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!Love Untamed is a sexy, charming and charged love story set against the wilderness and beauty of small-town Alaska. What happens when two people who are committed to staying single can’t keep their hands off of each other? Susie Hammond is a romantic at heart and a meddling matchmaker to her friends. She had a near tragedy that shattered her trust in men a few years ago. While she wants love for everyone, guarding her own heart is more important than finding love for herself. Susie is beautiful, strong, independent, brash, funny…and most definitely not interested in Jared Winters.Jared occupies the fantasies of many women in Diamond Creek and afar. He’s sexy, strong, enigmatic, and unattainable. His life is neat and tidy, organized down to the minute. Being a bachelor is simpler than dealing with the messy complications of a relationship. Susie is a hurricane force and a source of mischief and mayhem…most definitely not a temptation for Jared. Jared is just a tad too cool and collected for Susie. They drive each other crazy—in more ways than one.For years, the spark between them has been on slow burn. When it finally ignites, passion and emotions explode. One scorching hot kiss leads to another and another and then some. As long as they’re not talking, their relationship is phenomenal. Events force them to face themselves and each other. Can Susie find a way to trust again? Can Jared let go enough to show her he’s worth trusting?*All novels in this series are full-length standalone novels with an HEA.
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Excerpt: Tumble Into Love 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 © 2015 J.H. Croix
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ISBN 13: 9781514764794
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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To my readers for such phenomenal support and for making this journey more fun that I could have imagined! And always…my husband for supporting the work of my dreams.
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The rain came down so hard, the windshield wipers could barely keep pace. Susie Hammond glanced over at Jared who sat silently in the passenger seat. He was soaked through and yet managed to somehow seem unperturbed. Her emotions on the other hand were in turmoil. She tried to tamp them down, but waves of anxiety, fear—and inconvenient desire—crashed inside. Jared had been quiet since they’d dropped off Tess and Nathan at Tess’s hotel.
She thought back to when Hannah called her early this evening and broke the news that Jared, Luke and Nathan hadn’t been heard from and were overdue at the harbor for their return from a routine fishing trip. She’d looked outside and her heart had stuttered. Kachemak Bay was barely visible in the heavy rain that fell and the mountains were invisible. Wind blew in window rattling gusts. Storms off the coast of Alaska could be vicious and made more so by the unforgiving conditions. On a perfectly calm day in the summer, the chances of survival in the ocean were slim without quick rescue.
Susie had done what she always did—tucked her worry away and went into action. Jared, Luke and Nathan Winters were three brothers who ran a guiding business in Diamond Creek, Alaska. Luke was married to her friend Hannah, while Nathan was dating her other friend Tess. As she’d sat waiting with her friends, Hannah, Emma and Tess, Susie’s mind kept turning to Jared. Against every shred of sanity she had, there was an undeniable draw to him and it drove her batty. Jared was exactly the kind of man who would push her over the edge—detail oriented, always together, never messy, always calm—and so damn sexy she could barely look at him sometimes. Knowing he was out there in the wind and rain seemed to have flipped a switch inside. All those feelings she’d managed to keep at bay created an internal tumult.
Susie had stood in the lashing rain with her friends as the helicopter landed, the whir and whack of its blades swirling the rain around them. Even though she’d personally spoken to the harbormaster and knew the Coast Guard had reported all on board were safe, her heart kicked into gear while she waited for the passengers to disembark from the helicopter. Jared had stepped out after Luke, tall, dark and dripping with water. She hadn’t been able to stop herself from pulling him close for a hug. “You’re soaked. We need to get you dry,” she’d said.
Jared had pulled back and looked down at her, his piercing green eyes a flash of color in the dark rain. He chuckled. “Dry would be good about now.”
Susie fought her urge to fret over him. He was soaking wet and shivering, and he was laughing about it. He’s okay. You said you just wanted to know he’s okay. Clearly, he is. What are you freaking out about? He was okay, and she was still off kilter to the point that emotion welled in her chest. Her emotions made no sense, and she wanted them to stop. Now.
After a visit to the hospital for Jared, his brothers and the passengers on their guided trip to get cleared, Susie had taken charge of Jared, Tess and Nathan, while Emma brought Hannah and Luke home.
