Copyright © 2015 by Christie Adams
Stacie Matheson hated driving in the rain. She hated driving in the dark too. Even so, those two things, combined as they were now, wouldn’t normally be enough to tear her nerves to shreds. However, once she factored in the rude awakening she’d had in the early hours, it was hardly surprising that she felt on the verge of unfamiliar tears – there was only so much a person could take in one day.
As if that weren’t enough, she was in what felt like the middle of nowhere. She could no longer deny the simple fact that she was lost. She was supposed to be heading for a village in the Berkshire countryside, but she suspected that she was no longer even in the right county.
Get a grip, Stacie.
Why had she chosen yesterday of all days to update the sat nav? She’d forgotten to pick it up before leaving for work that morning – the damn thing was still sitting on the table in her apartment, when it should have been helping her to get this wreck of a car to the small hotel where she was supposed to be spending the next couple of nights. On the internet, it had appeared to be the ideal location to put some distance between herself and the selfish, womanising bastard she’d been sleeping with for the last six months – not to mention calling down every curse she could think of on his worthless, no-good head.
Thank God she’d never actually fallen in love with him. Her stomach churned sickeningly at the very idea.
A spontaneous early morning visit to Jonty’s apartment two days ago had given her a surprise she hadn’t bargained for – and exclusive entrance to relationship hell. Things had been going downhill ever since. After finding him in bed with a bimbo – and judging by the contemptuous sneer the bimbo gave her and the familiar way in which she was draped around Jonty, this wasn’t the first time they’d been together – she’d had to endure a barrage of phone calls and aggressive texts from the two-timing creep.
The grand finale of this abuse had arrived with his uninvited visit to her apartment just after two o’clock that morning. Either he’d charmed his way into the building or more likely tailgated one of the other residents – he certainly hadn’t used her intercom. God, if she’d been besotted enough to give him a set of keys…it didn’t bear thinking about.
Stacie had never been more grateful that she’d had the great good sense to resist Jonty’s precipitous attempts to move her in with him – all she’d had to do, to extricate herself from his life, had been to leave the keys to his place on the hall table as she’d stormed out. She’d never wanted the blasted things in the first place, but he’d insisted.
What she hadn’t anticipated, though, was how badly he’d react to her ending their relationship. The accusation at the time had been bad enough – apparently his involvement with another woman was all Stacie’s fault for not moving in with him. She’d had no idea that he would take it as far as he did.
At one point that morning, while he was delivering his pre-dawn tirade of verbal abuse from the other side of her front door, he’d hammered on it so hard that she’d feared he might break it down. A rather extreme reaction, she’d thought, given the relative brevity of their liaison, and one that had made her wonder if he was as high as a kite on drink. She shuddered – given that it seemed she barely knew the man after all, was it alcohol, or could it have been some other kind of substance abuse? Either way, she considered that she’d had a lucky escape.
Unable to sleep after he’d finally left, she’d thrown some clothes and other essentials into a couple of bags, ready to stow them in the boot of her car before leaving for work.
On arriving at the office, she’d asked her manager for a few days off – she’d been prepared to beg, if necessary, but fortunately it hadn’t come to that. A search on the internet at lunchtime had enabled her to find a suitable hotel, and at the end of the day she’d fled the city just as fast as she could, unable to face the weekend at home with the possibility of another scintillating encounter with Jonty.
Stacie glanced at the temperature gauge on the dashboard. Just lately it seemed to have been reading a little higher than normal. She hoped that it was just a figment of her imagination, because the last thing she needed was for the car to break down. Not just because she had no idea where she was – she’d never got around to renewing her breakdown coverage. The reason for that oversight was the stress of coping with Jonty’s suspect behaviour over the last few weeks, the prelude to the grand finale that had played out over the last couple of days.
So where on earth was she? The country lane was winding on forever, not a road sign to be seen. It wasn’t especially late, but at this time of year it was already dark. If she could just find a village with a pub where she could ask for directions to a hotel or a bed and breakfast, she’d feel a whole lot better. As it was, all she could see was the road ahead – as far as the next bend – and the trees and bushes that lined it.
Stacie huffed; this was proving to be a really stupid idea. She should never have left her apartment. If Jonty had come back again, she could have just ignored him – running off like this was letting him win. Maybe she should just turn the car around and see if she could find her way back to the motorway and go home.
