New York Times bestselling author Susan Stoker wraps up her steamy Game of Chance series with an explosive novel about an ex-soldier fighting to save the woman he loves—even if she can’t remember him.

A game of chance during a horrific POW experience decided the future for Jackson “JJ” Justice and his teammates. Years later, they’re well settled into their lumberjack business in small-town Maine. And for nearly as long, JJ’s been pining for April, the woman largely responsible for growing their business, but insecurities keep him at arm’s length from the sexy receptionist.

April Hoffman loves her job…and her boss. She’s unsure where JJ’s head is at, but for her part, she knows exactly why she’s not revealed her feelings. Not only does she have one failed relationship under her belt, she’s also several years older than JJ. Why would a man so brutally hot settle for someone almost past her prime?

After a car accident nearly takes April’s life, leaving her with temporary amnesia, they both understand what they almost lost. The floodgates are open, their feelings exposed…but it may be too little, too late.

An enemy from JJ’s past has come calling, putting not only his future happiness on the line, but the lives of several people he holds dear—starting with April.

Chapter One

It took a few seconds after she woke up for April to realize where she was. What had happened. Well . . . what she’d been told had happened. She was in the hospital because her car had run off the road. She didn’t remember any of it.

Actually, she didn’t remember much of the last five years of her life.

The doctors told her that they had high hopes her loss of memory was a result of the bruising of her brain from the accident.

But “high hopes” wasn’t super comforting. She would’ve preferred they told her in no uncertain terms that her amnesia was temporary. The thought of not ever remembering anything about her life of the last several years was terrifying.

She remembered who she was—April Hoffman. That she was forty-six and her mom was her only family left, and even everything about her childhood. But the hole in her memories about what she’d been doing for the last five years was, quite frankly, freaking her out.

Not because she thought she’d done anything horrible, but more because she’d had a steady stream of visitors who seemed to be really worried about her . . . and she couldn’t remember any of them. She didn’t like to see them upset, and it was clear they were extremely stressed out not only about her accident, but because she didn’t know them.

Her head throbbed, and April kept her eyes closed. The light in the room exacerbated the headache she’d had since waking up in the emergency room. She heard shuffling from next to the bed and vaguely wondered who it was sitting with her this time.

From the moment she’d woken up in the hospital—in Bangor, Maine, she was told—April hadn’t spent even one minute alone. It was disconcerting to realize the people who were sitting next to her bed were so loyal. She’d never had that many friends . . . that she could remember. And certainly none who would put their entire lives on hold to be bored out of their minds by sitting next to her hospital bed while she mostly slept.

The truth of the matter was, the April she remembered being was a loner. She’d always wanted to have friends she could hang out, shop, and laugh with. It seemed that whatever she’d been doing the last five years had resulted in just that . . . if only she could remember.

Her eyes finally opened when she heard a whispered argument nearby. April turned her head and saw the back of a man just outside her door. His legs were shoulder-width apart, and he was blocking access to the room. She could tell he had his arms crossed over his chest as he engaged in a very heated conversation with another man.

She stared at the man’s back and desperately tried to remember something, anything, about him. His name was Jackson Justice, she’d learned, and he’d been a steady presence in her life ever since she’d woken up scared and hurting in the hospital.

She didn’t know him, but something deep down inside made her immediately trust him. When the doctors told April that she had amnesia, he’d been the one she’d looked to for reassurance. When she’d woken up in the middle of the night with her head throbbing so badly she thought for sure she was dying, he’d been there, holding her hand and telling her she was going to be all right. He’d gotten her to slow her breathing and had stayed right by her side until she’d fallen asleep again.

Even when all the other people—her friends—streamed in and out of her room, he was the one she looked to when she got overwhelmed. He was the one who shooed everyone out at the exact moment she needed a little break from all their concern.

They all called him JJ, but for some reason, that name didn’t feel right to April. When she admitted as much to him, he told her that she called him Jack. That had felt familiar. It was probably the first thing that felt right in the last week.

Jack had said they were friends, that she worked for the business he owned with the three other men who’d been visiting regularly over the last week with their wives, but he hadn’t gone into any more detail than that. It felt as if she and Jack had more of a connection than simply boss and employee, but anytime she brought it up, he quickly changed the subject.

She was beginning to think that maybe they’d dated at one time and things hadn’t ended well. Or perhaps they’d had a one-night stand. The not knowing was driving her crazy.

April watched as Jack’s muscles tensed, then he consciously relaxed them slowly. He leaned toward the other man standing just out of sight, said something too softly for April to hear, then stepped aside. As he did, he looked into the room and saw she was awake.

