The Rebel’s Redemption (aka His Kiss)

After a motorcycle accident and subsequent alcohol abuse, Jeremy Engel has managed to claw his way back from the dark depths of personal hell. He’s now a successful comic book author working on his second book, and when the woman he met while on a rare getaway—the one he hasn’t been able to forget—opens a shop in his neck of the woods, he thinks he’s even learned to trust and hope again.

Elizabeth Desmond may have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but she’s determined to make a success of her shop in the Adirondack tourist town of Lake Placid. And just when she thinks it can’t get any better, the mysterious stranger she kissed on a moonlit resort beach walks back into her life.

But when Jeremy’s old demons return, it’s up to Elizabeth to show him they’re not so different after all….

Enjoy an Excerpt

Chapter One

Hi, my name is Jeremy. I’m twenty-nine and I’m an alcoholic.

Jeremy wiped a hand across his chin on the way out of his sister’s wedding reception. Might as well have the label pinned to his chest like a scarlet letter. Once a drunk, always a drunk. Even though he hadn’t had a drop of the stuff in thirty-nine months, six days, and—he checked his watch—fourteen hours, he was always on alert to avoid the slippery descent into his personal hell. He knew the stats and he wasn’t about to lose all he’d worked so hard to regain.

Trust.

Respect.

A life worth living.

Winding his way through La Bella Vita, Sagamore’s elegant Italian restaurant adjacent to the reception space, Jeremy nodded at quiet couples enjoying late night dinners while Sinatra crooned in the background. He headed into the short red-carpeted hallway and was rounding the corner toward the reception desk when a woman’s giggle stopped him in his tracks.

He cursed.

Unable to breathe, unable to think, he swung his gaze around the foyer to pinpoint the source of the eerie, familiar laugh.

It rang out again.

He spun around. The elevator. Shaking from the onslaught of memories, he strode toward the gold-paneled elevator.

Inside were two couples. He got a good look at the men in front—maybe a father and son?— but only a partial view of an older woman he didn’t recognize and nothing of the other, hidden by the broad young man on the far side. The doors slid closed.

Jeremy clenched his fists and his breath escaped in a frustrated hiss.

“Do you need something, sir?”

He glanced up to find a receptionist staring at him wide-eyed, her hand on a desk phone as if prepared to contact resort security.

“No. I’m good.” He stifled a snort of self-derision. Sure, he was fine for a man who wrapped his grief around him like a cloak, shutting everyone out for the past six years. Aside from the girl he’d proposed to, no one knew he’d once been engaged. The fact that she hadn’t shouted it from the top of Starling Mountain should have been his first clue she’d never had any intention of marrying him. She hadn’t even liked his ring enough to keep it, since he’d come across it a few months later in one of the dozens of pawn shops he’d visited on his quest for the stolen brooch.

But that was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to Ashleigh Warrington’s deceit.

“Are you certain you don’t need anything, sir?” This time the receptionist’s eyes and tone held warm invitation instead of wariness.

“I’m good.” He glanced at her. She was attractive, but he could tell by the hopeful expression on her face she wanted more than he could offer. He liked his life simple. Sex was simple. Relationships were not.

“Are you sure?”

The ding of the elevator returning to the ground floor saved him from having to make further conversation. He had planned to go to his suite and change out of the monkey suit he was wearing before he headed outside for his evening walk, but for some reason he couldn’t wait any longer. He needed fresh air now. If he didn’t, the memories would consume him.

Stepping away from the elevator, he turned for the exit that led to the lake. He tore at the starched collar to loosen his tie, gulping in the cool, summer night air.

Ashleigh had been his first love, his first mistake. He’d made many missteps since then, but he’d also begun to succeed. He wrote what he loved and was starting to carve a career out of it, becoming happy and whole again.

He had almost let her win, destroy his soul. But he had prevailed.

He followed the walkway splitting the velvet lawn that sloped down to the moonlit lake, guided by garden lights. He veered to the right, away from the dance music and people milling on the deck of the outdoor bar. Feeling the pull of the water, he followed the path to a short stairway leading to the narrow strip of man-made beach instead of continuing along the walkway that looped around the main building. During the day, guests would pack the waterfront, eager to participate in water sports—tubing, parasailing, and swimming—but for now he had the place all to himself.

