Winter Fire: A Red Hot Winter Story

BOOK: Winter Fire: A Red Hot Winter Story
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Dedication

With special thanks to Lexxie Couper, for reeling me into this anthology and keeping me here. Oh, and for her invaluable insight into this book. Twisted as it may have been, it was spot on every single time.

To the Down Under Divas: Every writer should have a chance to brainstorm their ménages in a hotel lounge, with a strange man sitting opposite them listening spellbound to every word.

And of course, thank you to Heidi Moore for taking a chance on me. Ayzeh yoffe, boet, it’s been lekker. I’ve had a jol and a half (And seriously? I don’t think there’s another editor in the whole world I could say that to).

Chapter One

Heat radiated from the stone fireplace, warming the room. The temperature in the cozy, modern hotel lounge was a welcome contrast to the frigid wind outside. Mesmerized, Rachel Ashberg stared into the flames, watching as they danced around the logs, consuming the wood with hungry licks.

She sipped the last of her wine, relishing the tranquility that settled over her. Tomorrow that peace would be stripped away like old paint.

It had been a good idea to drive up to the Blue Mountains from Sydney a day early. The ninety-minute car trip through winding roads and national parkland had given her a chance to decompress a little. Twenty-four hours of rest and relaxation, away from the stress of work and failed relationships, was proving to be a much-needed tonic. Plus, she was building up her energy reserves for the weekend. She was going to need them.

The walk down to Wentworth Falls earlier had helped too. All that crisp, wintry air, lush eucalyptus forest, calming birdsong and getting back to nature had either cleared her mind of any remaining despondency or frozen her brain and heart enough that those issues no longer worried her. So what if things hadn’t worked out with Paul? She’d known from the beginning he wasn’t the right guy for her, but she’d tried anyway.

Just like she’d tried with James and Ethan and a whole host of other men who hadn’t quite cut it. Hell, none of them were the right guy.

How could they be, when she’d already met the right guy—and he was the one man she couldn’t be with? Of course, fate dictated he was
also
the man she was about to spend two days and two nights with, in a romantic boutique hotel.

He, his sister and ten of their closest friends.

God, it was going to be hell. Torture to the
nth
degree. How would she ever make it through to Monday?

Rachel shook her head, chastising herself for her negativity.

She would make it through to Monday. Her strength and her resistance had been fortified today, and she’d be fine. The weekend would pass without her once pining for Jackson Brooks. Without accidentally brushing up against him. Without sneaking outside in the blistering cold to steal secret kisses as they once had.

Rachel fidgeted with the cover of her book, considered opening it, but in the end just wasn’t in the mood for reading.

“Mind if I join you?”

The question registered, but Rachel didn’t respond. Since she was here alone, whoever had spoken must have addressed someone else. Pity. The voice held appeal. It was a deep rumble, smooth as old scotch. And accented. American?

She smiled to herself. Her relationship skills may be shot to hell, but her body still worked just fine. It didn’t matter that yet another relationship had failed as a result of her feelings for Jackson. Her sex drive obviously hadn’t suffered for it.

Proof in point? A few words from an unseen man with a sexy accent, and her pussy stirred. After all, sex was a wonderful way to temporarily forget her woes and heart-ache.

The evocative voice spoke again. “Okay, I won’t join you, but could I at least share the fire?”

Rachel blinked. Share the fire? Maybe the unseen man with the sexy-as-sin accent
was
talking to her after all. She turned in the direction of the voice and had to stifle a gasp. An absolutely gorgeous man gazed down at her, awaiting her answer.

Not staring at him was an impossibility. He was movie-star beautiful, with chiseled facial features and eyes the color of a crystal-clear emerald. His lips, full and lush, made Rachel want to sample them with her own. They made her want to sink her fingers in the silken brown locks of his stylishly cut hair, pull his face close to hers and kiss the living daylights out of him.

He had to be a model. No other profession suited a man of such defined beauty.

Her spine tingled.

