Bitter Heat

Title: Bitter Heat
Series: Singed Series #1
Release Date: 3-29-19
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She was the wood. He was the flame. After this, they would be ash.
A cruel twist of fate leaves Jasmine Hennessy stranded in a remote cabin with her worst nightmare—her ex-husband, James Roth, who she hasn’t seen in five years. He isn’t acting like the man she married, but did she ever really know him?
One night together kicks off a series of events that threatens her freedom as Roth seeks vengeance on those who ruined him seven years ago. He’s determined to bring her back into the world she left behind where money is king, reputation is everything, and people will kill to keep their secrets.

“Jasmine?”

She turned from her contemplation of the snowy world outside to find that Kaia was finally awake. The older woman lay in a hospital bed. The gray hair at her temples was damp with sweat and her stout figure seemed to have shrunk in the span of six hours. A thick bandage peeked out of the top of her hospital gown, covering a fresh incision down the middle of her chest.

Jasmine went to Kaia’s side and grasped her hand. “How are you feeling?”

Kaia grimaced. “Like I got kicked in the chest by a horse.”

Her mouth curved in a wan smile. “You pulled through the surgery like a champ. Everything’s going to be okay now.”

Kaia blinked glistening eyes. “What are the chances that after all these years of asking you to visit, the first time you come, I have a heart attack?”

She blocked out the mental image of how she had found Kaia this morning. “It was meant to be that I was here to help.”

Kaia searched her face. “Are you okay?”

She let out a choked laugh. “You’re asking me that? You’re the one who had open heart surgery.”

“Jasmine.”

Kaia’s sympathetic voice made her eyes sting. She averted her gaze and cleared her throat. “I’m fine. I’m just glad you’re all right.”

“I know you’re supposed to head back to New York, but can you stay a little longer?”

The panic that had dogged her all day crawled up her throat and threatened to choke her. “I would, but…” She met Kaia’s pleading gaze. “They called him.”

Kaia’s brows drew together.

“I can’t be here when he arrives.” Despite her best efforts to keep her shit together, her words started tripping over each other. “It’s been five years. I can’t… If he sees me he’ll—”

Kaia gripped her hand with surprising strength. “He won’t come.”

She blinked. “What are you talking about? Of course, he will.”

“He won’t.” Kaia closed her eyes as if she couldn’t keep them open a second longer. “You know we’ve never been close.”

She did know. It was the only reason she decided to come in the first place. “I’m sure once he hears you had a heart attack…”

“He’s been home once since he left at sixteen. He won’t come back, even for an emergency. Promise me you’ll stay, at least until I get back on my feet.”

She couldn’t deny Kaia when she looked so frightened and fragile. “Okay, I’ll stay.”

Kaia’s relief was obvious as she shifted on the pillows and let out a pained gasp.

“Do you need a nurse?” she demanded as she leapt for the call button.

“No, no,” Kaia mumbled. “I’m fine. You should leave now before the snow gets any worse.”

Automatically, her gaze went back to the window. White flakes flirted with the frosted glass before drifting innocently down. Two hours ago, she called the only inn in town, but it was filled to capacity. Either she had to make the trek back to Kaia’s remote mountain cabin or sleep in the hospital. She didn’t like either option.

“Ma’am?” A nurse appeared in the doorway. “Visiting hours are over. You can come back tomorrow.”

She nodded and looked back at Kaia to see that she had fallen asleep. When she leaned down to kiss Kaia’s weathered cheek, the older woman made an urgent sound and reached for her.

“She’ll be fine,” the nurse said when she hesitated. “It’s been a long day for both of you. You should get some rest.”

Jasmine left the room on quaking legs that carried her just beyond the doors of the ICU. She leaned against the wall, closed her eyes, and let out a shaky breath. It had been a long, exhausting day, but it was over. Kaia was going to be fine. That’s all that mattered.

