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Remi Carrington

Captivated by Steph

Captivated by Steph

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Steph captivated me the very first time I saw her, but my best friend talked to her first. And then married her.

After he died, I stayed away. Keeping my feelings bottled up was easy when he was alive, but his death shattered me.

But now, I'm back at her winery to do a job. And I hope she's happy to see me.


  • He falls first
  • Widow Heroine
  • Rodeo Cowboy
  • Love after 40
  • Friends to lovers

Captivated by Steph Synopsis

Dating again is not part of my plan, and romance with my late husband’s best friend is definitely off limits.

When Blake shows up after five years, I remember how much fun he was to have around. With his own brand of humor, he keeps everyone laughing. Especially me.

Having him around is fun, comfortable . . . until he shows romantic interest.

Blake’s never been one for settling down, but even if he were, I can’t date him. There are so many reasons. Besides the friend thing, Blake hates wine. I own a winery. He rides the rodeo circuit. I stay far away from rodeos.

A perfect match? Not at all. We’re more like two mismatched socks.
Can two odd socks really make a pair?

Chapter One Look Inside

The gray-green foliage that was surviving in spite of the July heat covered the landscape on both sides of the road. Yellowed grasses swayed in the breeze, and I thought back to the last time I was here. On the night I’d been delivering heartbreaking news, the darkness had swallowed everything beyond my headlights, as if mourning with me. When I’d left, I hit the highway and drove until continuing would’ve been a danger to myself and others.
I’d avoided this area ever since. Mostly I’d avoided her. Steph Maguire.
Five years wasn’t long enough to make me forget the way to the winery. Would Steph be happy to see me? I had no excuse for my absence, other than grief. Saying goodbye to her husband, my best friend, proved to be harder than I thought possible. And I’d left her to navigate that path alone.
If she told me to get off her property at first sight, it would be deserved.
Or she might give me a hug and reminisce about old times. I was really hoping for option B.
When Rhett Akins started singing “That Ain’t my Truck,” I turned up the radio. I’d always loved this song.
After I turned left, the winery came into view. It had changed a bit since I was here last. The plants weren’t little bitty anymore. Instead of the single driveway leading to the house, now there was a small parking lot. Steph must be doing well for herself.
For years, I’d stuffed my feelings, shoved them aside because I wasn’t the backstabbing type who would go after my best friend’s wife. And I’d let the fear of not being able to corral those feelings keep me away too long. Maybe absence helped. But I wouldn’t know until I saw her.
As I pulled into a parking spot, two llamas galloped past the house. Blinking, I climbed out of my truck and stared down the sidewalk. Why are there llamas here?
These fuzzy delinquents seemed an odd addition to a winery. They’d trample stuff, and no one wants to partake in anything made of grapes that have been trampled by llamas. Even if they did belong here, they were clearly on the run. But I could help with that. If there was one thing I could do well—besides carpentry—it was snagging an animal. I grabbed my rope out of the truck and prepped the lasso. Approaching the llamas, I spun the rope, getting ready to throw.
“Don’t lasso the llamas!” As Steph rounded the trees, she stopped. “Blake Dalton.”
A wide smile spread across her face, and all hope of the feelings being gone evaporated. Whatever the saying was about heart growing fonder. That was what time had done. Or maybe absence was to blame.
There was definitely a spark, and I’d have to work to keep it hidden.
I bowed. “In the flesh. And why can’t I rope them? Let me rephrase. I can. Why won’t you let me?”
Shaking her head, she tugged at the hem of her obnoxiously pink T-shirt, not the type of thing she typically wore as I recall. “Of course you’d try to rope them. This isn’t a rodeo, Blake.” She winced, then forced a smile. “You can break their necks doing that.”
The pain at the word rodeo wasn’t a surprise. She probably hadn’t used that word in years, but then I showed up.
“Aren’t you looking fancy?” I tossed the rope onto the hood of my truck, then sauntered closer to her, hoping she wouldn’t smack me. “Your halo is a bit crooked there.” I reached out and straightened that glittery piece nestled in her tangle of loose curls.
“It’s a tiara.”
“Same difference.”
