Authors: Bella Andre
Tags: #alpha male, #love, #love story, #alpha hero, #romance, #bad boys, #falling in love, #sexy romance, #heroes, #contemporary romance
She stood beneath the deliciously warm shower spray, feeling safe and warm, at least for a little while. She wasn’t going to hide here forever, of course. But for the rest of the day, if she could manage it without getting in anyone’s way, she’d hang out in the vineyards. Maybe even taste a little wine.
Pretend her life was normal for a while.
Normal. That sounded really nice.
Forcing back the voice inside her head that told her avoiding the inevitable would only make it harder to take care of the ugliness later, she worked to convince herself that she deserved a tiny bit of normal. Didn’t she?
After drying off and putting on her jeans and T-shirt, she ventured out into the suite.
Okay, so maybe she’d taken longer than normal drying her long straight hair. It wasn’t that she cared about looking good for Chase. It wasn’t that she was nervous about seeing him again.
Oh, who was she kidding? No one, that’s who.
The bruise on her face wasn’t going to terrify small children or anything, but it wasn’t particularly attractive, either. Add that to her well-worn jeans and T-shirt and she wasn’t anywhere near looking her best.
She took a deep breath and threw her shoulders back before rounding the corner of the hallway to where it opened up to the kitchen.
It was empty.
Disappointment reared up in her before she could shove it down. Or pretend it hadn’t been there at all.
There was a bowl of freshly cut fruit on the kitchen island, along with an array of pastries that had her empty stomach growling. She had already picked up a chocolate croissant—her favorite!—and bitten into it by the time she noticed the note tucked beside the pretty red and yellow fruit bowl.
Good morning. I hope you slept well. Sorry I couldn’t stay to keep you company for breakfast.
Please come join us out in the vineyards when you’re done eating.
See you soon,
P.S. Almost forgot. There’s fresh squeezed o.j. in the fridge. Gotta make sure you get your
Surprised laughter rang out in the empty kitchen.
Chloe couldn’t believe he’d signed his note with the nickname she’d given him. In her experience, men didn’t have funny bones. Especially not when the joke was at their expense.
Looking in the fridge, she found the juice and poured herself a tall glass. Settling on one of the bar stools, she picked up the note and read it again, a smile still playing on her face.
meant Chase and his brother, right? She fought back a prickle of unease that she might have to meet more people than that. Frankly, she didn’t even want to meet his brother. But since she’d availed herself of his hospitality last night—right now, too—she wouldn’t feel right if she didn’t at least thank him for letting her crash in his guest house for a night. As soon as she was settled again, she’d get to work on a new quilt as a proper thank-you gift.
The croissant was down to little crumbles on the granite counter top and she was picking each one up with a wet fingertip before she admitted to herself that she was stalling again, hiding out in the guest house so she wouldn’t have to face Chase.
It was a beautiful day outside. She should go and enjoy it while she was here.
Chloe stepped out onto the wide covered porch. Shading her eyes with one hand, without thinking, she carefully scanned the area in front of her to secure her surroundings.
Even though she felt safer than she had in a while, she suddenly felt like trouble could come from anywhere, just when she least expected it. Just like it had last night.
Every time she thought about what had happened, she felt so stupidly naïve. How had she missed the signs that her ex had been on the edge? Thinking about it made her stomach feel like a tight fist was wrapped around it, clenching tighter and tighter.
Normal. She’d been planning to pretend everything was normal.
She took one deep breath and then another as she fought to repress her swirling emotions, her fears. Finally, when she felt steadier, she looked around her with a surprised gasp.
After the rain the previous night, the vineyard sparkled in the sunlight. The leaves on the vines were bright green, almost as if a child had painted the scene in primary colors with fresh crayons.
The vineyard was blissfully quiet, except, she noticed as she walked down between a tall row of vines, for the birds that were calling playfully back and forth to each other. As their cheerful songs filtered into her, she took a deep breath of the fresh air, the clean scent of dirt and growing plants and nature.
