Burning Resolution Excerpt
She stared at her pudgy belly reflected in the full-length mirror, poked it a few times, and let out a heartfelt sigh. Until this exact moment, Erica Sutton had been able to ignore her emotional overeating. However, standing there with her half-naked, overweight body on display, the truth was staring her in the face. Bad habits. They needed to be broken, and fast! Her stretchy yoga pants were one pie slice away from splitting at the seams. The same ones she’d purchased last year, which were, at the time, too big.
The other truth she didn’t want to face was the social media craze. She couldn’t take a single selfie that didn’t expose her double chin, regardless of practiced poses. More recently, a fan had mentioned she appreciated how Erica represented real women. Whatever the hell that meant. Women came in all shapes and sizes, and they held a variety of careers, from stay-at-home moms to small business owners to corporate CEOs. Writing from the privacy of her own home in her pajamas didn’t make her representative of women in general. She was more of the swamp-witch poster-child sort.
All she did know was that she needed to get fit if she intended to have a long, healthy life. But damn, she hated to work out. Hated to sweat in any way, shape, or form. Vanity had a price, too. That day’s social media check, where all the stick-thin partygoers had tagged her after the New Year’s Eve revelry, had made her grimace in distaste and untag herself from photos and reels.
“Suck it up, Erica!” she scolded her mirrored self. “Enough is enough.”
She pulled an ex-boyfriend’s overlarge t-shirt over her head and reached for her trusty laptop. After skimming through internet reviews for local gyms, she found what she was looking for. Workout World had opened a third location in her hometown and maintained four- and five-star reviews for their personal trainers, staff services, and cleanliness. Now, if she could make her fingers dial the damned number, she’d be doing well.
Perhaps she’d drum up the courage after a third cup of coffee. All morning she’d been praying the caffeine might chase away the last of her alcohol-overindulgence headache. It wasn’t to be. She glared accusingly at the empty bottle of Moscato in her recycling bin. Why she’d felt the need to consume more after returning home was anyone’s guess.
She snorted. Another crutch she’d used to prop herself up since her split from the asshat who shall not be named. He’d certainly done a number on her, bringing forth all the insecurities she never knew existed until he’d entered her life.
Tears burned behind her lids, and she blinked to dispel them. Crying was akin to self-pity, and her bestie, Shonda, had assured her it wasn’t allowed.
“Dickhead Dave”—oops, she’d mentioned him!—“doesn’t deserve another second of your time,” Erica reminded herself. Still, it would take a serious effort to unravel the emotional knots he’d tangled her up in.
Another social media notification popped up on her screen, and with dread in her heart, she pulled up the post. Sure enough, some clueless acquaintance had caught her from the side in that awkward moment when she was just about to speak, thereby making her double chin triple.
She groaned, hit the like button so she wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, then proceeded to click the hide-from-timeline option as she prayed to God the post wouldn’t come back to haunt her.
With resignation in her heart, Erica dialed the gym’s main number.
Christ, this was going to suck.
Other people got a runner’s high from working out. All she got was tired. Firming her resolve, she curbed the impulse to hang up when a man on the other end of the line answered. The deep, sexy timbre of his voice could be felt all the way down to her pinky toes. Even they shuddered with delight. Since she’d solemnly sworn off men until the ripe old age of seventy, her reaction was not in the least bit appropriate or appreciated.
* * *
The incessant ring of the phone annoyed Zack Sharp. The main office of their newest fitness center was supposed to be closed for the holiday. However, his brother Mason, one of his two business partners and a marketing genius, had convinced him to open their doors that day.
January first equaled New Year’s Resolution Day.
Mason had assured him everyone and their brother not hungover from the night before would be calling to secure a membership. He hadn’t been wrong. It simply pissed Zack right the hell off that half his damned staff hadn’t shown because they, too, had tied one on last night. Funny how many people turned up sick on a nationally recognized holiday when they were scheduled to work.
