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Burning Resolution Excerpt

Book 1: Stonebrooke

Chapter One

She contemplated her pudgy belly reflected in the full-length mirror, poked it a few times, and let out a heartfelt sigh. Until this exact moment, Erica Sutton had been able to ignore her emotional overeating. However, standing there, with her half-naked, overweight body on display, the truth was staring her in the face. Bad habits. They needed to be broken and fast! Her stretchy yoga pants were one pie slice away from splitting at the seams. The same ones she’d purchased last year, which were, at the time, too big.

The social media craze was another ugly truth she didn’t want to face. She couldn’t take a single selfie that didn’t expose her double chin, regardless of practiced poses and filters. Recently, a fan mentioned she admired Erica and how she represented real women. Whatever the hell that meant. Women came in all shapes and sizes, and they held a variety of careers, from stay-at-home moms to small business owners to corporate CEOs. Writing from the privacy of her home in a t-shirt and lounging pants didn’t make her representative of women in general. She was more of the swamp witch poster-child sort.

All she did know was she needed to get fit if she intended to have a long, healthy life. But damn, she hated to work out. Hated to sweat in any way, shape, or form. Vanity exacted a toll, requiring a woman to put up or shut up.

“Suck it up, Erica!” she scolded her mirrored self. “Enough is enough.”

Still, she was unprepared for any drastic action, and she distracted herself with social media. Instant regret! She grimaced at the inundation of notifications. Apparently, all the stick-thin partygoers from last night's New Year’s Eve revelry felt it prudent to tag her. Her fingers flew over the keyboard as she untagged herself from any photos or reels.

"That's what you get for going out without Shonda or Angela," she said aloud. "Now you have to pay the piper!"

She pulled her ex-boyfriend’s overlarge t-shirt over her bulge and reached for her trusty laptop. After skimming through the online reviews for local gyms, she found what she sought. A month ago, Workout World opened its third location here in her hometown and, from what she read, maintained four- and five-star reviews for their personal trainers, staff services, and cleanliness.

Now, if her reluctant fingers would dial the damned number, she would be doing well.

Perhaps drumming up the courage after a coffee would be easier. The caffeine might chase away the last of her alcohol-overindulgence headache. She glared accusingly at the empty bottle of Moscato in her recycling bin. Why she’d continued to imbibe alone upon returning home was anyone’s guess.

Wine.

Another crutch to prop herself up in the months since her split from the asshat who shall not be named. He’d certainly done a number on her, bringing forth all the insecurities she never knew existed until he’d entered her life.

Moisture burned behind her lids, and she blinked to dispel it. Crying was akin to self-pity. Her bestie, Shonda, had assured her it wasn’t allowed.

“Dickhead Dave”—oops, she mentioned him!—“doesn’t deserve another second of your time,” Erica reminded herself.

Still, unraveling the emotional knots he’d tangled her up in would take a serious effort.

Another social media notification popped up on her screen, and she pulled up the post with dread in her heart. Sure enough, another clueless acquaintance had caught her from the side in an awkward moment as she was speaking, thereby tripling her chin.

Not attractive in the least.

She groaned, hit the like button not to hurt the woman’s feelings, and clicked the hide-from-timeline option as she prayed to God the post wouldn’t come back to haunt her.

With resignation in her heart, Erica dialed the gym’s number.

Christ, this was going to suck.

Other people got a runner’s high from working out. All she got was tired. Firming her resolve, she curbed the impulse to hang up when a man on the other end of the line answered. The deep, sexy timbre of his voice traveled the length of her body, forcefully shaking awake every cell between her brain and her pinky toes. They all shuddered with delight and high-fived each other. But since she’d solemnly sworn off men until the ripe old age of seventy, her body’s reaction was not in the least little bit appropriate.

* * *

The incessant ring of the phone annoyed Zack Sharp. The main office of their newest fitness center was supposed to be closed for the holiday. However, his brother Mason, one of his two business partners and a marketing genius, had convinced him to open their doors.

January first equaled New Year’s Resolution Day.