It was just what he needed.

*

Elizabeth Marie Desmond gazed up at the ebony sky dotted with glittering stars and sighed, tipping her head back on the beach chair where she’d plopped fifteen minutes ago. Her grandparents’ golden anniversary celebration had been incredible, the perfect way to launch another memorable upstate summer filled with fun and family.

Until the attempted matchmaking had begun.

She sighed. Donovan Fitzgerald wasn’t a bad guy, but he was like all the others she had dated through high school and while studying at Harvard, eager to impress her and more than a little intimidated by her family’s name. No wonder she’d found it easy to skip the dating scene after grad school and focus solely on her career. She wanted more out of a relationship than merging healthy bank accounts.

Elizabeth wanted a relationship like her parents had, one filled with romance and excitement and fun. After searching for it the first few years of college, striving to be perfect so she could attract the perfect man, she had almost lost everything.

She had chosen a wait-and-see attitude ever since, but that hadn’t worked either, considering the big three-o was around the corner and she was still very much single.

That was how she ended up here, sitting on a secluded beach drinking alone instead of partying with her two younger sisters. She needed to reflect and make a new game plan when it came to her personal life.

She dug a hole in the sand with her espadrille, lost in her thoughts. She didn’t care for the idea of signing up with an online dating site, even though Claire had pointed out it had worked for a few of her girlfriends, and she didn’t want to meet any of Tory’s new single coworkers. Claire and Tory were right about one thing though. Her life was off-balance. That realization had hit her between the eyes. She couldn’t make the same mistake twice. She’d barely survived her last obsession. She’d spend the summer getting her life back on an even keel, having fun and socializing when she wasn’t working. Maybe it was time to look beyond her usual sphere of men, find someone outside her family’s circle, guys who wouldn’t be influenced or distracted by her family name. Who knew? Maybe she’d get lucky and find someone to love her for her.

Pebbles crunched nearby.

Holding her breath, her mind ping-ponging between whether to fight or flee, Elizabeth stared at the corner of the high, stone wall and fingered the rape whistle Tory had thrust in her hand before agreeing to let her come here alone.

A tall figure appeared, the man’s features illuminated by the brilliant moon.

Was that surprise on the stranger’s face? Air rushed out of her lungs and she tucked the whistle into her shorts pocket.

He had stopped and was beginning to turn away, as if he intended to retrace his steps, but then shook his head of longish, blond hair and faced her once more. One hand stuffed casually in a trouser pocket, he indicated the empty beach chair next to hers with the other. “Seat taken?”

She shook her head, intrigued, watching him from behind the veil of her long brown hair.

He sat, long legs sprawled in front of him, toes of black dress shoes dipping into the sand. He clasped his hands—no sign of a wedding ring—behind his head and heaved a long sigh. His cologne wafted by on the night air.

Delicious warmth spread through her fluttery stomach. “Beautiful night.”

He was quiet beside her, with only the gentle lapping of the waves and distant beat of dance music from the bar to fill the silence.

She tried again. “What brings you to the Sagamore? I heard there were three celebrations here tonight. I assume you must have been at one of the weddings. Did you have a nice evening?” She glanced at his suit. Armani? Hugo Boss? No.

He gazed at the open night sky without so much as glancing her way. “I hate small talk.”

A shiver of awareness ran through her at the deep timbre of his voice. This man was definitely different.

She took a calming breath. “Highly overrated, although it’s likely a necessary evil.”

He continued to stare at the twinkling lights overhead. “How’s that?”

She followed his gaze and breathed in nature’s beauty. “If we don’t do the small talk, get to know people on the surface, how will we ever know whether they interest us enough to enjoy their company at a deeper level?”

She turned to peer at his profile against the dark background. “I mean, don’t you think it’s kind of odd when a person you’ve just met tells you their life story?”

He scrubbed a day’s growth of stubble thoughtfully. “I’d much prefer that to meaningless descriptions of the weather or feeling required to ask a relative stranger about their day. Frankly, I don’t care and can’t really do anything about the other person’s emotional state even if I was the empathetic sort. Why not skip it all and get to the meat of it? Time’s too precious to waste on the insignificant.” He paused. “Like when I’m writing, I dive as late into the action as possible then get out as soon as the important part of the exchange is finished.”

