For years Tom Barnes has been focused on his career, working all hours, sacrificing everything social, not allowing any kind of distraction. But Amber Delaney is no distraction. He might’ve kept his distance, but the truth is she’s the love of his life. Only now she’s leaving London.
He’s a man used to winning every race he enters. But this time has he left it too late?
Two years after Her Bossy Billionaire
TOM BARNES ARRIVED FIRST. He’d arrived first at every training session for the last three years and in a few hours he’d also be last to leave. He glanced, as he always did, to the cap on the first hook in the common room of the Thames Rowing Elite Performance Centre. It was Amber Delaney’s cap. The neon pink and orange combo clashed with her wild strawberry blonde hair and always caught his eye. A memory popped—husky-laugh, bossy tones, lively blue eyes. You always heard Amber before you saw her. And when you saw her?
The mere thought made Tom’s mouth dry. The reality of her? He always had to freeze—hold still, say nothing, definitely do nothing. Not catch her beautiful blue gaze, not reach for her slim wrist, definitely not put his hand on the small of her back and pull her flush against his hard, aching body. He dreamed of doing that—and so much more—every day, every night. He fantasised about stripping her free from the form-fitting tights and tank-tops she wore to training. He ached to finally reveal her slim-but-curvy form for him to feast on. He’d touch and he’d savour until she screamed his name and came apart in his arms. Then he’d hold her closer still and caress her down from those too deliciously sensitive heights. He’d see her smile at him, feel her soften—drowsy with satiated pleasure. He’d dreamed of all that and more for months.
Resisting the temptation used every ounce of his resolve. It wasn’t just frustrating, it was exhausting.
But Tom Barnes wasn’t messing up again. He wasn’t jeopardising his success. More importantly he wasn’t jeopardising hers. Hell, the success of the entire squad rested on crew stability and there was more than one boat on the line here. But he let himself look at her cap for three final seconds. The damned thing aggravated his frustration but at the same time was balm on the same. It signalled she’d be here soon. She’d put it on and call out to her crew. At their elite rowing programme in London, Amber Delaney was the top coxswain—the petite force who sat in the boat and directed the biggest, strongest bunch of men to power their blades through every gruelling race to make it to the podium. Again and again. She didn’t boss Tom though. He now competed in a different boat—alone. Him against the world. But he and Amber were in the same training squad and he knew from past experience that relationships were a distraction. Frankly, emotional entanglements wrecked championship chances and Amber had things to achieve. So he finally turned his back to the neon monstrosity and walked to the window, checking the river and prepping his mind. He needed to get a grip and get ready. Pre-season training had barely begun and transferring athletes were still arriving from other clubs, other countries even. They all came here to train harder than anyone—pushing to make it to the top of the podium.
Heavy tread on the stairs announced another rower’s arrival. Tom recognised the gait and tensed. Jacob Fuller was the other guy who always arrived early, and he’d once been a rival off water too. Tom glanced at him briefly. Jacob was looking more fierce than usual as he stomped to the fridge. Tom jerked a nod in acknowledgment and got one back, but something was clearly up, and he didn’t think it was tension from the past. They were respectful these days because Tom kept his distance and kept his head. He’d apologised to Jacob long ago, but things would always be a little cool between them.
‘You’ve got to be kidding!’ Jacob slammed the fridge door shut and immediately opened the cupboard above the sink. He growled beneath his breath and stomped to another cupboard. He was full grumpy drama and Tom couldn’t ignore what was unusual behaviour even for the volatile Jacob.
‘What’s up?’ He asked.
‘What isn’t?’ Jacob muttered.
‘It’s a glorious day.’ It legit was. Sun was sparkling on the still water. Sky was blue. It was a good day to get going.
Jacob glared at him. ‘You haven’t heard?’
Tom stilled. There was an edge in Jacob’s voice that he hadn’t heard in a long while. Dude could be grumpy as hell, but that rough edge meant real emotion. ‘Heard what?’
Oh. Tom’s tension eased but he should have thought to address this sooner with Jacob, only he’d been distracted by Amber—as always. ‘Yeah, she is.’
‘You know?’ Jacob’s head lifted.
‘Saw her yesterday. You guys were on the water.’
Jacob was in the men’s eight that Amber coxed. He sat in the stroke seat—right in front of Amber. Not that it grated all Tom’s gears or anything.
‘You’ve spoken with her?’ Jacob’s jaw tightened.
Yeah, there was an unmistakable rise in aggression and Tom couldn’t blame the guy. The three of them had history. Stupid, mortifying history that was meaningless to Tom but not quite so meaningless for Jacob. Or Kayleigh.
‘Briefly. About boats.’ Tom lifted an innocent hand. ‘I’m not gonna get in your way, you know that.’
Jacob’s frown only deepened. ‘Nothing to get in the way of.’
‘Sure.’ Tom nodded peaceably. ‘That’s why you’re so happy this morning.’
Four years ago Tom had been an arrogant jerk and he’d royally screwed up. He’d believed he could get any girl he wanted—probably because back then he had. When new rower Kayleigh had arrived from the States to train here, Tom had seen her not as a person but as a prize. She’d been another conquest to him. Especially when Tom had seen he wasn’t the only one to take note of her arrival. Jacob had fallen for her hard. And that had made Tom push harder. Truthfully it wasn’t that he’d fallen for her—or indeed any of his lovers back then. He’d literally just turned everything into a competition. He’d needed to win the same way he needed to breathe. It was essential to him. And he had won. He’d proven… what, exactly? Not much. Because he’d not wanted to keep the prize. There was always another to be had…
Yeah, he’d been immature and thoughtless, and the memories still made him wince because in the fall out he’d hurt Kayleigh and Jacob and that sucked—for them most of all. But he’d almost lost everything that was important to himself. The partying? The philandering? He’d been escaping pressure… but it was pressure he’d accepted, if anything he’d made it for himself by embracing such a public lifestyle.
