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An old flame rekindled . . .
Zara Cinders always knew Ham Reece was the one, but he wasn’t interested in settling down. When she found someone who was, Ham walked out of her life. Three years later, Zara’s lost her business, her marriage, and she’s barely getting by in a tiny apartment on the wrong side of the tracks. As soon as Ham hears about Zara’s plight, he’s on her doorstep offering her a lifeline. Now, it will take every ounce of will power she possesses to resist all that he offers.
Ham was always a traveling man, never one to settle down in one town, with one woman, for more time than absolutely necessary. But Ham’s faced his own demons, and he’s learned a lot. About himself, and about the life he knows he’s meant to live. So when he hears that Zara’s having a rough time, he wants to be the one to help. In fact, he wants to do more than that for Zara. A lot more. But first, he must prove to Zara that he’s a changed man.
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No Promises. No Expectations.
MY EYES OPENED and I saw dark.
I was wide awake and I knew it was early.
This was weird. It might take some time for me to get to sleep but once I found it, I didn't wake up until morning. I usually woke up groggy, though, more willing to turn around, curl up, and fall back to sleep than get up and face the day.
But I was awake in a way that I could easily get up, make coffee, do laundry, and clean my apartment. In a way that I knew I'd never get back to sleep.
Which was totally weird.
On that thought, my phone rang.
I blinked at the clock on my nightstand and saw it was almost four in the morning. Warmth rushed through me and, following close on its heels, dread.
Only one person called at this time. The calls didn't come frequently enough for me, but they came.
I knew this would happen one day. I'd hoped for a different ending but deep in my heart I always knew this would be how we'd end.
I wanted to delay, let the phone go to voice mail, do what I had to do another time, but I knew I shouldn't. He'd worry.
I always picked up. The only time I didn't was when I'd fallen off the ladder in the stockroom at my shop. I broke my wrist, conked my head real good, and they'd kept me in the hospital overnight for observation. When Ham got ahold of me after that and found out what happened, he drove right to Gnaw Bone and stayed for a week to take care of me. It was just a broken wrist and I was banged up a bit, but for that week I didn't cook, clean, or do anything but work at my shop.
Ham did all the rest for me.
One of the many reasons why I wished this would end differently.
I also couldn't delay because this needed to be done. No time would be a good time, not for me. I didn't know how Ham would feel about my ending things, which was a problem, and explained why I knew deep in my heart this would be our ending.
So I might as well get it over with.
I grabbed my phone and put it to my ear.
"Hey, darlin'," I greeted, my voice quiet and slightly sleepy.
"Hey, babe," he replied and that warmth washed through me again.
Graham Reece, Ham to me, didn't have an unusual voice. Though, it was attractive. Deep and masculine. But there were times it could go jagged. For instance, when I did something Ham thought was cute or sexy. Or when we were in bed and I was taking him there.
I loved it when his voice went jagged. So much so that even hearing his voice when it was normal reminded me of those times.
I forced my mind from those times.
"You off shift?" I asked.
"Yep, just got home," Ham answered.
Graham Reece worked in bars and, as often as the life he led meant he was looking for a new gig, he never had a problem landing a job. He had a reputation that extended from Bonners Ferry, Idaho, to Tucson, Arizona; Galveston, Texas, to Rapid City, South Dakota.
This was mostly because although he might move around a lot, when you had him, he was as steady as a rock. Not to mention, he poured a mean drink and was so sharp he could take and fill three drink orders at the same time as well as make change in a blink of an eye. Further, he had so much experience he could spot trouble the instant it walked through the door and he had no aversion to handling it. He knew how to do that with little muss and fuss if the threat became real. And, last, he had a certain manner that I knew all bar owners would want in their bar.
This was because there was an edge of mean to his look. If you knew him, you knew that menace was saved only for times it was needed. But if you didn't know him, one look at his forbidding but handsome face, the bulk of his frame, the breadth of his shoulders, his rough, calloused hands, his shrewd eyes, you'd think twice about acting like an asshole.
