It burned. Everywhere and nowhere. Slices in my skin that made it feel as if hot lava had been poured into my flesh. I couldn’t count them, had lost track after the tenth. I tried to move, to somehow escape. Only my fingers twitched.
Sounds. Voices. Hovering above me. They were everywhere and yet nowhere. Pinpricks of light, like glimmering stars on the darkest night.
“Miss? Can you hear me?”
I managed a low moan. I only wanted the pain to stop. The agony tearing through my body. I craved a blanket of nothingness. An endless sea where I would cease to exist altogether.
“I’m an EMT. You’re safe. We’ve got you.”
“Hurts.” It was the only message I cared about getting across. This woman might have the power to lessen the burn.
A hand slipped into mine, blood sliding down my arm to bind us together, the liquid already growing tacky with the passage of time.
“I know. Just hold on.”
I didn’t want to hold on. I wanted to float away to a world where none of this was real. Where pain didn’t exist—only light and peace and relief.
“Can you tell us who did this to you?”
My eyes fluttered. My cracked lips parted. I could only manage two words.
“My brother.” WANT MORE?
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There were shadows I was running from.
Ones that haunted and taunted.
Ones that made it so I had no choice but to disappear.
I’d spent years hiding from the world.
My little island haven, the only assurance of safety.
It all changed the moment he showed up at my door.
The hint of pain in his eyes told me that something haunted him, too.
And I couldn’t help but be drawn closer.
But finding the person I needed most came with risks I never expected.
And when our ghosts find us again, neither of us may make it out this time.
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The twenty-minute hike to Stony Ridge is breathtaking. I hold on to Payne’s elbow, and he guides me through the trees, over a covered one-lane bridge, and up a massive hill.
Walker and Elle, Brandt and Bellamy, Myer and Beau and Sonia are there when we arrive. Beau breaks free from the crowd and beelines for us.
“Miss Charlotte, are you going to sled with me?” he asks excitedly.
I bend down to look him in the eye. He’s wearing goggles and a helmet, and he is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.
“I sure am,” I tell him as I plant a kiss on his forehead. He blushes instantly.
“Quit trying to steal my girl, little man. I can’t compete with your snagged-toothed charm,” Payne says as we join the rest of the group.
I look over the hilltop and down to the mound of soft snow at the bottom.
“Walker and I shoveled in the bank earlier,” Myer says.
“Bank?” I ask.
“Yeah, the snow wall down there. It should stop us, so we don’t go hurling further into the tree line.”
“Oh, that was thoughtful,” I tell him.
“The orange sled is yours. Come on, and we’ll get you started,” he offers.
I look behind us to see six sleds pulled out of the back of a barn.
Each one is made of three wooden planks about four-foot-long affixed to painted steel blades that curl up over the front with a rope connecting the two ends.
Payne is standing beside the one with the orange blades, removing his snowshoes.
I sit on the edge of the sled and untie mine as well.
Once I’m back up, Payne grabs the rope and pulls the sled closer to the edge of the slope. Walker and Elle are already on a purple sled with her seated in the front between his legs. He has his arms around her and is gripping the rope.
“See how Walker has a hold of the rope? He uses it to steer the sled. I’ll do the same. All you have to do is move with me. If I bear to the right with my body, you lean into it as well,” Payne instructs as Myer walks behind them and uses his foot to kick start their descent.
We all watch as they sail down the hill at high speed, and Elle’s laughter carries on the wind and echoes in the trees. A few seconds later, they barrel into the snowbank and come to a stop. As soon as they are on their feet and pulling the sled back up the right side of the hill, Brandt and Bellamy get loaded on their blue sled, and Myer gives them the boost they need.
“You ready?” Payne asks once they disappear over the edge.
“Ready!” I tell him, and then I turn to Beau.
“You and I will go next time, deal?”
“Deal!” he agrees.
Payne sets us up, and I sit and scoot toward the front, so his massive size has room behind me. He envelopes my body with his and tucks me in close. Then he takes the rope, and I feel him nod to Myer, who kicks us off. The sled shoots through the powder like a rocket. I can hear the wind as it whips by us, but none of it hits me because Payne’s warm body is shielding me.
The ride is exhilarating. I squeal into the air and feel his thighs tighten around me in response.
As we are about to plow into the bank, he comes over the top of me like a cocoon and takes the brunt of the impact.
Once we are at a full stop, Payne jumps up and takes my hand to help me.
“Did you like it?” he asks.
“It’s so much fun. Let’s go again!” I say as I help him pull the sled to the side.
I practically take off running up the hill, and when we get to the top, Payne is winded.
“You climbed that hill like it was a slight bump in the road,” he says.
I look back at him.
“SoulCycle doesn’t just keep my ass toned; it keeps my lungs strong too.” I wink at him, and he smirks.
“I take back everything I ever said about that damn class.”
Who says you can’t wear boots with pearls?
I’ve always loved my life and career. That was until my boss, best friend, and partner in crime, fell in love during a trip to her hometown and made me become a bougie cowgirl. It only took a few visits to the sleepy town of Poplar Falls for me to understand the draw.
