Embracing Love by Sara Ohlin
Book 4 in the Rescue Me series
General Release Date: 25th October 2022
Word Count: 77,488
Book Length: SUPER NOVEL
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When a broken woman risks her heart for the neighborhood hottie, heat rises from the ashes…
Once broken and abused, Sasha Kincaid is slowly rebuilding her life in the quiet town of Corvallis near her brother, his new wife and their group of friends. She’s content to work quietly at the bakery she secretly owns while learning to rebuild her trust in people. But when she starts to have steamy feelings for Connor Duggan, Sasha doesn’t know how to handle her emotions.
Neighborhood hottie and town favorite, general contractor Connor Duggan has only had eyes for Sasha Kincaid ever since she stepped foot in Corvallis a year ago. When she gives him an opening, he jumps at the chance to make her his, no matter how long it takes her to feel comfortable.
Connor’s warmth and patience allow Sasha to fall into a friendship, then an amazing sexual relationship with him—but believing it will be temporary and that’s all she’s worth. As they grow closer, Connor realizes he must win over her heart, not just her body, meaning he must push past his own insecurities of being rejected to battle Sasha’s fears and ghosts.
But the biggest obstacle is Sasha herself. Can she learn to trust again, and believe that she deserves a beautiful life with Connor?
Reader advisory: This book contains references to an abusive relationship, physical cruelty and violence, as well as mentions of non-nurturing parenting.
Connor Duggan pulled out the chair on Sasha’s right and sat beside her. His toned and tan forearm brushed against hers and Sasha’s calm night was ruined. This one evening a month was one she’d come to anticipate with joy, where she’d grown comfortable with these newish people in her life, and in two seconds, her comfort whooshed right out of the window.
Crap! It wasn’t only her peace that disappeared. His presence, all his larger-than-life muscles, invaded her space and took all the breath from her body. She grabbed onto the table to calm the dizziness.
And the way he smelled. Oh my Lord, his smell is intoxicating. That singular delicious woodsy scent called to her. Her pulse jackhammered beneath her skin and a flush heated her cheeks. She was vaguely aware of the hum around her, the others sitting and diving into dinner, laughter and chatting, but it was all a warped background, with the sound coming slow and the movements fuzzy.
The monthly dinner with her friends had gone from enjoyable and almost lovely to a chaotic scraggly mess in her head and hormones.
Sasha forced her body still. For some reason, her body had a mind of its own around Connor Duggan lately. It wanted to sway into him, link her fingers with his, ask him where he got the slew of rainbow-colored friendship bracelets, both silly and sexy on a man his size, listen to his deep voice and maybe crawl into his lap.
What the heck? Stay, she ordered her body, like she would her dog. Images of her face shoved into his strong shoulder inches from hers, breathing in his essence, seared across her mind. And when had she ever drooled over someone’s essence before?
We could do this, we could just lean in and take a tiny sniff, one tiny breath of him. Pretty please, her body begged. Yes, her fingers agreed. We could finally stroke that strong jaw of his and see how his stubble feels against our fingertips or find out if his skin is soft or rough. Or, her skin chimed in, he could touch us, stroke us with those work-roughened fingers of his. I bet he’d make us hum. Wouldn’t that feel delightful. We’ve never hummed before.
Sasha’s fork clattered on her plate, and she shoved her chair back. “I have to go.” Fumbling with her napkin and trying not to make eye contact with anyone, she rounded the table. Without tripping down the steps to Jackson and Ellie’s sunken living room, she managed to leash her dog, who’d been snuggled up in a pile with Ellie’s dogs and Connor’s dog, Kitten.
Kitten, arguably one of the cutest, rowdiest dogs on the planet. Do you think his owner is rowdy too? her body asked with a hopeful, wistful tone. Sasha shook her head. What the heck was going on in her head and…uh, other body parts? She made her way toward the front hall.
“Sasha,” Ellie said in her sweet, calm voice. “You okay?” Ellie squeezed Sasha’s hand, and Sasha didn’t pull away. That alone was heaps of improvement from where she’d started with these people, these friends. A year ago, when she’d feared any kind of touch at all.
I’m not okay, not okay at all. “I’m sorry, I have to go.” I’ve gone from fearing men and touch to wanting to be stroked by your handsome friend and I can’t tell you or anyone else. I don’t even understand it myself. She was going to faint. No, no, she could hold it together.
Secrets. She was collecting them, she knew, but there was no way in hell she could admit this truth to Ellie, standing right there in the entryway, that sitting next to Connor Duggan had her so tangled up she’d lost her balance completely, that she ached to explore him. Nope. There would be absolutely no explaining. She wouldn’t be able to find the words.
The thing is, she knew Ellie wouldn’t make her spell out anything. No one sitting at the dinner table, not Jackson, Ruby, Lachlan, Katie or Leo, Natalie or Gage, none of their children, and certainly not Connor, would demand an explanation. They all knew her past. They allowed her room and time to feel comfortable with them. And right or wrong, tonight she would take advantage of that kindness because she needed to get out of this house. Immediately.
