Blood Sacrifice by Mina Carter

 

BloodSacrifice_550.jpg
Coming June 13th
Whatever else he was, she had to admit he had guts. She wouldn’t want to be shut up in a room with an angry Kyn either. While his pixie heritage might have protected him from being turned into a vampire, it did bugger all to protect him from being dead.

The only vampire warioress in existence Vixen has spent most of her life proving herself in a man’s world, but she’s never been able to squash some very feminine thoughts where fellow warrior Kalen is concerned. Kalen however, has sworn off love, preferring to deal in lust instead.

But a passionate encounter blows their carefully constructed indifference to each other and when Vixen is kidnapped will they be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to give their love a chance?

Prologue

He fucking hated balls. Pain in the ass court functions filled with simpering nobles who couldn’t find their asses with both hands and a map. He especially hated balls where he stood on the sidelines as his lady wife danced with every one of the assholes besides him.
It had pissed him off so much, he’d taken her dance card and changed a few names to his… only she’d fucked off, leaving the ball before their first dance to come home.
Kalen Sauveterre stormed through the door to his wife’s rooms, his mood so foul that the wood crashed into the wall and rebounded, just barely avoiding hitting him as he strode through it.
“Astra! Where the hell are you?” he growled, finding the sitting area empty. Before he could walk into her bedroom, she appeared in the doorway, a vision of slender loveliness in pink silk, her almost-white blonde hair a cloud around her shoulders.
For a moment he allowed his gaze to wash over her. He tried to conjure some of the emotions he’d once felt for her—the feelings he’d had when they’d married and before they’d had Naeva—but there was nothing. No feeling, no emotion, no nothing. It had all been leeched away in the months of arguments since their daughter’s birth. Months in which it seemed he could do nothing right, in which it seemed Astra would rather he didn’t exist, never mind not touch her.
“What do you want, Kalen?” she pouted, the sulky expression covering what he could have sworn was panic. He had to be wrong though… what did she have to panic about?
“What was that about? Leaving like that?” he demanded, keeping his hands in closed fists at his sides. Anything to keep the rage boiling in his veins to himself so as not to scare her. Astra was a noblewoman, not a warrior like he was, and he knew the darker side of his nature scared her. So he tried to minimize her exposure to it.
She shrugged, her expression becoming even more moody, which pissed him off and he stepped forward.
“For fuck’s sake, Astra, you know better than to travel alone. What if the rogues had caught you? One driver isn’t enough to protect you.”
“Oh god, this again?” She sneered dismissively, looking down her nose at him. Somehow, even though he was noble-born and she wasn’t, she always made him feel he was beneath her because he was a warrior. “The way you talk, you’d think there were rogues hiding around every damn corner. You’re paranoid, Kalen. You should go and get your head checked.”
He bit back his growl, just the corner of his lip twitching as he kept his reply to himself. If she knew what he and the other warriors faced every night on patrol, it would scare the ever-loving crap out of her and every other civilian. The fact that they lived practically cheek to cheek with the scourge that preyed on their race… they’d go running in fear and never leave their fortified houses.
“So why did you leave?” he asked, trying to bring the conversation back on topic before she could get onto the subject of his supposed paranoia.
He knew what she was getting at… that he was mad, or slipping into blood-rage. All male kyn were at risk, but warriors, given they were so close to the rogue vampires they hunted, were even more so. If she could get him diagnosed as blood-mad, she could live the life she’d always wanted… that of a noble lady… but without the pesky encumbrance of an actual husband. He was fairly sure she prayed each night when he went out on patrol, not for his safe return like most women would have, but for the rogues to kill him and make her into a widow.
“I was bored,” she said with a sniff, not moving from the door.
His eyes narrowed as he registered her stance. It almost seemed as though she was guarding the door. But from what? Him? He almost snorted at the thought. He hadn’t been invited to her bed for months, forced to feed from one of the blood-women supplied to the warriors. It wasn’t the same as being balls and fang-deep in his beloved wife, though… a pale imitation of the bond he’d thought he had with Astra.
“Bored? You missed our dances. I would have made sure you weren’t bored.”
He stepped to the side nonchalantly, testing her reactions. She moved subtly to block him. Yeah, she didn’t want him getting into her bedroom. Why? He took a slow breath, tasting the air for any hint of a male in the room behind her, but it came up clean. The only two scents in here were his and hers.
She sniffed, leaning against the doorframe to study her nails. “Really? You bore me all the time, Kalen. I’m afraid I prefer the more…” her gaze raked over his tall form, the court clothes not able to disguise his warrior’s physique. “Intellectual man, shall we say? Not a dinosaur of a warrior.”
Anger boiled over, the snarl escaping Kalen’s lips before he could stop it. “Really? Well, tough shit. I’m still your husband, rather than one of those limp-wristed assholes.”
“Yeah, you are.” She picked at one of her nails. “For now.”
The red at the corners of his vision crept inward. “For now? What the fuck does that mean?”
In a surge of movement, he pushed past her and into the bedroom beyond, her slender frame no match for his warrior’s bulk. Instantly his gaze fell on the open trunk by the bed, half filled with her dresses.
“You’re leaving me?” he demanded, turning on her. Fury filtered through his veins, deepening his voice and making his jaw ache as his fangs tried to descend.
“You can go,” he said, accepting the inevitable. They’d been over for months, but he’d refused to accept it. “But you’re not taking Naeva. My daughter stays with me.”
He stared her down, resolute on the fact he would keep their baby. She was the one good thing that had come out of their marriage and he would ensure that she was cared for and raised as befit her station as a kyn noble.
Astra laughed, one eyebrow raised. “Ohh, you poor darling,” her voice dropped to saccharine venom. “You really think a savage of a warrior could have sired a child, let alone a daughter? No, Kalen, you didn’t. She’s not yours. She never was.”



