Tortured by Nicole Williams

 

 

 

Coming April 9th
Pre-order exclusively via iBooks HERE

 

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When he left for a twelve-month deployment, she knew it would feel like forever before they saw each other again. She didn’t realize how right she was.

When Lance Corporal Brecken Connolly gets taken as a POW, Camryn hopes for the best but steels herself for the worst. In the end, steel was what she needed to survive when he didn’t. She moves on the only way she knows how—gilding herself in more steel.

Years go by.

She builds a new life.

She leaves the old one behind.

Until one day, she sees the face of a ghost on the news. Brecken seems to have risen from the dead, but she knows she can’t perform the same miracle for herself. While Brecken was held in a torture camp for the past five years, she’s been trapped in her own kind of prison. One she can’t be freed from.  

The man she mourned comes back to join the living, but the girl he wanted to spend his life with isn’t the same woman he comes back for. Brecken isn’t the same person either. The past five years have changed them both. While he’s determined to put the pieces back together, she’s resolved to let hers rot where they shattered.

 

Broken or not, Brecken wants her back. He’ll do anything to achieve that. Even if it means going against the warden of Camryn’s personal prison—her husband.
PROLOGUE


Whenever he had to leave, it was torture. You’d think I’d get used to it, but I didn’t—each time got harder. This one might have felt especially brutal because of how long he’d be gone. A year. We’d done weeks, we’d done months, but we’d never done the full year.
Being with someone in the military, I knew I’d have to get used to it. The separation. The worry. The loneliness. The feeling that I was trying to catch my breath for however long he was gone.
It was a way of life. And he was my life. So I’d just have to figure it out.
“I’m never going to look at dog tags the same way again.” Brecken’s mouth turned up as his eyes roamed over me splayed across the backseat as he tucked in his T-shirt. He twisted his wrist, his gaze moving to his watch. A crease folded into his forehead. “But I’m going to need those back before I climb onto that bus. Something about military regulations. Not wandering around enemy territory without them. Those marines are sticklers for the rules.”
He was trying to make me feel better—trying to get me to smile—but little could lift my spirits other than finding out he didn’t have to leave for the Middle East for twelve long months.
“You don’t need them. Not really.”
“Why’s that?”
“Because you only need them if you’re planning on dying, and so help me god, I’m not taking these off my neck if you have plans for some kind of a hero’s death.” My hand curled almost defensively around the metal tags hanging against my bare skin as I focused on the way the cool metal warmed in my hand. The way it seemed to come to life in my hold.
“I’m not planning on dying over there. I’m not going to die,” he corrected the moment my eyebrow started to lift. “But I do have plans of scoring some gnarly war wound so I have a story to tell our grandkids one day and can hang one of those Purple Hearts off my chest.”
I flattened my face as best as I could, even though it was kind of impossible with the way he was grinning at me as he wrestled his jeans back into place. “Not funny.”
“Come on. It’ll make me look tough.”
“You already look tough. Too tough,” I added as I scanned him for the millionth time since he’d arrived back in Medford for a week-long vacation before shipping out. Whenever I looked at him, I didn’t just see the good-looking guy others did—I saw every good memory from my past. I saw every good memory that would be formed in the future. Brecken had been a part of my life since I was eight, and he was as much a part of me as I was.
“Nah, I need one of those big, angry-looking scars running across my chest. Or one of those bullet hole scars on my thigh. Something real tough like that.”
“And why do you need your dog tags for that?” My fingers tightened around the thin metal ovals, refusing to let them go as if I hoped in doing so, he couldn’t go either.
“Blood transfusion. Medics are going to need to know my blood type when they’re trying to patch up my unconscious body.”
“Unconscious body?”
He nodded all solemn-like. “I can’t be one of those guys who earns his Purple Heart by getting a scratch on some barbed wire. I need to lose a quart or two of blood, maybe even code on the operating table. Something worthy of that medal.”
The thought of Brecken marching through a hostile country with a rifle in his hands, with god only knew what aimed his way, made me feel weak with worry. The thought of him fighting for his life in some marine medical tent about took whatever was left of my sanity.
I must not have been doing a good job hiding my emotions, because his face broke when he saw my eyes, his arms opening toward me. “It’s going to be okay, Camryn. I’m going to be okay. We’re going to be okay. The year will fly by, and before we know it, we’ll be getting married and buying a little house as close to the beach as we can afford. Okay?”
His arms wound around me, swallowing my body, and I let him tuck me close to him. I’d never known the feeling of being safe until Brecken Connolly’s arms had shown me the meaning.
My hand planted in the middle of his chest, feeling his heartbeat vibrate against my palm. “Why can’t we just get married now? Why can’t I join the marines and go with you, wherever that is, so we can be together?”
His laugh was muffled from his mouth being pressed against my temple. “Well, you can’t join the marines and my unit because the military’s under this impression that us marines of the male species become distracted and one-track minded when the women we love are marching beside us. They’re convinced the only things on our minds are protecting you, flirting with you, or screwing you.”
Quietly, I counted off on my fingers, “Protecting, flirting, screwing . . .” Then I nodded. “Damn, they sure have you pegged.”
Brecken’s fingers brushed up and down the bend of my waist. “And we can’t get married right now because you’ve got two more months of high school to finish before you earn that nifty diploma thing.” He kept going, undeterred by my grumble. “And I need to save some money to give you a proper ring and wedding. I’m not doing the courthouse thing with cheap silver bands. Not for you. You deserve the best.”
My head tucked beneath his chin as I let him hold me in the backseat of his aunt’s old Corsica. The only good thing I could say about the car—which was a coin toss if it would start any given day—was that it had a decent-sized backseat that Brecken and I had made more than ample use of. Growing up in a strict household with my dad as Brecken grew up in the packed household a few houses down, privacy had been in short supply for both of us. Thankfully, his aunt was willing to lend Brecken her car whenever she could, like today, when I’d just made love to the only boy I’d ever loved for the last time for the next year.
My fingers curled into his chest as I willed time to freeze. “I have the best.”
Brecken grunted like he doubted that, his head lifting to check out the windshield. We were parked way back in the bus depot lot. His bus would be leaving for the long drive back to Camp Pendleton in a few short minutes.
“Besides, you already got me a ring.” I raised my left hand in front of him, rolling my fingers so he could see the adjustable birthstone ring on my finger.
He shook his head. “I won that for you at an arcade when we were ten.”
“It cost you twelve hundred tickets too. You saved up all summer to get that many tickets.”
His fingers touched the ring, twisting it around with a small smile on his face. “And it probably has the street value of a nickel. Not exactly the kind of wedding ring I want my wife to have.”
I found myself staring at the ring with him. The gold paint had started chipping off the thin band years ago, but the small pink birthstone still sparkled when the light hit it just right. “Well, it’s priceless to me. I don’t care what the street value is. Or how many tickets it cost.”
“Even so, I’m getting you a nice ring. With all of the hazard pay I’ll earn this year, you’d better start working that left ring finger out so it can bear the weight of the diamond I’ll be dropping on it.”
I was glad he couldn’t see my face, because he hated knowing how worried I was about him. He said hazard pay like a sales rep mentioned a bonus, but I heard it for what it really was—the government giving you a little more money for the likelihood of losing your life increasing.
“One more year. That’s it. Then we’ll be able to be together like we’ve always planned. Away from here.” Brecken’s arms loosened around me. We didn’t have much longer. “Away from these people.”
An uneven exhale came from him, the muscles in his arms twitching. I knew who he was talking about without him going into detail. Neither of our lives had been charmed or particularly easy, but mine had been worse. Being raised by a single dad who was so strict he made a monk’s life seem carefree, I’d had an unusual upbringing. Brecken only knew what I let him know about it, which was barely half of the reality.
“I don’t like leaving you alone with him,” he said, his voice a note lower. “If things get hard again, just leave. Move in with my insane family or a hotel or anywhere. Don’t let him hurt you. Words or fists. He does it again”—Brecken’s hands curled into balls as his back stiffened—“I’ll kill him. I swear I will.”
“He won’t,” I said instantly, in my most convincing voice. “He’s working on all that. Not drinking as much.” I made sure to hold his stare to sell as much conviction as I was capable.
My dad wasn’t just a strict man. He was a sad one, a lonely one. After my mom left, he’d turned into someone else, almost like she’d taken everything that had been good about him and stuffed it in that small suitcase too. Since I was the only one around and bore a striking resemblance to my mom, I’d taken the brunt of my dad’s grief. In the form of cutting words and, occasionally, outstretched palms.
Brecken had been walking down the sidewalk one day when he saw my dad strike me across the cheek for attempting to leave the house in a skirt he described as “fitting for a whore.” Brecken had only been thirteen, but he’d taken my dad down, managing to land a few punches before I could pull him off.
My dad stopped hitting me after that. At least where anyone passing by could see.
Not that I needed to tell Brecken that now. Though I guessed it would get him to stay a while longer . . . if only to be charged with murder and thrown into prison for the next twenty to thirty years.
Suddenly, that year didn’t seem so bad.
“He won’t,” I reiterated, when Brecken continued to give me that penetrating stare, like he was capable of finding a lie if I was hiding one.
Both of his brows lifted. “He better not.”
“If anything happens, I’ll crash at your family’s place, I swear.”
Sitting up, he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. “With fourteen people sharing twelve hundred square feet of space, good luck finding a quiet spot to do your homework.” He pulled every bill out of his wallet. Even the last crumbled dollar. “Take this, hide it from your dad, and use it if you need to. That’s enough to get you a week or so at a hotel that isn’t a dump, and as soon as I get my next paycheck, I’ll send more.”
My head was shaking as I tried to stuff the money back into his wallet. He’d already closed it and was sliding it back into his pocket though. “I’ll be fine.”
Brecken’s gaze dropped to the money in my hand. “Yeah, I know.”
“Brecken.”
“Camryn,” he mimicked.
“I’m not taking the last dollar in your wallet.”
“Why not?” he asked, making a face. “I’d give you the shirt off my back, the air in my lungs, the last drop of blood in my veins. The last dollar’s a cakewalk compared to, you know, dying of suffocation or bleeding out.” He winked as he folded my fingers around the wad of money in my hand, then he leaned down to pull on his boots. He was moving quickly, glancing in the direction of the buses like he was making sure his wasn’t pulling away from the curb yet.
“Do you want to walk with me to the bus?” His focus stayed on cinching up his last boot as he waited for my answer.
He already knew it though. Good-byes weren’t my forte. Especially not the kind where I had to wave good-bye to the man I loved as he prepared to head into the middle of a war zone for the next year. Good-bye came with a whole different context when you said it to a marine.
“I know, Blue Bird. I know.” He sighed, his eyes narrowing at the weathered floorboards before he reached for the dog tags still hanging around my neck.
I didn’t make any move to lift my head or slide my hair aside to make it easier for him. As long as those tags were on my neck instead of his, he was safe. He was alive.
“I’m not going to die over there,” he whispered, pulling the tags over his head. They clinked together as they fell against his chest. “I’m coming back to you.”
My throat was burning from trying to keep myself from crying. “You can’t promise that.”
He reached for the blanket that had fallen on the floor and gently tucked it around my still-naked body. It was strange how I’d forgotten I was naked until he’d taken his tags off of me. Now though, I felt bare. Exposed. Vulnerable. My dress was somewhere around, even though I didn’t see it. We’d barely managed to make it to the parking lot before falling into the backseat together.
“Yes I can,” he said, his thumb tracing my collarbone before tucking the other corner around my shoulder. “Have I ever broken a promise to you?” He angled himself so he was in front of me, so I was forced to look him in the eyes.
“This is different. You can’t know for sure.”
“I’m going to enjoy watching you eat those words when I’m standing in front of that pretty face in twelve months, Blue Bird.”
I pulled the blanket tighter around me. “You know I don’t like it when you call me that when I’m mad at you.”
“You’re mad? At me?” He blinked. “Why?”
“You know why.” My eyes automatically moved toward the line of buses.
“To set the record straight, it’s the marine corps sending me to Iraq. Not me by personal choice.”
“No, but you made the personal choice to join the marine corps.”
“Yeah, because I didn’t want to spend the next twenty years pumping gas at the Qwik Mart.” His hand curled around the back of the front seat. “We’ve talked about this, Camryn. I’m not cut out for college, and I sure as shit am not going to spend my life working a minimum-wage part-time job and stuck in Medford. The marines is a chance at a real life. A career where I can be promoted and provide for a family and get a chance to kick a little ass every once in a while.” He leaned forward to kiss my forehead. Then my lips. “This is the ticket to that life we’ve been talking about for years. But it comes with a price.” His mouth covered mine again, this time a bit longer. “I’ll be okay. I’ll make it back.”
My eyes closed so I could focus on the taste of him left behind on my mouth. “You’re always the first to charge into anything. You don’t hang back. You don’t like the shadows. You like being the one who cast those shadows.”
When my eyes finally opened, I found his dark blue ones inches away from mine. His light hair, buzzed short so he was all ready for deployment, the few freckles scattered across the bridge of his nose, the way his jaw tightened when he stared at me, those were the things I’d remember when I’d lay awake at night, wondering where he was. If he was safe. If he was thinking about me. As long as I held on to a part of him, he could never really leave me.
“I’m coming home to you,” he said like a solemn vow. “It might be in more than one piece, but I’m coming home to you.”
I tucked his tags inside his shirt. They’d become cold again. “A thousand pieces, I don’t care. Just come home.”
His smile was almost as forced as mine as he leaned in, pulling me into his arms one last time. He held me for a minute, one hand secured around my neck, the other around my back, rocking me against him. Then he kissed me one last time. “Gotta go, Blue Bird. The Middle East isn’t going to settle itself down.”
As he threw open the back door to go around to the trunk to grab his bag, I leaned across the seat. He was leaving. For what felt like forever. “Yeah, don’t think you’re single-handedly responsible for tackling that agenda either.”
Throwing the bag over his shoulder, he crouched beside me. This smile wasn’t contrived. It was real. Perfect. “I’ll see you soon.”
“Soon?”
His hand formed around my cheek as his thumb traced the seam of my lips. “Sounds better than see you in a year, right?” Tucking his thumb into his mouth, tasting my lips on it, he gave me a wicked smirk before shoving to a stand and starting toward the buses. “I’m coming back for you, Camryn Blue Gardner, so you’d better be waiting for me, or I’ll just have to come find you and remind you why you fell crazy in love with me.”
Tucking the blanket around myself, I slid out of the car, leaning over the open door. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be waiting.”
He’d started to jog backward. “Waiting as in a few days until some other guy makes his play?”
My eyes rolled as I gave him a look. Brecken and I’d been together since I was fifteen and he was seventeen. Even before that, we’d been inseparable, no one able to come between us.
I cupped my hand around my mouth. “Waiting as in forever.”
“I won’t keep you waiting that long. Just long enough.” He was shouting now, the rumbling buses muffling his voice.
“Long enough for what?” I yelled back.
Even with this much distance between us, I didn’t miss it. The look in his eyes. The tip of his smile. “For you to agree to marry me the moment I get back.”
The breeze played with my hair, sending it away from him, like forces out of our control were already pulling us apart. “I will!”
He paused just below the bus steps, his eyes consuming me from a hundred yards away. “It’s, I do, Blue Bird. I do.” He grinned and handed his bag off to the person stuffing them into one of the outside compartments. Then his hands cupped around his mouth, and he dropped his head back. “I do, too!”
His voice echoed across the parking lot, earning the attention of more than just me.
That was it. He climbed the stairs, turned the corner, and disappeared inside the bus. I wouldn’t see him for a year. I might not see him ever . . .
My jaw tensed as I put a stop to that train of thought. Wedding vows and rings were the last things on my mind as his bus lurched away from the curb.
“Just come back to me,” I whispered to no one. “Just come back.”

