Carnival by Jane Harvey Berrick

 

 

 

 

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Empty inside, cold in his heart, Zef turned to whisky and drugs to fill the void.

Instead, he ended up with a prison sentence and a new determination to get clean and make something of his life.

Since his release, Zef has been on the road, finding his spiritual home with a traveling carnival and working as a motorcycle stunt rider.

Live fast, live hard, keep moving.

He doesn’t want to be tied down to anyone or anything. Fiercely loyal, the only people he cares about are his brother and his carnie family.

Until a crazy girl who’s run away to join the circus crashes into his world.
But now his old life is catching up with him, and Zef has to choose a new road.

A standalone story, and the last one in the TRAVELING SERIES.

 

Heredity

I watched the flames leap and dance, sending a shower of sparks into the sky as one of the logs caught light.

Even though the daytime temperatures had soared into the nineties, it was considerably cooler now and everyone gathered around the circle of fire. It was a carnie tradition that went way back, signaling the end of another day.

Tonight was special because it was the penultimate night at this pitch, and our last chance to take it easy for a few days. The final night was always crazy busy because it was a jump day—which meant that all the roustabouts were taking down the carnival rides and packing everything back into the rigs, then driving through the night to get to the next town by morning, to set up for the following afternoon, when the whole cycle started over again.

In fact, the 24-Hour Man had already left. He was the guy who went ahead, signposting the way for the rest of us to follow. It may not sound important, but you don’t want fifteen eight-wheelers getting stuck or ending up driving down a one lane road to the wrong field.

So tonight was our night—our time to kick back, relax, and visit with other carnies.

“Bro, you look like someone just kicked your dog. What’s up with you? You’ve been a pain in my ass all week.”

Tucker left the others by the fire and squatted down beside me, ignoring the fuck-off vibes I’d been giving everyone else.

“What’s eating you, man? Tell Uncle Tucker all about it.”

Tucker was a year younger than me, but sometimes he acted like a teenager and spoke like a California surfer, if you ignored his Tennessee accent. We were all like that in the carnival—mongrels who didn’t call any place home, but everywhere was our kingdom and the road was our right.

He sighed when I didn’t reply and threw an arm around my shoulder.

“I know about Mirelle. Tough break, brother.”

I shot him an angry glance and he pulled a face.

“Mirelle called Aimee, Aimee told Kes, and well … you know how it goes.”

Yeah. I knew. Kes and Tucker were my family, my blood brothers—cut one, we all bleed. We didn’t keep secrets. And since Mirelle was Aimee’s best friend, I’d expected the news to circulate faster than it had. Perhaps she’d thought I’d tell them myself.

I should have, but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want their pity.

“She wasn’t right for you,” Tucker said softly. “I like Mirelle, but she wasn’t going to make it as a carnie. She has roots and that big ole Puerto Rican family back on the East Coast.”

I knew he was right, but the sharp cut of disillusionment was hard to take. Aimee had lived out East and she’d followed Kes to the carnival; Tucker’s woman flew out to see him every couple of weeks. Why couldn’t that work for me?

I shrugged off his arm and stood up. I was ready to walk away when a thought stopped me in my tracks.

“Did she tell Aimee who the father is?”

“Yeah.” He stared down at the dirt, idly pushing his fingers through the tough, brown grass. “Some dude who teaches at the same school.”

Figured.

Suddenly Kes rose to his feet. Everyone stopped talking and we all turned to face him.

He stood with the fire at his back, the flames dancing behind as he faced us. His people, his family.

“I’ve got some news I want to share with you,” he said. “Perhaps I’d better say that we’ve got some news to share with you.”

He smiled at Aimee as she walked to his side, her eyes glowing with love as she looked at him, and he slid his arm around her waist.

“We’re going to be parents. By January, there’ll be a new little carnie joining the family.”
Yells and cheers rose from the carnies around the fire, then Tucker called out,

“Oh my God! Does that mean you’ve been having sex?”

“No, it’s an immaculate conception, dufus,” I muttered, slapping him around the back of the head.

Aimee shot Tucker a look that said he’d be paying for his dumb joke later.

Everyone crowded around offering congratulations.

“A new little stunt rider for the family business?” asked one of the carnies.

Kes shrugged, his whole body lit with happiness as men slapped him on the back or shook hands, and women kissed him on the cheek. Aimee was surrounded with her own admirers, smiling and laughing, glowing with joy as she turned to look at Kes to hear his answer.

“Our kid can be whatever he wants.”

“So, it’s a boy?”

“Maybe. We don’t know yet.”

When the crowd around them thinned, I walked over to give Aimee a kiss on the cheek. Then I turned to Kes.

“Congratulations, man. That’s great news.”

“Thanks, Zef. I appreciate it. And I wanted to ask you—Aimee wants the baby to be Christened, something old school, you know? So I was wondering if you’d be Godfather.”

That was the last thing I’d been expecting. I wasn’t the kind of guy that a kid could look up to.

Kes read the doubt on my face and laughed.

“I’m going to ask Tucker, too. So the kid will need at least one Godfather who’s not completely crazy.”

I grinned at him.

“Well, when you put it that way … I’m the lesser of two evils?”

“Something like that.” His voice sobered. “So, will you do it? If anything happened to me and Aimee…” he swallowed, a flicker of fear on his face, “if anything happened, I’d want to know that I could count on you.”

“Fuck, man, nothing’s gonna happen to you!”

“Yeah, but it could. We both know … we know it could and … I need to you to say it, man. I need to know that you’d be there. If I hadn’t had Dono to take care of me and Con, I’d have been in a fucking foster home. ”

I rubbed my hand across of my face.

“Of course. Of course I’d do it—anything.”

I stuck out my hand and he shook it before pulling me into a swift hug.

“Thanks, Zef.”

I nodded, then asked the question that had been burning me since he’d made his announcement.

“Are you scared … about being a father?

Kes cocked his head to one side, thinking about it.”

“Nah, I couldn’t fuck it up as bad as Mom the alcoholic or dear ole dad who barely knew I existed, or cared. Anyway, I’ve got Aimee to keep me straight.”

He grinned and turned to accept more congratulations from other carnies.

I walked away, surprised by the emotions I was feeling.

Kes, a father!

That was some pretty serious shit. Coming on top of Mirelle’s news, I was feeling off kilter. I tried not to picture her with a guy who wore a collared shirt to work, some nice, safe townie who’d give her security. But she deserved that. She deserved more than a tatted up wiseass who jumped motorcycles for a living—a man with a criminal record who’d served time in prison.

Someone walked over my grave and a shiver ran down my spine. I’d cleaned up my act since then and I wasn’t ever going back.

And I meant what I’d said to Kes: if anything happened to him and Aimee, I’d take care of their kid. Fuck knows what kind of parent I’d be, but he’d asked me and I’d sure as hell try.

The breeze had picked up since sunset and I could see the tops of the distant trees swaying blackly against the rising moon.

The Ferris wheel was still and silent, a towering monument to man’s desire for mindless pleasure. It didn’t go anywhere, it didn’t do anything—except give the illusion of movement. And wasn’t that what the carnival was all about? Cheap thrills for a few bucks before moving on to the next small town. And yet, even with the existence of Netflix, tablets and smartphones, people still came, searching for a little of that stardust, that elusive magic, the freewheeling world of the carnies. Maybe that was what made it so unreal: we’d arrive in the half-light of dawn, and by the evening a world of bright neon and music erupted from an empty field. A few days of eating cotton candy and corn dogs, a few moments of adrenaline as you were whirled around the Tilt-A-Whirl or rode the bumper cars, and then we’d vanish in the night, leaving patches of flattened grass and an empty field.

I pushed my hands into my jean pockets and stared up at the moon as if it had called my name.

How many years did I have before my body broke down, before my knees or ankles or spine couldn’t take it anymore, when throwing myself through the air on 200 pounds of metal no longer seemed like a good idea? Then what? What would my life be then?

“The Cheyenne tell a story that the moon was held by a warring tribe, so a pair of antelope tried to rescue the moon and take it to a good village. But Coyote, the trickster, decides to make trouble and the antelope chase him. Coyote tosses the moon into a river each night, just out of reach of the antelope.”

I didn’t turn around as Ollo spoke.

“Is that supposed to mean something to me, old man?”

I heard his soft chuckle behind me, a wheezing hiccupping laugh.

“Nope, it’s just a story about the moon.”

“Great, thanks for that. Very educational.”

