First Chapter Friday – Four Letter Words


ISBN: 9781311701978
ASIN: B01F82U040

Laying my head back against the black leather seats of the Jag and gazing ahead, I lifted a finger and touched my lips that were swollen from his kiss. The weariness of the past few weeks was beginning to take over, weighing on my eyelids as they began to droop. I should have been reassured by the man sitting next to me.

I shifted in my seat so I could watch him as he drove on. He was a force that even nature had no hold over. There was an urge to reach out and cling to his broad bicep, a need to feel the security of his physical strength, aching somewhere deep inside of me.

We didn’t speak as he pressed all his weight onto the accelerator, urging the car until it was over the speed limit. I half expected the shine of blue lights to fill the inside of the car, with sirens blaring around us. But they didn’t. Of course they didn’t. Even if a marked car was to pass, I doubted Vance Ellery would slow down, and I had even less that the police would attempt to pull him over. I suspected that the personal phone number of every single high-ranking officer in the country, was tucked away in a neat Rolodex on Vance’s desk or even stored in the memory bank of his mobile phone for easy access.

The silence should have been soothing. I should have been able to let my lashes flutter against my cheeks, and slip into a relaxing slumber. Instead the lack of conversation added to the tension that built behind my eyes. I closed them, hoping that soon I would drift off into a deep sleep, where I would be surrounded by falling flowers, rainbows, and sunlight. Ha! If only I was deserving of such luck. There were no pleasant dreams awaiting me after the sandman visited. Only nightmares wanted to be part of my night. They tormented me, bringing memories that I’d tried to bury and forget. They hounded the darkness, giving me nothing but misery and pain and suffering. It was as though all my sins from a previous life had been rolled over into this one.

If the visions of his face, the sound of his voice had been the only elements of my slumber, then I might have been willing to slip away and let the desperation of rest take me to the shadowed places I dreaded. My soul was destined for torture though. I was to be punished for his crime.

The mere suggestion of sleep forced my blood to pulsate until it was the only thing I could hear, throbbing in my temples. The searing pain of anxiety and panic stabbed at my chest, pins pricking my skin, as I let my eyelids fall. A shudder fell down my spine, waking me from the light doze I’d stumbled into.

Breathe in, breathe out. In with the good, out with the bad. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Breathe in, breathe out. A mantra, taught to me by a yoga instructor years before hell had entered my life, repeated over and over in my mind. I inhaled the cool air through my nasal passages, allowing it to slip down into my painfilled lungs, exhaling all the bad out of my mouth in a gigantic whoosh.

Ahead, the roads were empty, weaving out of the village and headed towards Richart Courts, the hotel that was to be my sanctuary for the next couple of days before I had to face the next challenge. New York City.

How anyone could expect me to go back there was beyond belief. The only logical explanation for their plans for my future was that facing New York was the lesser of the two evils that haunted me, threatening to rip away the seams that had begun to fray around my already tattered edges.

I reached above my head, flipping the visor down and peering at my reflection in

the tiny mirror. My God, I looked a mess. I’d always strived for perfection. I worked and played in a male-dominated world, living with two fully-grown boys, spending my free time being rugby tackled or defending myself against a martial arts master, and until recently, acting as a secretary-cum-personal-assistant-cum-receptionist at a local car body shop. My appearance had been an escape, showing off my femininity and sexuality. I wore my brunette mane long, although it spent most of its time restricted by a piece of elastic. I made sure that my wardrobe was bursting with dresses, fitted jeans, and heels of a ridiculous height. My makeup was always immaculate.

Not now though. I stared at the ghost in the mirror. Ashen skin in desperate need of a deep cleansing facial, lank hair that could have been anywhere between dark blonde and light brown, but the grease on it made it difficult to tell, and puffy, naked eyes, ringed by a distinct lack of rest.

