Secrets can derail even the most powerful attraction.
Logger Sven Larson has never found a man worth publicly coming out of the closet for. But his family has other plans. As a thirtieth birthday gift, his mother hires the online dating service Perfect Match to find Sven the love of his life. To say Sven isn't thrilled is an understatement, but it's too late to cancel, and Jayden Calver arrives.
Perfect Match's success rate is unsurpassed, but they don't come by it honestly: if a client can't be matched, the agency uses a stand-in to fulfil their guarantee and protect their profit.
Tough luck has left Jayden in debt, and playing Perfect Match's deceptive game is his only option. So he travels — sparkling toenails and all — to a remote camp deep in the mountains to meet Sven Larson and pretend to be his perfect match for a few days.
Sparks fly on first contact. But as the two men get closer, Sven grows more and more suspicious of Jayden, and Jayden struggles with guilt over his deceit. They both want a future together, but first they must find the courage to be honest with themselves and each other.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
References to emotional abuse & threats.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Perfect Match Commitment #1: There is a perfect match out there for everyone, and we make it our mission to find yours.
"Please, don't leave me here," Jayden pleaded with the driver again. "You can't do this! This is—" The right words to express his horror escaped him. "It's . . . it's not safe. There are all kinds of wild animals here. Bears! Wolves! It's dangerous. Please. I can pay you. I've got money. Just—"
His suitcase hit the wet road with a thud as he clung to the cushion of the back seat. A few minutes ago, Jayden had been silently complaining about the reeking, smoke-filled car. Now, it seemed like a sanctuary compared to the storm raging outside.
"Told ya. You were booked to the bridge, not down to the camp. Ride ends here." The giant, chain-smoking lumberjack, who was wrapped in yards of flannel, grabbed Jayden's arm and yanked him out of the car.
As he crashed against the man's body, Jayden got a full whiff of stale cigarette smoke, old sweat, and worse . . . Puke maybe? Dead cat? He suppressed a gag.
Standing on the gravel road, he felt as if he were on a helicopter pad at takeoff. Howling like a chopper engine, the wind ripped at his clothes. Before he could regain his balance, flannel man slammed the back door shut again. "Filthy faggot!"
"Me? Filthy? You're kidding, right?" Jayden yelled at the quickly disappearing taillights. Rain pelted against the exposed skin of his face. Jayden struggled to zip up his jacket with numb fingers. It didn't matter that he had prepared for cold. That he had planned his trip to the Canadian Northwest for weeks. It had all been for nothing. His carefully selected gloves, scarf, and heavy down jacket were soaked through.
Squinting into the night, he could barely see the small, rickety bridge and narrow dirt road beyond, winding into the dark woods. The bridge. Born and raised in Philadelphia, the city kid in Jayden was still hung up about the fact that the bridge seemed to be a perfectly acceptable landmark out here. But in fairness, since the car had left the small airfield, he hadn't seen anything but trees, so the bridge was indeed recognizable.
Slowly, he started walking across the roaring river. The water was so high it almost flooded over the low, wooden structure. A small, rapid stream of water had already pushed over the side of the bank and was gushing onto the road. Jayden swallowed his mounting fear and kept trudging along.
Just this morning, Alex, who planned all the trips at Perfect Match, had walked Jayden through the travel arrangements. It had sounded so well organized. Methodically planned like everything at Perfect Match, the online dating agency where Jayden worked. But then, his flight in Cody had been delayed, and things had only gotten worse once he'd left civilization in Vancouver. Now he found himself dragging a heavy suitcase over a flooded dirt road in a torrential downpour.
Before the driver had kicked him out, he'd mumbled something about two miles down to the camp headquarters. Jayden could handle two miles. He'd be okay.
Famous last words.
Anger and adrenaline carried him for a while, but then an extremely vicious gust of wind ripped the hood of his jacket down. The rain pierced him like icy needles. He wasn't going to let a rude homophobe or a rainstorm get the better of him, though. Jayden needed this assignment. He needed it to go well. So he readjusted his carry-on backpack, clamped down on the suitcase handle, and continued to stumble down the narrow tire tracks.
