Her Forever Hero (Unexpected Heroes), page 1
High praise for New York Times bestselling author
and her sizzling Unexpected Heroes series!
HER HOMETOWN HERO
“An engaging romance where feelings are expressed with sincerity and often plenty of spunk.”
“[Melody’s] books are always enjoyable reads.”
—The Hopeless Romantics Book Blog
WHO I AM WITH YOU
“The perfect read to give us the romance we want with characters that we like!”
—Two Classy Chics Chat
“This novella was the perfect quick romance that was packed with emotion, sincere characters, and sizzling hot romance.”
—Smut Book Junkie Book Reviews
HER UNEXPECTED HERO
“An engaging story of second chances and true love that will appeal to readers. A terrific sense of place brings the small-town Montana setting to life, and tackling the main characters’ pain head-on makes their eventual redemption that much more touching. The opening scenes are as surprising as they are riveting.”
—RT Book Reviews
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This final book in the Unexpected Heroes series is dedicated to my amazing and absolutely perfect daughter, Phoenix. I have been so blessed to have you in my life. You inspired me to begin this career when I didn’t think I could do it and you make the world a brighter place to live in because you are here. I love you with all my heart.
For those who think a book is written by the person printed on the cover, they are so very, very wrong. There are many people involved in the process of writing a book. Some of those people don’t even know how crucial they are to the story. As I take a walk down a country road and see a couple walking hand in hand, my mind wanders and I begin to create a story for them. Who are they? What have they gone through that leaves that secret smile on their lips as they look into each other’s eyes? What would be the first words they would use to describe their partner? So thank you to my small community of Harrisburg, for all of you who inspire me, stand beside me, and make me so grateful to be a country girl. The town of Sterling is very much modeled after my hometown.
And thank you to my team at Pocket Books for your faith in me, your encouragement, your support, and your enthusiasm and love of books. There are so many people behind the scenes who I get to meet only a couple of times a year, and I appreciate you so much. And there’s Lauren, who is encouraging and wonderful and makes me feel like there’s nothing I can’t do. And last, but most certainly not least, is Abby, my amazing, confident, funny, and encouraging editor. Thank you all so much for believing in me.
And thank you for the many who do so much for my career. Alison Parker, you have forced me to be a better writer and not to slack. Kathy D., you pimp me out all over the place and I love ya for it. And my team at InkSlinger, you do amazing!
Then there are those on my hometown team: my colleagues, my friends, and my family. Because you are one and the same. Adam, Eddie, Kathiey, Krisi, Jeff, Patsy, Breezy, Kyle, and Bethany, you work so hard, storyboard with me, help me create ideas, research things for endless hours, and do all those ridiculous things I ask, even when the text message comes at three in the morning. I love you all, and these stories wouldn’t happen without you.
And then of course there’s my patient husband, who will go days or even weeks with barely a glimpse of me, and my son and daughter, Johnathan and Phoenix, who I can’t imagine not knowing and loving and who make the world a better place. And to my kiddos: my nieces and nephews, and the kids I’ve chosen as family. You make me smile and remember it’s more than okay to stop and play. Because I get great ideas by doing that, too, and because I love you endlessly.
It was quite the welcome home. The railing and eaves of the porch were decorated thickly with spiderwebs, and weeds were doing their bit, too, creeping up between the now rickety boards to act almost like potted plants. Mother Nature had pulled out all the stops in her honor.
Grace picked up a dull gray stone, tossed it upward, then felt its expected weight as it landed back in the palm of her hand. She did the same thing over and over, her mind adrift and haunted.
Why was she here? Why was she tormenting herself?
Because she had nowhere else to go. Her life had been in shambles for the past ten years, ever since she’d left Sterling, Montana. She could fix up her childhood home. The spacious rooms could be cleaned, the rotten boards replaced, the cobwebs torn down. But she didn’t have any desire to live in a house—never a home—with no pleasant memories within its emotionless walls.
Her happiest times in Sterling had been outside this house, this mausoleum that had been her mother’s pride and joy. No, they hadn’t been the wealthiest family in town, but they’d had a lot, and Mrs. Sinclair felt true love for her possessions, especially the six-thousand-square-foot home now standing nearly empty before her daughter.
Her journey down memory lane—tiptoeing through the funeral tulips—wasn’t finished yet, though. Letting the rock drop to the ground, Grace pulled out her key and walked up the rickety steps, cautiously avoiding the sticky cobwebs. She tested the door handle, only to find it locked. She hoped the key still worked.
It took several tries but, by twisting it a little this way and that, she finally managed to get the lock to free itself, and then, with the help of a strong push, the door was swinging open. Sunlight filtered in through dust-coated windows, showing years’ worth of grime covering the floors, counters, and the few pieces of furniture that had been left behind.
