He’s a determined protector on a mission to save his winery. They call him tortured and broken. She calls him forbidden. We call him Maddox Butler.
The family feud between the Avila and Butler families has been volatile for years. Maddox Butler changed the course of the war once when he saved the rival Los Caballeros Winery from ruin.
But that was then…This is now…
The beautiful and feisty Alex Avila blames Maddox for threatening her family’s livelihood. After the death of his brother, all Maddox wants is peace and quiet with no battleground in sight.
Alex has other plans and desires…
Secret lovers, Alex and Maddox ignite in conflict. Suddenly, there’s a fine line between love and hate. Neither the feud, nor the fence between their vineyards, is enough to keep the forbidden lovers apart. When Alex’s life is in danger, she knows there’s only man who can save her: Maddox Butler.
If he weren’t in someone else’s house, Maddox would put his fist through a wall. He’d put up with Alex’s shit for almost twenty years, and he was just about done.
He’d been done before, yet somehow, he always circled around and ended up right back where he was now.
Her latest? Offering to babysit her best friend Peyton’s kids at his house. His house. Not hers. His. As far as kids went, they seemed okay, but Maddox never babysat anyone’s kids, not even his niece, Spencer. His sister Skye never asked. She was too smart to consider leaving a child in his very incapable hands.
Alex had been avoiding him since this morning, when he’d tried to stop her from interfering with his brother’s relationship with her best friend.
She ignored him, as usual. And she’d been right, as usual. He’d been trying to get Brodie to pull his head out of his ass and fix things with Peyton for days, and in two hours, Alex had managed what he couldn’t.
Now Peyton and Brodie were reunited and about to leave for her house while Peyton’s two sons were packing their stuff for a slumber party with Uncle Maddox.
That’s what Alex had called him, and while it was likely Peyton and Brodie would be married sooner rather than later, especially given she was pregnant with Brodie’s child, wasn’t calling him the boys’ uncle taking things too far?
Maddox followed Brodie and Peyton down the stairs and carried her bags to Brodie’s truck.
Alex closed the door after Brodie helped Peyton inside, and rested her arm on the bottom of the open window. Maddox couldn’t hear what she said to Peyton, but he could see her eyes fill with tears.
When Alex backed away from the truck, he was right behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. They waved as Brodie drove away.
“We need to talk,” he whispered.
When she tried to escape his hold, he tightened his arms.
“You’re not goin’ anywhere, Alex. We’re gonna talk.”
“No, we aren’t, Maddox.”
“What’s this Uncle Maddox crap?”
“Seriously? It isn’t going to kill you to do something nice for your brother, especially with all you put him through.”
He let go and spun her around. “What did you say?”
“You heard me. You could’ve helped him, Maddox. Instead, you played the almighty omniscient, telling him he had to figure things out for himself. Meanwhile, my best friend was as heartbroken as Brodie was.”
“If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t change the way I handled it.”
“Of course not.”
“You can’t admit that if Brodie had gone in guns blazing, the way he planned to, he would’ve driven Peyton further away?”
“You could’ve told him how she felt.”
“No, I couldn’t have, because I don’t know Peyton the way you do. You may say it was that simple, but you know damn well it wasn’t.”
“It doesn’t matter. They’re back together now, and her boys, who happen to be my godsons, are standing on the porch of their grandparents’ house watching the guy whose house they’re sleeping at tonight argue with their aunt.
“I’m honored to be their aunt, Maddox. They’re amazing boys who are about to watch a shitstorm custody fight go down between their mother and a father they’ve never known. Do I want them to have a night away from all the crap that’s been going on in their lives? You bet I do. I’m going to make this the best damn sleepover they’ve ever had. If you can’t help me make that happen, at least stay out of the way and don’t spoil it for them.”
As much as he wanted to wring her neck, it was this fire in her he couldn’t resist. She’d stand up for the defenseless, soothe the pain of those who hurt, and fiercely protect those she loved. There were times he wished she loved him, but more often, the idea that she might scared the living shit out of him.
When Alex walked over to where the boys waited, Maddox stayed where he was and watched her joke and laugh with them. She had a smile that never failed to knock him on his ass. It had since the first time he’d met her.
Her long brown, almost black, hair hung straight today, the ends just kissing the curve of her ass—another thing about her that never failed to knock him on his.
She was wearing jeans, rolled up far enough above her ankles to show off her hotter-than-shit, red suede boots with the three-inch heels. The cream-colored, sleeveless, silk and lace blouse she wore was long in the back, but short enough in the front that when she stretched, Maddox caught a glimpse of her tan belly. Her eyes, the same color as her hair, danced as she talked with the boys.
Maddox finally joined them on the porch. “Ready, guys?”