Chapter One

Men were assholes, pure and simple.
Vixen grunted, flat on her back on the weight bench, and shoved the barbell up as though she were a pneumatic lifting machine in overdrive. Anything to avoid answering the smug piece of shit male posing on the other side of the gym.
“Com’on, blondie,” Kalen Sauveterre smirked, flexing his arms and looking over his shoulder at her. “You know you wanna take a peek.”
Vixen just grunted and threw an extra couple of plates onto the barbell before sliding under it again. Kalen was a perpetual pain in her ass. All. The. Time. The blond, muscled, handsome poster boy for the kyn warrior “brotherhood,” he’d been on her case since the moment she’d joined their ranks.
She’d been so pleased and triumphant the day she’d walked in here, right into the warriors’ training compound like she owned the place. And that day, she’d thought she did. After years, the elder council had finally conceded that, even though she was female, she had been born with the warriors’ marks over her face and body, which meant she belonged with the other warriors, fighting the rogues. Had she been male, she’d have been accepted without question and sent to the training compound when she’d come of age instead of having to fight for years to be recognized.
She’d thought her fight was over once she’d walked through those doors. It hadn’t been. Instead, she’d just faced a new fight… to gain the trust and respect of the males she worked with. Males just as strong and fast as she was. They weren’t the scrawny men she was used to who hid behind words, but big, brawny warriors. Men she finally had to look up to rather than down on.
And they weren’t impressed about having a woman amongst them for the first time. Most had given her a wide berth, silently weighing her up and trying to avoid being partnered with her. This had meant she’d spent the first month as a warrior tagging along with another pair until finally one, Feral, had thrown her weapons at her and told her she’d better not get him or herself killed. Since that day, she and the big, shaven-headed warrior had been patrol partners, and the rest of the warriors had followed in accepting her.
All besides Kalen Sauveterre. As blue-blooded as their warrior king, Marak, he was the son of a lord and heir to a noble title. Like her, he was an anomaly. Warriors’ marks rarely showed up amongst the nobility, but that didn’t seem to matter to him, or create a sense of kinship. Instead, he’d taken to needling her from the moment she’d arrived.
The normal shit-talking crap she’d have knocked seven shades of shit out of any other guy for. Trying that with a warrior though was a sure-fire way to, if not get her ass handed to her on a plate, at least get herself a going over that would make hunting the rogues uncomfortable for a while as she healed. The normal crap most men spouted about her—being too weak or that women shouldn’t be warriors—didn’t bother her.
Kalen’s flirty, snarky comments did.
They reached in and got right under her armor. She was used to being the outcast and men seeing her as a freak… usually only talking to her on a dare or to find out what being with a warrior would be like… so there was no way that a male like Sauveterre, with his impeccable breeding and good looks, would be interested in her.
“Blondie?” He never used her name. Fuck knew why. “It’s not nice to ignore a guy. Don’t you know we have delicate egos?”
She almost snorted at that. If Kalen’s ego was delicate enough to be damaged by her ignoring him, he’d have been done for years ago.
“Leave her alone, K,” a deep voice growled, a shadow falling over Vixen as the newcomer blotted out the light. “Can’t you see she’s busy working out. Which you should be doing, instead of posing in that mirror.”
She squinted up to find Marak, their monarch, looking down at her. Like her, he was an oddity, born both the heir to the throne and a warrior, his marks dark against his skin as he stood by the bench, spotting her until she’d finished her set.
“You shouldn’t let him needle you. He’s just looking for a reaction,” Marak said gruffly, hands under the bar to help her get the last inch as her muscles screamed blue murder at her.
“Yeah. Because he’s an asshole.”
She ignored the snort from the other side of the room, deliberately not watching as Kalen sauntered past them on the way to the showers.
“Not arguing with you on that one.” The corner of Marak’s lip quirked as he racked the bar and offered her a hand to help her up. “Vixen, I need a favor.”
She paused, hand halfway to her water bottle, and looked up at him. Not only was Marak the leader of the warrior brotherhood, but he was also the kyn monarch. He didn’t need to ask. He could just order her and they both knew it. So the fact he was asking… that was big.
“Sure. What do you need?” She grabbed her water bottle, slugging some back as she wiped the back of her neck with the small towel she always brought into the gym to wipe herself and the benches down. She hated to get onto a sticky bench and refused to leave them that way, unlike some heathens who used the place. Men were utter pigs.
Marak looked uncomfortable, shifting from foot to foot before he realized she was watching him and his expression smoothed out. “Well, the wedding next week? You’ll be there?”
She grinned instantly. All the warriors knew that Marak had finally found his bond-mate, and about the merry dance she’d led him on. It was practically legend, or would be soon.
“Yeah, wouldn’t miss it.”
“Good. Will you be a bridesmaid?”
Every cell in Vixen’s body froze.
“Beg pardon?” She laughed a little, wariness filling her voice. “It sounded like you just asked me to be a bridesmaid…”
Marak folded his arms over his broad chest. “I did.”
She blinked. “Err… have you looked at me recently? Not being funny, sire, but I’m not exactly bridesmaid material. And besides, shouldn’t that be Maria’s decision?”
The big kyn shook his head and then paused, frowning. “Well, yes, traditionally, but I said I wanted to ensure her safety and would arrange a bodyguard.”
Vixen’s eyes widened with surprise. “And you escaped with your life?”
She couldn’t imagine the determined queen-to-be, a woman who, despite being only half-kyn, had been determined to take on the rogues before Marak had claimed her as his own, being told anything, much less what bridesmaids she would have.
Marak snorted, amusement flaring in his eyes. “Persuasion, you could say—”
She held her hand up suddenly, cutting him off. “Yeah, that’s all I need to know about that.”
There was a snigger from the other side of the room and she tensed, thinking Kalen had come back. Instead, familiar grunts and groans joined the sound of a weight machine getting pummelled. Feral, her patrol partner, seemed to be working off some aggression.
“Yeah, no problem.” She couldn’t help her smile at the relief that spread over Marak’s face.
“Thanks, Vix. You’re a lifesaver,” he said. “I know it’s just from the Ravensford estate and she’ll be escorted by the Ravensford knights all the way… but you know what knights are like. I’ll be far happier knowing there’s at least one of my guys in there too.”
She was forced to bite back her smile as a sense of pride filled her. He’d called her one of “his guys,” not “the female warrior.” She had to agree with his point about knights, though. There was a definite and centuries-old rivalry between the two branches.
All warriors trained hard to keep up their speed and reactions, constantly learning and practicing new forms. It was necessary, a matter of survival. Rogue vampires were fast as hell, and thanks to the madness in their veins, stronger than their kyn counterparts. A slow warrior was a dead warrior.
It wasn’t the same with knights, though, not that Vixen had seen. Once you were a knight, sword across the shoulders and all that, you were always a knight. No one took that away from you, even when you got too old and slow to raise the sword.
“I was going to stick Feral in a dress just for the hell of it, but he’d only sulk.” Marak’s expression turned wicked, his chatter revealing how nervous he was. Marak had never been chatty. He was more the silent, brooding type. Until he’d met Maria. Vixen liked the change. It suited him.
She chuckled. “No, he’d definitely sulk. Then I’d have to put up with his moods for weeks. Where do I have to be and when?”
***
She looked like a damn gorilla in a dress.
Vixen looked down at herself and suppressed a grimace. Primed and preened to within an inch of her life, she didn’t even recognize herself in the mirror. Normally she made sure her face was clean and her hair was tied back, so to see herself made up with her blonde hair caught up in a stylish mess of curls on top of her head was startling.
Her lips formed a soft pout, and she watched in fascination as the reflection mimicked her. No, it had to be a mistake. The slender beauty in the mirror couldn’t be her. There had to be an enchantment spell on the mirror… She leaned forward to study her face, finding the tiny scar at the corner of her lips that hadn’t quite been covered with makeup. She couldn’t get over how amazing her eyes looked… like a cat’s, all mysterious and exotic.
She blinked and leaned back, careful not to move her feet. Her normal leathers had been replaced with a fitted sheath dress and skyscraper heels. She took a tiny step to the side and instantly had to readjust her balance. A groan left her lips. There was no way she was walking in the things without face-planting.
She cast a glance over her shoulder and studied the other bridesmaids surreptitiously. They giggled as they helped each other get ready, obviously close friends. Tiny and dark-haired, they were all seneschal girls. Maria, the bride had been born half-kyn, so she’d refused to adhere to tradition and have kyn noblewomen from the main families as her attendants. Instead, she’d chosen from the seneschal families. Vixen had to admit it was a clever move, even if she herself stuck out like a sore thumb.
Even worse, the dress was pink. Of course it was. It even had a large bow right on her ass. She grumbled to herself, twisting and turning to look at her backside in the mirror. They might as well have slapped a “wide load” sticker on her.
She suppressed a sigh. She’d never feared anything. She was Vixen, big, scary kyn warrior. She spent her nights hunting and killing rogue vampires, and she was damn good at it. Just last week her patrol had topped the leader board for the most kills for the third week in a row.
What was being a bridesmaid compared to that? A dress, some flowers and following the bride up the aisle to make sure she didn’t break a nail. It couldn’t be that hard, right?
Wrong, dead wrong. Moments to go and she shook with nerves, panic rising. She looked ridiculous. She’d thought she was clever, avoiding the dress fittings for training. Boring as they’d been, the reason behind them was now crystal clear.
Her dress didn’t fit.
The pink silk was stretched tightly across her bust, so tight she could hardly breathe. She couldn’t take a deep breath, in case the delicate lacings across her back—already stretched to the limit—ripped. The dressmaker was no help. Annoyed at having to work without a dress fitting, she’d ordered Vixen not to breathe. Vixen didn’t know if that was to not breathe deeply, or not breathe at all. Not breathing was the best option. The neckline was so low one movement the wrong way and her breasts would spill out over the top.
She cursed under her breath as she looked around the small antechamber. Just off the main hall of the court where the ceremony was to take place, it followed the rest of the building in its style. Heavy wood paneling covered half the walls while ornamental plaster carvings covered the rest. The symbols of ancient kyn families surrounded them as the bride prepared to walk up the aisle. Like a lot of vampire buildings, there wasn’t even a damn window she could wriggle out.
As soon as the idea of escape occurred, she dismissed it. She couldn’t run out on the wedding of the king. It just wasn’t done. She didn’t give a damn about protocol, but if she didn’t show, Marak would track her down and bust her ass for it.
She straightened her back. She was a kyn warrior, and warriors did not run from anything. She didn’t run from anything. Even if her knees shook under her skirt.
“Now… you look amazing.”
As if Vixen’s thoughts had conjured her up, Maria appeared at her elbow like a genie out of a bottle. A genie in a full wedding gown with veil and tiara.
“Me?”
Vixen resisted the urge to tug on the dress again as she turned to face the bride. Yanking it up until it felt more secure reduced the risk of her breasts falling out, but it meant the spilt up her thigh would rise indecently high. Pulling it down to solve that gave her the fall-out problem again. Catch-22.
“I don’t. I look ridiculous.” She gave in to temptation and went through the whole pull up, pull down routine again. “Like a damn gorilla in a dress.”
“What are you talking about? You don’t look like a gorilla at all. You’re stunning.” Maria’s gaze made a quick assessment of Vixen’s dress. Slim-fitting, it molded to every curve she had. A fact she was uncomfortably aware of.
She wore tight clothing on patrol, but that was work gear. Somehow, skin-tight leather pants with a skinny-fit tee didn’t seem quite as bad as her cleavage, or the entire length of her leg on display.
“You can see my underwear,” Vixen muttered, tugging at the dress again, nearer to a panic attack than she’d ever been in her life.
“Don’t be stupid. It’s perfectly decent. You’re just used to hiding yourself away down in the compound… Leave it. You’ll crease the silk.” Maria swatted at Vixen’s hands, her impatience obvious.
Perhaps she could still make a break for it, Vixen pondered as the bride moved off to speak to another bridesmaid. Already, Maria had adopted the role of hostess, a skill she’d need as Marak’s queen. Hope filled Vixen—Maria would understand…
Nope. She steeled herself, forcing her spine to straighten. She was a warrior, not used to being pulled about and tarted up as she had been this morning, by beauticians and hairdressers, but she would do this.
“Feral would still have looked better in this.”
She was careful to keep her muttering under her breath. Kyn hearing was acute. The last thing she needed was everyone to find out she felt like a complete and utter idiot.
“What was that?” Maria appeared at Vixen’s side again, but her attention was diverted as the door opened and a tall figure appeared.
In a heartbeat, Vixen was all attention, her body tensed and readied for an attack. She knew how much some people wanted to make sure this wedding didn’t go through, for Marak not to marry. As she recognized the man who stepped into the room, she relaxed marginally, silent understanding passing between warrior and knight.
“Are you ready, sweetheart? They’re all waiting for you out there… Marak’s like a cat on a hot tin roof.” Garen Ravensford crossed the room to his daughter, and Vixen could see the pride sparkling in his eyes as he took in her appearance. “You look wonderful, honey. Beautiful. Just like your mother did. She would have been so proud of you.”
Vixen turned away with a lump in her throat, uncomfortable at trespassing on a tender moment between father and daughter. Despite having fallen in love with a human, Garen had stood by her and the two half-kyn daughters she’d borne him. It was an old scandal—one of the most eligible lords in the court had married a human for love. It had nearly cost Garen his title. A match between a kyn and a human? Unheard of.
If she had been converted, it would have been a different matter. Occasionally though some humans couldn’t be converted. No one knew why. The scientists thought it might have to do with a strain of paranormal DNA in their genetic makeup, something not human in their family tree, that stopped the conversion. Regardless of the pressure on him, Garen stood by his mortal wife until she died, and Vixen admired him for that.
Her own father had been a different matter. He’d seen the warriors’ marks across the face and body of his newborn daughter and had walked out, leaving Vixen and her mother to fend for themselves.
“Yes, I’m ready… is everyone else? Do y’all have your bouquets?” Maria asked, twisting and turning to check as Garen lifted her veil to draw it down over her face. Vixen lifted her bouquet and waggled it in with the rest, adding her voice to the chorus from the assembled bridesmaids.
The panic left Maria’s face as her father drew her hand onto his arm and led her toward the door. The bridesmaids fell into the order they’d had drilled into them by the wedding coordinator and followed her. Vixen brought up the rear, her hand closing around the handle of her bouquet and the stiletto hidden there. Just in case. Bridesmaid for the day, protector for life.
The moment of truth was upon her. Vixen took a deep breath before stepping through the door. All eyes in the hall swung toward them. Vixen bit the inside of her lip, wishing she was somewhere—anywhere—other than here. If a rogue burst into the hall right now, she’d kiss it, before kicking its ass.
Feral should’ve worn the dress. She fixed her gaze on Maria’s slender figure, concentrated on putting one step in front of the other, and ignored the crowded room around her as she followed the queen-to-be up the aisle.

Mina was born and raised in the East Farthing of Middle Earth (otherwise known as the Midlands, England) and spend her childhood learning all the sorts of things generally required of a professional adventurer. Able to ride, box, shoot, make and read maps, make chainmail and use a broadsword (with varying degrees of efficiency) she was disgusted to find that adventuring is not considered a suitable occupation these days.

So, instead of slaying dragons and hunting vampires and the like, Mina spends her days writing about hot shifters, government conspiracies and vampire lords with more than their fair share of RAWR. Turns out wanna-be adventurers have quite the turn of imagination after all…

(But she keeps that sword sharp, just in case the writing career is just a dream and she really *is* an adventurer.)

The boring part: A full time author and cover artist, Mina can usually be found hunched over a keyboard or graphics tablet, frantically trying to get the images and words in her head out and onto the screen before they drive her mad. She’s addicted to coffee and would like to be addicted to chocolate, but unfortunately chocolate dislikes her.
Author Links

An Unlikely Bride by Nadia Lee

 

Coming June 13th
AVA

The meek shall inherit the earth, they say.

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

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

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

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

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

LUCAS

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

My ass.

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

Instead she shattered my soul.

