Authors: Shana Gray
After the Hurt
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Loveswept Ebook Original
Copyright Â© 2016 by Shana Gray
by Violet Duke copyright Â© 2016 by Violet Duke
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
is a registered trademark and the
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
by Violet Duke. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.
Cover design: Okay Creations
Cover photograph: Jeff Thrower/Shutterstock
Pepper hated winter with the fiery passion of a thousand burning suns and all the bullshit snow and ice that came along with it. So coming home in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record was a pretty big deal. She couldn't have been happier when the restaurant door banged shut behind her, nicely sealing off the cruddy weather she'd just trudged through. Give her the tropics anytime.
The urgent need to leave the steamy heat of Bali for Toronto in the middle of winter proved just how important this trip home was. Too bad her timing sucked. But she'd finally come to terms with everything that had transpired over the past year and a half, and knowing exactly what she needed to do, it
to happen smack-dab in the middle of the approaching ice age. So much for global warming.
She glanced back at the foyer and out the window into the blizzard. The door still shook in its frame after it closed, and the wind howled against the solid wood as if wanting to reach in and pull her back outside. Pepper shivered and stepped deeper inside the restaurant and wondered if the bang of the door announced her arrival to all those within. Tank in particular. Her plans for a stealthy entrance were dashed.
Turning her back on the blinding snow outside, she hoped if she played her cards right, she'd not have to go back out into it tonight. It all depended on Tank. She sighed, hoping the hotel room she'd booked and prepaid for online wouldn't be needed. No way did she relish the thought of battling that snowstorm again. She'd rather face Tankâas daunting as that may beâthan go brave the cold all over again. Even though her flight instinct was on high alert, she refused to run away from him. She'd already done that six months ago.
Bolting had been her response to a terrible situation. Pepper needed time to come to terms with her mom's death and how it all came about. Her spontaneous actions had jeopardized everything else in her life, having been distraught over the suddenness and reason her mom had died. Blaming herself in the process, she lost sight of everything else around her. Including her relationship with Tank. So here she was now, hat in hand, back to beg for forgiveness. At the very least she hoped he would listen to her and not throw her out. Had the shoe been on the other foot, she knew exactly how she'd have reacted. And it wouldn't have been pretty. But she was a different woman now. Changed. And she was desperate for Tank to see it.
Standing inside the restaurant, Pepper looked around. Emotion began to overtake her; it was like she felt his presence in the room. The place held the essence of Tank, something she desperately missed. He was the one constant in her life, always the one to support her, have her back. He was her protector. His strong arms used to hold her, his deep voice promising everything was going to be okay.
Oh, if only that could be true.
Pepper was not a person to be controlled, and Tank knew that, but he knew how to handle her. In all ways. Something she'd taken for granted and, if given the opportunity, never would again. Lord, how she missed him and his powerful, calm presence. Without it, or him, she wasn't whole. Which is why coming home was so frightening. It was all or nothing, and if he no longer wanted herâ¦then what?
She stepped farther into the restaurant, called the Octagon. The perfect name for a retired MMA fighter. She should have been here, with Tank, building the business together. After all, it was
place. This was supposed to be
future. The place they'd loved together and loved in. Where she and Tank had sunk their savings years before it was even close to being finished. The place she'd called home until six months ago. The place she might have lost forever because of her foolish impulsiveness. Her heart hurt at the impact of just how much she'd missed out on by not being here. And what all she'd given up by running awayâmemories that were never made and times together she'd never get back.
Exhaustion overcame her and her legs began to wobble. She needed to find a place to sit. Spying the bar across the room, Pepper wound her way through the dining tables and dropped the duffel on the floor beside a barstool. She groaned, rolling her shoulders, still stiff from hours of travel and dragging her luggage through many airports. A suitcase that had somehow gone AWOL over the Pacific, along with all that remained of her worldly belongings. She was dying to kick off the Christian Louboutin shoes, totally unsuitable for a winter blizzard, but better than the sandals and flip-flops in her duffel. She nearly slipped on the flagstone floor that ringed the bar, the soles and stupidly high heels still damp from the snow.
