The Dangerous One - Lori Foster

The Dangerous One

Book 1 in the Osborn Brothers Series

Alone is good. Alone with her is…better.

Hunter Osborn left his family, friends, and his job as a Park Ranger after uncovering a disturbing crime scene. Haunted by guilt and harsh reality, Hunter relocated to a rustic, isolated home outside of Ridge Trail, Colorado, where he stays off the grid, only going to the small town to get necessities while keeping his interactions with others to a minimum.

Still, Hunter can spot trouble from a mile away, and when he encounters Jodi Bentley, he knows she’s trouble of the most tempting kind—even more tempting when she moves into the run-down cabin nearest him, one he’d thought was uninhabitable, but damned if she isn’t fixing it up. Though they both try to resist, they’re drawn together, forging a fragile bond of trust and shared interest. But Jodi has a knack for finding danger, and soon Hunter gets drawn out of his own darkness and into hers, determined to protect her at all costs.

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The Dangerous One

is Book 1 in the Osborn Brothers Series

The full series reading order is as follows:

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The Dangerous One

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Chapter 1

Years, that’s how long it had been since the sight of a woman stopped him in his tracks, but… Wow. He’d feel bad about staring at her, except that this woman was noticed by everyone who happened to be out and about on this sunny, early-June Saturday, male and female alike. Triple Creek, Colorado was small, but they were in the center of town with a grocery, restaurant, barbershop and bank on one side, and a gas station, post office, and car dealership on the other.

Plenty of people around to watch her with interest, so he wasn’t alone in that.

It wasn’t just about her looks, either. Petite, trim, and with a long ponytail swishing between her shoulder blades, she looked better than fine. That long tail of hair, a light brown highlighted with blonder streaks, seemed to point to cutoff shorts that hugged an incredible little ass and displayed slim thighs. Didn’t matter that she also wore black lace-up boots over gray socks. Even they looked cute on her.

Yet it was about more.

She kept her narrow back straight, her legs braced apart and her hips slightly forward as she stood at the back of a gigantic stand-on commercial lawn mower. From business to business, she’d cleared the grassy areas, steering around landscaping and walkways effortlessly and in record time. Every so often she paused to do trim work and use a blower to clean up.

Not staring at her had been almost impossible, she was such a mighty distraction. Hunter Osborn had tried, but no one else seemed to put up much effort.

Figured she’d be wrapping up at the car dealership…which put her very nearby.

To many, she might seem oblivious to the attention she drew. Not to Hunter.

Just as noticeable as her appearance—at least to him—was her charged awareness. She hid her eyes behind reflective sunglasses and gave the impression of focusing on her job, but he knew better. He felt her keen awareness of her surroundings, of every person in view, and maybe even things not visible.

“What a sight,” the guy next to him murmured with a lot of innuendo.

That immediately drew Hunter’s attention away from her. Disgusted with himself, he asked, “New landscaper?”

“First time here.” Worth Linlow gave a sleazy smile. “Can’t look away, though. Wish I’d known she was replacing Trent. I’d have cleared my calendar.”

Like Worth would have a shot? Not likely. In his mid-sixties and with one of the more lucrative businesses around, Worth should have been more responsible, definitely more respectable. Instead he was the opposite. He made inappropriate jokes constantly, lorded his position over others, and tried to cheat everyone.

Currently he was trying to cheat Hunter.

“This isn’t the price we agreed on.” With Worth’s ’73 Corvette still on the trailer, Hunter folded his arms.

“Sure it is,” Worth said, while lewdly gawking at the landscaper.

It took all Hunter’s concentration not to look as well, especially when the sound of the mower drew closer. “You’re short.”

Worth spared him a quick, impatient glance. “That’s the amount we discussed.”

“No, it isn’t.” The buzzing sound of the mower died so that Hunter could almost hear the collective breath-holding of the twenty or so people still in the commercial area.

When Worth’s faded blue eyes widened, Hunter couldn’t resist glancing back.

As if she owned the town and even the mountains around it, the woman strode forward. Never mind that she couldn’t be more than a few inches over five feet tall, she kept her chin elevated. Shoulders back. Her mouth deliberately void of a smile.

She stepped up to them, saying nothing as she pulled off thick utility gloves and tucked them partially in her back pocket.

Hunter breathed in the scents of sun-warmed peachy skin and subtle flowery shampoo.

When everyone stayed mum, she tipped her head toward Hunter. “Well?”

He saw himself reflected in the lenses of her sunglasses. “Well what?”

“You settled your business with him yet or are you still working on that, because I have one more job before I finish for the day and it’s hot as hades out here. I’d like to get to it but I don’t want to be rude by jumping in line.”

Amused, especially by Worth’s surprise, and maybe a little entranced by her forthright manner, Hunter gestured. “Be my guest.”

