Chapter Reveal ~ Read the 1st chapter of Strength Enduring by Carrie Ann Ryan!

The Talon Pack continues… STRENGTH ENDURING by Carrie Ann Ryan releases in less than a week! Read the first chapter below and preorder your copy now!

About STRENGTH ENDURING

Available July 17, 2018In the penultimate novel of the Talon Pack series from NYT Bestselling Author Carrie Ann Ryan, an Enforcer must make the ultimate choice when it comes to a human woman with a secret she doesn’t know she holds.Kameron Brentwood has only one thing on his mind: defeating the enemy. He doesn’t have time for a human woman who sets his teeth on edge and makes his wolf prowl. It shouldn’t matter that she’s his mate because he’s always thought that mating is a distraction. Yet as soon as he gets to know the woman, he figures out that there’s no hiding from the attraction he feels for her.Dhanielle Coburn has always been on the outside looking in when it comes to the Talon Pack, but she’s not about to let fate and the moon goddess decide her path for her. If and when she takes Kameron as a mate, it will be her choice. Yet when she suddenly finds herself in the Pack’s inner sanctum, deeper than she ever thought possible, she has to fight not only her need for the man in front of her but also a hidden secret about her family she didn’t even know she had.When the choice is pulled from both of their hands, the two will need to learn who they are apart, and who they can be together. Because there’s more to mating than a mark and a prophecy that has come back to haunt them. And even though they may be fated, the ultimate sacrifice just might take them both in the end.

STRENGTH ENDURING releases July 17th – preorder your copy now!

✦Amazon http://amzn.to/2t8Y0ZJ
✦iBooks http://apple.co/2tq3fIz
✦Kobo http://bit.ly/2vrX8QD
✦Google Play http://bit.ly/2FOTGFE
✦Amazon Paperback https://amzn.to/2HdvugD
✦Audiobook https://adbl.co/2sJuvPh

Read the First Chapter of STRENGTH ENDURING

Kameron Brentwood’s fist smashed into the rogue’s face, the bones in the wolf’s cheek cracking beneath his clenched fingers as he gritted his teeth, his own bones aching at the contact. This wolf, this man, had once been part of another Pack on the other side of the world, had once been a functioning member of society. Then the world, the Pack’s bonds, and the rogue’s own wolf had all become too tangled in a web of strain and panic, and the man had lost control of the wolf entirely.It was Kameron’s job to take care of the rogues near the Talon Pack wards. At least the ones that didn’t come to the Pack looking to take out the Alpha. Those, Gideon— his brother and Alpha— had to deal with himself. The leader couldn’t ignore a challenge according to Pack law.Because this particular wolf had gone too far and had not only killed his family but also a human along the way, there was no hope for redemption. No way for a life to continue under the continued watch of the world and their own needs as wolves.The rogue in human form stumbled to the ground, his eyes all wolf, no longer able to shift fully because he’d broken far beyond redemption.And with one quick movement, Kameron reached out and snapped the rogue’s neck, the sound echoing through the trees.Now, Kameron was alone in the forest, only the sound of his own heartbeat filling his ears as the animals around them had gone silent in the presence of two predators. He slowly let the man who had once been an honored and strong member of his Pack fall to the ground, with Kam’s hand under the other man’s head so he wouldn’t land too hard. There may not be pain anymore, but that didn’t mean Kameron would let the man end without dignity. The other Alpha had let Kameron and his people know that this rogue might be on the way as they’d been trying to track his movements for over a year now. Somehow, even without control, the broken wolf had been able to evade them all. Except Kameron.Because Kameron was the Enforcer of the Talon Pack. One of the strongest wolves in the area, and one of the best Enforcers in the world.And he’d just killed a man because of his duty.He let out a breath, running a hand over his face before growling. He looked down at his bruised knuckles. Little blood covered his hands visibly, but he could still see the invisible, red trails on the tan of his skin.He’d barely broken a sweat taking out the rogue, and as he called his people to help clean up the mess, he knew he’d have to run out the rest of his energy or he’d end up hurting someone in practice later on. That was the problem when his emotions ran high like this. The Pack and his family thought him the man of ice, the man of such control that he felt nothing. He never let others see his emotions, never let them feel them through the Pack bonds, but they were there.And he hated every damn one.Once his crew came in to take the body so they could send him back to his Pack for a proper burial, Kameron went around the perimeter again to ensure that the den was still safe. The war with the humans was over, and thanks to new treaties and laws, their land was safe from satellites and prying eyes— at least for the time being— but that wasn’t the only thing he was checking for. The Aspens had been quiet for too long, and Kameron hadn’t been able to get ahold of their contact, Audrey, who was also the Aspen Pack’s Beta.He’d known as soon as she helped his brother and sister-in-law, betraying the secrets of her Pack in the process, that things wouldn’t end well, but he still felt responsible for what happened to her.Even as he thought that, it wasn’t Audrey that drifted through his mind. No, it was another woman, a human with a sweet and delectable scent that refused to leave his thoughts. He didn’t want to think about Dhani and what that scent meant, so he wouldn’t. The more he did, the less focused he would be. And with yet another war on the horizon, he had to be sure he was strong enough to lead his team and follow his brother, his Alpha, onto the battlefield.A human with a sharp tongue and a delectable scent would only complicate matters.His wolf pawed at him, annoyed that he was ignoring what was right in his face, but it wasn’t as if he could stop what he was doing and follow the promise of a connection that could turn out to be nothing. He’d seen the way losing focus could hurt a Pack, and the Talons relied on him for their protection. He couldn’t let his attention wander to something sweeter— not with the Aspens and their insane Alpha, Blade, hiding so close somewhere in their woods.He couldn’t scent them, and knew they weren’t there at the moment, but they’d be back. Watching. They always were. And when they came back again, Kameron would take them out. He wouldn’t allow anyone to hurt what was his. Not again.And even if it took all he was, even if he had to push away anything that could have been another connection, he’d do it. Because saving his Pack and keeping Blade and his ilk away was all that mattered.He let out a growl when his wolf huffed at him, annoyed by his train of thoughts. His wolf would just have to get over whatever it was currently feeling. Kameron had, after all. Or at least he was trying.He knew he wasn’t being fair and was most likely being so pigheaded that he was going to get himself in trouble, but it wasn’t as if he could change the way he’d thought his whole life. Especially not because of one scent that wouldn’t leave his mind.It would be safer for everyone if he focused on the threat at hand and then saw if fate were truly testing him when it came to a certain woman. That wasn’t how it worked for most wolves, but Kameron wasn’t most wolves. He knew his other half and could control it better than most of the Pack could with theirs, and that meant they’d come to an understanding. And when the time came, and if Dhani truly were his mate, he’d try to figure out the next step. Dhani was smart and would understand why he had to stay away in order to keep his focus on the enemy and not be distracted by something that could change the way he thought and fought.And, once again, he knew he wasn’t as convincing as he needed to be. But he couldn’t change his plans now.“I’m an idiot,” he growled, then went back to his patrol. He needed to go back inside the den wards soon to have dinner with his family, and that meant he only had an hour or so left of being on high-alert and trying to get that scent and what it meant out of his mind. At the moment, he was still on Pack land, meaning there shouldn’t be anyone who wasn’t Talon or a guest of the Talons anywhere near. The fact that there had been a rogue wolf earlier just set his own wolf on edge. He knew the night wasn’t over. The warded area of the den was what hid their people from view. The wards themselves didn’t stretch out across the entire Pack land, as that would be far too vast and taxing on the witches and magic that held the wards in place. So that meant there were layers of patrols on each section of the perimeter, ensuring that they were doing their best to keep their land safe.He stalked around for a few more minutes until an unfamiliar and very human scent drifted to him. He held back a growl. He knew of only three humans— one of them not so human anymore— who were allowed on Pack land, and this scent didn’t belong to any of them.Kameron didn’t let his claws slide through his fingertips like his wolf wanted him to do since this human could just be a lost hiker or some other crap like that. The last thing his Pack needed right then was the bad publicity of having a scared, lost human come up on a wolf in human form yet with claws out that could draw blood.His people had to constantly toe the lie of standing up for themselves and showing their strength, and not scaring the humans that thought the shifters were monsters.Kameron really didn’t care either way, but then again, that’s why he wasn’t part of the Pack’s public persona.He was the one who hid in the shadows for their protection. They didn’t want him out in the real world, scaring unsuspecting tourists with his sharp fangs.So he kept his fangs and claws in check but carefully followed the scent, coming up on the human in a short jean skirt, boots, and a top that didn’t cover enough skin to do any good. Considering that the weather up in the mountains and forest wasn’t the warmest, he had no idea what this woman was doing here.“Lost?” he asked, his voice a growl. He didn’t try to change it, though. She was on Pack territory, and while he wouldn’t try to scare her too much, there were boundaries marked for a reason. They had pups close by, for the goddess’s sake. He wasn’t about to let them come to harm from what looked like a too-curious human.The woman turned on her heel, almost fell, then righted herself in the next instant. When she got a look at him, her eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed into an almost sultry expression.Well, fuck. He had a feeling he knew why she was here, and he was not in the mood to deal with her. She wasn’t the first, and with how his day was going, she wouldn’t be the last either.“Oh, I’m so glad I found you. I was looking for someone just like you.”Kameron didn’t let his guard down even though she sounded sweet as pie. They’d had problems with humans from a new faction where— man or woman— they came onto Pack land, trying to seduce answers out of wolves in order to figure out how to take them out. Misguidedly, they thought of shifters as messengers of evil.“You’re trespassing on Talon land. You better have a good reason, or I’m either sending you to the human authorities or somewhere the Pack can deal with you.” He didn’t tell her that he’d take her to the newly built holding facility they now had where they could interrogate trespassers. It was a good way to keep those not Pack away from the den, and keep the Alpha safe in case Gideon had to come and deal with the humans themselves.Lost hikers, or in this woman’s case, groupies, got sent home right away. Because while he hadn’t known her scent, now that he got a good look at her, he knew her face. One of his men had taken a photo of her the last time she came onto Pack land so the others would know to watch out for her.Some humans wanted shifters dead simply for being what they called abominations. Others wanted to protect them as if they were an endangered species. Still others desired a world where they could live their lives as if they were normal.And some, like this woman, wanted to fuck a shifter to say they could.This was why he hated people. Human, shifter, witch, or whatever else was out there. He hated them all. Hence why people thought him a grouchy asshole. He lived up to that reputation well.“You’ve been warned before,” he added before she could plead her case. “This is the second warning. We don’t give thirds.”They had treaties with the human government. Their land was protected, and what happened in their territory in protection of their people was under the shifters’ jurisdiction. Yes, the human faction who wanted all shifters tagged or killed would always have a problem with anything done on Pack land, but as of right then, human laws were on the Pack’s side.And that meant the human in front of him was on her last free pass.He’d already had to kill one person today; he didn’t want to make it a second.She licked her lips, but it did nothing for him. His wolf wanted their human, not this one. Not that he was going to allow his wolf to think of Dhani as theirs again.“I just wanted to… well, I guess you know what I wanted to see. I’m not harming anyone. There’s no law saying I can’t… flirt with a wolf.”He barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “No, there isn’t. But there are laws about trespassing on our land. You want to bag a wolf? Go to a shifter bar like all the other people who want to find someone to hook up with or be with or whatever your end game is. Coming here isn’t helping anyone.” Not that there were actually shifter bars. But there were bars in the human world that his people hung out at when they weren’t on duty, and when times were safer for them to be away from the den. It had taken too many years and struggles for them to have that freedom, and it was one of Kameron’s duties to ensure that they were able to keep it.He also hated the fact that he was having this conversation at all. He didn’t care what this woman did. She was an adult, and the choices she made in life were hers alone. He just hated that she had to come onto Pack land to do it.“Come on, I’ll walk you back to your car.”She sighed but didn’t bother trying to flirt with him again. She knew there was no reason to. She wasn’t the first groupie— a term the men and women came up with themselves— and she wouldn’t be the last. Kameron just wanted no part in it.By the time he silently got her to her car, which she’d parked in a makeshift lot on the edge of their territory, he was running late for the end of his shift and just wanted to go home and not think about stupid people making stupid decisions. Hence why he really wasn’t in the mood for the other car pulling into the dirt parking lot. And, because of that, he was probably going to be more of an asshole than usual.“You’re going to want to drive back. You’re on the edge of Talon land, and there’s no going forward from here.” The man with the recorder in his hand shook, but he didn’t back away. “I only want a story. To tell the world the truth about all of you. I know you’re good people. I just want to make sure the world sees that.”Kameron held back a sigh. He knew this could be a trick and would log it in, but he was tired and over all of this shit. The humans didn’t get to hear the truth. They weren’t allowed to know everything. It was for their safety and that of the Pack.“You know what, man? I’m tired. You know there are avenues if you want to talk to the Pack’s publicity team.” Yes, they had one now. Like they were some sideshow for the public. He hated it, but he had to play along like a good puppy.“But—”“No buts. You’re not encroaching on Pack land yet. But you’re close. Go home and get in contact the right way. You’re not going to get any answers stalking around the forest, hoping you come across a wolf.” The fact that the guy had was because Kameron was having a shitty night. But it wasn’t as if this human reporter or truther or whatever the fuck he called himself was going to get any real answers.There was a script for a reason.“I want to tell the world who you are.”Kameron let his wolf into his eyes, the gold rim around his irises glowing. The human male didn’t back away, but he swallowed hard.“The world saw who we are. We aren’t here for your amusement. You know the laws. Get away from Pack land before you find out what you should be scared of.”Fuck. He hadn’t meant to say that, and if this human told anyone, Kameron would be fucked. But he watched as the man drove away, raising a cloud of dust behind him, and Kameron knew he had a problem on his hands.But first, he needed to clean the leftover blood from earlier off them and get to his family dinner.He was an asshole, but making his Alpha’s mate cry because he didn’t show up again wasn’t something he wanted to deal with. His brother was meaner than he was, after all.By the time Kameron got to his house, showered, and headed to his brother’s place, he was over an hour late and knew he was going to get his ass kicked. Yeah, he’d been working and dealing with problem after problem, but at any time during the past two hours, he could have called in one of his reinforcements to deal with the two smaller issues. He hadn’t, and now he would be late.Again.Of course, as he made his way to the front door, he figured he wasn’t the only late one. His cousin Max was skulking right alongside him, his new perpetual scowl on his face.“You’re late,” Max said low, not looking at Kameron. From the way his cousin was angled, Kameron couldn’t see any of the scars on his face, or the fact that Max had lost his arm in the last battle they’d fought with the humans before everything changed. His cousin had been the nicest one of the lot, the light to Kameron’s dark, and now it seemed as if the two of them were vying for position.“Says the man who’s walking in late with me.”“I told them I’d be late dealing with council things. You, on the other hand…”Kameron rolled his eyes but didn’t comment. “What council things? Something I should be aware of?” Max, along with others in their family, was part of the council that connected the Redwoods and the Talons. With so many inter-Pack matings, the council’s role had shifted over the past few years. Now, they weren’t only working on ensuring that the treaty for the two Packs was solid but also making sure the subtle changes and having two dominant Alphas in a small area under what was almost one large Pack worked and almost seemed normal.Kameron had no idea how they did it, but since he worked with Gina— the Redwood Enforcer— and Adam— the prior Redwood Enforcer— weekly, he didn’t mind the cooperation.Max shook his head as they walked up the stairs of the porch to the front door. “Just normal business, but we had to start late thanks to one of the member’s kids having a birthday. It wasn’t a big deal, but yeah, I’m late.”Before Kameron could say anything to that, they were inside and confronted with the sound of every Brentwood family member, including mates, children, and close friends of the family. To say it was loud was an understatement. Max immediately went to a corner, grabbing a beer along the way, and watched the room. Kameron knew that others would go to him soon to talk to him, trying to bring him out of his shell. And, one day, Kameron figured it just might work. At least with the right person— namely, Max’s mate. But at least his cousin was trying harder these days by actually showing up to family functions.Kameron was an asshole, but he didn’t have the kind of pain Max did.“You’re late, but I heard you had trouble, so I’ll forgive you.” His Alpha’s mate, his sister-in-law, Brie, cupped his cheek, and he went down to kiss her on the forehead. He wasn’t the most emotive, but it was hard not to be with Brie— at least a little bit. The woman had saved his brother, his Pack, and she also happened to be a submissive wolf.“Long day, but I’m glad I’m here.” And as he said it, he knew it was true. Everyone was talking around him, and though he had acute senses, he did his best to block out most of the topics as it would be too much for his wolf to hear at once. But the crowd seemed happy. His niece and future Alpha, Fallon, was in wolf form, being way too cute for her own good and rolling around with Finn and Brynn’s daughter Mackenzie, and Ryder and Leah’s son Bryson. The adults were watching them while enjoying their evening, and Kameron finally relaxed just a bit.It was going to be a good night, even if he would rather be at home, trying to forget what he had to deal with that evening.As soon as he thought that, though, a scent filled his brain, and he held back a growl.Brie gave him a knowing look, squeezed his forearm, and headed back to Gideon’s side.Kameron hadn’t known that Dhani would be there. But, of course she was. She was his brother’s mate’s best friend and ended up at most functions lately, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.Even if his wolf did.And, of course, because this was Dhani, and his day had already been hell, she strolled right up to him. She was average height, but that was the last average thing about her. Her long, honey-blond hair looked a little darker tonight, but he wasn’t sure if she’d dyed it or if it was just because of the waves she’d put in it rather than it being up like usual. She had bright hazel eyes and sharp cheekbones. Her curves were just right, and it made his wolf claw at him.Damn it.She scratched her nose, flipping him off, and he held back a smirk. She was constantly finding ways to flip him off, and he had a feeling it was to try and get a rise out of him. It didn’t mean that he had to show her he actually liked it.“Kameron.”“Dhani.”Yes, he was an asshole. But he knew anything having to do with her would be trouble. And he needed to protect his Pack. If he broke that faith by following the mating urge, he’d not only hurt his people, he’d end up hurting Dhani, too.That’s what those of his blood did before him, and that’s what he’d end up doing, too.Since he was now somehow in the corner with her, no one could hear them unless he and Dhani spoke a bit louder. Which was just fine by him since he didn’t want to deal with nosy family members.“Got a minute?” she asked, one hand on her hip, her voice going even lower until it was almost breathy.His wolf and his dick perked up.Fuck.“Yeah.”“I know you’re my mate— don’t open your mouth and say I’m human. I have this knowing. Have since Walker and Aimee fixed the mating bonds. So, yes, I know you’re my mate, and that means I’m yours. Why do I know? Who knows, but there it is. When you’re ready to do something about it and face up to what you’re hiding from, I’ll be waiting. What I’ll say once you finally fess up…? Well, we’ll just have to see.”Then she turned on her heel and sashayed away from him as if she hadn’t just rocked his world and fucked up his plans.Well, shit.

About Carrie Ann Ryan

Carrie Ann Ryan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of contemporary and paranormal romance. Her works include the Montgomery Ink, Redwood Pack, Talon Pack, and Gallagher Brothers series, which have sold over 2.0 million books worldwide. She started writing while in graduate school for her advanced degree in chemistry and hasn’t stopped since. Carrie Ann has written over fifty novels and novellas with more in the works. When she’s not writing about bearded tattooed men or alpha wolves that need to find their mates, she’s reading as much as she can and exploring the world of baking and gourmet cooking.Website | Twitter | Facebook | Newsletter | Instagram | Tumblr | Pinterest

Chapter Reveal ~ P. S. I Hate You by Winter Renshaw!

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Isaiah,

Eight months ago, you were just a soldier about to be deployed and I was just a waitress, sneaking you free pancakes and hoping you wouldn’t notice that my gaze was lingering a little too long.

But you did notice.

We spent a “week of Saturdays” together before you left, and we said goodbye on day eight, exchanging addresses at the last minute.

I saved every letter you ever sent, your words quickly becoming my religion.

But you went radio silent on me months ago, and then you had the audacity to walk into my diner yesterday and act like you’d never seen me in your life.

To think … I almost loved you and your beautifully complicated soul.

Almost.

Whatever your reason is—I hope it’s a good one.

Maritza the Waitress

PS – I hate you, and this time … I mean it.

