A Gold Star wife...
Ellie Meeks promised her pilot husband that if he was killed in combat, she would live her life to the fullest. Three years later, she is still alone, raising the twins he never met. She has no interest in dating or meeting men—until one snowy night when a stranger helps her get her sick kids safely home. That stranger turns out to be a former Army Ranger and a member of the elite Rocky Mountain Search & Rescue Team. He’s also tall, rugged… and irresistibly sexy.
All it takes is one kiss…
Jesse Moretti came to Colorado to get Iraq out of his head, using the adrenaline of extreme sports and high-risk mountain rescues to keep his mind off the past. But getting involved with Ellie might be the riskiest thing he’s ever done. It’s not just their explosive chemistry. There’s something about Ellie that gets inside him, opening him to feelings he’s tried hard to ignore.
When passion ignites…
Ellie feels alive in Jesse’s arms and happier than she ever thought she’d feel again. But their relationship comes at a price for him, and soon Ellie sees that she must help Jesse fight the demons of his past to protect the love of a lifetime—and save the heart of a hero.
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Read an excerpt below...
Jesse had turned off the water in the shower when his cell phone rang. He reached for a towel, strode naked into the living room, and grabbed the phone off the coffee table. His heart gave a hard knock when he saw the name on the display.
He answered. “Moretti.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Hi, Jesse. It’s Ellie. I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“It’s not quite my bedtime yet.” Tomorrow was his day off.
“I wanted to thank you for helping my sister this afternoon.” The nervousness in her voice told him this was not why she’d called.
“I was happy to do it.”
“Also, I appreciated your honesty. I know it’s not easy sometimes—you know, communication and relationships. Not that you and I are in a relationship or anything. I didn’t mean to suggest that.”
Okay, this was funny. “I got what you meant.”
“Anyway, I’m grateful we had a chance to talk today.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
“I wondered whether you’d like to come over for a glass of wine. The kids are asleep. I have scotch if you don’t like wine. I could make tea or coffee if you don’t drink alcohol. I just thought maybe we could ... get to know each other. You know, talk. And, just to be clear, I’m not suggesting anything else.”
So fucking was probably out. “Got it.”
“Would you like to come over?”
Hell, yes, he would. “Give me ten minutes to get dressed, and I’ll walk down. You caught me getting out of the shower.”
“Oh! Oh. Okay.” She cleared her throat. “See you in ten minutes.”
He ended the call and walked back to the bathroom, feeling a foot taller and energized. He towel-dried his hair, then slathered his face with shaving cream, and shaved away two days’ growth of beard.
Was it the kiss that had gotten to her? Had she been thinking about it all day the way he had?
You’d like to think so, wouldn’t you, dumbshit?
Forget kissing anyway. Ellie had said just talking.
Yeah, okay. Jesse could respect that.
He finished shaving, rinsed his face, and walked off to his bedroom to get dressed. He stared into his closet at the broad assortment of battered blue jeans, T-shirts, flannel shirts, sweaters, and climbing clothes he owned, and he found himself wondering what a classy woman like Ellie Meeks would like to see on a man.
She was married to an army pilot, remember?
Okay, right. She wouldn’t be expecting a skinny tie or pleated slacks. Besides, Jesse didn’t own anything like that anyway.
He pulled on a black T-shirt and slipped a gray flannel shirt on top of that. A clean pair of boxer briefs, some jeans without holes, and a pair of wool socks, and he was good to go. Just to be on the safe side, he tucked a condom into his pocket.
Yes, he’d heard what she’d said. Yes, he would respect her limits. But sometimes sex just happened. If it did, he wanted to be ready.
He put on his boots, slipped into his parka, then grabbed his keys and stepped out into the night.
Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!
Ellie stared at her reflection in horror. She had invited a man over to her house—and not just any man, but a sexy man who had kissed her today, her freaking neighbor!
What in God’s name was she supposed to wear?
Unable to decide, she scurried from her bedroom to her bathroom, brushed her hair, washed her face, and put on mascara. She was ready from the neck up, at least.
She hurried back to her bedroom and stared into her closet. Casual. She should keep it casual. It was nine o’clock on a weeknight, and they were getting together in her living room. What could be more casual than that?