“Thanks. That’s big of ya.” She pushed the sunglasses to the top of her head, taking wisps of damp hair back too, then pinned Worth to the spot with a direct stare of her light hazel eyes.

Worth’s jaw loosened. Understandable. Hell, those eyes were pretty enough, but paired with that lethal directness? She might be petite, but she could level just about anyone with that gaze.

“So,” she said. “Job’s done.”

“Yes,” Worth breathed, his attention drifting to places it shouldn’t travel. He even smoothed back his hair. For his age, Worth still had a very thick head of graying blond hair.

Hunter waited, curious about how she’d react to the rudeness.

When Worth said nothing else, she asked, “Ya got my money? Everyone else paid up front.”

Jowls moving, Worth struggled and finally managed a smarmy smile. “Of course I do.” He held out his hand. “I’m Worth Linlow, owner of the—”

“I know who you are.” She pulled a folded paper from her front right pocket, shook it out, and thrust it into his extended hand. “Your share of the contracted amount?”

Floundering, Worth glanced at the paper. “Right. Of course.” Expression strained, he pulled out his wallet, freed some cash, and offered it to her.”

“You’re short,” she said without bothering to count it. “I need the full amount.”

“Short?” Falling into his confused routine meant to cheat, Worth glanced at the paper. “Oh, there’s some misunderstanding. I never agreed to—”

“Yeah,” she said, “you did, though I was warned you wouldn’t want to pay.”

The smile slipped. “Who warned you?”

“Who didn’t?” Cocking out a hip, her expression bored, she heaved a sigh. “Tick tock, time’s a wastin’ and I have other places to be.”

No longer quite so friendly, Worth asked, “Who did you say you are?”

“Didn’t, but it’s there on the contract that you signed, along with your agreed-upon amount.”

Worth skimmed down the contract. “Jodi Bentley,” he said in a suggestive purr. “I have to say, Jodi, you’re a sight prettier than Trent.”

Making a sound of disgust, Hunter weighed his need for detachment with the natural inclination to defend. Turned out he didn’t need to do anything at all.

“Huh-uh,” Jodi murmured, stepping closer, taking Worth by surprise and putting Hunter on alert. “I’m not prettier, definitely not nicer, because Trent put up with this sh…” She stopped herself, then corrected with, “Baloney, and I won’t.”

Trying not to curse? Amused, Hunter silently wished her luck. Dealing with Worth could test anyone’s resolve.

Taking a step back, Worth scowled. “I have no idea what you—”

“Trent and everyone else in town”—she glanced at Hunter—“might let you bully them, but that’s not in my DNA.”

Now wait a minute. She thought he’d put up with Worth? Not likely. “If you recall,” Hunter pointed out, “I only allowed you to go first.”

She smiled, and damn that smile had a kick. “So you would’ve done some insisting of your own?”

“Notice his car is still on my trailer.”

“Yeah? That’s his?” Her gaze slanted back to Worth, and now she was so close, she nearly bumped into Worth’s gut. “Guess you’ll have to meet all obligations today, huh?”

“I’ll have you know, I—”

Again she interrupted Worth, saying, “I’m not budging without my pay. Is this really how you want to spend your day?”

Hunter turned to Worth. “What’s it to be?”

Blustering, Worth again tried to give her the money. “This is what I have. Now take it and go before things get ugly.”

Unperturbed, she asked curiously, “What do you know about ugly?”

“I know little girls shouldn’t go around issuing half-baked threats.”

Damn it, Hunter did not want to get involved, but if Worth didn’t let up, he’d—

“Little girls?” Her lips twitched, like she just might smile. “This little girl did her part, exactly as described. This little girl isn’t going anywhere until she’s paid. This little girl never gives in to bullies. Now be a good boy—can’t say the little part, now can I?—and pay up before we draw more attention from the masses. Won’t bother me, but I have a feeling your reputation is already on the dirty, dingy side.”

Furious, Worth glared at the onlookers, more of them than Hunter had realized. No one budged.

Hell, it was all pretty entertaining.

Jerking a few more bills from his wallet, Worth handed the money to her.

Now she counted it, gave a nod of satisfaction, and shoved the money into a small pack strapped around her hips. With all signs of animus gone, she said, “Thanks. Enjoy the rest of your day.” She turned to go, but hesitated, then glanced at Hunter again. “You gonna need any help?”

Amazing. Deadpan, he said, “I think I can handle it.”

Her distrusting gaze went to Worth for three heart-stopping seconds, then she rolled one shoulder and dipped her chin in a barely-there nod. “I bet you can.” She replaced her sunglasses. “Later, gator.”

Without her standing so close, Worth growled, “You just lost this job, girl!”

Hunter watched her freeze, saw her shoulders stiffen and then her neck. Predictably enough, she pivoted back around.

