The Good Girl's Second Chance
Chloe Winchester woke with a startled cry.
She popped straight up in bed as her heart trip-hammered against her ribs. Splaying a hand to her heaving chest, she sent a frantic, frightened glance around the darkened room.
No threat. None.
Just her shadowed bedroom in the middle of the night, silvery moonlight streaming in the high, narrow window over the curtained sliding glass door.
“Nothing, it’s nothing,” she whispered aloud between gasps for air. “A nightmare.” More specifically, it was the nightmare, the one starring her ultrasuccessful, über-controlling, bad-tempered ex-husband, Ted.
Not real, she reminded herself. Not anymore.
Ted Davies was the past. He held no threat for her now.
Chloe smoothed a shaking hand over her hair, pressed her cool fingers to her flushed cheek and took long, deep breaths until her racing heart slowed. Finally, when her pulse had settled to a normal rhythm and the dew of fear-sweat had dried on her skin, she plumped her pillow, settled back under the covers and closed her eyes.
Sleep didn’t come.
She tossed and turned for a while, and then tried to make herself lie still as she stared up at the ceiling and willed herself to feel drowsy again.
Finally, with a weary sigh, she shoved back the covers and went to the kitchen. She heated milk and sweetened it with honey. Then she carried her mug to the living area, where she turned a single lamp on low. Gazing out the two stories of windows that faced her back deck, she sipped slowly and tried to clear her mind of everything but the beauty of the Colorado night.
She could see a light on in the big house down the hill from her. Quinn Bravo lived there with his little daughter, Annabelle, and that funny old guy, Manny. They’d moved in a few months before.
Chloe smiled to herself. So. Somebody down there couldn’t sleep, either. Maybe Quinn? Could the tough martial arts star suffer from bad dreams, too?
Unlikely. Quinn “the Crusher” Bravo was world-famous for taking down the most unbeatable opponents. No mere nightmare would dare keep him awake. She wished she could be more like him, impervious and strong. He seemed so very self-confident in his quiet, watchful way.
And so different, really, from the boy he’d once been, the one she remembered from when they were children, the wild, angry boy with a chip the size of Denver on his shoulder, who was always getting in fights.
Different also from the boy he’d become by high school, still rough-edged, but quieter, with a seething intensity about him. She’d avoided him then, the same as she had when they were children. All the nice girls avoided dangerous and unpredictable Quinn Bravo.
Even if, secretly, he made their hearts beat faster…
Quinn Bravo stood in his living room wearing an old pair of sweats, worn mocs and a Prime Sports and Fitness T-shirt. He stared blankly out the window at the faint gleam of light from the house up the hill. Beyond that house, the almost-full face of the moon hung suspended above the peaks of the Colorado mountains.
He should go back to bed. But he knew he wouldn’t sleep. He couldn’t stop thinking about what his four-year-old daughter had asked him when he tucked her in that night.
A faint movement beyond the wall of windows up the hill caught his eye. Must be Chloe. She lived there alone. Beautiful, smart Chloe Winchester, who’d gone off to college at Stanford and married some big-shot lawyer as everyone always knew she would. The big shot had carried her off to live the high life down in Southern California.
Quinn didn’t know the whole story. He just knew that the marriage hadn’t lasted. When he moved back to town several months ago, there was Chloe, minus the rich husband, with no kids, on her own in her old hometown, living in the shadow of the Rockies on the street up the hill from him.
Maybe a little fresh air would clear his head, relax him.
Quinn pulled open the French doors that led onto the back deck. It was a clear July night, almost balmy, the moon very close to full. He stepped outside and quietly shut the doors behind him. Crossing to the deck railing, he folded his arms across his chest, braced his legs wide and stared up at the light in Chloe’s house. He indulged himself, allowing his mind to dwell on her a little, to wonder about her, about what might have messed up the smooth trajectory of her life and brought her back to Justice Creek alone.
True, it was none of his business, whatever had happened to bring Chloe back where she’d started. But focusing on what might have gone wrong for a woman he didn’t really know took his mind off his little girl and her questions that he had no clue how to answer.
He noted movement again up there on the hill, a glass door sliding open.
And out she came, the one and only Chloe Winchester. Damn, she was gorgeous, even from a hundred yards away. Gorgeous, even in a baggy pink shirt. That long golden hair shone silvery in the moonlight and her fine, bare legs gleamed.
Quinn had no time for chasing women. He had a daughter to raise and a new business to build. But hot damn. Any man with a pulse would want to cut himself off a nice big slice of that.
Chloe went to the railing and rested her hands on it. For a long count of ten, she stared down at him as he looked up at her. She wasn’t inviting him up, exactly. But he definitely felt the pull.
