Behind the Wall by Jane Harvey Berrick

 

 
 
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Prison.
The place where dreams fade and hope dies.
That’s what it’s meant for the five years that Garrett has been behind bars. But now hope is on the horizon and he’s daring to dream again: small dreams, small hopes.
Getting his GED would be a start. If only his prison-appointed teacher Miss Ella Newsome wasn’t so damn sexy.
As Garrett and Ella start to play a dangerous game, the price could be higher than either of them have guessed.

This story first appeared in the anthology HOT FOR TEACHER in 2016. It has since been extended with new scenes, more heartache and even more heat.
At the end of a long, exasperating day where nothing seemed to go as I wanted, I was happy to shake Nottoway dust from my shoes and head out for a drink with my best friend Becky.

“How’s it going in stir, sista?” she asked in her best Orange is the New Black impression.

“Fine,” I mumbled.

“Fine as in I-broke-both-my-legs-but-don’t-worry-about-me fine, or fine as in today-sucked-ass-and-I’m-feeling-sorry-for-myself?”

“Probably the latter,” I said, unable to stop a tired smile appearing on my face.

“Come tell Aunty Becky all about it, but not before you’ve had at least one Mimosa.”

“Honestly, I don’t really feel like drinking. I’ll just get all weepy and mopey.”

She shook her head and pushed a glass toward me.

“So get weepy and mopey. How’s it going with Mr. Hottie-con?”

“He’s … doing well. He makes a great teacher’s aide—better than I could have hoped. The other prisoners go to him in between classes. They’re all making so much progress.”

“That’s good then.”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“And nothing.”

“So, you’re not fantasizing about the length of his … parole?”

“Becky!”

“I’m right, aren’t I? You’re totally crushing on your jailbird boy toy.”

“He’s 30. And he’s not my boy toy.”

“But you’d like him to be?”

I took a slug of Mimosa, tossing it back like I was doing shots. Then my head dropped to my hands and I let out a groan.

“Oh my God, Becky! He’s the hottest guy I’ve ever met. Handsome, sexy, total brooding bad boy. But sweet, too. How can an ex-thief be sweet? And I don’t even know if he’s an ex-thief—not really. And when he looks at me, all dark and intense … and I haven’t had a boyfriend since Nathan. I haven’t even had a date. And now my B.O.B. needs new batteries.”

She choked on her drink then burst out laughing.

“There’s no harm in having a little down time thinking about doing the nasty with a hot felon. As long as that’s all it is.”

I sighed. Becky knew me too well.

“I like him.”

She screwed her eyes shut.

“Oh glory, I was afraid of that. You’re so predictable, El. You see something broken and you want to fix it. It’s admirable in the right circumstances, but this isn’t one of them.”

“I know. I know you’re right, but it’s chemistry, or magnetism, or pheromones, or…”

“Lust?”

I looked down at the drink in my hands.

“Honey, the guy is hot and off-limits and the original bad boy. Of course you’re lusting after him. Just promise me that you won’t do anything stupid.”

“As if!” I huffed.

“Hmm, well, tell me this. If he was paroled tomorrow, would you date him? Introduce him to me? To the rest of your friends? Would you take him home to meet your parents? Can you honestly see a future with an ex-con?”

I shook my head.

“I’m his teacher. Nothing is going to happen.”

But the truth was, it already had. I was falling for Prisoner 97813. It was reckless and stupid, maybe even dangerous.

And I couldn’t stop myself.


This story first appeared in the anthology HOT FOR TEACHER in 2016. It has since been extended with new scenes, more heartache and even more heat.
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Jane is a writer of contemporary romance fiction, known for thoughtful stories, often touching on difficult subjects: disability (DANGEROUS TO KNOW & LOVE, SLAVE TO THE RHYTHM); mental illness (THE EDUCATION OF CAROLINE, SEMPER FI); life after prison (LIFERS); dyslexia (THE TRAVELING MAN, THE TRAVELING WOMAN).
She is also a campaigner for former military personnel to receive the support they need on leaving the services. She wrote the well-received play LATER, AFTER with former veteran Mike Speirs. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hk1CyB8c0xA )
Author Links
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A Fighting Chance by Anne Stone

 

Coming June 5th
When Mackenzie meets Carter, it’s love at first sight. They have a blissful year together before trouble arrives. In the form of Carter’s two teenage sons.

When Hunter and Carey decide they want to live with their father in California, Mackenzie knows right away that she’s in for a tough time. And she couldn’t be more right.

The two boys show her on a daily basis that she’s not good enough for their dad. In fact, they make it quite clear their lives would be better without her. But could it be that Hunter has quite a different motive for hating her?
ONE
Mackenzie

I first met Carter on a Friday. I was standing talking to someone when he came in, and it was like every atom in the room was immediately drawn in his direction. The oxygen, the people, even the flowers turned their heads to look at him. His presence was so powerful I couldn’t help stepping a little closer. When his eyes met mine, an electric shock went through my body. I was literally glowing, and in that fraction of a second, I imagined what it would be like to be his woman. And then…
Nothing.
His eyes moved on to the next object, not even acknowledging my presence, leaving me absolutely crushed. I wasn’t worth a second look. Swallowing hard, I watched him walk over to Brittany, who had been in charge of interior design at his new company headquarters. I’d had nothing to do with the project—I was just here to support my best friend on what was going be a big evening for her.
And I had never felt as much contempt for anybody as I felt for her in that particular moment. Even though I loved her to pieces.
Carter Tilman, head of Tilman Finance Group, had occupied the number-one spot on our girls’ talk agendas the past few weeks. God, was he handsome, Brittany had told me so many times I’d started rolling my eyes at her. But now I saw him in the flesh. He was blond and blue-eyed, about six-foot-two and, from what I could see under his suit, well built. The perfect combination of sleek and edgy, he immediately made me imagine him being a somewhat less-than-perfect gentleman in private quarters.
But there he was, talking to Brittany! Not even giving me a second of his attention.
I kept watching him, inconspicuously following him around, trying to be near him. But not once did I manage to capture his attention. It made me feel small and insignificant. In his world, I didn’t even exist.
Just before midnight, Brittany signaled to me that she was done. With a slight sense of regret, I left. After all, there was no reason for me to stay. It would just make me sad.
Outside, I said goodbye to Brittany and her colleagues before walking over to my car. I was just about to open the door when somebody behind me said, “I was hoping to be introduced to you.”
Every molecule of my body strained toward him, but I didn’t want to make a complete fool of myself, so I made a point of turning around slowly. “Really?” I asked, feigning disinterest.
He came closer, nodding. “You’re stunning. I just have to kiss you.”
And kiss me, he did. Our first kiss, which led to many others. Our first encounter, which turned into hundreds. Two lives fused into one.