Alex hadn't only booked all travel accommodations. For the last two weeks he and others had worked relentlessly to turn Jayden into the dream boyfriend for Perfect Match's latest problem client, Sven Larson. Jayden had memorized Larson's profile and all his answers from the online questionnaire. Everyone at the agency had drummed into him that in order to be successful with his assignment he needed to know his target inside out. To craft the illusion of a perfect match, Jayden needed to create instant intimacy.
Stumbling through the freezing rain, Jayden went through Larson's personal info in his mind again. Thirty years old. Six feet two inches. Blue eyes. Blond hair. In his photo, Larson looked like he came straight out of the TV series The Vikings with his blond hair, slightly crooked nose, and lots of facial hair. A beard wasn't really Jayden's thing, but he could definitely get behind the whole Norse-warrior image.
The picture had been a candid. Larson had a warm, friendly smile, which Jayden tried to remember now to give him some courage. He worked as a logger and forester, but some research online also produced a few articles Larson had published about national parks in Canada, sustainable tourism, and the logging industry. His Facebook page also advertised him as a freelance writer.
Another vicious gust blew a wet leaf in Jayden's face. That, along, with the biting winds and freezing rain quickly erased any spirit Jayden had left. He tried to hide under some branches that were lining the road, to get away from the rain and catch his breath, but whenever he stopped, the darkness and the sounds of the woods freaked him out. Every gloomy shadow looked like a hungry bear or a lurking wolf. Better to just keep walking.
After what seemed an eternity, he finally saw a faint light in the distance. He squinted, trying to make out the small yellowish-white dot. Thank God, it seemed to become bigger as he staggered on.
He kept focused on the light, promptly got his foot tangled, and went down hard on his knee. When he pulled himself up again, muddy water gushed through his jeans, down his leg, and into his boot. Jayden was too tired to care. Yeah, he needed to make a good first impression, but now all he wanted was to get out of the storm.
It's gonna be all right! Things will work out! Jayden whispered stupid encouragements to himself, but the words were drowned out by the howling wind.
His banged-up knee throbbed. His jacket was drenched and cold water started running down his back. Despite the pouring rain, Jayden had to stop to catch his breath and rest his leg several times. When he reached a low, long building huddled against the base of a mountain, Jayden had just enough strength left to open the heavy wood door. The warmth of the room was an immediate reward. He slipped through the opening and let his suitcase sink to the floor. Ignoring everything else, he closed his eyes and simply soaked in the heat.
"There he is! Finally!"
"Christ! He's a fairy, all right!"
His relief to be out of the cold turned into panic in an instant. No, not again. He'd heard all these slurs before. Jayden opened his eyes and tried to orientate himself. A bunch of tall, burly men were getting up from a table in the middle of the room, a mass of flannel shirts, work boots, and dark beards. They were the type of men who usually took offense to Jayden's longish hair and the eyeliner he'd carefully put on this morning. Men Jayden tried to avoid; now he'd walked straight into their lair.
"Larson, just look at him. You could crush him with one hand. He's tiny." One of the lumberjacks with bright-red hair walked toward Jayden, shaking his head. His voice boomed across the room. Jayden shrank back, hitting the door. "Oh, please, no," he whispered.
"Shut up, Greg. You're scaring him." A huge blond man stepped forward and stretched out his arm for Jayden, who pressed himself hard against the door. His injured knee gave out, and he sank to the floor. There was nowhere to hide.
"Please don't hurt me. They said I wouldn't get hurt. They said I would be okay. Please."
The sound of his shivering, begging voice frustrated the hell out of him. He was so done with being scared, but the memory of the dark bedroom and the beating he'd taken was still too fresh. His body was shaking hard and it was difficult to breathe. Fear and frustration were threatening to overwhelm him.