 

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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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Temping the Boss by Natasha Madison

 

 

 

Coming April 3rd

 

Pre-order exclusively via iBooks HERE

 

Lauren
Going back to work was supposed to be a painless transition, but when my new boss turns out to be an arrogant, cocky jerk, he quickly turns my professional life into a world of torture. Okay, fine, calling him an asshat before knowing he was my boss wasn’t my finest moment. Hating him should be easy. I just never counted on him being so gorgeous or charming when he’s not annoying me.

Austin
I expected my new assistant to be professional and punctual, but all I’m getting are dirty looks and rude comments. I should fire the little hellion, but instead all I can think about is bending her over my desk and breaking every rule I’ve ever made for myself.

One look. One touch. One night. If we break the rules, our lives will never be the same again.

Good thing rules were made to be broken. And besides, it feels so good to Tempt the Boss.
Lauren



Beep, Beep, Beep. My hand snakes out from underneath the warm cocoon of my blankets. Grabbing my phone from the side table, I shut it off and bring it under the blankets with me. Seven minutes later, I feel it vibrate under my pillow between my hands.

Pulling myself up and swinging my legs out of the bed, I walk downstairs, going straight for the coffee machine. Thank god for this programmed machine, because the coffee is ready for me to drink.

I blink my eyes a couple of times while I turn on the light over the stove. With it lightly dimmed, I lean against the counter and look at the clock. Five-thirty on the nose. Smelling the coffee, I slowly take a sip to not burn my tongue. My brain jolts awake as the hot, strong brew rolls over my tongue.

It’s the calm before the storm. In thirty minutes, I will have to get the kids up and get them ready for the bus that is always here at exactly seven-ten.

I look into the dining room, taking in the hurricane that is my children. Opened backpacks linger on the floor near the chairs, papers are tossed on the table, homework they finished but haven’t put away. No matter how much I tell them to clean up the table before they go to sleep, Gabriel, who is ten, and Rachel, who is six and a half going on twenty, always leave it until the last minute. Something they inherited from their father.

I look around the house—the open concept floor plan makes it easy to see into the rooms around me—taking in the changes that the house has gone through in the last six months. No more men’s sneakers at the door. No more suit jackets hanging on the back of the chair at the table blending in with the backpacks.

Nope. Nothing. Nada. Taking another sip of the coffee, I let my mind wander to when it all changed.

Walking up to the children’s school for the parent/teacher interview, I am running late, of course. I had to pick up Gabriel from soccer practice, while rushing Rachel to gymnastics, then we grabbed McDonald’s in the car on the way home. Eating my cheeseburger in the car is why I now have a mustard stain on my shirt. Pulling a scarf that I find in my backseat, I throw it over my neck hoping it covers the stain.

Once in the school, I make my way to the classroom of Gabriel’s teacher. I run down a list of things that I need to get done when I get home. Thinking about the birthday parties that the kids are invited to this weekend. The gifts are already sitting in the trunk waiting to be wrapped. I hope that Jake will at least be available on Sunday.

Stay-at-home mom. That is my job, and I love it. Sometimes. Most times. More days than not. My husband, Jake, is an ad executive in the biggest marketing firm in the city. He spent the last eight years working his way up the ladder. His long work hours are our sacrifice until he gets that corner office, then he can cut back a bit. At least, that’s what he keeps saying. I still stand by my conclusion he is a workaholic.

We met when I was fresh out of college; I had just started working at the same agency he did. Not the one he’s with now, but the first agency he worked at after college. I was hired as the office temp assistant. Since it was a small office of only five, it was normal that we spent all day together. Those long hours together resulted in us becoming good friends. Becoming a couple was the natural next step. I don’t think it surprised anyone when we walked in on a Monday morning holding hands, both of us looking at each other with our hearts in our eyes.

Getting to Ms. Alvarez’s door, I knock once and then walk in. Looking around, I’m shocked to see Jake sitting in one of the chairs in front of the desk, while Ms. Alvarez sits in hers.

Walking up to him, I lean down and kiss him on the lips. “Hey, I didn’t know you would be here,” I say, sitting down in the chair next to him.

He nods at me and then looks down at his shoes. I don’t know how to describe what came next, except to say that my world crashed around me. It’s like my heart knew it. It’s like my body knew it had to go into protection mode.

“Lauren,” he says, still looking at his shoes. I look down at them wondering what he is looking at exactly. I will never forget them. Brown, with light brown laces. Stain free, scuff free. Clean.