Unfortunately, a few moments later, her idyll was interrupted by the fast sound of footsteps and what sounded like a teenage girl sobbing. Chloe barely backed into one of the vines in time to avoid being trampled by a tall, thin girl.
Chloe’s heart thumped hard as she waited—and watched—for someone to come running after the girl. But when the coast was clear a few moments later and she stepped back into the middle of the dirt path, she found the elaborate ties on the girl’s dress had caught on a set of thick vines.
Chloe quickly made her way over to her. “Hold on a second and I’ll get you unstuck.”
The girl’s eyes were wide and still full of tears as Chloe worked on one of the silky threads.
Even though she was wondering what on earth the girl was doing wearing a dress like this—one Chloe knew first-hand must have cost a fortune—in the middle of a vineyard on a weekday morning, she asked, “What’s wrong?”
“He’s so mean!”
Chloe’s heartbeat, which had barely slowed, kicked back into overdrive. Feeling incredibly protective, she asked, “Who’s mean? Your boyfriend?”
The girl shook her head, strikingly beautiful even with tear-streaked cheeks and tangled hair. “I wish. He’s so gorgeous,” she finally said, fresh tears falling down her cheeks, “and so mean!”
Why did they all do this to themselves? Chloe wondered. What was the allure of falling for guys who treated them like dirt? Was it some secret part of the kindergarten curriculum for girls?
Chloe had finished untangling the silk threads from the vine, but the girl was still crying—big, wracking, dramatic sobs.
“Thank God, you found her.”
Chase? When had he come upon them? And how could the warm voice that had threaded through all of her dreams last night have her body heating up this quickly?
The girl wrapped her long, slim fingers around Chloe’s wrist and held on tight. Tight enough that any greeting Chloe might have uttered was swallowed up in a gasp of pain as long, perfectly manicured nails dug in between the veins in her wrist.
Chase’s eyes were warm as he scanned Chloe’s face. “How’d you sleep?”
One look into his eyes was all it took for her to immediately forget the sting in her wrist. He looked so concerned. And so ridiculously beautiful that it actually stole her breath away.
Somehow, she managed a way-too-breathy, “Good.”
He smiled, a big, heartfelt smile that immediately turned Chloe’s insides to liquid goo. “Good.
The girl dug her nails in harder. “It’s him,” she hissed, frowning at the gentle interplay between the two adults.
Chloe tried to shift her wrist from beneath the girl’s talons. “What?”
“He’s the one who made me cry!”
Chloe turned from the girl to Chase. Trying to get everything straight, Chloe said, “You made her cry?”
Rather than answer her question, he addressed the girl directly. “Amanda, we’re losing the proper light. I need you back in place. Now.”
The girl’s pout rivaled that of a three-year-old. “It’s not fair.”
“I don’t have time for your tantrums, Amanda.”
What in heck were they talking about? This pretty young girl couldn’t be his girlfriend, could it?
And what did he mean by “getting back in place”?
Still protective of the girl, she moved to put herself between the two of them. “Look, Chase,”
she began, “she is really upset about something.”
The girl elbowed her out of the way and Chloe had a strange feeling that she’d just made the mistake of standing in Amanda’s limelight.
“I want to be in the front!” The girl’s big eyes were calculating. “Promise me I’ll be the lead for the rest of the day and I’ll go back.”
Chase’s expression didn’t change. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t laughing. He was simply focused. Determined. Chloe had the distinct sense that he rarely, if ever, didn’t get exactly what he wanted.
A slight shiver came over her as she remembered the way he’d looked at her with such intense desire the previous night. What would have happened if he’d thrown in this focus? This determination?
Would she have ended the night alone in that big, delicious bed?
Or would she have had company?
She barely managed to pull herself down to earth in time to hear him say, “Here’s the deal, Amanda. Either you get back over there and do your job or I call a cab and let your agent know that this is the last time you and I will have the privilege of working together.”
“But Chase,” the girl whined, “it’s not fair!”
He shrugged, and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. “Napa Valley. I need the phone number of a cab company.”
The girl all but leapt across the field to grab the phone from his hand, her sharp nails raking even harder across Chloe’s skin as she abruptly let go. Of course Chase was faster than the girl, raising his hand high above his head and stepping to the side so that she had to catch a vine to keep from falling.