But while his mind was close to giving up, his body mobilized some last-resort survival skills. Numb fingers balled into fists, a spike of anger rushed through his body, and in a final attempt to defend himself, he snarled, "Back off."
Perfect Match Commitment #2: Male? Gay? For us, you are not a side business, you are our focus.
Here we go. Sven had dreaded this moment all day long. Actually, he had dreaded this exact moment ever since his cousin Greg spilled the beans and Sven found out that his family had gone online to find him true love. He still couldn't believe that they'd
invited a complete stranger to their home. Sven wasn't sure there was such a thing as a perfect match, but he was damn sure it couldn't be purchased on the internet. He didn't do online dating, and he for sure didn't have time for a mail-order boyfriend or whatever this was. His family's unrealistic— No, scratch that—his family's crazy expectations made him sick to his stomach. This whole idea had disaster written all over it.
A four-hour delay, a friendly game of poker with the guys, and a third beer had lured Sven into the false hope that maybe Jayden Calver wouldn't show, but then he'd heard the telltale click of the lodge's front door.
The small figure didn't step far into the room, but only slipped through a narrow crack of the open door, tugged in a sodden suitcase, and let the door fall back into its lock. Everyone was stunned into silence by the soaking-wet newcomer, who leaned against the wall next to the entrance, a dark hoodie shadowing his face. He was covered in mud up to his knees. Dirty puddles formed quickly on the wooden floor.
It was only when the young man pushed his hood back exposing his pale, exhausted face, that Sven's family had come to life again. Of course, giant Petrovic, who even in bright daylight was a scary dude, reached the door first and then Greg's booming voice promptly scared the kid out of his ever-fucking mind. Goddamn. Shoving his friend and his cousin out of the way, Sven crouched down, trying to salvage the botched welcome.
"Jayden, it's me. Sven," Sven said, forcing a smile. "Don't be scared. We talked on Skype two days ago. Remember?"
"Sven? Oh, no. I—" Jayden looked utterly confused and turned another shade paler. With his dark eyes full of exhaustion, fear, and distress, he reminded Sven of the newborn fawn he had pulled out of the river last spring. Jayden barely resembled the laughing young man from the profile pictures the agency had sent.
"Oh, good Lord! Let the boy up!" His mom's voice cut through the commotion. "Just look at the state of him. Come closer to the fire and warm yourself." Orla stepped in and half dragged Jayden to the roaring fire. Jayden's face was almost white, with angry red blotches from the cold. Brown hair stuck to his face in a tangled, wet mess, and his lips had a bluish tint.
"Sit yourself down," Orla commanded. Uncle Elliot brought over a chair, and Orla pushed a dripping Jayden into it. "I'll get you a cup of nice hot tea. You're frozen to the bone. This is no night to be walking in the rain."
Her comment pulled Sven back into the discussion. "Why were you out there walking anyway?" he asked. "We booked you a ride from the airfield. Paid for it too."
"It wasn't enough," Jayden replied hesitantly, blushing. "The driver said he could bring me to the bridge, but not all the way down to the camp."
"That's bullshit. We paid enough to get you down here and back." Greg's loud voice made the kid flinch again. The men around him grumbled in confirmation.
Jayden looked up, his big doe-eyes meeting Sven's. Sven had to strain to understand the mumbled reply. "It was a long drive. I . . . I didn't know."
Just then another full-body shiver went through Jayden, and Sven's family burst into activity. Elliot added a few extra logs to the fire even though the room was pretty warm already. Orla went to the kitchen to get him something hot to drink. Petrovic took the wet jacket and shook out the water, sending the content of the pockets flying. A few pieces of paper looking like boarding passes, a set of keys, and lip gloss sailed through the air. The pink lip gloss rolled right in front of Greg, whose eyes turned into saucers. Luckily, Orla came back before he could comment, and she pushed a cup of hot tea into Jayden's hand. "There now, take a nice long drink. It's not too hot."