It was with the Jacob/Kayleigh mess that he’d finally learned his lesson. He’d pulled his head in and focused on his sport. He’d blocked the media and public attention and pushed past his own ‘story’ of overcoming all odds. He’d actually put in the focus he needed to really achieve what he wanted—sustained success. He’d maximised the sponsorships he’d almost lost from that party phase. And he’d studied. He’d been obsessive and single-minded because he’d finally realised he could focus on only the one thing at a time and that had to be his career, not his private life. Because he owed his brother and sister—the people who’d literally saved his life. He owed the people who’d cheered for him year on year and who’d believed in him. He’d had to be better for them. And for those in the squad and he wasn’t wrecking anyone else’s chances. Because Kayleigh had left and he knew Jacob had never gotten over her. Now she was back and judging from the way she’d been watching Jacob’s boat gliding through the river yesterday? Tom figured there was some serious shit for those two to work through. And he was staying well out of it.
Jacob leaned his hands on the table in the centre of the room and eyeballed Tom. ‘You don’t give a damn she’s back?’
Tom faced him square on and answered with calm honesty. ‘No. I don’t.’
Jacob slowly shook his head. ‘How did you become such a bloodless bastard?’
‘Got other things to think about,’ Tom said softly. Pure truth. That orange cap on the wall caught his eye again.
Husky-laugh, bossy tones, lively blue eyes… He might be a world champion, but she was out of his league. He was not messing up her future and she could do it all from here. There was no better place for her to be.
Tom realised too late that Jacob had tracked Tom’s gaze.
‘You heard about that too?’ Jacob’s eyes narrowed.
‘That?’ Tom echoed lightly.
Tom checked his breath. It didn’t work. Never did. But he tried, as always, to hide the way even just her name made his pulse jump. ‘What about her?’
Memory messed with him as he muttered the question—a flash from just the other day when he’d heard her husky-edged voice haunting him from down the corridor. She always sounder huskier when she’d been on the water for hours.
‘Quit the programme. Apparently, she’s got an offer in Dublin.’
‘What?’ Now Tom just heard a roar in his ears.
‘Women’s crew. University. She’s going to study and coach apparently.’
‘What?’ The thundering drumming stopping his hearing was his own damned pulse. Coach? Study? What about her own desire to compete?
‘The guys are devastated,’ Jacob said. ‘There are a couple options coming in but no one in her league.’
Tom tried to swallow and failed and it didn’t stop the rage from rising. ‘When…?’
‘She told us yesterday. After the session. So out of the blue.’
Tom had gone out on the water before Amber’s boat had come in. He knew they’d then gone to a gym session and by the time he’d come back in the place was empty. But that wasn’t what he’d wanted to know. He needed to do when she was leaving. ‘When is she going?’
‘Why are you looking so pissed?’ Jacob frowned. ‘She’s not your talisman, she’s ours.’
Tom gritted his teeth. Amber Delaney wasn’t a talisman. She was talented. She was strong and fit—she always went with her crew on their runs and he knew she’d been a competitive gymnast until injury had ended that dream. Plus, she was smart—working the physics of the boat, analysing the time splits in her head, she knew when to make the calls and she studied the competition relentlessly. She’d worked so hard to get where she was—which was here, training with the absolute best in Europe. So why the hell was she leaving now?
His heart thrashed the inside of his ribs. ‘Is she coming to training today?’
‘No, she said she—’ Jacob broke off and cocked his head like a damned predator scenting blood. ‘Why do you…’
Tom didn’t bother waiting for Jacob to finish. He was too busy pulling his bag back out of the locker he’d shoved it in less than ten minutes ago.
‘Where are you going?’ Jacob gaped. ‘You haven’t been on the water. You never miss training.’ He straightened to full height. ‘Tom?!’
Tom didn’t say a word. Couldn’t. Amber was leaving? What the actual hell?
She hadn’t told him and he’d seen her yesterday so she could have. He’d been in the common room when she’d arrived and she’d just smiled at him in that way she did—not for long enough, with slightly too much reserve before she’d glanced quickly away. Where there’d once been a hint of intimacy—of awareness—now there was escape. He’d then seen her on the water—looking as happy as she always did to be making the calls to the men pulling the oars. That’s where she was in her element. She’d been in a cute racer-back tank top with one of those neon straps-everywhere sports bras beneath that created a pattern on her smooth-looking skin. She’d been leaning forward and laughing as she’d admonished one of the guys. He’d been watching her when Kayleigh had arrived. He’d been watching her every day they’d had training for the last two years.
Tiny. Bossy. Brilliant. Beautiful. Amber loved what she did. She loved being here. So then, why on earth was she leaving? It wasn’t just shocking, it was unbelievable.
Emotion surged, forcing his action. He had to see her. He had to find out why she was abandoning everything so bloody suddenly. Was it even true?
Tom’s heart seized and his lungs tightened.
Because if it was true, if she was planning to go…?
He gritted his teeth. He was gonna have to stop her somehow. Because Amber Delaney was the love of his life.
She just didn’t know it yet.
AMBER WAS GOING to start packing. Soon. Truly. Any minute now.
Okay so maybe she’d stay on the sofa for another couple seconds flicking through the glossy leaflet. She glared at the handsome guy staring out from the photos, advertising some fancy muesli. There was no avoiding Tom Barnes—champion athlete, darling of the media, corporate sponsor’s dream. Handsome. Determined. Heroic. He was a winner every time. But he wasn’t ever going to be hers. And she was done trying to be fine with that. It was time to move. Literally.
Instead she slumped on the sofa and morosely eyed the suitcase she’d pulled from the back of her wardrobe earlier this morning. Going away would help her get him out of her head. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Maybe she’d even find someone else. After all, it had been years since she’d kissed a guy. But the thought of kissing someone else grossed her out. She just wanted Tom. She just was tragic.