She nodded, absorbing that tidbit of information. So…the stranger was a writer, an artist of words, polar opposite to her, a no-nonsense entrepreneur. “No set up, no slow build-up, or getting to know the characters?”

“I weave that in through dialogue and description.” He shook his head. “I prefer to immerse the reader in the conflict straight off. It’s the honest thing to do.” He turned to her with a smile that could melt an Adirondack pond in February. “No warming up period necessary.”

She thrilled at the increasing tug she felt toward the stranger sitting beside her, the unfamiliar tingle up her thighs and the slow, pulsing growing need within her core. This stranger, this man left her feeling anything but uninspired.

She squeezed her knees together and struggled to focus on their intellectual exchange as opposed to her visceral response. “Maybe that works for fiction, but in the real world I prefer to get to know people gradually, peel back the layers of their personality, their history. I haven’t read much lately because of my business, but perhaps I know your work?”

He scanned her from head to toe. “I doubt it.” His tone was sincere, his mouth turning upward into a suggestive smile. “You don’t look like a pre-teen to me.” He shifted toward her in his beach chair and locked eyes. “What do you do that keeps you so busy you can’t enjoy a good book?”

She tilted her head at him and smiled, pleased when she heard his quick intake of breath. Finally. He’d noticed her.

“I believe your question may qualify as small talk, but since you shared that you’re a writer, I suppose it’s only fair to tell you what I do.” She maintained eye contact as she sipped her wine, the black currant notes dancing along her taste buds and ending with a pleasant tannin finish. She’d bet her new store he tasted even better. “I own an online athletic retail shop.”

He drank her in with soulful, blue eyes and leaned forward. “I’d ask you its name but I don’t shop online or surf the internet much, takes away too much energy from my creativity.” His gaze fell to her mouth. “Although…I’d love to sap some of my energy with you.”

His invitation hung between them as she took a final, languid sip. His voice was sexy, deep and throaty with that upstate drawl so familiar to her from a lifetime of summers spent in the Adirondacks. He wore a white dress shirt under that black jacket and tie. Brooks Brothers? No. That wasn’t right either. Her breath caught at the back of her throat as the haze that had covered the moon for the past few moments passed, allowing the moon’s pale light to further reveal his features. His straight, blondish hair touched his starched collar and diamond studs glinted in each ear. He reminded her of her favorite Aussie country rocker, only a dozen or more years younger. She imagined, like the singer and guitarist, this local boy had tats.

She’d never talked to a bad boy. The man lounging next to her might be wearing a suit and tie, but it only accentuated his wildness. She took a shaky breath. Maybe he was the perfect guy for a night like tonight—an anonymous stranger—who didn’t need to know her name. She wanted to kiss him so badly she could taste it. He was everything free and masculine and tender and kind all rolled into one. How she knew that she couldn’t verbalize, but she shivered with awareness again, contemplating just how good it could be between them.

The sensible part of her was shocked at her train of thoughts. She knew nothing of the man’s background or his aspirations. But the independent, vibrant woman within her was cheering. Life was for the living, and she was alive. So what was she waiting for?

She set her empty glass in the sand beneath the chair and smiled at him, pushing away the last of her reservations. “For the sake of avoiding small talk and getting right to it, all I can think about are my lips on yours.”

“Well said.” He grinned.

She bit her lower lip in nervous anticipation. “The night’s too perfect to spoil with inconsequential details…like our names or day job demands or where we hail from.” Electricity thrummed between them, a tingle zipping through her while liquid heat pooled between her thighs. Was this the feeling she’d been missing her whole adult life? “Sooo…you mind if we kiss?”

“Not at all.” With that, he erased the millimeters of space still separating their lips, his touch soft and searching at first, getting to know her in that man-to-woman sort of way before moving in harder and more passionate.

