THE GAMBLE by Kristen Ashley (May 27, 2014; Forever Mass Market)
Love is the greatest gamble of all . . .
Nina Sheridan desperately needs a timeout vacation. With a fiancé who can’t even remember how she takes her coffee, Nina wants some distance to rethink her engagement. Flying halfway around the world from England to a mountain town in Colorado should do the trick. But when she finds a gorgeous man at her rental cabin, Nina’s cold, lonely adventure suddenly heats up.
The owner of the house, Holden “Max” Maxwell is surprised by the beautiful woman who turns up at his door. But when Nina becomes ill, Max spends days nursing her back to health. A private man with a broken heart, Max finds himself drawn to the strong-willed woman. Soon it becomes impossible for Nina and Max to deny their growing attraction to one another. Yet even as these two wounded lovebirds think about taking a chance on a relationship, a dangerous secret from Max’s past emerges-and threatens to end their love for good.
About the author:
Kristen Ashley grew up in Brownsburg, Indiana, and has lived in Denver, Colorado, and the West Country of England. Thus she has been blessed to have friends and family around the globe. Her posse is loopy (to say the least) but loopy is good when you want to write. Kristen was raised in a house with a large and multigenerational family. They lived on a very small farm in a small town in the heartland, and Kristen grew up listening to the strains of Glenn Miller, The Everly Brothers, REO Speedwagon, and Whitesnake. Needless to say, growing up in a house full of music and love was a good way to grow up. And as she keeps growing up, it keeps getting better.
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I woke up, my eyes opening, and I registered immediately firstly, that it was the dead of night, dark with a hint of moonlight and secondly, that I was awake like I was ready to take on the day. This was likely because if I was at home I would already be up, taking on the day.
Then I registered that I didn’t have my head on a pillow. Against my cheek I could feel sleek skin and hard muscle. It hit me that I had my head on Max’s shoulder, my torso was part on him, part pressed to his side, my arm was resting across his belly and my knee was cocked, my thigh thrown over his. His arm was under me and up my back, his hand resting at my waist.
Oh my God.
I didn’t speculate about what he was doing there. I just thought about getting away.
I rolled to my back and then to my side, wondering if I could get my car keys out of his jeans and my suitcase to the car without waking him up.
I slid partly across the bed but I felt movement then a strong arm hooked around my belly. A soft, surprised gasp escaped from my mouth when I was hauled back. I hit the wall of his warm, hard frame and Max leaned his chest into me, cocking a knee, taking mine with it so his heavy thigh was resting against mine.
“Max,” I whispered.
“Max,” I whispered louder.
Then I felt his face in my hair and my body froze as his hand slid up my belly and his fingers curled around my breast.
I sucked in a breath and held myself still. He didn’t move or say anything more.
“Max,” I whispered, and his name was barely a murmur, as evidently my voice was frozen too.
Again, no answer except the heavy weight of him settled deeper in my back.
He was asleep but he hadn’t let go of my breast.
I could, and should, lurch out of his arms and escape him and his house, maybe throwing a tantrum between the former and the latter.
He had no business detaining me, keeping my car keys, bossing me around, crawling into bed with me while I slept, even if he had nursed me back to health and made me oatmeal.
But I’d never been held like this, not in my whole life, and I couldn’t ignore the fact that it felt good. So. Very. Good. To be held, in bed, in the arms of a tall, strong, handsome man.
And it was more than that. I tried not to think about it, to let it penetrate my brain but in Max’s bed, in his arms, I not only (obviously) wasn’t alone, I didn’t feel lonely. I felt warm, safe, protected with his big body cocooning mine.
And it felt good.
In fact, since I walked into his A frame, except for the time I spent in the backseat of the rental, I hadn’t felt lonely. Not in the times I woke up during my illness when Max was there or even when he wasn’t and knowing he was close. Not even yesterday when I was alone. It had been a long time since I felt that safe contentment of knowing my solitude would be fleeting, gone before the wretched loneliness settled back in.
And it was more than even that. His hand at my breast, his leg cocked into mine, it felt sexy and it made me feel sexy. I hadn’t felt that way in a while. A long while. Too long and I missed it.
Niles and I, when we first met, had a healthy relationship in every aspect. But once I said yes to marriage, for some reason that changed. The sex came less and less frequently until now it’d been months since we’d been intimate. More than a few months. In fact, way too many.
Niles and I didn’t live together. He liked his modern three-bedroom flat in Bristol with its view of the river. He could walk to work from there and practically anywhere else he needed to go.
My place was huge, way too much space for me but I liked my rambling, four-bedroom semi-detached mainly because it had been Charlie’s. But Niles couldn’t walk to work from my place. He’d have to take a bus, which he would never do. And taxis every day would cost a mint. Unlike me, Niles was a barrister and he made really good money, not to mention his family came from it. Still, a taxi every day was a bit much.
Charlie had bought the house for a song and started to fix it up and when he was gone, I’d made it my mission to finish his work and I did. I couldn’t let it go because it had been Charlie’s and because I’d put so much into it, but Niles had no interest in moving there.
We were at a stalemate. Niles telling me to put it on the market and move in with him. Me resisting. And while I was resisting, I buried the feeling of resentment that if Niles paid attention, if he listened, he’d know how much that house meant to me and I wouldn’t have to resist.
Furthermore, these days Niles and I rarely saw each other during the week. Maybe to have a drink, sometimes I’d go to his house and make dinner. But we spent most of our weekends together, usually me at his house again spending the night just sleeping.
But he didn’t hold me when we slept. We didn’t make love. He didn’t curl his fingers around my breast in the unconscious but still possessive way Max was doing at that very moment.
And even though I tried not to think about any of that, told myself to move, to get out of there, to get away from Max, that it was insane to lie in this man’s arms, I couldn’t do it.