 

 

 

Maritza

“Welcome to Brentwood Pancake and Coffee. I’m Maritza and I’ll be your server,” I greet my millionth customer of the morning with the same old spiel. This one, a raven-haired, honey-eyed Adonis, waited over seventy minutes for a table by a window, though I suppose in LA time that’s the blink of an eye.
He doesn’t so much as acknowledge me.
“Just you today?” I ask, eyeing the empty chair across from him. The breakfast rush is about to end, and lucky for him, I only have one other table right now.
He doesn’t answer, but maybe he doesn’t hear me?
“Coffee?” I ask another obvious question. I mean, the diner is called Brentwood Pancake and Coffee for crying out loud. Everyone comes here for the coffee and plate-sized pancakes, and it’s considered a Class-D felony to order anything else.
Placing his mug right side up on his saucer, he pushes it toward me and I begin to pour. Waving his hand, he stops me when the cup is three-quarters of the way full. A second later, he adds two creams and one half of a sugar packet, but the way he moves is methodical, rigid. With intention.
“Ma’am, this really can’t be that interesting,” he says under his breath, his spoon clinking against the sides of the porcelain mug after he stirs.
“Excuse me?”
“You’re standing here watching me,” he says. Giving the spoon two final taps against the rim of the mug, he then rests it on the saucer before settling his intense amber gaze in my direction. “Isn’t there another table that needs you?”
His eyes are warm like honey but his stare is cold, piercing. Unrelenting.
“You’re right. There is.” I clear my throat and snap out of it. If I was lingering, it wasn’t my intention, but this I’m-sexy-and-I-know-it asshole didn’t need to call me out on it. Sue me for being a little distracted. “I’ll be back to check on you in a minute, okay?”
With that, I leave him alone with his menu and his coffee and his foul mood and his brooding gaze … and his broad shoulders … and his full lips … and I get back to work, stopping at table four to see if Mr. and Mrs. Carnavale need refills on their house blend decafs.
By the time I top them off, I draw in a cleansing breath and head back to Mr. Tall, Dark, and Douche-y, forcing a smile on my face.
“We ready to order?” I ask, pulling my pen from behind my ear and my notepad from my Kelly-green apron.
He folds his menu, offering it to me despite the fact that my hands are full, but I manage to slip it under my arm without dropping anything.
“Two pancakes,” he says. “Eggs. Scrambled. Rye toast. Butter. Not margarine.”
“I’m so sorry.” I point to a sign above the cash register that clearly reads ONE PANCAKE PER PATRON – NO EXCEPTIONS.
He squints, his expression calcifying when he reads it.
“So that’s one pancake, scrambled eggs, and buttered rye toast then,” I recite his order.
“What kind of bullshit rule is that?” He checks his watch, like he has somewhere to be.
Or like he doesn’t have the time for a rule that I entirely agree is pure bullshit.
“These pancakes are huge. I promise one will be more than enough.” I try to deescalate the situation before it gets out of hand because it’s never pretty when management has to get involved. The owners of the diner are strict as hell on this policy and their day shift manager is even more so. She’ll happily inform any and all disgruntled customers there’s a reason the “pancake” in Brentwood Pancake and Coffee is singular and not plural.
I’ve seen many a diner walk out of here and never return over this stupid policy and our Yelp review average is in the dumps, but somehow it never seems to be bad for business. The line is perpetually out the door and down the block every weekend morning without fail, and sometimes even on weekdays. These pancakes are admittedly as delicious and more than own up to their reputation, but that stupid rule is nothing more than clever marketing designed to inflate demand.
“And what if I’m still hungry?” he asks. “Can I order a second?”
Wincing, I shake my head.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” He sits up a little, jaw clenching. “It’s a goddamned pancake for fuck’s sake.”
“Not just any pancake,” I say with a practiced smile. “It’s a Brentwood pancake.”
“Are you trying to be cute with me, ma’am?” he asks, directing his attention at me, though he isn’t flirting. His nostrils flare a little and I can’t help but let my mind wander the tiniest bit about how sexy he looks when he’s angry—despite the fact that I would never so much as entertain the idea of getting down and dirty with an asshole like this.
He’s hot AF but I don’t do jerks. Plain and simple.
I’d have to be drunk. Like, really drunk. And I’d have to be desperate. And even then … I don’t know. He’s got some kind of chip on his shoulder, and no amount of sexiness would be able to distract me from that.
“Let me put your order in, okay?” I ask with a smile so forced my cheeks hurt. They say good moods are contagious, but I’m starting to think this guy might be immune.
“As long as it’s the full order, ma’am,” he says, lips pressing flat as he exhales. I don’t know why he keeps calling me “ma’am” when I’m clearly younger than he is. Hell, I couldn’t legally drink until three years ago.
I am not a “ma’am.”
“The cook won’t make two,” I say with an apologetic tone before biting my bottom lip. If I play it coy and helpless maybe he’ll back down a little? It works. Sometimes.
“Then it’s for my guest,” he points to the empty seat across from him. His opposite hand is balled into a fist, and I can’t help but notice his watch is programmed in military time, “who happens to be showing up later.”
“We don’t serve guests until they’re physically here,” I say. Yet another one of the restaurant’s strict policies. Too many patrons have tried to use that loophole over the years, so they had to close it. But they didn’t just close it—they battened the hatches with hurricane-proof glass by way of a giant security monitor in the kitchen. They even make the cooks check the screen before preparing orders, just to make sure no one’s breaking the rules.
The man drags his hand through his dark hair, which I’m realizing now is a “regulation cut.”
Military.
I bet he’s military.
Has to be. The hair. The watch. The constant swearing juxtaposed with the overuse of the word “ma’am.” He reminds me of my cousin Eli who spent ten years in the U.S. army, and if he’s anything else like Eli, he’s not going to let up about this.
Exhaling, I place my palm gently on his shoulder despite the fact that we’re not supposed to put hands on the guests for any reason, but this guy is tense and his muscled shoulders are just begging for a gentle touch.
“Just … bear with me, okay?” I ask. “I’ll see what I can do.”
The man serves our country. He fights for our freedom. Despite the fact that he’s unquestionably a giant asshole, he at least deserves a second pancake.
I’m going to have to get creative.
Heading back to the kitchen, I put his order in and check on the Carnavales one more time. On my way to the galley to refill my coffee pot, I pass a table full of screaming children, one of which has just shoved his giant pancake on the floor, much to his gasping mother’s dismay.
Bending, I retrieve the sticky circle from the floor and place it back on his plate.
“Would you like the kitchen to fix another?” I ask. They’re lucky. This is the only time they’ll make an exception, and I’ll have to present the dirty pancake as proof.
The child screams and I can barely hear what the mother is trying to say. Glancing around the table, I spot five little minions under the age of eight, all of them dressed in Burberry, Gucci, and Dior. The inflated-lipped mother sports a shimmering, oversized rock on her left ring finger and the father has his nose buried in his phone.
But I’m not one to judge.
LA is lacking child-friendly restaurants of the quality variety, and it’s not like Mr. Chow or The Ivy would welcome their noisy litter with open arms. I don’t even think they have high chairs there.
“I don’t want a pancake!” The oldest of the tanned, flaxen-haired gremlins screams in his mother’s face, turning her flawless complexion a shade of crimson that almost matches her pristine Birkin bag.
“Just … just take it away,” she says, flustered, her palm sprawling her glassy, Botoxed forehead.
Nodding, I take the ‘cake back to the kitchen, only I stop when I reach the galley, grabbing a stack of cloth napkins and hiding the plate beneath it. As soon as my military patron finishes his first pancake, I’ll run this back to the kitchen and claim he accidentally dropped it on the floor.
“Order up!” one of the line guys calls from the window, and I head over to see my military man’s breakfast is hot and ready—though I may have accidentally moved it to the front of the ticket line when no one was looking because I don’t have the energy to deal with him freaking out if his breakfast is taking too long.
Grabbing his plate, I rush it out to him, delivering it with a smile and a sweet, “Can I get you anything else right now?”
His gaze drops to his food and then lifts to me.
“I know,” I say, palm up. “Just … trust me. I’ll take care of you.”
I wink, partially disgusted with myself. He has no idea how difficult it is for me to be accommodating to him when he’s treating me like this. I’d love nothing more than to pour a steaming hot pitcher of coffee into his lap, but out of respect and appreciation—and only respect and appreciation—for his service, I won’t resort to such a thing.
Plus, I work for tips. I kind of have to be accommodating. And lord knows I need this job. I may be living in my grandmother’s gorgeous guesthouse, but believe me, she charges rent.
Free rides aren’t a thing in the Claiborne family.
He peers down his straight nose, stabbing the tines of his polished fork into a chunk of fluffy scrambled egg.
He doesn’t say thank you—not surprising—and I tell him I’ll be back to check on him in a little while before making my way to the galley where another server, Rachael, is also seeking respite.
“That table with the screaming kids,” I ask, “that yours?”
She blows her blonde bangs off her forehead and rolls her eyes. “Yup.”
“Better you than me,” I tease. Rachael’s got three of her own at home. She’s good with kids and she always seems to know the right thing to say to distract them or thwart a total meltdown.
“I’ll trade you,” she says. “The family for the dimples at table four.”
“He has dimples?” I peek my head out, staring toward my military man.
“Oh, God, yes,” she says. “Deep ones. Killer smile, too. Thought maybe he was some model or actor or something, but he said he was an army corporal.”
“We can’t be talking about the same guy. He hasn’t so much as half-smiled at me and he’s already told you what he does for a living?”
“Huh.” Rachael lifts a thin red brow, like she’s wondering if we’re talking about two different people. “He asked me how I was doing earlier and smiled. Thought he was real friendly.”
“That one. Right there. Dark hair? Golden eyes? Muscles bulging out of his gray t-shirt?” I do a quick point before retracting my finger.
She takes another look. “Yeah. That’s him. You don’t forget a face like that. Or biceps like that …”
“Weird.” I fold my arms, staring his way and wondering if maybe he has a thing against girls like me. Though I’m pretty ordinary compared to most girls out here. Average height. Average weight. Brown hair. Brown eyes.
Maybe I remind him of an ex?
I’m mid-thought when out of nowhere he turns around, our eyes catching like he knew I was watching. Reaching for a hand towel in front of me, I glance down and try to act busy by wiping up a melted ice cube on the galley counter.
“Busted.” Rachael elbows me before heading out to check on the Designer family. I swat her on the arm as she passes, and then I give myself a second to regain my composure. As soon as the warmth has left my cheeks, I head out to check on him, relieved to find his pancake demolished, not a single, spongey scrap left behind. In fact, his entire meal is finished … coffee and all.
Reaching for his plate, he stops me, his hand covering mine, and then our eyes lock.
“Why were you staring at me over there?” he asks. The way he looks at me is equal parts invasive and intriguing, like he’s studying me, forming a hard and fast opinion, but also like he’s checking me out which makes zero sense because his annoyance with me practically oozes out of his perfect, tawny physique.
“I’m sorry?” I play dumb.
“I saw you. Answer the question.”
Oh, god. He’s not going to let this go. Something tells me I should’ve taken Rachael up on her offer to trade tables. This one’s been nothing but trouble since the moment I poured his coffee.
My mouth falls and I’m not sure what to say. Half of me knows I should probably utter some kind of nonsense most likely to appease him so he doesn’t complain to my manager, but the other half of me is tired of being nice to a man who has the decency to ask another waitress how her day is going and can’t even bring himself to treat his own server like a human being.
“You were talking about me with that other waitress,” he says. His hand still covers mine, preventing me from exiting this conversation.
Exhaling, I say, “She wanted to trade tables.”
His dark brow arches and he studies my face.
“And then she said you had dimples,” I expand. “She said you smiled at her earlier … I was just thinking about why you’d be so polite to her and not me.”
He releases me and I stand up straight, tugging my apron into place before smoothing my hands down the front.
“She handed me a newspaper while I waited. She didn’t have to do that,” he says, lips pressing flat. “Give me something to smile about and I’ll smile at you.”
The audacity of this man.
The heat in my ears and the clench in my jaw tells me I should walk away now if I want to preserve my esteemed position as morning server here at Brentwood Pancake and Coffee, but it’s guys like him …
I try to say something, but all the thoughts in my head are temporarily nonsensical and flavored with a hint of rage. A second later, I manage a simple yet gritted, “Would you like me to grab your check, sir?”
“No,” he says without pause. “I’m not finished with my breakfast yet.”
We both glance at his empty plates.
“More eggs?” I ask.
“No.”
I can’t believe I’m about to do this for him, but at this point, the sooner I get him out of here, the better. I mean, at this point I’m doing it for myself, let’s be real.
“One moment.” I take his empty dishes to the kitchen before sneaking into the galley and grabbing that kid’s dirty pancake. My pulse whooshes in my ears and my body is lit, but I forge ahead, returning to the pick-up window and telling one of the cooks that my customer at table twelve dropped his ‘cake on the floor.
He glances at the plate, then to the security monitor, then back to me before taking it out of my hands and exchanging it for a fresh one. It’s a verifiable assembly line back there, just a bunch of guys in hairnets and aprons standing around a twenty-foot griddle, spatulas in each hand.
“Thanks, Brad,” I say. Making my way back to my guy, I stop to check on the Carnavales, only their table is already being bussed and Rachael tells me she took care of their check because they were in a hurry.
Shit.
“Here you are.” I place the plate in front of my guy.
He glances up at me, honeyed eyes squinting for a moment. I wink, praying he doesn’t ask questions.
“Let me know if you need anything else, okay?” I ask, wishing I could add, “just don’t ask for another pancake because I’ll be damned if I risk my job for an ingrate like you ever again.”
“Coffee, ma’am. I’d like another cup of coffee.” He reaches for his glass syrup carafe, pouring sticky sweet, imported-from-Vermont goodness all over his steaming pancake, and I try not to watch as he forms an “x” and then a circle.
Striding away, I grab a fresh carafe of coffee and return to top him off, stopping at three-quarters of the way full. A second later, he glances up at me, his full lips pulling up at the sides, revealing the most perfect pair of dimples I’ve ever seen … as if the past twenty minutes have all been some kind of joke and he was only busting my chops by being the world’s biggest douche lord.
But just like that, it disappears.
His pearly, dimpled smirk is gone before I get the chance to fully appreciate how kind of a soul he appears to be when he’s not all tense and surly.
“Glad I finally gave you a reason to smile.” I’m teasing. Sort of. And I gently rub his shoulder, which is still tight as hell. “Anything else I can get you?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll take my check.”
Thank. God.
I can’t get it fast enough. Within a minute, I’ve punched my staff ID into the system, printed his ticket, shoved it into a check presenter, and rushed it to his table. His debit card rests on the edge when I arrive, as if I’d taken too long and he grew tired of holding it in his hand.
He’s just as anxious to leave as I am to get him out of here. Guess that marks the one and only thing that puts us on the same page.
“I’ll be right back with this,” I tell him. His card—plain navy plastic with the VISA logo in the lower corner and NAVY ARMY CREDIT UNION along the top—bears the name “Isaiah Torres.”
When I return, I hand him a neon purple gel pen from my pocket and gather his empty dishes.
“Thank you for the …” he points at the sticky plate in my hand as he signs his check. “For that.”
“Of course,” I say, avoiding eye contact because the sooner I can pretend he’s already gone, the better. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”
Asshole.
Glancing up, I spot our hostess, Maddie, flagging me down and mouthing that I have three new tables. Great. Thanks to this charmer, I’ve disappointed the Carnavales, risked my job, and kept several tables waiting all within the span of a half hour.
Isaiah signs his check, closes the leather binder, and slides out of his booth. When he stands, he towers over me, peering down his nose and holding my gaze captive for what feels like a single, endless second.
For a moment, I’m so blinded by his chiseled jaw and full lips, that my heart misses a couple of beats and I almost forget our little exchange.
“Ma’am, if you’ll kindly excuse me,” he says as I realize I’m blocking his path.
I step aside, and as he passes, his arm brushes against mine and the scent of fresh soap and spicy aftershave fills my lungs. Shoving the check presenter in my apron, I tend to my new tables before rushing back to start filling drinks.
Glancing toward the exit, I catch him stopping in the doorway before slowly turning to steal one last look at me for reasons I’ll never know, and it isn’t until an hour later that I finally get a chance to check his ticket. Maybe I’d been dreading it, maybe I’d purposely placed it in the back of my mind, knowing full well he was going to leave me some lousy, slap-in-the-face tip after everything I’d done for him. Or worse: nothing at all.
But I stand corrected.
“Maritza, what is it?” Rachael asks, stopping short in front of me, hands full of strategically stacked dirty dishes.
I shake my head. “That guy … he left me a hundred-dollar tip.”
Her nose wrinkles. “What? Let me see. Maybe it’s a typo?”
I show her the tab and the very clearly one and two zeroes on the tip line. The total confirms that the tip was no typo.
“I don’t understand. He was such an ass,” I say under my breath. “This is like, what, five hundred percent?”
“Maybe he grew a conscience at the last minute?” Her lips jut forward.
I roll my eyes. “Whatever it was, I just hope he never comes here again. And if he does, you get him. There isn’t enough tip money in the world that would make me want to serve that arrogant prick again. I don’t care how hot he is.”
“Gladly.” Her mouth pulls wide. “I have this thing for generous pricks with dashing good looks.”
“I know,” I say. “I met your last two exes.”
Rachael sticks her tongue out before prancing off, and I steal one last look at Isaiah’s tip. It’s not like he’s the first person ever to bestow me with such plentiful gratuity—this is a city where cash basically grows on trees—it’s just that it doesn’t make sense and I’ll probably never get a chance to ask him why.
Exhaling, I get back to work.
I’ve worked way too damn hard to un-complicate my life lately, and I’m not about to waste another thought on some complicated man I’m never going to see ever again.

 

 

Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon bestselling author Winter Renshaw is a bona fide daydream believer. She lives somewhere in the middle of the USA and can rarely be seen without her trusty Mead notebook and ultra portable laptop. When she’s not writing, she’s living the American dream with her husband, three kids, and the laziest puggle this side of the Mississippi.And if you’d like to be the first to know when a new book is coming out, please sign up for her private mailing list here —> http://eepurl.com/bfQU2j

 

Author Links

 

 

 

Chapter Reveal ~ The Rebound by Winter Renshaw

 

 

 

The last time I saw Nevada Kane, I was seventeen and he was loading his things into the back of his truck, about to embark on a fourteen-hour drive to the only college that offered him a full ride to play basketball.

I told him I’d wait for him. He promised to do the same.

But life happened. I broke my promise long before he ever broke his. And not because I wanted to.

We never saw each other again …

Until ten years later when Nevada unexpectedly returned to our hometown after an abrupt retirement from his professional basketball career.

Suddenly he was everywhere, always staring through me with that brooding gaze, never returning my smiles or “hellos.”

Over the years, I’d heard that he’d changed. And that despite his multi-million dollar contracts and rampant success, life hadn’t been so kind to him.

He was a widower.

And a single father.

And rumor had it, he’d spent his last ten years trying to forget me, refusing to so much as breathe my name … hating me.

But just like a rebound, he’s back.

And I have to believe everything happens for a reason.

 

 

 

Prologue



Yardley Devereaux {Ten Years Ago}

He sent my letter back.
I re-read my words, imagining the way they must have made him feel.
Nevada,
I’m writing because you haven’t been taking my calls or answering my texts. I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors, so I thought you should hear it straight from me…
I’ve broken my promise.
But you should know that I never wanted to hurt you, none of this was planned, and I still love you more than anything I’ve ever loved in this world.
This is something I had to do. And I think if you’ll let me, I can explain in a way that makes sense and doesn’t completely obliterate the beauty of what we had.
Please don’t hate me, Nevada.
Please let me explain.
Please answer your phone.
I love you. So much.
Your dove,
Yardley
The paper is torn at the top, as if he was about to rip it to shreds but changed his mind, and on the back of my letter, in bold, black marker, is a message of his own.
NEVER CONTACT ME AGAIN.