“Damn, this rain isn’t letting up.” Jared’s voice cut through the quiet in the car.
Susie glanced over. “Definitely not. I’m glad you’re not still out on the water. How are you feeling?”
Jared shrugged. “Like a drowned rat. I’m relieved the family with us is okay. I was pretty worried about their daughter. By the time the Coast Guard got there, she was shivering so hard, her teeth were chattering.”
Susie nodded. “Sounds like she’ll be alright.” Tears threatened to spill over. Get a grip. Jared is just Jared. You’re freaking out because he’s your friend. That’s all. She squinted through the rain running down the windshield, trying to ignore her feelings. No matter what she told herself, she’d been scared to death until she knew Jared was safe. And now that he was here beside her, she didn’t know what to do with her feelings. To say it was awkward didn’t quite capture it.
“Is this your road?” she asked. Though she’d been to the house Jared shared with his younger brother, Nathan, it had been awhile. Since Luke had married Hannah and moved out, she’d had less of a reason to stop by with Hannah.
“That’s the one,” he replied.
When she came to a stop in the drive, Jared looked over, his inscrutable eyes flashing with something she couldn’t define. “Why don’t you come in? Give it a few minutes and see if the rain lets up before you head home.”
Susie felt her head nodding before she could think. The house was quiet, the rain and wind muted inside. Jared adjusted the thermostat. Only then did Susie realize she was shivering. He turned on the television, said he needed a quick shower and disappeared, leaving her to wonder what the hell she was doing here. She idly flipped through the channels and was about to leave him a note and get out of there when he returned to the living room.
Her pulse ricocheted. He leaned against the small island separating the kitchen and living room. He’d changed out of his wet clothes into navy sweatpants and a black t-shirt. The soft cotton clung to his fit, muscular build. She didn’t know if he did, but she’d bet money he worked out. Though he lived a life that kept him fit as a commercial fisherman and fishing guide, he hummed with a leashed energy. She couldn’t imagine him being still for too long. She glanced over, carefully keeping her expression bland while her pulse pounded and that inconvenient desire coursed through her.
Susie stood and walked to the kitchen. “I should go,” she said, her words coming out stilted. She needed to get the hell out of there before Jared picked up on the riot of emotions. This will pass. It’s just because you were afraid he might die. And because your friends were worried and it’s some kind of contagious thing where their worry stuck to you.
“What are you shaking your head for?” Jared asked, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
She looked over at him and wished she didn’t like what she saw so damn much. On top of his deliciously built body that she itched to touch, he had those amazing green eyes, wavy black hair and chiseled features with a full mouth. As both of his brothers did, he also had dimples. So when he flashed that small smile, his dimples came with it. And since when were dimples so sexy? On Jared with his serious, intense eyes and not too frequent smile, he went from handsome to swoon-worthy because they were so unexpected.
She felt the blush heat her face. She’d shaken her head without a thought passing through. She tried to pass it off. “Oh just relived you’re all okay. It’s not looking like the rain will let up.”
Jared pushed away from the counter and came to stand in front of her. She could have sworn she felt the heat of his body. His damp curls caught flecks of light. She heard him take a deep breath. Her heart started beating faster.
He swore softly and moved so swiftly, it took her by surprise. Since it seemed she’d lost all capacity for clear thought, the only thing that didn’t surprise her was she couldn’t seem to think straight. All she knew was one minute he stood before her and the next, his hand was in her curls. She opened her mouth to say something and his lips landed against hers, his tongue stroking deeply. The desire she’d been trying so hard to keep tamped down roared to life, spiraling through her with such force, she was lost. Every fiber of her strained toward him. One of his hands slipped around her waist, tugging her tight against him. The feel of his muscled body against hers stoked the fire inside of her. Slick heat built in her core. His hand slid down and caressed her bottom, pressing her against his arousal. No surprise, but he was clearly well-endowed. The length and heat of his hard shaft pressing against her cleft was so delicious, all she wanted was to tear his clothes off and have him inside of her.
