Gabriel Antonov is a mechanic who can fix anything, even a woman’s hesitance. His talents have earned him the well-deserved reputation as a player, but when a routine one-night stand goes wrong, he’s haunted by what he’s done. Nothing can free him from those depraved memories, until he meets Leigh Nelson.
Leigh avoids strong, silent types like Gabe, who is stronger and quieter than most guys. The only man she’s focused on is her father, who is suffering from a devastating health crisis. She’ll do anything to help him, even at the cost of ignoring her own well-being, but the stress is getting to her. Gabe’s strength is tough to resist, and his silence might be hiding a crushing secret only she can understand.
He can’t outrun his gut-deep craving for her. Problem is, she’s running from him. When they’re marooned in his lakeside cabin, he might finally catch her…if he can admit why he’s falling apart without her.
*FYI - This book was originally written as an erotic contemporary, so it has a lot of sex scenes.*
The Crab Trap restaurant didn’t belong on Lake Wallenpaupack Road. There wasn’t a drop of saltwater—or crabs—nearby. Just massive hills and thick forests, but the distant slopes of the Pocono Mountains looked greener than the Atlantic Ocean, and just as vast.
Leigh Nelson stood in a clearing where sycamores, maples and oaks elbowed one another to reach the hot summer sun. She pulled a small map out of the back pocket of her shorts and glanced at the address.
Yep, this was the place.
Didn’t feel right.
The dinner hour was well under way, yet the gravel parking lot contained only a few cars and one motorcycle. More people should be here. It was Friday, after all. Date night.
Not for her. Fridays were no different than any other part of the week. Every day, she worked late, drove home, ate dinner, and slept. This stop at The Crab Trap was way out of her routine, like watching television past nine-thirty at night. With any luck, this brief detour would cost less than her cable bill. She checked to see how much cash she had in her wallet, tucked a curl behind her ear, and walked into the humble roadside diner.
Whoever owned the place liked to fish. Woven tackle baskets decorated the walls. Various types of fishing poles stood in every corner of the room. Fishing nets draped from the ceiling’s rafters, but the place managed to look quaint and inviting. Every table had cheerful red and white checked napkins, polished silverware, and a lit candle. A pleasant summer breeze wafted in through the open windows. Mouth-watering scents of sautéed vegetables and fresh seafood made her hollow stomach beg for a taste.
A waitress offered a welcoming smile. “Hi there. Would you like to be seated?”
“No, thank you. I’m here to speak with the owner. A friend of mine set up the meeting.” Leigh glanced at the clock on the wall, which read half past five. “I’m very early. We’re supposed to meet at six.”
“Hold tight and I’ll get him. He’s in the kitchen.” The waitress strolled across the room, opened a door, and poked her head inside. “Your appointment is here.”
The metallic clank of a spoon against the edge of a bowl echoed into the restaurant, followed by a deep bark of laughter. A man walked out, carrying a heaping plate of fries that would clog the arteries of a lesser mortal.
Leigh’s stomach growled, willing to clog a few arteries for those fries…and that man. He was tall, built like an Olympian, and looked like—whoa, hold the phone. He looked like Gabriel Antonov, which couldn’t be possible. Gabe lived in Philadelphia, a few miles away from her apartment. There was no reason he’d be this far north of the city. He owned a busy auto repair shop that devoured most of his time. An Internet search for ‘brawny workaholics’ would put his name near the top of the results page.
When she’d seen him a few mornings ago, he hadn’t mentioned that he might head into the mountains for the weekend—but he never chatted about his plans.
He didn’t chat about anything.
She took advantage of her semi-hidden position by the cash register to gobble him up with her gaze. Faded blue jeans clung to his long legs like water, rippling with every flex of his muscular thighs. A gray T-shirt hugged a burly torso that could have graced the home page of a fitness website. Thick black whiskers darkened his sturdy jaw, which made him look ferocious in a hold-on-to-your-ovaries kind of way.
His dark eyes landed on her and he slowed to a stop. “Hey, Leigh.”
“Hi.” She gave him a puzzled grin. “What are you doing here?”
One side of his mouth tilted up. “Waiting for you.”
“But I’m supposed to meet the owner of this place.”
“You just did.”
Of course. She ran into Gabe everywhere, so why not here? He smelled like crispy fries and pine forests, two of her new favorite things. If she could fuse those scents into a cologne, she’d call it Spud Stud and sell the fragrance at Christmas. She’d make millions. “I didn’t expect to see you, tonight.”
“I didn’t tell you I’d be here, for good reason.” His deep voice bottomed out to a low murmur. “If you knew I owned this place, you might not show up.”
His square-jawed, Slavic features made him look like he was made of concrete and steel. Immovable. Not going away, even though Leigh had turned him down every time he’d asked for a date. Part of her wanted to hug him for not giving up. The other part wanted to sprint out the door, because she knew he carried a heavy secret. She had one, too. The weight of that burden had driven her into a psychologist’s office two months ago, where she’d bumped into Gabe. Literally. She’d collided face-first into his hard, broad chest. He’d taken one look at her, turned as gray as dishwater, and left.
She’d never mentioned the encounter and neither did he, but she wondered why she kept running into this man. Like now. “There must be a mistake. I’m here to pick up a book. My friend told me to come here.”
“You must be talking about Darlene, right? I saw her a few days ago when she dropped off her car for an oil change. She said you’re looking for a vintage copy of The Twisted Claw.I’ve got one. You can have the book if you’re willing to make a trade.”