Chapter One

Yardley Devereaux, age 16

I don’t belong here.
I realize being the new kid makes people give you a second look, but I don’t think it should give them permission to stare at you like you have a second head growing out of your nose. Or a monstrous zit on your chin. Or a period stain on your pants.
At this point it’s all the same.
Not to mention, I don’t think anyone can prepare you for what it feels like to eat lunch alone, like some social reject.
The smell of burnt tater tots makes my stomach churn, and the milk on my tray expires today. I’m pretty sure the “chicken patty on a bun” they gave me is nothing more than pink slime baked to a rock-hard consistency. I’m unwilling to risk chipping a tooth, so I refuse to try it.
Checking my watch for the millionth time, I calculate approximately 3 1/2 hours left until I can go home and tell my parents what an amazing first day I had. That’s what they want to hear anyway. Dad moved us here from California with the promise that we were going to be richer than sin, whatever that means. But if Missouri is such a gold mine then why doesn’t the rest of the world move here? So far, Lambs Grove looks like the kind of place you’d see in some independent film about a mother trying to solve her son’s murder with the help of a crooked police department, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, JK Simmons, and Frances McDormand.
Okay, I’m probably being dramatic.
But this place is pretty lame. I miss the ocean. I miss the constant sunshine and the steady stream of seventy-five degree days. I miss the swaying palm trees.
I miss my friends.
Forcing your kid to move away from the town they’ve grown up in their entire life—in the middle of their sophomore—year is cruel. I don’t care how rich dad says we’re going to get, I’d have rather stayed in Del Mar, driven a rusting Honda, and paid my own way through a technical college if it had meant we didn’t have to move.
And can we talk about my name for a second? Yardley. Everyone here has normal names. Alyssa. Monica. Taylor. Heather. Courtney. If I have to spell my name for someone one more time I’m going to scream. My mom wanted my name to be special and different because apparently she thinks I’m special and different, but naming your daughter Yardley doesn’t make her special. It just makes it so she’ll never find her name on a souvenir license plate.
I’d go by my middle name if it weren’t equally as bad, but choosing between Yardley and Dove is akin to picking your own poison.
Yardley Dove Devereaux.
My parents are cruel.
I rest my case.
I pop a cold tater tot into my mouth and force myself to chew. I’ll be damned if I’m that girl sitting in third block with a stomach growling so loud it drowns out the teacher. I don’t need more people staring.
Pulling my notebook from my messenger bag, I pretend to focus on homework despite the fact that it’s the first day of spring semester and none of my teachers have assigned anything yet, but it’s better than sitting here staring at the block walls of the cafeteria like some loser.
Pressing my pen into the paper, I begin to write:
Monday, January 7, 2008
This day sucks.
The school sucks.
This town sucks.
These people suck.
After a minute, I toss my pen aside and exhale.
“What about me? Do I suck?” A pastel peach lunch tray plops down beside me followed by a raven-haired boy with eyes like honey and a heartbreaker’s smile. My heart flutters in my chest. He’s gorgeous. And I have no idea why he’s sitting next to me. “Nevada.”
“No. California. I’m from Del Mar,” I say, clearing my throat and sitting up straight.
The boy laughs through his perfectly straight nose.
I can’t take my eyes off his dimpled smirk. He can’t take his eyes off me.
“My name,” he says. “It’s Nevada. Like the state. And you are?”
“New,” I say.
He laughs at me again, eyes rolling. “Obviously. What’s your name?”
My cheeks warm. Apparently, I can’t human today. “Yardley.”
“Yardley from California.” He says my name like he’s trying to memorize it as he studies me. I squirm, wanting to know what he’s thinking and why he’s gazing at me like I’m some kind of magnificent creature and not some circus sideshow new girl freak. “What brings you here?”
He pops one of my tator tots between his full lips, grinning while he chews.
Nevada doesn’t look like the boys where I’m from. He doesn’t sound like them either. He isn’t sun kissed with windswept surfer hair. His features are darker, more mysterious. One look at this tall drink of water and I know he’s wise beyond his years. Mischievous and charismatic but also personable.
He’s … everything.
And he’s everything I never expected to come across in a town like this.
A group of girls at the table behind us gape and gawk, whispering and nudging each other. It occurs to me then that this might be a set-up, that this beautiful boy might be talking to this awkward new girl as a dare.
“Ignore them,” he says when he follows my gaze toward the plastic cheerleader squad sitting a few feet away. “They’re just jealous.”
I lift a brow. “Of what?”
He smirks, laughing at me like I’m supposed to ‘get it.’
“What?” I ask. If this is a joke, I want to be in on it. I refuse to add butt-of-the-joke to the list of reasons why this day can go to hell.
“They’re jealous because they think I’m about to ask you out,” he says, licking his lips. Nevada hasn’t taken his eyes off me since the moment he sat down.
“Should I go inform them that they have absolutely no reason to shoot daggers our way?”
His expression fades. “Why would you say that?”
“Because …” I laugh. “You’re not about to ask me out.”
“I’m not?”
I peel my gaze off of him and glance down at my untouched lunch. “Why are you doing this?”
“Why am I doing what? Talking to you? Trying to get the courage to ask you on a date?”
I glance up, studying his golden gaze and trying to determine if he’s being completely serious right now.
“You’ve never seen me before in your life and then you just … plop down next to me and ask me on a date?” I shake my head before rising. If I have to dump my tray and hide in the bathroom until the bell rings, then so be it.
“Where are you going?”
My lips part. “I … I don’t know. I …”
Nevada reaches for me, wrapping his hand around my wrist in a silent plea for me to stay. “Do you have a boyfriend back in California? Is that what this is about?”
“What? No.” This guy is relentless.
“Then go on a date with me,” he says, rising. “Friday.”
“Why?”
His expression fades. “Why?”
The bell rings. Thank God.
“I was new once. So I get it,” he says, fighting another dimpled smirk. God, I could never get tired of looking at a face like his. “And, uh … I think you’re, like, really fucking hot.”
Biting my lower lip and trying my damnedest to keep a straight face, I decide I won’t be won over that easily. It takes a lot more than a sexy smile, some kind words, and a curious glint in his sunset eyes. If he truly wants me … if this isn’t a joke and he honestly thinks I’m “really fucking hot,” he’s going to have to prove it.
“Bye, Nevada,” I say, gathering my things and disappearing into a crowd of students veering toward two giant trash cans.
I don’t wait for him to respond and I don’t turn around, but I feel him watching me—if that’s even possible. There’s this electric energy pulsing through me from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. I’m not sure if it’s excitement or anticipation or the promise of hope … but I can’t deny that it’s real and it’s there.
Making my way to the second floor of Lambs Grove High, I find my English Lit classroom and settle into a seat in the back.
For the tiniest sliver of a second, I imagine the two of us together. We’re laughing and happy and so in love that it physically hurts—the kind of thing I’ve never had with anyone else.
The tardy bell rings and a few more students shuffle in. My teacher takes roll call before beginning his lecture, but I don’t hear any of it.
I can’t stop thinking about that beautiful boy.

 

 

 

 

Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon bestselling author Winter Renshaw is a bona fide daydream believer. She lives somewhere in the middle of the USA and can rarely be seen without her trusty Mead notebook and ultra portable laptop. When she’s not writing, she’s living the American dream with her husband, three kids, and the laziest puggle this side of the Mississippi.

And if you’d like to be the first to know when a new book is coming out, please sign up for her private mailing list here —> http://eepurl.com/bfQU2j

 

 

Author Links

 

 

 

Chapter Reveal ~ Sky’s the Limit by Elle Aycart! A new romance coming January 16th!

 

 

 

 

 

Tired of waiting for her big break in the fashion industry, Sky Gonzalez, eternal part-time student and overworked retail drone, quits her job, sublets her New York apartment, and embarks on a semester abroad study program in Paris. Paris! Time to throw caution to the winds and jump-start her dreams. What’s the worst that could happen?

How about getting sent to the wrong Paris? As in Paris-frigging-Minnesota?

Bye-bye career dreams. Bye-bye glamour and haute couture. Hello flannel shirts, mind-numbing cold, zero bars on the cell phone, and socially challenged mountain men with tons of unruly facial hair.

So yeah, let the truck barreling her way hit her, please. Less painful.

Logan should have dodged the little lost waif and kept on driving. Who in their right mind walked in the middle of the road, dressed in white from head to high heels, during a snowstorm? Clueless city girls, that’s who. Sky is all that Logan has gladly left behind: stylish, cosmopolitan, and a massive pain in the butt. He wouldn’t trade a single day in his quirky little corner of the woods for all the high-maintenance beauties the city can offer.

Too bad this beauty has been deemed a health hazard and quarantined in his house. Damn his doomsday-prepper neighbors and their paranoid emergency protocols. Now he has to keep Sky in and the pandemic squad out until the roads are clear. The question is, will that happen before or after Sky realizes she’s under house arrest?

Ah, the best-laid plans…

 

 

Somewhere in the back of beyond, Minnesota

SOS. Car broke down. Stuck in snowstorm. Check my location and alert troopers.

Sky Gonzalez pressed Send and threw her cell in the air as high as she could. There was nothing but trees and snow around, no cell coverage to be had where she was standing. Maybe another six feet up, the situation was different.

She caught the phone on its way down. Checked the screen. Nope. Jesus Christ, the whole country was infested with butt-ugly, fake-tree cell towers, and she had to get lost in a place where all the damn trees were real.

Turning against the gusts of wind and brushing flakes away from her face, she gave it another go, tossing as far as she dared. Which wasn’t far, really, because she wasn’t the most coordinated person in the world. If she dropped the phone and it smashed into a million pieces, or she lost sight of where it landed, that was it for her last lifeline to the outside world. She’d never find her cute, sparkly cell again—slick and thin and white.

In hindsight, going for that color had been a very poor decision.

Still no dice. Squinting, she tossed the device up again. Hopefully her message would eventually go through, and Lola would contact the authorities. After all, it was Lola’s fault Sky was in this bind. Of all the crazy shit her sister had pulled over the years, this stunt trumped every one of them.

Every. Single. One.

She caught her cell a third time. Nothing. Well, practice made perfect, right? Besides, she didn’t have much else to do except throw that stupid phone into the sky and continue walking. The road must lead somewhere. Sooner or later she’d arrive there. Or she’d get lucky and her cell would catch a signal. Or she’d freeze to death and become a cautionary tale to stupid girls. Whatever came first.

She looked back to where her car was being buried under a steady fall of big flakes. Steam was still coming from the hood. How a car could overheat in the middle of a snowstorm, she didn’t know. That annoying little red light on the dashboard that had flashed at her for the last twenty miles might have had something to do with it. Not that she could have done shit about it, seeing as the last person she’d crossed paths with was at a gas station a hundred miles away. Or so. She wasn’t great at calculating distances or reading maps.

Orienting herself wasn’t one of her fortes either, evidenced by the embarrassing fact that her destination should only have been about fifteen miles from the regional airport and she’d still managed to miss it. She’d tried backtracking, but she’d only succeeded in getting more lost. And that was hours ago. The car’s GPS had stopped working right after she left the airport, and her cell had been without a steady signal for a long while before the car itself died. For all she knew, she’d crossed state lines. Heck, she might be in Canada. Or in frigging Alaska.

Great way to kick off the New Year. Best first of January ever.

Eyes on her airborne cell, she tripped and fell flat on her face, the useless device landing on the back of her head.

Coordinate colors? Forecast fashion trends? Put together a knockout outfit from a thrift shop? All that she could do, no problem. But apparently, throwing an object up in a straight line and catching it on the fly were not in her skill set.

Aggravated, she got up, patted the snow from her pants, and burrowed her hands under her jacket. The wind wasn’t too strong, but the constant bee stings of flakes on her skin, along with her shitty clothes, made her feel like she was freezing. The extremely fashionable hand-me-downs from her boss were not designed for off-road snow trudging.

Then again, she should have been strolling around Paris’s Golden Triangle of luxury boutiques and haute couture labels. Or sitting in a cute little café, watching the sun set over the Champs Elysées, enjoying the mild chill of the French winter—which this year was supposed to be warmer than usual—sipping red wine, and munching on a baguette slathered in gooey cheese. For that, she was perfectly dressed.

Thank God she’d gotten that ridiculous white bunny-ear hat at the airport, ugly as it was, and the white bunny-paw mittens. The snowstorm must have caught other travelers off guard, because those had been the only winter garments in the tiny store. High heels and a bunny hat. Hell of a fashion statement. On the plus side, she was color coordinated down to her underwear. White pants. White jacket. White boots. White hat.

She should have stayed in the broken car. No heat and a cramped space were a thousand times preferable to walking in the open, but she was so tired, she couldn’t afford to sit idle. She’d fall asleep in a second and wake up a Popsicle. Or, more to the point, not wake up at all.

That she’d been awake thirty hours and counting wasn’t helping. But why would she have wasted her last night in New York City sleeping when she thought she had a transatlantic flight ahead of her? Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Sky was infamous for drifting off in the weirdest places and the most impossible positions. Tourist class, no leg room, screaming babies? Bring it on. Heck, once she’d zonked out in a jumper seat and snored there for hours, back in the day when she flew standby, courtesy of a friend’s industry-discount tickets.

Looking forward to a cozy nap in coach, she’d gone partying with friends instead of resting—and checking her flight details. Now she was stuck in the middle of nowhere, sleep-deprived, knee-deep in snow, freezing her butt off, and probably catching the mother of all flus.

Minnesota. Where the heck was Minnesota? She was an East Coast person through and through. She hadn’t been this far west since that time she took the wrong train and ended up in Newark. That had been traumatic enough, thank you very much.

She glanced around. It was beautiful, though. Perfect snowflakes poured out of the sky, blanketing the whole landscape in white. Very… Christmassy. Too bad it wasn’t Christmas, and she was lost, alone, and irremediably soaked. Her hair and makeup were ruined. And let’s not talk about her brand-new manicure. Hansel and Gretel dropped bread crumbs. Her? She was dropping fake nails all over the place.

Damn the countryside. Not a single soul around to ask for directions. Where were aggressive taxi drivers when one needed them? Rude walkers, honking cars, hotdog vendors, a Starbucks on every corner—there was nothing like that here. No landmarks she would recognize.

Just snow, trees, and a back road, poorly delineated and with worse signage, all of it getting fuzzier by the second.

And that was the view in the middle of the day. She shuddered to think how all this would look when it started getting dark. Were there wolves in Minnesota? Bears? Because if her high-heeled boots were shit walking in the snow, just wait until she had to climb a tree.

Sky was about to toss the cell up again, but she stopped. Sighed. Who was she kidding? She’d need a rocket launcher to make it past the treetops. She might as well put her phone to better use before the battery died or it got buried in the snow, Fargo style, until the end of time. She pressed the recording function and started talking. “This is the last will and testament of Sky Gonzalez. This message is addressed to my sister Lola. I leave you, Lola, all my belongings, which you’ll find in a car buried under a ton of snow somewhere in the middle of Minnesota, where you sent me!” she yelled into the device. “Know that I blame you for everything, and I will haunt you from the afterlife for freaking ever! You’ll never have a good night’s sleep, I guarantee you. Damn your presbyopia! Yes, you’ve hit forty. Yes, you need glasses. Own it, for Christ’s sake!”

Screaming seemed to help, marginally. To vent her frustration, if nothing else. She knew she shouldn’t be mad at Lola. After all, it wasn’t completely her sister’s fault. Never mind how busy she’d been, Sky should not have asked her sister to fill out her application for the semester-abroad program. At the very least, she should have suspected something was fishy when the secretary in the placement department had been so glad about Sky’s choice of location, she not only arranged the flight for her, but also informed her that the position came with a voucher for a car rental. Big red flag if Sky ever saw one.

“I don’t need a car,” she’d told the woman. Why would she? Public transportation was a far better option in European cities.

The secretary had sounded confused. “Uhh, believe me, you’ll need a car. Any preferences?”

In all her years as a part-time undergrad at that school, taking classes here and there whenever she could afford it, Sky had never heard the old hag be so nice to anyone. So she went for broke. “Okay, if I can choose, a cute little Mini would work.” Driving in style trumped trunk space any day. Besides, parking would be at a premium in Paris.

“A what?”

She’d gone too far. “If it’s too much, I can—”

“No, no,” the secretary had hurried to interrupt. “It will be arranged.”

Probably she’d thought Sky was going to pull her application if she didn’t get her preferred car. Which she would have. In a heartbeat. Not because of the car, but because she had thought she was going to Paris, France. Not Paris, Minnesota. Who in her right mind would choose an internship in Minnesota when Europe was available?

Sky Gonzalez, apparently.

Entering the semester-abroad program had been an ill-omened idea. She should have accepted her destiny as an eternal student and sales clerk turned personal shopper’s assistant. Dressing in castoffs from her boss and living vicariously through others people’s pics on Instagram. Making ends meet, a big smile on her face, happy and satisfied with her lot.

But traveling to Europe in the hopes of becoming a buyer for a classy continental retailer? Not in the cards for a Gonzalez.

Sky blew warm air over her frozen fingers. Manipulating her cell with the mittens had been a no-go, so she’d stashed them in her jacket. Time to fish them out, or she was going to lose more than her nails. Rummaging in her pockets produced only one mitten. Oh, shit. She must have dropped the other one. Fantastic. Getting better and better. Her teeth were chattering. The storm didn’t look like it was lightening up anytime soon, so she put on the one mitten and picked up her speed.

She pressed Record again and spoke into the phone.“I left Arnie at the dog hotel, so you are getting your sorry ass over there and picking him up, Lola. To hell with your allergies.”

Arnie hated it there. Ungrateful mutt. Much as it pained Sky, she couldn’t take him with her overseas. She’d dished out an indecent amount of money, money she couldn’t afford, to that first-class kennel, and he’d looked at her as if she were dumping him into the pound. “If I freeze to death… which at this stage is a very strong possibility, because the clattering sound you’re hearing is my teeth… I expect you to care for him. The expensive doggie treats he likes. His massage and spa days. The whole shebang, Lola. Do not cut corners with my baby. You owe me.”

When Sky stopped yelling into the phone, she realized the screeching she was hearing wasn’t coming from her. It sounded like brakes locking. She turned around in time to see the shiny grill of a black monster truck barreling her way.

Her eyes opened wide. Holy shit.

It was a damn good thing she couldn’t feel half her body anymore, because this was sooo going to hurt.

* * *

The second that Logan saw a flash of long red hair and something resembling human eyes, he wrenched the wheel, sending the truck spinning to the shoulder, barely missing the tiny figure in the middle of the road. Jesus Christ. Who in her right mind wore white from head to toe in a blizzard? The truck screeched to a halt, the passenger side a mere half an inch from the woman. He jumped down and ran around the front. She had fallen to the ground. Fuck, had he hit her? “You okay?”

“You… almost… ran… me… over,” she said, her teeth chattering. From fear or cold, he couldn’t tell. Well, he could. It had to be cold. Her clothes were flimsy at best. Flashy, but not warm at all.

“Are you crazy? Standing in the middle of the road, all in white? I could have killed you.”

He saw a gleam of defiance in her eyes. “White’s… trendy… this… year.”

Right. “There’s nothing ‘trendy’ in this part of Minnesota, lady. Where’s your car?”

“There.” She pointed in the direction Logan had come from. “Or there,” she corrected herself, pointing in the opposite direction. “Not sure now. It all looks… white.”

No shit.

He tried to help her stand, but her legs buckled, so he lifted her in his arms. “Let’s get you somewhere warm, shall we?” After placing her on the passenger seat, he cranked up the heat.

“Can’t leave… without… my bags.”

He stepped outside and scouted the ground a little.

Her footsteps indicated she’d been walking in the same direction he’d been driving, which meant he must have passed her vehicle and missed it. “What car are you driving?”

She sneezed, the useless synthetic-fur hood on her jacket flopping over her bunny-eared head. Out of the whole stupid outfit, that bunny-eared hat was the most sensible piece. “A Mini.”

Great. Wherever she’d left the car, it was probably buried now.

“We’ll come back for it tomorrow,” he decided, jumping back in and revving up the engine.

“My Manolos are in there.”

Manolos. Oh, boy, wasn’t that a blast from the past? Another shoe whore. Just what he needed. “They’ll still be here tomorrow, believe me.”

She was going to object, but a sudden sneeze derailed her. And another and another. He opened the glove compartment, took out a wad of napkins, and offered it to her. “Why did you leave the car?”

“Stopped working,” she answered, grabbing a napkin and wiping her nose. “And when I began walking… it wasn’t snowing so much.”

“You aren’t from anywhere around here, are you?” Her dumb clothes were a dead giveaway. Her actions too. She shook her head, placing her hands in front of the air vent. “New York City.”

It figured.

She narrowed her dark eyes on him. “Why?”

The heat had kicked in. She must have finally felt it, because her teeth weren’t chattering as hard. She was even getting some color back in her face.

He looked resolutely forward and edged the truck into motion. “For your information—next time you decide to take a stroll in the Minnesota countryside, you need better shoes. And clothes. You don’t assume the weather conditions will improve. And you never leave your vehicle. Ever. Under any circumstances. You don’t stand in the middle of the road without wearing reflectors. And—”

A sudden move from the passenger side caught his attention. He gave her a quick glance and saw, flabbergasted, that her head had lolled to the side.

“Lady, you okay?”

A light snore was all the answer he got. “And you don’t get into a stranger’s ride and proceed to check out,” he muttered. Jesus fucking Christ. Talk about a lack of common sense.

 

 

 

After a colorful array of jobs all over Europe ranging from translator to chocolatier to travel agent to sushi chef to flight dispatcher, Elle Aycart is certain of one thing and one thing only: aside from writing romances, she has abso-frigging-lutely no clue what she wants to do when she grows up. Not that it stops her from trying all sorts of crazy stuff. While she is probably now thinking of a new profession, her head never stops churning new plots for her romances. She lives currently in Barcelona, Spain, with her husband and two daughters, although who knows, in no time she could be living at the Arctic Circle in Finland, breeding reindeer.

Elle loves to hear from readers!

elleaycart@gmail.com

 

 

Chapter Reveal! Read chapter 1 from Jeremiah by Casey Peeler!