She opened her mouth to him and their tongues tangled, their privacy protected by the beach’s high wall. His heat, surprisingly sweet, matched the expression she’d glimpsed in his silvery, blue eyes moments ago as he’d watched her swallow the last drops of her wine. She sighed, moving into his embrace as he leaned over the arm of his chair and caressed her shoulders, down the length of her bare arms. Don’t think. Just feel. She let her fingers roam through his silky mane, pulling him closer. She never wanted the kiss to end.

Chapter Two

Could he be dreaming?

As far as Jeremy was concerned, the only thing better than being alone to think on a starlit night was hanging out with a hot, smart chick who knew what she wanted. She obviously liked to keep life simple, too. He was one lucky son of a bitch. She made it easy for him, asking him for a kiss. How did she know he wanted to taste her mouth, touch her silky skin, and mold his body against hers like this? Their physical connection soothed the torment in his soul, drowned the memories that had bobbed to the surface upon hearing that uncanny giggle back in the hotel.

By her eager response, he could tell…she wanted it, too.

Squelching his compulsion to understand what made women go crazy for the unattainable, he slid his lips over her cheek to the sensitive skin on the nape of her neck and nuzzled. Ahh. She smelled so damned good, feminine heat mixed with summer flowers. He inhaled and stifled a satisfied groan.

He couldn’t get enough of her spice and sweetness. Leaning forward, he explored the softness near her collarbone, nipping gently and enjoying her sighs of pleasure. He slid his hands beneath her thin tee along her smooth rib cage and up, his thumbs grazing the rounded weight of her breasts. Another welcomed sigh escaped her and the roaring in his ears grew. He shifted. If only they could rid of these chairs, slide their heated bodies into the cool sand and do what came naturally.

She moaned and pulled her lips from his, her dark eyes pooled with desire.

Yeah, she definitely wanted it, too. He pushed the hair back from her face, kissing her forehead before dipping his head lower so he could explore more of her delicious body, his hands sliding around her slim waist to cup her ass.

“Wait,” she breathed, placing her hands flat on his jacket, her eyes suddenly filled with more than pleasure.

“What’s wrong?” He wanted her, this incredible creature he’d stumbled upon alone in the dark. The universe wouldn’t be so cruel as to snatch her away before they found relief. Would it?

She gripped his lapels and stared at his chest. “This is…too much.”

He smiled and leaned forward, amazed at how eager he was to continue his lazy exploration. “Can never have too much of a good thing. Want another?” In recent years, he’d skipped foreplay as much as small talk, hooked up with women who wanted to get down and dirty without the pretense of romance. This one confused him. First she wanted it, now she was backing off.

She placed a hand on the center of his chest, her touch warm through the light fabric of his button-down. “I’m afraid I’m not as adventurous in my personal life as I am in my career.” She sighed. “As much as I want to go somewhere with you and…and see where this goes, I can’t.” She glanced up at him in the darkness, her eyes begging him to understand. Meanwhile, her fingers plucked restlessly at his shirt and her scent called him closer.

He gazed at her lips.

“I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to be a tease. I just can’t.” Her confession ended in a tortured whisper.

He looked down and swallowed. The outline of her nipples strained against the fabric of her shirt, making it difficult to concentrate on her words. “Can’t?”

“Won’t.” She smiled ruefully. “Don’t you see?” She leaned back, a ghost of a smile on her lips as she folded her hands primly in her lap. “I’m a good girl.”

“Who likes bad boys?” He laughed softly, tempted to lift her and pull her onto his lap but he couldn’t give in to his need, wanting to respect her wishes. He may be a bad boy who preferred bad girls, but he’d never force any woman against her will. His mother had taught him better than that.

She looked away. “Maybe I do.” Her voice held wonder.

“So what are we going to do about that?” Part of him still wanted to change her mind, coax her into staying, and explore the fire between them some more.

She shook her head sadly. “Sorry.”

He leaned back into the beach chair once more and exhaled to release the tension. Her somber expression tugged at something deep inside, under the region of his solar plexus. “Look,” he said, “I had zero expectations when I set out on a stroll other than calming my mind. You—” He pointed between them. “This was a pleasant surprise.” He turned to watch the water lapping at the sand, reluctant to reveal his conflicted emotions. He wanted to know her, scratch the itch building within him, but it was too dangerous. If he didn’t send this nice girl packing he’d live to regret it.