Mason had assured him that everyone and their brother, not hungover from the night before, would be calling to secure a membership. Of course, his brother hadn’t been wrong. It simply pissed Zack off that half his staff hadn’t shown up because they, too, had partied hard last night.

When his employees returned, there would be a come-to-Jesus meeting. The Sharps paid their team top dollar to be on time and professional. Human Resources would also receive a phone call about revising company policy. Zack had been too lenient for far too long. A few employees knew him from their old high-school football days. Because of their connection, they believed rules didn’t apply to them. They were wrong.

“Hello. Thanks for calling Workout World. How may I help you?” he asked as he reached for a form.

“I need to set up a time to tour your facility and perhaps meet with a personal trainer. The sooner, the better. Preferably today if you have an opening.”

The reply was lost, but the sex-kitten sound took the A-line straight to his groin, collecting his brain cells along the way. The husky phone-sex-operator voice brought to mind endless nights of dirty, delicious sex.

Holy hell!

That had never happened to him before.

With an attempt at concentration, he asked, “Is there a specific reason you would like an appointment today?”

“Yeah, I’m fucking fat and need to drop forty pounds,” she retorted. “Why else does anyone join a gym?”

He pressed his lips together to contain an inappropriate bark of laughter. Her surliness was hell on his professionalism.

“We have many members who actually enjoy working out,” he felt compelled to point out.

“Right.” She scoffed. “Okay, well, I need an intervention. A leftover wedge of carrot cake is sitting on my counter, taunting me. I’m about to bury my face in the cream cheese frosting to show it who’s boss.” She sighed deeply. “Aren’t you people trained to talk me off the ledge and not ask stupid questions?”

Zack’s soon-to-be client was on the proverbial ledge. “We’re at DEFCON ONE, but I know what steps to take for this level of crisis. Listen to me very carefully and do exactly as I say.” He grinned when she snorted. “Slowly back away from the counter, run to your car, and make your way here. Don’t stop for any reason. I’m planning to time you. How long would it normally take from your place?”

“Ten minutes if all the stoplights are green. I’m worried, though. Addie’s Bakery is on the corner of 10th and Main. If you’ve ever had any of Addie’s baked goods, you know my journey is fraught with danger. Getting to your place may be iffy.” There was a lengthy pause before she spoke again. “And what’s with the running comment? There's running? I’m not down with that.”

He chuckled. The woman turned a shit day fun, and Zack couldn’t wait to hear her complaints when he put her through her paces. He always took sadistic pleasure in seeing a reluctant newbie’s wariness the first time they caught sight of the machines.

“We’ll discuss your options after you’re here. May I have your name, please?”

“Erica Sutton.”

He frowned. Back in high school, he’d known an Erica Sutton. A skinny bookworm who’d agreed to tutor him in biology, and he’d taken considerable delight in teasing her during the human reproduction lessons. She’d been such a cute, shy creature with large dark eyes, usually hidden behind her auburn bangs and oversized glasses. And she’d also been prone to blushing if they happened to make eye contact, which he strove to do for that exact reason.

The woman on the phone couldn’t possibly be the same person. Mousy Erica would never think the word fucking, much less say it. Although, he wondered about the odds of two Erica Suttons in the same small town of Stonebrooke. Pretty slim, he’d wager.

“Okay, Erica. I’ll see you in ten minutes. Twelve tops. I’ve activated a tracking device on your cell phone, and I’ll know if you stop at Addie’s. Keep in mind it’ll go harder on you if you do.”

“Nag, nag, nag. I’ll see you in eleven.”

Zack couldn’t wait to meet this one.

Chapter Two

Erica girded her loins and forced herself to step through the double doors of the three-story building. About fifteen or so people occupied various stations, grunting and sweating their way through some routine or another. Glancing toward the front desk, she mentally groaned. A perky young woman in a low-cut sports bra was leaning across the counter, her goods displayed for the super jock across from her.

Freaking great.

As if Erica didn’t already feel like a whale out of water because she had a double-digit dress size! Tugging the hem of her shirt over her ever-expanding ass, she made her way to the reception desk.