He sat down behind me, ignoring the obvious message that I didn’t want company.
I felt a soft tug on my pants leg as Bo started to climb me like a jungle gym, nestling into me and throwing his thin arms around my neck, chattering in my ear.

“Damn monkey doesn’t know when he’s not wanted,” I grumbled, supporting Bo’s tiny furry body as he snuggled into my chest.

Ollo laughed again.

“I’d say he knows exactly when he’s wanted. Capuchins are smart critters—smarter than most damn humans.”

I sighed, knowing I wasn’t getting any alone time tonight.

I sat down on the bone-dry dirt next to Ollo, smiling as Bo took his chance to go scampering off into the darkness. For a moment, I listened to him rustling in the tall grasses at the side of the swing-boats and I leaned against the canvas backdrop of the Ghost Train.

When I was a kid back in Georgia, I used to try and sneak in under the canvas without paying when the carnival came to town. Sometimes I made it, and sometimes I got dragged out by a hard-faced carnie and sent packing with a smack to the back of the head.

It didn’t matter how many times that happened, I always snuck back. I was fascinated by the mechanics, all of those big machines whipping you into the air or speeding around in circles. I hadn’t heard of hydraulics or knew anything about the physics of gravity, but I loved the dirt and grease behind the scenes, and the rides that made people laugh and scream.

Now, I could take a ghost ride anytime I wanted, but I never did.

I sighed, wondering if the carnival would ever feel magical to me again.

“Good news about Kes and Aimee—new life. A child will keep the carnival alive.”

I nodded, but I wasn’t sure that Ollo was right. It was a hard life, the traveling carnival, and many of the smaller outfits had shut down or gone out of business. I knew as well as anyone that there were no guarantees in life, but I hoped Ollo was right.

“Yeah, I’m happy for them.”

I watched a shooting star shimmer across the sky, wondering what the world had in store for me, wondering if fate was planning some new torture.

“She wasn’t right for you, Zef.”

Ollo’s voice broke and squeaked like a twelve year-old boy, although his body was no taller than the average seven year-old.

Ollo was a dwarf and had lived his whole life in a traveling carnival. He’d done every job from clowning to tumbling, fire-eating and fire-breathing to knife-thrower and rodeo rider, fairground barker to roustabout, and everything in between. He was old now; no one knew how old, probably not even Ollo, but he’d been with Kes’s family since the second world war, so he must be at least eighty.

He probably weighed no more than ninety pounds. I could have picked him up and tossed him over my shoulder without a problem, but I had too much respect for him to do something like that.

So I sat back and listened to what he had to tell me.

“You’re the second person tonight to say that Mirelle wasn’t right for me,” I said, my voice wry.

Ollo spit a stream of tobacco juice onto the hard-packed soil, aiming at one of the iron tent pegs.

“Are you surprised? Her family has uprooted once—she wasn’t going to do it again. Not for you.”

“Feel free to sugarcoat it!”

“Aw, is the big, tough stunt rider feelin’ sorry for hisself?”

I shook my head.

“Nah. Just pissed that she was seeing someone else and didn’t tell me.”

There was a long silence and in the distance I could hear the sound of Luke’s guitar playing.

“I had a woman once,” Ollo said softly. “Long time ago.”

His voice was quiet and it sounded like a confession.

“She wasn’t like me,” he said. “She was a townie, a petite lil’ thing. Delicate all over, tiny waist. Taller than me, of course. We were in Boise for the summer and it was the swinging sixties. She had long straight hair, golden brown, the color of corn. I was a rodeo clown in those days, and she’d come to see the ponies. We got talking and became friends. I’d wait for her to come for me at night. We’d hold hands and sit watching the stars from the top of the Ferris wheel. We fell in love.”

“Sounds … nice?”

“Yeah, it was. She was going to come with me at the end of the summer,” he chuckled quietly. “Run away and join the circus.”

“But she changed her mind?”

Ollo shook his head.

“I don’t know. One night, she didn’t come. I waited every night, knowing that soon we’d be moving on. I went to look for her. In the town.”

I stared up at Ollo’s stars, knowing that this story didn’t have a happy ending. I imagined how brave he’d have to be, leaving the carnies—his people—to go look for this girl among strangers, among townies.

“I didn’t find her, but her father found me. Gave me what they used to call a damn good beat-down, and told me he wouldn’t let a deformed freak like me near his daughter. I don’t know if she’d been sent away or whether she was locked in her room, listening to her father whip me with his belt as I kicked and screamed and tried everything to fight him off. I always wondered about that.”

“Jesus, Ollo!”

My voice was quiet, shocked, and he was silent for a moment.

“You never saw her again?”

“Ah, but I did. Ten years later, we were in Boise again doing the northern circuit. By then, the music was louder and angrier. We were all trying to forget about Vietnam, and everything seemed a little wilder. Borders were breaking down, and even the townie boys were starting to wear their hair long. That’s when I saw her. She was with a rube and they had two kids—a boy and a girl, maybe seven or eight years old. They had her eyes, I remember that. She saw me watching her and she stared back. She smiled at me, then she turned and walked away.”

His voice disappeared, lost in memories.

“That was the last time I saw her. I never tried anything with a townie again.”

“What was her name?”

“Jeanie. Jeanie with the light brown hair.”

I heard the soft patter of Bo’s footsteps, and he appeared out of the darkness, his tiny body curling into Ollo’s arms as he chirruped quietly.

I watched Ollo stroke the soft gray-and-white fur.

“Am I supposed to take some deep meaning from that story?” I asked, hoping to lighten the mood.

Ollo coughed out a laugh.

“Nope, just a story about a boy and a girl under the stars.”

And then, as silently as he’d arrived, he stood up and walked away, Bo still cradled in his arms.

I leaned back against the canvas, thinking about everything he’d said. If I was honest with myself, I’d known from the start that me and Mirelle wouldn’t last, but it still stung that she’d obviously been with this other guy for a while. And that she’d picked someone who was the complete opposite of me.

I didn’t have any trouble hooking up with women who wanted a one-night stand with a biker carnie, but even I had to admit that had gotten old. And now Kes was married and about to become a father, and Tucker lived half the year with his woman in LA. Everything was changing.

I’d had a family once—Mom, Dad, and a little brother. I still had my brother, but he was a man full grown now, successful and living his own life. He didn’t need me anymore, and he definitely didn’t need the shit I’d brought to his door. It was better that I kept moving, kept those wheels rolling.

The other Daredevils were my brothers too, but now they all had partners and I was on the outside again.
Sometimes it felt so damn lonely.

 

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Writing is my passion and my obsession. I write every day and I love it. My head is full of stories and characters. I’ll never keep up with all my ideas!

I live in a small village by the ocean and walk my little dog, Pip, every day. It’s on those beachside walks that I have all my best ideas.

Writing has become a way of life – and one that I love to share.

 

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Musings of a Gossip Queen by Victoria Bright

Today we have the chapter reveal for MUSINGS OF A GOSSIP QUEEN by Victoria Bright! Check it out and be sure to pre-order your copy today!
Title: Musings of a Gossip Queen
Author: Victoria Bright
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Release Date: January 4th
About Musings of a Gossip Queen:

Thoughts of the day:

1. Silas is a sex bomb

2. Madison is determined to ruin my life

3. Nothing online is EVER private, no matter how insane your “strong” password is.

#FML

Gossip queen Blake Spencer thought she received the opportunity of a lifetime when she was offered a writing position as a gossip columnist at Hot Topic magazine. By day, she’s a model columnist that quickly earns the respect of her team and boss but by night, she writes all the secrets of those around her in a password-protected blog.

When the office mean girl has Blake’s not-so-private blog hacked and uploaded to the magazine’s home page, the secrets are out and Blake’s “awesome life” starts to crumble around her. With her friendships, budding relationship, and job on the line, Blake will have to decide whether being a gossip queen is worth losing everything she’s worked to rebuild.

Exclusive Chapter Reveal:

Monday, January 12th

4:37 a.m.

In bed

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

I huff and take a pillow and hold it over my head. My neighbor, Taylor’s, headboard bangs against my wall, so hard that I’m sure she and her slutty fuck buddy, Brendan, will end up in my bedroom after a while. Who the hell wakes up at four in the morning and thinks, “Hey, how about we bang and see if we can put a hole in the wall this time?” It wouldn’t even be such a bad thing if Taylor’s moan didn’t sound like someone was shoving their dick in a dog’s squeaky toy. It’s a miracle that Brendan can stay hard long enough when his girlfriend sounds like something straight out of Animal Planet. My Shih Tzu, Milo, jumps up on my bed and begins yapping at the wall. Fucking great.