His lips left hers and traveled in a heated and frantic pass down her neck. He tugged at her damp blouse, tearing the top buttons apart. Her breasts were visible, barely restrained in the black lace bra she wore. He muttered an imprecation as he undid the clasp holding her bra together in front. Her breasts spilled out, and Jared wasted no time. His lips closed over a nipple just as his knee shifted between her thighs, pressing against her. He alternated with soft licks and suction. Her nipples peaked to an ache. Her hips moved of their own accord, riding his thigh, desperately seeking release.
Jared abruptly pulled back and said her name. She opened her eyes into his piercing green gaze. “Do you know how long I’ve wanted to do this?” he asked in a whisper.
She swallowed and shook her head, unable to form words.
“Too long,” came his raspy answer. His eyes flicked down to her breasts. Her nipples were damp from his attention and pebbled in the cool air. Her breasts were heavy and full. She’d always wished to be thinner, her curves usually seemed too much. But now, with him looking at her breasts with that heated gaze, she felt so wanted that she wouldn’t change a thing. He cupped her breasts with both hands and leaned forward to lave one nipple and then the other, slowing grinding his thigh against her. She was so wet, she feared he could feel the moisture through her jeans.
When he softly bit her nipple, she suddenly broke out of the heated moment and pushed away. She opened her eyes to find him looking back at her, once again, his eyes inscrutable. Questions tumbled through her and she ignored them. She couldn’t believe what had just happened and had no idea what to do with how she felt. “I…um…” she started to speak and stopped when she tripped over her words. “I have to go,” she finally said abruptly.
“Susie…” Jared started to say.
As soon as he spoke, she got angry, furious with herself for wanting him so much she’d made a fool of herself.
“What the hell was that about? I’m not like those idiots who moon over you. I’m definitely not your one night stand to make you feel better after you almost drowned,” she said, her voice strident and loud, even to her. She quickly tugged her clothes together, shoving her breasts back into her bra and buttoning her shirt. She grabbed her purse and gave her raincoat a shake before putting it on. She couldn’t even look at him again.
“Do you have to get angry right off the bat?” Jared asked, his eyes flashing.
She didn’t look up. “Shut up.” She raced out the door. She heard her name once more as she ran through the rain. When she slammed her car door, she saw him coming through the rain toward her. She started her car and shifted into reverse before he had a chance to reach her. Her headlights illuminated him in a glittering arc through the rain as she backed up rapidly.
Susie pushed through the door at Sally’s. It was raining, so she was meeting friends for an early dinner. Sally’s was a Diamond Creek fixture, an old renovated barn that had long been an established restaurant and bar. She shook her brown curls, raindrops flying when she did. She strode quickly over to the dining area, searching out her friends.
A good hour later, Susie was wondering how much she could take from Hannah and Tess about Luke and Nathan, their respective husbands. Hannah, Susie’s best childhood friend, had married Luke Winters, and Tess had married his younger brother, Nathan, after meeting him on a fishing trip to Alaska last year. Susie loved to see her friends happy, so she just might have interfered a little. But if she’d known how much they were going to drone on about how awesome their husbands were, she would have reconsidered. There was also the inconvenient fact that Jared was the older brother to Luke and Nathan, so it was difficult to avoid him. She thought she’d done a good job of hiding how she felt about Jared, but it was becoming increasingly difficult. Especially since that damn kiss last year. Just thinking about it aggravated her still. She didn’t like letting anything get the best of her, and she’d been an idiot to let that kiss happen.
After Hannah made a sly comment about Susie being the one to set Hannah and Luke up, Susie harrumphed and took a swallow of beer. “Maybe I can see a good thing coming, but that doesn’t mean you have permanent permission to drone on about how great he is.”
“It bothers you because you can’t keep your eyes off Jared and won’t admit it to save your life,” Tess replied with a sly grin.
Susie choked on her beer, grabbing a napkin to wipe her chin. Emma gave Tess an admiring nod. “You may be kinda new around here, but…wow…that took nerve.” Emma was Hannah’s older sister and had moved to Diamond Creek a few years ago. Their parents had given Emma up for adoption, and many years later, Emma had started searching for them. Unfortunately, she never met her biological parents because they had died in a plane crash in rural Alaska. But she’d found Hannah and decided to move here. She was more low-key than Hannah and Tess, but probably sharper than all of them as she was a therapist. Her sly sense of humor tended to sneak up on others.
