First Chapter: Claim Me Hard by Vanessa Vale (18+)
Vanessa Vale stops on over to share the first chapter in her book CLAIM ME HARD!
Hiding from a crazy ex-boyfriend, Hannah Winters is determined to keep her head down and her heart locked safely away. Burned out from practicing medicine and dealing with a controlling jerk, her interest in romance is at absolute zero...until they walk in. One look at Cole and Declan and Hannah is going to have a very hard time keeping the ice around her heart from melting.
Declan grew up in Bridgewater, and his job as a police officer means he's got an instinct for trouble, and Hannah Winters stirs up all kind of feelings he can't fight. When his friend, Cole finds out about the sexy type-A woman with desire in her eyes but lies on her lips, he's just as determined to tame her and uncover her deepest fears—and desires.
When her past catches up to her, it'll be Cole and Declan who convince her to stop running, from her past, and from the desire burning white hot between them. They're going to claim her, even if they have to do it the hard way...one seductive kiss at a time.
Warning: Panty melting! Claim Me Hard is book 2 in the wildly dirty series where two obsessed alpha cowboys meet their Type-A heroine. This standalone HEA is all about her - no M/M.
Author: Vanessa Vale
Genre: HOT Romance
Tags: * SPICY: HOT Romance, * Contemporary, Western, * SPICY: Multiple Partners
Publisher: Vanessa Vale
The diner’s pale green uniform was hardly fashionable, but it was comfortable…and comforting. I ran my hands over the polyester blend, took a deep breath. It was a far cry from the scrubs I was used to, but the simple dress with its clean white apron was a throwback to another era, just like this town I’d ended up in. Bridgewater. How the hell had I ended up here? Not just here, as in Montana, but here as in hiding out. Putting my real life on hold because of an asshole ex. Running scared.
That question seemed to run on a constant loop in my brain ever since I stopped in this tiny, blink-and-you’d-miss-it town two weeks ago. While it sat in a picture perfect valley, it wasn’t exactly London. It was far from a vacation destination, and waitressing at a local diner was the polar opposite from the dream career I’d left behind. No one just walked away from ten years of schooling, residency and internships. No one except me. But a woman on the run couldn’t be picky, and Bridgewater was as far off the grid as any town could be. And that was the point, wasn’t it? I wasn’t here on vacation. I wasn’t seeing the sights. I was here to hide, pure and simple.
A now-familiar anger welled up and I took a deep breath to get my emotions under control. I glanced at myself in the bathroom mirror. Only a hint of makeup—something had to hide the bags under my eyes—and hair pulled back in a sleek ponytail. Residency didn’t offer any time to primp so I was used to going natural. I was also used to the sleep deprived look. But I wasn’t pushing a forty-eight hour shift in the ER. I looked like shit now because I was afraid. And that made me so damn mad! He’d reduced me to this. Half scared, half mad. Honestly, these days I wasn’t sure who I was more angry with—my ex for hurting me or myself for running away like a coward. Or for even being interested in the asshole to begin with.
Brad Madison had been the ideal boyfriend… at first. Handsome, attentive, even sweet. But I guessed that was the way it always started. No one got together with a guy she knew to be a monster. They were always sweet and charming, loving and doting. Brad didn’t change overnight, either. His downward spiral was slow and insidious. He’d gradually grown more controlling, and over time his words had turned cruel. After several weeks away, it all seemed so obvious. The way he’d manipulated me and made me doubt myself—textbook emotional abuse. I’d seen it all the time in the ER, women who “ran into a door” or “tripped.” But that was the beauty of hindsight, it was always twenty-twenty.
I hadn’t seen it at the time, even with all the time I spent at the hospital working. The change—in Brad and in our relationship—had occurred so gradually that I’d lost all perspective.
Until he hit me.
Only once, but that was part of the problem. My initial reaction after the shock and fear wore off was to tell myself that it had been only once. I found myself wanting to believe him, that it was a one-time deal. That he really did feel sorry and that he actually would change. That his suddenly kind demeanor was the real him. Worst of all, I found myself falling into a classic trap. I started to blame myself. I’d burnt the eggs. The moment I realized I was making excuses for him was in the ER. I had on plenty of foundation and concealer to hide the bruise on my cheek when a woman came in who’d been beaten up by her husband. I’d begun to tell her the standard lines about the signs, getting out, how there was help available, if she wanted to press charges. Then she looked at me, pointed to my cheek and asked me what had happened. I’d opened my mouth to tell her a lie, then realized, like a light bulb going off, that I was her.