Chase put the phone back to his ear. “Yes, I need an airport pickup at the Sullivan winery.”
“No!” The girl shrieked so loud Chloe’s ears rang. “I’ll go back and do whatever you want.”
Chase didn’t shift the phone away from his ear as he simply told Amanda, “You won’t question me again.” It wasn’t an inquiry. It was a statement.
The girl agreed, nodding her head. Hard. “It’s just that I found out that my boyfriend is sleeping with my roommate and I hate them both and I’m so upset.”
At that point, the girl changed tactics, clearly doing her best to blink her huge eyes at him and look equally pathetic and beautiful. Chloe knew if she ever tried to pull that off, she’d just look like she had a nasty cold.
“I’m really sorry I’m messing up the shoot.”
Surprisingly, a hint of a smile played on his lips. Was Amanda being forgiven that easily? In Chloe’s experience, men weren’t so forgiving. “Apology accepted. Now why don’t you head on back and get your makeup cleaned up.”
The girl turned and trotted back on her mile-long legs, leaving Chloe and Chase alone.
“Teenage girls.” He mock-shivered. “After dealing with my sisters for so long, I should have known better than to work in a field that depends on them.”
“What’s going on here?” Chloe realized, too late, that she sounded like a bad fifties movie come to life, the matron walking in on a scene she couldn’t comprehend.
“I’m a photographer. We’re shooting a magazine spread here for the next few days.”
Oh. Now things were starting to make sense. Feeling suddenly awkward, she said, “I was just coming out for a walk. It’s so beautiful.”
“Lovely,” he murmured, and she was instantly reminded of the way he’d said, “
My God, you’re
” the previous night.
Feeling her cheeks go hot again, she dropped her gaze to the dirt. “Thanks for setting out breakfast.”
She watched his feet move closer, until he was standing close enough that she had no choice but to lift her head to face him. “I’m glad you liked it,” he said softly, and then he was brushing his fingertips across her cheek to the corner of her mouth. “You’ve just got a little bit of chocolate right here.”
There was nothing for it but to stop breathing entirely while he was touching her. She couldn’t remember a man ever being this gentle with her before.
And then he moved his finger the slightest bit, so that it was in front of her lips, and some previously latent devil inside of her—the same one that had convinced her that masturbating in the tub last night would be a good thing—had her opening up her mouth and licking the chocolate off.
She heard a groan come from way down deep in his chest. “Chloe.”
Oh God, she was this close to kissing him, a man who was still a stranger despite the fact that he’d seen her naked and provided her a warm, safe place to spend the night.
Stumbling back, the branches from a tall grapevine lancing her between the shoulders, she said,
“You should get back to work. They’re probably waiting for you.”
But he didn’t move, didn’t so much as shift his weight. Instead, he simply smiled at her, that intense heat still in his eyes. Along with something that truly had her shivering in her shoes.
“I’m sure they’re still working on Amanda’s makeup,” he told her, but she heard what he was really saying loud and clear.
I’m not going anywhere. So why don’t you stop trying to run and just give
in to what we both want? It’ll be good. I promise.
Wanting desperately to negate the hot, pulsating desire between them, she said, “All caps is a bit much, don’t you think?”
He frowned for a split second before he caught on and grinned again. “I figure if I’m going to have a nickname like Hotstuff, I might as well own it.”
How could she do anything but grin back at him? He was just so darn likeable. It wasn’t his fault that he was sexier than sin. She shouldn’t keep holding that against him.
“Come with me.” He held his hand out. “I’ll introduce you to the crew.”
She looked down at his hand. She badly, so badly, wanted to take it. But she couldn’t.
Telling herself he’d understand if he knew her reasons—and that he probably already understood due to the bruise on her cheek—she simply stepped beside him and started walking. She didn’t have to look at him to sense his disappointment that she hadn’t reached out for him, too. But he didn’t say anything as he fell into step beside her.
“This is such an incredible part of the country,” she said. “How long has your brother owned the winery?”