She saw him tense up again, but he still allowed the other man into the room. As soon as April saw who it was, she understood the animosity in the air.

It was James Neal . . . her ex-husband.

Jack had also been with her the first time her ex arrived. He’d run into the room, gasped when he saw her, rushed to her side, grabbed her hand, and proceeded to fake cry all over it. April had been surprised, but not terribly worried. Jack, however, responded as if James was a serial killer. He’d grabbed and spun him around and slammed him into the wall on the other side of the room, as far away from her as he could get, and asked who the hell he was. James had sputtered a bit and said he was her husband.

That had caused Jack to nearly lose his mind.

Of course, April had been shocked herself, as she hadn’t realized she’d remarried James after their divorce. But it wasn’t long before he’d admitted that he was still an ex.

It wasn’t an auspicious beginning for the men, and in the two days since, both had been on edge and, it seemed to April, on the verge of coming to blows every time they saw each other.

“I’ll be down in the cafeteria if you need me,” Jack told April from the doorway.

“She’s not going to need you,” James sneered.

Jack ignored her ex and held eye contact with her. “Okay?” he asked.

“Okay,” April told him softly.

She wasn’t sure how long they stared at each other—the connection she felt to this man was powerful—before he finally nodded and stepped out of sight.

“I can get him barred from your room if he’s bothering you,” James said immediately as he pulled a chair closer to the bed. The sound it made as it scraped along the tile floor made April wince.

“He’s not bothering me,” she told James.

Her ex huffed out an annoyed breath, then leaned back in the chair and put his feet up on the mattress next to her hips. “I hate hospitals. They smell funny, and everything is so depressing,” he said.

April pressed her lips together and wondered why he was here at all. Her short-term memory was affected by the accident, but she also had a hard time remembering much about her marriage to this man. That had nothing to do with the knock to her head; rather, it was because they’d simply coexisted together for a long time prior to the divorce. Not talking or interacting much at all before calling it quits.

James was fairly good looking. He was around her height, five-nine or ten, and had dark-brown hair and hazel eyes. He wasn’t fat and he wasn’t skinny. Honestly, he was pretty average, much like April. Looks-wise, there was nothing objectionable about him.

Personality-wise . . .

He’d told her that her mom had called to let him know she’d been in an accident and asked him to come up to Maine and check on her since Mom couldn’t travel. And after seeing for himself that she wasn’t at death’s door, he’d done nothing but complain about nearly everything. Bangor, the weather, the flight here, the expense of the rental car, the size of the hospital, the lack of his favorite restaurants . . . the list went on and on.

“You don’t have to stay,” she told him. “You’ve seen for yourself that I’m okay. You can go home.”

At that, James dropped his feet from her bed and leaned forward.

April braced herself for whatever he was going to say next. He didn’t make her wait.

“It was a mistake. Us getting divorced. We should give things another go. We were good together, Ape.”

April wanted to roll her eyes at the nickname. She’d always hated it. Had told him more than once, but he ignored her and kept calling her that, thinking it was a cute way to shorten her name. It wasn’t. It was annoying.

“We were once,” she agreed. “But can you honestly say you were happy toward the end of our marriage?”

“Yes,” he said without hesitation.

“I wasn’t,” April said.

That seemed to shock James.

“We never did anything together anymore. I could’ve put on a dinosaur suit and danced around the house, and I don’t think you would’ve noticed.”

“You’re wrong.”

“I appreciate you coming to check on me, I really do, but we’re over,” April said firmly, not wanting him to get any ideas in his head that maybe they could work things out and get back together.

James sighed. “I miss you,” he whined.

“No, you miss not having to worry about anything having to do with normal life. Paying bills, being at the house when the exterminator showed up, cooking for yourself. You took me for granted, James. We weren’t husband and wife, I was your live-in help. That’s not a marriage.”

“That’s not true,” he protested.

“It is. We grew apart. It happens,” she insisted. “I appreciate you coming all this way to see me, but you hate it here. It’s time you went home.”

James studied her for a long moment. “I never understood . . . Why Maine? Why you’d come all the way up here? The winters are awful, and it’s so isolated.”

April shrugged. She wanted to confess that it was as far away from him as she could get at the time. And that she knew he’d never follow her. But she kept her mouth shut.

He sighed. “That JJ guy . . . he’s not good for you.”

April stiffened. There was no way she was going to discuss Jack with her ex. She had no idea where she stood with her boss, but James didn’t get a say in anything she did now. “James, no—” she started, but he interrupted.

