Slow Kind Of Love-Excerpt

Book Seven: A Crystal Lake Novel

 

Chapter one

            The weather in Berkshire was as wet and dreary as it was the day Link Major had arrived over a month ago. Heavy gray clouds hung low in the sky, full of rain and cold, and a perpetual fog spread over the estate. The fog snaked its way along paths and gardens and rolled up to the edge of the forests that surrounded the manor to the north, and to the gentle swell of hills to the south. Even through the cloud and mist he could see that everything was green and lush, and a part of him lifted at the sight even as he stepped away.

           He glanced back at his ancestral home, a frown on his face. Link loved Bell Grove Manor just as much as he hated it, and this homecoming had lasted far longer than he’d wanted. It had gone as expected with his father distant, frozen in his inability to deal with the death of his own father and the return of his prodigal son. Their conversations had run dry about two days into Link’s return, and after that, Link had spent all of his time with his grandfather.

            As the old man lay propped up in his great bed, with his dog Pepper at his feet, Link had read to him. The book had been a favorite, The Bronze Horsemen, and surprisingly Link had been swept up in the drama of war and love and loss. A large tome, they’d made it halfway through when his grandfather had taken a sudden turn. Sadly, it had been his last.

            With his grandfather entombed in the family plot alongside ancestors who were centuries old, and the reading of the will completed the day before, Link was headed back to the United States. Back to Crystal Lake.  Back to the place he’d found some sort of peace after the craziness of his life here in England.

            More importantly, he was headed back to a woman he couldn’t quite figure out. A woman who pushed every last button he owned, and frustrated the hell out of him. Elise Avery. He checked his cell phone one last time, running the pad of his forefinger over the last text message he’d received from her, more than two weeks ago, and then shoved it into his pocket with a scowl.

            Hope you are well.

            That was it. All she’d sent.

            He pulled up the collar of his leather jacket and whistled sharply, a ghost of a smile touching his features when Pepper came barrelling from between the great hedges of the garden to his right. Unlike a lot of his peers, his grandfather, Alistair Charles William Major had a love of mongrels and his canine pal was no exception. The brown and white dog had short bowed legs, a long tail that curved up dramatically, and a large head with droopy ears that looked like it belonged on an animal twice its size.

            It had no breeding, and, as it licked at Link’s fingers and jumped up on him—no manners. But his grandfather had loved the animal fiercely, and now Pepper belonged to Link.

            Along with all of this, he thought, gaze traveling the vast expanse of property laid before him.

            Not for the first time did he wonder at the workings of his grandfather’s mind and the family dynamics that had led to him naming Link as the heir to Bell Grove Manor Estate, and not his own son. And though he knew his father would fight the will, he also knew his grandfather had been of sound mind, and the lawyer had assured him there was no way the will would fall.

            “You have some decisions to make,” David Croft had said, after Link’s father and step-mother stormed out of the library. “This is a working estate and it’s well oiled, with good people in place to keep it running, but an absent owner isn’t what your grandfather had in mind.”

            “I know,” he’d replied, attempting a smile that fell flat.

The weight of it all must have shown on his face, because his grandfather’s solicitor rounded the desk and laid a gentle hand on Link’s shoulder.

“Surely you don’t feel as if America is the place you need to be? You’re a son of England. Your ancestors fought alongside the Kings and Queens of this land. Don’t you miss it?”

Do I?

Yes.

But there was someone he missed more. The question being, did she miss him?

Abruptly, Link gave himself a mental shakedown and was about to hop into his Land Rover when a small, red sportster came into view down the long driveway and eventually came to a rolling stop a few feet from him. He smiled and walked over.

“Rose,” he said, taking a step back when his cousin hopped out of the smart Aston Martin and enveloped him in a fierce hug. The oldest daughter of his late mother’s youngest sister, Link had known Rose all her life. And now at the age of twenty-six, she was becoming a woman to be reckoned with. Stubborn, witty and charming, she had no problem drinking a pint with the locals at the pub in town, or attending a gala in furs and diamonds, alongside the elite upper crust of London.

“I knew you’d try to sneak away without a goodbye.” Her long red hair flowed on the breeze, rippling around her as she took a step back. With her creamy complexion and pale blue eyes, she was quite a sight.

“I hate goodbyes.”

“I know.” She winked. “It’s why I made a point of getting here before you left.” She shrugged and shook her head. “You’re really doing it then.”

His eyebrow shot up questioningly.

“Leaving us, just when I got you back.”

Rose had always had a flair for the dramatic. “I’ve been gone for a number of years in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Stay,” she pouted. “It’s not the same without you here.”

“I’ve got things…” His words died at the look on her pretty face.

“Don’t lie. You have no job.”

“I don’t need one.”

“Well what do you do all day?”

“Play solitaire.”

“No really, what do you do?”

“Read books and listen to music.”

She took a step forward. “Don’t make me kick you where it hurts.”

