He’s a grieving brother with promises to keep. They call him loyal. She calls him dangerous. We call him Brodie Butler.
He has one job—deliver a box to his late brother’s grieving fiancée. And Brodie Butler is not going to screw it up. Once the box is in Peyton Wolf’s hands, he’ll return home to mourn his own loss.
That was the plan. He never intended to fall for the one woman he can’t have.
Instead of closing a chapter of his late brother’s life, Brodie opens a new one. Torn between family loyalty and his undeniable desire for Peyton, Brodie struggles with his guilty conscience. Feeling as if he could never measure up to a hero, Brodie knows he must steer clear of Peyton. But when Peyton’s life begins to spiral, there’s only one man who can help her: Brodie Butler.
She closed the car door and zipped her jacket. The blue sky and bright sun were misleading. This close to the ocean, the wind could be fierce, even on the sunniest days.
From where she stood in the gravel parking lot across the street, she saw a man walking toward her small town’s only supermarket. There was something familiar in the way he held himself. His worn barn jacket was taut across his shoulders, but hung loose over his narrow hips. Although his jeans were more metro than ranch, his boots were all cowboy, and so was his black, felt Stetson.
Peyton took a deep breath. It wasn’t the first time her mind played this particular trick on her. She looked left and right, once she got inside, but didn’t see the man who’d probably been a figment of her imagination anyway.
Growing boys needed milk and orange juice, so before she’d even left the first aisle, her cart was half full. She was reading over her shopping list, on her way to the produce section, when her eyes met a pair of hauntingly familiar deep, blue eyes—eyes of a man she thought she’d never see again. Her disappointment was palpable as she scanned his face. The eyes were familiar, and maybe even the way he held himself had her heart skipping a beat. But the man standing in front of her, whose eyes took in every inch of her in the same way her gaze traveled from his face to his hands, was not who she thought he was.
He raised and lowered his chin, “Hey.”
Peyton nearly closed her eyes. She knew the deep timbre of that voice intimately. “Sorry, you look so much like someone—” What could she say? Someone she used to know?
“Yes,” he murmured.
“Get that a lot?” She tried to laugh, but the pain she felt whenever she allowed herself to think about Kade Butler brought her closer to tears than laughter.
“No, I don’t.”
“I’m sorry, you don’t what?”
“Get that a lot.”
“Oh…uh…well.” Her hands gripped the shopping cart handle, but before she could move it forward, he grasped the wire basket.
“I’ve been looking for you.”
“Name’s Brodie. Brodie Butler.”
Peyton closed her eyes just long enough that the tears she thought she held at bay flooded over her lids and down onto her cheeks.
“I’m sorry, Peyton. I didn’t mean for it to happen this way.”
“But you meant for it to happen?”
“As I said, I’ve been looking for you.”
It took a minute before Brodie recognized the woman standing in front of him. He’d only seen photos of her, and not very many.
“Find Peyton,” his mother had told him. “We need to give this to her.”
“He’s been gone over a year, Ma, and you haven’t heard a word from her since the funeral.”
“I don’t care. This belongs to her.”
The “this” his mother had referred to was a box of his oldest brother’s belongings that he’d asked their mother to make sure was given to Peyton if anything happened to him.
“I have something for you,” he explained. “From Kade.”
“No,” she whispered. “I’m sorry, but I can’t.” She left him and her grocery cart in the middle of the aisle, and walked out of the store.
Brodie followed her outside and watched as she crossed the street and climbed into a little black BMW. He sat at one of the tables in front of the market and waited to see if she’d drive away. He heard the engine start, but the car didn’t move. He leaned forward and rested his forearms on his knees, weighing whether to stay or leave.
It wasn’t as though she’d been hiding. She lived in a small house near Moonstone Beach, in Cambria. Right after Kade died, Peyton spent a lot of her time in the guest house on her parents’ ranch. The boys still stayed there most weekends, when Stave, the tasting room she managed since she’d graduated from college, was open later.
There were few secrets in Green Valley, where many families had owned their ranches and vineyards for generations. If Kade’s family was looking for her, she was easy to find.
She’d heard stories about Brodie, but hadn’t met him until today. She wasn’t aware of his strong resemblance to his oldest brother. There were differences though. Brodie’s chiseled face, while similar to Kade’s, was thinner, more angular, with a dusting of scruffy facial hair. Peyton had never seen Kade without the dark, reddish-brown goatee he kept neatly trimmed.
She looked across the road, where Brodie waited for her. If he thought she would get out of the car and walk back across the street, he was wrong. Whatever he had of Kade’s, he could keep.
No matter where she went, she saw him. That’s why she’d thought her mind was playing tricks on her again today. So often, Peyton thought she saw Kade walking on the beach, or driving past Stave. She’d blink her eyes, and either he’d be gone, or she’d realize the person she thought was him, wasn’t. More memories? More things to remind her of her loss? No, thanks.
