Passions Fulfilled (Ardor Creek #5)
Passions Fulfilled (Ardor Creek #5)
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- Friends to Lovers
- Single Mom
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- Steamy Small Town Romance
USA Today bestselling author Rebecca Hefner writing as Ayla Asher
What if your soul mate had been right in front of you the whole time?
Justine Lancaster made every possible mistake in her disastrous marriage. After finally leaving her abusive ex-husband, she forges ahead, creating a new life with her daughter. Although she craves companionship, she wonders if she has the foundation to try dating after her traumatic past.
Police officer Gary Lincoln fell in love with Justine somewhere between the end of his divorce and the first time he showed up on her doorstep with a deep need to protect her from her husband. After silently loving her for years, he continues to watch over Justine and her daughter, knowing they deserve happiness…and understanding a woman as special as Justine deserves more than he can give.
As their friendship grows, Justine observes the desire simmering in Gary’s deep brown eyes and wonders why he holds back. Determined to find out, she discovers the secret Gary has been keeping and sets out to prove she’ll stop at nothing until both their passions are fulfilled.
Gary ended his shift around six o’clock. It was an hour later than he expected, but Edna Schultz had called 911 mad as a hornet that her neighbor hadn’t cleaned up his dog’s excrement on her lawn. Gary had headed over and calmed the elderly woman down before ensuring her neighbor, a young kid who seemed scared to death of her, picked up the waste. Afterward, he’d headed inside for a slice of Edna’s magnificent apple pie, chalking up the late call as a win-win while his tastebuds sang.
Once home, he parked his patrol car in the driveway of his two-bedroom rented home and unfolded from the car. He was six feet, two inches tall and scrunching his body into a patrol car five days a week didn’t do him any favors. Feeling his thigh throb, he walked inside, noticing his small limp, and decided he’d apply the heat pad once he was settled in his recliner with a beer.
After closing the front door behind him, he removed his gun, ensuring the safety was on, and placed it in the drawer. Then, he placed his duty belt on the front table and began to unbutton his shirt. A knock sounded at the door, and he swiveled his head, wondering who it could be. Drawing it open, he found a beaming Justine and Avery Lancaster on the other side.
“Hi, Gary!” Avery said, adorable as she held Justine’s hand. “Mom and I made brownies, and we wanted you to have some.”
“Really?” he asked, unable to contain his grin. “You all know I love your brownies.”
“I’m sorry for showing up unannounced,” Justine said, her eyes darting to the exposed skin of his chest where he’d released a few buttons. “I figured it would be a nice surprise. Here you go.” She thrust a plastic container toward him.
“Thanks,” he said, pulling off the top and inhaling the aroma. “Yum, these smell so good. Want to come in and have one with me?”
“I…uh…oh, we don’t want to impose. You look like you just got home.”
“I did,” he said, lifting a shoulder, “which means I’m starving. Why don’t you all come into the kitchen and I’ll set you up with some milk before I head up to change out of this uniform?” Stepping back, he jerked his head. “Come on.”
“Yay!” Avery said, bounding inside and down the hallway.
“Thanks,” Justine said, grinning as she stepped inside. “I should’ve realized you’d just be getting home. We had an early dinner and made brownies, and I wanted to stop by before bedtime.”
He kicked off his shoes and urged her to follow him down the hallway. They’d been to his home before, so they knew the layout, and Avery was already sitting on one of the stools at his center island. “They’re definitely better if you dip them in milk,” she said, giving him a gap-toothed grin. “And we need to heat them in the microwave.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Gary said with a salute. Opening the cabinet, he selected a plate and set it on the island. “Take out three brownies and put them on here. The microwave’s right up there,” he said, pointing to it. Opening the fridge, he pulled out the milk and then located three glasses before setting them on the island. “Let me go change and I’ll be right back.”
Bounding up the stairs, Gary realized he’d forgotten all about his bum leg. Hell, who could think about pain when the woman of your dreams and her adorable daughter were waiting for you in your kitchen? Removing his uniform, he dressed in jeans and a t-shirt before heading back downstairs in bare feet. Entering the kitchen, he noticed Avery’s wide-mouthed expression as Justine knelt on the floor wiping up milk.
