Can’t Hold Back | Returning Home Book 2 

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A wounded hero. The woman who can heal his pain. And a second chance for both of them. 

Alia Drake loves her new job at the R&R veterans retreat. But there are certain lines a physical therapist can’t cross, and she’s face to face with one. Her newest patient is Nate Riordan. Alia and Nate have a history—and not one she’s proud of. Alia knows she has to ignore her feelings for Nate and keep her hands on the parts of him she’s treating. Besides, she long ago gave up any claim she could have to his heart.

Nate craves Alia’s touch, and not just the professional version. But he needs to keep his eyes on the prize and his feet firmly on the path he’s chosen: His Army buddy died on his watch, and Nate has promises to keep. His intense attraction to Alia—and the things she makes him want—have no part in his mission. Or so he tells himself, until his willpower knuckles under to the hottest temptation he’s ever faced.…

“Sweet, realistic and sexy as hell . . . I inhaled this book on a wet Sunday afternoon, and it was time well spent! Serena Bell writes some seriously smart, funny and sexy stories. They always hit you right in the gut.”—I Love Romantic Fiction

“The story was intense, passionate, thought-provoking, heartbreaking, and gave me a true glimpse of what life is like for soldiers returning home … Definitely a series everyone should add to the top of their reading lists, it is sure to satisfy all of your reading needs and then some!!”—Reds Romance Reviews

Can’t Hold Back is a steamy romance, but it’s also so much more. You can’t help but love Alia and Nate and their journey together …. I love it when authors really make me feel something and when I end up sad a book is over.” —The Book Dutchesses

“Oh my goodness—there wasn’t much I didn’t love about this book. It was sweet, it was steamy, and it was filled with angst. … The writing was fabulous and the story line was entertaining. I love this series. Serena always delivers the best romantic yet steamy reads!”—Avid Reader

“With deceit and forgiveness, pain and addiction, healing and a second chance at love, Can’t Hold Back has it all. You do not want to miss this sexy story of a soldier coming home.”—Wendy S. Marcus, award-winning author of All I Need Is You

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Excerpt from Can’t Hold Back

Copyright © 2019 Serena Bell
All rights reserved.

“Is this seat taken?”

From her perspective in the grass, he was a giant, with broad shoulders and a luminous smile. She’d always thought it was exaggeration when women said they lost their breath in a man’s presence, but she just had.

She got a grip and shook her head. “Pull up some turf.” She patted the lawn beside her, and he sat.

He was vivid, like a soldier in a movie: ripped, swaggering, grinning, golden-haired. He’d smiled in her direction earlier, and for a split second she’d thought, Who me? before she remembered that she was standing next to Becca. Her sister was a man magnet. All the two of them had to do was idle in a patch of sunlight admiring the garden, and sexy six-foot-plus men in butt-hugging jeans and black T-shirts materialized from nowhere—

Abracadabra! Hot guy for Becca.

In the car on the way over here, she’d told Becca that Jake’s picnics boasted not just amazing food, but other earthly delights. “We’ll get you back on your feet,” Alia had promised, sneaking a glance at her sister, slumped in the passenger seat. Ever since Becca’s boyfriend had dumped her recently, just as they were getting serious, she rarely smiled.

Becca had been super excited about the guy, and Alia was almost as disappointed as Becca was. She wanted her sister to be happy. Settled. Cared for.

Hot Guy for Becca set his plate on the grass. He sat cross-legged, and his thighs and calves, which looked like they’d been hewn from wood, were generously decked with curly golden hair.

“My sister just went to get some food,” she told him, pointing.

He cast a glance at Becca, standing by the salad table, loading her plate with potato chips. Tall, beautiful, blond, and glowing with vitality.

“You guys don’t look anything alike.”

“We don’t.” She forced a smile. It wasn’t only blindingly obvious differences, like Becca’s blond and Alia’s dark hair, but everything else, too—Becca was slim, with hourglass curves, while Alia was “athletic”; Becca had porcelain skin and Alia was generously freckled; Becca’s features were classic and even, and Alia was—well, she’d be kind to herself and say “cute.”

She sighed.

“Nate Riordan.” The man beside her reached out his hand for a shake.

“Alia Drake.”

Big hands. Warm. A moment ago, the world had smelled like summer. Like grass gone somewhere to seed, roses in bloom, and the mingled marvels of mesquite smoke and grilling meat.

Now her head was filled with a different scent entirely—soap, shampoo, the faintest whiff of some spicy male deodorant or cologne.

He was going to have no difficulty making Becca forget her romantic troubles. He could probably make any woman blank on her own name.

She retrieved her hand before she could reflect any more on that. He was Becca’s hot guy.

Alia worried about Becca a lot. Probably too much, considering they were now both adults and capable of standing on their own. But it was an old, old habit, born after their father’s death and during their mother’s long depressions, when Becca had struggled to keep her head—and her self-esteem—above water.

They were both adults now, but Alia totally got what parents meant when they said your worry didn’t vanish just because your kid had taken off for college.

“You friends with Mira?” Nate asked, hoisting his burger for a bite.

“Jake. We went to PT school together.”

“You’re a physical therapist, too, huh? I’ve always thought that was a cool job.”

“I love it. Love the work, love the people.”

“Yeah? You’re lucky. Not too many people get to say that about their jobs.”

“You don’t love yours?”