Which leads me to the here and now, almost one year later.
“Are you excited?” he asks.
I nod, kneading my fingers. “Oh boy, am I excited,” I say in a strangled voice.
He laughs, quietly stroking my cheek. “Just don’t show any fear. They’re like predators. They can sense it.”
“Please tell me you’re joking!”
“I’m sure they’ll like you.”
“They” are his sons. Hunter and Carey. Ages seventeen and fifteen. I haven’t met them before because they live with their mother in Miami. But they’re coming to spend the summer with their dad in San Diego. And here I am. I can’t escape the inevitable, even though it scares the living daylights out of me. Seriously, I’ve never been this nervous, not even during finals week in college.
“Relax, sweetheart,” Carter says, reaching for my hand. He runs his fingers across my knuckles soothingly.
I look at him, trying to smile. It isn’t usually difficult, but today I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m meeting his sons. His teenage sons. I’m not even that much older than them… I’m twenty-five, and Carter is forty-three. Our age difference has never been a problem before, and people say age is just a number, but, come on—this just seems like a recipe for disaster.
“Here they are,” he says, pointing. Two tall boys who look a lot like Carter—and totally different at the same time—are walking across the baggage claim toward us.
Carey, the younger one, must be nearly six feet tall. He’s blond and blue-eyed like his dad. But while his father has a distinctly manly look about him, Carey brims with the beauty and energy of youth. His skin is spotless, which I take as a personal affront, because I still get zits in my mid-twenties.
Hunter is already taller than his father. He has close-cropped brown hair and brown eyes. His cheeks and chin are speckled with stubble, and for such a young man, he has a very masculine aura. The girls must be all over him. It’s true what they say. The apple does not fall far from the tree.
They’re both trying to appear cool, but I can tell they’re happy to see their dad. They each give him an affectionate hug, and he hugs them back happily. Carter has always seemed like a sexy bachelor to me, but seeing him with his sons is kind of cute.
“Okay, boys,” he says, putting his arm around me. “This is Mackenzie. Sweetie, meet Hunter and Carey.”
The boys’ bright faces darken, letting me know I don’t stand a chance. I stretch out my hand, and they do shake it, but they squeeze so hard I have to put effort into not screaming. “Nice to meet you,” I say, trying to sound cheerful.
Carter seems satisfied, at least. “Let’s go home. Mackenzie and I thought it’d be fun to have a barbecue.”
Carey turns his cold blue eyes away from me, defrosting them for his father. “Actually, we’re meeting up with some friends tonight, Dad.”
“Oh, well, why don’t we have dinner, then you can go?” Carter suggests cheerfully.
The boys seem mollified as their dad takes Carey’s bag and puts an arm around his shoulders, Hunter on his other side. They’re the perfect trio.
“Are you coming, sweetie?” Carter calls over his shoulder.
I follow them out of the airport, the lowly fourth wheel.
Back at the car, Hunter gets in front like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Carter looks irritated for a second but doesn’t say anything. Instead, he holds the back door open for me, and I silently climb into his Mercedes SUV.
Once behind the wheel, Carter is all cheer again. “What are your plans for the summer?” he asks.
“Friends, beach, babes,” Carey says automatically.
Hunter laughs. “In that order?”
Carey shrugs. “It’s not exactly a secret you go through all three of them like candy. Especially that last one.”
Carter throws his oldest a look. If I didn’t know better, I would think it was respect, but that’s impossible, right? Could a father be proud of his seventeen-year-old son’s sexual exploits? No. There must be something else behind that look.
Hunter turns around to grin at his brother. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, virgin.”
“TMI, thank you very much,” Carter says, and he actually sounds amused.
Hunter slouches down in his seat. “I thought you’d put those condoms there on purpose so we couldn’t help but find them.”
“Don’t corrupt your brother,” Carter laughs. “There’s still hope for him.”
“Did you hear that?” Hunter says. “You’re the good, normal, boring brother.”
“No, I’m not!” Carey leans forward to punch Hunter’s shoulder.
Hunter dodges it, laughing.
For some reason, I feel like I shouldn’t be here. They’re acting like I’m not here, anyway.
“Hey, boys, no punching,” Carter throws in. “Words are your weapons! You know the rules.”
“Hunter’s too stupid to use language as a weapon,” Carey grumbles.
“Stupid?” Carter repeats. “Was that report card a fake then?”
Hunter grins. “No need for that, Dad. Unlike Carey, I’ve got brains and looks.”
“Yeah, and your looks are shit!” Carey teases.
His brother turns around, looks straight at me, and then says to his brother, “I guess you want to spend the evening with Dad then…”
There’s a meaningful silence.
Carey looks at me for a second as well and then makes a cut-throat gesture with his hand, as if to threaten me, “They’re my friends, too.”
Hunter grins like a predator. “Be a good boy then.”
Carey snorts but doesn’t say anything.
I’m relieved when we get to the house—our house. Even though I know the toughest part is still ahead. Because the boys don’t know I’ve moved in with their dad. What on earth are they going to say when we tell them? It’s clear by now that they don’t hold back. And I don’t want those word-weapons trained on me…
Walking up the driveway, I look at the house like I always do. It’s huge, built for a large, happy family, and once again, I feel like an intruder. This is where they all used to live as a family. And now Carter lives here with a new woman. Me.
As soon as the boys get inside, they quietly claim the space around them. The house seems smaller with three big men in it.
“I’ll go fire up the grill, sweetie,” Carter says when I enter the kitchen.
I nod, and he gives me a hug, kissing me on the top of my head. Carey gives me a look so hostile I have to close my eyes, fighting back tears. I don’t want to show them how much they affect me.
As soon as Carter leaves, Carey steps in front of me. “Are you after our money?”
I give him an irritated look. “Excuse me?”
“Dad’s got a lot of dough. Is that what you’re after? Why else would you be with a guy twice your age?”
I’m speechless. Hunter nonchalantly leans against the fridge, not saying anything, but there’s something terrifying about the way he’s standing there all calm, his arms crossed in front of his chest. My eyes move from one brother to the other, and my mouth goes dry.
“Sweetie, can you bring out the steaks?” Carter calls from outside.
I swallow and glance at Hunter blocking the fridge. When I take one step toward him, he doesn’t budge. “Would you mind…”
He puts on his predator’s smile. “Would I mind what?”
“Moving over.”
He smiles down at me. “Say please.”
I want to tell him to fuck off but remind myself that he’s seventeen—and testing me. I can’t say to him what I would say to a twenty-five-year-old asshole in this situation. Pulling myself together, I give him my best unflinching look. “Would you please move over?”
He steps aside. “There you go, doll.”
Doll?
Do not react, I tell myself. Just ignore it. “My name is Mackenzie. Or Mac.” I silently curse myself. Great job! Now he knows it bothers me, so he’s never going to stop calling me that.
Flustered, I get the steaks from the fridge and take them outside.
Carter smiles at me. “Hey.” He pulls me closer for a kiss. “Is everything okay?”
I nod. “Yup. Just weird.”
He gives me a loving smile. “I know you guys are all going to get along great. I love having my three favorite people here with me.”
I snuggle up to him until he frees himself to put the meat on the grill.
“Hunt?” he calls inside. “Can you set the table out here, please?”
As the boys come out onto the porch with plates and cutlery, I go back to the kitchen to grab the sides I made earlier.
“You haven’t answered my question,” someone says behind me, and I flinch so hard I drop the bowl in my hands. My potato salad lands on the floor, and glass shards from the bowl fly through the air. One of them hits my shin, and I stare at the red drop trickling down my leg.
“Are you okay, sweetie?” Carter calls, rushing inside, alerted by the almighty crash I just made.
“Yeah.” I nod a little too fast. “Just dropped a bowl. Sorry.”
“No problem,” he says. He comes over, picks me up, and sets me down on the kitchen island before diligently picking up the shards and throwing the rest of the bowl in the trash.
As he begins to wipe the floor up, my manners kick in. “Hey, let me do that,” I say, starting to slide off the counter.
“Don’t worry, I’ll do it.” He smiles at me, and a knot in my heart dissolves. Carter. He loves me. I love him. That’s what I need to remember.
When he’s finished, he gets out a Band-Aid and carefully places it over the little cut on my leg. “There you go. All set. I hope Hunter didn’t burn the meat.”
“I heard that,” a voice calls from outside. “Like I’d make a mistake doing something as manly as grilling meat.”
Carter laughs and kisses me before we take the remaining sides outside. Once we’re all sitting at the table, Carter looks at both boys. “Weren’t you two talking about going to football camp this summer?”
“It doesn’t start for three weeks,” Carey reminds him. “And we’ll only be gone a week.”
“What positions do you play?” I ask, just to be part of the conversation. Truth be told, I already know Hunter plays wide receiver and Carey’s a second-string quarterback, which they proceed to politely tell me. In fact, as long as their dad’s around, they’re polite and reasonably friendly. They’re not going out of their way to make me comfortable, but it’s at least possible to talk to them. However, when Carter takes a call and disappears into the house, things change quickly.
“Answer my goddamn question,” Carey snarls.
Hunter just grins and leans back, crossing his arms in front of his chest again. In a few years, he’ll be a real giant. He’s already tall, and even though his muscles are pretty impressive for a teenager, I’m sure he’ll bulk up some more.
Realizing I’m on my own, I look back at Carey. “You can stop asking. Because it’s none of your business.”
He pulls a face. “So you are a gold digger then.”
I gather up all my courage. It’s difficult to remember I’m a confident woman with Hunter staring at me like I’m some insect he’s about to crush. He somehow manages to appear both cocky and laid-back at the same time—a skill most men do not attain in this lifetime. “I-I don’t want to argue with you,” I say, trying to keep my voice from wavering. “I want to get to know you both, and get along. I’m not here to cause trouble. I love your dad.”
“News flash, doll,” Carey says. “Just because you spread your legs for our dad doesn’t mean you can wrap us around your finger. Dad’s brought home a lot of women over the past three years. They all had one thing in common. You want to know what it is?”
I shake my head, but I didn’t really think that was going to stop him.
“They’re not here anymore.”
Like I said, I didn’t want to know. “Please don’t talk to me like that.”
“Like what?” Carey asks innocently.
“Condescendingly.”
“Hmm,” he says, like he’s mulling it over. “To be honest, I think I’m being pleasant.” He looks at Hunter like he’s waiting for instructions, but Hunter obviously doesn’t care to interfere.
And I don’t know how to react. What am I supposed to say? “I’ll tell your father”? That’s a sure-fire way of ruining whatever chance I might still have at building a relationship with them. Or should I tell them—again—that I don’t want them talking to me like that? Only to have them ridicule me again… Maybe I should get up and leave. But then they’ll think they can do whatever they want with me.
Fortunately, Carter returns then, but he’s wearing a frown. “That was your mom,” he tells the boys. “She wanted to know where you are.”
Their expressions change immediately. Carey suddenly looks guilty, while Hunter’s face hardens.
“She said she had no idea where you were,” Carter says, his voice stern. “She was worried.”
Carey looks at the floor, but Hunter snorts disbelievingly.
“Hunter,” Carter says, frustrated, running a hand through his hair. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
Hunter looks him directly in the eye. “We want to move back to San Diego.”
Carter looks stunned. “Excuse me?” he finally grinds out.
“You want me to say it again?” Hunter says.
Carter snorts. “Why?”
Hunter rolls his eyes. “You know Mom.”
“Yeah, what about her?”
Hunter runs a hand through his short hair. “She’s a mean drunk. And she brings home all kinds of men. It’s like living in a goddamn brothel.”
I swallow. I’d thought they couldn’t stand me because they loved their mom so much. But that’s apparently not it. They may have been treating me like dirt just a few seconds ago, but I can feel their pain now. No child should have to worry about whether a parent actually cares about them. I know that best of all.
Carter runs a hand over his face. “Hunter…”
“Come on, Dad! I know what you’re going to say. But we can’t stay there with Mom.”
Carter nods slowly. “Actually, you don’t know what I’m going to say.” He looks over at me quickly. “Mackenzie moved in with me a few weeks ago. So, this is her home now, too. If you two want to move back in, you have to get along with her, too.”
Carey gives his dad an exasperated look. “She moved in with you?”
“You have a problem with that?” Carter asks, and for the first time, he sounds slightly snappy.
“No,” his youngest mumbles.
“Hunter?”
“Anything’s better than staying in Miami,” he says.
Carter nods. “Mac?”
I give him a surprised look. “Yeah?”
“It’s your home, too. Are you okay with them moving in?” he asks.
“They’re your sons,” I say, even though I have to swallow before I finish my thought. “They’ll always be welcome here.” Deep inside, I thought it would be tough to spend ten weeks with them. But having them move in with us? It’s a whole different story. While Hunter’s about to start his last year of high school—and then he’ll be off to college or somewhere else—Carey would be with us for at least another three years.
Can I do this? It very well could be three years of hell lying ahead of me.
But, at this point, I’ll just have to wait and see.
Carter puts a hand on my shoulder and looks over at Hunter again. “If I let you move in here, I expect you to behave better than you did in Miami.”
Hunter and Carey both nod. “Promise,” they say in unison.
Carter snorts. Obviously, he doesn’t believe it. “Okay, we’ll still have to see. I’ll call your mom and let her know about your decision.”
“Awesome.” Hunter gets up. “Now, we’re out of here.”
“Be back at midnight,” Carter says.
“Dad, seriously?” Carey asks in the tone of a complete brat.
“You’re fifteen,” Carter responds.
“Hunter isn’t.”
“So Hunter can bring you back here at midnight and stay out another hour.”
“That’s totally unfair!” Carey whines.
Carter gives him a firm look. “What did you just say about good behavior?”
Carey gives him a sly smile. “You said better, not good.”
I struggle to keep a neutral face, because inside, I’m secretly applauding Carey. Carter though isn’t so impressed.
“Midnight,” he says.
“Can we take the car?” Hunter asks.
Carter nods. “Keys are on the table.”
They’re gone within a second.
“Rascals,” Carter says, sitting back down with me. He puts a hand on my leg. “Thank you, sweetie.”
“It’s your house, and they’re your sons. Of course they can move in with us.”
“It’s our house,” he corrects me gently.
I shrug. “Still.”
He runs a hand through his hair. “It’ll be different.”
“Sure.”
He looks at me. “What’s wrong?”
I’m kneading my fingers, and he zooms in on them. He knows I do this when I’m nervous, so there’s no point lying to him now. “They don’t like me,” I admit.
Carter nods slowly. “Give them some time. They’ve never seen me with another woman. Only with their mom. But it’ll be okay.” I realize then that he has no idea his sons actually know about every woman he’s ever dated.
“So, I guess they don’t have a great relationship with their mom?” I say, trying not to sound like I’m prodding.
Carter shakes his head. “Not anymore. They always did before. But then she cheated on me, and I left. She started drinking, and… I guess sometimes they still hold me responsible for it.”
I take his hand. “But it’s not your fault.”
He smiles wistfully. “I know. I couldn’t stay with her. But I’m sorry my boys got hurt.”
“You’re a great dad. They love and respect you.”
He nods. “They’ve always been my number-one priority.”
“Why did they stay with their mom?”
“It’s what they wanted. Lauren was not in a good place after the divorce, and Hunter always feels like he has to take care of people. Save them. He didn’t want to leave her alone, and Carey always does what Hunter does. I’m just glad he’s somewhat of a good role model.”
A faint smile flits across my lips. “So what trouble did they get into in Miami?”
Carter smiles. “Oh, man, they messed up a few times. Nothing serious, though. Hunter got in a few fights with his coach and had plenty of detention. And they were at a few parties that were broken up by the police. Carey was caught drunk once. I’d say it’s all pretty normal for their age. Judging by what my friends say, it could be much worse. Some kids are really out there. Hunter might be a bit of a hothead, but he’s sensible enough to make sure Carey’s always safe.”
“What if they don’t accept me?” I ask.
He strokes my hand. “It’ll be fine, sweetie. Don’t give up.”
I nod, even though I know I’m in for a rough ride.
I’m a contemporary romance writer, who likes her men tattooed, her women independent and her coffee strong.

