**That Touch - SNEAK PEEK**
CHAPTER 1 — DAHLIA
“You sure you don’t want me to lock up, Dolly? It’s no big deal. I don’t have any plans.” Juniper Riley smiles sweetly at me, her hand on the door as she’s about to leave for the night.
“Yeah, I’m sure. Thanks though, Juny. You’re on the tail end of your summer break, so go have some fun and enjoy the freedom before you head back to school in a few weeks.”
“Thanks. Good night!” She gives me a lingering glance—one that doesn’t need words—and I already know what she’s about to say. “I hope you’re okay.”
“I’m good, sweetheart, thank you. Good night.” I give her a smile then avert my gaze so she knows I’m done with the conversation. The bell above my boutique door jingles as she closes it behind her. I walk over, flipping the OPEN sign to CLOSED and lock the door. I watch her walk to her vintage cherry-red Beetle, waiting until I see her drive away before turning my attention back to counting the till and finishing up the closing routine.
It’s hard to believe it’s been five years already since I opened Dolly’s Boutique, my quaint little fashion store here in Virginia Dale, Colorado. It started out as a dream back then, with a booth at the farmers’ market on the weekends, and now I have three full-time employees and Juniper during the summer months.
I’d always wanted to own my own store in town, but this wasn’t how I thought it would be. I thought I’d run it with my husband, and that our little kids would play in the back or run through the store to greet guests. But seven years ago today, that dream was shattered when my husband and high school sweetheart, Dean, lost his life in an car accident.
We got married young, and we fell in love even younger. We had just celebrated our first anniversary three months prior when I found out I was pregnant. I was ecstatic, on cloud nine. Even though things between us weren’t perfect and had started to grow a bit rough, I was hopeful our baby would bring us together—that all of our problems would disappear the moment we held her for the first time. I was young and naive, but we never got the chance to hold her. I don’t even know it was a baby girl, though I’ve convinced myself over the years that she was. I miscarried before we could confirm.
The grief was crippling for us both, and neither of us knew how to cope. Instead of leaning on each other, we both turned to other things. I turned to myself, putting up a wall and shutting off my emotions. Dean turned to alcohol.
So it’s been seven years of everyone in town reminding me—on this day especially—of not only how tragic it was, but that they don’t know how I kept going after losing my husband and baby within three months of each other. Sometimes it feels like I’ll never be allowed to move on—like I’m doomed to live in this haze of perpetual grief that loops around every year.
I sigh, closing my eyes for a brief second. On the inside, I have moved on. I’ll never forget Dean and what he meant to me, but I’m ready to be happy again—to find love and have a family. The problem is, the only other man I’ve seriously had feelings for doesn’t know it: Ranger Slade, Dean’s best friend.
I actually met him before I met Dean. It was at a house party, and I’d been drinking to try to fit in as the new girl in town and was belting out karaoke when he walked up to me and told me I had the voice of an angel. I remember giggling furiously, mostly from the tequila, but also because I was instantly smitten. He was only 17 years old, but already 6’3”, built like a farmhand, and had a mop of dirty blond hair that poked out from beneath his cowboy hat.
I remember following him around the party the rest of the night, attempting to be flirty and get him to notice me. We talked on and off, and I thought for sure he was into me, but he never asked me out that night. When I saw him at school in the hallway, he smiled, stopped like he was going to say something, then quickly ducked his head and walked away again. A moment later, I met Dean. I liked Dean. He was funny and outgoing and asked me out within 10 minutes of meeting me. Called me “my girl” after our first date, and the rest was history. I grew to love Dean, and although it wasn’t instant, it grew strong and genuine pretty quickly.
The three of us became inseparable. They were two peas in a pod and I was the sidekick, always along for the ride. I was the one filming their dirt bike antics, being the lookout when we stole beer from Ranger’s family brewery, and the one trying to get us out of trouble when we got caught.
I finish up with the closing procedures, grabbing my bag and the flowers I bought for Dean’s grave during my lunch break. I lock up, walking over to my Jeep and driving the 10 minutes to the cemetery.
I clear away the grass clippings from his gravestone, smiling at the picture of him that adorns his name. I chose that photo for the headstone because it was my favorite one of him. His huge smile was infectious, and it caused his cheeks to ball up, scrunching his eyes almost halfway closed.
“I miss you, Dean,” I say quietly as I place the flowers in the built-in vase. “Life was already hard for you; you didn’t deserve to die so young.” A tear wells up in my eye and I wipe at it frantically. “I know you’re with our daughter, and I know you’re both looking down on me. I feel it every day.”
