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Authors: Victoria Dahl

Strong Enough to Love

BOOK: Strong Enough to Love
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USA TODAY
bestselling author

VICTORIA
DAHL

Strong Enough to Love

USA TODAY
bestselling author Victoria Dahl delivers sassy and sexy contemporary romance in a new series set in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Get a taste with this novella,
Strong Enough to Love….

Photographer Eve Hill was completely comfortable being single. Or at the very least, she was completely resigned to it. There was only one man who made every nerve in her body and brain light up when he walked into a room. But Brian Stewart had always been off limits. Hell, she’d never even kissed him!

For Brian, returning to Jackson Hole feels like coming home. But that has nothing to do with the town. It’s Eve drawing him back. Eve and the chance to finally see if they have something or if it’s all been in his imagination.

Eve doesn’t think she can open her heart to Brian again after getting hurt so badly before, though her body still wants him. She offers Brian one night to fulfill their long-denied fantasies, and that’s it. No love or promises, just a chance to get their attraction out of their systems. But can one night really be enough?

Return to Jackson Hole for more steamy romance by Victoria Dahl in
Close Enough to Touch
,
Too Hot to Handle
and
So Tough to Tame
.

CHAPTER ONE

E
VE
H
ILL
STARED
at the man poised above her, his blue-and-black flannel shirt open at the front, exposing a smooth chest and an abdomen ridged with muscle. She watched as his chest rose with a breath, watched the fabric part a tiny bit farther, revealing more of his tanned skin. A breeze ruffled his hair, drawing her eye to the way the sun haloed the blond curls around his head.

“Take off the shirt,” she said softly.

He shrugged it off willingly, eagerly even, revealing wide shoulders curved by tight muscles. His skin glinted with a delicious gleam, so dark against the snowy mountain peaks behind him. Pine boughs shushed in the wind and Eve watched his nipples draw tight with the cold.

Her camera shutter snapped in the silence. Eye to the viewfinder, Eve kept her face indifferent and cool. He wasn’t a warm smooth body that would cover hers. He was a job. Nothing more. He wasn’t an answer to her darkest fantasies. He wasn’t company for her long nights. Whatever beauty he offered was superficial, and she’d already tried at that kind of satisfaction and failed.

Eve took the pictures the client wanted, and she didn’t need anything more than that.

“I think we’ve got it,” she said. She had no idea what a naked male chest in front of the Teton range had to do with selling five-thousand-dollar watches, but her eye had been drawn to his skin, after all, and all marketing ever wanted was that few seconds of attention.
Look. Look at this. You might not have this chest, but you can have this watch.

“Thanks, Joseph,” she said to the model, signaling that he could put his robe on. “Take a minute while I see if we’re done here.”

The client, a ferret-faced ad man from New York, waited at the table she’d set up just a few feet away. Eve loaded the pictures from her camera to the laptop and opened a few shots. “What do you think? Between these and the ones we shot this morning with both models, I think we’ve got more than enough to work with.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s good. Perfect. You really hit it out of the park. And you were right. The clouds cleared just in time.”

“They were moving fast. Nothing to worry about.” She tried to hang on to the brief moment of pride she felt at his praise, but it slipped through her fingers as quickly as he’d said them. Something was wrong lately. That high she’d always felt behind the camera was starting to fail her. The excitement of doing something she was so good at. The pleasure of a job well done. It felt brittle these days. Fleeting.

“Let’s pack it up,” she called cheerfully, because she refused to subject anyone else to her increasingly restless moods. “Joseph, you’re free to go. You were wonderful, as usual.”

“Thanks, Eve.”

He was gorgeous enough that he could probably make it in New York or Europe, but his husband ran a very expensive ski clinic here in Jackson Hole, so here was where they stayed. But Joseph was one of a few models she was able to promote to clients from the coasts, who were relieved not to have to pay big-city modeling prices and transportation costs. It worked out well for everyone, and Joseph got to go home to a cozy cabin every night with his true love.

Eve told herself she was happy with her cat and her occasional chance to ogle beautiful men. She was, damn it. Even if she did have to fake a smile just now.

“Have fun in Curaçao!” she called out as Joseph left. They were off for a well-earned vacation. Joseph’s husband had put in months of nonstop work at the ski clinic over the winter.

Joseph ran back to give her a quick kiss on the cheek, still buttoning his shirt. He looked like a lover grabbing a quick goodbye before rushing off to work.

God, she missed sex. She missed
good
sex.

