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 had 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 other truth she didn’t want to face was the social media craze. She couldn’t take a single selfie that didn’t expose her double chin, regardless of practiced poses. More recently, a fan had mentioned how much she appreciated how Erica 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 own 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 had a price, too. That day’s social media check, where all the stick-thin partygoers had tagged her after the New Year’s Eve revelry, had made her grimace in distaste and untag herself from photos or reels.
“Suck it up, Erica!” she scolded her mirrored self. “Enough is enough.”
She pulled her ex-boyfriend’s overlarge t-shirt over her head and reached for her trusty laptop. After skimming through the online reviews for local gyms, she found what she was looking for. Workout World had opened a third location here in her hometown and 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’d be doing well.
Perhaps she’d drum up the courage after her morning cup of coffee. 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 consumed more after returning home was anyone’s guess.
She snorted. Another crutch she’d used 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.
Tears burned behind her lids, and she blinked to dispel them. Crying was akin to self-pity, and her bestie, Shonda, had assured her it wasn’t allowed.
“Dickhead Dave”—oops, she’d mentioned him!—“doesn’t deserve another second of your time,” Erica reminded herself.
Still, it would take a serious effort to unravel the emotional knots he’d tangled her up in.
Another social media notification popped up on her screen, and with dread in her heart, she pulled up the post. Sure enough, some clueless acquaintance had caught her from the side in that awkward moment when she was just about to speak, thereby making her double chin triple.
She groaned, hit the like button so she wouldn’t hurt Young April’s feelings, then proceeded to click 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 main 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. Since she’d solemnly sworn off men until the ripe old age of seventy, her reaction was not in the least little bit appropriate or appreciated.
* * *
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 that day.
January first equaled New Year’s Resolution Day.
Mason had assured him 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 damned staff hadn’t shown because they, too, had probably tied one on last night.
When his employees returned tomorrow, there was going to be a come-to-Jesus meeting. The Sharps paid their team top dollar to be on time and professional. Human Resources would also be getting a phone call about revising company policy. Zack had been too lenient for far too long. It didn’t help that a few of the male employees knew him from their old high-school football days. And because of that connection, they believed the rules didn’t apply to them.
Another thing Zack intended to change.
“Hello. Thanks for calling Workout World. How may I help you?” he answered absently as he reached for a form.
The world’s most sensual voice came through the line, halting him mid-motion.
“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 spoken words were lost, but the sex-kitten sound took the A-line straight to his groin. The husky tone brought to mind endless nights of dirty, delicious sex.
That had never happened to him before.
With an attempt to focus, he asked, “Is there a reason you want to stop by today?”
“Yeah, I’m fucking fat and need to drop forty pounds,” she snapped. “Why else does join a gym?”
He was forced to press his lips together to contain an inappropriate bark of laughter.
“We have many members who actually enjoy working out,” he felt compelled to point out.
“Right.” She snorted. “Okay, well, I need an intervention. There’s a leftover wedge of carrot cake 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 found it impossible not to chuckle. His soon-to-be client was on the proverbial ledge. “A crisis, for sure. Listen to me very carefully. I want you to slowly back away from the counter, run to your car, and make your way here. Don’t stop for any treats between. I’m going 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 long pause before she spoke again. “And what’s with the running comment? Is there going to be running? I’m not down with that.”
Again, he chuckled. The woman had already made his day, 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 expression when they caught sight of the machines.
“We’ll discuss your options after you're here. May I have your name, please?”
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 great delight in teasing her during the human reproduction lessons. She’d been such a cute, shy creature with her 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, one had to wonder 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 cellphone, 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 be there in eleven.”
Zack couldn’t wait to meet this one.
After Erica girded her loins and forced herself to step through the double doors of the three-story building, she paused to observe about fifteen or so people at various stations, grunting and sweating their way through some routine or another. Glancing toward the main desk, she internally groaned the second she spotted a cute young woman in a low-cut sports bra, leaning across the counter, her goods displayed for the super jock across from her.
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 expanded ass, she made her way to the reception desk.
“Hi. Welcome to Workout World. Are you interested in signing up for a membership today?” The perky chick’s twin peaks bobbed in unison with her words and caused the jock’s head to follow suit. Really, his bobbing head might have been in time with her greeting since her boobs tended to bounce in sync with the cadence of her voice. Or he might’ve been watching her breasts in general. It was too difficult to tell and well above Erica’s general give-a-damn quota.
She sighed and faced the buxom twig.
Talk about feeling out of place.
“I have an appointment,” she said with patience she didn’t feel.