Then she hugged me. I wasn’t much the huggy type, but Steph was always the exception. And I’d missed her hugs.
It had been five years since the rodeo accident that took Liam’s life, and after showing up here to tell her he was gone, I hadn’t been back. I couldn’t make myself attend the funeral. Instead, I’d driven out to our favorite fishing spot, where Liam and I never caught a darned thing, and drank a cold one in memory of my friend. Then I spent the next five years trying to figure out how to be happy without him around.
I’d healed in those five years. And seeing Steph made me happy.
Stepping back, she swiped at her hair, then propped her hands on her hips. “It’s been a long time.”
I steeled myself in case disappointment crossed her face when I answered. “Yeah. I’m meeting someone who needs a carpenter. He wants an arbor or something. And a new restaurant.” I hadn’t meant to wait so long to come back. “I wondered if I’d see you today.”
“A bigger restaurant. And you better not have planned to come to this winery without making a point of finding me.” She cocked her head and lifted one eyebrow, flashing a warning.
“I’d never.”
Liam and I had been best friends since grade school. We hung out together all the time, did the rodeo circuit together. He’d been a bull rider. I was a saddle bronc rider. And we lassoed stuff for fun. I’d been sitting beside him when he met Steph.
Seeing me had to stir up memories, and when she blinked wet lashes, guilt rattled in my heart.
“If I’d known I’d make you cry, I wouldn’t have come.” I flashed a smile, hoping she’d give one back.
“It’s really good to see you.” She rubbed my arm as she leaned around the trees, looking for the llamas. “Know anything about herding animals that spit?”
“Nope. Marriage wasn’t really my thing.” I winked. “Come on. We’ll figure it out. How hard can it be?”
“Oh, no. They’re like cats.” She grabbed my arm and didn’t budge. “Since they aren’t running anymore, we’ll watch them from here until Joji arrives.”
“Joji?” I’d have to figure out the cast of characters around these parts. I nodded toward her shirt. “Maid of Honor. Who’s getting married?”
“My brother. He met someone who is perfect for him.” She glanced at her phone. “Speak of the devil.” Then she swiped to answer. “Jeffrey, hi. Sorry I’m late. Got a bit distracted on the way. But I’ll be there soon.”
I stepped away so as not to eavesdrop because some considered that impolite.
“I know. I’m never late. But there’s a first time for everything.” Steph grinned at me.
Grief was the main reason I stayed away so long, but guilt was mixed in there too. Guilt because I couldn’t save Liam. He was gone in the blink of an eye. I’d also stayed away because with my friend around, my attraction to Steph was easy to put aside. I’d never in a million years make a move on my best friend’s wife.
What were the rules now that he was gone? Because staying away hadn’t lessened her beauty or my attraction. From the first day we met, she captivated me. And it wasn’t like I hadn’t tried to find my own someone. But she became the standard, and I’d never met anyone who compared.
Steph ended the call and shoved the phone in her back pocket. “So you’re the carpenter on the restaurant expansion?”
“Yes, ma’am. I figured it was time to stop by. I’ve been a stranger too long. I was looking for an excuse to come out this way. Then a guy I did some work for years back reached out and asked me to do a job. I didn’t know it was here at your winery until after I agreed, but it seems meant to be.” I stuffed my hands in my pockets and braved a moment of raw honesty. “Sorry I was gone so long. And for skipping the funeral. I just . . .”
Blinking away tears she rubbed my arm. “You don’t have to explain. I get it.”
I slipped an arm around her and pulled her close. “You look good, Steph.”
“Thanks. You too. Looks like you even shaved.”
“First impressions and all that.”
She hadn’t changed much, and it was good to be back in her company.
“Where are my babies?” A woman with flaming red hair smiled as she walked up.
“That way.” I hooked a thumb toward the escapees. “Steph wouldn’t let me lasso them, so we’re just babysitting from here.”
Steph rolled her eyes. “Joji, this is my friend Blake.”
Joji lifted an eyebrow as she looked at me. “You’re new. Like she said, I’m Joji.”
“Blake Dalton. Nice to make your acquaintance.”
“Are you a friend of Stephanie’s?” She started walking toward the llamas but kept her body turned toward us.
“Something like that.” I pointed behind her. “It’s safer if you look in the same direction you walk.”
“Yep.” Joji spun around and stopped. “Simon, Garfunkel! Come here, boys.”
Those two llamas looked as if they were smiling as they trotted toward Joji.
She fed them each a piece of apple. “Sorry they bothered y’all.”