 

 

 

 

Jeremiah Drake is good with his hands, and has taken on the responsibility of Mayes’ Body Shop. However, when a badass beauty named Landry is put in charge of the shop, Jeremiah is caught off guard by her beauty, but more importantly how she is under the hood.
Chapter 1
Jeremiah
With the sound of the small metal bell clanging against the glass door, I glance up from underneath the Chevy Impala I’m changing the oil in. Looking to it, I do a double-take as a blonde with long, flowing hair like an ocean walks in and smiles my direction. Her jeans are painted on, with a tight-fitting black tank top and curves that would make every man’s dick hard. She doesn’t say a word; instead, she walks toward Mr. Mayes’ office and closes the door. What the fuck is going on? Who the hell does she think she is and why is she in that office?
As soon as the last few drops have escaped, I place the oil plug back in place and change out the filter before lowering it from the lift. Once its four wheels hit the concrete, I take off the cap and fill it with the golden liquid. Taking the dip stick, I check it once more and turn the engine to make sure all the lights are off. Killing the engine, I glance over my shoulder to Davis.
“I’m gonna go see who the fuck that was walkin’ in Mr. Mayes’ office,” I say to him as I wipe my hands on the rag and toss it on the work table. Standing outside his office door, I see the same blonde sitting behind his dusty desk with a look of disgust on her face. Quickly, I knock on the door. She pauses and looks up. Without waiting for a reply, I turn the knob and walk in.
“Ma’am, is there something I can help ya with?” I question, trying my best to be polite.
She looks at me, rolls her eyes, and basically tells me to fuck off without opening her mouth, and all that has me wanting to do is turn her over my damn knee and spank her nice little ass.
“Excuse me?” she says with an abundance of attitude.
“I said can I help you? Mr. Mayes isn’t here, so maybe I can help you with what you need.”
She begins to laugh and it pisses me off.
“No fuckin’ shit, Sherlock! He’s in the hospital and I’m here to take care of things until he’s able to return.” What the hell did she say? I’ve been here since I was sixteen years old and he’s been priming me to take over the day he calls it quits. He’s left me in charge and I’ll be damned if a little girl comes in here acting all high and mighty wanting to take over.
“Ma’am,” I say cautiously once more, knowing I really want to cuss this bitch out. “I’m in charge while he’s out. What can I help you with?”
“Like hell you are, Jeremiah.” The way she says my name makes me pause. How the hell does she know my name?
“Why’s this the first I’ve heard of it? I just saw him yesterday.”
“Hell if I know, but whatever. Look, I’m here to handle the books, but I don’t mind helping out on the floor.”
“On the floor? What the hell does a pretty girl like you know about that?”
The look on her face goes blank as she slides back out of the worn green leather chair. She places her hands on the desk and looks me directly in the eyes as my legs press up against the old worn couch.
“I know plenty. Now, question my ass again about what I do and don’t know about this shop and I’ll show you who’s fuckin’ boss. Got that?”
Standing there, I look at her, speechless. I’ve heard of feisty women. I vaguely remember a woman with a mouth that got her slapped around as a kid, but I also remember a mom who took us in, didn’t take shit from anyone, but had the kindest heart. Something about her makes me want to climb over that desk and kiss the hell out of her until she screams my damn name, then it hits me.
“Landry?” I question.
“Damn right, it’s me.”
Landry
The moment that office door opens, I try my best to refrain from letting my mouth drop to the floor as I look at the hottest thing I’ve seen since sliced bread. It’s Jeremiah Drake, the youngest Drake brother. He’s tall, dark, handsome, and a grease monkey. It’s like music to my ears.
Growing up, I learned how to do anything and everything in this shop. I remember Jeremiah as I kid, but he never noticed me. I was a girl that was a few years younger, off limits, and a tomboy. Who am I kidding? No guy around here paid any attention to me so I focused on what I loved most—Paw and cars. My summers were spent in this shop, his old barn and out at the creek.
“You going back to work or you gonna gawk all fuckin’ day?” I ask.
The way he cuts his eyes toward me makes my damn panties want to drop. “I’m goin’ back to work. Look, I’m not sure what the deal is, but I was told I was in charge. I don’t mind you hanging around and looking pretty, but this place is no place for a girl.”
Without thinking twice, I begin to laugh at his comment. He might think that I can’t handle myself on the floor, but I learned from the best and I refuse to let the best down.
$10 Amazon Gift Card

 

Enter HERE
Casey Peeler grew up in North Carolina and still lives there with her husband and daughter.

Growing up Casey wasn’t an avid reader or writer, but after reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston during her senior year of high school, and multiple Nicholas Sparks’ novels, she found a hidden love and appreciation for reading.  That love ignited the passion for writing several years later, and her writing style combines real life scenarios with morals and values teenagers need in their daily lives.

When Casey isn’t writing, you can find her near a body of water listening to country music with a cold beverage and a great book.

Connect with Casey

 

 

Chapter Reveal ~ Chasing Ella by Jillian Quinn is coming soon!

 

 

 

Every Princess needs a Prince Charming…

When a masked girl throws herself at Shawn Finch at a costume party, the hotshot football player assumes she’s just another girl trying to get his attention. Except she’s not just any girl. She’s his Cinderella, the nameless girl in the pale blue dress who got away.

Desperate to find her, Finch searches for his mystery girl with no luck. So, it must be fate when Finch’s grade point average drops and the school assigns him a tutor not knowing they just handed over his Cinderella.

After having a crush on Finch since the first time she spotted him on campus, one kiss was all she’d ever wanted. But Finch has other plans once he discovers the truth about his tutor.

 

 

Chapter One

Ella

Most days, my house feels like a prison.
Today is one of them. Ever since my father’s sudden death over two years ago, my stepmother and her annoying daughters have done everything in their power to make my life a living hell.
Locked away, like a family heirloom stored inside an old trunk, I see how much hatred these women breed. My father would roll over in his grave if he knew how I live, all because Clarissa is even more selfish and spoiled than her daughters. With only a few more months until the end of the school year, this is my life until I can make my escape.
Anastasia flings open my bedroom door and waltzes inside with a sour look on her face. She scans the floor and what’s left of my belongings, before her eyes eventually land on me. I don’t miss her scowl as she appraises my floral comforter, the one thing I have left from my mother.
“Get your lazy ass out of bed, Ella.” She says my name with such disdain that her words slice through me, cutting deep. “Mother says you have chores to do.”
“That’s no different than any other day,” I spit back. “Who else would clean up after you?”
She snickers, throwing her hands onto her wide hips. “At least you’re good for something other than taking up space. We can’t have you lounging around here all day doing nothing. You have to earn your keep.”
I get up from the bed, irritated and still half asleep. “This is my house, Anastasia. Not yours.”
She points a long, bony finger at me and digs it into my arm. Her French tip hurts as she presses it into my skin. “Now, that is where you are wrong. This is my mother’s house now, which makes it mine. If it were up to me, you would be out on your ass, but Mom likes having a maid.”
I let out an exaggerated sigh. How much more of this can I take? I can’t afford to live on my own. Clarissa pays my tuition at Strickland University, the one luxury I have left, and I wouldn’t dare do a thing to jeopardize getting far away from this torture.
Unlike my stepsisters, who drive Mercedes’s, I ride three buses to get to school. It takes me hours to get there, but at least I get to leave this hellhole a few times a week in hopes of making something of myself. I’m counting down the days until I graduate. As of today, I have one hundred days left.
Natasha strolls into my room with a bucket in hand and a mop in the other, dressed in vintage Chanel, of course.
My mother had worn plenty of it before these cows had ransacked this house and took every piece of clothing and jewelry she had of value. The only thing spared from my stepmother’s fire sale was a gold heart charm necklace my father had given me on my thirteenth birthday. One side of the heart had belonged to him and the other to me.
I’ve kept it hidden under a loose floorboard under my bed. It’s the one place none of them would ever bother to look. They’re too lazy to get on their hands and knees. Instead, they make me do all the work. Every morning, I wake to one of them screaming from the bottom of the stairs, Get down here and make us breakfast, Ella or Clean the dishes, Ella or Get the stain out of my Prada bag, Ella.
They always have some request, leaving me little time to study, which is why I spend my afternoons tutoring students in the library. I get extra financial aid for helping out, but I mostly do it to give myself a reprieve from my jailers.
“Get to work, Ella,” Natasha says, shoving the bucket and mop into my chest. “If you want that dress for the party tonight, you have to earn it.”
It takes every ounce of strength I have to hide my smile. Just thinking about the masquerade party at the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity house sets fire to my skin. Shawn Finch will be there. He’s gorgeous, the starting tight end for the Strickland Senators, and has big, strong arms that I want to touch every time I see him in the library.
He’s always failing at least one class because he’s too busy hooking up with girls and partying. From what I’d heard, he just manages to pass with the help of our tutoring staff. I would have killed to be his tutor last semester. Instead, I was stuck with some jerk from the hockey team. I even offered to trade Mandy, but she was too busy batting her eyelashes at Finch to consider my offer to switch. She practically had their wedding planned out in her head, and he didn’t even pay attention to her.
Guys like Finch are untouchable. You have to be part of the sport’s elite on campus to get anywhere near them. That’s why I jumped at the chance to go to this party tonight. I’m friends with Tori Reynolds, girlfriend of Sebastian Prince and the captain of the football team. He’s a big deal at our school. Tori invited me before I left class yesterday. She’s normal, like me, and nothing like most of the elitist snobs at Strick U. I guess we bonded over our mutual dislike for snooty people, and now, we’re acquaintances—maybe even friends.
Because of Anastasia and Natasha are always sticking their nose into my business, I have no friends other than Tori, no prospect of a boyfriend, and absolutely no life. I’m the house bitch, the girl who scrubs the floor, washes clothes, and cooks meals. This is my life for a little while longer. At least I get to go to the party tonight.
“Don’t look so excited,” Natasha yells, as I walk past her to deal with my chores. “Just remember we will be at the party, too.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” I say, keeping my eyes focused on the long hallway in front of me with one goal in mind.
“And don’t you dare think of speaking to us. You don’t know us, and we don’t know you. Got it? You will never be one of us, no matter how hard you try,” Anastasia says in a harsh tone.
I stop at the top of the staircase and spin around to face them. “I don’t want to be like you or your friends. I just want to go to the party.”
Natasha clicks her tongue. “Figures you would make friends with someone like Tori. She’s another one who is way out of her league.”
“You’re just jealous because you want Bash and can’t have him.”
Anastasia snorts. “I’ll have you know we’ve already had him.”
Staring at Anastasia and then Natasha, I’m confused until I realize what she means and want to vomit.
“Being a whore isn’t exactly something to brag about, Sis,” I say, laughing to myself, as I turn around to go downstairs.
“You will pay for that! Just wait and see, Ella.”
I have no doubt my loving stepsisters and their equally bitchy sorority sisters will make this night harder for me. At least I get to wear a mask and pretend I am someone else for the night. If it were any other frat party, I probably would skip it. I get enough weird stares pointed in my direction because of the hand-me-downs I have to wear to school, let alone the looks I would get if I were to attend a party in the same clothes.
Tonight, I get to wear one of my mother’s dresses, as long as I finish my chores and homework. That was the deal I had made with Clarissa. Both of which were a given. I already have a perfect grade point average and cater to their every need.
One night. That’s all I want. One night to feel normal again. Maybe I’ll even get the kiss I think about when I see Shawn Finch on campus. Maybe, just maybe, I will get my wish.
* * *
As promised, Clarissa hands over one of my mother’s gowns. It’s floor length, made of white satin with a light pink chiffon overlay, and hugs my curves perfectly. I remember my mother wearing this dress to parties when I was younger. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be just like her. She reminded me of a princess the way she would spin around in her dresses and dance in the living room with my father.
My mother was so full of life until she’d gotten sick. Like me, she had long, blonde hair that curls at the ends and denim eyes. It wasn’t long after my mother’s passing that Dad met Clarissa. She was everything he needed her to be—until she wasn’t. I swear he died from a broken heart. Either that or my Bitch Mother poisoned him.
Staring in the mirror, I smile and think of my parents. I can almost see them here, standing at my sides, as they see me off. If my mother were here, she would have done my hair and makeup. Instead, I had to watch a few YouTube videos to learn how to create a smoky effect that makes my eyes pop, even with the mask on my face. With my hair already curled naturally, it didn’t take much to give my hair some extra volume.
For once, I feel pretty and worthy of a man like Shawn Finch. I only have to get him to notice me. This dress should do the trick. Or so I hope.
I take my time in these heels, careful not to fall down the stairs face first, keeping my fingers crossed that I will see Finch at the party. My jaw hurts from smiling so much, but one evil stare from Clarissa is enough to wipe it from my face.
Anastasia and Natasha stand at her sides decked out in black couture gowns they either stole from my mother or used my inheritance to buy.
“You have a curfew,” Clarissa says, folding her arms across her chest, giving me her best bitch face. “I want you in this house by midnight and not a second later. Do you understand?”
I hold my tongue and nod.
“Answer me, child,” she says, with anger in her voice.
She has hated me since the day she set foot inside this house. I was an inconvenience to her, another person in the way of my father’s money. He owned an investment firm before Clarissa sold his shares to some of the board members. Now, I have nothing. No parents. No money.  And no way out of here.
“I will be home before curfew. I promise.”
She flashes a closed mouth smile and walks away without another word. Natasha steps toward me, followed by Anastasia, each of them now at my sides, making me uncomfortable.  
Natasha tugs at the spaghetti strap on my right shoulder, while Anastasia clutches the other. Before I can stop them, I hear the sound of the fabric tear. The straps fall forward and hang loose, almost bringing tears to my eyes that I force back.
“What is wrong with you?” I shout so loud my voice echoes off the vaulted ceiling in the living room.
“Oops!” Natasha covers her mouth with her hand, her brown eyes wide in mock surprise.
“Our mistake,” Anastasia says, this time pulling at the pink overlay. One side rips and then the other, as Natasha helps her ruin my dress.
I’m defenseless against them. If I act out, my stepmother will punish me. She will lock me in my room and throw away the key, same as she does during winter and summer breaks from school. That’s why I have excelled so much in my studies. I spend countless hours a day with no TV, cell phone, or the Internet. Books are my only source of entertainment. So, I read a lot and take extra classes when I can afford to layer on the heavier course load.
As much as I want to cry, I have to stay strong and deal with whatever comes next.
“You think you’re so fucking smart, don’t you, Ella?” Natasha flicks her dark hair over her shoulder and grins like the Cheshire cat. “You think you can call us names and get away with it. Well, you are not getting anywhere near that party if we have anything to do with it. We don’t need you embarrassing us in front of our friends.”
Anastasia steps on the hem of my dress, holding me in place. I turn to walk away from them, but my plan backfires, the bottom of the dress tearing apart from Anastasia’s stiletto.
Staring down at the dress, I cover my mouth to stifle my sobs. But no tears follow. I never let them see me cry. I never have, and I never will. They don’t deserve my tears. It would only give them more power over me. Unlike their mother, mine was sweet and kind to everyone. She raised me to show people the same kindness, which is why I normally remain quiet around my stepsisters.
Lately, they have made it harder to control my anger toward them. Graduation is so close. Only one hundred more days before I can start living again.
“Looks like you can’t go to the party,” Natasha says, twirling a dark curl around her index finger with a satisfied smile.
“You can’t stop me from going,” I shoot back.
“Oh, we can and we will, Little Orphan Ella.” Natasha eyes me up and down, giving me her usual look of disapproval. “We have the Delta Sig guys wrapped around our fingers. They will do just about anything Kappa girls tell them. And, if that means keeping the help out of a party, then you can bet your ass they will listen.”
“You’re such a bitch, Natasha.” I pivot my body between them. “You, too, Anastasia. I have never done a thing to either of you to deserve this.”
My stepmother would slap me across the face if I ever spoke to her the way I do the girls.
“You exist. That’s enough for us,” Anastasia says, rolling her eyes at me.
We have a quick stare down before Anastasia turns on her heel and strolls toward the front door, beckoning Natasha to follow. For pretty girls, they have such foul attitudes that make them far less attractive. How they even manage to get the guys at our school to talk to them amazes me. But I guess money goes a lot farther than I think.
I had money. Well, my father had money. Now, I have nothing. Even so, I will never belong in the inner circles at the prestigious Strickland University. A former rich girl is not enough to become one of them.
The second the door slams behind my stepsisters, shaking the house in its wake, the first tear slides down my cheek. I wipe away a streak of wet mascara from my face. Even with the girls gone, I cannot risk Clarissa seeing me cry. She would point and laugh, all while enjoying every second of my humiliation.
I run out the front door, as fast as my feet will allow, through the garden on the right side of the mansion, the tears falling faster with each step toward the gazebo out back.
Once I reach the wooden structure, I stop to catch my breath and grab hold of the rail, as I step up and onto the platform. My father was good with his hands, despite being such a brainiac. He had built this for my mother for their wedding. I come here whenever I need a break from life. It reminds me that I once had a normal life, full of love and warmth. Not all people are as cruel and hurtful as my stepfamily.
I shake my head when I take in the sight of what Natasha and Anastasia have done. They trashed my dress. Pieces of fabric hang down at different places, the material tattered and frayed. After years of envisioning what it would be like to go to a party dressed as a princess, this is not even close to what I had imagined. There’s no way I can go to the party looking like I found this in a dumpster.
Sitting on the bench, I clutch my stomach from the pain that comes with each scream that escapes my throat. I’m never this emotional. I never let them get to me. But this night was important to me. It was my one shot at talking to the guy I have liked for as long as I can remember. All I want is one kiss from the man of my dreams. That’s enough to satisfy my craving for Shawn Finch. The mask would serve as my shield, my only way to protect my identity.  
“What’s all the crying about?” I hear a woman say, scaring the life out of me. “Pretty girls like you shouldn’t be all alone and screaming to the high heavens.”
No one ever comes back here. My body goes into overdrive thinking about all the possibilities until I look over my shoulder and see an older woman. She’s in her sixties or seventies. It’s hard to tell with the dim light that washes over the dark property.
Wiping the water works from my cheeks with the back of my hands, I peek over at her. She steps up and into the gazebo, uninvited.
“Who are you?” I choke out, not the least bit frightened by a woman her age. She seems pleasant enough, even if she’s trespassing on private property.
“Your new next-door neighbor. I moved in last week.” There’s a Southern twang to her soft voice that reminds me of my father. My dad’s side of the family is from the Southern parts of the United States, and she sounds just like them, which puts me even more at ease with her.
“How did you get back here?”
She shrugs, unaffected, and leans her back against the wood. “I walked from my house. I’ve done it every night since I moved in. You have a lot more land on this side of the fence and a lot more to look at.”
“I don’t know about all that,” I say, sucking down the tears. “The garden is pretty barren now that my mother is gone and the landscapers are no longer around to keep up with the maintenance.”
Why would Clarissa hire someone when she has me to trim the rose bushes or mow the lawn? I am the maid, gardener, chef, and butler. If they can dream it, I can do it.
“Someone is keeping up with it,” she says, pointing out the obvious.
“Tending to the yard is one of my chores,” I admit.
She shakes her head in disapproval. Thankfully, she doesn’t go any further. I hate telling strangers about my situation, so I usually avoid conversations altogether. It’s also the reason I have no friends. How could I ever tell anyone about what goes on around here? It’s too humiliating to say aloud.
“What is your name, girl?” Her voice is soft, inviting.
“Ella,” I choke out, “Ella Fitzgerald. What’s yours?”
“Katherine Feighry, but everyone calls me Mrs. F. You never told me why you were out here crying.”
She reaches out to touch my arm, and for some reason, I let her. It’s nice to have someone comfort me. I sure as hell don’t get that at home and can use all the love and affection I can get—even if it’s from a stranger.
“There’s this guy…Well, I was supposed to go to this party, but my stepsisters ripped apart my dress. I was looking forward to going.”
“Then, go,” she says without hesitation. “Nothing is stopping you. Don’t let those girls get in the way of your plans.”
I frown at her words. “Easier said than done. I have nothing to wear, and there’s no way I will get in with what I have on.”
The woman releases her grip on me and stands, holding out her hand to me. “Come, darling, let me fix you up.”
I glance up at her, confused. “I don’t understand.”
“I have a dress for you to wear. You will love it.”
I narrow my eyes at her. “You do?”
She nods. “Yes, and it’s perfect for you.”
I set my hand in hers, nervous about where she’s about to take me. But I am desperate and in need of her random act of kindness. Maybe I will even make it to the masquerade party. Maybe I will get my kiss from Finch.

 

 

Jillian Quinn is the international bestselling romance author of the Face-Off Series, the upcoming Men of Honor Series, as well as other sexy, sporty standalone romances.

Jillian loves sports, bad boys, dirty talkers, strong females, and books with plenty of heat—all of which you will find in her books. As a lover of all things bookish, she has a serious book hoarding problem and runs a blog in her free time. When she’s not reading, writing, or blogging, she’s obsessively fangirling over hockey players and can be found wherever she can catch the next hockey game.




Web   Twitter  Goodreads  Facebook  Instagram  

 

 

 

Chapter Reveal: In Too Deep by Jordan Marie

 

 

 

 

I did a bad thing.

I did a really bad thing.

I’m not a bad person, I swear. I just made a few mistakes.

Mistake number one was agreeing to rent my hotel out to an insufferable a**hole, named Aden Smith­.

Mistake number two was ignoring his threats to sue me when he handed over a list of items he deemed “unacceptable”.

Mistake number three was diving into the pool to save his life when he fell. It would have been less complicated to hide his body.

When the hospital refuses to let me know how he is, I panic.

Claiming to be his wife might be my biggest mistake yet—especially when he believes me!

He might have been the one drowning, but I’m sinking in a bed of lies, going down fast—and there’s not a rescue in sight.