“Down, Milo,” I mumble, blindly reaching out to pet him. He whimpers for a few moments before yapping some more. “Shh…shh, it’s okay, boy. Hush, boy.”

The poor dog probably thinks his favorite toy was stolen. He jumps off the bed and runs out of the room. I press the pillow harder over my head, hoping to muffle the sounds coming from next door. Milo returns back to the bedroom, the bell on his collar jingling as he pads across the floor and jumps on the bed. Just as I close my eyes again, Milo barks and starts chewing on his squeaky toy.

How is this my life right now?!

5:01 a.m.

Still in bed

Annoyed AF now

They’re STILL going at it. What the actual FUCK?!

Of course Milo is keeping up with his squeak toy.

5:33 a.m.

Still in bed

Fed up

There’s less than thirty minutes left until I have to get ready to be at the office, but here I am wasting it listening to these humping hyenas through my paper-thin walls. I hate this piece of shit apartment and my dickhead neighbors. Bastards.

5:41 a.m.

Obviously still in bed

Ready to slap a bitch

I sit up in bed and pound the wall with my fist. The noise stops momentarily as Taylor laughs. Yeah, he-he hell, I think, settling back under my blankets and closing my eyes. As soon as I get comfortable, the pound fest starts once again. “SERIOUSLY?” I shriek, sitting back up. I get on my knees and face the wall, pounding on it with both fists. “PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO SLEEP, YOU CUNTS! SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“Fuck you!” Brendan yells, pounding the wall with his fist. Taylor laughs again, which does nothing but piss me off.

“Fuck YOU and your nonexistent dick, Brendan! How about I call the cops?” I counter.

There’s a loud squeak as if someone’s hopping off the bed. “Who the fuck is Brendan, Taylor?” he questions.

Whoops. Wrong guy.

I giggle to myself. It isn’t my job to keep up with who she’s taking to bed. Though she’s a sweet girl, her apartment door is a revolving one. It wouldn’t surprise me if it were to be later revealed that her apartment is in fact some incognito brothel or something else sinister or prostitution-like.

I settle back into bed and close my eyes, a slight grin settling on my face as their moans of passion turn into bickering. Hey, anything to stop the pounding on my wall and the mewling projecting from her strained vocal cords.

It’s as if city people transformed at night. During the day, Taylor’s great. Her bubbly personality, fiery red hair, and freckles drew me in when I first moved into the building. It’s tough enough trying to adjust to moving to NYC after leaving everything and everyone I know behind in North Carolina to obtain my dream job at Hot Topic magazine, but she welcomed me with open arms and even showed me around. But as soon as her “boyfriend” (and I use this term loosely, because in the two weeks I’ve been here, she’s already introducing a new one) comes over and waves a penis in her face, she morphs into Wolverine or something, howling at the moon during sex.

Milo continues chewing on his toy, feeling as if he’d won the squeak war by out-squeaking the Squeak Queen. After I’ve had enough of his noise, I lift the pillow from over my head, feel around the bed for the toy, and throw it out the door.

5:54 a.m.

In bed

Ha, Wolverine.

If she sounds like that, I wonder what her “O” face looks like. On second thought, I probably don’t. I don’t think I’d ever be able to look at her the same.

6:00 a.m.

Alarm

DAMN IT TO HELL! I LITERALLY JUST DRIFTED OFF TO SLEEP! FUCK MY ENTIRE LIFE, AFTER LIFE, AND REINCARNATION (well, if it exists) WITH A CACTUS!

To make sure I’d get up in the morning, I purposely had my alarm clock on the other side of my bedroom. Yeah, nice going, Blake. I stare up at the ceiling as the radio blasted at high volume, contemplating whether or not I really need this job. I mean it’s only my first day; no one would care if I didn’t show up, right?

“PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO SLEEP! TURN THAT RACKET OFF!” the guy in Taylor’s apartment yells, pounding on the wall. A smirk pulled at my lips. Looks like that makes us even, Not-Brendan. I ponder whether or not I can survive off of soup kitchen meals and huddling around a New York City fire with a cool group of hobos in an alley. My mind reels at all the possibilities of how I can decorate my soon-to-be new cardboard box home. Thanks to sites like Pinterest, I’ll have the coolest cardboard box on the block.

Who the hell am I kidding? I can’t survive a day being homeless. I couldn’t even survive a night of camping in Girl Scouts when I was younger. Looks like I need this job after all. Milo confirms my thought when he jumps onto my pillow and licks my face.

“Okay, okay, I’m up,” I mumble, picking him up and moving him aside as I sit up. If I had a decent night’s rest, I would be excited about my first day at Hot Topic tabloid magazine. It isn’t every day when you land your dream job. To be able to gossip and get paid for it? Perfect! All those years of gossip blogging has finally paid off! But how in the hell am I going to be able to scoop up any dirt on anyone when the only thing I want to do is bury my head in it and sleep?

My senses immediately jump into high gear the moment my bare feet touch the icy, wooden floor. Milo pounces off the bed and run in circles in front of me, his bell jingling as he moves about. I feel around the cold floor for my slippers and put them on before pulling myself off the bed, feeling my way across the room to the alarm clock. I can hear Milo moving around but can no longer see him in the dark.

“Milo? Where are—FUCK! GOD DAMN IT!”

I hop around on one foot as I cradle my throbbing toe. Stupid bedpost!

Milo whimpers nearby, the jingling disappearing down the hallway as he leaves the bedroom. I stumble around my room, using my hands as a guide as I cautiously cross over to the alarm clock and slap the snooze button on top of it. What a way to start a morning.

6:05 a.m.

Living room

“Okay, okay, I’m coming,” I say to a yipping Milo, bouncing around on one foot while trying to shove my other foot into my Ugg boot. He runs around in circles in front of the door and continues to bark and growl.

“You gotta go potty, boy?” I coo, slipping on my coat and grabbing his leash. “Who’s a good boy? Milo’s a good boy! Yes, you —OW!”

I jerk back when he snaps at my hand and growls. Glaring at him, I snap the leash on his collar and open the door. Of all the dogs I could’ve adopted, the one I happen to choose turns into a dickhead when he has a full bladder. Such an ungrateful pup.

6:09 a.m.

Outside

Milo prances down the stairs as we make our way out of the apartment building. When we reach the second floor, I pause momentarily when the door to apartment 2C opens and a man that isn’t Mrs. Keller’s husband walks out. He’s fairly young looking, appearing as if he belongs in an Abercrombie or Ralph Lauren ad. He definitely doesn’t look like anyone who would creep around with a married woman who looks a bit like a surprised goldfish with too much botox and a botched nose job. Ew to the no.

I start to move along. Eh, it’s probably nothing. Or at least I thought so until the guy turns back around and nearly shoves his tongue down her throat. She leans against the door frame with a dreamy expression on her pale face as she watches him leave. The moment her eyes fall on mine, she gasps and quickly steps inside and all but slams the door. Geez, does everyone in the building like to sleep around?

The guy leaves just in time though. As soon as my foot hits the first step and puts me on the first floor, Mr. Keller walks into the building, brushing arms against the man that’s probably just banged his wife from here to Mars. He looks up from his phone and utters an apology and continues walking, giving me a small smile and nod as he passes. Luckily the guy left when he did; otherwise I would’ve been late for work watching this Jerry Springer episode air. I can see the title of it now: I’m a Cradle-Robbing Cougar.

6:29 a.m.

Still outside because Milo is being a cunt

“Damn it, Milo, can you just pee already?” I grit, shivering against the sharp winter wind that whips around me. He keeps stopping and sniffing the same area about forty times and barking at the passing people going to their cars. Milo continues to bark long after the people disappear, so much so that someone from our building sticks their head out of the window and yells, “Quit that barking, you little rat!”

I look up to see who it is, but only see the window closing instead. Milo trots back over to the same spot by the tree that he’s sniffed twenty times already and does his business.

Fucking finally.

6:34 a.m.

Outside of my apartment door

Taylor’s apartment door opens just as I pull my keys out of my jacket pocket. Dressed in nothing but a long t-shirt, she kisses the blond-haired beau and smiles. “Thanks for last night,” she purrs.

Yeah, and thanks for waking me up before I had to be awake, I think. Milo barks and growls at him, averting their attention to me.

“Oh, good morning, Carolina,” Taylor says with a small wave. “Sorry about all the noise.”