City Boy took a sip and immediately coughed and wheezed. Everyone around him grinned. Orla's tea was always spiked. She started laughing and pounded his back. "I poured some whiskey in your cup. You're so ghostly pale. Thought you could use it. My name's Orla O'Conner, by the way. I'm Sven's mom."
Jayden gave her a careful smile. "I'm Jayden. Jayden Calver. I'm sorry for the mess. I didn't mean . . ." His eyes glanced at the puddles and the mud, but then he straightened his shoulders. "Thank you for the tea. It's . . . good."
"Don't you worry. We'll have you warm in no time. Now, take those shoes off. You'll catch your death with all these wet clothes on." Before Jayden could protest, quick hands pulled off his shoes and wet socks.
"Just look at his toes," Greg bellowed. "They sparkle. Sven, your mail-order bride has glittering toenails."
There was a quick shuffle around him as everyone wanted to glance at Jayden's naked feet. Petrovic laughed out loud, but Sven saw disgust in Elliot's face. It didn't surprise him. Uncle Elliot was old-school.
But mail-order bride? No. Despite his huge eyes, pink lip gloss, and painted toenails, the figure in front of Sven was all male. Square shoulders stretched the thin material of the long-sleeve shirt across his chest, and the hint of scruff on his chin and cheeks left no doubt.
"No . . . it was meant to be a surprise for . . ." Jayden's distraught eyes searched for Sven, but when he caught Sven's frown, he dropped his eyes again. "Your profile said you like surprises." Jayden still evaded eye contact, and he helplessly tried to hide his naked feet by curling them against his wet pants, and despite Sven's annoyance with the whole situation, the motion tugged at his heart.
Without much thought, Sven crouched down. He took his shirt off and covered the glittering toes, tucking the soft, faded material around them. Jayden's gaze roamed over Sven's T-shirt-covered chest, and then, swallowing hard, he looked into Sven's eyes.
Damn, Jayden still seemed scared. But what the fuck had he expected?
They actually had talked in their one and only call before Jayden's visit about the fact that Cold Creek was a rough place. Thank God Greg couldn't keep a secret to save his life. His cousin's slipup had given Sven some time to mentally prepare and talk to Jayden once, at least, before he showed up on his doorstep. The frightened, panicked kid in front of him didn't match with the picture Sven had formed in his head after their phone call. On the call, Jayden had been impish, almost brazen.
Awkward silence descended over the room. The drumming of the rain and the hissing and popping noises of the blazing fire were the only sounds. Jayden seemed to coil into himself. His arms wrapped around one leg, pulling it against his body. He looked miserable. Sven couldn't suppress a frustrated growl. He should send him back home on the next plane. This was insane. Sven wasn't even out. Only the people he counted as his family knew that he was gay. In the real world, he lived a lie, and for good reason. So maybe it would be best for everybody if he just ended the farce right now.
But before Sven could say anything, he caught Orla's gaze. She wasn't smiling anymore. Just like Jayden, she'd wrapped her arms around herself as if she was cold despite the blazing fire, and had taken a few steps back. Damn! Her crestfallen expression told him how much this meant to her.
To Sven's surprise, it was Jayden who broke the silence. "Sven, I'm sorry. I was so excited to meet you . . . in person, I mean, and I know I've made this awkward, 'cause I freaked out. It's just been such a long day. The plane was delayed, and the cab driver was an asshole— Sorry, ma'am, I mean . . ."
Orla chuckled. "Oh, don't mind me. I've heard much worse, and if he dropped you at the crossing on a night like this, you should call him worse. That's almost three miles away."
"Felt like three hundred," Jayden mumbled with a shudder that went through his whole body. The blatant exaggeration made Orla smile again. She pushed Sven aside and gently pulled up Jayden's chin. "You hungry, sweetie? If you came straight from the airfield, then you haven't had any dinner. I have some stew left. It's Sven's favorite. Want some?"