The rational part of him knew that didn’t make any sense. They’d just met. Her hesitation about getting physical too fast was a blessing in disguise, keeping his heart and—ultimately—his sobriety safe.

Decision made, he stood and reached out a hand to pull her up. “At least let me walk you back to the resort.”

She hesitantly accepted his offer, her eyes flying up to meet his upon the contact of their bare flesh. “Thanks.”

He was at a loss. He’d only meant to let her brush against him when she stood, make her think twice about what she was passing up, but when their hands touched, something magical and memorable passed between them. It took all his strength not to haul her close and let down his guard.

“A bad boy and a gentleman.” She slipped her hand out of his and returning it quickly to the safety of her pocket.

The hand he’d held fit perfectly within his, like he imagined other more intimate parts of him would within her. He swallowed hard. “Things aren’t always what they seem.” He tore his gaze from hers before he did something foolish like cast away the last of his good intentions and ask for her name and number. It had been a lifetime since he’d felt so eager, past the point of want and hovering on the edge of need.

But the cost was too steep.

With every step along the narrow strip of beach, another wave of desire washed over him and he bit off a curse. Back toward reality, back toward his solitary life. That’s what I truly need. For a brief moment, he’d made the mistake of falling completely in sync with another person.

He’d known in an instant. She was dangerous. She could reach inside him. She could make him feel things he’d locked away and vowed never to feel again. She was special. If he’d been thinking straight, he would have turned around on the beach as soon as he laid eyes on her, walked back to his suite, and locked the door.

But it wasn’t too late. She had pulled away before he’d begun to care.

They reached the stairway, the music louder now. People at the bar would be able to see them standing under the glow of the tall lamp.

She must have realized it, too, racing up the steps before turning back to him, glancing at him sideways, her long, dark hair hiding one side of her flushed face. “Well, I’d say it was nice meeting you, but I won’t because, well, you know, that would constitute small talk.” She threw him a wistful smile over her shoulder as she jogged toward the bar, away from him, out of his life. He watched as two polished young women on the bar’s deck followed her progress. They wore trendy, designer clothes with a casual confidence he recognized from years as a Starling townie serving the Adirondack tourists. Her sisters?

He sighed. That was close. Not only was the woman he’d kissed on the beach as tempting to him as putting pen to paper, she was from a different world, one he’d never belong in no matter how long he tried.

He looked at his hand, the cool, night air having erased the heat and comfort of her touch and cursed before shoving it into a trouser pocket. He shook his head. Being away from his home was the problem, not the absence of the woman who’d held his hand. He ignored the sinking sensation in his middle and strode up the long hill to the resort, turning his thoughts to the chapter yet to be revised as he fingered the coins he always carried in his pocket.

*

Elizabeth stepped onto the deck of the crowded waterfront bar and scanned one preppy group after another until she spied her two younger sisters at a high, round table covered with the remains of chicken wings and half-finished cocktails.

Tory smiled at her, her expressive brown eyes wide, her face framed by shoulder-length, auburn curls. “You look rejuvenated—amazing what a little alone time can accomplish. That light in your eyes is amazing and your cheeks are so rosy. Wait, if I didn’t know better, I’d suspect—”

“Stop,” Elizabeth said.

Damn. They knew. She slunk onto the stool opposite them.

Claire sipped her mojito, her sleek, black hair tucked behind both ears. “We saw you with that guy. Why didn’t you invite him over?”

“Better yet, why didn’t you invite him to your suite?” Tory grinned.

“We talked.” Elizabeth stared at the bar menu on their table, reluctant to reveal any details quite yet. The experience was too new, too unexpected. She shifted on the seat of the stool. “It was nice.” She didn’t need to tell them she’d considered asking the man to join her but had dismissed the idea almost as soon as she had thought of it. He wasn’t the type of guy looking for a relationship so much as a hook up. As much as he tempted her, she couldn’t. Like she’d blurted out in her confusion, being next to him was overwhelming. And she was all about control. The guys she had once dated were too mild, this one too wild. She just needed to find a guy in the middle. A guy that turned her on without turning her inside out. A guy ready for a real, adult relationship, one complete with dating and slow, sweet sex and emotional intimacy. All she would ever share with that man would be a memory of a brief, interesting conversation and one phenomenal kiss.