“Hi. Welcome to Workout World. Are you interested in signing up for a membership today?” Perky Chick’s twin peaks bobbed with the cadence of her voice, and the jock’s head followed suit. Really, his bobbing head might have coincided with her greeting, but he did seem distracted. It was too difficult to tell and well above Erica’s general give-a-damn quota.

She sighed and faced the buxom twig. “I have an appointment,” she said with patience she didn’t feel.

The man of her dreams walked out of the office behind the dunderhead jock who was kicked back with his feet resting on the reception desk. One reprimanding look at said jock, and the guy dropped his legs faster than Erica could blink.

Delivering a nod of approval, Dream Man, then turned to her.

“Erica?” he asked with a smile and a lift of his perfectly groomed dark brows.

Zack Sharp.

She could hardly believe it. She’d know him anywhere. Having been in love with him for over half her life, recognition came swift. His near-black hair was shorter and permanently mussed as if he ran his hands through it multiple times per day. She recalled he used to do that when he was deep in thought. And damned if those piercing blue eyes didn’t still make her heart beat faster! Good lord, the man had filled out and aged well, going from heartthrob to heart-stopping.

And wasn’t she the true dunderhead? All she could do was gape and nod.

“Come on back,” Zack said warmly. “I’d like to go over your long-term workout goals.” He glanced at his watch and grinned. “You made good time.”

Following him to his office, Erica had to concentrate on not staring at his perfect ass encased in tight three-hundred-dollar jeans.

Wait, what? Why was he in jeans?

He stopped short and spun to frown down at her. “Excuse me?”

The blood drained from her head.

She’d spoken aloud!

Erica jerked her gaze up from his crotch—now occupying the position where his fantastic ass had been—and gulped. Heat started at her toes and gained record-breaking velocity as it ascended her neck to her face.

“I… uh…y-you…” she stuttered.

“It is you! I thought so.” Zack’s smile was wreathed in delight. “Little Erica Sutton.”

His comment brought her back to the reason she was here. “Not so little anymore. Can we get the torture over with so I can go home and drown my sorrows in a vat of wine?”

His bark of laughter had her closing her eyes and rubbing the spot between her brows. Once again, she’d forgotten to use her filter. She was glued in place, and if he hadn’t thrown an arm around her shoulders to lead her the rest of the way into the office, she would’ve likely remained in place for the next hour, berating herself and praying for a sinkhole to swallow her whole.

“I’d forgotten how adorable you are,” he said with a chuckle. “Come on. I promise to take it easy on your first day.”

“But why are you wearing jeans?”

And why was she so obsessed with his ass?

“I’d only planned to work in the office today, but a few of my team members failed to show,” he replied as he settled in the leather office chair behind his desk. “Let’s start on the intake form, shall we?”

The next quarter of an hour was spent discussing her eating habits—she blatantly lied—along with her fitness goals. Afterward, Zack took her on a tour of the facility. He patiently explained the functions of each machine and showed her the rooms where they held the spin, Zumba, yoga, pilates, and blah-blah-blah classes. There were too many choices for her to process. Next, he brought her upstairs to view the inside track overlooking a basketball court, which doubled as a volleyball court.

“This place is incredible. You manage all this?” Erica was awed by everything Workout World had to offer. Not that she’d utilize any of it, but it was impressive.

“Own. Or rather co-own with my brothers Mason and Dane,” Zack corrected with a self-satisfied smile.

“Is this a franchise, or do you own all three in the state?”

“I’m impressed you did your homework. Although, I suppose I shouldn’t be. You were always studious.”

His admiring look, full of praise, made her want to preen. Nothing had changed since high school, that was for sure. She was putty in his hands.

He nodded toward an article on the wall. It showed him along with two other men at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. She recognized his oldest brother from their high school days.

“We own all three,” he said. “And no, we haven’t franchised yet, but we’ve been considering it.”

“Zack, you’ve done an amazing job.”

“That means a lot coming from you. I seem to recall it took a lot to impress you,” he said with a half smile.

For what felt like a full minute, they stared at one another. The appreciative light in his gorgeous azure gaze made breathing difficult.

What could he possibly find to admire about her?