Then the redhead and her pet llamas hoofed it across the road.
“Now that you’ve met the llamas, I’ll introduce you to the bride and groom.” Steph grabbed my hand and led me down the walkway, then onto some little trail. I didn’t like wine, but this place was pretty.
A couple, presumably the ones getting hitched, were wrapped in each other’s arms, kissing like no one was watching. Except we were watching and wished we weren’t.
“Let me guess. Those are the kids getting married.” I gave her hand a squeeze before pulling mine free. “They’re cute. I’ll give them that.”
Steph cleared her throat. “Sorry we’re late. Joji’s llamas decided on an excursion.”
The man turned around. “Llamas?”
“Look at that shirt!” The woman laughed. “You should get Mad Dog one to match.”
More names I didn’t know. Joji? Mad Dog? Who lived in these parts?
“He’d probably prefer if it said Best Man rather than Maid of Honor, but I’m sure he’d love that color and all those shiny things. I need sunglasses just to look at you.” He shook his head, then pointed at me. “You must be Blake. I’m Jeffrey.”
“Yep, at least I was last time I checked.” I stuck out my hand. “I hear congratulations are in order.”
Jeffrey grinned at the brunette smiling at him. “This is my fiancée, Mindy.”
“Blake Dalton.”
Steph eased closer to me. “Jeffrey, do you remember Blake? He was at my wedding.”
Jeffrey’s brow furrowed. “I’m sorry. I don’t.”
I shrugged. “No worries. I didn’t remember meeting you either. We were all younger then.” I wasn’t just making things up to make him feel better. If Steph hadn’t told me we’d met, I would’ve sworn this guy was a complete stranger.
Steph smiled at me, then gave more of an explanation. “Blake was a friend of Liam’s.”
“Oh.” Jeffrey let go of Mindy and motioned for Steph to follow him.
After watching them walk away, Mindy turned to face me. “I’m sorry about your friend.”
“He was one of a kind. He’ll always be missed.” This wasn’t really the time to drag everyone into a somber mood. “Tell me about what you’re thinking as far as an arbor.”
Mindy described what she envisioned. Then Steph and Jeffrey joined us.
I didn’t have to read minds to know that Jeffrey was worried about my dredging up hard memories for his sister, so I smoothed the situation with my own brand of humor. “I could build it at night if you’d rather not look at me.”
Steph gave a soft chuckle. “We’ll have to see, but I’ll keep that in mind.”
“You do that.” I rubbed her shoulder, thankful I could still make her laugh. “And when you’re done with that shirt, I might have a use for it. When I’m hauling long pieces of lumber in the bed of the truck, I tie something bright and awful to the end. So the other drivers notice.”
Steph crossed her arms. “Are you calling my shirt ugly?”
“No, ma’am. I’m calling it noticeable.”
Jeffrey laughed. “That’s one way of putting it.” He sidled up to Mindy and said, “That’s not the color you chose for the wedding, is it?”
She quirked an eyebrow. “What? You don’t like it?”
“I’m not telling you no because I know how that would end. We’d all need sunglasses at the wedding.” He poked her in the side before giving her a quick kiss.
This was like watching a tennis match, with banter being lobbed back and forth. But this ended with a kiss instead of a handshake. I nudged Steph. “They always like that?”
Her halo-tiara thing slid back and forth as she nodded. “Even before they liked each other. But you’ll get used to it.”
“I doubt that.” I winked at her. “Sappier than what I’m used to.”
“Mindy and Jeffrey are like a good snack—sweet and salty.” She straightened her sparkly halo.
“Working here might be entertaining then.”
“That’s one way to describe it.” She shoved her hands in her pockets and shot me a look. “I’m glad you’re here, Blake.”
“Me too.”
“The nice thing about working at a winery is that there’s lots of wine around,” Jeffrey said with a chuckle. “And I’ll make sure you don’t starve.”
“Blake doesn’t drink wine.” Steph laughed, and I knew she was thinking about the tasting I’d attended when they’d first opened.
“Hate the stuff. Grapes are okay, but all smashed up? Nah.”
Mindy stepped closer to Steph. “At least you know that when he leaves he won’t be sneaking bottles out of here in his pant leg or anything.”
The comment seemed to fluster Steph. After a half second, she clapped. “The wedding. We need to focus.”
I stood up straight and squared my shoulders. “Yes, ma’am.”
A job brought me here, but Steph was the reason I’d be staying. I wasn’t hoping for romance or anything like that. But I’d missed her.
Being back felt a lot like coming home. For lots of reasons.
And I’d been homesick a long time.

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