It is at this point I start to panic, start to think something is wrong. “What’s the matter?” I ask him and then look over at Ms. Alvarez. She is gorgeous with beautiful thick, black curly hair that is always styled perfectly. Whether she wears it in a ponytail or loose, you can’t help but envy her fantastic hair. She always looks so put together, but right now, she’s looking at my husband nervously as she blinks away tears, and her hands clasped together in her lap are shaking.

“I’ve met someone.” The breath I have been holding rushes from my lungs. My legs go so weak, I feel it so strongly even though I am sitting. My heart is beating so hard and fast, I hear it echo in my ears. My mouth gets dry, and my hands start to tremble as I feel that heart starting to break.

“What?” I look at him and then at Ms. Alvarez. “Jake, now is not a good time. Not here.” It’s like I’m begging him to not tell me. Like I’m begging him to take it back.

“I love her,” he says with a whisper, and then all the pieces to the puzzle start coming together. Gabe’s tutoring classes that Jake would always pick him up from—the ones they’d always be late getting home from. I look at my son’s teacher and see a tear run out of the corner of her eye while she smiles at my husband. My fucking husband—the one who made vows to me. The one who promised to love, honor, and cherish me for the rest of his life.

“You?” I say to him and then look at her. “You slept with my husband?” I ask her while I feel Jake’s hand on top of mine. I shake it off, not wanting to feel his touch right now. Not wanting him to try to comfort me.

“It was me. I started this. I did this, not Camilla.” He tries to reach out and touch me again. Getting up from the chair, I start to pace the room. Thoughts are running through my mind. How did I not know? How did I not suspect? Was it because I was too tired for sex? Was it because I still needed to lose the extra ten pounds that I had lingering on me? Was it because I was too tired at the end of the day to even talk to him?

Stopping in my tracks, I look at them. He has now stood up and so has she. A desk still separates them. “We had sex last night,” I tell him, and he doesn’t continue to look at me; instead, he looks at her.

“It was the last time. Kind of a good-bye kind of thing,” he says, now looking at the floor.

“A good-bye thing.” I now raise my voice. “A good-bye thing?” I shake my head. “How long? How long has this been going on? How long have you been sleeping with your student’s married father?” My voice is firm, anger starting to rush through me.

“Lauren, let’s not—” he tries to say, but I don’t give him a chance. I yell, and this time loudly, “How long? How long have you been sleeping with her and coming home to me? How long have you been telling me you love me and lying about it? How fucking long, Jake? How much of my life is a lie?”

They both look at each other. “Seven months,” he answers right before there is a knock on the door. The principal sticks his head inside “Oh. Mr. and Mrs. Watson, is everything okay?”  The poor man doesn’t see anything coming.

“Oh, we are totally fine.” My voice starts to rise, while my hands start to shake. “I’ve come to attend my son’s parent/teacher conference only to be told his teacher is fucking my husband. Looks like in addition to tutoring her students in math, she also offers sex ed lessons to their fathers! She deserves a raise.” I laugh humorlessly. Maybe I’m having a stroke. Maybe, just maybe, this is all a dream. “But other than that, I would say everything is perfect.”

I walk to the chair that I have been sitting in, picking up the purse that fell off my shoulder while my life fell apart. Grabbing it, I turn to walk out as Jake grabs my wrist. “Lauren, wait.”

I yank my wrist away from him, the force shocking both of us. “Don’t fucking touch me,” I hiss before I walk past the principal and right into the hallway, where I’m greeted by the president of the PTA, Colleen.

The tears have now started to freely fall down my cheeks. “Oh, honey, I just heard.” I look at this woman who I thought was actually my friend. I tilt my head to the side. “You knew?” I don’t really need her to answer, since she puts her head down to look at her hands she is wringing together.

I can’t stop the angry laugh that bursts from my mouth. I’m that oblivious spouse who everyone makes fun of. I’m that wife who said it would never happen to me. I’m that woman who they all feel sorry for. I’m her. That poor, clueless woman who can’t seem to keep her husband from falling dick first into a sexy, twenty-something woman. I look around to see who else is looking at us.

The secretary, the principal, Colleen, and four of her posse, who are there trying to get parents to join the PTA, Jake, and her. “Does everyone know he was having an affair? Was I the only one who didn’t know?” I throw my hands out to the side, turning on my heel as I walk out of the school, vowing never to return.

I get in my car and make one phone call to Kaleigh, my sister. I don’t know how much she understands between the sobs and the yelling, but ten minutes later when I pull up to the curb of my perfect house, she is there throwing Jake’s clothes out of our bedroom window. They land right in the front of my house on the lawn.

It takes her a full five minutes to toss everything out. I stand here, still in shock, still in a daze, looking at the mountain of his clothes. Clothes I bought him. Clothes I picked out. Clothes I washed, ironed, and put away. I don’t see Kaleigh come from the side of the house with the gasoline container in her hand. I just see her pouring it all over his clothes. She walks over to me, handing me the packet of matches. “Let’s burn this motherfucker down.”

And we do. Till one of the neighbors calls the fire department, who rush out, three full trucks, lights blaring in the night, an EMT, and one police cruiser. I sit here on my lawn, watching the flames rising up from the pile of everything that he owns before the whole mess is drenched in water.

The second alarm sounds, bringing me out of my trip back into that nightmare.

“Gabe! Rachel! Time to get up, guys! Mommy starts her new job today,” I yell, hoping they hear me. I take another sip of my coffee before I make my way upstairs to get ready for my new job. Yay me.

 

When her nose isn’t buried in a book, or her fingers flying across a keyboard writing, she’s in the kitchen creating gourmet meals. You can find her, in four inch heels no less, in the car chauffeuring kids, or possibly with her husband scheduling his business trips. It’s a good thing her characters do what she says, because even her Labrador doesn’t listen to her…

 

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The Perfect Illusion by Winter Renshaw

 

Coming April 27th

 

It’s only pretend…

And it’s only three months.

I’m in the midst of scrawling “I QUIT!” onto his fancy cardstock letterhead when my boss corners me. He needs a favor, he says. And then he asks how well I can act …

Hudson Rutherford needs a fiancée.

With his old-moneyed parents forcing him to marry some bratty hotel heiress and his hedonistic, playboy lifestyle at stake, the only way to get them to back off is to make them think he’s truly, madly, deeply in love … with me—his third personal assistant this year.

But I can hardly stand working for him as it is.

Hudson is crazy hot and well-aware. He’s arrogant, spoiled, and silver-spooned. He checks me out when he thinks I’m not looking, and his life is a revolving door of beautiful women. Plus, he can’t even pronounce my name correctly—how’s he going to convince his family he’s in love with me?!

I’m seconds from giving him a resounding “no” when he flashes his signature dimpled smirk and gives me a number that happens to contain a whole mess of zeroes …

On second thought, I think I can swallow my pride.

But, oh baby, there’s one thing I haven’t told him, one teensy-tiny thing that could make this just a hair complicated …

Here’s hoping this entire thing doesn’t explode in our faces.
Chapter One

Mari

Dear Mr. Rutherford,
I humbly request that you accept this as my two-weeks’ notice. As of Friday, May 26th, I will be stepping down from my position as your personal assistant. I’ll do my best to ensure this is a smooth transition for the company.
Sincerely,
Maribel Collins

I press my pen into his thick cardstock, scratching out my neatly written resignation before crumpling the paper in my hand and pushing it to the corner of my desk. It’s too nice, and Hudson Rutherford does not deserve nice.
It’s half past seven, which means I have thirty minutes to come up with something better than this—something that’s going to leave a lasting impression.
I’m his third personal assistant this year and it’s only May. There’s a reason no one can tolerate working for him longer than a month or two, and someone ought to point this out to him.
Might as well be me.
Clearing my throat, I try again.

Hudson,

You’re rude and inconsiderate, and I no longer wish to work for you. You think the world revolves around you. Your excessive wealth disgusts me, as does your secret Rolodex of women’s phone numbers that you keep hidden in your third desk drawer on the left. Your good looks are overshadowed by your vanity and arrogance, and your kindness, I’m convinced, is non-existent. You treat your employees like indentured servants, and you’re the most hypocritical asshole I’ve ever met.
I work sixty hour weeks for you without so much as a thank you, a raise, or a glowing performance review. I’m tired of running your menial errands, and I didn’t spend four years at college to make photo copies and coffee.
I didn’t sign up for this.
You lied to me.

With zero fondness and absolutely no gratitude,
Mari

Sighing, I crumple this one too. I think my message got lost amongst all the spiteful word vomit, and the last thing I want to do is come across as trite.
Fed up is what I am.
Tired.
Underutilized, underpaid, and overworked.
But not trite.
I toss the wrinkled paper in the waste basket and grab one last sheet of letterhead. Ditching the formalities, I decide to go a more direct route. My mother once told me it’s not in what you say, it’s in what you don’t say. And my father always says actions speak louder than words. Maybe I’ve been overthinking this whole resignation letter? With my pen firmly gripped, I scrawl my final version.

Hudson,

I QUIT!

