TITLE: Finding Freedom
AUTHOR: Natalie Gayle
SERIES: Centre Games – Book 3
Dylan “Ice Dragon” Thompson has suddenly become the hottest thing in MMA. He’s fought all his life for control and inner peace. He focuses on what he excels at—fighting and his work with the Centre. It’s what he knows and what keeps him in balance. His latest assignment has him fighting a war with a partner he doesn’t believe he can trust.
Vanessa Aldridge has grown up in the gym and has seen it all—some good, some bad. But when performance-enhancing drugs threaten her life and her personal sense of worth—enough is enough. The very people closest to her now have her questioning their motives and nobody is as they seem. On top of all this, she’s unwittingly become the number-one pawn in an organised crime game and she’s risking her heart on a guy who wants to fight for everything but them.
Vanessa quickly discovers that Dylan is far from what he appears to be. But what happens when his latest assignment blows his carefully created world wide open? Can Dylan win the most important fight of all—the one for her heart and their future? Or will he retreat back into the one-dimensional existence of working and fighting? Can Vanessa remain steadfast to her principles and just maybe take the ultimate prize? The battle lines are drawn.
When the bell rings, who will step up to fight? The prize: A future of freedom.
Centre Games Series
Vanessa snuggled into Dylan’s side and placed her head on his chest. His arm came around her and held her tight to his body. It had fast become her favourite place to relax and to sleep. She really enjoyed this closeness between them. They’d just spent the last couple of hours enjoying each other in some incredibly delicious ways. Their need for each other seemed to be getting stronger, if anything. Hard to believe, but true.
It didn’t feel just like sex to Vanessa any longer. There was something much more to their relationship now. It felt much deeper, more committed. He’d just made love to her. Whether he labelled it that or not, didn’t really matter. Vanessa was sure there was more to it than just mutual satisfaction. Sex satisfied the basic needs of the body; making love replenished the soul and that’s how she felt right now.
“Whatcha thinking, Van?” Dylan stroked the hair back from her warm forehead.
“I was thinking just how much I like lying here in your arms, listening to your heart beat. I feel content and nothing seems to matter when I’m here beside you. I think I’ve moved past the care thing, Dylan. I think I’m in love with you.” Vanessa realised it was the truth as soon as the words left her mouth. She hadn’t intended to say them but he had a right to know. If he didn’t want her love or couldn’t deal with it, she deserved to know that as well.
It couldn’t be unsaid, nor did she actually want to. If he chose to run, then that was on him. At least she would know one way or the other.
He was quiet for a long moment and Vanessa’s stomach filled with dread. What did he really think? How would he answer? Would he even acknowledge she’d said the words?
Finally, she could stand it no longer.
“Um, I’m sorry for unloading that on you. I think you…”
He brought a finger to her lips and hushed her. “Stop thinking the worst, Vanessa. It’s only been a second. I’m going to answer; you’ve just taken me by surprise.
I’m trying to figure out how I feel because I never expected to hear those words again from any woman. I guess it’s kind of taken me by surprise.”
Vanessa wondered how this could be. Just the other day, they’d decided they both “cared” about each other. Surely love wasn’t much of a jump, or was it for someone like Dylan, who was usually so closed off? Her heart tightened for him; to not ever expect to hear those words…that was devastating.
“I didn’t mean to put you on the spot, Dylan. It just kind of slipped out but it’s the truth. I’m sorry if that upsets you.”
He squeezed her to him tighter. “Vanessa, never apologise for loving someone. Having someone’s love is an absolute gift. I’m just trying to decide if I’m worthy of yours.”
Vanessa placed her hand over the pec that her head wasn’t resting on and pushed up. She needed to see his eyes to really understand what was going through his head. Plus she wanted him to see hers and know everything she said was the absolute truth.
“Dylan, what on earth ever happened to you to make you feel that you weren’t worthy of someone’s love?” Her voice cracked as she said the words so choked with emotion.
He raked his hand back through his hair.
“I’m not like you, Van. I’m human but I have all this weird shit going on inside me. I don’t know if what I feel is the same as what you feel. What if what I feel is not love but something else? What if my animal genes somehow change all this?”
She desperately tried to process his words. “Are you saying that you’re wondering if what you’re feeling is the same as what I’m calling love?”
“Yeah, I guess. I mean I’m more than just human, so I wonder if the feelings we label as something are the same. I know the definitions for emotions. I just wonder if we’re talking about the same thing we actually feel.”
Wow. This was deep. Her mind raced. How could they align? How could she help him clarify his feelings?
“Well, maybe if I tell you what I’m feeling and labelling love, then you can decide if that’s what you think it is?” He looked uncertain and Vanessa definitely felt the same. But she knew she had to be brave and push on. She sensed this conversation was potentially life-changing to them. Rather than wait for him to answer, she launched on.
“Dylan, to me love is many things. It’s a combination of lots of feelings all rolled into one. It’s about what I feel for you but it’s also about how you make me feel about myself. Let me give you some specific examples. It’s laying here snuggled into you like this. I feel totally relaxed, safe, and special. It’s knowing you’re always so concerned about my safety and you’re prepared to immediately step up to ensure it and you don’t mind offending a few people on the way if that’s what it takes. It’s the little affectionate kisses on the neck, the pats on the butt, the times you pull me into your side. It makes me feel special and good inside to know you want me close. It’s what we do in the bedroom.” He looked like he was about to interrupt but this time it was Vanessa’s turn to press her fingers to his lips.