She put on a clean pair of panties and her sexiest, pushiest push-up bra, then yanked her skinny black jeans off their hanger, put on a white lace camisole, and pulled her heather blue V-neck cashmere sweater over her head. She’d just smoothed her hair back into place when a knock came at the back door.
She gave herself a quick once-over in the mirror—and froze. Dan had given her this sweater for Christmas one year.
Panic shot through her.
She glanced at the wedding band on her finger. What the hell had she been thinking to invite Jesse over like this?
It was too late to change her clothes—too late to change what she’d set in motion.
She flicked off her bedroom light, hurried to the back door, and opened it. Every thought in her head vanished.
He smiled down at her, clean shaven and smelling of shampoo and fresh air, snow clinging to his jeans up to his knees. “Hey.”
“Hey.” She might have stood there staring at him if the air hadn’t been freezing cold. She stepped aside to make room for him. “Please, come in."
He did his best to stomp the snow off his boots outside, then stepped inside onto the little doormat. “The snow was a deeper than I thought.”
While he took off his boots, she grabbed a dish towel. “You can probably brush most of it off with this.”
“Thanks.” He set the dish towel on the table and slipped out of his parka, revealing a gray flannel shirt layered on top of a black T-shirt that stretched across the muscles of his chest.
She retrieved two red wine glasses from the cupboard, set them on the counter, and chose a bottle of shiraz from her wine rack, her mind racing for something conversational to say. “Did the rest of your day go well?”
She was amazed by how calm and collected she sounded. She hadn’t felt this nervous with a man since … well, she didn’t know when.
She glanced over her shoulder, saw he was brushing snow off his jeans.
“A kid hit a tree.”
What was he saying? Oh, yes. She’d asked him about his day.
“Ouch,” she managed to say. “Was he okay?”
She reached into the drawer where she kept the wine opener.
“He had a head injury. We evacuated him via helicopter.”
She turned, wine and corkscrew in hand, to find Jesse standing a few feet away, his gaze fixed on her. Her pulse skipped. “I forgot how big you are.”
An image of the bulge in his boxer briefs flashed into her mind.
Her cheeks burned. “Tall … I meant tall. You’re very tall.”
Without breaking eye contact, he took the wine bottle from her. “Let me.”
“Why did you join the Rangers?”
Jesse sat on one side of the sofa, while Ellie sat on the other, looking good enough to eat, her jeans and that fuzzy sweater hugging sweet curves, pink polish on her toenails, her hair hanging thick and blond to her shoulders. Until tonight, he hadn’t seen her up close without a bulky winter coat. He certainly wasn’t disappointed.
Wine had taken the rough edges off her nerves. She’d been so tense when he’d arrived that he’d made extra sure to keep his distance. And so here they were, on opposite ends of the sofa, just talking.
Not that he was complaining.
“I grew up in a tiny town in Louisiana. My grandfather, my uncles, my dad— they either worked on fishing boats or in the refineries. I just couldn’t do that. I wanted to get away, see the world, be a part of something bigger. I’d always been bigger and stronger than the other boys, so I figured I’d join the army, try for my Ranger tab, and kick some terrorist ass for Uncle Sam.”
“How did your family take that?”
“My mom yelled and cried and threatened to shoot me in the knee cap. Her son was not going to go overseas and die in some stupid war. My father took it as a rejection. He and I have never been close.” The truth was darker than that, but he didn’t want to ruin the mood. “I haven’t talked to him since my mother died. That was five years ago.”
“I’m sorry. Why did your mom die? She can’t have been that old.”
“Heart attack. It runs in her family.”
“Sorry.” Then Ellie smiled and shook her head, giving a tipsy little giggle.
“You wanted to escape from your small town—and you ended up in Scarlet.” That made her laugh.
He could see the humor. “Except that Scarlet is the gateway to the mountains, and there’s nothing small about them.”
She took another sip of wine. “What brought you to Colorado in the first place?”
“After I left the Rangers, I went to New Orleans to live near my sister, but I had a hard time getting back into the swing of civilian life.”
That was an understatement. He’d come back with a head full of death and rage and started drinking. He’d tried to get help from the VA, but the wait times had lasted longer than his sister’s patience. She’d given up on him.
Well, they’d never been close anyway.
