O’dark thirty in the early morning and war vet Jessie Sullivan slid her key into Sweetbriar Springs Resort gym’s lock. She stepped inside the room, grateful for the solitude and lack of lighting and needing the peace of her family’s resort to obliterate her personal demons. Only four hours ago, she’d called her teammate Gunnery Sergeant Nick Constanza, who was fighting to recover from his multiple battleground injuries. She’d reassured him that he’d beat the loss of his limb, learn to live with one eye, and regain his hearing. Now her words of comfort rang hollow in her brain.
After all, she still couldn’t remember everything that had happened the day the IED exploded. The trauma blasted, white hot, as real today as the actual moment. But the events were as tangled up as a mess of electrical cords. She couldn’t unravel the knots and recall the details.
Ignoring a lance of pain stabbing her right thigh, she walked to the row of weights stacked from weenie three-pound dumbbells all the way up to macho double-digit presses. Screw weenie. She tightened the Velcro on her lifting gloves, then hoisted two thirty-pound weights, faced the floor-to-ceiling mirror, and focused on maintaining proper body alignment.
Her last practice run at the fire department hadn’t gone well. If she couldn’t pass the eight job-specific tests, she wouldn’t get into the fire academy. And Marines didn’t quit.
Not even if they were sidelined by honorable medical discharges.
Her stomach hardened into a ball of clay and she tasted gravel. I wanted to serve my country, but helping Sweetbriar’s citizens is a close second. At least she’d regain some sense of normalcy, a team, and a life. Wasn’t that what she’d promised Constanza? If only she could promise him that he’d feel whole again, but Jessie couldn’t lie. Not when she hadn’t found a way back to the person she’d been before the accident.
A shadow in the hallway outside the room reflected in the mirror, catching her attention. “Damn it, Mom,” she called, curling the weights to her chest and lowering them. “Please find another one of your kids to hover over.”
All she wanted was two blessed hours alone. At twenty-four years old, she didn’t need her mother constantly checking her with eagle eyes, assessing her with more skills than an experienced medic, and asking her with unspoken words if the real Jessie Sullivan would ever reappear.
Though she longed to paint a different picture, Jessie couldn’t dredge up the will to pretend all was well. The girl she’d been her whole life was long gone. And she doubted she’d ever be that happy or eager or innocent again.
She’d changed. Nothing, not even the pins and bolts that put her together again, could repair the internal carnage to her soul. Hell, they’d medically evacuated her out of the field. She may as well have been dishonorably discharged as far as she was concerned. None of the medals she’d received afterward could overcome the stigma of that humiliation.
Jessie performed another rep, heard the door open. “Mom, what part of leave me the hell alone do you not understand?” she demanded, turning to face her mother.
Her heart stuttered to a brief halt. Action hero, larger than life movie star, Blake Johnston hefted his gym bag over his shoulder. His sister Maisey’s Winter Wonderland-themed wedding at Sweetbriar Springs had taken months to arrange: a private affair the Saturday before Christmas that meant booking the entire resort for the Johnstons to keep the intrusive paparazzi from spoiling the day.
“You always this grumpy about sharing the facilities?” Blake asked. “’Cause your mom assured me that using the resort’s gym before it officially opens wouldn’t be a problem.”
That his mother and hers had gone to high school together had come as quite a surprise to the entire family. While Jessie had been recuperating from her injuries in Germany, Maisey Johnston had contacted the Sullivans in an effort to find a connection to her past. And Jessie’s mom never turned away a stray soul. A year later, Maisey was practically part of the family. When Blake had arrived in Sweetbriar Springs for the two plus weeks of wedding celebrations, Shannon Sullivan had taken him under her wing too, treating him like one of her own.
Everyone at Sweetbriar Springs admired Blake, but Jessie bowed to no man. Not when she believed that the real heroes were the men and women who protected her country every day.
Unfortunately, her hormones were curtseying like crazy for Blake Johnston.
Jessie inhaled a deep breath and waited for her heart to resume normal functions. “Mom thought wrong,” she said. Not only that, she didn’t want anyone to see the extent of the damage to her leg. Yet here was the sexiest guy in Hollywood, an A-list hunk of gorgeousness, walking toward her until they stood only inches apart. And though they didn’t touch, her skin tingled as if he’d brushed against her.