Next week Christi Barth kicks off her new Shore Secrets series with the release of Up to Me, a contemporary romance about small town girl Ella who falls for sexy out-of-towner Gray who, unbeknownst to her, has been assigned the job of acquiring her family's hotel. But Gray's heart and the town's meddling residents have other plans. Enjoy this exclusive excerpt!
Gray took a deep breath. “Let’s start again. Why are you up now?”
They weren’t flirting again yet, but they were off the topic of the hotel and her dead parents, so things were looking up. “The same reason as you.”
“Really? There was a girl fight in the pub and I missed it? Cause I’m gonna need to see the film at eleven on that.”
The weirdness of the past few minutes was gone. Funny, charming Gray was back. Much easier for her to handle. “Not the fight part. I couldn’t sleep. So I figured I’d nab a glass of wine.”
“You don’t have my headache or bruises. What kept you up? Stress? Bad dreams?”
“I couldn’t stop thinking about you.” The instant the words flew out of her mouth, Ella regretted it. Their flirting had been a fun way to pass the pre-dawn hours. It didn’t mean anything. Light and playful, it didn’t have to go anywhere.
But this admission laid her feelings out in front of him. Naked. Honest. Open. An obvious precursor to…what? A real date? Ella didn’t want to ask him out. Well, she wanted to, but she couldn’t, which was something she should’ve remembered long before the point where his naked legs bracketed hers. They couldn’t get involved, because Gray was a guest. Longstanding rule number seven of hotel ownership. And yet, her feelings had been smothered for so long, deep enough she’d worried they’d disappeared for good. How could she not honestly acknowledge them?
“I think wine is the wrong way to go.” Deliberately, he set the glass three steps above.
“Gray, this is the heart of New York wine country. Up here, wine is never the wrong way to go.” She thought about mentioning she owned the Mayhew Vineyard, too. Then decided that castle ownership, combined with the revelation that she’d been mooning over him all evening, were probably all the confessions he could handle in one night.
“There’s a much better way to get you ready for bed.” Gray captured her chin in his fingers. He angled her head to the side a bit.
A breath away from him kissing her, Ella shied back. And banged into the stairway wall.
“Ow. Geez, that hurts.”
“Sorry.” The color drained out of his face. Gray held up his hands as if the police were about to book him for making unauthorized moves. “You shouldn’t have to throw yourself into a wall to get away from me. Guess I read you wrong. I’ll leave you alone.”
“No.” Her hand flew from the back of her head to encircle his wrist before he even cleared the step. Gray froze, crouched halfway over. It looked uncomfortable, so she released him. “Don’t go.”
“Ella, I won’t force myself on you.” He spread his hands wide, palms up. “I just wish you’d come out and told me you weren’t interested. Banging your head was overkill.”
“But I am interested. Not that it matters.” Geez, could she make a bigger mess of this? It seemed important to tell him, though. To, in a small way, share her gratitude that he’d awakened all sorts of long-dormant things in her. “I—I just thought you should know.”
“Of course it matters.” Gray dropped to one knee in front of her and rested his arm on his thigh. “It confuses me worse than statistics class. But I’m glad to know. Want to explain why you’re blowing hot and cold simultaneously?”
It would sound stupid if she said it out loud. Because the more Ella thought about it, the more she realized she cared a lot less for the rules than she cared about kissing Gray. “The thing is, I’m not supposed to get involved with hotel guests.”
Ella looked down at his feet. Nice feet. The kind of feet you’d find in a photo of two people walking on the beach. Masculine. She desperately wanted to put her pale feet with their fuchsia-painted toenails on top of his, see how they looked together. “Originally, my parents,” she mumbled.
A rumble of laughter from deep in his chest. “What were you, all of thirteen when they interdicted that rule?”
“More or less.”
Gray lifted her chin until she met his gaze. “Honey, they didn’t want you getting involved with any adults. This place was crawling with drunk-ass people who spent their whole day visiting wineries. Of course they scared you off of the guests.”
Oh. Gray’s logic held the ring of truth. “Still, it seems unwise. Un-businesslike.”
“What business? You said that you don’t run the hotel.”
And for that, Ella thanked her lucky stars every day. Despite her parents’ fervent hopes and dreams, she’d never wanted to run Mayhew Manor. “Nope. I’ve got a wonderful manager, Eugene, who does it. He’s worked here for as long as I can remember.”
“In that case, I’d say the whole no-guests thing doesn’t apply to me.” He tapped the end of her nose. “It’s a non-issue.”
It still felt a little reckless. Ella offered up one final, halfhearted protest, just so she’d be able to live with herself come morning. “You’re a client of the spa.”
“Not yet. I haven’t booked an appointment.” He dropped down to sit on his heels. “Don’t get me wrong. Whatever you did to my neck this afternoon was sheer magic. I’m hooked. But I’m also hooked on you.”
“Oh.” Ella wished this was a DVR’d moment, so she could press Pause, run upstairs, do a happy dance and wiggle her butt, then come back down and resume their discussion.