Her fiery red hair is thrown in a messy bun, a few tendrils framing her perfect oval face. Her pink lips pucker as she blows a cloud of smoke in my direction and smiles, showing two rows of perfect white teeth.

Fucking models, I tell you.

“Yeah, sure,” I mumble, averting my eyes away from her when I notice her nipples pushing through the cotton material of her shirt. My fingers fumble with my keys until I locate the right one. “And for the millionth time, my name is Blake.”

“Well, Blake, maybe you should get laid yourself so you won’t be so worried about what we’re doing. My lady is a screamer,” the guy says with a cocky grin, grabbing Taylor by the hips as she giggles.

“Oh Cliff, don’t make me blush,” she says, kissing him once more.

Gag.

More like his lady swallowed a chew toy if he wants to be technical. Sure, she has the body and face of a porn star or Playboy Playmate, but that moan of hers won’t get her very far. I wonder if they have any kind of surgeries to fix that kind of thing…

I bring my attention back to Taylor, refusing to acknowledge the meathead standing next to her. “Or maybe you can be more courteous and remember that other people have actual jobs to go to—”

“I have a job, thank you very much,” Taylor says with a frown.

“I mean a steady one,” I say, narrowing my eyes at her.

“If it weren’t steady, I wouldn’t be able to afford to live here, now would I?” she counters.

I fight the urge to roll my eyes. There’s been a few times in my short weeks of being here where she’s sat on my couch crying because another girl was picked at a casting call. Her whining usually consists of, “What am I going to do,” or “How am I going to pay rent this month,” and my personal favorite, “Maybe I’m not meant to be a model.” Well, I’ll have to agree considering she’s yet to book a serious gig that doesn’t involve her taking her clothes off.

“Riiight…I’m going to go now. See you around,” I say, unlocking my door and quickly closing it behind me once I’m inside.

“Your neighbor is a certified bitch,” I hear the guy say as I remove the leash from Milo’s collar. Taylor only laughs in response before the hall goes quiet after another set of disgustingly cute goodbyes. Bleh.

6:52 a.m.

Bathroom

Do I really need this job? Like, on a scale of one to ten, how fucked will I be if I don’t go to work and just go back to bed?

6:54 a.m.

Still in the bathroom

You need this job, Blake. This is your dream job. Get it together!

6:55 a.m.

STILL in the bathroom because I can’t get it together

Maybe I could just—”MILO! STOP HUMPING MY BUNNY SLIPPERS, YOU FURRY LITTLE PERVERT!

7:47 a.m.

Bedroom

I look at my reflection one more time in the mirror and sigh. The girl looking back at me doesn’t reveal any of the mixed emotions I feel. She looks confident and assertive, ready to take on the world. Her beige turtleneck sweater dress accentuates all of her curves and her black leggings and thigh-high boots completes her look. Nerves run rampant within me as I pass a brush through my brown mane once again, wishing I’d curled it instead of frying it with the hair straightener. Pretty sure if I don’t stop brushing my hair, I’ll probably be bald before I even get to the train station.

7:56 a.m.

Front door

“Okay, Milo, be a good boy while mommy is at work, okay?” I say to him as he jumps on the couch. He simply looks at me, his tail wagging and his tongue flopping around his face. I won’t be surprised if a herd of dogs pass me as I leave the building to attend some kind of weird gangbang Milo set up on BangPuppies.com. With the way my dog behaves sometimes, I’m almost certain he lives a secret life I don’t know about.

I lock up my apartment, twisting the doorknob just to make sure. Taylor exits her apartment just as I turn around. Shit.

“Oh, hey again, Carolina,” she says, locking her door and turning to face me. Her t-shirt from before has been replaced with a bright blue windbreaker and black, skintight running pants that are made up of mesh material from the middle of her thigh down to her ankles. She may as well have worn shorts.

“Hi, Taylor,” I say, adjusting my bag on my shoulder. Not knowing what else to say to her other than to state the obvious, I continue. “Going for a run or something?”

“I may as well since I’m up so early. With my job, I have to look good, you know,” she says with a smirk before bounding down the stairs.

“With my job, I have to look good, you know,” I mimic under my breath as I follow behind her.

We both reach the second floor at the same time, running into Weird Marty and his elderly mother who always smells like cheap perfume and mothballs.

“Looking for a workout, baby? You know where to find me,” he says, dabbing at his forehead with a dirty handkerchief. I can’t see how he can be sweating profusely as chilly as it is in the building. His “white” tank top is dingy and spotted with stains of different shades and sizes, the collar of it soaked in sweat. Gross.

“You’re not much of a workout, Marty. I think I’ll stick to running,” Taylor replies with a flip of her ponytail.

My eyes widen as I gawk at her. “You….him…no!”

“No is right,” she says and laughs. “Only way that guy would end up with me is if my body was found chopped up in his freezer or something. That guy screams John Wayne Gacy.”

I snicker. She’s right about that. He definitely looks the part with his balding head, the lopsided grin that’s always plastered on his face, and his black beady eyes that always follow you. The only thing probably saving a lot of women in the building is the fact that he lives on the second floor and can hardly carry his own body weight up the flights of stairs, let alone a body to dismember.

We step out of the building and into the windy air. Taylor begins to stretch. “Are you nervous?”

I turn to look at her. “About what?”

“I remember you saying you were starting a new job at that gossip mill or something. You’ve been chewing your lip the whole way down here.”

“I’m more anxious than I am nervous, I guess,” I say with a light sigh. “Still can’t believe I work at a magazine.”

“A shitty one at that.” When I glare at her, she holds her hands up defensively. “Hey, they have a reputation of putting some very hurtful things out about people, sometimes without even knowing the facts.”

“Well, I wouldn’t be like that,” I snap. Well, maybe. Perhaps.

“I sure hope not,” she says, slipping her iPhone into a pouch strapped to her upper arm and untangling her ear buds. “I’ve seen a lot of friendships and relationships damaged due to gossip and tabloids. Don’t get sucked into the madness.” With a parting wave, she turns and runs in the opposite direction of me until she fades into a group of commuters. Realizing the time, I skip down the stairs and rush down the sidewalk. I better pray I make it there in time or else I’ll need to start thinking about how I’m going to decorate my cardboard box for when I’m homeless.

8:20 a.m.

Train

The train is crowded as it usually is, but I lucked out and am able to find a seat near the back. I pull out my iPad Pro, flip out my keyboard, and open my password-protected Tumblr blog.

Blake Unfiltered blog post #782

A few thing important things before 9 this morning.

1) Taylor would make a horrid porn star. Instead of modeling, she should try out for a Planet Earth animal voiceover or something. And her new guy looks like an Ashton Kutcher reject. Can you say desperate? Can’t believe he had the nerve to tell me I needed to get laid so I’d stop worrying about the noise. I wouldn’t have to worry about the late night wolf calling if my own dog didn’t take it as a dog toy challenge at nearly five in the morning. Just thinking of the sleep I missed and how tired I am pisses me off.

2) I should really hide my bunny slippers from Milo. Wouldn’t be surprised to come home one day to see a bunch of baby bunny slippers moving around. Okay…that was just dumb. That couldn’t even physically happen.

3) The lady in 2C is going to get caught one of these days and it’ll be glorious. How in the hell do women cheat on their husbands or boyfriends and then end up kissing them on the mouth after all of that? Just the thought of swapping spit and God knows what other kind of bodily fluid makes me want to vomit my entire existence.

4) Marty really does have a John Wayne Gacy vibe about him. Totally creepy and predator-like. He actually reminds me of that weird guy that was in the second Human Centipede movie. Oh my fucking goodness. What if he’s creating a human centipede in his apartment?! Nah, his mom would probably have a fit, but that’s if his victims don’t die of suffocation from the extreme mothball stench that permeates their apartment and entire hallway of the second floor.

Today I start at Hot Topic magazine. Still can’t believe I’m working at a magazine! The opportunity to meet celebrities, do what I love (which is writing, of course), and getting paid to gossip is an absolute dream. Hopefully today will be great! All in the name of gossip, right?

xoxo,

B

About the Author:

Victoria Bright is from a small town in North Carolina and currently resides in Greenville, South Carolina. You can usually find her hoarding bottles of Cool Blue Gatorade, playing The Sims when not writing, or obsessing over Camaros.

Connect with Victoria:
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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.