I made a mental note to book myself into the spa once we arrived at the hotel. I was long overdue for some pampering. A Swedish massage wouldn’t go amiss either. The idea of a good-looking man, pressing down into the aching sinew of my shoulders and neck brought a small smile to my lips. Perhaps I would take a long-needed trip to the hairdressers as well, maybe even treat myself to a makeover…

Flipping the visor back into place, I glanced towards the man driving and wondered if he’d oblige on the massage request. It was doubtful. Vance Ellery paid for masseuses, he didn’t act as one. Not unless it was leading somewhere that would pleasure him as well. I clucked my tongue against the roof my mouth and shifted back into my seat, keeping my eyes on him.

A smirk flickered across his lips as though he could read my sordid thoughts.

Chewing on my bottom lip, I stared straight-ahead as Richart Courts came into view. Illustrious and grand were the only words I could think of to describe the hotel, with its rolling grounds that spread over at least a hundred acres, if not more. I knew that behind the building was a state-of-the-art eighteen-hole golf course Vance played on when conducting business with local councillors and MPs.

Inside was as palatial, with gold-leaf filigree, marble flooring, and impressive Colonial columns supporting an expansive ceiling. And that was just the hotel lobby.

The rooms were even more decadent.

The Jag rolled to a stop at the bottom of the steps. Vance stepped out, and I waited as one of the young boys, dressed in a fine combination of cream trouser, wine-red coat with gold buttons, and gleaming white gloves, standing by the front of the hotel skipped down the stairs and opened my door for me. Words were exchanged along with keys, but no tip was given. Why would he hand a few notes over to the lad when he already paid his wages? It still hadn’t sunk in that my lover not only owned Richart Courts, but hotels around the world, including in New York, as well as several other affluent businesses.

We walked past the front desk without saying a word. There was no need to inform reception of our arrival, sign ledgers, or accept key-cards when the entire top floor was ready for him at all times. I followed in his shadow, side-stepping into the lift, and watched as he pressed the button marked ‘Private’. I’d never noticed that before…

I glanced up at him. Dark indigo eyes stared straight ahead. The muscles in his cheeks twitched. I could watch him all day, with those hooded eyes, always looking beyond my skin, and that straight nose leading to lips that urged me to kiss them.

I opened my mouth to say something to break the silence, but nothing came to mind. What would I say? Sorry? He wouldn’t want to hear it. Thank you? Again, a pointless remark that would garner me nothing but an astute glare and perhaps a kiss to shut me up. The thought of a kiss was almost tempting. I could… No. I was powerless beneath him, even when we didn’t touch. He was a formidable man, one that most feared to anger. Yet somehow, it was the one thing I was good at, infuriating him.

Shifting my stance, I felt the cold glass behind me press into my back and shoulders. It was almost as soothing as a hot bath would have been at that moment.

I opened my mouth and let out a sigh of relief. He looked down and smirked. Goddamn his smirkiness. It was a trait I’d noticed ran in his family, finding its way to his son’s lips as readily as it did his. A snarl rumbled in the base of my throat as I thought about him and his son.

That was it. My mind sprang towards Matthew Jackson, the other man in my life. I hated myself for the way I’d left things with him. But it was for the best, or so I kept trying to convince myself. The best for whom? Certainly not me. He’d confessed his undying love to me. Well… Perhaps not undying… But he had said that four letter word most women long to hear. It only hurt that it had come from the wrong person.

Still, looking up at the man beside me, I knew that he loved me. He didn’t have to say it. He showed it on a regular basis. The way he held me, the way he would do anything to protect me… I didn’t need to hear it slip from between his lips.

The bell of the lift dinged, the sound reverberating off the reflective walls, indicating our arrival. We stepped out and headed towards the door that separated the hallway from our privacy. I took a deep breath before stepping over that threshold, preparing myself for the future I was about to bring upon myself.

I had to face up to my past. But I was unsure. Was I ready for the fight that lay before me? Only time would tell. Time, and Vance Ellery.