For men, I would guess this would be off-putting and I knew from experience it stopped many of them from being assholes before they might even start. Though, some men found it a challenge, poked the sleeping bear, and ended up mauled. I knew this from experience, too, seeing as I'd witnessed it more than once.
For women, the look and feel of Graham Reece had one of two results. They were either scared shitless of him, but still thought he was smokin' hot, or they just thought he was downright smokin' hot.
I was the latter.
But I had to quit thinking about this stuff. Thinking about this stuff made it harder. Thinking about this stuff made me want to rethink ending things.
More, it made me think I should consider why I was rethinking ending things.
I had to suck it up, get this done, even though I didn't want to.
Therefore, I hesitated.
It was a mistake.
"Listen, darlin'," he went on, "tonight's my last night. Got a gig to get to in Flag."
This wasn't a surprise. Ham was in Billings. He'd been there awhile. It was time to move on. New horizons. New pastures. Trading Montana for Arizona. From beautiful to a different kind of beautiful.
Ham started his life out in Nebraska, but from what he told me, through his adulthood, he was a travelin' man. As far as I knew, the longest he stayed in one place was a year. Usually it was six to eight months.
Ham was not a man who laid down roots. He moved from place to place, rented furnished apartments, and everything he owned could fit easily in the back of his truck.
"Takin' a coupla days to pack and load up," he continued. "Thought I'd swing your way, drag my shit in your place, unload the bike, and we could take off for a few days."
The dread moved through me again as I tossed off the covers and threw my legs over the side of the bed.
He cut me off. "You can't close the shop. I'll find somethin' to do during the day and we'll go out, do night rides."
Oh God, I wanted to do that.
But I couldn't do that.
"Darlin'—" I started.
"Or, you can swing it, I'll hang with you for a few days, then you close up and take a vacation, ride with me down to Flag, hang with me for a while."
He was talking time and lots of it.
And he wanted me to be with him for that time.
And, man, oh freaking man, I wanted to be with him for that while.
Not to mention, I'd heard Flagstaff was amazing. I lived in the mountains of Colorado so I knew amazing but that didn't mean I didn't want to check out Flag.
I pushed to my feet, moved through the dark to the window, and did this while talking.
"Honey, I have something to tell you."
"Yeah?" he prompted when I said no more.
I pulled my curtains aside and looked at my not-so-spectacular view of the parking lot. They broke ground on my new house in one of Gnaw Bone's land magnate, Curtis Dodd's, developments only four days ago. In the meantime I was living in an apartment facing away from the mountains, with a view of nothing but cars, asphalt, and storage units.
In my new three-bedroom, two-and-half-bath house, I would have panoramas of the Colorado Rockies all around in a development that the HOA decreed would be appropriately, and attractively, xeriscaped.
I couldn't wait.
Though I could wait for having a mortgage payment, but everyone had to grow up sometime.
This was my time.
"Zara, you there, babe?" Ham asked when I still didn't speak.
"I'm seein' someone."
It came out in a rush and was met with nothing.
I held my breath and got more nothing.
"Ham?" I called when he didn't speak.
"It exclusive?" he asked and I nearly smiled at the same time I nearly cried.
Again, pure Ham. No promises. No expectations. He called when he called. I called when I called. We hooked up if it worked and we enjoyed ourselves tremendously when we did. If it didn't work, both of us were disappointed (me probably more, but I never let on) but we kept on keeping on, waiting for the next call. The next hookup. The next two days or two weeks when we'd hang out, have fun, laugh, eat, drink, and make love.
Ham understood the concept of exclusive; he just didn't utilize it. He'd respect it, if necessary. But, if he could, he'd also find ways to work around it.
So Ham had no hold on me like I had no hold on him. He had other women, I knew. He didn't hide it nor did he shove it in my face.
He asked no questions about other men.
He wanted it that way.
I did not, but I never said a word because I suspected, if I did, I'd lose him.
Now, he'd lost me.
I just wondered how he'd feel about that.