She was so drained that she could barely think. As she stood there, trying to figure out what to do next, the sound of a stifled sob captured her attention. Several doors down, a doctor tried to console a man who had tears running down his face. The man’s helpless despair made her heart writhe in her chest. Her emotions surged, but she ruthlessly tamped them down and switched her attention to a nurse pushing a cackling old man in a wheelchair down the corridor. She followed their progress until the nurse altered her course to avoid a large figure standing in the middle of the hall. Her gaze flicked to the man, went back to the nurse, and then snapped back to him. She was too far away to make out the man’s features, but she didn’t need to. Her sixth sense told her who he was—her worst nightmare. She pushed off the wall and headed in the opposite direction at a fast walk. She rounded the corner. Even as her mind told her that she was overreacting, she broke into a run.

A cluster of nurses around a desk looked up as she blitzed past. One of them called out to her, but she didn’t stop. She dodged around medical staff, raced down deserted hallways, and shoved through double doors. She didn’t stop until she came upon an unlit corridor.

As she skidded to a stop, lights flickered on, revealing a wing under construction with plastic sheets on the ground, a scaffold, and paint buckets lined against the wall. She bent over and placed her hands on her knees as she panted. Maybe it wasn’t him. The only details she could discern from that distance was a large man with dark hair. That had been enough to make her bolt. It had been five years since she laid eyes on him. God wouldn’t be cruel enough to add him on top of everything else, would he?

“Still running from me, Jasmine?”

That all-too-familiar voice reverberated in her ears. God was fucking cruel. In all the different scenarios where they faced one another, a deserted hospital corridor never crossed her mind. In the best scenarios, she was at a function looking like a million dollars, on the arm of a man who couldn’t take his eyes off her. Instead, she was dressed in an old college t-shirt and jeans, didn’t have on a lick of makeup, and hadn’t brushed her hair before she rushed Kaia to the hospital.

“Pretending I don’t exist isn’t going to work.”

The taunt made her whip around. He was standing closer than she anticipated. She had to stop herself from backing up at the sheer size of him. Before, his size made her feel feminine, dainty, and protected. Those days were long gone. If it wasn’t for the suit beneath his open overcoat, he could be mistaken for a football player, ranch hand, or construction worker. His clothes were tailored, an indication of how far he’d come in life if she’d been living under a rock and failed to see his face plastered on magazines or on the news. James Roth’s success was well-documented by the media who couldn’t get enough of his rags to riches story.

Her eyes flicked up and collided with his, a stunning liquid black that had captured her interest from the start. He was racially ambiguous with strong features from Kaia’s Native American background and his German and Danish father. The beard was new, as was the faintest hint of silver in his hair, even though he hadn’t hit forty. Despite his refined appearance, there was something about him that was still rough around the edges. Once upon a time, that raw power had drawn her to him. Now, she examined her ex-husband through a fresh set of jaded eyes. He was downright frightening. What the hell was her twenty-three-year-old self thinking? Roth wasn’t the type of man she wanted to meet in a dark alley… or a deserted corridor.

“You’re the last person I expected to see here.”

His dispassionate tone snapped her out of her dazed horror. It had been five years since they laid eyes on one another. That’s all he could say? Her chest burned with anger, but she banked it and donned her mask, which she had cultivated in the public eye when she was a child. If he wanted to play cool and unaffected, so could she.

“I could say the same about you.” It took considerable effort to sound as blasé as him, but she managed. “Kaia didn’t think you’d come.”

“What are you doing here, Jasmine?”

“Visiting.”

His eyes narrowed. “Since when are you and my mom so close?”

“I kept in touch with her even after…” She trailed off and gave a one shoulder shrug. “I call her every now and then to check on her. She’s always invited me to visit, but this was the first time I took her up on it. I’m glad I was here for her today.”

He didn’t respond. He just stood there, staring at her. She knew the tactics. Her father was a master manipulator, after all. Roth was trying to intimidate her with his silence. Not going to happen. The initial shock of seeing him made her lose her head, but she was in control now. She could handle him.

“As much as I’d like to engage in a staring contest, I have places to be,” she said airily. “The only reason I’m here is because Kaia thought you wouldn’t come, but you’re here now so I’ll…”

She took a step to the side and froze when he shifted with her. She stared at him for a moment before she took another step. Again, he moved to block her.

“Roth,” she said in a warning tone.

“Do you know how long I’ve waited for this moment?”