“Seriously, Ape, he’ll run roughshod over you. He’s bossy as hell. Shit, he’s probably the reason you’re here in the hospital in the first place! You shouldn’t have been on that road. If he’d done his job instead of having his secretary do it for him, you wouldn’t have been hurt.”

“It’s time for you to go,” April said, her voice flat. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, and I won’t have you bad-mouthing Jack.”

“That’s the problem—you don’t know what you’re talking about either,” James fired back. “Because you can’t remember. That guy can literally tell you anything right now. You aren’t safe. Until you get your memory back, if you get it back, you’re completely vulnerable. He could tell you that you’re lovers and have you on your back with your legs spread, and you’d have no idea if he was lying or not!”

April saw red. She pushed with her arms until she was sitting more upright. “You’re right, I don’t know where my relationship with Jack stands, but he’s been nothing but respectful. He’s been a rock at my side ever since my accident. I trust him, James, more than I trust you, and I remember our marriage just fine . . . which is saying something, don’t you think?” She sighed. Her head was throbbing even more now. “Go home, James. You’ve done your duty.”

“You’re making a mistake,” he warned as he stood up, the chair making that horrible noise once more.

“Maybe so, but I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, including staying in a loveless marriage for way longer than I should have. But I know without a shred of doubt that the people who have rallied around me since I’ve been here aren’t among those mistakes. Chappy, Carlise, Cal, June, Bob, and Marlowe have been better friends than any I’ve known, and I don’t even remember them. And Jack? I don’t know where we stand, but at least he doesn’t come in here bitching about how much he hates hospitals and trying to make me feel guilty for being here in the first place.”

April was breathing hard when she was done. It felt good to stand up to James. She hadn’t done it much when they were married. It was easier to just go with the flow and not upset him. But she was done with that. She and James were divorced, and she wasn’t going to let anything he said influence her ever again. She’d done that for way too long.

“Don’t come running back to me when you realize the huge mistake you made moving to Maine,” he growled.

April chuckled, even though it jostled her aching head. “It’s been five years, James. I don’t think I’ll be running back to you anytime soon.”

“Your mom is going to be disappointed,” he retorted, clearly a last-ditch effort.

April shrugged. “She’s always disappointed in me. She’ll get over it.”

With one last shake of his head, James turned and headed for the door.

April held her breath until he was gone, then scooted back down on the bed. The relief she felt in the ensuing silence was almost overwhelming. In that moment, it occurred to her that when Jack left her room, she felt anything but relief. And with that realization, a feeling almost like sadness coursed through her veins, for wasting years on a man she never should have married.

She’d made the right decision, sending him away. James was her ex for a reason. And while she could be thankful he was willing to do her mom a favor by coming to Maine to check on her, she was never, ever getting back together with him.

“April?” a woman’s voice asked tentatively from the doorway. “Are you okay? I saw James leaving, and he didn’t look happy.”

Turning her head, April saw a very pregnant June peeking into the room. “Come in,” she said, gesturing for the petite woman to enter.

June entered and pulled the chair James had been sitting in closer to the bed, being careful not to let the legs screech against the floor as she did so. She eased herself into it and leaned forward, putting her hand on April’s forearm. “Are you okay?” she asked again.

“I’m fine. James won’t be back . . . at least I hope not.”

June smiled. “Really?”


“Good! Oh—I mean, that was rude. Sorry. But he wasn’t very considerate of you.”

“Or of you and the others,” April said with a small smile. She hadn’t missed the way James had disregarded June, Carlise, and Marlowe. All three women were in various stages of pregnancy. June was about seven months along and definitely waddled when she walked. Carlise wasn’t too far behind her, at around six months, but her baby didn’t seem as big as June’s; and Marlowe was only about four months along. Their men were always making sure they sat, had enough to eat or drink, and were comfortable when they visited.

It hadn’t even seemed to cross James’s mind that maybe the pregnant ladies might need or want to sit, so he never bothered giving up his seat.

June shrugged. “JJ will be glad he’s gone too.”

April’s doctor had warned her not to push too hard to remember the last five years. He’d told her that he had every expectation her memories would return after her brain healed from the trauma it had experienced. But at that moment, April wished with all her might that she could remember her life. She wanted to know about the times she’d spent with June and the other women. Wanted to remember the stories of how they’d met their men. And she very much wanted to know why she felt so comfortable with Jack, and why she trusted him so easily.

“Why?” she blurted.

“Why what?” June asked with a tilt of her head.

“Why would Jack care?”

For the first time in her many visits, June looked uncomfortable. Which in turn made April tense.

“I’m not sure I’m supposed to talk about that with you.”