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

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

The water runs, hitting the bottom of the white porcelain sink with a hiss. It’s extremely hot, almost scalding. I grit my teeth and scrub. The water has to be hot, or it won’t be effective. I know that from experience.
The cuts from two days ago reopen and bleed, but I slather more soap on my skin. The burn from the water and open wounds blend together, and I smile grimly. Burning means it’s working.
After I’m finished, I wipe my hands on a white towel and study it. It’s damp but pristine. Narrowing my eyes, I examine my hands with care—backs, palms, the tips of the fingers where a lot of people miss, the nails…every line I can see.
But I can’t stop seeing Ava, retreating from me, wiping her hand—the one that I touched—on her jeans as though she couldn’t bear the grime.
I turn the water back on and start washing again. If I’d been more careful, if I’d just been clean, would she have been less aloof? Would she have been more receptive, tried to understand things from my point of view?
Would she have smiled when I told her “I’m in love with you”?
She couldn’t have seen my defect, not the way Mom did. Otherwise she wouldn’t have shared herself with me in the way she did… Never like that.
Despite not sleeping much, two days have given me some clarity and a plan of sorts.
Surely I can fix what’s broken if I just present my case better. And I understand the importance of presentation. Elliot and I would’ve never gotten the funding for our company if we didn’t know how to convince tight-fisted venture capitalists we deserved their money and confidence.
I just have to do the same with Ava…and pray that she never sees how fucked up and undeserving I am. I can probably hide all my flaws with the right props—some charity work, maybe…and spoiling her rotten until she can’t imagine going back to a life that doesn’t have me to pamper her.
But first, I have to be absolutely immaculate.
My hands are red from the hot water, and my skin stings. Still, I don’t feel clean enough.
Unable to help myself, I start the shower and strip everything off. My clothes end up on the bathroom floor in a heap. As soon as I’m naked, I hop under the water, the temperature punishingly hot.
I take soap and scrub myself, my hands rough and impatient and desperate. I have to get all the dirt off me. I have to.
And after I’m really clean, I’m going to try again. I’m going to make Ava see that I did not approach her for some fucking painting.
I keep washing, feeling like a hamster on a wheel. I’m trying so hard, but the effort… I don’t know if I’m getting the result I’m striving for.
Maybe, before I see Ava, I should run Dad’s Wife Number Three over for leaking the family’s deal to the press. It’s the least the bitch deserves for ruining the best thing that’s ever happened to me. A grand gesture like that might please Ava. I think. I hope. I can’t decide anymore. My head is a jumble of ideas about how to fix what’s broken between us.
“Jesus, what the fuck?” Blake’s sharp voice shatters my concentration. “Lucas! What the hell’s going on?”
“Go away,” I say tersely. “I’m washing.” I have to be clean so I can make another run by her place. Maybe I’ll get a glimpse of her this time. I can go see her, ostensibly to give her her Lexus back. I had it detailed and waxed again this morning. It is probably the cleanest car in the state of Virginia, if not the entire country.
“I can see that.” He scowls at me through the other side of the glass stall. “The question is why?”
“Why do people wash, Blake?”
“You tell me, genius.” His lips pull apart in distaste. “Much more scrubbing and you won’t have any skin left.”
He opens the door and reaches inside, getting water all over his expensive cashmere sweater. “Goddamn it. Are you trying to cook yourself?” With an impatiently deft twist of a wrist, he shuts off the water. “Get out.” He tosses me a towel.
When I merely grip the soft cotton in my hands, he takes my wrist and drags me out. “Lucas, focus. You’ve been washing for three days now.”
“How did you get here?” I ask numbly.
“Rachel called.”
“Rachel?”
“Yeah, your assistant? Remember her? She was worried about you. I’m pretty sure she would’ve preferred to have Elizabeth here, but our sister’s a little busy. Not to mention, I don’t know if it’s a good idea for her to see you like this.” He gestures at me. “Dry off, for fuck’s sake. You’re dripping water everywhere.”
I scowl, but run the towel along my body. Dripping water is bad. It makes a mess, and nobody like a mess. I wince at the stinging sensation; it feels like I’ve got a head-to-toe sunburn. “Why not?” I say, referring to our sister. “She always does the delicate work in the family.”
“Because she, against my advice, gave you that information about where your ex was.”
I drop the wet towel in the laundry basket and come to a halt just outside my closet. I’ve been so focused on getting Ava back that I never stopped to consider who sent me the mysterious package that got us together again. “Elizabeth knew about Ava all this time?”
A careless shrug. “Maybe. She has her own ways of finding things out. Never uses Benjamin Clark or any of the other usual PIs, so”—he spreads his hands—“how the hell should I know?”
I narrow my eyes. I don’t know who she uses either, and she won’t share the man’s name…if it even is a man. She guards the person’s identity as though it’s the Hope Diamond. But whoever it is is scarily good.
“I told her to stay out of it. When people don’t stay together, it’s usually for a reason. And I was right as usual. Look at you. Just… What the fuck.”
Blake sounds disgusted, which doesn’t surprise me. Of all my siblings on the Pryce side—three total—Blake fits the image of the old moneyed and influential family the best. Not only does he have the Pryce features—the dark hair, the classic profile their men are famous for, the arrogant tilt of his eyebrows and that insolent gaze that says he’s entitled to whatever he wants—he also has the temperament to match.
“You lied to me about not knowing Ava.” He denied categorically that he and Ava ever met or had words.
He holds up a finger. “I said I didn’t remember who she was. I don’t keep track of people’s love lives. There are better uses for my brain cells. I’m sort of aware that you had an ex you broke up with two years ago, but even that’s only because of Elizabeth. She thought perhaps you’d be more amenable to smoothing things out with the girl and marrying her for a year.”
Damn Elizabeth. I know she wants Grandfather’s portrait of her… “That’s going way too fucking far.” She should’ve at least had the guts to tell me about Ava herself rather than sending an anonymous envelope.
“You should’ve never revealed you aren’t going to marry. It’s making some people very antsy.”
“Are you saying it’s my fault?”
“Yes, because you give away too much. It’s always best to play things close to your chest.”
Fucker. It’s annoying how coolly he speaks, but he isn’t saying anything untrue. Everything’s my fault, and even though I find Blake abrasive at times, I’m glad he’s here to pump some sense into me. There’s no one quite like him to ground a person.
“People who don’t give a shit tend to get what they want,” he adds. “Just look at Dad.”
Point taken. I should’ve never been so needy and pathetic, telling Ava all the things I felt about her. Did she curl her mouth in distaste when I wasn’t watching? I can just imagine…
Blake steps past, goes into my walk-in closet and tosses a blue shirt and some worn jeans my way. “Get dressed, unless you plan to parade around naked. It may thrill your housekeeper, but I’ve seen enough.”
“Good god. She’s in her sixties.” Not to mention, she seems to believe it’s her number one responsibility to mother me. She cleaned up the mess I made in my office even though I told her to not bother.
“So? She’s not dead yet, is she? Where else is she going to see a man in his prime prancing around naked?”
I snort, then my gaze falls on the ugly scars on my left leg, and my mood darkens. Ava caressed them as though they didn’t repulse her. She even ran her cheeks along the white bumpy lines. And for that one moment all the pain and weight I carry just…vanished.
Was she upset about the implied end date to our relationship? The fucking tabloids were thorough—they didn’t forget to add that the fake marriage was to last a year.
She shouldn’t have shut me out. I told her I loved her. Why didn’t she try to negotiate?
Or did I fuck it up by bringing nothing but the pathetic terra-cotta pot? Maybe I should’ve prepared something sparkly and expensive. Diamonds usually work pretty well. Their dazzling display would’ve hidden what’s wrong inside me. Ava might not have even noticed the pot.
I cover my eyes with a hand. They would’ve made a perfect present, and I’m an idiot for not having seen it sooner. But I was foundering in my own thoughts at the time.
Blake grabs a fresh shirt from his small suitcase and changes out of the wet sweater. Once we’re both dressed, my brother drags me to the living room. It has a couple of plushy mahogany-colored leather armchairs and two matching love seats. A few coffee table hardbacks on Monticello and Jefferson’s legacy lie on the low wooden table in the center. Rachel had the place decorated, and whoever she hired did well.
Gail comes out from the kitchen, wiping her thin hands on a paper towel. Her hair is gray, and her eyes a murky green although still perceptive behind a pair of glasses. She’s put on a UVA shirt—her children went to the University of Virginia—and jeans and a pair of those sensible white sneakers.
She takes one look at me and nods. “Good to see you finally rejoining the ranks of the living.”
“It wasn’t that long.”
“Three days is plenty. Demolishing pictures in your office? Jogging three times a day? Washing before and after you go out? My lord. I thought you’d lost your mind!” Gail presses her lips together until they practically vanish. “I do confess you had me worried. Wasn’t sure what to do.”
That explains why Rachel called for reinforcements.
I go to Gail and squeeze her weathered hand. “I’m sorry. Really. It won’t happen again.”
Blake sits back in an armchair, doing what people are starting to call manspreading. “That’s right. I won’t let it.”
“Good. Now, would you like something to eat?”
“Something warm. And maybe a sandwich?” Blake asks hopefully.
“I can manage that.” She points at the other armchair. “Sit down, Lucas. You’re making me nervous.” She waits until I actually take the seat and then disappears into the kitchen.
“‘I won’t let it.’” I snort. “Smug SOB, aren’t you? You can’t stay here forever to keep an eye on things.”
He shrugs. “You can’t stay here for too long either.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Don’t you remember your rather open-ended promise to Nate Sterling?”
Obscenely wealthy and well connected, Nate Sterling is a relative—through marriage—on the Pryce side of the family. Although he and I are friends, I can’t imagine making a blank promise to him. I absolutely hate owing anyone anything. “What promise?”
Blake shakes his head. “I knew it. I even told Nate you probably forgot, since you’re no liar.”
I inhale sharply as a fresh wave of pain cuts through me. My asshole brother thinks I’m not a liar…but not the woman I love.
Not just a liar, but a greedy, greedy bastard.
Just like the way I was a greedy fetus.
I rub my hands together, feeling grimy.
Blake’s flat tone pulls me out of my headspace. “You told him you’d help in any way you could if he ever opened a clinic for the poor.”
Finally, I remember. When I learned how much Ava and her mother had suffered growing up, a clinic for people who fell through the cracks was something I wanted to do, and Nate seemed like the perfect partner for that type of venture. “And? Don’t tell me he’s going to build one now.” I no longer have the drive or the proper state of mind for a project as ambitious as this.
“He has, and it’s already open. The Sterling Medical Center in L.A. Well, ‘open’… He’ll make it official in about a week or two, I imagine.”
“Then he doesn’t need me.”
“Wrong. He wants you to help with fundraisers.”
What the hell? “That’s not my area. Why doesn’t he ask Elizabeth?” There’s no wallet she can’t crack with that smile of hers.
“She told him she was too busy. It’s not like she has nothing to do with her time.”
Goddamn it.
“And it’s not like there’s anything keeping you here.”
But there is.
I didn’t go jogging three times a day for shits and giggles. No matter how convoluted a route I took, I always made sure to pass Darcy and Ray’s house…which I guess makes me a stalker. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Ava’s taken out a restraining order. I’ve been behaving like some of the psychos who’ve harassed my sister.
If I were a better man, I would’ve accepted Ava’s decision—no, that’s not right. If I were a better man, she wouldn’t have rejected me in the first place.
But…I’m not. So I kept going by her place to see if she was all right without me. To see if she’d found someone else.
I wish she were a tenth as miserable as I am, so she’d want me back to make the hurt go away. But I haven’t seen her at the house and she hasn’t called. Wanting her—missing her—has become a tangible thing that wraps around and squeezes until I feel like I’m about to burst.
The only bright spot is that she doesn’t seem to be dating anyone new.
Blake as usual sees a bit too much. “It’s that girl, isn’t it?”
I merely stare at him.
He steeples his fingers. “Stop rubbing your hands together and tell me what happened.”
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Nadia Lee writes sexy, emotional contemporary romance. Born with a love for excellent food, travel and adventure, she has lived in four different countries, kissed stingrays, been bitten by a shark, ridden an elephant and petted tigers.

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

Stay in touch with her via her website, http://www.nadialee.net, or her blog www.nadialee.net/blog/
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A Fighting Chance by Anne Stone

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Annie
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Roommates With Benefits by Nicole Williams

 

 

Coming June 5th
Pre-order exclusively via iBooks HERE

 

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

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


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

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



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

 

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

 

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At His Mercy by Shelly Bell

 

 

 

Angel in his arms . . . Devil at her heels

One last, no-strings night of indulgence. That’s all Tristan wants before he begins a much-needed new chapter in his life. Instead he finds an innocent angel in pink who brings him to his knees.

Isabella is done hiding from the world . . . and her haunting memories. Discovering courage in the arms of a perfect stranger, she finally lets go and sheds her inhibitions.