Sven watched Orla fuss over Jayden like she had fussed over the lost fawn. Though he'd better stop making the analogy, as the fawn hadn't survived in the end. The thought sent a shiver through him. Okay, he could do this. If having Jayden around made Orla happy, then he could let it all play out a little longer.
Maybe instead of wrestling with the whole messed-up situation, he should figure out how to make it work. Especially as they'd paid the agency a small fortune. Sven had been shocked when he—after a lot of convincing—had gotten Orla to show him the final bill. While usually online dating sites charged a monthly subscription fee, Perfect Match had charged his family a hefty one-time "matching fee." Orla never spent a ton of money on herself, but she clearly had gone all-out for him. So, the one thing Sven could do to thank her was to let City Boy stay for the ten days the agency had arranged.
He took a few deep breaths to calm himself down. It really wasn't like him to get so worked up about anything.
Jayden thanked Orla repeatedly for the offer of dinner with a shy blush, and again it puzzled Sven how different Jayden seemed in person from the guy who had boldly flirted with him on the call, but he pushed the thought aside. Jayden had clearly had a rough day. Walking for an hour in this weather couldn't have been fun.
When Orla went to the kitchen to get Jayden some food, Greg, who had hovered in the background, moved in and said, "I'm Greg. Sven's cousin. I helped pick you out. You like to bake and play guitar? We asked for somebody who can play guitar and bake." The other men grumbled, but Sven silenced them with a wave.
Jayden looked at Greg and said with a faint smile, "I bake. Pies, and cookies too. I can bake something for you tomorrow. I'm actually pretty good at it."
Greg piped up, "And you have a dragon tattoo? A little blue and green dragon?"
"My tattoo. What? How?"
Greg grinned triumphantly. "Cool! Can we see it?"
"Shut up, Greg," Sven snapped. "It's on his ass. He is not going to show his butt to any of you idiots." Jayden's gaze lifted, full of emotion, but again Sven couldn't read his look.
Orla, who had just come back from the kitchen with a bowl of steaming stew, inhaled sharply and mumbled, "What's got into you, Sven?"
Sven raked his hand through his hair, trying not to pull it out, and turned toward the fireplace to rein himself in. Greg, Orla, they meant well. Meddling, but with good intentions. Orla was right to call him out. He had no real reason to be so edgy and jump down everyone's throat. The room fell silent while Jayden ate his stew, and Orla went to the rooms in the back of the lodge to get some dry socks and a pair of rubber boots.
After the kid had eaten and drowned another cup of spiked tea, he seemed to be fading fast. Sven saw him failing to suppress a yawn. Orla must have seen it too and said, "Come on, Jayden, I have a bed made up in the guest room upstairs."
"No, Jayden's staying with me. I'll take him back to my cabin," Sven said quietly, not leaving any room for argument. Jayden, who'd been thanking Orla yet again, stumbled mid-sentence and went silent.
Sven didn't give a damn what anyone thought about him right now. Jayden was a complete stranger, and Orla lived alone in the lodge. He didn't look dangerous, especially not in his current tired, bedraggled state, but Sven wasn't going to let him stay in the lodge alone with his mom. Elliot gave him a quick nod of approval. The old man had gotten awfully protective of Orla ever since his brother had died.
Orla sent Sven a stern glance and started to say something, but Jayden beat her to it. "Of course I'm coming with you. I'm here because of you. For you."
Orla gave Jayden one of Greg's winter coats. The rain was still pelting down, and the wind rattled the shutters of the old building. The storm was getting worse. Elliot, who lived farther up the road, offered Sven and Jayden a ride in his old truck to Sven's cabin. Sven grabbed the muddy suitcase and dumped it in the back. Meanwhile, Orla bundled up an exhausted Jayden, who seemed a little unsteady on his feet—probably too much tea.
Once they reached his cabin, Sven hauled the suitcase inside and turned on the lights. Jayden's eyes widened slightly when he saw that there was only one bed in the tiny cabin, but he recovered quickly and asked for the bathroom after he'd peeled himself out of the boots and jacket. Sven had started to pile up wood in the large fireplace when he came back out.
