Field of Gratitude (Book 4 of The Field Series) – Erotic Romance

They say things can change in a split second.

After surviving a hellish childhood as an orphan, Buccaneers pitcher Carlos Castillo keeps to himself, fearful of losing everything. That is, until he’s stranded during a snowstorm and rescued by antique shop owner Hope Hartmann.

With a passion for treasures and stories, Hope dreams of the fairy tale love and won’t settle for anything less. Then one extraordinary snowy day, a handsome ballplayer knocks on her door. Taking him in, she discovers a connection she’d never before experienced.

Carlos can’t ignore his feelings for Hope or the light she sheds on his painful past. He shows Hope heaven during hell, a time filled with threats and destruction.

It was a love Carlos never knew existed, and one Hope always wished for. Will a dangerously mysterious treasure ruin their chance at love?

[Siren Classic: Erotic Contemporary Romantic Suspense, M/F, HEA]

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DEDICATION

This book is dedicated to those who fight a battle each day and still manage to smile and enjoy life.

 

FIELD OF GRATITUDE

The Field Series, 4

 JACQUELINE ANNE

Copyright © 2017

Chapter One

“Can you grab that last box from the van, Hope?” Faith asked.

“Sure can,” Hope replied, dusting off her worn jeans as she quickly darted out the back door.

Hope and her twin sister were knee-deep in their latest estate clean out. It was from the home of a physician whose wife had recently passed away. After a recent fall and breaking a few ribs, he now needed the care of a nursing home facility. Unfortunately, it was a typical scenario for estate sales other than death, downsizing, or the occasional family moving across the country or to an entirely different one. No matter the reason, Hope and her sister tried their best to make it easier on the people involved.

They opened their business, F&H Treasures, three years ago after talking about their aspirations. They started the business online at first, then leased the quaint retail spot in order to expand their business. It had always been a dream of Hope’s to have a cute little store like she’d seen in those cheesy romance movies. Faith was hesitant at first, concerned with the overhead costs, but Hope eventually wore her down. It had been quite the feat for being the younger twin by a whole two minutes, a fact her older sister never let her forget.

Hope quit her accounting job, but kept her blog running. Ever since she was a little girl she had been fascinated with vintage finds and antiques. She started the blog in college, and the amount of followers had grown quite a bit over the years and the advertisers kept a small, yet steady cash flow rolling in.

Her sister Faith continued her job as a part-time sales rep for a pharmaceutical company. It was how she met her husband, Dr. Joseph Vanhorn, one of the town’s two physicians. Her sister always enjoyed sales and closing a deal, so opening the business fulfilled the both of them.

Hope grabbed the box and locked up the van, shivering along the way. She should have bothered to take a second to put her coat on again. The temperatures had dropped significantly over the past few hours as a snowstorm was making its way toward them.

She walked back into the storage room and noticed a growing discard pile made by her sister.

“That’s all garbage?” she asked Faith, a bit disappointed in their investment.

“Appears broken or junky to me. Be my guest to look for yourself.”

Hope set the box down and went over to the junk pile. She immediately picked up a snow globe, always believing each had their own story. She inspected this one closely, noticing it was Thanksgiving-themed which was fairly rare since most seemed to be Christmas themed or souvenirs from various big cities. She shook it and watched the snow fall around the scene of a couple sitting at a table adorned with Thanksgiving fare. The room had a fireplace with a lovely red heart hanging on the masonry wall. Even the water in the globe was still clear. She turned it over and saw the musical mechanism. She turned the knob and listened, smiling when she recognized the tune from Bing Crosby, “I’ve Got Plenty to Be Thankful For.”

Hope looked up and her sister was staring at her, her mouth hanging open.

“What?” she snapped.

“Hope, I just checked that snow globe. It wouldn’t work for me.”

“Well, it’s working now.”

“Give me that.” Faith hastily grabbed it from her hands and tried again. Nothing.

“Huh. That’s strange,” Hope said. She took it back from her sister and repeated the test. It worked perfectly for her.

