Here's a tempting little tease of Last Sweet Surrender...just for you!
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The first sign of trouble should have been the teetering green head of iceberg lettuce that seemed poised to spill from the overstuffed fabric grocery bag.
But Lena Anderson hustled along with eyes only for the lovely snow drifts so perfect and white next to the wide sidewalk gracefully bending between charming, Alpine-style condo units. With a smile lurking on her lips, she breathed in the crisp air and admired the patches of brilliant blue sky peeking around fluffy alabaster clouds.
Lena’s second hint of disaster might have been the sporadic patches of ice missed by the salt so nicely thrown down by the condo resort’s diligent maintenance crew. But her focus was on the heavy burdens hanging on her arms.
She shifted the eight grocery sacks as they cut into the soft flesh of her arms and hands. She picked up the pace as it was still another fifty yards to the door of her unit, and the bags were as heavy as if they’d been packed with lead weights.
Laughter rang out and a blur of white whizzed by Lena’s cheek. That should have been the third sign.
Lena jerked back and squeaked as the wayward lettuce wobbled on the edge of the sack.
Lena glanced to the left and saw a small pack of teen boys all with snowballs poised and ready to rip. They waved and looked guilt free. To her right, she saw the other half of their squad with equally mischievous gleams in their eyes. They couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen.
She couldn’t help but grin back at them. Lord, she was such an easy target.
“No problem, boys,” Lena said with a cheery lilt in her voice and a choppy wave of her hand with her arm sagging under the array of sacks.
Her final sign was the outbreak of boyish giggles. Whoosh. Splat! A snow blob smacked her square between the shoulder blades. Snow and ice spattered. Lena stumbled and wobbled.
“Hey!” Little creeps, couldn’t they see she was overloaded with groceries?
A flurry of white spheres cluttered up the air, and Lena ducked her head down and hit her afterburner. Her legs went from trot to sprint.
She saw a shadow approaching, and she squinted up. A tall mass in dark gray loomed right up in front of her. She caught a blur of longish, dark blond beard and sleek sunglasses.
She stutter-stepped. Ice. Her right foot skittered.
As she shuffled and slid, Lena’s arms flailed, heavy sacks collided and banged against her body. She heard the man shout out.
A frigid snow bomb exploded on the back of her head. Her booted foot took off, and the groceries vaulted through the crisp, wintery air.
The next thing she knew, she was lying flat on a frozen embankment. No air in her lungs. She tried to gasp, but nothing. She stared up at the patches of blue sky and wondered if this was it. She was a deflated pancake.
Seriously, was death by snowball a thing?
With a chest splintering whoosh, the blessed air swooped back into her.
Cough. Sputter. Wheeze. Moan.
“Hey, you shitty kids!” a deep voice yelled.
Lena studied the man in gray. He sounded pissed. What was he upset about? She was the one on the ground.
A flurry of feet pounding and thumping.
“Hey, dude! Chill, man!”
Lena raised up and saw a giant of a man holding an indignant teen by the back of his puffy blue jacket. Half a pair of sunglasses dangled off one ear of the gray hulk while the remains of a whopper snowball were packed in his beard.
“What’s wrong with you, punk? You and your buddies could’ve killed this lady.”
“Man, she looks okay to me,” replied the teen. He twitched and pulled away, but the giant’s iron grip didn’t budge.
“What’s wrong with you?” the man in gray said. “It’s icy. Anybody could slip and crack a skull. And all her groceries messed up, and my glasses are trashed. What were you thinking?”
The bearded man released the kid and let him thump down in the snow, but he kept a careful grip on the punk’s coat. A blood vessel pulsed on the big man’s temple.
“Apologize,” the man said in a voice of arctic steel.
Lena was startled at the anger simmering beneath the chill of his voice.
“Huh?” The teen swung his head back and forth between Lena and the furious man with wide, goggly eyes.
Lena choked back a laugh at the teen’s confused expression.
The man growled, and Lena felt a tremor of worry. He sounded like a leashed beast.
“Let me go, man. Dude, what’s wrong with you?”
“Who are your friends, little man?”