Mari

It’s perfect.
Smiling, I admire my work, fold it into thirds, then slide it into a cream-colored envelope with Rutherford Architectural’s logo in the upper left corner. Licking the seal and scribbling his name on the front, I stick it on top of a pile of mail I plan to hand to him the second he arrives. I’ll give him a moment to read it, and while he’s doing so, I’ll pack up my things and make a beeline for the elevator before he has a chance to stop me.
“Mary.” I glance up from my work station to see Hudson strolling into work in his signature navy suit and skinny black tie. He’s early today.
“It’s Mari,” I correct him for the millionth time, inhaling his cedar and moss cologne. It’s the only thing I’ve come to like about this man. “Rhymes with sorry—remember?”
His eyes narrow in my direction, and as he angles toward me, I see his right hand lifted to his ear. He’s on the phone.
Hudson says nothing, only gathers the mail from the corner of my desk and strides down the hall toward the enormous glass-walled office that tends to make my stomach twist every time I have to walk in that direction.
This entire office space was his design. Glass walls. Zero privacy. Everything is clean-lined and modern. Chestnut-colored leather seating, white walls, reclaimed wood and custom mid-century modern lighting installations are working in tandem here to create a space buzzing with creative inspiration, and all decorative accessories have to be approved by the head honcho himself. I tried to bring in a gray ceramic planter last month for my dendrobium orchids and Hudson said it was too drab and industrialist. He claimed it would fuck with his energy—and he uses words like “fuck” and “energy” because he thinks he’s some kind of renaissance boss.
My heart’s pounding crazy fast, and I’m stuck trying to determine if I should bolt now or wait. Hudson usually checks his mail first thing in the morning, but for all I know, he’s still on his phone call.
Drumming my fingers against my glass desktop, my feet remain firmly planted on the wood floor, though they may as well be frozen solid. The second my phone rings, it sends my heart leaping into my throat. I’m not afraid of him—I just hate drama. And I have a feeling Hudson’s going to try to make this into a big thing.
“Yes?” I answer, my eyes scanning the caller ID. Hudson’s extension flashes across the screen.
He exhales.
Oh, god.
He read it.
And now, the moment of truth.
“Mary, what is this?” he asks.
“What is … what, sir?” I ask. And that’s another thing—what kind of twenty-nine-year-old architect demands to be called “sir?”
“This invitation to the Brown-Hauer Gala? RSVPs were due two weeks ago. Call and find out if it’s not too late,” he says, his voice monotone. The tear of paper fills the background. He’s quiet.
“I thought you said you didn’t want to go?” I ask. I’m not sure why I’m phrasing this as a question because he did say he didn’t want to go. As a matter of fact, I know I have it in an email …
“I said that?” he asks, a sardonic chuckle in his question.
“Yes.”
“I don’t remember saying that.” He exhales. “I never would’ve said that. Not to the Brown-Hauer. That gala hosts the who’s who in the architectural world, are you fucking kidding me?”
His voice raises slightly, and my breath seizes. I should just hang up and get the hell out of here.
“Mary,” he says.
“Mari,” I correct. “Rhymes with sorry.”
In case he didn’t hear me two minutes ago …
“Can you come back here for a second?” he asks, his voice as stiff as his winning personality. “There’s something we need to discuss. Immediately.”
Anxiety forces my jaw into a tensed state. I shouldn’t let this asshole get to me, and I know that, but he’s literally the boss from hell. People like him are the reason happy hour was created.
At least he won’t be my boss for much longer.
I’m almost positive he’s read my note and he’s calling me back to try and talk me out of it but I refuse.
My stomach churns, and I think I’m going to be sick—but not because I’m nervous.
Not because he scares me.
But because I’m pregnant.
And morning sickness is one hell of a bitch.
“I need a minute,” I say, reaching for the bottle of room temperature water in front of me, though the sight of it intensifies my nausea. I meant to stop for saltines and ginger ale on the way here this morning, but I spaced it off because I was too preoccupied with second-guessing my decision to quit my job so abruptly with single motherhood on the horizon.
You may have a minute to spare, but I don’t,” he says. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it can wait. My office. Now.”
Hudson hangs up before I have a chance to protest, and before I can stop myself, I’m marching back to his office like Darth Vader on a mission, heavy breathing and all.
I’m doing this.
I’m standing my ground.
I’m quitting.
And I’m walking out of here with my head held high.
Normally I’d knock three times on his door and wait for him to tell me to enter, but seeing how all the walls here are made out of crystal-clear glass, he’s looking directly at me, and I’m seconds from quitting, I don’t see the need.
Rushing into his office, I place my hands on my hips and plant myself in the doorway. Hudson reclines in his chair, his hands resting behind his neck as his full lips hold an amused little smirk that perfectly contradicts the snarky tone he took with me a few moments ago.
Everything about this man is a walking contradiction, and it drives me crazy.
“What’s with the attitude, Mary?” he asks, eyes scanning me from head to toe and back. “It’s Friday. Lighten up.”
I glance at his desk where my letter rests on top of the mail pile.
He hasn’t opened it yet …
“What did you need?” I ask, but only because I’m curious. I don’t actually intend on doing a damn thing for this smug asshole from this moment on.
“Did you get my email this morning?” he asks.
Ah, yes. The infamous pre-work emails he sends from his treadmill at five in the morning. Not going to miss those.
My brows meet. “I haven’t had a chance to check it yet.”
“I’m going to need you to pick up my dry cleaning at ten. Drop everything off at my place afterwards, then stop by Palmetto’s Deli to grab me a number four with no mustard. And make sure you check it before you leave. Last time you didn’t, and you know how much I despise soggy bread. Oh. And after lunch, I need you to call the Brown-Hauer foundation and get me on the list for their gala. Email me as soon as you’re finished so I know you didn’t forget …”
He’s rambling on, but I tune him out. My fists clench at my sides, and my vision darkens. He doesn’t need to qualify his requests with insults.
This …
This is why I hate this man.
This is why I have to quit. Immediately.
I don’t care what he says, I refuse to let him talk me out of this.
I came to Manhattan with a gleam in my eye, my little Nebraskan heart filled with optimism and hope. I wanted to be successful. I wanted to be someone.
Little did I know, nobody in New York cares if you graduated at the top of your class at some tiny little private college just north of the Bible belt. All that matters out here, is who you know. And if you don’t know anyone? Then you have one of two options: screw your way to the top or work your ass off and hope that someone throws you a bone.
I had every intention of doing this with integrity, but clearly accepting a position at Rutherford Architectural was a bad move in the wrong direction.
So much for building up a respectable curriculum vitae.   
“Mary, are you listening?” he asks, leaning forward in his chair, his elbows resting on his glass desk. Behind him is an expansive view of downtown Manhattan flanked by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with every architectural college text, magazine, and coffee table book known to man. If there’s one other positive thing I could say about Hudson Rutherford—besides the fact that he smells like money and oozes obnoxious charm that apparently no one but me can see through—is that he’s passionate about architecture. The man lives, sleeps, and breathes design.
If I wasn’t so busy hating Hudson, I’d probably find his intense passion kind of sexy …
“No,” I say.
“Excuse me?” He scoffs, smoothing his thin black tie down his muscled chest before straightening his shoulders.
“When you speak to me like that,” I say, holding my head high, “it makes me want to tune you out. I can’t help it. It’s an automatic reaction.”
His jaw clenches, but his eyes glint, and I wonder if he’s ever had an assistant speak up before?
Doubtful.
“Am I supposed to speak to you like you’re on my level? Like we’re equals?” he asks, chuffing. “Mary, I’m your boss. Your superior.”
“Which is exactly why you should talk to me with a little more respect. It’s called being professional.” My lips are tight and numb. I can’t believe I’m saying this … “I make your coffee. I field your calls. I grab your lunch. I do anything and everything you ask because let’s face it, I’m the idiot who signed up for this job, but you treat me like your whipping post. If you forget something, it’s always my fault. If someone else forgets something, it’s always somehow my fault. If you’re having a bad day, it’s my fault. If I only work fifty hours instead of my scheduled forty, you make me feel like a slacker. If I ask for a day off, nine times out of ten, I’m told ‘no.’ It’s exhausting working for you, Hudson. It’s only been two months, and I can’t do it anymore.”
“So what are you saying?” he asks. I try to get a read on his expressionless face, but it’s impossible. He’s a man who holds his cards close to his chest at all times. I’m not sure whether he’s panicked, relieved, or something else entirely.
Pointing to the letter on the top of his mail pile, I say, “I quit.”
It doesn’t feel as liberating as I thought it would, and it’s all rather anti-climactic, but it’s done. I turn on my heels and show myself out of his office, hurrying to get the hell out of the place I’ve come to call the Pristine Palace for the last two months.
“Wait,” he calls after me as I head for my desk to gather my things. I glance behind me only to see him standing in his glass doorway. “I’d like to make you an offer before you go.”
Ha. Just as I expected.
I smirk, rolling my eyes as I keep walking. “No, thanks.”
“Mary.” There’s a deep husk in his voice, but I continue strutting away, my heels clicking on the reclaimed wood floor.
When I reach my desk, I grab my bag from the bottom drawer and toss a few personal items inside: my hand cream, lip balm, a tiny bag of emergency chocolate, and my back up water bottle. I’d toss some company pens in there too because they’re fancy as hell, but I prefer never to so much as glance at the Rutherford Architecture logo ever again. Before I forget, I slide the elevator key to his penthouse apartment off my keyring and slap it on the desktop.
“Fine.” The sudden, close proximity of Hudson’s voice jumpstarts my heart. I glance up to see him standing before me, his smooth hands splayed across my desk and his back arched. His sapphire blue eyes meet mine, refusing to let them go. “You can quit. Be my fucking guest. I’ll have you replaced by tomorrow afternoon.”
I offer a faux smile. “Glad everything’s going to work out for you.”
I fling my bag over my shoulder and stand tall, eyes grazing past his shoulder toward the elevator bay where the doors part and Hannah from accounting steps off. Our eyes meet, and she gives me what is clearly her “Oh, shit …” face.
It’s a shame I won’t be sticking around long enough to tell her everything’s fine. Everything’s abso-fucking-lutely fine.
“Goodbye, Hudson. And best of luck in finding a suitable replacement. I’m sorry I couldn’t be what you needed.” I move out from behind my desk and give him a sarcastic smirk, only I’m not prepared when he slips his hand around my wrist and guides me closer to him. “What the hell are you doing?”
I yank my hand from his, clutching it against my chest, fingers balled into a tight fist.
“One last thing before you go …” he says, his eyes softening just enough that I almost believe he’s being sincere for the first time since I’ve known him.
Trying not to laugh too loud, I shake my head. “No.”
“Hear me out,” he says.
“Why should I?”
“Because I’ll make it worth your while.”
Rolling my eyes, I suck in a deep breath, mulling over the extent of my curiosity. What could he possibly need from me, a disgruntled employee in the midst of storming out of his office?
My stomach gurgles and another wave of morning sickness evolves into an impressive hot flash. A sheen of sweat forms across my forehead. I think I’m going to be sick, and if he doesn’t get the hell out of my way, I’m about to be sick all over his immaculate Prada suit.
The wave passes, dissipating into nothing, and I pull in a clean breath of the hospital-grade air Hudson insists on piping through the office vents because it helps “keep his energy clean.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, “but there isn’t anything you could say or do at this point that would convince me to work another day next to you. I won’t be doing you any favors, Hudson. You disgust me.”
Oh, god. Here comes the word vomit, rising up my chest with unstoppable force.
“You walk around like you’re better than everyone,” I add. “You’re self-centered. And arrogant. And cold. And inconsiderate. And rude. And you’re delusional if you think you’re going to get me to stick around, so, goodbye.”
The corner of his mouth smirks, revealing a half-second flash of a dimple that sends an inconvenient and unexpected weakness to my knees. I hate how attractive this man is. And I hate how distracting his looks are.
“Calm down, Mary.” His voice is low, and when he leans in close, I find myself inhaling—and enjoying—the warm, musky scent radiating off his skin. “I know I’m a pain in the ass to work for. Well aware.”
“Then why don’t you try to change that?”
“Why should I? There’s an entire city full of girls just like you begging to work here. Why should I have to change who I am to accommodate them? Besides, there’s a whole world of assholes just like me—no, worse than me—waiting on the outside. If my employees can’t handle me, they’re sure as hell not going to be able to handle the next guy. The way I see it, I’m doing you all a favor. I’m prepping you for the real world.”
“I refuse to believe bosses like you are the norm.”
“Then you’re extremely naïve.” He huffs, his indigo-blue eyes lifting to the ceiling then back to me. “Anyway, three million dollars.”
“Three million dollars—what?” I squint at him, not sure where he’s going with this.
“If you agree to help me out, I’ll give you three million dollars. Cash. And then you’ll never have to work with this insufferable asshole ever again.”
He’s got to be joking.
“Aside from the fact that you’ve officially lost it, I’m not sticking around, not here. Not as your personal assistant. I’m better than this.”
“I’m not asking you to be my personal assistant.”
“Okay, whatever it is, I’m not interested. I have a degree in business analytics and international marketing with a minor in finance.” My arms tighten across my chest. I’m not interested in his bait money or whatever the hell kind of stunt he’s attempting to pull. “I know my worth, and I know when a job isn’t worth it.”
“So you understand that three million dollars is a pretty generous chunk of change, yes? Since you, uh, minored in finance and you know all about … worth?” He’s trying to fight a smile, like he’s not taking me seriously.
“Can you not?” I lift my hand to my right hip.
“Not what?”
“Can you not be so patronizing? It never ends with you.”
“I’ll work on it,” he says. “If you stick around.”
“No need,” I remind him. “I’m not.”
“Swallow your pride and agree to help me,” he says. “You won’t regret it.”
“No,” I say with as much conviction as I can drum up. A wave of nausea rolls over me once more, a silent reminder that it’s not about me anymore. “Whatever it is … no.”
Three weeks ago, after a sexually debilitating dry spell no twenty-five-year-old should ever have to endure, I downloaded one of those stupid dating apps that everyone knows is really only used for hooking up, and I found myself the perfect one-night stand.
I thought I was smart about it. I’m on the pill. He used a condom. All precautionary measures were taken.
He was Ivy League educated, or so he claimed, and he had one of those rich people names, Hollister. His photos were all Nantucket and sailboats and he quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald in his bio. When we met, Hollister was friendly and well-mannered, well-groomed and clean cut. With disarming honey brown eyes and thick, sandy brown hair, he was everything he had shown himself to be. And the night was satisfying enough if not a little boring. But it filled the void and accomplished the mission, and we both went on our ways.
But a few days ago, I happened to pop open my birth control pack and realized I was four sugar pills in with no sign of Aunt Flo. An hour later, I’d purchased an array of tests from the local Duane Reade, never believing in a million years I’d find myself face-to-face with a myriad of blue plus signs and happy faces.
That’s the day the bottom dropped out.
Hollister was the first person I called—it only seemed right since he was the father. But his number was conveniently no longer in service. I had no way of getting a hold of him and no way of knowing what his last name was. I even spent hours trying to find him again on the dating app, but it was as if he’d just disappeared into thin air.
So now it’s just us …
Me and this tiny little life I’m now fully responsible for—on my own.
This weekend I’ll pack up my place, rent a moving truck with whatever credit remains on my MasterCard, and hightail it back to Nebraska. I can’t afford to raise a baby in this city, at least not by myself. And now that I don’t have a job, I can’t afford the rent on my shoebox studio anyway.
“You’re a fool.” Hudson watches me sling my purse over my shoulder, and then he eyes the elevator bay in the distance. “With this money, the right investments and a little time, you could be an extremely wealthy woman. Now you’re going to spend the rest of your life working for assholes exactly like me because you were too proud to say yes to this one little favor.”
“You’re planting doubt in my head,” I say. “You’re trying to manipulate me. I see through you, Hudson. Always have. You’re nothing more than a self-serving asshole. You couldn’t shut it off if you tried.”
“You’re right. Me and every other man in this city.” His soft, strong hands slip into his pants pockets and he exhales like a man who shamelessly owns his behavior and makes no apologies. “Anyway, aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to know what I want from you?”
“Not really.” My lips bunch in one corner. “You pay me forty grand a year here, which isn’t really a livable wage in this city I might add. And you work me to the bone. I shudder to think of how much work three million dollars would entail.”
“Can you act, Mary?” he asks, ignoring my refusal.
“That’s random.”
“It’s not random at all. It’s pretty straightforward. Stop wasting my time and answer it.”
“I was in drama club in high school,” I say, smoothing my hair from my face and pulling my shoulders back like a proud drama nerd. “And for a couple years in college. I’ve done community theatre as well.”
Hudson smiles.
I’ve never seen him full-on smile like this.
“Perfect.” His blue eyes crinkle at the corner. “I have to have you, Mary. You’re hired.”
My jaw hangs. “I’m … what? I didn’t say … I don’t want … no.”
Hudson wraps his hand around my wrist, pulling me just outside the front doors of the office and out of ear-shot of the rest of the office.
“Listen,” he says, voice low. He tightens the space between us. “I’m sure you’re wondering what the fuck I’m about to propose and rightfully so. But believe me when I tell you it’s going to change your life. And mine—because I’m a self-serving bastard and we both know that. But it’ll be the easiest three million you’ll ever make in your life, and when it’s all said and done, you’ll never have to see me—or work for anyone like me—ever again. It’s win-win, Mary. And you’d be a damn fool to walk away.”
I inhale, harboring a breath before letting it go. When our eyes meet, I silently chide myself for remotely considering making a deal with this devil.
Sure, he’s impossibly handsome with his chiseled jaw, dimpled smirk, coffee-colored hair, steel blue eyes, runner’s build, designer wardrobe, and genius IQ—not that I’ve taken inventory of his assets before … but none of that is enough to overpower the ugliness that resides beneath his perfect, polished façade.
Without saying a word, I turn on my heel and press the call button on the nearest elevator.
“What are you doing?” he asks, voice rushed.
The doors part, and I step on flashing a smirk and shrugging my shoulders. “Being a damn fool.”