“I’ll take you home,” Ellie said.
Sasha deflated, grateful to Ellie and annoyed with herself. Twenty-seven years old and she still didn’t know how to drive, so her friends were often forced to give her rides. If she were already in downtown, she’d walk, but Ellie and Jackson lived up in the hills, miles from downtown.
“We can take you, Sasha darling,” Ruby said.
“I’m so sorry to make any of you. I’ve ruined your dinner. I—”
Ruby grabbed her purse and Lachlan’s hand and led the way outside, shouting out their goodbyes behind them. “It’s nothing to be sorry about. We were going to leave in a few minutes anyway. Lachlan has his volunteering tonight.”
Ellie gave her hand one more gentle squeeze, then let her go. Sasha gave a jerky nod toward the rest of the table and took her unsettled nerves outside and away from the tight confines of the house where Connor’s heat and presence seemed to have permeated everything.
She didn’t speak on the ride home. Well, not out loud at least. Inside, her hormones and body parts had a gossip-fest. Why are we running away from him? I know. I thought we should have climbed on his lap. Or stroked that new beard he’s growing in. I’m dying to feel those whiskers? I think I like him better clean-shaven. For crying out loud, she was absolutely losing her mind.
She was glad when the car stopped and she could hurry out. Lachlan and Ruby waved. Ruby blew air kisses and drove off, leaving Sasha by the front door to the apartment above The French Connection Bakery where everyone thought she lived. Instead of heading upstairs, she unlocked the bakery doors, relocking them quickly behind her and disengaging the alarm.
“I ruined our night, bud,” she said to her dog. Boy, had she. Bolting out of dinner with her friends like a skittish colt. Better than stay and act like a hussy, she told herself. Ha, a hussy. That was hilarious. Funny ha ha, as Natalie’s teenagers often said, in tones dripping with sarcasm.
Braveheart padded over to his dog bed in the back of the kitchen and plopped down. He stretched out his legs and was asleep within minutes. Her good boy, so patient with her. No sense going home this early. After her debacle at dinner, she had too much energy to get out. Making bread would help. She shoved her unruly emotions and all her loony body part personalities out of her way and got to work.
There was a beauty in making bread. To begin with simple bland ingredients and turn them into a pleasure for all the senses. Even creating it engaged her fully, the sound of the mixer churning flour and water together, the slap of the dough on the bread board, kneading it with her hands, leaning her body into the work. She transformed it into a smooth ball ready to be proofed, humid scents of yeast and flour warming the air. Then, to taste it, fresh out of the oven when it was still warm and oozing steam, the perfect crisp of the crust mixed with soft insides. The entire process was a soothing meditation for Sasha. Tonight, she eased her way through loaf after loaf, settling her nerves in the routine.
The downside of baking was that she could lose track of time. Now it was past ten at night. Worse, it was raining, and she and Braveheart still had to walk the ten blocks home.
She grabbed a few recycled bags and loaded up bread and butter, a hunk of cheese, the leftover pasta salad she’d made at lunch and strawberries. Not nearly as delicious as Jackson’s grilled chicken and lemon pasta she’d left behind in the dust of her embarrassment, but not too shabby either. After all, she had made the artisan bread herself and the strawberries were fresh from the pots on the bakery’s back patio.
“Okay, pumpkin.” Sasha peered out through the doors. “I know you hate the rain, but it seems to be our destiny tonight.” Gloomy, too, without the hint of stars or moonlight. The darkness attempted to twist her newly meditative state into knots.
Walking in the rain with her large cross-body bag, her arms full of groceries and a tired but loyal dog next to her, Sasha tried to hurry. Her jacket had a hood which rested against her shoulders. Considerate though it was of the brand to attach one, Sasha never used a hood. It blocked too much of her peripheral vision. An umbrella would have hindered any quick escape she would ever potentially have to make. So even in the rain with all of society’s weather-proof advances, Sasha would be soaked by the time they made it home. It’s fine. It’s fine. It kept her alert.
She managed to squeeze herself between some people on the sidewalk and race through the puddle-filled crosswalk just before the light changed. The steady downpour forced her to adapt, honed a sharper edge to her anxiety. She gripped the leash. Her dog walked beside her, soaking too. I’m sorry, love, she silently whispered, hoping he understood. I’ll get you warmed up as soon as we—
Her head snapped up and she glanced around. Instinct had her picking up their pace. Is someone watching me? No. Stay calm. Don’t forget to breathe. Gripping the leash tighter, she dashed across the last street. She was off her game tonight. Normally she crossed two blocks back to avoid this large main intersection. You’re exhausted. It’s nothing. No ominous presence lurked nearby even if one always lurked in the hidden depths of her mind. Then why do I feel something odd? Her instinct had her looking around again.
