonight.
“It would go a long way toward making me feel human again, so here's hoping that happens,
Some people said that love and hate couldn't coexist. That such polarizing emotions could never be assigned to one singular thing at the same time. That much like roller coasters or Brussels sprouts, you either felt love or you felt hate, but never both. Common ground was nowhere to be found, forcing a person to pick a side.
Olivia Quinn would tell those people that they'd never met Asher Coleson.
Never met him. Never touched him. Never loved him.
And never hated him.
Asher Coleson hadn't always lived his life from the outside looking in. That neat little trick of the mind started somewhere around four years ago. Right about the time he'd gone to sleep one night living the American dream and woken up the next morning in his own private nightmare.
Considering he was a front-lines defender of that American dream, it was irony at its best.
But that didn't change his life story.
Magic to tragic, in less time than it took paint to dry.
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I live with my high school sweetheart turned husband and our three, beloved DVR's, in the desert Southwest. Otherwise known as the surface of the sun during the summer.
My life long goals are to think before I speak, smile more and swear less, and actually weigh what my driver's license states I do. And I have been contemplating a hair color change for the last decade. I'm thinking red.
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