Last New Year’s Eve…
Chloe Colter hated parties.
Granted, she wasn’t in a house full of strangers at this particular New Year’s Eve celebration; it was mostly family and friends from Rocky Springs, the town she’d grown up in. Still, she felt uncomfortable with so many people in the same place, and her confidence had been shattered when her fiancé, James, had told her that the pretty black cocktail dress she’d donned for the event didn’t flatter her curvy figure. Actually, he hadn’t been that nice. He’d blatantly told her it made her look fat, and that she should change.
It wasn’t exactly defiance that had made her ignore his suggestion and continue to wear the outfit. It was honestly the only decent dress she owned that currently fit her abundant curves, and she’d bought it specifically for the holiday party at her mother’s home. Since she didn’t attend many social gatherings, her closet was mostly filled with comfortable jeans, t-shirts, and sweatshirts. As a veterinarian who spent most of her time with animals, casual wear was appropriate apparel.
She’d felt pretty good about attending the New Year’s Eve party at the beginning of the evening, before James’s unflattering comments. Admittedly, most fancy parties either bored or intimidated her, even though she was a billionaire and attending such events came with the territory. But this celebration was different. It wasn’t often that her entire family was in the same place at one time, and she knew most of the people here. But James’s comment had unsettled her and brought back bad memories from her high school years, a time that she’d never quite fitted in.
I probably do look fat. I should have gone for a longer dress to hide my legs, and maybe it’s a little too tight.
She’d escaped to the kitchen once the food and drinks were out, relieved when she’d found it empty. Chloe needed a minute to lick her wounds and recover from James’s blunt assessment of her attire. Taking a deep breath, she tried not to tug on the silky cocktail dress to make it longer, desperately wishing it could cover her knees instead of ending at the bottom of her thighs.
Why did I buy this stupid dress?
When she’d first tried it on, her best friend, Ellie, had squealed with joy, telling Chloe how fantastically sexy the dress looked. She’d relented and bought the garment after Ellie had told her the dress was made for her, her friend spending over a half hour convincing Chloe that it flattered her.
Apparently, Ellie had been wrong.
James hated the dress, and told her that she needed to cover her body as much as possible and not wear anything form-fitted because it made her look fatter. Unfortunately, she’d had nothing else to wear. She had gained some weight since she’d finished vet school, and nothing else fit except the casual clothing she’d bought since returning home from college. In spite of a treadmill and exercise regimen she’d started a few weeks ago, she’d been unsuccessful in taking off the extra pounds she’d put back on after vet school.
I like food too much!
The low-calorie, high-protein drinks that she’d hoped would help her diet made her gag, and the delicious meals her mom made every single day were almost irresistible. Unfortunately, Mom was also an excellent baker, and Chloe had never met a pie, cake, or cookie she didn’t like.
With a long sigh, Chloe stopped jerking on the fragile material of her dress and leaned back against the kitchen counter, wondering if living with her mom before her marriage to James was a good idea. But she’d missed her only parent so much during over a decade of studying to become a vet, and Chloe still didn’t feel like the two of them had completely caught up on everything after being away for so long.
Struggling with her weight wasn’t a new thing for Chloe. She’d been chubby in high school, and it wasn’t until she graduated and met James the summer before she left for college that she actually had a boyfriend.
She hadn’t been invited to the prom, she’d rarely went to school dances, and she’d spent most of her time with Ellie, and her animals, during high school. Honestly, she didn’t think her growing up years had been a bad thing. Being awkward and chubby, she’d just felt more content spending more time with animals than humans.
Chloe had been the girl every guy didn’t mind being friends with, but none of them had ever taken a romantic interest in her. James had, and to a female who was barely out of high school and about to enter medical school, the attention from a man four years older had been flattering. Thinking back, Chloe could remember how sweet James had been during those early years. She wondered if he’d really been all that nice, or she’d just been flattered and crushing on him so hard because he was the first guy to pay her any romantic attention.
She’d lost weight during college and veterinary school, her busy schedule allowing her to shed some pounds and leaving her very little time to eat. Maybe she’d still been curvy even then by today’s standard of the ideal woman, but during that time, she’d never thought about her weight. The only time her insecurities came back was the weekends when she’d seen James.
Chloe straightened, her eyes catching sight of an extra tray of pastries on the kitchen table.
I’m not eating one. I’m not eating one. I’m going to leave the kitchen and go find James.