To Isabella’s shock, she soon learns that Tristan is more than her mystery man-he’s her professor. But Tristan isn’t the only person who’s found Isabella on campus. A dark figure from her past has come back for her. Now Tristan will risk anything to protect Isabella . . . even if it costs him his life.
Chapter One
If there ever was an unassuming location for a sex party, the quaint Tudor-style house in front of her definitely fit the bill. For Pete’s sake, there were children’s bicycles on the neighbor’s lawn.
Her cousin, Dreama, must have given her the wrong address.
Isabella Lawson rifled through her purse, cursing the starless night and wishing for the umpteenth time that someone would invent a purse that lit up when you opened it. After digging her way to the bottom, she finally located her cell.
A black screen.
Of course it was dead.
She leaned on her grandfather’s old Buick and growled in frustration. Would anything go right?
Tonight’s event was going to be her first sex party. And probably her last. But since Isabella couldn’t call Dreama for the right address, her plans to screw were screwed.
“What are you wearing?” asked her cousin.
Startled, Isabella spun around and pressed a palm to her chest as if trying to keep her racing heart from flying out. Her cousin had scared the stuffing out of her. She glanced down at her outfit. “What I’ve worn all summer.” Even she could admit that black stretch pants and a pink T-shirt with her family bakery’s logo probably wasn’t standard sex party wear.
Dreama blew a ring of smoke into the humid air, then took another puff of her cigarette. “That isn’t what I meant. I’m wondering why the hell you’re still wearing it.”
Fanning away the smoke, Isabella fake coughed. “I came straight from work. I didn’t have time to change. Not to mention, everything I own is in boxes.” About to leave for her freshman year of college, she’d packed up the majority of her clothes. “And I wasn’t about to ask Mom to borrow something of hers. She would’ve grilled me for information until I told her the truth.” Isabella plucked the cigarette from her cousin’s mouth, dropped it on the concrete, and ground it out with her shoe. “Would you have preferred if I’d told your aunt that you’re taking me to my first sex party?”
Dreama shook her head, a little laugh escaping her lips. “That’s all I need. Aunt Maria not only blaming me for corrupting her innocent daughter, but hauling my ass to church to confess my many sins.” She jumped up onto the hood of Isabella’s car and fished through her purse. “And I didn’t bring you to a sex party. It’s a play party.”
Isabella raised a brow in both confusion and at the fact that her cousin had just added another dent to the car’s collection. “There’s a difference?”
Dangling a cigarette between her fingers and rolling her thumb over her lighter, Dreama smiled. “Yes. Intercourse isn’t permitted at a play party.”
“You didn’t tell me that.”
“Sure I did,” Dreama said, bending to light her cigarette.
What was the point of being here then? She could’ve not had sex anywhere. The idea of coming to this thing was to experience BDSM in a relatively safe environment.
Isabella snatched the cigarette from her cousin and stomped on it. “No, I think I’d remember a detail like not getting laid at a sex party.” If the party wound her up, how would she get any relief? She’d already packed away her vibrator.
“Play party,” Dreama repeated, jumping off the hood of the car with a pop. “And don’t worry. There are other ways of getting off than intercourse.” Cracking up, she lewdly wiggled her fingers and stuck out her tongue.
Isabella’s cheeks heated. “Oh.”
Dreama placed a hand on her hip. “Maybe I shouldn’t have brought you here. You’re so innocent.”
She ran her fingertip along the pink scar on her left forearm. She’d always thought innocence referred to the status of your virginity. How wrong she’d been. Innocence was a state of mind, and she’d lost hers the hard way. Her scars would always remind her of that. “I’m not innocent,” she said quietly. “Not anymore.”
As her cousin was one of the few who knew the truth about what had happened to Isabella last year, her eyes clouded over with sympathy. “No, I suppose you’re not.” She curled her hands around Isabella’s shoulders, concern etched on her face. “Are you ready to go in and get a firsthand look, or would you rather go get a drink somewhere? I’m good either way.”
“Isn’t your Dom in there waiting for you?” Isabella asked.
Dreama’s lips tilted up in a smile. “Master Jamie is inside, but he’ll understand if I go get a drink with you. He knows you and I won’t get to see each other for a while.”
“I want to go inside,” she said. And she did, despite her racing heart and her sweaty palms. “I need to do it. You know I do.”
After surviving what she and her parents referred to as “the incident,” Isabella found that she’d lost her ability to trust anyone, especially herself. As a result, instead of having gone away to college as planned, she’d allowed her parents to convince her to stay at home and work in their bakery full-time. Her life in limbo, she’d spent her days at the bakery and her nights either in therapy or at home, hiding away in her bedroom.
But everything changed the night she’d hung out at Dreama’s and stumbled upon her huge collection of BDSM books.
After a long conversation with her cousin, Isabella realized she wanted to learn more about BDSM and borrowed a few of the books. Something about the lifestyle had resonated with her. Warmth permeated throughout her limbs at the idea of a man giving her structured rules to follow and at knowing there were established boundaries neither of them could cross. The sensation was so foreign, she almost didn’t recognize it.
Until she realized it was peace.
The unsettling feelings she’d harbored since puberty didn’t mean there was something wrong with her. Other people fantasized about being restrained and punished by a lover too. Of course, things like that weren’t spoken about in her large Italian-Irish Catholic family. No, she was expected to do her duty for her husband with her legs spread and her eyes shut tight without complaint. Husbands weren’t supposed to tie their wives to the bedpost and take them every way imaginable while she cried “no” and thrashed beneath him, all the while violently coming over and over.
She’d spent the following six months researching BDSM and discussing it with her therapist. At first, she hadn’t understood how she could want to be dominated or why she craved a little pain with her pleasure. Shouldn’t her past have turned her off to those yearnings?
For days, she’d walked around feeling both shame and guilt until she’d finally accepted that her sexual inclinations had little to do with what had happened to her. Yes, she was submissive. That didn’t mean she was weak or asking to be a victim.
Now, with eight weeks of her local BDSM group’s introductory class under her belt, she was ready to participate in her first real power exchange with an experienced Dominant. Dreama had assured her that she knew almost all of the Doms at the party, and with rules in place, Isabella would be perfectly safe.
In Isabella’s opinion, giving up her power to a Dom tonight would help her reclaim control over her life. Tonight, she’d take back what she’d lost and become whole again. And damn it, if it went as she suspected it would, and she got off on being dominated, then she’d accept that her sexuality was different. But it was hers, and she’d own it.
Dreama released her hold on her. “Yes, I know all the reasons you need to do this, but once you get a taste, you may develop a particular palate. Life will become a lot more complicated.”
Isabella shrugged. After tonight, her particular “palate” would have to wait four years for another taste. It wasn’t as if she would have time for a Dom/sub relationship in college, even if she did manage to find a compatible partner in the Michigan Upper Peninsula’s small college town of Edison. “I’m not worried, but thanks for the warning. I’ll be sure to take that into consideration.”
Scrutinizing her, Dreama pursed her lips. “Before we go in, we need to do something about your outfit.”
Spoken like a true fashion maven. Dreama was wearing one of her own creations, a black bustier with metallic blue ribbons and an attached lace skirt. No one would ever guess from her clothes tonight that during business hours she was a buttoned-up, by-the-book parole officer.
But even with her cousin’s skills, Isabella’s outfit was hopeless.
Isabella pulled her shirt taut, showing off the logo for her family’s bakery. “Unless you have something in your car, I think I’m stuck with what I’m wearing.”
Dreama scanned her up and down, smiling. “We’ll make it work. Slide your arms out of the sleeves.” When Isabella did what she was told, Dreama folded and tucked the sleeves into the opening at her neck. “Now take off your pants.”
She raised a brow. “When I thought about attending my first play party, somehow it wasn’t you I pictured ordering me to remove my clothes.” Giggling, she shimmied out of her black pants and twirled around wearing nothing but a shirt made into a dress and white cotton boy shorts. “What do you think?”
Her cousin whistled. “You look hot.”
She laughed as she picked up her pants and tossed them into the backseat of her car before locking it. “I look like a stripper.”
“You’ll fit right in.” Dreama winked and threw her arm around Isabella’s shoulders, leading her to the front door. “Ready to play?”
Play. An innocuous word for such decadence. Was she ready to become part of it?
Smiling, she turned to her cousin. “Hell, yeah.”
***
With his dungeon gear bag slung over his shoulder, Tristan Kelley sidestepped Yvette, the blonde sub headed his way, and made a beeline for the exit. There wasn’t a sub here worth staying for, and while his dick hadn’t seen much action lately, other than some lube and his palm, nothing had raised his interest tonight.
“Leaving already?” asked the amused voice from behind him.
Only a few feet from the door, he pivoted toward his best friend and business partner, Ryder. “I’ve got some stuff to do before the move upstate.”
Debating whether he was making the right decision, he’d put off packing until the very last minute, but now that he had finalized his contract, there was no changing his mind.
“I call bullshit, Tristan. What’s the real reason?”
He scrubbed a hand over the two-day-old stubble on his cheek. “I meet the same single women at every play party, and at one time or another, each has expressed an interest in becoming my permanent sub. Why can’t I find someone who just wants a night or two of kinky fucking without expecting more?”
At twenty-eight years old, he wasn’t looking for a long-term relationship, vanilla or otherwise. Every sub he’d played with this year had thought she’d be the one to tame him, but he’d done the whole commitment deal once with disastrous results. Because of his ex-wife, Morgan, he’d lost everything that had mattered to him. There was no way he would go down that road again with a woman.
“Don’t look at me. I’m with you.” Ryder grinned. “At least I don’t have to worry about that with Maggie. Gotta love open marriages. We single men reap all the benefits while the poor married saps have to deal with all the day-to-day bullshit that goes into a relationship. Speaking of which, I’d be happy to tag team her with you. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.”
Ryder had an even bigger aversion to commitment than he did, never fucking the same woman twice. Someday, Ryder would meet someone who would knock him on his ass, and when that happened, Tristan was going to make sure he had a front row seat.
Tristan shook his head. “No thanks. Not in the mood.”
The ménage thing was sexy as hell, and he’d certainly participated in his fair share, but there wasn’t a woman here who could make his dick stir from its slumber tonight.
Besides, it didn’t matter to him that Maggie was in an open marriage. Maybe it was because of his past, but in his opinion, having sex with someone other than your spouse, even with their consent, was infidelity. But he didn’t judge others, just as he didn’t want someone else to judge him for his sexual preferences.
Ryder shrugged. “Suit yourself. She’s waiting for me in the master bedroom.”
“Thought you abided by the no-sex rules at your parties.”
“It’s my house. If I can’t fuck here, where am I supposed to do it?” Ryder asked, his gaze glued to Yvette, who’d yet to become a notch on his bedpost. Leave it to his best friend to line up his next conquest while having a naked woman waiting for him in bed. Compared to Ryder, Tristan was a prude. “If you change your mind and stay, the other bedroom is open and available. Just like all the subs.” He snagged a bottled water off the bar and winked at Yvette before returning his attention to Tristan.
“That’s the problem. I just want someone for one night. Someone I’m not going to see again.”
“You’ve certainly made that easier, considering you’re moving this week.”
“Not permanently. And I’ll occasionally come back to the city. Lord knows I’m not going to find anyone in the lifestyle up there.” Although with the women he’d met lately, he’d been thinking he might go vanilla for a year. It certainly couldn’t be any less fulfilling.
“Maybe you should’ve thought about that before you agreed to the job,” Ryder said, his brows knitted into a frown. “Hey, there are kinky people everywhere. And you did have your first real experience with BDSM there.”
“Somehow, I think the chances of finding another Olivia in that one-horse town is slim to none.” Olivia had been four years older than he was and the first to show him the ropes. Literally. “You sure you’ll be okay without me?”
Ryder folded his arms across his chest. “Don’t worry about leaving me to run everything. I’ve already got phone calls into my contacts about the expansion into the southwest.”
Shit. He and Ryder had discussed that they needed testimonials for the long-term success of their products before they’d expand into other territories. “Tell me you’re joking. We don’t have the capital—” At Ryder’s smirk, Tristan realized he’d been played. “You dick.”
“Give me a little credit. I wouldn’t make any major decisions without your consent.” Ryder pounded him on the back hard enough to make his teeth chatter. “Have fun and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Tristan punched him in the arm. “There isn’t anything you wouldn’t do.”
“True that. Speaking of which, I’d better go meet Maggie before she starts without me.” On a laugh, Ryder walked off with the swagger of a man who was about to get laid.
Meanwhile, Tristan had a date with his right hand.
As he inched his way through the crowd to the front door, Dreama, a sub he’d met but never played with, came in. She gave him a little smile, careful not to make eye contact, and forged a path toward the basement. She was a sweet girl, but there had never been any sparks between them, and she was now in a collared relationship.
Seeing the opportunity to sneak out before someone else stopped him, he stepped to the door.
And there she was.
Tristan’s breath caught in his chest as if he’d been kicked in the ribs. She was a vision in pink, her long red hair flowing down her shoulders and pale skin that was just begging for him to mark. He could practically see his pink handprint on her ass and the way the flogger would make it appear as though her entire body blushed.
Along with several of the Doms in the room, his eyes tracked her as she entered the house with her gaze lowered, her blatant innocence calling to him…to all of them. She was new blood, a little lamb who had stumbled into a den of hungry wolves. It was only a matter of time before they’d be circling her, eager to get a taste.
He hesitated to leave, his curiosity roused by this angel in pink. Had she come with Dreama? Who the hell was she?
He hungered to harness that innocence for himself. To have her kneel at his feet in submission and to feel her silky skin against his rough palms. He stood rooted to his spot as she passed by him, leaving the scent of vanilla behind.
His whole body thrummed with anticipation, as if it was prepared for something momentous. The cock that had been hibernating all night suddenly blazed to life and began throbbing mercilessly against the front of his pants. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d felt this way. If he’d ever felt this way. He’d been numb for so long, nothing exciting him beyond a momentary thrill from domination. Now it was as if every part of him was awake.
There was no reason to stay, and yet he couldn’t make himself walk out the door. Not until he learned more about this mysterious beauty, and why the hell she affected him this way.
For a few minutes, he leaned against the wall and observed her. It was clear from the way she moved tentatively into the house that this wasn’t her typical scene. She tugged at her hair, curling it around her finger, and repetitively pulled at the hem of her odd dress, seemingly uncomfortable in it. Hell, it was so short it barely covered her ass, but that wasn’t unusual at a play party. In fact, she was still wearing more than half the women here.
Dreama stopped to put her arm around the mystery woman, whispering in her ear. She steered her over to the far side of the room, where a man in black leather waited with obvious eagerness.
Tristan crossed his arms and frowned. He didn’t know the guy well, but he knew he was relatively new to the BDSM lifestyle. She should be with someone with more experienced, especially if his gut was correct and she was as innocent as she looked.
But it wasn’t his business.
His redheaded angel shifted her weight from foot to foot as Dreama appeared to introduce the two of them before sauntering off and leaving her on her own. I should go.
By all accounts, she’d already been claimed for the night. There was no point in watching her scene with another man. Voyeurism wasn’t his kink, especially when he craved to be the one doing the dominating.
His feet moved, only rather than taking him in the direction of the exit, he found himself standing just inches away from her, angling himself so that he appeared to be admiring the garish painting on the wall as he listened in on their conversation.
“I know Dreama meant well, but I have to be honest. I don’t think I’m ready yet to play with someone who doesn’t have any experience,” the guy said, surprising Tristan with his accurate assessment.
At least now he didn’t have to worry about her sceneing with someone who didn’t know what he was doing. There were plenty of qualified Doms here tonight who would just love to get their hands on her.
His body tightened with tension. Why didn’t that make him feel any better?
Time to go before he did something stupid…like volunteer.
“Oh. Sure. I understand,” she responded, her voice as dulcet as he’d imagined.
Intending to leave, he took a step backward and began a pivot toward the door, when she crashed into his right side. So much for making a clean getaway. Not wanting to be rude, he flipped around to apologize and came face-to-face with her.
She stared up at him with clear green eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
Her pale pink lips were swollen as if she’d just spent the last ten minutes with his cock between them. Jesus, were they naturally that plump? Her tongue darted out, moistening her bottom lip and leaving it glistening in an invitation to sample.
“No,” he said, his voice sounding a bit grittier than usual, “I’m sorry.” It was a lie. He couldn’t have planned it better. He coughed to clear his throat before offering his hand. “I’m Tristan.”
A cute little notch formed between her brows as she accepted, placing her palm against his. Her skin was just as soft as he’d imagined it would be.
“I’m…” She lowered her gaze and a beautiful blush crept down her cheeks, disappearing under her dress.
For a myriad of reasons, some people didn’t want to give their real names at these parties. He wasn’t sure why she was hesitant, but seeing that blush sent a jolt straight to his cock.
“Why don’t I just call you Angel?”
“Angel?” she asked breathlessly, peeking up at him through her lush lashes and smiling. “I like that.”
All thoughts of leaving the party fled. He couldn’t go before he got a taste. She was positively edible, and he couldn’t wait to sink his teeth into her.
He took a step closer to her, her hard nipples brushing against his chest. He dipped his head to her neck, inhaling. God, she made his mouth water. “You smell like vanilla.”
“I’m a baker,” she said, a tremor in her voice. Her hands went to his chest, fisting his shirt in her hands as if using him to keep herself upright. “I didn’t have time to shower. Or change.”
That explained why she was wearing only that surprisingly sexy makeshift dress. It was actually a shirt. “You smell delicious.” He sucked the lobe of her ear into his mouth and nibbled. She tasted as sweet as cake, and if her pussy tasted half as delicious, he’d likely go into a diabetic coma by the time the night was over.
At her quiet moan, he whispered, “And your clothes are irrelevant. In five minutes, the only thing you’ll be wearing is a smile. That is, if you consent.”
Her breathing quickened. “If I say yes, what will I be consenting to, exactly?”
Images of her naked and bound flashed through his mind. There were so many dirty things he wanted to do to her, each one ending with her climaxing harder than she ever had before. And he was just the man to make that happen.
He cupped her heart-shaped face in his hands. “Paradise.”
 