She needed to sit,
Shrugging off her jacket, she laid it neatly over a stool and climbed onto the one next to her. It was all she could do to not rest her forehead on her arms and sleep. Instead, she crossed her legs and forced herself not to wilt into the stool. She didn't want Tank to find her asleep, snoring and drooling, face planted into the bar.
Having been so wrapped up in her thoughts, it just dawned on her the place was empty. Odd. Curious as to why, she drew her attention to the massive mirror behind the bar, which hung on chains anchored to the original redbrick wall. Shelves of liquor bottles sat neatly in front of the mirror, suddenly making her very thirsty. Pepper smiled when she saw all the MMA photographs and memorabilia mounted on the wall on either side of the monstrous mirror. Memories rushed back of their good old days. Back when all they had to worry about were themselves.
As Tank's fighting career thrived, they were able to pull money together to turn the second floor of this old warehouse into a livable apartment before tackling the downstairs. She glanced up at the high, open, beamed ceilings and wondered if he'd finished fixing the apartment and the smaller space they'd dubbed the “loft.” Their apartment hadn't been anything fancy, pretty basic actually with lots of bare beams and walls, decorated with garage-sale furniture and rag rugs. But it had been their place. Where they'd spent as much private time together as possible. Loving, laughing, and planning their future. The time for fancy renovation would come later, when they had more money.
Was he up there now? Pepper swore she felt
A shiver ran down her spine and she looked around, anxiousâyet apprehensiveâto see him. Tears pricked at her eyes. She couldn't lose him. She'd lost so much already, and losing Tank was just too heartbreaking to even contemplate.
She sighed and looked at the reflection of the room through the mirror. It seemed the only thing Tank had changed from the original plans was the addition of a piano bar on the far side from where she was seated. It was a fabulous idea. Pepper smiled when she saw the two baby grands facing each other on a faux fighting ring. Dueling pianos. Taking it all in, Pepper admitted Tank had done an excellent job refinishing what had been an empty shell of a rundown building.
A floor-to-ceiling glass-walled wine cooler nicely split the bar from a private dining area. Wine was a passion of Tank's and she'd bet dollars to doughnuts it was full of the best vintages. She rubbed her eyes to clear her vision, still a bit fuzzy with unshed tears. As Pepper stifled a yawn, Tank stepped out from behind the wine wall, convincing her she was seeing things. Blinking rapidly, she realized he was real and still there, and every bit as delicious as she remembered. Tank was a big man and oozed a powerful intensity that took her breath away. A million thoughts raced through her head only to vanish like a puff of smoke.
Tank was now looking back at her with a ferocity that made her belly twirl. Time screeched to a halt as they stared at each other. He didn't show any glimmer of emotion as he stepped up behind the bar, never taking his eyes off her.
Pepper's throat constricted, her tongue stuck to the back of her teeth. After a few agonizing moments, her lungs finally began to work again and she sucked in a gulp of air before her oxygen-deprived brain totally shut down and she toppled off the stool. No doubt fatigue played a big part in her anxiety over being near Tank again, but seeing him in the flesh after all these months warmed her heart.
Her body reacted as if she'd never laid eyes on him before. Memories of the one special high school football game became very vivid: Pepper had been leading the cheerleading squad and had noticed Tank for the first time; it didn't take long before he'd seen her, and they'd been head over heels in love ever since. It was the stuff that romance novels were made of. Their instant attraction made her breathless and she could barely focus on the rest of the routine, or the rest of the game, for that matter. Butterflies had filled her belly and a new, quivery feeling deep inside made her crave him in a way she hadn't understood until later. That feeling hadn't faded over the years; in fact, it only had grown.
She came back to the present, realizing that those six months since she'd left seemed like a blink of an eye now, because the love she held for this man was just as strong as before. She stared at him, unsure yet of how to behave. Waiting to see how he would react seemed to make the most sense, because as of right now she couldn't read his emotions at all. Goosebumps rose along her arms as a quiver tingled up her legs to settle between her thighs, reminding her of just how long it had been since he'd been between them. Just being near Tank turned her into a puddle of mush. She swallowed and couldn't pull her gaze away; he captivated her just as he had all those years ago. A twinge of trepidation grew inside her at his unreadable expression, making her wonder if coming back had been a huge mistake.