“What if it has some kind of magical power?”

Hope laughed. “Are you kidding me? You are twenty-eight years old and believe in magic? You have to stop reading those Harry Potter books.”

“First of all, back off Harry Potter. Second of all, some things just can’t be explained, Hope. I mean, we are identical twins. Our DNA is pretty damn close. Why would it work for you and not for me?”

She shrugged. “I’m fairly certain our DNA has nothing to do with that snow globe.” Truth be told, Hope couldn’t understand it either. They were identical twins, although Faith had her blonde hair cut pixie short and Hope kept hers long.

She set the snow globe on the counter and continued going through the other boxes with her sister, but her mind pondered what Faith had said. Why would the Thanksgiving snow globe work for her?

For the rest of the day, Hope and Faith took turns manning the cash register as the other worked through sorting more boxes.

The December night sky quickly took over.

“You know, all day long, people tried that snow globe and wondered why we had a broken item sitting out,” Faith grumbled.

Hope ignored her sister. She liked the trinket and was going to keep it.

Soon, Faith went home to her husband for dinner and Hope stayed, pricing the new items, adding them to the inventory, and then displayed them on the shelves. She closed the store at eight o’clock, but kept working, eager to stock more for the next day. They had a big sale planned for the week before Christmas.

Her tummy rumbled, reminding her she had skipped dinner. Needing a quick break and a bite to eat, she grabbed a granola bar from her desk drawer and sat on the stool behind the register. She took a bite of the chocolate peanut butter bar and glanced outside. The skies had opened up with cotton ball sized snowflakes quickly covering the sidewalks and street. It was a good thing she lived in a little cottage a short walking distance away. The roads were becoming treacherous.

Her stomach protesting the minuscule snack, she continued to eat while acknowledging the fact that she needed a big home-cooked meal, similar to the one the couple was enjoying within the snow globe. Too bad she was rarely home anymore and definitely didn’t want to go to all the hassle just for herself.

As she continued to stare at the Thanksgiving memento, she realized she was drawn to this trinket for reasons she couldn’t comprehend even before she discovered it only worked for her. She picked it up and turned it over, further inspecting the bottom for some kind of marking. She rubbed the bottom with her green work shirt, revealing some small letters. She grabbed her magnifying glass and took a closer look.

Siempre agradecido por tu amor.

Spanish? She brought up a translator website and typed in the words.

“Forever grateful for your love,” she read aloud. “What beautiful words.”

A story began stirring in her mind, a common occurrence with some of the treasures she came across. This person must have gone to great lengths to customize such a meaningful gift. Sighing, she thought about a love she had never experienced before, not even close. Sure she had dated and thought she was in love a few times, but the relationships weren’t what she wanted. Determined to find her one and only soulmate and not settle for anything less, she desired someone who made her laugh when she was crying, made her smile so much her face hurt, supported her passion, and wholeheartedly listened to her. Was that too much to ask for? She heaved a sigh. No, it wasn’t. He was out there somewhere. She could feel it in her heart.

A knock at the front door startled her from her fairy tale thoughts. A quick glance at one of the clocks on the wall told her it was a few minutes past nine o’clock at night. Her heart sped up. “Who in the world could that be?”

She grabbed her pepper spray from a shelf behind the counter, keeping a tight hold of it as she walked to the entrance.

A handsome young man was standing before her wearing a light coat, covered in snowflakes, shivering from the cold. As she unlocked the door, he lifted his head in response to the clicking lock, his eyes meeting hers with a smile so bright it was as if she had just rescued him.

Maybe she had. Or maybe her mind was still stuck in her silly fairy tale.

She must be nuts. But for some reason, she couldn’t ignore the weakness in her knees all because of the way his lips curved. Besides, it wasn’t like this town had a lot of crime, she rationed as she slipped the pepper spray into her pocket and opened the door.

“I’m sorry, sir, but we’re closed.”

Studying him further, she took in his features. A well-trimmed beard covered his face. His dark hair was a little longer, curling around his ears from under his Pittsburgh Buccaneers’ baseball cap.