Flustered, she sought a distraction. Her eyes lit on the cardio equipment behind him and the joggers they contained.

“I thought you told me there would be no running,” she lamented.

As he laughed and flung an arm around her neck for the second time in an hour, Erica’s heart lightened and felt as if it had found its home. Lord love a duck! She was in major trouble.

“Come on, kid. Time to get started burning calories.”

“God help me,” she muttered.

His chuckle told her he’d misunderstood her remark and likely thought she was talking about the routine he had planned for her. In reality, being this close to him again had caused oodles and oodles of stupid schoolgirl feelings to resurface.

* * *

Once he’d gotten Erica situated on an exercise bike, Zack went to change into his gym attire. He instructed Todd and Lacey to continue handling the floor and not interrupt him if they didn’t have to. His plan was to spend the next hour with his new client and get reacquainted.

Upon returning to where he’d last seen Erica, he saw the bike was paused and she was jabbing the display buttons. An irritated frown marred her brow, and he fought another smile. His ears, along with anyone else’s within hearing distance were assaulted by her colorful curses.

“Wow! When did you develop such an extensive vocabulary?” he asked with a laugh.

“Screw you. And screw this stupid bike. It tried to kill me. Did you know these things speed up on their own?” she demanded.

“It’s a function of the unit. It simulates uphill, flat roads, and downhill.” Tamping down his amusement, he compressed his lips into a straight line.

“Well, I don’t like it. They should come with a warning label.” Jumping off, she dusted her hands as if she’d finished an odious task. “What else can I do?”

Zack pinned her with a hard stare. In fitness circles, he was known for his stern, no-nonsense approach, and he planned to set her straight from the beginning. Just because they had shared history, it didn’t mean he’d let her walk all over him.

“I don’t care if you don’t like it.” He gestured to the bike. “You have ten more minutes of cardio. Get busy.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t like you very much, either.”

“Too bad.”

“Do you speak to all your new members this way?” she demanded.

“Only the ones who need tough love.”

As he waited for her to finish, he sorted through his email and gave her a stern stare whenever she slowed down. As soon as the timer sounded, Erica hopped off the bike like her ass was on fire.

“What’s next, coach?”

Twenty minutes later, Zach wanted to quit the fitness business forever, and he’d never felt that way before.

“You can’t say ‘fuck you’ whenever I propose an exercise routine you don’t want to do, Erica.” His frustration grew and made him short with her.

“Yes. I. Can.”

Her stubborn chin jutted up, and her mouth pursed into a pout. If she didn’t look so damned kissable, he would have strangled her.

Kissable?

Where had that thought come from?

Fixing her with a stony glare, the one he reserved for belligerent clients, Zack gestured with his thumb to the weight rack behind him. The stubborn wench glared right back.

“I’m tired,” she whined.

“Look, all you have left is free-weight bicep curls. You’ve got this. Finish those, and I’ll give you a donut,” he lied.

“Really?” Hope and doubt fought for the prime spot on her face.

“No. Get moving.” He nodded toward the rack.

“I hate you.”

“Whatever. You have two sets of fifteen reps.”

“I’m never coming back. This is your only chance to torture me.”

He rolled his eyes so hard he glimpsed brain matter. “You’ve paid for a year’s membership in advance. Besides, I will come and drag your happy ass in here if you don’t keep to the schedule we set. I know where you live.”

“I hate you.”

“You’ve already said that. Three more curls… Switch arms… Good,” he encouraged. “Okay, Grumpy Pants. Your workout is officially concluded for today.”

“Thank you, Baby Jesus!” Erica wiped the sweat from her brow with her sleeve and cast a concerned look at her upper arm. “Are my arms supposed to twitch like this?”

“It’s not uncommon. We have a smoothie bar downstairs. Let me treat you to a protein shake.”

“It had better taste like chocolate cake, or I won't be happy with you,” she warned.

They placed their order and selected a small two-person table. Zack discovered it was difficult to take his eyes from her flushed face. He developed a burning desire to know how she’d fared in the interim since they last saw each other.

“Are you married?” Where the hell had that question come from, Zack?

She snorted out protein shake.

