Rising Assets ONLY
a Maverick Montana novel by New York Times & USA Today bestselling author Rebecca Zanetti
Friends with benefits was never the plan…
Melanie Jacobs is in trouble. With three jobs—including running her ranch—and dwindling funds, she’s exhausted. Not to mention desperately trying to hide a secret. Unfortunately, her best friend Colton Freeze knows all too well that’s something is going on, and he won’t give up until he knows exactly what he needs to fix.
Then Colton learns the truth—that Melanie’s future happiness rests in the fickle hands of fate, and her chances for having a family are shrinking with every passing day. Her only comfort is Colton, but when a heated argument between them turns into an even hotter kiss, the boundaries of their friendship are erased, leaving only a scorching-hot hunger for more.
Every kiss—every touch—is a stolen pleasure. But will their new friends-with-sexy-benefits arrangement bring them closer together, or destroy everything they once shared?
Title: Rising Assets
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An Excerpt from
by Rebecca Zanetti
Copyright © 2014 by Rebecca Zanetti. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
“She can’t be working here. No way.” Colton Freeze leaned forward in his chair and slid his nearly empty beer on the battered wooden table. A jukebox belted out Garth Brooks, peanut shells lined the floor, and longnecks took residence on almost every table in the bar. Unfortunately, the sense of home failed to relax him.
“I’m only telling you what Mrs. Nelson said at the bank.” His friend, Hawk, turned toward the long, oak bar. “If she is working here, I wish she’d show up so I can go home to bed.”
“Soon.” Colton shook his head. “There is no way Melanie works at the coffee place in the morning, her ranch all day, and Adam’s bar at night.” And she hadn’t bothered to tell him. He’d been out of town finishing his master’s degree and then securities degree, and nobody had thought to tell him his best friend was working herself to death? Fear slammed him between the eyes, nearly bringing on a migraine. He shoved the sensation away.
“I didn’t know, or I would’ve called.” Hawk gazed thoughtfully across the smoky room, his odd green eyes narrowed.
“You’ve only been home a day.” Colt frowned. He cocked his head as the bartender called out with a friendly, “Hi, Mel.”
Damn it. She was working in the bar. Colton steeled his shoulders and schooled his face into a pleasant expression. If he yelled at her right off the bat, she wouldn’t talk to him.
He needed to speak with her. While they’d grown a part a little bit during their teenage years, when they’d moved on into the world, they’d kept in touch as he attended school. After her grandfather had died two years ago, they’d reconnected, and Colton had made sure to call, text, and email while he studied.
After a short time, he couldn’t sleep without talking to her and sharing his day. Maybe he should’ve been home instead of pursuing knowledge.
As his best friend, she was needed. Plus his gut churned that she hadn’t shared her problems with him. “Where in the world is she?” he muttered.
She stepped out from behind the bar, and he straightened in his chair. “What the hell?”
Hawk emitted a slow whistle. “Wow.”
Yeah, wow. Melanie’s customary outfit of faded jeans, scuffed boots, and a working T-shirt was absent for the night. “Adam must have made her wear the outfit.” Son of a bitch. He’d kill the bar owner.
Hawk leaned forward, elbows on the table. “She looks good.”
She looked better than good, and shock sprang Colt’s cock into action. A tight tank top showed off perfect breasts, while a skirt curved along her butt to stop a couple of inches away. Long, lean legs led down to high-heeled boots. She was a wet dream come true.
Melanie wobbled a full tray of drinks to deliver to a table of rowdy farmers.
“Maybe the medical bills from her grandpop’s fight with cancer added up, and she needed the extra money?” Hawk rolled his shoulder and finished his beer.
Colton exhaled but couldn’t look away from the sexy brunette. Sexy? Jesus. It was just the shock of the new look. She was still Mel, still his best friend. “So now I need to worry about both of you. What the hell?”
Hawk sighed. “Tell me you didn’t ask me out for a beer my first night home to lecture me.”