The pining—pathetic as it was—had started the second she saw him. It wasn’t that tousled-just-so brown hair, lean physique and over-all gorgeousness, but the intensity in his eyes—those mesmerising windows into the determined, driven man. He felt things deeply and Amber was drawn to passion.
A few weeks into her first season the entire squad had gone to a regatta in Slovenia. Fate had seated her next to Tom on the plane over. She’d been wary because the guy was known to be quiet and aloof and he’d certainly started that way. Only then she’d spilled her orange juice all over herself. It had been mortifying as she’d struggled to mop it up and stop it from dripping on him. But he’d laughed and defused her embarrassment by distracting her with twenty questions. They’d ended up talking the entire flight. They’d laughed and he’d opened up. Or so she’d thought.
Of course there was a huge difference between sustaining an injury that wiped out a dream versus battling an aggressive cancer that might wipe out your actual life. Amber’s gymnastics dreams had abruptly ended with a knee injury when she was fourteen. But Tom had faced numerous tumours that had threatened his existence entirely when he was not much older. Yet there’d been commonalities that had appeared surprisingly quickly, in that long flight. And yeah, just like that she’d fallen for him.
They’d talked a few times during the regatta. He’d caught her eye. They’d shared secret smiles. She’d thought they’d connected in more ways than the lethal physical attraction that had hit first.
Then, when they’d returned to London it had stopped. Just like that their camaraderie and blossoming intimacy had been squished. He didn’t catch her eye. He didn’t share any sort of smile. He basically ghosted her—only their connection had been so brief she couldn’t really claim it had been broken. There wasn’t a solid friendship let alone the chance for anything else to have grown, right? Only there was an ache. An emptiness. And hurt.
For a while she’d wondered if someone had said something to him, or if she’d done something without realising, but she’d been too proud—okay, too hurt and stupidly insecure—to ask. Because maybe she’d imagined it. Only she’d caught him looking at her occasionally since and swore she saw that spark again. Until he glanced away. He’d never made a move.
Her only consolation was that he never made a move with anyone.
He never really socialised at all—never celebrated with the others in the squad, not even after championship regattas when he’d won gold medals galore. He always left early from the dinners he was contractually required to attend. She’d never seen him drink alcohol and he never ate anything that wasn’t on his regimented meal plan. Even in his off-season he was meticulous, studious, constrained. There was no one as determined or as dedicated or as driven as Tom Barnes. He was so damned perfect in his pursuit of rowing glory. He didn’t get distracted. Ever.
Not since Kayleigh had left. That past relationship wasn’t a secret. Apparently both Tom and Jacob—one of the crew in her boat—had made a play for elite rower Kayleigh when she’d arrived at the EPC about four years ago. She’d picked Tom but it hadn’t lasted. Kayleigh had returned to to train in the US and Tom had morphed into super-serious mode.
Because his heart had been broken, right? And there’d been a bunch of women who’d tried their damndest to kiss him better, but he’d turned every one down. Amber had decided not to be the next he rejected.
Good thing too. Because now Kayleigh was back. Glamorous, tall, strong and an amazing rower. There was no competing with her. Amber had understood that when she’d seen him laughing with Kayleigh yesterday.
Jealousy had surged. Amber’s crew had their backs to the dock, but as she faced the other way as their coxswain, Amber had had the perfect view of Tom talking with the woman he’d fallen for years ago. He’d smiled and talked with her in a way that he’d never done with anyone.
It was the wake-up call she’d desperately needed. But she wasn’t making this decision solely because of a man—not giving up her dreams because of unrequited lust for some guy. She’d been mulling a move for a while. She’d pivot—yes in part to protect herself—but also to ensure she didn’t make the same mistakes as her father. She was going to live a life bigger than his. She wasn’t having relationships built only on achievement, wasn’t discarding people when they no longer ‘performed’. Her definition of success—of winning—was wider than merely accumulating medals. She loved winning of course, but at the same time she didn’t want to be trapped on a hamster wheel that only spun ever faster with the more ‘success’ she had. There were other things she wanted. And this hurt over the ever-unavailable Tom was the push to remind herself of what that really was. Not just more. Everything. She wasn’t missing out on all the things life had to offer. And she had to start now—by not staying slumped on the sofa, right?
Going to training was so ingrained in her routine she’d automatically dressed in her workout gear. She glanced out the window. It was a gorgeous day. Packing could wait. She’d go to the park, breathe deep and gently stretch so she’d be able to strive for the hard things more easily. Or something.
Before she could change her mind, she grabbed her keys. Riding the wave of ‘I’ve got this’ energy she ran down the stairs, flinging her door open just as the doorbell buzzed. There was a tall figure there. She tried to stop but her momentum was too strong and she couldn’t stop overbalancing.
‘Oh!’ She smacked straight him.
It was definitely a him because she felt strong hands on her upper arms. She snapped her head back to see who she’d just cannonballed into.
‘Sorry, I—’ She gulped a breath—shocked, and dazed and she wasn’t just in his arms, she was pressed against his chest. The dude had caught her and didn’t seem inclined to let her go.
‘Tom?!’ She blinked but the dizziness was instant.
Yeah, she’d crushed on him instantly and hard the first time she’d seen him and it was exactly the same now. He wasn’t as tall as the guys in her eight but she still had to tilt her head back to see up into his eyes. He was originally a lightweight rower in a pair. But make no mistake, lightweight didn’t mean puny. It meant every ounce of him was hard, powerful muscle. And right now almost every ounce of that muscle was slammed against her.
‘George isn’t here.’ She frowned at her own breathlessness. ‘He’s already gone to training.’