First Chapter Friday – Seven Dirty Words


ISBN: 9781310160417

I died for a short while the first time we met. There was no fluttering in my chest, no somersault of my stomach, no burning in my loins; my heart literally stopped. He was tall, at least six foot four, and dressed in a pair of worn indigo jeans that perfectly matched his intense stare. A silk black shirt covered what I imagined to be a ripple of hard muscle, and opened at the top, showing a dusting of tight dark curls. His thick neck led towards a razor-sharp, square jaw line, a straight nose that had clearly never seen the ill-effects of rough play, and deep hooded eyes. His hair had been styled with a slight wave. I was sure it was dark brown, but it could have easily been black, and had shots of silver-grey streaking through it.

My face was lined up with his toes, or more precisely, his pristinely polished black patent Chukka boots. Palms down in the thick mud beneath me, I pushed up and sneaked a glance at the man in front of me. He looked none-too-pleased to see his clothes spattered with flecks of dirt from where I had landed and splashed him. I struggled to get to my feet as my boots slipped against the wet grass. Eventually I got to my knees and leant back, looking up at him. I forced a grin onto my mud-covered face, but he didn’t return it. Finally able to stand, I wiped my hands down the sides of my bare thighs.

His glare speared through the apology that I tried to splutter, words failing to come. In the distance I heard someone call my name. Looking over my shoulder I saw my teammates beckoning me to re-join the group.

“Sorry.” The word leapt forward.

A dark eyebrow flicked upwards. “Are you going to pay for the dry-cleaning?” he asked, enunciating each word as though he was talking to some insolent child.

“It’s a muddy field, you’re watching a rugby match,” I countered, my eyes narrowing. “Try stepping away from the lines.”

“You’ve got a mouth on you.” A smile twitched at the corners of his lips.

I’ve got a mouth on me? What the hell was that supposed to mean? I was about to make some comment about him being arrogant and conceited, but the captain of the team had already reached my heel.

“You coming?” Lou tugged on my elbow, throwing a smile towards the man who loomed over me.

“Yeah,” I said, racing back into the game.

“Who’s your friend?” Lou asked, nodding towards Tall, Dark, and Smouldering.

“I haven’t got a clue, but he wasn’t impressed by my skidding halt!” I laughed, tossing her the ball.

We finished practice at two o’clock, as we did every Saturday afternoon. I listened to the laughter and loud chattering of my teammates and friends as I scrubbed at the mud that caked my arms, legs, and face. Warm water pummelled at my aching muscles. I rubbed away the dirt and sweat with a floral shower gel. I made a point of using feminine scented products, since I lived in such a masculine world.

Not only did I play rugby—a game that my mother always told me was unbecoming for a woman of my standing—I lived with two men, and worked in an office where I was the only female. I was also incredibly single. My exes were exes because they found my lifestyle impossible to deal with, and non-conquests refused to believe that I wasn’t a lesbian. Saying that, it had been over a year since I’d even tried to get anyone into my bed…

After the game, I decided to forego the usual routine of drinks at the local pub, and instead headed home to nurse the scrapes and scratches that marked my elbows, knees and chin.

Walking back to my Volkswagen Golf, I saw Tall, Dark, and Smouldering leaning against a tree. His arms were folded tightly in front of him, and he had a foot resting on one of the many boulders that separated the car park from the fields.

I threw a nod and a smile towards him as I rummaged in my jean pockets for my keys, dumping the battered and muddied holdall next to the wheel.

“Good game?” he asked, but when I looked up I realised he wasn’t pointing the question in my direction. A stick-thin, terribly young blonde had appeared by his side and kissed him on the cheek. She clutched a hockey stick in her right hand, and handed him a pink rucksack with the other.

Part of me felt almost embarrassed that I had wanted him to be talking to me. I hurriedly bundled into the car and went home.

Home was an old farmhouse at the edge of a well-to-do village, nestled in the heart of Hampshire, shared with two men; and no, neither of them were gay. I’d occasionally questioned the sexuality of my brother Mark, what with his flair for style, and his love of shopping and spas. Then again, I’d also been introduced to the many girls that had graced our home for a single night.

The other man to reside with us was Daniel Turnbull. Danny was gorgeous in every sense of the word, but may as well have been my other brother. I’d known him all my life, since he and Mark were best friends. He was also ultra-macho to the point of being a Neanderthal. It would not surprise me if one day I caught him dragging the lifeless body of some poor girl he’d clonked over the head, taking her back to his cave.