She opened the door further, letting him in from the snowy, cold night. It wasn’t like she could leave him out there to freeze.

Yep, she was crazy…or stupid.

He walked in, stomping the snow off his sneakers onto her doormat. “Sorry to be a bother, ma’am. Me llamo Carlos Castillo,” he said with an accent. She immediately knew English was not his first language. “May I borrow your phone? My car broke down and my cell phone battery is almost dead.”

“Sure. Hope Hartmann. Nice to meet you, Carlos.” She held out her hand. He removed his gloves and shook it, her breath hitching at his touch. She had shaken tons of hands over the years, and it never felt like this. It was as if he was caressing her, his hand both rugged and smooth.

Snap out of it, Hope.

“Right this way.” She gestured for him to walk toward the counter. She didn’t want him behind her, just in case. Oh, who the hell was she kidding? She had the sudden urge to check out his backside. As he walked by her, she inhaled his masculine scent and admired his tight tush clad in denim.

They reached the desk and she handed him the phone.

He grabbed a card from his wallet and dialed. He spoke to someone in Spanish, making her wish she could remember more from her high school classes, but either way, she was thoroughly enjoying hearing him talk. After a few minutes, he hung up.

“Thank you. A tow truck will be here within two hours. Is there a food place open?”

“Lucky for you, there is one bar open until midnight in this small town,” she explained. It wasn’t a big place, but Hal’s would do.

Gracias. Um, would you like to come with me? I would like to buy you some comida for your troubles,” he offered with a genuine smile.

Food from Hal’s actually entailed greasy burgers and fries, but beat a granola bar any day.

“Sure. Thank you. Give me a few minutes to finish up here and we can walk over. Why don’t you charge your cell phone while you are waiting? I have a few different chargers for my customers to use while they shop. It often keeps them in the store longer.”

* * * *

Carlos plugged his phone in a charger then watched the woman move around the charming shop full of various items. Hope Hartmann was a vision and there was something intriguing about her. She was beautiful and possessed the girl-next-door vibe, as his teammates explained to him one day since he had never heard that term before.

His heart rate had picked up a bit from the first moment their eyes met. No matter how much his English tutor had helped him, when he got nervous, he mixed Spanish and English together. It drove some of his teammates crazy.

“Is this your shop?” he questioned.

“I am the H in F&H Treasures. My twin sister, Faith, and I own this place. What brings you through this town other than car troubles?”

“I’m on vacation, although it hasn’t been a good start so far. I’m heading to a lakeside cabin a few towns over.”

“By yourself?” She quirked an eyebrow then continued putting away some more items.

While he was used to the idea of being by himself, being in the presence of a beauty like Hope, reminded him of the many downfalls. “Trying something new for the holidays this year.”

“What made you select somewhere cold? I’m guessing by your attire that you aren’t used to the snow.”

“Dart game with some friends.” He chuckled, remembering the late night after Graham and Jordan’s wedding. It was Cece’s idea, the free-spirited one. She had grabbed a map from a box in Tyson’s SUV and taped it to the wall at the bar. Carlos didn’t think most people owned maps anymore, but Cece explained she wanted it for some art project.

“I’m from the Dominican Republic. This is my first snowy winter. I usually spend my off-season in Florida.” He purchased a small condo not too far from the beach when he first signed with the Buccaneers. It made sense since he was down there for spring training, and he preferred the warmer weather.

“Off-season? What do you do?”

“I play baseball.”

“As in professionally?”

He nodded. He was proud of his achievements, but still felt awkward talking about his career. It was a dream job for many that only a few got to experience.

“Oh.”

He wasn’t sure about her simple response. When most people discovered what he did, they would start asking a bunch of questions and ask for his autograph, and he found it overwhelming.

Hope grabbed her coat and bag, turned off the lights, and locked up the store. He stayed beside her as they walked toward the bar when Hope began to laugh uncontrollably. It confused him, but the wild sound warmed his heart.

“Hope? What’s so funny?” he curiously asked.

