Authors: Nikki Belaire
Absolution Book One
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Wine & Whiskey
“Tonight is the last stop on Shae
Armstrong’s fifty-four-city world tour. She is pleased to close it out in her
home city of Los Angeles before getting some much deserved rest and relaxation.
Be on the lookout for details about her next album in the upcoming months.”
-------- Jane Murphy, Publicist to Shae Armstrong
Nick glances at the rear view mirror again. The white SUV
weaving between lanes for the last three miles turns off. He blows out a deep
breath and relaxes his grip on the wheel as the cool ocean breeze ruffles his
hair. Maybe this time he can actually keep his appointment.
Even though it’s a risk to drive himself in the Jeep, it feels
good to be free instead of stuffed in the back of the limo. It may be too much
exposure, but he has to live a little.
sad that driving in the open air is what I’m living for.
Ignoring the constant chirping of his phone, he checks the
address one more time before turning off the highway into an almost deserted
parking lot. This can’t be it. His old trainer wouldn’t recommend a dump like
this. No signage or windows, just an old warehouse with faded siding and rust stains
inching down from the flat roof. A few overgrown bushes line the entrance in a
feeble attempt at landscaping. Finding a new gym should not be this difficult.
The interior is a slight improvement. Rows of gleaming black and
gray equipment fill the open space. An irritating combination of bleach mingled
with chlorine burns his eyes as a lithe instructor holds open a door down the
hall, herding in a group of older women with towels wrapped around their
bathing suits. A man with wisps of hair as white as his walking shoes
slowly on a treadmill, while two women with matching
green and purple sports bras and shorts run side-by-side.
At the front desk, the receptionist welcomes him to JETs.
“Thanks. I’m Nick DeMarco. I have a ten o’clock with Jason Tyler.”
“He’s not here yet, but I’ll give you the membership paperwork
to complete while you wait. Trainers work with their clients in the main
workout room, down the hall and to the right. You can store your bag in the
locker room next to it.”
Her fingertips linger on his hand a bit longer than polite as
she gives him the forms. She’s attractive in an obvious way—heavy makeup,
slinky workout clothes tight in all the right places, long fingernails that
would leave marks on his back. Without much effort, he could have her naked and
screaming his name in less than an hour.
Not today. He isn’t in the mood. If he’s honest with himself, he
hasn’t been in the mood for a long time. Work fills his time with enough
headaches. He doesn’t need drama from an aggressive woman who’ll end up
demanding more than he wants to give.
The upbeat nineties pop song blaring from the ceiling speakers
fades as he walks down the hallway adorned with pictures of hard bodies and
inspirational sayings. Jessica’s number flashes on his phone. It’s been almost
two years. What could she possibly want after all this time? Probably the same
thing she always wants—money or sex. Most likely both. Shaking his head, he
sends the call to voice mail.
He pauses at the glass door of the nearly empty workout room. A
petite woman stretches on the cork floor, her wavy, dark brown hair trailing
down her back. His heartbeat quickens as she lifts her head, her sky blue eyes
focused on her fingertips.
Besides her beauty, there’s something else mesmerizing about her—the
fluid, almost sensual movements, as she glides from one yoga position to the
next, the way she slightly puckers her lips as she exhales, the serenity she
exudes. No music blasting or TV blaring or friends talking. A rarity in a world
exhausted with sensory overload—to see someone content with quiet and calm.
Something he rarely has in his own life, and never with the women
Pushing open the door to the locker room, he’s transported to
1978. The brown and gold tile needs new grout and the old school beige lockers
are clean but faded. The whooshing and knocking of pipes leading to the
attached steam room warn of an impending breakdown. He thumbs through the
paperwork the receptionist gave him and laughs at the headings.
Exclusive Members Only Club, Membership Guidelines, Revocation of
. A hole like this should
be glad to get people in here, not worry about kicking them out.
He crams the papers in his bag before closing the locker door.
Running his finger across the screen of his lock, he grabs a towel from the
stack on the countertop and walks back to the workout room. This new trainer
better be good.