“I’m building a sports complex with a few other investors across the lake from where I’m living. It’s quite the undertaking and takes up a fair amount of time.”

Her eyes widened at that. “You’re not planning on coming home?”

“I don’t know. I like where I am. I like the town and I’ve made a life there. Separate and different from this.” He gestured toward the large stone manor house. “I don’t have to see my father and deal with his shit. Or my stepmom with her brats.”

“They’re your half siblings.”

“They’re still brats.”

“True.” She frowned. “Don’t you miss playing?” she asked softly. “You could play for any team you wanted to, for an insane amount of money.”

“I don’t need money and I don’t need football.” He knew he’d never be able to make her understand the one thing that took him too long to understand. He’d never played for himself. It had always been for his father’s approval or disapproval. It had been for some sort of reaction, because even when his father was not happy with Link’s life choices, at least it meant he’d been paying attention to them.

Kind of pathetic for a grown man.

“Well, that’s it then,” Rose said, crisply, trying to hide the hurt and not entirely successful at it. “I’ll never see you again.”

There were the dramatics he’d missed.

Link drew her in for one last kiss to the forehead, and held her tightly for a few seconds before gently letting her go.

“I’ll be back,” he said roughly. “I don’t know when or for how long, but you’ll see me again.” He cocked his head to the side. “That doesn’t mean you can’t visit Crystal Lake. I’ve got loads of room in the stone cottage.”

“Well you just might see me sooner than you think. Mum thinks Thomas is a fad. She thinks I’m slumming it because he’s a commoner with a job at an accounting firm in the city. She says I’m tossing my nose at the establishment so to speak and that he doesn’t deserve me, but then who does?”

 “Legit question,” he grinned.

“I do find him sort of boring outside of the sack. I mean, sex can only get you so far. We do need some other sort of stimulation.” She raised that right eyebrow again. “Are there very many handsome and available men where you’re staying?”

He chuckled. “None that I think could take you on.”

“We might have to see about that.”

 “Think on it.” Link pointed to the waiting Land Rover. “I should go. The drive to Heathrow is a bit of a trek.”

“Right.” Rose gave a half wave. “I’m sorry about your grandfather. He was a nice man. But I’m not sorry he left you this place. You belong here, Link. Do the right thing.”

Link thought about that all the way to London and by the time he reached the airport his mood was dark. For a guy who supposedly had the world by its balls, he’d never felt more less in control.

He’d chartered a private jet for the trip back to the states and slept most of the way, Pepper sprawled across his lap snoring louder than any human he’d ever heard. By the time he disembarked, got the dog through customs and claimed his truck from the lot where he’d stored it, it was early afternoon. He inhaled a crisp shot of air, and started his truck.  Michigan in February was cold and there’d been a significant snowfall in the last twelve hours.

The roads were cleared and salted and he made good time, arriving at the stone cottage by dinnertime. He’d been in England longer than he’d thought he’d be and hadn’t hired a snow clearing service, which as he looked across the drifts in his driveway, was a problem. He glanced at Pepper. “This is a whole new world, my friend.”

It took a good hour of shoveling for Link to make enough room for the truck in the driveway, and the entire time Pepper ran mad, as if he’d never seen snow before; certainly, not several feet of the fluffy stuff. The dog was knackered and when he let the fur ball inside the cottage, he ran for the first available sofa and plopped down on it with a groan. Link gave the dog a quick scratch behind the ears and left him to nap. He headed back outside and climbed into his truck, pointing it down River Road, toward the small town of Crystal Lake. He needed groceries and food for the dog.

But first and foremost, he had a woman to see. He’d sent her a text before the jet had taken off from Heathrow, but she hadn’t read or responded.

It kinda pissed him off.

By the time he pulled into Elise’s driveway, Link was more than pissed off, he was riding the edge of something dark and mean. And he hated that he felt that way. He cut the engine and waited for his heartrate to slow; for his anger to wane. He didn’t have a right to feel much when it came to Elise Avery.

And it was exactly that, that made him crazy.

He glanced at the warm lights that glowed from her front window, cutting a swath of gold through the early evening gloom. Her car was parked in the garage—the door was open for him to see—and there was a large black SUV parked behind it.

One he didn’t recognize.

One with out of state plates.

He slid from his truck and rolled his shoulders, rubbing at the tightness that laced his muscles before he headed up the steps that led to her door, fighting a nervous pit of something in his gut. It was a feeling he didn’t like and his face darkened even more. He’d stared down the sights of a six foot six defenders barrelling down the field, the footballers’ every intention to main or hurt, and he’d done so without a thought. So what was it about Elise that chipped away at the steel armor beneath his skin?

He raised his hand to knock on the door, an automatic reflex, but hesitated as his mind worked overtime to figure this out. He’d been gone for weeks and she’d barely given him the time of day. What the hell was he doing on her stoop like a lovesick puppy looking for scraps?