Funny, but despite the lack of expression, anger emanated off her in dangerous waves.

“Damn, Worth, you don’t know when to leave well enough alone.” Hunter found himself anticipating what she would do. The sleepy little town had never been this exciting.

Unfortunately, Worth had found his gumption and he stepped toward her. “You’re rude and I don’t want you back.”

Unmoved by his statement, she ambled closer. “Here, you mean, because everyone else was pleased with my work. But no problem. I’ll just cut around this area and leave your part to grow. I’ll even have the contract adjusted to take you off it—since I’ve been hired for the whole season.”

“I’ll see you’re fired.”

As if in pity, she gently smiled. “Nah, you won’t. I mean, you would if you could, I get that. The thing is, I know how to set up a contract, so you’re pretty much screwed on the whole firing threat. But why don’t you go ahead and try? Won’t bother me.”

Too dumb to quit, Worth growled, “I’ll make you miserable. When I’m done, you won’t want this job. You won’t even want to be in Triple Creek!”

Up went the sunglasses again, and holy shit, unmistakable fury lit her eyes.

“Hey,” Hunter said, concerned with the way she stared at Worth, as if sizing him up for demolition.

Jodi ignored him, but she did take a breath, then whispered calmly, “Do your worst. I don’t care, and it won’t run me off. If anything, it’s going to make me dig in.” Her smile was slow and mean. “But you might want to keep in mind that if you mess with me, I have the nasty habit of messing back.”

Done with all the theatrics, Hunter pointed at Worth, who stood there blustering. “Don’t disappear. I’ll be back to get my pay in ten minutes.” Then he strode to Jodi. “I’ll walk you to your truck.”

“Is that code for something?” Without any sign of that impressive anger, she fell into step with him. “Because see, my legs work just fine and I know how to walk. I’m not a dog on a leash and I—”

“Yes,” he said, thoughts churning. “It’s code.” Hunter didn’t touch her. He didn’t even look at her, and still he felt the energy all but bouncing off every small, dynamic inch of her.

She had presence big-time.

Who was she? Not a mere landscaper. Not by a long shot.

He had a nose for danger. Right now that danger was about five foot, three inches, early twenties and full of brass. Just what he didn’t want or need in the backward town where he’d settled to get his fill of mundane, normal life.

Glancing at him, she said, “It’s not a long walk, so if you have something to say, you might want to get to it.”

“Who are you?” Not what he’d meant to say, but damn. He shook his head. “Not just your name—is that your name?” Somehow he doubted it.

Openly grinning now, she shared her amusement. “I had a feeling, you know? That you’d be something different, too.”

Ah, hell. That was an admission if he’d ever heard one. He was different. Too different. That was his secret though, one he’d planned to bury here, where no one would ever find out.

* * * *

Jodi had to admit, it was sort of fun shocking the locals…and grabbing the attention of Mr. Quiet and Watchful. She’d uncovered the identities of most of the residents in the miniscule town—a town that had seemed perfect for her to experiment with nice and normal everyday life for the nice and normal everyday woman.

Somehow this dude had slipped under her radar. Weird, because he wasn’t the kind of person she’d normally overlook.

When he went silent and suspicious, she blew out a breath. Seriously, was she that scary? Not that she’d mind… Scary was good in some situations. But now? Everyday life for the everyday woman. She kept repeating it to herself. If she did that often enough, she felt sure she could reprogram her automatic responses.

After all, she hadn’t started out this way.

Casting him another look, she saw his set features, the grim mouth and blatant suspicion, and she almost laughed. “Okay, don’t choke. I won’t pry if you don’t.”

Oddly, that didn’t ease him at all.

Trying again, she said, “So yeah, my name is Jodi.” She stuck out her hand, determined to be as normal as possible. “Nice to meet you.”

He looked at her as if she might be setting a trap. Pretty funny, considering he was so much bigger than her. Like topping six-feet big. With linebacker shoulders and seriously nice biceps.

Definitely not a local, but hey, now that she’d decided to live an uneventful life, it was sort of fun to meet other people trying to do the same.

Trying…because this man might think he was managing it, but she’d picked up on his nuances right away. Nothing alarming. Nothing…sinister. Just cagey.

She knew some cagey guys. Really good guys, so she didn’t hold that against her new acquaintance.

Leaning a tiny bit closer, she said, “I won’t bite.” His dark blue eyes narrowed at her. “No? Maybe a high-five then?”

Finally loosening up in an effort to reclaim his manners, he clasped her hand. “I’m sorry.” He gave a congenial smile to go with the warm clasp of his large hand engulfing hers. “You just surprised me since you clearly didn’t want to touch Worth.”

Wrinkling her nose, she confided, “He’s oily, right? Not his skin, but his character. I don’t like him, and no, I don’t touch things I don’t like.”

