In her nine-to-five life, Stacey Hough is a confident young woman whose career is going from strength to strength. But a trip to Hawaii for her cousin’s wedding lays bare her deepest insecurities, and she books the first flight home to Atlanta to avoid exposing her curves on the beach. Tired of being unhappy, she decides to take action and heads to the gym. But her personal trainer’s seductive smile and ridiculous muscles make it hard to focus on lifts and lunges . . .
Robert Liston lives to help people achieve their goals. When Stacey walks into his gym, he sees a voluptuous woman who doesn’t know how beautiful she really is, and he’s determined to help her learn to accept herself. As soon as she starts warming up on the treadmill, things start warming up between them, and it’s only a matter of time before Rob is putting Stacey through her paces at the gym—and in the bedroom. As the line between work and pleasure blurs, Rob must convince her that sexy has nothing to do with the scale—and that her imperfections inspire the greatest passion of all . . .
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By Regina Cole
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Gina Lamm
All rights reserved.
Before she'd left home, the thought of a November vacation in Hawaii had made Stacey Hough giddy. But now that it was actually happening, all she could think about were the drops of sweat wending their way down her spine as her sandals made flapping noises against the concrete walkway.
"Just a few more feet until air-conditioning," she said to herself, eyeing the resort's beautiful, air-conditioned tower of hotel rooms that would give her sanctuary. This was less than ideal. Her cousin would pick the hottest November on record to have her destination wedding.
Stacey upped her pace, trying to ignore the beads of moisture tickling her upper lip. That wasn't exactly fair. Sabrina couldn't have known how hot it would be. Besides, it wasn't the bride's fault that her maid of honor was sweating like a teenage boy who'd gotten caught watching Internet porn. That was all Stacey's doing.
"I'll go to the beach," she'd said to herself after lunch with the bride. It had been years since she'd been on a real vacation, and she had intended to enjoy it. Of course, she couldn't actually find the guts to put on the new swimsuit she'd bought for the trip. The imaginary confidence she'd been leaning on up until this point went poof in the harsh light of the tropical paradise. No way could she go out in any kind of swimwear. There were way too many witnesses. The tradeoff was a nice walk. But what should have been a relaxing hour-long stroll along a beautiful coastline had turned into a hot, sandy trek across what might as well have been the Sahara, and had turned Stacey's joy at the vacation into a chore. It sucked, but the temporary discomfort would be over soon.
The artificially cooled air caressed Stacey's cheeks, and she gave a heavy sigh of relief as the glass hotel doors swung shut behind her. Finally. Punching the button for the elevator, she glanced upward.
Crap. Her strawberry-blond hair was frizzing around her forehead. Turning, she looked in the mirror that was mounted on the opposite wall and promptly blanched.
Good Lord, she looked like a nightmare. Red, sweaty, and frightening. If she ran into any small children on the way to her room, they'd probably need therapy for years to come.
This was why she stayed home. Work was safe. Work, she could throw herself into with abandon and not come out looking like a cartoon villain. Oh well. She had planned to shower before tonight's bachelorette party anyway. There were a couple of hours left for her to make herself look presentable.
The elevator doors glided open, and Stacey's stomach plummeted through the floor. Shit.
"Good Lord, Stacey, what happened to you? You look terrible!" Aunt Beatrice wasted no time in pointing out the obvious as she exited the elevator.
"I went for a run. I'm training for the Iron Man," Stacey joked drily as she passed her aunt.
Completely missing the sarcasm, Aunt Beatrice lit up with a smile. "Good! That is fabulous. You do need to exercise, but perhaps next time you should dress a bit differently? You aren't wearing the right attire, and there are sweat stains on —"
The doors shut then, and Stacey slumped against the back wall of the elevator.
Getting angry was exhausting and pointless. Aunt Beatrice had been dropping comments about her weight and other shortcomings since Stacey was in preschool. Her family had won the genetic lottery, and Stacey was the only exception. Not that she was ugly. She'd gotten the reddish-blond hair and blue eyes, sure, but the height and good metabolism had definitely skipped her. At least her own parents were vacationing in Europe, and unable to join in the fun of pointing out her faults. Fortunately, Bree was nothing like her mother in attitude. Bree was Stacey's favorite relative, and one of her closest friends. There wasn't much Stacey wouldn't endure for her, and that included record-high temperatures and snooty Aunt Beatrice.