 

A sucker for a happy ending, Shelly Bell writes erotic suspense and action-filled erotic thrillers with high-emotional stakes for her alpha heroes and kick-ass heroines.

She began writing upon the insistence of her husband who dragged her to the store and bought her a laptop. When she’s not working her day job, taking care of her family, or writing, you’ll find her reading the latest smutty romance.

She is the author of the BENEDICTION and FORBIDDEN LOVERS series.

 

 

Behind the Wall by Jane Harvey Berrick

 

 

 

Coming May 26th

 

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

This story first appeared in the anthology HOT FOR TEACHER in 2016. It has since been extended with new scenes, more heart ache and even more heat.

 

 

Garrett

“Hey, Garrett. Check out the new teacher, man.”

Hudson’s voice was quiet, so as to not attract attention.

I’d been in this shitty classroom for thirty seconds and I was already itching to leave. It brought back too many bad memories. But getting educated was a condition of trying to get my parole. I could put up with any amount of crap to say goodbye to this hellhole.

I glanced up, sighing inwardly when I saw that Officer Reynolds was with the teacher. Some of the guards were fair, treating us okay, but some, like the asshole in front of me, got off on making us remember which side of the bars we were on. But I figured I’d been inside for five years—Reynolds was in for life, even if he did get to leave every night. Once I was out of this sewer, that was it, done. I was never coming back. Not again.

My gaze drifted to the woman standing next to the Warden’s poster boy for prison brutality. She looked nervous, but was trying to hide it by standing straight, keeping her chin up, meeting a man’s eyes without prejudice or promise.

I turned away. Sure, it was nice to have a female to look at, but anything longer than a quick glance would have Reynolds burning my ass.

Besides, she wasn’t my type. I liked my women to look like women: tall, with tits and ass, big hair, lush lips, and a ballsy attitude.

The new teacher was kind of small, although she had a nice rack. Her hair was a pretty auburn color, but it was short, not even chin length. Nothing for a man to grab onto. And not a scrap of makeup. A man dreamed about scarlet lips in a place like this.

I could see her hands shaking as she stood behind the desk, holding onto her schoolbag like it would save her from drowning.

Not in this classroom, sweetheart.

She wouldn’t last. She looked as if a stiff breeze would blow her over.

Reynolds rapped his baton on the desk to get our attention, but the only person who jumped was the new teacher. I was amused to see a warm flush rise up her cheeks. I could tell by the irritated glance she threw Reynolds’ way that she was annoyed with him as well as herself.

Reynolds looked as though he was about to start one of his lectures, telling us how we was shit and not worth the money spent on keeping our asses in prison, but the woman stepped from behind the desk and started talking.

“Hello, class,” she said, walking to the front as her blush faded. “My name is Miss Newsome…”

My mouth dropped open, and every swivel-eyed pervert in the room was transfixed by our new teacher. She had the smallest waist hovering over the biggest ass I’d ever seen. Hourglasses didn’t have anything on her. I scrubbed my hands over my face. One hour of sheer hell coming up.

“I wish I did knew some her ass,” mumbled Cooper from the back of the room, echoing the thoughts of every man here.

“Who said that?” roared Reynolds, stalking down the gap between the desks that were bolted to the floor. “Cooper, you show some goddamn respect or you’ll be spending the next six weeks in solitary!”

Reynolds’ face had turned a reddish-purple, and I wondered if we’d be lucky enough to watch him stroke out. Movie night had been cancelled for the last month, so the boredom level was at an all-time high.

But then the teacher cleared her throat, her voice stronger although still high pitched with tension.

“As I was saying, my name is Miss Newsome, and I’ll be your teacher for the rest of the semester…”

“We ain’t got no semesters here,” muttered Chiverson. “Just one-to-three for felony assault.”

Reynolds growled out another threat.

Miss Newsome ignored him, approaching the front row, giving those lucky bastards a ring-side view of a knee-length charcoal gray skirt stretched tight over those wide hips, and a plain white shirt that did nothing to hide her fuck-me curves.

She was obviously trying to go for spinster, but she’d lucked out on sexy librarian instead.

I was doomed. I’d never pass my GED with her as my teacher. I raised my eyes to the ceiling, praying to some higher power that I definitely didn’t believe in.

It was only when the room went silent, no man even breathing, that I realized she’d stopped by my seat.

“Am I boring you already, Mr. … Garrett?”

I saw her eyes dip to the number printed across my prison scrubs before checking her clipboard for my name.

I didn’t know which surprised me more—hearing her say my name, calling me ‘mister’, or the sass in her voice as she did it. Girl was tougher than she looked.

Yep, screwed. Royally fucking screwed.

I realized that she was still waiting for an answer.

“No,” I said, dropping my eyes to her hips, before squeezing my eyelids shut. “I mean, no, ma’am.”

“Good!” she said brightly. “I look forward to your full participation in this class.”

“Party— what?” asked Jakowski, sitting at the desk next to me, his voice hopeful.

Her eyes softened a fraction as she turned in his direction, and I couldn’t help noticing that they were large and brown, like a puppy or Bambi’s mom before she got shot.

Ah, shit.

“Participation,” she said calmly. “It means that I want everyone to join in during my classes, not sit there thinking about what you’re having for dinner.”

A soft rumble of amusement rippled through the room. Reynolds looked furious. But then again, that was pretty much his resting bitch-face.

“I’ll do my best to keep the lessons interesting,” she went on. “But we have a lot of work to get through. I know you’re all up to the challenge because you’ve been specially selected—you guys are my top class.”

I looked up at that. I’d never been top of anything, unless it was a hot woman. I saw a lot of the other guys eyeing her with disbelief and mistrust, too.

“I mean it,” she said softly, as we all hung on her every word. “Mr. Michaels, the Warden, is very keen that everyone in this class gets their GED. It’s my job to make sure that you do. But I’ll need your cooperation to achieve that. I promise that I’ll make every effort to help you, but you all need to promise me that you’ll try, as well. So, I don’t want anyone in this classroom sitting silently because they don’t understand. If you have a question, you raise your hand. Please remember that you learn by asking questions. Don’t be macho about it—ignorance isn’t bliss.”

I felt her gaze on me again, but I kept my head down.

“Isn’t that right, Mr. Garrett?”

I didn’t like her picking on me, and I frowned at my rough hands clasped together on the empty desk.

“Answer her, boy!” snarled Reynolds, rapping his baton next to my fingers, making me snatch them away fast.

“Yes, ma’am,” I muttered, keeping my eyes fixed on the buttons of Reynolds’ uniform to keep from punching the bastard.

Yep, those eighteen months of mandatory anger management classes had gotten through to me: think first, punch later when you won’t get caught.

Miss Newsome cleared her throat, bringing attention back to her.

I drew in a breath, and as she drifted past me, the faint scent of summer flowers hung in the air. I didn’t think she was wearing perfume, so it must have been her shampoo or soap, but whatever it was, the smell was all woman.

I breathed deeply again, feeling a mixture of anger and dizziness at having something so enticing, near but out of reach.

“Those of you who graduate my class will have the opportunity to move on to college-level courses.”

At that point, most of us lost interest. We hadn’t succeeded in school and we hadn’t succeeded in life. What made this college-educated bitch think she could give us anything we needed?

Sensing she was losing us, she went on brightly, her voice a little more shrill than it had been a minute before.

“And I’ll be looking out for a teacher’s aide as we go on—so maybe you can impress the heck out of me.”

Looking around at the bored, disconnected expressions of the other prisoners, it seemed unlikely.

“Okay, so I thought I’d start off with a poem by Oscar Wilde, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’.”

Her voice gained strength as she read, but fuck me, what a depressing fucking poem. I listened to the rise and fall of her voice, but I tuned out most of the words.

“I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky.”

That penetrated—so many times I’d looked up at the patch of sky above the exercise yard and tried to remember what it felt like to be free. Free to stare up at the sky and not have to watch my back at the same time.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a black guy I didn’t know raise his hand, making the teacher stutter and pause.

“Yes, Mr. … Haslett?”

“Ma’am, we already know all about prison. Rather we’d study somethin’ else.”

Her mouth popped open and her eyes screwed up. Ah hell! Surely she wasn’t going to cry? If she did, she’d never put a foot in this classroom again.

“Oh,” she huffed, sounding flustered. “Yes, I see.”

I was fascinated by a bead of sweat that escaped her hairline, running down her cheek and disappearing into her prim collar.

I expected her to wipe it away with those long, slim fingers. But she acted like she hadn’t noticed, even though the classroom was rank with humidity, sweat and failure.

“I just thought…” she waffled on. “I thought … no, you’re right. Well, we could study a poem about love—about love and hate? Would that be better?”

The black guy twitched a shoulder.

“You’re the teacher.”

Miss Newsome laughed. It was such a bright sound, easy, such a contrast to the tense, angry or bored voices I heard around me the rest of the day.

Something tightened in my chest.

Six months. Six more months, then maybe I can find myself a woman who laughs so free and easy.

I enjoyed the view of Miss Newsome’s ass as she walked back to her desk, the rhythmical sway of those full hips, the way her skirt swung around her knees. Pretty fucking mesmerizing.

She started rummaging through her enormous pile of books. Her lips were moving, and I guessed that she was talking to herself.

Her pile was huge, and she was in danger of tipping over. But the thought of her ending ass up across her desk made my prison uniform uncomfortably tight. And if the expressions of the guys around me were anything to go by, she was having the same effect on them.

Miss Newsome had better watch her cute ass and not get caught in an empty classroom with any of these goons. There’s only so much restraint a man has. I frowned at the thought of someone violating teacher-lady. No, that pissed me off.

Goddammit! Now I’d feel obliged to keep an eye on her.

I slumped in my seat, sighing heavily, only noticing the stink-eye she gave me when Hudson elbowed me in the ribs again, grinning broadly.

She snapped open the book she was holding like she was about to shank me with it, and with a final glare, began to read.

“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”

She lowered the book, her face flushed, and when she glared in my direction again, I guessed she must still be mad at me. Great.

“The poet, Robert Frost, was inspired by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Dante and his description of Hell. The worst offenders—traitors—are in a fiery hell while bound in ice. And isn’t that contradiction an apt description of love?”

There was a moment of silence before anyone spoke.

“That poem is the shit, ma’am!” said a guy to my right. “Like how a woman gets you all hot and angry, then freezes your ass off ‘cause you didn’t get her the right kind of candy. And how it gets you fired up that she can be so cold, and all you can think of is warming her up till she burning like a Fourth of July firework.”

“Yeah, and then you blow your fucking load and it’s a loud bang and all over,” laughed another guy.