 

Hope

“Is this the only hotel in Clancy?”
I look up in shock at the door. I could have sworn I locked that door. It’s like ten o’clock at night and my brain is going in circles. I’ve watched enough true crime television to know leaving my door unlocked in the middle of the night is a recipe for disaster.
“I believe so, yes.” I answer, looking around the counter for a weapon.  He doesn’t look like an axe murderer, but then again, I’m not sure what one would look like. He’s got a beard, some crazy looking tattoos on his arm, and he’s tall and wide—kind of like my cousin White who plays football, only a little more dangerous and less good ole’ boy from Texas.
I see a box of paperclips.  Can you kill someone with paperclips? They’re the large ones, maybe I could stab his eye out… God. I’m pathetic. What kind of idiot doesn’t have some kind of weapon in her desk?
“That’d be my luck,” he growls and his growl does sound dangerous. I frantically look one last time for a weapon and finally decide on the stapler. I know it’s pitiful, but it’s all I have.
“Is there a problem?” I ask, trying to nonchalantly pick up the stapler in my hand and grip it.
“I have a reservation,” he sighs out the words like they’re being ripped from his soul and steeped with regret—which kind of pisses me off. I mean the place doesn’t look great, but I’ve done a lot of work and it’s not open for another two weeks—thanks to the electrical inspector.
“I’m sorry I’m not open for two weeks. You must have the wrong place,” I tell him sweetly. My grip has eased on the stapler a little. He’s probably not an axe murderer, at least there’s that. He’s just someone who is afraid he’s here to stay in my hotel. Which is understandable. I’ve sunk every dime I have into the place and there’s times at night I cry because I’m here. Still, he’s kind of rude about it and that makes me want to hit him with my stapler.
“I’m early. It’s there if you look, Aden Mc—Aden Smith,” he says and I frown.  Okay I realize there are reasons people check into hotels with the last name Smith. He doesn’t seem to have a woman with him however, so I doubt he’s hiding from jealous husbands. It’s not my problem though.
“I recognize the name, but it’s not until the twenty-sixth and as I said we’re not open yet,” I explain.  I look down at the hotel registry as if there are a million bookings—which is laughable. There’s only this guy, and I doubt many people will be knocking down my doors to book this place in advance. Still, a girl has to have hope…the irony that my name is Hope, does not escape me. My mother had a twisted sense of humor when it came to naming her children.
“Well I’m early,” he replies.
“I see that. It’s just we’re not opening for—”
“For another two weeks, I heard you the first time. However, I’m early and I need a room. Since you’re the only hotel in the area, we’re stuck,” he answers, as if he is explaining things to a small child. I grip the stapler tight again. I wonder if it would hurt business if the owner gets arrested for hurling a stapler at the head of a would-be guest. I’m guessing it might…Damn it.
“I’m sorry. I can’t accept guests until after I pass inspection. That’s why when you called, I specifically informed you that I would not be open for—”
“Let’s cut the crap, shall we?” he says abruptly, walking towards me. He struts, long stealthy strides, that look angry and I have no doubt are meant to intimidate—because they do.
“Stop!”  I tell him, without taking a minute to think about it. He does stop, however, mid-step.
“Listen, why don’t you quit angling here, and name your price,” he says, and immediately starts walking toward me again.
I hold up the stapler as if it was a weapon that was about to save the world from mass destruction.
“I think you better leave.”
“The nearest hotel I’ve passed besides this shit-hole is about three hours away and I’m too damn tired. How about you be a nice little girl and hand me a room key and let me crash.”
“I think maybe we have a language barrier, so I need you to listen and I’ll speak slowly so you understand. We. Aren’t. Open.”
“Name your price.”
“Excuse me?”
“I said name your price, lady. Everybody has one and from the looks of this place you definitely do. So how much to rent this place a week earlier?”
“I can’t—” I begin, but my mouth snaps shut quickly when he lays out a roll of hundreds on the counter. I actually drop the stapler. It crashes onto the counter with loud clanging noise causing me to jump. I can’t make myself look away to see if it’s destroyed.
“That’s twelve hundred dollars for your crappy room for one week. I doubt you’ll find that anywhere else, do you?”
“But we’re not ready for business. I haven’t had my final inspection,” I tell him again, trying to ignore his insults. The rooms aren’t great, but they’re much better than what they were. He’s just an asshole.
“I won’t tell if you don’t. So, do we have a deal?” he asks and he says it in a manner that I know he fully expects me to agree. I wish I could tell him to stuff his money, but the new air conditioning and wiring I have to get done before the inspection is a reality. This money and the money for the following week would pay for that. I can’t afford to say no…No matter how much I really want to.
“Twelve hundred for this week and twelve hundred for next?” I question him and I hate the look of victory that comes over his face.
“Yes.”
“Fine. The rooms aren’t completely ready, but I’ll give you our best one. It’s mostly finished and the air conditioning works good in there,” I tell him, and okay I’m kind of lying. The air conditioning does work, but sometimes the breakers blow if you use the receptacles in the bathroom.  This guy looks haggard as hell though. I doubt he knows what a blow dryer is and that’s really the only thing you use in the bathroom…Right?
“I’m sure it’s beautiful,” he mocks, as I grab the key to room number seven.  Seven is supposed to be a lucky number, but considering I’m contemplating picking my stapler back up and bludgeoning my new tenant with it…I have a feeling it’s not lucky at all for me.

 

Want to catch up on Book 1 in the Doing Bad Things series?

 

 

A QUIRKY WRITER GOING WHERE THE VOICES TAKE HER.
USA Today Best Selling Author Jordan Marie, is just a simple small town country girl who is haunted by Alpha Men who talk in her head 24 hours a day.

She currently has 14 books out including 2 that she wrote under the pen name Baylee Rose.

She likes to create a book that takes you on an emotional journey whether tears, laughter (or both) or just steamy hot fun (or all 3). She loves to connect with readers and interacting with them through social media, signings or even old fashioned email.

 

 

Chapter Reveal from So Good by Nicola Rendell!

 

 

 

Coming August 7th

 

 

 

IMG_3322.PNG

 

AP new - synopsis.jpg

On the roof of a house outside Truelove, Maine, master carpenter Max Doyle looks down through a skylight and sees the most beautiful woman he’s ever laid eyes on. She’s naked, she’s gorgeous, and everything about her is perfect, down to the ball-busting tattoo of a rose that wraps around her hip. But it isn’t just any woman making his knees buckle. It’s his best friend, Rosie Madden. And as he stands there, mesmerized and precariously close to toppling off the roof, he knows he’ll never, ever be able to look at her the same way again.

Rosie can’t help but notice that Max is suddenly acting very strange—lots of long stares, totally tongue-tied, and not at all like the slightly cocky hunk she’s proud to call her best friend. She can’t figure it out, until later that night when Max rescues her from the world’s worst date, challenges her to a game of pool, and shows her just exactly what she’s got him thinking about. Repeatedly.

But life is complicated. Rosie’s cat, Julia Caesar, wants to eat Max’s dog Cupcake for an afternoon snack. A dream job threatens to pull them apart. And another glance through the skylight changes everything, one more time. Yet try as they might, they can’t go back to being just friends, because falling in love with the one you’ve always adored?

It feels so good.

 


1
Max

I wasn’t planning to see her naked—I swear to God, I wasn’t. The day was a scorcher, one of those godforsaken New England summer days that makes a guy wonder how he ever said fuck you to winter. I stood on the roof her house, three stories above the Maine woods, with a far-off view of the ocean. It was pretty, yeah, like the kind of shit real estate companies put on complimentary calendars. But in that heat, it was like standing on top of a goddamned toaster, turned all the way to burnt. I could feel that shit in my socks, straight through my work boots. At my feet was a stack of shake shingles, old school, to replace the ones that were missing. Her house had a few slow leaks, and one over her bathroom that made the ceiling look like a huge Rorschach test. She said it definitely looked like a rose in bloom, I said it definitely looked like Batman. But I told her hidden meanings wouldn’t make shit for difference when the ceiling collapsed into the tub, so there I was. Fucking miserable work, but I was glad to do it. Glad to do anything for her—anything she needed at all.
In the forest on every side around the cottage, the cicadas screeched. It sounded like a needle squeaking off a record player. I knelt down by the stack of shingles, using my utility knife to score a line through one to fit a nearby gap. I snapped it with my hands and tossed the scrap end off the edge of the roof. A trickle of sweat ran down my forehead, and I wiped my face with my forearm. One droplet got away, sparkling in the sun. It caught my eye, and I watched it fall, as it landed on the skylight window with a splat.
​And that was when it happened. Boom.
​There she was, right under me. She couldn’t have been more than six feet away, but she felt even closer. I had a direct line of sight down into her gorgeous, soft cleavage, bright and pure in the sunshine. Maybe it was the heat, or maybe it was the surprise of seeing her, but at first I didn’t really process that it was Rosie at all. My dude brain said, I want that woman.
​Then my regular brain said, Don’t be an asshole, man. It’s Rosie. Have some respect.
Respect I definitely had, but of course I’d thought about seeing her naked before. She was so fucking beautiful that any man would have thought about it. Sometimes, like right then looking down into her dress, I couldn’t fucking help it. Sometimes we’d be out doing something ordinary, like eating dinner, or I’d be changing her oil, or she’d be teaching me to do shit I should have learned at some point in the last 34 years, like iron a dress shirt without screwing up the collar, and I’d catch myself watching her cleavage rise and fall as she breathed, or thinking how nice her legs were, and I’d think, Holy hell.
Now she was directly underneath the skylight. The angle of the sun cast my shadow down the roofline, away from the skylight, so I didn’t give myself away. Like that, I watched her. I gave in to my dude brain and just took her in. Her light brown hair glinted, and a beam of light caught the curve of her shoulder.
That was when the goddamned striptease started, beginning with the left strap of her sundress.
Her movements were graceful, sexy, sassy—the sway of her hips, the shake of her shoulders. I realized I might be in real fucking trouble, because I loved that sexy sass. It wasn’t normal Rosie-cute. It was naughty, like nothing I’d ever seen her do before. I liked it so much, I couldn’t look away. She shimmied out of her sundress, and it fell to the floor in a pool at her feet. No big deal, I tried to tell myself. I’d seen her in her bikini a thousand times. This was no different from that.
Except it was, because then she reached around to undo her bra. Before I could tell myself Don’t look, dude. It’s Rosie, don’t look, it was too fucking late. The straps slid down off her shoulders, and for one perfect second got caught on her nipples, swinging in the air before falling to the floor.
Holy…
I pressed my clenched fist to my mouth and groaned into my hand. All my blood was leaving my head. The roofline was getting wobbly.
It wasn’t like I didn’t know her curves; we’d spent whole summers on the beach—I knew her shape and her softness, I knew her lines and her freckles. Every curve of Rosie Madden was sacred in my book. Fucking douchebags on the beach giving her eyes had to answer to me and my eyes, right behind her. She did that to me—I was one punch away from defending her honor, always. But this? This was different. Seeing your best friend in a bikini at a clam bake is one thing. Protecting your best friend from assholes with wandering eyes is part of the guy-girl best friend creed. But seeing your best friend, absolutely naked in her bedroom, without knowing she can see you? That was a different deal.
…Shit.
Part of me knew I should keep my eyes off of her. She thought she was in private, I had no business spying. Anyway, I didn’t want to be that guy. I hated that guy. But the other part of me, fuck. The other part of me was nothing but want.
Then she bent at the hips, and time slowed down, like some kind of stop-motion Jackie Chan kung fu sequence. All the cicadas went silent, at least in my head they did. The wind stopped blowing through the trees. It was just her, and her perfection, in the sunshine underneath me. I felt like I was on one of those glass-bottomed boats, looking at a world I never knew existed.
She tossed her bra aside, and it landed on her neatly made bed. She shimmied out of her panties, shaking her ass as she did. I growled into my fist, and that’s when I went down into a crouch.
Because as she shimmied I saw it in a V above her ass. My kryptonite. A skimpy thong.
All these years, all these decades, I’d had her pegged for cute cotton panties—pastel polka dots, thin stripes, shit that was sweet and sensible. But I was so fucking wrong. Black. Strappy. Tiny. Not sensible at all. Now it was in a rolled-up ball at her ankles. Using her toes, she plucked her panties from the floor, and caught them on one finger.
Fucking A.
She was completely naked, not a thread on her. Every thought I’d ever had got sucked out of my brain, like dishwater down the sink drain. What was left was only one true thing, and it wasn’t about her ass, or her skin, or her breasts. It was the one thing I think I’d always known but never let myself feel. Until that moment.
She is the most beautiful woman in the world.
Part of the reason I thought that was, yeah, obviously, she was fucking stunning, every inch of her straight out of a dream. Not just my dream, either. Guys would slow down on Main Street to give her the elevator stare, and I’d quietly crack my knuckles and give them don’t-you-fucking-dare stares. But the other part, the part that wasn’t in my gut but that was in my heart, was that I fucking adored her. Adored her so hard it hurt.
She crouched down to pick up her dress, lifting the delicate straps with her small, sweet fingers. She pivoted, so I had a view of her other side of her body for the first time. There it was.
The tattoo.
I groaned again. I wasn’t prepared for this shit; three stories up, that body was dangerous. It was a rose tattoo, snaking around her hip, on the milk-white skin that was always under her bikini bottoms. The part of her I’d never seen. It was serious ink, real art, not some namby-pamby temporary tattoo or some amateur shit she might’ve gotten in an hour at a tattoo parlor on a dare on a cruise to Puerto Rico. It was complicated, detailed, and artful. Multiple visits to some tattoo artist, touching that creamy skin—goddamn.
It took every fucking ounce of strength I had, but I did manage to look away. I felt as disoriented as if I’d been sucker punched. Not cotton—lace. Not cute—hot. Not my friend—my fucking fantasy.
She was so important to me, such an integral part of my world, that I’d never let myself think of her as more than what she was. She was like running water, or electricity, or the sunshine itself. She was one of those things that was perfect exactly as it was, and one of those things only an idiot would want to change. I never looked at her and thought, I wish I could have more of her than I do already. That would be like thinking, I wish I could turn that cold glass of water into a swimming pool. Or, I wish electricity came through the air. Fuck that noise. Perfect things are perfect things, and Rosie Madden was a perfect goddamned thing, from the tips of her toes to the freckles on her nose. And that rose, holy fuck, that rose.
I was strong, but not that strong, and I let my eyes move down again. She’d disappeared from view, mostly, except for the edge of her ass. I watched her rifle through her closet, and a few dresses fluttered onto her bed. On her bedside table, I caught a glimpse of the picture she always kept there, of the two of us together. The memories flew back at me like a runaway train. The first time I’d ever seen her was the day my parents and I moved to Truelove, at the start of middle school. The first time I ever saw her, she was volunteering at the community gardens. She had a smudge of dirt on her cheek, and I thought she’d looked super badass. I’d helped her dig up carrots and had been too fucking tongue-tied to say a goddamned word.
That’s how I felt, all over again times a thousand.
I’d never made a move. She’d cried on my shoulder through a line of guys who were never good enough for her. Jocks and pricks and a brief and seriously unfortunate stint with a guy who was a drummer for a reggae band who I hated so much it made me grind my teeth. But I never said shit about it. She was perfect even when she made mistakes. Tips of her toes. Freckles on her nose.
Never mind that rose. Like Banksy took on a temple.
One more time, I glanced down. Now she was sitting on her bed, and I saw that dark V shadow between her thighs. Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck. I watched her put on a pair of red panties. Equally skimpy, equally not-sensible, equally ball-busting. They were only tragic because they hid the parts of her I’d never seen before.
Christ. All. Mighty.
As the world started to spin, I realized fixing the shingles could wait. I’d been working on old houses long enough to know that if you found yourself on a dangerously sloping roof and felt like you might be less than 100% on the ball, you needed to reconsider your game plan. I needed to get my shit together—that body had me totally fucking derailed. So I made my way down the roof, basically bouldering down backward. I focused on my grip, and my steps, like a climber coming down from Everest without enough oxygen. When I got to the gutter, I worked my way around the corner, standing on the eave, and hooked my leg over my ladder, making sure to put one foot after another and keep a tight grip on every rung.
When I stepped off the ladder, I grabbed a bottle of water that she’d left for me and filled up my palm and then splashed my face. My sweat stung my eyes through the droplets of water, and I rubbed away the tears. I heard the hinges on the screen door creak. “All done?” she asked.
I opened my eyes. They stung like hell, but I didn’t give a fuck. There she was, in a dress I’d seen before. Striped and sweet. But now I knew the secret. There were red panties under there. Red. Cherry red. My eyes fell on that part of her hip that I knew was inked.
“Max?”
I managed somehow to snap out of it. “Sorry. Getting there. Spotted something weird with the skylight.”
Rosie cocked her head. “Were you up there? Above my room?”
Awesome, dude. Smooth. “Just noticed it out of the corner of my eye.”
“I don’t like you being on the roof.” She pursed her lips. “Too steep. Promise you’ll get some ropes up there or something? Promise?” She reached out and put her hand to my arm, her fingers with their short pink nails pressing into my tanned skin. I had a quick but totally unavoidable image of her gripping my forearm in a very different situation. I want that. So fucking…
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
When I didn’t answer—I knew that if I opened my mouth the first words out would be You. Me. Right Now.—she looked up at the roof and squinted into the sun. She peered suspiciously up at me and shifted her nose, kind of like a bunny. Adorable. She wasn’t very tall, so whenever she looked at me she had to lift her chin, which used to be cute. But now looked…like everything I’d ever wanted. “Have you had too much sun?”
​I was vaguely aware that she’d said some words, but I wasn’t hearing them because I realized that I couldn’t see her bra straps, so that had to mean she was she was wearing a strapless…
Knock. That. Shit. Off. “I’m good.”
“Mmm.” She nodded and furrowed her delicate eyebrows, which had never looked so pretty as they did at that moment. I didn’t even know eyebrows could be pretty. They’re eyebrows, for fuck’s sake. But suddenly I felt like for the last ten years, I’d been looking at her through a standard definition television, with a shitty cable connection. Now someone had handed me an HDMI cable, and she was in 1080 dots per inch. Christ.
“Lemme make you a sandwich. You’re acting strange.”
Rather than answer her, I dumped the remaining half a bottle of water over my head, like Andre Agassi used to do between break points at the French Open.
“Ham? Or turkey? I’ve got both. Or chicken salad!” She clapped her hands together, compressing her cleavage. “Do you want a pickle?”
She means an actual pickle, you fuckwit. “Surprise me,” I told her, and dragged my eyes off the curve of her cleavage. I grabbed the bottom of my T-shirt and pressed it to my eyes. I had to get out of there. I needed a cold shower, or a call from my tax guy, or an unexpectedly urgent trip to the DMV—anything to stop myself seeing her stark naked every goddamned time I looked at her. Anything to get my mind off that ink.
As I wiped my face, she cleared her throat, and I dropped my shirt. “What?”
She pressed her lips together and rocked back on her sandals. “Nothing!”
I followed her eyes and glanced down at my fly, but the stallion was still in the barn. “Come on,” I said, finding myself smiling right along with her. “What are you looking at?”
“Just…” She swallowed hard. “Looking good there, champ.” She glanced at my stomach, where I’d shown her my bare abs. She made a fist and gave me a mock punch, soft and sweet. “That P90X is working great for you.”
Here we go again with the fitness videos. For everything else she was—beautiful, smart, funny—she was also a fucking ball-buster sometimes. She’d worked up this whole narrative that I spent my nights with Tony Horton on my houseboat, getting cut and doing reps while I drank protein shakes with a straw straight from the blender. It was her only explanation for why I didn’t have a girlfriend. P90X it had to be, she’d said. Or maybe, she’d whispered like a co-conspirator, “Jazzercise.” Now, though, I had a better idea than ever about why I was so picky: not a single woman held a candle to her. I’d been fucking blind to it, but now the mist had burned right off. “I’ve never even seen the opening sequence. Never have. Never will.”
“They’re streaming now!”
​“Christ.”
Rosie snorted and made a long wheeeeee. “Sure. Surrrrrrre,” she said, stifling her giggle. “One ham-and-turkey, coming right up.” She spun on her sandals and disappeared into the house. Hips swinging. Red panties invisible, but not to me.
Not anymore.

 

AP  new -about the author.jpg

 

Nicola Rendell writes dirty, funny, erotic romance. She likes a stiff drink and a well-frosted cake. She is at an unnamed Ivy and prefers to remain mostly anonymous for professional reasons. She has a PhD in English and an MFA in Creative Writing from schools that shall not be named here. She loves to cook, sew, and play the piano. She realizes that her hobbies might make her sound like an old lady and she’s totally okay with that. She lives with her husband and her dogs. She is from Taos, New Mexico.
Author Links

 

ArdentProse_LogoMain.jpg

 

Read the first 3 chapters from Abbie Roads Saving Mercy!

We’re thrilled to share the first THREE chapters of Saving Mercy with you! This is to celebrate a rare sale from $6.15 to 99¢! Get this book before the price goes back up!