Her flatmate was in her men’s eight crew along with Jacob. Another big, strong boy who believed he knew best. This morning he’d spent an hour haranguing her about her decision to leave the Elite Performance Centre. She’d ignored him as she always did.
‘I’m not here for George.’ Tom said shortly.
Oddly he sounded as breathless as he.
‘Shouldn’t you be at training too?’ she asked, confused.
Tom never missed training. Why was he here, why did he have such accusation in his eyes?
‘Are you going to invite me in?’ Impossibly, he stared at her even more intensely. Right at her. Right into her.
‘Why?’ Any manners evaporated because she was frozen in her own doorway—in his arms.
It was so unexpected. So intense. And unfortunately her emotions were already unleashed so hauling them back in now was impossible.
‘I want to talk to you.’
That intensity didn’t help her regain her mobility.
‘What about?’ Her heart thundered while other parts went embarrassingly hot and melty. There was intimacy in this situation and she needed to ease out of it.
She stared, now rendered even more immobile. What did it matter to him whether she left or not? Anger bubbled dangerously near the surface. That was good. Better than the sexual heat already simmering so inappropriately.
‘Why?’ he added bluntly. ‘Why now? Why so quickly?’
Amber was well used to bossing around a crew of eight ultimate-alpha, ultra-competitive guys who would push themselves past the brink of their own physical pain limits every day. They’d push everyone around them too given half the chance. But not her. She wasn’t intimidated, frankly she liked the challenge of handling them—on the water anyway. But right now she was afraid of why Tom was here, of what he was going to say, of him bossing her. Because he could. She could easily allow that to happen. He was her one weakness. So she couldn’t answer. She could only stare.
Right now he didn’t look like himself. Actually that wasn’t true. He looked like he did when he was racing on the water. He had that steely focus the same as he did when he ignored the pain of his body and pushed through to do what was required. Ruthless, dominant. He intimidated his competitors. Every time. And he terrified Amber. Not physically. But he had no idea the degree to which he could hurt her heart.
‘Why are you leaving? What’s happened?’ he asked again.
It was more what hadn’t happened. Not that she was ever going to tell him that. She lifted her chin. ‘Nothing’s happened. It’s just time for a change.’
‘Really?’ Disbelief dripped from his tone. ‘Not true. You’re too good at it.’
Yeah, she was good. She pushed to be the best at what she did. Same as he.
Almost imperceptibly his grip on her tightened and his voice dropped. ‘You love it.’
Yeah, she loved coxing her crew to get their boat perfectly balanced—until they hit the point where they were full power, full pace. It almost rose out of the water and planed—like they were flying. She found the sound of the blades catching the water almost hypnotic. She’d ridden that high several times—guided some of the best in the world. And won. So it was time for something new. She needed a challenge and she’d get that by embracing a different facet to the sport. Coaching. Managing. Moving forward with her life. Making it bigger. Because her father’s way—relentlessly pursuing only one kind of glory and cutting out everything—everyone—no longer in his ‘winning’ team. That wasn’t living at all. But now her heart pounded with too much life. She felt too much.
‘You belong here,’ he added quietly.
Anger finally beat out the other emotions overwhelming her. ‘What business is it of yours? I’m not your cox.’
He didn’t need one. He didn’t race in the eights. Nowadays he raced alone.
His gaze remained steady but there was another imperceptible shift in his stance. He was nearer again—hot and hard and flush against her. ‘I don’t want you to go,’ he said huskily.
She stilled—his words sank into her bones and weighted her where she was. Still pressed against him.
‘Why?’ She breathed.
‘Why do you think?’
Her eyes narrowed. Not good enough. She didn’t want to imagine this was more than what he meant. She didn’t want to be wrong. Not again. ‘I’m not sure. I need you to clarify.’
‘You can’t feel why? I want you to stay.’ He drew in a sharp breath. ‘I want you, full stop.’
She couldn’t ignore the undeniable heat of his body pressed against her. Undeniable desire.
‘You want me?’ Even though her heart was practically bursting with excitement, she had to ask more. Because her brain was going crazy with doubt and disbelief. ‘Since when?’
Slowly she shook her head. ‘You haven’t spoken to me privately in months.’
‘I didn’t want to distract you.’
‘Distract me?’ Her anger bloomed again. ‘Arrogant, much?’
‘Yeah.’ He leaned closer so his breath brushed hers. ‘I distract you. Just as you distract me.’
‘You know it’s true. But I couldn’t let it happen.’
‘You couldn’t let it?’ The gall of the man infuriated her. ‘As if I don’t have any say in the matter?’
His face flushed. ‘You know we have…’
That steely focused look in his eyes flared with emotion. ‘Unfinished business.’
‘You’re kidding.’ She felt as if she were being torn in two—one half felt frankly ecstatic delight at the declaration of his interest. But the rest of her was devastatingly hurt by the twin facts that not only had he hidden it for so long, but he’d not done anything about it.
‘No. Not kidding.’
‘You’ve said nothing to me. Nothing substantial. In months. So how am I supposed to know what you’ve been thinking?’
‘That’s why I’m here now.’
‘But that’s only because I’m leaving,’ she said slowly. ‘Because otherwise you wouldn’t be saying anything.’
His eyes widened and he stilled.
‘How long were you happy to let that situation drift on for?’ she asked, hurt blooming.
How long was he going to supposedly be interested and yet do nothing, because he couldn’t ‘let’ it?
The muscle in his jaw flexed but he didn’t answer. Of course he couldn’t. There wasn’t an answer that would satisfy her anyway.
‘You don’t really want me or you’d have done something sooner,’ she said pointedly. ‘If you really wanted me, you wouldn’t have been able to resist all this time. I think this is suddenly just another race you think you want to win.’ Her fury mounted. ‘Now you know I’m leaving I’ve become nothing more than a challenge you want to conquer because you’ve realised you’re running out of time to get what you want—which little more than a thrill.’