So here I am, fighting the two girls that live inside of me. One who loves the glitz and glamour of NYC and thrives in the fast-paced world of the Upper East Side. Then the other who longs to be wild and free in the laid back mountains of Colorado with the people who have become like family. One in particular.
Payne Henderson was only supposed to be a fun fling, a hot man to scratch my cowboy itch. I didn’t realize I was falling so hard for him until it was too late to stop the ride and get off unscathed.
Now I have a decision to make. Do I confess my love and reveal the stripped-down version of me, scars and all? Or do I let him go and head back to the comfort of my big city life?
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“Bree,” he says in a breathless whisper.
“Yep. That’s me. Last name’s Pechman, which means bad luck in about every language imaginable. Fitting really, considering my last two days,” I say, trying to look anywhere but at him. “Can you just write me the ticket, so we can get this over with?”
He stays silent, so I finally look at him. His eyebrows rise up, and a grin grows on his face.
Like he’s trying to be funny, he says, “You’re bad luck, cheese.”
I slap my hands to my sides. “Seriously? You are”—a huff leaves my lips as I try to think of the right words—“the most diabolical man I have ever met! First, you take things too far by looking up videos on my computer, and then you think you’re being funny by comparing my name to a cheese that is spelled completely different!”
With a whip of my ponytail, I brush past him and march toward my front door.
I’m halted, however, by the firm, albeit warm, touch of his hand on my arm.
“Bree, wait,” he says. I turn back to him, and his eyes are molten. “Is everything okay?”
“Hmm, let’s see. I only thought I was being blackmailed last night for watching porn, which I then had to admit to”—I pause to glare at him—“you. Only to find out it was a scam, but that was after you brought up the exact videos I’d watched in front of the entire police station—and don’t think I didn’t hear their laughs behind my back.”
That’s the part that really pisses me off. Not that he looked them up per se, but that he wasn’t discreet, which just compounded the humiliation I felt.
I continue, “Oh, and let me add that I make no money, teaching kids who have trust funds that are worth three times more than I’ll make in my lifetime, who would rather speak in acronyms than use our actual language. J-K and I-K-R are not things I should see written on their homework as an answer, yet every day, I have to write the words spell it out on multiple papers. Then, we can talk about how my skirt was soaked in salt. And to top it off, just by chance, I got caught speeding by the same person I never wanted to see again.”
“So, you admit you were speeding?” he says in a teasing voice, and I want to scream.
“No! I was not speeding. It’s not possible!”
“How come you never wanted to see me again?” Those damn lips tug to the right, this time showing some teeth, which, of course, are perfectly straight and as white as could be.
I close my eyes, wishing I could just climb in a hole and never come out. “Look, Officer …” I shield my eyes from the late afternoon sun to see his name badge better.
“Harder,” he says.
I let out a closed-mouth laugh and then cover my mouth to hide my physical reaction.
“Yes, my last name is Harder. Dax Harder.” He holds out his hand to me. “Nice to meet you.”
Now, I feel like a complete jerk. I got upset about him calling me cheese, and here I am, acting no better and giggling at his last name. Little does he know, it’s not that I think his name is funny. It’s the opposite actually. I mean, the name Harder couldn’t fit a man more perfectly. In the physical sense at least.
I stare at his hand for a few breaths before reaching out to meet it.
“Bree Elizabeth Pechman,” I offer as a formal introduction.
The way his strong grip and callous fingers wrap around mine does nothing to calm my nerves. Instead, it makes my heart pound ever so slightly.
I peel away from him and turn back to my car, sitting down in the driver’s seat and buckling up, searching for an excuse not to look at him and to keep my racing mind busy.
“Hey,” he says, nudging my arm. “I can see you’re having a bad day. I’ll let you go with a warning.”
My shoulders twist until I face him. “You’d really do that for me?”
He does this head tilt that is even sexier than his smirk. “O-F-C,” he says, and I roll my eyes at his use of the acronym for of fucking course.
“Funny,” I deadpan and am rewarded with a glimmer of his pearly white teeth.
It all started when I got an email.
Let me rephrase. A sextortion email from someone claiming they tapped into my computer and recorded me while watching an adult graphic video. If I don’t send them money, they’ll show everyone in my contact list.
As a chemistry teacher at a private school, I panicked. Not only do I love my job, I need it.
Desperate and afraid, I run to the police station and ask an officer for help.
A very gorgeous, very arrogant officer, Dax Harder.
Dax is a mixture of a fearless warrior and an undisciplined child. After he proves to me that it’s a spam email and they didn’t actually hack into my computer, he uses the incident to tease me. I leave the police station in a huff hoping to never see Dax again.
Fate has other ideas.
Everywhere I go, I run into Officer Harder. Our tension turns into more and soon we’re embarking on a fiery and bold romance. The more time I spend with him, I learn there’s a dark past that lingers behind the eyes of the closely guarded cop.
And whatever it is, it’s enough for him to push me away.
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