I told her the truth, that I’d been hit by my boyfriend—over eggs!
Vowing to her, I said I’d end it with Brad if she walked away from her cruel husband. I’d left the ER that night to make a clean break from him. Or tried to, at least. It took all of my courage to tell Brad it was over, afraid he’d hit me again as I did so. If he’d hit me over burnt breakfast, what would he do when I said I was leaving him? By that point, I was well and truly scared of the man I’d thought was the love of my life.
I had no idea what happened to the patient in the ER. I had to hope she’d gotten help, gotten away. Me? I’d gotten away, but there was no help. Only hiding.
Looking around my bare bones one-bedroom apartment above the diner, I tried to feel appreciative rather than resentful that I’d been forced out of my old life and career. And I was grateful. The space was spartan, but clean. The rent was cheap and the commute to work was only a flight of stairs. I’d been lucky to find this place, with its friendly residents. Bridgewater was picture perfect, a western Norman Rockwell town. The fact that there had been a job opening at the old western-themed diner on Main Street had been a stroke of luck. I needed money, money that didn’t come from an ATM or credit card that were traceable. I sure as hell hadn’t had time to set up a new life for myself before I ran, so I felt lucky.
I picked up my lip balm, swiped it over my dry lips, my thoughts returning to Brad.
After I’d told him I was leaving him, I walked out of his apartment naively thinking that I would never see him again. I’d been relieved. Liberated. What an idiot. Of course, he wouldn’t let me go that easily. A few hours later he showed up at my place. I knew he’d been drinking from the glazed look in his eyes, the scent of whiskey on his breath.
You’re mine and I’m never letting you go.
Those words still echoed in my skull at night when I should be sleeping. Like the weird dream the night before. A mixture of a hot sex dream and my worst nightmare. The possessiveness of his tone that night, and the sneer—it still gave me chills. The situation had spiraled from bad to terrifying after that. He’d showed up at the hospital when I was on shift, drunk and angry, shouting about how he was watching me. How he’d never let another man have me. Who knows what would have happened if security hadn’t arrived?
And then there had been the flowers on the doorstep with a note of apology, followed by threatening messages on my voicemail. His behavior had turned erratic and I knew it was just a matter of time before he crossed the line again from emotional abuse to physical. I’d been trained to talk to women about this, seen firsthand what an abusive guy could do when pushed.
I’d tried to talk to the police, but since nothing had actually happened, their hands were tied.
I knew then that if I stayed in LA, the next time wouldn’t end in more than a bruised cheek. And so I’d fled.
I turned to face the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door. Saw myself now. The uniform, the apron. Goodbye Hannah Winters, hello Hanna Lauren.
Brad was a thousand miles away and so was any danger. Or so I hoped. After two weeks, I was beginning to breathe easier, beginning to sleep longer than a few hours at a time, waking from every little creak of the old building. Or a weird-ass nightmare. I had nothing to fear here in Bridgewater—Brad wasn’t here—and that alone was a reason to give thanks. I’d left Los Angeles and he had no way to find me, I’d made sure of that. I may have missed seeing the man for what he was, but I wasn’t stupid. I was a doctor. I’d spoken with someone from a shelter about “how to get away” and covered my tracks. Dropped my last name.
The moment he’d left that last night and I was certain he wasn’t waiting outside my apartment building, I made a run for it. I’d thrown some clothes in a bag, took cash out of three different ATMs and headed to the bus station. I hopped on the first bus I could find, and then in Salt Lake City, another. Bridgewater just happened to be one of the towns the bus stopped in to give its passengers a short break and a meal. When I stepped off and saw the almost surreal frozen-in-time tableau that was Main Street—well, I figured this little town was as good as any to stop for a while. To hide. I’d stay just until I figured out my next steps.
The bus had left without me and I found myself strolling up and down the six blocks that made up downtown Bridgewater. Main Street was lined with two-story brick buildings that were straight out of the nineteenth century, with stores that sold honest-to-God cowboy hats and boots, along with fishing rods, rifles, and any other outdoorsy equipment one might ever possibly need. It was charming, sure, but not exactly an epicenter of job possibilities. It truly had been a stroke of luck that the diner had a “help wanted” sign posted in the window. Even luckier that the diner’s owner, Jessie, seemed to take a liking to me despite the fact that I was an outsider with zero waitressing experience. I’d just gotten off the bus and she offered me a job in the restaurant and the little apartment above it.