“I’d seen pictures of the Rockies and came out to Colorado to try to get Afghanistan and Iraq out of my head. I fell in love with the mountains at first sight.”
He could still remember that moment when he’d caught his first glimpse of the high peaks with their glittering white summits. “I got my first climbing lesson a couple of days after seeing climbers in Eldorado Canyon State Park, and I was hooked.”
Climbing cleared his mind, cut through the wall that seemed to have grown up around his emotions, made him feel whole and human again.
Ellie stared wide-eyed at him. “You’ve only been climbing for a couple of years—and you made the Team?”
He nodded. “It was hard work. I climbed every day, no matter the weather. When I realized I needed a job if I wanted to stay, I took a spot on the trails crew at Scarlet Mountain Resort and then learned to ski that fall, hoping to land a spot on ski patrol.”
She was still staring. “You must be a natural athlete.”
“I guess we all have to be good at something.” Jesse was tired of talking about himself. “Why did you become a nurse?”
She shrugged. “Growing up with a father who was a doctor gave me an interest in the medical field. I wanted to be more directly involved with patient care, so I decided to be a nurse. I worked as a surgical nurse until …”
A shadow passed over her face.
“It’s okay, Ellie. You can talk about him.”
“I was a surgical nurse until Dan was killed. I had just learned that I was carrying twins. He was so excited. I was happy and a little scared. We talked about names over Skype. He liked Otis Henry for a boy’s name and Daisy Mae for a girl. I told him no way could I name a child Otis.” She laughed at this. “The Internet connection was lousy, but he had to go anyway. And then a few days later ... he was gone.”
Jesse knew the crushing weight of grief, knew how deeply it cut. Then he remembered that this was why he’d kept his distance from her all this time. He’d had his own grief to bear and had been certain he couldn’t shoulder any part of hers.
But now, sitting close to her like this and seeing the pain on her sweet face, it seemed as simple as reaching out and taking her hand.
“It must have been hard.” Jesse’s voice was soothing, his hand warm. “What about Dan’s parents? Did they help?”
Ellie shook her head. “They never liked me. They’re still angry at me for following his wishes and not putting a cross on his headstone.”
“They got angry at you for following his last wishes?”
She nodded. “They wanted me to bury him in Florida, where they live now, but I refused. I rarely hear from them.”
Ellie twined her fingers with his and held on. “Claire came out to stay with me. If it hadn’t been for her …”
She hadn’t meant to talk about this. She didn’t want to dump this on Jesse. But now that she had started, she couldn’t stop. “I had him buried at Arlington. I felt he deserved that honor. My sister helped me sell our house and move back to Scarlet. I knew I would need help during my pregnancy and after the twins were born. But nothing felt real to me, not even my babies. I would go to my prenatal appointments, listen to their heartbeats, and it all felt…”
“Like it was happening to someone else,” Jesse finished for her.
Her gaze snapped to his. “Exactly.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that he was empathetic for a man, but even with the two glasses of wine she’d had, she knew that sounded patronizing.
“When I reached thirty-six weeks, I started having contractions. I chose a C-section. I was so afraid something might go wrong. I couldn’t lose them, too. One minute I had a huge belly, and the next there were two crying babies. Daniel looked so much like his father. I wish Dan had lived to see them.” Her throat went tight, and she blinked back tears. “Sorry. I didn’t mean…”
Jesse leaned forward, wiped a tear from her cheek. “Hey, don’t apologize.”
She looked up, saw the concern in his eyes—and slid into his embrace.
For a time, he just held her, his strong body a refuge, one big hand caressing her hair. Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was his scent. Maybe it was the feel of him. Ellie couldn’t say. Slowly her grief faded, replaced by an altogether different emotion.
She looked up, ran her thumb over the fullness of his lower lip. From there it was so easy. She leaned forward and lifted her lips to his.
He sucked in a quick breath, but he didn’t pull away. “Ellie.You said talk only.”
“I changed my mind. Kiss me.”
He drew back, and for a moment she thought he was leaving. Instead, he took the wine glass from her hand and set it beside his on the coffee table. Then he was back, his eyes looking into hers, so serious. He cupped her cheek. “Are you sure?”
Hell, yes, she was sure. “Kiss me.”