“We spilled it,” Avery said in a hushed tone as he approached.
“I’m not even going to try to make a joke about spilled milk,” Justine said, her arm working in furious movements on the floor. The luscious globes of her ass thrust high in the air in her tight jeans, and Gary felt a stirring inside his boxer briefs. Interesting, since things didn’t really work all that well in that region after he’d been shot.
“It’s okay,” he said, kneeling and taking the cloth from Justine. He wiped up the last few drops before extending his hand, helping her as they both rose. “See? All gone.”
“Thank goodness you had a full carton. I’ll buy you another one to replace this one since we only have enough left for one round.” Lifting the milk, she poured it into the three cups and shook the container. “Yep, doneski.”
“You don’t have to buy me more milk, Justine,” he said, chuckling as he took the carton and threw it in the recycling bin. “Are the brownies in the microwave?”
“Yes, but they’re probably cold now,” Avery said, her lips forming a pout.
“Well, let’s nuke ’em again.” Picking her up, he balanced her on his hip and showed her how to use the microwave. “Hit the ‘one’ and then the ‘zero,’” he directed, and her tiny fingers pushed the buttons. “Now, hit ‘cook.’”
She depressed the button and gave him a cheeky grin.
“Good job. That should do it.”
The microwave dinged, and Gary pulled out the brownies, setting them on the island before sliding onto a stool. Avery climbed on the stool beside him, and Justine sat across from them. “Dig in,” he said, grabbing a brownie before dipping it in the milk. Avery did the same and took a huge bite, chewing before grinning at him with brownie-stained teeth.
“Not your best look, kid,” he teased, taking a bite of brownie, “but you’re still pretty darn cute.”
“Thank you,” she said, leaning into him. “Mom and I like sharing brownies with you.”
“Well, I like it when you make brownies. Thank you for sharing.”
Avery sidled against his arm, and Justine gave him a knowing grin. “She’s enamored with you, you know?”
“It means you really like him. And please stop squirming, because the stool is tall, and I don’t want you to fall.”
Avery scowled before settling on the stool.
“How was your day? Don’t you have another showcase coming up soon?”
“Yes,” Justine said, taking a sip of milk. “It’s at Kristoff’s gallery on Main Street. I have no idea why a fancy gallery owner from New York City decided to set up a gallery in Ardor Creek, but it’s been a godsend. He loves my work and features it every time he does a show. And he’s also displayed me in his gallery on Bleeker Street in the city, which is the primary source of my income. Who knew all those rich city dwellers would like paintings and sculptures from little ol’ Justine Lancaster from Ardor Creek?”
“I knew,” Gary said, swallowing a bite of brownie. “You’re really talented, Jus.”
“I have a feeling you’re not a fan of my weird art, but you’ve shown up to every gallery show I’ve done so far. It’s so nice, Gary, but you don’t have to come if you’re busy. I appreciate the support.”
“It’s easy for me to stop by when I’m on patrol,” he said, shrugging. “And when I’m not, it gives me something to do. Besides the occasional barbeque with the gang and karaoke night at the pub, there’s not a ton to do in Ardor Creek.”
“Well, I’m glad I’m an alternative to severe boredom,” she teased, biting her lip.
“Kidding,” she said, sliding her hand over his. “You’ll never know how much I appreciate your support. If I’m not careful, I’m going to begin to rely on you being there for every showcase. Don’t want to become some needy stalker.”
Laughing, he shook his head as she retracted her hand, his skin on fire where she’d touched him. “You’re no such thing. I like supporting you, Jus. It’s no big deal.”
Her eyes were kind as she studied him, and he noticed the deep amber flecks deep within the brown orbs. Her hair was short, and she’d dyed it some pinkish color, but it looked full and gorgeous as always. She was one of those women who seemed to get prettier as they aged and grew into themselves. Her beauty had been wasted on that bastard Dean Rodgers for too long, and he was glad she was free of his toxicity. Justine was way too good for that scumbag and always had been.