So far things had panned out pretty well in Bridgewater. The shifts at the restaurant kept me busy, the locals were incredibly friendly and I was safe from Brad. I was completely under his radar. I forced a smile at my reflection. See? Grateful.
Wide-set green eyes stared back at me from the reflection. At least they were no longer filled with fear—that was something I’d never take for granted ever again. The dark shadows beneath my eyes were gone, too. While I hadn’t slept through the night yet, a doctor was used to lack of sleep. Being a small-town waitress hadn’t been on my five-year plan when I graduated from med school, but I’d come to find that I liked it, amazingly enough.
The job was hard in its own way, but I relished the distraction. Besides, the manual work might have been difficult, but it was far less stressful than working in the ER. Those I helped weren’t sick or dying. They just wanted a cup of coffee or today’s special. I missed my job, of course, but taking a break from that kind of life-or-death stress had been a relief. I’d been dealing with enough stress in my life thanks to Brad.
Waitressing was tiring work. For the first time in what felt like ages I was falling asleep at the end of the day and lately woke less and less from nightmares.
Besides, I wasn’t going to be a waitress forever. I’d be back to my old job soon enough. My stay in Bridgewater was short-term, just until Brad got deployed. Being in the army, and even as a Lieutenant Colonel, he had to do what he was told and he couldn’t tell his commanding officers he wasn’t going to be sent overseas. He couldn’t hit them if he wasn’t happy with them.
He’d mentioned he was being sent to South Korea, to lead a battalion that maintained all the helicopters on the base. He’d be deployed for four years and there was no way he could hurt me once he was gone. I didn’t know the exact date he shipped out, but it couldn’t be much more than a few months at most until the Pacific Ocean separated us. All I had to do was lay low until he was gone and then I could reclaim the life he’d stolen from me. He’d be in Asia. While I didn’t wish what he’d done to me on someone else, I knew he’d probably find some new woman to control and manipulate. Then, he’d forget about me.
I smoothed back my hair, the ponytail not doing much to tame the wild curls. My shift was starting in a matter of minutes and I didn’t want to be late, especially because of my stupid daily mental pep talk. The town’s diner was always packed at mealtimes and my days flew by as I hustled to keep my customers satisfied.
Two customers in particular came to mind—Declan and Cole. I grinned at my reflection. Now they were customers I would happily satisfy. My soft giggle sounded jarring in the quiet apartment. I hadn’t heard my own laughter in far too long. The men in question had come in for lunch during every one of my shifts for the past week and I said a little prayer that today would be no different. To say their presence was the highlight of my day made me sound pathetic. But when I watched them come in the front door and settle themselves in a booth in my section—always my section—I felt like a sixteen year old with a crush on the high school quarterback.
Was it wrong to harbor a crush—okay, two crushes—while on the run? Probably. I may have only packed one small suitcase, but I had plenty of baggage. Seeing those two sexy cowboys made my heart practically beat out of my chest and my palms dampen. Just the sight of the virile duo made my nipples tighten and I was sure that was evident through the thin fabric of my uniform and bra beneath.
They were cowboys, through and through and Jessie had caught me staring. She’d come up to me the first day, leaned in and said they were both tall drinks of water. I’d had no idea what that expression meant, but if it was that they made women’s panties wet with just a penetrating stare, then she was exactly right.
Their cowboy hotness worked on me. The broad shoulders, the rugged jawlines, the penetrating stares. Yeah, it totally worked. Every damn day. By the time I crawled into bed at night, I was ready to touch myself as I thought of Declan’s blue eyes and Cole’s wide smile.
They were gentlemen—Jessie would have warned me otherwise—but their flirtatious comments and flattering attention had me thinking they might be otherwise in private.
Of course it didn’t mean anything. Two men flirting with me wasn’t serious. I mean, two men? It was harmless fun and I had to admit, it felt good to have them looking at me in that way. Even if it was just for simple flirtation. I felt feminine, even in my less-than-stylish uniform.