And how could he help enjoying the moment? Hell. Chloe Winchester giving him the look? Never in a million years would he have guessed that would happen.
And the more they stared at each other, the more certain he became that a hundred yards was too much distance between them. He would much rather look at her up close. Manny was home if Annabelle woke up.
So he went back to the doors, pushed one open and engaged the lock, drawing it shut and hearing the click that meant his daughter was safe inside. When he turned again toward the woman up the hill, she hadn’t moved. She remained at the railing, her head tipped slightly down and aimed in his direction, almost certainly watching him.
Fair enough, then.
He descended the back stairs, glancing up when he reached the bottom. She hadn’t moved.
So he crossed his small patch of landscaped ground and began ascending the hill between their houses, skirting rocky outcroppings and ponderosa pines, the native grasses whispering beneath the leather soles of his mocs. He took it slow, glancing up at her now and then, expecting any moment that she would turn and retreat inside—at which point he would calmly wheel around and go home where he belonged.
But Chloe stood her ground.
When he reached the base of the stairs leading up to her deck, he paused, giving her a chance to…what?
Run away? Order him off her property?
When she only continued to gaze directly down at him, her eyes steady, her expression composed, he mounted the steps.
And she did move then. She came toward him, meeting him at the top where the steps opened wide. “Quinn,” she said.
He nodded. “Chloe.”
“Yeah, it is.”
“How have you been?”
“Doing okay. You?”
A tiny smile flickered at the corner of her lush mouth. “Getting by.” With that, she turned and led the way to a pair of cedar armchairs positioned close together in front of her great room windows. She dropped into one of those chairs, a move so graceful it stole his breath, and then gestured with a small, regal sweep of her hand for him to sit beside her.
He sat. And for several minutes, neither of them spoke. They stared up at the clear night sky and the milky smear of the faraway stars. The slight breeze brought her scent to him—like some exotic flower. Jasmine, maybe. And not only that, something…a little bit musky and a whole lot womanly.
Finally she spoke again. “What keeps you awake, Quinn?” Her voice was low for a woman, low and calm and pleasing.
He turned and looked at her. Her eyes were a pale, glowing shade of blue, her face a smooth oval, that tempting mouth so soft and full. She really was a prize, every red-blooded man’s fantasy of the perfect woman, a woman who would make a man a beautiful home and provide him with handsome, smart, upwardly mobile children.
And as to her question? He didn’t plan to answer her. But then he opened his mouth and the truth fell out. “My daughter asked about her mother for the first time tonight. I’m trying to decide what to tell her.”
Chloe hummed, a thoughtful sort of sound. “Her name is Annabelle, right?”
“So I’m assuming Annabelle doesn’t know her mother?”
“No, she doesn’t. I doubt she ever will.”
“Ah.” Chloe waited, her head tipped to the side, her eyes alert, giving him a chance to say more. When he remained silent, she suggested, “Tell her only the truth, but tell it carefully. She’s how old?”
“She wants to know that you love her. She wants to know she’s safe and that her mother loves her, too—or would, if she knew her. She wants to know it’s not her fault, whatever happened that you and her mother aren’t together and her mother isn’t in her life.” Chloe smiled. God. What he wouldn’t give to taste that mouth. “But don’t load it on her all at once. Well-meaning parents have a tendency to overexplain. Try to get a sense of what she’s ready for and just answer the questions she actually asks.”
He faced front again and stared out at the night. She was so tasty to look at, with full breasts, the points of her nipples visible under that pink shirt. She had endless legs, slender arms and that perfect angel’s face. He needed to take all that beauty in careful doses. He said, “I thought you didn’t have kids.”
“I don’t. But I like kids.” The beautiful voice was weighted with sadness. “Before I moved back home, I did volunteer day care with a San Diego family shelter. I helped out with special-needs children, too. And in college, I took just about every child development class available. I had big plans in college. I was going to be the perfect wife to a very important man—and the mother of at least three healthy, bright, happy children.”
Strange. Looking away wasn’t working for him. Why deprive himself of the sight of her? He turned his head and faced her once more, something down inside him going tight and hot when he met her eyes. “I remember you always seemed like you knew exactly where you were going.”
“Yes, I did. I used to think I knew everything, used to be so sure of how my life would be.” A husky chuckle escaped her. The sound rubbed along his nerve endings, stirring up sparks. “And that’s what keeps me up nights, Quinn. All my big plans that came to dust…”
Somewhere in the distance, a coyote howled. Quinn considered what, exactly, he ought to say next, if anything. He was still trying to find the right words when she stood.