‘Rubbish.’ He was right in her face but he was whispering. ‘Do you know how many nights I’ve lain awake thinking about you? How many times I made myself look away? I have been so damned restrained because I didn’t want to mess things up for you.’
She didn’t believe him. She couldn’t.
‘Restrained?’ she scoffed. ‘You mean not interested.’
‘Does this feel like not interested?’ He pulled her closer.
She quelled the tremble of delight because she still couldn’t believe it.
‘But you had things to do,’ he said roughly. ‘So did I. Trust me when I said I didn’t want to wreck your prospects.’
‘As if I’d lose all concentration on my job just because you showered me with your attention? You really are the most arrogant jerk I’ve ever met.’
His jaw flexed.
And yeah, he was arrogant as hell. But she still wanted him. And that made her madder still.
‘You know what I think?’ she added. ‘If anything, I think that’s just an excuse to protect yourself. To avoid actually doing anything. Because this is just some fantasy you’ve built and isn’t really real.’
She read the flare in his eyes but he pulled her closer and damn it, she didn’t resist. She didn’t want to resist. Because she was every bit as furious as he looked—more so now. Because he’d suddenly frozen.
‘What?!’ She flung her chin up and leaned her full weight against his hard strength. And then she taunted him. ‘See?! You still can’t even bring yourself to kiss me!’
Something flashed in his eyes and that last thread of control was shredded. Already close, they were suddenly one as he slammed his mouth on hers. The kiss was hard but it was everything. Her anger exploded and morphed into something else—she was furiously glad she’d finally provoked him into action. She didn’t care about what it meant. There was no more thinking. No more wondering, doubting… there was only now. This. Them. Him.
He was here with her—touching her the way she’d ached for. The rest of the world was obliterated as her longing was released at the same time as his. He picked her up and stepped forward, kicking the door behind them with such force it should have flown from its hinges. She wouldn’t have cared because in the next second she was pressed against the wall and his body was so flush and hard against hers they were practically smooshed together. And his mouth—his hot skilled mouth—was working magic against hers in deep, dragging, drugging kisses that she couldn’t get enough of. This was what she’d wanted and it was so much better than she’d ever imagined. She wriggled her arms up and around his neck and revelled in the press of her breasts against his hard chest. She heard an echoing rumble of satisfaction deep in his throat. She gasped as he picked her up and carried her up the stairs to her lounge with a blistering pace. And the guy wasn’t even breathless. The kisses continued as stumbling they somehow stripped each other in wordless, desperate agreement that reason was torched. It was mere minutes since he’d knocked on her door—
But suddenly he pulled back and gazed, his eyes blazing. ‘Hell, Amber.’ He touched the tip of his finger to her lips. ‘I don’t want to bruise you.’
Searingly sensitive she shivered at the too-light touch and knew he meant more than hurting just her mouth. But she didn’t care, she just wanted more. Just now. Right now. ‘Tom…’
‘I never should have waited so long,’ he muttered with a shake of his head. ‘I don’t know how I did…’
‘Then why have you stopped?’
With a guttural groan he kissed her again. But it was different. She knew he had some semblance of control back—apparently just enough to worship her. Because that’s what he did. He kissed the length of her body until she was quivering. He lowered her to the floor and joined her there, his caresses alternating between soft and firm, playful and passionate and she was swamped with emotion at his attention. It was so intimate and if he kept doing that she was going to burst apart.
‘Stop,’ she sobbed. ‘Stop.’
He immediately froze, then rolled onto his side, facing her but no longer touching her. His eyes were wide and the worried expression in them made her heart stutter. ‘Amber?’
She pushed his chest lightly and he rolled right onto his back.
‘I want you…’ she assured him huskily as she leaned over him. ‘But I want you with me when I…’ She trailed off, stupidly suddenly shy. But she wanted to experience everything with him.
Understanding flashed in his eyes and his smile of relief lit him up. ‘Okay.’ But then concern crept back in to his expression. ‘Have you got anything? I don’t have anything with me.’
He meant protection? ‘I won’t get pregnant,’ she explained. ‘I’m on the pill.’
He gazed up at her with intent seriousness. ‘I’ve not had a partner in a long time.’
Her heart quaked. ‘Neither have I.’
That semblance of control she’d thought he’d reclaimed? That was gone now. He pulled her above him and she shuddered at the feel of his hard body beneath her. She was impossibly hot. How could she be naked yet her skin burn like this? That hungry edginess returned and as they kissed she teased, writhing above him. She saw the dominance warring within him but he remained on his back.
‘Go on,’ he breathed the dare. ‘I’m here, waiting, willing you to do whatever you want…’
She felt that primal blade of lust and greed. He groaned as she teased him with her slick heat. Moving back and forth she tormented them both until he growled and grabbed her hips and held her right above him. Their eyes met and seeing the passion in his made her heart soar. While he was still paused, she pushed down. Hard.
She cried out and heard him call out her name. But she couldn’t respond, couldn’t form words. She could only focus on surviving the exquisite sensations. He was hers. This beautiful, ripped man who was so disciplined, was all hers. His hands slid up from her hips to cup her breasts. He rubbed her taut nipples as she rhythmically rocked on him. Stunned she gazed down his body and watched his muscles ripple as he arched more deeply into her. Her mouth parted as she tried to remember to breathe. ‘Tom…’
With a smooth sudden move he held her and rolled until she was on her back and he was still locked deep within her, only now with all his weight pressing down on her. Pinned by him—to him—her eyes glazed as she tried to absorb the intense pleasure.
‘Amber.’ It was the softest, sweetest breath. ‘Amber.’
There was a wondrous look in his eyes—as if this was just a dream—and it tore everything apart again. Somehow this had lurched from a burst of angry frustration, to the shockingly rapid release of lust denied too long, and now to something far more meaningful. Her heart was so full and thudding so hard she feared it was about to burst.