My stories are all about love, but some are of the romantic kind, some of the sad kind and others of the very steamy kind. So if you can stand drama, foul language and sex, you came to the right place.

Love, Annie
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Under Her Skin by Aria Cole

 

 
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Sienna Taylor walked into Mad Ink looking for a temporary escape. Instead, she found River Madden, the gorgeously talented and impossibly moody owner of the shop. One look in her big, dark eyes makes him desperate to possess her, his need to mark her untouched skin a primal distraction.

One touch of his needle sends electricity rocketing between them, and by the time he’s finished leaving his brand on her, he’s doing the unthinkable and offering her a job—and possibly losing his sense of sanity.

Finding forever is the last thing on River’s mind, but one taste of her sweet innocence has him consumed with claiming her.
She’s too innocent, too sweet, too untouchable, and far too good for him. But she has a darkness that claws at her, a crack fracturing her heart that only makes him crave her more.

Warning: From the moment his tattoo gun touches her skin, River is utterly obsessed with his girl. If over-the-top, insta-love goodness with a moody, tattooed alpha is your cup of steam, look no further! River has a talent for pushing all the right buttons. 😉
 
ONE

River
“So, my hands are in her hair, and I’m fucking close, man. I don’t know what I did to the bitch to make her pull the teeth out, but no shit, I think I almost lost my dick last night.”
The sound of a feminine someone clearing her voice turned both of our heads. Jericho shot up, hand outstretched and that weird half smile he only did for chicks he wanted to bang curling his face.
The guy was a fucking whore, and if I had to live through another one of his one-night stands rehashed, I’d throw my fist through his teeth. I’d already thought about breaking a finger, but fucker needed them if he was going to permanently lay artwork on someone’s body, and the guy had talent.
I’d hired him when he got to page three of his portfolio—a portrait of a someone’s grandpa in a war uniform inked on the client’s bicep. The fucking most beautiful tattoo I’d ever seen in my life, and I knew I had to have Jericho in my shop.
Just a goddamn shame I had to put up with him every day.
“She’s a sweet one.” Jericho turned and winked. “And she’s looking for you. Told her I had more talented fingers, but she wasn’t buying it.”
I arched an eyebrow, irritation pulsing through my gut before I stood, plastering on a blank face for my new client.
I lived for tattooing and creating art. What I didn’t love was dealing with customers. Constantly. It was hard being an artist and not being able to control exactly how you would create on a canvas, since the canvas tended to belong to another human.
I’d learned to put on a reserved face over the years—I wasn’t one of those guys who chatted your goddamned ear off. I didn’t give two fucks about your life story or why this tattoo finally meant so much. In fact, half the struggle I’d had in the two years since I’d opened Aspen Ink was tuning out the dimwits so I could focus long enough to give them what they came for—a permanent piece of art on their skin.
Jericho and Dev busted my balls about my shitty chairside personality in the beginning, but it turns out customers don’t give a shit about manners when you leave them with something they can’t get anywhere else on their arm. I had plenty of repeat customers and was usually booked out months in advance. As a result, most of the clients I already knew, so the fact that I didn’t recognize the name on my schedule today had been a little odd, though not unheard of.
I pulled out a set of clean tools, giving a last glance over my sterile work area before heading to the front counter.
A small little thing, with golden blond hair cascading down to a tiny nipped-in waist, was waiting for me at the front desk. I frowned.
“Hi, I’m River Madden.” I came around the counter, touching her elbow.
She spun, that silky mass of waves brushing across my forearm and sending zaps of fire through my skin.
“I’m Sienna.” Indigo blue eyes nailed mine.
I shifted on my feet, throat already dry before I hooked a finger over my shoulder. “Follow me.”
Red lips pursed for a second, eyes narrowing before she nodded swiftly.
I gnashed down on my teeth, figuring I knew exactly what I was in for with this one. “Let me guess, cute little elephant tattoo on your ankle?”
I held a hand out, gesturing for her to sit in my tattoo chair.
“Not quite.” She plopped down, eyes connecting with mine again.
Fuck, what was it about those eyes? Like she couldn’t keep herself from looking at me, staring into my soul or some shit. Weird as fuck and I hated every minute of it.
“Quote under your tit? That what the girls are getting these days, right?”
“I’m not a girl.” She crossed her arms. She certainly wasn’t. She might be small, but that fire burning in those ocean irises told me she wouldn’t hesitate to give a man hell. Fuck, why did that kinda make me smile?
“Well, safe to assume this is your first tattoo?” My eyes landed on her short denim cutoffs then crawled up her body to the long sleeves that covered her arms. This girl was A-1 vanilla, no doubt about it. I was good at reading people, and this one was just too sweet to have seen anything resembling a hard life.
“You know what they say about people who assume, right?” Her grin crooked to the side. “You make an ass—” she rolled up one sleeve, revealing dark slashes of purple and black ink “—out of mostly…you.”
“Impressive.” I moved closer. “I pegged you for a virgin.” I felt a shiver race through her when I cupped her arm in my palm, inspecting the work. “Where’d you go for this?”
“A few towns over. Got it a few months ago.” She pulled up her other sleeve, inked vines wrapping up her forearms to her elbow. “And this was my first, the day I turned eighteen.”
“Fair to say I am an ass, then.” I was unable to help the small smile pulling at my lips. “So, what’s the plan for today?”
She pulled the hem of her shirt above her head, luscious flesh revealed to my greedy fucking eyes.
Christ, she was beautiful. Creamy, soft, unmarred flesh. My vision swam with thoughts of inking her body, watching her squirm under my hands, sinking balls deep into the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen…
“I want to cover this.” She pulled her shirt up past her ribs, a thick white slash, about two inches long, covering her side.
The rough pads of my fingers dragged across the raised flesh, and a soft sigh pushed past her lips before our eyes met again. “What you got in mind for it?”
“A heart,” she said simply. “Shattered.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this request, but something about the way she put those two words together sliced me open. I was wrong about her. This girl had darkness behind her pretty blue eyes.
“Got a picture?”
“Do you one better.” She slipped a folded scrap of paper from the back pocket of her shorts. “I want this.”
I unfolded the sheet, surprised to find a bloodied red heart inked faintly with the outlines of a skull. “This is pretty badass.”
“I thought so too.” She shrugged, smiling proudly before lying back on my chair. She stretched her arms above her head, the shirt riding up higher and revealing a hint of neon green bra against her creamy skin.
“Hate to ask, but I need to see an ID.”
She arched one sassy eyebrow before her lips curled up. “Does that mean you don’t think I look eighteen?”
The way she said it made my cock fucking pound behind my zipper. Whatever in the hell had brought this woman into my studio today, I owed a huge debt of gratitude. I’d been inking people in this very chair for over two years now and never gave any fucks about my canvas. Until her. Until now.
I frowned, confused by the way she sucked me in, before I grunted. “I’ll get this sketched for you. Need to see an ID when I get back.”
I shot out of the chair and stalked to the light station as far away from her as I could get.
I didn’t have time for a saucy little girl running through my shop, making my dick hard, and causing me to think all kinds of nasty thoughts. Like what it would be like to bend her over my table. Or fuck her in the piercing room.
Shit. Did she have any piercings?
I’d be a fucking dead man if she did.
Just the idea of little metal barbells piercing her nipples had a ripple of pain coursing through my balls.
I hunched over the drawing table, adjusting my cock, as I started the outline for her tattoo. I caught glimpses of her watching me work, her eyes crawling around my shop and over me as I took my time designing her tattoo.
She didn’t flip through her phone once, which surprised the fuck out of me because girls her age had it fucking glued to their palm.
That shit wasn’t good for your mind, and if I didn’t have to own a cell to stay in touch for the sake of my business, I wouldn’t own one. Worst goddamn invention on the planet, that little mini-computer sitting in everyone’s pocket.
“That looks incredible.” She breathed against my neck.
Fuck. She was too close for comfort.
“Wait, what if we add a few stitches across the crack? Just black slashes, like someone did a rushed job fixing it.”
I frowned as I thought, imagining the final piece in my head before coming around to the idea. “I think that would highlight the skeleton shaded into the background. Good call.” I added a few random stitches to the center of the heart, across the skull of the skeleton.
“I love it,” she whispered, her palms sliding down my forearms and squeezing tightly.
Her touch was like razor blades against my skin.
I wasn’t sure if I loved it or wanted to wrench my arm away.
It’d been so fucking long since I’d let anyone touch me like this. And now this girl was not only all up in my personal space, but in my head too.
“Great. Lie down on the table, and we’ll get you prepped.” I tried to keep my voice clipped and to the point, my only focus on being professional despite the raging hard dick tenting my pants.
I helped her up onto the table, avoiding the gorgeous view of her ass as she turned around. Her shorts were so fucking short I was sure I could catch a glimpse of her pussy if I looked hard enough. Why the fuck was she out in public wearing that shit? Didn’t she know what disgusting men like me thought of her?
“Got that ID?” I grinned down at her.
“Here you go, Daddy-o.” She flipped me her driver’s license, confirming she was of age. Nineteen. So, barely.
“Looks good.”
“Told you it would,” she sassed back. Goose bumps rippled across her skin when I applied the cool sanitizer to her rib cage. Then I placed the stencil I’d drawn into place, the crack in the heart matching the jagged edges of the scar slashed permanently into her flesh.
I had a mind to trace my tongue along the rough edges, listening to her shudder and come around me as I milked all the pleasure from her body.
I slipped my fingers along the edges of the transfer paper, making sure the ink outline deposited onto her skin. She shuddered when my fingertip drifted across her wrist.
Fuck, she was so sensitive.
I had visions of her spread out beneath me, my hands in her hair, my tongue licking up her silky skin. The thought of burying my head between her legs had blood rushing through my cock.
What the hell was that scent? And sweet fucking lord, did she taste that good too?
No. Better.
Probably better.
I shifted in my chair, and her eyes averted to me before the shadow of her eyelashes fell onto her cheeks. The air vacated my lungs, blood raging through my veins and making my heart pound a tattoo against my ribs. My cock throbbed, aching to push inside her, fuck her until she was breathless and begging.
Christ, what the hell was wrong with me?
Jericho had given me hell about living like a damn monk, but I’d never reacted to a woman this way. But this wasn’t just any woman; this was Sienna fucking Taylor, too young, too innocent, too good. Way too good.
“It’s bigger than I thought it would be.” She spoke up, and I nearly choked.
“Excuse me?”
Her eyes flickered up to me, a smirk turning up those succulent lips. “The tattoo, it’s big.”
“Ah, right.” I cleared my throat, peeling off the transfer paper and focusing on her eyes for the first time since she’d sat down. “I don’t think I could make it much smaller. You’d start to lose detail on the skeleton.”
“Oh, I like it. I just didn’t envision it that big, but I’m ready. I want it.” Her big, round eyes peered up at me, sweet, untouched. Heartbreakingly fucking beautiful.
I turned, opening the black ink and placing it at the table beside me. “Think you can handle the pain? This is gonna take me a while.”
Her eyes sparkled. “Bet I can handle more than you think.”
Jesus.
Who was this girl?
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Aria Cole is a thirty-something housewife who once felt bad for reading dirty books late at night, until she decided to write her own. Possessive alpha men and the sassy heroines who love them are common, along with a healthy dose of irresistible insta-love and happily ever afters so sweet your teeth may ache.
Aria’s new release BLACK is the first in her modern fairy tale series. For a safe, off-the-charts HOT, and always HEA story that doesn’t take a lifetime to read, get lost in an Aria Cole book!
Follow Aria on Amazon for new release updates, or stalk her on Facebook and Twitter to see which daring book boyfriend she’s writing next!
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An Unlikely Bride by Nadia Lee

 

 

 

Coming June 13th

 

AVA

The meek shall inherit the earth, they say.