Ending the handshake, and wearing another confounded expression, the big guy said, “Hunter Osborn, and yes, Worth is oily.”

Pointing back and forth between their chests, Jodi said, “We both know it, proving we’re both astute.” They had that in common.

“Anyone who has more than a thirty-second conversation with Worth knows it, so don’t think that you’re graduating at the top of the class.”

Jodi laughed. “You’re quick. And correct.” She glanced back at Worth, who watched them with ill intent. “He’s such a creep.”

“A dangerous creep, so maybe you shouldn’t provoke him.”

Huh. He wanted to…protect her? Funny, but in the time she’d been here doing her best to fit in, she’d met a lot of nice people. People without a clue. She liked them. They fit her agenda for the status quo. No close friends, she couldn’t claim that yet, but casual acquaintances, people she’d waved to, maybe asked routine stuff. How’s it going? How’s your day? That sort of thing.

But with this man, well, he felt like a kindred spirit. How weird was that? She’d come here so she wouldn’t be around people like her, so she could learn another way of life, but finding someone who’d really get it put her more at ease. Jodi knew that no one was ever really safe. She felt certain that Hunter did as well, and much as she’d wanted it otherwise, there was a measure of comfort in finding a like-minded soul.

When she just stood there, lost in introspection, Hunter made another grab for conventional conversation. “Nice mower.”

Right. She had to do her part if she really wanted anything to change—and she did. She wanted that a lot. It was her big, shining goal. It’d not only make her happy, but it’d please others too. Win-win.

Smiling, Jodi turned back to her pride and joy, the key to making the future work. “Isn’t it a beauty?” Once she’d shown an affinity for outdoor lawn work, the mower had been given to her as a gift, along with everything else she’d need to start up in a different place, as a different woman with a different outlook on life.

She was coming to grips with the generosity, but sometimes it still leveled her. With happiness, gratitude, and a zest to make the most of her opportunities.

“So this is what you do?” he asked. “Lawn work?”

“I’d accuse you of being nosy, but I guess that much is obvious, huh? Why else would I have the mower and all the lawn equipment in the truck?”

“So a safe assumption.” He smiled with her.

Such a nice smile he had, too, with straight white teeth and notable lips… That thought stalled in her brain. Why the heck was she noticing his lips? “Yeah.” She cleared her throat and glanced up at the bright blue sky. “I love the sunshine and fresh air.” From now until the end of her days, she’d prefer it to being cooped up inside. “It’s pretty much the perfect job for me.”

Idly, as if it didn’t matter, he asked, “Been at it long?”

So that was a little nosier, but hey, she rolled with it. “Not really.”

He waited for her to expound on that, she stayed silent just to see what he’d do, and after a few awkward seconds, he gave her a crooked grin. “You handle the mower like a pro, so you must be a natural.”

“Right? That’s what I figured.” Would he do a search? Try to figure out her background, what she’d done before lawn work, where she’d come from—and why she’d moved?

It’s what she would have done in his position, what she planned to do as soon as she had time to research him. Yet she realized that wasn’t the norm for everyone. Most people didn’t suspect every person they met. Most, she knew, went about their daily lives oblivious to danger and how easily things could change.

It wasn’t that she suspected Hunter of anything nefarious. Overall, he had a positive vibe. Still, it was good to be suspicious… No. That’s why she’d moved here, right? To shake off those instincts?

Right. Might as well try to shake off her past, too. Not possible.

She decided she could be cautious without going overboard, as any sensible woman would.

Leaning against the truck, she asked, “How about you?”

“Sorry, you took so long thinking there, I’ve lost track of the conversation. How about me what?”

Oh, he was a funny one. She barely repressed her grin. “What is it you do?”

He hitched his chin back toward Worth. “Classic cars.”

“You fix them up or something?”

“Or something.”

Ha! He was playing her own game against her. “So Hunter Osborn, do you live here in Triple Creek?” It was such a small town, she felt sure she would have seen or heard something about him already. A man like him didn’t blend in easily.

“Actually, I live out a ways, forty minutes north.”

No way. It took a second for her brain to absorb that. Tilting her head, she asked, “Where it’s more remote?”

“Nothing but me, the foothills, and one of the three creeks that gave the town its name.” His dark blue eyes took her measure and his brows crowded together. “What’s wrong? You look thunderstruck.”

Because she was. “How much land do you have?”

“Now who’s digging?”

Giving a theatrical wince, she said, “Sorry, I’m just surprised. There’s only like two places out there, right? I was told each had something like twenty or thirty acres, with five acres between them.”

“There’s one house,” he corrected. “Mine. The other is a dump that’ll eventually fall down.”

“Well, I hope not.”

This time his brows lifted. “Why not?”

“Because I’ll be living there.”

End of Excerpt

The Dangerous One

by Lori Foster
is available in the following editions:

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