“Mind if I join you?” I whip my head around to see Ranger standing behind me, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his jeans, his signature cowboy hat low on his brow.
“Not at all.” I smile, motioning for him to come forward as I stand back up.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” he says, the low tenor of his voice rumbling through his chest. “How are you doing?”
I let out an audible sigh. “I’m okay, and you didn’t interrupt. How are you doing?” I nudge him with my shoulder, looking up at him.
“I’m all right. Hard to believe it’s been seven years already.”
“Yeah, but at the same time, sometimes it feels like it was a lifetime ago. You ever feel that way?”
He nods. “I do. It’s weird, like we were completely different people back then.”
“Well, we were . . . we were basically just kids.”
“What do you think he’d say if he saw us standing here right now?”
That makes him chuckle. “With that carefree attitude he always had, he’d probably tell us to fuck off. Then he’d tell us to go get a life.”
We both laugh. I know we’re picturing him saying exactly that with a dramatic eye roll. Dean was rarely serious. He always loved to laugh or make everyone else laugh. Probably a result of growing up in the home he grew up in . . . if you could even call it that. With a dad in prison by the time he was four, and a mom in and out of his life, he practically raised himself.
“You have dinner yet?” I ask, and he shakes his head no. “Want to grab something in town?”
“Sounds good. Meet you at The Place?”
“See you there.”
We both walk back to our cars and make the short drive over to our diner in town.
“Five years already?” Ranger shakes his head as he reaches for a few more French fries. “Congrats, Doll, you’ve done so much these last few years.”
“Thanks.” I blush a little. “It’s crazy how quickly time is flying by. How are things going at the ranch and brewery?”
Ranger is one of the many Slade boys. Their fathers currently own the second-largest brewery in North America, and one of the fastest-growing whiskey distilleries. They’ve also recently launched a wine division. His cousin Trent is the CEO, but Ranger prefers to work at Slade Ranch along with a few of his other cousins. He basically co-runs it with Tyler, Trent’s older brother.
“Busy. Dad wants to retire this year, so he’s been eyeing Decker or me to take his seat on the board,” he says, referring to his twin brother who also works at the ranch with him.
“Oh, wow, how do you feel about that? I know you’ve always preferred to stay out of the board room.”
“Still prefer that, but I also understand the responsibilities that come with being a Slade. Seeing Tyler step up and be more active on the board shows me that it can be done, but I’m not sure if Decker would prefer to be the one. Something he and I need to discuss further.”
“Can I get you guys anything else?” Our waitress interrupts us, her eyes focused solely on Ranger as she bats her lashes and cocks her hip to one side. I could be sitting here in full clown makeup and I’m 99% sure she wouldn’t even notice.
“I’m good, darlin’, but thanks.” He winks at her, nodding toward me.
“I’m good, too, thank you.” I smile as her eyes briefly look at me then bounce back to Ranger.
“Okay, just holler at me if you change your mind.” She drags her hand over his shoulder as she slowly walks away from the table.
“What?” he asks coyly, and I can’t help but roll my eyes.
“I might as well not exist to her, and the woman at the bar has been eyeing you the entire time as well.”
He turns his head around slowly, and the woman at the bar lifts her hand to wave at him.
“Shit,” he mutters, dragging his hand over his heavy five o’clock shadow.
“Anyone in here you haven’t banged?” I laugh, unease curling in my stomach at the thought. I’m not naive when it comes to Ranger Slade. He’s had a reputation of being a ladies’ man since he was 15 years old, but I won’t pretend it doesn’t make me jealous. Just once I wish he’d want me in that way.
“Jesus,” he mutters, “I’m a gentleman, Dolly. I don’t kiss and tell.”
“Oh, please, I grew up with you, so gentleman isn’t exactly the word that comes to mind.”
“I’m a changed man,” he says earnestly, but I don’t buy it.
“Meaning now I don’t kiss and tell, like I said.”
“How have you not been through everyone in town yet? You having to head over the border to Wyoming to find fresh meat?”
He shakes his head again in exasperation, reaching for his beer. It’s a look I’ve seen dozens of times from Ranger over the years. Sometimes I wonder if he truly likes me or merely puts up with me because I was married to his best friend.
“I don’t really have the time to date right now. What about you? Any new dates?”
I shrug, dipping my fry into ketchup. “Nothing since Neal.”
“Farmers’ market guy. The crunchy guy from Oregon.”
“Ah, guess I never caught his name. Damn, didn’t that end, like, a year ago?”
“You haven’t gotten laid in a year?”
I nod. “Yeah, some of us aren’t horndogs who can’t keep it in our pants. I consider myself a sexual camel.”
“A sexual camel?” he says with a laugh.