Heat flushes his body at the assault unfolding behind the
window. The beautiful woman stares at the floor, twisting the hem of her pink
tank top around her fingers, while some asshole stands in front of her talking,
his hands gesturing for emphasis. Multi-colored tattoos snake up his arms under
his black T-shirt to the curly blond hair slicked back on his neck. Her head
flies up as the guy steps forward, trapping her against the wall, his
silver-tipped fingers pressing into her trembling shoulders, holding her in
Nick shoves the door open and strides up to them as the guy
continues his rant.
“I don’t know why you’re being such a bitch. You think you’re
too good for me, don’t you?”
Her eyes lock with Nick’s. The sky blue depths churn with fear,
pleading with him to help her. All of her peacefulness stolen by an idiot who
can’t figure out how to spell
correctly before inking it onto his skin. Nick jerks the man’s arm, pulling him
away from her. “Conversation’s over, friend. Time for you to move on.”
“Fuck you. I’m talking…” The smirk on his face evaporates when
he meets Nick’s gaze.
Yeah, that’s right, motherfucker, you’re done. Leave her alone
and go look up “irony” in the dictionary.
“I’m out of here.” Shoving his hands into his stuffed pockets,
the guy walks away muttering under his breath. "Stupid, stuck-up bitch.”
She rubs her shoulders before wrapping her arms around herself,
a defensive mechanism Nick knows too well. If she wasn’t so shaken, he’d follow
this guy out and make it clear who the stupid one is. Slowly releasing his
balled fists, he tips his head down to hers. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, thank you.” The tremor in her voice reveals the truth. Her
gaze darts to the door, as if worried the asshole will return.
Yeah, like he’d ever let that happen. "Do you know
“N-No. I was waiting for my friend, and he started talking to
me.” She shudders and holds herself tighter. “He wouldn’t let me go.”
Nick keeps his hands at his sides, stretching out his fingers to
prevent them from curling up again. There’s no way he can walk away, leaving
her alone and afraid. “I’m waiting for someone too. Mind if we wait together?”
She tilts her head and squints, studying him, seeking answers to
questions only she knows. He must pass inspection, because after a few seconds,
she nods. “Sure. I’d like that.”
“Me too. By the way, I’m Nick. Nick DeMarco.”
“It’s nice to meet you.”
A bit of color returns to her cheeks and her body softens, yet a
hint of uncertainty remains. Refusing to let it be because of him, he winks and
shrugs his shoulders. “What? You don't have a name?”
Another curious expression crosses her face before she tucks a
stray strand of hair behind her ear and smiles. A different kind of heat races
through his body. He’d take a beating just to see her gorgeous face light up
like that again.
“Nice to meet you, Shae.”
They stare at each other, awkwardness growing with each passing
second. Trying to think of something to say that doesn’t make her any more
fearful, he clears his throat. “This is my first time here. Is it always this
“It picks up as the day goes on. I know it’s not much to look
at, but it’s a good gym. The vibe is low-key, and the trainers are good.”
“I can tell. If you don’t mind me saying so, you look like you’re
in really good shape.”
She shrugs, seemingly disappointed at his comment. “You can’t do
what I do unless you work out.”
His mind races, trying to think of a way to fix his mistake, yet
afraid of making it worse. In his world, survival requires absolute domination,
with no concern for feelings or emotions. So, why he’s worried about offending
a woman he just met, he doesn’t quite understand. But he can’t let this be the
end of their conversation. “That sounded like a lame pick-up line, didn’t it? I
just meant I know the hard work it takes to be in as good of shape as you are.”
Her frown fades and a slight grin emerges. “I’m kind of a
fanatic about working out. I have a terrible sweet tooth I need to keep in
The tightened muscles in his shoulders relax at her pardon of
his faux pas. He must keep her talking and do whatever it takes to coax that
smile out of her again. “I get bored doing the same workout. I thought with a
new gym, I could mix it up, learn something new. Maybe you can show me some of
your best moves?”
