Circle Eight Book 5
Even in the darkest of shadows, love can light the way.
Nicholas Graham is caught in the middle: of his family, of his desires, of his own unhappiness. After he meets Winnie Watson, his self-imposed curmudgeonly existence pales in comparison to spending time with her. He wants to be with her, to get to know her. She is a beacon to all the secret cravings he has controlled. Until now.
Winnie Watson endured, and survived, a horrendous childhood that would give others nightmares. She started over, a new name, a new goal in life. Then she met the Grahams and everything went sideways. She's done the unthinkable and struggles to accept it. She wants to forget it all again, but the specter of Nicholas Graham, physical and in her dreams, won't let her move on.
Caught between their needs, their wants, and what the world will allow them, Nick and Winnie are doomed from the moment they met. However, love will teach them that even the biggest obstacles can be overcome if you believe in love.
Also In this Series:
Just like that Nicholas was there in front of her. All the breath whooshed from her body and her face heated. She felt like a twelve-year-old girl and not a twenty-five-year-old woman.
He was incredibly handsome with thick, dark wavy hair and those blue-green eyes like Elizabeth. His jaw was set, seemingly carved of granite. He stood with his legs apart, arms crossed and hat down toward his eyes. Dangerous. Unfriendly. A shiver ran up her spine despite the warm summer day.
Beside him were three other men, two were obviously kin with the same eyes and build. The other had hair as dark as pitch and the coldest blue eyes she’d ever seen. The four of them were a wall of muscle and guns.
“Montgomery. Who’s your friend?” One of the other men spoke to Vaughn.
Vaughn squeezed her arm. “This is Miss Winifred Watson. She is a friend of mine and Ellie’s. Benjy and Nicholas also know her.”
The men’s gazes cut to Nicholas, who hadn’t moved so much as an eyelash.
“That true, Nick? You know her?” The same man spoke, and she came to the conclusion he must be the eldest, Matthew.
After a few moments of excruciating silence, during which Winnie’s cheeks heated, he finally nodded. It wasn’t as if she came armed and threatened the family. She was a wedding guest. This type of greeting was unacceptable even in impolite society.
“I am also able to speak for myself. Elizabeth and Vaughn invited me to the wedding. I’m unaware there was an inquisition involved to attend.” Her sharp words made three of the men smile.
“She reminds me of Aurora.” The second brother spoke. “And Hannah when she gets a bee in her bonnet.”
“Damn sure is tart like Liv, too.” This from the dark one.
“We’re pleased you could come, Miss Watson. I’m Matt Graham and this is my brother Caleb and brother-in-law Brody Armstrong.” Matt tipped his hat. “I’m sure Ellie will be happy to see you. The women folk are in the house. Why don’t you take her there, Montgomery?”
“I’d be happy—”
“No.” Nicholas finally spoke.
“Pardon me?” Vaughn’s tone told her he was near his breaking point with his new family. They were tough men—she didn’t blame him. If she hadn’t been dealing with men her entire life who were harder, darker and more evil, she might have been intimidated.
“You go near that house, and the women are gonna shoot you.” Nick unfolded his arms. “I’ll take her.”
Winnie blinked in surprise. He treated her as though he didn’t want her there, yet he offered to escort her to Ellie? Where was the Nick she’d met in Houston, who held her so tenderly and kept her alive? He had been replaced by the cold stranger made of icy stone.
“I know you don’t spend much time around polite society, but it’s customary to ask a woman if you may escort her.” Winnie’s words made at least two of the other men snicker.
Nick’s lips tightened and something flashed in his eyes, but was gone before she could identify it. “Miss Watson, can I walk you to my sister?” The words were polite but the tone was contained annoyance. Good. She didn’t like this man, didn’t recognize him. They had shared one of the most intense experiences of her life. He shouldn’t trivialize it by treating her like a stranger.
“Thank you, Mr. Graham. I would be pleased to accompany you.” She patted Vaughn’s hand as she pulled away from him. “I shall see you shortly.”
Vaughn smiled. “Please tell her I love her.”
Nicholas made a harrumph of disbelief. Winnie tipped up her chin and waited for him to take her arm. Who was this man? His behavior had already tainted her fond memory of being with him.
With obvious reluctance, he took her arm and they turned toward the house. Immediate warmth flooded her, along with a sharp awareness of the man beside her. She’d felt nothing but pleasure at seeing a friend when she’d touched Vaughn. With Nicholas, the experience was completely different. Her body was aware of his, painfully aware.
Each breath he took, the warmth of his hand, the hardness of his arm, the length of his stride. All of it assaulted her senses. She could hardly think with her beside her. His height was another issue. She was not particularly tall and he was. In fact, she only came to his shoulder.
It occurred to her that he had shortened his steps to meet hers. It was a small concession but she noted it. Beneath the stiff exterior, perhaps Nicholas was still there. The man she’d met in Houston, who carried her bloodied body in his arms, may still be there.
The revelation gave her hope. She had missed him, the long conversations they’d had, and the warmth of his company. If she were honest with herself, she had been looking forward to seeing him. Secretly hoping he’d smile and she would have an excuse to see him again. And perhaps again.
Instead he had treated her as someone he’d never met, worse, someone he didn’t like. Until the moment she recognized his shortened stride. They would reach the house in moments. She had to say something or lose the opportunity to do so.
“Although I don’t believe the feeling is mutual, I am glad to see you again, Nicholas.”
His arm tightened even further, nearly steel beneath her hand. He did not respond.
“I thought we had become friends in Houston. At the very least, more than casual acquaintances.”
“I was there for my sister.” His gruff reply made her heart thump.
“That doesn’t mean nothing happened.” Anger crept into her voice. “You saved my life, Nicholas.”
He was silent for a few moments. “The doctor saved you.”
She came to a halt, yanking back on his arm. “I refuse to allow you to cheapen what you did for me. I won’t forget it and you will accept my gratitude and my friendship.”
He dropped his gaze and blew out a breath. “I wasn’t saying nothing happened and I ain’t meant to cheapen nothing. I don’t know how to be your friend. Truth is, nobody wants to be my friend.”
Relief flooded her. He hadn’t forgotten and neither had she. “There is no secret formula to being a friend. Vaughn and I don’t see each other often but when we do there is no artifice required. We simply accept each other for who we are.”
“You might change your mind if you have to accept me.”
Beneath the cool words, she heard something else, dark and thorny. She knew that place well, fought with it many times in her life. He might also be damaged emotionally, and pushed everyone away to avoid feelings. There were months that passed by when she spent her days alone, avoiding everyone except for the strangers who rented rooms from her. A boardinghouse gave her the opportunity to insulate herself. It was not only a business decision to survive but to protect herself from her emotions.
Oh yes, she knew Nicholas, probably more than he knew himself. Winnie knew what she had to do.