His crooning tone raked over her taut nerves like sandpaper.

She edged backwards. “I’m not playing this game with you.”

She desperately raked her mind for an exit strategy as he invaded her space.

“Who said I’m playing a game?”

“You’re always playing a game! Everything you do is calculated. You’re a chess master, herding people where you want them before you take them out.”

“Some people think life is a game. I’ve always known it’s war.”

Her control snapped as she stumbled on the dirty plastic covered in paint splatters. “Fuck you, Roth! Get out of my way.”

“Your face has been all over the news since your father died.”

She stopped dead in her tracks, hands balling into fists at her side. “Don’t talk about my father.”

He cocked his head to the side, scenting blood like the predator he was.

“Patched things up with him, did you?” he asked softly.

“None of your fucking business,” she said through clenched teeth.

“Oh, I think it is.”

She wasn’t prepared for the hand that wrapped around her throat or the way he pulled up so she was forced to go on tiptoes. Her heart careened into her throat as she gripped his massive wrist with both hands.

“You think I forgot what he did to me?”

His clinical tone made the hairs on the nape of her neck stand up.

“That was seven years ago.”

His impassive expression melted into one of savage fury. “He kept at it until the day he fucking died.”

She didn’t want to believe it. “No, he—”

His fingers tightened around her throat, stopping her denial. He leaned in, so close their lips were mere inches apart.

“Are you calling me a liar, princess?”

The vicious energy pouring from him made her temples throb.

“If you don’t let me go, I’m going to scream.”

“Do it,” he invited with a cold smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m sure your sisters would love to see our names linked together in the media.” He leaned in and pressed his lips against her ear. “You’re not in New York with your bodyguards or your family to hide behind. You’re in Colorado, in the middle of a snowstorm, with nowhere to go. Don’t push me.”

The threat combined with his hot breath gusting over the shell of her ear made her shiver. His beard scraped against her cheek as he pulled back. His proximity, the firm hold on her throat, and the resolve in his expression scrambled her thoughts. She was no match for him and the satisfied gleam in his eyes told her he knew it. As she tried to think of a way out of this, her eyes dropped from his and landed on the scar on his upper lip. The beard covered another scar on his cheek, but she could still see the tail end of it peeking out on the underside of his jaw.

“Did he bribe you to leave me?”

Her gaze flew back to his. “What?”

A muscle ticked in his cheek. “Did he promise to give you your inheritance if you left me?”

She was so stunned, she didn’t answer. She watched turbulent emotions play over his face and saw the flash of impatience before his fingers tightened around her throat.

“Answer me,” he said, words laced with menace.

Her nails dug into his wrist. His hold on her throat was just shy of bruising. He wasn’t hurting her. Yet.

“Fuck you, Roth.” He played her so badly that even now, the shame of knowing how gullible she had been ate at her. He wanted to rehash old times? Screw him.

“I’m not playing, Jasmine. Answer me.”

She punched him in the chest. There wasn’t much power behind it, but she still expected some reaction. He didn’t give her one. He just watched her with eyes that belonged to a grim reaper. She wanted to scream in his face and knee him in the balls, but it was impossible with the way he was holding her.

“No, he didn’t bribe me,” she said through clenched teeth.

“Then, why?”

“I don’t want to talk about this!”

“You will,” he decreed. “No one’s here to save you from me.”

“I left you because I refused to be a pawn anymore!”

“Is that what you think?” he asked as his eyes moved over her face.

“It’s what I know.”

“You know nothing.”

“If you don’t let me go I swear to God I’ll—”

He propelled her backward. She landed against the wall hard enough to make her grunt. Her mind went blank with shock as he plastered his rock-hard body against hers. Her puffy jacket stopped her from discovering if he still had abs, but her jeans and thermal underwear did little to protect her from his bottom half. He dropped his hold on her throat and slid his hand into her tangled hair and gripped, forcing her head to tip sideways, baring her throat to him. One thick thigh pressed between her legs, forcing them to part.

“Roth, stop!”