“If I don’t sign up for a massage, there’s no conflict of interest, real or otherwise. And I’m gonna go out on a limb here.” He feathered his thumb along her bottom lip. “I think a kiss from you would be worth giving up a massage. Hell, I bet it’d be worth giving up a solid week of them. Or at least, it’d better be.” Gray smiled a challenge at her. “Want to find out?”
His logic was sound. Probably. Sound enough for two-thirty in the morning, anyway. Sound enough to lock her unsettled conscience in a cage and toss a cover over it for the rest of the night. That trick had always quieted the chirps of her grandmother’s pet finches.
“I do. I really do.” They say you only live once. Except Ella hadn’t really, truly lived at all since Disaster Day. She had a lot of catching up to do. Graydon Locke appeared to be one heck of a starting point.
He surged up to his knees again. This time he planted his hands on the wall above her head. With her back already against the wall, Ella was acutely conscious of the solid wall of muscle pressed against her front. She took a deep breath, just to feel her breasts rise, compress upon his pecs, then closed her eyes at the sheer joy of it.
Gray kissed her. It started with finesse, a light touch like a butterfly wing across both lips, just enough to tingle her head to toe, to make Ella want so much more. Again, still gentle, still teasing. Warm and firm and wonderful. She lifted her hands to pull him closer, and realized how foolish she’d be not to tour his body on the way. About as stupid as having a three-scoop hot fudge sundae in front of her and not taking a bite. So Ella skimmed her palms up his sides, yanked open the lapels of the bathrobe, found the edge of his T-shirt, and went up under it. She touched warm, wonderful skin stretched taut over muscles so defined, her mouth went dry. Other places went suddenly wet.
“Eager, aren’t you?” he chuckled.
If only he knew. She could gobble him up in big, juicy bites. “You have no idea.”
“Thank God. It’s damn hard to hold back.”
Hold back? No. Ella wasn’t fragile. Well, not anymore. And she was beyond tired of people still treating her that way. “I think we’d both be happier if you didn’t bother.”
Without a word, Gray sat down on the opposite side of the step, grabbed her by the waist and lifted her effortlessly until she straddled his lap. The sheer muscle power required thrilled her. Oh, this was a man with a capital M. And then she didn’t have time to think, because he was kissing her again.
This time, he wasn’t gentle. Gray took her mouth. He made it his own. Tasted it, shaped it, claimed every inch of it. Ella just melted. His heat was everywhere. On her arms, where they were still tunneled beneath his robe, clutching around his ribs. On her thighs, pressed tight atop his. And in between the two, thin layers of cotton where Ella rubbed against an erection that was already hard and hot.
She moaned, opening her mouth. Gray let out a soft, primal growl in response and dove in, exploring every inch. Lick for lick, her tongue met his in a sensual duel where there were no losers. Ella had wanted to feel again. Now she was feeling so much it was as though her skin couldn’t contain the sensations. Their passion fed off each other. Gray tightened his grip at her waist, tunneled his other hand through her hair to angle her head better. His hips rose, and instinctively she ground against him.
Ella couldn’t say how long it lasted. The deep silence of the night wrapped around them, cocooning them in intimacy. In a bubble where there were only pants and moans, need and want being fed and yet not slaked. But finally, Gray broke away, burying his face in her neck. “You’re amazing, Ella.”
Wow. Wowzers. Ohmigod. Thank goodness he’d spoken first, or she might’ve blurted out something lame, like how much he’d just rocked her world. Instead, she could play it cool, as if she wasn’t using every inch of willpower to resist dragging him straight up the stairs and into her bed. “The feeling is mutual.”
Cupping her shoulders, he tilted her back to look at her. “This was much better medicine than wine or aspirin.”
Whoops. She’d completely forgotten about his aches and pains. What if she’d accidentally poked someplace painful and made it worse? To make up for it, she took his hand, pressed a soft kiss to the reddened knuckles. “I’m happy to make a house call whenever you need it.”
“You fascinate me, Ella.” He traced a finger along her cheek. “Right now, the only thing I can think about is burying myself inside you. Which is why I should go before I do something stupid.”
Of course he was right. Her brain knew that. But Ella’s brain had handed over the reins to her libido from the moment she’d first seen Gray. Compelled to belabor the point due to the thrumming ache between her legs, she said, “Sex isn’t stupid.”
Another one of those weird pauses, when it seemed as though he was having a conversation in his head before answering. “Rushing into it would be.”
Damn it. Why did he have to be so right? “Really? Don’t they revoke your guy card for saying things like that?”
Gray laughed. “I’m willing to take that risk. I meant what I said this afternoon. I want to learn about you.”
Good to know that her attraction wasn’t one-sided. And he did have a point. Some getting-to-know-you conversation was definitely in order before any more melting make-out rounds. Ella stood.
“How about we have breakfast together tomorrow? Or, well, today, I guess,” she stammered. “Once the sun comes up.”
A long arm reached out to pick up his glass, then Gray rose. “Sounds great. I don’t want to wait long to see you again.”
Wow. The man said all the right things every single time. What were the odds? Should she be suspicious? Nobody could be that perfect, right?
Need to read more? Up to Me is on sale next Monday and will be available digitally. And for more romantic tales, be sure to visit our Everything Romance page!