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A steamy, full-length, standalone romance with a guaranteed HEA from Bestselling author J.h. Croix! If you like smoking hot romance with alpha men and strong women, you’ll love this series!Welcome to the bestselling Last Frontier Lodge series – a sexy and steamy contemporary romance series set against the wilderness and beauty of small-town Alaska!Ginger Sanders believes in love and happily-ever-after for everyone. Except her. At thirty, she’s already been married and divorced. She’s bright, brash, beautiful, and very practical. So practical that she’s boxed her broken heart up and put it away for safekeeping after her young marriage fell apart and shattered her belief that love was possible for her. Busy making sure all of her friends find love, she’s completely thrown off guard when she falls at the feet of a ski god—literally.Cam Nash is the ski god in question—a man of near physical perfection and sexy enough to melt the snow on every mountain nearby. Cam took a job at Last Frontier Lodge in the wilds of Alaska to escape the painful memories of his brother’s death. Skiing has always helped clear his mind, so he’s hoping he can ski enough to forget. The last thing on his mind is a relationship of any kind. Until Ginger takes a tumble in the snow and lands at his feet. Her spark burns so bright, he can’t look away.Two people who aren’t looking for love find themselves falling fast and hard. Passion fans the flames hotter and hotter, while Ginger and Cam stumble in the face of their feelings. Can Ginger believe in possibilities again? Can Cam allow himself to find happiness?*All novels in this series are full-length standalone novels with an HEA.
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Excerpt: Stay With Me by J.H. Croix; all rights reserved
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 J.H. Croix
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ISBN 13: 9781530652242
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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The snow swirled around Ginger Sanders as she raced toward the bottom of the ski slope. A bird flitting through the trees caught her eye and next thing she knew, one of her skis caught on its edge and she lost her balance. For another few seconds, she thought she could stay upright. She managed to slow down as she wobbled. Then, she happened to glance up and see the sexiest man she’d ever laid eyes on a few feet in front of her. Any balance she thought she had was promptly lost. She skidded sideways and landed with a hard thump, coming to a stop beside the skis belonging to the man in question. Her gaze traveled up, up and up until she found herself staring at sex-on-skis.
The ski god looked down at her. Amber eyes with thick lashes met hers. His hair almost matched his eyes, brown gilded with gold. His features were elegant and strong at once, angled cheekbones, a blade of a nose, and a full, sensual mouth. The man’s body was well defined under his fitted, high-performance gear—all muscle and nothing else. As the man knelt down to check on her, Ginger was struck speechless. She’d like to have blamed her tumble in the snow, but truly it was just this man. He sent her brain and her body into a tailspin. She was almost dizzy just looking at him. Which was not good, not good at all. Where the hell did he come from? She’d never laid eyes on him, and she knew most everyone in Diamond Creek, Alaska. He must be a tourist visiting Last Frontier Lodge.
She took a breath and pointlessly ran a hand through her hair as if she could somehow straighten the wild locks damp with snow. The ski god’s face came close to hers when he was at her level. Her breath hitched and her pulse took off at a gallop.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Several beats of silence passed while she simply stared at him. Her cheeks heated when she realized she hadn’t managed to answer him. “Um…yeah. I think so.” Her words came out in a rapid jumble, the few she’d managed to string together.
The man glanced at her skis, which were resting at an awkward angle in the snow. She moved her legs slightly. Aside from her hip throbbing from where she’d landed on it, she felt okay, although her legs weren’t too comfortable with the skis stuck to them.
“Let’s get you out of these skis, so you can get your feet under you.”
Before she could think, much less form another word, sex-on-skis quickly adjusted her skis and unfastened the bindings. He even carefully slid her skis off. He was not only sexy as hell, but quite helpful—a rather dangerous combination. Still kneeling, he caught her eyes again. “Now that you can move, how are you?”
Ginger stretched her legs out and wiggled them. The cold snow underneath her was starting to seep through her fleece leggings. She looked up into those amber eyes, trying to ignore the electricity zipping through her, and nodded. “I’m, uh… I’m fine.”