“Oh God, not now!”
All of a sudden, the engine temperature shot off the top of the scale, attributable no doubt to the steam billowing out from under the bonnet. At least, Stacie hoped it was steam. She guided the car to the side of the road, came to a halt and switched the engine off…and couldn’t stop the stupid, useless tears that wouldn’t get her anywhere.
After the last few days, this was all she needed. What the hell was she going to do now?
Cam Fraser guided his Jaguar off the motorway and onto the exit road. It had been a shit week, he was running late, and it was pissing down with rain. Again. Bloody brilliant. He tried to console himself with the fact that within half an hour – maybe less, if he was lucky – he’d be getting intimately acquainted with a single malt, in the company of his old friend Alex Lombard and Alex’s gorgeous wife Beth. The weekend away from the manic pressure of London was going to be a long one, the highlight of which would be the party Beth was hosting to celebrate the imminent publication of her second novel.
He was also going to explore with Alex the possibility of the other man returning to Spectrum Security, the company they’d started together when they’d left the military. His friend had been avoiding this discussion for far too long. Cam reckoned that Alex had been resting on his laurels for long enough after selling his own business for a not-so-small fortune – it was high time he got back into some gainful employment, did something useful, and stopped basking in the glow of his wife’s well-deserved success.
Cam was a frequent visitor to the Lombards’ stylish home, a large spacious property in rural Hampshire. He’d known Alex for around half his life and Beth for well over four years now, ever since Alex had taken her on as his executive assistant. After a rather fraught situation about a year ago, when the repercussions of an incident in Alex’s distant past had been in danger of costing him his life, Cam’s relationship with the couple had grown considerably closer. Earlier that year, in spring, he’d been the best man at their wedding.
Consequently, Cam knew the route to their house with his eyes closed, but it was just as well that he was concentrating. When he rounded the next bend, the sweep of the Jaguar’s headlights revealed a car pulled up at the side of the road some distance ahead of him. The hazard lights were flashing – the vehicle appeared to be in no state to go any further.
Oh shit. He could feel his Good Samaritan gene kicking in, overruling the clamour of his aching, stress-knotted shoulders. He knew he wasn’t going to drive past without stopping – it just wasn’t in his nature – but if fate was on his side, he’d find that the driver had already called their breakdown service and was just waiting for a mechanic to arrive.
Cam pulled in ahead of the aged vehicle. The aged hideous vehicle. He could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of orange – orange, for Christ’s sake! – cars he’d seen in his life. While he was no expert, he didn’t like the look of the vapour that was escaping from under the bonnet. Grabbing the flashlight out of the glove compartment, he ducked out of the car, snatched a rag and his fluorescent waterproof jacket from the boot, and ran back to the other car, grimacing against the rain.
The driver was still behind the wheel and looked to be resting their forehead on the rim of it. Cam experienced a glimmer of disquiet, wondering if whoever it was had been taken ill. A sick driver and a sick car – could things get any worse?
Don’t answer that!
It didn’t do to tempt fate.
As he neared the vehicle, the flashlight illuminated long, rich blonde hair – the driver appeared to be a woman, and she had a white-knuckled death-grip on the steering wheel. He hoped that the lack of a response to the light wasn’t a sign of a more serious, possibly health-related issue. After a moment’s hesitation he tapped lightly on the window…and was rewarded with an ear-piercing shriek. What the hell was he getting himself into now? Positioning the flashlight so that it would illuminate his face, he motioned to the driver to lower the window. It descended about an inch.
“Are you all right?” he called through the crack. “Do you need any help? It’s okay, you can trust me – I was a Boy Scout.” He turned on the smile that usually obtained the desired result.
The window descended a little more. Cam angled the flashlight again, so that it shed a little light on the car’s occupant without blinding her, and found himself looking into tearful storm-grey eyes. They were set in an absolutely stunning face framed by that tumbling cascade of golden waves. His stomach lurched, as if he’d taken a physical blow.
Grabbing his libido by the scruff of the neck – there was a time and a place for the thoughts that suddenly whizzed through his mind, and this wasn’t it – he figured he’d better take control of matters, starting with an introduction. “My name’s Cam – Cam Fraser.” He dug out his driving license as proof. “Do you need any help?”