"We've been seein' each other for almost four months. We haven't had that discussion but exclusive is implied," I answered quietly.
"You into him?" Ham asked.
There was a smile in my voice when I reminded him, "We've been seein' each other for almost four months, darlin'."
But the smile hid my uncertainty.
My boyfriend, Greg, was a great guy. He was steady. He was sweet. He was quiet and there was no drama. He was better than average looking. And there was no doubt he was into me and also no doubt that I liked knowing that.
There was doubt, though. All on my side and all of it had to do with if I was into him.
But I wasn't getting any younger. I wanted kids. I wanted to build a family. I wanted to do it in a way that it would take, no fighting, cheating, drama, heartbreak, all this ending in divorce. I wanted to be settled. I wanted to come home at night knowing what my evening would bring. I wanted to wake up the next morning next to someone, knowing what my day would bring. I wanted to give my kids, when I had them, stability and safety.
I also wanted that for myself. I'd never had it, not in my life.
And I wanted it.
And, after being friends with benefits with Graham Reece for five years, I knew that was not going to happen with him. No matter how much I wanted it to.
"So you're into him," I heard him mutter.
"Yeah," I replied and tried to make that one word sound firm.
"Right, then, will he have a problem, I swing by and take you to lunch?" Ham asked.
No, Greg wouldn't have a problem with that. Greg didn't get riled up about much and I knew he wouldn't even get riled up about an ex-lover swinging by to take me to lunch.
Thus me having doubts. Part of me felt I should be cool with a man who trusted me not to fuck him over. Part of me wanted a man who detested the idea of his woman spending time with an ex-lover. Possessiveness was hot. A man who staked his claim, marked his territory.
It wasn't about lack of trust. It was about belonging to someone. It was about them having pride in that and wanting everyone to know it, especially you.
Ham looked like a man who would be that way. Knowing I wasn't the only friend he enjoyed benefits with and his ask-no-questions, tell-no-lies approach to relationships proved he just wasn't.
"No, Greg'll be cool with that," I told him and I shouldn't have. With nothing holding him back, that meant Ham would go out of his way to hit Gnaw Bone, take me to lunch. I'd have to see him, want him, and, as ever, not have him. But this time, it would be worse. I wouldn't have him at all, including in some of the really good ways I liked to have him.
"Okay, babe, I'll call when I'm close," he said.
"Right," I murmured.
"Now you get to bed, go back to sleep," he ordered.
That was not going to happen.
"See you soon, darlin'."
"Look forward to it, honey."
" 'Night, darlin'."
" 'Night, Ham."
He disconnected and I stared out at the parking lot.
That was it. He wanted lunch. He wanted to continue the connection even if the connection had changed.
That was good.
But he wasn't devastated or even slightly miffed that I was moving on, changing our connection.
That was very bad.
I bent my neck until my head hit the cool glass of the window and I stared at the cars in the lot without seeing them.
I did this for a long time.
Then I pulled myself together, moved from the window, made coffee, did laundry, and cleaned my apartment.
* * *
Five days later…
I sat in a booth at the side of The Mark, a restaurant in town. I had a ginger ale bubbling on the table in front of me. I was in the side of the booth where I could see the front windows and door.
I knew Ham was about to show because, ten minutes ago, I saw his big, silver Ford F-350 with the trailer hitched to the back holding his vintage Harley slide by. With that massive truck and the addition of a trailer, it would take him a while to find a good parking spot.
But he could walk in any second now.
I was nervous. I was excited.
I was sad.
And I knew I should never have agreed to this.
More sunlight poured through the restaurant and I looked from my ginger ale to the door to see it was open and Ham was moving through. I watched as he smiled at Trudy, a waitress at The Mark who was standing at the hostess station. He gave a head jerk my way. Trudy turned to look at me, smiled, and turned back to Ham, nodding.
Then I watched Ham walk to me.
Ham Reece was not graceful. He was too big to be graceful. He didn't walk. He trudged.
