Daring to Fall

by

Shannon Stults

Can she forgive the past or will she sacrifice her present?

When she finds herself sole legal guardian of her teenage sister and the heir of a significant fortune, Harper Maddox drops out of medical school to move back to her small hometown of Willow Creek, Georgia. Her return brings her face to face with Russell Hart (aka Cowboy), her fiercely independent and sexy first love who broke her heart three summers ago after gaining her wary trust.

Harper is determined to protect her heart and resist Cowboy’s allure, but when she decides to remodel and reopen her parents’ B&B, she must turn to the one man she was determined to ignore for advice and assistance. Cowboy proves to be a surprising ally and friend, and it’s only a matter of weeks before she finds herself falling for him all over again. He appears reformed, but Harper still questions his ability to fall in love.

Will Harper’s fear of getting hurt outweigh a chance at true happiness?

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DAY 1

“I don’t have a shift at the hospital for the next few days. I was thinking maybe we could get dinner with some of my friends tonight.” The redhead bombshell in the driver’s seat looked over at Cowboy with bright eyes and a toothy grin. “The girls are dying to meet you.”

“I’ve already got plans,” he said, not the least bit disappointed. Well, unless you counted the fact that he’d only just met this woman yesterday and she was already telling her friends about him.

“Oh,” she sighed, her smile slipping for only a second before it came back at full force. “What about tomorrow?”

“I’ve got a really busy week ahead of me.”

She huffed, her shoulders falling as her bottom lip poked out. “I understand. But make sure you call me if anything changes.”

“Okay,” he lied.

The car filled with an awkward silence while she continued to pout, occasionally casting glances his way. God, what had he done to deserve this?

Okay, so maybe this was karma’s way of getting back at him for hitting on a woman while his best friend was recovering from extreme smoke inhalation in the Dublin emergency room. In his defense, he’d waited until after Cole was released before he officially made his move on the sexy nurse he’d been fantasizing about for more than an hour.

Dana was sensual and alluring and said in no uncertain terms that she had no interest in anything more than a one-night fling. He’d been raring to accompany her back to her place for a night of fantastic sex, and he’d thought—not for the first time—that he was the luckiest guy in Willow Creek.

At least until he woke up the next morning. He’d barely even had his jeans back on before she invited him to breakfast and started calling him “baby” and “honey” and a number of other little pet names that made the back of his neck prickle. Breakfast? As in let this awkward morning-after go on even longer? Sorry, he couldn’t. He really needed to go home and check on his friend.

He sent up a small prayer of thanks for that handy little excuse. It probably took a special kind of person to find a silver lining in his best friend nearly dying.

“What about sometime next week?” Dana went on now as they rounded a curve on the country road leading back to his place in town.

He really should have brought his own transportation. It was an amateur move, one he sure as hell wouldn’t be making again.

He was mercifully saved from coming up with another excuse when a gray Jeep parked on the shoulder came into view way up ahead. A woman with long, blond hair and a bright orange dress wiped her brow before kicking at what he suspected was a flat tire.

“Pull over.”

“What? Why?” Dana’s eyes narrowed, the car slowing infinitesimally. “Who is she?”

He had no idea, but Dana didn’t need to know that. “That’s…Lexi,” he said, grasping at a random name. “She’s an old friend of mine.”

“What kind of friend?”

“The kind who clearly needs my help,” he said, his patience straining. “Now pull over.”

She did as he said, coming to a stop just behind the gray Jeep. Cowboy practically flew out of the car. “Hey, I thought that was you!”

The blonde woman spun around as he approached, and any uncertainty he’d had of her identity vanished. He hadn’t seen Harper Maddox in almost four years, but this was a small town and he’d recognize their class’s quiet, reclusive valedictorian anywhere.

She squinted at him from behind a pair of red-rimmed glasses. “Cowboy?”

Yes! She remembered him, too. That was going to make this next bit so much less awkward.

“I didn’t know you’d be in town today, Lexi. It’s been a long time,” he said loudly.

Harper’s brow furrowed before her face fell completely flat.

Before she could say anything that would give him away, he pulled her into a tight hug. He stood almost a foot taller than her but managed to bring his lips level with her ear. “Just go with it,” he nearly begged.

“Uh…”

He released her, keeping an arm over her shoulder as he turned to face the blue Camry he’d just escaped from. “Thanks again for the ride, Dana, but Lexi and I have it from here.”

Dana glared at them through the windshield. She hesitated for a moment, waiting until Cowboy waved a sign of dismissal. She pulled away, her angry eyes zeroed in on Harper as she went.

Every one of his tense muscles instantly relaxed. “Don’t mind her. She may be the jealous type, but I don’t think she’d actually do anything to you.” He removed his black UGA cap and wiped his sweaty brow with his forearm. “I owe you one. Usually I can tell the clingy ones before things get too far. If we’d actually made it back to my place, I think she would have started plans to move in and redecorate. So…you think I can get a ride into town, Lexi?”