If he’d been hoping for a glib reply that would have sent him on his way with a clear conscience, he’d have been sorely disappointed. It was just as well he hadn’t set his sights that high, because what he got was the frozen stare of a deer caught in the headlights of a car.
In that instant, Cam realised two things – firstly, he couldn’t get much wetter, and secondly, he wasn’t going to get dry any time soon. The situation was going to require some finesse. He crouched down, resting one knee on the tarmac, so that he was on a level with her. “It’s all right, honey,” he said softly, slipping easily into Dom mode and adopting the tone he’d use with a novice sub in need of reassurance. “I won’t hurt you, I promise. Have you called anyone to come and take a look at the car?”
This time, she shook her head – progress of a sort, he supposed. He wasn’t ready to give up just yet, though. “Would you like to call someone? Your breakdown service? You can use my phone.”
“I – I’m sorry,” she gulped. “It ran out and I forgot to renew it. Stupid of me, I know –”
“Don’t say that.” Cam’s voice was sterner than he intended, shocking her and surprising himself. Maybe he’d better tone down the orders a bit in favour of ramping up the charm. “Shit happens, but it’s nothing we can’t deal with. If you open it up, I’ll take a look – can’t promise anything, though.”
Cam lifted the bonnet. It didn’t look good – in fact, it reminded him of the time the cylinder head gasket failed on the clapped-out wreck that had been his first car, back in his teenage years. If that was the problem now – and he was pretty damn sure it was – not even a breakdown service could get this vehicle moving tonight. He dropped the bonnet back into place and returned to deliver his verdict.
“This car’s not going another foot tonight without serious help,” he said. “Now, where were you heading for?” With luck, she was visiting friends or family in the local area who’d be able to help her out in the morning.
Not friends, not family – she was heading for a destination far enough away for a quick bit of mental arithmetic to tell Cam he’d be lucky to make the Lombards’ house by midnight, if he were to give her a lift there. This called for an alternative strategy.
Cam came to a decision. He couldn’t just leave her stranded there, nor could he find it in himself to dump her at the nearest hotel for the night, leaving her to deal with her car problem alone – that just wasn’t his style. To him, the answer was obvious – she was going to accompany him to the Lombards’. Good thing she didn’t look like a psychotic murderer – God knows he’d encountered enough of those in his previous military life.
“There’s no chance of you getting there tonight –” He broke off, realising that he didn’t know her name. He tilted his head, asking her the question with his eyes, curious to see whether she would respond, and respond accurately.
“Stacie,” she supplied, without missing a beat. “Stacie Matheson.”
The name suited her. “Well, Stacie, I have an idea. I’m on my way to visit some friends of mine. Their house isn’t far from here, and they have plenty of room for visitors.” Time for the Dom voice again, if this was going to go the way he needed it to. “Why don’t you come with me? Have something to eat, get a good night’s sleep, and in the morning we’ll figure out what to do about your car. You can trust me, Stacie – Scouts’ Honour.”
A mixture of hope and relief brightened her face briefly, and then it was gone. “I can’t,” she whispered. “I don’t know you.”
A good point. “That’s right, you don’t know me, Stacie, but you can’t stay here all night, either. It’s already dark, it’s going to get colder, and even if you do stay here – which, from a personal safety point of view, I wouldn’t advise – you’ll still have the same problem in the morning. Let me take care of you, Stacie.”
The ball was in her court now. Cam stood up and waited, oblivious to the rain that was now starting to run down the back of his neck in icy rivulets. He’d known worse. His concentration was on Stacie, willing her to agree to his proposition. A couple of seconds later the car door edged open. He took hold of it, slowly pulled it wider, and offered the young woman his hand.
Even in the light cast by the flashlight and with her long hair starting to hang in disorderly rats’ tails due to the rain, her grace and the sense of beauty flowing from her left Cam fleetingly stunned. He suppressed the urge to praise her as if she were a sub responding to instruction – instead, he focused on the job at hand. “Give me your keys, Stacie, then go and sit in my car – the door’s unlocked. Do you have a bag?”
“In the boot.” She pressed the keys into his palm. “Just the small one – it’s all I’ll need for tonight. And…thank you.”