“Somebody should call Better Homes & Gardens!” she said out loud to break through the gloom. It didn’t work.
Her father had said he wouldn’t sell the home, that someday she might want to return to it. This property had once belonged to her grandfather, and to her grandfather’s grandfather before that. They had moved to Sterling in the 1800s and had made a beautiful settlement for themselves.
Her mother had wanted to tear down the original homestead, a quaint one-room cabin with a woodstove and loft. Her father had refused and restored it instead. That was where Grace had created some of her best memories, because they had been outside the walls of her jail, the Big House. She and her best friend Sage had spent many nights sleeping in that small cabin, telling each other their hopes and dreams for the future.
Never had she thought back then that her life would turn out this way. Never had she thought she’d become a bitter, broken woman. No. She wasn’t broken. She was too strong for that. As soon as she had time to heal, she would be back to normal. Her zest for life would return, and she would once again show the world that Grace Sinclair was a fighter.
The old piano she had spent so many hours playing sat forlornly in the corner of the family room. Damn! Even thinking the word family made Grace laugh bitterly. Her father had once tried to be a good man, but he was so focused on making the next dollar for her mother that he wasn’t capable of real love, and her mother—well, her mother was the proverbial . . . okay, the Total Bitch of the West. Grace had tried to escape them every chance she got, once she’d learned that, on the outside, away from this house, real families existed. But her parents always managed to get their chains back around her, making sure she knew exactly the limits of her freedom.
Drawn to the piano, Grace trailed her fingers absently along its lid, smearing them with dust. She lifted the curved wooden cover of the ebony and ivory keys only to discover more filth. The instrument was out of tune, but it at least brought up good memories. She’d taken lessons her entire childhood, and although she was no master, she still enjoyed the soothing music a piano could create.
Sitting down on the bench, she hung her head. “It’s time for a new start. First of all, this house needs to go—though I think I’ll keep the piano,” she said aloud, her eyes closed as she fought emotion. There would never be a day she could live within these walls again, never a day she could start thinking of this house as her home. She’d rather live in the tiny cabin tucked in the trees behind this monstrous monument to hypocrisy.
“I remember when you used to play for me.”
Grace’s shoulders tensed, and she didn’t need to turn around to see who had walked in uninvited and unannounced. That voice had lived only in her dreams since the day he had so coldly walked out of her life. Camden Whitman, her first and probably only true love.
She stared at the dusty keys of the piano, unwilling to face him. “What are you doing here, Cam?”
“My dad told me you were coming back to town. Maggie Winchester said she spotted your car heading out this way.”
From the sound of his voice, she could tell he was standing at a distance, probably in the entryway to the room. So he hadn’t stepped inside yet. She turned slowly and looked him in the eye for the first time in many years.
“I forgot what it was like to live in a small town. There’s no such thing as privacy,” she said acerbically.
And then their eyes met and something shifted deep within her. Only one person had ever made her feel an unquenchable love that consumed the entire heart, and what a fool she’d been to think time and distance would make that feeling go away. Not even another lover had diminished the feeling.
Even worse was knowing that, although his features might appear composed to anyone else, she once had known his soul, and for one unguarded fraction of a second she saw surprise leap into his expression before he snapped the shutters closed and gave her a cool, nearly mocking look.
The moment was so brief that she wondered if maybe her heart was asking her to see something that really wasn’t there. Maybe her traitorous emotions were just reaching for something familiar.
To ward off the pain, she allowed all-too-familiar anger to pour through her fragile bones. How many times and in how many ways had she tried to forget this man? And in a single millisecond, all of that hard work almost came to naught when she misread something in Cam’s eyes.
One look at him had slid back the bolt she’d placed on her heart. Although she’d called him a liar, a cheater, a heartbreaker, it was really she who deserved to be scolded, because she was the biggest liar of them all. She’d lied to herself for years, almost enough that she’d started believing those lies.
The velvety sound of his voice slowly brought her back from her grim thoughts. “That’s certainly true. You can’t do anything here without it being broadcast at full volume by morning light.” His tone was light, careless. That was Cam—the life of the party, and everyone’s best friend.
He was also the guy who’d decided she just wasn’t good enough for him.
“It’s good to see you, Grace. I’ve missed you.”
She stared at him incredulously for a few heartbeats, before her lips curled into a smirk. The lyrics of an old Rihanna hit, “Take a Bow,” flooded her mind. He certainly was good at putting on a show, but she wouldn’t be fooled by him ever again.
“Well, now that you’ve seen me, you can go,” she replied, syrupy-sweet sarcasm in her voice.
“Have you spoken to anyone since you’ve been back?”
“Do you listen when I speak?” she countered.