“Watch your damn mouth, Fisher!” Reynolds yelled. “You will respect your teacher and keep your language clean.”

“It’s fine, really,” Miss Newsome said weakly.

Reynolds turned to her slowly.

“With all due respect, ma’am, these animals will take advantage any chance they get. You’ve got to let ‘em know who’s boss.”

She flushed with anger and embarrassment, but for the rest of the lesson, she could hardly get a word out of anyone; no one wanted to be on the wrong side of Reynolds. No one wanted to end up in solitary on his watch.

It was the quietest poetry discussion that I’d ever seen. And I couldn’t even spell party— partycipation…

As the bell rang for chow time, the little teacher looked almost desperate.

“Thank you all for today,” she said, smiling like she’d just chewed on a juicy lemon. “I’m afraid there’s homework—but nothing too much for the first time. I’d like you all to write a page on the subject of ‘the best day of my life’.”

Benson raised his hand.

“Was it when you graduated college, Miss?”

“What? Oh no! I mean what was the best day of your life?”

Benson stared at her gravely.

“Well, let me see now; I been incarcerated for nineteen years, and might get paroled next winter. I’ll have been in stir more than half my life. Ain’t been a whole lot of best days.”
She blinked rapidly, then gave him a soft smile.

“Maybe you’d like to imagine what your best day would be like?”

He stared back at her, then nodded solemnly.

“I reckon I’d like that just fine.”

She smiled with relief.

“Good, good. And the same goes for the rest of you. If you want to imagine your best day instead, that’s okay by me.”

As we filed out of the room, Reynolds watching our backs like the answer to the Universe was written on them, the teacher gave us each a lined sheet of paper and a blunt pencil.

“Write small,” she teased.

When she handed me my paper, her smile slipped.

And I can’t tell you how bad it hurt that she’d smile for every motherfucker in here, but not for me.

 

AP  new -about the author.jpg
Jane is a writer of contemporary romance fiction, known for thoughtful stories, often touching on difficult subjects: disability (DANGEROUS TO KNOW & LOVE, SLAVE TO THE RHYTHM); mental illness (THE EDUCATION OF CAROLINE, SEMPER FI); life after prison (LIFERS); dyslexia (THE TRAVELING MAN, THE TRAVELING WOMAN).
She is also a campaigner for former military personnel to receive the support they need on leaving the services. She wrote the well-received play LATER, AFTER with former veteran Mike Speirs. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hk1CyB8c0xA )
Author Links

 

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Worth the Ride by Casey Pfeler

 

 

 

Coming May 22nd

 

Pre-order Exclusively
via iBooks

 

Single father, Weston Parker is set in his ways, and raising his daughter is his top priority. But his ten-year-old feisty little girl is growing up faster than he ever realized. Her go-getter attitude is one he’s seen before–mainly on himself. When she starts trading in her ponytails for makeup, Weston realizes he just might be in over his head.

Dedicated and driven veterinarian, Timber Sellers always knew that she’d head back home, but she wasn’t quite ready for it to happen so soon. Running into the stubborn and bossy Weston from her high school days doesn’t make it any better either. But when she meets his spunky daughter, Timber knows she’s right where she’s supposed to be. As Timber grows closer to Weston’s daughter, his rough exterior softens. Suddenly, the heat between them explodes and neither can deny the attraction. Weston always goes after what he wants, and this time, he wants a future with Timber.

 

Prologue

10 years ago

Weston

For nine months I’ve prayed that this is all a dream and that I didn’t make the biggest mistake of my life. However, the voice I hear calling from the other room and a positive pregnancy test proved me wrong. I’m going to be a father, and that’s not how my life was supposed to go. One careless night at Brandy’s, our local bar, is to blame for it. I’m never this stupid, but I let loose one time and it had to be with her: Hannah Cole. It’s not that she’s a bad person, but she isn’t supposed to be my forever. Hell, I don’t even want a wife, but I’ve got one. One thing is for certain, my parents raised me right, and that little girl she’s carrying is mine, so I promised I’d always take care of her and Hannah. Hannah grew up differently than me; she didn’t have two parents that took time to make her feel important while she was growing up. Instead, she has a piece-of-shit dad who’s always running around on her mom, and a mom that continues to sit back and take it. They don’t hold steady jobs, and for as long as I can remember, Hannah has been craving attention in any shape and form. In school, she did well, but she never made good decisions when it came to guys, and lately I’ve wondered if I was the end game for her.

“Weston! Can you come in here a minute?” Hannah yells. All she ever does is bitch and moan about how her feet hurt and how I got her this way. Well, I hate to tell her that it takes two, sweet pea, and if I didn’t let my friend Jim Beam cloud my vision, I wouldn’t be in this damn situation. Why did I knock up Hannah Cole and then marry her? Some days I literally want to hit my head against the wall for being such a dumb ass.

I shake my head as I walk into the bedroom, where I see her standing there with a million pieces of clothing on the bed.

“What should I wear?” She’s got to be kidding me.

“Where are you going?” I half-heartedly ask.  I don’t have time for this. I’ve got a shit-ton of stuff to get done on the farm today so I can scoot out this weekend for qualifying at the rodeo in Blacksburg.

“The hospital. Hello! We’ve got a baby on the way,” she says, pointing at her belly that’s swollen to the size of a basketball.

“Now?” She shakes her head no and I shrug it off, but then I see it coming. She pushes out that lip and crosses her arms.  

“But Weston, I have no idea what to pack in the bag to take to the hospital.” I pause because I can’t believe she’s this worried about what she’s going to wear. Don’t they have hospital gowns for this?

“Hannah, it’s really not that big of a deal. I’d pack some pajamas and something to wear home. Don’t stress out about it.” I’ve tried to be polite with my words. These days that’s harder than usual with all the stress of the farm, rodeo qualifying, and the baby.  

When I look in her direction, I know I’ve said the wrong thing. Tears begin to well in her eyes, her lip begins to quiver, and dammit, I hate when she cries even if I don’t truly love her. I hate to see any woman cry.

I take a step toward her and pull her into my arms. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think it was a big deal.”

Through her tears, I hear her whimper. “I’ve blown up like a toad and just want to be back to normal. Why us? Why?”

“Hannah, that doesn’t matter. Think about that sweet little girl growing inside you. It will all be worth it once she’s here.”

“Are you sure? Neither one of us wanted this. What if you make it in the rodeo? You’re not going to leave me, are you?” Here we go again. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times.

“No, I’m not. We’ve been over this. I’m in it for the long haul. Is this how either of us planned our future?” She shakes her head no. “I’m not leaving. You’re Mrs. Parker. I want our little girl to grow up in a home with two parents. I know things aren’t perfect, but maybe over time things will change for us. You are a good person, and will be a great mom. Hell, if I make the circuit, we’ll do that together.”

“Weston Parker, I don’t care what anyone says about you. You’re a good man.”

I start to cackle at that comment. “What do you mean by that?”

“Oh, you know. Weston Parker is the most arrogant man this side of the state line.”  

“Well, I guess it’s a good thing I’m crossing that state line tomorrow for qualifying.”

“Yeah, about that… I don’t think you should go.”

I stop and look at her as the blood begins to boil within my veins. What in the hell? Didn’t we just have this conversation? She knows how important this is to me. That’s all I’ve been working toward my entire life. The peaches pay the damn bills, but this is my last shot at making the circuit before the baby arrives. It’s now or never.

Hannah begins to speak calmly. “Weston, my water just broke. I’m so sorry,” she says as tears stream down her face, “You can still go tomorrow. She should be here by then. We’ll be okay. It’s your dream; you’ve got to do it.”

“Okay.” I know it’s shitty to want to go, but it’s been my dream since I can remember. I’m going come hell or high water.

***

“Congrats! It’s a girl,” the doctor says to Hannah and me.

Looking at the mother of my child, lying in the bed covered in sweat but smiling from ear to ear, I’m in awe of her strength, but that’s where my feelings stop. She’s given all she’s had to give today and now we have a precious baby girl. I never felt ready to be a husband much less a dad, but today, in this moment all of those thoughts fade.

“She’s perfect,” I say, looking between Hannah and my new daughter.

When her eyes meet mine, I know in my heart that life will be okay. Then she smiles and my heart literally skips a beat. It’s amazing how one moment has changed the way I see my future. It’s been almost a year since I made the decision to stand by Hannah and I’ve been kicking myself in the ass every day since. But tonight, everything has changed, and there’s no way I’m leaving my girls to go to the rodeo even if it’s my dream. There will be another one in a few months. Man, I sound like a pansy, but I can’t help it. This little girl has stolen my heart.

Hannah looks down at the baby and then up at me with tears in her eyes. Our relationship isn’t like most, but today our feelings for each other have been put to the side. It’s about our baby girl and not the mistake we made nine months ago.

“She looks just like you, Weston.”

“But she’s got your eyes. Hey there, Miss Bryndle Cole.” She looks toward me.

“Bryndle Cole?”

“You know how I feel about horses, and I thought your maiden name would be a nice touch.” We talked about a name for months. Bryndle is something we both agreed on, but Cole wasn’t even discussed. I know growing up in her family was hard. Her parents never gave two shits about her, but it’s a part of her life. I felt that our little one needs a piece of each of us.

“But Weston…”

“Hannah, it’s part of who you are, and with the way things have gone, I want her to have equal parts of us.”

Tears begin to trail down her face as she looks up to me. “That’s the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me.” She reaches for my hand as we both stare at our seven-pound, three-ounce little girl. Hannah squeezes my hand right before my world begins to spin out of control.

 

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

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

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

Connect with Casey

 

Twenty-Two by Toni Aleo

 

 

 

Pre-order exclusively via
iBooks HERE

 

 

 

When Lucas Brooks was traded to the Nashville Assassins over a decade ago, he was a brash, brawling hothead without an anchor.

Well, four kids and a smokin’ hot wife will weigh you down real fast, but Lucas wouldn’t change a minute of his happily ever after.

During an epic, end-of-season quest for the Cup, changes appear on the horizon, and suddenly, there’s a plot twist in Lucas’s fairy tale.

 

 

The Brooks Family
“I want to watch SpongeBob!”
“No! Ariel!”
“Yeah! Mermaid! I wanna watch Ariel!”
Lucas Brooks covered his face with his hands before he yelled from his bedroom, “There are nine TVs in this house! Separate!”
“But she has the popcorn!”
“And he has the milk!”
“Daddy, I want to be with Asher!”
“Why are they eating popcorn at seven a.m.?”
Groaning, he looked over at his wife, who was cuddled deep into the bed, her dark brown hair covering her face as her thick, plump lips pursed out toward him. He almost leaned over and kissed her, but he was exhausted. “I don’t know. Where is Aiden?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s the point of having an older kid if he isn’t going to care for the crazy little ones?”
“I don’t think that’s why we had them so far apart.”
Lucas scoffed. “Says you.”
Fallon giggled as she scooted over toward him, cuddling into his shoulder. Both of them knew the real reason for the big age gap between their children, though they never talked about it anymore. In their eyes, they did this on purpose and, really, it didn’t matter because they were happy.
“Mom! Asher won’t give me some milk!”
“Stella backwashes!”
“Mommy! I’m thirsty! Can I have some sweet tea?”
“Daddy, I want tea!”
“What in the hell?” Lucas muttered, staring at the ceiling as Fallon continued to giggle.
“Why are they up so early? The game was late.”
“Who knows? I’m exhausted.”
“So am I,” Lucas groaned, and he was. He felt the pain all over his body from the big win over St. Louis that advanced the Assassins to the second round. His whole body was aching. He wasn’t like his young self that bounced back after a hard-fought game. No, Lucas Brooks needed a good week after a game like the one the night before. It had gone into overtime, and the Blues had been playing desperate hockey. But by the grace of God, Jensen Monroe didn’t let any in, and Vaughn Johansson scored the winning goal. Vaughn had wanted to make his night even better since he had just proposed to his girlfriend and found out she was pregnant. So last night’s win was a biggie for everyone. Though, Lucas wished he had a solid month to recuperate before the next one. But he didn’t. He only had a few days of rest before the second round started.
“But, really, where is Aiden?”
“I have no clue.”
“Text him.”
“That means I have to move,” he complained, and she rolled her eyes before throwing her arm behind her to find her phone. Bringing it to her face, she dialed their son’s number, putting the call on speaker.
“Hello?”