“Please,” April whispered. “I’m so confused. Were we lovers? Did we date? I don’t understand why I’m so drawn to him and yet he treats me as if I’m his sister or something. He’s protective and concerned about me, but he’s keeping his distance. Did I do something to upset him? Was I a bitch to him or something?”

“No!” June exclaimed so vehemently, it made April feel a little better. “You haven’t dated, and he definitely doesn’t think of you as a sister,” she added. “Things between you two have been . . . complicated. And that’s all I’m going to say. I don’t want to do or say anything that will hinder your healing. Besides”—her voice lowered a little—“I don’t really know much about you and JJ, anyway. You guys are both super closemouthed about what’s going on between you. But I’ll tell you this—when JJ heard you were hurt, he didn’t hesitate for even one second to get to you as fast as he could.”

April’s heart swelled at hearing that. She was still confused about where things stood between her and Jack, but with this new bit of info, she once again couldn’t help comparing him to James.

Once during their marriage, she’d been rear-ended at a stoplight. It hadn’t been that big of a deal, but she’d gone to the hospital just to be safe. She’d called James on the way, while she was in the ambulance, to let him know what was going on, and the first question he asked was how badly their car had been damaged. Then he said he was working late that night and asked if it would be okay for her to take a taxi home, where he’d see her later.

The difference between his reaction to her being in an accident and what Jack had apparently done was night and day. Maybe the two situations couldn’t be compared, since they were so different in how badly she was hurt . . . but she had a feeling Jack would’ve reacted the same way if she’d only been in a minor fender bender.

June squeezed her arm, then drew in a surprised breath.

“What? What’s wrong?” April asked in concern.

“Nothing, it’s just the baby. He’s kicking hard today. Wanna feel?” Without waiting for a response, June stood up and brought April’s hand to her belly.

“It’s a boy?”

“Oh . . . I forgot that you don’t remember. We weren’t going to find out, but the second Cal saw his little wiener on the ultrasound, he got so excited there was no way to keep him quiet.” June chuckled. “You scolded him for like fifteen minutes, telling him that he shouldn’t be so proud of a penis on a baby that hasn’t even been born yet.”

April smiled, just a little sad that she couldn’t remember. She was happy, however, that June didn’t feel weird about sharing the memory. She felt movement under her palm and gaped at June. “He’s strong!”

“Yeah,” the other woman said with pride.

It was obvious how happy June was to be pregnant, and April had no doubt she was going to make an amazing mother.

The doctor chose that moment to come into the room, along with the two interns who’d been glued to his heels every time he’d arrived to check on her.

“I’ll leave you guys to chat,” June said. “And I’ll find JJ and let him know that James is gone,” she told April with a wink before waddling toward the open door.

The doctor was all business as he checked her vital signs and asked the same questions he asked every time he came to see her.

“Any memory returning?”

“Not really,” April told him. “I mean, everything that happened in my distant past is becoming clearer, but I still can’t remember the accident or anything about my life in Newton.”

“The results of the MRI you had last night are promising. The swelling in your brain has stopped, and has even shrunk a bit. I’m confident that with time, you’ll regain most of your memory of your years here in Maine.”

“How much time?” April asked with a frown. She was impatient to get her life back, and the fastest way for that to happen would be to get her memory back.

“There’s no telling,” the doctor said.

April sighed.

“I know it’s frustrating, but you’ve made a very fast recovery so far, and I have no reason to think you’ve lost those memories forever. Just be patient. Take things at your leisure. Your memories could return slowly, one at a time in pieces, or they could snap back all at once. How’s the pain today?”

“Around a five,” April told him. If Jack had been there, she probably would’ve downplayed the throbbing in her head and said a three because she didn’t like to see the worry on his face, but since she was alone with the doctor, she was more honest.

He nodded as if he’d expected that. “As your brain heals, you’ll continue to experience some pain. Don’t try to force your memories, that’ll just make the pain worse. Wear sunglasses when you go outside and in bright light, and continue to get plenty of sleep and eat well-balanced, nutritious meals. I’m going to discharge you this afternoon . . . as long as you have someone who can stay with you for the next few days to keep an eye on you.”

April smiled hugely. Oh, she so wanted to get out of this hospital room! But then reality crashed in on her. She had no idea what her living situation was. Did she have her own house? An apartment? She didn’t know if any of her friends could stay with her, as the doctor wanted. Hell, she had no idea if she even had a guest room or a place for someone to sleep wherever she was living.

“She’ll be staying with me,” a deep voice said from the doorway.

New York Times Bestselling Author

The Lumberjack

July 30, 2024