Jamison, Peyton’s oldest son, was ten. His brother, Finn, was eight. When he and his brother Kade were their age, they had their own “best damn sleepovers”—ones Alex couldn’t even imagine. They’d have fun; he’d make sure of it. The same kind of fun he and Kade used to have.
Before he was killed in Afghanistan on what was to be his final mission with Delta Force, Kade had dated the boys’ mother. Maddox knew that, even though they welcomed Brodie’s role in their mother’s life, they still missed Kade. How could they not? He was the coolest guy who’d ever lived.
If Alex wanted them to have fun tonight, they sure as hell would. She might not, but they would.
Maddox loaded the boys’ bags into his truck and told them to climb in the back seat of the big SUV.
“Ready?” He winked at Alex.
“What are you up to, Mad-man?”
“You’ll see, Al. You wanted fun, right?”
Oh, Lord. What had she started?
It had always been this way with them. She’d challenge him, and then he’d step up and blow her away. Maddox Butler was the least boring man she’d ever met and, by far, the hottest. He’d rocked her world since the first time she laid eyes on him.
She was fourteen; he was seventeen, and it was more than his age that kept him off-limits. He was a Butler—an unmentionable name in the Avila home.
Even then, Maddox was all man. Six feet three, with steel blue eyes that danced when he smiled, Mad always looked as though he knew something scandalous that no one else did. He’d always kept his dark hair short, even when he was younger.
His rock-hard torso would rival any gym rat’s, but his body was that of a man who hoisted barrels full of wine like they were ten-pound bags of potatoes.
His face was chiseled, rugged, and weathered from days spent in the vineyard heat—with a mischievous smile framed by a dark beard that hid the dimples she sometimes forgot were there. While the women in the Butler family were fair with vibrant red hair, the men wore their olive skin like a suit of armor. His trail of dark hair was perfectly placed, trailing down from his brawny neck, over his rough-hewn abs, to his pelvis.
The full-sleeve tattoos on both of his arms married traditional tribal with Celtic designs, and stopped just short of his hands. Splayed, those hands could cover her ample breasts, their power seeping into her, driving her to the edge with little but their heat, and then be equally gentle when his calloused fingers rolled her nipples.
Alex sighed, knowing those hands would not cover her body tonight. Missing them, missing the fullness she experienced only when Mad’s body penetrated hers, was what kept her coming back to him, even when she knew they were destined to combust.
Maddox drove along Adelaida Trail, leaving the Wolf family’s property, past Los Caballeros, the ranch her father’s forefathers carved into the Paso Robles wine region, and finally, past the split-rail fence that symbolically marked the division between Los Cab and Butler Ranch.
She never took the views for granted, even though she’d lived here all her life. Deep green oak trees scattered the land kept open for livestock, while the brighter greens of the rows upon rows of vineyards cut through the golden hillsides.
“Secret’s out,” Maddox mumbled.
“What do you mean?”
“Uncle Maddox and Aunt Alex.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Even your best friend had no clue about us, Al. Don’t you think our families are beginning to catch on?”
Alex glanced at the boys in the back seat. As much as she hated seeing their faces glued to their smartphones, this time she appreciated the headphones that blocked out her conversation with Maddox. “Us? We’re friends. That isn’t a secret.”
Mad rolled his eyes. “Friends who host slumber parties together.”
“Don’t make more of it than it is.”
Usually by the time either one of them thought about divulging their “relationship,” it was over anyway. They’d have a few days and nights of crazy, hot, monkey sex, and then go for weeks without being able to stand the sight of each other. It had been that way between them for years.
“What’s your plan for tonight—pizza and movies? I can tell you they won’t—”
“Not remotely close.”
Maddox pulled his truck into the barn that doubled as his garage and overflow storage. His father, who should’ve been a titan of technology rather than a ranch and winery owner, had rigged the oversized alley doors so they opened inward when his truck got close enough. It wasn’t just his truck, they would open for any vehicle that pulled up that close. Outside of his family, no one but Alex knew the trick to it.
“Ready, boys? It’s adventure time.” Maddox opened the back passenger door, and both boys climbed out.
“What kind of adventure?” Finn, the younger of Peyton’s sons, asked.
“All kinds. I thought we’d go for a trail ride, stop in the caves.”
“You’re gonna take us in the caves?” Jamison’s eyes opened wide. “Kade promised, but…”
“I know, Jamie.” Maddox rested his hand on Jamison’s shoulder.
The first wine cave on Butler Ranch was only about a thousand square feet, at the most. A few years ago, Maddox had hired an outfit out of the Burgundy region of France who specialized in subterranean caves to come and survey the site for expansion. The project took five years to complete, two years longer than the original schedule, and then it had taken them six months to organize the various barrel storage rooms and move furniture into the private areas.