He let his gaze track upward over those fine legs and her little pink terry-cloth shorts, over the womanly curves under the oversize shirt. The view was amazing. And he needed to thank her for the advice, say good-night and hustle his ass back down the hill.
But then she offered him her delicate, ladylike hand. He eyed it warily, glancing up again to meet those ice-blue eyes. No mistaking what he saw in those eyes: invitation.
It was the middle of the night and he didn’t have time for this. He should be home in his own damn bed.
So, was he going to turn such beauty down?
Not. A. Chance.
He took the hand she offered. Her skin was cool and silky. Heat shot up his arm, down through the center of him and straight to his groin. Stifling a groan, he rose to stand with her.
She turned quickly, pulling him along behind her, pushing open the slider, leading him inside, across her two-story great room and down a short hall to her bedroom, which was as beautiful and tasteful as the woman herself, so feminine and orderly—except for the tangled covers on the unmade bed.
She bent and turned on the nightstand lamp, then stood tall to meet his eyes once more. “Somehow I feel…safe with you,” she said in that fine alto voice that turned him on almost as much as her face and her body did. “I’ve noticed…” Her voice trailed away. She glanced down, swallowed and then, finally, raised her head to meet his gaze again.
He couldn’t resist. He lifted a hand, nice and slow so as not to spook her, and ran the back of his index finger along the silky skin of her throat. She trembled and sucked in a sharp little gasp of breath, but didn’t duck away. And he asked, “You’ve noticed what?”
Her mouth twisted, as though the words were hard to come by. “Since you, uh, came back to town, you seem…I don’t know. So calm. Kind of thoughtful. I admire that, I really do.”
What could he say to that? Thanks? That seemed kind of lame, so he didn’t say anything, just ran the back of his finger down the outside of her arm, enjoying the satiny feel of her skin, loving the way her mouth formed a soft O and her eyes went hazy in response to his touch.
She said, “I’ve been with one man in my life—my husband, who was supposed to be loving and tender and protective, but turned out to be one rotten, abusive, cheating SOB.” She moved slightly away from him again, reaching over to pull open the bedside drawer. “I’ve been out a few times with nice men, in the year since I came home. I keep thinking I need to take the plunge again, take a chance again and be with someone new. So I bought these.” She raised her hand and he saw that she held a strip of condoms. They unrolled from her palm with a snap. “To be prepared, you know?” A soft, rueful smile. “I haven’t used a single one. I didn’t want to. It never felt right. But tonight, with you… Quinn, I…” Her fine voice gone breathless, she said, “Back in high school, sometimes, I used to think about what it might be like, to be with you…”
Those words hit him right where he lived. “I used to think about you, too, Chloe.”
Her amazing face glowed up at him. “You did?”
“Oh, yeah.” Not that she ever would have gone out with him if he asked her. She’d had her plans for her life and they didn’t include a wannabe cage fighter who could barely read. Plus, her snotty parents would’ve disowned her if she started in with one of Willow Mooney’s boys, the ones they called the bastard Bravos because his mother hadn’t married his father, Frank Bravo, until after Frank’s rich first wife, Sondra, died.
Uh-uh. No way Linda Winchester would have let her precious only daughter get near him, one of Willow’s boys—and the “slow” one, at that. And Chloe was always a good girl who did what her mama expected of her.
Chloe scanned his face, her expression suddenly anxious. “I have this feeling that somehow I should explain myself, give you a better reason to stay with me tonight.…”
“Uh-uh.” He stepped even closer—close enough that her body touched his. Her soft breasts brushed his chest, and the dizzying scent of her swam around him. Slowly, carefully, he lifted his hand and speared his fingers into that glorious mane of yellow hair. Like a curtain of silk, that hair. He loved the feel of it so much that he balled his fist and wrapped the thick strands around his wrist, pulling her even closer, right up against him, nice and tight.
Oh!” she said on a shaky breath, baby blue eyes saucer-wide staring up into his.
All that softness and beauty, his for the night. He bent enough to suck in a deep breath through his nose. God, the scent of her. She smelled of everything womanly, everything most wanted—everything he’d never thought to hold, not even for a single night. He buried his face against her long, silky throat. “You don’t need to explain anything, angel.” He nuzzled her neck and then scraped his teeth across her tender skin. She gasped. He muttered, “Not a damn thing.”
“I’m not an angel.”
“Yeah, you are.”
“Just for tonight, yeah?” She wrapped those slim arms around him, clutching him to her, tipping her head back, offering him more, offering him everything. “Just this one time…”
“However you want it.”
“Just kiss me. Just…hold me. Just make me forget.”
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