The instant the comment left her mouth, the man of her dreams walked out of the office behind the dunderhead male operating the reception desk.
“Erica?” he asked with a smile and a lift of his perfectly groomed dark brows.
She’d know him anywhere. Having been in love with him for over half her life, it was impossible not to recognize him. His near-black hair was shorter, but he still wore it 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. He’d gone from heartthrob to heart-stopping.
And wasn’t she the true dunderhead? Because 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 great time.”
Following him to his office, Erica had to concentrate on not staring at his perfect ass encased in tight 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, and she felt dizzy the second she realized 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 rapidly gained speed as it ascended her neck, then flooded 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 internal voice. 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 still be standing there, 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?”
After spending a quarter of an hour discussing her eating habits—she’d blatantly lied—along with her fitness goals, Zack took her on a tour of the facility. He explained the function 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 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 definitely 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 in school.”
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 a full minute, the two of them stared at one another. The appreciative light in his gorgeous azure gaze made it difficult to breathe normally.
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 groused.
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 almighty, 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 so 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 left instructions with Todd and Lacey to continue handling the floor and not interrupt him if they didn’t have to. He planned to spend the next hour with his new client and perhaps become reacquainted with her in the process.
When he returned to where he’d last seen Erica, the bike was paused and she was jabbing the display buttons. An irritated frown marred her brow, and he fought another smile. As he approached, he heard her muttered 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. Just because he’d been fond of her didn’t mean she was going to 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.”
“I don’t like you very much, either.”
“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 jumped off the bike like her ass was on fire.
“What’s next, coach?”
Twenty minutes later, he wanted to quit the fitness business forever.
“You can’t say ‘fuck you’ whenever I propose an exercise routine you don’t want to do, Erica.” Frustration welled inside Zack 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.
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 one and only chance to torture me.”
He rolled his eyes so hard he was sure he saw brain matter. “You’ve paid for a year’s membership in advance. Besides, I will come and drag you out of bed to cart your happy ass in here if you don’t keep to the schedule we set. I know where you live now.”
“I hate you.”
“You’ve already said as much. Three more curls… Switch arms… Good,” he encouraged. “Okay, Miss Grumpy Pants. Your workout is concluded for today.”
“Thank you, Baby Jesus!” Erica wiped the sweat from her brow with her sleeve. “Are my arms supposed to twitch like this?”
“It’s not uncommon.” He grinned as she cast a concerned look at her upper arm. “We have a smoothie bar downstairs. Let me treat you to a protein shake.”
“It had better taste like chocolate cake, or I’m not going to be happy with you,” she warned.
After they’d placed their order and selected a small two-person table, Zack discovered it was difficult to take his eyes from her flushed face. He had a sudden 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 was thrown, too, if snorting out protein shake through her nose was any indication.
“Um, no. I would have thought the Sutton name would tell you as much.” She graced him with an arch look.
“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? Did we travel back to the dark ages, and I wasn’t aware of it? I don’t believe the residents of North Carolina hold shotgun weddings anymore.” He smiled at her apparent 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. Might as well be honest with her right off the bat.
“His mother, Christie, and I dated for a few months. She thought it was a great idea to lie and convinced me she was on the pill. I was the idiot who believed her.” He shrugged, and in an effort 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?”
Zack contemplated the drink in front of him as he stirred it with the straw. 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, noting her contrite expression.
“It’s not that. I don’t normally 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 realized none of us couldn’t help her on our own. They’re active in Jacob’s life, though.” He took a deep breath. “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.” Suddenly flustered, she grabbed her keys. “I’d better go. I still have edits to apply tonight.”
“Edits? What do you do for a living?” he asked, despite silently promising himself he wouldn’t pry.
“I’m an author.”
He raised a brow to encourage her to elaborate.
“Yeah, I… um… well…” Erica paused to clear her throat and take a sip from the bottled water he’d handed her earlier. “I’m a romance writer.”
Exactly why it thrilled him to learn that about her, Zack had no idea. The thought of shy, constantly blushing Erica writing steamy romance novels had him grinning so wide it nearly split his face in two. 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 as 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 trailed off like he was attempting to solve a puzzle. The self-control it took to contain his amusement was great.
“You’re still a punkass after all these years, you know that?”
“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 made sure to build 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?”
There were only a handful of cars left in the parking lot as they made their way to her white sedan. Her gasp encouraged him to pay special attention to her car.
“He’s mine, whore!” was carved into the driver’s door, and it looked like Wolverine had a vendetta against her tires. The destruction sent his heart into overdrive.
He’d seen it before.Return to Burning Resolution