“What’s this about the caves?” Alex had gone inside shortly after he pulled into the garage. Now that she was back, she didn’t look so good.
“Maddox is taking us on a trail ride, and then we’re going in the caves.” Finn rubbed his hands together, his feet shifting back and forth.
“Do you need to use the bathroom, honey?” Alex asked.
“Nah. I’m just really excited.”
“You should be. I haven’t even been invited into the caves yet.” Alex looked over the boys’ heads and mouthed, “What the hell?”
“Almost no one, outside of my brothers, the construction crew, and winery staff, has been in the caves yet.”
The boys grabbed their bags, and Maddox showed them the way through the barn and out the stone path to where the cottages sat. His was the smaller of the two Scottish-style stone structures his father had built. Both were two-storied replications of the main house. His brother Naughton lived in the larger one, and since Kade died, Brodie had been living there with him.
Kade would sometimes stay in the apartment above the main barrel room when he was home on leave, but it had sat empty for over a year.
“Bedrooms are upstairs, boys. Yours are the ones with made beds. Sort out who wants to stay in which.” Maddox opened the door for the boys and pointed them in the direction of the stairs, but hung back to talk to Alex.
“Everything okay, Al?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
Instead of answering, he put his arms around her and pulled her close. Her body stiffened, but when he ran his fingers through her hair, she relaxed.
“You wanna tell me what the mystery is?”
She shook her head and put her arms around his waist.
That was progress. At least she admitted there was a mystery. Sort of.
“I know I said it was a sleepover with both of us, but the caves, Maddox? I’m not sure…I mean, are you planning on sleeping down there?”
“I was, but if you don’t feel up to it, we can pretend they’re man caves for tonight.”
She half-laughed and turned so he couldn’t see her face.
Maddox turned her back around. “You look like shit, Al.”
“Thanks, Mad. Always the charmer.” She tried to pull away again, but he held her tight. “You don’t have to stay. I know I complained about being volunteered for this, but I can handle it on my own.”
“I feel okay right now…”
“Is whatever it is contagious?” It wasn’t like he was a germaphobe, but if she was sick, shouldn’t she go home before he or the boys caught whatever it was?
“No, it isn’t.” She pulled away from him. “You’re such a jerk.”
“How does not wanting to catch whatever you’ve got make me a jerk?”
“It’s not contagious, okay?” Alex stormed into the downstairs bathroom and slammed the door behind her.
“Tell you what,” Maddox said to the boys when they came back downstairs. “We’ll go for a ride, not too far out, stop by the caves on our way back, and you and your Aunt Alex can decide whether you want to sleep down there tonight.”
Finn started to grumble, but Jamison cuffed him a good one before he could say too much.
“Don’t hit him.” Alex nudged Jamison when she came out of the bathroom. “That’ll cost you ten.”
“What? Since when? Only curse words cost money.”
“Since I said so. You think swearing is worse than hitting? I don’t.”
Jamison groaned, and Finn laughed.
Maddox rubbed his chest, listening to the two boys bicker. They were just like him and Kade at that age. God, he missed his older brother.
“So what’s the plan?”
Alex looked better than she had a few minutes ago.
“We’re gonna ride, and then we’re stopping to see if you want to sleep in the caves. You’re gonna want to, right?” When Finn put his arms around Alex’s waist, she went back to looking like shit. Maybe she ate something that didn’t agree with her, although this had been going on for at least a couple of weeks.
“Give me a minute.” Alex went into the kitchen, opened the fridge door, and closed it again. She walked over to the pantry and did the same thing.
“What are you looking for?” Maddox asked.
“What’s it look like? Something to eat.”
There was a certain surliness in Alex that Maddox had grown accustomed to. Typically it spelled the end of their friends-with-benefits time together. Any minute, he expected her to tell the boys to pack their stuff and load it into her car. Instead, she stood with her hands on her hips, staring at him.
“I’m hungry,” she huffed.
“What the hell, Maddox? You don’t have any food in the house?”
He caught the look on Jamison’s face out of the corner of his eye. The kid was just about to call Alex out on the curse word, but evidently, thought better of it. Maddox didn’t blame him. Saying anything to Alex right now would be like poking a grizzly bear.
Maddox walked into the kitchen and out the back door, motioning for Alex to follow.
“What’s up, Al? And don’t say it’s nothing. You’ve known me how long? Twenty years, and I have never had food in the house. Never.”
“What? Finish your sentence. Wait, let me. You’d think that having two boys spending the night in my house, I would have thought to buy some food. Am I right?” Maddox held up his hand. “No, don’t answer.”
“That’s right. You didn’t exactly give me any warning.”
Maddox went back into the kitchen. “Hey, boys, let’s go see what my ma has in her kitchen. I’ve been bachin’ it a little too long.”