Colton turned toward his oldest friend. Lines of exhaustion fanned out from Hawk’s eyes, and a dark purple bruise mottled his left cheekbone. He was usually battered when he returned home from active duty, but this time a hardness had entered Hawk’s eyes. Now wasn’t the moment to bug him, however. Colton shrugged. “Nope. Just wanted to catch up. I’ll push you tomorrow on leaving the SEALs.”
“Fair enough.” Hawk took a deep swallow of his beer as his gaze remained on Melanie. “I’m glad you called. It appears as if things might get interesting tonight.”
Doubtful. Colton turned his attention back to the woman who hadn’t trusted him enough to let him know she was in trouble. Something in his chest ached, and he shoved the irritant aside with anger. While he was known for a slow-to-burn temper, especially in comparison with his two older brothers, when he exploded, it was legendary.
But there’d be no temper tonight. First, he had to figure out what the hell was going on, and then he had to solve the issue. Logically and with a good plan. So when Mel glanced his way, he lifted his empty glass.
She nodded and hitched around full tables to reach him. “Why did you cut your hair?” Her face was pale as she tried to tug her skirt down.
He knew she wouldn’t be comfortable half nude in public. “When the hell did you start waitressing in a fucking bar?” The words slipped out before he could stop them.
“Smooth,” Hawk muttered into his beer.
Melanie arched a delicate eyebrow and released the bottom of the skirt. “Last I checked, my grandfather was dead and you weren’t my keeper. Do you want another beer or not?” The tray hitched against her hip—a hip that wasn’t nearly as curvy as it had been the previous year. She’d lost weight.
Even so, he wanted to grab that hip and… “What time do you get off?” he asked.
A dimple twinkled in her cheek. “It depends who I take home with me.”
He couldn’t help but grin back. “You are such a big talker.”
“I know.” She shoved curly brown hair away from her face. Hair wild and free. “Why are you asking? Think you’ll need a ride home?”
“I’m taking you home, and we’re talking about your three jobs.” He tried to smooth his voice into charming mode, but the order emerged with bite.
“The last time you tried to boss me around, I hit you in the face and you cried for an hour.” She nodded at a guy waving for a drink from a table on the other side of the dance floor.
Colton threw the guy a glare. “I did not cry.”
“Did too,” Hawk whispered.
Colton shot a look at his buddy before focusing back on Mel. He’d been seven years old, and she’d almost broken his nose. “My eyes watered from the punch. That wasn’t crying.” They’d been having the argument for nearly two decades, and the woman never let up. “You’ve cried on my shoulder many a time.”
She reached for his glass. “That’s because men are assholes, and you have great shoulders.”
Every boy or man who’d ever hurt her had ended up bashed and bloody afterward because either he or Hawk had made sure of it. “You’re right on both counts. Which begs the question, if you’re in trouble, why aren’t you crying on my shoulder now?”
Sadness filtered through her deep eyes. “You’re my friend, not my knight. It’s time I stood on my own two feet.”
But he wanted to be her knight, because if anybody deserved protection, it was Melanie. “I’m mad at you.”
“I know.” She smacked his shoulder. “You’ll get over it. You always do.”
Was it his imagination, or did regret tinge her words? He tilted his head and studied her.
She smiled at Hawk. “I’m glad you’re home. You staying this time?”
Hawk lifted a shoulder. “We’ll see. It’s nice to be among friends, I can tell you that.”
Mel nodded and fingered Colton’s short hair, returning her attention to him. “Why did you cut it?” she asked again.
That one touch slid down his spine and sparked his balls on fire. What in the hellfire was wrong with him? He shifted his weight. “I thought it was time for a more mature look since I’m taking over at the office.” Of course, last time he’d grappled at the gym, his opponent had gotten a good hold on Colton’s hair. At that point, a clipping had become inevitable.
Mel smiled. “You do look all grown up, Colt Freeze.”
He’d love to show her just how grown up. At the odd thought, he mentally shook himself. Friend zone. Definite friend zone. That was it. “Part of being a grown-up is asking for help.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ll be back with another beer.” Turning on a too-high heel, she sauntered toward the back corner.