 

Lucas closed his eyes. Aiden’s manly voice still was like a punch to the gut. His baby was growing, fast, and it was killing him slowly. “Baby, where are you?”
Aiden let out an exasperated breath. “Out front, where I always am. Where are you?”
Fallon looked to Lucas as he looked back at her. “Excuse me?”
“Oh my God, Mom, did you forget I had training for summer league this morning?”
Throwing the blankets off, she sat up. “Not at all. I’m running late.”
“You forgot!”
Lucas laughed as Fallon shot daggers from her eyes. “I did not! I’m coming.”
“If you would let me drive, this wouldn’t be a problem,” Aiden reminded her.
“If you cut your hair, maybe we’d buy you a car,” Lucas called out, and Aiden laughed.
“You’re just jealous I have hair!”
“Hush it, both of you. I’m coming,” she said, hanging up the phone and throwing on some sweat pants. “I can’t believe I forgot.”
“I can’t believe he went after not getting home until midnight last night.” She shot Lucas a deadpan expression. “Okay, I can. I would have.”
“Exactly. He’s his daddy’s son.”
Lucas grinned. “He is.” Then he glared, running his hands along his thinning hair. “I have good hair, right?”
She laughed. “Yes, baby, lots of great hair.”
“He has more.”
“He’s going through puberty.”
He raised a brow. “I think he’s past that.”

 

She shook her head. “I don’t know if we can wait till his birthday to give him a car, Lucas,” she said, pulling her hair up as she glanced back at him.
“That’s all you, babe. I told you to give him mine, and I’ll go get a new truck.”
“He wants a sports car.”
“And I don’t give two fucks. That kid isn’t going to be driving a better car than what I had. He can have a nice Ford and be happy, or he can walk—if his momma would let him.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re overprotective as hell.”
“I am not.”
“You are.”
She glared. “But he is a good kid, Lucas.”
“The best, and he’ll be happy with my Ford.”
“Ugh, okay,” she groaned before leaning down and kissing his lips. He savored her for a moment, grabbing her butt.
“Can we make him wait a bit longer to be picked up?”
She chuckled, desire flashing in her eyes. “I doubt you can move.”
He looked sad. “I can’t.”
She laughed as she kissed him again. “Can we give the car to him today?”
“Tomorrow.”
Her brows rose. “Why tomorrow?”
“Because I can’t move, and I have to go buy a new car for me.”
She laughed, smacking his chest, which made him wince. “I’ll be back.”

 

“Be careful,” he called as she headed out of the room just as Emery ran right into her.
Picking up their youngest, Fallon kissed her loudly on the lips.
“Be good.”
“Me?” Emery asked.
“You.”
“Why?”
“Because you want cake at sissy’s birthday, don’t you?”
“Oh! I’ll be good!”
Fallon rolled her eyes, placing their daughter on her feet before waving back at Lucas.
Emery ran to him, jumping on the bed and breaking his bones further. He groaned out as Emery cuddled into him, and he closed his eyes. “Daddy.”
“Yes, love?”
“I love you.”
He smiled into her hair, kissing her temple as his arms came around her, holding her tight. He’d never known he could love any child as much as he loved Aiden. Lucas could still recall the first moment he saw his son. Outside of Fallon’s house, begging her for a chance to reconnect after seven years of separation, but then Aiden walked out, and Lucas knew. Aiden was his son, and boy, did he fall in love. Head over heels for the kid. Lucas never thought any kid could come close to his love for Aiden, but then Asher came.
His spunky, dry-humored little geek. The kid was always on his computer, always busy making something, and damn smart. Asher was great on the ice, though Lucas didn’t think he’d go far with it. He was too obsessed with computers and rebuilding them. His first love wasn’t the ice; it was making things tick. But Lucas was proud nonetheless, especially considering the fact that Aiden’s drive to make it to the NHL was enough for the whole family.
In all reality, Lucas had been set with two great boys. But then, by the grace of God, came Stella. His little diva. She looked just like Fallon, breathtakingly stunning with big brown eyes and thick brown hair. She had her momma’s looks, and God help him, her mouth too. Those two went at it daily, mostly about clothes and hair, but his little girl had his heart, and of course, he was wrapped around her finger.
That was it…until Emery came. She was a complete surprise, but in a way, she was the missing piece in their lives. Their family had been off-balance and needed her quirky little brand of badass. While Emery favored both Fallon and him physically, she had his demeanor with Fallon’s mouth. It was a bad combination because while she was ruining your life, she was making you feel right about it. Unlike her sister, Emery didn’t care about hair or clothes. She cared about being a fairy princess, which, for an almost four-year-old, he figured was logical.
But she was daddy’s princess.
Holding his sweet baby, he couldn’t help the grin on his lips, though he was aching in spots he hadn’t even thought he could ache. He had taken a hard hit into the boards, coming down and slamming his head on the ice. Thank God for a helmet because his brain would have been scrambled eggs if not. But he was feeling every bit of it now. Though, he couldn’t think of that. All he could think about was how much his life had changed. He used to be a lonely bachelor, living life in the fast lane and enjoying the NHL. But when he moved to Nashville, everything changed. Fallon happened. And now, Lucas couldn’t imagine his life without her and their kids. Between playing and being his kids’ biggest fan, he didn’t see any other point to life.
Oh, yeah, and loving Fallon.

 

But that came naturally.
That woman was his world.
Everything was great in the Brooks household. Now, if only his body could stop hurting and aching, things would be grand. Oh, and if his kids could stop growing. And he needed the Assassins to bring home the Cup.
Yup, then Lucas Brooks would be a happy man.
“I love you too, love bug.”
“Can I still have cake if I’m bad?”
“What did Momma say?”
She pouted. “Do you love cake, Daddy?”
“I do.”
“Me too.”
He smiled, kissing her head. “I know, love bug.”
“Can we watch Ariel?” She sat up, her eyes wide and gray like his. She had Fallon’s lips, though, and the shape of her face. Her hair was in pigtails with big pink bows in them that he was sure Stella had put in. “Please. You’re my favorite daddy.”
“I’m your only daddy.”
She nodded. “And my favorite.”
He smiled. “Do I have to move?”
She thought that over. “No.”
“Then, yes.”
***

 

Pulling up in front of Aiden’s private school, Fallon hit the brakes, slamming forward as she looked over to where Aiden was standing, shaking his head. Gone was her baby, replaced by a hormone-driven monster with long hair. Actually, he was the greatest kid in the world and she loved him more than anything, but God, she hated his hair. He looked like a damn fool, especially with that stupid man bun. But boy was he handsome. Just like his daddy, he had a strong bone structure, thick, dark brows, and dark gray eyes. He was beautiful, and if she didn’t know he was a good kid, she’d lock him up.
Opening the back, he threw in his bag. “Hey, Mom.”
“Hey, honey.”
“Hey, Aiden.”
Fallon about broke her neck trying to see who was calling her son’s name. She saw a pair of girls standing beside the stairs in what she felt were too short skirts. Sure, they were cheerleading skirts, but still. Fallon glared as Aiden turned, tipping his chin at them. “Hey.”
“Are you going to the dance on Friday?”
“Probably not, I’ve got a game.”
One of them puckered her lips. “Can’t you come after?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ll let you know. Have a good practice.”
“Okay, I’ll save you a dance.”
When he flashed her a grin, his dimples shining in all their precious glory, Fallon shook her head.
There was Lucas Brooks reincarnated.
“Cool. See ya.”

 

Closing the back, Aiden walked around, and she swore he had grown another inch or so.
Opening the door, he climbed in and looked over at her. “You know, being the oldest, I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to be forgotten. Emery is.”
Fallon glared. “Shut up. I’m exhausted. It was a late night. How did you even get here?”
“Brayden’s mom drove me, like you asked her to at practice.”
Fallon paused as she moved the shifter of her van into Drive. “I did, didn’t I?”
“You did,” he said dryly, throwing his legs up on the dash as he started to play on his phone.
“Hmm. Hey, at least I got that far,” she decided, hitting the gas.
“Thank God.”
“Practice was good?”
“Great. Coach is happy with me.”
“Good.”
“Heard Bellevue is looking at me.”
Fallon glanced over at him. “From whom?”
“Coach.”
“Oh.”
“Yeah, he said I should talk to my counselor.”
“For what?”
“I have enough credits to graduate this summer and start over there if I wanted.”
Fallon’s heart stopped. “You just turned seventeen.”
“Yeah?”
“Do you want that?”

 

“Yeah,” he laughed, looking over at her. “Mom, I want to go to college so I can go into the draft. The Sinclair brothers all went to Bellevue. I need that exposure before I enter the draft.”
Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Too much. This was her baby. Her firstborn and he was ready to go.
He was itching for the NHL. He wanted to play like his father. He wanted to live his hockey dreams, and all she wanted was for him to go back to fighting hippogriffs. “Talk to your father about this. You’re making my head hurt.”
Aiden laughed. “Mom, I’m getting older. I’m practically a m—”
“Shut your dirty mouth, Aiden James Brooks.”
He laughed harder as she turned down the main road. “Where we going?”
“Audrey’s.”
“Why?”
“I gotta get some donuts she made for your father for winning last night, and then I gotta approve the cake she’s making for Stella’s birthday next weekend.”
“Do I have to go to that?”
She flashed him a dirty look. “You mean your sister’s birthday?”
“Yeah.”
“Of course you do. You’re the damn crab, Sebastian.”
“You’re kidding.”
“No,” she said simply. “I hope the costume fits.”
“Oh my God.”
“I even hired a photographer. So when you’re in the NHL and they need those pictures of you growing up, I’ll have that one.”

 

“You’re horrible.”
“I try.”
He scoffed, and she grinned over at him before pulling onto the road that held Audrey Jane’s. “So, who were those girls?”
“Addy and Melissa.”
“Your fans?”
“Everyone is my fan,” he said, waggling his eyebrows, and she laughed. “I’m practically a hockey-playing god, Mom.”
“All right, pump the brakes there, mister. You’re no Vaughn Johansson.”
Aiden laughed. “JoJo is amazing.”
“He is, but he’s cocky as all hell,” she said simply, pulling into Audrey Jane’s and
parking beside her baby sister’s car. Getting out, they went inside just as Fallon’s niece, Penelope, hollered out, “Welcome to Audrey Jane’s!”
Fallon beamed as Aiden ran after Penny, gobbling her up and tickling her before Audrey came out of the back, a grin on her face. “Hey.”
“Hey, you,” Fallon said, kissing the back of Penny’s head.
“You’re here early.”
“Yeah, I forgot to pick my kid up after practice, so here I am. Where is Philippe?”
“With Tate. He didn’t want to come in.”
Fallon nodded. “How’s Tate feeling?”
Audrey exhaled loudly since the subject of her husband, the Assassins’ starting goalie, Tate Odder, was a touchy one. He had a serious groin injury and had had surgery about two months ago, but he still wasn’t recuperating from it well. An infection had spread and knocked him down some more, long after the doctors had assumed he would be back on the ice. So it was easy to say the Odder family was very tense. “Lots of pain, but I guess he’s getting better. He doesn’t talk about it. He mainly asks me to make cupcakes. He’s pissed he missed last night.
Thank God Jensen did great.”
“Right?” Fallon agreed with a nod. “Well, hopefully, he’ll be up and at it soon.”
“I don’t know, Fal, I just don’t know.”
“What does that mean?” Aiden asked. “Uncle Tate’s okay, isn’t he?”
Audrey faked a grin. “Of course. Come here. You want a cupcake?”
Aiden laughed. “You know, I’m seventeen, you can’t distract me— Whoa, are those cookie dough?”
Audrey smiled happily at Fallon as she shook her head, and Aiden took the cupcake.
“Come on, I’ll show you the cake for Stella, and your donuts are right there.”
Aiden looked at the donuts. “Can I have one?”
“Save one for your dad.”
“Okay,” he said with a mouthful as she followed Audrey to the back.
“Kid has a tapeworm, I swear. He’s always eating.”
Audrey laughed. “He’s always been an eater. It’s not fair.”
“Agreed.”
As Fallon followed her into the kitchen, Audrey looked back at her sister. “I think he might have to retire.”
“Who? What? Tate?” Fallon’s eyes widened. “Never.”
“Yeah, he is grief-stricken about it and things are bad, but he can’t seem to get better. I don’t know. I told him he needs to decide.”

 

“Wow.”
“Yeah, it’s not good. We’re fighting a lot, and he’s withdrawn because he feels like a failure. Shit’s so bad, he started to go see Wren Lemiere, the team’s therapist.”
“Good for him,” Fallon said, exhaling hard. “I hate that for him, though.”
Audrey nodded as she turned on her computer. “Me too. At least you don’t have to worry about that. Lucas’s got at least nine more years in him.”
Fallon shot her sister a wry smile. “He creaks when he walks. I’m waiting for him to tell me he’s done.”
“He won’t.”
“I know, which makes me nervous.”
“Yeah, but you know, Lucas would be okay. Tate…he’s not, and I just want my happy husband back. I’m worried he won’t be happy without hockey.”
“No, he has you guys. He loves you three. So much.”
“I know he does, and he is the best father ever. Sucky in the husband department right now, but I get it. We’ll be okay.”
“You will,” she said, wrapping her arms around her sister. “Don’t worry.”
“Thanks.” Audrey hugged Fallon back as the computer came on. “Okay, so here it is. The best Ariel cake for my niece.”
Fallon grinned as she took in the perfect seven tiers of Ariel-themed cake. “She’ll flip her shit.”
“That’s my goal.”
“It’s perfect.”