“What’s bachin’?” Finn asked as they walked up the stone path to his parents’ house.
“Bein’ a bachelor. Guys like me don’t always remember to stock up on food. This time of year, I spend as much time helpin’ Naughton out in the field as I do in the house.”
“How’s the bloom?” Alex asked absentmindedly, looking over at the nearest vineyard.
She nodded her head.
The one thing he and Alex could always talk about were the vineyards. They spoke in the shorthand only those raised in the vines understood.
His mother was standing in the kitchen when Maddox opened the door.
“Who’s this, visiting my kitchen?” she said in her thick Scottish brogue.
“Hi, Sorcha.” Alex kissed her cheek.
“How are you, sweetheart?” His mother cupped Alex’s cheek with her hand.
Maddox watched the exchange, wondering if his ma knew what was up with Alex.
“Hungry, and whatever that is, smells really good.”
“This be my Scottish stew, lass. You boys hungry too?”
Jamison and Finn nodded their heads.
“Go wash your hands. Maddox, you too, and tell your da that we’ll eat in the dining room.”
“He wants to take the boys out riding and then to the caves,” Alex said once Maddox ushered them out of the kitchen.
“He’s aff his heid!”
Alex laughed. “I agree, he’s crazy.”
“Who’s crazy?” Maddox came back into the kitchen.
“You dinnae take those wee ones to the caves.” Sorcha smacked the back of his head.
“Ow!” Maddox rubbed his head, looked at Alex, and smirked.
Sorcha carried the pot of stew out of the kitchen, shaking her head, and mumbling something Alex couldn’t understand.
“You’re gonna love the caves, baby.”
“Oh, yeah?” Alex leaned her body into his.
That was all the invitation he needed. Maddox lifted her. “Put your legs around me.”
When she hooked her feet behind him, he rested her bottom on the counter, shifting her so her warmth pressed against him.
“What you do to me, girl,” he growled, pulling her tighter to him. “I could take you right here, right now, in my ma’s kitchen.” He could feel her hardened nipples brushing against his chest through his thin shirt.
“God, Mad. Why do we always end up this way?” she groaned, but pressed her body harder against his.
“Our bodies know what our heads refuse to accept, Alex.”
Before she could protest, like he knew she would, Maddox plundered her mouth.
No one kissed him back the way Alex did, but then he was the one who’d taught her how. Alex Avila may have kissed other boys in the years he’d known her, but he was the one who’d kissed her first.
* * *
The first time they kissed was right before his eighteenth birthday. She and a group of friends had been following him and Naughton around all night.
“Who’s that, Naught?”
Maddox stopped at a game booth on the midway of the county fair, and pointed at the pack of girls who had been stalking him and his brother for the past two hours.
“They look familiar, but I only know one.” Naughton pointed. “That’s Bianca Ramirez.”
Maddox knew Bianca, but she wasn’t the one who’d caught his attention. It was the other girl, who looked a lot like her.
“That one. Who is she?” When Maddox pointed right at Alex, she smiled. Instead of looking away, she met his gaze and held it.
Maddox nodded his head and motioned for her to come closer. “What’s your name?”
“Alex.” She stood in front of him, but looked down at the ground.
“I know who you are.”
“What’s your last name, Alex?”
“You shouldn’t be talking to me if you know who I am.”
“You know who I am, and you’re talking to me.”
The feud between the Avilas and Butlers went back to the year Laird Butler had bested Alfonso Avila with his first release of Zinfandel.
The proud Hispanic patriarch couldn’t accept Laird’s gold medal win at the annual wine festival, when his own Zin hadn’t medaled at all. He accused Laird of paying off the judges. Maddox’s father had been furious, and the two men came close to blows before several other winemakers stepped in and separated them.
From that day forward, the Avila name became unmentionable in the Butler house. It wasn’t easy for the two families to avoid one another, given Butler land bordered the southernmost boundaries of Avila’s Los Caballeros Ranch, but they managed.
“We’re both playing with fire, Alex Avila,” he said to her that night.
And they had been. The girl he spent a couple of hours kissing wasn’t just an Avila; she was only fifteen years old.
Kade was home on leave from the Marines, and lit into him. “Stay the hell away from her, Maddox. She’s a kid and you’re a man. If Da finds out you’ve been spending time with an Avila, you know what’ll happen.”
At the time, Maddox had been more concerned with Kade’s reaction than what he expected from his father. His father’s anger would’ve been because of the girl’s family. Kade was pissed at Maddox because of her age.
“She looks a lot older,” Maddox tried to defend himself.
Kade made him promise not to have anything to do with her from then on. It was the first promise Maddox made to his brother, knowing full well he’d break it.