He held his hand out. Normally, she would have ignored it and clambered up herself, but this man seemed to have practically hypnotized her. His large hand curled around hers and steadily pulled her up. When she was on her feet, she looked up again and tried to gather herself. She couldn’t keep acting like a fool who could barely talk.
She was dying to know who this man was, but she was so flustered, she couldn’t seem to say anything else.
His amber eyes held a subtle gleam as he watched her. He reached an arm over and brushed snow off of her shoulders. “You have, uh, a bit of snow on your back,” he said, gesturing to her back.
“Oh, oh, right.” She pulled her gloves off and shook her coat. As she tried to reach around, she realized she had snow pretty much everywhere, including all over her bottom. She brushed it off and stomped her feet. When she looked up again, she could feel the flush racing up her neck and face. Every look in his eyes flustered her even more.
Shit. Don’t blush like an idiot. What the hell is wrong with you? You don’t notice men. They are in the no-zone. Get a grip and act normal.
As she was frantically trying to herd her scattered thoughts, Gage Hamilton, her best friend’s husband and the owner of Last Frontier Lodge came skiing over to her side. He stopped and looked down, his gray eyes warm and concerned. “You okay? Saw you fall there.”
Gage’s question nudged her out of her trance, a thread of irritation rising. She hated having anyone concerned about her. “I’m fine,” she said archly.
Gage’s eyes crinkled with his smile. He glanced to the man whose feet she’d landed by. “How’s it going, Cam? Getting a feel for the trails yet?”
So the ski god had a name. Cam. Ginger wondered how Gage knew Cam.
Cam nodded. “It’s going great. I’ve had a chance to ski every downhill trail so far. I was thinking of switching to my telemark skis and heading out on the backcountry trails this afternoon.”
Gage grinned. “Perfect. We’ve got a good mix of trails out there. You’ll find some easy cross country trails and a few challenging ones where you’ll need those telemark skis.” Gage glanced to Ginger. “I know you fell at Cam’s feet, but did you get a chance to meet him?” Gage asked with a wink and a sly smile.
Her cheeks flamed again, but she managed to roll her eyes. Cam might fluster her, but she could handle Gage. “We haven’t had much time to talk,” she replied, biting back a huff.
Cam looked from Gage to her, meeting her eyes straight on. “Cam Nash,” he said with a nod.
If Ginger didn’t know better, she’d seriously think Cam had special powers. Whenever he looked directly at her with those warm amber eyes, her belly fluttered and a soft buzz of electricity swirled between them. She suddenly realized she was just standing there with Gage and Cam looking at her expectantly. Right, it was her turn to actually speak, something she usually had no trouble with. She was a speech therapist for crying out loud. An undergraduate degree and two graduate degrees had given her absolutely no training on what to do when a man robbed you of the capacity to speak by his mere presence. Once again, she gathered herself and called upon her manners.
“N-n-nice to meet you. I’m Ginger Sanders. Are you here for a visit?” She managed to sound only slightly flustered once she got past the first word.
Cam shrugged. “Not exactly. I took a job here for the winter.”
Gage nodded enthusiastically. “Cam is a world class skier and backcountry guide. Can’t believe we lucked out and signed him on for the season. He’s getting our ski school up and running and will hopefully help me expand our backcountry trails.”
Oh. Dear. God. Cam would be here all the time. She’d hoped this was a passing encounter with a sexy tourist who she might see once or twice more. But no, he’d be here all the time. Maybe this was just a weird thing from her fall. She’d be fine in a few minutes. She’d better be. She was at Last Frontier Lodge all the time. Gage’s wife, Marley, was her best friend, and the lodge had become one of the hottest local spots in town since it reopened. She couldn’t be mooning about over Cam. She wouldn’t. With her pulse running wild and butterflies twirling in her belly, she managed to smile politely.
“That’s great! You’ll love it here.”
A whole two sentences and she ran out of words. Under usual circumstances, she would’ve happily stood with Cam and Gage and chatted about Diamond Creek, how awesome it was to have Last Frontier Lodge up and running again, and so on and so forth. Instead, she glanced around quickly for her skis, only to find them held in Cam’s hand. “I, uh, should get going.”