She’d come back to the market later, after she picked the boys up from school. Maybe she’d even let them pick out something for dinner they could heat up themselves, since cooking dinner at home was just one more thing that reminded her that the only man who had succeeded in convincing her to give love another try was gone.
Brodie watched as Peyton backed up the car and drove in the opposite direction, to the back exit of the parking lot. It would’ve been easier to go out the front, but then she’d be facing where he sat.
He knew where she was going, but he wouldn’t follow. It wouldn’t be fair, especially since he’d seen firsthand how close to the surface her pain sat. He went back inside and ordered a pastry and a cup of coffee from the bakery. Rather than sit and watch the cars go up and down the main drag of the village, he drove across the highway, parked alongside Moonstone Beach Road, and watched the waves crash along the shore.
There were several surfers out this morning, waiting for waves in the bone-chilling Pacific Ocean. Even in a full wetsuit, Brodie wouldn’t have joined them. Maybe he would’ve ten years ago, but when he surfed now, he preferred the warmer water found a couple of hours south, closer to Santa Barbara.
* * *
“Don’t be such a pussy,” his brother Maddox had said the first time Kade brought him along to their favorite surf spot.
Kade smacked Mad, that day, and told him to leave Brodie alone. He glared at Naughton too, daring him to tease their youngest brother.
Kade was nine years older than Brodie, six years older than Naughton, and three years older than Maddox. Brodie was twelve the first time his brothers brought him along on the forty-five-minute drive from their ranch on Adelaida Trail, over the rolling hills of Highway 46, to Moonstone Beach.
“He watches, Kade. You don’t take your brother in when it’s nigh fifty degrees in that water.”
Kade winked at Brodie. “Yes, Ma.”
His brother had been home on leave for two weeks and was flying out again the next morning. Brodie begged Kade to let him go with them that day. The words he spoke would haunt him in the years that followed.
* * *
“I never know if you’re coming back. You promised to teach me to surf. What if this is our only chance?” It made him sick to recall his callousness. He was only thankful his mother hadn’t heard.
Kade had joined the Marines right out of high school, eventually serving in one of the elite Force Recon companies. He’d gone on to be one of the few priors who also underwent Navy SEAL training as well as attending Special Operations training in Fort Bragg—with the Green Berets. He hadn’t stopped there. Kade had also earned a degree as a physician’s assistant.
As one of only a handful of men with that level of specialized training, he became part of Delta Force, officially known as 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, the most highly trained elite force in the US military. The Special Missions Unit performed various clandestine and highly classified counter-terrorism missions around the world. His brother had saved an infinite number of lives in his years of duty, but lost his own a year ago, on what was to be his final mission.
The first time Brodie heard Kade mention retirement was after he’d been seeing Peyton for several months. For three years, his rotation had been two months on, two months off. It became increasingly difficult for him to go back when his two-month leave came to an end. The mission was no longer his top priority. Peyton was becoming more important to him.
Brodie scrolled through the photos on his phone, looking for the last one taken with all of his siblings. His father had taken it the Christmas before last. Two months later, his parents answered their door and heard the devastating news every parent with a son or daughter serving in the military prays they’ll never hear. Kade had been killed in action.
Brodie thought about looking through the contents of the box his mother wanted him to deliver to Peyton, but felt as though he’d be invading their privacy.
The cold wind stung his face with sand, and he buried his hands in his jacket pockets. It was a degree warmer for every mile between here and his family’s ranch, thirty miles inland, but today he welcomed the chill of the ocean air washing over him. It reminded him he was alive. His brother wasn’t, but he was, and that meant he had a promise to fulfill.
“I gave him my word, Brodie,” his mother had said when she asked him to find Peyton.
Peyton looked up from her computer screen when she heard the back door open. “Hey, Alex.”
Her best friend and marketing director for both the tasting room and the Westside Winery Collaborative, sat in the chair next to Peyton’s desk.
“How are you not cold?”
Alex wore jeans with tan, four-inch heel boots and a black, sleeveless, silk tank. “Hot Hispanic blood runnin’ through these veins, girlfriend.”
“It’s forty degrees, the wind off the ocean makes it feel closer to twenty, and you never get cold. I’m always cold, even in the summer.”
“No meat on your bones; that’s your problem.”
“You’re such a hypocrite. You weigh less than I do. You always have.”
Peyton and Alex had been friends since they were teenagers. Her parents became friends with Alex’s when they bought a ranch and decided to turn half of it into vineyards. Alfonso Avila, Alex’s father, sold Peyton’s dad rootstock and helped him produce many fine wines through the years.
She and Alex had been scrawny “beanpoles” when they met—tall and lanky, before both their bodies matured and filled out. Apart from their stature and thin but curvy bodies, they were total opposites. Peyton was a green-eyed blonde, and Alex had long dark brown, almost black hair, and eyes that matched.
“What’s with the scowl this morning?”