‘Amber,’ he breathed again. ‘I’ve wanted this for so long.’
His admission scared her. She couldn’t listen to it. Couldn’t believe this could mean more—mean all that she wanted. This couldn’t be making love. This was them just fooling around—fast and frantic—a fling before she said goodbye.
Only it wasn’t. Now he’d slowed down—demonstrating so devastatingly his discipline and mastery over his own body. And while his kisses were every bit as passionate, they were beyond tender too. He was so deep, so one with her, now she was shaking. Literally shaking. Because it was so much more and she couldn’t keep herself together. She clutched, driving him.
‘Please… please…’ she needed to finish. She needed the release. Then she’d have finally had it and it would finally be gone, right? Because this was so good that it terrified her. Even in all her wishful imaginings she’d not dreamed that it would be as amazing as this. But because it was she couldn’t stop herself sliding into the moment—drowning in the sweet belief that he wanted her the way she secretly, desperately yearned for him. So she clung and she couldn’t tear her gaze from his as the tension and the intimacy ratcheted more and more with each slow thrust and every measured, delicious press took him nearer and nearer towards breaking her heart.
She closed her eyes and screamed his name as her body clamped as if it would never let him go. Waves of ecstasy buffeted through her again and again and again. And his groan—pure torment, pure relief—was the gravelliest, most gorgeous sound ever.
Long moments later Amber remained still while her brain slowly came back online and then threw the truth at her—doubts literally dived in like cold hard bullets of reality. She had everything she wanted in her grasp—literally—but he wouldn’t stay. She knew too well how a driven person like Tom would be. Obsessive, ruthless—selfish even, with time and commitments. Because that’s how people like him achieved the extraordinary. There were limits on what he could give elsewhere—like to a relationship. Her father hadn’t just told her that, he’d expected it from her. And he’d been the ultimate example himself. And she also knew that when a person had finally done the extraordinary thing they’d set out to accomplish, the goal shifted. The goal always shifted. She’d been someone’s focus before and the focus had changed and the emotional abandonment had been devastating. Tom’s focus would change too. There would always be the next challenge. Satisfaction was only ever temporary.
Which mean this could only be temporary. In fact it could only be this once. Because it had been too good. She had to push him away. She had to stick to her plan and go. Now more than ever.
She braced at the soft query. But she had to put this into the box in which it belonged—the past. He never would have said anything if she wasn’t leaving. And if she wasn’t already leaving, would this ever have happened?
I want you to stay.
She couldn’t believe that he’d meant that. It had been a heat of the moment thing. But she felt skinless—so vulnerable and stupidly desperate for something she knew would ultimately be impossible.
‘I can’t change my plans for you,’ she said. But panic washed over her because part of her would do anything for him. She couldn’t let that part win. Resentment would build and ultimately destroy her and ruin what should simply become a fond memory. Only it hurt right now. It hurt so much. ‘My career matters to me.’
It did matter, but right now it was also an excuse. It was the language she knew he would understand. He was all—only—about his career. But Amber wanted more. She wanted it all. That all elusive balance—friendships and family as well as a purpose in her work.
‘Of course it does. So it should. And I don’t want you to change your plans for me. I want you to let me be part of them. We can work this out.’
‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘No. This was a one-off. And it’s over.’
‘This has barely begun,’ he argued.
She couldn’t look at the crestfallen consternation in his eyes.. She had to hold herself together long enough to get him out of here.
‘I guess timing is everything.’ She stood and swiftly pulled her clothes back over her suddenly cold body. ‘And your timing is off. You should leave. I need to get on with my packing.’
His timing was off?
Tom struggled to comprehend her abrupt and total change in manner. All he could do was stare while dread flooded his system, encasing him ice. She wanted him to leave?
It was the blank, dismissive look in her face that finally made him move. He pulled on his shorts jerkily. That was as far as he got before the demand to know more—know why—burst. ‘Do you really regret what just happened?’
She’d just shattered in his arms. And he had in hers. Frankly it had been the best moment of his life—way better than winning any bloody medal ever.
She didn’t look at him. ‘No. But…’
‘But what?’ he prompted, still uncomprehending.
‘It was a one-time thing, Tom.’
‘You’re not serious.’ He gaped. ‘You can’t possibly be serious.’
‘I’m leaving.’ She still wouldn’t meet his gaze. ‘That’s not going to change.’
‘That doesn’t matter.’ He’d follow her. He’d do anything. ‘We can make it work, Amber.’
‘No,’ she denied quickly. ‘I’m not interested. This is over.’
How could she say that she wasn’t interested after what they’d just shared?
‘You don’t want a relationship?’ His anger flared at her absolute rejection. ‘You just wanted what, a ride? Am I really just a notch on your bedpost?’
She still didn’t look at him. And she still didn’t explain.
The irony of it hurt. He’d done just this to a number of other women a few years ago. And now doubt—horrible, eroding, acidic doubt—filled him. She didn’t want what he wanted. She didn’t feel the same way he did.
Yet he couldn’t quite believe that. Couldn’t believe that he was nothing more than a quick screw for her. She’d told him it had been a long time since she’d been intimate with anyone—why was that? Didn’t that mean maybe this was something more for her? And she’d been so angry at the door—wasn’t that because she cared? Maybe he was arrogant, but he was sure this had been more than merely scratching an itch. He just had to figure out what the real problem was. And then he’d fix it.
He’d had to remain utterly and solely focused on his sport, not only for himself but because he’d refused to wreck her dreams as well. And yeah, maybe she was right, maybe that was arrogant of him to think he might. Arrogant or ignorant—because he honestly didn’t know how to achieve any kind of life balance. But he wanted to try. Because finally having her in his arms was everything and he wasn’t letting her go. He could keep going—keep rowing—for years yet. But he was studying on the side for the future beyond and in case of injury and for when his desire to compete—no matter the cost—waned. It would. In fact it was already. There was more to be had in life, more that he now wanted.