Likely only a one-day sickness.
When those employees returned tomorrow, there was going to be a come-to-Jesus meeting. The Sharps paid their team top dollar to be on time and professional. Human Resources would also be getting a phone call about revising company policy. Zack had been too lenient for far too long. It didn’t help that a few of the employees knew him from their good old high-school football days, and because of that connection, they believed the rules didn’t apply to them.
Another thing Zack intended to change.
“Hello. Thanks for calling Workout World. How may I help you?” he answered absently as he reached for a form.
The world’s most sensual voice came through the line, halting him mid-motion.
“I need to set up a time to tour your facility and perhaps meet with a personal trainer. The sooner, the better. Today if you have an opening.”
The spoken words were lost, but the sex-kitten sound shot straight to his groin. The purred tone brought to mind endless nights of dirty, delicious sex.
That had never happened to him before.
With a concerted effort to focus, he asked, “Is there a specific reason why you prefer today?”
“Yeah, I’m fucking fat and need to drop forty pounds,” she snapped. “Why else would anyone go there?”
He pressed his lips together to contain an inappropriate bark of laughter.
“We have many members who actually enjoy working out,” he felt compelled to point out.
“Right.” She snorted. “Okay, well, I need an intervention. There’s leftover carrot cake sitting on my counter, taunting me. I’m about to bury my face in the cream cheese frosting to show it who’s boss.” She sighed deeply. “Aren’t you people trained to talk me off the ledge and not ask stupid questions?”
Zack chuckled. His soon-to-be client was on the proverbial ledge.
“A crisis, for sure. Listen to me very carefully. Slowly back away from the counter, run to your car, and make your way here. Don’t stop for any reason between there and here. I’m going to time you. How long would it normally take you to get here from your place?”
“Ten minutes if all the stoplights are green. I’m worried, though. The Bakery is on the corner of 10th and Main. If you’ve ever had any of Addie’s baked goods, you know my journey is fraught with danger. The situation is iffy.” There was a long pause before she spoke again. “And what’s with the running comment? Is there going to be running? I’m not down with that.”
Again, he laughed. The woman had already made his day, and Zack couldn’t wait to hear her complaints when he put her through her paces. He took sadistic pleasure in seeing a reluctant newbie’s expression when they caught sight of the machines.
“We’ll discuss your options when you get here. Can I have your name, please?”
He frowned. Back in high school, he’d known an Erica Sutton. A skinny bookworm who’d agreed to tutor him in biology, and he’d taken great delight in teasing her during the human-reproduction lessons. She’d been such a cute, shy creature with her large dark eyes, usually hidden behind auburn bangs and glasses. She’d been prone to blushing if they happened to make eye contact, which he strove to do for that exact reason.
The woman on the phone couldn’t possibly be the same person. The mousy Erica he’d known all those years ago would never think the word “fucking,” much less say it. Although, what were the odds there could be two Erica Suttons in the small town of Stonebrooke?
Pretty slim, he’d wager.
“Okay, Erica. I’ll see you in ten minutes. Twelve tops. I’ve activated a tracking device on your cellphone, and I’ll know if you stop at The Bakery. Keep in mind it’ll go harder on you if you do.”
“Nag, nag, nag. I’ll be there in eleven.”
Zack couldn’t wait to meet this one.
After Erica forced herself to step through the double doors of the three-story building, she observed about twenty or so people at various stations, grunting and sweating their way through some sadistic routine or another. Glancing toward the main desk, she groaned internally when she spotted a cute young woman in a low-cut sports bra, leaning across the counter, her perky wares displayed for the super jock across from her.
As if Erica didn’t already feel like a whale out of water because she had a double-digit dress size! Tugging the hem of her shirt lower over her ever-expanding ass, she made her way to the reception desk.