She quickly covered her mouth. “I’m so sorry. I’m not laughing at you. This whole day has been odd. First, there was this peculiar snow globe. Then you, this gorgeous professional baseball player, comes knocking on my door. Literally.” She giggled again. “I had pepper spray in my hand ready to use it in case you were a burglar or a rapist.”

Gorgeous, huh? He grinned at her compliment. “Better to be safe than sorry. Now that I think about it, I am very grateful you even opened the door.”

He turned to look at her. Her blonde hair was in a messy bun with a pen holding it together. His fingers itched to set it free and feel the silky strands.

“Ahh!” she screamed, slipping on the sidewalk.

He caught her in his arms before she crashed to the ground. Staring up at him with eyes the color of the Caribbean, she reminded him of the pleasant things from his home country.

“Thank you,” she said breathily.

“De nada.” He paused, reveling in the feeling of having her in his arms. “Do you really think I’m gorgeous?” The question slipped out.

She bit her lip and sheepishly nodded.

“I think you are muy bonita, Hope Hartmann.”

Her eyes shone with passion as heat zinged through his body. Having just met the woman, he cleared his throat and lusty thoughts, stood straight, and released his hold on her.

She linked her arm through his, causing him to take a glimpse at where they were joined.

“Just in case I slip again. The…um…sidewalks are getting worse.” She nervously smiled. “Hal’s is right across the street.”

Happy she was still clutching on to him, they carefully crossed the road and walked toward the bar only to find a sign hanging on the door.

“Closed. Furnace broke,” Hope read aloud. “Well then.” Standing under the small awning providing a bit of protection from the big snowflakes, she pulled out her cell phone and typed something. She scanned her phone and then him and repeated the same odd behavior.

“Something wrong?” he questioned.

“Nope.” She shoved her phone back into her pocket.

“What were you just doing?”

“I Googled you.”

Carlos laughed at her honesty, already feeling quite comfortable with her.

“I also texted my sister and her husband, who live a few minutes away, to let them know that I must be crazy.”

“¿Loca? ¿Por qué?”

“It’s freezing out here and we are in the middle of a snowstorm. Follow me.” She began walking, evidently on a mission. Hope was at least eight inches shorter than his six-foot stature, but she was rather quick for her size. Taking a few big steps, he caught up with her.

“Where are we going?”

“My place.”

Stopping in his tracks, her response took him by surprise. Sure, he wasn’t a criminal, he was actually a really nice guy as many people had told him, sometimes too nice. Was this beautiful woman he just met really opening her home to him? Maybe it was a small-town thing?

“What? I can’t just leave you out here. It’ll be a few hours until the tow truck comes.”

Just then, his cell phone rang and he answered it. The woman on the other end explained that the tow trucks in the area had been called out to a big pile up on the highway and due to the snow, they wouldn’t be able to make it until the following day.

He wasn’t sure if the news was a curse or a blessing, but hoped it was the latter.

“Everything okay?” Hope asked.

He relayed the update to her. “I’m sorry, Hope. I can’t inconvenience you. Is there a hotel or something nearby?”

“Not in walking distance, and I’m not driving in this. Carlos, it’s really no trouble. You can stay in my guest room.”

Gracias, Hope. You are very kind.”

They went back to his car to grab his bag then made a right down a street into a quiet little neighborhood. The houses were nothing like the place he grew up in nor a professional athlete’s home. He thought the residences were all very welcoming and picturesque like cottages out of a fairy tale, all well-kept and decorated for the holidays.

Hope walked toward one. Everything was covered in snow, but the Christmas lights on her home made the snow glisten. Her front porch had a vintage sled and ice skates displayed on it, topped with a huge red bow. A fresh pine wreath hung on her front door, and he inhaled the scent as he walked in behind her.

Hope took off her boots and hung her coat on an old hall tree. Taking her lead, he did the same.

“The guest room is down the hall, first door on the right. The one and only bathroom is on the right behind door number two. Make yourself at home. I’m going to jump in the shower real quick and get all this dust off then I will make us something to eat.”