She reached for her skis, promptly knocking one loose from Cam’s grip. He caught it easily. “I can carry these back if you need,” he offered.
“No thanks, I got it.” Her words came out rapidly. She practically snatched the skis from his hands and ran up to the sprawling back deck of the lodge. She must have looked like an idiot running in her heavy ski boots, but she didn’t give a damn. She was all kinds of rattled by Cam Nash and needed a few minutes to pull herself together.
She put her skis away in the small shed Gage set aside for friends and family and made her way into the lodge. She shook her jacket off and looped it over her arm as she walked into the kitchen. Her friend, Delia Hamilton, was in the middle of kneading dough. Delia was married to Gage’s brother, Garrett, who’d fallen head over heels in love with her when he came to Alaska for a visit. Ginger caught her eyes. “Okay if I use your bathroom?”
Delia nodded. “Of course!”
Ginger walked into Delia’s office. Delia managed the kitchen and reception staff for the ski lodge, so she had one of the few private spaces downstairs in the lodge. Ginger stepped into the small bathroom and closed the door behind her. Leaning her hands on the edge of the counter, she stared in the mirror. Her shiny brown hair was a wild mess. She carefully brushed her fingers through it in a vain attempt to straighten it out. She took a deep breath, turned on the faucet and splashed cold water on her face in the hopes she could ease the heat suffusing her. By the mere age of twenty-eight, she’d been married and divorced. Her divorce had been full of ugly secrets spilling out, mostly the long list of acquaintances her ex had screwed around with. She’d thought she was good and done with men after that. Cam Nash had gone and proved her wrong, and he didn’t even know it.
She’d committed herself to a life of freedom from men. Oh, she believed in love and happily-ever-after. Just not for her. It had all been going swimmingly. Two years had passed since her divorce and not once had it occurred to her she might meet someone who challenged her resolve. She’d found it quite easy to avoid men. No one she encountered appealed to her in the slightest. It wasn’t because there weren’t attractive men around. She lived in Alaska, which was filled to the brim with rugged, sexy men. So many, they had a damn calendar for them. She figured she’d developed a convenient immunity. Until Cam. Even now, a full five minutes away from his presence, her skin was still flushed and her belly fluttered at the thought of his amber eyes.
Cam watched Ginger Sanders run off, her brown hair swinging about her shoulders. He glanced back at Gage. “Well, I guess she was in a hurry.”
Gage looked puzzled, but he shrugged. “Guess so. Ginger’s a good friend. You’ll see her around a lot. Aside from the fact she’s Marley’s best friend, she’s probably our best source of local advertising around.”
Cam was only just now getting a handle on himself. When Ginger had come skidding to a stop by his feet, he’d looked down into the most beautiful pair of blue eyes he’d ever seen—a bright, almost translucent shade of blue. Those eyes paired with her glossy brown hair and fair skin, she simply took his breath away. She had an understated quality to her beauty. There she sat, covered in snow, and he could hardly stop looking at her.
He shook his head, forcing his attention back to the moment. He’d best get used to seeing Ginger because it sounded like he’d be seeing a lot of her. If there was one thing he couldn’t manage right now, it was anything to do with romance and women. He looked back at Gage.
“Well, no wonder you’re so busy. Most lodges like this don’t have so many locals. Not only is the hotel booked, but the slopes are twice as busy with the local skiers. If Ginger’s responsible for your local advertising, she’s damn good at it.”
Gage threw his head back with a laugh. “I’ll have to tell her you said that.” He sobered and looked up the slope Cam had just skied down. “Did you find the trail leading off to the side up there?”
“Yup. It’s behind the small cabin up there, right?”
Gage nodded. “That’ll take you through the trees and onto the trails for back country and cross country skiing. So far, I’ve got about twenty miles of trails, but I’d like to double that. The trees are thin enough, so we don’t need to do much cutting. We should be able to work around the natural lay of the land. Take a look and let me know what you think.”
“That was my plan. I’ll head up there now as soon as I switch out my skis.”