“Hi. Welcome to Workout World. Are you interested in signing up for a membership today?” The chick’s twin peaks bobbed in unison with her words and caused the jock’s head to follow suit. Really, his bobbing head might have been in time with her words since her boobs tended to bounce in sync with the cadence of her voice. Or he could’ve just been watching her breasts in general. At this point, it was too difficult to tell.
Erica sighed and faced the buxom twig.
Talk about feeling out of place.
She should’ve stayed home and eaten the fucking cake.
“I have an appointment,” Erica said with patience she didn’t feel.
The moment the words left her mouth, the man of her dreams walked out of the office behind the dunderhead male operating the reception desk.
“Erica?” he asked with a smile and a lift of his perfectly groomed dark brows.
She’d know him anywhere. Having been in love with him for over half her life, it was impossible not to recognize him. His near-black hair was shorter, but he still wore it mussed as if he ran his hands through it multiple times per day. Those piercing blue eyes still made her heart beat faster. Damn, the man had filled out and aged well. He’d gone from heartthrob to heart-stopping.
All she could do was gape and nod, making her the true dunderhead of the group.
“Come on back,” Zack said warmly. “I’d like to go over your long-term workout goals.” He glanced at his watch and grinned. “You made good time.”
Following him to his office, Erica admired at his perfect ass encased in tight jeans.
Wait, what? Why was he in jeans?
He stopped short and spun back to face her. “Excuse me?”
She’d spoken out loud.
Erica jerked her gaze up from his crotch—now facing her in place of that fantastic ass—and gulped. Heat began at her toes and rapidly gained speed as it ascended her neck, then flooded her face.
“I… uh… y-you…” she stuttered.
“It is you! I thought so.” Zack’s smile was wreathed in delight. “Sweet little Erica Sutton.”
His comment brought her back to the reason she was here. “Not so sweet or little anymore. Can we get the torture over with? I want to go home and drown my sorrows in a vat of wine.”
He sputtered a laugh.
Closing her eyes, Erica rubbed the spot between her brows. Once again, she’d forgotten to use her internal voice. She was glued in place, and if he hadn’t thrown an arm around her shoulders to lead her the rest of the way into the office, she would still be standing there, praying the ground would open up and swallow her whole.
“I’d forgotten how adorable you were,” he said with a chuckle. “Come on. I promise to take it easy on you the first day.”
“But why are you wearing jeans?”
And why was she so obsessed with his ass?
“I’d only planned to work in the office today, but a few of my team members failed to show,” he explained as he settled in the leather office chair behind his desk. “Let’s get started on the intake form.”
After spending a quarter of an hour discussing her eating habits—she’d blatantly lied about every single thing that passed her lips—along with her fitness goals, Zack took her on a tour of the facility. He explained the function of each machine and showed her the rooms where they held the spin, Zumba, yoga, pilates, and blah-blah-blah classes. There were too many for her to process. Next, he brought her upstairs to view the inside track overlooking a basketball court, which doubled as a volleyball court.
“This place is incredible. You manage all this?” Erica was awed by everything Workout World had to offer.
“Own. Or rather co-own with my brothers Mason and Dane,” Zack corrected with a self-satisfied smile.
“Is this a franchise, or do you own all three in the state?”
“I’m impressed you did your homework. Although, I suppose I shouldn’t be. You were always studious in school.”
His admiring look, full of praise, had her fighting down to preen. Nothing had changed since high school, that was for sure. She was still putty in his hands.
He nodded toward a framed article on the wall. It showed him along with two other men at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“We own all three,” he said. “And no, we haven’t franchised yet, but we’re considering it.”
“Zack, you’ve done an amazing job.”
“That means a lot, coming from you. I seem to recall it took a lot to impress you,” he replied with a warm smile.
For a moment, the two of them stared at one another. The appreciative light in his gorgeous azure gaze made it difficult to breathe.
What could he possibly find to admire about her?
Embarrassed, she sought a distraction. Her eyes lit on the cardio equipment behind him and the joggers they contained.