"Sit down for a minute. I'll start a fire, and then we can talk." Sven turned back to Jayden, who right that moment unbuttoned his wet, stained jeans, showing some pale skin from his belly.
Jayden seemed focused on getting his wet clothes off, so Sven let his eyes roam. Jayden wasn't as young as Sven had assumed. Sven vaguely remembered twenty-four from the Perfect Match profile, and that was probably more accurate than his first impression. Jayden's shoulders filled the soggy light-blue T-shirt nicely. The way it hugged his upper body showed off his lean muscles. When Jayden looked up and caught Sven staring at him, his hands froze.
Sven quickly turned away and spent more time with the fire than strictly necessary. Finally, when Jayden had gone quiet behind him, he turned to ask a few questions that had been bouncing around in his mind. The words died on his lips though. Jayden was asleep. He'd simply fallen to his side on the bed. One leg was pulled up and the other one still hung over the edge of the mattress. His hands were pushed under his cheek, and his breath was even and relaxed, his full lips slightly parted. In the warm light of the fire, Jayden's ridiculously long lashes were resting on his cheeks, and there was a small scar cutting through his left eye brow. Sven let out a low curse while his eyes roamed over the sleeping man in his bed. Jayden flinched in his sleep but didn't wake up.
This moment felt unreal. Jayden didn't belong in Sven's world. Sven was surrounded by foresters and loggers. Brawny, hairy men, who spent most of their day working outdoors. Jayden Calver was nothing like them. His slender build was on the skinny side, but definitely that of a grown man. Now dry, his hair seemed to be a lighter brown with golden streaks—too blond to be natural. Colored hair and painted toenails. Sven couldn't shake the feeling that if he blinked, Jayden would disappear like one of the magical creatures in Orla's bedtime stories.
Jayden let out a low whimper and shivered. There were goose bumps on his arms and legs. Sven slipped out another string of muffled curses and then carefully packed the sleeping Jayden under the quilts.
All talk would have to wait. Sven was somewhat relieved. He wasn't one for confrontation, but he had to find out what Jayden actually expected from their time here together. Sven wasn't in the market for a relationship. But it would be okay to wait until tomorrow, because the terror in Jayden's expressive eyes when he'd pressed himself against wall of the lodge still haunted Sven.
His eyes roamed again over the slender body bundled under the heavy blankets. Sharing the bed would be the only way Sven was going to get some sleep tonight.
Perfect Match Commitment #3: Computer algorithms will only get you so far. Our proven match-making methodology includes the human touch.
"If you get in a tight spot, use sex. Men are easy. For most guys, finding a soul mate just means frequent fucking." Jackson's advice played in his mind while Jayden brushed his teeth to get rid of his morning breath. Alex Stone was his handler at Perfect Match. Alex's job had been to set everything up, but once Sven had been hooked, Jayden had been introduced to Jackson Black. Jackson, an expert in Perfect Match assignments, had become Jayden's coach.
Jayden wasn't sure he always agreed with Jackson, but there was no doubt he hadn't even been here for twenty-four hours and was already grasping at straws. Sven had suggested they talk last night, and Jayden didn't want to talk. Questions were dangerous.
Yesterday had been a bad day, but Jayden's life had been such a clusterfuck recently, yesterday didn't even hit the top ten list of bad days this year. Of course he had messed up. It seemed he couldn't get anything right. Alex had told him at least a hundred times that the initial minutes were absolutely crucial. First impressions could make or break an assignment. Alex wouldn't be happy if he found out that all their prep had been a waste. Jayden had failed miserably last night. He was certain that Sven hadn't missed the fact that Jayden hadn't recognized him on first sight. If Jayden hadn't completely lost his cool, he probably would have recognized his mark, but instead he'd let his fear get the better of him. Maybe he was overreacting, but he fully expected to be sent home today.