At that, he and Gage pushed off on their skis simultaneously. He followed Gage up onto the back deck of the lodge. While Gage went inside, Cam quickly swapped his downhill skis for his more versatile telemark skis and headed back out. Telemark skis were designed for variation. They could handle downhill and cross-country and had enough flex to tolerate rougher trails if needed. As he rode up the lift, he realized the lodge could charge for the view from the lift ride alone. Diamond Creek, Alaska lay on the shores of Kachemak Bay with mountains rising tall behind it and on the far side of the bay. The ski lift offered an elevated view. The pristine waters of the bay sparkled under the early afternoon sunlight. The spruce forest scattered over the mountains was lush and deep green, the snow standing out in contrast.
Cam pushed off the ski lift when it reached its stop and skied onto the start of an interconnected map of backcountry trails. As he skied through the quiet forest, he breathed in the crisp mountain air. The air here held the subtlest hint of ocean. In all his years of skiing, he’d always skied in landlocked areas, so it was a new experience to be high in the mountains and see and smell the ocean. His mind was quietest when he skied, which is what brought him here to this remote corner of the world.
Skiing had been the center of his world for most of his life. He’d been born and raised in the mountains of Utah and skied throughout childhood, chasing his older brother, Eric. Two years older than Cam, Eric had been Cam’s idol. They’d skied together and competed, taking turns winning. Their rivalry had been good-natured, though Eric took competition more seriously than Cam. One night, after Cam unexpectedly won a race, Eric had been sullen and silent on the drive home. When Cam asked him what was wrong, Eric glanced over right as a truck came around the corner on the icy road. In a split second, the car clipped the corner of the truck and skidded, colliding with the guardrail and bouncing over. Eric hadn’t worn his seatbelt and was thrown from the car. He died on impact.
Cam, on the other hand, had worn his seat belt. He’d sustained some nasty bruises, a jagged cut on his cheek, and a fractured arm. Since the day he walked out of the hospital, he could hardly breathe for the grief at times. He’d tried to make a go of it in Utah, but it was filled with one too many painful memories. He couldn’t stop skiing because it was the only thing that brought him a modicum of peace, so he’d been drifting from ski lodge to ski lodge, following the jobs. When he’d seen the ad for Last Frontier Lodge, he figured it was perfect. It was one of the few ski lodges he and Eric had never visited. They likely would have had it been opened during their heyday, but it had been shuttered for almost two decades until Gage reopened it.
Cam stopped along the trail at an overlook. A small valley opened up beside the trail with a stream winding through it. It was frozen in the deep of winter, but the sun struck sparks off the ice. A pair of moose stood on the far side of the field, lazily nibbling on a cluster of trees. He lifted his eyes up beyond the field. The bay spread out before him in the distance with another mountain range rising tall on the other side. If he didn’t know there was a ski lodge nearby and a town at the foot of these mountains, he could convince himself he was in the middle of nowhere. He took a gulp of the bracing air and tried to push the pain of Eric’s death out of his mind. In his effort to think of anything else, his mind flashed to Ginger. Simply picturing her chased thoughts of Eric out of his mind. He couldn’t say why, but he couldn’t forget her eyes, so bright and with a flicker of vulnerability that called to him.
A few hours later, Cam walked downstairs through the hall toward the lodge restaurant after a shower. He was good and tired from skiing almost all day and starving as a result. As he walked, he was staring at the floor, idly following the pattern of the carpet, when he collided with someone. He looked up, straight into Ginger’s eyes. She wasn’t wearing ski clothes that obscured her figure anymore. Oh no. She wore a pair of pants that hugged her full hips and swirled around her ankles, and a blouse that was fitted at the top and with a scoop neck. The curves of her full breasts rose above her blouse. As his eyes made their way up, he could see her pulse fluttering in her neck. Oh damn. Damn. One look, and she grabbed hold and sent lust surging through him.
He literally had to force his eyes up, only to have them land on her lips, which were plump and full. Her bright blue eyes held a sharp gleam. She had an edge to her he hadn’t noticed before.
“Well, hello Cam. Fancy meeting you here. Are you heading in for dinner?”
Cam found himself nodding though he couldn’t seem to speak.
“How about you join me and Marley?” she asked. “I figure since you’re here for a while, we might as well be friends.”