She hadn’t seen her fiancé since he’d arrived and told her to change. More than likely, he was out mingling, seeing if he could get more patients to switch to his services. Since Rocky Springs had a very established group of physicians who had been practicing in the town for years, James had needed to hustle to get residents of the town to switch doctors. He’d been invited to join the local physician’s group, but had adamantly refused, wanting to start his own practice.
Chloe had supported James’s dream, both emotionally and financially, helping him establish his own office and practice. Still, he didn’t seem happy and often acted like he was stressed out and unhappy. After he’d admitted that he didn’t feel organized, she’d convinced Ellie to give up her current position to join James’s practice as an office manager. Her friend was starting her new job next week.
Maybe it will help James feel less pressure. Maybe then he’ll be a nicer person. Ellie’s brilliant. She’ll help him get organized. I just have to be more patient.
She wondered absently if it was her or James who had changed since she’d come back to Rocky Springs. They’d spent the entire summer together before she’d left for college, and they’d spent stolen time together during their years in school. He’d ask her to marry him after her second year of undergraduate work, and she’d happily accepted, convinced that no other man would ever love her like James did. She’d been over the moon back then, but things had been tense ever since she’d returned home and they’d spent more and more time together.
Things will get better. I’m still trying to find my place professionally in Rocky Springs and James’s practice is slow and disorganized. It’s normal for him to be uptight right now.
Chloe just wished his unkind words about her dress making her look fat weren’t still ringing in her head.
She sat down at the kitchen table and reached for a delicious-looking chocolate pastry without conscious thought, taking a large bite as she contemplated how different their relationship seemed now that they were both finally back in town for good. James had been nagging her about her weight since she’d returned, and it had gotten worse with every pound she’d gained. His excuse was always that it didn’t look good for his image as a physician to have a fiancée who was overweight.
Chloe finished the pastry before she even realized she was consuming it.
“Shit!” she cursed aloud, wiping her chocolate-stained, guilty fingers on a napkin. Old habits die hard. She wasn’t used to watching every single thing she put in her mouth.
If James caught her with chocolate, the consequences she’d pay for the pastry she’d just consumed wouldn’t be good.
Chloe wiped at the stains harder, her heart racing at the thought of James coming to find her right at the moment not a pleasant thought.
I need to get rid of the evidence!
“It’s just chocolate. It washes off.” The low, lazy Texas drawl sounded from the entrance to the kitchen, startling her so much that she let out a short squeal.
It wasn’t James, thank God. In fact, the voice was one she recognized all too well.
Chloe looked in the direction of the husky male voice that never failed to make her shudder in reaction. Gabe Walker had the sexiest voice on the planet. The baritone, along with his lingering Texas accent, always made a shiver skitter down her spine. The inherent kindness in his beautiful green eyes drew her, too.
Why does he have to be so damn hot? It really seems unfair that he has to be so handsome and so nice.
She’d known him since childhood; she’d really noticed him after she’d returned to Rocky Springs. He’d grown up in Texas, but Gabe’s father had been close to Chloe’s, and they’d spent summers in Rocky Springs. Gabe and her brother, Blake, had become best friends. After Gabe’s father and mother had died, he’d sold most of his father’s assets and moved to Rocky Springs. He had a horse ranch outside of town, and Chloe had to admit he bred some amazing animals, horses she’d love to have as four-legged patients. She was familiar with some of the horses he’d acquired, and they were amazing equines.
The Billionaire Cowboy.
People razzed Gabe sometimes because he’d given up his interests in the oil business and cattle ranching to move to Colorado and breed horses in a small mountain community. Honestly, people could say what they wanted about his lack of interest in pursuits that would make him much more money. Personally, Chloe admired him. Gabe didn’t need to do a single thing with his life since he was already wealthy, even wealthier than she was, but he chose to do what he wanted to do, and he was reputed to be an amazing breeder and trainer. He was simply a very wealthy man who wasn’t afraid to get dirty doing exactly what he loved.
“I’m not upset about the stains exactly,” Chloe admitted as she got up and went to the sink to wash her hands.
I’m only afraid James will know I was scarfing down chocolate.
“What made you mad then, darlin’?” he asked curiously, moving slowly to her side.
He got close, so close that she could smell his whiskey-laden breath as it wafted over her temple.