Cam smiled his approval, and through her gentle touch realised that she had allowed herself to relax…even if it was only a little.
A stranger’s hand was warming her chilled skin, yet for some unaccountable reason Stacie felt as if her own hand were where it had always belonged.
Although the man’s – Cam’s – flashlight was quite powerful, she hadn’t been able to get much of an impression of him beyond height and breadth, short hair that could have been any shade between brown and blond, and a flash of penetrating blue eyes. And that touch that felt as if it could hold her safely for the rest of her life. She was clearly having some sort of delusion. Stress – it had to be stress. Or maybe anxiety. Something…like that. In the circumstances, who could blame her?
Common sense was screaming at her to snatch back her keys, get back in the car and lock all the doors, but overriding that was something more powerful and elemental – and it had nothing to do with seeking shelter from the weather. She was responding to this man in a way that was all primitive instinct, and although that reaction confused her at a fundamental level, she didn’t want it to stop.
As she ran towards his car – a brand-new Jaguar convertible that looked frighteningly expensive – she stopped to glance back, hoping that he wouldn’t catch her looking at him, only to find him watching her. The nod he gave her was strangely calming, so she continued to the passenger door of the sleek, dark car with the lighter soft top. She froze in her tracks when she opened it.
The dashboard wouldn’t have looked out of place in a state-of-the-art jet, but it was the pristine ivory leather seats staring her in the face that made her draw back, along with grey carpets that were a shade too light for her peace of mind. There was no way she was getting in there.
“Stacie, what is it?”
Cam’s hand on her arm shattered the spell and turned her attention towards him. How had he sneaked up on her so quietly? “I – I can’t!” she stammered. “I’m soaked…” She looked back into the car, the direction of her gaze revealing the cause of her reluctance.
The vehicle’s owner made an impatient noise. “And the longer you stand here, the wetter you’ll get. Stacie, it’s only a damn car! For God’s sake, get in! I’ll be right back.”
Painfully aware of the mess she was liable to make, Stacie slipped off her coat and bundled it up to stuff in the footwell, in the hope of minimising the possibility of causing any damage to the luxurious upholstery. She slid into the passenger seat, jumping slightly when Cam forcefully closed the door behind her. A few moments later, once he’d retrieved her bag, the Jaguar’s boot closed with similar intensity and the man himself was taking his place behind the wheel.
The fluorescent yellow jacket was now gone, revealing a frame no less imposing than that first impression. When its owner turned towards her, she hugged her tote bag to her chest, almost using it as a shield.
“Relax, Stacie.” His voice started to calm her with only those two words. “Your car’s locked up and not going anywhere. We’ll be at my friends’ house in around twenty minutes, maybe less, and I know you’ll be more than welcome. You’re safe now.”
For no reason that she could name, she believed him. She felt safer with him – with this stranger – than she had since the first blow of Jonty’s fist on her door that morning. From his reaction, anyone would have thought Jonty had caught her cheating on him, rather than it being the other way around. She’d seen him lose his temper on more than one occasion during their time together, but that morning was the first time she’d been on the receiving end of it. Once was more than enough. Trapped in the memory, she flinched when Cam touched her hand.
“Stacie? What’s wrong? You look terrified – I told you, I won’t hurt you.”
“It’s not you.”
She heard herself say the words, and all of a sudden common sense reasserted itself. This man was a completely unknown quantity, for heaven’s sake – a handsome, confident knight in shining armour with a compelling air of command about him, but it didn’t make him any less the stranger. And she’d got into his car with barely a thought for the possible risks in doing so. Had she gone completely insane? “Please…give me my keys and my bag. I can’t be here –”
Before she knew what was happening, strong arms had reached over the centre console and gone around her, holding her tightly to a broad chest. He smelled of rain, expensive aftershave and all things male, and that and the physical comfort combined to allay the panic that was threatening to overwhelm her. His deep voice had an indefinable quality that helped to soothe her as well. Why wasn’t she scared anymore? He was a stranger, she should be scared. Shouldn’t she?
“Shh, honey, it’s all right,” he murmured, stroking her arm. “Trust me. You’ve had a crap experience, but it’s over now. Just a short time from now, we’ll both be getting warm and dry again. Trust me.”