He couldn't fail. Working for Perfect Match was his best chance to get himself out of the mess his life had become. Before he had started with the agency, he'd been facing a different kind of employment, which would have forced him to give his body to any man who walked in the door. He broke out in a cold sweat every time he thought about the consequences of failing. Yeah, he'd been in worse trouble before he signed, and he had no intention of screwing up any more.
Incredible as it seemed, for the most part, Perfect Match was a straight-up dating site, but this isolated place Sven called home had made him a difficult client, so Jayden had been turned into his perfect match. The mission was simple enough. At first, Jayden had to make Sven believe that he was simply perfect, and then he had to find or create an overwhelming obstacle to ensure Sven would never want to talk to him again. Once Jayden had completed this first assignment, he'd go back home and do it all over until his debt was paid off.
Jayden took a deep breath to calm his nerves, and glanced at his hair in the tiny mirror over the sink. Relax, he told himself over and over again. If he could just stop being so jittery around Sven.
When he'd woken up earlier, Sven had offered him a cup of coffee, but Jayden had opted to escape to the bathroom instead. Before he'd closed the door, he saw Sven do a double take at his meticulously packed suitcase. Yeah, using about fifteen clear plastic bags to keep things from getting mixed up was slightly over the top. Jayden had almost been able to guess Sven's thoughts. Crazy much? Yes, that's me.
Determined not to get lost in those thoughts, he gave himself a mental shove. Dwelling on how messed up he was wouldn't help him right now. He had a lumberjack to fell, and he'd better get on with it. Stepping back a little, Jayden gave his naked body another glance. He was too skinny. He could see his ribs through his pale-white skin. Not sexy by any means. Nothing he could do about it now. Once again, he went through the mental checklist Jackson had impressed upon him. Take a shower. Check. Wash your ass. Check. Lube. Prep yourself. Check. Check. Jayden's face heated. He tried to take a deep breath, but his chest seemed constricted by invisible bands that made it impossible for him to get enough air into his lungs.
"You can do this," he whispered to his distorted reflection in the fogged-up mirror. Sex with Sven wouldn't be bad. If they had met in a club, Jayden would totally have gone home with him. Sven was hot. Big. Bulky. Solid. Maybe a little gruff, but not unkind. He obviously had tucked Jayden into bed last night, and at the lodge, even though he'd been grumpy, he'd protected Jayden a few times when the other men had gotten too close.
"You're just out of practice, that's all." Jayden tried breathing in against the invisible constraints.
Last minute, before he opened the door with a resigned sigh, he grabbed the towel off the rack again and draped it loosely around his hips. Show time!
His knees were shaking, but he forced himself to walk into the small living room without hesitation. Sven looked up from his coffee. His cup froze in midair, and his eyes widened at the sight of Jayden's mostly naked body.
"Thank you for letting me stay with you last night," Jayden said when he finally came to a halt in front of Sven. He carefully put a hand on Sven's arm. The gentle touch jolted the logger out of his trance, and he dropped his cup on the counter with a noisy clang, coffee spilling all over the place. He quickly peeled off his flannel shirt, and Jayden let out an unmanly squeak when Sven wrapped the shirt around him, forced his arms into the sleeves, and had him all bundled up within seconds.
After a moment of surprise, defeat tore into Jayden, and he whispered, "You don't want me." He tucked the shirt tightly around his body, crossing his arms over his belly. The shirt was too big. It hung down over his hips, which was convenient as just then his towel dropped to the floor.
"What the fuck, kid?"
Jayden winced. Kid? Not the reaction he'd hoped for, but it wasn't a complete surprise, either. Jayden rubbed his hands over his arms, trying to brush off the sting of rejection.
Sven must have picked up on Jayden's hurt feelings, because his voice softened as he continued, "We need to talk. We're strangers, and I'm not sure how this is gonna work. We need to sort this out before we can . . . Shit, I don't mean we will . . . ever . . . You are—" Instead of finishing his sentence, Sven pushed his hand through his hair and turned away.