When she finally arrived on her floor, Stacey dragged an arm across her cheeks and walked determinedly to her room. Tonight would be just what she needed. Bree always did wonders for Stacey's mood, and the other bridesmaid, Eliza, seemed really nice. They'd go out for pedicures, a fancy dinner, and then a night out dancing and cutting loose.
Stacey forced a smile. It would be a blast. Just the thing to help her shake off these blues.
* * *
The club beat drove through Stacey's body, urging her to move. A pleasant haze surrounded her brain, the light curtain of alcohol dulling her inhibitions.
"I didn't know you were such a good dancer, Stace!" Bree yelled to be heard over the thudding bass.
Stacey grinned and swiveled her hips, lifting her empty glass high. "Only when I'm thousands of miles away from home and slightly tipsy."
Nodding toward the empty glass, Bree smiled. "Another drink? I'm buying!"
"Seriously, stop it. Between you and Eliza getting me drinks, I'm going to be completely hammered." Stacey laughed. "I've already had enough. Just a water for me."
"Fine." Bree rolled her eyes. "Liza, another cosmo?"
Eliza, Bree's pretty, dark-haired friend from college, shook her head vehemently. Maybe a little too vehemently, because she stumbled backward a bit, knocking into a tall guy with gold chains decorating the space where his shirt was unbuttoned.
"Oh gosh, I'm sorry," Eliza stammered, regaining her balance. "I didn't mean to bump into you."
"No worries," he said, a wide, eager smile spreading across his face. "I was coming over here to talk to you, anyway. I talked to the bartender, she said you liked cosmos." He held out a pink cocktail to Eliza.
A brief flash of jealousy hit Stacey, but she tamped it down instantly. It wasn't like she wanted attention from a guy like Miami Vice here, but it would be nice to have a guy pay attention to her for once. The only men who looked her way were usually retirees or her gynecologist. And the gynecologist she had to pay.
She shook her head. Damn. This trip was really doing a number on her self-esteem. Every time she clawed her way back to her normal, cheerful mood, something else happened to piss all over it.
"No, that's okay. Thanks anyway." Eliza turned back to Stacey and Bree, but the guy grabbed Liza's shoulder.
Stacey's spine stiffened in anger.
"Hey, I'm talking to you. Don't be such a bitch." Miami Vice glared down at Eliza, but Bree grabbed her and pulled her away.
"What's the matter? Pussy got your tongue?" He laughed at his stupid joke, the sound carrying far in the break between songs.
That. Was. Enough.
Stacey shoved her way in front of Eliza and Sabrina, throwing her arms wide and blocking the guy from coming any closer. "She said she doesn't want a drink, you dickhead. Leave her alone."
For a moment, she was brave, she was strong, and the determination felt good. With her jaw clenched tight, she glared up at him, daring him to cross her.
Sadly, her moment of glory was short-lived.
"I was talking to your friend, you fat, ugly cunt. Fuck off." The guy walked straight into Stacey, muscling her out of his path. His foot hooked behind her heel, and his elbow went straight into her ribs. The ground rushed up at her, much too fast.
The sound of her head connecting with the hard dance floor echoed inside her skull, the pain and sound bouncing from side to side. Stacey blinked, but the club was still sideways. Her heart had stopped, but now it was launching itself into her throat.
It was hard to tell which hurt worse — the pain in her head or the shame of those ugly words.
"Stacey, say something! Oh God, you're really hurt, aren't you?" Bree was babbling above Stacey, her cold hand patting Stacey's cheek.
"I'm okay," Stacey ground out. God, even speaking hurt. "Just help me sit up."
Bree's arm snaked beneath Stacey's neck, and as she helped her rise into a sitting position, the nausea clogged Stacey's throat. Slamming her eyes shut, she concentrated on not throwing up.