Series: Fatal Truth Series
Genre: Dark Romantic Thriller
Publication Date: April 4, 2017

Synopsis

He’s found her at last…

Cain Killion knows himself to be a damaged man. His only redeeming quality? The extrasensory connection to blood that he uses to catch killers. His latest case takes a macabre turn when he discovers a familiar and haunting symbol linking the crime to his horrific past—and the one woman who might understand what it means.

Only to lose her to a nightmare

Mercy Ledger is brave, resilient, beautiful—and in terrible danger. The moment Cain finds her the line between good and evil blurs and the only thing clear to them is that they belong together. Love is the antidote for blood—but is their bond strong enough to overcome the madness that stalks them?

 

Buy Now

Amazon | iBooks | Nook | Google

Add to Goodreads

 

 

SAVING MERCY

 

It’s a sad testament to the state of humanity that we elevate serial killers to the level of mega-celebrity.

~Ellsworth Garyington, M.D, Journal of Human and Philosophical Studies

 

Chapter 1

The air reeked of dirty pennies and death. Days ago the bodies had been removed, but Cain Killion could still feel the desperate energy of the dying and almost—almost—hear the echoes of their screams imprinted on the bones of the house. He abhorred the sight of blood and yet here he was standing in another murder house, in front of another wall smeared, splattered, and sprayed with gore.

His heart banged against the cage of his ribs, trying to bust out and make a break for it. A bead of sweat slid in agonizing slowness down the center of his spine.

“You don’t look so good.” MacNeil Anderson stepped into his line of sight, diverting his attention away from the blood. The furrows around Mac’s eyes cut deeper than normal and three days’ worth of old man stubble fuzzed his cheeks, giving him a haggard and homeless appearance. Not exactly the look the FBI was going for when they promoted Mac to Senior Special Agent.

Cain almost smiled at his own thoughts, but laughter no longer existed in this place. Only horror could thrive here now.

“Do I ever look good when I’m about to…?” Yeah. There wasn’t a name for what he did. To the bureaucrats with their thumbs jammed up their asses Mac called it profiling—had to call it something. But it wasn’t profiling. Not at all. What he had to do with the blood was something worse than profiling. So much worse.

“This is different.” Mac reached up and put his dry palm on Cain’s forehead. “You sick? Have a fever?”

Cain might be thirty years old and lived on his own since he was eighteen, but Mac had never outgrown the role of his adopted dad.

“You can always walk away.” Mac made this offer at every kill scene.

And every time, Cain’s legs twitched with the urge to run. Only determination, masochism, and the promise of sick satisfaction kept him locked in place. “I’m staying. I always stay.”

“I’d stop calling you out for these cases, but I know you’d just find someone else who would.” Mac’s words were slow and glossed with sadness.

“No one else has the history I have. No one else can do what I do. No one else can give you the information I can.” Yeah. His profiles were more accurate, more detailed than anything a traditional profiler could come up with. In the majority of cases his work guided law enforcement directly to their perpetrator. “It’d be stupid not to call me.” Not to mention he needed to be around that dynamic duo—blood and death. They stripped away his mask of normalcy leaving him naked to the one truth about himself he could never forget.

He was Killer Killion’s Kid—Triple K—the media called him. The spawn of a killer with the genetic predisposition to be a murdering machine. One of the only ways he’d found to curb the ugly urges was to force himself to attend these murder scenes. Force himself to witness the destruction.

His deepest, darkest, dirtiest secret—the thing he would never utter out loud because it terrified him: Sometimes he enjoyed himself.

“Son, you don’t have anything to prove. Not to me.” Mac used a caring tone, but that word—son—threatened to transport Cain back to his childhood. Back to his biological father using that word like a curse.

Not going there.

Cain stepped around Mac and moved to look out at window. The Victorian home sat on a miniature peninsula of land that jutted out into a large pond. Such an odd place for a house. A beautiful place, breathtaking, and yet eerie in its loneliness and total isolation. Just the kind of place Cain loved.

Had location been a consideration for the killer? Had he finished with his bloody work then stood in this very spot staring out the window at the water?

Cain sucked in a breath, held it for as long as his lungs would allow then blew it out slowly. “I know I don’t have anything to prove to you. I do this for me.” He tried to make his tone firm, but it came out a little shaky. Mac the-FBI-guy would hear it, but Mac his-adopted-dad wouldn’t press. Time for a change of subject. “You notice anything odd about this place?”

“It’s not the typical.” Mac’s words were spoken on a sigh. “Not that there is a typical. This just isn’t like any other location I’ve been called to investigate.”

“Yeah. Victorian house. In the woods. On a pond. I get why our guy would like the isolation of this place. But there’s something more. It has to do with…” He had trouble finding to words to describe the gut-level truth inside him. “… all of it. The house. The woods. The pond. The family. It’s like this guy wanted the complete package.”

Mac nodded, his expression serious as a gravedigger. “You get that from the blood?”

“Just a feeling I have.” It was the kind of place he’d choose if he were going to plan a murder. Kind of like how salt and sweet tasted so good together—this was violence and peace in one location.

Enough stalling. He turned away from the window and faced the room.

Three walls were covered in Victorian era wallpaper—rich gold background, red blossoms on a vine, and fancy peacocks. Ostentatious was the word that came to mind. One wall, the longest, largest wall had been painted the same color as the paper’s background. Yeah. Four walls of peacocks and posies might’ve caused bleeding eyeballs.

Finally, he forced himself to look at the blood on the wall. Rosettes of red seeped into the wallpaper, the fat watercolor splotches almost blending in with the flowers.

Mac cleared his throat as if gearing up for a formal speech. “The techs released the scene this morning. They worked round the clock to get everything cataloged and bagged so we could get you on this ASAP. The blood is, of course clean, I wouldn’t have called you in otherwise.” He pointed to the three distinct blood pools. “The family—Dad, Mom, girl—were found here. Killed here, too. Forensics places their time of death at—”“Mac.” Cain spoke the name loud enough to smother whatever the guy had been about to say. “Quiet.” He needed the absence of sound to see what happened. And he needed to do it now before he pussied out.Mac clamped his lips closed, nodded, and moved across the room—out of the way.Just fucking get it over with.Cain knelt at the altar of blood. The sweet scent of rotting biological material an abomination to his nose and yet, foul anticipation crawled underneath his skin. His mind slid sideways like it always did when around the red stuff. Back to his childhood. Back to a time when he was very much his father’s son. Back to when blood covered his skin—the slick, silky, warmness of it so wrong and yet so horribly soothing at the same time.He slapped his hands down into the congealed sludge. The coldness sent pleasant shock waves up his arms. He didn’t want to feel pleasure, didn’t want to enjoy this, but that other part of him had terrible intentions. Helpless to stop himself, he smeared his hands around in the red like a kid playing with finger paints. Only when they were coated with the family’s blood did he raise them to his face.A miniscule part of him rebelled against what he was about to do, but the rebellion was quashed before it began. He spread the blood over his forehead, his cheeks, coating his skin in the thick, sweet, goo. He painted his neck, his bare arms, then lifted his T-shirt and wiped his hands on his chest.

His head fell back on his shoulders. His breath came in shallow, hyper-ventilating gulps. From a distance, he heard himself moan, only it wasn’t a moan—it was more like the yowling of a feral cat fighting for its life. Or getting ready to mate.

Blood did that to him—was a pleasure and a pain. A gift and a curse.He had a complicated relationship with blood. He hated it. He loved it. Blood was a conduit, a link, a connection, between him and those who slayed souls. Blood opened a doorway, allowing him to step into the mind and body of those who found bliss in ending life. He became the killer. He saw what the killer saw. Did what the killer did. Felt what the killer felt.

An incandescent light flashed behind his eyelids. Cain was gone. He was now the killer.

He stood on a ladder, rolling simple white primer on the wall.

A song had been locked inside his head for months and only now was it time to give voice to the words.

Lift your feet when you

Dance around the old well,

Be careful or you’ll tumble pell-mell.

Look into the dark, dark, waters

For the blood of your fathers.

Show some courage young man,

Find your calling young man.

He loved the song. He hated the song. But that was life, wasn’t it? It was all one big paradox.

A breathy sound intruded. He turned on the ladder to see the ones on the floor.

They were laid out in a neat row in the middle of the room. Each of them on their stomachs, hands bound behind their backs and tied to the shackles on their feet, mouths obliterated by duct tape. The male’s wrists were hamburger, dripping blood from fighting against the metal cuffs. But none of them struggled now.

Their faces were wet from tears, or maybe sweat—didn’t really matter—and splotchy red and pale. The child grunted.

“Do you want to sing along?” He used a soft tone, the same as he would if he were cajoling a whipped dog. “I will let you, but you must sing it properly. No mistakes.”

More tears slicked the girl’s face and dripped on the drop cloth underneath her. A bubble of snot blew from her nostril and hovered there waiting to pop. She shrank from him. The female seal-humped herself up and over the girl as if to hide the child beneath her body.

Oh, well. He wouldn’t allow them to destroy the pure freedom of this moment. He turned back to his task, losing himself in his song once more.

Save pomegranate seeds

as payment for the ferry man,

Offer red, red wine

as payment to the bar man.

Carve some red, red meat

as food for the hungry man.

 

Show some courage young man,

Find your calling young man.

 

And then, the wall was done, the completion of it sneaking up on him like a surprise party. He stepped off the ladder, moved it to the side to have an unobstructed view and then unzipped his painter’s coveralls and let them slide down his body.

The cool air whispered over his naked flesh like an endearment, the sensation wonderful after the confines of the material. His head fell back on his shoulders and he stood there absorbing and savoring. Everything from this moment to his finish would be carefully recorded in his memory. No matter what happened, no one could erase his memories. They were his alone—safe and untouchable—to be lovingly replayed until his death.

The female sobbed, deep throaty sounds similar to gagging. He faced the ones on the floor and used a gentle voice. “I do understand this is distressing for you, but I—” He dropped his tone a couple of octaves to show his seriousness. “—need. Complete. Silence.” He took his time, meeting and holding each one of their gazes before he continued. “I need to rest now.”

Only when they all quieted did he sit on the couch he had moved to face the wall. The material he’d spread over the cushions—couldn’t risk leaving DNA when he left—scratched against his ass and testicles, but that couldn’t be helped. He laid back, stretched out, waiting for his body to relax.

The blank canvas before him was a beautiful thing. All the potential in the world was right here. A picture waiting to be born.

He emptied his mind of all thoughts and feelings and stared at the wall. He stared, unblinking, until his vision yellowed and then darkened into something that looked akin to an x-ray. He stared, until tears watered his cheeks and his eyes burned like hot coals in their sockets. Only then did he catch a flash of what needed to be created—all he needed was a glimpse.

Wings. He saw wings.

He was about to create a masterpiece in blood.

A sense of timelessness came over him as he killed and painted. Painted and killed. He lost himself in his work. Not thinking about anything, just letting his hands wield the brushes mindless of the image he produced. When the blood was nearly gone and an image had been born upon the wall he came back to himself.

He stepped away from the wall taking more and more of it in with each footstep until he stood on the other side of the room, taking in the full magnitude.

The color contrast of blood on white was as breathtaking and beautiful as a flock of cardinal against the brilliance of snow. Tears burned his eyes. His face stung, and a wild freedom he’d hadn’t experienced in years surged through him. He recognized the feeling. In this moment he was God. The author of destruction. And creation.

The image he’d painted was so… No words existed to convey the gloriousness. Words were small and meaningless compared to this wall.

On the wall—a man knelt, head bowed, hair falling forward, shielding his face from view. Even in that supplicant’s position, supremacy and authority radiated from him. He looked like the strongest of warriors after a great battle—exhausted, but not weak. No. Never weak. There wasn’t an ounce of vulnerability in his sinew, muscle, and bone. Nor was there any delicacy to the lacework of scars marring the skin of his arms. And on his chest, directly over his heart were two criss-crossed slashes that dripped blood down his torso.

Surrounding him were a magnificent pair of wings. Not the kind you’d see on a sparrow or even on a chubby cupid, but the kind of wings that conveyed power and strength and utter indestructibility.

He loved the picture as he loved himself.

 

An incandescent flash and Cain returned to reality, to the stench of decomposing blood smeared over his face.

His brain re-categorized everything that he’d just seen and done into the it-wasn’t-really-me file. But that didn’t take the feelings away. The awe spreading through his chest at what he’d seen. The guilt sinking into his gut because he’d had no remorse.

A dull thumping started behind his eyes. Usually when he did his blood work, he was there for only a few seconds before skipping on to the next images and the next. Those flashes gave him a migraine every time, but seeing entire scenes like this…The migraine was gonna be a badass bitch today. He had maybe ten minutes before the pain ratcheted up to the level of axe-buried-in-his-brain.

Mac handed him a black towel—black concealed the blood better than any other color.

“You back?” Mac knelt next to him, his face full of concern, but Cain could see the concealed disgust in the way Mac’s mouth turned down at the corners, like he was fighting an outright grimace.

That look—especially when it was aimed at him—always took him back to the moment Mac found him. When Cain had been covered in snot and blood and shame. He had to give it Mac, the guy had tried to hide his horror, tried to pretend Cain was just a kid when he’d never been a kid. He’d been more monster than anything.

Cain scrubbed the material over his face, his arms, wiped his hands. The blood on his body—so thick and dry it smeared into his skin—would only come off after a good scouring down in a scalding shower.

He turned his attention to the image on the wall. But… There was no image, instead the wall had been painted gold, perfectly coordinated with the rest of the room. Mac must’ve called him back before the killer covered up his work with the paint.

Holy.

Fucking.

Christ.

His legs wobbled when he stood. His hand shook like an alcoholic in need of his jolly juice, but he pointed at the wall. “He painted a picture.” His brain bashed against the backs of his eyeballs. He wanted to press his hands to his eyes to keep them from exploding out of their sockets, but his hands were smeared with the family’s blood. The pain was only beginning.

“I… I don’t know what you mean.” Mac’s tone was full of question.

“He painted the wall white—made a blank canvas. Then he created a portrait—using the family’s blood—of some guy—” Cain closed his eyes, seeing on the back of his lids the scars lined up and down the man’s arms, the slashes over his heart, just like the ones on his—

“Fuck!” His lids popped open, his gaze automatically sought the wall, hoping to see the actual image again, but gold paint pulsed in his vision from the thumping inside his head. He held his arms out in front of him. Underneath the thin coating of blood on his skin, a network of white slashes ran from his wrists to his shoulders.

The wounds had healed decades ago, but the scars still remained. He pulled his shirt up high, and looked down at his chest stained with drying blood. A thick white criss-crossed scar rested over his heart—cut into his flesh by his father. Every scar on his body—placed there by his father.

“What is it?” Mac’s tone was full of question, mixed with a bit of suspicion. “You’ve got to talk to me. I don’t know what’s going on.”

Cain’s heart galloped up and down his rib cage, but he forced himself to speak slowly and quietly—in deference to the axe beating against his skull. He told Mac everything he’d seen and everything he remembered about the artwork in blood. “It’s there. You can’t see it, but it’s there. I’m there. Underneath that gold paint.”

It took a lot to catch Mac off guard and score one for Cain—he’d just done it.

Mac’s mouth was slightly open, lips twitching like they were trying to form words, until a one finally spilled out. “Infrared.” The word came out soft and hesitant. “We might be able to see the image using infrared photography.” Things went quiet for a moment while Mac stared at the perfectly painted gold wall. “Why paint you? Why not paint Killion? I mean people are obsessed with you both, but why choose you over him? And this guy made it clear it was you he painted. Without those scars we would’ve thought it was Killion.”

Yes. Cain was cursed with looking too much like his father—like one of the world’s most horrendous killers. It usually took a double-take and some head scratching before people realized he wasn’t Killer Killion.

Mac shook his head. “But then our guy covered up what he’d painted. Probably thinking we’d never know the image was there.”

“He even fucking signed it.” Cain didn’t realize until the words exited his mouth that he had seen a signature.

“He put his name on it?”

“Not his name. A symbol.” Cain wiped his hands harder on the towel then dropped it on the floor. He yanked his cell from his back pocket, and tapped on the art pad app. The white light from the phone lasered into his skull. It was all he could do to keep his eyes open and not groan out loud. He drew a Christian cross then put a hook on the bottom of it that looked like an upside down question mark “You’ve seen this before. I’ve seen this before.”

He showed the image to Mac and watched the guy’s face turn pink, then tomato with recognition.

“Yeah.” Cain voice was straight as a line. “It’s from my father’s last kill. But he didn’t do this. Not unless Petesville Super Max allows weekend furloughs.”

Mac snorted. “Only way he’s getting out of there is in a body bag.”

Couldn’t happen soon enough. His father was a stain on humanity. “So we know he didn’t do this.”

“But…” Mac’s words disappeared for eight thumps of Cain’s brain. “The girl—Mercy Ledger—made that mark on the wall as she was bleeding out from your father cutting… From her throat being cut. It didn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Didn’t mean anything until today. That symbol was at that scene twenty years ago and it’s here now.”

Mac shook his head slowly like an old dog with neck problems. “No one ever questioned her about it. The prints on the wall were hers. Jesus—we need to find Mercy Ledger.”

Mac didn’t say it, but Cain knew how the man’s brain worked. Mac thought Mercy must’ve done this. “She didn’t do this. She’s been locked down in The Center of Balance and Wellness for the past few years.” The words popped out his mouth before he censored them. And he really should’ve censored them.

He lifted his arm, pressed his eyes against a clean patch of material near his shoulder, and spoke without looking at Mac. “I—” Yeah. Just what was he going to say? It wasn’t like he could confess that he’d been checking up on Mercy Ledger for the past twenty years. That would make him sound like a damned stalker. And stalking was considered the gateway drug to killing. “Liz told me.” Bold faced, flat-out, flaming-bright lie. And Mac would know it. The guy was trained to spot a lie at thirty paces. And yet, Cain would rather endure the cost of the lie, than spend the truth. Call him chicken shit—he would own it. He kept his eyes closed against his shoulder.

“Isn’t that a violation of confidentiality or something?” Mac worded it as a question, but it sounded like a statement. “Liz could lose her nursing license.”

But Liz hadn’t actually told him. He’d guessed. He’d known Liz long before he’d met Mac. In those dark days of childhood, his father had forced Cain to work with him at The Center. Liz had been a night nurse and the only person to ever show kindness to him. Even after his father had been caught, she remained a part of Cain’s life—babysitting him when Mac was away for work. She was one of the few people he considered a friend and the closest thing he’d ever had to a mother. And now he’d tossed her in front of the bus because he was a pussy.

The quiet closed in around him. His head felt like it was about to burst off his shoulders. His stomach started rolling.

“The Center?” Mac finally broke the quiet. “That’s a horrible irony.”

And it was. That Mercy Ledger had lived the past few years of her life among the same hallways his father had roamed as a janitor was beyond irony. It was downright wrong.

 

In a recent online auction, the knife Adam Killion used in the Ledger family murders sold for a record breaking 2.3 million dollars. The Son of Sam Law prohibits convicted felons from profiting from their crime, but someone just made a fortune.

~J. C. Brown, www.criminalnewsinvestigations.com

 

 

Chapter Two

Mercy Ledger sat in the therapy circle with eleven other crazies from Ward B. The pungent funk of unwashed bodies and rotting chicken—thanks to Bo Coray and his chicken fetish—hung heavy in the air. The suicidal, homicidal, or just plain psychotic didn’t care about trivial things like hygiene.

Dr. Payne wore his usual attire—three-hundred dollar shirt, perfectly tailored pants, and shoes so shiny when he stepped in front of her she could see her reflection in them. He looked too GQ to be a psychiatrist in this underfunded, overpopulated, dump of a mental hospital.

He handed her a sheet of paper. In what had once been bold letters, but now were more in the realm of fuzzy gray from over photocopying, it read:

GRATITUDE JOURNAL

Practice an attitude of gratitude!

List three things you are grateful for today!

 

Gratitude? Seriously? After two years on Ward B, there wasn’t a whole lot to be thankful for.

Dr. Payne held out the box of crayons to her. They didn’t trust the residents of Ward B with pens or pencils. Guess no one had ever gotten shanked with a Crayola. “What color are you going to choose?” His words themselves were benign, but each syllable was threaded with judgment.

Her pulse pounded in her veins, her face got hot, her hand holding the paper began to shake.

The vibe that came off of Dr. Payne was something she recognized. Ever since that long, terrible night with Killion she’d been able to sense people’s bad intentions as if she had an early warning system. It had to do with their energy—it connected with her differently than most people. But then most people hadn’t survived what she’d survived.

Her mind’s early warning system flashed her snatches of tomorrow’s session with Dr. Payne. If she selected the yellow or orange crayon he would say she was trying too hard to be cheerful. If she picked red, he would accuse her of having angry or violent thoughts. If she grabbed blue or gray he’d declare her depressed. If she chose black he’d claim she wanted to disassociate. Whatever the color, he would make sure she was going to be wrong, forcing her to spend all of tomorrow’s session with him defending tonight’s color selection. And if she wasn’t successful in her defense—he’d use that as an excuse to have more private sessions with her.

“Mercy. Take a crayon.” Dr. Payne’s voice sounded like a calm ocean, but underneath the surface hungry sharks swam.