She didn’t need a husband and a little cabin. She didn’t need someone to take care of her and whisk her away on luxurious vacations. But she’d give a lot for an occasional weekend in bed with a man intent on wearing out every muscle in her body. Someone she could laugh with between orgasms. Someone who understood her passions and humor and—

She shoved those thoughts away, shaking her head in panicked denial. No. She wasn’t going there. She’d given him up for good. Even thoughts of him. He no longer existed. Hell, he never had, not for her.

“Where do you want these cords, boss man?”

Eve looked up to see Grace standing there, her eyebrows raised in sarcastic question, the wild blue strands in her dark hair vivid in the sunlight.

“Oh, all right,” Eve sighed. “I’ll help break down, if that’s what you’re hinting at.”

Grace snorted and started for Eve’s brand-new black SUV. “You know I can’t reach the lights when you put them up that high. But they’re turned off and cooling.”

“Thanks. I’ll get them.” They’d used only two lights to add a little ambient warmth to the natural daylight, and she had them broken down and the whole shoot packed up within thirty minutes. Grace carried the last bags up the trail to Eve’s truck. Eve was alone for a moment, surrounded by nothing but pine trees and wild grass matted down by the melting snow.

She took a deep breath and turned in a slow circle, taking in the quiet for a moment. It was spring. The mountain peaks would stay white for months, but the first wildflowers would start to bloom in a few weeks. She loved the spring. The scent of the first faint hints of green grass curved around her and filled her lungs, but the wind whipped it away within moments.

She had dreams sometimes that she could capture scent in a photo, that she could hold on to so much more than a picture.

Then again, being able to experience a remembered scent at will was likely a terrible idea. Her heart hurt at the very thought.

Eve clenched her teeth together and started up the trail. She’d go home and work for a few hours, then take that hot bath in the hopes of soaking away this new melancholy.

But her plans for escape were foiled when she found Grace leaning against the tailgate of the truck, a mischievous smile in place. “Hey! You’re coming to Jenny’s birthday party tonight, right?”

Shit. She’d forgotten about that. And now she had her heart set on a pitiful evening of feeling sorry for herself. “Grace—”

“Nope. I knew you’d try to wiggle out of it, but you’re going. Good God, Eve, you’re only, what? Thirty-five?”

“Thirty-six,” she said, hating that Grace’s guess had been so close.

“So you haven’t earned your right to a quiet night at home with a microwaved dinner. You’ve got to put in a few more years of hard partying. Come on.”

“I’ve already put in years’ worth of manhandling thanks to you and Jenny always foisting men on me.”

“We aren’t foisting. We’re just forcing you to dip your toe into the water. A few dates here and there never hurt anyone.”

“They’ve been painful enough,” Eve grumbled.

“Oh, please. Don’t be a wuss. Anyway, I’m not trying to fix you up tonight. Though there will be lots of cowboys there. And cowgirls. Maybe that’s your thing.”

No, it wasn’t Eve’s thing, but maybe it would be easier if it were. She’d never been good with men. It hadn’t bothered her until a few years ago.

“Come to the party,” Grace said. “If you don’t, I’ll come drag you out of your house in your nightgown. Because I bet you wear a nightgown.”

Eve gave her the finger. She didn’t wear a nightgown. She wore a men’s XXL T-shirt in a very attractive shade of camouflage green and a pair of running shorts that had gotten too tattered to wear while running.

“You are a bitch,” she said very clearly.

“Employee abuse!”

“You wish.”

Grace smiled. “So you’ll come?”

“Fine,” Eve huffed.

“Good.”

She waved Grace into the truck, vaguely remembering the invitation now. She’d been forgetful lately. Somehow she’d been shrinking further and further into herself, seeing everything through a camera filter, pretending that was life.

But it wasn’t life. Not yet anyway. Maybe she’d better give it the old college try before she gave up completely. Maybe she should flirt with a few cowboys and see what happened. Then again, the last time she’d had sex it had been so resoundingly mediocre it had turned her off for months. Thank God Mitch hadn’t been friends with any of her friends. She’d ignored his calls and never seen him again.

But it had been almost a year now. Eve grimaced and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. She couldn’t just be celibate forever. Could she?

Not yet. Grace was right. Eve hadn’t put in the time yet. So she’d go to the party and maybe she’d even talk to a few men. For an hour, tops. Just to say she had. Then she’d hurry home to feel sorry for herself in a hot bath.

A few more years of that kind of effort and she could respectfully retire into spinsterhood and never date again.

* * *

O
R
SHE
COULD
give up on dating starting tonight.