Bullshit. Look at me now. What do I have? Nothing.

I thought I wouldn’t get past a second heartbreak. I was wrong. I never should’ve closed myself off in tears when Lucas told me he loved me. I should’ve had faith he wouldn’t betray me.

Regaining his love will mean throwing away my pride, my armor and laying myself completely bare. I have to trust that he won’t crush me at my most vulnerable.

The attempt will leave me bleeding. It might just kill me. But I definitely won’t survive knowing that I didn’t fight for what I wanted: my future.

A future with the only man I ever loved…a man more important than the very air I breathe…

 

LUCAS

You gotta put yourself out there to get what you want.

My ass.

I bared my heart to Ava. I begged for her trust, her love.

Instead she shattered my soul.

She’s circling me, her pretty eyes vulnerable. She won’t fool me this time. I’ll never give her another shot. I’ll break her before she breaks me…

Note: The last book in Lucas and Ava’s epic love story! No cliffhanger.

 

 

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Nadia Lee writes sexy, emotional contemporary romance. Born with a love for excellent food, travel and adventure, she has lived in four different countries, kissed stingrays, been bitten by a shark, ridden an elephant and petted tigers.

Currently, she shares a condo overlooking a small river and sakura trees in Japan with her husband and son. When she’s not writing, she can be found reading books by her favorite authors or planning another trip.

Stay in touch with her via her website, http://www.nadialee.net, or her blog www.nadialee.net/blog/

 

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Roommates With Benefits by Nicole Williams

 

 

Coming June 5th
Pre-order exclusively via iBooks HERE

 

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Soren Decker. He’s the epitome of the “bad boy, good man” persona. The best of both worlds. The worst of them too. He’s the type of guy most girls would not mind sharing a confined space with, except my new roommate isn’t all swagger and chiseled abs.

He’s bossy. Messy. Cocky. Infuriating. Doesn’t believe in personal space. Has no qualms about roaming the apartment with a loincloth-sized towel cinched around his waist. Seems under the delusion he’s my personal protector (refer back to infuriating). He plays college baseball and holds down a part-time job—I don’t know where he finds the time to get on my nerves.


We’re got nothing in common . . . except for one thing. Our attraction to one another. And in six hundred square feet of shared space, the tension only has so much room to grow before one of us gives in to temptation. But really, what chance do a couple of young kids chasing their dreams in the big city have of making it?

Since Soren claims I know squat about sports (he might have a semi-point), here’s a stat for him—one in a million. That’s our odds.