Tank had shaved his head, which succeeded only in making him appear more ominous, and dangerous. He was hot in a true bad-boy sort of way. He'd always been an intense man, his energy so tangible Pepper felt it vibrate throughout her. A new tattoo curled up from his shirt collar, ending at the base of his ear.
That, along with his shaved head, something he started to do in the MMA, made him devilishly attractive. A hint of beard accented his swarthy skin beautifully and darkened his jawline. A blush heated her cheeks when she realized how boldly she was checking him out.
Then his gaze slid away before she could manage a smile. In that moment Pepper was overwhelmed by how much she longed for him. She'd denied her feelings, denied the life they shared, for too long, and her heart was breaking all over again. How could she have been so stupid and let him go? Her eyes moistened once again and she quickly wiped away the threatening tears before they could fall and expose her emotional state. Would he forgive her? If his mannerisms were any indication, a reconciliation was unlikely.
Then his eyes raised and their gazes locked. The connection was electric. Thank God she was sitting because her legs were jelly. Searching the blue of his eyes, she tried to find some kind of expressionâsurprise, anger, delight, hatredâa hint of how he felt about her. But there was nothing. His wonderful, kissable lips weren't smiling, and instead, were drawn into a thin, firm line. His pale blue dress shirt highlighted his muscles and broad shoulders and strained ever so nicely over his biceps. Of course, he had on one of his ridiculous ties, this one splashed with happy seahorses in a variety of tropical colors. Tank loved his crazy ties and it was a relief to see that part of him hadn't changed.
Pepper squirmed ever so slightly on the stool, clenching her thighs. She had ached for this man on the lonely nights throughout her journey. Even though Pepper had been blinded by grief over her mom's death, Tank had always been there. Behind the pain and even now, after the hurt, he was firmly entrenched in every cell of her body. It was tragic that it took something bad to make you realize what you had all along.
Silence stretched between them. Who would speak first? Her brain and mouth didn't want to work, so she just stared at him. He was so close, all she had to do was lean over the bar and touch him. But she kept her ass firmly on the stool. Pepper rubbed her fingertip back and forth on the cold, smooth granite bar and dropped her gaze to her work-ravaged hands. She curled her fingers, hiding the tips in her palms. This was the first time since she left that she felt self-conscious about her unmanicured nails. Tank was used to her looking the perfect divaâwith French-manicured nails, designer clothes, and shoes to match, accessorized to the hilt, with not a strand of hair out of place.
But he'd soon learn, that was the old Pepper.
Her nails were short and trimmed, the result of hours of manual labor, which had been emotionally rewarding but sure did a number on the body. Her experiences in Bali were life changing and worth the physical toll. A loud clatter startled her. Tank had dropped the clipboard on the marble counter between them. He stared at her, dead-on, his crystal blue eyes cold and hard. They weren't the eyes she'd known and loved, but a stranger's eyes. Despair swept through her. A muscle in his jaw twitched and it rattled her further. The intensity on his face, so fiercely attractive yet frightening at the same time, made her want to leave. Pepper sat fretfully on the stool, torn between fleeing and leaping over the bar into his arms. Instead she pressed her heels to the rung to keep herself in place.
When he put his palms flat on the bar in front of her, Pepper stared at his wide, strong hands. He had magic hands and they'd pleasured her so sweetly once upon a time. As did his mouth and other delectable parts of his body. Pepper's nervousness started to make her tremble and she clutched her hands, trying not to let herself get too distraught over what had been and might never be again.
“Are you going to speak or just sit there?” It was the first time his velvety deep voice had touched her ears since she'd left. So wonderfully familiar, yet painfully distant. The low timbre encased her like hot honey and she glanced up at him.
“Ahhâ¦” Dammit, why was she going brain-dead? She looked at him, her mouth gaping. She snapped it closed. His intense scrutiny was unnerving.