“I thought you told me there would be no running,” she groused.
As he laughed and flung an arm around her neck for the second time in an hour, Erica’s heart lightened and felt as if it had found its home. She was in major trouble.
“Come on. Time to get started burning calories.”
“God help me,” she muttered.
His chuckle said he’d misunderstood her remark and likely thought she was talking about the routine he had planned for her. In reality, she’d referred to his nearness, causing the oodles and oodles of stupid schoolgirl feelings to resurface.
* * *
Once he’d gotten Erica set up on an exercise bike, Zack went to change into his gym attire. He left instructions with Todd and Lacey to any new handle walk-ins and not interrupt him if they didn’t need to. He planned to spend the next hour with Erica and perhaps get to know her again.
When he returned, the bike was paused and she was jabbing the display buttons. Her irritated frown had him fighting another smile. Her muttered curses were colorful.
“Wow, when did you develop such an extensive vocabulary?” he asked with a laugh.
“Screw you. And screw this stupid bike. It tried to kill me. Did you know these things speed up on their own?” she demanded.
“It’s a function of the unit. It simulates uphill, flat roads, and downhill.” Tamping down another urge to laugh, he compressed his lips into a straight line.
“Well, I don’t like it. They should come with a warning label.” Jumping off, she dusted her hands as if she’d finished an odious task. “What’s next?”
Zack pinned her with a hard stare. Yes, he’d been fond of her, but that didn’t mean she was going to walk all over him.
“I don’t care if you don’t like it.” He gestured to the equipment. “You have ten more minutes of cardio. Get busy.”
“I don’t like you very much, either.”
As he waited for her to finish, he checked his email, giving her stern stares whenever she slowed down. As soon as the timer sounded, Erica jumped off the bike like her ass was on fire.
“What’s next, coach?”
Twenty minutes later, Zack wanted to quit the fitness business forever.
“You can’t say ‘fuck you’ whenever I propose an exercise you don’t want to do, Erica.” Frustration welled inside him, and his temper was frayed.
“Yes. I. Can.”
Her chin jutted up, and her mouth pursed into a pout. If she didn’t look so damned kissable at that moment, he would have strangled her.
Where had that thought come from?
Fixing her with a stony glare, the one he reserved for his most belligerent clients, Zack gestured with his thumb to the weight rack behind him. The stubborn wench glared right back.
“I’m tired,” she whined.
“Look, all you have left is free-weight bicep curls. You’ve got this. Finish those, and I’ll give you a donut,” he lied.
“Really?” Hope and doubt jockeyed for her prime reaction.
“No. Now get moving.” He nodded toward the rack.
“I hate you.”
“Whatever. You have two sets of fifteen reps.”
“I’m never coming back. This is your one and only chance to torture me.”
He rolled his eyes so hard he was positive he saw brain matter. “You’ve paid for a year’s membership in advance. Besides, I will come, drag you out of bed, and cart your happy ass in here if you don’t keep to the schedule we set. I know where you live.”
“I hate you.”
“You’re becoming repetitive. Three more curls… Switch arms… Good,” he encouraged. “Okay, Grumpy Pants. Your workout is concluded for today.”
“Thank you, Baby Jesus!” Erica wiped the sweat from her brow with the sleeve of her shirt. “Are my arms supposed to twitch like this?”
“It’s not uncommon.” He bit back his chuckle as she cast a concerned look at her upper arm. “We have a smoothie bar downstairs. Let me treat you to a protein shake.”
“It had better taste like chocolate cake, or you’re going on my shit list,” she warned.
After they’d placed their order and selected a small two-person table, Zack decided to ask how she’d fared in the interim since they last saw each other.
“Are you married?” Where the hell had that question come from, Zack?
She was thrown, too, if snorting out protein shake through her nose was any indication.
“Um, no. I would’ve thought the Sutton surname told you as much.” She graced him with an arch look.