Jayden let out a gasp. "Wow!" he blurted and again stepped closer to Sven. "That's amazing!"
Sven looked back over his shoulder. Jayden couldn't stop himself—his hands ghosted over Sven's skin, tracing the outlines of the colorful dragon tattoo that stretched out from his left shoulder all across his back. Sven made a small strangled sound at the touch but didn't move away. Instead he said, "That's why they picked you."
Jayden's fingers stopped their slow progress on Sven's back. "Who picked me?"
"My family. Orla, Greg, Pat, everyone."
Jayden was slightly confused. "You didn't pick me at all? I thought you at least were part of it."
"No, I wasn't. You're my birthday gift. I turned thirty last month, and my family felt that it was time for me to have someone in my life. I had no idea. They made the first contact with the agency and they picked you. They chose Perfect Match because they offered full service. Instead of having to search through a large number of profiles, the agency promised that they had done all the preselecting and vetted the candidates personally." Narrowing his eyes, Sven asked, "How does it work? The matching, I mean. Do you know?"
Jayden lowered his gaze. Of course Sven hadn't picked him. Not even the fake him. That was another blow to his already fragile ego. Sven hadn't even made contact with the agency. From the skepticism in his voice, it sounded like online dating wasn't something he would ever consider.
Jayden wasn't sure he could convincingly argue for Perfect Match's infallible algorithm, but luckily, Sven wasn't done with his explanation. "Greg, the redhead—you met him last night—he can't keep a secret, so I found out just in time to pay the last bill and at least arrange one call. Greg kept going on and on about the fact that we both have a dragon tattoo."
The dragon! At this Jayden snorted and said, "You're kidding, right? Have you seen my tattoo? You must have seen the picture. Yours is fierce and beautiful. Mine is a small cartoon character. A baby dragon, really!" Jayden swiftly turned around and pulled his shirt to the side. "See. It's tiny, comic-like and—"
Sven let out a low growl. The deep sound made Jayden realize what he was doing, and he whipped back to face Sven, dropping the shirt. Heat rushed into his cheeks and then spread to his neck and chest.
"Fuck! I mooned you!"
A hearty laugh burst out of Sven and then another. He visibly tried to keep it in, but then another cocked sound escaped. The reaction surprised the hell out of Jayden. It was the first time he'd heard Sven laugh since he arrived.
"Shoot me now," he muttered, and started to step backward. But Sven didn't let him go. He put his huge hands on Jayden's arms.
"Who are you? Where did you come from?" Sven had stopped laughing, but bestowed Jayden with a most gorgeous smile that lit up his whole face. In the gloomy late-morning light of the cabin, the laugh lines etched into Sven's tanned skin were visible. His smile transformed him. He looked friendly and kind. The warm expression in his eyes, combined with his large, strong hands wrapped around Jayden's arms and holding him tight, did funny things to Jayden's stomach.
Then, just like that, the moment was gone. Sven stepped back and shook his head. "Jayden, please, please, put some clothes on before I forget myself, and then let's sit down, eat breakfast, and talk like normal people, okay?"
Jayden scurried away to find some clothes. So, his grumpy giant with the amazing blue eyes had a sense of humor. That was good to know.
While pulling on his clothes, Jayden studied the cabin. It was cramped, even for one person. One room and the tiny bathroom. The bed and closet took up most of the back of the cabin. In the front there was a kitchen on one side and a huge recliner next to the fireplace. There really wasn't space for any more furniture. It was still pouring buckets outside, and the fire cast a warm, golden glow as the main source of heat.
Sven was moving around in the kitchen now. He truly looked like a Viking god with his exposed chest. His large hands dwarfed everything he touched. Coffee cup, frying pan, spatula . . . everything appeared to be too small when Sven was handling it. Jayden couldn't keep his eyes off him, and somehow the domestic scene helped to ease his tension.
Word Count: 64,500
Cover By: L.C. Chase
Release Date: 01/14/2019