But had he lost his chance here with her because he hadn’t told her all that soon enough? Because she’d not just pulled back, she’d turned away.
‘You don’t believe that I’m serious about this?!’ he questioned, unable to hold back his hurt because he’d never chased someone like this. He’d never walked out on his obligations for anyone before. His legs felt absurdly wobbly.
At that she flung towards him. ‘How could you really say nothing for so long?’ Emotion flared in her eyes. ‘Actions speak louder than words. And certainly thoughts.’
‘They do,’ he acknowledged, but his own anger was building again because he was defensive and frankly scared. She didn’t want to believe him about the truth of his feelings. But she’d not acted on any of her own either. And now he called her on it. ‘But you never said anything to me either. You never did anything.’ His heart actually stopped. ‘So does that mean…’
He couldn’t bear to say it—too afraid that he’d lost already. He cleared his throat awkwardly. ‘I’m sorry if I’ve embarrassed you by telling you I want more, but please believe I mean it.’ He drew a sharp breath. ‘But you don’t…’
Colour built in her cheeks and her gaze flickered to him. Her beautiful eyes were glistening. He had to hope the signs of distress weren’t from embarrassment, but from something stronger.
‘I’m leaving, Tom.’ Her voice was a wretched whisper.
One that gave him a burst of hope. ‘I could come with you.’
‘And give up your own dreams?’ She shook her head, worry filled her face. ‘You’d resent me.’
That burst of hope strengthened. It wasn’t that she didn’t want him. She just couldn’t find a way for it to work.
He braved a step nearer. ‘Are you sure you know what my dreams are? Because all my dreams all revolve around you Amber.’
She stilled. ‘That’s the post sex bliss talking. You’ll feel differently later.’
‘Don’t tell me how I’m going to feel later,’ he said huskily. ‘Don’t try dictating my emotions. Try believing me when I tell you how I’m feeling.’
Her gaze skittered from him again.
‘You can’t, can you?’ He took another step closer. ‘Why can’t you trust what I’m saying?’
‘It’s not you.’ She wrapped her arms around her waist. ‘Please Tom…’
‘You truly can’t bring yourself to believe me?’ He was both shocked and saddened. Had someone hurt her? He wanted to know who and how and why and he wanted to help—so she could push past and believe in him now. In them. Her fear didn’t sit right with what he knew about her, so he needed to know more. Like everything. ‘You’re the bossiest, loudest, most confident woman I’ve ever met. You don’t take any crap from any of the guys. Why are you afraid of this? Why can’t you believe me when I tell you there’s nothing in my life more important than making this work with you?’
She licked her lips, then suddenly drew breath. ‘I saw you yesterday. With Kayleigh.’
He frowned. ‘This is about Kayleigh?’
He saw defensiveness shoot into in her eyes. What did Amber even know about that time? Not the truth. He’d never told anyone that. But if she’d heard stories, if she’d put one and one together and gotten three, then he needed to straighten her out. He nodded. ‘I’m embarrassed about my behaviour back then. Let me explain.’
She half shrank and her voice dropped to that whisper again. ‘You don’t have to.’
‘I do.’ He stepped closer. ‘I want to. Because you’re right, it’s relevant.’
Her eyes widened and he saw hurt in them.
‘I was never in love with Kayleigh,’ he hastily added. ‘Look, I was an awful competitive person back then. Even more than I am now.’ He half-smiled, half-shrugged, and admitted his failings. ‘I saw her and I knew others wanted her and like always, I wanted to win. I was young and stupid and I was selfish and arrogant and I didn’t care enough about feelings. Not hers. Not my own.’ He dragged in a breath and shot her an apologetic look. But he had to tell her the truth. ‘I hurt her and I hurt the guy who really was in love with her. I very nearly wrecked everything for myself too in going off the rails and partying too hard, trying to prove… I don’t even know what.’ He’d just been so unhappy and seeking thrills that in the end never satisfied. ‘So then I decided to put everything into my career again. I allowed no distractions from that point on. And for a long time it worked. I felt better. Only then you came along and you weren’t a distraction. You never were that. You were just… everything. But I didn’t want to jeopardise your time at the centre in the way I had Kayleigh’s. I never wanted to do anything that might hurt you. And all the while I was watching and waiting and falling all the more for you and then I ended up wanting you so much I got too scared to take the risk of ever telling you because I didn’t ever want to hear you say no to me.’ He sighed. ‘But you just did and it sucks way worse than I ever thought it would.’
But he had hope again—because she’d been a little bit jealous seeing him with Kayleigh, right? That meant there were feelings. He knew that because he’d been jealous.
‘Other guys wanted you too,’ he said softly. ‘You kept turning them down.’ And thank goodness she had. Every time he’d seen one of the guys take an interest in her his heart had been grated raw.
‘I was waiting,’ she said softly. ‘But I’m done waiting. We’re done.’
‘So I’m too late? What just happened is too late?’ He refused to believe that. ‘What was it then? Some kind of consolation prize?’
‘It was just sex,’ she said lowly. ‘And I think it was all you ever really wanted.’
He recoiled. ‘Not true. Not fair. This isn’t just about sex for me.’
‘Well what happens when you find a new obsession?’ she suddenly snapped back.
He laughed bitterly. ‘It’s been you for two years already. That’s not going to change.’
She shook her head. ‘Of course it is. That makes it even more likely to change. I know people like you. Over-achievers who fixate on a challenge. And when they’ve “knocked it off”, so to speak, then they’re ready for the next challenge. You get what you think you want and then you get bored and move on.’