Hannah bit her lip and shook her head. Susie glared at them and hoped they didn’t notice the blush creeping up her neck. Tess had zeroed in on an uncomfortable truth—Susie barely could keep her eyes off Jared whenever he was around, and it drove her nuts. Even when she wasn’t thinking about it, she’d catch herself looking at him. It didn’t help that he was ridiculously sexy. Matters made worse by the fact that they were not cut out for each other. Maybe that one kiss had been mind-blowing, but Jared had never even hinted it happened. He was cool, calm and collected. Stop thinking about him! He doesn’t matter. Right, you only wish.
“What?” Hannah asked, feigning innocence. “You’re happy to dish it out, you’d better be ready to take it.”
Play it cool, do NOT let them see you sweat this. Susie straightened her shoulders and glanced around the table. “I’ll have you know that while I won’t deny Jared is handsome—that whole damn family is—I can certainly keep my eyes off of him. Plus, can you imagine me with someone that uptight? That man seriously needs to loosen up.”
“And maybe you’re just the girl for the job,” Tess said.
Susie thought she might get skid marks on her tongue because she had to bite it so hard to keep from swearing. If she didn’t want the whole world to know Jared pushed her buttons and then some, she couldn’t go around losing her temper just because her friends teased her about him. She rolled her eyes at Tess. “I’m sure I could be the girl for the job, but it’s not one I want.”
Conveniently, the waitress arrived to deliver their check. Susie took the moment to take a faux bathroom break and gather herself. She was not up for parrying about Jared tonight, not when her friends were uncomfortably close to the truth. By the time she returned to the table, she managed to make her excuses and get the hell out of there.
As she drove home, she wondered how to stop feeling the way she did. Before her fated kiss with Jared, a teensy tiny part of her might have admitted she was more attracted to Jared than anyone before. But then…the kiss. Oh, that kiss. It had been over a year and not a day passed that she didn’t think about it. Jared irritated the hell out of her half the time, and the other half—holy hell, all she did was fantasize about him. Then he just had to go and be an amazing kisser.
When she pulled up in front of her house, she banged her forehead on the steering wheel. “Damn, damn, damn.” She lifted her head, brushing her unruly curls out of her face. All by herself and she was blushing like crazy. She needed to talk to someone, but doing so meant sharing a few details she’d rather not. She was the strong friend, the together friend, the one who played matchmaker and who always had a quick comeback. The only friend who had glimpsed the her underneath all that was Hannah, her best friend since elementary school. But Hannah had missed a few details while she’d been out of state at graduate school and grieving the death of her parents. And Susie hadn’t quite found the time to fill her in.
The main detail being that Susie had somehow never managed to lose her virginity and here she was thirty-one years old. Oh and this might have happened because she narrowly avoided getting date-raped by some asshole who slipped something into her drink one weekend when she was in Anchorage. Up until then, she’d had been a fun-loving flirt. Perhaps she’d made it a little further than most with regard to her virginity, but it hadn’t been because she was uptight. Just because she was choosy.
But her choosy radar must have been turned off that night. She’d thought Tim was cute and fun. He was of one of the common tourist types that visited Alaska—outdoorsy, and handsome. She’d been up in Anchorage with her mother and decided to stay an extra night to stock up on shopping. Nothing cued her that Tim might not be a decent guy. Until she woke up, woozy, out of it, and with him tugging her jeans off. Though she couldn’t even see straight, she fought like mad. She knew to this day she was lucky he didn’t care to fight too hard to rape her because she might be feisty but she barely topped five feet. She came out of it with a few bruises while he left her hotel room swearing, bright red scratches on his face.
That had been the last time she’d been anywhere close to being intimate with a man. She hadn’t meant for it to be like that, she just couldn’t seem to let down her guard. She’d convinced herself being single was a choice of freedom and tried to ignore the corner of her psyche that doubted her instincts and shied away from intimacy. She was strong and independent. Though she was more romantic than most, she focused all that energy on her friends, committed to making sure they weren’t dumb enough to let the good guys blow by. Until Jared came along.