Her face brightens as she raises her left eyebrow. “Let’s see
what you’ve got.”
Before he can respond, she grabs a twenty-pound weight and a
yoga mat. With a slight flick of her wrist, the mat falls to the floor like a
gauntlet thrown down as a challenge. Her eyebrow lifts again as she hands him
the barbell. “This one is my favorite.”
Lying on her own mat, she shifts into a side plank, propping
herself up on her elbow. She rotates her stomach toward the floor, curling her
own weight underneath her. He drops down and mimics the movement. They complete
twenty-five reps before she pauses, her eyes sparkling as she looks over at
him. “What do you think?”
That you’re amazing.
He hides his smile at the fact this tiny woman, who he probably
outweighs by more than a hundred pounds, wants to challenge him with her
exercise moves. Her earlier fear replaced by a competitive drive he doesn’t
expect. Maybe she’s not quite as delicate as she seems. “It’s a great workout.”
“Good! Now flip to the other side.”
After another set, he flops onto his stomach and massages his
burning biceps. “My arms are shaking. I’m going to feel it tomorrow.”
“Good, that means you’ll see results. Now, another good one is—”
A red-faced man in a gray hoodie and black athletic shorts
rushes in. Wrinkles of confusion line his forehead as he looks from him to Shae
and back again. “Hi, I’m Jason. Sorry I’m late. I had a flat tire, and my
phone’s dead. It’s been one of those mornings.”
Nick accepts his extended hand. “No worries.”
Jason wipes the sweat dotting his shaved head with his forearm
before he turns to Shae. “What’re you doing here?”
“The receptionist said you were free at ten, so I wanted to get
in a quick
and do some stretching to get
ready for later.”
Nick frowns at her as they both rise from their mats. With moves
and a body like hers, there must be a mistake. “You’re not a trainer?”
She shakes her head. “Thanks for the compliment, but no. Jason’s
one of my best friends, so he gets stuck training me.”
Jason laughs and rolls his eyes in mock exasperation. “Oh right,
difficult to put up with.” He
leans in toward Nick, dropping his voice to a stage whisper. “She already
thinks she knows everything. I bet she even showed you her favorite plank move,
Her cheeks grow as pink as her shirt. “He asked!”
“That’s how she tried to woo me in high school, but it didn’t
work. My heart was already taken.”
Now it’s her turn to laugh and roll her eyes. She holds up her
hands in front of her. “I know, I know, Jeremy Longmire.”
“J and J. We would’ve been perfect together.”
Elbows out and hands on hips, she scowls at Jason. “What did he
have that I don’t have?”
Jason runs his eyes up and down her body. “Now, honey, do you
really want to go there?" He slips his arm around her waist and gives it a
squeeze. "But, you know I still love you.”
“I love you too.” Easing out of his embrace, she gives them both
a small wave. “Just let me know when you're free, and I’ll come back.”
Nick’s amusement at their friendly banter fades. He can’t let
her leave, not after she’s intrigued him more than any woman has in a long
time. “You’re welcome to stay if you want. I don’t mind working out together.”
Jason’s eyes widen at Shae, and he nods his head toward Nick.
“It’s okay. She and I can meet after we’re finished.”
Unspoken messages bounce between them. Nick can’t figure out the
warning Jason’s trying to send her.
“I have to be there at one, so I guess I’ll just skip it today.”
What the hell?
Why can’t she just work out with him? Nick keeps his expression
neutral as he tries again. “I really don’t mind if you don’t.”
She wrinkles her nose in hesitation and glances at Jason. “Okay,
I guess so.”
Jason frowns before rotating his finger forward. “Then let’s do
At six-four and two hundred and twenty pounds, Nick towers over
Jason by at least seven inches and eighty pounds. Yet, it’s Jason who owns this
workout. After about sixty minutes, Nick’s white T-shirt looks gray from sweat
and the weight of Shae’s damp hair has pushed her high ponytail down onto the
back of her neck.