He nodded and watched Hope as she made her way down the hall. Looking around her home, he noticed how clean and organized it was with mismatched antique furniture, but somehow it all worked. The walls were painted a pale blue with cream-colored crown molding and trim. A stone fireplace was the focal point of the room, flanked by built-in bookcases. A bow window looked out onto her backyard, providing a cozy window seat.

He opened his bag and took out a pair of sweatpants, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and socks. Once he heard the shower running, he figured he could quickly change into something more comfortable and dry.

Moving through the living room and into the kitchen, he saw the cabinets were painted a moss green with butcher block countertops and a farmhouse sink. The kitchen island had an antique finish and had plenty of storage beneath it. While it wasn’t a modern chef’s kitchen, the room was set up perfectly for anyone who loved to cook or bake, and he wondered if Hope did. He found himself wanting to know more about her. What was her childhood like? Was she and her twin alike? How did she get into liking old stuff?

Seeing some fresh vegetables on the counter, he took a quick peek in the refrigerator and decided to whip up some omelets. It was the least he could do.


Chapter Two

Hope was planning on taking a quick shower because of her house guest, but once she got under the hot water, her aching muscles pleaded with her to stay longer. Standing in the stall, she let the water flow over her. Estate cleanouts had always been a tedious task for her, the constant bending over and moving boxes, but the things she found always made up for it, like that snow globe.

Her thoughts wandered back to the man in her living room. What were the chances? He was sexy, but very young, and spoke Spanish. When she Googled him, she discovered he was only twenty-two years old, six years younger than her. In some respects that wasn’t so bad, but she recalled all the growing up she had done once she graduated from college. Then again, Carlos wasn’t even from this country, and she didn’t know much about his culture either.

She turned off the water and stepped out of the shower as she dried herself. Grabbing her melon-scented body butter, she lathered some on, and then threw on her gray fleece pajamas embellished with little snowflakes. She dried the roots of her hair quickly, not even taking the time to do a thorough job but she didn’t want to freeze with soaking wet hair. She had already taken much longer than she should have.

When she opened the door, she encountered a wonderful aroma. She walked to her kitchen and found Carlos making something to eat.

“Sorry I took so long. The hot water was much needed. We had an estate cleanout today and lifting the heavy boxes is never pleasant on the body.”

“No worries. I was making myself at home like you said to. I’m almost done,” he responded.

“You didn’t have to make anything.” She peeked over at the pan on the stove, her mouthwatering at the sight.

“It was my pleasure.” He smiled.

She already liked him being there. Scary thought for just meeting the man.

He slid the omelets onto two plates and set them on the island while she made some tea for them.

“This is delicious. Thank you, Carlos,” she said after taking the first bite, suppressing a moan. The man made killer omelets.

De nada. I like to cook when I can. Do you?”

“I’m actually more of a baker, but lately, I’m not home much to do either. I spend most of my hours at the store eating snack bars.”

Her comment led them into chatting about their favorite foods and the foods they disliked. Carlos talked about his favorite American foods, but he missed some kind of stew from his home country.

Once they were done eating, they moved into the living room and she started a fire. It was part of her nightly ritual where she would get cozy in her chair and read. Tonight, she skipped the book and settled on the couch with Carlos to enjoy his company.

“How long have you lived here?”

“I bought this house a year ago, but I’ve lived in the area since I was little.”

“Tell me more about your town.”

“Well, Sula Falls is not too far from the lake, as you already know since you were passing through on your way there. It’s known for its hiking trails, parks, and campgrounds. We have a beautiful waterfall, hence the town name. Only about six hundred live here, but it brings a lot of tourists through, particularly ones who enjoy nature.”

“Sounds nice.”

“It is, but not so much during the winter time.” She chuckled.

Watching as he scanned the room, he then asked her about the vase she had displayed on her shelf. It was an odd shape of earthly colors, but had been a conversation starter on many instances.

