As a combat photographer, Analise Thordarson has seen things through her lens that no one should. But it’s the personal losses that have brought her home to Canada and her widowed grandfather, whose stables are facing foreclosure.
Hotshot corporate lawyer Erik Sigurdson breezes into town with two things on his agenda: to avenge his sister’s death and survive a family reunion. Reuniting with his ex, Analise, is not part of the plan, but she just might be his salvation.
If she’ll pretend to be his fiancée, he’ll lend her the money to pay off her grandfather’s debts. But when their fake engagement is complicated by a very real pregnancy, Analise and Erik must sort out just who is using whom and if this faux relationship could lead to a real future.
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Copyright © 2015 by Alexia Adams. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Excerpt From Her Faux Fiancé
Erik sped down the highway on autopilot. After 120 kilometers of farmers’ fields, there wasn’t much to attract his attention. His right foot eased off the accelerator as he approached the town limits. He slowed even more when he saw a silver SUV stopped in front of the welcome sign. His mind absently registered the rental sticker on the vehicle. Must be a lost tourist. Although there weren’t many visitors who bothered to come this deep into the Canadian prairie.
An urbanite for the past decade, his every-man-for-himself thinking told him to keep driving. Another fifteen minutes and he’d be at his grandparents’ farm. Quarter of an hour and he could relax with a beer after the two-day drive from Toronto.
The prairie boy in him, however, wouldn’t let him drive past. “Help a neighbor in need” had been drummed into him for too long to ignore. Perhaps they’d run out of gas, underestimating the distance between towns. He pulled up behind the vehicle and shut off his own engine.
He expected the SUV’s occupant to emerge from the vehicle, but when no one appeared, he hesitated. Maybe they were sick. Erik glanced at his cell phone. No service. If they were ill, he’d have to drive them to the hospital himself. He grabbed the mini first-aid kit from the glove box and raced over to the driver’s-side window. A petite woman sat there with her head on the steering wheel. When she didn’t notice him, he rapped on the window.
She leapt in her seat and screamed. Damn, he was supposed to be helping. If she wasn’t having a heart attack before, she might be now. Regaining her composure, she turned the key in the ignition and then lowered the window.
“I’m sorry, miss. I didn’t mean to frighten you … ”
Blue-green eyes met his, and his heart started to pound. He glanced at his chest, sure she could see his reaction. The one person he thought he’d never see again. Of all the roads in all the world, why did she have to break down on this one?
“Analise?” Incredulity made his voice rise two octaves. He cleared his throat.
She blinked twice, a blank look on her face. What seemed an eternity later a small smile played about her lips, as though unsure what it was doing there. “Hello, Erik.”
Two words erased ten years. He was twenty-one again, in lust with his sister’s best friend. Then she’d run from him when he needed her most and … the illusion of love had been shattered. What the hell was she doing here now? A death had made her flee, another must have brought her back.
“I was sorry to hear about your grandmother.”
“Thank you.” A tear fell from her eye before she wiped the heel of her hand across her cheek. It was both surprising and uncomfortable. She leaned across and retrieved a tissue from her handbag, and he took a moment to check out the woman in front of him. Because that’s what she was now, a woman. The girl he’d known all those years ago was gone. The long, black hair that had lured his hands to run through its silky softness had been cropped short. Now, it stood off her scalp in spikes, daring anyone to come near. Her full, luscious lips that had beckoned his kisses were chapped, and she bit her lower one as she wiped her nose.
But those eyes. They were still the same mesmerizing aqua that called to him to lose himself in their depths, the color enhanced now by a sheen of unshed tears.
A ray of sunlight glimmered on the mountain of diamond on her left hand. Erik’s heart constricted before he had time to reason with it. It’d been ten years, for God’s sake.
She stared at her hand as if unsure how the ring had gotten there. Had she been sitting in the hot car too long?
“Your fiancé didn’t come with you, then?” The pressure in his chest increased.