“Oh.” Darlene hadn’t mentioned a trade. She hadn’t revealed that Gabe would be here, either. Typical. Darlene loved surprises, especially if they unnerved people. Leigh clasped her hands behind her back and frowned. Usually, she bought the vintage books for a few bucks. She’d never bartered for one. “What do you want in exchange for the book?”
“Dinner with you.” He plucked a menu off the counter.
Oh, no. Dinner was a bad idea. She avoided strong, silent types because she couldn’t figure them out. Gabriel Antonov was bigger and quieter than most men and he never joked, so she didn’t bother to ask if he was kidding. He meant business.
Like any good businessman, he made an offer she couldn’t refuse. She needed his book. There wasn’t time to search for another copy, darn it.
She smoothed her hair, which curled like cheap wrapping paper in this humidity, and reluctantly followed Gabe to an empty corner of the restaurant.
He placed his plate of fries on a table and pulled out a chair for her. “This spot has a good view of the mountains.”
Light glinted off a few gray strands woven into his short, black hair. Faint freckles dotted his broad nose like he’d been splattered with cocoa powder. Up this close, he didn’t look so intimidating. Less like a wolf and more like a Rottweiler—tame, but forbidding.
She thanked him and sat. Sure enough, she could see the green peaks of the Poconos outside the window, but the pretty sight failed to distract her from Gabe’s plate of fries. They smelled like a special corner of heaven where fried food was good for you.
He sank into the chair next to hers and scowled. “Why on earth do you want an old Hardy Boys mystery?”
“It’s for my father. He read the series when he was a kid. A few weeks ago, we decided to hunt down the first twenty books in numerical order, without using the Internet or social media. We have to rely on word of mouth, handwritten notes, and phone calls—Dad insists that’s the way every mystery was solved in the series, so we have to play by the same rules. He’s finding all of the odd-numbered books and I’m searching for the even ones.” She’d hoped her father would be feeling better by the time they’d found book ten, but he’d gotten worse. Some days, their book quest was the only thing that distracted him from his baffling illness. Leigh took a deep breath and forced a smile. “The Twisted Claw is book eighteen. Two more to go.”
“Do you need help finding the rest?”
“Not yet. If I get stuck, I’ll let you know.” She was already stuck waist-deep in desperation, but she still believed she’d find whatever her father needed to get better.
Gabe rested his forearm on the table’s edge and studied her as though he hadn’t seen her in ages. “You spent the past few days in Scranton, right? You were helping some firm prepare for an audit.”
Surprise rushed through her, hot and tingly. She’d casually mentioned her business trip but hadn’t expected him to remember. “I finished going through my client’s reports an hour ago and decided to head home, which is why I got here early.”
This was her last business trip. In a few days, she’d leave her tedious auditing job and start over—in a small-town accounting firm where she’d have the chance to do more meaningful work. She hadn’t told Gabe yet because she didn’t want to make it a big deal. She was only moving fifty miles away, not five hundred miles away.
Gabe popped a fry into his mouth and chewed for a moment. “Did you run every morning while you were gone?”
His mouth flattened. “Alone?”
“I had to go alone. I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to exercise at five in the morning, but that’s okay. The solitude was nice. I carried pepper spray in case I ran into trouble.”
“That’s not good enough. You should’ve run with someone—someone big enough to make some bum think twice about going after you.”
The only person who fit that description was Gabe, who’d been jogging with her for the past two months. All because he overheard some offhand remark she’d made at a party. Ever since he’d discovered she ran alone, he joined her every morning. Running beside him felt like she had her very own Secret Service agent, one who never made small talk and scowled at anyone who got too close.
She liked training with him, but felt guilty about dragging him out of bed so early. Some mornings, he looked like he needed eight more hours of sleep. “You don’t have to worry about me, Gabe. I’ve been running at the crack of dawn for the past year, and I’ve never had a problem. If you ever want to sleep in, you—”
“Don’t waste your breath. You’re stuck with me every time you run in Fairmount Park.” He punctuated the statement with a brusque wave of his big hand. “Nothing will change my mind.”
No big surprise. Strong, silent types weren’t easily swayed, but Gabe’s willingness to sacrifice sleep in order to train with her was a bit stunning. Almost as stunning as finding him here. With the book she needed, no less.
Not used to such good fortune, she took a sip of ice water and scanned the room. The tables were beginning to fill. “How’d you end up with The Crab Trap?”
“I know the chef. He owns half of this place, I own the rest.” He tilted a look toward the window. “I grew up nearby. This part of Pennsylvania feels like home. Whenever I get the chance, I spend time here. The lake is full of bass, walleye, perch, and trout. Perfect for fishing. Well, almost perfect. I can’t catch a trout. They operate on their schedules, not mine.”
She laughed. “Trout have schedules?”
“They eat, they swim, and they hide from me. Doesn’t matter. I’ll catch one, eventually. Until then, being on the water is good for the soul.” He handed her the menu. “Your soul needs food.”
“How can you tell?”
“You keep eyeing my fries.” He nudged the plate toward her. “Have some.”
“Thanks. I’m starving.” She bit into one. The thin strip of potato was crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, and salted to perfection. “Wow, that’s good. I might eat every single fry andthe plate.”
“Order dinner, instead. In this place, the food always tastes better than the plates.” His solemn mouth widened into a warm grin.
Uh, oh. If Gabriel Antonov kept smiling at her like that, she’d be in more trouble than any trout in