I felt like all of my dreams had, or were about to, come true.
​Waved farewell to Podunk hometown? Check.
​Arrived in posh metropolis with luggage in tow? Check.
​Signed to a top agency? Check.
​About to roll up to my swanky new pad? Check.
​The world wasn’t just at my fingertips—I felt like it was clutched in the palm of my hand. All the obstacles—everything I’d had to overcome to get here—and I’d done it. I’d paid the price. Now I was ready to reap the darn reward.
​“Oh, crap.” My heart soared into my throat when I glanced at the taximeter for the first time since leaving the airport. I’d been totally preoccupied with staring at the bright lights and sights of New York City. “Is that how much it will cost for the entire ride? Hopefully?” My eyes widened when the meter tacked on another fifty cents.
​The driver glanced at me through the rearview. He must have thought I was making a joke until he saw my face. “What? You serious, kid?” His meaty arm draped across the passenger seat. “That’s how much it costs to get to right here.” He speared his finger out the window, two bushy brows lifting. “There’s still another mile before we hit the address you gave me.”
​“Pull over. Please. Pull over.”
Digging inside my purse, I counted out what I owed the driver. Which left me with a whole two dollars and some cents to my name. Ever since I was a little girl declaring my plans to make it in the big city, everyone had been warning me that New York City was expensive. I guessed I hadn’t realized that translated to public transportation as well.
​Once the driver had pulled up to the curb, I handed him what I owed. He waited, blinking at me like I was missing something.
​“Oh, yeah.” I pulled out the last two dollars and handful of cents I had left for the tip. Even dropping the last penny to my name in his palm, it was a puny tip.
​Heaving a sigh, he crawled out his door to pull my suitcase from the trunk. The dark streets looked different now that I’d be walking them alone.
“Do you have a map or anything I might be able to have?” I asked as he rolled my suitcase around to me.
​The driver pointed his finger down the street we were on. “Keep going straight one mile. That will get you there.”
​I felt my palms clam up when I realized I was about to attempt to navigate on foot a city I’d never been to, with all of my personal belongings in tow, without a dollar to my name. The small-town girl I’d been wanted to cry and run to the first phone to call home. The big-city woman I was born to be had me clutching the handle of my luggage and lifting my chin. By the time, I took my first step toward my new life, the taxi was long gone.
​Even though it was almost eight at night, the streets were still bustling. Unlike Hastings, Nebraska, where a person could hear the whir of their neighbor’s washing machine by nine every night, New York looked like it was just getting warmed up. Cars whipping up and down the streets, horns blasting, people moving, bikes weaving in and out through it all; this was an entirely different life than the one I’d grown up knowing.
​I loved it.
​I felt like I passed more people on every block than had made up the whole population of Hastings, and the people here were dressed like they were off to a meeting with foreign dignitaries, instead of the 4-H meeting every Saturday morning at The Hastings Grange.
Fashion. God, I loved fashion. Designing it was my endgame, but first, I had to get my foot in the door however I could. Modeling would give me that opportunity.
​By the time I’d rolled myself and my luggage down what felt like a million city blocks, I figured I had another three or four to go. My feet were killing me, since I’d worn heels instead of the comfy flats my mom had suggested when dropping me off at the airport earlier. I’d argued that I didn’t want to arrive in NYC with faux leather loafers, but man, those discount store flats sounded pretty amazing right now.
​Sheer willpower got me through the last few blocks, and I arrived at what I guessed was my destination, afraid to look at my feet for fear of finding them swimming in pools of blood or swollen beyond recognition. Or on fire, based on the feeling coming from them.
​When I stopped in front of the address I’d written down, I had to triple-check that the numbers on my paper matched the ones on the outside of the building. They did, but this sure didn’t look like Big City Living at its Finest, as the classified had listed. It more looked like Big City Living at its Most Primitive.
​Then again, maybe it was one of those apartment buildings that looked like a dump on the outside but was a palace on the inside. You know, to keep the bourgeois away. That had to be it. There was probably a chandelier hanging in the elevator and the hallways were lined with gleaming white marble, but no one would guess that from the outside.
​Doing one final check to make sure I was at the right address, I lugged my suitcase up the stairs. Someone was leaving as I made it to the front door, but either they didn’t see me or didn’t care to hold the door open for the woman in three-inch heels wrestling a monster-sized bag into submission. The door practically slammed in my face, heavy enough it almost sent me sprawling backward. I managed to snag the handle to keep it open long enough to shove inside.
​Okay, so there were a lot of differences between Hastings and New York City.
​I still loved it. A lot.
​It would just take an adjustment period to get used to. Before I knew it, I’d be keeping up with the best of the city girls.
​Once I’d made it past the front door, I paused to catch my breath and take in the interior of the apartment building. So the halls weren’t exactly lined in marble. Or gleaming, whatever surface it was they were covered with. There was an elevator though, but as I took my first steps toward it, I noticed the sign taped to the doors. Out of Order.
​Why not?
​Shuffling toward the bottom of the staircase, I stared up them, thankful there were only six floors to the top. Kicking off my heels, I collected them in one hand and started heaving my suitcase up all six flights, one stair at a time.
The upside to arriving on the sixth floor in a panting, sweating mess? I’d just gotten my cardio in. For the whole week.
​My chest felt like it was about to explode as I rolled down the hall, checking the number on each door as I passed. There wasn’t any marble up here either. Or chandeliers. Or anything that held a semblance of shine, actually.
​There was a smell though—a mix of mildew and garbage and. . . some other scent I didn’t want to assign a name to. A couple of bulbs were burnt out on the ceiling, casting an eerie tone to the environment.
There were noises, too. Music, hammering, talking, screaming . . . other heavy breathing sounds. It was like the walls were made of plastic wrap and painted white’ish to give the illusion of privacy. I could hear every word of the heated conversation coming from the door behind me.
​Number sixty-nine. That was a number nine, right? I checked the piece of paper in my hand just to be sure. Yep. My eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. The door’s paint was chipping, the numbers cockeyed, and from the damage done to it where the locks were, it looked like there’d been multiple attempts to break into it. There was nothing welcoming about this door.
​This couldn’t be the right place. No way. I had to have written something down wrong, or misread the address outside, or something—anything—that would assure me this wasn’t the place where I was about to spend the next six months of my life.
​As I debated knocking on the door or fleeing from it, a door screeched open down the hall.
​“You finally made it.” A young guy emerged through the door, his focus on me. “Have you been waiting there long? When you were late, I decided to swing by Mrs. Lopez’s and give her a hand with a few things.” He was still talking to me as he slid his feet into a worn pair of Converse. His fly was down too, but that didn’t seem to be on his concern radar.
​It looked like he’d decided to give Mrs. Lopez more than just a hand.
​“Oh, god. You don’t speak English, do you?” He exhaled, making his way down the hall. “You’re one of those Eastern European chicks, right?”
​I stepped back as he moved closer.
In another situation, I wouldn’t have been trying to back away from the stranger approaching with a look that could make the most frigid of girls melt. He was easy to look at—a little too easy—walking that ever-so-fine line of cute meets hot. He was cute-hot. Hot-cute. Whatever. He was candy to the eyes, and had we run into each other at the Jolt Café back in Hastings, I wouldn’t have been creeping away from him as I was now.
“Do I know you?” I asked.
He finally realized his proximity was making me uncomfortable, and he stopped right outside of Number Sixty-Nine. “You do speak English. Good. Because I’m not sure I have the brain space to figure out how to say ‘The water bill’s due yesterday’ in Latvian.”
I guessed the look on my face echoed my prior question.
“Soren Decker.” He held out his hand then slid it into his jeans’ pocket when it caught nothing but airtime. “And you are . . . ?”
“Not at the right address. Clearly.”
He leaned into the dilapidated door. “What address are you looking for?”
I had to lift the piece of paper in my hand to remember. Once I read it off, he shrugged.
“You have arrived at your destination.”
That’s what I was afraid of. “I must have the wrong apartment number then.”
The way he was looking at me told me exactly what he was thinking—that I was mental. “What apartment are you looking for?”
Another review of the paper. Just to be sure. “Sixty-nine.”
When his brows bounced, I felt my cheeks heat. I balanced my temporary embarrassment by narrowing my eyes.
“Sixty-nine.” He rapped his knuckle below the crooked numbers on the door. “Home sweet home.”
That was when the obvious started to settle in. “You’re looking for a roommate? You posted the ad I responded to?” I swallowed. “You?”
He glanced down at himself like he was checking for a stain on his shirt. In the process, he noticed his fly was still open. “I really didn’t think this would be so confusing,” he said, pulling his zipper back into place. “Yes, this is the right address. Yes, this is lucky apartment number sixty-nine. And yes, I am the one looking for a roomie, who you replied to last week.”