"Oh shit," Bree said, and Stacey opened her eyes just in time to see Eliza's foot connect with the guy's crotch. She wanted to cheer, but just being upright was all she could manage at the moment.
It seemed like years later that Bree helped her to her feet, and the dance floor spun around Stacey. A ring of spectators surrounded them, and Stacey wanted to sink through the floor. Everyone had seen that, had heard the awful things the jackass had said. They'd seen her fall to the floor, the fat girl who shouldn't even be there.
There was a crack in her heart as wide as the one in her skull, and all Stacey wanted to do was run home to Atlanta and never show her face in public again.
* * *
Since she'd changed her flight so last-minute, she'd gotten stuck with one of the worst spots on the whole freaking plane. Back corner, in front of the lavatory, window seat. And her neighbor? Dude had to be pushing three hundred and fifty pounds himself.
She stared out the window, wishing the miles to fly by faster. The pressure of the elevation was causing her head to pound even harder than it had before she'd boarded.
"Ma'am, would you care for something to drink?"
Stacey jumped as she realized the flight attendant was talking to her. "Sorry, just ice water please."
"I like your eye makeup," the woman said as she dished ice into the plastic cup. "That shade of bronze really makes your blue eyes pop."
"Thanks," Stacey said lamely as she took her cup of water. Damn it, she should have taken the time to wash her face after the wedding. No, there hadn't been time, since she was trying to get out without too many guests noticing, but still. Her wedding makeup and hair probably looked really odd with her comfy pants and long-sleeved Mumford & Sons tee.
Sipping her water, Stacey scooched as close to the window as she possibly could get and opened her tablet. Blessing the free Wi-Fi on this flight, she started Googling.
This wedding had changed something inside her. Being there with her extended family, posing for pictures with the beautiful, perfect bridal party, and ruining Bree's bachelorette party had shown Stacey that she really didn't have a handle on life outside of work. In her job, she was confident, happy, complete. Outside of the city-planning department, in the "real life" zone? She really didn't like that Stacey at all.
It wasn't a surprise, of course. She'd rationalized it by reminding herself that most people didn't like themselves, right? It was a normal thing, at least in Stacey's experience. But when she'd been at the ER, hurting and alone, because she'd insisted she was fine and Eliza and Bree should go on and party, she'd realized that if she were someone else, anyone else, this wouldn't have happened.
Like it or not — and she didn't — a big part of her problem was her weight. Eighteen wasn't exactly the size models sported on the runway. And when she'd glimpsed the note the ER physician was scribbling in her chart, she'd caught the word obese only three words in.
Outside of her work accomplishments, what did she have? The most important thing about her, the most notable, was the size of her ass. And she was tired of it.
Page after page of results came back from her search.
"Good Lord," she muttered under her breath. How many freaking gyms were close to her apartment? A shit-ton, apparently.
Starting at the top, she clicked the first hit. Oh hell, no. Way too hard core for her. The home page touted the professional bodybuilders who used the gym, showing them in all their bronzed, oiled, and muscled perfection.
"Damn," her neighbor said, leaning closer to look over Stacey's shoulder. "She's freaking hot."
"Yeah," Stacey said, tilting her tablet the guy's way. "She's my girlfriend."
"Oh," he said, then turned back to his paperback.
Clicking back to the search results, Stacey scanned the names. All the common ones were there, the huge chains with instantly recognizable names, the typical eating-healthy groups advertising in banners across the top of each page.
A wave of tension crested over her shoulders. No, no, none of this was right. She didn't want to roll up into some huge mega-gym with thousands of people running on treadmills and be the fat chick everyone stared at. She needed help. Someone to show her how the heck to operate the stuff, how to do it right, without hurting or embarrassing herself.
A trainer. That's it. She needed to find a trainer.
As soon as the word popped into her brain, her headache eased off, and she smiled to herself. Yeah. This was right.
Clearing the search bar, she started again. Personal trainers within a five-mile radius of her apartment.
"Bingo," she said aloud. There it was. The name of the gym she'd be training at come Monday morning, if they had space for her. Healthy Living Training sounded perfect for her. Small, intimate, and encouraging. Training for people of all fitness levels.