“Some women keep their maiden name,” he defended.
“Valid. What about you? Are you married with any unnaturally active rugrats running around?”
“No to the marriage. But I do have a son. He’s eight, and more into video games than outdoor sports.”
“I like him already. Why didn’t you marry his mother?”
“What? Did we travel back to the dark ages, and I wasn’t aware of it? I don’t believe the residents of North Carolina hold shotgun weddings anymore.” He smiled at her apparent pique. “I was safe enough paying child support and getting dual custody.”
“You don’t have to be a sarcastic ass. I was only wondering.”
Abruptly, he didn’t feel like joking anymore. Might as well be honest about the situation.
“I dated his mother for a few months. Christie lied and said she was on the pill. I was the idiot who believed her.” He shrugged, and in an effort to avoid her searching gaze, he visually inspected the smoothie bar beyond her shoulder. “We called it quits, and six months later, she presented me with my son, Jacob. When I saw him, I fell instantly in love. He’s the best part of my life.”
“Did you try to make things work… for his sake?”
Zack contemplated the drink in front of him as he stirred it with the straw. How did he tell her Jacob’s mother was deranged and had been committed to a sanitarium two years after he was born?
As if sensing his unease, Erica reached out and touched his wrist. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry,” she said softly. There was a wealth of understanding in her voice, and Zack’s heart contracted in response.
“It’s not that. I don’t normally talk about it to anyone. Not even my family, if I can help it.” He shrugged off his uncomfortableness. “Christie had a psychotic break a couple of years after Jacob was born. Her parents had her institutionalized when they realized they couldn’t help her on their own. They’re the ones I share custody of my son with.” He grimaced. “Three months ago, there was a fire at the hospital. Christie didn’t make it.”
“Ohmygod! I’m so sorry, Zack.”
“Yeah, no worries. If you don’t mind, could you keep all this to yourself? I don’t tell many people outside my immediate circle.”
“Of course.” Suddenly flustered, she grabbed her keys. “I’d better get going. I have edits to apply.”
“Edits? What do you do for work?” he asked, curious despite himself.
“I’m an author.”
He raised a brow as encouragement to elaborate.
“Yeah, I… um… well…” Erica cleared her throat and sipped from the bottled water he’d handed her earlier. “I’m a romance writer.”
Exactly why it thrilled him to learn that about her, Zack had no idea. The thought of shy, constantly blushing Erica writing romance novels made him grin so wide it nearly split his face in two. As he watched, she toyed with the lid on her drink, pressed the plastic bubbles down on the lid covering her shake, and then traced a pattern in the condensation on the table.
Yep, she was still adorable, nervous as hell, and just as fun to tease as she had been in high school. “So you write mommy porn, huh?”
Her mocha eyes burned with fire as they met his.
“We don’t use the term mommy porn in the industry,” she snapped.
“No? I was sure that’s what I’ve heard it called…” He trailed off like he was attempting to solve a puzzle. The self-control it took to contain his amusement was great.
“You’re still a punkass after all these years, you know that?”
“You like me anyway,” he taunted. The sweep of color tinging Erica’s cheeks sent a quick thrill through him. He hadn’t expected to get that type of reaction from his teasing.
“Whatever. I’ve got to go.” She gathered her things and threw the empty cup in the trash. “Thanks.”
“I’m heading out, too. I’ll walk you to your car.”
“You don’t need to. I’m a big girl.”
“It’s getting dark. Even though we built in the safest area of town, you can never be too careful.” When she would’ve argued, he gave her a cajoling smile. “Humor me, and let me walk you out. Please?”
There were only a handful of cars left in the parking lot as they made their way to her white sedan. Her gasp urged him to take a closer look at her car.
The words “He’s mine, whore!” were carved into the driver’s door, and her tires were practically shredded. The destruction sent his heart into overdrive.
He’d seen it before.