He laughed. “Caught that, did you? I don’t have a story like Jake’s, all that post-Nine/Eleven conviction. Going to college for me meant a staggering amount of debt, and the only way I could hope to get myself out from under it was to join up. So that’s what I did. And it’s not that I hate it. I just . . . I guess . . . you find meaning where you can, you know?”

She did, or thought she did, and it made her want to glide straight past small talk and delve in, but instead she asked, “Are you a Ranger, too? Is that how you know Jake?”

“No, actually—Army grunt, between deployments. And I met Jake when he gave a talk. ‘A Life of Purpose’ or something like that. I was a senior in college, it was career week, and I almost didn’t go because I knew I was enlisting, so I figured I knew my purpose, or at least my purpose for a little bit.” He gave a wry shake of his gold-streaked head. “But some of my friends were planning to go, and I thought I should at least check it out. And I was, like, okay, here’s a guy, a Ranger, out of the Army, missing a leg, doing all this great stuff—competing in triathlons, going back to school, helping other soldiers—”

“Jake’s amazing.”

“He is,” Nate agreed, suddenly serious, and that was almost more dazzling than the smiling version. She found herself sucked into his blue-eyed gaze, a little dazed, nodding. “So fu— freaking inspiring. I mean, not some saint, but a guy who suffered and figured out how to come back stronger, to be a dad and a husband, and how to help tons of people, but also not bragging about it.”

She smiled, because, yeah, that was what she loved about Jake, too. Not just the bravery, but: “He won’t take any credit for doing what needs to be done.”

“Right. Damn, couldn’t have said it better. Exactly.” He grinned.

Oh, my God, that grin. Confident but not arrogant, his eyes bright, corners crinkled, a crease that stopped short of being a dimple in one cheek.

She was staring at him, and the moment had stretched too long. Right. She looked away and took a hasty bite of potato salad. Wow. Really good. Mira’s work.

“Now he’s building the retreat—have you seen it?”

He shook his head. “Not yet. But he was telling me about it, and it all makes sense. That he’d end up doing that, helping other guys with the transition. He had a tough homecoming.”

Jake had come back from Afghanistan with an above-the-knee amputation, having lost both his leg and his teammate to an IED explosion—and promptly discovered he was the father of a seven-year-old he’d had no idea existed.

They exchanged knowing glances, then both turned to watch Jake, who was tossing a football with Sam.

“But he turned it into something. And he’s made this great life for himself, you know?”

Yeah, again, she knew, but suddenly she couldn’t quite get the words to come out around the feeling in her chest. The tightness was caused by thinking about Jake and what he’d lost and found, yes, but it also had something to do with the sympathy, admiration, and longing on Nate’s face when he watched father and son together.

“Anyway—” Nate’s lopsided smile and half-shrug said, Back to lighter topics. “I went up after the talk and said how much I admired what he’d done, and we ended up getting drunk together. So now I’m on the picnic invitation list.”

“And once you’re on the list, you’re on forever. And Jake and Mira know how to throw a party.”

They smiled at each other, and he raised his red plastic party cup to hers in a toast. “To the picnic list.”

“Hey, guys.”

She’d almost forgotten about Becca, who was now standing over them with her plate, looking faintly uncomfortable. As if she were waiting for an invitation she wasn’t sure would be extended.

She’d seen that look on her sister’s face far too many times. The expression Becca wore after of years of being unsure of herself.

Becca, who hadn’t learned to read till she was ten, who called herself dumb way too often, who still found writing almost impossible. Becca, whose boyfriend had told her he needed to be with someone who was his intellectual equal.

Becca, who was Alia’s family. Because their dad was gone and their mom was—well, she was who she was—and the two of them had still somehow made a childhood out of the muddle.

And crap, Alia wasn’t supposed to be shopping for a boyfriend for herself. She was supposed to be playing wingman to her sister.

Anyway, Nate really wasn’t Alia’s type. Alia’s life, for better or for worse, had made her into someone who thrived on taking care of people. It didn’t tend to work out well for her with guys who were more the fiercely independent alpha types.

And if there was something she knew about Nate Riordan after five minutes in his company, it was that he knew what he wanted and how to get it.

For a split second more, she hesitated, looking between them—the guy who’d just almost made her forget her mission, and her sister, who deserved happiness more than anyone Alia knew.

Then she said, “Nate, Becca. Becca, Nate,” and caught Becca’s eye and grinned at her sister. Look what I found for you!

Nate stood to shake Becca’s hand.

See? That right there. The kind of guy for whom chivalry wasn’t dead.

 He could take care of Becca the way she deserved.

Alia stood, too. Becca was—she was actually smiling at Nate. Or at least most-of-the-way smiling.

God, she’d missed her sister’s smile.

Nate smiled back at Becca. Her hand was still in his.

Perfect. The handshake would do its magic, and Becca could handle the rest.

Alia watched the two of them, golden in the sun, and felt—

A curl of something in her chest. The pleasure of a match well made, maybe.

“I’m gonna grab some lemonade. Either of you—”

“No, thanks,” Becca said.

“I’m good,” Nate said.

Alia walked away.

Half an hour later, Becca caught her arm beside the dessert table.

“Are you sure? He talked to you first. You guys looked like you were enjoying yourselves.”

When Alia answered, she did it casually, with so much confidence there could be no doubt.

“A hundred percent positive.”

She was. A hundred percent positive about wanting to make Becca smile. All the way. All the time.

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