“Yeah, I can go very long periods without it. Like a camel can in the desert without water.”
“I got it.” He nods.
“Besides, let’s be honest, my little magic wand manages to get the job done at a 100% success rate, while men might get me there 10% of the time . . . and that’s being generous.”
“Generous,” I emphasize.
He leans forward, his elbows on the table. “You’re hanging around the wrong men, honey.”
The way his voice lowers when he calls me honey makes my stomach do that little flip of excitement.
“Any you suggest I hang around?”
“You don’t need my help, Doll. Don’t sell yourself short.”
“Not all of us have your gift.” I lean back in the booth. “You’ve always had a way with women without even trying.”
“Not all women.” His eyes dart away from mine then back. It’s like there’s something he’s not saying. I open my mouth to ask him what he means, but he reaches for his wallet. “Dinner’s on me,” he says as he pulls out a few bills and tosses them onto the table.
I take that as our cue to leave, grabbing my purse and sliding out of the booth, then following him out of the restaurant. He walks with me silently to my car. He reaches around me, pulling my door open.
“You want to come over for another drink?” I ask as I spin around to face him, with only a few inches between us. I can smell the slight hint of cologne or maybe aftershave.
He looks down at me, his eyes dark beneath the moonlight. He studies my face for a moment, his hand slowly reaching up to pick up a strand of my hair. He rubs it between his fingers, staring at the movement.
“I like your hair grown out.”
“Thanks,” I say softly. “About that drink?”
His eyes dart back to mine as he drops the lock of my hair. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Annoyance flashes across his face and I instantly regret asking the question.
“You know why,” he says cryptically.
Do I? Do I really know?
I can’t tell if he’s fighting his attraction toward me like I’m fighting it toward him, or if this is how he really feels: annoyed and obligated to be my friend—to look after his best friend’s widow and her pathetic attempts to make him like her.
“Ranger,” I say, almost pleading as I reach my hand up to rest it against his chest. I’m not sure what I was planning to say after that . . . maybe to let him know it’s okay to move on—it’s okay to acknowledge his feelings—but I don’t get the chance.
He darts his hand out, grabbing my wrist firmly as his eyes burn into mine.
It’s a single word, but it sends the message loud and clear. He drops my wrist, turning and walking toward his truck without another word.
CHAPTER 2 — RANGER
I fight every urge I have to turn back around and drag Dolly to my truck—to show her exactly why going back to her place would be a very bad idea. I’m pretty sure I have so much pent-up sexual frustration at this point that I’d never be able to call myself a gentleman again.
I slam the door of my truck harder than necessary, letting out a shaky breath as I slide the key into the ignition. The way she looked up at me tonight, I truly don’t think she has any idea what she does to me—any idea that I’ve denied myself since the moment I met her.
I grip the steering wheel, my knuckles growing white as I imagine what it would be like to finally take her. To feel her body pressed against mine as I fucked her mouth with my tongue. I release the wheel, panic then shame washing over me as an image of Dean flashes through my brain.
“Get it the fuck together,” I mutter as I turn the ignition. I throw it into gear, pulling out of the parking lot and heading toward a bar. I don’t want to drink, and if I did, I’d drink for free at home. No, I’m running, because that’s what I’ve always done. Dolly thinks it’s just me being a man-whore—and the fact is, I am—but she’s the reason behind it. I can’t have her, so I bury my feelings and find the next woman to distract me for a while. It’s shitty, but I never pretend I’m offering them something more than I am. I make it abundantly clear it’s just a hookup.
My chest feels tight, and it’s something that’s been happening more and more over the last year when I’m around her. It’s one of the reasons I’ve allowed distance to build up between us. I know she senses it; I saw it on her face tonight. We used to be best friends, and even after Dean passed, we hung out. We’d do movie nights and grab dinner once a week. I was the guy she called to help her put furniture together, and she was the woman I called when I needed advice. I don’t know what it was, exactly, that caused me to no longer be able to pretend. Maybe it was walking into her bathroom one night and seeing a man’s razor and shaving cream in there. It made me realize she really had moved on from Dean—something I don’t blame her for. I was happy for her, actually, but I also realized I never wanted to come between her and somebody new.
I pull into the parking lot of our local watering hole and head inside. It’s the usual crowd, and it’s a little depressing if I’m being honest . . . a few locals who have nothing better to do on a Wednesday night than bury their sorrows in alcohol.
“Hey, Buck.” I nod to the bartender and slide onto a stool.
“Just a Sprite.”
“Whoa, tough day?” He laughs.
“The worst.” I glance over my shoulder again, surveying the room to see if there’s anybody I’d be interested in talking to, but no such luck.