Susie swore and climbed out of her car, stomping into her house. She bought this house herself when she moved back home after college. Diamond Creek was home and always would be. Her parents would have been happy to let her stay with them as long as she wanted. But she had needed to make it on her own. Reeling from anger at herself, frustration that she hadn’t the courage to track Tim down and press charges, she’d thrown herself into making an independent life for herself. A few years later and she was known as the best accountant in town and had her own home. It was a small, cedar A-frame with purple trim and a wrap-around deck. As with almost every house in Diamond Creek, it had a lovely view of Kachemak Bay and the mountains across the water.
Diamond Creek was situated on the shores of Kachemak Bay, one of Alaska’s coastal jewels and a massive tourist draw from spring to fall. Kachemak Bay detoured off the Cook Inlet, an inlet that stretched from the Gulf of Alaska in the Pacific Ocean to the bustling port of Anchorage. Anchorage was the hub of Southcentral Alaska. The Kenai Peninsula sat south of Anchorage, and Diamond Creek was located toward the southern end of the peninsula. Susie was an Alaskan girl, through and through. She enjoyed trips to Seattle and just about anywhere, but Diamond Creek was home. She savored the wild edge, the immense beauty, and the independence and quirkiness that Alaska fostered in people.
Susie shook her raincoat and hung it on the small coatrack by the door. She flicked on a few lights and glanced around. It was cold, dark and rainy, and she was glad to be home. Realizing her feelings for Jared might be obvious to her friends made her want to jump out of her skin. How could she explain why it would never work with him? And why, oh why, did he have to be the man who made her think twice about her plan for being permanently single?
There was a soft scratching at the door. She flung it open to find her cat, Jasmine, looking irate and wet. Jasmine raced through the door, promptly jumping on the kitchen counter and shaking. Susie found Jasmine last spring when it was still too cold at night. After a few hours of wondering what was scratching under her porch in the night, Susie shined a flashlight underneath and found Jasmine, then a kitten, shivering. Jasmine was a smoky gray feline with a streak of feistiness tempered by her sheer adoration of human affection.
“Jasmine, you’re soaked! I didn’t know you were out all day.” She went to the small laundry room off the kitchen and grabbed a towel, briskly rubbing Jasmine with it. Jasmine purred like mad, rubbing into the towel, her irritation at being outside instantly gone. Her gray fur tufted up all over once she was dry.
After changing into warm, dry clothes, Susie curled up on the couch and flipped through the channels, Jasmine snugged up against her side, purring audibly. Thoughts of Jared crept into her mind, and Susie sighed.
Jared tossed a salmon toward the cooler.
“Dammit, Jared! How about you actually look next time you throw a fish?” Nathan exclaimed.
Jared turned to look and burst out laughing. Nathan was seated on the bench beside the cooler in question with a salmon on his lap.
Nathan shook his head and chuckled. “You’re lucky I’m a good sport. Getting a slimy fish on my lap means I’ll stink the rest of the day.”
Jared shrugged. “Sorry ‘bout that. Didn’t realize you were right there. Should I point out it’s kinda hard not to smell like fish when you’re fishing?”
Nathan rolled his eyes. “For you of all people to say that when you make it seem like fishing isn’t even messy. If I threw a fish on your lap, you’d be pissed, so you might as well appreciate my good attitude. You’re the master of tidy. You manage to avoid the slime. Don’t pretend like you don’t either. I don’t know how you pull it off.”
Jared merely shrugged again. No need for him to agree with Nathan when it was obvious. He took good care of his gear and if any fish slime got on him, he hosed it off as soon as he could.
“You wanna grab a bite at Sally’s when we get in with the crew?” Jared asked, moving on from the errant salmon throw.
“Sure. Tess’ll probably want to meet us there. That okay?”
Jared nodded. “Of course.”
He looked away, moving to step behind the steering wheel. They were coming in from a two-week commercial fishing run for sockeye salmon. He and his brothers ran a commercial and sport fishing business, The One that Didn’t Get Away. They usually took the crew out for dinner when they got back to harbor after the longer runs. Jared looked ahead at the shores of Diamond Creek. Otter Cove Harbor was visible now. The town’s boat harbor was tucked into a small cove. Wooded hillsides rose up around the cove, spruce trees marching up the mountains behind. Diamond Creek was built into the hillside and looked out over Kachemak Bay. He glanced behind him. Mount Augustine, a volcano, sat in the distance, silent and majestic.