My heart had lodged into the back of my throat from the feel of it. This was the person I’d be living with? This was who I’d be sharing the same space with for the next half year?
He looked part California surfer, part vintage Hollywood film star. Pretty much the type of guy anyone attracted to males and in possession of a functioning set of eyes would drip some degree of drool over. Light hair, blue eyes that projected trouble, matching his smirky smile, good—great—body; he was pretty much the result of creation’s best efforts.
Most girls probably would have been chanting jackpot in their heads, but I gaped at the perfection that was him, freaking out.
“You said you were looking for a girl,” I said.
“I am.” He motioned at me.
I motioned right back at him. “You’re a guy.”
“Wow. Okay. So much confusion.” He shifted from one foot to the other, tipping back the red ball cap on his head.
“Why would you prefer a girl roommate when you’re a guy?”
Again, the look that implied I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. If he kept it up, I was going to start throwing daggers at him. Provided I had any. Or even one. Which I didn’t, because airline regulations and all.
“For obvious reasons,” he said.
“For obvious reasons like what? A built-in bedmate?”
His expression flattened as he realized what I was getting at. “You think I’m looking for some kind of ‘roommates with benefits’ type of thing?” He rubbed his chin like he was considering it right that moment. “I hadn’t thought about that, but now that you mention it . . .” Whatever he saw when he glanced at me sparked an amused gleam in his eyes. “I’m not looking for that. I swear.”
“Then why insist on a female roommate?”
“Because the female species tends to be neater than the male, ape variety. Plus, you smell better, too.” His hand dropped to the doorknob. Before he opened the door, he tipped his chin at me. “And you’re nicer to look at.” When I didn’t move after he motioned inside the apartment, he leaned into the hall and crossed his arms. “Come on, give it to me. I can tell you’re dying to say whatever it is you’ve been biting your tongue over since I had the nerve to address you.”
The way he said it, I realized I was maybe leaning toward the bitchy end of the spectrum. “It’s just that I thought you were a girl. I didn’t realize the person I’d agreed to room with was a guy.”
“That’s not my fault.” As soon as my mouth opened to argue, he added, “You could have asked. But you didn’t. You assumed.”
My teeth chewed on the inside of my cheek, hating that he was right.
“If you’re uncomfortable moving in because I’m a guy, okay, no problem. I’m not going to force you to move in. Even though I took down the ‘roommate wanted’ ad when you placed dibs. Losing out on a whole week of finding someone.”
My fingers pinched the bridge of my nose as I struggled to form one rational thought. If this guy would shut it for one minute, I could think.
“You know, and what’s this whole thing about gender equality and erasing those lines that used to separate the sexes? You’re pretty much saying you’re okay with moving in with a total stranger, sight unseen, just so long as that stranger doesn’t come equipped with a scrotum.”
“What?” My hand dropped back at my side. “Gross. Just stop talking. Please. Give me a second to try to figure out what is happening right now . . .”
Squeezing his lips together, he tipped his head back against the wall, making a “carry on” motion in my direction.
Okay. Think.
Swanky new pad was more a nasty, biohazardous dump.
Hip New York roommate was more a crass, vile entity of dubious intentions. Who came equipped with a scrotum, as he’d so articulately put it.
I had an appointment in the morning with the agency, potential go-sees right after, and a whole zero dollars and zero cents to my name. A hotel was out. A really shady motel was out. I supposed I could sleep on a park bench, but instead of just one man, I’d have to be worried about the rest of the city sneaking up on me as I slept.
I didn’t have many options.
Actually, I wasn’t sure I had any at all.
Taking another good look at him, he didn’t seem so bad. He wasn’t tattooed from head to toe, didn’t have that predatory look parents taught their daughters to identify from twenty paces back, and he didn’t reek of alcohol or other substances of questionable repute.
He was no Boy Scout, that was for darn sure, but he didn’t have the look of an axe murderer either. Besides, I was a tough chick. If he tried anything, he wouldn’t walk away with that cute-hot face unscathed.
“I’m Hayden.” I rolled my shoulders back and crossed the distance. “Hayden Hayes.”
“Soren Decker. In case you missed it the first time.” He held out his hand as I approached. “By the way, I’m a dude. You know, to clear up any confusion you might have on the subject.”
“One of those creatures that comes with a scrotum?” My eyebrows lifted as I shook his hand.
He cracked a smile as he shoved off of the wall. He didn’t have a terrible smile. Not even a little bit.
“Wow. Dang.” He twisted his cap around so it was backward as he stood as tall as he could. “You are tall. Like, please don’t wear heels around me tall.”
I held up the pair of heels I was still clutching. “Just missed them.”
“Good. I can’t have a girl roommate who’s taller than me. It might emasculate me.”
“More than you already are?”
“A fellow smartass.” He made a face of approval as I moved inside the apartment. “We’re going to get along just fine.”
“So long as I don’t wear heels when you’re nearby?”
“See? You get me. Two and a half minutes into our relationship and you understand me. Why can’t the rest of the girls on the planet seem to get it?” He didn’t give me a chance to fire back my idea on that topic. “Seriously, though, how tall are you?”
“Five ten.” Once I rolled my suitcase inside, he closed the door behind us.
“Liar, liar. Designer jeans on fire.” He waved his finger at me as he moved into the apartment.
These were designer jeans. The one pair I owned and would be living in until I could afford a second pair. It had taken me three months of mucking out stalls to make enough to afford them.
“Fine. Five eleven.” When his brows disappeared into his ball cap, I sighed. “And a half.”
“My six one is suddenly not feeling so big and bad.”
The inside of the apartment was an improvement on the outside. Somewhat. Paint wasn’t chipping off the walls, and the funky odor wasn’t quite as strong in here. Although there was a different one—that sweat-and-dirty laundry man smell with the faintest hint of aftershave or cologne mixed in.
“So. Here it us. My humble abode.”
Emphasis on humble.
​There wasn’t much to see. A shoe-box-sized kitchen was right inside the door—at least there was a stove and a fridge—with a same sized bathroom across from it, and what must have been the main living space, which we were standing in now, was made up of a line of windows, a couch I would not sit on unless a sheet of plastic separated me from it, a couple of room dividers, and a rectangular metal table with four mismatched chairs.
​It was semi-clean and super small.
​“Where’s the rest?” I asked when he stopped beside me, nodding at the space like it was the definition of opulent.
​“What do you mean? This is it.” He indicated the room.
​My gaze circled the space again. A secret hallway. There had to be one of those hiding in here somewhere. “Where are the bedrooms?”
​He made a clucking sound with his tongue, leading me to one corner tucked behind a sad divider. “Here’s mine,” he said, letting me peek behind the divider.
My heart did that hiccupping thing again when I noticed a twin mattress lying on the floor, a whirl of blankets and pillows scattered on it. There was a big plastic bin too, which looked like it served as a dresser.
“And yours is over here.” Guiding me to the corner across from this one, he proudly waved at the empty space behind the second divider.
​There was nothing there. Unless you counted the dust bunnies.
​“You’re kidding, right?” I blinked, frowning when I found the exact same scene in front of me.
​“About what?” he asked, straight-faced.
​“This being a bedroom.” My arms flew toward the empty space. “This is a stall. Actually, I’ve mucked out stalls twice as big back home.”
​His brows pinched together. “Like a bathroom stall?”
​“No, like a stall inside a barn. A horse stall. A cow stall. Shoot, even the pigs get a better deal than this.” My voice was rising, as I realized he wasn’t messing with me. This was supposed to serve as my bedroom, and there were a few big things missing to make it my definition of a bedroom—for starters, a door.
​“Wait. So you’re one of those small-town girls?” He appraised me with new eyes, like everything was finally making sense.
​“Yes, I’m one of those small-town girls, but not small town enough to realize I’m getting the big city runaround.”
​“The runaround?” His arms crossed. “What do you mean the runaround? I didn’t say anything about there being a private bedroom straight out of the Four Seasons, girlie.”
​I tried to remember the “roommate wanted” ad I’d seen online last week. Specifically, the wording. “Yeah? And what about the penthouse views?” I crossed my arms just like he was. “This is the opposite of a penthouse, and the view sucks.” I glanced out the row of windows, where there was a view of the building across the street.
​Soren’s eyes lifted before he moved toward the windows. He waited for me before pointing his finger up. Way up. “Penthouses.” His finger was aimed at the tippy top of the buildings around us. “We have a view of penthouses.”
​My mouth opened. “That’s not how you meant it to be taken, nice try.”
​“How do you know how I meant for it to be taken? Penthouse views. That’s the truth.” He was still pointing out the window. “You make a lot of assumptions. Might want to work on that if you plan on surviving in the city.”
​Turning away from the window, I scanned the apartment. Had it shrunken in size when I’d turned my back? “You said it was a generous living space.”
​He indicated the same apartment I was looking at. “Are you kidding me? This is a generous living space.”
​“Compared to what? A cardboard box?”