“Sorry, it’s been a crappy day so far.”
Alex checked the time on her phone. “Already? Everything okay with the boys?”
“They’re fine, Auntie Alex. No, this has nothing to do with the boys.”
“What, then? Spill.”
“I ran into Brodie Butler at the market this morning.”
“Oh. Shit. I’m sorry, honey.”
“I wasn’t very nice to him, and now I feel bad.”
“I didn’t realize you knew Brodie.”
“I don’t. Or I didn’t. He introduced himself.”
“I know it’s hard to see Kade’s family—”
“He said he had something for me. Something from Kade.”
“Oh. Shit,” Alex repeated.
Alex nodded her head.
“No, Alex, I mean I walked away. Right out of the market. Poor Louie probably wonders why I left a cartful of milk and OJ right there in aisle six.”
“Not a big deal, Peyton. Seriously, forget about it.”
“I’ll apologize to Louie later, but what about Brodie? I owe him an apology too.”
“No, you don’t. What made him think confronting you in the supermarket was a good idea?”
“He didn’t confront me. I don’t think he expected to see me there.”
“You’re right. I’m sure he drives thirty miles out of his way daily to go to a grocery store a tenth of the size of the store located less than ten miles outside the gates of Butler Ranch, because…I don’t know…Louie’s selection of mortadella is better?”
“You aren’t helping. I feel bad enough as it is, Alex.”
Alex reached over and rested her hand on Peyton’s. “I’m sorry, honey.”
“Tell me what I should do. I don’t want to call the ranch.”
“Why not? Kade’s parents ask about you all the time. I’m sure they’d like to hear from you.”
“No. I can’t.”
“Then, I will.”
Los Caballeros, the thousand-acre ranch owned by Alex’s family, bordered the Butler Ranch. The Avilas and Butlers hadn’t always gotten along, but when Alex’s father passed away, a few years ago, the longstanding feud between Laird Butler and Alfonso Avila was set aside.
“Of course I will. Do you want me to offer to take whatever Brodie wanted to give you?”
“No! God, no. Just tell them…I can’t. I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
“Can’t what? I’m lost.”
“Whatever it is, I don’t want it.”
Peyton walked out of the small office before Alex finished her sentence. She didn’t want to hear it. It was more than that; she couldn’t hear it.
When Alex followed, Peyton covered her ears.
“Jesus, what are you? A ten-year-old? Stop this.”
Peyton walked out the back door of the building and got in her car. For the second time this morning, she ran away.
Instead of going home, she parked her car near the trail that led down to Moonstone Beach. A good long walk on the beach would help clear her head, and then maybe she’d be able to find the grownup living inside her, and stop acting like the child Alex had called her out as.
Brodie saw the black BMW pull into the parking lot at the opposite end of Moonstone Beach. It was a common car in the little seaside village, but there was no mistaking the woman who climbed out of it. He watched Peyton take the steps that led from the asphalt lot down to the beach.
When she reached the area that was almost directly below where he sat, he waved. Surprisingly, she waved back. More surprisingly, she ran up the path that would lead her directly to him.
“I owe you an apology,” she said, approaching him. “I could give some lame excuse, but the bottom line is, I was rude to you, and I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry too, Peyton. I honestly didn’t expect to run into you at the market. Although I didn’t have much of a plan when I drove into town this morning.”
Rather than look at him, Peyton looked out at the sea. “You probably think I should be over him by now, especially since we weren’t together that long.”
“That isn’t what I think at all.” Brodie wished he could see Peyton’s eyes. Even if she’d look in his direction, her dark sunglasses hid them from view.
“Kade made our ma promise that I’d deliver this box to you if anything happened to him.” Brodie pointed to the plain cardboard box sitting on the ground near his feet.
Peyton put her hands in her jacket pockets. He thought for a minute she’d walk away from him again. Instead, she leaned against a rock near his.
“I know it makes me seem like a terrible person, but I don’t want it, Brodie.”
“You might change your mind someday.”
“Your brother knew me well enough, at least I thought he did, that he wouldn’t have done this.”
Brodie waited to see if Peyton would continue. They sat in silence but for the steady rhythm of the waves crashing on the sand.
She took several deep breaths, but didn’t speak, so he did. “Tell me why he wouldn’t have done this, Peyton.”
Brodie watched as she took three more very intentional deep breaths, and then turned to face him. Again he waited for her to speak, and again she remained silent.
Finally, Peyton shrugged her shoulders and stood. “I’ll see ya around, Brodie.”
He didn’t follow her down the path, and didn’t move from where he sat until long after he saw her drive away in the opposite direction, toward the highway that would lead her back into town.
Brodie picked up the box and carried it back to his truck. He opened the door and set it on the passenger seat. “Guess it’s you and me for a while, box.” He patted the top, and then splayed his fingers, as if by doing so, he could take in whatever of Kade’s energy remained in the belongings he’d wanted Peyton to have.