Shit. She grabbed the purple crayon.

“I can stay after group to help you process your reluctance.” His tone was full of fake helpfulness.

“No. I’m sorry. I was just daydreaming.” Great. Now she was going to have to come up with a reason why she’d stared at the damned crayon box so long without choosing one. It wasn’t like she could tell him the truth—that she knew what he wanted and had been trying to out think him. The level of control he had over her life scared her nearly as much as Killion had all those years ago.

He moved on to Bo, handing him the paper and giving him a crayon, but she still felt the burden of his gaze on her—watching her, assessing her, looking for an excuse—any excuse—to increase her meds and decrease her ability to think.

She settled her hand over the six-inch ridge of puckered skin scarring her neck. The old injury was always cold and the heat of her palm soothed something inside of her, reassuring her soul that she had already survived the worst of life and she would survive Ward B and Dr. Payne too.

But she better get her hand off her neck, before he decided she needed to talk about Killion again. Dr. Payne enjoyed her tragedy too much.

She moved her hand away from her throat and the scar went cold. She held the purple crayon by the fingers of both hands.

“For tonight’s education group—” Dr. Payne used his Moses-parting-the-seas voice and took the empty seat next to her. He always sat next to her. “—we’re going to talk about happiness and some of the research being conducted in the field of positive psychology. A group of Harvard psychologists have found that happy people have a particular set of habits.”

None of the patients on Ward B gave two shits about happiness. They were all too damned crazy to care about such an elusive term. Now if this evening’s group had been about how to score smokes, line-up conjugal visits, or get extra pudding cups—most of the patients would have been taking notes.

“I’m already happy!” Bo let out a high-pitch little girl giggle that sounded nine kinds of wrong coming from a three hundred pound guy. “I’m Bojangles! See!” He framed his face with his pudgy hands and smiled an open-mouthed, deranged clown smile.

He called himself Bojangles—partly because of his chicken fixation and mostly because the name sounded like a clown’s name and that’s exactly what Bo thought he was—a clown. That crazy smile and his carrot colored afro only solidified the delusion.

“I’m so happy!” Bo swayed violently in his seat bumping in to her, knocking her into Dr. Payne whose arm went around her locking her against his hard body. He held her too hard and too wrong. The room fell away. Bo’s shouting vanished. The only thing that existed was his horrible strength, trapping her against him and the urge—the almost uncontrollable urge—to scream.

“Are you all right? If he hurt you…” His breath fanned across her cheek smelling of sweet tea and summer. He should be the one who smelled like rotting chicken. Her body went into rigor mortis. She couldn’t move or breathe or think.

Bo jumped to his feet and moved into the center of the circle. Dr. Payne let her go. What had felt like an eternity of being pinned against him had probably lasted only two seconds since no one seemed to notice.

“Let’s be happy together!” Bo hollered at the top of his volume range and began twirling like a morbidly obese ballerina. “Bojangles. Bojangles. Bojangles.” He sang his name at an ear throbbing volume.

Dr. Payne didn’t move, didn’t blink, just watched Bo with an expression of absolute indifference on his face. That was part of how Mercy had known he was a sociopath. He never reacted normally—and he didn’t have the excuse of being pumped full of anti-psychotics and sedatives like the rest of the group. He never seemed threatened, no matter the situation. Probably because he was always the biggest threat in the room.

Bo pirouetted to a stop in front of her. “Dance with me baby doll!” He snatched her up against his flabby body and hurled them around. His rotten chicken stench, assaulted her nose, but no matter how bad he stank, she wasn’t scared of him. Bo would never intentionally hurt her or anyone else. He was like a mastiff pup. He didn’t understand how big he was, or how strong, or how his size could intimidate.

“Bo, I don’t feel like dancing right now.” She pushed against his pudgy man boobs.

His bottom lip jutted out shiny with saliva, but he stopped and let her go, just like she knew he would.

His chest bellowed, his lungs wheezed and whistled. Hauling around three hundred pounds would do that to a person.

“Now why don’t you sit down, catch your breath, and let Dr. Payne finish tonight’s—”

Bo began toppling over sideways, taking his time to fall, the way a giant tree goes down in a thick forest. She reached out to grab him, but his momentum and weight were too much. He landed—knee, hip, then shoulder—the sound of flesh slapping concrete punctuated by the thud of heavy bones. Where Bo had been only a second before, Dr. Payne now stood, staring at her. Not the man on the floor.

And that’s where her ability to sense bad intentions fell short. Spontaneity. When someone acted without planning, her internal warning mechanism failed every time. She could never fully rely on it.

“What’d you do to him? He was done. He was going to sit down.” The moment the words flew out her mouth she wished she could suck every syllable back inside and swallow them down whole.

An unnatural silence engulfed the room. No one in the group moved, no one spoke, no one checked on Bo. They all stared at her. At her. As if she’d done something wrong. And she had done something wrong. She’d challenged Dr. Payne—talked back to him instead of being subservient. And worst of all she’d shown caring for Bo.

There was a terrible pattern to her life, one she tried to deny, one she tried to tell herself wasn’t real. But the undeniable truth, the thing that loomed over her ever since that night with Killion: If she cared for someone, they were bound to get hurt.

But didn’t anyone else care about Bo? Or that Dr. Payne had somehow caused Bo to fall? She wanted to scream at the group, at Dr. Payne, but clamped her lips firmly closed.

Click. The sound was a mini explosion in Mercy’s head. Her gaze shot to the panic button clipped to Dr. Payne’s belt and his finger just lifting off the pad.

Her stomach kicked. No no no. He wouldn’t have hit the button because of her words. He wouldn’t put her on Ward A just for questioning him. Or would he? On Ward A he’d have supreme control over her. No interaction with anyone except for him. Just what he wanted and what she’d managed to avoid for the past two years.

Dr. Payne’s eyes were black and unfeeling, his lips pinched in a promise of terrible things to come. He reached into his pants pocket and withdrew a syringe, uncapped it, and took a step toward her.

An odd buzzing sound started in her ears, her vision narrowed until the only thing she saw was that syringe held between his perfectly manicured fingers. She couldn’t let him inject her. Couldn’t let him knock her so completely out that she would be unconscious and then in a sedated, vegetable state for days afterward.

Dr. Payne jammed the needle in Bo’s ass cheek. She sucked in a lungful of air—she hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath.

Two security guards and two male nurses rushed into the room. She moved away from Bo and stumbled back to her chair, collapsing so hard on the metal seat her tailbone rang.

“Transport him to Ward A.” Dr. Payne returned to his place beside her. “I’ll be down to assess him in a few minutes.”

She wanted to cringe away from him, but forced her body to stillness and watched as each member of the security team took an arm or leg and dragged Bo out of the room—he weighed too much to carry.

“We’ll be cutting group short tonight. Everyone fill out your papers, return them to me, and then go to your rooms.”

Dr. Payne passed her a fresh sheet of paper and the pink crayon—her paper and crayon had somehow disappeared in all the commotion. Using her leg for a solid surface, she scribbled the same thing on all three lines.

I’m grateful to be alive.

I’m grateful to be alive.

I’m grateful to be alive.

Without glancing at Dr. Payne, she handed in her paper and crayon and strained to walk from the room, instead of run. ‘Cause she wanted to run. She wanted far away from Dr. Payne and Ward B and this miserable existence where everything she did was under a microscope.

In her room, she didn’t bother with the overhead fluorescents, she went straight to her barred window and stared out into the night. There were no distant lights dotting the horizon, no stars twinkling in the sky. Nothing to indicate an entire world existed beyond her pane of glass. Just a void—a massive, black nothingness stretching on to infinity. The emptiness—the illusion of being alone—soothed her.

Her door clicked and swung open. She clamped her teeth together and breathed a quiet huff of frustration. Privacy didn’t exist on Ward B. To the staff, privacy equaled delinquency. The wavy image of a person reflected on her window. Liz—the charge nurse—always checked on her after she’d done everyone else. She understood Mercy’s need to experience the only peaceful moments of the day.

“All good here. I’ll get in bed in a few minutes.” Mercy forced lightness into her tone. If she let any irritation or tension leak into her voice, she risked Dr. Payne finding out.

“Mercy—” A man’s voice.

She startled, a jerking of muscle so violent it felt as if she’d been electrocuted. She whirled from the window to face him.

“—I need to make sure Bo didn’t hurt you.”

Her mind rebelled against the message her eyeballs were sending. Dr. Payne stood in her doorway. He never entered a patient’s room. And male staff were not permitted in the rooms of female patients. But here he was and here she was—and this wasn’t going to end well.

Her heart went off like a cannon.

“I’m responsible for you. You’re under my care. I won’t let anyone interfere.” Dr. Payne wore a grin, his deep dimples giving him a look all the women—staff and patients alike—adored.

“I’m fine. No harm done.” There was only a slight tremor in her voice. Maybe he wouldn’t notice. She cleared her throat and aimed for a stronger tone. “Liz knows my routine. She’ll be in to do a check in a few minutes.” Yeah. Remind him that someone might catch him if tried anything. “She’s fine with me being awake as long as I don’t bother anyone else.”

Dr. Payne took a step into the room. “Liz is dealing with Bo.”

Slowly, silently, the door began to fall shut behind him. The light from the hallway pinched off inch by inch until only darkness stood between them. The barely audible click of the latch sent a cold rush of adrenaline through her limbs.

Her internal warning system went off and she knew—knew in the way of instincts and reflexes and urges—knew with a clarity beyond understanding what he had planned for tonight. For her. The images flickered through her mind almost like memories, but they were of things to come. Him forcing her face down over her bed. Him taking what she wouldn’t give. Him making it hurt. Him making her bleed. Him marking her as his.

Fear licked down her spine and bit into her guts, but she refused to cower before him. She wouldn’t be an easy victim. Not her. Never her. Never again. And if he didn’t know that—it just went to prove how much he sucked at his job.

She would handle this. She’d been through worse. She’d survived worse. This time all she needed to do was get to the hallway where the lights were on and the cameras were rolling and there was always someone at the nurse’s station. Ten feet. That’s all that stood between her and safety.

She walked toward him. Better to be on the offensive instead of being forced to react. She put an extra sway to her hips, and prayed he’d be too distracted to realize she was going for the door—not him.

He watched her, that dimpled predatory smile never leaving his lips. Her heart somehow exited her chest, floating up in her head and pounding in her ears. She stopped a mere foot away from him.

Calm. Keep calm. Breathe in slow. Exhale slow. She could freak all she wanted later. But not now. Not when it really mattered.

Slowly, she shifted to his side, a mere two feet from the door. No sudden movements. Not yet. Not until she knew she could grab the handle and get out into the hallway before he stopped her.

“What do you think you’re doing?” His words were liquid nitrogen to her blood. She froze.

He turned to face her, moving further into her space. He wasn’t much taller than her, his dead eyes and taunting mouth right on the level of hers—only inches away.

Do something. Do anything. Don’t let him touch you. Her mind screamed the words to be heard over her heart thundering in her ears.

With every ounce of force she possessed, she rammed her knee into his knobby knockers.

He didn’t make a sound. He didn’t move. Didn’t react.

Had she missed?

He struck out with his fist so fast she didn’t have a chance to flinch, block, or move. The impact sent a shockwave of agony through her face, the sensation so intense she couldn’t feel the epicenter. She stumbled backwards, lost her footing, and landed on her ass. The impact vibrated through every bone in her body like a plucked violin string.

Dr. Payne bent double, cupping his pulverized parts. He shuffle-walked the one step to her, drew back his foot and slammed it into her ribs. Air whoofed out of her. She collapsed back, rolling and writhing to escape the fire in her side.

How long she laid there, she didn’t know. But suddenly, Dr. Payne’s face was in her line of sight and his intentions were in her head. Her mind flashed through images of the stark walls of Ward A, of herself drugged beyond awareness, of Dr. Payne amusing himself with her mind and body.

She tried to move toward the door, but her body wasn’t able to comply. She was lost in an inferno of pain.

Dr. Payne ruffled his hands through his hair, making it messy. He pulled at his perfectly tucked in shirt making it sloppy, then knelt down next to her.

She scooted away from him, but he grabbed her hand, forced her fingers open, gripping her middle finger in his fist. Was this some new form of torture? He yanked her finger to his face, jammed the nail against his cheek, then scraped it down over his skin, leaving a red trough of blood. He slammed her hand against the floor, grinding and mashing it in with his own. But she had reached a familiar place. A numb place. A place where physical pain no longer hurt her. He could slit her throat like Killion had and she wouldn’t feel it.

He stood and hit the panic button, then pulled another syringe from his pocket.

“You were the reason Bo acted out tonight. You stormed off from group without completing your assignment. I came here to check on you. You attacked me. You called me Killion. You’ve had a break from reality.”

The whimpers and whines of a wounded animal filled the room. The sound came from her and no matter how hard she tried to shush herself—something deep inside had broken and wouldn’t be soothed.

He raised the syringe over his head and slammed it down with all the force of a large hunting knife, stabbing her in the thigh. She watched as the clear fluid emptied into her body.

“I think it’s time we stepped up your treatment. ECT should help. I’ll plug you in a couple times. See how you behave towards me then.”

A wave crashed over her, but it wasn’t a wave, it was her body. No, it wasn’t her body moving, it was the drug hitting her system, pounding its way to her mind. The world went gray. She fought to stay on the surface, to not let the sedative pull her under, but the world went dark and she drowned under the drug’s effect.

 

 

What does it say about us that our primary sources of entertainment are shows and movies that glamourize violence, rape, and murder?

~Ellis Worth, M.D, Journal of Human and Philosophical Studies

 

 

Chapter Three

Three days later…

The moon beamed pearlescent rays across the sky. But none of the beauty touched the expansive lawn around The Center. The grounds were tarnished with a hopelessness that could never be polished away. How could anyone get better when the environment itself sucked at your soul?

Cain hated the place. Had hated it from that first night his father brought him to work on the night shift. Cain had been just five years old and forced to split the duties—emptying the garbage, mopping floors, cleaning toilets, scrubbing vomit and feces off the walls on Ward A. By far not the worst of his childhood memories.

From the dense woods surrounding the building a coyote yipped and howled, the sound a wild combination of mournful exuberance.

He pulled his cell from his pocket and hit the screen. 3:35 a.m. Liz was five minutes late. That didn’t bode well for Liz or him or Mercy. Or their clandestine meeting.

He had only two questions for Mercy. Did she remember drawing the symbol on the wall all those years ago? And what did it mean to her? Since Dr. God Complex refused to let Mac meet with her because it might jeopardize her treatment, Cain decided to use the back door—literally, he stood at The Institute’s back door—to get answers. There had to be a goddamned reason a picture of him—in blood—was signed with the same symbol Mercy had drawn as she was bleeding out from the wound caused by his father. He just needed to figure out that reason.

His neck itched and his body twitched. He shifted from one foot to the other, unable to stand still. Christ. He felt like an ADHD kid hopped up on sugar, trying to rein in a surplus of energy. Only it wasn’t energy pumping through him. It was anger. Rage. Fury. That’s what this place did to him. Made him into the sullen boy he’d once been who dreamed of wrath and revenge.

“Mercy.” He whispered her name to the moon and some of the anger evaporated. “Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.” He used the word as a mantra, reveling in the taste of those vowels and consonants inside his mouth. Just saying her name calmed him.

From inside the building, a rusty bolt scraped and banged, loud as a cherry bomb. The door swung inward, the squeal of old hinges shrieking through the night. In the woods, the coyote howled as if claiming its territory against the odd sounding intruder.

Liz backed out the door, pulling a wheelchair. Twenty-five years ago, when he’d first met her here at The Institute she’d looked like a mom—a smile on her face, encouraging words on her lips, and a stout don’t-break-the-rules attitude. Now she looked the grandma version with her gray hair and pleasant plumpness.

“Getting her out here was easier than I expected.” Liz didn’t exactly whisper, but didn’t speak at normal volume. “Ward A doesn’t have cameras since everyone is locked down. Thank the angels the night shift are notorious slackers—we didn’t run into anyone.” Liz turned the wheelchair to face him.

The woman in the chair slumped in the corner of the seat, head hanging as if it were too heavy to lift. Her hair dangled in limp, stringy hanks that reminded him of blond worms.

“This isn’t my Mercy.” Shit. The my had just slipped out. He didn’t look at Liz—didn’t want confirmation that she’d heard the slip.

His Mercy had always been strong. Even at ten years old, throat wrapped in a fat wad of bandages, she’d seemed oddly poised and imperturbable during all the media interviews. She had survived something worse than what he had endured and yet retained her strength. She’d inspired him, intrigued him and tied herself to him without ever knowing.

And she’d always been pretty. All strawberry blond hair and turquoise eyes and features that he’d just wanted to stare at because it made him feel all warm and nice on the inside. He’d never gotten close enough to smell her, but he imagined her scent to be a cross between fresh baked cookies and sunshine—not body odor and vomit like this woman.

“It is her. See what he’s done to her?” Liz’s voice snapped like a whip.

“Who?” Cain asked the question to Liz, but his gaze remained locked on Mercy. She hadn’t moved, hadn’t spoken, didn’t even seem alive.

“Dr. Payne. He’s had a sick fascination with her from the first. Probably because she was the only person on Ward B who didn’t deserve to be there. He’s been pretty harmless until three days ago, when he moved her to Ward A.”

“Why the fuck is she even here if she’s not—?” He’d assumed her past—what his father had done to her and her family—had finally caught up with her. He knelt in front of her wheelchair.

“Don’t you curse at me boy.” Liz’s tone was all angry mom, making him feel like a bad kid. “Her official record says Undifferentiated Schizophrenia and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But I’ve seen psychotic—she’s not psychotic and never has been.”

He’d never spoken to Mercy before, never been this close to her, never dared to. He’d been a wuss—too damned scared of her reaction to approach her. She had every right to hate him. It was his father that killed her entire family, his father that slit her throat, and his father’s blood that ran in his veins.

He touched her hair, feeling the damp stickiness of it on his fingers, and smoothed it back over her shoulder. Moonlight gave him more than enough illumination to see. Mercy’s eyes were half open and half rolled up in her head. A dark shadow marred the side of her face, spreading up and around her eye. His insides went arctic. “Who hit her?” The words exploded, loud and angry and conspicuous into the night. All the rage he’d suppressed came surging back into his body, tensing his muscles, and nestling in his bones.

“Dr. Payne claims she was hallucinating and thought he was Killion.”

Cain flinched as violently as if Liz had struck him. It was a reflex he couldn’t subdue even after all these years. Hearing his father’s name still had that effect on him.

“I don’t buy it. The good doctor claims he was in the process of subduing her when she fell and hit her face. And her ribs. Seems bit odd to me that the bruise where he injected her with the sedative is the exact size of man’s fist around the needle mark.”

Cain sucked in a slow breath, to calm the anger revving through his muscles. He felt like yelling at Liz for everything that had been done to Mercy, but the rational part of him knew it wasn’t her fault. He metered and measured his voice to force it to sound calm. “You reported him, right?”

“There’s no point. It’s his word against who? Mercy’s? My speculation?” Liz’s tone contained the anger that Cain had been trying to control. She was as pissed off about this as he was.

“Dr. Payne claims she’s been unresponsive to meds so now he’s shocked her twice in two days and still has her on enough meds to sedate an angry, bull elephant. But you won’t find any of that on her official record. If it ain’t recorded, it didn’t happen.” Liz’s lips pinched so tight the tiny wrinkles around them turned into chasms. “At this stage the damage isn’t permanent. Only short term memory loss. But the longer she’s with him…I’m not risking my job so you can talk to her—she’s unable to talk. I’m risking it so you can save her life. You have to take her away from here before he destroys her.”

Liz’s words fell into his brain one by one, each lining up until the meaning finally hit him. He jerked back from Mercy and stood. “No way. You know I can’t.”

“You will.”

“I just wanted to ask her a question. Maybe two. That’s all. I can’t take her. Be responsible for her.” He was going to hit Liz with his best shot. “She wouldn’t want me to take her. I look too much like him.” Cain backed a few steps away from Liz and Mercy.

“Cain—” Liz had that take-no-attitude tone. “—if you don’t take her, Dr. Payne is either going to turn her into a vegetable or kill her. Do you want her emotional or physical death on your hands? Because it will be if you walk away.”

His heart jerked. Liz’s words were a bulls-eye straight through everything he feared most—being responsible for someone’s death. And Liz fucking knew it. In that moment, for the first time in his life—he hated her a little for using his fear against him. “I never thought you would stoop so damned low.”

She gave the wheelchair a shove toward him. “I can tolerate your anger, even your hatred, but I can’t endure sitting back and watching Dr. Payne kill her a little more each day. If I take her, they’ll just find her and put her back in here. Her best chance is with you. No one would ever think to look for her with you.”

Cain opened his mouth to say something, to argue the point, but his brain went devoid of thought. Liz slowly turned and walked back into The Institute. She shut and locked the door behind her. Only when she was gone did Cain find the words.

“Holy fucking Christ!”

He was going to kidnap Mercy Ledger.