A few hours later, he pushed through the swinging door into Sally’s, which was bustling tonight. He’d called ahead and reserved a big table for the crew. He was halfway through his hamburger when he saw Tess making a beeline for Nathan. Susie walked behind Tess. All he had to do was see Susie, and it was as if someone flicked a match in the air around them—it crackled and sizzled. Heat crept through his body, and his pulse shifted gears. His body had all kinds of ideas about Susie, no matter how many times he tried to talk his body down.
Relationships were messy. He liked his world to be sensible and predictable. The mix of someone else’s emotions in his daily life invited mayhem. He’d tried it before, and it had been…discombobulating. He’d even come close to getting engaged, an experience that illuminated how confusing emotions could be. Trying to make sense of it made him tired and feel half-crazy. He found being single to be much simpler. He could live life on his terms and not worry about how someone else felt.
And Susie. Well, she’d take messy to a whole new level. She was brash, funny, assertive and so damn sexy he could hardly stand it. About a year ago, he’d lost his mind and given in to what he’d wanted to do for too damn long. He’d kissed her like his life depended on it. And not a day passed since then that he didn’t think about it.
“Hey there,” Susie said.
Her brown eyes were wide and bright, always with a glint of knowing, like she could see right through him. Her brown curls were just…wild. They tumbled every which way, bouncing around her shoulders. She swiped one out of her eyes, looking at him expectantly.
He bought some time by taking a swallow of beer. He needed a minute to try to get his mind off how damn sexy she was. “Hey there. How’s it going?” he finally asked.
Susie shrugged. “Fine. Just fine. Did you get the spreadsheet I sent over?”
Jared had to force himself not to stare at her breasts. She was all curves. The night he’d kissed her, before he could stop himself, her luscious breasts were in his hands. And even now, a year later, all she had to do was get anywhere near him and his hands practically itched to touch her. Get a grip. This is Susie. You do not want to get tangled up with her. About that point, he realized he’d yet to answer Susie’s question.
“Just got in from fishing today. I’ll check my email tonight and catch up. What did you send over?” he asked, trying to tamp down the irritation he felt. He was irritated with himself for constantly feeling off kilter with her, which in turn made him irritated with her. It was as if she held the secret key to make him lose his cool.
Susie’s eyes searched his for a moment, a flicker of confusion in them. “It’s the quarterly report you asked me to send,” she said pointedly. “You wanted me to change the spreadsheet layout, so I did.” She shook her head, releasing her breath in a huff.
He was fairly certain his blood pressure literally rose. As usual, he wanted to do one of two things: swear and walk away from her, or grab her, drag her out of here and finish what he started that night. But because Susie was who she was, his sister-in-law’s best friend and a good friend of practically everyone he knew, including himself, he couldn’t do either one of those things. He took a few swallows of beer and a deep breath instead.
“That I did. Forgot for a minute there. All I’ve been thinking about is fish,” he finally replied. When he looked into her eyes, his heart pounded, and he was damn glad he was sitting down so no one would notice that he was hard as a rock.
Susie nodded and gave him a bright smile that looked a tad forced. “Of course. Fish, fish, fish. Anyway, when you get a chance, let me know if the spreadsheet is set up the way you wanted.” She glanced down the table. She started to move to the other end. “Call me about it if you need any other changes,” she said, not bothering to look his way again.
Jared breathed a sigh of relief when she moved out of his immediate vicinity. When he and his brothers first moved to Diamond Creek, they’d gotten to know Susie pretty early on. Jared had thought she was cute because she was. Those wild curls, laughing brown eyes and curves were cute…and sexy as hell, but he tried not to think about it. She’d become a friend over time and ran an accounting business, By the Numbers. She was a bang up accountant—detail oriented, a math whiz, computer savvy and ruthlessly efficient. Not to mention that she beat him at his own game half the time. Whenever he asked for something, such as the spreadsheet in question, she’d have it to him sooner than he asked and better than what he wanted. Somewhere along the way, his unwanted attraction to her bloomed before he noticed it.