“Shhh, you’ll get your turn soon. Don’t tell me it’s just lust. It’s much more than that. You’ve taken the time and the effort to make sure I’ve been satisfied. And that could probably be construed as you being a generous lover. But it’s how you touch me, caress me. Your touch has changed of late. It feels like I’m special and important to you. It’s different from the beginning. More fulfilling.
“It’s the way we can talk about things, argue about things but still move forward. I’m quite capable of handling most situations that life throws at me—some good, some bad. I find myself wanting to share the good with you. I want to tell you all about them, experience them with you more than anyone else. And the bad—well, it doesn’t seem so daunting or terrible with you there to lean on. You make me feel good about myself. You make me feel like I can do anything I set my mind to. I feel whole when I’m with you. You’re the first person I think of when I wake up and the last person I think of before I go to sleep. You’re the one I want to talk to first, spend time with.” She could see the emotions roll across his face and his hazel eyes mirrored her every word. She wondered what he was thinking. “This is what I’m defining as love.”
She relaxed back onto his chest and pulled herself in tight to him. His arms closed tighter around her.
He’d need a few moments to process all that. Hell, she did too.
Once she’d started, the words just seemed to keep coming. She really hoped he understood where she was coming from. It may not have been the most eloquent of descriptions or speeches, but that was how she felt. That’s what love meant to her.
Finally he shifted a little and dragged her up his body. He reached up and pressed his lips to hers. “You really feel all that about me?”
She nodded without hesitation. It was such a simple question to answer. “I do feel like that.”
He took her by surprise and rolled over. He brought her under him, his body laid out over the top of hers. She loved the feeling of his weight on her. He planted his forearms on the mattress beside her shoulders and his eyes seemed to bore into her soul.
“I feel lots of things about you, too, Vanessa. I’m not going to label it love right here and now because I think that would be premature and somehow cheapen what you’ve just shared with me, but you certainly helped clarify a few things for me. I definitely care deeply for you, more than I’ve ever felt for anyone else in a very long time. Maybe even forever. Now that I know we’re talking about the same thing, I need to try it on for size. See how it fits.” He leant forward and touched his lips to hers in a searing kiss. He didn’t try to push for more. The simplicity and chasteness of it spoke much more than hungry passion would have. Somehow it seemed this kiss marked the start of something bigger, better in their relationship.
“Thank you for loving me, Vanessa, and caring enough to try to explain to me just what I mean to you.” He dropped a light kiss on the tip of her nose and it tickled.
She giggled. “You said before never to apologise for loving someone. Now I’m going to say to you—never thank me for loving you. I give it to you freely and willingly. I don’t expect nor do I want thanks in return. Just honesty and understanding, and if you one day realise you love me also, that would make my world complete.”
He looked down at her for a few long seconds. It should have felt uncomfortable but it didn’t. It felt as if he was trying to absorb her into his being. As if he was trying to get to the very centre of what made her the person she was. It felt liberating but very exposing at the same time, but there was nothing she wanted to hide from him anymore. She really hoped that very soon that’s the way he’d feel about her.
I recently discovered those school vocational assessments are really interesting and probably correct! Who would have thought, hey? You see, I clearly remember taking one of those in Year 11 (for my US friends, I think that equates to junior year in high school). Anyway, semantics. Well, the results came back indicating that I should pursue a career in writing and something else. What that something else was I can’t remember but the writing thing stuck in my mind.
Sure, I’d always liked English and had already developed a ravenous appetite for romance novels by the age of sixteen—but who becomes a writer straight out of school? So to cut a long story short, I went to Uni and studied Business and ended up managing large-scale IT projects shortly after.
I can’t complain: it’s been a great career. I’ve done some awesome projects and met some incredible people and I won’t be giving it up anytime soon. Anyway, I’ve messed around with a couple of “secret” novels over the years and I finally decided to get serious and finish one. Hence “Finding Trust” came about. And about twenty years later, I’ve finally proved a vocational assessment correct, because I love writing!
As to some other stuff about me: I live on the Gold Coast, Australia. I love spending time with my family and friends. When I’m not sitting behind a screen playing with IT or writing, you might find me down the beach playing in the waves on a Jet Ski or a bogey board (both are uber cool). When the weather turns a bit cooler (doesn’t really happen on the Gold Coast), we like to head for the snow. I’ve discovered I have two kids who are kamikaze skiers—they must take after their father. He’s always at me to “release the handbrake.” Apparently I’d ski so much better. I call it a healthy understanding of self-preservation and gravity!
I like to think I can fit in a few workouts and martial arts classes each week. This tends to be a figment of my imagination more than reality, unfortunately. I am trying to remedy this, but those damn characters just keep demanding to have their stories told and, well, there’s always another good book to read!
I hope you enjoy mine.
Please drop me a line. You can find me at my website, www.nataliegayle.com. I’m active on Facebook, Twitter, and via email Natalie@nataliegayle.com.au. I’d love to know what you think of my books and well, let’s be truthful—I love talking about books, whether they’re mine or someone else’s. Fiction is just so much more fun than reality!!!