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 was fine…but why on earth was he so furious? Greek god, indeed. More like Mr. Anger Management Issues, Lena thought with a scowl.
What would have happened if he’d had a can of corn in his hand? Would he have thrown that fastball anyway? The poor kid would’ve needed a trip to the ER!
Mr. Anger Management was a menace. Echoes of old, hateful voices filled her ears. The hurtful words of her mother. The withering barbs from her husband. Temper was dangerous.
The sunlight dimmed, and Lena shivered as the sun dipped below the top of the three-story buildings.
With a whoosh of air to dispel the knot of worry in her belly, Lena cleared her mind and chased off thoughts of angry men. Those miserable people were long gone now. There was nothing to fear.
Lena stood by herself in the fading light of the setting December sun with her groceries dumped haphazardly over the courtyard. She propped her arms on her hips, and her booted foot tapped the snow in a muffled staccato.
The bearded dude was missing in action. Of course. No one to help clean up now. The guys run off and go all Rambo and testosterone-y. Stupid, gorgeous rescue dude. He was supposed to stick around and help. Whatever. She was used to cleaning up messes.
Lena stomped around the snow with a scowl pulling down the corners of her mouth. She chucked the random bits and pieces of her grocery trip into the tattered bags. The bananas were already showing black bruises through the thick yellow skin, and two of the apples had gouges ripped through the red skin revealing the creamy white flesh beneath.
“Rotten punks,” Lena grumbled.
A snowball prank gone bad. She wondered if the kid and his friends were locals here in Vail or if they were staying with family for the holidays in the condo resort. No matter what, they’d make themselves scarce now!
With a sigh, she scooped up the last of the scattered juice boxes that were her daughter’s favorite and conjured a smile. No real damage. Only her dignity and maybe ten dollars of lost organic produce.
“Still need help?”
A deep, manly voice interrupted her thoughts. Lena turned and lo and behold it was Mr. Anger Management Issues, aka the Greek god. Yep. He still had those amazing flinty dark eyes. She glanced away as irritation buzzed between her ears. It was a little late to pick up the mess.
“As you can see, I’ve picked up all ten bags worth of groceries, thank you very much.” Lena’s tone was tart. “Did you bag your miscreant? Bring him up on federal charges? Or did he outwit you and make it safely over the border?”
Mr. Anger Management lurched back as if she’d pushed him, and his eyebrows flew up in confusion. His helpful look disintegrated into annoyance.
“I see your attitude is about as soggy as the ass of your jeans.”
Lena glared and felt her fingers itching to flip him off. She fought off the childish urge. Zen. Remember your happy place. Anger resolved nothing. Right?
“I’d been hoping that you might’ve stuck around to help clean up the carnage, but don’t worry, I have it under control.” Lena planted a beatific smile on her lips and made sure her eyes purred forth her contented state. She was not angry. In fact, she was rather amused, right? She squelched her annoyance with his smug expression and superior attitude.
“My specialty isn’t clean up,” he said. “I made sure the kids quit their attack. That was a hell of a squeal when you landed. I thought you’d broken something.”
Lena bristled. Squeal! Like a piglet? Jerk. She was so done with this man.
Lena straightened up like a poker, swung around and marched down the path to her unit.
“Here, hand me some of those,” Mr. Anger Management said.
He was one step behind her. Lena ignored him.
“Don’t get all offended,” he said, and his voice sounded like he was cajoling a three-year-old. “Someone offers to help, and you get all uppity.”
He grasped her shoulder, and she shot him a frozen look. He let it drop away.
“Hey, I’m your next-door neighbor. Not some random creep. Let me help you get these to your place. I can see you’re limping.”
Lena hesitated and stared at all the bags crammed onto her arms and the straps creasing the fabric of her jacket. The giant extended his hands again.
“Come on, let me help,” he said. “I’m Jax.”
His words should have soothed her ruffled feelings, but they didn’t. His tone was peremptory, and his body language was overbearing. He set her teeth on edge.
Lena didn’t let her smile waver and said at her sweetest, but with a hint of underlying steel, “Don’t worry, big guy. I got this. A well-aimed snowball isn’t going to spoil my day. I’m perfectly able to walk a few more yards to my doorstep. I’m fine on my own.”
With a flounce of hair and a lifted chin, she sauntered down the path. She picked up her pace but was careful to go easy. The last thing she needed was another spill right in front of Jax, the arrogant rescuer.
With her lips pressed firmly together, Lena held off a wince. A dagger of pain shot through right derriere cheek. He was right, she was limping.
Crap. She slowed, and she knew Jax’s gaze was drilling into her back. A little more and she’d be at the steps of her rental unit. Don’t look back, don’t look back. Her foot slid a few inches on slick ice. She flung her arms out for some extra balance, and the blasted lettuce trembled precariously.
Lena tipped back with her arm waving crazily. Her foot took off. She squawked like a plucked chicken and careened sideways into a large, spiky shrubbery.
Jax’s laughter echoed through the courtyard.
“Stubborn wench,” Jax said with an oh-so-superior tone.
Temper and humiliation warred in her heart. A hot, stinging tear threaten to spill over. She squeezed her eyes tight and willed away the weakness.
“Open your eyes,” Jax commanded. “Quit pretending I’m not here.”
Lena popped her eyes open and glared. “I’m fine. Go away.”
Jax chuckled again. “You managed to keep all the bags intact this time, but the shrub kind of took it in the shorts.”
“Shut up and leave me alone.”
Jax smiled maddeningly.
Lena raised up, but the sharp spines of the bush yarded her back. It pulled at her jacket in a dozen spots, and her knit cap was completely held hostage.
Jax towered over her with a smirk on that ridiculously handsome, chiseled face.
“Give me the bags, and then I’ll help you up.”
She wrestled against the spiny octopus and knew she must look like a stranded sea turtle with flippers a flailing.
“Fine!” Lena glared up at Jax but released the bags.
As he scooped them all up in one hand, Lena gawked. He was a big man.
With a quick swipe, Jax grabbed the front of her puffy jacket and pulled her out of the sea beast of a shrub. She could hear the fabric of her coat ripping and her knit cap succumbed to the wrath of the thorny shrub. The cap dangled by one knit loop on the smashed greenery.
Jax held her dangling in the air for a microsecond, and Lena squished the protest begging to burst through her lips. She cursed her five-feet-two frame and held still. She would not let her feet wiggle or dangle in the air. She was not a trophy salmon to be held on display. What an asshat.
Lena focused on his face. He was muscle-y and gorgeous. Her heart lurched. Was it somehow more humiliating that her two-time rescuer was so dazzling? His mouth was curved in a sardonic smile, and she bit back the urge to let her fingertips whisper across his full lips. Her breath caught and for a moment, it seemed as if Jax was leaning closer too.
Jax’s gaze was steady and questioning. She was lost in the deep gray and the hint of a promise. For a moment, there was a peaceful quiet in them. As if she’d found a safe resting place. A haven from the hectic world. She was at home. One side of her mouth crept up in a slow smile. Almost of recognition.
Jax blinked once and surprise rippled across his face.
The front door of Lena’s condo flew open and a fair-haired moppet popped into view. She was arrayed in pink leggings, a lime green tulle tutu, an orange and white striped pullover sweater, and a pair of fuzzy cream-colored boots.
Jax couldn’t help but grin at the small elf who seemed to be no more than five or six. With a brief blink of her long lashes, the elf stared at Jax.