When I arrived home, both men sat in the living room, feet resting on the coffee table, beer bottle in one hand, Xbox controller in the other.

“Jeez,” I muttered, as I tried to resist sniffing the air in fear of my gag reflex reacting to the scent of primal male. Unfortunately, when you live with two men under the age of thirty, it is impossible to avoid the stench of sweaty socks, stale beer, and cheesy nachos. Combined with the fact that it was the height of summer, and you have one highly stink-filled house.

I dumped the holdall next to the washing machine and looked around the kitchen. Bowls filled with the residue of the morning’s breakfasts, an empty milk carton, several empty booze bottles, used newspapers, and layers of shed clothes were scattered around the room.

“We seriously need to tidy up,” I yelled, knowing full well that the only reaction I’d get would be an annoyed grunt or two.

Opening the dishwasher, I peered in, sighing as I discovered that it was still full of dirty pots from two days ago. The stench of old food was unbelievable, and my head snapped backwards with such force I was surprised I still had neck bones. Ripping open a packet from under the sink, I aimed the blue and yellow tablet at the little box in the door, before slamming it shut and pressing the white button. It whirred and chugged noisily as I ran the water in what little space I could find in the sink and began to sort through the pots and rubbish, attempting to find a clean spot.

Peeling a pair of boxer shorts from the back of a chair, I grimaced and flung them towards the holdall by the washing machine. “Disgusting men,” I chuntered, even though I knew that our living arrangements were as much my fault as theirs.

But that didn’t stop me from blaming them.

“Stick the kettle on,” called a voice from the front room, grating on my final nerve.

A deep growl vibrated in the base of my throat as I stormed into the room and began yelling several obscenities at them.

“All right, chill Butch!” Mark laughed.

He knew I hated that school nickname. I wanted to throw something at my brother’s head, but knew that Mother would only chastise me for having put him in hospital with a split skull yet again. Golden Boy could do no wrong. Fortunately, our father always took my side when it came to arguments, so we were evenly defended.

Danny saw sense and ducked into the next room to make tea for everyone. That is the glorious, if not slightly annoying, thing about living in England. We are the country that truly believes, without any shadow of a doubt, that a simple hot beverage can solve all issues. Arguing kids? Cup of tea. Problems at work? Cup of tea. World war, mass hunger, poverty? Have a cup of bleeding Rosy Lee.

I marched after Danny, spitting my annoyances out as he busied himself by the kettle. Throwing dirty clothes towards the washing machine and chucking empty packets in the bin did nothing to soothe my frustrations.

“Bad game?” Danny asked in an attempt at small talk.

“Not really,” I grunted, sinking into the one chair that no longer had clothes, newspapers, and pots covering it.

“Go on then.”

“Go on then, what?” I asked, squinting to emphasise my annoyance.

“Go on then, tell us what your problem is.” By this time Mark had joined us, shoving everything off the chair opposite me to land on the floor. I glowered at him like an angry cat threatening to hiss and spit.

“Jesus H. Someone’s pissed you off,” Mark groaned.

“No,” I said, my eyebrows furrowing into a tight knot. Confusion settled in. Had someone pissed me off?

“Seriously Butch, we know you far too well. Spill it.”

“Nothing!” I snapped, perhaps too quickly.

“What’s his name, and what did he do?” Danny this time, his voice getting deeper as though ready to go into full-blown protective mode.

I rolled my eyes and tried to ignore him.

“Sis, you have to tell us now.” Mark leant forward and grabbed my hands. I pulled away and threw him a ‘What-the-hell?’ look. He laughed and fell backwards into the seat again.

Danny plonked a mug each in front of us. The liquid sloshed over the sides, giving me yet more to clean up.

“Okay, okay,” I relented, picking up the mug and sipping at the too-cool drink. Danny always added too much milk for my taste, but it was still welcomed, helping to massage away the aches and pains that plagued my muscles.