“I shouldn’t have eaten that pastry. I’m sure it had about a gazillion calories,” she answered unhappily as she dried her hands with a paper towel, trying not to react to the heat radiating from his body.
Gabe was so big, tall, and muscular that he almost made her feel small. He probably had the broadest shoulders she’d ever seen, and an attitude that there was nothing he couldn’t handle. Gabe oozed a sense of being comfortable with exactly who he was, and that impressed Chloe more than anything.
I wonder if he’s ever afraid of anything.
“It’s not like you need to worry about that,” Gabe answered huskily. “You’re perfect.”
Chloe turned, her eyes widening as she looked up into Gabe’s startling jade-colored eyes. Her breath caught as she drank him in, his expression completely sincere. He’d left off his usual cowboy hat, and he was dressed in a gorgeous, gray, custom-made suit. As usual, his short dark-brown hair was mussed just enough to make her wonder if this was the way he looked when he rolled out of bed in the morning. On Gabe, the look was incredibly seductive and sexy.
“I’m fat,” she retorted abruptly. “That pastry was the last thing I needed to be eating.” She’d known Gabe since she was a child, so Chloe didn’t see any reason not to be blunt.
Gabe stepped back just a little, assessing her boldly from head to toe, his eyes devouring her in a way that made Chloe warm and more than a little uncomfortable.
He shook his head as his eyes finally locked with hers. “You’re beautiful,” he finally countered. “I don’t see a single damn flaw.”
Chloe’s eyes grew moist at his compliment, but it was obvious he’d been drinking—maybe a little too much. Still, it was nice to hear a man say something complimentary about her for a change, even if it was the ramblings of a drunken guy. “You’re intoxicated,” she told him, rolling her eyes as she tried to move away from the seductive heat of his body.
Gabe reacted quickly for a man who was slightly inebriated, pinning her body against the counter as he put his hands on the granite surface near her hips. “Did he tell you that?” His voice was irritated.
Chloe knew exactly who Gabe was talking about. He’d never liked James, and he never missed the chance to remark on what a jerk her fiancé could be.
She answered calmly, “Yes, and he’s right. I need to lose some weight. I shouldn’t have bought this dress. It’s probably not appropriate for a woman who’s built like I am.”
She tensed as Gabe closed the distance between them, pressing his hard body against her. Her breath seized in her lungs as he moved a hand to tilt her chin up to look at him.
“Don’t let any man ever tell you that you aren’t fucking perfection. Maybe you shouldn’t have bought that dress, but only because any man who sees you wearing it is going to have a boner the size of Texas,” Gabe grumbled, running a rough finger along her cheek.
“Not James,” she answered breathlessly, mesmerized by the heated desire she saw in his eyes.
“He’s a dumbass. Always has been,” Gabe answered, anger flashing in his gaze. “Don’t marry him, Chloe. If he can’t appreciate what he has and be damn grateful that he has you, dump the bastard.”
“I love him,” she answered automatically.
“No you don’t, darlin’,” he drawled.
“I do,” she said defensively. “We’ve been engaged for years.”
“I don’t see a ring on your finger, and time has nothing to do with how a man treats a lady. Since he hasn’t ever bothered to make your engagement official, I don’t feel guilty about doing this,” Gabe growled.
Chloe didn’t have time to react before his mouth was capturing hers. Shocked, she froze, waiting for a feeling of revulsion that never came.
Despite the fact that Gabe was obviously drunk and annoyed, he devoured her mouth carefully. Slowly. Thoroughly. He took his time, cajoling her into accepting his embrace as he explored her lips, and then delved into her mouth with his tongue.
Stunned by the wave of heat that flowed through her body, Chloe wrapped her arms around his neck, savoring every nip and lick, tasting the strangely seductive flavor of smooth whiskey and chocolate when their mouths completely merged.
Every thought except Gabe’s tender seduction fled from her brain, her body responding naturally, automatically, as though his heated embrace was the only thing that existed in her world at that very moment.
His kiss controlled every one of her senses as she lost herself to him, completely unaware that a simple caressing of mouths could be this sensual, this all-consuming.
She speared her hands into his coarse hair, moaning against his mouth as she felt the strands between her fingers, relishing the feel of him. Of Gabe.
When he finally lifted his head, Chloe was panting for air. “Oh, God,” she moaned, panicking as she realized what was really happening.