Oh yeah. Definitely nothing wrong with her sex drive.

“Would you let me sit down if I swore not to say another word and spent the entire time looking anywhere but in your direction?” he asked with a charming smile.

She broke into a smile of her own, belatedly realizing she hadn’t answered. She’d been too busy ogling him. Rachel held out her hand in invitation. “Of course you can share the fire.”

He flashed her a huge grin and settled his towering frame into the chair beside hers with a relieved sigh. “For a moment I thought you might blow me off before I even found out your name.”

She raised an eyebrow. So he’d come to talk to her, and not to be close to the fire? Okay. She could live with that. “And for a moment I thought you’d just sit here and not say another word,” she said with a straight face.

He smiled impishly. “I lied.”

Oh, Lord, what a smile. “Ah, so you do intend to speak then?”

“Hell, yeah. A stunning woman sitting in front of a fire, all alone? Damn straight I’m gonna speak. I’m gonna say whatever I can to get her attention.”

Sexy devil.
She tilted her head to the side. “Are you flirting with me?”

He frowned. “That depends.”

“On what?”

“On whether there’s a Mr. Beautiful who might get upset.”

“And if there’s not?”

He met her gaze and grinned. “Then I’m flirting.”

She laughed at his audacity, even as her breath quickened. “How about those plans to look anywhere but in my direction?”

He nodded gravely. “Yeah. I kinda lied about those too.”

She suppressed a smile.

“So is there?” he prompted.

“Is there what?” His eyes were so exquisite she got lost staring into them.

“A Mr. Beautiful?”

She shook her head. “No.” Well, there was, but as much as she might wish it were different, Jackson wasn’t her Mr. Beautiful, and aside from that one illicit afternoon, he never would be. Didn’t change the fact that her heart belonged to him and always would.

“Lucky for me then.” He held out his hand. “I’m Garreth Halt.”

“Rachel.” She deliberately left out her last name, enjoying the anonymity of chatting with a stranger who knew nothing about her. When she placed her palm against his and his fingers curled around hers, shivers rocked her hand. Dear God, could she please drag him to her room and have her way with him?

Er, probably better to stick around and make small talk. She’d known him all of five minutes. Jumping him now would hardly be appropriate. Or maybe it would be? Maybe if she jumped Garreth she wouldn’t have to think about Jackson.

She chose the small-talk option. “You visiting from the States, Garreth?”

He shook his head. “I’m Canadian. Heading back to Toronto in a couple of weeks.”

See? She could do the light chatter thing and not feel compelled to haul him off to her chalet. “Enjoying Australia so far?”

His eyes glinted. “Well enough. Although I’m not a tourist. I’ve been living here for the last two years.”

“In Leura?” she asked, referring to the closest village to the hotel.

He shook his head. “Nope. Brisbane. This is my first trip to the Blue Mountains.”

“Brisbane, huh? I lived there almost my whole life.”

“It’s a small world,” Garreth said thoughtfully. “Where do you live now?”

“Sydney. Been there over two years. It’s good to escape from the city for a while though. Isn’t it beautiful here?”

He grinned at her. “Let’s just say the mountains became a whole lot more interesting in the last few minutes…”

She laughed out loud. “You really are flirting, aren’t you?” And was she ever responding. A tingling awareness flowed through her, an open recognition of the energy that crackled between them.

“Is it working?” he drawled earnestly.

She pretended to think about her answer. No need for him to know just yet that her belly was already quivering in anticipation. “I’m not sure. Maybe you should try a little harder.”

“You know, we could skip the flirting part altogether and head straight into heated kisses beside a roaring fire.”

Damned if her heart didn’t miss a beat. “We could.” But she couldn’t be that easy. Could she? She and Paul had only split up six weeks ago. “Or I could read my book and pretend you’re not really here.”

“You could.” He nodded. “But heated kisses beside a roaring fire would be a lot more entertaining for both of us.”