Ginger slammed her car door behind her and hurried through the icy air into the post office. Today was one of those bitter cold days. For the most part, she enjoyed winter with its snowy landscape and the sheer beauty of the snow-capped mountains. Everything felt sharper, brighter and so fleeting with the abbreviated days of winter. Living in Alaska, it was a damn good thing to enjoy winter. But the days she didn’t enjoy were like today. A cold, biting wind blew steadily. The sun, so precious in winter when every second of daylight counted, was hiding behind a wall of heavy gray clouds. No snow fell, so everything felt gray and frozen. She couldn’t ever seem to get warm on days like this no matter how many layers she wrapped around herself. The warm blast of air that hit her when she pushed through the door into the post office was a heavenly relief.
The post office was a central place in Diamond Creek. In the far flung towns of Alaska, post offices were relied on much more heavily than in more urban areas. Many Alaskans conducted the majority of their shopping via mail. Ginger glanced around, her eyes coasting across many familiar faces. She was so chilled, she wouldn’t have minded if she needed to wait in the slow-moving line at the counter. She tugged her gloves off and loosened her scarf as she made her way to the aisle that held her post office box. It had been a few too many days since she’d checked her mail, so the box was stuffed. After yanking the pile of mostly junk mail out, she stationed herself at a table by the windows and made her way through the stack, tossing most of it in the recycling bin under the table.
She glanced out the window and saw Cam Nash walking across the parking lot. He was like a magnet for her eyes. The second he appeared, her eyes tracked him across the parking lot. He was distractingly handsome, which flustered her. She’d believed herself immune from any man. After she fell at his feet the other day, she’d determined she’d play it cool and move right past the silly attraction she felt. With him working at Last Frontier Lodge, she knew she needed to get a grip because she was going to end up seeing him a lot. With that in mind, when she’d seen him walking toward the restaurant, she’d called upon her usual bold self and invited him to eat dinner with her and Marley. She’d hoped the whole ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ would hold her in good stead. She’d fake calm, cool, and collected around him and it would be so.
No such luck. With Cam sitting across from her and her best friend, she’d been distracted and flushed the entire time. Marley looked askance at her a few times, but there were enough interruptions from other friends and customers, Ginger had managed to avoid any questions from Marley and excused herself early. Now, she watched him shoulder through the door and pause to hold it for another person coming in behind him. The wind swirled through the door as it closed, sending the remainder of her mail in a spin with a few pieces of mail blowing on the floor. Relieved for the distraction from staring at Cam, since she could barely keep her eyes off of him, she bent over to collect the scattered mail.
A pair of boots came into sight. She glanced up to find Cam looking down at her. Her pulse immediately took off. She felt a literal pull inside—physical and emotional—and it unsettled her. She didn’t like how easily he affected her. She gathered the last few envelopes and stood quickly.
His amber eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. “I thought that was you. Didn’t mean to send your mail flying. It’s pretty windy out there. How’s it going?” he asked.
Trying and completely failing to slow her pulse, Ginger stared at Cam. His golden brown hair was windblown. He wore a pair of faded jeans topped with a cotton jersey shirt and heavy down jacket, which he’d left unzipped. Inconveniently, this made it possible for her eyes to trace the sculpted muscles of his chest and abdomen visible under his shirt. As her eyes, over which she’d lost all voluntary control, made their way up to his face, her belly somersaulted when she caught his warm amber gaze. Now would be the time where you say hello. You remember how to do that, right? Oh shut up. She snipped back at her critical voice and took a breath.
“It’s going fine. Are you getting settled in at the lodge?”
Cam nodded. “Yeah, pretty much. Gage gave me a nice suite, so I’ve got everything I need. I haven’t been here long, but honestly, it’s one of the best places I’ve worked so far. Gage is great, and the lodge and trails are amazing. I’m finally venturing around town some. Diamond Creek is small, but it’s got some high-end restaurants and shopping. It’s also flat out beautiful. I love the mountains and the ocean, so being in a place where I get to enjoy both is unbelievable.”