​His mouth snapped open, but he closed it before whatever was about to come out, did. He rolled his head a few times, his neck cracking in a way that made me cringe. “Listen. You are obviously from a different world than I am. I grew up in Brooklyn. My definition of generous is clearly different than yours.”
​“I grew up in Hastings, Nebraska, raised by a single mom with a high school education after dear old dad bailed on her and his three daughters.” I paused, staring at him. “I was not raised in the lap of luxury, nor am I a spoiled brat, but this . . ..” My hand waved between his and my “bedrooms,” my stomach churning when I counted off maybe ten feet of separation between them. “This is not generous living space.”
​“Then fine. Don’t move in. It’s not like you’ve unpacked your things. You’re the one looking for an apartment, not me. Go find some other place to live in the heart of the city for less than eight hundred dollars a month. Good luck with that.”
When he started toward my suitcase, I intercepted him. I didn’t have anywhere else to go. No friends. No family. No money. My first rent check here wasn’t due for a couple of weeks. Accepting that should have made this place seem much more appealing, but instead I felt more like an inmate resigned to their cell.
​“It’s been a long day. There have been lots of surprises. I’m feeling overwhelmed.” I rolled my suitcase toward my barracks so he didn’t roll it out the front door.
​“You’re not in Nebraska anymore. You’re in New York City.” He indicated out the windows before storming toward the kitchen. “Buck up, buttercup.”
​I bit my tongue when I wanted to fire something right back. My life had not been easy, and I hated that he assumed it had been because I was shocked I’d be sharing a room with a strange boy. This wasn’t normal. This was five thousand percent not normal.
​“You want a sandwich?” he called from the kitchen as he started tossing things onto the counter.
​“A sandwich?” I repeated. Hadn’t we just been in a moderately heated conversation? And now he’d moved on to sandwich-making twelve seconds later?
​“You know, meat, cheese, condiments? Two slices of bread holding it all together?” He shot me a smirk as he twirled open the bag of bread.
​My stomach answered for me. “Actually, yeah. Thanks.” Leaving my suitcase behind the divider, I moved toward the kitchen.
​“What brought you to the biggest city in the country from Nebraska?” he asked, glancing at me.
​I stopped behind one of the plastic chairs around the table. It didn’t feel right to just make myself at home . . . even though this was my new home. “Modeling.”
​He made a sound like everything made sense now, then stalled with the knife in the mayo jar. “So when you say you want a sandwich, you mean two pieces of celery smashed together?”
​My eyes lifted. I’d been called a stick, a twig, a pole, a beanpole, accused of being anorexic, bulimic, a drug addict, you name it, because I was genetically predisposed to having a thin frame. Now that I was officially a model, it was only going to get worse, I guessed. “I hate celery.”
​Soren spread a thick layer of mustard on one piece of bread. “Too many carbs?”
​“You’re annoying.”
​“So I’ve been told.”
​Of course my roommate would be one of the few people on the planet who was capable of getting under my skin. Who better to share a six-hundred-square-foot space with than someone who couldn’t look at me without triggering mild irritation? The more he talked, the less cute-hot he became. Silver linings. I didn’t need to harbor some minor attraction to the guy I was sharing an apartment with.
​“Don’t you have any questions for me?” I asked after a minute.
​One shoulder rose as he layered on what looked like pastrami. “You don’t smoke?”
​“Nope.”
​“You don’t stay out late partying, getting your drink on, and come home smelling like the city barfed on you?”
​“Definitely not.” I wasn’t straitlaced, but I wasn’t a hot mess either.
He pulled a couple of plates from a cupboard, tossed the sandwiches onto them, and moved toward the table. “You aren’t prone to stealing other people’s property? Namely my Nutter Butters?”
It didn’t seem like a serious question. The look on his face told otherwise. “No,” I answered.
He held one plate toward me. “Then we’re good.”
When I took the plate, my stomach growled. The last thing I’d eaten was the pretzels on the plane.
“Thanks,” I said, feeling a stab of guilt for the way I’d acted since meeting him. He was the only person in New York who’d offered me a place to live, and he was giving me a free meal.
“You don’t look like you could afford to miss one more meal,” he said. I didn’t miss the way he inspected my arms as I took a seat. “So now that you’ve had the grand tour, do you have any questions for me? And by that, I mean actual questions, not accusations.”
When I shot him a look, he gave me a big smile right before stuffing his sandwich in his mouth. Let’s see. I knew his name, his gender, where he’d grown up, that he was a smartass, and that he was cute-hot when he wasn’t talking.
“What do you do?”
He lowered his sandwich. “I model,” he said, his expression flat. “Men’s underwear mainly. Sometimes women’s. If they pay me enough.”
I smiled at my sandwich as I lifted it. “I thought you looked familiar. I just didn’t recognize you without those big wings and the million-dollar diamond bra.”
He chuckled, tearing off another bite of his sandwich. “I play ball,” he said, still chewing.
“Like dodgeball?” I took a small bite of the sandwich he’d made me so it wouldn’t seem like I was starving.
He shot me a tight smile. “Like baseball.” He waved his sandwich toward his “bedroom,” where a big red duffel was, a mitt and bat hanging out of it. “I play at one of the junior colleges close by since none of the D1 schools wanted to take a risk with me.”
​“A risk?” I took another bite, this one bigger. I wasn’t usually a fan of pastrami or mustard, but dang, this was the best sandwich I’d ever had.
“Let’s just say I was a bit of a hothead in high school, and D1 schools would rather have the golden boy with some talent than the wild card with mad talent.”
“Hothead . . .?”
“I got into a few fights at some games.”
I circled my sandwich in the air. “Like pushing, name calling type fights?”
“Try fists flying, dust spinning type of fights.” He must have guessed where my mind was taking me. “Don’t worry. I never have or never would put my hands on a woman like that, and I’ve calmed my shit down a lot since then. Nothing like being forced to eat a slice of humble pie at junior college to get a player in line.”
Nibbling off a corner, I curled my legs up onto the chair. I’d been too busy freaking out over my new living arrangements to notice how chilly it was in here. I couldn’t see my breath or anything, but it felt only a few degrees away from that.
“What are you studying?” I asked.
He dropped the last piece of sandwich into his mouth before wiping his hands on his jeans. “I’m just banging general requirements out of the way right now. I don’t care about becoming an accountant or a project manager or whatever the hell else other guys go to college for. I want to play ball. I go to school because it’s a package deal.”
“So your plan is to transfer to a D1 school to play ball after you’re finished?” I asked, like I knew what I was talking about. Which I didn’t. Sports weren’t my thing. Watching or partaking in them.
“I want to get drafted by the best professional baseball team in the whole wide world. That’s my plan.” He shoved out of his chair, carrying his plate into the kitchen.
“You want to play professional baseball?”
“No. I’m going to play professional baseball. And the one good thing about playing at a junior college is that I can be drafted any time they want me. I don’t have to wait until I graduate like I would have if one of those D1 schools had recruited me.” He rinsed his plate in the sink before setting it on a drying rack. He hadn’t used soap, but I supposed it was better than licking it clean and sticking it back in the cupboard. “Want anything to drink? Another sandwich?”
I lifted what was left of my first sandwich. It was only halfway gone and I was already feeling full. It wasn’t because I was a small eater either—he made his sandwiches like he was entertaining a team of linebackers. “I’m good, thanks.”
He lifted a package of Nutter Butters, one hanging from his mouth, a half dozen clutched in his other hand.
“I just promised I wouldn’t steal your Nutter Butters.”
“But I’m offering you one. There’s a difference.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. Looks like you need them.” I eyed the stack in his hand as he stuffed the package back on the top shelf.
“I play ball two to four hours a day. I go to school four to six hours. Homework on top of that, and a part-time job in between. I have to take advantage when I have a minute to stuff my face.” He padded back to the table and set one cookie from the pile in his hand on my plate. “For dessert.”
I thanked him, even though I wasn’t a fan of Nutter Butters. I was more a chocolate person than a peanut butter one.
“You want a hand bringing up the rest of your stuff? I’ve got some time before I should hit the books. I have a biology test tomorrow morning.” His nose crinkled as he stuffed another cookie in his mouth.
For his apparent love affair with cookies, he sure didn’t have the body of a cookie enthusiast. Thanks to his light-colored tee, which hugged particularly nice parts of the male anatomy, he looked like the type who ate egg whites and kale in his sleep.
“Oh, I don’t have anything else. Just my big suitcase and me.” I set my sandwich down after taking one more bite.
“So you don’t have any more stuff to move in?” When I shrugged, he frowned. “No more stuff as in a futon or mattress or . . .?”
My head shook as I moved toward my suitcase. I needed to throw on a sweatshirt before I gave myself frostbite. “They don’t let you check mattresses or futons on the airplane. But I brought a pillow and a sleeping bag.” Setting down the suitcase, I unzipped it and pulled out those very items.
“Hardwood floors.” His foot tapped the floor.
“I’ve slept in barns, train depots, and the backseat of a ’77 Malibu.” Shaking the sleeping bag open, I shot him a smile. Whatever had happened or was about to, I was chasing my dreams. Life was pretty damn good. “Buck up, buttercup.”