I proceeded to tell them all about Tall, Dark, and Smouldering—whom I’d already shortened to TDS—even though I wasn’t sure why he was the one in my head. I could have come up with a thousand excuses for my foul mood. Rough game, bad drivers, untidy house, but the truth was that he was still at the front of my thoughts.

He had riled me in a way that I had never been riled before.

“Sounds like you’re in L.O.V.E!” cooed Mark, ridiculing me.

I wanted to slap him, but couldn’t reach, and didn’t dare throw lukewarm tea across the room, so I settled for a scowl.

Downing the rest of my drink, I headed for the holdall and dirty clothes piled on top of it, shoving them all into the machine before filling it with powder and liquids to get rid of the muck and smells, and switching it on.

“You two can finish the kitchen,” I yelled as I went up to the sanctuary of my bedroom.


Read the first chapter of Later for free! #99p #99c #kindleunlimited #free #romance

Later -ebook


‘LATER’ is now available on Amazon Kindle for 99p / 99c, or free on Kindle Unlimited. It is also available in print.


Claudia Martins and her boss, Elliot Shepherd have worked together for five years, and have become close friends. After her boyfriend cheats on her, Claudia turns to Elliot for support. But, she’s been offered a job with a rival company – one that comes with the opportunity to climb the corporate ladder and make something of herself, and one that means leaving Elliot behind.

Would you pick a man over your dream job?

print poster

Chapter One:

Claudia sipped at her water and stared at the man sat opposite her. Damien Crowley, CEO of Crowley’s International, stared back with intense brown eyes. He was in his late fifties, and although he was old enough to be her father, she thought he was still a handsome man. But, it wasn’t his looks that stopped her from speaking.

She glanced down at the contract he’d slid across the table. It was everything she could ever have dreamed; personal assistant to Mr. Crowley meant travelling the world, a pay-rise, a company car, a wardrobe allowance, and more importantly, it meant that at twenty-five years old, she finally had the chance of being someone. Yet, her conscience tugged at her heart. Working for Crowley’s also meant leaving Aries Limited, and leaving Elliot Shepherd.

Her employment at Aries Limited had started off as a temporary position, covering for a receptionist while she finished her degree, but Elliot had taken her under his wing. He’d mentored her, and eventually, she had been made his PA. But, she also knew that it was the highest rung on the corporate ladder as far as his company was concerned, and the bonuses were limited.

“I would say take all the time you need, Miss Martins, but I need an answer by Friday.” Mr. Crowley checked his watch, the sunlight that streamed through the restaurant windows caught the diamonds and shattered into a rainbow across the cream linen. “If you would like to take some legal advice, I can recommend a lawyer.”

“I doubt I could afford them,” Claudia said, trying to smile and find some humour in the situation. She’d always relied on comedy to mask her nerves, something that Elliot understood, smirking at her little self-deprecating jokes. Mr. Crowley, however, frowned. Claudia cleared her throat. “Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate the offer, and I will certainly give it my full attention.”

“Good.” He clicked his fingers, beckoning a waiter over, and handed him a few notes to pay for the light lunch they’d eaten – a light lunch that had cost more than Claudia spent on a whole week’s worth of groceries. Mr. Crowley stood up and straightened his suit jacket. “Please understand Miss Martins, you were head-hunted for a good reason. If there is anything…” He tapped a long finger on the contract. “That you don’t understand, or you want changing, you only need to call me.” He pulled a business card from an inside pocket and placed it on top of the papers. “The ball is in your court.” He winked, and one corner of his lips curved into a smile.

She looked over her shoulder and watched him leave the restaurant, waiting until he was sat in the back seat of his Jaguar, and exhaled a thick breath. She was grateful when her phone trilled, breaking the tension that had settled in her shoulders and reminding her that she had to go and pick up the tickets to Charlie’s gig before heading back to the office. Standing up, she hooked her handbag over her shoulder and clutched the contract to her chest as though it were worth its weight in gold – to her, it was. She wondered what she was going to do with it; it was too big to hide in her bag, and she still had to work four more hours until she could go home.