He bit her. As her mind processed the pain, her shrill scream echoed down the hallway. She raised her hand to claw his face, but he grabbed her wrist and yanked it down as he sucked hard enough to make her buck against him. The back of her neck was an erogenous zone he discovered early on in their relationship. He reclaimed the spot as if they hadn’t been separated for years. Her free hand twisted in his suit as her body went up in flames.

“Don’t,” she whispered hoarsely.

He cupped her ass and dragged her up his thigh, creating a friction that made her hiss.

“If you hadn’t run to your father, you’d still be mine.”

The rage and resentment she felt for him crumbled beneath a tidal wave of lust. She shuddered against him like a junkie, alternately wanting to claw his face off while also aching to feel him inside her. He would give it to her right here, right now—rough, dirty, raw, just the way she needed it. She came to Colorado to leave everything behind and forget, just for a little while. He would leave her so sated she’d feel nothing. Their chemistry had been explosive right from the start. She had been too innocent to know how to combat what was happening between them. He used her curiosity to introduce her to dark, erotic fantasies that no self-respecting Hennessy should have.

Strands of Roth’s hair brushed against her jaw. He was wearing cologne, something familiar she had gotten a whiff of at the funeral. Roth never used to wear cologne or tailored suits and had been more likely to wear work boots with jeans and a button up. In the beginning, her father had been amused by Roth’s refusal to conform. That was before he learned of their affair. She thought she was going against the grain by marrying a man who hadn’t been born in her circles. She was wrong. Roth was every bit as ruthless as her father. It just took a few years for him to afford to dress and smell like men of her father’s caliber.

When she went boneless, he growled in approval. She wanted him so bad, she could taste him in her mouth. Body and mind clashed. She had to stop this before she made a monumental mistake she’d regret. What would her father think if he could see her now? That killed her buzz and brought back all the shit she had been trying to forget.

“You have to stop,” she whispered.

He ignored her and pressed in closer. She was losing the fight. In a last-ditch effort to hold onto shreds of self-respect she uttered the one thing she knew would get a reaction from him.

“Jamie, please.”

He went rigid against her and lifted his mouth from her skin. Uttering his nickname evoked memories she had buried long ago. No one was allowed to call him by his first name so she gave him a ludicrous nickname and teased him unmercifully about it. That seemed like a lifetime ago.

“I want to go home,” she whispered, her voice thick with tears. Weeks of stress caught up to her, leaving her depleted and fighting to keep her composure. It was all too much.

The thigh between her legs disappeared so abruptly, she stumbled like a newborn foal. Before she could find her balance, a beefy hand manacled her wrist and began to drag her back the way she’d come.

“What are you doing?”

“We have to leave now before we get snowed in.”

She dragged her boots against the tiles in an effort to slow him down. “I’m not going anywhere with you!”

“Airport’s closed until tomorrow, there’s nowhere to stay in town, and the snow’s coming down thick and heavy. We’re going to the cabin.”

You can go to the cabin. I’m staying here.”

“They’ll kick you out.”

“I’ll sleep in the waiting room.”

“And chance being recognized? A picture like that could end up on tomorrow’s front page. I can see the headline now: Homeless Hennessy Heiress.”

“I don’t care!” She blamed her pitiful tone on the fact that it had been the day from hell. “Who the hell do you think you are? You can’t—”

“I can do whatever the fuck I want.”

“Not with me!”

“We’ll see about that.”

She had the crazy urge to leap on his back and pummel his head. “Why are you here? Kaia didn’t expect you to come.”

“I wasn’t going to, but I decided to be a good son for once in my life.” He shot her an unreadable glance. “I never thought I’d run into my elusive ex-wife. I guess this trip wasn’t for nothing.”

“How can you be so cold?” He didn’t even bother to act concerned for Kaia. “Your mother had a heart attack! You haven’t even asked me how she is!”

“I was informed she pulled through surgery.”

“And that’s enough information for you?”

“Yes.”

“You should be grateful you have a mother who cares about you.”

“You think so?”

“Yes! She’s a sweet woman living up in the mountains all by herself. She said you’ve been home only once since you left!”

“For good reason.”

He turned the corner, shamelessly lugging her behind him. A nurse came out of a room with a chart in hand and stopped dead when she caught sight of them.

“Married squabble,” Roth said with an ease that shocked her.