His voice again – the mesmeric quality of it wrapped around her, comforting her in ways that reminded her of…now she was crazy, imagining that this man was like the ones in the novel she was reading. Men like that just didn’t exist, no matter how much she might secretly want them to.
Stacie was on her third copy of the book now. She’d lent the first to Jen, her best friend, who’d then passed it on to another friend. The second copy had disappeared somewhere in the office and was no doubt circulating around the entire female contingent. Desperate to read it for – was it really the fourth time? – Stacie had bought another copy just yesterday, and was half a dozen chapters into it. The story was downright addictive.
As the sense of panic receded, so her ability to think calmly began to reassert itself. Slowly she pulled away from her rescuer, a slight case of embarrassment making her cheeks burn. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, “it’s just that it’s been…let’s just say it’s been a rough couple of days.”
“Tell me about it later, Stacie.” He reached across her for the seatbelt and snapped it into place. “For now, just relax and get warm. When we get to where we’re going, you can tell me all about whatever it is you’re running away from.”
Thank God they were so close to his destination.
Cam must have been more tired than he thought, for him to have given in to the irrational impulse to take a woman he’d known barely fifteen minutes in his arms and offer her comfort. This wasn’t the club. This wasn’t the prelude to a negotiation with a sub he’d never met before, and it most certainly wasn’t governed by the etiquette and protocol of Domination and submission. What the frickin’ hell was it about this woman that was making him go all Dom and protective all of a sudden?
Whatever it was, it was dangerous – especially to a man in Cam’s position. After a lifetime of avoiding commitment in relationships, he’d finally admitted to himself not so long ago that he was attracted to the kind of relationship that Alex and Beth shared. Not just attracted – he wanted the whole nine yards, right down to the wedding bells.
He was only just getting used to the idea; what he hadn’t expected to happen so soon was meeting a woman whom he could imagine on his arm when those wedding bells rang. And he sure as hell hadn’t planned to run into her in the middle of nowhere. His subconscious had kind of assumed he’d meet a suitable sub at Aegis one evening, and he’d take things from there – there was no way he’d bargained on being blindsided in the middle of a storm by a complete stranger.
Or he could just be working too hard and fatigue had robbed him of the capacity to control his imagination. Put a pretty blonde in his path, and his ability to think straight went south. As explanations went, that one was far more feasible. Either way, though, the sooner they got to his destination, the better.
Cam’s concentration was on the road ahead, but he risked a sideways glance at his unexpected passenger. He was in a prime position to appreciate the delicate lines of her profile – and to see that she was as taut as the proverbial bowstring. His honest opinion? She was on the verge of panic – second thoughts probably, and entirely understandable, given that she didn’t know him and she didn’t understand yet that she could trust him.
He wanted her to trust him. He wanted her to kiss him, and he wanted her on her knees in front of him. Shit! He was reacting to her just like he would to a sub at Aegis. Again, he wondered what the hell had come over him.
At that point, his head started to take an interest in what his instincts were fantasising about. He reminded himself that after tomorrow morning, when she went on her way, he’d probably never see Stacie Matheson again.
A prospect he found disturbingly unpleasant, when he shouldn’t have found it anything.
The Jaguar ate up the distance to the Lombards’ home, and pretty much at the time he’d predicted he was guiding the car through the huge wrought iron gates. As he pulled up outside the house, he heard Stacie gasp.
“Your friends live here?”
Cam switched off the engine. “It’s called Winterleigh. Nice place, and they have plenty of guest accommodation. Don’t worry, Stacie – Beth and Alex will make you more than welcome.”
“Are you sure, Mr. Fraser? I don’t want to impose.”
Mr. Fraser. Shit – that made him sound like the father he’d never known. The sperm donor who’d sired him had been just one of the many men his alcoholic tramp of a mother had slept with, before the booze had taken its toll and left him orphaned at the age of eight. He frowned at the disconcerting thought that the woman beside him might view him as some sort of father figure.
“It’s Cam,” he reminded her as he got out of the car, then went around to the passenger door to help her out, collecting their bags from the boot on the way. “Come on, let’s get inside before the rain starts again.”
Viewing him as family rather than just a friend, Beth and Alex had both insisted that he have a set of keys to the house. Cam unlocked the front door, then stood back to let Stacie enter first. He’d barely closed it when he felt the warm familiarity of one of Beth’s hugs and heard the single word she whispered in his ear, a word that gave him the welcome he really needed tonight.