 

About Abbie Roads

Abbie Roads is a mental health counselor known for her blunt, honest style of therapy. By night she writes dark, emotional novels always giving her characters the happy ending she wishes for all her clients. SAVING MERCY is the first book in her new Fatal Truth Series of dark, gritty, romantic suspense with a psychological twist.

You Can Find Abbie Roads Here:

Website | Facebook | Twitter

Dangerously Dark Darlings Facebook Group

 

 

Giveaway

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Read the 1st chapter from Complicating by Noelle Adams and Samantha Chase

 

 

Title: Complicating
A Preston’s Mill Series Standalone
Authors: Noelle Adams & Samantha Chase
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: July 19, 2017


Blurb
Forget all those other accidental pregnancy
romances you might have read.
Daisy and Carter don’t have a one-night
stand…because it’s thirty minutes in a back room at a wedding reception. And
Carter isn’t a bad boy baby-daddy…except for the motorcycle, tattoos, and
attitude. Daisy doesn’t have the typical issues with her pregnancy…if you
don’t count the morning sickness, food cravings, and occasional horniness. And
Carter doesn’t hang around all the time, wanting both her and the baby…until
he falls in love.
But they definitely don’t become a happy
family…right away.
Daisy has
always been a good girl. She’s never done anything wild or spontaneous until
she has a little too much to drink at a wedding and has a fling with a sexy
stranger. She thought they were careful, but accidents happen. And now she’s
going to have the baby of a man she barely knows.
Carter is
her opposite in every way and completely the wrong man for her. They can still
work out a reasonable arrangement regarding the baby. But the more time she
spends with him, the less reasonable she feels. And he’s acting all possessive
and protective, so it gets harder and harder to convince herself that he’s just
the father of her baby.
She wants
him to be so much more.

 

Pre-order Links
AMAZON US / UK / CA / AU
Chapter One

Daisy stared at herself in the mirror over the sink and thought with a thrill that she looked pretty darn good.

Her dress was green to match her eyes, and although it was perfectly appropriate for a five-o’clock wedding, it was sexier than what she normally wore with its sleek shape and slight flare above her knees. She turned a bit to make sure the curve of her butt wasn’t too pronounced.

It was pronounced, but hopefully not unattractively so.

“Your ass looks fantastic,” Chloe said with a grin as she came out from one of the bathroom stalls.

“I wasn’t looking at it.” Daisy gave her butt another quick glance to verify that it did indeed look fantastic.

Chloe laughed uninhibitedly as she washed her hands. “You can act all sweet, innocent librarian all you want, but you’ve got a wild side in there somewhere that I’m going to set loose eventually.”

Daisy gave her friend an appreciative smile and didn’t argue. Out loud anyway.

She knew the truth. She didn’t have a wild side. She was a sweet and (mostly) innocent librarian. She was twenty-four, and she’d only had one serious boyfriend. She went to church every Sunday, and she’d been raised to never swear, never drink, and never, ever let boys touch her in naughty ways.

She might not have lived up to those rules perfectly—and lately she’d been working on being herself and not just who she was raised to be—but she certainly wasn’t close to Chloe’s level of wildness. Daisy had met Chloe at Preston’s Mill, their apartment building in a small town in eastern Virginia, and they’d become friends immediately. Chloe was fun and fearless and had traveled all over the world, and she was always encouraging Daisy to spread her wings a little further.

Daisy was trying. But there was no way she’d ever spread her wings as far as Chloe did on a regular basis.

She would always be a quiet, small-town girl at heart.

“We’ve got to try to find you a man tonight,” Chloe said conspiratorially as they were leaving the bathroom.

“Ha ha,” Daisy replied dryly.

“Why do you mock? There must be a few eligible men around. Half of Preston is here tonight—plus tons of people from surrounding areas.”

“Chris and Heather were both raised in Preston, so they know everyone.”

Daisy had been raised in Preston too. She was a couple of years younger than Heather, the bride of today’s wedding, so they hadn’t been really close. But she knew almost everyone in town.

She also knew there weren’t any interesting single men lurking in the shadows of the reception hall, a large ballroom in a lovely Victorian house that was now hired out for weddings and other occasions.

As she and Chloe reentered the room, Daisy’s eyes immediately strayed toward the far corner where the man she’d noticed before was still lurking in the shadows.

She wasn’t sure why she’d noticed him earlier except he was sitting alone and seemed so out of place. He was tall and well built with unruly dark hair. He was dressed in all black, and he’d evidently made a gesture toward wedding attire with a jacket, but his shirt didn’t have a collar.

He looked rough. Intimidating. Not particularly friendly.

He wasn’t even very handsome—at least not the type of looks Daisy had always gravitated toward. She wasn’t sure why she kept sneaking looks at him.


“You’re just scared,” Chloe said as they returned to the table they’d been sitting at earlier.


The reception was lovely and generously stocked with food, but it wasn’t a formal banquet dinner, and there wasn’t assigned seating. Daisy enjoyed these kinds of receptions more. They didn’t feel so stiff and artificial. The band was playing a good variety of music, and there were a lot of people dancing—but mostly kids bopping around and older couples who clearly knew all the old steps.


“I’m just scared about what?” she asked Chloe, trying to think back to their earlier conversation.


“About coming on to men.”


Daisy sucked in a sharp breath. “I’m not scared about that. There aren’t any men here to come on to.”


“I’m sure I can find you a few. Then what would you do? You’d be too afraid to make a move on them.”


“If there are eligible men around, I wouldn’t be afraid.”


It was a lie. Daisy never came on to men. She’d always waited for them to make the first move, which was why she was often waiting a very long time between dates.


“Are you willing to prove it?”


“Prove it how?”


“If I find three eligible guys, will you come on to them?”


Daisy went still. They’d been joking around before, but Chloe was entirely capable of making good on this particular dare. “What do you mean, come on to them?”


“I mean you have to go over to them, start a conversation, and do a little flirting.”


“And that’s all?”


“That’s all. Best to start with baby steps with you, I think.”


Daisy frowned, although she knew her friend wasn’t serious.


She was by nature fairly conservative and by upbringing rather sheltered, but she wasn’t a child or a coward. She could do something other women might consider normal—even if she’d never done it before.


“Is it a deal?” Chloe asked.


Daisy never would have agreed had she not felt like she had something to prove—to herself even more than to Chloe. She didn’t want to be trapped by her own insecurities. Her heart was already hammering in her chest, but she was going to do this. “It’s a deal.”


Chloe looked delighted and a little surprised. “Okay. Great. We’ll start easy then. The guy with the glasses over there.”


Daisy glanced over and recognized the man as a cousin of one of her old classmates. He was pleasant-looking and a little shy. She breathed out in relief.


She could do this.


She could do it.


She stood up, aware of Chloe watching with amused interest, and she went over to talk to him. She felt a little stupid as she sat down in an empty chair at his table, but she relaxed when he smiled, recognized her, and looked happy to talk with her.


It was easy. He was perfectly nice, if a little boring. She laughed a lot and touched his hand, his arm, so Chloe would believe she’d been flirting.


It was clear to see that the man would be very happy to continue talking to her, but Daisy didn’t actually want to lead him on, so she ended the conversation with a smile and returned to Chloe.


Chloe was laughing, clearly pleased with her friend’s success, and she’d gotten them both fresh glasses of champagne so they could toast Daisy’s victory.


“Okay. That one was easy. Now you have to do that guy over there near the bar. The one with the flashy watch.”


Daisy turned to look and immediately saw the one Chloe meant. She didn’t recognize him, so he must not be from town. He was quite handsome in a charming, entitled way, and he looked like he was used to having his way with women. That would make him challenge enough, but he wasn’t standing alone. He was chatting with two pretty, single women, who were both clearly flirting with him.


And Daisy was going to have to go over there, bust into their conversation, and somehow try to win him away from the other women.


She swallowed hard.


“You can always admit you’re not up to the challenge,” Chloe murmured.


Daisy squared her shoulders. “I am up to it. I’ll do it.”


She walked over to the man in a blur, an anxious stupor taking over her movements, and she almost wilted in relief when, as she got closer, she recognized one of the women.


So when she got to the bar, she greeted the woman, having to remind her of how they’d had biology class together in high school.


They chatted for a minute, and the woman introduced her to the other woman and then the man.


As Daisy turned her smiles on the man, she was aware of how the other women looked annoyed.


Maybe this was normal practice for some women, to horn in on other groupings and take the attention of the best man.


Daisy didn’t like it though. It felt rude. And kind of selfish. But she had something to prove here, and so she tittered with laughter at a stupid joke the man made and did her best to look alluring.


She must have been successful because the man said how much he loved redheads and asked if she wanted another drink.


She said she did, and they walked away from the other two women.


There. That would prove to Chloe that she’d appropriately come on to this man. She’d earned his attention, and he evidently wanted to keep talking to her. She sipped a new glass of champagne, put up with his silly compliments about her long red hair, and finally got so annoyed with his obnoxious attitude and the way he kept flashing his ridiculously expensive watch that she made an excuse and returned to Chloe.


“That was fantastic,” Chloe said, brimming with excitement. “Did you see those other girls’ faces when you took him away from them?”


“Yes,” Daisy admitted, flushed with her third glass of champagne and with a kind of power she didn’t often feel. “Although it feels like a mean thing to do.”


“It wasn’t mean. That’s the way it always is. All’s fair and all that.”


“Okay. Fine. So who is the last one? Or do you just give up now that I’ve proven I’m more than up to this challenge?”


“I’m not giving up. I’ve got your last guy all picked out for you.” She nodded toward the far corner of the room. “There. The guy by himself.”


Daisy tensed up, knowing even before she looked who Chloe was referring to. The rough, intimidating guy she’d been sneaking looks at all evening. “He’s not eligible!”


“What do you mean, he’s not eligible? He’s been alone the whole time. He doesn’t have a date. I don’t think he looks married, but if you find out he is, just say ‘whoops’ and get the hell out of there. No big deal.”


“But…”


“But what?” Chloe was grinning wickedly now. “You’re throwing in the towel, aren’t you?”


“No. I’m not.” Daisy gulped. Was she really going to have to go over there and talk to that guy? What on earth would she even say? She had no thin connection with him to initiate the first contact the way she had with the other two men. She had nothing but a blunt, open approach.


“So do it. He’s been watching you.”


“He has not been watching me.” She knew that for sure because every time she glanced over, his eyes were focused on something else.


“Yes, he has. But it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to go talk to him anyway or else admit you’re not up to it.”


“I am up to it.” She swallowed down the rest of her champagne and then stood up, her head spinning a little from nerves or alcohol or both. “Okay. Here I go.”


She didn’t move.


“Anytime now,” Chloe prompted.


“I’m going. Right. Now.”


Daisy finally managed to make her feet move, and she forced them to head toward the corner. She was halfway there when the man’s eyes landed on her, and his gaze didn’t falter as she approached.


He knew she was coming over to him.


There was no face-saving excuse with this one.


She was breathless and almost numb with fear when she reached his table. Her knees wouldn’t hold her, so she sat down on the chair next to him. “Hi,” she said stupidly.


He raised his dark eyebrows. “Hi.”


His eyes were blue. Very blue. She couldn’t help but notice. He needed to shave—or maybe he was growing a beard. And there were tattoos all over his forearms, exposed now that he’d taken off his jacket.


Tattoos.


She was going to have to come on to a guy with tattoos all down his arms.


“You’re sitting all alone,” she managed to say when it was clear he wasn’t going to help her out in making conversation.


“So you felt sorry for me?” His voice was deep, slightly gruff. Definitely sardonic.


“No. Just being friendly.”


“Is that what you call it?”


She was getting confused now. Her mind was slightly clouded from the three glasses of champagne. “What I call what?”


“It looks more like you have some kind of bet going with your friend.” He inclined his head toward where Chloe was sitting and blatantly staring at them.


“There’s no bet.”

“Really? Because I just saw you come on to two other guys and then walk away when they responded.”

She gulped. “It wasn’t a bet.”

“Then what was it?”

“I was just… just proving something.”

“Proving what? How men will make asses of themselves when faced with a pair of green eyes and a hot body? Because I’d have thought that has already been proven over and over again throughout history.”

He was smart. She could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice. And he had a dry sense of humor. She liked both those things.

She also liked the strongly chiseled lines of his face and the breadth of his shoulders.

He was big and solid. Man all the way through.

“That’s not what I was trying to prove,” she said.

“Then what?” He asked the question like he had the right to know, even though they didn’t even know each other’s names.

“Just proving something to myself.” She wasn’t sure why she was telling him the truth.

“What did you need to prove to yourself? You must know how gorgeous you are.”

She didn’t know. She’d always figured she was pretty enough, but guys had never been knocking down doors to get to her. But she couldn’t help but flush with pleasure at the heated interest in his eyes.

He thought she was gorgeous. That much was clear.

“Not that,” she said, answering his question. “Just that I can… I can do things other women can do.”

“Things like what?” He seemed to really want to know.

“Come on to men.” No sense in pretense now. He evidently knew when she was lying to him or playing games.

“You really thought you couldn’t come on to men? Angel, all you have to do is show up.”

Her cheeks burned even hotter, and the pleasure washed down from her chest to her belly—and then even lower.

“So you came over here to come on to me?” he asked, swallowing down the last of the scotch in his glass.

She cleared her throat. “Yes.”

“And what was your plan?”

“I didn’t have a plan. Is that something women plan out in advance?”

“Some do.”

“Oh. I was just making it up as I went along.”

He chuckled, low in his throat. The sound seemed to vibrate through her whole body. “I see. Well, I’m waiting here breathlessly to see how you’ll proceed.”

He was teasing her, and she liked it. Her mind buzzed as she tried to keep up with his wit. “Oh. Well, maybe you get me another drink, and we’ll see what happens.”

The man laughed appreciatively and stood up. As he strode over to the bar—damn, the man had a great butt and amazing arms—Daisy tried not to giggle in excitement. She looked over to Chloe and saw she’d gone to talk to a few other friends. But she gave Daisy a grin and a silly thumbs-up sign before she looked away.

Daisy laughed out loud by herself at the table.

Was she really doing this? Flirting with a sexy stranger?

He returned with two glasses of scotch.

She frowned. “I was drinking champagne.”

“I know you were. But if you want to come on to me, you’ll have to drink something less fizzy.”

She didn’t like whiskey, but she took a swallow anyway. It burned her throat and filled her with a pleasant heat.

He nodded in approval. “I’m Carter,” he said.

“Daisy. It’s nice to meet you.”

“I have a feeling it’s going to be very nice to meet you.”

***

An hour later—a lot of flirty conversation and two more scotches each—and Daisy was flying high.

She wasn’t even sure how it had happened, but they were stumbling down a hallway in the old Victorian mansion, looking for a private room.

For the past thirty minutes, Carter had been touching her a lot—kissing her hand, stroking her bare arm with his fingertips—and between that, the alcohol, and his throaty drawl, she was so turned on she could hardly see straight.

He was evidently just as aroused. His cheeks were slightly flushed, and a delicious tension filled his body.

He pushed open a partly cracked door to discover a little sitting room. “This will do,” he growled, pulling her in with him.

He closed the door and pushed her against the wall, kissing her hard.

Her body throbbed with pleasure as she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back. Nothing had ever felt so good. Nothing in her whole life. His hard body was pressed against her completely, and every inch of him was hot, was strong, was man.

Was hard.

She could feel his arousal in the bulge he kept grinding against her.

“You sure you want to do this, angel,” he murmured thickly, pulling out of the kiss to nibble a delicious line down her throat.

“Yeah.” She arched against him in helpless pleasure. “Oh yeah. Please.”

“You’re not too drunk?”

“I’m a little drunk,” she admitted. “But not too drunk to know what I want. I’ve never wanted anything more.”

It was true. It was absolutely true.

She might be buzzing from the alcohol, but her mind was still working. This was a choice she was making, and it was exactly what she wanted.

“Damn, I’m glad to hear that.” His hands were all over her now, stroking up and down the curves of her body.

She’d always wished she wasn’t quite so curvy so she could look more like the stylish girls her age, but he seemed to appreciate her body. He couldn’t stop touching it, and the fire in his eyes kept burning even hotter as he gazed at her.

Then they were kissing again, and he was walking her over to a console table against a wall. When her ass hit the edge of it, she gave a little “oof” at the impact.

She was so aroused she was throbbing with it, and she kept lifting one of her legs, trying to wrap it around him so she could get more pressure where she needed it.

He helped her by pushing up her skirt and then lifting her up to prop her on the table. She wrapped her legs around him eagerly and gave herself over to the feelings.

By now, he’d managed to unzip her dress and pull her breasts out of her bra. He lowered his head to nip at them, causing her to cry out at the intense jolts of pleasure. In their position, he couldn’t do much more than that, and both of them were too far gone to take the time anyway.

He slipped a hand inside her underwear so he could finger her, and she whimpered and rocked her hips in response.

“You like that?” he murmured hoarsely.

“Oh God, yeah! Keep touching me like that. Just like that.”

“Damn, you’re hot when you’re turned on. Who knew such a little angel could let go like this? You’re the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen.”

She experienced the oddest sort of pride—that she was that kind of woman, that she was capable of being so wild and spontaneous. And sexy.

She’d never dreamed it was possible for her.

He kept moving his fingers inside her until the pleasure coiled up and broke unexpectedly. She cried out loudly as she came, trapped between the wall and his body, propped up on the table.

“There you go, angel,” he was murmuring, his eyes devouring her face and body. “There you go. So good. Damn, that was gorgeous.”

Her body throbbed in satisfaction as he finally removed his hand.

“Do you have a condom?” she asked, her groggy mind managing to land on one reality she didn’t want to forget.

“Yeah.” He reached into his back pocket.

She wondered if he always carried condoms around with him.

She wondered if most men did.

She’d only had one boyfriend—the guy she’d dated all through college and had briefly been engaged to—and he’d never had condoms available at a moment’s notice.

But maybe some guys did.

She was infinitely grateful for it now as they both worked on undoing his pants and rolling on the condom. His erection was big and hard, and she couldn’t wait to feel it inside her.

He adjusted their bodies so he could enter her, and she wrapped her legs around him tightly as he sank in.

Both of them groaned at the penetration.

“Jesus,” he hissed through his teeth, holding on to her ass tightly. “Jesus, you feel so good.”

He felt good too. Better than anything.

She wriggled as her body relaxed around him and started to need even more.

He levered his hips and pushed into her with a short, hard thrust.

She cried out, dropping her head back as the sensations slammed into her.

“Like that?” he asked, his body so tight it was almost shuddering.

“Yeah. Yeah. More. I need more.”

He took her like that, propped up on the table with her legs wrapped around him, and she’d never known it was possible to feel so sexy and uninhibited. She tried to keep her voice down since there were people all over the building, but she couldn’t stay quiet. Every time he pushed into her, a helpless sound of pleasure escaped her lips.

When she felt the sensations start to tighten into another orgasm, she started to urge him on. “Harder. Faster. More. Please more.”

He was taking her hard now, almost roughly, and he was grunting with a primal passion as he thrust.

She bit down on her bottom lip hard as a climax ripped through her, causing her to shake and shudder. Then he was coming too, letting out a long, low exclamation that sounded like, “angel” as he let himself go.

And all of it felt good. Amazing. Exactly what she wanted.

Until she started to come down from her climax and realized she’d just had sex with a stranger at a wedding reception.

His name was Carter, but that was all she knew about him.

She wasn’t this sort of person.

She felt weird and achy as she unwound her legs and he pulled out of her.

“Damn, what a mess,” he muttered as he started to take care of the condom.

She was wet between her legs. Really wet. And it seemed to emphasize that maybe she hadn’t really thought things through as much as she’d believed.

Carter was looking down at the condom as she readjusted her panties and smoothed down her dress.

She was suddenly terrified. The heated fog was lifting in her mind, and she had no idea what she’d been thinking.

Her legs were sore. She was sore inside. Her whole body was sore.

She gasped and hurried toward the door, wanting only to be alone so she could think.

“Angel, wait—” Carter began.

She didn’t wait. “Sorry,” she said, swinging open the door. “I’ve got to go.”

And with that, she ran down the hall.

(Copyright © 2017 by Noelle Adams and Samantha Chase. All rights reserved)

Noelle Adams
Noelle handwrote
her first romance novel in a spiral-bound notebook when she was twelve, and she
hasn’t stopped writing since. She has lived in eight different states and
currently resides in Virginia, where she reads any book she can get her hands
on and offers tribute to a very spoiled cocker spaniel.  She loves travel, art, history, and ice
cream. After spending far too many years of her life in graduate school, she
has decided to reorient her priorities and focus on writing contemporary
romances. Find her at noelle-adams.com.
Samantha Chase
Samantha Chase released her debut novel in 2011 and
currently has more than forty titles under her belt! When she’s not working on
a new story, she spends her time reading romances, playing way too many games
of Scrabble or Solitaire on Facebook, wearing a tiara while playing with her
sassy pug Maylene…oh, and spending time with her husband of 25 years and their
two sons in North Carolina. Find her at chasing-romance.com.