But he was built. He was a bear of a man, tall and big. His mass of thick, dark hair was always a mess. He constantly looked like he'd either just gotten off the back of a bike he'd been riding wild and fast for hours or like he'd just gotten out of bed after he'd been riding a woman wild and fast for hours.
Now was no different, even though he'd just spent hours in the cab of his truck.
It looked good on him.
It always did.
Although big, he was fit and he worked at it. It was not lost on him with the years he'd put in in bars that he needed to be on the top of his game so, although not quick, he was in shape. He ran a lot. He also lifted. Every time I'd been with him, he'd found time to do what he needed to do, even if he was doing crunches on the floor of a hotel with his arms wrapped around something heavy held to his chest.
This meant he had great abs. Great lats. Great thighs. A great ass.
Just great all around.
Yes, I should never have agreed to this.
He got close. His eyes that started out a tawny brown at the irises and radiated out to a richer, darker brown at the edge of his pupils were lit with his smile as his lips grinned at me while he approached.
I slid out of the booth.
Two seconds later, Ham slid his arms around me.
"Hey, cookie," he greeted, his voice jagged. My lungs deflated. He was happy to see me.
"Hey, darlin'." I gave him a squeeze.
He returned the squeeze and let me go but didn't step away.
His eyes caught mine and he stated, "Pretty as ever."
"Hot as could be," I returned, and his grin got bigger as he lifted a hand toward my face.
I braced, waiting for it. No, anticipating it with sheer delight.
But I didn't get it. His grin faded, his hand dropped away, and then he took a half step back and gestured to the booth.
That was when I felt it, all I'd lost with Ham. One could say it wasn't much but when you had him for the brief periods you had him, you had him. His attention, his affection, his easy, sweet touches, his deep voice that could go jagged with tenderness or desire. I knew that others might look at what we had and think I hadn't lost much, but they would be wrong. And I knew in that instant exactly how much I was losing.
It hurt like hell.
"Slide your ass in, darlin'," he ordered but didn't wait until I did. He moved to the other side.
I slid in, Ham slid in across from me, and Trudy arrived at our table.
"Drink?" she asked.
"Beer," Ham answered.
"Got a preference?" Trudy went on.
"Cold," Ham told her.
She smiled at him then at me and took herself off.
Ham didn't touch the menu sitting in front of him. He'd been to The Mark more than once. Anyone who had knew what they wanted.
His eyes came to me.
"How much time you got?" he asked.
"Couldn't find anyone to look after the shop so I had to close it down," I said by way of answer.
"In other words, not long," he surmised and he was right.
I owned a shop in Gnaw Bone called Karma. Ham had been there. Ham knew how much work it was. Ham also knew all about my dream of having my own place, being my own boss, answering to no one, and surrounding myself with cool stuff made by cool people. He also knew it was hard work and that I put in that hard work. There were things we didn't discuss but that didn't mean we didn't talk and do it deep. Not only when we were together but when one or the other of us got the itch to call. We could talk on the phone for hours and we did.
So I knew Ham, too.
I nodded. "I did try to find someone but—"
"Don't worry about it, darlin'," he muttered.
"Are you stayin' in town?" I asked. "Maybe, tomorrow—"
"Headed out after this, babe."
I nodded again, trying not to feel as devastated as I felt, an effort that was doomed to fail so it did.
"Thought you'd look different," Ham noted and I focused on his handsome face, taking in the exquisite shape of his full lips, his dark-stubbled strong jaw, the tanned, tight skin stretching across his cheekbones, the heavy brow over those intelligent eyes that was the source of him looking not-so-vaguely threatening.
"What?" I asked.
"Got a man, you're into him, you two got some time in, thought you'd look different."
I forced a smile. "And how would I look different, babe?"
My smile died.
Ham didn't miss it.
His intelligent eyes grew sharp on my face. "This a good guy?"
"Yeah," I answered. It was quick, firm, and honest.
Ham noted that, too, but that didn't change the look in his eyes. "Gotta find a guy who makes you happy," he told me.
I did. You, I thought.