“No.” The answer came out a whisper. An entire saga untold behind the one word.
“Are you okay, Analise?”
She nodded and replied, “Yes, I’m fine. Thanks for stopping. I was just looking at the sign and marveling how nothing has changed in … well … forever.”
He couldn’t let her slip away again. At least not until they had a chance to talk. He had ten years of questions for her. Why’d she leave? Why hadn’t she trusted that they could get through the tragedy together? He deserved a few answers. “You’ve changed. Do you have a couple of minutes? How ’bout we have a coffee before you head to the stables? Is your grandfather expecting you?”
“He knows I’m coming today, but I didn’t say what time I’d arrive. My flight plans were rather fluid. I really should get there, though, before he worries.”
“Half an hour won’t make much difference. Things have changed since you’ve been gone. It might help for you to know some stuff before you get to your grandparents’ place.”
Her eyes appraised him. She blinked once, shuttering her thoughts.
“All right. Rosie’s still the only coffee shop in town?”
“Yup. I said there’d been changes, not a miracle.” He laughed; she didn’t.
He returned to his car and waited for Analise to drive off. If he went first, he didn’t trust she would follow. And he needed to talk with her before she saw her grandfather. Now that he’d had a couple of minutes to get over the surprise, her arrival was an unexpected but not unwelcome development in his own reason for making the trek to Akureyri.
He had to make sure she stayed around. She wasn’t going to run out on him a second time. He’d seen the flight instinct in her eyes. Those incredible eyes.
• • •
Analise raised her window and started the engine. Well, that was her plan well and truly ruined. She’d intended to drive to the stables and convince her recently widowed grandfather to come away on holiday. A chance for them both to heal. Her grandfather was the only person left who could make her feel loved.
She’d wanted to get in and get out without meeting anyone who would dredge up the past. She hadn’t even crossed the town line, and already she’d been discovered. And by Erik, of all people. Merde, why did it have to be Erik?
She glanced up. It had always amused her that the Welcome to Akureyri sign was so far from town. Was it there to give travelers some hope that civilization lay ahead? Because from where she sat, you could see tomorrow coming and yesterday leaving, without a house or barn to block the view. Or had it been an optimistic placing, thinking the town would grow to reach it?
Population 853. The number of residents hadn’t changed in the ten years since she’d left. No one new ever moved to Akureyri—except her, and that had ended in disaster. Even here, in the middle of nowhere, she sensed a thousand eyes on her. There was nowhere to hide in the prairies.
She cranked up the air conditioner. With the engine off, the temperature inside the vehicle had crept toward uncomfortable but hadn’t quite reached the unbearable level she’d experienced the past month. Summer in Manitoba had nothing on the Middle East.
As she put the car in gear, her engagement ring caught her eye. Damn thing. She should never have put it back on after what had happened. Jean-Claude and their fading relationship. as another thing she could relegate to the past. A past that wouldn’t stay forgotten. She’d spent ten years running from it, only to have it knock on her car window. A shiver ran through her despite the warmth of the July day. She should never have returned.
Or she should have come back sooner, when she was at a good place in her life, so the dark memories didn’t overwhelm her. Until the past month, however, she’d been focused on work, keeping that part of her life in first place—the part over which she had control. Behind the camera she didn’t feel, didn’t get involved. She was there to document the action. Her career was an invisible force field protecting her from hurt. Protecting her from life.
Now, even that had been ruined.
So, she’d returned to the place where she’d known true, unselfish love—her grandparents’ farm. If she listened to her head, she’d make a U-turn right there on the highway and drive back to Winnipeg. She could call her granddad and get him to come meet her. Instead, she glanced in her rearview mirror. Erik sat behind the wheel of a dark blue BMW convertible sports car. He caught her gaze in the mirror and motioned for her to go first.