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Touched by Mara White

 

AP new - synopsis.jpg
-Does your sister let you touch her, Gemini?
-Barely, but, yes, more than anyone else. I remember even in preschool when the teacher would grab her hand, she’d stare at the spot where their skin connected as if it were an affront to her existence. Just stand there and glare like she wanted to hurt someone.
-Junipera suffers from a rare phobia.
-Please, what does June not suffer from?
-When did she start chasing storms?
-In third grade she started obsessing about the rain. Full blown? I’d say after hurricane Katrina she never looked back. And she didn’t just chase them, June became those wild storms.

Junipera and Gemini Jones, Irish twins born during the month of June, survive a childhood of neglect and poverty by looking out for one another. Destined for a group home, the girls are rescued by a rich aunt and uncle who move them from Northern Minnesota to Fairfield, Connecticut. One sister thrives while the other spins out of control. A violent assault leaves Gemini searching for clues, but what she finds might be questions that are better left unanswered.

 

Coming September 25th

 

August 28th, 2005


June drove almost all night. The farthest south she’d ever been was Oklahoma, going after a tornado, and she’d flown past the Louisiana state line around four in the morning. She wasn’t exactly sure where she would stay since she’d heard on the radio that all of greater New Orleans had been placed under a mandatory evacuation order. Experience told her that there would be at least one hotel open downtown where reporters were holed up. She’d followed their lead before, pretending to be chasing the story and not the storm. They usually had the best intel and she would leech off of them if she could. The storm had been given a name when she turned into a hurricane—Katrina, they called her, and she’d become a category three when she hit land in Florida. But now she had free rein over warm open water. That meant her hunger would gain and when she touched Louisiana, she’d do it with a vengeance. She was expected to hit land around six in the morning, as a category five. June had never actually seen a five before, but she knew roofs, cars and trees would go flying through the air like paper dolls, sucked up into the vortex and spit out indiscriminately.
Traffic snaked away from the Gulf in impossibly long lines of chrome and glass, rubber tires packed full of momentum wishing they could go faster. June had the speed they wanted as hers was one of the very few cars racing in the opposite direction. She came down I-55, and when she hit the I-10 bypass, the seriousness of the evacuation became apparent. Anyone who could was getting the hell out of New Orleans.
Storm excitement felt very much like a hormone—tipsy, punch-drunk and out of control. June got high off the anticipation; she tuned out the radio and the long line of evacuees and listened to the storm. She spoke its language. June lowered the windows in the Beamer so she could feel the pressure in the air. Her blood surged in her body like the ocean tides do in response to its pull. Her extremities tingled; so did her nose. She could taste the storm on the tip of her tongue, like a spike, a live wire, a sharp blade laced with coppery blood. Katrina called to her and June’s thigh muscles quivered.
June laid into the gas. Sometimes municipal law enforcement would block incoming traffic as well. June knew how to pose as a news reporter, but she wasn’t the most convincing candidate. Stringy blonde baby hair, lithe body like a cattail reed, clothing that was two sizes too big for her. She looked more like a painter or a homeless person despite driving a BMW. But her passion was always convincing, and her hope was that if Katrina was as big as she promised to be, whoever was watching would be too distracted to waste precious energy on just one life when hundreds of thousands were at stake.
“You a chaser?” the man asked her. He was a plainclothes officer, or maybe a reporter? She couldn’t be sure. He was the third person to stop her since she’d made it into the abandoned city. Anyone left on the streets was in transit, looking for a way out. More than one person had flagged her down and asked for a ride to the Superdome.
“No, I report to the Weather Channel directly,” June snapped. She stuck her anemometer on top of her small rolling suitcase. “I’ve got a room at the Riverside Hilton,” she said. She’d parked Uncle Ben’s BMW in the closest parking garage, reserved the room with his Mastercard. The receptionist only asked her if she knew there was a city-wide mandatory evacuation in progress. June looked up at her as if she were insulted. She smacked a press card on the desk. It wasn’t hers and the receptionist didn’t check it.
The cop or reporter was sold with the card. He figured hustlers or chasers couldn’t afford digs like hers. She walked briskly past him and flashed him her key card. What was he going to do? Arrest her and take her to jail? They had bigger things to worry about. This city was about to get slammed and everyone who’d stayed knew their lives would be in danger.
There were maybe a hundred or so of them in the Hilton. June recognized all the chasers, and not just because she’d seen them at other storms. It was their wily nature, their eyes holding the spark instead of the dread that was written all over the faces of the real press in the crowd. Some were there for the historic record and others, like Junipera, were there for the fix.
The wind started to scream at around eleven that evening. June wrapped her camera and her meter tightly in Saran Wrap, then stuck them in Ziploc bags along with her paper and pens. She packed all of the tiny water bottles and soda, peanuts and pretzels from the mini fridge into her backpack. Rolled up her blue tarp, Swiss Army knife, extra pair of underwear, waterproof pants and windbreaker and stowed them alongside the food.
The rain lashed the windows and splashed against them in sheets as if her hotel window were the windshield and she was moving slowly through a vigorous carwash. June stepped outside onto the balcony around two in the morning; the rain seemed to have died down but the wind was picking up, the trees across the way bending and straining, at times leaning almost horizontally. Her anemometer picked up wind speeds over eighty miles per hour. It’s the eastern side of the hurricane that packs the power punch. When that came calling, the hotel would be bending like the trees.
The television in the room blared with the constant evacuation warnings. June watched the Doppler radar image on a loop, circling toward the city like a hanging jaw going from red to purple. Hungry, angry wind and water were coming. June filled the bath tub, reinforced the metal stopper with Saran Wrap, did the same to the sink. She plunked down on the bed, splayed her limbs wide and stared at the ceiling.
The demon bared its teeth, and the windsong progressed from scream to roar, drowning out the warnings on the television. The beast was in the room, she was everywhere, surrounding them. June flinched every time she heard glass pop and shatter.
The window shook with the ferocity of a King Kong tantrum. Junipera imagined the tall Hilton as a toy in a child’s diorama reproduction of the French Quarter. Her fingers dug in and she held tight to the edge of the mattress. The room went black and the television silent when the power failed. The roar got louder, filling up her ears to find a way inside her skull.
At six-thirty in the morning her windows finally burst; the shades flew into the room and danced a madcap jig, wrenching themselves from the sliding track. June watched, eyes wide, as the one on the left took flight, a flash of soaring white in the dark sky before it flew out of sight. She crawled along the carpeted floor that was now soaked in brackish water, rolled to her back and filmed the macabre sky. The center of the hurricane looked like the center of a starfish, opening and beckoning, then folding in on its own hungry embrace. If there were Gods they were angry, monsters immune to the rules of give and take. June’s ears popped with the pressure while debris flew over her head, sometimes inches from her face. Then the rain began to plop down again in enormous drops. She stuck her camera under her shirt.
No sun rose and daybreak came in without color. From white to grey to a drab blue, the subdued tones of pigeons colored the horizon. When the roar finally moved far enough west to quiet, her ears still buzzed with its scream as if it had taken up house in her head. June could hear the beating of propellers—Army, she assumed, and not meteorological. The sound of periodic gunfire she decided to tell herself was exploding transformers and not ruthless people taking advantage of a ghost city with only a weary skeleton crew to protect it. She washed her face and armpits in the water she’d saved in the sink. Brushed her teeth, spitting in the toilet. She drank from the bathwater as if it were a baptismal font. It tasted as warm as the humid air around her.
It was still a good storm raging outside but June figured she’d head to the command center and hang with the reporters, hear their assessment of the damage. Running her fingers through her tangled hair was the best she could do for appearances. Nobody would care. The room, which had probably been a continental breakfast concierge haven, was now buzzing with reporters using an antiquated form of dial-up to communicate with the greater world. With a crashed electrical grid, the means for direct communication were severed. Someone had made coffee from instant crystals and bathwater. June helped herself to two mugs full as she listened to their chatter and took notes. Analog reporting, they were relaying messages like it was 1984. June heard reports of levees breeched, ruptured, possible flooding, but no one seemed to know for certain. She left the command center and went back to her room, pulled on her waterproof pants and rain boots, and put a sweater on under her windbreaker even though the humidity was stifling. She walked out the door with nothing more than her equipment and tiny rations in a backpack.
“Which way is the ninth ward?” she asked the security guard standing by the sliding glass doors. He looked her up and down reproachfully and Junipera tried to stand even taller than her already generous five feet ten inches.
“To your left. It’s a long walk, and believe me, from what they’re saying you don’t want to go there. Head to the Convention Center instead.”
“Thanks,” June said. She stepped out into the dense fog and turned left.
“There’s still debris flying. Hurricane ain’t over yet!” the security guard shouted after her.
She disappeared from his view, swallowed up by the insatiable mouth that wasn’t yet finished feeding on New Orleans
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Mara White is a contemporary romance and erotica writer who laces forbidden love stories with hard issues, such as race, gender and inequality. She holds an Ivy League degree but has also worked in more strip clubs than even she can remember. She is not a former Mexican telenovela star contrary to what the tabloids might say, but she is a former ballerina and will always remain one in her heart. She lives in NYC with her husband and two children and yes, when she’s not writing you can find her on the playground.