She felt a curl of pride. Born and raised in Diamond Creek, there had been times when she’d chafed at growing up in a tiny town on the wild coast of Alaska. A few years away in college and she’d learned Diamond Creek had a lot to offer, in addition to having a tight-knit, supportive community. Cam also put the conversation on a topic she could talk about easily, even with her pulse pounding wildly and heat sliding through her veins.
“Diamond Creek may be small, but we get a lot of tourists, so most of the restaurants and shops cater to them. It’s hard to beat the views around here. Up at the lodge, you’ve got some of the best views around.”
“Oh yeah. I was telling Gage he could charge for the lift rides if he wanted,” Cam offered with a soft chuckle. “Haven’t seen you skiing since the other day. Planning on coming up again soon?”
Ginger obviously couldn’t tell him the sole reason she hadn’t been skiing since last week when she fell at his feet was because he flustered her so much she couldn’t think straight. She was usually up there several times a week skiing with Marley or other friends. She was about out of excuses, so she clung to the idea if she just kept ignoring this incredibly inconvenient attraction to Cam, it would go away. “It’s been a busy week. I usually head up on the weekends though, so I’ll probably be up there tomorrow.”
The door pushed open again with another swirl of wind blowing through the entrance area. Marley Hamilton’s auburn hair was impossible to miss when pushed her hood back and glanced around. As soon as her eyes landed on Ginger, a smile spread across her face. She strode to them and threw her arm over Ginger’s shoulder. “Hey! I was just saying to Gage I hadn’t seen you in a few days. How come you haven’t been by?”
Ginger’s cheeks got hot, but she forced herself to keep her expression calm. “I’ll probably be up tomorrow. It’s been a crazy week at work.”
Marley nodded and turned to Cam. “Did you stop by Misty Mountain like I suggested?”
“Of course. Their coffee was as good as you promised,” he replied with a smile.
Marley’s green eyes bounced between them. “I told Cam he needs to get out and about. He’s hardly left the lodge since he got here two weeks ago. I told him he needed to check out Misty Mountain Café, The Boathouse, Sally’s, Glacier Pizza…”
Cam’s eyes landed on Ginger again, and Marley’s voice faded as she rattled off various local favorites. Ginger could have sworn he noticed she was about to melt. Between her pulse galloping beyond her control and the liquid heat building inside of her every time he looked her way, she was feeling ridiculous. Marley finally stopped talking and glanced between them. “Did you hear anything I just said?” she asked, directing her question to Ginger.
Ginger scrambled to pull her thoughts together and form words. “Of course I did! You were telling Cam all the places you said he should check out.” She mentally breathed a sigh of relief when Marley nodded and turned to Cam again.
“So, Gage said you guys are going to get started on the back country trails. Any idea how many trails you think you can get cleared for grooming this season? Ginger and I used to go cross-country skiing all the time when we were kids, but now we have to drive clear across town to the local park if we want to go.”
“I’ve scouted out the area and marked some trails already. He’s ordered a tracksetter and…”
“What’s a tracksetter?” Marley interjected.
“It’s what will actually smooth down and groom the trails once we clear them. It’s a contraption that hitches onto the back of a snowmobile. We’ll ride along the trails with it to keep the snow packed and smooth. Depending on how many people start skiing on them, we’ll see how often we need to use it. At least once or twice a week at a minimum.”
Ginger couldn’t believe it, but all she wanted to do was listen to Cam talk. His voice was warm with a gruff edge. It sent hot shivers coursing through her. You are seriously out of your mind. You are so into this man you just want him to talk. What the hell is wrong with you? We had a deal. No more men. It’s been easy peasy for a few years now. Cam is just new and exciting. Ginger lost track of what Marley was saying and only heard the slow rumble of Cam’s voice while the content of his words was entirely lost on her.
Marley nudged her shoulder. “Yoo hoo?”
Ginger whipped her eyes away from Cam and to Marley. “Huh?”
“Wow, you are seriously spaced out.”
Ginger’s cheeks heated again, and she forced herself to take a deep breath. She couldn’t seem to be anywhere near Cam without embarrassing herself. “Right. Sorry. Just tired.”
“I should get going anyway. I’ll check my mail and be on my way,” Cam said to both of them.
“I’m sure I’ll see you back at the lodge,” Marley said with a quick smile.