Chivalry was the word that came to mind when she thought of Erik. He’d even asked her permission the first time he’d kissed her. A tiny flicker of happiness sparked to life—he’d been such a good kisser. She put her sunglasses back on so he couldn’t read her eyes, sure her need for comfort was visible even from that distance. Erik was the last person she could ask for solace.
After checking her mirrors again, she pulled back onto the highway. The one good thing she could say about today was that the SUV she drove was a hell of a lot more comfortable than the heavily armored vehicles that had been her main mode of transportation for the last two years.
Ten minutes later, she parked in front of Rosie’s on the Corner. The irony of the name—it was the only building not on the corner—was another quirk of the place. Akureyri was a one-street town: a diner, bakery, grocery store, hardware store, pharmacy, bank, and liquor store. There was a bar at the far end of the street, on the other side of the railroad tracks. Locals didn’t consider it part of town.
Erik pulled up right behind her and was standing next to her SUV before she’d even grabbed her handbag. He opened the door as she unlocked it. Out of habit, she reached for her camera bag in the footwell of the passenger seat but left it there on second thought. Her camera was her trademark, and she was trying to be anonymous. Yeah, right. Like that was going to happen in a town with a memory for scandal longer than a prairie winter.
Sliding out from behind the wheel, she stood next to him, tentatively putting weight on her left leg. Had he always been this tall? His six feet of hard muscle dwarfed her measly five-foot-two frame. Erik put his arm around her shoulder as if to protect her from the road traffic. It was unlikely that the one car that passed every five minutes would strike her in the two seconds it took to get to the sidewalk. But his arm did feel nice. Maybe, for just a second, she could lean on him, absorb some of his strength.
A little bell jingled as he pushed open the door to the diner, ushering her inside. The smell of burnt toast and greasy fries assailed her nostrils. In the darker interior, she automatically put her left hand up to remove her sunglasses but quickly changed her mind as her eyes always gave her away. She had a pair of brown contact lenses she wore when not blending in could mean losing her life. Perversely, she wished she’d worn them today.
“Erik Sigurdson! I heard you were coming into town for your grandparents’ sixty-fifth. And you’ve brought your fiancée with you. Hello, I’m Sheryl Kowalchuck.” The waitress rushed over to them and held out her hand, the overpowering scent of Angel perfume nearly smothering them.
Analise shook hands with the other woman, biting her tongue. “Pleased to meet you,” she managed to reply with a tight smile. How wonderful it would be if she could pretend she’d never met any of these people before.
Sheryl had tormented her almost daily for the three years of high school they’d attended together. Analise glanced up at Erik, waiting for him to refute the fiancée statement. Instead, he pulled her tighter against his side before he led her over to a booth.
She slid along the red, fake-leather seat patched with silver duct tape. The plastic menu Sheryl handed her had seen better days as well. A number of menu items were crossed out with black marker.
“Have we met before?” Sheryl gave Analise the once-over.
“People tell me I look like Anne Hathaway. Maybe that’s why I seem familiar.” She still had a faint hope of leaving with only a few people knowing she’d been in town.
“Maybe.” Sheryl shrugged. She turned all her attention back to Erik. “What can I get you?”
“Just coffee thanks, Sheryl,” he said.
“Coffee for me too, please.” Analise handed the menu back to the hovering waitress, who seemed in no hurry to fill their order.
Sheryl kept her eyes on Erik. If Analise really were his fiancée, her claws would be emerging about now. “I heard you’re a hotshot lawyer living in Europe. Must seem very small, coming back here.” Sheryl’s simpering little laugh grated on Analise’s remaining nerve, which was perilously close to snapping.
“Akureyri will always be home,” he answered.
While the waitress flirted with Erik, Analise took the opportunity to peruse her alleged fiancé. Ten years ago, he had been a tall, lanky college boy. His ready smile and mischievous blue eyes had her crushing on him from the first time they met. Now, he was all man. The lankiness had disappeared under muscles that would make a sports star proud. The glimmer in his eye was still there but accompanied now by the glow of experience, a look that said, “I know exactly how to please a woman—wanna see?”