 

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Exes With Benefits by Nicole Williams

 

 

Coming September 18th

 

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He wants a second chance. I want a divorce. To get what I want, I’ll have to give him what he does.


From New York Times & USA Today bestselling author, Nicole Williams, comes a new standalone romance in the same vein as Roommates with Benefits.

 

 

PROLOGUE


Goodbye.
It was the one relationship guarantee we could all expect. Whether it was death or circumstance, tragedy or choice, it was the only promise we were assured. Goodbye. It had been coming since the day we met, and now it was here. Sooner than I’d hoped. Even sooner than the sensible segment of me had predicted.
Still, it was later than maybe I should have expected out of a relationship with Canaan Ford.
I’d been waiting all night for his truck to rumble up the driveway when it finally did just past two a.m.. Before his footsteps echoed up the stairs, I shouldered the couple of bags I’d packed and waited in the shadows of the hallway. My paintbrushes were sticking out of one of my oversized totes, tickling the underside of my arm. I’d packed everything that seemed important at the time, but now, I wasn’t sure that what I’d stuffed in my bags mattered at all.
It was late, dark, and Canaan would be coming home exhausted, hurting, and some degree of drunk. He wouldn’t see me, and I could just slip away without him knowing.
Maybe I should have left before he made it back, but whenever I tried, my feet froze to the floor before I could make it to the door. I needed to wait for him to get home first—to make sure he was okay before I left him. That might have been a messed up model of morality, but most of Canaan’s and my relationship was messed up, from the beginning to now, the ending.
He struggled with the key in the lock before shoving the door open and clomping straight toward the couch. He’d stopped crawling into bed beside me after a night of fighting and drinking months ago, like he thought it would spare me the pain of seeing him bloodied and plastered. It never had. The black eyes, the swollen lips, the bruised ribs; they were that much worse in the light of morning.
Canaan had barely crashed onto the sofa before his breathing evened out. Still, I waited another minute in the hallway before moving into the living room.
Don’t look, Maggie. Don’t let yourself look at him.
I looked. Of course I looked. I never listened to what was best for me—if I had, my life would have wound up so much differently.
He was already passed out, sprawled across the couch we’d bought at a yard sale the summer before . . .
Before all of this.
One arm and one leg were hanging off the end, his face tipped far enough toward me I could gauge the type of fight he’d been in tonight. A good one by Canaan’s definition—the best kind. The type where his opponent got in as many hits as he did. The type of fight that made him almost question if it would be the first one he’d lose. Canaan loved the challenge, the fight. He thrived off of chaos, seeming to wilt when life was simple. I used to admire that about him, and maybe I still did. It just wasn’t the life for me. I couldn’t live life like it was a battle—not anymore.
He was passed out hard, but I still crept slowly toward the front door, my heart thundering as the boards creaked below me. Even though I was moving toward the door, my eyes stayed on him.
Look away.
I couldn’t. Canaan was the best part of my life. And the worst. The best memories. And the worst. He was the high and the low and I was so damn tired of the sick cycle I thought would kill me one day.
As my hand cupped around the cool doorknob, my eyes burned. This was it. As resolved as I’d felt in the weeks leading up to this, I felt like I was being torn in half by walking away. I knew if I stayed, this relationship would be the end of me. But at the moment, leaving felt like the same.
Lying on that couch, he looked so vulnerable. Almost like he needed someone to protect him. From the world. From his demons. From himself. I’d tried. God, I’d been trying for what felt like forever, but the only thing I had to show for my efforts was scars and pain.
One of his eyes was swollen shut, his bottom lip three times its normal size, and he’d split the same eyebrow open again. It was going to need stiches. Six, I guessed. I’d gotten really good as estimating the number of stiches needed to seal a wound.
A sob rose from my chest, but I managed to swallow it back down. He was the only boy I’d ever loved—the only one I’d ever come close to loving. In some ways, he was perfect for me. But in more ways, especially lately, he was entirely wrong for me.
That was why I needed to leave. We might have been good together, but we weren’t good for each other. I knew that now.
I opened the door slowly, so it wouldn’t make a sound, then I let myself take one last look at the life I was leaving behind before I forced myself to walk away.
Now that I wasn’t looking at him, moving was easier. Each step down from our little apartment above the garage came quicker, so by the time I reached the ground, I was jogging.
Canaan’s truck was parked right beside my old car. Ancient was maybe a better description of how “mature” my car was. It was almost like he’d known I was going to leave tonight, because he’d parked his truck so close I could barely crack my door open half a foot. Getting my bags tossed into the backseat and managing to wiggle in through the door was a tight fit, but I made it work.
The moment I was inside, I jammed the key in the ignition and turned it over. I didn’t pause. I didn’t flinch. The hardest part was behind me, and now I needed to keep moving.
Easing my car around the truck, I noticed the one light burning inside the big house in my rearview mirror. Grandma knew what was happening tonight and was keeping her light on for me as her unique way of expressing that no matter what, she was here for me. She’d keep the light on—even when it felt like there was nothing but darkness around me.
My throat constricted as I kept backing down the long driveway. I’d tried saving him, but it had cost me almost everything. I was taking what I had left and saving myself.
As I rolled past Grandma’s front porch, my gaze shifted from the rearview mirror to that little garage apartment I’d lived the last eleven months in. The door was open, light was streaming from inside, and a dark, towering shadow loomed in the doorway.
My foot instinctively moved toward the brake. Canaan was too far away for me to determine the look on his face, but I could imagine it. It came easy since I’d known him as long as I had. Knowing his face was like second nature.
He stayed unmoving in that doorway for a moment, my car doing the same. It wasn’t until he started moving down the stairs that my foot flew back to the gas. If he got to me before I made it out of this driveway, I wouldn’t leave. I knew it. Walking away from someone I loved was hard enough, but Canaan wasn’t just someone I loved—he was someone I’d shared everything with. He’d walked with me through the hardest part of my life, and I’d walked with him through his. We’d been each other’s beacon, shelter, and compass through all of life’s shit . . .
So how had we gotten here? To this hopeless, dead end of a place?
He was charging down the stairs now, taking them two at a time. How was he able to move that nimbly when he’d just been comatose on the couch?
“Maggie!”
The windows were rolled up, but his shout broke through the glass, sounding so close it was almost like he was pressed against me, whispering it into my ear.
He sprinted the moment his feet touched the ground, his long arms pumping hard at his sides.
“Canaan, don’t,” I whispered inside the car, my lower lip trembling as I focused on the driveway behind me. “Please don’t.”
I didn’t miss the shadow that had appeared in that lit window. Grandma was watching me leave, witnessing Canaan trying to convince me to stay. Before, his attempts had been successful, but not this time. I couldn’t stay for him one more time—I had to leave for me.
“Maggie! Please!”
Canaan’s shouts were so loud, they were going to wake up the neighbors a few acres over. Each word emanated like a blast inside the car.
“Let me go,” I whispered as I swung the car onto the street.
Right before I could punch it into drive and hit the gas, Canaan swooped in front of the car. His chest was moving hard from the exertion, his snug white tee stained with fresh and dried blood. His face was so messed up it was practically unrecognizable, but I couldn’t help seeing the young boy with a clip-on tie walk up to me when I was frozen on a porch step, appraising me with those wild gold eyes before holding out a tiny box. How had that boy, who’d saved me back then, become the ruin of me now?
When I revved the engine, he didn’t move. Instead, he slid closer so his legs were pushing against the bumper. He raised his arms like he was surrendering, his unswollen eye landing on me. “I’m not letting you leave. Not without a fight.”
A breath rolled past my lips—a fight. Everything was a fight with him. He couldn’t land enough hits or take enough. His guilt wouldn’t let him.
Cranking down the window, I made myself glare at him. It was harder to achieve than it should have been. “I’m not something you win or lose in a fight.”
His jaw moved as he pressed his hands into the hood of the car. “You fight for what’s important. That’s the way life is. And you are worth every fight I have in me.”
“You’re too busy fighting everyone else—including yourself—to fight for me.” My sight blurred as I stared at him. So little of the person I’d fallen in love with remained. So little of who he’d fallen in love with remained in me as well. “I can’t wait around, watching you kill yourself one fight and drink at a time.”
He wiped at his split-open brow, leaving a streak of blood on his forearm. “I can change.”
My fingers tightened around the steering wheel. How many times had I heard those words come from his lips? Those same lips that claimed ownership of my first kiss?
“Yeah, you can.” I steeled myself against him a little more. “That’s not your problem. Your problem is that you won’t change.”
“This time I will.” His head whipped side to side. “It’s taken this, you trying to leave me, to slap some sense into me.”
I’d tried leaving so many times. This was just the furthest I’d ever made it. “I’m not trying to leave you. I am leaving you.” I made myself look at him. I made myself appear strong when I felt so very opposite. “This is it.”
He slowly came around the side of the car toward me. I rolled up the window halfway, aiming my eyes at the road in front of me.
“One more chance.” Even from a few feet back, I could smell the alcohol on his breath. I could smell the sweat and blood on him mixed with it, the trace of perfume that didn’t belong to me.
“You’ve had a thousand one more chances.” I studied him from the corners of my eyes, knowing better than to let them lock on his when he was this close. “This was your last one.”
“Maggie . . .” His hands formed around the lip of the window. His knuckles were split open and swollen, dried blood covering them. Still, I wasn’t sure I’d ever craved having them reach for me more. I wasn’t sure I’d ever needed him to pull me to his broken body and soul more than I did right then.
In that moment, I might have needed him more than I needed air, but I couldn’t give in. Kicking the habit was the only way to cure myself.
“Let me go, Canaan.” My legs were trembling as my foot moved back to the gas.
His head lowered so it was in line with mine. “You’re my wife.”
My left hand curled farther around the steering wheel, until I couldn’t see the gold band circling my finger. “No. I was your wife.”
His head dropped for half a second, his eyes flashing with defeat right before. “I love you.”
​My chest ached. The man was the boy again, and I wanted to save him the way he’d saved me. But I couldn’t. The only person who could save Canaan Ford was Canaan Ford.
“I promised to love you forever, and I will.” My foot touched the accelerator. “But I can’t spend forever with you.”
His hands braced around the window harder when I rolled forward. “I made a promise. To you, and to myself. A promise to love you forever. To look after you as long.”
When I found my mind drifting to that overcast afternoon eleven months ago, my heart wringing when I remembered the way he’d stared at me as we repeated those phrases in the courthouse, I shook my head. Good memories weren’t enough. Hope wasn’t enough. Empty promises weren’t even close to enough.
“We exchanged vows.” My eyes focused on the road in front of me, letting go of the dead end beside me. “There’s a difference between saying them and meaning them.”
When my foot pushed down on the gas, Canaan moved with the car. “I’m not letting you go. I’m not giving up.” The car moved faster, his feet pounding the asphalt as he struggled to keep up.
“I know. But I’m giving in.” Breaking my own rule, I let my eyes meet his before punching the gas pedal as far down as it would go. “Goodbye.”
That was enough. Hearing that word shocked him just enough to still him. For one second. I didn’t ease up on the gas, not even when I heard his fists pounding the trunk as he struggled to keep up.
“I can change!” His footsteps were thundering after the car. “I will change.”
With him behind me, I let the tears I’d been fighting fall. Everything I’d ever known—my whole life—was getting smaller and smaller behind me. With every tick of the odometer.
“MAGGIE!!!” His voice pierced the air one last time before I was too far away to hear whatever came next.
It was morning by the time I stopped seeing his reflection in the rearview mirror, still chasing me into my new life.