“I haven’t spoken to you in nearly ten years, so I guess we’ll find out.” He leaned against the doorframe and smiled, the smile that had haunted her for so long.
“No. I haven’t spoken to anyone because I haven’t been ready to announce my return.”
“Are you staying?”
“That’s really none of your business,” she told him.
Without taking notice of her clear dismissal, he told her, “I’m meeting a client at the offices in an hour, but I should be out of there by five. Why don’t I pick you up and bring you to my dad’s so you can visit with everyone? I’m sure they’ll be more than thrilled to see you.”
“Not gonna happen.”
He stared at her quizzically for a few seconds before speaking. “Come on, Grace. You’ve been gone a long time. The prom queen is back, and you know your court will want to hold a ball.”
He thought he was so amusing.
“It’s funny you should mention that particular event, considering you promised to come back and take me to the dance. But your new girlfriend most certainly wouldn’t have approved of that. No, you had become a college stud by that point.” The bitterness in her tone gave away far more than she wanted, but she couldn’t rein her feelings in. Her heart thudded like a galloping Thoroughbred at the chance to say what she’d bottled up all these years.
“That was a long time ago, Grace. I think we’re both mature enough to let bygones be bygones.”
“I don’t forget anything, Cam.”
“We were young and foolish back then, and both of us made mistakes. It doesn’t mean we can’t be friends now,” he said, and took a step toward her.
No. That wasn’t what she wanted. She needed him to retreat, not come closer.
“That’s exactly what it means, Cam. I don’t want to sit around having idle chitchat, I don’t want to reminisce about the past, and I don’t want to be friends with you.”
“What happened to the girl who used to laugh and dream and always reach for the stars?” he replied.
“That girl has been dead and gone for a long time,” she said, her voice firm, her manner stiff. “If she ever really existed in the first place. You can see yourself out.” With that, she turned back to the lonely piano and once again sat on the hard bench. Even when she heard his steps retreating down the porch stairs, she refused to look.
Grace’s shoulders sagged once she knew he was gone. Coming back hadn’t been a good idea—not a good idea at all. Camden Whitman still had far too much pull over her emotions. But hell would freeze over before she ever let him know that.
SIX MONTHS LATER
“You know, it’s customary for the best man and maid of honor to dance.”
Grace was grateful for the few glasses of champagne she’d managed to down before the music and dancing had begun at Spence and Sage’s wedding. Because with Cam in a tux standing before her with his hand out, she felt her insides melt.
All day she hadn’t been able to tear her gaze away from him, and now she was expected to fall into his arms for a romantic song. “Could I Have This Dance” by Anne Murray began playing and a shudder passed through Grace.
She didn’t get a chance to say yes or no. Suddenly she was in Cam’s arms and, dammit all, it was exactly where she wanted and needed to be.
“As we swayed to the music . . . I fell in love with you . . .”
“Don’t sing to me, Cam,” she insisted, her emotions rocky at best.
“I happen to love this song,” he told her as he dipped her backward, his arms cradling her before he lifted her back up and pulled her in tight. When his fingers slipped downward and massaged the top of her butt, moist heat flowed through her, forcing her to stifle a groan.
So being more bold than she’d ever been before, Grace decided to take the romance away from this situation—romance she couldn’t handle, sex she could—and she reached between their bodies and lightly rubbed her fingers across his bulging pants. He went stock-still as she reached up and whispered against his ear.
“Let’s get out of here, Cam.”
Cam immediately looked up, ensuring that no one was paying attention to them, and then the dance stopped as he grabbed her hand and led her from the dance floor, and didn’t quit moving until he found a secluded gazebo about a hundred yards away from the party.
It wasn’t far enough, but at least she could get a small taste, have his lips caress hers in privacy, have something to help relieve the ache inside her before they moved on. Without a word, his hand slid down her side and then moved below the hem of her short dress and began traveling upward until his fingers brushed against her silky panties.
She groaned against his neck as she felt her body respond. It wouldn’t take much to fall over the edge if he continued caressing her the way he was.
“You are so wet already,” he groaned before making her whimper as he pulled away.
“Don’t stop, Cam. Please,” Grace begged him.
“We need to get farther away, Grace,” he cried out as she reached down and grabbed his thickness through the pants. She couldn’t go any farther. She needed him now.
Dropping to her knees, she undid his belt, loving the panting that was escaping his throat as he tried desperately to remain quiet, fearful of them getting caught. That was only adding to her excitement.
Finally, she undid his button and pulled the zipper down, and when she freed him of his tux pants, she was the one panting. So solid. So thick. So hot. When she swept her tongue across his head and tasted the bead of moisture there, she had to squeeze her thighs together, she was so turned on. The pressure was almost too much to bear.
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