Colt’s gaze dropped to her ass. The flimsy skirt hugged her flesh in a way that heated his blood. While Mel was small, she had always been curvy. More than once, he’d wondered.
For years he’d gone for wild girls…fun, crazy, and not looking for forever. During his life, he’d avoided anything but friendship with Melanie, who was a keeper. A good girl, smart as hell, and kindhearted.
Hawk cleared his throat.
“What?” Colton asked.
“You’re looking at Mel’s butt.” Hawk set down his beer. “How long have I been out of town, anyway? Has something changed?”
Colton shoved down irritation. “No. Besides, what’s wrong with Mel’s butt?”
“Nothing. In the world of butts, it’s phenomenal.” Hawk leaned to get a better view. “Just the right amount of muscle and softness. In fact—”
“Shut up.” Colton jabbed his friend in the arm. Hard. “Stop looking at her ass.”
Hawk chuckled. “If you’re finally going to make a move, let me know. I have a hundred bucks entered in the town pool.”
Colton’s ears began to burn. “Town pool?”
“Yep. The exact date you and Melanie finally make a go of it.” Hawk pushed back his chair. “Now that you’re home, get ready for some meddling.”
“Mel and I are just friends.” He’d kill himself if he ever hurt her. In fact, he’d beaten the shit out of her first boyfriend in high school because the prick had cheated on her. So the fact that she had an ass that made Colton’s hands itch to take a hold of, was something he’d ignore. Again.
“I may stay home for a while, because this is going to be fun.” Hawk stood. “Mind if I head out? I need sleep.”
“No problem.” Colton shook his head. Hawk did need sleep if he was thinking Colton and Mel could be anything more than friends. The three of them needed each other, and things had to stay the same. “I’ll see you at your southern pasture at dawn. The order of twine finally came in earlier.”
“Can’t wait.” Hawk turned and headed out of the bar, seemingly oblivious to the several pairs of female eyes tracking his progress.
A voluptuous pair of breasts crossed Colton’s vision before a woman plunked down in Hawk’s vacated seat. “Well, if it isn’t Colton Freeze,” June Daniels said before sliding her almost empty wineglass onto the table.
“Hi, June.” Colton forced his gaze to her heavily made up eyes and away from the twins being shoved up by a bra worth twice whatever the woman had paid for it. “How are you?”
June pouted out red lips. “Almost empty.”
“We’ll have to get you another.” Colton slid a polite smile on his face. While he may be single and definitely horny, he was far from stupid. The four times divorced cougar leaning toward him represented a complication he neither needed nor wanted. Talk about not fitting into his plans. “Are you out by yourself tonight?”
“Yes.” She clasped her hands on the table and shoved her breasts together in a move as old as time. “How about you since Hawk took off?”
“I’m waiting until Melanie is off shift.” It wasn’t the first time he’d used his friendship with Mel as an excuse, and it probably wouldn’t be the last.
June sniffed. “Why? She’s still dating the oldest Milton son from Billings, right? The banker?”
Colton lifted a shoulder. If Mel was still dating the banker, it was the longest relationship she’d ever had. The idea shot a hard rock into his gut, one he’d have to figure out later. His unease was probably due to the fact that any banker wearing three-piece suits and allowing his woman to work three jobs wasn’t good enough for Melanie. Though using the word allow around her would end in a broken nose. Colton smiled at the thought.
Melanie slid a beer in front of him and leaned over to pour wine into June’s glass.
June narrowed hard eyes. “How did you know what kind of wine I want?”
Melanie recorked the bottle. “You’re drinking red. This is our red.”
Colton bit back a grin. Adam’s wasn’t known for a fine wine selection, but beer was another matter. “Did you bring me a nice beer?” He glanced closer at the thick brew. “Looks hearty.”
“Suck it up and try the new beer, wimp.” Mel nudged his shoulder.
June leaned closer to Colt. “We were discussing you and Brian Milton.”