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

 

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

 

 

Coming April 10th
Pre-order exclusively via
iBooks HERE
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AP new - synopsis.jpg

“I bet I can untangle you.”

At an airport baggage claim, Penny Darling looks up from her knotted mess of ear buds to find the sexiest hunk of man she’s ever seen. He’s got a military haircut, a scar through his eyebrow, and he’s rocking a pastel pink dress shirt like only a real man can. But Penny is on a man-free diet so she leaves the airport without succumbing to his delicious double-entendres…or his dreamy dimples.

PI Russ Macklin can’t take his eyes off Penny. As she sashays out of the airport with hips swaying and curls bouncing, he suspects they may share more than just sweltering chemistry. That suitcase she’s rolling along behind her? It looks a lot like his.

Because it is.

When he tracks her down, he holds her bag hostage in exchange for a date. Their night begins with margaritas and ends in urgent care, and Russ proves that Cosmo’s theory about a very particular type of orgasm was oh-so-wrong.

In Penny, Russ finds a small-town sweetheart with a very naughty side. For the first time ever, he’s thinking about picket fences. Penny finds in Russ a loving, caring man who understands the power of massaging showerheads.

But Russ is only in Port Flamingo for a week. They agree it’ll be a fling and nothing more. Because really, they can’t fall ass-over-teakettle in love just like that…

Can they?

99k words. HEA. Dual POV. No cheating.
Featuring a big drooly dog named Guppy.


1
Russ

 