“Are you with us, Elizabeth?”

She looked up. “Hmm?”

Tory planted a hand on her slender hip. “You buying that, Claire? You think all they did was talk? She doesn’t have a speck of lipstick left, and I can guess who’s wearing it now.”

Her youngest sister shook her head. “Truth.”

The two pinned their gazes on her.

Elizabeth pulled the borrowed items from her pocket and set them on the table. “There’s nothing to share.”

“C’mon,” Tory cajoled. “You’re dazed and confused. I’ve never seen you like this over a guy. You’ve got to tell us. What does he have that Donovan doesn’t? What did you two do?”

Elizabeth pressed her lips together.

“At least give up his name,” Claire pleaded.

“Don’t have it.” She stifled a sigh, sadness sweeping over her. She’d never see him again. She had no way of contacting him. Their promise to avoid small talk had eliminated that possibility.

“Drink?” Tory waved a hand in front of her.

“Yeah. Why not?” She nodded, pushing thoughts of finding her mystery man to the back of her mind. She could fantasize about those warm, demanding lips and how quickly her body had responded to their silent invitation later when she was alone in her bed. “This weekend is all about us, about celebrating.” She smiled to assure her younger sister she was back to being her staid, sensible self. “We’ll drink to Claire’s new personal best in the Boston Marathon, your Masters in business, and the first Body Gear Athletics store.”

“Aww, that race was months ago. Let’s focus on you guys. I can’t imagine sticking it out another two years of classes. Good for you,” Claire said, holding her drink up to cheer their middle sister before turning to her. “And it’s so romantic, isn’t it, opening your shop in the town where Mother and Dad fell in love?”

Elizabeth signaled the server passing by. “I know, right? Plus Gram and Gramps are living at Braiden Farm full-time now. I’ll be able to check in on them while Mother and Dad are on their Alaskan tour next month.”

“I almost wish I weren’t heading out so soon,” Claire said, referring to her upcoming training stint in Denver.

“I’ll be here to help out.” Tory wrapped an arm around their little sister’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. There will be plenty of time ahead for you to work your fingers to the bone. Enjoy your freedom.”

Claire’s brows furrowed. “But you two are free.”

Elizabeth remembered being so naïve. “Single, yes. Free, no. The business is a responsibility. I love it, wouldn’t trade it for the world, but these first few years I’ve ignored my personal life to make it a success.”

“That’s why you should have hooked up with that guy.” Tory nudged her in the side.

“Are you crazy?” Claire’s eyes went wide but a smile hovered at her lips. “He could have been a serial killer, or worse.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Or, he could have been ultra-needy, like my last boyfriend,” Tory half-joked. “Ugh. No more puppies for me, thank you very much.”

“That guy, from the little I saw of him, didn’t resemble a puppy. Not whatsoever. He was smoking hot in that suit.” Claire put her chin in her hands, hazel eyes dreamy.

Elizabeth tamped down a sudden flare of annoyance. “Now do you see why I didn’t invite him over here? All you think about is sex.”

“You should think about it once in a while too, Liz,” Claire countered, “Maybe then you wouldn’t be so stressed all the time.”

“I’m relaxed.” Elizabeth concentrated on dropping her shoulders.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Tory finished off her drink. “Like I said, I get the feeling you two did a little more than talk. But we’ll let you keep a secret or two—if you buy the next round.” She held up her empty glass.

Eager to end the conversation, Elizabeth nodded in agreement. She’d had plenty of sex back in college. She understood the mechanics, had been with nice guys who seemed to know what they were doing, but she had always wondered if there wasn’t something missing. Until tonight. Her immediate, full-blown response to the stranger on the beach—even before she shamelessly asked for a kiss—had taken her by surprise. If she could barely manage control of her body and emotions after one kiss, what would’ve happened if they’d gone further? She shivered with the possibilities. No, her only choice had been to run. Someday she’d meet a man with skills who also stimulated her intellectually, but didn’t bulldoze her senses like her mystery man.

“Great then. How about sex on a beach?” Claire piped in, her expression innocent.

Elizabeth almost swallowed her tongue. If only.

End of Excerpt