“Um, no. I would have thought the Sutton name would tell you as much.” The arch look she gave him lost its effectiveness as she wiped the chocolate from her face.

“Some women keep their maiden name,” he replied with a sheepish shrug.

“Valid point. Okay. What about you? Are you married with any little rugrats running around?”

“No to the marriage. I was close once. But I do have a son. He’s eight.”

“Why didn’t you marry his mother?”

She’d breezed right over the fact he had a child and focused on his marital state. Interesting.

“What? The residents of North Carolina don’t hold shotgun weddings anymore.” His lips twitched at seeing her pique. “I figured I was safe enough simply paying child support and getting dual custody.”

“You don’t have to be a sarcastic ass. I was only wondering.”

Abruptly, he didn’t feel like kidding around anymore. Better to be honest with her right off the bat.

“His mother, Christie, and I dated for a few months. She thought it was great fun to lie about birth control. I was the idiot who believed her when she told me she was on the pill.” He shrugged, and to avoid her searching gaze, he surveyed the workout area beyond her shoulder. “We called it quits, and six months later, she presented me with my son, Jacob. When I saw him, I fell instantly in love. He’s honestly the best part of my life.”

“Did you try to make things work… for his sake? I know some people do.”

Zack played with his drink, stirring it with the straw, as he considered the question. How did he tell her Jacob’s mother was deranged and had been committed to a sanitarium two years after he was born?

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry,” Erica said softly. There was a wealth of understanding in her voice, and his heart contracted in response.

He sent her a sharp glance and noted her contrite expression.

“It’s not that. I don’t talk about it to anyone. Not even my family, if I can help it,” he said. “Christie had a psychotic break a couple of years after Jacob was born. Her parents had her institutionalized when they finally understood none of us could help her on our own. They’re active in Jacob’s life, though.” He took a deep breath and went for gold. “Three months ago, there was a fire at the hospital. Christie didn’t make it.”

“Ohmygod! I’m so sorry, Zack.”

He stared down at the hand gripping his, marveling at Erica’s compassion. “Yeah, no worries. If you don’t mind, would you keep it to yourself? I don’t tell many people outside my immediate circle.”

“Of course.” Flustered, she fumbled her keys. “I’d better go. I still have edits to apply tonight.”

“Edits? What do you do for a living?” he asked, weirdly desperate to find out more about her current situation.

“I’m an author.”

He raised a brow to encourage her to elaborate.

“Yeah, I… um… well…” Erica paused to clear her throat and sip from her water bottle. “I’m a romance writer.”

“Seriously?”

The thought of shy, constantly blushing Erica writing steamy romance novels had him grinning broad enough to split his face. As he watched, she toyed with the lid on her water bottle, pressed the plastic bubbles on the lid covering her shake, then traced a pattern in the condensation on the table.

Yep, she was adorable, nervous as hell, and just as fun to tease as she had been in high school. “So you write mommy porn, huh?”

Her dark mocha eyes burned with pure fire as they locked with his.

“We don’t use the term ‘mommy porn’ in the industry,” she snapped.

“No? I was sure that’s what I’ve heard it called…” He tapped his chin like he was attempting to solve a puzzle. The self-control it took to contain his laughter was significant.

“You’ve maintained your punk-ass status all these years later, I see.”

“You like me anyway,” he taunted. The sweep of color tinging Erica’s cheeks sent a cheap thrill through him. He hadn’t expected to get that type of reaction from his teasing.

“Whatever. I’ve got to go.” She gathered her things and threw the empty cup in the trash. “Thanks.”

“I’m heading out, too. I’ll walk you to your car.”

“You don’t need to. I’m a big girl.”

“It’s getting dark. Even though we built in a safe area of town, you can never be too careful.” When she would’ve argued, he gave her a cajoling smile. “Humor me, and let me walk you out. Please?”

Only a handful of cars were left in the parking lot as they made their way to her white sedan. Her gasp encouraged him to pay close attention to her car.

“He’s mine, whore!” was carved into the driver’s door. It also looked like Wolverine had a vendetta against her tires. The destruction sent his heart into overdrive.

He’d seen it before.

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