She was making out with a man who was intoxicated. A man who wasn’t her fiancé! Having stopped after one drink, Chloe was far from drunk. She should have rebuffed him, but hadn’t known how to resist the urge to get even closer to him.
“You know what just happened, Chloe?” Gabe rasped against the side of her neck.
Pushing against his chest, she tried to create distance between them. “Yes. And I hate myself right now,” she replied in a confused voice, her body still humming from the feelings that Gabe had wrung from her body with only an impassioned kiss.
He stepped back, allowing her to escape. “Don’t,” he requested in a gruff voice. “Seems like you do plenty of that for no good reason.”
“I’m engaged,” she spat out disgustedly, still trying to catch her breath as she moved to the other side of the kitchen.
“Seems you might want to reconsider that arrangement,” Gabe answered, his voice raspy. “A woman really in love doesn’t respond to another man like that. You never would.”
Chloe’s face flushed, knowing he had a point. She’d shamelessly let him kiss her when she was engaged to another man. “It was a mistake. You drank too much, and I was upset.” She wasn’t sure how to truly justify her actions, but she had to try. She’d never kissed any man but James, and she wasn’t the type of female to cat around.
She heard shouts and cheers ring out through the house, knowing the clock must have struck midnight without her even knowing.
“If it makes you feel better to think that, then do it. Think whatever you want, but it was no mistake for me. I think you know the truth,” he answered gravely. “Happy New Year, Chloe.” Gabe nodded his head in her direction, turned, and walked away.
Chloe dropped into a chair at the kitchen table, watching him until he disappeared on his way back to the living room area where the party was taking place.
Still trying to wrap her muddled brain around what had just happened, she automatically whispered aloud, “Happy New Year, Gabe.”
She lost track of how long she sat in the kitchen before she finally rejoined the party.
Two days later, Chloe sat in front of her laptop, her body rigid with fear as she stared at the blank screen on her desk.
Dial the number. Start the session.
She’d finally confessed to her sister-in-law, Lara, exactly what was happening with James. Lara was a former FBI agent who had left the Bureau and gone back to school to finish her degree in psychology. With Ellie gone, Chloe hadn’t known who to turn to, and talking to her mother about the issues was out of the question right now. After a long discussion with Lara, Tate’s wife had given Chloe the number to set up an appointment with one of the foremost experts in the world on domestic abuse.
The psychologist, Dr. Natalie Townson, was based in the UK, so she’d made an Internet appointment.
It’s time. Sign in.
Oh God, was she really going to do this?
I’m not ready. I’m not ready.
She didn’t know if she could talk to a woman she didn’t know at all about her very personal life with James.
Then, she pictured Gabe’s face, the way he’d touched her two nights ago. She thought about Lara and her look of genuine horror as Chloe had described some of the things that bothered her about James. Both of them had reached out to her in different ways to try to help her. She might be irritated and embarrassed about her reaction to Gabe, but his white-hot kiss had been a learning experience.
There’s no harm in trying, Chloe. Do it.
Before she could change her mind, she brought up her computer and followed the instructions to be connected with Dr. Townson. The woman’s face appeared almost immediately, as though she had been waiting for her.
“Hello, Chloe. Are you ready to begin the session? I’m hoping I can help make things better for you.”
The woman was beautiful with shoulder-length brown hair and the kindest eyes Chloe had ever seen. She had a lovely, melodious English accent that was soothing to Chloe’s ears. “I’m nervous, Dr. Townson,” she said in a rush.
“That’s normal. But you’re very brave. Please call me Natalie. Is it okay that I’m using your first name, Chloe?”
She wasn’t sure if Natalie suggested first names because they were both doctors in their respective fields, but she was relieved to be able to address the woman less formally.
“Yes.” Chloe nodded slowly.
“Good.” Natalie smiled wider.
“I’m not sure I need this, and I’m not sure if I’m ready, but I do want to try.” Chloe looked into the computer screen and met the other woman’s compassionate gaze. She sensed that Natalie knew exactly how she felt.
“Well then, wanting to try is the most important part. We’ll figure out everything else as we go along, shall we?” Natalie suggested earnestly.
Chloe sat up straighter in her chair, giving Natalie a weak smile in return. “Okay.”
Maybe she wasn’t ready, but maybe nobody ever was. Something was wrong, and Chloe was determined to figure out exactly what it was, and how she could heal the damaged places in her soul.
Her body slowly relaxed as she opened up and let the first session begin.