She couldn’t imagine where Mitch had come from or why he was at Jenny’s party, but there was no avoiding him, because he’d cornered her near the doorway of the tiny apartment and he was making a concerted effort to reconnect.

This town was too damn small. She’d have to be more careful. If she wanted to scratch an itch, she should do it with men who’d just come to town to ski. They moved on in the spring like migrating wildebeests.

“Oh, there’s Jenny!” she said, latching on to the perfect excuse to escape. “I need to say happy birthday!”

“Wait.” Mitch reached out as if he’d grab her arm, but pulled back before he touched her. He looked down at his own hand before he let it drop. “I had a really good time when we went out, Eve. I thought you did, too.”

“I did,” she said in a rush. “Of course I did.”

“Right. So I think maybe the...after...was maybe slightly awkward?”

Oh, God. Eve felt her face heating. No. This wasn’t happening. She shook her head.

“You didn’t call me later, and... Well, I think I mentioned I’d just gotten out of a relationship, and it had been a while since I’d dated.”

She shook her head again, more frantically this time, and held up her hands in desperation. “Mitch, it’s okay. It was fine. It just wasn’t the right connection.” She wished she could melt through the wall and be outside and free.

“But what if it was? When we got to your place, I was nervous. I admit it. We both were. But before that, I had a great time. You’re funny and smart. It felt natural.”

She nodded, trying to give in just enough to give herself room to escape.

“I’d really like to see you again,” he pressed. “We could get to know each other a little better this time. Not rush things.”

She wanted to say no. She wanted to dodge to the side and dart past him to break free of this awful awkwardness. Surely he could feel it. But he wanted to go on a
date?
How could he even ask?

Then again...as much as she wanted to say no, she had to admit that the guy was brave. And up-front. And honest. That alone stopped her mouth from forming the word
no.

He was also right. Everything else had been nice, which was how they’d ended up in bed together after their second date. A terrible mistake. She’d remembered the problem as him being awkward, but she couldn’t deny his claim that they’d both been nervous. He’d managed to power through and finish the job. Eve most decidedly had not.

She tried to relax her face when she realized she was cringing at the memory of that uncomfortable goodbye. She’d regretted that night so much, but mostly for reasons that had nothing to do with him.

He watched her patiently, one eyebrow tipped up in slightly sardonic awareness of how strange this was. “Maybe?”

“Maybe. Yes. Okay,” she stammered. “Call me. Maybe we can meet for lunch this time instead of dinner?”

His face broke into a slow, wide smile, and Eve remembered why she’d agreed to go out with him in the first place.

“Great,” he said simply. “That sounds great.”

She wished she could say that she felt the same, but at least she wasn’t hoping for the ground to open up and swallow her anymore. In fact, when he excused himself a few minutes later, he left her laughing with a self-effacing joke. Maybe another date wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe she’d been too quick to dismiss him.

Grace, who was making a beeline for her from across the room, would definitely say Eve was being too picky. They’d had plenty of discussions on the subject. Grace was of the decided opinion that Eve was single and successful and should be reaping the rewards of that the way a single and successful man would. Eve agreed in principle. In reality, the idea left her sadly cold.

“Hey, boss man,” Grace said. “Are you chatting up the hotties?”

Eve couldn’t help her smile. What the hell. She may as well embrace the situation. “Maybe.”

Grace’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Really?”

“I’m not completely hopeless, you know. I can pick up men and...do the hookups, or whatever you call it.”

Grace threw back her head and laughed. “Oh, my God. You’re such a dweeb.”

“I know.”

“But you look hot.”

“Yeah, I took my hair out of its ponytail. Pretty sexy.”

“I’m serious,” Grace insisted. She ran her hand down Eve’s hair. “I’m glad you finally gave in to my coloring skills. You look brighter. Not just your hair, though. I’m glad you’re starting to relax a little.”

Yes, she was finally letting go. She’d fought her life for the past couple of years, white-knuckling it through a sorrow she hadn’t even earned. It wasn’t so hard anymore. It wasn’t so damn lonely. “I need to find Jenny.”

Grace pointed her in the right direction, and Eve set off to give Jenny a hug. She’d been here for thirty minutes. She’d agreed to a date. So she gave herself permission to escape as soon as she’d spoken to the birthday girl. She even gave Mitch a friendly wave as she left.

Maybe the chemistry wasn’t there, but when was it ever? She was thirty-six. She’d had two careers and lived in four states. And in all that time, there’d been only one man, one out of the hundreds she’d met as an adult, who’d wrenched her heart and set every nerve in her body vibrating.

BOOK: Strong Enough to Love
13.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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