Melanie eyed Colton. “Is that a fact?”
The tone of voice held warning and had the unfortunate result of zipping straight to Colton’s groin. He felt like a randy teenager all of a sudden, and enough was enough. “I wasn’t.” If all else failed, throw the cougar under the bus. “June brought up Milton.”
“Why?” Melanie turned her formidable focus onto June.
“Curiosity.” June’s caps sparkled even in the dim light. “You’ve been dating for quite a while. Is it serious?”
“It’s personal.” Melanie dropped a couple of beer napkins on the table. “I have a ride home, Colton.”
“Yeah. Me.” He took his drink and gave her his hardest look—one that wouldn’t faze her a bit. “Either agree, or there’s gonna be a hell of a scene in the parking lot when I toss your ass in my truck.”
Sparks flashed in Melanie’s eyes. She leaned in, and the scent of lilacs and woman almost dropped him to his knees. “Threaten me again, Freeze, and I’ll make you cry for hours.”
He’d never been able to refuse a challenge, so he turned his head until their lips hovered centimeters apart, his gaze piercing hers. “Sounds like a date.”
Melanie stretched her calves in the front seat of Colton’s truck and bit back a wince as his headlights illuminated a downed fence on her property. Then another—both nearly covered by snow.
“What the hell?” he asked.
“I’ve been busy.”
He glanced her way, a new tension cascading off him. “What about your crew?”
“Let them go. No money to pay them, but I do contract with Hawk’s crew whenever I need help on a case-by-case basis.” Her feet pounded in pain, and goose bumps covered her bare arms. God, she hated working in the bar outfit with a passion rivaling a Freeze temper.
“Is that why you’re working three jobs?” he asked quietly.
“Yes, and don’t even think about offering me money.” Her neck prickled. Sure, he was rich. She didn’t want his money—she never had, and she sure as heck didn’t want to discuss her reasons for needing money. Not now, anyway.
“How’s the ranch doing?” Colton asked.
“Great. I have fifty head in the south pasture, the Angus bulls in the north pasture, and all of my foals to the west.” She loved ranching and had never considered another career. Montana was home, and she had no problem mucking out stalls when necessary.
“Crops?” Colton asked, his genius mind obviously doing calculations.
“Winter wheat, barley, and Camelina.” The oil seed crop was used in biofuel, and it had been Colt’s recommendation she plant it last year. “The money will come in, and I’m not worried.” Right.
He rubbed his chin, settling back in the seat. “How about a loan?” In the moonlight, the interesting multicolors of his hair still shone, even though the mass no longer touched his shoulders. It seemed like the finest genes from both his Native American and Irish ancestry had combined into hair color women paid a fortune for.
“I don’t want a loan.” She studied his angled profile. Hard and sharp, his even features showed a rugged toughness he’d lacked as a cute teenager. Now he was all man.
A pang hit her that someday he’d settle down. Finally become one woman’s man. Lucky wench. The man planned his entire life down to exactness. His future wife was probably some PTA president with as many college degrees as he had.
Melanie hadn’t had time for college, and she liked her boots muddy. Dirty boots didn’t belong at PTA meetings.
His muscled shoulders rolled, and he kept his gaze focused out the window. “Working three jobs is too hard and too stressful.” Colt stopped the truck in front of the porch she’d painted the week before.
Thank goodness something looked fresh.
Distant or close by, he’d always been overprotective, and she could take care of herself. Time was short, and she needed money, not protection. “Stop worrying.” She slid from the truck. “Thanks for the ride home. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” Slamming the door shut, she loped up the steps and unlocked the front door.
The engine cut behind her. A door slammed, and heavy boot steps echoed behind her. “I can’t help but worry. You’re going to work yourself to death.”
There was no alternative. God, she needed to get out of the skimpy clothes. She hurried inside, kicked out of the heels, and dropped her purse on the sofa table.
“Why do I get the feeling you’re not telling me everything?” He remained on the porch.