Mostly the crowded downtown helped calm her anxiety and fears a bit. Easier to hide in a large group. But the rain, plus her irritated nerves, made the night difficult to tell if…something was wrong. And Sasha knew that all it took was one tiny thing out of the ordinary to destroy one’s world. It was imperative that Sasha spy these villains immediately.
Because she hadn’t that one time that had changed her life from quiet luxury to a violent nightmare.
Sasha shook off the ghosts of the past. With her words of encouragement playing in her head, she entered the automatic turning door of Hotel Marisol, making sure Braveheart was tucked close to her side as the doors swung round. Her mutt did not enjoy the swinging circular entrance.
Hotel owners Marisol Ruiz and her husband, Guillermo, stood behind the glossy black and gold concierge desk. She nodded at them, and they smiled back at her as she passed. Some days they spoke, but other times they asked no questions. They knew who she was. Before she’d stayed one night in their hotel, she’d researched them and approached them with her desire for privacy.
Once the elevator doors closed, Sasha allowed herself to let go of a tiny sigh. Almost home. Almost there. As soon as the elevator dinged on her floor, she gathered her sharp focus around her again, checked both directions in the hallway and headed left to her suite. Building strength, resilience and smarts were her goals and she was determined to do this on her own. As soon as she entered her room, closed and engaged both locks, she sank down to her butt and allowed her ragged breaths out. Braveheart pressed up against her side, whimpering his own relief or concern. She wrapped her arm tightly around him. “I know. It’s okay. We’re going to be okay. I’ve got you. We’re safe.”
When she was certain she could stand again without fainting, she rose, cranked up the thermostat and used the fluffy towels to dry off her dog. Once he seemed more settled, as in claiming half the bed and snoring away, Sasha peeled off her soggy clothes and climbed into the hot shower, erasing the chill and the fear of the night.
Will I ever be normal? Will I ever not be on guard? The steam knocked her walls down and let her grieve without anyone noticing. Her warm tears mixed with the water. Sasha let it all out, amazed every time that she had more tears, more regrets to drain from her body.
After an exhausting shower, she checked the locks again. Too tired to eat, she put her groceries neatly away in the kitchen, microwaved herself a cup of tea, set her alarm—repeating the steps she did every night—and climbed into bed.
She was a survivor. She’d survived her abusive marriage.
Yet I still feel trapped and afraid.
Five years of hell married to Anthony Lucciano, a liar and a cheat at best, a powerful slithery monster at worst. A magician with his personalities, changing from the smooth handsome charmer into a sadistic abusive scum the next. Five years he’d beaten her down, physically and mentally, until she was unrecognizable to herself.
Last year he’d almost killed her. There were moments she wished he had. He was the one who was dead, and yet…and yet getting over it all, dealing with it, leaving the worst behind was its own kind of torture.
It seemed like it had taken forever, almost ten months now of physical therapy to get her arm strength back. She’d been seeing a psychologist to help her mental state. Yet for some reason tonight, she’d felt thrust all the way back to the beginning of her healing journey, or maybe twisted onto a different path. It was all so confusing.
“You understand, don’t you, my boy?” She ran her hands through her dog’s fur. He stretched his back paws out at her touch. A few months ago, Braveheart had lost his marbles at some loud boom and shot out of her grasp, charging through the neighborhood as if an inferno had been nipping at his heels. Ellie, a gifted veterinarian and animal whisperer, and Sasha’s first real friend had said, “Even for animals, trauma can reappear at surprising times.”
Why? Sasha wanted to yell. Why can’t I be done with it all, the shame, the fear, the grief, the leftover scars?
Sasha didn’t know how to understand this fear of a ghost, let alone acknowledge it, or ask anyone about it. Relying on people left her vulnerable, and that was the scariest of all. Unfortunately, she hadn’t anticipated that being alone could also allow such a heavy loneliness to creep around her. It sucked. It was a feeling she was familiar with, and it hollowed her out and made her wonder if it was her curse, to always feel the pit of emptiness. It wasn’t until she was nearly asleep, a pillow clutched to her chest, that she remembered that nudge of awareness on her way home and wondered, Am I crazy or was someone following me tonight?
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About the Author
Puget Sound based writer, Sara Ohlin is a mom, wannabe photographer, obsessive reader, ridiculous foodie, and the author of the contemporary romance novels, Handling the Rancher, Salvaging Love, Seducing the Dragonfly, Igniting Love and Flirting with Forever.
Sara loves creating imaginary worlds with tight-knit communities in her romance novels. She credits her mother, Mary, Nora Roberts and Rosamunde Pilcher for her love of romance.
If she’s not reading or writing, you will most likely find her in the kitchen creating scrumptious meals with her kids and husband, or perhaps cooking up her next love story.
She once met a person who both “didn’t read books” and wasn’t “that into food” and it nearly broke her heart.
You can follow Sara on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. Check out her website, Goodreads, Bookbub and Facebook.
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