 

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Nicole Williams is the New York Times and USATODAY bestselling author of contemporary and young adult romance, including the Crash and Lost & Found series. Her books have been published by HarperTeen and Simon & Schuster in both domestic and foreign markets, while she continues to self-publish additional titles. She is working on a new YA series with Crown Books (a division of Random House) as well. She loves romance, from the sweet to the steamy, and writes stories about characters in search of their happily even after. She grew up surrounded by books and plans on writing until the day she dies, even if it’s just for her own personal enjoyment. She still buys paperbacks because she’s all nostalgic like that, but her kindle never goes neglected for too long. When not writing, she spends her time with her husband and daughter, and whatever time’s left over she’s forced to fit too many hobbies into too little time.
Nicole is represented by Jane Dystel, of Dystel and Goderich Literary Agency.

 

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In the Heir by Ruth Cardello

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In the Heir

Book Description

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Ruth Cardello returns with an irresistible series about sexy billionaires and the strong-willed women who tame them.

Brett Westerly is his father’s golden child, but it’s come at a cost. As head of the family corporation, he throws himself into his work—hiding in his office is easier than confronting the reality of his broken family.

After a bitter divorce that split the family and divided loyalties, the wealthy Westerly matriarch offers an early inheritance to any grandchild who marries and invites the entire family to the wedding. Brett’s brother Spencer rashly gets engaged, and Brett knows it’s his duty to intervene. But he never imagined the unwelcome desire Spencer’s fiery fiancée would spark in him. Now the man who’s used to getting everything he could want has met the one woman he can’t have.

Ever since she was a girl, Alisha Coventry considered Spencer and his sister Rachelle the family she didn’t have. When Spencer asks for her help, Alisha has no problem becoming his fake fiancée—until she meets Spencer’s sexy older brother Brett. The chemistry between them is undeniable—forbidden—but as their relationship deepens, Brett is determined to have her.

Alisha only wanted to help the family make amends. Now she’s falling for the wrong Westerly.

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Other published books by Ruth Cardello

The Legacy Collection

Also available in audio

Where my billionaires began.

Book 1: Maid for the Billionaire (Free Download)

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Nook | iBooks | Kobo| Google

Book 2: For Love or Legacy

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Book 3: Bedding The Billionaire

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Book 4: Saving the Sheikh

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CA | Amazon AU

Book 5: Rise of the Billionaire

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Book 6: Breaching the Billionaire: Alethea’s Redemption

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Book 7: A Corisi Christmas Novella

Amazon US | Amazon UK

The Andrades

Also available in audio

A spin off series of the Legacy Collection with cameos from characters you love from that series.

Book 1: Come Away With Me

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Book 2: Home to Me

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Book 3: Maximum Risk

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Book 4: Somewhere Along the Way

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Book 5: Loving Gigi

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Recipe For Love: A Hot Andrade Christmas Novella

Amazon US | Amazon UK

The Barrington Billionaires

A new, seven book series about the Andrade’s Boston cousins.*

Book 1: Always Mine (Free Download)

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Kobo | Google Play

Book 2: Stolen Kisses

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Book 3: Trade it All

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Book 4: Let It Burn

iBooks | Amazon

A Billionaire for Lexi

Amazon | AmazonUK

Other Books

Taken by a Trillionaire

J.S. Scott, Melody Anne, and Ruth Cardello

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Kobo | Google Play

The Temptation Series

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Kobo | Google Play

Gabe ( 7 brides For 7 Brothers)

iBooks I Nook I Google I AmazonUS | AmazonUK | Kobo I Paperback

About Author

ruth-cardello

Ruth Cardello is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of contemporary romance.

She was born the youngest of 11 children in a small city in northern Rhode Island. She spent her young adult years moving as far away as she could from her large extended family. She lived in Boston, Paris, Orlando, New York–then came full circle and moved back to Rhode Island. She now happily lives one town over from the one she was born in. For her, family trumped the warmer weather and international scene.
She was an educator for 20 years, the last 11 as a kindergarten teacher. When her school district began cutting jobs, Ruth turned a serious eye toward her second love- writing and has never been happier. When she’s not writing, you can find her chasing her children around her small farm, riding her horses, or connecting with her readers online.

Connect with Ruth

Website: www.RuthCardello.com

FaceBook: www.facebook.com/RuthCardello

Twitter: @RuthieCardello

Email Notice of New Releases: ruthcardello.com/contact/

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