Sighing, she allowed her shoulders to drop as she turned to face him. The man had excellent instincts. “I’m not telling you everything.”
Colton stilled. “Excuse me?” he asked softly.
She swallowed. The tone of voice was something new. “Some parts of my life are private.”
He blinked. “No they’re not. If you’re in trouble, Hawk and I are here. The three of us.”
Exactly. This was a problem the three of them couldn’t solve. It’s not like she’d ask either one of them to impregnate her. “I know, but I’m on my own with this one.”
“There is no on your own, damn it. It’s not how we work.” Colton vibrated with a very rare display of temper.
Irritation crawled up her throat. “Listen, Colt. I know you’re used to meddling family members and the security that comes with that, but back off. I’m alone, and I need to figure this out by myself.” It was a low blow, considering he’d always felt badly about her lack of family and his abundance of it, but she had to get him off the topic of money and her need for it.
“You’re kidding me. I can’t believe you said that.” His chin lowered.
She’d known him her entire life and had seen him truly angry twice. Maybe three times. The man had an incredibly long fuse, but if it blew, everyone scattered.
As he stood in the doorway, blue eyes blazing, there was no question as to his fury.
She lifted her chin and casually moved toward the nearest chair, suddenly feeling vulnerable in the tight outfit that revealed way too much. “I don’t need your help.”
“Sit down.” The order held bite and rumbled in a deep tone she’d never heard. Yeah, she may have poked a slumbering bear. Her butt hit the cushion even before her mind clicked into gear. Instant anger swelled through her at how quickly her body had followed his order. She shot to her feet.
“Too late.” Long strides propelled him so close she could feel his heat. “Stick with your instincts and not with that stubborn mind.”
She turned slightly to outmaneuver him. “I don’t take orders from you, Colton Freeze.”
He mimicked her motion and stepped into her space. “If you’re not smart enough to take care of yourself, you damn well do take orders from me.”
Anger and a well-earned note for self-preservation battled for dominance inside her. She took a step back. “Get out of my house.”
He mirrored her step. “No.” Crimson angled across his high cheekbones, enhancing the dangerous hollows beneath them. As a kid, he had been adorable. As a teenager, handsome. As a fully grown, tough, battle-scarred man, he was all predatory male.
One she was smart enough to back away from, even as her nipples sprang to attention from his intense gaze. Oh, this couldn’t happen. Down nipples. Down. Several steps later, her butt hit the wall.
A second later, they stood toe to toe. His palms flattened against the cedar logs, caging her. “We’re about to come to an understanding here, Melanie Murphy Alana Jacoby. Got it?”
Heated air filled her lungs with delicious tingles. She breathed out slowly, trying to control herself.
He’d been her best friend for decades. She knew how to appease him, how to make him laugh. The right words were there and would smooth everything over. For two seconds, she considered saying them. But she was past that. He’d come into her home, he’d ordered her around, and now he wanted things his way.
Not a chance.
So she said the one thing guaranteed to push him over the edge. “Fuck you, Colt—”
His mouth was on hers before she finished saying his name. Heat and power slammed from the kiss, and her mind swam.
Fire lashed through her so quickly her knees weakened. Her nipples scraped his chest, and lava consumed her. Her eyes fluttered shut, and she fell into the storm created by a man much more dangerous than she’d known.
She kissed him back, her body alive, her mind shutting down.
There was nothing but the whirlwind of impossible need cascading around them, through her, into her, beyond her.
The kiss was hard, angry, and more passionate than she could’ve dreamed.
Many times they’d come close to kissing, but one of them had always backed away. With a grin, or a joke, they’d escaped ever taking the chance. The one thing Melanie knew for sure was if Colton ever kissed her, if he ever showed her that side of him, there’d be no turning back. Ever.
As he released her mouth to pin her with a dark gaze, there was no question he knew it, too.
Determination filtered through his eyes, and his jaw firmed. Something new and intriguing fluttered alive in her abdomen. Satisfaction lifted his lips as her eyes widened.
Holy crap. Colton Freeze didn’t want to turn back.