"Greg's sweet. He's mellow, Ham, which I like. He's really nice. He also really likes me and lets it show, and I like that, too. Things are going great," I assured him.
Ham's reply was gentle but honest, as Ham always was.
"Things might be goin' good, Zara, but I can see it on your face, babe, they're not goin' great."
"He's a good guy," I stressed.
"I believe you," Ham returned. "And he's givin' you somethin' you want. I'm all for that, darlin'. But you can't settle for what you want. You gotta find what you need."
I did. You, I thought again and found this conversation was making me slightly pissed and not-so-slightly uncomfortable.
I knew this man. I'd tasted nearly every inch of him. He'd returned the favor. I had five years with him in my life. Four months of that solid and, for me and Ham, exclusive back in the day when I was waitressing at The Dog and Ham was bartending. Four months solid of me waking up in his bed every morning from our first date to the day he left town.
Now he was advising me on what kind of man I should settle for.
I didn't like this.
"Maybe we shouldn't talk about Greg," I suggested.
"Might be a good idea," Ham replied, his attention shifting to Trudy, who set his beer on the table.
"You two ready to order?" she asked.
"Turkey and Swiss melt and chips," I ordered.
"Buffalo burger, jack cheese, rings," Ham said after me.
"Gotcha," Trudy replied, snatching up the menus and then she was again off, which meant I again had Ham's attention.
"Last thing I wanna do is piss you off, cookie," he told me quietly.
"You didn't piss me off," I assured him.
"Good, 'cause, your man can handle it, I wanna find a way where I don't lose you."
The instant he was done speaking, I felt my throat tingle.
Oh God, we were already here. I suspected our lunch would lead us here, just not this soon.
We were at the place where I had to make a decision.
Greg wouldn't care if Ham and I worked out a way to stay in each other's lives. Maybe somewhere deep inside Greg would mind that I kept an ongoing friendship with an ex-lover but I'd be surprised if he'd let that show. Even so, I wouldn't want to do something like that to him.
So that was a consideration.
But also, I had to decide if I could live with even less from Ham than I had before.
No decision, really.
I couldn't. I knew it. I'd known it for ages because I couldn't even live with the little bits of him that he already gave me. I just told myself I could so I wouldn't lose even those little bits.
And, knowing this, finally admitting it, killed me.
"I don't think I could do that to Greg, darlin'," I told him carefully and watched his eyes flare.
"So this is it," he stated.
That was all he gave me. An eye flare and confirmation that he got that this was it. I swallowed past the lump in my throat.
"This is it," I confirmed.
"Do me a favor," he said, then kept talking before I could get a word in. "Don't lose my number."
That knife pushed deeper.
"Ham—" I started.
He shook his head. "You change yours, you call me. I change mine, I'll call you. We don't gotta talk. But don't break that connection, cookie."
"I don't think—"
"Five years, babe, through that shit your parents pulled on you. You breakin' your wrist. Your girl gettin' cancer. We've seen a lot. Don't break that connection."
We had seen a lot. He might not always have been there in person but he was always just a phone call away, even if he was hundreds of miles away.
I closed my eyes and looked down at the table.
"Zara, baby, look at me," he urged and I opened my eyes and turned to him. "Don't break our connection."
"It was always you," I found myself whispering, needing to get it out, give it to him so I could let it go.
I watched his chin jerk back, his face go soft, and then he closed his eyes.
He wasn't expecting that, which also killed. He had to know. I'd given him more than one indication over five freaking years.
Maybe he was in denial. Maybe he didn't care. Maybe he just didn't want that responsibility.
Now, it didn't matter.
"Ham, baby, look at me," I urged. He opened his eyes and there was sadness there. "I won't break our connection," I promised.
The last thing I had to give, I'd give it.
For Graham Reece, I'd give anything.
Unfortunately, he didn't want it.
"Not that man," he said gently.
"I know," I told him.
"Not just you, cookie, know that. I'm just not that man."
"I know, honey."
"Also not the man who wants to walk away from this table not knowin' his girl is gonna be happy."