Entertaining? Hell, forget the fireplace, the two of them would probably ignite flames of their own together. “For all the other hotel guests too. I bet they’d get a kick out of watching.”

Humor sparkled in his eyes, and something else. Desire? Hunger? Or maybe raw lust?

Nah, the raw lust was radiating from her, not him.

He lowered his voice. “If it’s privacy you’re wanting, there’s a fireplace in my chalet.”

Heated kisses beside a roaring fire in the privacy of his hotel room? With a Canadian she’d never see again? A man she could spend her passion with and move on. Damn, there was very little that appealed more.

Okay, so maybe there was something that appealed more. Jackson.

Yeah, didn’t matter how much Jackson appealed, nothing else could ever happen between them. Not without causing Jackson’s sister untold heartache.

“If I’d wanted privacy, I’d never have invited you to sit here,” she pointed out logically.

“Tell me you’re not regretting the invitation?”

She nibbled on her lower lip. “Well, you do talk a lot…”

He shot her a purely wicked look. “Not when I’m in the middle of a heated kiss.”

“You talk a lot about kissing.” She didn’t mind one bit.

He nodded. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Since I first spied you in the lobby earlier.”

“You saw me earlier?” How could she not have noticed him?

“While I was checking in. You were on your way out. Dressed for a blizzard I might add.”

He’d noticed her attire? “I went for a walk. It was so cold there may as well have been a blizzard brewing.”

He shook his head. “You Australians have no idea about cold and blizzards.”

She let her gaze slide away from his face and down to his chest and shoulders. “We have no idea? Mate, you’re wearing a T-shirt.” A T-shirt he filled out beautifully. It hugged his broad shoulders and ended halfway down his upper arms, showcasing muscled biceps and golden flesh. “It’s three degrees Celsius out there, the mercury’s plummeting, and you’re wearing a T-shirt.”

“We’re indoors. There’s a fire. It’s warm.”

Was he nuts? “It’s warm here and now. But the sun’s going down. Soon as it sets, the temperature will drop below freezing.”

“Not a prob. I have a sweater for when I go out.”


A
sweater?” One sweater? She had two jackets, an assortment of jumpers, three sweaters and a cardigan—and those were just for a three-day trip.

“It’s enough.”

“You’re crazy.” Gorgeous, ridiculously sexy and crazy.

“You’re cold?”

“I’m always cold in winter.” God, she missed the sun-drenched days of summer.

“You know, in Canada we have a brilliant system for keeping warm.”

“Ducted heating. I know.”

“Actually, I was talking about sex.”

His answer was so unexpected she laughed out loud. “Sex, huh?” Dear Lord, she wanted to keep warm with Garreth, Canadian style. For sure it would take her mind off Jackson’s imminent arrival—and their checkered past. “Nope, sorry. We don’t have sex in Australia.”

He looked aghast. “Not even in the Blue Mountains?”

“Especially not in the Blue Mountains.”

He nodded gravely. “Ah. That’s a damn pity.”

“Don’t let it worry you. You’re going back to Toronto in a couple of weeks. I’m sure you’ll have plenty of sex then—even if it is summer and there won’t be any need to keep warm.”

“Maybe, but I was hoping to have sex with you, here in the Blue Mountains.”

Again she laughed, enjoying his witty repartee. Enjoying it almost as much as she enjoyed the tantalizing sparks that flickered between them. “Would you settle for a drink by the fireplace?”

He considered her question. “Depends which fireplace.”

“This one, right here.”

“How about the one in my room?”

She shook her head. “Nah. Too risky. I might have to fend off your heated kisses.” Yeah, right. If anything, he’d be the one fending her off. The longer they chatted, the more appetizing his lips became.

He grinned devilishly. “No might about it. Another red wine?” He motioned to her empty glass before signaling to a waiter.

She nodded and he ordered wine for her and a scotch for himself. “So, Rachel,” he said as soon as the waiter had left, “what is it you do when you’re not seducing men into kissing you beside roaring fires?”

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