Enjoy this excerpt of AMBER TO ASHES by Gail McHugh and be sure to grab your copy!
They were a storm I never saw coming, an unforeseen heartbreak on the edge of a dangerous cliff.
Amber Moretti’s life changes in the span of minutes. An orphaned outsider, she is desperate to start fresh the moment she walks onto campus. In the time it takes to cross the university’s dining hall, she meets two men who bring color, air, and light to her darkened world.
They became my addiction, each a needle to my next hit, my high.
Brock Cunningham’s appeal is dizzying, a potent force Amber can’t deny. A green-eyed smooth talker, he instantly attracts Amber. It doesn’t take long for him to consume her every thought, her every breath.
Ryder Ashcroft, a blue-eyed, tattooed, and pierced bad boy, turns Amber off immediately—that is, until he kisses her, stealing a piece of her heart, her soul.
They were as opposite as fire and ice, yet I ached for them equally.
Never knowing she could be broken down in so many unexpectedly beautiful yet petrifying ways, Amber finds herself falling for both men.
Immoral? Maybe. I say undeniable. Uncontained.
But one event changes everything, shattering each of their lives…and Amber isn’t sure she can come back from it.
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“What are you, Casey?” Ryder asks over his shoulder as he scrubs his hands with antibacterial soap.
“Your little cancer warrior,” she answers with a small smile.
“That’s right.” He dries his hands and turns, a proud grin cracking his mouth. “The bravest one ever.”
I grab Casey’s hand and hold it tight, knowing nothing I’ve ever seen, heard, or felt compares to what she’s facing. This child’s living with a fear I can’t comprehend. One that’d slay all of my fears put together.
“Ready?” Ryder asks, his tone soft and caring, everything it should be.
Casey nods, clenching my hand. My heart swells, anxiety building thick in my throat as Ryder slips on a pair of medical gloves and cleans the area around her port with Betadine swabs.
Casey looks at me, the cool blue of her eyes misting over. “Are you scared of needles?”
“No,” I say, running my free hand along the back of her neck. “Are you?”
“I used to be.” She sighs, a single tear slipping down her face. “But not so much anymore.”
It takes everything in me not to drag her little body off the table and run out of the apartment with her. I wipe the tear from her cheek, my need to hide her away, sheltering her from the sinister storm she’s in the middle of, growing with each unsteady breath.
“A little cold,” Ryder warns before spraying the anesthetic on her skin.
“Hurry, Ry,” Casey pleads, her voice weak yet panicked. “It doesn’t last that long.”
“I have to make sure you’re numb, Case.” Ryder ducks his head and stares into her eyes, trying to keep her focused on the silly faces he’s making.
His tactic works.
Casey’s tiny giggles bounce around the kitchen, their musical notes blocking out the sound of Ryder popping the cap off a weird-looking needle. With a small, clear tube like a tail—and plastic wings stretched out on either side—it reminds me of a dragonfly. Ryder presses his gloved finger against Casey’s port a few times, his attention honed in on her face as he says, “Knock, knock.”
“Who’s there?” Casey smiles at me, completely unaware that Ryder’s pricked her skin with the needle.
“Aardvark.” Ryder pushes the medicine through the syringe, his attention cutting between Casey’s face and the needle.
“Aardvark who?” she manages, a thin sheen of sweat dotting her upper lip.
“Aardvark a hundred miles for one of your pretty smiles.” Ryder pulls the needle from her chest, and before she can blink, he rests his lips against her forehead, kissing away her remaining fear.
Close to immobile, my heart tugs, the magnitude of what this man means to this little girl—what they mean to each other—scraping tears up my dry throat. I swallow the sound before it can leave me, warmth pinching my stomach into a beautiful knot as I observe them.
“It’s over?” Casey asks, uncertainty flashing in her eyes.
“Yeah, kiddo. It’s over,” Ryder answers, his voice heavy with relief as he applies a small piece of gauze over her port. “You’re all set, warrior. Go get cleaned up, and we’ll get ready to leave.”
With Ryder’s aid, Casey slides off the table and heads for the bathroom, the bounce in her step less tangible as she slips around the corner. Quiet reigns, the events from the last few minutes whispering across my mind as Ryder looks at me with exhausted eyes. Stress lines cut across his forehead, wariness drowning his beautiful features. Overcome, I watch him swipe a tired hand over his face and turn, resting his palms against the counter. As though having no control over my body—a magnet pulling in my gut—I stand and move toward him, each tentative step I take carried out with shallow, quick breaths. I come up behind him, lift a shaky hand and tap his shoulder, my pulse lurching as he turns and meets my gaze. Our connection strikes, a bolt of emotions paralyzing us as we stare at each other.
I touch my fingers to his stubbled cheek, my conscience crying out that my actions are wrong, so very wrong, but my heart mutes the warning as I move my palm to the back of his neck.
His muscles go taut, restraint lighting the fiery blue of his eyes. “Amber, don’t.” The words come out not as a rough warning but a soft plea. “Don’t do this.”
“I have to,” I whisper, trembling. “You’re . . . amazing, Ryder. What you did for her, everything you do for her . . . I just . . .” I drop my eyes to his chest, my heart galloping as I register his hands gripping my waist. Their heat sears through me, a thrill jumping from cell to cell. “You’re tender, cocky, gentle, and an a$$hole all at the same time. You’re kind, giving, nurturing. You’re . . . everything.”
My lips find his, testing, teasing, barely touching. Our breathing comes faster, harder as I pull him down, our foreheads pressed together as we stare into each other’s eyes. “Please . . . I just . . . Just once more. That’s all I need.”
I think . . . hope.
With hunger demolishing all traces of restraint from his gaze, Ryder buries his hands in my wavy curls and looks at me a beat before capturing my lips in a slow, passionate kiss. I sigh into his mouth, my senses drowning in his familiar flavor as I fall in step with his calculated strokes. On a deep groan, he draws me closer, his tongue dipping in and out, out and in. Still, nothing about his touch is rough, yet everything in it screams that he needs me in this moment.
In this wicked space and time of his life.
Every lick and nip is a soft caress, like he’s trying to burn the sensation of my lips into his memory. My pulse hammers in staccato mode as I melt the full weight of my body into his. With my blood swimming through my veins, and sinking further into everything that is Ryder, I feel the emptiness of his soul slice through me. A dull ache pinches my heart, spreading its misery through my muscles as he cups my cheeks and deepens the kiss with a gentleness I never knew he possessed. My breath catches, wiped from my lungs as he glides his lips along my jaw, down the base of my throat. The cadence of his exotic growl slips through my ears, dizzying my head in the sweetest way.
“Christ, I f*cking want you so bad,” Ryder whispers hoarsely. He drags his lips back to mine, his kiss urgent, greedy. However, he brings it down a notch, his movements revisiting slow, sensual, worshipping this moment for everything it is. Worshipping me for all I am. “So badly, peach. More than I’ve ever wanted anything or anyone. You drive me crazy. Your smell, skin, eyes.” He sucks my lip between his teeth, a groan punching from his chest as he runs his fingertips along my bare arms.
Goose bumps pop, deliciously pricking my skin as I tighten my grip in his hair.
“Your little giggles, pouts, personality. Every single f*cked-up scar you own in and out. All of it. All of you.” He licks into my mouth, his tongue exploring mine with precision as his hands find my nape, their hold possessive. “F*ck. It should’ve been me. Not him. Me.”
And just like that, our moral compasses spring due north, Brock the center of its attention—our attention. We slowly break the kiss, our breathing choppy from the loss.
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