Her stomach churned. Claudia walked down the busy streets of London, the smell of a dying autumn mixed with the steady heat and fumes being spat out by the stand-still traffic. She went to the bar first. Posters had been slapped across the outside walls and windows, advertising her boyfriend’s band, due to play live that Friday night. She’d never been to one of his gigs, and he’d been raving all month about how they were about to hit the big time, so to surprise him had bought an Access All Areas pass. She tucked it inside her wallet and made her way back to the tall, looming offices of Aries Limited.

It was almost two o’clock before she was back behind her desk. Her makeup had begun to melt, and her hair had started to come loose from its top knot, with sticky curls clinging to her neck and forehead. She hid the contract in the bottom drawer of her desk, and retrieved her emergency makeup clutch from her handbag, then went over to the door that connected her office to Elliot’s. With any luck, he’d be stuck in another board meeting and she’d be able to use his private bathroom to freshen up before he realised that she was running late.

Claudia pressed her ear against the wood and listened carefully. There was no shouting, no swearing, and no exhausted sighing coming from the other side, which meant that she was in with a good chance of it being empty. She wrapped her hand around the brass knob and twisted slowly, peering around the door. She jogged across the office floor towards his bathroom.

Slipping out of her high-heeled court shoes, she peeled off the tan-coloured tights, swearing when her nail went straight through the nylon fabric. She pulled the bobble from her hair and stripped out of the white blouse, draping it over the closed toilet. Running the taps, she filled the sink with cool water, and splashed it around her neck, under her arms, and over her face, rinsing away the residue of smog and sweat that clung to her like a second skin. There was a white towel hanging on the rail by the door – she was careful to pat herself dry and hang it back as it was.

Chewing on her bottom lip, she opened the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet and borrowed the spray deodorant that she knew Elliot kept in there. It wasn’t unusual for him to work all night, so he’d asked her to stock his office and bathroom like it was a mini apartment. The powdery scent floated around her, and she inhaled the pure masculinity of it. She was reapplying her mascara when he opened the door.

“Shit!” She jumped, stabbing herself in the eye with the wand. Tears streamed down her cheeks, leaving inky stains.

“Crap, Claudia, I’m sorry…” Elliot grabbed a cotton face cloth and soaked it in the sink before pressing it to her face. “I didn’t…” He stopped. “Why are you in here?”

Claudia looked up at him with one eye as she wiped away the remnants of her smudged and smeared makeup. He glanced over her. “And why are you half naked?”

“Sorry,” she mumbled, crossing an arm over her chest to cover what was left of her dignity.

Elliot shook his head and left her to it. Quickly, Claudia washed her face and re-dressed, tossing the torn tights into a small metal bin by the sink. She rinsed the face cloth, wringing it out and folding it back into a square.

“Sorry,” she said again, stepping back into the office. She raked her fingers through her curly brown hair, pulling it into a high bun. “I was running late from lunch, and got all hot and sweaty…”

Elliot chuckled. “It’s fine.” He sat behind his desk, his eyes fixed on his screen. “Next time I want to use my bathroom, I’ll knock to make sure there aren’t any stalkers hiding in there.”

Claudia rolled her eyes and sat in the chair opposite him. She took him in. He was dressed in a navy suit, with a crisp white shirt, and had an expensive watch fastened around his wrist. His blue-grey eyes were hidden by the thin-rimmed glasses he wore, and his dark brown hair had recently been trimmed, “How was the meeting?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Same shit, different day. More red tape and bureaucratic bullshit. How was lunch?”

She bit her lips together and ignored the heat rising in her cheeks. “Good. Thanks.”

“And, you managed to get those tickets?”

She nodded. “Yes. Thank you. Charlie will be thrilled.”

He looked up. “You don’t sound so sure.”

“It’s been tough, you know… Since he…” She trailed off and looked around the room, resting her sights on the Yucca plant in the back corner – anywhere but on Elliot.

“Since he cheated on you, broke your heart, and destroyed any trust you had left,” he said for her.

She shot a look at him. “Yes, since that.”