Harper threw his arm off her shoulder. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“What?”

“Well, for starters, Russell, that’s not my name.”

“Right. Sorry about that. I panicked and told Dana you were an old friend. Lexi was just the first name that came to mind.”

“Second, you just used me to get away from one of your one-night stands. And now you have the nerve to ask me for a ride?”

Okay, so that one was fair. But if she’d been in that car to hear Dana debating with herself over whether it was too soon for him to meet her parents, he suspected Harper would be much more understanding right about now.

She didn’t wait for his response. Instead, she let out a frustrated grunt that reminded him of a disgruntled kitten before she grabbed the flat tire she must have already removed, carried it around to the back of the Jeep, and tossed it in the trunk.

He snatched up the tire iron from the ground where she’d left it. “Here, let me help you…”

“Harper.”

“Right, right.”

She scowled at him once again as she tore the iron from his grasp, and he had to bite back the smile that tried desperately to make an appearance. “And I don’t need your help.” She walked to the front left tire and nearly stumbled in her white heels. She huffed as she bent down and yanked the shoes off her feet one at a time. She shoved them into Cowboy’s empty hands.

“You sure?”

“Yes. I’m not some helpless damsel who needs rescuing from a flat tire.” She hiked up the narrow, knee-length skirt of her dress that he only just now realized was torn and smudged with grease and squatted by the wheel.

He chuckled to himself. “Clearly.”

He watched her with curious interest as she made quick work of securing the tire on its mount. He didn’t know who this fuming, outspoken woman was, but it was definitely not the shy, mild-mannered girl he knew back in high school. This woman was much more amusing.

His eyes raked over her petite figure while she finished tightening the last of the lug nuts and slowly lowered the jack. While the cute librarian look was far from his type, even he had to appreciate a woman who could fend for herself. And the way the orange, lacy material of her dress strained over her chest didn’t hurt either.

“So about that ride…” he said slowly once she’d tossed the jack and tire iron into the trunk, her white high heels still in his hand.

The skin under her left eye ticked, and she looked like she wanted to stab him with one of those heels right now. But then she took a deep breath, and her scowl was wiped clean. “Fine, whatever.”

Cowboy climbed into the Jeep before she could change her mind, and she started it up with a soft rumble.

“Thanks. You know, most girls would jump at the chance to have a big, strong, undeniably handsome man like myself get down and dirty for them. I have to admit, it’s actually a bit refreshing.”

“I have to admit, I don’t care.” She pulled out onto the road, not even bothering to ask directions. Not that it surprised Cowboy. Everyone in Willow Creek knew that he and his best friend, Cole Tucker, still rented the same small house since their high school graduation four years ago.

He studied her tight lips and creased forehead from the passenger seat before his gaze fell once again on her lacy dress and high heels. “Can I ask what’s got you all dressed up this morning?”

“None of your business.”

He laughed, unfazed. “Just trying to make friendly conversation with you.”

“Well, seeing as we’re not friends, you can stop anytime,” she grumbled. She turned onto the main road leading into town.

The corner of his mouth twitched. “You know, you’re kind of cute when you’re angry.”

“Don’t do that,” she snarled, shooting a quick, yet menacing, glower his way, which he found immensely entertaining. She really did make this too easy.

“Do what?”

“Get all flirty with me. I know what kind of guy you are, Cowboy, and I’m not falling for it. I go to Georgia Tech. I’m in the top percentile, and I’m way too smart to fall for your crap.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah, it is. I’m not the kind of girl who’s going to go fawning all over a guy, especially one who doesn’t even remember my name after going to the same school as me for ten years.”

They pulled up to the curb outside his house where the only other vehicle present was his white landscaping truck parked in the driveway.

“What?” she asked when he said nothing. “No charming reply?”

“Come out with me tonight.”

Harper stared silently at him for several long seconds. “You’re joking. Did you listen to any of what I just said? I’m not going on a date with you!”

He could hardly believe he’d said it himself. Not because he was interested in her like that. He’d decided several minutes ago she wasn’t his type, and the fact that he wasn’t already thinking about how to get an invite back to her place tonight was proof of that.

Still, he’d never been the kind of guy to hang out with a woman he wasn’t trying to sleep with either. Normally he couldn’t be bothered without the promise of sex afterward, but something about this girl was practically screaming for his help.

“I didn’t say it was a date. Look, clearly you could do with a good unwinding, and I just happen to have a free night tonight. So why don’t you let me take you out where you can let loose a little? Just as friends.”

“I just told you we’re not friends,” she argued as he opened his door.

“You still live with your grandma over on Dorchester?”

“I…yes?” she said as if even she couldn’t be certain where she lived at that moment.

“Great, I’ll pick you up at seven.”

“I never said yes!” she yelled through the open window behind him as he headed for his front door.

He turned and winked over his shoulder. “I’ll see you tonight, Harper Maddox.”

End of Excerpt