He thought back to their last conversation.

“We can’t work. I can’t do this. I can’t be more than friends.”

“I’m good enough for a shag, but not good enough for more?” He’d been incredulous. He was Link Major. World Class Footballer. He had money and wealth and title and prestige. And not to be an asshole or anything, but he wasn’t lacking in the looks department either. He could have any woman he wanted.

“It’s not you,” she’d finally said, lowering her eyes.

She was really giving him that speech?

“It’s me.” She gave him a peck on the cheek like he was a schoolboy of ten and then closed the door in his face.

And here he was. Just like a ten-year-old school boy who didn’t know better would be. What the hell?

Link took a step back, undecided on how to proceed, when the door opened and a man stood there, a surprised look on his face. He was tall, good looking guy with silver hair and lots of it. Well built, he looked to be approaching fifty, and with an expensive Rolex on his right arm, was definitely the owner of the black SUV in the driveway.

“Elise, you’ve got company.” The man’s eyes gave Link a thorough onceover and his expression shifted. The guy knew competition when he saw it.

“Let them in David, I’ll be there in a moment.”

David turned back to Link. “You must be one of Boone’s pals.” His tone was light, but Link saw the possessive glint in his eye. “Do me a favor, bud?”

            “I’m not your bud,” Link said slowly, “but I’m happy to pass along a message.”

            “Tell Elise I’ll be here at four to pick her up for dinner.”

Link gave a tight smile and stood back to give the man room. He watched until he climbed into his vehicle, feeling a bit of satisfaction when the bloke had to do two, three point turns, in order to get around Link’s truck. Once he’d cleared the driveway and disappeared down the street, Link closed the door behind him and took a moment to take in the familiar sights of Elise’s modest bungalow.

She’d painted since he’d been away, and the carpet that used to be in the living room to his right was gone, replaced by light grey wood flooring. There were remnants of dinner for two on the island kitchen. A half-finished glass of red wine, two plates along with the cutlery stacked by the sink, and lit candles.

That spark inside him, the one that had smoldered for days now, ignited with the kind of heat that spread fast. His jaw was clamped shut, tight with that something he’d felt earlier. Coming here was a bad idea.

He turned, about to reach for the door when she spoke.

“Link.” Her voice was soft. Hesitant. “I didn’t know you were back.”

Link had to take a moment because he was so close to losing it, he was afraid he’d do or say something he’d regret. He slowly exhaled and turned to face her.

Elise’s hair was loose around her shoulders, shiny ribbons of blond that slid across a simple black top that fit like a glove and left her arms bare. She wore a pair of faded jeans and big fluffy leopard print slippers. Smoky makeup made her eyes huge, and soft gloss glistened on her lips. She was beautiful. Ethereal. And she was looking this good for another man.

“Who’s David?” His voice was low and controlled.

She hesitated and then cleared her throat. “An old friend.”

“Are you fucking him?”

Surprise lit up her face at his crude words, and subtle changes rolled over her features as she studied him for a few seconds. It was a shit question for him to ask, but Link didn’t care.

 “No.”

“Do you want to fuck him?”

She moistened her lips and seemed to be considering her answer.  “I’m sorry about your grandfather.”

“I don’t want your condolences,” he replied moving toward her. He didn’t stop until she stood so close he could count her eyelashes. “I don’t want a welcome back, or it’s nice to see you. I don’t want to hear how this thing between us won’t work and that it’s not me but you.” He shook his head, focused and intent. “I don’t want any of that.”

Her tongue darted out and she licked her bottom lip. “Why did you come by then?”

“It’s been too long and I needed…” That heat in his gut curled tight as he bent lower. “To do this.”

He slid his hands up either side of her face and held her prisoner. His mouth slid over hers, softly at first and then with an aggressive need he found hard to deny. He reveled at the feel of her. At her softness. At her scent. At the way she fit against him like she was made for him. That something inside him unfurled and expanded until every inch of Link was on fire and hard and unforgiving. He kissed Elise until she melted into him, until she pulled him closer and kissed him back like she was starving. Until her hands were fisted in his hair and she groaned in that way that could break him. Until he had to pull away or have her on the kitchen floor.

They were both breathing heavily at this point, and Link took a step back, raking a hand through the hair at his nape as he took a moment to get his shit together.

“David wanted me to give you a message.”

“What?” Confused, her voice was like whiskey over ice.

“Said he wanted you ready for him at four when he picks you up for dinner.”

            She said nothing, but watched him warily.

            “Elise?” He reached for the door.

            “Yes?” Her reply was barely above a whisper.

            “I’m want more than a booty call.” He yanked open the door. “So when you’re done being scared what the world thinks and worrying about this age thing that bothers you so much, you’ll realize that blokes like your pal David can’t give you want you want, and he sure as hell can’t give you what you need. When you figure that out.” He stepped outside but didn’t bother to look back. 

“You know where I’ll be.”


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