“We’re divorced!” Jasmine retorted and finally picked up her feet because the awful screeching her shoes were making on tile would wake every patient on the floor.

“Roth, let me go!”

“Are you afraid of me?”

Yes. “No!”

“Then what do you have to worry about? Tomorrow, we’ll come back to town and you can leave.”

One night. A couple hours… She could do that, right?

Roth stopped at the ICU counter. The nurse who told her visiting hours were over looked up with a scowl, but her expression altered once she got a good look at him.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“My mom’s Kaia Roth,” he stated.

The nurse glanced at Jasmine before she said, “She’s resting. You can come back tomorrow. We’ll discuss the care she’s going to need for the next couple of weeks.”

He nodded and continued down the hallway. She tried to come up with a plan, but her mind was alarmingly blank. He pulled her into the elevator. When the doors closed, she stared at their reflection. He towered over her, richly dressed, and intimidating in his fine clothes while she looked like a grubby teenager.

“I can’t do this,” she said.

“You can,” he said dispassionately.

“Fine. I don’t want to do this.”

“Suck it up.”

The elevator stopped, allowing a doctor to get on. She debated whether she should reach out for help. As if Roth could read her mind, he tightened his hold on her, a clear warning not to test him. She wanted to push, but she was too damn tired.

The elevator opened on the ground floor. He tugged her out and stopped in front of the double doors that led out to the parking lot.

“Keys,” he said curtly.

“What?”

He slipped his hand beneath her jacket and into her jeans pocket.

“What the hell?” she screeched and clawed his wrist.

He held her eyes as he fished. Her nerves were shot by the time he retracted his hand and held up the keys to his mother’s truck. He knew exactly what he was doing. Touch was a powerful tool and he was wielding it unmercifully against her, pushing her to her limit.

“Fuck you. I’m staying here,” she said and turned away.

He wrapped an arm around her waist and lifted her off the ground. She howled as he carried her through the double doors into the snow. The frigid temperature took her breath away. Fluffy white flakes fell into her gaping mouth. He trudged through the snow until he found Kaia’s truck, which was quite a feat since it was nearly unrecognizable coated in white. He unlocked the driver’s door and shoved her in. She crawled across the bench seat as he climbed in behind her.

“I-I’m not going a-anywhere with-with—” she chattered.

“Shut it,” he said as he turned the key in the ignition and adjusted the seat so he could fit behind the steering wheel.

When she reached for the door handle on the passenger side, he grabbed her jacket and jerked her around to face him. Their breaths came out in white clouds and clashed in the air between them.

“You owe me, Jasmine.”

Something inside her snapped and a moment later he jerked back. Belatedly, she registered that her palm was throbbing and realized what she’d done. His dark skin wouldn’t show her handprint, but the promise of retribution in his eyes confirmed that she had struck him. She didn’t fucking care. After a hellish day of fear and worry, his bullying pushed her over the edge.

“I owe you?” She was so furious, she could barely speak. “I-I broke off my engagement for you! I got disowned and didn’t speak to m-my family for years because of you! I gave up everything for you!”

She wasn’t aware that she grabbed fistfuls of his coat or that she tried to shake him as she unraveled.

“You married me for my name. You used me.”

Her voice broke as the past filled her with mortification and pain. A tear spilled down her cheek, but she was too pissed off to care that she was revealing a hole in her shield to a man who preyed on weakness.

“The only reason you held onto me was to spite my dad. You two were caught up in this battle that had nothing to do with me, so I left. You skyrocketed after the divorce. You’re the mogul you always wanted to be.”

She looked at her hands bunched in the rich fabric of his overcoat and dropped them.

“I don’t owe you shit, Roth. You cost me everything.”

She brushed her damp sleeve over her cheek and once again, reached for the door handle. A firm tug on her jacket told her he wasn’t giving up.

“We’ll finish this at the cabin.”

“There’s nothing to finish,” she told the frosted window.

“Your tears say different.”

“It’s been a long day.”

“You can rest when we get there.”

She turned her head and glared at him through her tears. “I don’t want to be around you.”

“Tough shit.” He put the truck in gear. “Buckle up.”