“How are things at the ranch?”
“Busy as usual. Glad branding season is over with.”
“I bet. Couple of my buddies helped out this year. Said they learned they’re old now after those 10-plus-hour days.”
“Oh yeah, they’ll kick your ass all right.”
The door to the bar swings open, pulling my attention away from Buck. I look up to see my twin brother Decker walking through the door.
“Hey, what are you doing here?”
“Probably same as you.” He pats my shoulder and nods toward Buck. “Just a beer. Actually,” he says, sitting down on the stool next to me, “was driving by and saw your truck. Thought I’d see how you’re doing.”
“I’m fine.” I shrug.
“You talk to Dolly today?”
“Yeah, saw her at the cemetery. Just came from dinner with her, actually.”
“Ahh,” he says, “that explains it.”
“Why you came to the bar.”
“I’m drinking a Sprite,” I say, holding up my glass.
“We both know you don’t come here for the booze.”
Well, shit. Guess I should’ve known better than to try to hide something from my twin.
“You’re annoying, you know that?”
He laughs, bringing his beer to his lips. “Yeah, you’ve told me that our entire life.”
“So, you thought about the proposition at all?” I ask, referring to the fact that a few months ago, I worked with our cousin Tyler, who runs the ranch with me, and our dad, Colton, to come up with a plan to expand the Slade ranch. Uncle Drake was on board from day one. A few of the others are still on the fence, but most of the family and board all agree it’s the next best step. The ranch has really taken off over the last decade, and we’re going to outgrow our pastures in the next decade if we keep moving in the same direction.
“Yeah. Between that and Dad retiring and leaving his seat open on the board, I feel like it’s all I think about these days.”
“Same,” I agree.
“Is it for sure Texas? I know they briefly mentioned Wyoming at the start of the talks, but it didn’t seem like a viable option.”
“Yeah, it’s Texas. Milder winters, cheaper land, and it’s the top cattle state.”
“Are you going to go down there again with them when they look at land?”
“Nah, Tyler is, so he wants us staying here to run things. We decided on the land we saw a few months back, so no need for me to go this time,” I say, referring to the trip I took with my dad and Tyler back in June to look at a few hundred acres.
“It should be you,” Decker says.
“What should be me? Negotiating the land deal?” I shake my head. “It’s not a big deal; Tyler and dad know what they’re doing.”
“No, leading the expansion. If it goes through, you should be the one running that ranch down there. It was your idea, and it’s your legacy.”
“Is that what you want?” I spin my glass in my hand, wondering if it’s what I want. It would be nice to have a fresh start, away from the constant reminder of being in love with a woman I can’t have. That isn’t the reason I made the suggestion last year to my dad, though. I truly believe that based on our current operations and the growth of our cattle business, it’s the right next step.
He rubs his hands over his face, dragging them down slowly as he groans. “I don’t know, man, this is all so much. I know we’re going to be 31 this year, but shit, sometimes I still feel like I’m 18 . . . like I shouldn’t be having the responsibilities we have.”
“I know, crazy to think that dad was a father already and married while owning his garage and working at the brewery at our age.” Our dad married young, to his high school sweetheart, and had our half-sister, Milly. Sadly, his first wife died of cancer, leaving him a shell of a man until he met our mom, Brennan, who was hired as a nanny when Milly was just a little toddler.
“Yeah, it’s a lot. I know that Dad wants us involved in the brewery—at least one of us, anyway—and I know we’ve both always preferred the ranch, but I also know it can be done. We can balance both. Tyler does it and he has a family. I’m not saying being on the board while you take the ranch down to Texas is what I want. I’m just saying that whichever way this all plays out, I know we can manage it.”
“How did dinner with Dolly go?” he asks, changing the subject.
“It was fine. Uneventful,” I lie, looking down into my glass.
“I might be annoying, but you’re an idiot and a shit liar. You both still doing the same song and dance?”
“Both? Nah.” I shake my head. “She doesn’t see me like that.”
“Come on, man, she does and you know it. You can see it from a mile away.”
“I don’t think she does. I think she’s lonely and scared. I think I’m the last tie she has to Dean, and there’s a sentimental element wrapped up in that. She feels safe with me because of him.”
“And you don’t think genuine feelings can or have maybe already grown out of that?”
“Maybe I don’t wanna be someone’s leftovers. It’s kind of a kick to the dick to think you’re someone’s second choice.”
“You think that’s how Mom felt?”
Fuck, didn’t think about that.
“I dunno, maybe.”