Luke sat across from him, chowing down fast. He looked up and chuckled.
“What?” Jared asked.
“Whenever Susie gets anywhere near you, you get irritated about nothing. And then she walks away and you can’t stop looking at her,” Luke said with a sly grin. “Like now.”
Jared realized he was staring in Susie’s direction and whipped his head back to face Luke. “Seriously, dude? Don’t you have anything better to do other than watch me?”
Luke kept on grinning. “Not when watching you get all twisted up over Susie is more fun.”
Jared had to force himself to take a deep breath and not take the bait. He took another bite of his hamburger.
Luke’s eyes sobered. “Just joking around. But seriously, Hannah thinks Susie’s got a thing for you. Maybe you won’t admit it, but she’s pretty awesome. About the only woman who doesn’t drool over you around here.”
Jared rolled his eyes. “Women don’t drool over me.”
Luke shook his head. “You choose to ignore it, but it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Come on, man. You’re like candy because you’re so unavailable. I’ve told you for years that your rule about no relationships is stupid.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’ve pointed that out. I’m not like you and Nathan. Relationships are messy. I’m fine by myself.”
Luke gave him a long look. “You know, I was as committed to staying single as you are. And for similar reasons, so I get it. Maybe the details were different, but you weren’t like this until you got burned by Jen. Seeing as you’re only two years shy of forty, you might want to move on one of these days.”
Jared swallowed and stared at Luke. “What the hell? Do we have to have a deep conversation right now? My age has nothing to do with this. Jen is old news. I got over her years ago. What makes you think she has anything to do with anything now?”
Jared shoved his annoyance with Luke down. He wanted to tell him to shut the hell up, but that wouldn’t help matters. Jen was his ex from back when they lived in Seattle. He’d been set to ask her to marry him when she’d broken it off, offering the contradiction that he was ‘too intense and held too much back’. She also claimed she wasn’t ready for commitment. Jared didn’t like to talk about it, but it had hurt like hell. He meant it when he said he was over her. But a few years of avoiding serious relationships made him see how much easier it was. His mother had finally stopped dropping hints and seemed to have accepted that he planned to stay single and be the favorite uncle to their grandkids.
Luke eyed him and shrugged. “I’m not saying you’re pining after Jen. Just that after she broke it off, you changed. You’d never been into the casual thing before and since then, it’s the only thing you’ll consider and barely. I think maybe you think it’s easier. That’s all.”
“It is easier,” Jared said flatly.
Luke chuckled. “In some ways, maybe. Look, I didn’t mean to turn this into much. Just thought maybe…nothing,” he said with a shrug.
Conversation moved on. A bit later, Jared realized his eyes were following Susie as she left. He’d never admit it, but Luke was right. He couldn’t seem to keep his eyes off of her, even when he tried. And damn if that didn’t annoy him. He prided himself on being on control. Susie tested that simply by existing.
The following morning, Jared stood by the windows in his small cabin and looked out over the bay. He’d moved out of the home he used to share with his brothers when Tess moved up here. Nathan had tried to talk him out of it, but it didn’t make sense for Nathan to move when the last thing Jared needed was that big house all to himself. He’d rented a cabin down the road. It was small, practical and came with an astounding view of Kachemak Bay. The back of the house faced the view and was floor to ceiling with windows. The cabin was a small gambrel style home. It consisted of a basic kitchen and living room area with a bathroom downstairs and an expansive loft upstairs that served as the bedroom. It was open, airy and bright with more than enough space for him.
The wind was up this morning, white caps dotting the water. Clouds scuttled across the sky, coasting in front of the mountains across the bay. His yard was a small patch of grass surrounded with fireweed that would bloom in late summer. He sat down at the kitchen table and flipped open his laptop. He plowed through some email and opened the spreadsheet Susie had asked him about last night. It was precisely as he’d requested.
And for some reason, that annoyed the hell out of him. Luke had gotten under his skin last night. Between his irrational attraction to Susie and Luke noticing it, Jared wanted to do something to shake it off. So he was annoyed at Susie over a spreadsheet. Now that’s irrational. Get a grip.