“I’m sure you will.” His eyes canted to Ginger. “Hope to see you skiing again soon,” he offered with a half-smile before he turned away.
Ginger fumbled for the stack of mail she’d set on the table. Someone else passed by and greeted Marley, which gave Ginger a few moments to gather her wits. She watched Cam reappear at the end of an aisle with his mail before he pushed through the door outside. The icy blast of air that swirled around soothed the heat coursing through her.
Marley leaned her elbow on the table and looked at Ginger. “Okay, what’s up with you?” she asked.
Marley was Ginger’s oldest friend. They’d grown up together in Diamond Creek and been there for each other through everything. Even when Marley moved away to Seattle, their friendship stayed tight. When Ginger’s marriage fell apart, Marley had called her every day for weeks and had flown up from Seattle to stay with her for a bit. When Marley’s life skidded sideways after she was robbed in Seattle, Ginger had been the first person she called. Ginger couldn’t imagine life without Marley and loved her as family. The one and only downside to having a friend as close and supportive as Marley was she was damn perceptive.
Ginger was relieved Cam had left because her body was behaving normally again. Her pulse had finally slowed, and the fluttery feeling inside was subsiding. She took a breath. “What do you mean?” She tried to hedge, hoping Marley would leave it alone.
Marley’s green eyes narrowed. “Uh, let’s see. You hardly spoke the whole time Cam was standing here, and you kept staring at him. If I had to guess, I’d say you might have a thing for him.” A grin spread slowly across Marley’s face.
Ginger felt her cheeks heat again. She put her face in her hands and sighed. “I do not have a thing for him, but he might be kind of cute.” She dropped her hands and fiddled with the mail, riffling through the envelopes and tossing a few more pieces of junk mail in the recycling bin. She glanced up at Marley again who was still grinning.
“He’s a lot more than cute. You should hear the girls in housekeeping and the restaurant babbling about him.” As Marley looked over at Ginger, her grin faded. “Hey, I’m just teasing. It’s okay to notice a man, you know.”
Ginger’s chest tightened, a wash of vulnerability followed by anger knotting inside. She hated feeling vulnerable like this, at the mercy of the whims of desire. She prided herself on being in control and together. A few minutes in Cam’s presence revealed the fault lines in her resolve. “I know, but it’s not worth it.”
Marley was quiet for a long moment. “Okay, we’re grabbing dinner at Sally’s. Give me a sec.” She whirled away and jogged down another aisle, returning quickly with a handful of mail. She looped her hand through Ginger’s elbow. “Come on. You don’t get to say no. We haven’t had dinner, just you and me, in weeks.”
Ginger didn’t hesitate. She didn’t want to talk about Cam, but she could use some advice. Because really, it wasn’t Cam. It was all the baggage she was carting around that had everything to do with men and romance. She’d braved her way through her divorce and somehow cobbled together her pride after it was over. So much of her pride relied on her confidence that she wouldn’t let herself be vulnerable again. Her attraction to Cam, so powerful and so fast, was testing her confidence. The fear she’d walled inside her heart was seeping out because those walls weren’t as strong as she’d believed.
Marley tugged Ginger through the icy wind and into her car. Moments later, they were walking through the door in Sally’s. Sally’s was a fixture in Diamond Creek. It was a restaurant and bar housed in an old refurbished barn. The kitchen was in the center with one side holding the bar with a stage for music and performances. The other side held the restaurant with tables filling the center and booths lining the walls. The old hayloft held additional seating that wrapped around the upstairs. Ginger and Marley had spent so much time here over the years, a sense of comfort washed over her simply walking inside.
They snagged the only available booth. After a waitress took their order, Marley leaned back and eyed Ginger. “Are you okay?” she asked softly.
Ginger busied herself unrolling the napkin around the silverware. She looked across the table at Marley and took a breath. “I’m fine. As you noticed, I, uh, kind of noticed Cam is, well, Cam.” She couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled up.
Marley’s laugh rang out with hers. “Cam is most definitely Cam. He might not do much for me, but I’m not blind.”