Erik was most likely the best-looking man to set foot in this café in years. Analise smiled. So much for worrying about being recognized.
“Can we get those coffees to go? I want to show my fiancée around town before we head out to my grandparents’,” Erik said as Sheryl continued to stare. He reached out and covered Analise’s hand on the table. A current passed between them, and she saw his eyes widen as though surprised that after all these years the spark was still there. Even Sheryl seemed to notice.
“Oh, uh, sure. I guess we can catch up later. Almost the whole town is going to the big anniversary bash, so I’ll see you there. Erik’s grandparents were the first ones married in the local church,” Sheryl said, her eyes flickering to Analise.
“So he’s told me.”
Finally, Sheryl moved away. Analise opened her mouth to ask why he was pretending they were engaged when he lifted her hand, which was still under his, and kissed her knuckles.
“I’ll explain in a minute,” he whispered against her skin. She tamped down the shiver of awareness that ran from her hand up her arm and into her belly. He kept hold of her, toying with her engagement ring with his thumb. Pasting on a smile in case they were being watched, she pulled her hand away and edged closer toward the end of the bench. What kind of game was he playing? Was this some sort of payback for the way she’d left? Rubbing her nose in what could have been?
As if she hadn’t thought about that enough in the past decade.
Sheryl returned two minutes later with Styrofoam cups. The Frenchwoman in Analise was appalled to see the treasured liquid subjected to such degradation. She’d had coffee served to her in gold-rimmed glasses in a Bedouin tent in the middle of the desert; who was to say what passed for civilization?
Erik pulled out his wallet, but Sheryl put her hand up. “It’s on the house.”
“Thanks, Sheryl. We’ll see you around,” Erik called out as they left the coffee shop.
As they stood on the sidewalk Analise looked left and right. Nope, not much had changed. The bank had a new coat of paint, and a bench had been installed in the empty lot next to the bakery. Erik led her toward it, his arm around her shoulder. The warmth of his hand began to melt the ice walls she’d built around herself to survive the past few weeks. And, given the spectacular failure of her plan to slip in and out of town unknown, she was likely going to need that protective wall in the near future. Because once she let herself feel, there’d be a flood of emotion to contend with.
“So, we’re engaged? I thought I’d agreed to have a coffee with you, not become your wife. You work fast, Prairie Boy.” Analise took a sip of her coffee and grimaced as the stale, bitter liquid scorched her tongue. She poured out the rest on the ground.
A full-on grin split his face at her use of the old nickname. Sunshine glinted off his ripe-wheat colored hair, and ten years evaporated in an instant. “Yeah, sorry about that. I guess if you show up with your arm around a woman who’s wearing a diamond big enough to put an eye out, people will leap to conclusions—the exercise of choice in this town.”
She raised an eyebrow at him while her heart did that odd flip-flop thing. How could she ever have forgotten how gorgeous he was? Or the way he once made her feel—like she was the most important woman in the world to him? “That accounts for Sheryl’s assumption, but not the fact that you didn’t deny it.”
“I wanted to see what if felt like to be engaged to you. We could have been, you know.”
“That’s the past, Erik. We can’t resurrect it.”
“Maybe it’s just dormant, waiting for the two of us to get back together.”
Analise doused the flame of hope that dared flicker to life in her chest. Hadn’t her heart taken enough of a beating in the last few months? She couldn’t let herself be deluded by the memory of a past romance. She’d moved on, become a different person. Undoubtedly, he had as well. Erik wasn’t hers, never really had been.
Although, if Erik had been her fiancé, he might not have put her life in danger time and again. And she wouldn’t be sitting here with a shrapnel wound in her leg and another man’s ring on her finger.
Erik took her hand in his again. His strong fingers massaged the back of her hand. She closed her eyes and let herself enjoy the gentle caress. It had to be the exhaustion and pain warping her judgment.
“Analise, will you pretend to be my fiancée while you’re here?”