He stalked into the kitchen and poured a fresh cup of coffee. A few sips later, he talked himself out of asking her to make more changes. To a spreadsheet. His mind went from spreadsheets to Susie’s curls and curves. He swore, set his coffee down and went to change to go for a run.
A solid hour later, he slowed his pace as he approached his cabin. He’d taken off on one of the longer loops he ran through a few local trails and connecting roads. He waved when he saw his friend Travis drive by and walked onto the back deck. The run had barely started to burn off his restless energy. What he couldn’t figure out was why his mind jumped on the hamster wheel of Susie so much these days. He didn’t like to admit it, but he’d wanted to kiss her for quite some time before he’d given in last year. He didn’t think he would have were it not for the circumstances. Hours of holding it together in the driving rain out on rough seas had worn his defenses down.
By the end of the long afternoon and evening, when Susie drove him home, he wasn’t thinking straight. So he’d let his impulses get the best of him. Susie had been so damn tempting, he couldn’t resist the urge to lose himself in her heat and lush body. Oddly enough, the first few times he saw her afterwards were a little awkward, but he managed to play it cool and not dwell on it. But lately, his attraction to her had burrowed under his skin. He couldn’t shake it off. He grabbed his gym clothes and took off. If a run couldn’t turn his mind off, maybe lifting weights would.
Susie glanced up from her computer when the door to her office opened. Jared stepped inside and closed the door behind him. Her heart started pounding. She forced herself to take a slow breath. Her reaction to him was getting ridiculous. Somehow she’d managed to get her feelings under control for a while after that kiss last year, but lately, she was losing the battle. Jared wore faded black jeans and a black t-shirt that fit his muscled build like a glove. His piercing green eyes met hers. She instantly felt pinned by his gaze. That annoyed her. She stood abruptly, needing to move to fling off the desire that thrummed through her anytime he was near.
“Hey there, I didn’t know you were stopping by. Did you need something?” Susie knew she sounded prickly and wished she didn’t. She was annoyed with herself for being so damn attracted to him that it had to come out somewhere. Because she sure as hell couldn’t act on how she felt. That was out of the question. Not to mention, she was pretty sure Jared wasn’t interested. Maybe he’d seemed interested that rainy night, but since then, he’d been cool and collected whenever he was near her.
Jared came to a stop by her desk and placed a manila envelop on her desk. “Thought I’d drop off our receipts from last month,” he said simply.
Nonplussed, she stared at the envelope for a long moment.
“That okay? I usually drop them off every month,” Jared finally said when Susie didn’t reply.
“Oh, right,” she finally said, fighting the blush she felt creeping up her neck and face. “Sorry. I was in the middle of working on some stuff and wasn’t too focused.” She fought to collect her thoughts. “Have you heard anything about Emma’s ex?” she asked, figuring this topic might be the cold water she needed to get her desire under control.
Emma’s abusive ex-husband had recently shown up in town after he’d gotten wind Emma was involved with someone else. Though Emma wasn’t ready to admit it, Trey was perfect for her—sexy, smart, an awesome single father and he adored her. Susie was doing her best to interfere and make sure Emma realized she and Trey were meant for each other while this mess with her ex was getting in the way and scaring her. Susie and the rest of Emma’s friends had been keeping an eye out for her ex. Along with everyone else, Susie was impatient for him to be located and arrested. Jared was one of the most plugged in, keeping tabs with his friend who was a local cop and keeping the rest of them in the loop. Of course, Jared just had to go and be about as nice as a man could get when it came to stuff like this. He was protective of friends and family and went out of his way to help without any hesitation.
Jared shook his head. “Trey’s about out of his mind. I just told him he could stop by here to meet me. He says Emma is insisting on staying away from him because she’s worried about Stuart. Could you maybe talk some sense into her? Trey’s pretty much a goner when it comes to her.”
Though Susie agreed with Jared on this and had made the same point to Emma, it rankled her that he would ask her to talk to Emma about it. “Look, let Emma figure this out on her own. She’s pretty freaked out about everything. I’m sure Trey means well, but it’s not like she’s staying alone. She’s been at Hannah and Luke’s place and knows she can stay with me anytime.”
Jared’s eyes sharpened. “All I’m saying is maybe she could cut Trey a break and try not to shut him out.”
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