He was curious as to what else she liked, so she told him about some of her favorite findings, most were in her home since she couldn’t part with things she felt a connection to. Continuing on to share with him what she knew about each piece, Carlos listened intently, asking questions to seek more details and her opinion. While her stories often bored people, he seemed to take a liking to them. It was the first time she felt so at ease talking with a man.

She wanted to know more about him, so she asked him about his family, but he quickly changed the subject to his teammates. He spoke very highly of some, especially his catcher, Graham Grayson.

Carlos also talked about all the cities he visited during the season, enjoying all them for different reasons. She giggled when he mentioned his favorite foods and restaurants in each place. The man definitely liked to eat.

She and Carlos were both open-minded and wanted to learn and explore the world. While his was more physical traveling, her method of discovery was through the things she found.

Although they were essentially from different worlds, she found his stories, likes, and dislikes rather fascinating. She also couldn’t deny his accent made the simplest things sound so very sexy, even when he excused himself to use the bathroom.

When a yawn stifled her, Carlos glanced at the clock and chuckled, making her look, as well. It was nearly two o’clock in the morning.

“Wow. Guess time really does fly when you are having fun. I should probably get some sleep. I have to get up early and head into the shop.” She stood and went to the front window to see how much snow had fallen. “It’s really coming down out there. There must be over a foot already.”

Carlos joined her, peeking out, as well.

Feeling his warm breath on her hair, she suddenly became very aware of how close he was to her. His heady scent filled her nose. Not able to resist, she turned around and wrapped her arms around his waist.

“Thank you for a wonderful night. You were a pleasant surprise to my evening, Carlos Castillo,” she said as she embraced him. She couldn’t remember the last time she was so enamored by someone that she didn’t notice the time ticking away.

As she pulled away, his one hand pressed against the small of her back keeping her close. He put his finger under her chin, drawing her eyes up to his. Her breath hitched as he slowly leaned toward her.

Gracias for rescuing me tonight,” he whispered.

His soft, full lips brushed over hers, tantalizing her. Desiring more, she moved her hands over his chest, feeling his hard muscles covered by the soft cotton of his shirt.

He kissed her again, lingering this time, caressing her mouth like the wind on a summer day promising inevitable heat.

Carlos stopped and pressed his lips to her forehead. “Buenas noches, mi precioso.”

“Good night,” she replied, then begrudgingly walked back to her bedroom.

* * * *

That one kiss singed his body with a need to taste her and explore her body. It took Carlos all the control in the world to pull away from Hope and send her off to bed all alone. He had no idea what had come over him. He was a gentleman, and he had just met her, but she was a very beautiful woman with long golden blonde hair and striking blue eyes. More importantly, he was discovering she was smart, charismatic, and so passionate about her career. He enjoyed listening to her stories and seeing a glint in her eyes when she got excited, her joy radiating through her infectious smile.

But tomorrow he would be on his way.

He trekked down the hall to use the bathroom then moved to the guest room. Hope’s bedroom was at the end of the hall, the door cracked open, tempting him to enter. Did she actually want him to join her? The thought crossed his mind as he recalled their kiss, her soft whimper, and how her hands felt against his chest.

No, it wouldn’t be right. She was a gracious host, offering her home to him during the snowstorm, and he could never take advantage of her kindness. So, he continued to his own room which was decorated in neutral colors with a vintage bedroom set and basic off-white bedding. A Tiffany-style lamp lit the room, cascading colors across the plain walls. This area was different from the rest of the house, seemingly untouched by Hope’s eclectic taste.

Further examining the room, his gaze fell upon a wooden box sitting on the dresser. He moved to inspect it, dragging his finger along the top, the intricate wood design overshadowing the rough edges from years of use. As he lifted the lid, music began to play, and he observed the musical mechanism turning, filling his ears with a sweet melody. He couldn’t help but smile knowing she was drawn to the charming treasure, as she was with most of the things throughout her home.

After gently closing the box, he got into bed, sprawling out under the warm covers. He stared at the ceiling for what felt like hours thinking about how his night had drastically changed but grateful for the diversion. He was certain he would never forget Hope or that kiss.