He hadn’t gotten anywhere near what he wanted. And right now he was insulted. But he pushed past it. Because this was hurt talking. Amber was hurt and scared and he wanted to know why. And anyway, wasn’t she an over-achiever too?
‘What makes you say that?’ he asked.
‘Because it’s what happens. It always happens.’
‘Does it? When did it happen to you?’
She glared at him.
‘It obviously did,’ he said more calmly than he felt. He felt angry on her behalf. ‘And it obviously hurt. Was it a boyfriend?’
She stared at him for a second. Then she opened her mouth. ‘My father was my gymnastics coach.’
He paused. He’d known she was on an elite training pathway as a kid but had gotten injured. Having her father as her coach would have messed with all kinds of family dynamics.
‘I was everything,’ she said with a lift of her chin. ‘Or so he said. But really I was his pet project. He said he sacrificed everything for me and I was expected to do the same for the goal. To win. We were supposed to have the same dream. But when I got injured, I failed. And when I did, he moved on to another project.’
Tom knew she didn’t just mean in terms of being her coach—her father had withheld everything. Time and attention were given only when she achieved success. She wasn’t a daughter but a dream and the problem with being someone’s dream is that they could be replaced. And that’s what she thought would happen with him too— that she was a dream to realise, to win, to move on from. His heart ached.
‘I’m sorry he treated you like that Amber. That sucks. But that’s not me. I’m not going to do that. You’re not a project for me. Yes you’re my dream, but in all my dreams. I want us to be alongside each other for everything. There are so many things we could build together.’ But he saw she didn’t believe him.
She’d been hurt by someone who should have been there no matter what and that had made her wary of trusting anyone too deeply again.
‘I don’t want to sacrifice everything for one goal,’ she said. ‘Not forever. He thought I was weak because I didn’t. I want a life that’s bigger than that.’
So did he. She just didn’t know that about him. Yet.
‘I have been pushing, all my life,’ he said softly. ‘And trust me when I say I understand about wanting to please your family.’
She was very still now, and her gaze never wavered from his.
‘I know I need to work on balance. But I’m trying and I want to because my priorities have changed.’ His heart thudded. But he knew this was it—his one shot to open up. And it wasn’t about pity, it was simply his truth—from where his fear sprung. ‘For a long time I didn’t think having my own family was going to be something in my future. I’ve lost a lot already, Amber. Mum died of cancer. Then dad and my step-mother died in an accident. It was hell. My poor brother tried so hard to keep me and my sister together as a family. Then I got sick and cancer is scary as shit and it sucks and I fought really hard to get through that.’ He braced and kept looking her in the eye. ‘But it marks you. It takes a while to believe in your own future again. I wanted to prove myself and yeah, sure in some things I was immature. Like with women…’ He shrugged. ‘I wanted to achieve things fast. I wanted to win. And at the same time I wanted to make my brother proud because he sacrificed so much so that I could have the chances he missed out on. I will always be grateful to him. But sport is a momentary win. And now I want things beyond those tangible successes of medals and money and record breaking times. I want something far more precious.’ He shook his head. ‘Just the prospect of you leaving my life was enough to make me realise what I really want for myself going forward. That’s family, Amber. Family with you. And I’m sorry if this is way too fast and freaking you out.’
She was pale and her chest was rising rapidly and he was pretty sure he was completely freaking her out, but he had no choice. He had to say it all now. He had to try to make her understand how serious he was.
‘I guess what all that means is I know how to fight,’ he added. ‘And I know how to survive horrible things. So I’m going to fight for you. I’m not giving up. I believe in us even if you don’t yet. But I have hope that eventually you will. Because I’m going to stick around in your life until you do.’ He couldn’t let her go—not now he’d had a glimpse of how it would be with her. Challenging and delightful and so right on a bone deep, instinctive level. ‘I never let myself dream of any of this until you, Amber,’ he admitted huskily as emotion began to get the better of him. ‘It’s you. It’s been you from the moment you spilled juice on me. It’ll always be you. Can you give me a chance? Give us a chance?’
Amber’s eyes filled and she never cried. She was strong—a fighter—like him. But he’d just felled her with his raw honesty and he tempted her so much. She was scared, but was she going to let past hurts hinder what could be a wonderful future? Was she going to stop this chance before it had even really started just because she was afraid?
She stared, seeing his strength and how deeply he truly felt all the things. He’d lost so much already and been so stoic, he’d almost become silenced. But here he was, trying so hard now. For her.
Maybe she had to do the same.
They’d both had losses in the past. They’d both had battles. But they could fight even better together—if they were a team—and she was finally beginning to believe that they could be. This man was so self-contained and so disciplined, but he’d walked out of his training and he’d come for her and he’d opened up to her. And he was so devastatingly compelling.
‘The problem is, I want this so much it hurts,’ she whispered.
And at that she smiled—a very watery smile—because he was honest and sweet and suddenly a burst of glorious certainty filled her. He knew because he felt the same. And she knew he felt the same burgeoning hope and excitement now too, because his beautiful brown eyes warmed with the light not of triumph, but of love.
‘Then, okay.’ She finally breathed. ‘Okay.’
He opened his arms and she stepped into them and he held her so tightly. She knew then he would never let her go. She was safe. She was home.
‘We’ve got this, Amber.’ His voice was husky in her ear. ‘We’ve got each other. We’ll figure it out.’
‘Yeah.’ She looked up and he cupped her face.
His kiss was hot and sweet and reverent and so heartfelt. That certainty settled deep within her—they would figure it out.
And yeah, that’s exactly what they did.
Copyright, Natalie Anderson, 2022.
No copying/sharing without written permission from the author.
Natalie’s newsletter has books, banter & access to bonus short stories, scenes and epilogues to read online or download.
If your email confirmation doesn’t arrive quickly, check your junk/spam folder :)