It wasn’t like I was looking for another relationship and I was certain that they were just intrigued by the new woman in town. Knowing it wasn’t serious was what gave me the freedom to flirt right back. I also flirted with Mr. Kirby, who was there every morning at seven for his coffee and toast, but he was eighty-four.
It had been a long time since I’d been so flattered and charmed by any man, let alone two. Especially two. Two hot, sexy cowboys. Living in LA, I’d had no idea a cowboy could melt my butter. But two! With dark hair and chocolate colored eyes, Cole had that sexy brooding thing going on. Declan, on the other hand, was the living definition of the all-American hero with short, clean cut red hair and blue eyes. He was a cop, that much I knew from Jessie’s gossip and the sight of the SUV parked out front with the light bar on top, but I had no idea what Cole did for a living. Looking at his rugged hands, broad shoulders and corded muscles, I had to assume something physical. Something outdoors. A real dang cowboy.
I was certain Jessie knew everything about those men and would happily give me the scoop if I were to ask. That was the beauty of small towns. Everyone knew everything about everybody and gossip was considered a legitimate pastime right alongside knitting and woodworking.
But asking would mean opening up to a stranger—if I asked questions about them, someone might ask questions about me. I couldn’t risk it, no matter how curious I might be. I could hide behind playful banter; it kept any probing questions from the hot duo. Besides, I had no interest in telling anyone that I was interested in both Declan and Cole. Jessie would just laugh in my face.
In the quieter times between meals, I would let my mind wander as I filled salt and pepper shakers, trying to decide who I liked more. Declan or Cole? A gorgeous ginger or a dark-haired hottie? It had become something of a game to help keep my mind off my problems.
Some days I thought it might be Cole with his smoldering dark eyes and that slightly too-long hair that had a tendency to fall into his eyes. Something told me he would be a touch wild and a whole lot dominant in the bedroom. When I fantasized about him I saw blindfolds and handcuffs. Not typically my sort of thing, but something about Cole made me think I might just like it rough and dirty, as long as he was in charge.
Declan, on the other hand, I fantasized about when I was in the mood for slow, sweet, and seductive. He had an old-fashioned chivalry about him and I was absolutely certain that he knew how to please a woman.
Each of them, I was absolutely positive, would put a woman’s pleasure before his own every single time.
There I went again, fantasizing about two men who I’d never see once I moved on from Bridgewater. I wasn’t always so obsessed with sex. Never thought about having it with two different men. Clearly, it had been way too long since I’d had an orgasm—much as Brad liked to have control, he couldn’t make me come to save his life. He used to, in the beginning, but my pussy seemed to have a better asshole detector than my brain because it stopped buying his lies. For a long time, I’d been telling myself it was me—my sex drive was low or maybe I’d gone frigid. That was a thing, right?
But after a little time away from Brad, I knew the truth. I was horny as hell, just not for his sorry ass.
I studied my reflection one last time, keeping in mind that my two favorite customers would most likely be sitting at one of my tables. Shaking my head, I had to remember playful flirtation was all it was going to be. Why would they be interested in me? The lip balm didn’t make my lips look fuller. The swipe of mascara did nothing to highlight my eyes. And the mint green color of the uniform clashed with my pale skin. I wasn’t about to win any beauty contests, but it was fitted enough to show off my small waist and short to show some leg. But I wore my running shoes with it to spare my feet the torture of standing all day. What a look!
I gave one last glance in the mirror, assuring myself that this was as good as it was going to get. Vanity didn’t matter since my two crushes were just fantasy material and were going to stay that way. I grabbed my small purse and headed toward the door. My pace quickened at the thought of seeing my two favorite customers again. I was fully aware of how ridiculous it was, of how I was acting. With everything going on my life, a silly crush and a temporary time out from my stressful job had me feeling almost human again. I couldn’t run forever but as I walked into the diner, I couldn’t help but think that there were worse things than starting over, even if it was for all the wrong reasons.
Vanessa Vale is the USA Today bestselling author of over thirty books, sexy romance novels, including her popular Bridgewater historical romance series and hot contemporary romances featuring unapologetic bad boys who don't just fall in love, they fall hard. When she's not writing, Vanessa savors the insanity of raising two boys, is figuring out how many meals she can make with a pressure cooker, and teaches a pretty mean karate class. While she's not as skilled at social media as her kids, she loves to interact with readers.