“You know I’m here for you.” His tone was subtle, gentle, and he looked at her with a soft gaze. Elliot sighed and removed his glasses to pinch at the bridge of his nose.

“You look tired,” she said.

“I am. It’s been a long week.”

“It’s only Tuesday,” Claudia pointed out.

Elliot shook his head, waking himself up. “There are more meetings lined up for next week. I’ll email them over, so you can add them to the diary. Dad might be joining us at some point. I need to set up a meeting with Yvette and Marcel as well,” he said, referring to the two lawyers he preferred to use. “Nothing to worry about, just—”

“Red tape and bureaucratic bullshit,” she said with a nod.

Elliot snorted a laugh. “Yes. That.”

“Okay.” Claudia stood up and brushed her hands down her skirt. “Thank you for…” She pointed at the bathroom.

“Any time.” He gave a dismissive wave, and she took the cue to leave.

Sinking back into her own chair, she pulled the contract that Mr. Crowley had given her and started to flick through it, scanning over each page. She wondered if Marcel would be willing to look over it for her, or whether that would be bad business. Her phone trilled out, and she swiped at the screen to see a text from Charlie announcing that he would be late home that evening due to another band practice. She fired one back saying she was working late too. At least a couple of extra hours alone would give her time to consider all of her options.



Free Sample of The Final Straight

The Final Straight by Charlotte Howard - 500

ISBN: 9781311748546


April Miller works for her bestfriend, Max Knight on his livery and competition yard. Their friendship has withstood many turbulent times, and while April is deeply in love with Max, she is also aware of his womanising ways and has refused to succumb to his flirtatious charms. When her ex, AJ, suddenly comes back with a business proposal, April finds herself torn between the two men.

Chapter One

September 1999

April put her weight into the saddle, squeezing on the reins as the horse beneath her hopped from hoof to hoof. She swallowed the nervous lump that had built in her throat as she watched the next competitor race over the line and towards the first jump.

Reaching down, she stroked the horse’s chestnut coat, giving him a gentle pat on his neck and hushed him. He whinnied in reply, blowing out a snort of white froth. He was new to this game, but she could already tell that they’d bought a winner.

She ground her back teeth together as the next rider was called to the starting point. It wouldn’t be long before her name was announced over the loudspeakers. She was glad that the wind had picked up and that the night’s drizzle had softened the ground a little, but the heat was bordering on unbearable.

“Steady, Blaze,” she murmured as the horse reacted to the sound of hooves thundering down the track. His ears pricked, twisting and turning to the different noises. People chattering, yelling and whooping, cameras clicking, horses calling out to each other. “Steady,” she said again as he shifted and tried to spin around.

She rocked her head from side to side as sweat dripped down her neck. Her skullcap was tight over the mass of red curls that had been pinned into place. The padded body protector added to her discomfort.

“No protector, no ride,” said a voice.

April looked down to see Max beside her leg, stroking at the horse’s shoulder.

“I know, I know,” she mumbled, wriggling her shoulders against the wretched thing. She was shoved to the side as Max thrust his hand under the girth.

“Christ almighty April.” He forced her leg forward, lifted the flap of the saddle and pulled on the straps. “Are you trying to fall off?”

“I would have tightened them,” she complained, tugging at the neckline of her shirt. “It’s too hot.” She could feel the pale skin of her arms beginning to turn red.

“Think about how he feels with you sat on his back,” Max countered, dipping his hands in a bucket of water before rubbing at the horse’s muzzle. It was all right for Max, with his natural light olive complexion; he tanned easily and didn’t worry about burning.


“Are you sure you even put your hat on properly?” He grabbed her arm and tugged her down to his level to look at it, then studied every bit of her with his dark eyes. It was the same dance they performed before every competition. He’d worry about her falling and injuring herself, she’d stress about refusals. But he was worse before a cross-country event. Everything had to be perfect.

“You can still pull out. If you think he’s not ready.” He bent down and checked the horse’s boots.

“He’s ready.”

“Have you been weighed?”