 

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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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Sweet Captivity by Julia Sykes

 

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Coming September 12th

 

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I don’t like to be touched. I’m the hacker-geek-goddess of the FBI. When I’m hiding behind my screen, I’m a safe distance from everyone; isolated, powerful. No man has ever touched me, but when I’m captured by Colombian drug lord Andrés Moreno, I no longer have the right to refuse. He’s scarred and scary, and his cruel brother Cristian has tasked him with breaking me. I try to fight, but I can’t escape his strong arms and harsh discipline. He demands that I accept his touch, and my virgin body can’t help but respond to his masterful manipulations.

The longer I remain trapped with him, the more I come to suspect that I’m not the only captive in his brother’s home. Andrés’ scars go deeper than the wicked furrows carved into his flesh, his pain reflected in the dark demands he imposes upon me. His obsession is twisted and wrong, but maybe I’m twisted, too.

Do I want to be rescued from him? Or is he the one who truly needs saving?

 

The safety of my home had been shattered. Someone had drugged me, taken me. My memories of how I’d fallen into Cristian Moreno’s clutches were hazy, but there was no denying my terrifying new reality: I was in the hands of the vicious Colombian drug lord, and his knife was at my throat.
Toxic fear engulfed me, freezing the scream that had escaped me for mere seconds. Cristian stepped behind me so his brother’s camera could get clearer footage of the horror I was enduring. His big fist tangled in my hair, jerking my head back so I had no choice but to stare up into his cruel black eyes.
The cold tip of the knife scraped upward from the center of my throat, grazing over my skin as it traced a path under my chin. I stopped breathing when the flat of the blade swiped across the line of my lips. A high whimper slipped through them, the resultant vibration threatening to make the knife pierce my skin. As it was, the tightly packed nerve endings on my lips sparked as the cool metal kissed them.
The knife left my mouth, but I didn’t have time to suck in a panting breath before the frigid blade returned to my throat.
“You were in my territory today, watching my people. One of my men followed you home. Who are you working for?” he demanded.
“I’m FBI,” I said, my voice barely more than a whisper. With the knife at my throat, I could scarcely draw the breath I needed to speak.
He frowned at me. “A sniper made an attempt on my life a few days ago. The feds wouldn’t assassinate me. Who are you really working for?” The blade sliced a thin, stinging line across my throat.
“I really am FBI,” I said in a rush, the truth spilling from my lips. If he knew I was a federal agent, he wouldn’t dare hurt me. “My name is Samantha Browning. I’m a tech analyst. Well, I was. I’m a field agent now. I’m not trying to kill you. We’re investigating you. You have to know you’re on our radar. Please, I swear I’m FBI.” I was aware that I was babbling, but I couldn’t stop pleading for my life.
He considered me for a long, terrifying moment, weighing my fate. “You’re a tech analyst? That means you have access to all the evidence the feds have on me. If you’re telling the truth about who you are.”
“I am,” I said quickly. “You can’t hurt me. If you do, my friends will come after you.”
“I think I’ll give you to my brother, after all,” he mused. “He’ll make sure you’re telling the truth. I’d rather not mutilate you, if you’re going to be useful to me. Andrés has more creative ways of breaking women. And I’ll keep our little video to ourselves. If you are who you say you are, I’d rather your friends at the FBI didn’t know I have you.”
The knifepoint pressed against my cheek, just below my left eye. The pressure increased slightly, and I felt warmth bead on my skin. It slid down my cheek like a crimson tear. My eyes watered, and Cristian’s handsome face wavered above me.
“Maybe I’ll give you a scar to match my brother’s first,” he mused.
A deep growl sounded from a few feet in front of me, and I knew it came from Andrés. I couldn’t so much as glance in his direction; Cristian’s long fingers in my hair kept me immobile.
A sharp grin lit his features with amusement. “Apparently, he wants you mostly intact. Should I give him what he wants?”
The fearsome growl sounded again, a wordless warning. I shuddered, equally as frightened of the prospect of his desire to have me as I was of the knife piercing my cheek.
“Not the face, then,” Cristian said decisively. “But I think I’ll let Andrés see what he’s getting to work with.”
The knife left my face, but the blade instantly hooked beneath the top button of my shirt. It gave way easily as the sharp steel tore through thread. He continued to move the blade downward, trailing a sickening path between my breasts, over my navel, down to the top of my slacks. The fabric fell open with a flick of the knife, leaving me exposed in my white cotton bra.
A plea for mercy locked in my throat. I couldn’t speak, could barely breathe. My mind began to shut down, the adrenaline created by fear clouding my brain.
Cristian’s fingers tightened in my hair, giving me a bite of pain. “Stay with us, Samantha,” he ordered smoothly.
The world sharpened around me with cruel clarity just before pain sliced into me. The tip of the knife grated a torturously slow line along my right collarbone. The cut was shallow, but blood welled up as the blade scraped bone. The scream that had been trapped inside me burst out as pain seared through me. He hooked the blade beneath the little strip of cotton at the middle of my bra, parting the fabric and exposing me.
My scream choked off on a sob as terror mingled with humiliation.
“What do you think, hermanito?” Cristian asked with mild interest. “Is she pretty enough for you? She’s not a great beauty, but her nipples stand out nicely against her pale skin.”
My skin turned frigid, my flesh pebbling as ice sank into my veins. I vaguely recognized that I was going into shock as my entire body began to shake violently.
“And her eyes are quite lovely,” he continued in detached observation. “So much fear there. You like when they’re frightened, don’t you, Andrés?”
His low grunt in reply rolled around my mind, but my capacity for conscious thought had been ripped to shreds. The knife left my breasts to slice through the ropes that bound my wrists behind me. I slumped forward, my watery muscles incapable of holding me upright.
Strong arms closed around my shoulders, bracing me before I slid to the floor. I was dimly aware of my body being lifted. My head lolled back, and the last thing I saw before my mind short-circuited was Andrés’ fearsome, scarred face looming over me.
***
Stinging pain on my chest yanked me back to awareness, and I bolted upright with a gasp. Panic blinded me, but firm hands gripped my upper arms, pressing me back down against something soft that cushioned my body. I was no longer sitting on the unyielding metal chair. I recognized the feel of a mattress beneath me, and my torso was pinned down against it by a strong, masculine hold.
I squirmed and kicked, instinctively trying to fight my way free. I became aware of cool air against my breasts, and I realized I was still exposed. My heart hammered against my ribcage, and I doubled my efforts to fight off the man holding me down, my fingers clawing blindly. His hands easily encircled my wrists, trapping them at either side of my hips.