He needed to stop.
"I'll be happy," I replied.
"You're not being very convincing," Ham returned.
"Broke ground on my house last week, Ham. It's sweet," I told him and watched surprise move over his features. "Great views," I went on. "Roomy. Got a good guy who thinks the world of me." I leaned toward him. "I need to move on, honey." I swallowed again and felt my eyes sting before I finished. "I need to be free to find my happy."
After I was done delivering that, Ham studied me with intense eyes for long moments that made my splintering heart start to fall apart.
Finally, he stated, "I could never give that to you, baby."
You're wrong. For four months, you gave me everything. Then you left and took it away, I thought.
"I know," I said.
"Want with everything for you to find it," he told me.
"I will, Ham."
"Don't settle, cookie."
I saw his jaw clench but his eyes didn't let mine go.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I should have said this over the phone. I wasn't ready then. I hadn't… well…" I lifted my hands, flipped them out, and then rested them on the table. "Whatever. I shouldn't have made you come out of your way—"
Ham interrupted me. "You gave me the brush-off without me seein' your pretty face, that would piss me off, Zara. I'd come out of my way for you any time you needed it. You know that."
I did. It always confused me but I knew it.
"Yeah, I know that, Ham."
"Him in your life, he fucks you over, it goes bad, it doesn't and you still need me, you'll have my number and that always holds true."
Really, he had to stop.
"It'll suck, walkin' away from you."
I looked at the table.
"But, one thing I always wanted is for you to be happy," he continued.
I looked at him.
"You mean the world to me, cookie," he finished.
So why? my thoughts screamed.
"You, too, darlin'," I replied.
He reached a hand across the table and wrapped it around mine.
We held on tight as we held each other's eyes.
Then we let go when Trudy came with a refill of my drink.
* * *
Half an hour later…
"Go," Ham ordered.
We were standing on the boardwalk outside The Mark. My shop was a ways down the boardwalk, same side.
Now was the time.
This was truly it.
And I didn't want to go.
Tears flooded my eyes.
"Zara, go," he demanded.
I pressed my lips together.
Suddenly, his hand shot up and curled around the side of my neck. His head came down and his lips were crushing mine.
I opened them.
His tongue darted inside.
I lifted a hand to curl it around his wrist at my neck, arched into him, and melted into his kiss, committing the smell, feel, and taste of him to memory.
And Ham let me, kissing me hard, wet, and long. A great kiss. A sad kiss. A kiss not filled with promise of good things to come, a kiss filled with the bitter knowledge of good-bye.
We took from each other until we both tasted my tears.
Just as suddenly, his hand and mouth were gone and he'd taken half a step away.
It felt like miles.
"Go." His voice was jagged.
He didn't want to lose me.
Why? my thoughts screamed.
"Bye, Ham," I whispered.
He jerked up his chin.
I turned away, concentrating on walking down the boardwalk to my shop, ignoring anyone who might be around, and trying to ignore the feel of Ham's eyes burning holes into my back.
I didn't get relief until I turned to my shop, unlocked the door, and pushed inside.
- "Ashley delivers a deeply emotional second installment of the Chaos contemporary romance series (after Own the Wind)... Punctuated by blistering-hot sex scenes and fascinating glimpses into the tough world of motorcycle clubs, this romance also delivers true heart and emotion, and a story that will stay with the reader long after the final page is turned."—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review, on Fire Inside
- "I adore Kristen Ashley's books!"—Maya Banks, New York Times bestselling author
- "Kristen Ashley's books are addicting!"—Jill Shalvis, New York Times bestselling author
- "[Kristen] Ashley captivates."—Publishers Weekly
- "There is something about them [Ashley's books] that I find crackalicious."—Kati Brown, Dear Author
- "I felt all of the rushes, the adrenaline surges, the anger spikes... my heart pumping in fury. My eyes tearing up when her my heart (I mean... her heart) would break."—Maryse's Book Blog on Motorcycle Man
- On Sale
- Sep 30, 2014
- Page Count
- 400 pages