“I doubt it. Listen, I’m not saying it would be all rainbows and fucking puppy dogs or whatever, but you two . . . it feels like you’re meant to be together.”
“Why, just because we’ve known each other since I was 17? We were close, yeah, but we’ve grown apart. She’s dated other people.”
“Yeah, and so have you. She might be feeling the exact same way as you: scared.”
“I’m not scared,” I correct him, but actually, yeah, I am scared. “It wouldn’t be right. I don’t feel right about it, Deck, okay?”
“Okay.” He raises his hands. “All I’m saying is, nobody would judge you.”
“It’s not that,” I mutter. “Let’s just drop it, please.”
I don’t elaborate on what it really is, because I’ve never told anyone that the night I met Dolly, I was head over heels for her. She was the new girl in school—hell, probably the new girl in the whole town. Her family had relocated to our middle-of-nowhere Colorado town because her grandfather had become ill and her mom was taking care of him. Dolly was bright-eyed with a laugh bigger than her petite frame. Her short, brunette curls bounced as she sang karaoke animatedly.
I tried to play it cool—didn’t want to scare her off—plus I could see she’d had a few drinks. The next day at school, when I saw her in the hallway and approached her, I could hear my heart in my ears. I had planned on asking her to Homecoming, but I got nervous and chickened out. I went to the bathroom, splashed cold water on my face, took a few deep breaths, and gave myself a pep talk to get back out there and ask her. But when I rounded the corner, I was too late. There was Dean, laying it on thick, and she was eating it up. Dean had a way with the ladies, way more than I did. He was charming and outgoing, and had a smile all the girls in high school would go on and on about.
I remember feeling like my heart hurt, and it was the first time in my life I felt that kind of pain. It wasn’t rejection, but it felt like I knew right then what I was losing. And since that day, I’ve been smiling through the pain . . . so to just take the chance and confess to her my feelings and either not have them returned, or worse, only be a passing fantasy for her, I don’t think I could live through that.
“Okay, we’ll drop it. I just want to say one thing: I think you owe it to yourself to be honest with her and take a chance. I’ve hated seeing your pain over the years. I just want to see you happy, brother.” He reaches over and grabs my shoulder.
“I know, thank you. I’m sorry, I’m just—”
“Don’t apologize. It’s a rough time with the anniversary and everything, and all this stuff with the ranch and the brewery. Maybe we need a guys’ night . . . wanna go out with all the cousins soon?”
“That sounds like a good idea. Just don’t tell Milly, because she’ll be salty she wasn’t invited and the next thing you know, it won’t be a guys’ night.”
“She does have a knack for always showing up.” We both laugh. We’ve never once thought of Mil as our half-sister. She’s always been our older sister who’s always right by our side.
“You know she’s doing that bachelor auction thing again this year, right? This time it’s going to be during the Fall Fest.”
“Oh shit, she’s going to want us to do it again, isn’t she?” I hang my head. I can’t bear the thought of the humiliation again this year.
“You know it.”
“I’m out. I’m not doing it this year. I looked like a damn fool last year with the fuckin’ sparkly cuffs and bow tie and no shirt.”
“You really put on a show last year . . . I remember flexing, and I think at one point you did push-ups?”
I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to erase the memory from my head. “Yeah, I was three solid sheets to the wind that night. Plus I was trying to impress some blonde who offered to suck my dick if I won the highest bid.” I laugh.
“Classic Ranger. Well, good luck getting out of it with Milly. You know she also has a knack for convincing us either through guilt or brute force to get her way. On that note,” he slaps a bill down on the bar top and nods toward Buck, “I’m out of here, gentlemen. Have a good night.”
I stay behind a few more minutes, Deck’s words lingering as I picture the way Dolly was looking up at me tonight. It wasn’t the first time I’d noticed her looking at me like that, but it was probably the first time I was seconds away from grabbing her by the back of her neck and shoving my tongue down her throat. She’s only gotten more beautiful with age, and her big, beautiful eyes still captivate me every time I look into them. Her plump lips still make my heart do a flip when they curl upward into a smile, usually followed by her loud, unapologetic laugh. And her body, goddamn, her tight body would drive any man to insanity. She’s built like Salma Hayek, petite with curves that dip and wind, causing my eyes to linger longer than they should. I push the thoughts of my hands exploring her body from my head to save myself an embarrassing situation.
“I’m heading out, Buck. Have a good night.” After I settle my tab, I walk back outside to my truck, pausing to look up at the crystal-clear summer sky, wishing I knew what the right next step was for my life.
Am I a fool for not even giving my heart a chance with Dolly? Or am I fool for not taking this opportunity to start over fresh in Texas, letting my past stay exactly where it belongs?