I step off the escalator, and there she is. She’s looking down, doing something with her phone. Air conditioning blows on her from above, making the hem of her purple dress flutter against her leg. And fuck, look at those legs. Look at that body. Look at that woman. Underneath the dress, instead of a bra she’s wearing the top half of a pink bikini, tied at the nape of her neck in a bow.
Welcome to Florida. God bless the Sunshine State.
The place is dismal, except for her. On the walls are 1980s tourism posters, rippling with the humidity. All the guys have Magnum, P.I. mustaches, and all the women look like extras from Baywatch. She’s a vision in the middle of all of it, an oasis at the goddamned baggage claim. I circle the clumps of old people bumping into each other with walkers, like slow-motion bumper cars. As I get closer, I see her face. Her freckles, her slightly shiny pink lips. Her breasts, which are fucking beautiful. But her expression, it isn’t beautiful. It’s seriously pissed. Nostrils flared, teeth set, jaw clenched.
In her hands is a whole big tangle of ear buds, and maybe a phone charger. A big knot of cords, like a wad of cold pasta.
I get closer. Not too close, because I don’t want to be that guy, but close enough to see the small starfish necklace dangling from her neck, and close enough to smell something warm, and sweet. Familiar. Vanilla, maybe. Whatever it is, it’s fucking delicious.
On the wall behind her is a big banner. It’s got a faded old cartoon flamingo, flapping his wings and grinning. Underneath is the caption:
WELCOME TO PORT FLAMINGO! HOME OF THE FIRST AIR CONDITIONER!
No shit. Because it’s hot, and I don’t mean like ordinary summertime hot. I mean hot like the time the sauna malfunctioned at my gym and turned all the drywall in the locker room into oatmeal. She doesn’t look hot at all though. She looks cool, and soft, and beautiful. Just the thing I need. Like a vodka soda after a long fucking day.
I set my shoulder bag at my feet and take off my suit jacket. Her braid comes down over one shoulder, the curl at the bottom nestling into her cleavage. I roll up my sleeves. “I bet I can untangle you.”
She looks up at me. Her eyes are deep blue and sparkling. A smile starts to pinch her cheeks. The end of the charger swings between us. “I’m okay. Got myself into this mess, got to get myself out of it.”
“Sometimes two is better than one.”
She smacks her lips at the cords. “Sometimes.” She pulls hard on the plug end, making the wires tighten even more. “You’d think I’d learn to keep that little plastic box that comes with these, but oh no, every—” She tugs. “—single.” Tugs again. “—time.”
Granted, she’s not exactly in need of rescue from a burning building, but no way am I going to stand here and watch her struggle, no fucking way. Without another word, I start undoing the end of the tangle that’s nearest me, and I watch that smile of hers get bigger. She doesn’t look at me, but I see a dimple, and she bites her lip.
Still focused on the knot, she says, “Let me guess. You’re not from around here, are you?”
Can’t imagine what gave me away. Maybe the fact that I’m the only guy in the building wearing slacks and actual shoes. “Here on business.”
She looks me up and down. “What kind of business? FBI?”
Fuck. Not the first conversation I want to have, definitely not. Also, I don’t know a single fed who wears pants this nice. “Private business.”
“Hmmm.” She eyes me more mischievously. “Tall, dark, and a military haircut. Something tells me you’re not here to do some competitive bass fishing. “
Oh man. Cute. Really cute. “No, I’m not.”
Slowly, the tangle comes undone, until we’re in the middle together. Reminds me of that scene in Lady and the Tramp.
But before I can say anything more—like, for instance, I’m down for 20 questions, as long as it’s over a drink—the buzzer on the carousel roars to life, as loud as a tornado siren. The crush of people starts to tighten around the conveyor. She winds the three sets of ear buds and the cord around her palm. From the pocket of my bag, I take out the plastic case that came with my ear buds and hand it over. “There.”
She laughs through her nose. “I’ll be okay.”
“I insist.” I press it into her hand, and her eyes meet mine.
“I’ll bet you do.” She looks away as a blush covers her cheeks.
The bags start to rumble off the conveyor. For one long second, she watches me, smiling. Sizing me up. The little curls around her face tremble in the air conditioning, and I’m about to say You, me, a pitcher of margaritas, tonight when she looks away and hoists her purse up on her shoulder.
“That’s my bag,” she says. “I should get going. Thanks for…untangling me.”
She steps away and threads her way between a handful of old ladies in walkers. I know I should help her, I know I should grab her bag, but holy fuck look at that body.
She grabs her bag herself and flips up the handle.
“Give me your number. Let me take you out for dinner.”
Her smile dissolves into a scowl. “You married?”
I shake my head slowly. “I’m a lot of things, but married definitely isn’t one of them.”
“Separated?”
Shake my head again. “Nope.”
She takes her starfish charm between thumb and forefinger and loops the chain over her lip. “Under any restraining orders? Involved in a complicated love triangle that your Match.com profile describes as an open marriage? Divorced five times and counting? Polyamorous?”
Whoa. This girl’s got to find a new dating pool, stat. “Promise. I’m Russ, and what you see is what you get.”
Zip-zip-zip goes her necklace.
“Just a drink.” I lift my hands out between us, to say C’mon. “Maybe dinner, if I make the cut.”
She blinks hard a few times and she drops her necklace charm. “I’m sorry. You’re sweet, but I can’t.”
Well, fuck it. The first time I try to get back in the saddle in ages and the goddamn thing slides right down onto the ground again. I respect it though. I don’t want to overdo this, so I give her a final nod and clear my throat. “Had to try.”
She swallows hard. “I’m glad you did.”
Fuck.
And she’s gone. As she goes, her hips sway with her dress. She works that sashay, as my aunt says, like a fucking pro. She looks back over her shoulder, only once, as she walks through the sliding doors. I give her a wink.
And she fucking winks back.
Jesus Christ.
She takes a left out of the door, which means she isn’t gone yet. Not by a long shot. The architecture does me a favor, and I get to watch her sashay right past the floor-to-ceiling windows. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her, not even if I wanted to. She smiles at the sidewalk without looking up, and laughs a little. Like she knows I’m watching her and is feeling pretty good about it.
God, what a cutie. And what a bummer. She was fucking sexy, she seemed sweet, and there was something about her that was up to no good. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it was somewhere between the bikini top and I’m glad you did. But the spark wasn’t all we had in common. I realize, as she finally disappears from view, she also has a bag that looks just like mine.
Medium-sized black Samsonite. Sensible, dependable. Number One Amazon Bestseller in Luggage.
But that couldn’t be my bag, I think to myself as I turn back toward the conveyor. Couldn’t be.


***

It was. Twenty minutes later, I’m the only guy standing by the carousel, and there’s a single black bag going around and around in front of me. It’s exactly the same as mine, except it’s overstuffed and has a pink puff of yarn tied to the handle. Same color as her bikini top and literally hanging by a thread.
It slides to a stop, and the yarn ball swings off the side of the carousel. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
A rattle from the center of the conveyor sounds promising—I was early connecting through Atlanta, so my bag had to be the first one on—but no dice. What comes off the conveyor isn’t a bag at all, but instead one of the baggage guys in big set of protective earphones and a reflective vest. He crawls up through the flap and pokes his head out. He wipes his forehead on his bare leathery shoulder and then looks from me to the bag and back again. “Nice pom-pom, man,” he says and backtracks down the hole.
I glance around for some airport help on this, but all I see is a handwritten sign at the baggage claim desk. Will Return On Monday!
It’s Saturday.
Christ.
As I take hold of the bag, I notice it’s got not one but three “LIFT WITH CAUTION” tags: the first one new, the second one beat up, and the third one halfway shredded, all together the way people keep lift tickets from ski areas. I give it a hoist. The thing is so heavy it makes me grunt like I’m doing a dead lift. With a two-handed lug, I yank it off the conveyor and set it on the ground, wheels down.
Squeezing the roller handle, I pull it up…and it snaps off right in my hand. The arms stick up from the suitcase like the tines of a fork.
I clench my eyes shut and think back to “the most helpful critical review” from Amazon. “Looks like every other bag on the planet. Sh**ty handle.”
Touché. But it is what it is. Which is her bag, hopefully.
I wheel it along to a bank of benches, by some old beat-up phone booths, lining the far wall. I open up the ID pouch and read:

PENELOPE DARLING
125 E. BEACH POINT DRIVE
PORT FLAMINGO, FL 34102

I bite down on my gum and groan. How cute is that name? Jesus Christ, come on. Penny Darling. What’s more, it’s not a business card or typed up like mine, but written by hand. Her writing is sweet, pretty, and feminine, with big plump letters written in bright pink marker that’s bled into the plastic cover, so they’ve got a haze around them like neon lights. And there, at the bottom.
Her number.
Jackpot.
It might not be my smoothest move, but I’ll take it. I pull my phone from my pocket and give her a call. As I wait for the ringtone, I decide to hell with suave and understated. I want her, and I need her to know it.
But then in my ear I hear, “Mobile Network Temporarily Unavailable.”
Goddamned Verizon, jamming up my plans. So I try to text her instead.

This is Russ.
From the airport.
I’ve got your bag and I think you’ve got mine.
How about that drink?

I hit send, and I’m answered immediately with a row of red exclamation points and four repetitions of NOT DELIVERED. What. The. Fuck.
Then I noticed my cell service flips over from 1 bar, to Roaming, to Searching for service…
I pull my hot pack of gum from my sweaty pocket and take out a second piece. The gum is weirdly melted even before I put it in my mouth.
The options now are pretty simple: I could touch base with the guy who hired me to come down here to the land that Verizon forgot or…
I think about those tan lines, the curve of her hips. That bikini. The glisten on her rosy lips. The way she wrinkled her nose when she smiled.
Why is this even a goddamned question? It’s four o’clock on a Saturday. A beautiful woman is on East Beach Point Drive with all my stuff. And somewhere in this town, I’ll bet there’s a beachside bar with a pitcher of margaritas with our names on it.

 

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

 

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Coming March 20th

 

Vaughn Johansson is the Nashville Assassins’ star player. He’s brash, cocky, and talented. And he isn’t afraid to let anyone know it. He lives his life on his own terms, never forming romantic attachments, and only allowing his very closest to see his true, caring self.

Brie Soledad has the weight of the world on her shoulders. As the staff reporter for the Assassins, she balances her high-profile job and its heavy travel schedule with being the sole provider for her adult brother with Down syndrome. Sure, she’d like to find love. But who has time for that when there are bills to pay?

Brie has been the match to Vaughn’s gasoline since the day she first held out her microphone to him. They strike sparks off each other, keeping their friends, the team, and the Assassins fans in stitches. Brie’s refusal to fawn over Vaughn sets his teeth on edge and his blood boiling. Especially in that body part…

Brie’s been let down by love before, but she knows she deserves nothing less than real, forever love. Vaughn’s past has left deep, hidden scars, and there are some secrets he cannot bear to reveal. As much as Brie wants him, Vaughn may be too big a risk for her wary heart to take. But he is at his best under pressure. When the delayed call is in effect and he has no choice but to score, Vaughn always delivers.