“Would I be sat on him if I hadn’t?” she snapped. “Yes,” she said, softening her tone. “Checks done and vet approved.”

Max had laughed when she’d first brought Blaze onto the yard. He was a far cry from any of the horses they usually took on, but one go around their cross-country course, and even Max had to agree that there was a degree of talent beneath the mangy coat.

He didn’t look anything like that nag now. Clipped and groomed, his coat glistened in the bright light, reflecting even the smallest of rays as they peeked through the hazel, chestnut and poplar trees scattered around them.

“April Miller on Willow Trees’ Blazing Glory!” The voice boomed out across the fields.

“You’re up,” Max said, patting her leg. “Good luck. I’ll get you a pint in later if you win.”

“So generous,” she said, squeezing her legs. Blaze hopped into a trot.

He fidgeted at the starting point, so much so that she could barely concentrate on anything that was being said to her. She circled him around, shortening the reins and tensing her calves against him, ready to burst into canter as soon as they were let go.

“She’s off!” Max called as she leaned forward and raced over the starting line.

Blaze thundered down the grassy path. White ropes kept spectators out of their way as they headed for the jump. It was an easy one; a simple brush that Blaze popped over as if it wasn’t there. They twisted around the first bend, leaping over the log oxer.

She was aware of flashes of colour passing as they rushed down the trail. The wind beat at her face and she heard cheers rise from the crowd as they cleared the table. She tried to not let the cockiness take over. That was when mistakes were made.

Urging the gelding on, they came towards the water jump. Blaze slowed, his pace gathered together. He lifted his head up and she pressed him forward.

“Come on boy,” she said, giving him the reins.

He leapt. Water splashed around them, drenching her arms and legs. Flecks of mud spattered over her jodhpurs as he picked his hooves up, knees overly bent as he made his way to the other side.

“Good boy,” she said, giving him a quick pat on the neck before taking the reins back. The horse jumped up the bank. He halted for a few hesitant moments at the top of the hill. The drop was steep, and if they jumped too soon he would stumble, and they’d both end in a messy pile at the bottom.

April closed her eyes and leaned back. This was the obstacle she dreaded, that most eventers dreaded. She gave him a couple more inches. He trod carefully, testing the ground before retreating.

“Come on,” she urged through gritted teeth. “Please don’t refuse…”

She felt his body buck. His front hooves left the ground and snapped back down. The ground slid away. April felt herself tumbling forward before she had a chance to correct it. Her shoulder came level with his. Her chin connected with something solid. The stirrup caught around her ankle, the rubber band refusing to give way. It was as if the world had fallen into slow motion.

She closed her eyes. Her shoulder hit the pommel of the saddle. A scream ripped through her. She could feel and hear the muscles tearing as she twisted beneath the horse’s hooves. Something cracked against her ribs. Something else hit her head.

Instinct told her to curl up. She was still in the foetal position when Max reached her.

“I’m okay,” she wheezed. Each breath was more painful than the last.

“No, you’re not,” she heard him say. Fingers fumbled around her. The straps were released and so were her lungs. She grabbed at the precious air, snatching it, sucking it in. She reached out, searching for Max. When she found him, she clung to him.


“He’s back at the stable. They caught him,” Max assured her. She couldn’t see his face. She blinked, trying to focus, but everything was a muddy blur.

“Paramedics are here,” called a voice she didn’t recognise. Hands pressed down on her, and she found herself lying on the ground. She couldn’t move.


“I’m here.” He gripped her hand.

Her helmet was removed. Pinpoints of light flashed. Pain seared through her, burning every single piece of muscle and sinew that stretched from her elbow to her shoulder.

“Dislocation,” said someone. “Any allergies?”

“No,” Max said, wrapping both hands around her fingers.

She felt someone grab her shoulder and elbow, applying gentle pressure that, oddly, helped to ease the pain. Something was thrust on her face. It smelled of plastic and the gas they pumped into it was sweet and sickly.

“Sharp scratch,” said a woman.

Warmth flooded her veins. She was aware of voices, of movement, but very little else as the world began to spin and faded in and out.