“We were starting to think you’d got lost, Cam,” she said with her usual radiant smile as she stepped back to look up at his face. “What happened to you?”
He leaned down to kiss her cheek. “I was running late, the weather was lousy and then I found a fair damsel in distress. Beth, let me introduce you to Stacie – Beth Lombard, Stacie Matheson. I told her you wouldn’t mind putting her up for the night, while we work out what to do about her car.”
Standing in the well-lit hall, this was the first opportunity he’d had to take a clear look at the young woman whom he’d assisted. What he saw, through the nervousness and the superficial damage wrought by the storm, cemented that first impression back at the car. Not just beauty, though, but a sweet, innocent loveliness, the like of which a man like him could never even aspire to take as his own, yet every cell in his body screamed to possess her and make her his. Almost in a daze, he held out his hand to her, his mind registering vaguely that she had to be at least a dozen years his junior. “Stacie.”
Emerging from the corner into which she’d slipped on entering the hall, she stepped forward – and irrational though it was, pleased him no end with her instant obedience. She took his hand, offering no resistance when he put his arm around her slender shoulders and pulled her against his body, acting on subconscious instincts older than time.
“Dear heaven, Stacie, you look absolutely exhausted!” Beth stated unequivocally, ready to take the other woman under her wing. “Do you have a bag with you?”
Before she could answer, a new voice joined in with another question.
“Where the bloody hell have you been, Fraser?”
Stacie had been in a state close to shock from the second she stepped past her rescuer and into the entrance hall of the stunningly impressive house. Suddenly feeling way out of her depth, she’d sought refuge in the corner by the door, only to realise that the interior, far from being imposing, was as warm and friendly as the smiling woman who had suddenly appeared and flung her arms enthusiastically around Cam Fraser.
She was younger than Stacie had somehow imagined – beautiful in a very natural way, with long, lustrous brown waves framing a face with a flawless complexion, remarkable green eyes behind a classy pair of designer glasses, and an unashamedly voluptuous figure. She was clad in an outfit that was both casual and chic, and around her neck she wore an elaborate heavy gold chain.
However, it was Cam himself who robbed Stacie briefly of the power of speech. Now that she could appreciate the full impact of him, her instinctive reaction was that, for the first time in her life, she’d met a real man and one who made her feel more feminine and alive than she’d ever felt before. With very little effort she could get into trouble. Oh, so much trouble…
He was tall. God, was he tall, well over six feet of solid muscle as far as she could tell, from his dark blond, military-short hair to his expensively booted feet. His clothes spoke of wealth, just as his car did, and they covered broad shoulders that she longed to feel beneath her hands, purely in the interests of confirming whether or not they were as strong as they looked, of course. Absolutely no ulterior motive at all. Cam Fraser was definitely all man and with his arm around her, Stacie found herself reacting to his overwhelming masculinity in a very wet, female way. No wonder she was having trouble keeping her wits about her.
And now another man was joining them – another equally impressive specimen of manhood, as ridiculously good-looking as Cam, but dark-haired where Cam was blond. When he spoke, all three turned as one in the direction of his voice. As he descended the final tread of the magnificent staircase, his sternly handsome features relaxed into a broad grin. He came to greet his friend with a brief and most definitely masculine hug.
He went on to introduce himself as Alex Lombard. He shook Stacie’s hand, and then moved to his wife, drawing her into his side in such a way that all Stacie could do was wonder how it must feel to be the woman who had such a man so blatantly, so deeply in love with her. That was something she herself had never known, yet suddenly found herself wishing for it with an almost physical intensity. Oh yeah, she was tired and overwrought, she had to be.
“Stacie, why don’t you come with me?” Beth lifted her arm towards the staircase. “Cam, bring Stacie’s bag, would you? You know where you’re going – Stacie can have the blue bedroom, two doors down from yours.”
Although she was following the other woman, Stacie was more aware of her rescuer just a few steps behind her, all the way up the staircase and along the gallery to the last door on the right. Consequently she was barely listening when Beth showed her into the room and informed her that dinner would be ready in about forty-five minutes. She thanked her hostess and watched the other woman leave.
“You see, honey, I told you everything would be all right.”
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