 

   “He’s cute.”
   “She’s a sweetie, too.”
   “Oh, she’s a she?”
   “Yes.”
   “Girls don’t usually like me,” Vaughn Johansson said with his brows pulled together as he looked into the dark brown eyes gazing back at him.
They were full of such hope, wanting… And instantaneously, he fell in love.
   “Well, I think she loves you.”
   Looking up briefly at the adoption counselor, Vaughn gazed back at the little black French Bulldog and smiled. She was a cutie; her little nub tail was wiggling, and her eyes were so wide that Vaughn felt like he could fall into them. But just as quick as he fell in love, he noticed something was missing. “She only has three legs.”   
   The adoption rep smiled grimly. “Yes, she was brought in having been hit by a car, and we fixed her up. That’s what throws people off, her not being whole and all.”
   Making a face, Vaughn crouched down and took ahold of the fence as the little girl wiggled in excitement. She wanted to come through the fence. He could feel her eagerness, especially when she started to lick his hands, her eyes telling, or better yet, begging him to take her home. The thing was, she didn’t have to beg. The little three-legged dog was his from the moment he saw her. As he leaned into the fence, his nose went through the links before he whispered, “Don’t worry, girl, I’m not whole either.”
   She licked his nose before letting out the sweetest little bark, and Vaughn was hooked. Standing up, he clapped his hands together. “I scored three goals last night, a hat trick, so it only makes sense that my first dog be a three-legged one.”
   “Oh, cool.”
   She had no clue what he was talking about. “I play for the Nashville Assassins.”
   The lady, who obviously had never seen a game of hockey a day in her life, nodded happily.
   “Cool. That’s fun.”
   “You know what team that is, right?”  
   “Yeah, football. Right?”
   Vaughn blinked in dismay, but then, what did he expect? She was barely an adult and probably hadn’t been exposed to the great sport of hockey. “Hockey.”
   “Oh, I don’t like hockey,” she said, wrinkling her face up. “But the players are hot.”
   He couldn’t disagree, but then she looked him up and down with very sinful eye, and he froze. There was no way in hell he was going to prison for this jailbait, so that was his cue to get his dog and bounce. Yet, he asked, “Have you been to a game?”
   “Oh, no, I don’t have time.”
   Rolling his eyes once more, he looked back at his new girl and smiled. “Well, that’s too bad because I’m naming this girl Tricksie, and that won’t make sense to you.”
   “Oh, you want her?”
   “Yes, I do. You know what a hat trick is, right?”
   The fact that she had no clue what he was speaking of was all over her face as she only nodded. “Like tricks with hats?”
   Vaughn wanted to cry. The poor youth of the world. “It’s where you score three goals.”
   He might as well have told her the answer to the greatest unsolved math problem in the world, because she was more lost than the three blind mice. “Cool. That’s hard, huh?”
   Smiling, he shot her a wink. “For some. But for me, it’s easy peasy, lemon squeezy.”
   Her face scrunched up more. She thought he was an idiot. “That’s corny.”
   “Well, that’s because you’re ten.”
   She pressed her lips together in annoyance. “I’m twenty.”  
 “Same thing. Can I get my dog, please?”
    Rolling her eyes before popping her gum, she turned for the front. “Yeah, let’s go to the office, and Linda will get the paperwork done.”
   She started to walk away, but Vaughn didn’t move. “Can I have her?”
   Letting out a long breath, she nodded before reaching for her keys, which made Tricksie jump to the best of her ability and howl louder. A huge grin spread across Vaughn’s face as he bent down and the little girl came running for him, jumping into him and scrambling to climb up his body. Holding on to her overactive little body, Vaughn laughed as he stood, kissing her head. “I think she’s happy.”
   “That’s an understatement,” the girl said dryly as she started for the front of the adoption center, but Vaughn was in complete paradise.
   It had been a long month of looking for a companion, but holding Tricksie, Vaughn was pretty sure it had been totally worth the wait. His need for company came when he discovered he was the only single guy on the team. Everyone had girlfriends or wives and/or kids. Meanwhile, Vaughn was chilling with just an Xbox when he wasn’t working. Hockey kept him busy, but when he wasn’t at the rink, there was no one to hang with, no one to talk to, and he found himself a bit lonely. He wasn’t ashamed to say that; it was a natural occurrence when one didn’t want to put himself out there and find someone to love him. The thing about love was it was just so uncertain, and Vaughn didn’t have the time for it. But a dog, a dog loved you no matter what. Plus, he had always wanted a dog. Ever since he was a little kid, he had yearned for one, but since hockey was so expensive, his dad never got him and his brother one. Along with all the therapy and treatments his brother needed, a dog wasn’t doable. But now, now, a dog was doable.
   And Vaughn was convinced Tricksie was going to be the best dog ever.
   As Tricksie licked and barked happily, Vaughn couldn’t believe he had waited so long to do this. But then, if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have this beautiful gem of a girl. And boy, what a beauty she was. He couldn’t believe people would turn up their noses at her, all because she didn’t have four legs. She had killer dark-as-night fur, her big, brown eyes were two huge views into her heart, and she smiled. The damn dog was smiling, tongue hanging out as she wiggled in his arms. She smelled a little musky, but that was fixable. No, this girl was the jackpot, and Vaughn was glad he had pulled the lever.
   As he walked through the doors leading to the office area—or at least, he hoped this was the right way since the lady who was helping him had disappeared—his phone sounded with a notification from his Nashville Assassins’ team app. It was probably weird that he had the app to the team he played hockey for on his phone, but he liked to know what his team was posting. Plus, he sometimes heard information from the app before he did from Coach. When he pulled out his phone, sliding the tab over, he realized this instance was one of those times.
   Jensen Monroe signed to Nashville Assassins for a three-year, three-million-dollar deal.
   “Holy shit! Tricksie, look! Uncle Jenny is coming to our team,” he said to his girlie before he laughed out loud. “You don’t know Uncle Jensen, hell, you don’t know me, but you will. Don’t worry.”
   Tricksie licked him happily, and he was pretty sure she didn’t care what he said as long as he loved her and fed her, which was his plan. His phone started to ring, and he laughed when he saw it was the man of the hour. “Jensen Monroe, signed to the Nashville Assassins for some bookoo bucks! What’s up, brother?”
   Jensen laughed softly, his voice deep. It had been deep since they were, like, thirteen. “Who the hell says bookoo still?”
   “Fuck you, dude. Congratulations!”
   “Thanks, it’s a great deal, I’m excited. It will be like old times too,” he said with a low laugh, and Vaughn smiled.
   There wasn’t a teenage moment that didn’t have Jensen and their buddy Wells in it. The three had been inseparable. When Jensen came to live with Wells’s family to play for their high school team, the three guys just clicked. They played all through high school, went to the same college, and were all drafted the same year too. Even being apart, Wells on the Avalanche, Vaughn on the Assassins, and when Jensen was with the Wild, they all stayed in contact. They were brothers. Always would be too. The guys were there for Vaughn when no one else was, and he would be forever in debt to the two men who became his brothers.
   “Wait, what happened to Dylan?”
   “He got sent down. Mrs. Adler said she wants someone she knows will win games. He hasn’t won a game since last season. I can win the games.” He wasn’t lying. Jensen was a great goalie, and it surprised Vaughn that he had come to the Assassins as a backup when he had a starting position with the Wild.
   “Why did you leave?”
    “I wasn’t happy. Yeah, I was winning games, but my contract was up and I needed a change. So I took the deal from Mrs. Adler, and I think it’s a good one. Except now I’ll be fighting the best goalie in the league for playing time.”
   Vaughn sucked his teeth. “Yeah, Tate Odder is the best.”
   “Thank you.” Vaughn laughed. “Besides, you, duh,” he said, his voice high and playful. “I hate you, but are you still single?”
   Vaughn paused. “Shit, are you telling me you’re gay too? I always knew Wells was, but I never suspected it from you. And, dude, you know I don’t bat for that team. I’m a pussy-only kind of guy.”
   “No, you douche canoe. Fuck.” He could practically hear Jensen roll his eyes, which, of course, made Vaughn laugh. “I seriously hate you, and I can’t believe I’m about to beg for this, but can I please live with you?”
   Vaughn stopped laughing as he looked down to his new ladylove. “I don’t know, man, I just got a new roommate.”
   “What?”
   “Yeah, she’s sweet, cold nose, licks a lot, and has three legs, but she’s cute as all hell,” he said as Tricksie kissed him with excitement before barking out in agreement. “And she barks. I’m not sure if it’s a lot, though.”
   “You got a three-legged dog?”
   “Yes, I did.”
    “Of course you did. Who is going to watch said three-legged dog when we are on trips?”
   “Wren,” he said simply, and Jensen groaned loudly at the mention of Wells’s baby sister. Jensen had always had a thing for her, but Wren never took notice. She was too busy with her nose in a book. Which he guessed paid off because now she was a hotshot therapist for the Nashville Assassins. Plus, Vaughn was pretty sure she batted for the other team. He had never seen her with a dude, and he had tried to sleep with her plenty. He couldn’t imagine why she’d turn him down if she were straight. Obviously.
   “Does she know this?”
   “Yeah,” he lied, and Jensen let out a long breath of frustration.
   “You never think things through, I swear. But whatever, can you get me from the airport at 9:10?”
   Vaughn smiled since he had never said yes to Jensen living with him, for the simple fact that Jensen didn’t have to ask and he knew that. Jensen knew he had a home wherever Vaughn was. “Yup, me and Tricksie will be there.”
   “Tricksie?”
   “She’s a three-legged dog, and I scored a hat trick last night.”
    Jensen paused and then laughed. “You’re insane. See you in a bit, and make sure you call Wren.”
   “Will do.”
   They hung up, and Vaughn rolled his eyes. Jensen was always the do-right kind of guy. While Wells and Vaughn wanted to go out, get drunk, and break something, Jensen would talk them down and convince them that getting drunk and playing on the back pond was a better idea. He was the last one to lose his virginity because he wanted it to be with someone “special.” He never cheated on a girl, and when he broke up with one, he felt bad. When his young marriage broke up, he took all the blame on himself. Never said an unkind word about his ex. He called his mom every day, multiple times, and he hung out with the dorky kids growing up. He was voted Homecoming King of their class because he was so sugary sweet. Not to mention, he looked like a runway model, while Wells and Vaughn looked a little rough around the edges. Still, they were best friends, and nothing could ever change that.
   When his phone rang right as he reached the doors to go sign the papers for Tricksie, he looked down to see it was Wren.
   Shit.
   “Hey, Wren,” he said, answering the phone with a big smile. “How’s my favorite therapist who won’t sleep with me?”
   “Oh, I’m just fine. But funny thing, you didn’t show up for therapy, and then I got a text from Jensen saying you got a dog and I’m watching it. Oh, and it has three legs.”
  “Um… Her name is Tricksie and she is amazing, and I don’t need therapy.”
  “You do. Tricksie. Cute, but I never agreed to watch her.”
  “Yes, you did.”
   “When?”
   “When I got you drunk the other night and stole your virtue.”
   “Vaughn Johansson, I haven’t had my virtue in a long damn time.”
   “But did a guy take it?”
   “I will kill you dead, and that’s off the record, mister,” she growled into the phone, at which he laughed. “So you have no leg to stand on, and I don’t think Tricksie can lend you one.”
   Vaughn scoffed. “You said I needed a companion. I got one, and in return, you have to watch her when I leave.”
   “I meant a woman, but fine, a dog is fine. It’s a step in the right direction, I guess. But I never agreed to this, and I travel too, Vaughn.”
   “Not all the time, though. Maybe once a month, and I can board her then.”
   “So you have a plan?” she asked, and she didn’t sound convinced because, really, Vaughn never had a plan.
   “Yup, sure do.”
   “Okay, well, add me in at nine tomorrow before morning skate, and if you don’t show up, I’ll tell your coach.”
   Vaughn’s face scrunched up. “You’re mean.”
   “I love you too. Bye.”
   She hung up, and Vaughn tucked his phone into his pocket before looking down at Tricksie. “That was your aunt Wren and she’s mean to me, but she’ll be nice to you. Are you ready to go home?”
   Tricksie began to lick his skin off, and he took that as a yes. As a huge smile covered his face, Vaughn nodded his head. He had his baby girl, his best friend was coming to his team, Wren would watch Tricksie, and he was playing for the team of his dreams. Things were good. Really good.
   And loneliness would be a thing of the past; he just knew it.   