 

“Awesome,” she said, shutting her computer lid. “I’ll be over next Saturday morning to set everything up.”
“Cool.” Fallon leaned her hip to the counter as she met her sister’s gaze. Audrey had changed so much over the years. She used to be obsessed with her weight. Now, she stayed healthy, even if she was rounder than she used to be. Kids would do that, though. One thing was for sure. Even with all the shit going on, Audrey had a grin on her face that Tate and the kids had put there. Her sister was complete, and like she’d said, she would be okay. Fallon just knew it.
But Fallon was pretty sure she was going to have her own mini heart attack. “Aiden told me his coach said he could probably graduate early and that Bellevue might want him.”
Audrey’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“Yeah.”
“What did you say?”
“For him to talk to his father!”
Audrey laughed. “Fallon.”
“What?”
“It would be great.”
“He’s a baby.”
“He’s seventeen. He’s a great kid. Smart and talented as hell.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think I want him to do it.”
“If it’s going to be what’s best for his career, then he has to, you know?”
Biting her lip, Fallon nodded. “We’ll see what my husband says. If he can even move.”
Audrey smiled. “He’s sore today?”
“Yes, bless him. I don’t know if he’ll make through the whole series in one piece.”

 

“He is old now.”
“He isn’t a spring chicken, for sure.” Fallon grinned. “Except in the bedroom.”
“Ew!”
Fallow snorted as Audrey shook her head and then smiled. “I think they’re going to go the whole way. I feel it.”
Fallon nodded. “I do too. Rumor is, Elli was in the locker room crying last night. She’s so emotional.”
“Think she’s pregnant again?”
Fallon laughed. “Lord, I hope not!”
“Right? She’s already so damn busy.”
“I know.” Fallon shook her head. “Are you going to Lucy’s baby shower next Sunday?”
“Did you not check the group?”
Fallon just looked at her. “Obviously not, Audrey.”
“It’s been postponed until further notice.”
“Why?”
“Because of the play-offs.”
“That’s dumb. Why plan it around the play-offs, then?”
“I don’t have an answer for that, but they called me asking to hold off on the cake.”
“Oh.”
“Yeah. Which is good ’cause I can focus on Stella’s cake.”
“This is true. Ariel needs all your attention anyway.”
Audrey grinned as she leaned into her sister. “You know, you can come by more.”
“Same for you. Or come to the winery, and I’ll get you drunk.”

 

Audrey beamed. “That’s a plan.”
“Mom! Let’s go! Penny is going to make me fat.”
Penny’s giggles met them in the kitchen, and Fallon laughed. “Kid couldn’t get fat if he tried.”
“Right?” Audrey asked, shaking her head. “And what’s up with his hair?”
“I don’t know. I want to cut it, but he won’t let me.”
Audrey laughed as they went out of the kitchen to find Penny feeding Aiden cookie after cookie. “Mom,” he whined, and Fallon laughed.
“Hey, boogey butt—”
“Audrey!” Aiden complained, and they all laughed since he hated his nickname. “I told you about calling me that.”
She feigned hurt. “You are my baby, and I will call you that if I want. Even when you’re a big, hotshot hockey player, I’ll be in the stands hollering, ‘That’s my boogey butt!’”
“Mom,” he groaned, and Fallon just kept laughing.
“Anyway, if I throw gum in your hair, will you let me cut it?”
He glared. “Stay away from me.”
“It’s so long. And dirty,” Audrey said, coming toward him, and when Fallon saw the scissors in her hand, she tried to stifle her laughter.
“I washed it like ten minutes ago!” he said, slowly stepping back from his aunt.
“It’s ugly. Let me cut it.” She went for the bun, but he deked around her, running to Fallon and hiding behind her. Which was pointless since he was practically seven times her size.
“Leave me alone! Mom! Tell her to leave me alone.”

 

“We’re leaving.” Picking up the donuts…well, the three that were left, Fallon shook her head. “Bye, Penny loaf,” she called to Penelope.
“Bye, Auntie!”
“Bye,” Audrey sang. “I’ll get you later, Aiden James.”
Going outside, Aiden looked over at Fallon. “You won’t let her cut my hair, right?”
“I mean, if she gets to you before I do, I’m sorry for ya.”
“I look amazing!”
“You look like a damn fool,” she said, opening the door. “But I love you.”
He shot her an exasperated look. “Do I really have to be Sebastian next weekend?”
“No,” she laughed, shaking her head. “Asher is Sebastian. You’re Flounder.”
“Mom!”
With a grin on her lips, she got in the car.
But she’d be lying if she said she wasn’t worried about Aiden.
Or Tate.
Or even her dinosaur of a husband at home, who might or might not make it through the play-offs.

 

 

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?
Author Links

 

Exodus by Kylie Hillman

 

Coming April 11th

 

 

 

Xander Barrett had it all.
Until it was stolen by the devil.
His life. His lover. His freedom.

A chance encounter secures his release.
But, it comes at a cost–a debt he must settle before he’s allowed to take his revenge.

Luckily, it’s a price he’s willing to pay.

Stripping a man of everything but his pride isn’t smart. It creates a monster that’s bigger and meaner than the original. Satan has spawned his match, and he’s ready to cause an exodus.

DISCLAIMER: This story contains triggering content and is not suitable for all readers, especially those under eighteen years of age.

This story is the second installment in the Centrifuge Duet, and while it can be read as a standalone, reading Amnesia, Centrifuge Duet #1 first is recommended.

 

Prologue

 



I always thought everyone had a conscience. That even the worst type of people had one—they were just adept at ignoring it. However, the past eighteen months have forced me to reassess this.
Why? Because I no longer have a nagging voice in my head or the hollow feeling in my gut when I do something wrong. The two things that I associated with my conscience are gone. Poof. Like a puff of smoke, they up and left me sometime between the first time I was arrested and last night, when I watched a man I didn’t know—a man who’d never done a thing to me—bleed out over his desk after I’d slit his throat.
Nowadays, I don’t believe that many of us possess a conscience. There’s too many people willing to throw their own granny under the bus for a dollar for me to hang on to the idealistic view of the human race that I held for the first thirty-two years of my life. In this current incarnation of the world we inhabit, a conscience is no longer an asset.
It’s a liability.





Chapter 1

Ever wanted to see the love of your life getting fucked six ways to Sunday by the asshole she chose over you?
Nah, me neither.
Unfortunately, I don’t get a say in the matter. Not when each afternoon at precisely three o’clock, I’m hauled out of my cell, dragged down the long, white hallway, and handcuffed to the table in one of the private visitation rooms provided by the prison. The flat-screen TV mounted in the corner of the room is turned on and I get a ringside view of my ex-fiancée getting reamed by her new husband.
I say “reamed”, not because I’m being a prick. I say it because that’s exactly what it is. He drives his cock into her like he’s trying to brand her from the inside. Hard. Fast. And, furious. He’s always furious. There’s a deep rage burning in the gaze that Dr. Jaxon Ray always manages to send straight down the barrel of the camera. If I was prone to flights of fancy—which I’m not—I’d say that he does it deliberately in some sick determination to let me know that he knows how I feel watching them.
Every thrust is a clear message, anyway.
I won. You lost.
She’s mine.
Keys rattle in the door of my cell. They herald the start of another free porn show. Bile rises in my throat, the sickening churning in my gut commencing like clockwork at the thought of what’s to come.
Here we go again. Another epic fucking day in this freakshow that is currently my life.
“Barrett.” A cursory glance in the direction of the man who speaks tells me that the guard is not one I’ve met before.
I ignore him and remain lying on my back on the lumpy mattress, one arm behind my head in an attempt at nonchalant posture while the other is hidden by my side with my fingers curled into a fist ready for whatever this change in guard’s may bring. The flaky grey ceiling above me has two distinct dark shadows on it. One is mine, unmoving and unwilling. The second is the guard. I track the latter black blob moving toward me, the handcuffs he holds jingling ominously with each step he takes.
“Move your ass, Barrett.”
“Fuck you.” My response earns me a boot to the side. I hear the second guard enter my cell, his chuckle of enjoyment giving away his identity. It’s the usual prick who escorts me. The one who likes to wait with me and narrate the carnal joining as it unfolds on the screen. My nostrils flare when pain blooms from the connection of the first guards foot with my ribs. I roll into a ball. My mouth shut—lips sealed through sheer willpower. I’ll swallow my tongue before I give them a reaction.
“I’m not kidding.” The threat precedes a follow-up kick that has me rolling away until my knees hit the wall at the far side of the bed. “Your visitor doesn’t like to be kept waiting. I’d move my ass if I was you. This might be your only chance to get out of here.”
The pain in my body leaves immediately. I struggle to sit up, swinging my legs over the edge of the bed once I’m facing them. Apprehension pumps through my veins when I meet their smug gazes.
“Visitor?” The raspy quality to my voice is less than optimal. Clearing my throat, I try again, this time with some authority in my tone. “What visitor? I don’t have anyone approved.”
The closest guard—Mr. Chatty Porn Lover—answers first. “No shit, Sherlock. Who said anything about her being approved?”
His companion shrugs, then holds the cuffs out to me. “She might not be approved, but I think you’ll want to see her.”
My heart lurches in my chest, skipping a beat before it settles into a frenetic pace that has me sweating like a fat kid at an all-you-can-eat buffet. There’s one question running around my head at a million miles an hour.
Amber’s here?
A glance in the direction of the guards tells me that I won’t get any further answers out of them. I swallow my growing curiosity and the overwhelming desire to knock out the two pricks who separate me from the woman who owns every functioning cell in my body. I know acting on my urgency will only slow the damn process so I force myself to cooperate.
Standing, I hold out my arms with the wrists parallel. He snaps the handcuffs on and then follows the chain that connects them until he’s squatting at my feet. Sharp, efficient movements have the other set of larger steel cuffs locked around my ankles in seconds. Once I’m secured, the guard yanks on the chain that joins my bound hands and feet in a silent command to follow him. I shuffle along, one guard in front of me and one behind, intently watching me like I’m the convicted murderer I’m purported to be.
When we pass the visitor’s room that I’m usually led into, I almost let my curiosity get the better of me and ask where the hell we’re going. Thankfully, answers are provided before I give them the opportunity to shoot me down with sick glee.
The door that leads into the room next to the one I normally occupy is opened by the guard who’s leading me. I stand as tall as I can, shoulders back and head held high, determined to resemble my old self as much as I can when I come face to face with Amber for the first time in almost two years.
It takes a ridiculous amount of resolve to stop the shaking that threatens to take hold of my body as I lift my head to greet my woman. Our eyes meet. I blink furiously, unable to believe what I’m seeing. Playing it cool is no longer an option. Not with the guard behind me blocking any opportunity for escape. Instead, I let my mouth fall open and verbalise the question that’s beating a thunderous cacophony of confusion around my skull.
“Who the fuck are you?”
“Such rudeness is unbecoming from a man in your position.” The woman seated at the table in the middle of the room sniffs, her annoyance with my lack of manners clear. She smooths her skirt over her thighs before settling a satisfied gaze on me. “Considering I’m your new boss and your passport out of this establishment.”
Wife to a Harley riding, boating and fishing, four-wheel driving, quintessential Aussie bloke.
Mum to two crazy, adorable, and creative kids.
Crohn’s Disease sufferer and awareness campaigner.
She’s also an avid tea drinker, a connoisseur of 80’s/90’s rock music, and is known for lacing everything she says with sarcasm and inappropriate innuendo.

Formerly working in finance, she was forced to reevaluate her plans for her life when severe Crohn’s Disease brought her corporate career to a screeching halt. Restarting her childhood hobbies of writing and reading to alleviate the monotony of being sick and housebound, she found her calling and is enjoying life to the max. A typical day is spent in the “real” world where she hangs out with her awesome family and “book” world where she gets to chill with her fictional characters.

Kylie writes the books she wants to read. A lover of strong men who aren’t perfect and aren’t afraid to admit it, straight talking women who embrace their vulnerabilities, and real life gritty stories, she hopes these themes shine through her writing. An avid reader of all genres, Kylie hopes to release books that keep the reader on the edge of their seat- be it with suspense, heart-stopping thrills, or laughter.

Author Links

 

 

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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