It didn't hurt that the little picture under the Meet Robert Liston, our founder and head trainer tagline looked like it'd been peeled right out of a men's fashion magazine. The dude was hot.
And even though he'd never look at her twice, if she was going to be running her ass off, and sweating like a hooker in Hades, she'd like to do it while looking at a Greek god.
She might be a chubby girl, but damn it, her hormones worked just fine.CHAPTER 2
The chill of the November morning threatened to seep down into Robert Liston's bones, but as he pushed through the doors, the warmth of the gym — his gym — chased it away. He smiled as he disabled the alarm system. The smell of new paint had finally faded, and the place was starting to take on a life of its own now.
"Hey, Rob. 'Morning."
Rob glanced over his shoulder as he threw the light switches to the ON position. "'Morning, Tony. You're here early."
The gym's first regular, a local attorney who'd signed up just after the doors had been unlocked in their old location for the first time, gave a million-watt grin. "Got a meeting this morning, and I can't miss my workout."
Rob nodded as Tony grabbed a towel and headed off to the cardio machines for a warm-up.
The warmth inside Rob's chest grew as he prepped the front counter for the day, and it didn't have anything to do with the space's new furnace. It was the vibe of the place. His place. More regulars were flowing in now, tossing cheerful greetings or early morning grunts his way.
The gym was finally looking like it was going to make it. He'd done that — nobody else. This was his dream, and if things kept up for the rest of the year the way they had been for the last couple of months, they'd be close to recouping the start-up costs and begin turning a profit. Maybe now his family would see —
"Ugh, why do we have to open so freaking early?" Brandi Matthews, his second-in-command and one of his closest friends, grumbled as she dumped her bag behind the counter. "Can't people work out in the afternoon?"
"Not if they want to keep their jobs," Rob said mildly as he punched the button on the Keurig. Brandi was a sweet person, but before her coffee she kind of hated life. He'd learned his lesson when she started working with him a year ago, and now, as soon as he set eyes on her, he got it brewing.
"Who needs a job? I could sell plasma."
"You'd get about fifty bucks a donation, and you can't do it more than once or twice a month, if I remember correctly."
"How much is rent on a park bench? I could eat Ramen."
"And that fluffy cat of yours would starve to death, because God forbid she eat anything but organic premium tuna."
Brandi, who'd been burying her face in her arms, raised her head long enough to arch a perfectly plucked brow at Rob. "You know she's got a sensitive digestive system."
"Bullshit. That cat is pickier than you are, and that's saying something." Rob deposited the mug beside Brandi's elbow with a smile. "Now, come on, princess. Suck it up. You've got a new client coming in soon."
Brandi snarled, but grabbed her mug and began sipping anyway.
The thump and hum of footsteps on the treadmill, the soft click of weight machines, the sound of voices and laughter swirled around him like a warm spring breeze. Rob closed his eyes, just for a minute. This was what peace felt like. Fulfillment. His family hadn't understood. After all, he was supposed to go to medical school, just like his dad had, his granddad too. But medicine hadn't called to him like this did. Like owning his own business, helping others achieve their potential, their goals. Dad didn't get it. Neither did Mom, or his two sisters. For the longest time, they'd all presumed he was pursuing a failing idea.
He cared about their opinions, but they hadn't stopped him. If anything, the negativity spurred him harder to make this a success.
His gym, Healthy Living, was situated right in the heart of Atlanta. In its first six months, membership numbers were growing, word was getting around, and their success seemed more likely now.
"You asleep? Come on, dude, I'm not running this place alone for the next two hours."
Rob opened his eyes to a now-smiling Brandi. Her mug was half-empty, so caffeine levels were approaching the safety zone.
"You really need to get a coffeemaker for your house, you know."
Brandi rolled her eyes. "Why would I do that when I can drink it here?"
"Because then maybe you'd be human before I inflicted you on people? You know Tony's terrified of you." Rob nodded his head at the weight bench closest to the counter, where Tony had set up shop.
Excerpted from Sexy Living by Regina Cole. Copyright © 2017 Gina Lamm. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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