Instead I lay in the dark, the moonlight bright and coming through the A frame window, held by Max and I decided to allow myself a moment of insanity.
He was asleep. He didn’t know what he was doing, what I was allowing him to do. I was fully awake. There was no way I’d get back to sleep. I’d slide away from him later, after I let myself have this. This haven of safety. This feeling of being desired, and if I pretended (which I decided to do), even cherished. This feeling of being anything but alone and the opposite of lonely.
I let my body relax and I snuggled deeper into Max. In response, his fingers automatically tightened on my breast and he settled further into me. My torso went into the bed, his hand pinned under me, his chest pressed into my back.
I closed my eyes. That felt even better.
I slid my hand along his steely arm, allowing myself another forbidden treat. Then I pushed my hand under my body, my fingers wrapping around his strong wrist and holding on.
I lay there a long time, probably hours, dozing sometimes, sometimes alert. When I was alert, I took that time to memorize the feel of what I had in that moment, over and over. Liking it enough to allow myself a bit more, just a bit. I’d move away later.
Dawn was just beginning to light the A frame when I fell into another doze that was more than a doze.
It was me falling fast asleep.
* * *
I woke, the sunlight bright against my eyelids and for a scant second I was confused.
Somewhere along the line I hadn’t only fallen asleep, Max and I had both moved back to our original position of him on his back, me partly sprawled on him.
I felt myself being moved and I kept my eyes closed at the feeling of it. With an exquisite gentleness the likes I’d never experienced before, he slid out from under me. Then he moved me so my head was on the pillow. I felt the covers pulled up over my shoulder and I listened to Max moving away.
For a moment I just allowed the fact to wash over me that big, solid, bossy, ungentlemanly Max could move me that way, touch me that way. Not only that he could but that he would and he did.
Then I listened to the noises in the bathroom, taps turning on and off. He came out and a drawer opened, then closed. I felt his presence leave the loft.
Then reality intruded.
Drat it all! I was such an idiot.
I heard soft noises from downstairs, the kitchen sink going on, then off. I threw back the covers and ran to the bathroom.
I used the facilities, brushed my teeth, flossed, washed my face, my mind blank except for the fact I was an idiot. I should have taken my opportunity at escape. Max was apparently a heavy sleeper. I could have gotten away.
I gathered all my stuff in the bathroom and went out to the loft, going straight to my suitcase. I dumped the stuff in willy-nilly, frantic, sorting through my clothes to pull together an Escape Max Outfit.
I was so focused on this I didn’t hear him hit the loft, and when his arm snaked around my waist, I jumped.
“Mornin’, Duchess,” he said into my hair when my back hit his front.
I went stiff and started, “Max—”
“Coffee,” he interrupted me.
“Max—” I began again, pulling at his arm and he let me go.
I took a step to the side, turning to him, opening my mouth to tell him exactly what was on my mind (though I didn’t know what that would be since nothing, at that moment, was on my mind) but he caught my hand. When I pulled back and took a step away, to my shock he twirled me, his arm lifting mine
over my head like we were on a dance floor. He stopped me with my back to him and curled his arm around my belly, my back to his chest and he turned me toward the stairs.
“Coffee,” he repeated, forcing me with his body to walk forward while I was still held in his arm.
He was stronger than me and way bigger, so instead of pulling away, I focused on a fight maybe I could win.
“You slept with me,” I accused.
“Yep,” he replied casually.
“Yes, he replied casuallyj. I’d known him essentially a day!
“You crawled in bed with me when I was asleep.”
“Yep,” he said again, and we hit the stairs. He let me go but put his hands firm to my waist and propelled me down.
“Max!” I snapped.
“Coffee,” he said yet again.
His hand was now between my shoulder blades and he wasn’t stopping. I was forced to descend the staircase with him behind me or be shoved down them.
Seriously, he was so annoying!
“I’d like to put on some clothes,” I snapped.
“You’ve got on some clothes.”
“I have on a nightgown. ”
“It’s a nightgown,” I said, hitting the foot of the stairs and whirling on him.
He grabbed my hand and headed toward the kitchen. I pulled back but he was stronger than me and he was apparently on a coffee mission.
He yanked me into the kitchen close to the coffeepot, which was filling, turned, and tugged at my arm so I was close. His hand dropped mine but his arm went around my waist, pulling my lower body into close proximity with his.
I looked up at him, opened my mouth, ready to let him have it, but he got there first.
“Oatmeal with one sugar or satisfy your hankerin’ for some toast with grape jelly?”
I pulled in so much breath I felt my chest expand with it, filling me up, warm and sweet.
Men didn’t remember things like you saying you missed grape jelly. Not if you just muttered it in passing. Charlie would remember that but he wasn’t just any man. He was Charlie. There’d never been anyone like him.
Niles didn’t remember things like that. In fact, the incident that drove me to deciding to take this Colorado adventure time-out was when I had trouble sleeping one night, dragged myself exhausted to his kitchen the next morning, and Niles, in an unusual mood, offered to pour me a cup of coffee. When I’d gratefully accepted, Niles asked me how I took it.
Since I’d known Niles for two years, had woken up in his house so often there was no way to count, been to breakfast with him, dinner, to his parents’ house for lunch and dinner and he didn’t know how I took my coffee, didn’t pay even that amount of attention to me, it hit me I needed to think about our situation and I needed to do it fast.
“Duchess?” Max called, and I blinked at him, fighting back that warmth in my chest.
“Toast and jelly,” I whispered.
“Gotcha,” he said, letting me go but his hand came up, his fingers gliding along my jaw in a touch that was there, then gone physically. But the feeling of it remained. It tingled and it tingled in a nice way.