Ginger rolled her eyes. “It’s amazing you see anyone other than Gage. It’s been over a year and you two are still like new lovebirds.”
This time, Marley flushed. “Maybe so. Don’t forget you practically pushed me into his arms.”
Ginger shrugged. “Maybe I did. It was obvious you two were meant for each other.”
Marley nodded as her eyes sobered. “So back to Cam.”
“Right. Since you already noticed, I might think he’s pretty hot. Problem is, that’s not supposed to happen.”
Marley’s brows hitched up, her eyes puzzled. Their waitress arrived and quickly placed a beer for Ginger and water for Marley on the table before she turned away to serve the next booth. Ginger took a swallow from her beer and leaned back with a sigh. Marley followed her movements minus the sigh. “Gotta say, I cannot wait to be able to have alcohol again,” she said as she rubbed her round belly. Marley and Gage were expecting a little girl due in roughly a month.
“Not much longer. How’re you feeling? You hardly ever complain.”
“Honestly, it’s been pretty okay until a few weeks after Christmas. Since then, I just feel gigantic.” She shook her head and shrugged. “Anyway, back to you. What do you mean it’s not supposed to happen?”
Ginger took another gulp from her beer and mentally pushed back against the old feeling of vulnerability. She thought she was past this. Her grand plan to never be attracted to another man had been working out great. She’d convinced herself she was immune, and then Cam had to come along and blow her confidence out of the water.
“After everything went down with Tony, I decided it would be best if I just didn’t get involved with anyone ever again. It’s not worth it, not for me. It’s been a piece of cake. I mean, Alaska is overrun with men. Maybe half of them are a little too rough for wear, but there are plenty of hot guys around between the outdoorsy types, the skiers, the hunters and what-not. Not a single man has even made me think about sex, so I thought it would be easy.”
Marley leaned forward, shaking her head. “Wait, you’re saying you seriously thought you’d go through the rest of your life and never be attracted to anyone? Ever?”
Ginger flushed. Hearing Marley say it aloud made it sound ridiculous. Yet, Ginger had thought it reasonable, especially since it seemed to be working. She’d decided she wouldn’t bother with relationships and since no one, absolutely no one, drew the slightest bit of response from her, she figured she had it made. She wouldn’t need to worry about falling for the wrong guy and looking like a fool later.
“Yes. I seriously thought it just wouldn’t happen. I know it sounds crazy…”
Marley nodded vigorously.
“Maybe it was crazy, but I don’t want to go through what I went through with Tony. It sucked. You have no idea how stupid I felt.”
Marley nodded. “I know it was awful. Noticing Cam doesn’t have to be anything more than that, you know.”
Ginger shrugged. “I know. It just brings up all kinds of crap that I didn’t want to ever deal with again.”
Their waitress arrived with their meals. Ginger nibbled on a few fries, while Marley took a bite of her burger. A few moments later, Marley looked over again. “Okay, how about you take a step back? Cam is damn easy on the eyes, and you and probably every woman who meets him notices that. There’s no need to get all worked up.”
Ginger took a bite of her burger, considering Marley’s words as she chewed. She liked thinking about Cam that way. So she thought he was hot? She was probably just freaking out over nothing. She nodded. “Right. That’s all it is. I’m just half-whacked when it comes to men.”
Marley shook her head. “No you’re not. Tony was a total ass to you. I’d have felt like a fool if I were you. Not that you should have, but that’s how it goes. Trust me, everyone looking in from the outside saw it for exactly what it was. Tony treated an amazing woman like shit,” Marley said emphatically. She paused for a sip of water. “You’re not freaking out over Cam, you’re freaking out over what he represents. Face it, it was silly to think you’d never be attracted to anyone again. Maybe it’s good Cam came along. You’ll realize it’s not the end of the world.” Her eyes softened and she set her burger down. “How about next time you come up with a half-baked plan like that you tell me about it sooner, so I can point out how ridiculous it is?”
Ginger finished the last bite of her burger and sighed. “Because saying it out loud made it seem insane.”
Marley chuckled. “Plus, you’re all over making sure the rest of us find our soul mates.”
Ginger grinned. “I believe in love. I just figured I’d already had my shot.”
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