Lena sat up, and both her rescuer and the kid glanced her direction. Even in his thick coat, the teen was scrawny, a beaky nose and scattering of freckles were his only remarkable traits as his knit cap covered what must have been close-cropped hair. She idly wondered if it was ginger to match his pale complexion and freckles. She flicked her attention to the giant of a man who still held a handful of blue jacket.
Her heart skipped a beat. He towered over her and must have easily been almost six feet five. He was in body-skimming workout gear that revealed every rippling ab and each cut of biceps and triceps. Her breath caught at the top of her chest as if all the air had been knocked out of her again.
Behold the body of a Greek god. Warmth trickled through her veins, and she barely detected the chill of the snow seeping into the seat of her jeans. His eyes were slate-gray, and his eyelashes were stupidly long.
His jaw was covered up by his full, dirty blond beard but she could detect high cheekbones and a sleek, straight nose. But his eyes held all her attention. The eyes of a stormy, windswept ocean…so gray they were almost black.
Her Greek god stared back at her, she blinked once, and her fingertips twitched to reach out to him. The flinty anger in his eyes softened to a pearly gray as his gaze raked over her body. A small sigh trilled across her lips.
There was a flare of heat in his eyes and then a question. His mouth twitched as if he wished to speak. Lena flushed, but stared back as if mesmerized, like a rabbit caught in a snare. Finally, the spell broke, and she blinked.
“I’m fine,” Lena said.
“See, dude! She’s fine.” The teen wrestled to get free of the man’s grip.
The steely look flashed back into her rescuer’s eyes.
He tightened his hold on the back of the teen’s coat and raised him off the ground about an inch and rotated him in a small arc. The kid was all huddled up in his jacket with the zipper pressing into his throat.
“Her stuff is scattered everywhere. You and your buddies did that.”
The giant tossed the teen toward the snow, and the kid stumbled a few feet.
A protest formed on Lena’s lips.
“Now say you’re sorry and help her clean it all up,” the Greek god growled as he idly knocked a chunk of snow out of his beard, but his half a sunglass still dangled unnoticed from his ear.
The teen mumbled, ducked his head and started picking up cartons of yogurt that were scattered on the snowy ground.
The man offered Lena a gloved hand. Lena smiled tentatively and shook off the one remaining grocery bag lodged in the crook of her arm.
With a quick flex of his arm, he yanked Lena to her feet. His hand enveloped hers and held her steady until she was confident in her stance.
Lena’s jeans shifted, and a cold, wet spot on her tush sent a shiver up her spine.
“Better?” He had a low, rumbly voice that resonated in the cold air.
Lena stamped off the heaps of snow from her boots. A twinge of pain tweaked through her leg and butt. She shook her leg gingerly, but the ache seemed minor.
“No real damage,” Lena said. “I think the snow took the brunt of my fall. My foot skidded on that patch of ice but luckily I crash landed on the snow. No harm, no foul, I guess.”
The man in gray merely grunted and swatted at the busted shades dangling from his ear. He untangled the frames from his ear and stuffed them disgustedly in his pocket. They looked expensive. Spendy trash now unless there was some warranty, she thought idly.
No wonder he was grumpy. Lena shrugged.
Without another word, he picked up a sack and rapidly gathered the scattered fruits and the bedraggled head of lettuce.
From the corner of her eye, Lena saw the teen survey the back of the big man, then spring to his feet and launch his getaway.
There went one helper. Lena sighed.
At the pounding of the teen’s feet on the snow, the man straightened. One mighty curse word erupted out of his mouth as he dropped the bag of produce. The abused groceries spilled all over the snow again.
As if in a slow motion cut from a movie, the man flexed his fingers around the red orb in his palm and raised it appraisingly. With a single plump tomato cupped in his hand, the giant wound up and launched a fastball at the retreating miscreant.
Boing, squish! It bounced off the kid’s shoulder and splatted on the sandy gold building as the snowballer disappeared around the corner. With a fresh curse, her grouchy rescuer hit a full sprint in less than two seconds, and he too disappeared around the building.
Lena’s mouth fell open. That was one angry, determined dude.
Lena’s internal warning bells clanged in her brain. Irritation wa