“Calm down, cosita, or I’ll have to restrain you.” I recognized the soft Colombian accent.
Moreno had me. He’d hurt me, stripped me…
Oh god. He’d given me to his terrifying brother. Andrés.
And now I was half-naked and helpless in his steely hold.
I couldn’t stop thrashing, my muscles rippling with effort to break free. My stomach twisted, nausea rising as the full horror of my situation came down on me.
A low sound of disapproval grated against my mind. His grip instantly shifted, tugging my arms over my head. He secured them there with one big hand. Something cool and supple encircled my right wrist. Metal jingled against metal as he buckled the cuff into place.
I twisted my entire body, trying to angle myself so I could kick out at him. Desperation clawed at my insides, and all my training left my head as animal terror took hold. My awkward attempts to resist him made no effect, and he quickly secured my other wrist.
Working in silence, he caught my left ankle, pulling it diagonally toward the bottom corner of the bed. My eyes finally focused and I watched in helpless horror as he bound my legs to either side of the four-poster, spreading me wide. I still wore my slacks, but I felt terribly exposed and vulnerable.
I thrashed against the restraints, but he pressed his big palm against my bare abdomen, pinning me down against the mattress and effectively ending my struggles. All I could do was jerk uselessly against the cuffs. Fear coursed through me. My fight-or-flight instincts had settled on flight, but there was nowhere for me to go. That didn’t stop my body from twisting like a wild thing, panic beating against the inside of my chest.
His dark eyes watched me with calm certainty as he simply waited. I wasn’t sure how long it took for my muscles to burn with exertion, and I finally gave up, my limbs trembling where they were stretched above and below me, laying me out before him.
“Are you done?” he asked coolly.
“Fuck you,” I seethed, my acid tongue the only weapon left to me.
Keeping me pinned in place with one hand, his other swiftly came down and cracked across the outer swell of my breasts, one after the other in rapid succession. My sensitive flesh instantly began to burn, and I cried out. I couldn’t escape the pain; I was trapped in place for the harsh censure.
Tears leaked from the corners of my eyes, and he finally stopped.
“I won’t tolerate insults,” he said, still unnervingly calm. It almost would have been less disconcerting if he’d shouted. “You will speak to me with respect. Do you understand?”
“No.” The refusal came out as a horrified moan.
“You will understand soon,” he said, utterly confident. “You’re frightened, but you will learn. For now, I’m warning you not to curse at me again. Tell me you’ll obey.”
The tears came faster, spilling down my temples and falling into my hair.
His face shifted to a forbidding mask. “Tell me.”
I couldn’t manage more than a fearful whimper, but I nodded shakily. I didn’t want him to slap me again, and I recognized that there was nothing I could do to prevent him from doing it if he decided he wanted to.
His countenance softened, his scar easing so it wasn’t as pronounced. “In the future, I will expect a verbal answer. You belong to me now, Samantha. Defiance will lead to punishment. Obedience will be rewarded. You choose whichever you want. I might seem like a harsh Master, but I’m fair. Your behavior has consequences, either painful or pleasurable for you.”
“Please,” I forced out past the lump in my throat. “I can’t… I don’t… Don’t…” I began to pant out the fragmented words as my breathing turned shallower, until I was gasping but not drawing in air.
His hands bracketed my face, shockingly gentle. “Breathe,” he ordered, his accented voice low and soft, as though trying to soothe a frightened animal.
I certainly felt like a panicked, primal thing; trapped and terrified.
His fingers threaded through my hair on either side of my head, massaging gently.
“Breathe with me,” he cajoled. He drew in a slow, deep breath and then blew it out on a long exhale. “Again,” he commanded, and I vaguely recognized that I’d obeyed and matched his breathing, my lungs too desperate for oxygen to resist. I sucked in another shaky breath, mirroring him. We repeated the process several more times, until I was able to breathe almost normally. I sank down into the mattress as my body went limp, all the fight going out of me as exhaustion sapped my mind.
“Better.” He nodded his approval. His gaze finally diverted from my face, and he reached for a damp cloth that he’d placed beside me on the bed. “You’re still bleeding,” he told me. “I’m going to clean you up. This will sting a little. Stay still.”
I couldn’t have moved away even if I still possessed any willpower to do so. One of his hands remained bracketed at the side of my face, his thumb hooking beneath my jaw to hold me steady.
The cool cloth gently touched my cheek, and I hissed in pain. Just as he’d warned me, the solution that soaked the cloth stung, and I knew it was more than water.
“Good girl,” he said, the warm praise in his tone fucking with my addled mind. I only recognized the comfort in it, unable to process the twisted nature of how he was manipulating me. Anything was preferable to the unrelenting terror that had utterly sapped my will and smothered all thought of resistance.
He continued his gentle ministrations, his dark eyes completely focused on his task as he cleaned the cut on my collarbone. Keening sounds eased up my throat, and he softly shushed me.
When he finished, he sat back and considered me for a long moment, his black eyes searching mine. Instinct urged me to look away, to escape his probing gaze. The intensity with which he watched me made it impossible for me to break eye contact. I shuddered violently, unable to bear his scrutiny.
His grip on my face shifted, and his calloused fingertips smoothed over the furrow in my brow.
“You’re hurting,” he remarked. “You didn’t do anything to deserve this.”
He reached for something else on the bed beside me, and I cringed when my gaze fixed on it: a syringe. I didn’t want to be unconscious again, helpless and unable to defend myself.
“My brother gave me this in case I needed to subdue you, but it will take away your pain. I told you, I’m a fair Master. I won’t hurt you if you don’t earn a punishment.”
“I don’t want it,” I managed to whisper.
“I decide what’s best for you from now on,” he declared calmly.
“Please,” I begged uselessly as he carefully slid the needle into my arm.
“Hush now, cosita,” he murmured. “You’ll feel better when you wake up.”
“No,” I slurred, the drugs making my tongue heavy within seconds.
His long fingers smoothed over my hair, petting me as I fell into darkness.
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Julia Sykes is the USA Today bestselling author of the Impossible Series. She has always kept dark stories tucked away in her mind, so she was thrilled when she discovered that other people actually want to read them. Her books blend romance, suspense, and BDSM.
After spending four years living in England, Julia returned to her Southern homeland. She has recently settled down in South Carolina and spends her time petting her cat-children, reading, and binge watching TV with her husband when not writing. You can usually find Julia in Starbucks with a venti iced latte clutched in her hand.
Julia loves connecting with readers! Please feel free to contact her on facebook, through twitter, or email her directly at juliasykes193@gmail.com. You can find out more about Julia’s current and future projects at julia-sykes.com.
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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.