 

***   

 

   “Who talked me into this?”
   “No one. You did that to yourself.”
   “Why?”
   “I don’t know. You’re lonely?”
   “Oh. I am, aren’t I? Shit.”
   “Yup, so may the force be with you, my friend.”
   “But I don’t want to do this.”
   “Then leave?”
   “Can’t you come with me? There’s still time. It doesn’t start for another fifteen.”
   “I’m just sure my fiancé would love that.”
   Brie Soledad rolled her eyes as she leaned on the pillar of the ballroom, her eyes burning a hole in the sign that read: Speed Dating for Nashville Locals. It was embarrassing that this was what her life had resulted in, but as her best friend had said, she was lonely. Mekena Preston, though, was not lonely. Nope, she was all happy and in love with her fiancé, while having a great job and a wonderful life, blah, blah, blah. And if Brie was honest, she was jealous as hell and so desperately wanted to get laid, maybe even fall in love. Get the blah, blah, blah.
   God, she wanted the blah, blah, blah. So damn bad.
   Being a hockey reporter for one of the hottest teams in the NHL, the Nashville Assassins, one would think she would be rolling in the men, but she wasn’t. Everyone treated her like a little sister or they ignored her or they treated her like shit. Well, only one did that, but that was beside the point. The point was, Brie needed more. She was happy in her career. It was awesome, she was amazing, and people loved her. She had even won an Emmy the year before; she was kicking ass. The only problem was she didn’t have anyone to share her success with.
   Yeah, she had her little brother, Rodney, but he really didn’t understand. Also, he needed to focus on his health and not on her. She was supposed to worry for him, not the other way around. Or at least, that was what she had promised her mom before she passed away from cancer a few years back. Sometimes, it was hard to remember, but she blamed that on the fact that she had no one to lean on. It was just her, with the weight of her job and her brother’s issues on her shoulders.
   And plus, she really wanted to get laid.
   It really didn’t make sense. She wasn’t an ugly girl. She was short, and maybe she could have skipped a few desserts, but then, what was life without ice cream and donuts? She had a pretty face, big blue eyes, and lips that screamed to be kissed, yet no one was kissing them. It was annoying, and pray God, this damn speed dating worked.
   “I’m gonna stay,” she said, coming off the pillar and fixing the skirt of her little blue dress that stopped right at the middle of her thighs. “I need to get laid.”
   Mekena stuttered. “Not tonight, though, right?”
   “Jesus, Mekena, I’m not a whore.”
   “Oh, you’re not?”
   And this was the problem with being best friends with a girl she met only a month ago. “I’m not. Asshole.”
   She giggled. “Fine, but please text me and let me know you weren’t killed.”
   “I’ve got my pepper spray.”
   “And your Taser?”
   “And my Taser,” she said, rolling her eyes. She wasn’t sure why Mekena was even asking; she was the one who had stuffed it in her purse the day before. If nothing else, Mekena Preston was practical and smart, very smart.
   “Good, text me when you leave.”
   “Will do.”
   “Have fun. Find your forever!”
    Brie’s face scrunched up. “That is dumb, don’t ever say that again.”
   “Hey, everyone says that when they fall in love.”
   “God, I hope I don’t.”
    “You will.”
    “I won’t.”
    “Stop stalling. Go find your forever.”
    “That’s disgusting. Bye,” Brie complained before hanging up and then tucking her phone into her pocket and taking in a deep breath. Looking around the room, she noticed there was a decent men-to-women ratio, which was good. She didn’t want to be the only chick in the middle of a sausage fest. While she wanted some sausage, she only needed one. A large one, thick, some girth, mmm… Great, now she was hungry. Pressing her hand to her belly, she rolled her eyes. She needed help.
   Or, again, to get laid.
   Maybe she should just go home with the first able-bodied man.
    When a large, round man stopped in front of her, her eyes widened. He was easily twenty years older than her thirty-two years and he was losing his hair, but he was trying to cover it with a toupee. People still wore those? Pointing at her, he smiled with bright yellow teeth. “Hey, sugar, make sure to stop at my table.”
   “Ugh, sure,” she blurted out before hightailing it to the left.
   She would not be going home with that guy. No matter how desperate she was.
   Standing in the back, she looked over the sea of people as the announcer explained what they were to do. The sad thing was, this wasn’t her first time, so she knew what to do. Last time, she hated it and met no one, but maybe this time would be different. Letting out a long groan, she shook her head. If she could be normal and meet someone in a coffee shop or at her job, that would be awesome. But she hadn’t had luck with guys her whole life.
   She wasn’t one of those serial daters or even a casual one. She dated for a reason, and because of that, she had only been in two serious relationships. Both were ended by the guy, which did nothing for her confidence. Both times she didn’t see it coming, and that alone was depressing as hell. Especially Matthew. She loved Matthew—a lot. But when her mom died, he said it was too much and left her high and dry. Not only did she have to pick up the pieces of her heart and Rod’s from her mother’s death, but then she had to pick up the extra pieces of her heart from Matthew’s departure. It was horrible, and because of that experience, she was a little scarred by relationships.
   Okay, a whole lot scarred. But she was coming up on a new year, and it was time to turn over a new leaf. She wanted the happiness that being with a guy could provide. It had taken her a long time to love herself again. After the grief was no longer overwhelming, after the pain of Matt was gone, she was ready to love once more. It was time, time for her to venture out and find that guy. The… There was no way she was saying the forever guy, but something along those lines.
   “So let’s get started!” the announcer said, and then she rang a really annoying cowbell. Taking the cue, Brie went to the first table and sat down as a guy with hair longer than hers did. He was decent-looking, but no spark whatsoever. Maybe it would come?
   “Hey, I’m Brian.” Brie smiled.
   “Hi, I’m Brie.”
   “Ha, like the cheese.”
    She blinked. “Excuse me?”
    “The cheese. I love Brie, it’s my favorite. I wonder if you taste like Brie? Wanna get out of here?”
    She blinked once more and then let out a hard laugh. “So let me get this straight,” she said, leaning on the table. “First, you compare me to cheese, and not even the most exclusive cheese, kind of midrange. And then you want me to go home with you?”
   He shrugged like that was a normal exchange.
   “Yeah.” “Yeah, no. And fuck-you-very-much,” she said, standing up just as the bell rang. Thankfully. Moving down the chair, she skipped the guy from earlier, the balding dude, and sat down as a very attractive, clean-cut guy sat down. And wowza, was he gorgeous. Big blue eyes, wonderful angles to his face, and thick, yummy shoulders. He reminded her of someone…but… Whoa, not now, Soledad.
   With a bright smile, she said, “Hey, I’m Brie.”
   “Tim, nice to meet you,” he said, matching her grin as he looked her up and down. “Let me guess, a doctor?” She laughed. “Reporter for the Nashville Assassins.” His eyes lit up. “Go Assassins!”
   She smiled as she nodded. “Greatest team in the league.”
   “Agreed, but I’m sad. I could have sworn you were a doctor. That would have worked for me since I’m a lawyer, and I need someone to deal with my crazy hours.”
   “Well, I need that too because I leave a lot.”
   “Oh, well then, hi,” he said, leaning on the table, and she did the same.
   “Hi.”
   “Family?” She nodded. “A little brother.”
   “What’s his name?”
   “Rodney.”
   “Is he in town?”
   “Yup, over at Riverdale.”
   His brows pulled together. “Riverdale? Isn’t that the old folks’ home?”
   “They also have a facility for people with Down syndrome.”
   “I didn’t know they kept retards too. That place stinks, I had an aunt die there.”
   Oh, look, there went all the attraction she even thought she had for this piece of junk. Swallowing hard, she stood slowly and then tucked her chair in. “Actually, not all people with Down syndrome have mental challenges. My brother is highly intelligent. You wouldn’t even know he had Down syndrome if he didn’t have the physical characteristics.”
   He shrugged, waving her off. “Same thing.”
   She could only blink. “You know what isn’t the same? A dick-fuck and a cuntasaurus.”
   “Um—”
   “But you know what? You’re both of those,” she yelled. “And we are done.”
   “Your loss, sweetheart.”
   “No, you piece of dog shit, it’s your loss because I am fucking amazing,” she announced before turning on her heel and walking straight out of the speed-dating event.
   Fuck guys.
   They sucked.

 

 

My name is Toni Aleo and I’m a total dork.
I am a wife, mother of two and a bulldog, and also a hopeless romantic.
I am the biggest Shea Weber fan ever, and can be found during hockey season with my nose pressed against the Bridgestone Arena’s glass, watching my Nashville Predators play!
When my nose isn’t pressed against the glass, I enjoy going to my husband and son’s hockey games, my daughter’s dance competition, hanging with my best friends, taking pictures, scrapbooking, and reading the latest romance novel.
I have a slight Disney and Harry Potter obsession, I love things that sparkle, I love the color pink, I might have been a Disney Princess in a past life… probably Belle.
… and did I mention I love hockey?
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